It seems like something that would happen quite often. If a team is good enough to reach the final frontier one year, shouldn’t it be good enough to do it again the next year? You would think so, but the truth is it’s quite a rarity, especially outside of the NBA.
The Kansas City Royals channeled the pain of losing Game 7 at home to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in 2014 into the franchise’s first World Series title in 30 years a season later. The Royals came out of the gates hot and never looked back, but it still didn’t come easy. The Royals needed an epic eighth-inning rally against the upstart Houston Astros just to survive the American League Division Series. But when the dust and champagne had settled, the Royals became the first team in 26 years to lose the World Series one year and turn around and win it the next.
As the NHL and NBA playoffs wind down, we may see the same story unfold in both sports. The Tampa Bay Lightning, heavy underdogs against the Pittsburgh Penguins despite the fact that they won the Eastern Conference in 2015 and actually led the Chicago Blackhawks two games to one in the Finals, are one win away from returning to the big stage. The Cleveland Cavaliers are just two victories from returning for another crack at the crown after similarly squandering a 2-1 lead in the Finals last year against the Golden State Warriors.
Combine the fact that the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 two years removed from an absolute embarrassment two years prior in Super Bowl XLVIII, and all four sports have seen teams take the term “unfinished business” quite literally.
So just how rare is it for this to happen? In the last 50 seasons in all four sports, it’s occurred only 24 times in total. The breakdown is rather stunning; the NBA has been responsible for 11 of those 24 instances, while the NFL has only had it happen twice in the Super Bowl era. The NHL has only seen it four times, while MLB has had seven such instances in that span. The frequency of it in the NBA is not all that surprising considering the extremely top-heavy nature of the sport, but the NFL’s scarcity is rather stunning. The only times it’s ever happened were in back-to-back years over four decades ago — the 1971 Dallas Cowboys and the famed, undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.
In some ways, it’s very good for a sport to have this happen. So often a fanbase is crushed by a defeat in a championship game or series, and that seems to have a carryover effect to the franchise itself. There have been teams to come painstakingly close, perhaps most notably the 2011 Texas Rangers. After being bounced in five games in the 2010 Fall Classic by the San Francisco Giants, the Rangers came within one strike in two separate at-bats of sealing the deal in Game 6 against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. But David Freese and Lance Berkman intervened, and the Rangers are still searching for their first championship. And who can forget the Buffalo Bills? The Bills reached the Super Bowl four straight years, losing every time. After narrowly falling to the New York Giants in 1990 on Scott Norwood’s missed field goal, Buffalo was whitewashed in its three ensuing trips to the big game.
What the Lightning and Cavaliers — and perhaps in a few months’ time, even the New York Mets and Carolina Panthers — are aiming to do is erase the memories of painful defeats in just one calendar year. Remember that for every championship winner, there is a soul-crushed loser on the other end wondering if it will ever have another chance at glory. The Broncos were humiliated so badly in front of the whole world in 2013, and people wondered if they could ever recover from that. After a one-and-done playoff exit in 2014, team president John Elway retooled the defense into an elite unit, and it was the Broncos that got to do the embarrassing to the Panthers this time around. Had Denver lost Super Bowl 50, the franchise would have dropped to a paltry 2-6 in eight Super Bowl trips.
Whether we see it happen this year in the NHL and NBA remains to be seen. But certainly give credit to the Lightning and Cavs — especially the Lightning, underdogs in a much more competitively balanced playoff field — for refusing to be satisfied with just getting to the finals.