Thursday, February 02, 2006

What I Can Do with too Much Time on My Hands

Since I only have a couple days left until the Super Bowl, I've been doing alot of thinking about my own history as a Steeler fan.

I'm a bit too young to remember the glory days. I don't remember watching any of the Super Bowl wins during the 70's. My first memory of football actually comes from the '81 season. So, my formative football years were spent watching the Steelers decline and bottom out during the 80's. Despite a fun playoff game where we beat Huston during the '89 season, there wasn't much light until the 90's.

-One aside- I firmly believe that Bill Cowher's early success with the steelers (say '92 - '95) was largely a result of good drafting by Chuck Noll. Had Knoll not been too old to want to coach any more, he probably would have taken the team back to the playoffs those years. Cowher's success now is his own making, and I give him credit, but I'd say at least 15 wins during those first three years weren't his. Had Noll not built a good team and had them on the verge, Cowher might have been run out of town pretty quickly. But I digress --

So, from my perspective, it always seemed that the Steelers were pretty bad during the 80's, and that over the course of history, other teams were much better - remember that the Steelers first sucessful period isn't in my direct memory. Certainly, over the duration of all football history, the Steelers are pretty bad. From their founding in 1930something until 1972, the Steelers had played in like one minor playoff game, and I believe didn't have a winning season. But, the other day while I was thinking hard in the shower, I started to wonder who the best team was during my lifetime.

I decided to make my metric the number of seasons in the playoffs, since the NFL has always done a good job of having a limited (but not overly limited...hi baseball) playoff system compared to other leagues. Over the course of my life, an average of 38% of NFL teams have made the playoffs (compared to the over 50% in the NHL). As opposed to winning Super Bowls, which either takes a great deal of talent or alot of luck, being in the playoffs is a reliable estimate of solid goodness.

My initial thought was that the 49ers or the Cowboys would be the best teams, given how many superbowls they won during my formative years, and potentially the Raiders just because they just always seem to find a way into the playoffs. I was right, but you'll notice (in the figure) that the team furthest on the left there in a tie with the Cowboys and 49ers is my Steelers. Who knew? I guess the 80's didn't really count for much after all.

I think I can chalk this up to selective memory. The Steelers had three really bad seasons (85, 86, and 87), which must have felt long and hard to me, surrounded by a couple mediocre seasons where they sneaked into the playoffs ('84 and '89). Then they didn't stick in the playoffs until '92 - '97, after I was in HS and college, meaning that their image as a bunch of losers was well burned into my head.

In reality, the Steelers made the playoffs 18 out of my 30 experienced football seasons. That's a pretty good 60% of the time. A very naive gaussian distribution indicates that a team playing in the AFC central would have made the playoffs about 40% of the time. So the Steelers really have beat the odds.

Additionally, I'm surprised by the 5th and 6th place teams in this calcualtion. The Oilers/Titans have actually been very good, even though they've only played (and lost) one Superbowl. The Vikins as well have been good for a long time. Remember that being in the playoffs 15 or 16 times during my lifetime is doing much more than putting a few good players together. 15 years is something like 3 times the average carreer of a player. In order to put a team in the playoffs that many times you have to consistantly acquire good players and give them good schemes. More power to the Oilers and Vikings.

So, what's the long and short of it?

The Steelers are winning one for the thumb on Sunday!

Here we go Steelers, Here we Go.


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