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Double Trouble


FOR THE 12TH CONSECUTIVE winter, the NFL will oversee a peaceful transfer of power. The last team to win back-to-back Super Bowls was the 2003 and '04 New England Patriots. The 12 consecutive years of new champions is an NFL record, but this is not just an NFL trend. Major League Baseball has not crowned back-to-back World Series champions in 17 years, which is also a record. The last team to win back to-back Stanley Cups was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98. Yup: That's a record too.

Some things are easy to do twice in a row, like eat a slice of pizza or eat a slice of pizza. Winning two straight pro sports championships is brutally difficult. It often leads pundits to declare that "there are no great teams anymore," as though sports peaked in the days of 200-pound linemen and point guards smoking cigarettes at halftime. One could argue just as persuasively that because we have so many different champions, there are too many great teams. One could also stop arguing entirely, but then that would be un-American.

There are many reasons why it's hard to repeat these days, and the first one, of course, is that it's supposed to be hard. Salary caps, free agency, and drafts are designed to make bad teams better and great teams worse. Parity is a business plan. If pro sports commissioners ran the Olympics, Michael Phelps would have started every race two seconds after everybody else.

The only league in which teams repeat on a regular basis is the NBA, and that's because superstars mean so much in that sport. Commissioner Adam Silver cannot take pieces of LeBron James and give them to other teams. As long as NBA champions keep their best players, they have a pretty strong chance to win again.

You want great teams? Check out recent editions of the Chicago Blackhawks, L.A. Kings, Seattle Seahawks and the Patriots. None repeated, partly because of another business plan: playoffs here, playoffs there, playoffs everywhere.

Logically, the best way to repeat is to have the best team two years in a row. But playoffs in pro sports are not really structured to reward the best team anymore. If they were, we would not have wild-card games or number 8 seeds. More postseason games bring in more revenue, but they also provide more chances for the best teams to lose. They also force the best teams to play a greater number of important games, which means a greater chance of injury for the best players.

Repeat champions are so rare that when predicting a champion, the first wise thing to do is eliminate the previous year's champ. I have already determined that the Cubs are again the best team in baseball but won't win the World Series, a prediction that feels bold but actually isn't.

The lack of repeat champions means that after pundits declare "there are no great teams anymore," they can clear their throats, come back from commercial and declare "there are no dynasties anymore." This is like arguing that it's not raining that hard or that the chicken marsala is not tasty; if you say it's true, it's true to you. There is no official definition for a sports "dynasty." The word means what you want it to mean.

Use whatever term you'd like, but what the Patriots have done in the past 16 years—four Super Bowl titles and 14 playoff appearances—may be the greatest achievement in pro football history: The NFL tries to take them down in winter (through free agency), spring (by putting lesser teams in better draft position) and, this year, in the fall (with Tom Brady's suspension). Yet the Patriots always fly high. We'd say they are immune to gravity, but then somebody might ask a scientist to file a report.

The Blackhawks have not repeated, but they won three Stanley Cups in six years, so let's forgive them the two intermissions. Do the same for the San Francisco Giants and their even-year magic.

Someday, perhaps soon, we will again have a repeat champion in baseball, football or hockey. And when it happens, you can tell your friends: There are great teams in sports. There always were, and always will be.

I have already determined that the Cubs will not win the 2017 World Series, a prediction that seems bold but actually isn't.

Why are there so few repeat champs?

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