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Does “running it back” work? A historical look

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How has previous defending champs fared running it back with the same group of players?

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

As we all know, “running it back” is much harder than it sounds in the NFL.

Since 1994, only two teams have managed to successfully defend their title — the 1998 Broncos and the 2004 Patriots. In that same time frame, there have been six occasions that an NBA team has won a consecutive title and there have been five successful English Premier League title defenses.

Why is that?

Soon after Super Bowl wins, teams begin to break apart. Some players retire, others sign wealthy deals with other clubs and some are replaced by younger, fresher talent coming out of college. Keeping most of the group of players (and coaches) together is almost unheard of. This is not the case with the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs.

A lot has recently been made about the fact that the Chiefs have managed to retain most of their starters from the Super Bowl. To be precise 20 of the 22 players that started the Super Bowl are returning to Kansas City in 2020, with Stefan Wisniewski and Reggie Ragland as the exceptions.

Knowing that the Chiefs have retained such a high number of starters from the Super Bowl, I decided to go back to 1999 to see how much roster turnover the previous Super Bowl champion had to deal with, and then, more importantly — answer the question of whether continuity has led to more success?

(Note: I went with the amount of starter retention from the Super Bowl win to Week 1 of the following season.)


Teams that retained the most starters


Rams 1999

Eight offensive starters and ten defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2000 season - 82%.

Performance: 10-6, lost NFC Wild Card game to the Saints.

Patriots 2001

Eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2002 season - 77%.

Performance: 9-7, second place in the AFC East.

Patriots 2003

Eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2004 season - 77%.

Performance: 14-2, won the Super Bowl.

Colts 2006

10 offensive starters and seven defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2007 season - 77%.

Performance: 13-3, lost in the Divisional round to the Chargers

Steelers 2008

Nine offensive starters and eight defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2009 season - 77%.

Performance: 9-7, third place in the AFC North.

The first note that jumps out to me is that that the lone successful title defense of the last 20 years is right there in joint second. Also, these teams average 11 wins between them, a figure that should be enough for a division title. The concerning part is that two of the teams that retained over 75% of their starters didn't make the playoffs the following year.


Teams that retained the least starters


Patriots 2014

Five offensive starters and six defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2015 season - 50%.

Performance: 12-4, lost the AFC championship game to the Broncos.

Ravens 2012

Eight offensive starters and three defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2013 season - 59%.

Performance: 8-8, third place in the AFC North.

Broncos 2015

Four offensive starters and nine defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2016 season - 59%.

Performance: 9-7, third place in the AFC West.

Patriots 2018

Six offensive starters and seven defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2019 season - 59%.

Performance: 12-4, lost AFC Wild Card game to the Titans.

Giants 2011

7 offensive starters and 7 defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2012 season - 64%

Performance: 9-7, second place in the NFC East.

Eagles 2017

Seven offensive starters and seven defensive starters of their Super Bowl-winning team started Week 1 the 2018 season - 64%.

Performance: 9-7, lost in the Divisional round to the Saints.

The results of the teams that retained a high percentage of starters was concerning for the Chiefs. After recounting the history on the low percentage end of it, you could understand why the Chiefs went in that direction.

We can see that when a team has retained less than 65% of it’s Super Bowl starters, the season is historically less likely to end in glory. In fact, only the 2015 Patriots managed to reach their conference championship game; no team managed to go back to the Super Bowl.

In total, only three defending Super Bowl champions managed to get back to the big game the following year: The 2016/17 Patriots 2016 (73%), the 2013/14 Seahawks (73%) and the 2003/04 Patriots (77%).


So, what did we learn?

Not a lot, if I’m being honest.

This is mainly because the Chiefs will be returning with 91% of their starters in place. Had the Chiefs been trying to defend their crown with a percentage of starters closer to any of the teams above, we may have been able to make an educated guess on how “running it back” may go. If we really want to take something from this, maybe we can say that having over 75% of starters come back historically increases the Chiefs’ chances of making it to Tampa.

It also is worth noting that had the Chiefs decided to not pick up options, tag or re-sign the other five guys they could have lost, the team would have been bringing back just 64% of its Super Bowl starters — a less than favourable number based on the above.

The Chiefs are really rolling with a strategy that is unprecedented in the modern NFL — and with all that is going on around the world right now, I do believe the Chiefs have made all of the right moves this offseason.

The continuity in the locker room and amongst the coaching staff may prove more pivotal than ever.