From Cardinals to Giants, it’s the era of the accidental champ

Eli Manning celebrates the greatest month a 9-7 team ever had. (AP photo)

Eli celebrates the greatest month a 9-7 team ever had. (AP photo)

Every season ends with music blaring, confetti falling, a trophy awarded. It’s “One Shining Moment,” a pinnacle attained, a champion crowned. But more and more, we’re seeing trophies taken by teams that aren’t quite the epitome of excellence. We’ve entered the era of the accidental champ.

We consider the most recent winners in the six major American sports:

Connecticut, the 2010-11 NCAA basketball titlist: The Huskies finished in the bottom half of the Big East, which numbers 16 teams. They were 9-9 in regular-season conference play and entered the Big East tournament as the ninth seed. They won five games in that event, six in the NCAA tournament. They won more than half as many games (11) in the two postseason events as in the regular season (21).

Boston Bruins, the 2010-11 NHL titlist: They finished the regular season with 103 points, seventh-most in the league. They had the fewest points of any of the six division winners.

Dallas Mavericks, the 2010-11 NBA titlist: They finished second in the Southwest Division, four games behind San Antonio.

St. Louis Cardinals, the 2011 World Series titlist: They won 90 games, tying them for the eighth-best record in the majors. They were 67-63 on Aug. 24, the day they trailed the Braves by 8 1/2 games. They trailed by three games with five to play. They clinched the wild card when the Braves lost their 162nd game in 13 innings. In Game 6 of the World Series against Texas, the Cardinals twice were one strike from elimination.

Alabama Crimson Tide, 2011 BCS titlist: They didn’t win their division or their conference.

New York Giants, 2011 NFL titlist: They entered the playoffs with the worst record of the six NFC qualifiers. They won almost half as many games in postseason (four) as in the regular season (nine). They became the first Super Bowl champion to have been outscored during the regular season.

OK, I know what you’re saying. Isn’t this why we watch sports? For improbable championship runs? For these “Hoosiers” moments?

My response: Yes, but …

Let’s stipulate that being the No. 3 seed, as the Bruins and Mavericks were, doesn’t exactly constitute up-from-oblivion stuff. Let’s also stipulate that Alabama was held, rightly or wrongly, to be one of the nation’s two best teams all season in the one sport where opinion matters. Not all of these tales were created equal. But we can also argue that UConn, the Cardinals and the Giants were far better in the season’s final act than they’d been at any other time. (To be fair, the Huskies did have a nice November.)

And now you’re saying: Isn’t that also the nature of sports? Seizing the day? Grabbing that one shining moment? Running the “Hoosiers”-style Picket Fence with the Big Game on the line?

My response: Yes, but …

Underdog stories are great, but such a run of underdog champions underscores the notion that the only time to care about a sport is once the playoffs commence. (Another stipulation: Alabama was not an underdog in any game, not even in its rematch against LSU.) We’ve known for a while that the NHL and NBA regular seasons don’t count for much, and the advent of the wild card has rendered postseason baseball, to invoke the term all baseball men use, a crap shoot.

But what, in the grand scheme, did it avail the Phillies to win 102 games and the Packers to go 15-1? Given that the Phillies wound up losing to St. Louis in the Division Series, wouldn’t they have been better served tanking the final two games against the Braves?

And now you’re saying: The beauty of sports is that nothing is guaranteed — the best team on paper doesn’t always win. And I’ll agree with that almost without reservation. The reservation: We watch sports not just for entertainment but to get, at least on occasion, a glimpse of real excellence.

The 2011 Giants were not a great team: They lost at home to Seattle and Washington and were 7-7 with two regular-season games remaining. The 2011 Cardinals were not a great team: They got hot at the last possible moment and got lucky because the Braves went bad at that same moment. Of NCAA champs, only Kansas (which upset Oklahoma in 1988), North Carolina State (which upset Houston in 1983) and Villanova (which upset Georgetown in 1985) had more losses than UConn’s nine. Of BCS titlists, every one had at least won its conference — until Alabama.

What I’m saying: As nice as the upstart stories can be, it would be nice if there wasn’t another coming along every 15 minutes. Championships needn’t follow the same schedule as MARTA trains. It would be nice to see sustained excellence, as opposed to the situational kind, rewarded.

Back to “Hoosiers.” The team on which that movie was based, the 1953-54 Milan High School Indians, finished 28-2. We recall its epic upset of Muncie Central in the state finals on Bobby Plump’s last shot, but what’s conveniently overlooked is that, on that same court one week earlier, Milan had played Indianapolis Crispus Attucks, which was led by Oscar Robertson, the sport’s greatest all-around player until Michael Jordan came along. Milan won 65-52.

The point being: Even within the Milan Miracle, there was more than one shot or one game or even one month involved. There was, believe it or not, a full body of work.

By Mark Bradley

190 comments Add your comment

Najeh Davenpoop

February 10th, 2012
11:09 am

Accidental champs are good. That means ATL sports teams have hope.

Ed

February 10th, 2012
11:12 am

And the point is……?

CaliDirtyBird

February 10th, 2012
11:15 am

robodawg

February 10th, 2012
11:16 am

Don’t forget Auburn in 2010. For the first half of the season they looked about as good as Georgia and just kept scraping by against mediocre competition. Then a couple of one-and-done type stars took over. A championship season that came out of nowhere.

Blog Goliard

February 10th, 2012
11:16 am

This is why, in most professional soccer competitions, there are two different trophies at stake.

There is league play, where every team in the league plays every other team in the league a set number of times, and the championship goes to the team with the best record all season long. Full-stop.

Then there is cup (tournament-style knockout) play, where the trophy goes to the team that got hot and/or lucky enough at the right time to win the elimination tournament.

These are two different kettles of fish, testing and rewarding two different things. North American sports, however, have combined them awkwardly for time immemorial, leading to phenomena like those you mention.

JoeFan

February 10th, 2012
11:17 am

I am not in favor of having non divisional winners in the playoffs. It just dilutes the value of the regular season. If you want more teams in the playoffs just make smaller divisions with the winners advancing and being seeded according to record.

Don

February 10th, 2012
11:18 am

But isn’t it strange how the great accidents seem to always happen to the baseball teams who have great managers and a great coaching staff??????
Just accidental, according to some?????

George Stein

February 10th, 2012
11:21 am

I think it’s different for each sport. In baseball, all you have to do is get in and a team can get lucky for 2 1/2 weeks. Pro football is different, though, because the talent (outside of QB) is relatively evenly spread throughout the league, which means that a 7-7 team that played the NFL’s most difficult schedule is probably better than, say, a 10-6 wildcard team from the NFC South. Alabama was the best team last year, but this is where it’s important to keep in mind that the best teams don’t always win.

SSIgator

February 10th, 2012
11:22 am

Mark -

“They finishing second in the Southwest Division, four games behind San Antonio.”

Proof for content and context, not just spell-check. Or I guess since it is an incomplete sentence, it could read that way.

CaliDirtyBird

February 10th, 2012
11:24 am

The baseball wildcard round of only five games IS CR@P! Even basketball realized that a five game series isn’t good for the sport! Why baseball persists in keeping it I don’t understand! You build a regular season pitching roster to have 3-4 aces but in a five game series you might be better off with 2 SUPER STAR pitches.
As far as football, they could start by not rewarding 9-7 division winners with an automatic home game. Winning the division should be worth a half game or at best a game in the standing for determining who goes on the road.

bigcrimson75

February 10th, 2012
11:28 am

All you gotta do is get in the Tournament & anything can happen !!!
Unless, of course you live in this great city of ours!!!!

Jtb

February 10th, 2012
11:31 am

So you’re saying that when GSU wins the NCAA tourney that they’re not the most talented team in men’s college hoops?

bigcrimson75

February 10th, 2012
11:31 am

The Football Giants were no accident this year.
That team is loaded. Beating the Falcons was one thing, butt going on the road to beat GB & SF was impressive. Then to top it off against the Pats.
Winning is no accident.

Sonny Clusters

February 10th, 2012
11:32 am

That was no accident. The Cardinals closed the gap. The Braves surrendered the lead. No accident. EPIC Collapse. EPIC. How Lowe did they go?

CaliDirtyBird

February 10th, 2012
11:35 am

I totally disagree with the other comment about only having division winners making playoffs. Relative to the whole league divisions can have up or down years. So, you’d rather have a crappy division winner than a close second in a much better division? The only reason sports have divisions is to create natural rivalry that feed fan intensity. The only reason to support them in the NFL is that at least the rotate the schedules every year.

Give NFL division champs a half game for winning the division and if that isnt enough to make the playoffs or get home field then too bad!!!!!

Sonny Clusters

February 10th, 2012
11:36 am

“anything can happen . . . ” But one thing always happens with the Braves. Elimination. Now, in 2010 they “won” a wild card and put up a little sign in the outfield. As per usual, they were quickly dispatched from the playoffs. What is the constant? Could it be uh, Chipper? In the have to win last game 0-5 with 3 Ks. This is the team leader? (Clusters like controversy)

woodie

February 10th, 2012
11:38 am

With the exception of this dreadful sports town.

woodie

February 10th, 2012
11:40 am

We have bad owners, management, coaches and players. It’s the ATL sports way.

PMC

February 10th, 2012
11:40 am

So basically, we’re not going to see Syracuse vs Kentucky in the NCAA tournament and the regular season will be a complete waste…again.

Shug

February 10th, 2012
11:40 am

I assume this article was written by a guy who’s pining for a college football playoff. A playoff that would further dilute the sport and make it more likely that an unworthy champion is crowned.

Dean

February 10th, 2012
11:41 am

It seems to be incredibly ridiculous in baseball to have a 162 game schedule and then allow wild cards into the postseason. I know it makes it more exciting but geez, shorten the regular season if it’s all going to come down to a crap-shoot at the end!

Jeff B

February 10th, 2012
11:41 am

One bone to pick with your analysis, Mark: You hold up Green Bay and their 15-1 regular season record as an example of excellence that should be rewarded. However, last season they were playing the part of the Giants, a wildcard team that got hot at the end of the year and won it all. Who’s to say the Giants don’t go 15-1 next year? They suffered a horrendous amount of injuries on defense in the regular season, and only got healthy at the very end.

Another point that this really underscores is that the difference between winning and losing, especially in the NFL, is less than it’s ever been. The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is very small indeed, at least relative to historical norms. This makes the competetion that much tighter, and the drama that much more intense. I think it is a good thing for the sport. What fun would it be if the pre-season favorite for the Superbowl won it almost every year, and few if any teams could compete with them?

PMC

February 10th, 2012
11:41 am

It’s never a total loss when you can get a butterfinger blizzard afterwards Sonny.

Dean

February 10th, 2012
11:42 am

Taxi Smith

February 10th, 2012
11:44 am

All real Americans love a loser….. Wait a minute, is that right?

Mark Bradley

February 10th, 2012
11:46 am

No. Clusters just hates Chipper.

Funny Bunny

February 10th, 2012
11:47 am

If you go by the established rules what is accidental about it ?

PMC

February 10th, 2012
11:47 am

At least the pro’s give us logical progressions. Regular season awards just don’t mean anything to people. No one really cares about division championships.

College “money” sports are so poorly run they ruin the ending to football and they crown a champion in basketball from who can win 5 games in a row out of the top HALF (relatively speaking again politics) of college teams.

It’s probably only college baseball and other non revenue sports where they actually do things with any semblance of logic.

Mark Bradley

February 10th, 2012
11:47 am

“Accidental” might not be the absolute correct word. But I liked the sound of it.

Tallcarl

February 10th, 2012
11:49 am

I think this what the different league offices are seeking; to have great competition from all teams. I love it and that is why I will watch any SEC team play another SEC team any day. Anything can and sometimes does happen.

Bluestreak

February 10th, 2012
11:49 am

What is an ‘accidental champ’? I’ve never seen a team ‘accidentally’ win anything. They are the team that takes advantage of what they have to face and overcomes it. St Louis got hot when they needed to last year in baseball, just like NY and GB for the last two Super Bowls.

Even ‘Cinderella’ teams during March Madness are not accidental. They play the teams they face and win.

Cobb Dawg

February 10th, 2012
11:50 am

The central question, then, seems to be, why have playoffs at all? Why not just crown the champ based on the regular season results (using, of course, very complex tiebreakers). The answer, as always, is money, and maybe the desire to see what happens when the two biggest kids on the block meet. I think you look to the regular season for sustained excellence, and to the playoffs for the Hoosiers element.

maharajiean shorts

February 10th, 2012
11:53 am

Let’s just have the playoffs in the beginning of the season then, OK, problem solved.

ChopAttack

February 10th, 2012
11:53 am

The English Premier League rewards the best team all season as the Champion. They also have a season long knockout tournament that rewards another champion. The season long champion is higher prestige.

ChopAttack

February 10th, 2012
11:53 am

I should also note, there aren’t any surprise champions. Over the last 10 years only 3 teams have won the Championship.

al adams

February 10th, 2012
11:54 am

Mark: are they accidental because sportswriters don’t get to tell us who the champs really are? The Cardinals were not the best team but they won it on the field. GO CARDS!!!!

George Stein

February 10th, 2012
11:55 am

You must have missed last year’s Magnolia Bowl, Tallcarl.

Hillbilly D

February 10th, 2012
11:55 am

In a short series, or one game, it’s about who has the hot hand. This result is what comes of having too many teams in the postseason to begin with. When you have 1/4 to 1/3 of the teams making it to the playoffs, these are the kind of results you get. Why do they do this? It’s all about money. They don’t care if the “best” teams win, as a matter of fact, they prefer when they don’t because it’s good for the box-office. The integrity of the games mean nothing to them; it’s all about $$$$.

Take me back to the days when you had to win your league to make it to the World Series. The best team still might not win but the two best teams were playing.

Lee

February 10th, 2012
11:58 am

what a rediculous column. most, with Alabama being the exception, went thru some kind of multi game playoff in order to claim their title. sometimes i think the only accident is that you havent been replaced–yet.

Mark Bradley

February 10th, 2012
11:58 am

There’s a saying in England regarding the Premiership: “The league never lies.” Meaning: The best team over 38 games always wins.

Sad Sack

February 10th, 2012
12:02 pm

It keeps full employment in place for sports columnists.

ChopAttack

February 10th, 2012
12:02 pm

Mark… that’s true. The best team always wins. Isn’t that supposed to be the point? It’s not very good for drama though. Very rarely does it come down to the last week of the season.

atltodolavida

February 10th, 2012
12:06 pm

Blog Goliard makes a good point. European soccer leagues seem to have it right, giving a trophy to the season champ and then a separate trophy for tournament play. In the English Premier League, I know the season Premier League championship is valued higher than the tournament cups (FA Cup and Carling Cup). This seems appropriates, since the Premier League champion has won the most over the course of an entire season. It also makes regular season games be more than about qualifying for a tournament.

MyPatootie

February 10th, 2012
12:06 pm

I think “incidental” would have been a better word than “accidental”. With the new format, and extra wildcard team I would like to see the season shortened to exactly 150 games. It’s just too long now and doesn’t accomplish a thing except put it into bad weather at the end. Anway, I WILL NOT be jumping on the Braves bandwagon this year until I think they have at least a 90% shot at winning it all. “Done there, been that” too many times already!

MyPatootie

February 10th, 2012
12:08 pm

Please! Let’s not even bring soccer and hockey into the equation. Those are nothing more than boring, sissy sports and are like watching paint dry. Real American sports are the only ones to consider.

The Voice of Reason

February 10th, 2012
12:08 pm

Mark…Having the wonderful opportunity to attend a Chelsea game every January for the last five years in the cozy confines of Stamford Bridge, I can relay another saying about the Premiership: “Bottoms Up, Lads!”

ChopAttack

February 10th, 2012
12:11 pm

“Those are nothing more than boring, sissy sports and are like watching paint dry.”

How does baseball not fit into that definition? If you don’t like soccer that’s fine, but the people who denigrate it are idiots.

Sonny Clusters

February 10th, 2012
12:16 pm

It’s not so much that we “hate” Chipper because we was taught not to hate. We just don’t feel all fuzzy about him like some of the fans and some of the sport journalists around town. We uh, call a turnip a turnip. If he is going to be the leader he needs to lead the team to something more than what we saw in September. We remember him saying he was just going to rest a game with that big lead in place because we was going to Philadelphia to take care of business (only team that could beat them as we remember). We was also thinking about him losing that ball in the lights against the Marlins and about all the balls he waved at all season that went to his left or to his right. Mark this Clusters’ word . . . Escobar and Alex covered more than just their positions. They also got to balls a 3B should get to but ours can’t. What will happen with Pastornicky out there? We was thinking earlier the Henry Grady Statue could play some third but now we understand he isn’t in the union and that idea is stone cold.

Ken Stallings

February 10th, 2012
12:23 pm

Really reaching, Mark!

Last I checked, you still have to win the games. Winning is no accident. It is the intent at the start of the game. An accident is when something unintended happens, unanticipated.

Every time two teams meet up, we expect to see a winner.

What you ignore is that the margin between the teams that emerge as champions and the teams heading to the playoffs with the most wins, is actually quite small. That is called parity. Last I checked, that was a good thing also as it is another word for competition.

Roll Tide Gus

February 10th, 2012
12:24 pm

Watch yer mouth Bradley. Nuthin accidental about the tide winning all the time. thats what we do since the days of the BAHR!