I know it’s premature to write about the Super Bowl when the Conference Championships have yet to be played, but I couldn’t resist posting about this topic, particularly since sharing it with you almost justifies the time I wasted looking all of this stuff up. I don’t promise 100% accuracy, but I should be pretty close on my numbers and dates. Against scholarly standards, I relied almost entirely on Wikipedia for research.
With the NFL Conference Championship games set (49ers/Falcons, Ravens/Patriots), my friend Ben sent me a text message reminding me that possible matchups for the Super Bowl now include the Harbaugh Bowl (or Har-Bowl as I like to call it, featuring 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh vs. his brother John, coach of the Ravens) and the Bird Bowl (it’s obvious, nothing clever there). Sorry Patriots, but here’s hoping it’s not your year. That got me thinking: How unbearable is the media coverage going to get if the Har-Bowl happens? More importantly, it got me thinking: there are a few NFL teams with bird mascots, have we ever had a Bird Bowl before?
The bulk of my research is concerned only with the Super Bowl era, after all, it wasn’t a Bird Bowl if it wasn’t even called the Super Bowl. The actual name “Super Bowl” was apparently mentioned by Lamar Hunt during AFL-NFL merger meetings in 1966. It was picked up by the media and became the official name of the title game for the third AFL-NFL Championship Game. The title was retroactively applied to the first two AFL-NFL Championship Games.
I started my quest for Bird Bowl info by considering the number of bird teams in the NFL during the Super Bowl era. From 1966 to 1975 there were three bird teams, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Atlanta Falcons and the (then) St. Louis Cardinals. The Seattle Seahawks were formed in 1976. These four bird teams have remained constant until the present day, though the Cardinals became the Phoenix Cardinals (after moving to Tempe, AZ in 1988) and then the Arizona Cardinals (in 1994). The Baltimore Ravens became the fifth bird team in 1996 when Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore (erasing the Browns from existence for three seasons).
Having identified the bird teams (thanks Audubon Society), the next step was finding out if, how and when they could and did meet on the playing field. Before getting too far into it, (and before you accuse me of forgetting) there’s a little bit of a hiccup for the first 4 Super Bowls because they were played between the not-yet-merged National Football League (NFL) and American Football League (AFL). In 1966, the first season culminating in a Super Bowl, the NFL was made up of 15 teams, all of which are still in the current NFL (though at the time, the Colts were in Baltimore, the Rams were in LA and the Cardinals were in St. Louis). The 1966 AFL was made up of 9 teams (including the then Boston Patriots). The Houston Oilers were also a part of the AFL. They would become the Tennessee Oilers in 1997 and the the Titans in 1999. Houston would get a team again, the Texans, in 2002.
The important thing, for this study, is that the AFL never had any bird teams during their decade of existence, 1960-1969. Earlier teams in the AFL included New York Titans (who would become the Jets in 1963), the Los Angeles Chargers (who would move to San Diego in 1961), the Dallas Texans (who would become the Kansas City Chiefs in 1963). I’m well aware of several interesting pre-Super Bowl era names and locations for teams, including the unique case of Card-Pitt in the 1944 NFL season, I just don’t have time to go into all of them here, maybe in the future. The Cincinatti Bengals joined the AFL in 1969, the last season before the merger. So, with no bird teams in the AFL, the first four Super Bowls had no chance of becoming Bird Bowls.
The 1970 merger between the NFL and the AFL required some realignment of teams since the NFL had 16 and the AFL had 10. Three NFL teams (the Colts, Browns and Steelers) joined with all of the former-AFL teams to become the American Football Conference (AFC). The remaining NFL teams became the National Football Conference (NFC) and the whole organization was collectively known as the National Football League (NFL). The merger did nothing to realign the three existing bird teams (they were all in the NFC) and there was no possibility of a Bird Bowl from 1970-1975. When the Seattle Seahawks joined the league in 1976 they joined as an NFC team, so still no Bird Bowl. The Tampa Bay Buccanneers also joined the league in 1976 as an AFC team. Their inaugural season was their infamous 0-14 year (Seattle finished 2-12). In 1977 the two teams swapped conferences giving us our first opportunity for a Bird Bowl (which didn’t happen).
From 1977 until 1995 the NFL bird teams remained steady with three in the NFC and one in the AFC. The Baltimore Ravens remained an AFC team (like the Browns they replaced) when they debuted in 1996. From 1996 until 2001 there were three NFC bird teams and two AFC bird teams, giving us the strongest chance for a Bird Bowl in NFL history. Another realignment was necessary in 2002 when the Houston Texans joined the NFL (and because the Cleveland Browns reappeared in 1999). Seattle wound up back where they started in the NFC and the NFL’s bird teams have been aligned AFC 1, NFC 4 ever since.
Okay, you’re sick of the NFL history narrative by now. How about finding out if we’ve had a Bird Bowl? Let’s delay the suspense by looking at some numbers. Eliminating years where all of the bird teams were in one league/conference, we have a total of 35 seasons (36 if you count 2012, which I’m not, yet) in which a Bird Bowl could have occurred. I’m not going to do the math on this and calculate things like probability of a bird team making it based on the proportion of bird teams per conference. I think it makes sense that the bird-heavy NFC was more likely to send a representative to the Super Bowl than the AFC. The NFC had a total of 115 team opportunities for a bird team to reach the Super Bowl as opposed the AFC’s 41. Still, a nest is only as strong as its weakest twig (or something), so with only one bird team in the AFC for all but 6 of those 35 years the odds are certainly low.
So has it happened? The short answer is “no”. But we’ve had such fun so far, why not take a look at how close we’ve come.
We’ve established that we need bird teams in each conference in order to have a Bird Bowl. The next step is getting those teams to win enough games to make the playoffs. The first opportunity of that kind came in 1988 when the Seahawks and the Eagles made the playoffs. Both lost in the divisional round. The next chance didn’t come until 2000 when the Ravens and Eagles both made it. The Eagles lost in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl loser New York Giants. The Ravens became the first (and so far only) bird team to win the Super Bowl.
In the 12 seasons (now I’m counting this year) since the Ravens’ win, two or more bird teams have made the playoffs eight times. This includes 4-bird-team-years in 2008 and 2010. Apart from the Ravens, the only bird teams to make the Super Bowl are the Eagles in 1980 and 2004, Falcons in 1998, Seahawks in 2005 and Cardinals in 2008. All lost.
Okay, so bird teams have made the playoffs, have made it to the Super Bowl and they’ve even won once, but what’s the closest we’ve really come to a Bird Bowl? Bird teams have made it to conference championship games 15 times (all in years where a Bird Bowl was possible). The best ever opportunity we had for Bird Bowl came in 2008. That year, the Cardinals went to their first NFC Championship game where they defeated the Eagles who were making their fifth Championship Game appearance in eight years. The Ravens appeared in the AFC Championship Game, but were defeated by the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Steelers.
We’ll have to wait until next weekend to find out if we’ll have our first ever Bird Bowl on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans. While I’m all for bearing witness to history, my preferred Super Bowl XLVII matchup is San Francisco vs. Baltimore. Yes, I know, it’s the Har-Bowl, but I’d prefer that to the Patriots going for the sixth time under Belichick and Brady. Should the Har-Bowl happen, I’m all for the 49ers. Should the Bird Bowl happen, well, I guess I don’t really care who wins.
A few more fun facts from all of this research:
–The 1947 and 1948 NFL Championship Games (not Super Bowls) were proto-Bird Bowls. In 1947 the Chicago Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21. The Eagles got their revenge the next year when they defeated the Cardinals 7-0 in what was the first televised NFL title game. The home team won both games.
–The National Hockey League (NHL) has had seven Stanley Cup Finals between two of the following teams: the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers. Despite the team names, only the Penguins can really be considered a bird (the Blackhawks are named after a Native American man).
–The other “flying” NFL team, the Jets, beat the Colts (a decidedly non-bird team) in their only Super Bowl appearance (1968).
–Without bothering to check “how close we’ve come” in Conference Championship Games or pre-Super Bowl era championships, the only times an “Animal Bowl” has been played are 1998 (Broncos over Falcons) and 2006 (Colts over Bears).
–Notable Super Bowl matchups between teams with similar/related names:
- Colts over Cowboys (1970) – the Chisholm Trail Bowl
- Raiders over Vikings (1976) – the Marauder Bowl
- Cowboys over Broncos (1987) – the Rodeo Bowl
- Redskins over Bills (1991) – the Wild West Show Bowl
- Cowboys over Bills (1992 & 1993) – the Double Redundant Bowl
- Ravens over Giants (2000) – the Game of Thrones Bowl
- Buccaneers over Raiders (2002) – Brad Johnson’s finest hour
- Patriots over Eagles (2004) – the Murrica Bowl
- Packers over Steelers (2010) – the Blue Collar Bowl
–While the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs both made the playoffs in 1971, 1990, 1991 and 1992, the closest we’ve come to an “Insensitivity Bowl” was in 1991 when the Redskins won the Super Bowl and the Chiefs lost in the divisional round.