Editor's note: This post comes courtesy of Josh Boeke, a longtime reader and commenter here at Stampede Blue under the username "JJBanksy." He is the co-founder and Creative Director of Colts Academy.
Since selecting Peyton Manning with the first overall pick in the 1998 draft, the Indianapolis Colts have experienced success nearly unprecedented in the history of the NFL. From the 1999 season until his last game as a Colt, Peyton Manning led the team to an extraordinary 138 regular season wins against just 54 losses, a clip of nearly 12 wins per season.
In that span, they set NFL records for most regular season wins in a decade (115 from 2000-2009), most consecutive regular season victories (23), most consecutive 12 win seasons (7), were on the verge of a perfect regular season not once but twice (starting 13-0 in 2005 and 14-0 in 2009), missed the playoffs just one time in 12 years (tying the record for most consecutive playoff appearances in the process) and won nine post season games, playing in two Super Bowls and winning one.
Take a poll of most sports fans though, and the narrative of that era is spun quite differently. For the majority of us, both in Indianapolis and outside it, the most prominent feature of that period is that singular digit, that loneliest of numbers. Despite prodigious regular season success and historic statistical achievement, what many fans remember first about that era of Colts football is their lone Super Bowl victory. Massive playoff disappointment in the face of monumental regular season prosperity.
Curious to find out just how much we as a fanbase value Super Bowls, I posed the following question on Twitter:
Working on an article (rare, I know) and was curious what you guys think. Would you trade winning SB XLIX for 10 reg season wins in 2015?— Joshua D. Boeke (@JoshBoeke) February 18, 2015
Essentially, are two extra, past playoff wins worth an entire season of future losing? I thought it was an interesting question with pros and cons to each side, but perhaps I should have gone further, the response was nearly unanimous.
@JoshBoeke Easy choice. Super Bowl. Over one bad season? Sure. The scary part is when you ask about trading 10 bad seasons for 1 or 2 rings— Kyle J. Rodriguez (@ColtsAuth_Kyle) February 18, 2015
@JoshBoeke I'd trade a lot of our winning seasons for more rings.— hmmm (@yesper8231) February 18, 2015
@JoshBoeke take the Super Bowl everytime. Even with 3 seasons of 7-9 or worse to follow— Greg (@crowbro19) February 18, 2015
Only one of the dozen or so people who responded to my query said they'd take the prospect of a winning season and possibility of a Super Bowl run in 2015 over the certainty of a losing season but a guaranteed Super Bowl win in 2014.
Would we as fans really take Eli Manning's career in New York (two Super Bowl wins against missing the playoffs six times in 11 years) over that of the Peyton Manning Colts (one Super Bowl win but 11 playoff appearances in 12 years)? Apparently for most of us the answer is yes.
Why the Super Bowl Obsession?
Like any psychological phenomenon, the processes involved in fan attachment are multiple and complex, but there are some well-established concepts that could help explain our shared infatuation with our team's successes and failures.
In a recent Washington Post article, Eric Simons, author of "The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession," made the following observation about sports fanaticism:
It is not an obnoxious affectation when a devotee uses the word "we"; it's a literal confusion in the brain about what is "me" and what is "the team." In all kinds of unconscious ways, a fan mirrors the feelings, actions and even hormones of the players. Self-esteem rides on the outcome of the game and the image of the franchise.
Championships are the unequivocal stated goal of the athletes on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the owner in the box (and of course the barometer for greatness in the narratives crafted by the media - hi, mom!). This singularity of purpose becomes assimilated into the collective consciousness of the fanbase. Rationally it might make sense to value 10 weeks of self-esteem boosting, good mood producing winning Sundays (and the possibility for more) over one day of Super Bowl glory, but, in practice, the legacy defining element of Super Bowl wins seems to far outweigh the sustained enjoyment of more numerous but smaller victories, even in the face of the intuitive reality that the achievement of a Super Bowl victory involves only the most tenuous of direct contribution from the fanbase itself (home field advantage does occasionally play a role).
When you introduce the element of affective habituation (when you experience so many regular season wins, the feeling of satisfaction produced becomes progressively smaller) to an already potent cocktail of emotional investment and generally unrealistic expectations (winning the Super Bowl, even for the best team in any given season, is historically a very unlikely proposition), what you get is an almost absolute inability to view anything but Super Bowl victory as success.
Of course this process is further influenced by our own personal point of view. Much like the dichotomy observed when polling the respective opinions of political supporters and detractors while watching the same stump speech, fans view the success and failures of their favorite team through the lens of their own personal bias (this bias being informed by both the values of the fan community at large and individual disposition as influenced by personal biology and experience). Was that 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots a bump on the road to future success or an indication of crippling deficiencies in a team destined for a fall? Whether you're more inclined to bask in reflected glory or cut yourself off from reflected failure is largely a question of perspective.
Of course nothing is so simple as that, fan rivalries can no doubt play a role in our feelings about our team (if we didn't have a decade of Manning vs Brady debates would we feel any differently about those years?), as do feelings about individual player legacies and big picture narratives (I know many Colts fans were rooting for Green Bay in the NFCCG in hopes of avoiding future Luck and Wilson playoff comparisons), but whatever the potentially myriad reasons for our Super Bowl obsession, it's hard to deny its existence.
Why does it matter?
As much as I hope this little psych lesson has been interesting, I'm not one to impart without purpose.
The crux of the issue for me is how this information can influence the way we view this team and each other as fans. If we can shift our lens slightly as a fanbase, take a step back and once again come to appreciate the small victories instead of focusing the entirety of our attention on that elusive Super Bowl win (an outcome experienced by only one fanbase in 32 every year), we might be able to both enhance our enjoyment of the sport by living in the moment and at the same time improve the quality of our discourse as a community of distinct but emotionally unified fans.
Consider our current crisis of faith. Ryan Grigson: good GM, bad GM, somewhere in the middle? Your answer to that question likely depends on the expectations you had for the team's rebuilding effort following the 2011 season. By most objective measures of team success, the Colts have accomplished arguably the quickest and most successful three year rebuild in the salary cap era.
Of the 18 teams to finish last in the standings since the salary cap was introduce in 1994 (excluding 2013 and 2014), the 2012-2014 Colts had the second best first season turn around (+9 from the previous year, only the 2008 Dolphins were better, going from 1-15 to 11-5), rank second in wins (33, the 2004-2006 Chargers won 35 games), were the only team to make the playoffs all three seasons (only three other teams made the playoffs twice and eight didn't make the playoffs at all), rank first in playoff wins (3, tied with two other teams) and first in championship game appearances (three other teams also made it to a championship game). Their point differential improved appreciably every season, from -187 in 2011 to -30 in 2012, +55 in 2013 and +89 in 2014.
Critics, however, will point out that playing in the weak AFC South has aided them greatly (going 16-2 in the division the past three seasons), and at no time was the team ever actually close to reaching the Super Bowl, their three playoff losses coming by an admittedly hard to believe 112-38 margin of defeat. If you're not a realistic threat to win the Super Bowl, what's the point right? Or so the story goes.
On a more micro level you can certainly examine the hits and misses of the Grigson tenure individually, there have been plenty of both, but again, whether you choose to emphasize the bumper crop of 2012 or the comparatively desolate 2013 free agency and draft class is largely going to depend on your particular inclination on the issue of his general managing proficiency, which in turn is likely contingent upon your definition of team success. Is three playoff wins in three years a fantastic result, or do three bad playoff losses demonstrate inexcusable team building incompetence? At the risk of sounding like a convictionless centrist, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and it's in realizing this fact that we raise the level of discussion surrounding an oftentimes contentious argument.
Whatever your thoughts on the direction of the team, the success or failure of the front office or the importance placed on Super Bowl wins, my hope is that as a community of fans we can find a common ground in a shared love for the Indianapolis Colts. In the spirit of that aggregate affection, I leave you with the words of psychologist Daniel Wann:
"There has been a good deal of research... that indicate[s] when an individual becomes attached to or identifies with a sports team, there are pretty clear psychological benefits of that. If you are a [Colts] fan in [Indianapolis], right now it's pretty hard to feel lonely. It's pretty hard to feel alienated. If you're wearing a [Colts] jacket and walking through the mall, people are high-fiving you, people you've never seen before and never will see again. There's a sense of community and connectedness that comes with it."