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February 4, 2008

You Could Look It Up

The Fallen Mighty

by Steven Goldman

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Detachment time struck 13 minutes and 45 seconds into the fourth quarter of Sunday's Super Bowl. As Giants quarterback Eli Manning ducked away from more defenders than held the Alamo to complete a game-changing 33-yard pass to David Tyree, it was a propitious moment to observe on behalf of the Patriots and their brethren in other sports that nothing is promised, less is delivered, and even the greatest teams have seen championships melt away.

In baseball, there have been ten regular season teams that had seasons of roughly equivalent dominance to that of the Patriots. Call them the .700 Club. They were, in order of winning percentage, the 1906 Cubs (116-36, .763), the 1902 Pirates (103-36, .741), the 1909 Pirates (110-42, .724), the 1954 Indians (111-43, .721), the 2001 Mariners (116-46, .716), the 1927 Yankees (110-44, .714), the 1931 A's (107-45, .704), the 1907 Cubs (107-45, .704), the 1998 Yankees (114-48, .704), and the 1939 Yankees (106-45, .702).

The 1902 Pirates predate the World Series, so their dominance-the result of the merger of the Louisville and Pittsburgh franchises to form a best-of-both-worlds roster-went untested. Of the remaining nine teams, five won championships, three suffered notable upsets in the World Series, and one, the 2001 Mariners, didn't make it to the World Series at all. Given that most of these clubs weren't subject to any kind of playoffs and got to go right to the championship round, the teams' overall 5-4 record is more even than one might have expected given the quality of the ballclubs.

The interesting question is to what degree a championship validates a team's greatness. In other words, would the 1927 Yankees still be considered one of the greatest teams of all time had they somehow lost to the Pirates in the World Series? Given the marathon length of the baseball season and its many concomitant tests, the answer has to be yes. We judge a team by its record and by the strength of its components, and while the championship always makes a nice cherry on top of the season sundae, its presence or absence doesn't tell us anything we didn't know before-simply that sometimes a great team can lose a short series against a good one.

Put another way, if some celestial baseball fanatic was putting together a derby of the greatest teams of all time, there would be no hesitation in taking the 1954 Indians or the 1988 A's despite their being swept out of the World Series by inferior National League opponents. With or without a trophy, the Indians still had one of the great pitching staffs of all time, one that, unusual for the period, extended from the nigh-perfect starting rotation right down to the bullpen. The Tribe also topped the league in defensive efficiency. We haven't done Secret Sauce rankings for the 1954 season as of yet, but the Indians had it. The same can be said of the aforementioned A's, who had a durable, strikeout-heavy staff, a Hall of Fame closer, and on offense-hmm, it's probably not PC to mention even prelapsarian Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in a positive light, so let's just say they had smilin' Dave Henderson, and, oh, Luis Polonia-wait, he had that sex with a minor thing... Dave Stewart? Um... OK, they had Walt Weiss. And Hendu.

Similarly, we recognize that a World Series like that between the 1931 A's and Cardinals could go either way despite the appearance of a mismatch based on records. The two teams were well matched offensively, with the A's having a huge edge in power due to the presence of Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, and Al Simmons. However, the Cardinals possessed the deeper lineup, with fewer pushovers between the big hitters. The Cardinals' pitching staff wasn't as good as that of the Athletics' staff fronted by Lefty Grove, but it was almost as good, and that and a red-hot Pepper Martin was enough to put the Redbirds over the top in seven games.

The defeat in no way diminishes what the A's accomplished in winning 107 games during the season. They beat the thousand-run offense of the second-place Yankees. Grove had a 2.06 ERA in a league that scored over five runs a game, one of the great pitching seasons of all time. Cochrane hit like Mike Piazza at a time when backstops weren't offensive. Al Simmons, who hit .390/.444/.641, was Vladimir Guerrero, Mark I. These things are facts.

Football teams face a higher test. Though the Patriots were an indisputably great football team, given the brevity of the football season and the variation in team schedules, luck has an outsize role to play in forming even an undefeated season, and it is not automatic that they were one of, say, the top five single-season teams in history just because they didn't lose. We've seen enough football teams take perfect records deep into the season in recent years to know that the difference between the Patriots' 16-0 of 2007 and, say, the Chargers' 14-2 of 2006 is a couple of lucky bounces. Indeed, the Chargers lost both of their games by a single field goal, also the margin of loss in their divisional playoff against the Pats.

Given that there have been only two undefeated seasons in the modern history of the NFL, and recognizing that of the 1972 Dolphins came in a shorter season, it is certain that such good luck is hard to come by, but it is equally certain the Patriots needed it. Many of their games were blowouts, but they also beat the Eagles by three points in Week 12, the Ravens by three in Week 13, and the Giants by three in Week 17. The Patriots could easily have gone 13-3 or 14-2, still would have been historically great (and a dynasty), but the Super Bowl upset by the Giants wouldn't have had quite the same resonance.

Because of the influence of luck, winning the championship in football carries more weight than does taking a Game Seven in baseball. As with the statistical achievements of Cochrane, Grove et al, the Patriots' feats-Tom Brady's 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss's 23 scoring receptions, the offensive line that was invulnerable during the regular season-are a matter of record. The celestial football fan would take them in any derby of great teams, but while the 1906 Cubs, 1931 A's, 1954 Indians, and 2001 Mariners carry little stigma from losing a game that was somewhere between their 161st and 170th of the season, the same can't be said of the Patriots. They showed real vulnerabilities in the championship game, vulnerabilities that throw the conventional evaluation of the rest of their season into doubt.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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