As Joe Theismann walked through the New York Giants' locker room in late August, he couldn't figure out why so many players were greeting him with icy stares. Perhaps the cool reception would have been understandable had Theismann still been wearing a Washington Redskins uniform. But the quarterback-turned-TV commentator was baffled by this reaction nearly six years after fading back for his last NFL pass -- the one where Lawrence Taylor and Gary Reasons broke his leg Nov. 18, 1985.
"I didn't know what was going on," Theismann said. "I wondered if it was something I said."
It was. Theismann discovered that fact when he looked into one of the player's lockers. Taped onto the back wall was a newspaper article in which Theismann was quoted as saying the Giants would not only fail to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but would struggle simply to stay at .500 this season.
"I told Ray Handley about it, and he said his wife wasn't talking to me any more because of what was in the article," Theismann said. "I wrote her a letter explaining myself. I just tried to present my viewpoint on what I saw as the facts."
Unfortunately for the Handleys, as well as the rest of the Giants and their fans, Theismann's preseason vision so far has proven prophetic. And chances are it may take quite some time before the Giants once again raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy after a Super Bowl victory. The Giants not only are falling into the predictable pattern of failing to repeat a Super Bowl championship, but if recent history is any indication, they may not win another title until well into the 1990s.
And it's not simply because of Handley's shortcomings or a Super Bowl hangover. The cycle of success for NFL teams reveals that it often takes several seasons before a champion can be prepared to have a realistic chance of winning another title. Repeating the following year is hard enough; winning three or four years later is nearly as difficult.
"The whole system is built on tearing down the good teams and building up the weaker ones," said Charley Casserly, the Redskins general manager. "Everything you do as an organization is based on that."
Casserly and the 10-0 Redskins are enjoying the upswing of the pendulum now. Having won Super Bowl XXII after the 1987 season, the Redskins sank to 7-9 the following year but gradually have improved to the point where they are now favored to win Super Bowl XXVI.
And if they should give Joe Gibbs his third Super Bowl victory in the last 10 seasons, chances are the same forces that have pulled apart the Giants' title defense this year will do the same to Washington beginning in 1992.
"You can thank the term parity for that," said Theismann. "We're the only sport that penalizes the champion. The NFL says, 'We're not going to let you draft until 28th and last, and we're also going to give you the toughest schedule.' They don't do that in baseball, basketball or hockey. It's the same schedule year-in and year-out. But in football, you penalize the champions. I don't see why it has to be that way."
It has to be that way because of the NFL's formula for success, which is to create a competitive system where all teams are as evenly matched as possible, which in turn usually leads to close games, close divisional races and booming television ratings.
While it is a formula that has placed the NFL at the popularity forefront of pro sports, it is one that has damned the fate of all but one title defender since the Pittsburgh Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls after the 1978-79 seasons. Eleven seasons later, the San Francisco 49ers are the only team to have repeated.
"The key to the 49ers is that we remained near the top all the time and every third year or so we'd hit the jackpot," said former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who retired in 1989 after winning his third Super Bowl championship. "The league is so competitive because of the way it's constituted, so nobody has any great advantage."
But even the 49ers experienced the pitfalls associated with winning championships. For instance, after winning Super Bowl XIX following the 1984 season, the 49ers didn't win a playoff game until 1988, the season they won Super Bowl XXIII.
And other Super Bowl champions have gone through similar cycles:
* The Los Angeles Raiders, who won Super Bowl XVIII after the 1983 season, didn't win their next playoff game until last year.
* The Giants became the first team to win a Super Bowl one year (1986) and finish last in their division the following season. They didn't win their next playoff game until last year.
* And the Chicago Bears, who were thought to have one of the NFL's all-time great teams in 1985, have only two playoff victories since their Super Bowl XX title.