An innovator and a theorist, Sid Gillman has been in the professional football business for 50 years now. In a sport where savagery rattles the cranium, Gillman says, he has learned that the essence of the game is not in the rattling.
Rather, it is in the cranium.
"In this game, you are dealing with the human mind," said Gillman, now 71, "and nothing else.
"You know, it's a study for psychologists, what winning Super Bowls does to people. Coaches who win it say they'll keep things the same the following season, but they never do. Players don't either. Everything becomes deaccelerated. Humans just cannot deal with prosperity."
Consider for a moment, what accelerates a team into a Super Bowl champion in the first place. It's a simple chain reaction, really, where a strong desire creates constant victory which creates an inner confidence or, more accurately, an inner conceit.
"It is just something that you feel," said Lynn Swann, the former wide receiver, who played on four Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl championship teams. "You see that there is nervousness in the other team, that there is tension in the stands. But everyone on your team is calm. You are the eye of the hurricane. You are the reason for all of this activity . . . You know that when there are seven minutes left in the game, and you are behind, that you will still win. You believe that the game still belongs to you."
Last year, the Washington Redskins say they felt this. "We developed the attitude last year," said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, "that we were going to win no matter what."
"In short order, the players and coaches began to believe. You must have felt the aura of belief," said Jack Kent Cooke, Redskins owner. "It emanated from every pore of their bodies."
Quite often, however, a very different belief circles in a holding pattern through the mind of many Super Bowl champions one year after the glory: complacency. Many times, it causes a defending champion to crash land.
Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the team that did a free fall from Super Bowl champions in 1981-82, to a 3-6 record last year, puts it this way: "After reaching the ultimate, you can't help but take a day off."
There is also a psychic upheaval on the other sideline, opposite the defending Super Bowl champions. Emotionally, these opponents get up. Way up. This is when the snoozing Goliaths catch a slingshot in the eye. The defending champs' players often get hurt. And they get beat, too.
Quoth Sid Gillman: "Even if the Redskins play the same as last year, they won't win. Why? Because other teams will play better against them this year."
Once a team wins a Super Bowl, history opens a maze of possibilities for its next season:
In the 17 years of the Super Bowl era, four teams have repeated as Super Bowl champions: Green Bay (1966, 1967 seasons), Miami (1972, 1973) and Pittsburgh twice (1974, 1975 and 1978, 1979).
However, five teams did not even reach the playoffs the year after they won the Super Bowl. Three of these teams that fell from the peak failed to even reach the .500 mark. This includes the last two defending champions, the Oakland Raiders (from champs to 7-9) and the 49ers.
Furthermore, a little mathematics show that, after winning the Super Bowl, a team wins an average of two fewer games during the regular season the following year. Its regular-season winning percentage falls from .820 in the Super Bowl year to .674 in the following season. Usually .674 is a good enough percentage to make the playoffs, but rarely, it seems, do these teams advance to the Roman numerals of the Super Bowl.
Many will cite the NFL's competitive balance (or parity) scheduling, begun in the 1978-79 season, as a roadblock to winning back-to-back Super Bowls. This is a scheduling system whereby a team plays four of its 16 games based on the previous year's standings, with the tougher schedules dealt to the teams that finished first in their division.
In the 11 Super Bowl seasons before this competitive balance scheduling began, the defending Super Bowl champions' regular-season record was 108-42-4 (.701). In the five years since the scheduling began, the defending Super Bowl champions' regular-season record is 43-30 (.589).
"It used to be," Walsh said, "that teams like Kansas City and Oakland would finish 12-2 or 13-1 every year. They would beat Denver twice badly. They would beat Buffalo twice badly. That no longer exists. Now, there are 26 or 28 teams that go into a season really thinking they can win the division."
"I think that as many teams as there are and as many players as there are on those teams, there are that many reasons why a team doesn't repeat as Super Bowl champion," said the Pittsburgh Steelers' Chuck Noll, the only coach to win back-to-back Super Bowls two different times.
"It's all in the mind," Sid Gillman insists. "It's all concentration."
Before last season, Bill Walsh talked to Noll, Miami's Don Shula, Dallas' Tom Landry, people with the Raiders, anyone who could warn him about what things would be like as the defending champion. Then, Walsh gathered his team at training camp and had a series of lectures about the pitfalls of success.
The team began 0-2. The once-complex 49ers' offense wasn't producing the necessary points.
Walsh looked in the mirror and saw complacency: "I guess as much as anything I didn't attend to the development of the plays themselves. People got a lock on us," Walsh recalls.
Then came the strike. When the season came back, the 49ers didn't.
The team's tackling was not good: "They weren't jarring people," Walsh said, "like they used to."
Minor injuries affected the 49ers. "The year before," Walsh said, "they would have ignored the same injuries and played with them."
The 49ers led at halftime in every game last season. Then, something seemed to commandeer their spirits and desires.
"In the fourth quarter--the telling part of the game," Walsh said, "we were losing by a field goal.
"There is a lot of notoriety and visibility when you win the Super Bowl, then you are expected to come back, make the full sacrifice again and you just don't see people doing that.
"The dynamics are so exact. It's human nature. In my own particular case, you're spent after the stress of the season. Then there is a lot of attention and obligation and because of it you don't get back at football when you like."
Walsh added, "We were very naturally embarrassed, when we went from the heights to the dregs."
Likely, it is not a coincidence that the only coaches to win back-to-back Super Bowls are named Noll, Shula and Vince Lombardi. If the NFL had a Rushmore, these would be among the faces chiseled in granite.
Certainly, the Packers of the mid-1960s, the Dolphins of the early '70s and the Steelers of the mid- to-late '70s were teams of rare talent, veterans blending and peaking together. Call them dynasties, if you will.
How did these teams avoid stumbling after winning the Super Bowl?
"Coach Lombardi just wouldn't let up on us. Human nature says, every now and then, take a day off. But he pushed and pushed and drove and drove," said Ray Nitschke, the menacing middle linebacker on the Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowls. "He felt to repeat was a bigger reward than winning it the first time."
Shula was nearly the same way, says Paul Warfield, wide receiver on the Dolphins team that won Super Bowls VII and VIII in the 1972 and 1973 seasons.
"We went to three straight Super Bowls (Miami lost to Dallas, 24-3, in Super Bowl VI) and nobody has ever done that," Warfield said. "Shula just kept defining our goals, setting up our objectives. He developed the winning spirit. After we went 17-0 (in 1972 season), he wouldn't let us get complacent or rest on our laurels. He kept on with his work ethic."
Shula said, "You just can't assume that just because you've been there once, you'll be there again. After winning the Super Bowl, players question some things they never questioned before. They have a tendency to ask, 'Why this?'
"The worst thing that I feel a player can tell you is, 'Don't worry coach, we'll be there when the bell rings.' I cringe . . . It's tough to win it again."
The inner conceit was with the Steelers, too. Said Swann, "In the two seasons we weren't in the Super Bowl (1976, 1977), the first year Franco (Harris) and Rocky (Bleier) were hurt and the next year we lost to Denver in the playoffs. It was never complacency with us."
Simple and true, Noll said. "The challenge is there every year. Teams start to gun for you. But the reality is, all that winning one Super Bowl gives you, is a chance to win a second one."
What made those Steeler teams so utterly unimpeachable? "People," Noll said. "Good people."
What makes it so difficult, then, to repeat as a Super Bowl champion? Is it parity in the league? Or complacency in the defending champ? Perhaps, something harder to define?
"I don't know that it is so difficult to repeat," Chuck Noll said.
With this view, he is in the minority.
Bobby Beathard, now the Redskins general manager, was in the Miami locker room at halftime in a game early in the Dolphins' unbeaten 1972 season. Quarterback Bob Griese had broken his leg in the first half and Earl Morrall was to replace Griese.
Beathard, then the Dolphins player personnel director, expected to hear Shula talk in apocalyptic terms to his team about how things would change with Morrall.
"I remember Shula gave a great talk at halftime," said Beathard. "I remember he never even mentioned Griese's injury. You kept waiting for it, but he never mentioned it. He made no excuses. He just rolled up his sleeve and said we have to play harder. When that happened, the team seemed to compensate and play harder for Morrall.
"I learned a lot being around Shula for six years," Beathard said. "I learned the importance of positive thinking and hard work."
Unlike Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs says he will not talk to others experienced in the role of defending champion. But, Gibbs says, he will watch closely in the film room, the practice field and elsewhere just in case complacency tries to infiltrate his Redskins roster.
"I think our team felt like, when we were playing hard and we were all together last year, we were hard to beat," said Gibbs. "Now, we're a team still looking to improve. We still have areas where we know we can improve. We're a team a that is still in transition. We're not a team that feels we have arrived."
Showing a maximum understanding in the minimum amount of words, Gibbs nodded, leaned forward and said, "We all know what a mental game this is."