"No man ever steps in the same river twice."
Ancient Greek Philosopher
Just before the NFL trade deadline (October 31st), the San Francisco 49ers acquired former first overall draft choice Chase Young from the Washington Commanders.
The trade reminded me of a similar event in 1981. That season, the 49ers traded for defensive end Fred Dean, the 33rd overall pick of the 1975 San Diego Chargers. An All American his senior year at Louisiana Tech, Dean soon developed into one of the league’s best pass rushers. By the end of the decade, he’d helped San Diego evolve into a division champion and annual Super Bowl contender.
But after the 1980 NFL season, the Chargers refused to pay All-Pro Fred Dean the salary he felt he deserved. So Fred held out, complaining he was making the same cash as his brother-in-law—a truck driver! In October of 1981, the 3-2 San Francisco 49ers acquired Dean via trade. In his first 49ers’ appearance, Dean recorded two sacks and numerous pressures in a 45-to-14 victory over Dallas. San Francisco went on to win 12 of 13 games, finishing the season with a 26-to-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI (16). Impressive, right?
After a 5-0 start this year, San Francisco dropped three in a row. Last Sunday, with newly-acquired Chase Young rushing from one side and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa charging hard from the other, the two sandwiched Jaguars’ QB Trevor Lawrence for a sack-fumble, one of 5 sacks recorded by the Niners. San Francisco rolled over AFC South-leading Jacksonville 34-to-3. Very impressive!
So, will history repeat itself? Far too early to speculate. Like Dean 4 decades ago, Young will assuredly make the present-day 49ers’ defense better. Is Young made of the same Hall of Fame materials as Dean? Again, time will tell. But in the end, does it really matter? Ultimately, all such questions and answers that support and sustain the mystique of NFL history exist—In Team Name(s) Only.
Historical parallels trigger lively debates, but as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed centuries ago: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The same wisdom applies to NFL players and teams. For example:
Last Sunday, the New England Patriots hosted the Indianapolis Colts in Germany. Earlier this century, these two teams featured quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in much-ballyhooed battles that often determined Super Bowl berths. Last week, a mostly European audience sat through a 10-to-6 snoozefest watching the struggling Colts eke out a win against a piss-poor Patriots club.
As Heraclitus said: “Never the same river.” Different teams, different eras.
Sunday Night Football introduced its Jets/Raiders broadcast with a pre-packaged segment about the infamous Heidi Game. For those who don’t remember this event… On November 17th, 1968, the New York Jets led the Oakland Raiders by 3 points with 1:05 left in the contest. Convinced the outcome was secure and the score was final, NBC abandoned the NFL and switched to its regularly scheduled program: a children’s Family Movie Special called Heidi.
The next day, America awoke to learn they’d missed two Raiders touchdowns in a 43-32 come-from-behind Oakland win. The same two teams met later in the AFC Playoffs. In that game, the Jets defeated the Raiders and advanced to Super Bowl III, becoming the first AFC team to win the ultimate contest, beating the Baltimore Colts 16-to-7—the very same Colts who now call Indianapolis their home!
Last week, the Raiders defense set up the game’s only touchdown in a 16-to-12 Las Vegas victory. Neither of these teams appears playoff bound. But unlike the Heidi Game, which featured the “Mad Bomber” Daryle Lamonica and future Hall of Famer Joe Namath, SNF’s starting quarterbacks were a Purdue rookie named Aidan O’Connell, and Jets’ second-year starter Zach Wilson, whose struggling offense has now gone 36 offensive possessions without scoring a touchdown
Again, “not the same river.” Two different teams from two different eras with nothing but Team Name(s) in common.
So when I learned that it’s been more than half century since a team lost a Super Bowl one year only to return to the game the next year and win it—I thought I’d leap down that meaningless but tantalizing rabbit hole to see what I could discover.
Turns out it occurred in the first year of the official NFL/AFL realignment (1970). That season, the AFC champion Colts—still playing out of Baltimore—defeated the NFC champion Cowboys in a mistake-plagued contest known as the “Comedy of Errors.” The final score of Super Bowl V (5) was 16-to-13. Cowboys’ linebacker Chuck Howley was named MVP in a losing effort. That should tell you how exciting the game was.
The very next season (1971) in Super Bowl VI (6), Dallas defeated the Miami Dolphins 24-to-3, claiming its first-ever Lombardi Trophy while becoming the first and only NFC team to lose a Super Bowl one year then win it the next.
For the historical record, the 1972 Dolphins became the first AFC team to return to the Super Bowl and win it, beating Washington 14-to-7. Recently, the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII (52) to the Eagles but beat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII (53).
This year’s Philadelphia Eagles are aiming to duplicate the 1971 Cowboys’ feat. And Eagles fans are already saying things such as “Our Eagles are heading back to the Super Bowl” and “History is about to repeat itself!” Well guess what?
So-called NFL History is nothing more than a collection of results open to various interpretations: names and dates and events and numbers that can be massaged and manipulated to confirm or deny whatever particular opinion or speculative analysis that a football fan wants or needs to believe. Facts that fuel football fantasies are bandied about weekly by analysts who should know better.
History’s effect on future events remains the stuff of philosophical inquiry. "If A, then B" works with Aristotelean syllogisms and symbolic logic—but certainly not in professional sports. Nonetheless, in most every instance where hometown hope springs eternal—football fans are easily fooled.
Just because the 1981 49ers acquired Fred Dean then turned a 3-2 start into a Super Bowl championship season does NOT mean they wouldn’t have done it anyway. I happen to believe Dean’s presence made their ultimate success far more likely. But the numbers associated with Dean’s acquisition support a much more scintillating and satisfying story... Much more than "If A, then B." Chalk up another fantasy win for history’s mystique!
Does it portend a similar outcome for this year’s 49ers. Of course not. But that won’t stop San Francisco fans from rooting for history to repeat itself. The same in Philly, where the Brotherly Shove crowd needs to believe that fate and karma and history are on the Eagles side. But the 2023 Eagles are NOT the same team that lost last year’s Super Bowl--and they are a far cry from the 2017 roster and staff that beat the New England Patriots. Once again, “Different rivers.” Different teams. Different eras, despite the proximity in time.
It's the mistake diehard hometown fans make when they need to believe in greater forces, when they root-root-root for the home team blindly—when they embrace NFL History… In Team Name(s) Only. Bitter disappointment is often the result.