Beating the streak: the Eskimos may have had the best playoff run in North American pro sports history. It could all end this year.
The last time Edmonton missed the CFL playoff tournament, Joey Smallwood was premier of Newfoundland, Torontonians could still subscribe to the Telegram, and Paul Henderson was best known as Norm Ullman's linemate. So it's understandable that within Edmonton, the streak is perhaps the most discussed element of the Eskimos' legacy. It is considered to be the longest such streak in North American pro sport. But how impressive is it really? For most of the 34-year period, the CFL has been a nine-team (and sometimes, as now, eight-team) league in which six teams made the post-season. It could be argued that shorter streaks in leagues where it's harder to reach the playoffs might be more significant.
Probably the best way of comparing playoff streaks in different leagues is to assess them by how likely they would be to happen if a team's placing in the standings was decided entirely at random every year. In a nine-team league where six teams make the cut, any given team's initial chance of getting through is 6/9, or two-thirds. For two straight years the chance would be two-thirds squared, about 44 per cent. Multiplying percentages like this yields a rough measure of difficulty that allows one to assess streaks attained under changing rules, and to compare streaks from different sports.
Take, for example, the longest-ever playoff streak in the NFL--the nine straight appearances chalked up by the Dallas Cowboys from 1975 to 1983, when their claim to be "America's Team" was unchallenged. Nine years doesn't look impressive next to 34, but to make the post-season, the Cowboys--unlike the Esks--had to be one of the top four or five teams every year in a 14-team conference. The '75-'83 Cowboys beat sobering odds of 1 in 11,991, a feat for the ages. But even when the magnitude of the Esks' achievement is discounted appropriately, its pan-generational length still decides the issue. The odds of a random team making the CFL playoffs every year from 1972-2005 would be about 1 in 472,000, when one makes a full accounting of the changing playoff formats and league size.
How do other great playoff streaks compare? In the NHL, the gold standard is the Boston Bruins, who secured a playoff spot every year from 1968 to 1996. But during that period, the NHL was almost as liberal with its playoff placings as the CFL, so the 29-year streak pulls up short (1 in 69,000). The same is true of the St. Louis Blues' recently halted 25-year streak (1 in 22,000). In the NBA, the record belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers, who started a 22-year streak in 1950 as the Syracuse Nationals. But since the league's Eastern Division often let in three of four teams during that period, the actual difficulty was negligible (1 in 1,834). The Portland Trail Blazers' 21-year run (1983-2003) is more remarkable because it was assembled in a tougher playoff-qualification environment, but it, too, falls short (1 in 43,000) of the Eskimos' monumental accomplishment.
The attentive sports fan will not be surprised to learn that the statistically most awesome streak comes from baseball. It belongs to the Atlanta Braves (1991-2005), who year after year have been one of just four teams to qualify from a 14- or 16-team National League. According to the math, the Bravos have beaten astronomical odds of 1 in 607 million. But the jealous Edmonton fan can plead an important technicality: the Braves were trailing the Montreal Expos in 1994, mid-streak, when baseball's post-season was cancelled because of a labour dispute. And when Atlanta's disappointing one league championship in 14 years is compared to the Eskies' 10 in 34, it becomes hard to deny the Eskimos the continent's overall prize for franchise greatness.