Super secret ingredient? Don't underestimate luck

February 01, 2000|By John Eisenberg

For many football fans around the country, the Super Bowl is a good excuse to eat guacamole in the winter. But for the 29 NFL teams not playing in the game, it's study time.

How did the Super teams get there? What are the lessons in their success? What key qualities do they have that wannabes such as the Ravens should copy?

In most years, it's an offensive scheme, a defensive concept -- some chalkboard gobbledygook. But with the Rams and Titans, separated by a yard in Sunday night's thriller, the lesson is more elemental: Their presence in the big game illustrated, above all, the importance of being lucky.

As important as talent and coaching are, it sure helps to have a big-mother bolt of blessed good fortune zap you in the head somewhere along the way.

Don't misunderstand. That doesn't mean the Rams and Titans were lucky to get to the Super Bowl. They're fine teams and deserving conference champions, and they exhibited many winning qualities in reaching the game and playing it. There certainly was nothing lucky about the Titans' fourth-quarter comeback or the clutch pass that gave the Rams the victory.

But both teams benefited from a colossal stroke of good luck on their way to Atlanta.

The Titans experienced the "Music City Miracle" -- the last-minute, lateral-and-run kickoff return that turned a loss into a win over the Bills in the first round of the playoffs.

Having a goofy gadget play save them at that point amounted to a football version of winning the lottery. A million things had to come together at just the right time, including the Bills' bumbling cooperation. It wouldn't happen often, if ever again.

True, the Titans had practiced the play the day before, so its success was at least partially due to preparation, the antithesis of luck. They also pulled it off brilliantly, debatable lateral notwithstanding. That's skill.

But having it work that well at that moment was about as lucky as good luck gets.

It happens to some team every year on the way to the Super Bowl -- maybe not that obviously or dramatically, but in some way.

The Titans went on to use other qualities in reaching Atlanta, qualities on which the Ravens and others can go to school. Mental toughness, for instance. The Titans aren't as talented as some other Super Bowl teams, but years of wandering from Houston to Memphis to Nashville have left them with a hard mental shell. They play well on the road. They come from behind. They don't rely on easy excuses.

It's a disciplined, mature mentality that can offset shortcomings, and it's the reason the Ravens are still looking up to the Titans even though they pounded Tennessee in December at PSINet Stadium. The Titans can bounce back from such a debacle.

The Rams' stroke of good luck? It's one of the biggest in NFL history -- an Arena Football League refugee's emergence as the most productive quarterback in the league.

The Rams can say all they want about having faith in Kurt Warner after giving him the starting job in the wake of Trent Green's knee injury, but the reality is they left him exposed in the expansion draft last winter and didn't even think he was a great backup.

With all due respect to Warner, who makes quick decisions, throws an accurate pass and plays with his chin out, losing a starting quarterback and having an untested backup turn into the league MVP is an amazing piece of good fortune.

Yes, the Rams surrounded him with speedy playmakers; they were smart, not lucky, to trade for Marshall Faulk and draft Torry Holt, leaving whoever played quarterback with an array of game-winning options. Perhaps Green would have fared just as well.

It's a lesson the Ravens can take from the Rams -- to go all the way, a team needs a stack of playmakers, not just one or two. The Ravens have a long way to go.

But what any team needs in the end -- what almost every Super qualifier experiences at some point -- is a whopping piece of good luck.

A single play that turns a season around.

A player who comes out of nowhere to dominate.


No, dynasties don't need as much luck, if any. Joe Montana's 49ers were just better than everyone else, as were Vince Lombardi's Packers. That's not luck, that's greatness.

But dynasties are going to be shorter now, if not extinct altogether, thanks to free agency, the salary cap and unbalanced scheduling -- a powerful combination of elements working for parity.

With things more up for grabs than ever, seasons are going to turn on who gets the breaks, who benefits from the random fall of cards that constitutes a season.

You can't practice it, you can't count on it, you can't do anything except sit back and hope you experience it one day. Luck. A dizzy development that puts you over the top.

It can't win a Super Bowl for you, not in and of itself. Too many factors are involved in that.

But, goodness, it sure can help.

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