Does history mean anything for Steelers, Eagles?
How much do the recent struggles of the Steelers and Eagles in conference title games mean?
"If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them." -- George Santayana
OK, class, NFL Playoff History 101 is now in session:
Dan Berman is no Chris Berman -- he's not even a football fan. He is an engaging and earnest assistant professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Penn State University. And, because he is more of a baseball fan, he is an appropriately unbiased authority regarding the question currently haunting NFL fans in the Keystone State.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers collectively have lost seven of their last eight conference championship games. Five of the last seven games were played at home. Do those dubious "mistakes of history" matter? Will they play a role in the games they host on Sunday against, respectively, the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots?
Berman paused earlier this week and presented a historic example. Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian who lived in the fifth century B.C., wrote a detailed analysis of the Peloponnesian War, between the Athenians and Spartans. In their imperial arrogance, the Athenians launched a massive naval attack on the Sicilian city of Syracuse. They lost most of their fleet and, ultimately, the war to Sparta.
"By comparing it to an earlier war, in which the Persians unsuccessfully attacked the Greeks, Thucydides attempted to point that the result could have been predicted," Berman said. "History tends to repeat itself -- we have that phrase for a reason. Thucydides tried to paint that lesson vividly."
Sure, but what does that mean for those Eagles -- whose quarterback, Donovan McNabb, perhaps fortuitously, also comes from a place known as Syracuse -- and the Steelers?
"Anyone who has studied history will tell you that, in general, things tend to repeat themselves," Berman said. "I don't know much about the Falcons, but the Eagles are a good team. Personally, I have a feeling the Patriots will win because of their experience.
"To tell you the truth, it probably has less to do with history than who has the faster receivers -- or something along those lines."
Or something. Philadelphia, of course, fairly reeks with history. The Liberty Bell hangs in that fair city and the Declaration of Independence was signed there in 1776. And, as the anguished locals know so well, their Eagles have lost three consecutive NFC championship games -- in order, to the St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers; the last two at home. This fact, based on the swirling media coverage, would seem to have more bearing on the Eagles-Falcons game than Philadelphia's stout record of 14-3.
On Monday, Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid not only acknowledged history, but like Santayana, he seemed determined to learn from it.
"The losses, you reach a little bit deeper and see what you did wrong," Reid told the local media. "I need to do a better job at some things. I'll take responsibility for those last couple of championship games. I didn't do a good enough job and I have to do better there."
Are there lessons to be learned from those losses?
"I'm sure there are," Reid said, already weary of this line of questioning. "In this business I think you probably learn lessons every day, but I can't name any right off the top of my head."
Historical Fact: Did you know? In 1943, with World War II thinning rosters, the Eagles and Steelers pooled their resources and played as the Steagles. Together, they went 5-4-1.
|State of folly|
Over the last 20 years the NFL's two Pennsylvania teams are a collective 1-7 in conference title games:
2003 NFC: Carolina Panthers 14, Eagles 3
2002 NFC: T.B. Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10
2001 NFC: St. Louis Rams 29, Eagles 24
2001 AFC: N.E. Patriots 24, Steelers 17
1997 AFC: Broncos 24, Steelers 21
1995 AFC: Steelers 20, Indianapolis Colts 16
1994 AFC: San Diego Chargers 17, Steelers 13
1984 AFC: Miami Dolphins 45, Steelers 28
Ruck, a serious student of history and sport, isn't so sure about the effect history will play in Sunday's games.
"Given the turnover in football, the team that lost a game two years ago, three years ago -- it's not the same team," Ruck said. "I tend to think it might affect the fans more than the players.
"I doubt if these guys think much about things that occurred to the team before they joined it. In the course of the game, these guys are so locked in they're not thinking about last year -- they're thinking about the next play. How many guys played in all of those games?"
The answer, sports fans, is 14, or just over 26 percent of the Eagles' roster. It is worth noting that running back Brian Westbrook -- who touched the ball 17 times against the Minnesota Vikings and gained 117 yards and one touchdown -- did not play in last year's championship loss. He watched the game in street clothes, taken out by a left torn tricep muscle.
"We're confident and loose," Westbrook said after the Vikings game. "There's no reason not to be."
Translation: History doesn't mean anything.
Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who did play in the first championship game, a painful 29-24 loss to the Rams, spent the last two seasons in a Washington Redskins uniform. He was the Eagles' best defender again Minnesota, producing seven tackles, two passes defenses, an interception and a shared sack with Nate Wayne.
"I just believe," Trotter said, "this is our year. God brought me back ... to finish what He started."
Translation: History doesn't mean anything.
"We're at home, with a whole lot on the line," said Kearse, who had two half sacks of Daunte Culpepper. "I'm looking forward to next week."
Translation: Need you ask?
Maybe they're right. Back in 1947, the Eagles lost the NFL Championship Game, 28-21, to the Chicago Cardinals. And then they came back to beat the Cardinals for the title in 1948 and again in 1949 with a 14-0 victory over Los Angeles. In fact, before the current 0-for-3 streak, the Eagles had won four NFC/NFL Championship games in a row.
There is another piece of history that Reid admitted he could do without. Since the coaching staff of the losing team in the conference championships gets the Pro Bowl assignment, Reid and his assistants have been to Honolulu for three straight years -- all expenses (well, most) paid by the NFL.
"I never thought I'd say I was tired of going to Hawaii," Reid said, smiling, "but I am a little bit."
So, will the fourth time be the charm?
The Eagles seem to believe it. Philadelphia saw destiny in the form of that bouncing ball from the hands of L.J. Smith (after a wicked hit by Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield) directly into the hands of receiver Freddie Mitchell for a shades-of-the-Immaculate-Reception touchdown. It was a pivotal play in the 27-14 win over Minnesota.
"We all know the ball in previous years might have bounced somewhere else," said McNabb, voicing a thought that requires no translation.
"History informs us of past mistakes from which we can learn without repeating them. It also inspires us and gives confidence and hope bred of victories already won."
-- William Hastie, longtime U.S. District Court judge
In the case of the Patriots and Steelers, there are two levels of history at work: 1) Ancient history, as in the 2001 AFC championship, when the Patriots beat the Steelers, 24-17, and 2) The recent history of their Halloween game, when Pittsburgh flogged New England, 34-20.
Both teams have already made a considerable effort to deny that either result means anything.
"The quarterbacks are different, the running backs are different. There are so many elements [that] are different," said Patriots head coaching Bill Belichick on Monday, distancing himself from a history worth embracing. "A totally different situation.
"What, don't you think we'll be the underdog this time? Did somebody burn the film (of the Oct. 31 game). (That) matchup is a thousand times more relevant."
But is it really? The Patriots are nevertheless favored to win by about a field goal. The Steelers snapped the Patriots' NFL-record 21-game winning streak that autumn day and now Pittsburgh comes in with a 15-game winning streak under rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger; the only longer streak within a single NFL season was 17 by the 1972 Dolphins. The Steelers haven't lost in over four months -- and they're underdogs? Clearly, history must mean something.
The Patriots were, it should be pointed out, without Corey Dillon that game. There is a widespread suspicion that with Dillon in the lineup -- he had 23 carries for 144 yards against the Colts -- New England will do better than the paltry five-carry, six-yard effort they had last time at Heinz Field.
"You don't really look back at this point," said Steelers placekicker Jeff Reed, who kicked the winning field goal in overtime against the Jets last week. "It's a rematch, but it really isn't. It's a new season. They are the champions and they are defending it until they lose, until someone knocks them off."
"History is a vast early warning system."
-- Norman Cousins
One of the ways Belichick prodded the Patriots to win two NFL titles in the last three seasons was by convincing his players that those championships never happened -- or at least that they had no bearing on the present. The Patriots are notoriously short-sighted, which is one reason they always come to play ... one game at a time. Under Belichick, New England is 55-16 (.775) over the last four seasons; the mark is 32-4 (.889) the last two years.
The way the Steelers are talking this week, you'd think they've been watching bootleg videos of Belichick's the-present-is-all-that-matters speeches. What did Pittsburgh take from that 2001 title game loss?
"I think we learned to take it one game at a time," said guard Alan Faneca, one of 18 Steelers remaining from that 2001 title game roster. "We had a good year that year (13-3), and it didn't mean anything, and 15-1 this year doesn't mean anything. It's one game to move on to the next game, and I think that's what we've learned, to stay focused."
There is a deeper history, of course, bubbling below the surface. The 1974-79 Steelers won four Super Bowls in six seasons. The 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys were the only team to come close to that achievement, winning three of four. The Patriots are two games from equaling that feat and it would put them in position to threaten those Steelers of old.
Dr. Ruck, of the University of Pittsburgh, is laughing. He has just come from a lecture on the expansion of the American economy in the late 19th Century and next up is a discussion of the structure of economics in sports.
"The Steelers had a wonderful run [in the 1970s]," Dr. Ruck said, his voice quickening. "But it doesn't have anything to do with today's Steelers. History, in this sense, is overrated. You guys have to have copy, everybody needs to say something, I need to go to class and give a lecture."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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