On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will go for their fifth Super Bowl win, the franchise’s first in 26 years. Since Bill Cowher took over in 1992, the Steelers have made the playoffs 10 times. But while historically inept teams like the Rams and Bucs have won Super Bowls recently, the Steelers’ consistent success has yet to bring them a championship. The New England Patriots—with three Super Bowl victories in four years—are a dynasty. The Pittsburgh Steelers? They’re a cryptodynasty.
What is a cryptodynasty, exactly? The simplest definition: a team of consequence that never quite gets around to winning the big one. Cryptodynasties never lose enough to descend into irrelevance and never win enough to threaten their under-the-radar status. When they lose in the playoffs, their opponents invariably say that they “put up a great fight.” They’re the kids who bring home hardware only on everybody-gets-a-trophy day.
Bring home even one measly title, like the Atlanta Braves, and you’re disqualified: An infrequent champion is still a champion. Historically spectacular failure doesn’t work either: The Buffalo Bills and Washington Generals are less cryptodynasties than bizarro dynasties. Consistently lose despite superior talent and you’re Peyton Manning or Michelle Kwan: a plain old loser.
The Barry Bonds-led Pirates of the early 1990s were a cryptodynasty. The Cleveland Indians of the mid-1990s were so cryptodynastic-tastic that they lost the World Series to an expansion team and to the always-choking Braves. The Bernie Kosar Cleveland Browns were doubly cryptodynastic—their nemesis, the Denver Broncos, didn’t win when it mattered, either. Gonzaga is a midmajor cryptodynasty.
The stars make the cryptodynasties. John Stockton and Karl Malone are first-ballot cryptodynastic Hall of Famers. Warren Moon’s good-but-not-good-enough DNA was so strong that he passed it to Steve McNair when the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee. Clyde Drexler and Chris Webber led the “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston Cougars and the “Fab Five” Michigan Wolverines respectively to almost-victory in the Final Four. They followed up their almost-legendary college careers by coming not really that close to winning multiple NBA titles. (Drexler did finally win a championship thanks to the largesse of Hakeem Olajuwon.)
Cryptodynasties don’t have to be teams. Ken Norton, who won the heavyweight title when Leon Spinks chose not to defend it, secured his place in cryptodynastic lore when he turned down the role of Rocky’s foil Apollo Creed. Merlene Ottey, the Jamaican sprinter who won three silver and five bronze medals in a remarkable seven Olympic appearances, embodies cryptodynasticism. Her nickname: the “Bronze Queen.”
By beating up the weak and cowering before the strong, cryptodynasties establish hierarchy. Not every playoff series can be Lakers vs. Celtics, two unquestionably great teams going toe-to-toe to establish which is greater. Every elite athlete and franchise needs surmountable roadblocks. Cryptodynasties provide this essential service, creating the competitive context from which winners emerge. Pasting Utah and Portland was a rite of passage for two decades’ worth of NBA champions. The Bulls had the Knicks to beat on; these days, the Spurs have the Mavericks.
The NBA is the sports world’s cryptodynastic breeding ground. Scores of teams have racked up gaudy regular-season records before wilting in the playoffs when the good teams start trying. (The same might be true for hockey, but I don’t know or care enough about the NHL to investigate.) For the regular-season wonders—the Dominique Wilkins-led Hawks teams of the 1980s, Kevin Garnett’s Minnesota Timberwolves—the playoffs are like a campaign against a long-term House incumbent. You’re going to lose. The best you can hope for is to retain a shred of dignity.
Reaching cryptodynastic status in today’s NFL is more of an accomplishment. On account of the relative shortness of pro football players’ careers, the roster destructiveness caused by free agency, and the NFL’s socialist revenue-sharing system, consistency is hard to come by for even the league’s elite teams. As Pittsburgh has maintained its quasi-greatness, once-indomitable teams like the Cowboys, 49ers, and Packers have fallen into disrepair.
How have the Steelers maintained their sort-of-winning ways for almost 15 years? Pittsburgh has drafted exceptionally well, and consistency in the owner’s box and on the sidelines has encouraged the team’s draftees to stick around—according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 19 of the 22 players expected to start for Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl have never played for another team. Scheduling has also been a boon. While Pittsburgh has faced an occasional intradivision uprising—from Cincinnati this year, for instance—on balance their divisional cohorts have been below average. When you want to pile up wins, it’s good to face the persistently mediocre-to-terrible Bengals and Browns four times every year.
With conditions ripe for winning, how have the Steelers lost the big one? Every which way. The Steelers have lost to teams like the 1994 Chargers, who sniffed competence only briefly. They’ve been tripped up by legitimate dynasties, losing to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX and to the Patriots in the 2001 and 2004 AFC playoffs. In 2002 they lost to Tennessee, a parallel cryptodynasty. And they’ve often risen to the occasion at precisely the wrong time. After getting throttled by the Patriots in the 1996 playoffs, the Steelers got their revenge in 1997 … and then promptly lost to the Broncos in the AFC championship game.
When cryptodynasties get over the hump, it’s generally the wrong hump. In 1994, the Knicks finally vanquished the hated Bulls before bowing to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets. The Jazz took out the Rockets two years later, only to lose to the revived Bulls twice in a row. After losing three straight NFC championship games, the Philadelphia Eagles developed such a complex about winning the conference title that they forgot about the part where you’re supposed to win the Super Bowl. The stench of loserdom surrounding Peyton Manning is perhaps too strong for Indianapolis to become a true cryptoynasty, but their domination of the Patriots on Monday Night Football was quintessential cryptodynastic behavior: Slay your nemesis at the exact moment when they cease to be relevant, then find a new nemesis immediately.
It’s not unprecedented for a cryptodynasty to become a legitimate dynasty. If the Steelers win on Sunday, football historians will consider their years of almost-victory an essential step that “taught them how to win.” The Chicago Bulls, for one, were the Pistons’ perennial roadkill before getting over the hump and winning six titles. But the most common outcome is for cryptodynasties to rise and fall without anyone taking notice. Have you bothered to observe that the Sacramento Kings aren’t good anymore? Remember the Tennessee Titans?
And what of the Seahawks, who’ve now made the playoffs three years in a row? They’re a cryptodynasty-in-waiting. Unless, of course, they screw it all up by winning.*
*Correction, Feb. 5: Due to a copy-editing error, the final three paragraphs of this article were omitted when the article was published. They have been restored.