The Los Angeles Rams won Super Bowl LVI and enter the 2022 NFL season as the defending champs. After winning one Super Bow, the question now becomes, can the Rams repeat and win two. The last repeat champion were the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004. In fact, there have been only eight repeat champions in NFL history.
Since 1990, only the Cowboys (1993-94), Broncos (1997-98), and Patriots (2003-04) are the only teams to repeat. Of those, only the Broncos and Patriots repeated under a salary cap. However, salary cap or not, repeating is difficult. Since the Patriots in 2004, three teams have returned to the big game – all three of those teams have lost.
Winning once is difficult. It requires the team to be good and to have an incredible amount of luck. Things have to go right to win once, let alone twice. The New England Patriots dynasty might be the best dynasty in NFL history and of their six Super Bowls, they only repeated in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. The 2010s were the first decade in NFL history without a repeat Super Bowl champion.
Since 2000, across the four major sports, there have only been eight repeat champions. There have been two in the NHL with the latest being the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020-21. The NBA has had five with the last being the Golden State Warriors in 2017-18. The MLB meanwhile hasn’t had a single repeat champion in that time period.
Last season, the Buccaneers were a perfect candidate to repeat as they brought everyone back. Even still, they came up short. Is repeating as champions even possible in the current NFL landscape? Looking at past repeat champions, we’ll try to find some common themes.
Hall of Fame Quarterback
This could be a chicken and the egg argument. Were these Hall of Fame talent quarterbacks or were they Hall of Fame quarterbacks because they were successful? Still, of the teams that repeated, each team was led by a quarterback who eventually made the Hall of Fame.
Bart Starr won league MVP in 1966 as the Packers won the first Super Bowl and while he had a down year in 1967, he had a stellar postseason. The Dolphins were led by Griese and both times the Steelers repeated, Terry Bradshaw led the way. Bradshaw was the MVP in 1978. Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, and John Elway led the next three repeats. While Tom Brady isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet, it’s almost a given that he will be.
There were more elements to the game before 2010. Prior to then, the NFL wasn’t necessarily a quarterback-driven league like it is now. The Steelers are more known for their defense than they are for Bradshaw, Larry Csonka and Emmit Smith were the driving forces behind the Dolphins and Cowboys. However, it’s clear that the quarterback position was still very important in these teams repeating.
In 1992, Troy Aikman was still the number two quarterback via DVOA and was number one in 1993. Elway ranked seventh in DVOA in 1997 and ranked third via the metric in 1998. Tom Brady might be the outlier here where he ranked 11th in DVOA in 2003, but jumped all the way to number four when the Patriots won in 2004. EPA only goes back to 1999, but Brady ranked 13th in EPA/play in 2003 before taking a leap in 2004 where he finished sixth.
Even if you go before the advanced metrics, this still reigns true. Joe Montana ranked sixth in passer rating in 1988 and led the NFL in 1989. Bradshaw ranked 25th in passer rating in 1974, but put together three top-10 seasons and two top-5 seasons, including ranking second in passer rating in 1978. Lastly, Starr led the NFL in passer rating in 1966 and still put together the ninth best season in 1967.
The question becomes whether or not you think Matthew Stafford is on that level for the Los Angeles Rams. Is Matthew Stafford a Hall of Fame player if he retired tomorrow? Probably not. However, based on what we saw last season, he can certainly play at that level. There’s a reason the NFL media had the discussion after the season. Stafford finished ninth in DVOA last season and fifth in EPA. If the Rams get a version of 2021 Stafford, if not better – there’s little doubt that they’ll be in contention. However, it’s crucial that he remains on that level.
Something that’s worth noting here as well. Since at least 1983 when OverTheCap has the numbers, Troy Aikman, John Elway, and Tom Brady weren’t the highest paid players at their position. Dan Marino and Steve Young were making almost $2M more than Aikman in 1992 and 1993. Aikman and Marino were making $4M and $5M more than Elway in 1997-98. Tom Brady is infamous for taking less. Matthew Stafford’s cap hit this season is $23M less than Patrick Mahomes.
Hall of Fame or Elite Head Coach
It all comes down to the head coach and a quarterback. A great head coach has the ability to make their team 30% better while a bad head coach can make their team 30% worse. The Packers won their first two Super Bowl with Vince Lombardi as the head coach. The trophy is now named after him.
The Dolphins went from 3-10 in 1969 to 10-4 under their first season with Don Shula who is now the winningest head coach in NFL history. Shula had two losing seasons during his 26 years in Miami. That team won back-to-back Super Bowls in his third and fourth seasons.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had never been to the playoffs in the Super Bowl era. Within four seasons, Chuck Noll took the Steelers from 2-11-1 to 11-3. That started a reign of eight straight playoff appearances and four Super Bowl championships. Bill Walsh took the 49ers to the playoffs after eight straight seasons without a playoff appearance. Walsh wasn’t the coach when the 49ers won back-to-back in 1989, but he helped build the foundation.
Belichick will be a Hall of Fame head coach and Mike Shanahan has not yet made it to Canton. Still, Shanahan was an elite coach with the Broncos who elevated the franchise from eight wins in 1995 to three straight 12+ win seasons and two Super Bowls.
Similar to coaches of other repeats, Sean McVay helped turnaround a Los Angeles Rams franchise that wasn’t used to winning and elevated it. The Rams went from 4-12 to 11-5 in McVay’s first season and now have two Super Bowl appearances. McVay might not yet be a Hall of Fame head coach, but he is likely on the correct path. Last season McVay hit 55 wins which passes the 54 wins that the previous four head coaches had combined.
It’s hard to argue that the Rams don’t have an elite caliber head coach. Paired with the elite level quarterback, the Rams are in great shape. Still, however, it might not be enough to repeat. Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning are both in the Hall of Fame – they only won a single Super Bowl together. The same can be said for Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, Bud Grant and Fran Tarkenton, and Marv Levy and Jim Kelly.
The perfect pairing at coach and quarterback at the very least puts you on the path. It eliminates some, but not all elements of luck.
First Championship Can’t Be a Fluke
Winning one Super Bowl is difficult, but it’s very possible to “get hot at the right time” and find some luck to win the Super Bowl. Some of the more recent, notable cases of this were the 2017 Eagles who won with Nick Foles at quarterback, the 2012 Baltimore Ravens with Joe Flacco, and the 2000 and 2002 Ravens and Buccaneers.
To win two in a row, you need a formula that’s repeatable. Nick Foles replicating an EPA/play of .509 wasn’t ever going to happen again. That number is higher than Patrick Mahomes in 2019 and the second-highest number since 2010. Only Josh Allen last season had a higher mark. Additionally, Carson Wentz throwing just seven interceptions despite being the most aggressive quarterback wasn’t going to happen again.
Joe Flacco ranked 18th in EPA/play during the regular season in 2012 before leading the postseason in EPA. Again, not something that was replicable as is the case for historically good defenses in 2000 with the Ravens to cover up Trent Dilfer or the 2002 Buccaneers who covered up Brad Johnson.
The 2002 Buccaneers and 2012 Ravens missed the playoffs after winning their Super Bowls. Meanwhile, the 2017 Eagles’ luck ran out after the 2018 ‘double doink’. The 2000 Ravens with that defense won just one more playoff game in the next five seasons.
The 2011 Giants finished 9-7 and got hot in the playoffs. The year prior, the Green Bay Packers won four consecutive road games as the six seed to win the Super Bowl. That’s a very hard formula to repeat.
It’s very difficult to repeat good luck or good fortune. This isn’t to say that you can go in with the same formula or plan every year and win. The Broncos are a great example of this. Elway had nearly 1000 less passing yards in 1998 while Terrell Davis eclipsed the 2000 yard mark. The Patriots became much more of an offensive team in 2004 from 2003, ranking sixth in offensive EPA compared to 16th the year prior.
Teams need to be aware of who they are while also sticking to what works for them. You must evolve parts of your game while not getting too far away from who you are as a team. Sticking to your identity is much more repeatable than becoming something your not for a three or four game stretch.
That’s not to say that the Patriots didn’t have luck in 2003-04. In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Titans were looking to tie the game, but two penalties pushed them back 20 yards. Drew Bennett dropped a potential first down catch on 4th-and-12. Tom Brady led another drive in the Super Bowl and Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning field goal. That’s some luck.
When you have a repeatable formula, luck helps, but it isn’t essential to winning.
This will be a question mark for the Los Angeles Rams Rams as the defense significantly outperformed what it did in the regular season, during the postseason. The defense ranked ninth in EPA in the regular season at -0.025 compared to -0.193 in the postseason and second.
Returning Core Players
Using Pro Football Reference and tracking the listed starters year-over-year, we’re able to track team consistency. That may have been important early with the Packers, Dolphins and Steelers returning 18 and 19 out of 22 starters year-over-year, that number has fallen off as of late.
While the Steelers had 15 out of 22 starters in 1979, it remains the only team to win a Super Bowl featuring players that had never played for another team before that season. Still, that team got new contributors in Lynn Swann who scored 10 touchdowns and the go-ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl.
In 1993, the Cowboys returned 17 out of 22 starters while the 1998 Broncos returned just 15 and the 2004 Patriots only 13. The 1989 49ers also returned 13 out of 22 starters. Still, John Taylor went from featured punt returner to 1,000 yard receiver in 1989. The Patriots signed Corey Dillon who rushed for 1600 yards in 2004.
What’s much more common than returning starters, is returning All-Pro selections and Pro Bowl players. In this category, these repeat teams returned nearly 100% of those players. The only player who didn’t count was Earl Morrall for the Dolphins, and he only didn’t start because Bob Griese was healthy in 1973.
The Los Angeles Rams do follow this trend. Last season, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Cooper Kupp were all named first-team all-pro players and to the Pro Bowl. Matt Gay could be included there as well. The Rams returned all three players and signed two of the three to extensions this offseason.
Following other trends, they are also bringing in new contributors in Bobby Wagner and Allen Robinson – both Pro Bowl caliber players. The Allen Robinson signing could be compared to when the Patriots brought in Dillon. Dillon only had 541 yards after six straight 1,000 yard seasons. With a better team, he hit a career-high mark. Robinson had back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in 2019 and 2020 before a career-low 410 yards in 2021. Robinson could get back to an elite level with better quarterback play and offensive scheme.
While the Rams allowed Austin Corbett, Darious Williams, Sebastian Joseph-Day, and Sony Michel to walk in free agency, they returned their core players who will help bring a championship while adding other important pieces.
A Reliable, Top-Tier Defense
They say defense wins championships. While the Cowboys and Broncos were both more known for their offenses, they still had a reliable, championship caliber defense.
In terms of DVOA, Dallas had the number two offense in 1992, but still managed the seventh rated defense via DVOA. In total defense, ranked first. The 1992 Cowboys defense was only the third defense since 1980 to hold opponents to fewer than 4,000 yards in a 16-game season.
The following season in 1993, the Cowboys defense rated 17th in DVOA. However, they still allowed the second-fewest points.
The Broncos meanwhile had the number two offense in 1997 and the top offense in 1998. Like Dallas, the Broncos managed the tenth rated defense via DVOA during their first Super Bowl run. While they finished 21st in defense DVOA in 1998, they ranked ninth in points allowed. These were two teams similar to the Los Angeles Rams that had dominant offense, but their defenses both had stars like Charles Haley and Steve Atwater.
Two of the other teams on the Super Bowl repeat list were known for their defense. The 1972 and 1973 Dolphins defense was nicknamed the no-name defense. It’s a large reason why they were able to win with a backup quarterback and go undefeated in 1972.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the Steel Curtain with four Hall of Fame players. Joe Greene was the first player in the NFL to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award twice. In fact, he won two of the first four Defensive Player of the Year awards. That group was one of the greatest defenses of all-time, but unlike the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, or even the 2002 Buccaneers, they had the offense, quarterback, and coach to go with it.
The 2003 Patriots defense ranked second in both EPA/play and DVOA while the offense ranked in the middle of the pack at 16th and 14th. In 2004, the Patriots offense improved, but the defense still ranked seventh in EPA and sixth in DVOA.
As the Broncos, Cowboys, and Patriots in 2003 showed, you may not need a historically great defense or even a good defense. Analytically speaking, the Broncos and Cowboys were both average or below average groups in the repeat season. However, while defense is important, it’s impeccable that you have a top-tier group. The Cowboys and Broncos each had top-3 offenses.
You need an elite unit that you can rely on and pick the other up when needed. However, that other unit can’t be bad enough that it drags you down. In 2010, the Packers had the number seven offense and number two defense. While Aaron Rodgers won his first MVP in 2011, the defense dropped to 26th in DVOA. That’s an issue that can’t be concealed once the postseason arrives.
While the Cowboys and Broncos each had average defenses in their repeat season, they still ranked top-10 in points allowed. It’s important to find that consistency year-over-year. That consistency is what makes repeating so difficult.
The Cowboys and Broncos are the two teams are that are most comparable to the current Rams. Last season, the Los Angeles Rams ranked eighth in offensive DVOA and fifth in defense DVOA. For a team that’s known for its offense, in order to repeat, they will likely need to move into the top-5 if they want to repeat while the defense remains in the top-half of the league and can continue to be relied upon in moments as they were last season.
Play at Home in the Postseason
In the divisional round of the playoffs, home teams win on average 75% of the time, winning by 5.72 points per game. In the conference championship round, home teams win 68.2% of the time by an average of 8.2 points per game. That’s significant.
When looking at past repeat champions, none of these teams were a six seed that snuck in and won three straight road games. Only the 1997 Broncos didn’t win their division and were forced to play in the wild card round. That same Broncos team is the only team to have to play multiple road games in the same postseason.
Every other repeat champion played just a single road game in their two postseasons combined. Due to NFL rules at the time, the undefeated Dolphins in 1972 had to win in Pittsburgh.
It’s very difficult to win on the road in the NFL and for the most part, these teams avoided that. The 1978-79 Steelers didn’t play a single road game during their Super Bowl runs.
To add to this, the NFL season is long. Getting that bye is important. The NFL added the wild card round for the 1978-79 playoffs. The Steelers avoided that extra playoff game in both years that they won. In fact, the only repeat team to play in the wild card round during one of their runs was the 1997 Broncos. However, Denver earned a bye in their 1998 run.
The Los Angeles Rams just played the most games ever for a Super Bowl champion. Not only did they play a full 17 game season, but they also played all three playoff rounds. However, despite earning the fourth seed, they played on the road just once. The current NFL playoff format only has one singular bye. Getting that top seed will be even more important this year than it was last season.
There’s a reason no team has repeated as Super Bowl champions since 2003-04. However, three teams have made it back to the big game the season after winning, but just haven’t been able to complete the task. Because of that, repeating is possible, just extremely difficult. The Los Angeles Rams will find that out very quickly this season.
Three teams repeated in the 1970s. The NFL now has a much deeper talent pool, has a longer season, and has a salary cap. Those three elements alone make it difficult. Add in the luck that is involved in winning one Super Bowl, and winning back-to-back is an uphill climb. We’ve seen many more teams win two Super Bowls over three, four, and five years than winning two straight.
There are clearly other elements to repeating as Super Bowl champions. However, looking at the eight in the past, these six are among the most important. Of course staying relatively healthy is relatively a key element. The Buccaneers ranked first in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric in 2020 and the Rams ranked fifth last season. However, these numbers don’t go back to even the 90s Broncos or Cowboys to see just how important it is.
In all actuality, depth is likely more important and having a group that can overcome those injuries. The Dolphins lost Bob Griese in 1972, but still managed to go undefeated with Earl Morrall. David Patten was Tom Brady’s most reliable receiver and went out in 2003 for the New England Patriots. The Patriots had just one receiver with more than 510 yards, but had an elite defense.
How important is a good offensive line? Again, we don’t have the PFF numbers for any of these repeat champions. The best way to determine how good the offensive line was is via All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections. The most recent repeat champion, the Patriots, didn’t have a single offensive lineman make the Pro Bowl or named an All-Pro selection. The same can be said about the 1974-75 Steelers. The best offensive lines would be between the 1972-73 Dolphins and the 1998 Broncos. It’s more important not to have a bad offensive line than to have a great offensive line.
Where do the Los Angeles Rams stack in all of this? Well, you could argue that they at the very least have two of these elements. With Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford, they check off the box of having an elite level head coach and elite level quarterback.
Andrew Whitworth and Robert Woods were core players who retired and were traded and Von Miller also played a key role in last season’s postseason run. We’ll see how important they truly were this season or if the Rams’ core of Stafford, Kupp, Donald, and Jalen Ramsey are enough.
Another big question will be whether or not the defense can pick up where it left off in the postseason. For much of last season, the Rams defense was near the middle of the pack, but still finished top-10. They had some inconsistent moments, but for the most part played well. They took that to another level during the playoffs. This is a group that added Bobby Wagner. Will that be enough to elevate the group even more?
The rest of these we’ll have to wait and see, but earning home field advantage throughout the playoffs and bye won’t be easy with one of the more difficult schedules. The Los Angeles Rams have also managed to stay relatively healthy in past seasons, but where they have had injuries, they’ve had the depth to overcome it. This is something that we won’t know until they happen. The same can be said for how the offensive line plays. Will this be a group like 2020 or closer to 2019?
The Los Angeles Rams won a Super Bowl which should be enough and is something that fans will enjoy for awhile. However, it’s always fun to talk about a repeat as the defending champions. It hasn’t been done since the 2003-04 season and is long overdue. Can the Rams be the team that breaks the drought?