Baltimore Sun – Jan 25, 2005 – Ken Murray – NFL teams trying to get over the hump in big games carry psychological baggage only Freud could appreciate.
At the height of his frustration in the mid-1990s, then-Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf let out a howl of exasperation that could be heard all the way to Dallas.
“They could put seven helmets and four players out there and we’d find a way to fall over a helmet,” Wolf said of the Cowboys.
Wolf was worn down by an eight-game losing streak in a lopsided series. Three of the losses came in the postseason, the worst being the NFC championship game in January 1995. It wasn’t until the season after the Packers won the January 1997 Super Bowl that they finally exorcised their Dallas demon and ended the streak.
Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Pro Bowl quarterback, knows how Wolf felt. McNabb has lived through the agony of losing three consecutive NFC championship games, two of them at home.
He can only hope the Atlanta Falcons roll out their black helmets and play four-man defense today at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, where he will try one more time to reach the Super Bowl.
By going 0-for-3 in the championship game, McNabb also has stepped into elite, if somewhat infamous, company in the NFL. Quarterback Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls and Fran Tarkenton of the Minnesota Vikings was winless in three. The Cleveland Browns’ Bernie Kosar lost three times in the AFC championship game.
And John Elway of the Denver Broncos didn’t win his first Super Bowl, either, until he had lost three of them.
This is no place for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach. It is where history is made, reputations are forged and dreams are smashed.
Unlike the Packers of the 1990s, the Eagles have no single nemesis to confront. They lost to the St. Louis Rams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers the past three years at the threshold of the Super Bowl.
“It’s unfortunate what happened to us the last three years, but it’s just a different feeling this year,” McNabb said during a news conference last week. “We’ve had a special season; things have really been moving in a positive direction.”
Getting teams or individual players over the big-game hump is a job that often falls under the purview of sports psychologists.
Harry Edwards, a sports sociologist, retired Cal-Berkeley professor and longtime consultant for the San Francisco 49ers, watched as coach Bill Walsh crafted a dynasty after one of the most traumatic defeats in team history.
The defeat came in the 1987 playoffs, when the 49ers, with a 13-2 regular-season record, were upset at home by the Vikings in a conference semifinal, 36-24. San Francisco already had won two Super Bowls under Walsh, but the Minnesota loss was particularly devastating.
The 49ers came back the next year to beat the Chicago Bears in the NFC championship game and the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, the last of Walsh’s three NFL titles.
“The key to it was how the leadership of the organization handled that crushing disappointment,” Edwards said. “I remember before the Super Bowl against the Bengals, Bill said there were going to be ebbs and flows in the game. That took out the idea that if something bad happens [as in 1987], ‘Here we go again.’
“If the Eagles go out on the field thinking, ‘Here we go again,’ they’ll lose.”
John F. Murray, a sports psychologist in West Palm Beach, Fla., believes the Eagles should embrace the potential for losing to relieve the pressure of winning.
“I would let them go to the possibility they might lose again,” he said. “That’s outcome. In sports psychology, you focus on performance, not outcome. Outcome can never be controlled, just as you can never control when a tsunami hits your house.
“We choke if we blow up the magnitude of the situation. It comes down to what’s going on inside each person’s head.”
Losing big games regularly plays havoc with the head, Gil Brandt said.
“I don’t think there’s any question that it gets into your mind,” said Brandt, the Cowboys’ personnel chief through their formative years into the Super Bowl era.
Brandt watched the phenomenon weave its damage in the 1960s, when the Cowboys were Next Year’s Champions, the title of a book that chronicled their early failures in big games. The Cowboys lost consecutive NFL championship games to the Packers at the dawn of the Super Bowl era in 1966 and 1967, then lost to the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs the next two seasons.
Dallas didn’t get to the Super Bowl until the 1970 season, and didn’t win the Super Bowl until the 1971 season. How did the Cowboys get over the hump?
By trading for tight end Mike Ditka, flanker Lance Alworth and cornerback Herb Adderley, who brought mental toughness to the team.
“Those three veteran players had a dramatic influence on our team,” Brandt said. “You can add a descending veteran player and it gives the team the thought, ‘They’re trying to help us win.’ The Eagles went out and got [Jevon] Kearse and [Terrell] Owens, and the players said the team tried to do everything it could to win.”
Three decades later, the Packers endured their six-year losing streak against the Cowboys. They lost to Dallas in the divisional round of the playoffs after the 1993 and 1994 seasons, and the NFC championship game the next year. All but one of the eight losses came in Dallas.
“We couldn’t get them [to play] in Green Bay,” Wolf said. “It was like a nightmare. It got to the point they played a [quarterback] named Jason Garrett and beat us. Obviously, it’s a psychological thing when you put out a guy like that and win.
“It’s like seeing Indianapolis and New England now. Indianapolis can’t go to New England and win the game.”
The Packers won the Super Bowl in the 1996 season after losing a regular-season game in Dallas, but didn’t have to face the Cowboys in the postseason. In 1997, they finally got the Cowboys in Green Bay and punished them, 45-17. End of streak.
Some teams never make it over the hump, though. The Browns of Kosar and tight end Ozzie Newsome endured three championship losses in four years, all against the Broncos, and never reached the Super Bowl.
The first loss in the 1986 season was highlighted by Elway’s 98-yard touchdown drive to force overtime, where the Broncos won, 23-20. The second, a year later, was punctuated by Earnest Byner’s fumble inside the 5-yard line as he was about to score the tying touchdown. The Browns lost, 38-33.
Two years later, they were blown out by the Broncos, 37-21.
Even though Newsome, as a front office executive, helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl four years ago, it didn’t take away the sting of those three defeats.
“In that I had the opportunity to win a Super Bowl, it has been softened,” the Ravens’ general manager said. “Not being able to go and play in it, it is some of the emptiness that I have.”
There was some satisfaction in going to the championship game three times, he said.
“It was a great accomplishment, but not as big as the Bills going to four straight Super Bowls. That was a lot tougher to do, and a lot tougher to deal with,” Newsome said.
Even while the Bills were losing four straight Super Bowls from 1991 through 1994, coach Marv Levy was never concerned about a psychological minefield.
“No, I really wasn’t,” Levy said, “because I made up mind, it wasn’t going to prey on me. I knew I couldn’t change the previous outcomes.”
Levy, of course, can feel empathy for the Eagles’ plight today.
“I admire their resilience,” he said. “They’re going to battle back. They didn’t fall apart because they suffered a tremendous disappointment.
“I don’t know if their story is going to parallel ours, but if they win, I will feel good for them.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.