Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Which Franchise Has Had The Biggest Fall From Grace?

Hey there sports fans, got a pop quiz for you. Of these steeped-in-history, traditional-power franchises, which one would you say has deteriorated into the biggest joke?

* New York Knicks
* Toronto Maple Leafs
* Pittsburgh Pirates
* Oakland Raiders
* Washington Redskins

Originally the poll was just going to include one team from each sport, but the Redskins were a last-minute inclusion due to their somewhat underrated nature as a joke. Though that doesn't make them any more or less valid a candidate (no, I didn't write the options on the interior of a cave) than the others.

Let's break down each team...

* The Raiders
CONS: Oakland fans find themselves in the awkward situation of knowing that their team is doomed to failure until Al Davis (the owner, the icon, the singular figure in Raiders history) passes away. This is a grim fate even for a team whose fans regularly dress as Death. The front office is such a known mess that several promising coaching candidates have either turned down the Raiders head job or not even bothered to interview for it. Seriously, these are football coaches. They're some of the most competitive, type-A men on the planet and even they want no part of the bear trap that is working for Oakland. As such, the only coaches that can be hired are total retreads or last-chancers or guys who wouldn't be even close to hired by any other team. The Raiders are the only team in NFL history to lose at least 11 games in seven straight years.

PROS: If this team had even a semi-competent organizational staff, they have a shot at making the playoffs. Seriously, this team isn't all that bad. Nnamdi Asomugha is probably the best cornerback in the NFL who isn't nicknamed after an island. Their overall defense is pretty solid. Their punter might be the best in league history. The fact that I had to turn to the punter just three entries into the list isn't a good sign, but this team has talent. Had they not been forced to use the incomparably bad JaMarcus Russell at quarterback for most of the season last year, they could've very well gone 8-8 in a weak AFC West. The inherent parity of the NFL means that the Raiders could easily rise back to respectability in just one season if they brought in a good coach/GM and Davis agreed to keep his hands off the product.

* The Maple Leafs
CONS: As a Leafs fan, man, is this painful to write. No team has adjusted worse to the salary cap era of the NHL than the Maple Leafs. First of all, the cap restricted the financial edge that the team had on most of the league (not that the money was ever spent properly, but still). To boot, then-GM John Ferguson Jr. turned out to be pretty much the worst possible person to try and run a team in this new era. He left behind a trail of awful contracts and lousy signings that the Leafs are still trying to work themselves out from under. As for the new guys, nobody expected Rome to be built in a day, but more was expected of the Brian Burke/Ron Wilson regime than the second-worst record in the NHL. What are the odds that the first-rounder that Toronto dealt to Boston in the Phil Kessel deal develops into a superstar? 95 percent? 100 percent? I am not looking forward to hearing about that for the next, oh, 15-20 years of a Hall of Fame career. For as much as the media likes to talk about the pride and tradition of playing for the Leafs, and given how many NHL stars grew up in southern Ontario as Leafs fans, there seems to be a growing stigma that players simply would rather not play in Toronto. It could be simply a "wait until the team is good" thing, or it could also be that most players would rather not play in the oft-crushing Toronto hockey fishbowl. Also, you might not realize this, but did you know that the Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967? No kidding! I don't know why more people don't comment on this.

PROS: As I said, nobody expects Rome to be built in a day. I'd be kind of surprised if Wilson lasts long after Team USA is done at the Olympics, but still, Burke's recent big deals are promising. Say what you will about Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, but they're not actively contributing to their teams' failure like the other ownership groups on this list. While it remains to be seen how Burke does as Leafs boss, at least MLSE gave him virtual carte blanche to run the club as he sees fit. Compared to the other candidates on this list, there aren't any innate reasons why the Maple Leafs shouldn't be a good team, they just need to stop screwing things up. And, this last pro can't be overstated: at least they're not the Senators.

* The Pirates
CONS: As lousy as the other candidates are today, there has been some recent success. Before the Raiders went on their record 11-losses-per-year streak, they were in Super Bowl 37. The Redskins have made the playoffs twice in the last five years. The Maple Leafs have two final fours in the last decade and were in the second round of the playoffs in 03-04. Even the Knicks made the playoffs in 03-04; okay, they got swept and embarrassed, but hey, they still made the finals in 1999 and the semi-finals in 2000. So there have at least been a few bright spots or close calls within the last decade for the other franchises in this list. The Pirates, meanwhile, haven't had a winning season since 1992. That's a 17-year drought. No team in North American sports history (EVER) has had such a run of futility. I mean, forget about a playoff appearance or even contention --- not even a damn winning season! Not even one little 82-80 record to break the streak. The closest they've come is 79-83 in 1997. It gets even worse for the Pirates and their fans. Unlike the other pro sports leagues and their salary caps/floors, there isn't any built-in survival mechanism to help Pittsburgh back to respectability. If the Pirates want to spend next to nothing on payroll and absorb luxury tax payouts from the larger clubs, they can go ahead and do that. Now, that's no excuse for the Bucs to totally whiff every year in the draft, but still, there is nothing that MLB can do to help a team that is content to suck and cry the small-market blues. Majority owner Robert Nutting took over the team just in 2007 so it might be too quick to write off his reign as a continuation of the Kevin McClatchy era, but the early outlook isn't promising. There appears to be no end in sight to the Pirates' woes.

PROS: It's not a good sign that my biggest 'pro' for the Buccos is that they simply might not be iconic enough to be on the list in the first place. I mean, if you asked a random person to start naming hockey teams, the Leafs will be one of the first five mentioned. Probably the same goes for the Knicks in a basketball question. The Redskins and Raiders would both crack the top ten in an NFL-naming question. But this hypothetical casual fan might be naming MLB teams for a while before they got around to the Pirates. Perhaps, rather than a pro, this is another con. The Pirates are the team of Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Bill Mazeroski's Series-winning walkoff homer, Willie Stargell and the 'We Are Family' champs, Pie Traynor, pre-crisis Barry Bonds and the Waner brothers. An all-time Pirates team would whip the asses of most clubs' all-time lineups. The fact that not even baseball fans consider this team to be an iconic franchise anymore is the most disappointing part of the whole Pittsburgh situation. I need another 'pro,' so let's just go with PNC Park. As bad as the Bucs are, at least Pittsburgh has the best stadium in the major leagues...for now.

* The Knicks
CONS: Presuming NYK misses this year's playoff dance, that will make it just one playoff appearance in the last nine years. And in that lone appearance, they were swept in the first round by a local rival (New Jersey), so it was about as ignominious as it gets. It would take a better basketball writer than I to properly sum up the disaster that was Isiah Thomas' run of the franchise, but let me just say that Isiah made John Ferguson Jr. look like friggin' Branch Rickey. The Knicks weren't just a bad team under Thomas, that would be too easy. They became the joke of the league, magnified tenfold due to the fact that the various screw-ups were endlessly torn apart by the New York media. Even after Thomas was finally fired, the team will still be burdened with bad contracts and non-existent drafts for years to come. Though Thomas is still gone, the Knicks still have owner James Dolan, widely considered one of the worst owners in the NBA (which is saying something). The franchise is putting all of its eggs in the basket of the 2010 free agent class, hoping that Lebron James or Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh (or a combination of the three) wants to play in the massive NYC market. Of course, if they all decide that they want to still compete for a championship while they're in their prime, then the Knicks suddenly are hella-screwed.

PROS: Whereas the Pirates are sort of a forgotten or underrated icon, the Knicks 'icon' status might be overrated simply because they play in New York and because seemingly 65 percent of the sportswriters who grew up in NYC in the 70's wrote a book about the 1970 or 1973 Knicks. Those two years were, in fact, the only two times the 'Bockers won the NBA title. Seems low, doesn't it? We've all been suckered into thinking that the Knicks are a lot more relevant than they actually were. Hell, the Golden State Warriors have three titles, maybe I should've written an entry about them. It's possible that New York could've won something with their solid teams throughout the 1990's, were it not for their habit of being decimated whenever they faced an actual quality team (i.e. the Jordan Bulls, Hakeem's Rockets, Miller's Pacers, or the 1999 Spurs). Also, like the Leafs, there isn't a technical reason why the Knicks should be as bad as they are. Dolan's hire of Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni seems good on the surface, and if Dolan just stays out of the way and gives them as much rope as he gave Thomas, then conceivably the Knicks could start to turn things around. Also, if a James/Wade/Bosh signing actually comes to fruition, that turn-around could start as soon as next year.

* The Redskins
CONS: So why'd the Skins make it? In 11 years under Dan Snyder's ownership, with all of the money, and big name players and coaches that have been associated with this franchise, it all added up to...three playoff appearances. A 2-3 playoff record overall, to be specific. Their 4-12 record last year was the worst thus far, and really kind of broke a streak for the Redskins since last year they were straight-up bad. In past years, they were just irritatingly mediocre; on paper, Washington should've been contenders in virtually every season, yet always seemed to finish 7-9 or 9-7. Their best record under Snyder is just 10-6 (achieved twice). It's an odd line that the Redskins walk under Snyder. On the one hand, they always have enough money and support to field a competitive team. But since that money is spent so haphazardly and so little thought given to actually building a team rather than just signing a few big free agents, Washington can never get over the hump to become an actual capital-g Good team. Can the Skins turn things around under Mike Shanahan? Possibly. Or, more accurately, they'll have four years of 7-9, 8-8, 6-10 and 10-6, and Shanahan will then leave for a team with a competent ownership group.

PROS: NFL parity almost seems to make it a given that Washington will eventually make the playoffs again and maybe even win a round. And the Skins are perhaps third in the 'which of these teams is an overrated icon' debate. Sure, they have three Super Bowls in the last 30 years, but the days of Mark Rypien are pretty far in the past. The Skins get a lot of hype and are considered iconic largely because of their rivalries with their division foes Dallas, New York and Philadelphia. Between those three and Washington itself, that's four of the biggest media markets in the NFL perpetuating the idea that these teams are always perennial Super Bowl contenders. And, Shanahan might very well do a good job in D.C., though he's another guy who hasn't done much in a while that is semi-coasting on past success. So he's a perfect fit!

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