Why 2K? Top seeds dropping like flies in new century of sports
This is the first year the No. 1 seed in the top four pro leagues went one-and-done
Since 2000, top regular season teams have only won it all 17 percent of the time
Fourteen of the last 15 top-seeded teams in the NFL have failed to win Super Bowl
It is the growing sports epidemic of the 21st century, where being the best team in the regular season of any of the four major professional leagues has never meant so little for the postseason. In fact, not only are the trophy cases of such teams likely to be empty at playoffs' end, but these regular season champions are lucky if they get past their first playoff opponent.
It happened again on Thursday, with the NBA regular season champion Chicago Bulls losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, joining the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, NFL's Green Bay Packers and MLB's Philadelphia Phillies as the most recent examples of teams with the best record in the regular season failing to win the championship. It completes the first sports year ever where the top seed in all four leagues went one-and-done in the playoffs.
Of the last dozen NBA teams with the best regular season record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, only two have won an NBA title (Gregg Popovich's 2002-03 Spurs and the 2007-08 Celtics, featuring first-year teammates Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce). Compare that paltry 16.7 winning percentage to the previous 17 NBA seasons, when 10 teams with the best record (58.8 percent) won the title.
And this is hardly an NBA phenomenon, as the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball are seeing the same shift in competitiveness.
From 1983 to 1999, the teams with the best regular season record in the four leagues won 27 of the 67 championships (40.3 percent). They went one-and-done 10 times (14.9 percent).
Since 2000, the teams with the best regular season record in the four leagues have won eight of the 47 championships (17.0 percent). They've gone one-and-done 17 times (36.2 percent).
The percentages have nearly reversed. Today's regular season champions are losing to their first opponent at nearly the same rate past regular season champions used to win league titles. Today's teams are more than twice as likely to go one-and-done than they are to win the whole thing.
From 1983 to 1999, the most common result for a top seed was to win the Stanley Cup, win the Super Bowl, win the NBA Finals and lose in the World Series.
Since 2000, the most common result for a top seed was to lose in the first round of the NHL playoffs, lose in the divisional round of the NFL, lose in the conference finals of the NBA and lose in baseball's LDS.
(Editor's note: 1983 was chosen as the starting point in these comparisons because the NBA moved to a very familiar 16-team playoff for the '83-84 season, plus MLB had a strike in 1981 and the NFL in 1982.)
Does it spark fan interest in the leagues by having such parity? Of course. It's a better product for the fans when they truly believe in an anyone-can-win system. But what happens when the monster overtakes its creator? Chaos ensues. The fear factor that used to come with the best record and home-field advantage? It doesn't exist anymore. David is no longer the one under pressure when he meets Goliath.
Take Chicago. Unlike the Michael Jordan-era Bulls, who had the best regular season record three times and won the championship each of those years, today's Bulls have turned consecutive seasons with the best regular season record into two disappointing finishes. There was the Eastern Conference finals loss to LeBron James and Miami in 2011 and now the stunning upset loss to the 76ers after star guard Derrick Rose suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Game 1 of the series. In the wake of Chicago's demise, consider recent happenings in the other leagues:
NHL -- The Canucks have turned two straight NHL Presidents' Trophy seasons into a devastating Stanley Cup Finals defeat -- after leading Boston 2-0 last season -- and now a very sudden first-round elimination at the hands of the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings. (Also, those Kings just became the first eighth seed to knock off the top two seeds in the same NHL postseason.)
MLB -- The Philadelphia Phillies put together the best regular season record in 2010 and 2011 and have zero championships to show for it. They lost in the 2010 National League Championship Series to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants and in the 2011 NLDS to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. The final play of their 2011 defeat was almost too tragically fitting for the Phillies: star first baseman Ryan Howard tore his Achilles after grounding out to second base for the final out of the season.
NFL -- Finally, we can't forget the 2011 Green Bay Packers, who flirted with perfection in defense of their Super Bowl title from the previous season. Their 15-1 regular season -- tarnished by a 19-14 loss at Kansas City in Week 15 -- was followed by a one-and-done, 37-20 divisional playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Since 2005, a staggering 50.0 percent of the top seeds (14 of 28) have gone one-and-done in the postseason. Only four have won a championship.
Why is the upheaval happening more this century? That's the $64 million dollar question, and there's no simple answer. Part of it is that teams are getting too good to play the role of sacrificial lamb for the top seeds on their way to the championship. Now if a top seed has any kink in the armor, some coaching staff is going to find a way to expose it -- and thanks to the salary cap-era and free agency, that coaching staff now has the talent on the roster with which to do it.
Bad luck, injuries to a star player? Those surely have been a factor, too, in this century's one-and-dones (see Rose, Derrick), but those hurdles also existed before 2000. Then how about additional pressure past teams didn't have to deal with? The Pittsburgh Steelers' 1970s dynasty didn't have to worry about ESPN highlights or what some NFL Network analyst said about them Sunday night, or negative feedback from an opposing player through social media. Can you really picture Jack Lambert having a Twitter account?
These days, Amare Stoudemire cuts his hand after punching a fire extinguisher and we get a story on other teams making fun of him, and another to look at the stitches. Washington star Alexander Ovechkin logs just 13:36 of ice time in Game 2 against the Rangers, and it becomes an in-series drama. Sports really have turned into your grandma's soap operas, and a player has to be cut from a different cloth to handle the pressure. It's not foolish to assume some buckle under that pressure, or at least suffer from the ramifications.
At a media session just days before the 2010 AFC Divisional playoffs, New England wide receiver Wes Welker made 11 references to "feet" as a way of poking fun at New York Jets' coach Rex Ryan and his connection to foot fetish videos that had recently gone viral. Unfortunately for Welker, Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't find the deadpan delivery humorous, as he benched Welker for the first offensive series of that weekend's game against New York.
New England was on an eight-game winning streak at the time, having scored at least 31 points in every game en route to finishing with the league's best regular season record. On the first drive, without Welker, Tom Brady threw an interception, ending his record streak of 335 passes without one, and the Patriots never got settled on offense. In the end, it was Welker who had to remove foot from mouth, as he finished with just 57 receiving yards, and the Jets pulled off the 28-21 upset over the top seed.
But that hardly explains every top seed's loss. What follows is a league-by-league look at this century's top seeds, starting with the NFL and concluding with hockey. Bear in mind that the "regular season champion" was defined by the team that had the best record in each league (most points in the NHL). When teams had the same record in a conference, the tiebreaker went to the team that had the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. If teams tied for the best record in different conferences, the best season result was used.
For the "since 2000" stats used throughout this article, that would begin with the 2000-01 seasons in the NBA and NHL, as it is based on seasons that started in the year 2000, rather than ones that saw their postseasons end in 2000 -- like the 1999-2000 seasons.
One caveat. None of this is particularly a bad thing. Who doesn't love an underdog defying the odds? And how boring would sports be if the best teams remained the best all season long? Oh, and rest assured, we'll see more of these upsets and crazy playoff results in the future. Maybe not as crazy as a 7-9 team beating an 11-5 team, like the Seattle Seahawks did to the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints two playoff seasons ago, but this trend seems to have some staying power. Just ask the city of Chicago.
As cliché as it may sound, today's postseason truly is a different beast. While you can enjoy your team's accomplishments in the regular season, just remember that the best record has never been more irrelevant come the playoffs than it is today. (Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Playoff Evolution: The league did not use a true seeding system in which the top seed was guaranteed home-field advantage until 1975. That is why the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins actually had to travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship game. A strike in the 1982 season led to an unprecedented 16 teams (out of 28 in the league) making the playoffs; a large increase over the traditional 10. By 1990, the league extended the playoff field to 12 teams, and division realignment in 2002 created the system in use today.
What's Different?: Top seeds are going one-and-done at a shocking rate since 2000. The problem has only gotten worse with five of the last seven top seeds losing after their bye week to a team that had to win on Wild Card weekend.
Part of the reason for this change is the superior opponents in the Divisional Round. From 1983 to '99, the top seed's opponent in this round won 59.2 percent of its regular season games, while on average outscoring its opponents by 2.2 points per game. Just one of these 17 teams won more than 10 games (1996 San Francisco 49ers). Since 2000, the average Divisional round opponent for the top seed won 67.4 percent of its regular season games, and had an average scoring differential of 6.6 points per game. Eight of those 12 teams won at least 11 games.
|The Numbers Don't Lie|
THE ONE AND DONES:
2011 Packers (15-1): Green Bay flirted with a perfect regular season behind MVP Aaron Rodgers, but the Giants and quarterback Eli Manning were clearly the stronger team in a 37-20 win at Lambeau Field in the Divisional playoffs. Manning threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns, and New York's defense repeatedly attacked Rodgers, who never got comfortable in the pocket. The Giants sacked Rodgers four times and recovered three fumbles. New York went on to beat New England in Super Bowl XLVI.
2010 Patriots (14-2): The Patriots closed the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, including a 45-3 rout of the Jets on Monday Night Football. But Rex Ryan kept alive his preseason promise of a Super Bowl for one more week when his Jets dominated the Patriots at the line of scrimmage. Tom Brady was sacked five times, and New England's high-powered offense was held under 30 points for the first time in more than two months in a 28-21 loss. The Jets fell the following week to Pittsburgh.
2008 Titans (13-3): Tennessee rookie running back Chris Johnson showed his Pro Bowl form early in his team's playoff opener with the Ravens. He rushed in the game's first touchdown and averaged 6.5 yards per carry before leaving with an ankle injury late in the first half. Without Johnson, the Titans offense struggled to finish drives, and Baltimore kicker Matt Stover booted a 43-yard field goal with less than a minute left to give his team a 13-10 win. "We really have no one to blame but ourselves," Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins said afterward. "This one's going to hurt for a while."
2006 Chargers (14-2): San Diego, undefeated at home all season, entered the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak. In a game filled with mistakes by both teams, San Diego led the New England Patriots 21-13 in the fourth quarter. After intercepting Tom Brady for the third time in the game, safety Marlon McCree had the ball stripped by Troy Brown. New England recovered, tied the game, and eventually won 24-21 on a late field goal. San Diego's last-second gasp was kicker Nate Kaeding's failed attempt on a 54-yard field goal, sealing the fate of head coach Marty Schottenheimer. A week later the Patriots would blow a championship-game record 18-point lead in Indianapolis.
2005 Colts (14-2): Indianapolis' season ended in one of the craziest finishes in NFL history. Pittsburgh dominated from the start but held only a 21-18 lead late in the game. With the chance to close Indianapolis out, running back Jerome Bettis fumbled for the first time all season. Nick Harper, who had been cut in an alleged domestic dispute the previous day, picked up the loose ball and ran it downfield. He seemed on his way to the end zone, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a touchdown-saving tackle. The Colts' had a shot at a game-tying field goal, but kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed the 46-yarder.
2000 Titans (13-3): Tennessee ran into division rival Baltimore and an all-time great defense in its divisional playoff game. Baltimore dominated the Titans' offense, holding Eddie George to 3.4 yards per carry and Steve McNair to 24-for-46 passing. With the game tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter, Al Del Greco's field goal attempt was blocked and returned 90 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. Later, a McNair pass to George bounced off the running back's hands, and Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, the league's defensive player of the year, returned the interception for a touchdown. The Titans' defense was also strong, holding Trent Dilfer to 5-for-16 passing, but it wasn't enough against the eventual Super Bowl champions.
|The Other Top Seeds Who Stumbled|
THE TOP SEEDS WHO WON IT ALL
2003 Patriots (14-2): You cannot talk about the 2000's in the NFL without focusing on New England. A franchise that knocked off top seeds like the 2001 St. Louis Rams, 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2006 San Diego Chargers, the 2003 Patriots are the only top seed in the last 15 seasons to actually win the Super Bowl, defeating the Carolina Panthers 32-29. They did so after Adam Vinatieri made his second career game-winning field goal in the final seconds of a Super Bowl.
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