Sometimes, great sports teams and franchises appear unstoppable. They have many of the best players in the league and win multiple titles in a row. But this can be an illusion because every team is vulnerable. Even the best teams decline over time because nothing lasts forever.
Usually, this is because of three reasons. First, financial problems wreak havoc and throw plans into disarray. Another issue is when the best players depart from a team. Finally, complacency is devastating. If a team takes its place for granted, it can fall behind very quickly. Check out 25 great sports teams that went into decline via ESPN.
25. Seattle Seahawks
For a moment it looked like the Seattle Seahawks had ignited a great NFL dynasty. It was 2014 and they had just crushed the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. But life isn’t that simple. They missed their chance to secure back-to-back titles after a heartbreaking defeat to the Patriots. Arguably, the franchise never recovered from the moment Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s attempted pass to Ricardo Lockette.
Yes, they’re a playoff mainstay but they aren’t the same team they once were. The Seahawks have one of the most reliable quarterbacks in the league but they’ve lost a lot of their talent in order to pay Wilson. Meanwhile, Pete Carroll is great but he may have overstayed his welcome in Washington. This team could have and should have achieved so much more but instead, they went into decline (via The Guardian).
The Longhorns are one of the most iconic college football programs. They cut a classic look in their burnt-orange uniforms but their best moments are far in the past. There’s no denying that they have underachieved since Colt McCoy entered the NFL draft. According to Texas Monthly, in the 11 seasons since their last decent quarterback left, they’ve failed to win a Big 12 Championship.
Meanwhile, they no longer have a state monopoly. Local rivals like Texas Tech and Baylor have enjoyed success in recruiting. But the problem is that schools like Ohio and Alabama have also secured some of the best Lone Star State talents. Furthermore, they’ve endured coaching woes as they’ve constantly pursued the wrong candidates. It’s sad because this great school is in a terrible decline.
It’s crazy how far the Knicks fell throughout the 2000s. After enjoying some of the best years in their history, the New York franchise suffered a harrowing decline. Patrick Ewing was one of the greatest players of his era and inspired his team to two NBA Finals. They didn’t win but they were contenders and that’s something that fans appreciated. How did it all go wrong?
The simple answer is that the front office hopelessly mismanaged the team. They overpaid for too many players and the team went backward. Furthermore, Isiah Thomas exerted his pernicious will over the team for far too long (via Bleacher Report). He served in an executive role before taking on the mantle of head coach. It took years for the Knicks to recover but perhaps they’re finally turning a corner.
Conor McGregor’s story is the stuff of legend. The Irish MMA star became the face of the UFC and MMA overall, pushing his sport into the mainstream. Meanwhile, he also made his mentor John Kavanagh one of the most respected coaches in the sport. The UFC signed a medley of SBG Ireland fighters and it looked like they were going to be a force. But then an unexpected decline occurred.
After a host of retirements, McGregor was the last SBG Ireland fighter standing in the UFC. Also, his form went into decline and fans derided Kavanagh as a ‘yes’ man. Then, Kavanagh failed to get the best out of the exciting Brazilian striker Johnny Walker in 2021 (via TalkSport). Many critics said that he was simply lucky that McGregor, a supreme athlete with unmatched drawing power, walked into his gym.
One game can change the course of an entire franchise. That’s exactly what happened in the case of the Falcons as they went through a hellish meltdown in 2017. They lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots after giving up a historic lead. Head Coach Dan Quinn simply wasn’t the same after this traumatic game. Then everything started going wrong as the decline escalated.
First, Kyle Shanahan went to San Francisco and took the head coaching role. The former offensive coordinator was a big loss because he got the best out of MVP Matt Ryan. Results went downhill and they’ve had losing seasons since 2018. Finally, the franchise put Quinn out of his misery. But there’s a long way to go in this rebuild (via Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Building a competitive team can take years.
There’s something magical about the way Orlando went from the Finals to being the NBA’s worst team. It’s almost miraculous because this just shouldn’t happen (via The Ringer). Usually, a decline occurs over the course of a few seasons. But their meltdown was like somebody pressed the ejector seat in one of James Bond’s cars. It all happened insanely quickly, but the question is why?
First, they were surprise contenders in 2009. Nobody touted them at the start of the season but they found themselves in contention. Then Dwight Howard left and sealed their fate. There was no hope of reviving their fortunes in the short term after losing their best player. Stan Van Gundy’s team was an innovative unit but unfortunately, their momentum was unsustainable.
Unlike the Magic above, Arizona actually won something. The Diamondbacks were World Series winners in 2001 and believed that it was the start of a new era. They saw their name in lights like classic franchises such as the Dodgers and the Yankees. But it wasn’t to be. Just a couple of seasons later, they were comfortably one of the worst teams in MLB. It was truly a horrendous decline.
Warning lights shone in 2003 after Randy Johnson’s injury and the departure of Curt Schilling. But things became much worse. The malaise reached its peak in 2004 when the D-Backs lost over 100 games (via The Athletic). They went 51-111 in one of the most dismal seasons ever. This type of season can have a traumatic impact on regional franchises like Arizona and they struggled to bounce back.
The decline of the Steelers in 2021 reveals the problem of allowing a franchise quarterback to overstay his welcome. Ben Roethlisberger is a controversial figure off the field but he’s still a future Hall of Famer. However, he carried a lot of responsibility for his team’s embarrassing capitulation at the end of a promising season. First, the Steelers went on a bizarre 11-0 winning streak.
It was strange because they weren’t playing well but somehow they managed to scrape through games. But then a turning point came and the team suffered five straight losses to end the season. Finally, the Browns handed them one of the most humiliating beatings in recent history in the playoffs. But the Steelers opted to stick with ‘Big Ben’ and consigned their franchise to another year of doldrums (via Sports Illustrated).
This classic NHL franchise has endured a lot of pain over the past couple of decades. They won 25 Stanley Cups in the 20th century before their true decline began in 1993. Since then, one of the world’s most iconic sports teams has made it look like they’re playing hockey in the trenches of the Somme. One key reason is the sheer number of horrific trades like PK Subban in 2016.
Before their final title, the team never went more than nine years between cups. Now that figure stands at almost 30 years (via The Guardian). Admittedly, they do look better in recent years but they serve as a warning that every franchise can capitulate. Nobody believed that the Canadiens would go so long without a win but that’s the reality of the world. Their fans can only pray there’s a change soon.
The Niners were an unstoppable juggernaut for years. Rivals fans cursed their obscene good luck in finding Steve Young after the legendary Joe Montana. Unfortunately for San Francisco fans, their team simply hasn’t been the same powerhouse in recent years. They show some flickers of hope before their inevitable collapse. A case in point is the team’s implosion after Super Bowl XLVII against the Ravens.
It took the 49ers another seven years to make it back to the big game but they couldn’t seize their opportunity (via Mercury News). Then, they missed out on the playoffs again the following year. Franchises and great teams must take these chances and build on their success. Otherwise, they risk falling into complacency and taking a backward step. Unfortunately, San Francisco fans know all about this.
Liverpool was a force of nature throughout the 1970s and ’80s. They were by far the best soccer team in England. But then Kenny Dalglish left after the Hillsborough disaster when 98 fans died. This event had a lasting impact on the playing field because the team went into decline throughout the ’90s. In the following decade, the club had iconic moments under Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez.
But their U.S.-based owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, set the team back again. The very existence of the club was under threat before they finally left with their tails between their legs in 2010. But it took the club another 10 seasons to claim their first Premier League title in 30 years (via Sky Sports). It’s insane how long it can take to get back on track after a malaise sets in.
Milan was the strongest team in the world in the early 2000s. They had Kaka on their roster, the best player in the world. It seemed impossible that they would decline, but that’s exactly what happened. Everything went downhill after their Champion’s League victory over Liverpool in 2007. They invested a lot of money in overpriced players and allowed their squad to grow old.
This was a disaster because they effectively fell out of contention for most of the following decades. Soccer fans hold Milan up as European royalty but they barely saw them play in the Champion’s League. It took them over 10 years to recover from their decline and show signs of their earlier class. (via The Athletic). Nobody saw this coming but the Italian giants almost became irrelevant.
If you ask Joe Rogan who the best MMA coach in the world is, he’ll point a finger at Firas Zahabi. Zahabi is the head trainer at the legendary Tristar gym. It’s most famous for producing the likes of Georges St-Pierre and Rory MacDonald. However, their track record over the years is extremely patchy beyond these names. In fact, some fans believe that Zahabi got lucky like John Kavanagh with Conor McGregor.
Normally fighters flock to big gyms when they produce a massive star like GSP. This is true of Tristar but they’ve never replicated the same kind of success. Of course, St-Pierre was a generational talent but other gyms churn out champions like new cars. Zahabi’s entire reputation is built off of one fighter (via MMA Fighting). It’s debatable whether the Tristar team was ever that good.
Barcelona is a shining example of how quickly things can go wrong, even at the highest level. The Catalan giants are the biggest soccer team in Spain alongside Real Madrid. But financial mismanagement plunged the club into despair in 2021 (via Financial Times). Results on the field started to decline and they failed to be competitive in the Champion’s League. Then they lost the best player in the world.
Lionel Messi departed Camp Nou in 2021 to the dismay of Barca fans. It was a shocking moment because nobody realized how bad the situation was until that point. But he pointed to the fact that the club wanted him to play for free. After carrying them for years, he decided he had enough. The Barcelona president even begged him to play for free, but unsurprisingly, Messi didn’t oblige.
The Chiefs are showing what can happen if a team doesn’t keep building. After the rise of Patrick Mahomes, they became instant contenders. They narrowly missed out on a Super Bowl appearance in 2019 before winning the Lombardi Trophy the following season. It was 50 years since their last victory so this was an emotional moment for their long-suffering fans. Then, they made it back again the next year.
However, the Bucs humiliated them in one of the worst games of Mahomes’ short career. They went into 2021 with a hangover. Opposition teams began to exploit their dubious defense. Meanwhile, their star QB’s output started to decline. It was a remarkable turn of events and shows just how difficult it is to remain at the top. But they have time to turn it around (via The Guardian).
The Red Sox are one of baseball’s classic franchises but that doesn’t mean they are always brilliant. They went five years between World Series years from 2013 to 18 before achieving success again. However, they have struggled financially over the past couple of seasons. In 2019, they had the biggest payroll in the entirety of MLB. This curtailed their hopes of capitalizing on their recent World Series title.
As a result, they faced a luxury tax liability of over $12 million dollars (via Forbes). But this was the second year in a row that they paid this penalty. Then, they failed to make the 2019 playoffs and the warning bells started to ring. Immediately they had to deal with cost-cutting measures and this meant trading some of their best players. It’s very easy for a malaise to set in.
The Heat’s Big Three era was one of the most remarkable in modern NBA history. This was a superteam in every sense of the word. They brought in Chris Bosh and LeBron James to play with hometown hero Dwayne Wade. It took a season for the three to click into gear but then they became devastating. Immediately analysts predicted a dynasty because the team was so good.
But this is the world of professional sports and it’s never that easy. Firstly, James decided to go back to Cleveland and finish off his business there. The Heat instantly went into decline and missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Miami struggled over the next few years as injuries and departures mounted. Finally, in 2021 the dark times came to an end again and they made the NBA Playoffs (via ESPN).
It seems ludicrous that Drew Brees only won a single Super Bowl in New Orleans. However, the organization was never able to put a title run together after this victory. First of all, they endured some terrible luck over the years. Even when they enjoyed decent regular seasons they appeared to be cursed in the postseason. 2019 was the tipping point after a horrendous pass interference call.
The other issue was their defense. It regressed substantially over the years and this cost them badly when it mattered. Perhaps this was less of a decline than a wasted opportunity because the Saints should have achieved more. In Brees, they had one of the best pure passers in NFL history (via NBC Sports). But as Dan Marino will tell you, that isn’t enough to win Super Bowl rings.
Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996 and managed the team until 2018. When he first came to London, he was a great innovator. He singlehandedly changed player nutrition and their overall approach to elite sport. This translated to success because they won multiple titles in the early 2000s. But then the rest of the league caught up and the decline fell into motion.
Meanwhile, the club’s investors failed to pour money into effective signings. This eventually crippled the quality of the squad. The best players wanted to leave because they weren’t competitive. But this poured the pressure on their youngsters as they weren’t ready for the strains of senior soccer. Arsenal struggled to recapture their identity after Wenger left them behind (via India Times).
Edmond Tarverdyan’s story is very similar to John Kavanagh’s, yet it’s even more dramatic. Glendale Fighting Club became one of MMA’s most notable gyms after the rise of Ronda Rousey. She became WMMA’s first bonafide superstar and transcended the boundaries of the sport. That was great for Glendale when she was winning. But after the embarrassing end to her fighting career, they received a lot of criticism.
In particular, Tarverdyan took a lot of abuse because he tried to turn one of the best grapplers in the world into a boxer (via MMA Fighting). Meanwhile, the gym’s track record with other fighters isn’t great. They had an excellent starlet in Edmond Shabazyan, but his career path stalled after some tough matchups. It’s been a rough few years for the MMA team after their reputation went into decline.
The Lakers endured multiple declines over the years. They became the best team in the NBA after the fall of the Chicago Bulls. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant shot the franchise to glory. But then they faced a period of rebuilding alongside the rise of the Golden State Warriors. Next, they brought LeBron James to the West Coast. Signing the best player of his generation was a smart move because they made it back to the playoffs.
This didn’t produce the immediate results that they expected. But in 2020, the Lakers finally got another elusive ring. Unfortunately, there were problems behind the scenes and these came to a head over the following year. The decline was rapid because they limped into the first round of the postseason. It ended in traumatic circumstances as the Warriors put a beating on the reigning champions (via New York Times).
Leeds enjoyed an astonishing rise in the early 2000s. They signed outstanding players like Robbie Fowler and even made it to the Champion’s League semi-final. But their decline was rapid and mesmerizing in equal measure. ‘Doing a Leeds’ entered the vernacular of soccer after they suffered a shocking meltdown. Financial woes afflicted the club as debts spiraled out of control.
In 2003, just three years after their greatest moment, Leeds suffered relegation to the Championship. But it got even worse. Their wage bill was far too high, forcing the club to sell almost all of their players. Their replacements were of much lower quality and the club dropped another division to League One (via Sky Sports). In the end, it took the team almost 20 years to rebuild and find their way back to the Premier League again.
Bill Belichick transformed the Patriots into the most efficient and ruthless machine in the NFL. His team picked up six Super Bowls over the course of 20 seasons. After selecting a young quarterback named Tom Brady in the sixth round, the franchise soared to new heights. They also became the most hated team in the league because of their cheating scandals. Then, the decline set in.
In 2020, the team missed the postseason for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile, they hadn’t lost more than three games in a row since 2002 (via FOX Sports). After Tom Brady departed, the team immediately went into transition. This meant sitting through a turgid year before the next draft window. Luckily, Mac Jones fell into their laps so the future may be bright. But even the very best team can go into decline.
Sir Alex Ferguson turned Manchester United into a winning machine. He became the most successful soccer coach in the world with more trophies than any other manager (via The Mirror). United won 13 Premier League titles during his long reigns and countless other accolades. But then he left in 2013 and the team went into a decline steeper than Mt. Everest.
Fergie managed United for 26 years. But in the seven seasons since his retirement, the club went through another four coaches. They lost their identity and wasted countless millions on unsuitable players. Furthermore, the Glazer family concentrated on their NFL franchise, the Buccaneers, and allowed the club facilities to decline. It was remarkable because it all fell apart so quickly.
The Bulls were almost unstoppable throughout the 1990s. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led this team to glory and were an unstoppable force. But all good things come to an end. In this case that meant over 20 years of irrelevance as the franchise suffered a horrific decline. M.J. made them into one of the most iconic teams in global sports but they became a shadow of themselves.
Jerry Krause was a canny businessman but he rubbed some of the team members up the wrong way. An exodus of legends occurred and finally, Krause departed too. Then, came one of the most depressing eras in Bulls’ history. It’s safe to say that the evil duo of GarPax should never set foot in the Windy City again (via The Ringer). Only time will tell if they can revive memories of their past glories one day.