Even with the ridiculous success of our sports teams since 2001, I don’t think many among us take the eight (8!) championships in that span for granted.
One of the reasons the three Red Sox World Series titles, the three Patriots Super Bowl victories, the Celtics’ raising of banner 17 and the Bruins’ capture of the Stanley Cup are so cherished, individually and as an exceptional run of success for the region, is because it’s so damn hard to win just one.
It’s the most rewarding thing about sports, and it’s probably the hardest. But sometimes I do wonder if repeating a championship is actually harder than winning one in the first place. It’s a different set of challenges. There are no easy games; everyone wants to knock you off the throne. Complacency, or the we-won-now-it’s-time-to-get-mine attitude, can set in. Maybe the luck you had on the way to the parade goes to some other franchise the next year.
We’ve certainly had a lot of practice around here in watching our teams try to recapture the magic of a special season, to live up to the greatness of its immediate predecessor. The 2014 Red Sox are the latest to try to become a back-to-back champion, something only the 2004 Patriots accomplished among the seven previous Boston titlists in this run.
But you know what? Even in those follow-up seasons that didn’t end in a championship, there were still plenty of good times along the way. Here, then, is a ranking of how the seven successors to champions fared, from most disappointing to “hey, how about a three-peat next year?”:
7. 2002 Patriots: This is the only team among our seven successors to the champ to miss the playoffs, which is pretty remarkable. And it’s not as if they were lousy — they finished 9-7 — just maddeningly streaky. They opened with a 30-14 win over the Steelers in the christening of Gillette Stadium, won their next two, then dropped four in a row to fall below .500. A stretch of five wins in six games put them back in the playoff picture, but losses to the Titans and Jets in mid-December dropped them to 8-7 with a week left. The Patriots beat the Dolphins in the finale on an Adam Vinatieri field goal, but later that day the Jets beat the Packers to clinch the AFC East and end the Patriots’ season. The lingering lesson: That three-man safety committee of Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones and Victor Green wasn’t the best idea.
6. 2005 Red Sox: Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling paid dearly for their sacrifices of the previous October, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera departed, Matt Clement, David Wells, and Edgar Renteria (who made the final out of the Red Sox’ season in both ’04 and ’05, if you’ll recall) attempted to replace them with fair success but little charisma, Mark Bellhorn got released. It felt like they were playing from behind or at some sort of disadvantage all season, and yet they still tied the Yankees for the most wins in the AL East (95) and won the wild-card before succumbing in the first round to the eventual champion White Sox. It was a hangover, hell yes, but if ever a franchise had earned a mulligan. I say the epic party from the previous October made it all worth it.
5. 2011-12 Bruins You know, this was a heck of a team. The Bruins, despite having the season begin seemingly three summer weekends after the previous one ended, went 49-29-4 and won the Northeast Division. They were second in the league in goals scored, with six players scoring at least 20 and four more netting 11 or more. They were fifth in goals against, with Tim Thomas, backup Tuukka Rask and that Zdeno Chara-led defense proving stingy again. As the playoffs began, another run to the Cup Finals didn’t seem out of the question. Instead, this team became a reminder of how abruptly it can end; Joel Ward’s overtime goal in Game 7 of a first-round series with the talented Capitals officially ended the Bruins’ reign.
4. 2005 Patriots: The dream of a three-peat ended in an uncharacteristically mistake-plagued loss to Jake Plummer, Champ Bailey, and the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional round. But it was a fine team by reasonable standards, one that won 10 games and smoked the Jaguars in the wild-card round, with Willie McGinest collecting 4.5 sacks. But great Lombardi in the sky, what were they thinking with Monty Beisel … and Chad Brown … and Duane Starks …
3. 2008-09 Celtics: To me, this one stings the most on this list, because they appeared to be fast-breaking to another duck boat parade early in the season. With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen all still at or near the peak of their powers and Rajon Rondo blossoming into one the league’s most dynamic playmakers, the Celtics rampaged through the league in November and December, winning 27 of their first 29 games, including a franchise-record 19 in a row. (Aside: How did the ’86 Celtics not win, say, 30 in a row? Answer: They chose not to.) But Garnett, the backbone of it all, came up hopping and hobbling after a seemingly innocuous dunk February 19 against the Jazz. It wasn’t innocuous; it was devastating. Garnett did not play again until March 20. He played 66 minutes over four games the rest of the way — and not a single minute in the postseason. The Celtics gave it a valiant effort that postseason — Rajon Rondo averaged 16.9 points, 9.8 assists, and 9.7 rebounds per game in the playoffs — but succumbed to the Magic in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Would the Celtics have won the title with a healthy KG? It would have been a fight with the Lakers for sure. But this much we know: There’s no chance they’d have lost to a Dwight Howard team.
2. 2008 Red Sox: Terry Francona suggested in his book that this team might have been the best he had during his eight seasons here. It’s quite a compliment given that the 2004 team was as rich in talent, mental toughness, and force of personality as any we’ve seen since — or in the 86 years previous for that matter. The 2007 Red Sox are an unsung powerhouse, one that won 96 games, outscored opponents by 210 runs in the regular season, and swept two playoff series, including the World Series. While I get where Francona is coming from — had Josh Beckett been healthy, they probably would have fended off the Rays in the ALCS and possibly even the Phillies in the World Series — but I can’t sign off on this being his best team, if for no other reason than Manny Ramirez wasn’t a part of it at the end.
1. 2004 Patriots: The more time that ticks by, the better I feel about what the 2007 Patriots accomplished; I mean, they outscored their opponents by a ridiculous 315-point differential, won their first 18 games, were one defensive stop from 19-0, and did virtually all of it with the noise of SpyGate buzzing around them. They did not win the Super Bowl, dammit all, they did not, but with all emotion removed from the equation, that probably was the greatest Patriots team of this era, and possibly the greatest team we’ve ever seen (though I’m partial to the ’94 Niners). But if we can’t admit that runner-up really was the best, then there’s no shame in choosing the superb, resilient, extraordinarily talented 2004 team as the best Patriots squad of all. They knew how to follow up a championship — by winning another. The sports are different, but the goals are fundamentally the same, and so here’s to the 2014 Red Sox accomplishing what the ’04 Pats made possible. Following up one wonderful championship season with a just-as-magical encore.