The beauty of football lies in its complexity. A lineman doesn’t block, a receiver drops a pass, a running back can’t find the hole, and the play is over. It takes near-perfect execution from all eleven players on the field for a play to work. Then consider that a team has to do this roughly 150 times a game to win.
Throw in the fact that to win the Super Bowl, a team has to muster enough of these performances to land among the top 44% of the league. That punches your ticket to have the opportunity to try and string together 12 to 16 straight quarters of flawless football. If you can do all of that, a banner is raised, and you can claim a Super Bowl title. Considering all of that, doesn’t it seem like a large chunk of victory can be credited to getting lucky at the right time?
The luck of winning a Super Bowl
There is no debating that winning in the NFL takes skill. Patrick Mahomes has proven to be a generational talent, and not coincidentally, he has appeared in the AFC championship every season he was the starting QB. But to assume that winning a Super Bowl simply comes down to which team has the more talented roster, or more talented QB, is an incorrect assumption.
Let’s start with what is already the most hotly-debated topic of the Cowboys’ offseason, their quarterback. Since entering the league in 2016, Dak Prescott has yet to reach an NFC Championship, so surely he is to blame for the team’s lack of postseason success, right? Well, since his rookie season, Prescott ranks eighth by EPA per play among quarterbacks in the postseason. That beats out names like Tom Brady, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, and Jared Goff. All of those names have appeared in a Super Bowl, yet played worse in the postseason over that stretch. Seems odd?
While quarterback is the most important position on the field, it takes a full roster to win it all. That is why names like Nick Foles, Joe Flacco, Brad Johnson, and Trent Dilfer all boast a title belt. If the Super Bowl was simply gifted to the best quarterback in the league, then the NFL would not be on a 23-year slump of the MVP failing to hoist the Lombardi in the season they win it.
There is no denying Prescott could have been better in the playoffs in recent years. However, it’s not as if the Cowboys were shoe-ins to be crowned champions, and Prescott simply blundered it away. Here is the likelihood of the Cowboys winning it all entering the postseason since Dak arrived on scene (probability based on betting lines):
- 2022: 6% chance (+1600)
- 2021: 8% chance (+1200)
- 2018: 4% chance (+2500)
- 2016: 22% chance (+350)
The only year where you could argue the Cowboys were even given a fighting chance was 2016, and even then, it was roughly one in five. Based on these odds, the Cowboys had a 35% chance to win in just one of the previous four postseasons they appeared in. And if you exclude 2016, they had just a 17% implied probability of raising a banner.
If you believe Prescott is not a good enough quarterback, that is reasonable. However, his lack of postseason success shouldn’t be used as the primary argument against him because he was never expected to win it in the first place. Davis Mills isn’t criticized for missing the playoffs this year. But the Texans had better odds of making the playoffs before the season started, per Vegas, than the Cowboys did of winning the Super Bowl when the postseason started. Evaluating a player based on their ability to hit a long shot will always lead to incongruities in measurement.
But let’s step further back. Putting aside a quarterback’s impact, the recent Super Bowl winners seem even more random. There is no “formula” for a winning team. Since 2006, here are the offensive and defensive rankings of each champion (offensive rank/defensive rank):
- 2006 Colts: 2/23
- 2007 Giants: 14/17
- 2008 Steelers: 20/1
- 2009 Saints: 1/20
- 2010 Packers: 10/2
- 2011 Giants: 9/25
- 2012 Ravens: 10/12
- 2013 Seahawks: 9/1
- 2014 Patriots: 4/8
- 2015 Broncos: 19/4
- 2016 Patriots: 3/1
- 2017 Eagles: 3/4
- 2018 Patriots: 4/7
- 2019 Chiefs: 2/18
- 2020 Buccaneers: 5/5
- 2021 Rams: 8/9
Granted, there is a pattern. Most winners are found in the top ten by at least one of the two metrics. That is enough to punch your ticket into the playoffs, so if you don’t fall inside the top ten on offense or defense, there is a slim chance you’re playing in January.
Outside of that, where is the pattern? Great defenses have won it, great offenses have won it. But also notice how 75% of Super Bowl winners didn’t have the best offense or best defense. They were good but were not leading the league on either side of the ball. In other words, 94% of Super Bowl winners since 2006 did not have the best offense in the league, and 81% of winners didn’t have the best defense. It is almost like winning comes down to getting hot at the right time and having the ball bounce your way.
And “having the ball bounce your way” should not be minimized. Unlike in hockey, basketball, and baseball, the winner in each round of the NFL playoffs comes down to one game. Meaning that an unfortunate turn of luck ends a season prematurely. Consider these scenarios:
- What would have happened if David Tyree wasn’t able to pin the ball against his helmet in the 2007 season?
- What would have happened if Santonio Holmes couldn’t get his second foot down in the 2008 Super Bowl?
- What would have happened if the Seahawks ran it with Marshawn Lynch on the one-yard line in 2014?
- What would have happened if the Falcons got the ball first in overtime in 2016?
- What would have happened if the Rams didn’t get 7 “goal-to-go” plays with less than 2-minutes remaining in last year’s Super Bowl?
All of these moments changed the outcome of the game, likely sealing the victory for one team. And since one game decides the winner, these “flip of a coin” events were the difference between winning and losing. Sure, some of those plays took skill, but it would be foolish not to argue the impact of luck in crucial moments.
And speaking to Cowboys fans about the impact of luck should not be a difficult argument to make, for example:
- What if Tony Romo didn’t fumble the snap on the PAT against Seattle?
- What if the Dez Bryant catch was ruled a completion?
- What if Jared Cook hadn’t got both feet in bounds in 2016?
- What if the Cowboys' run defense decided not to take a night off in 2018?
- What if Dallas didn’t decide to run a QB sneak with no timeouts in 2021?
- What if Tony Pollard didn’t get injured this year?
Would Dallas have won the Super Bowl in each of those seasons? Probably not. Would they even have won those games? There is no guarantee. But at least they would not have been on the wrong side of luck, which does play an impact.
There are several other arguments that point to luck being a huge factor in playoff success:
- Ease of matchups (Just ask this year’s Eagles)
Now, this is not to downplay the impact of a team’s performance. Even with all the luck in the world, if a team is not ready to take advantage of the moments they are given, they will assuredly lose. There is a legitimate argument that Dallas, even with an incredible amount of luck, was not good enough to win the Super Bowl in any season since the 1990s.
But it should be noted that winning it all is an endeavor into how lucky you can get over a three to four-game stretch. The Cowboys simply haven’t been the luckiest team in the league over the last two and a half decades. But neither have 17 other NFL teams, more than half the league, and eight of those teams have had a Hall of Fame QB under center who could not deliver a ring. So, keep in mind that while it has been a long drought for the Cowboys, it could be worse.
Now, there is a lot to be said about the fact that they haven't even reached the NFC Championship since their last Super Bowl win. While that is even more disappointing, a Conference Championship, or even a Super Bowl appearance, means very little when you don’t win it all.
Thus, the train keeps on moving. Next September, the Dallas Cowboys will attempt to snap a streak that has been hanging over their shoulder for decades now. To do so, they will need to find good fortune in one of the most complex sports around. Seems daunting, but such is life as an NFL fan. Here’s to luck.