The Titans and the Curse of 13
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 28, 2009
By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts crack stepper-on-er
When St. Louis took its 13-3 regular season record to Super Bowl XXXIV and beat the 13-3 Titans, it was a triumph for triskaidekaphobiacs everywhere.
For those with an irrational fear of the number 13, the fact that one of these numerically cursed squads won the big game had to provide some relief that 13 wasn't always bad luck. The fact that Rams QB Kurt Warner wore No. 13 provided more proof.
Of course, we don't believe in luck. We believe in facts. This belief may explain why our trips to the casino result in long, penniless drives home with our cross-armed wives.
But it certainly doesn't explain why since that big game, a 13-3 record has been a curse.
That Tennessee Super Bowl team went 13-3 again the following season and won home-field advantage in the AFC, but bowed out of the playoffs in the opener against the eventual champion Ravens.
Since that fateful day, 13-3 teams have had a painful history of failing in the playoffs -- and then crashing to earth the following season. Clearly, the latest edition of the Titans seem poised to join the trend.
From 2000-2008, 12 teams finished exactly 13-3 -- and none of them won the Super Bowl. That's remarkable in and of itself, especially when you consider that every Super Bowl champion over this period, except for the 2003 and 2004 Patriots (both 14-2), failed to win as many as 13 games.
Worse, only three of these 13-3 teams made the playoffs the year after their success/failure. Only the 2008 Colts won more than 10 games after their 13-3 year, and the average total for the group is a remarkable sub-par 7.6 wins. That's a 5.4-game regression on average, folks.
Some of that decline can be explained by tougher schedule and perhaps a lack of good fortune. But it can also be explained thusly: it's all about the defense.
In almost every case, the teams' defensive performance was great in the 13-3 year but took a huge step back in the following year of failure.
Some of the best examples:
2001 Titans. They followed their 13-3 season of 2000 season with a 7-9 clunker that made no sense. The core of their back-to-back 13-3 squads was basically intact – Steve McNair, Eddie George, Jevon Kearse, Derrick Mason, and they were all healthy. But they were not an unlucky 7-9. They deserved their record with their play on the field; their defense ended up 25th of 31 teams in both scoring defense and total defense.
2002 Bears. After breaking out with a big 13-3 season in 2001, they regressed completely the next year and finished 4-12. Again, they brought back the same team and stayed pretty healthy, but their No. 1 defense from 2001 completely fell apart (25th in scoring D in 2002).
2004 Chiefs. Talk about cursed. This 13-3 Chiefs of 2003 finished 7-9 in 2004, despite matching the 2003 team with an offensive average of 30.2 PPG. Again, it was the defense taking a step back, from a respectable 20.8 PPG in 2003 to 27.2 PPG in 2004. The 2004 Chiefs had one thing going for them: they were one of the most exciting teams of all time, with an average of 57.4 total points scored in their games and 14 of 16 decided by 11 points or fewer.
2005 Eagles. Philadelphia reached the Super Bowl with a 13-3 record in 2004. The club that followed was famous for jettisoning Terrell Owens at midseason, and when Donovan McNabb went down two weeks later it was all over -- they finished 6-10. But even with McNabb healthy, the Eagles were only 4-5. The defense went from 16.2 PPG allowed to 24.2.
2007 Bears. Believe it or not, the Bears produced a second 13-3 season this decade in 2006. They reached the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years. But, as they did in 2002, they collapsed in wake of the great season. The 2007 Bears went 7-9 and fell from third in scoring defense in 2006 to 16th in 2007.
2007 Ravens. The 2006 Ravens went 13-3 behind a stubborn unit that led the league in both scoring defense and total defense. The collapse of the Baltimore defense in 2007 was unexpected and complete. After allowing a historically excellent 12.6 PPG in 2006, they were gashed for 24.0 PPG a year later and finished 5-11.
2008 Packers. The 2007 Packers went 13-3 and hosted the NFC title game. Despite subbing out Brett Favre for Aaron Rodgers the following year, the Packers continued to run smoothly on offense, with a No. 5 rank in scoring. But the defense fell from 6th in scoring in 2007 to 22nd in 2008 and the team dropped to 6-10.
Through three games, Tennessee looks be headed for a similar fate. The Titans allowed 14.6 PPG and 4.6 yards per play in 2008. Here in their 0-3 start to 2009, they've surrendered 23.7 PPG and 5.0 YPP.
So, what's behind it? Perhaps it's easier for a defense to come together and play with fluky success than it is for an offense to do the same.
Or maybe, yeah, 13 is an unlucky number.
It's too early to assume the Titans will fail miserably like their historical predecessors. But considering that they're the 13th team in this odd group of 13-win teams ... we wouldn't bet against it happening again.
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