You just accomplished the most difficult feat in American pro football.
Now, go do it again.
“That’s the thing,” said former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team won Super Bowl XXXV. “Everybody talks about how hard it is to repeat as Super Bowl champions when it’s so hard just to win one.”
Repeating, though, is the challenge in front of the Seahawks after they captured Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium with a 43-8 win over the Denver Broncos.
A few Seahawks players were still in uniform, still hearing faint cheers from the happy Seattle fans who didn’t want to leave MetLife, when they began talking about repeating.
“The important thing when you leave this game of football is the legacy,” Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin said, maybe a half-hour after the Super Bowl. “And we accomplished one goal. But if you want to be the best of the best, you’ve got to do it multiple times. So we’ve already said it. We are going to win this one, and what’s next is winning another one.”
If only it were that easy.
Just eight teams have repeated since the beginning of the Super Bowl era, the 1966 season (the first Super Bowl being played on Jan. 15, 1967).
Only one has done so in the past 15 years, the 2003-04 New England Patriots.
Since then, defending Super Bowl champions have often had trouble making the playoffs, let alone repeating.
The past eight Super Bowl champs haven’t even won a playoff game the following season, with three of the past five missing the playoffs entirely.
It’s a trend that has spawned its own name — the Super Bowl hangover. The Seahawks are well aware of the malady.
“The Super Bowl hangover is very possible, man,” said Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright. “You saw the last two teams (the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens) didn’t even make the playoffs. Some teams get real comfortable with themselves and they are not as hungry as they were the year before. But I believe we won’t fall into that trap.”
But while Super Bowl hangover is a nice catch-all phrase to describe the ills of a championship team that falls short the following year, the tests for those trying to repeat tend to be a little more specific.
The challenges are spread around the three main areas that make up a football team — the front office, the coaching staff and the players.
Teams used to be able to put together a championship core and then keep it together for about as long as they wanted.
Consider that the first team to repeat — the 1967 Green Bay Packers — had just one different starter from the 1966 squad that won Super Bowl I.
The 1972-73 Dolphins, the next team to repeat, had just two primary starters change from one year to the next and had the same starting lineup on defense each season
But free agency and the salary cap have made such stability impossible.
Free agency arrived in a limited capacity in 1988, and completely in 1993, with the salary cap arriving in 1994. It’s no coincidence that repeating has become rare since.
Only three teams have repeated in the past 24 years — the 1992-93 Dallas Cowboys, the 1997-98 Denver Broncos and the 2003-04 New England Patriots.
“NFL history, in my humble opinion, ought to be judged pre-salary cap and post-salary cap,” said Bill Polian, team president of the Indianapolis Colts from 1997 to 2011 and now an analyst for ESPN. “With the cap and free agency, it’s a completely different game.”
And as Polian notes, it’s an even bigger factor for good teams.
“When you win the Super Bowl, your players, your free agents, become more desirable,” he said.
After winning the Super Bowl following the 2012 season, the Baltimore Ravens saw nine starters depart, the most of any champion team in NFL history — with the salary cap and free agency playing a role in almost all of the moves.
The Ravens responded in 2013 by starting out 3-5 and failing to make the playoffs.
Seattle had its salary-cap and free-agent challenges this offseason, losing six players who were primary starters, all for reasons related to the cap and free agency.
The Super Bowl championship was barely a month old when the Seahawks cut defensive end and defensive captain Red Bryant in a cap-related move, the kind of thing legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi never had to worry about.
Seattle later lost defensive end Chris Clemons and receiver Golden Tate, and while it retained the bulk of its Super Bowl champion team, the impact of the changes won’t really become clear until the season begins.
“The system is designed to weaken good teams,” Polian said, noting that the cap and free agency gives the league a competitive balance that has helped make the NFL as popular as it is. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Billick, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said coaches who win Super Bowls have one big advantage — they no longer have to convince players that what they are telling them will work.
The challenge instead becomes finding new methods of motivation for players who just climbed the NFL mountain top, many of whom as a result might have rich, new contracts and new off-field opportunities.
Billick’s response was to decide to let the Ravens be the first team featured on the HBO documentary series “Hard Knocks” the following year.
“I agreed to do it because from the minute we won the Super Bowl, all I heard about was how hard it was to repeat and how players can become complacent,” he said. “So one of my motivations was, ‘OK, if that’s the case, then we are going to let the whole world watch training camp to see if we are going to become complacent.’ That energized the players, I think.”
Baltimore went 10-6 the following year and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs, but Billick doesn’t think lack of motivation was a factor, with the Ravens losing a tough game on the road to the Steelers.
Former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren made a statement to his players after he coached Green Bay to a Super Bowl title in 1996.
In a meeting to kick off the next season, he said he wanted his players to understand how difficult the challenge was and to combat the easy response: “Well, that won’t happen to us.”
Holmgren said he told his players they would have to work harder to fend off distractions as Super Bowl champs.
To set an example, he canceled some of his regular TV shows and appearances “because I wanted to be better, too. It was a little thing, but that showed them I was trying too, you know?” Green Bay returned to the Super Bowl but lost a close game to Denver.
“They bought in,” Holmgren recalled. “They did what I asked them to do.”
Most coaches say a key is to quickly put the Super Bowl title in the past, a tactic Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is following.
Seattle celebrated with a parade, a trip to the White House, and a private party where players were awarded their rings.
Otherwise, the Super Bowl has rarely been talked about, with the focus instead on what is next.
“It’s common to hear ‘the next game,’ ” Carroll said. “You hear that all the time. But I really think it’s a demanding focus. And if you can do it then you have a chance to play like you’re capable of playing more of the time. That’s really what we’re all about here, and we’ve been talking like that for years.”
For players, the challenge is as much physical as mental.
A somewhat overlooked obstacle in repeating is mending the accumulated aches and pains from the previous season.
A Super Bowl champion has to play more games, at least 19 to achieve that goal (20 if it makes the playoffs as a wild card).
“We had such a short offseason because of the Super Bowl,” Baldwin said.
The Seahawks have tried to combat that by giving veterans days off when needed in training camp, and being more diligent about limiting contact in practice.
“The most important part to me is to be able to recover from last season,” Baldwin said. “A lot of teams were already ahead of us in terms of recovery, so in order for us to catch up to them, we had to have a great plan, and I think we did.”
Still, those who have been through it say the mental hurdles can be just as taxing.
Terrell Davis, a star running back for the Denver teams that won in 1997-98, recalls that the second season felt like a slog compared to the first year.
Some of the thrill, he said, was inevitably gone, particularly in navigating the daily grind of heightened expectations.
“I wish I could say that they both felt the same, but the second one did not feel nearly as gratifying as the first one,” said Davis, an analyst for the NFL Network. “It just didn’t. And I mean it was night and day. … we knew we were good, we were supposed to win it, and we won it. And it was like, ‘OK, we won it.’ I know you shouldn’t feel that way at all about a world championship. But it was almost like diminishing returns. It’s almost like eating nothing but pizza. At some point it’s not going to taste as good, even if you love it.”
The Seahawks, though, have insisted their passion and hunger for success is as strong as ever.
Sherman has recalled the feeling in the locker room after the Super Bowl and a general wish that there was another game to play.
“That’s why we are not going to have a hangover,” Sherman said this summer. “Because guys were not satisfied at all by the Super Bowl. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh man, lifetime accomplishment.’ That’s for guys to realize later on.”
The uniqueness of Seattle’s challenge this season isn’t lost on Carroll. Twice fired by NFL teams before finding success in Seattle, he knows the Seahawks have a rare opportunity at making football history.
“We are so fortunate to have this chance to come back after a season like that to see if we can find that kind of discipline and find that kind of ability to focus,” he said. “It’s challenging, it’s difficult, it hasn’t happened a lot, and we are going to see what happens.”