Does “Peaking” in Sports Exist?

Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers got off to an 11-0 start, only to lose four of their last five games to finish their last 16-game regular season ever (those words sound so awesome!) at 12-4, then made it five losses out of six by losing at home to the Cleveland Browns (to whom they had lost, at Cleveland, in their regular-season finale) in one of the AFC's three wild-card games, a scenario that prevailed for the first time last season.

Pundit after pundit said, or wrote, or posted (you can do that too now, you know) that the Steelers "peaked too early."

The same thing — only this time in reverse — is being said about the baseball Phillies, whose current eight-game winning streak has vaulted them into first place in the National League East.

The Phillies, it is said, are "peaking at the right time."

The City of Brotherly Love, alternatively, the "City of Eagles," has been on the other side of this dichotomy three times within the living memory of the middle-aged and elderly: in 1980, when the aforementioned Eagles, started 11-1, but ended the regular season with three losses in their last four games to finish 12-4, yet still won the NFC East title over Dallas on the arcane tie-breaker of "best net points in division games" (under the original tie-breaking procedures that existed from 1967 through 1977, all inclusive, the Cowboys would have won the division on the grounds of having beaten the Eagles by eight points after the Eagles had earlier defeated the Cowboys by only 7).

In a slight variant of "peaked too early," it was said at the time that the Eagles' "emotional gas tank was empty" — but apparently they were able to "refill" that "tank" because they won two NFC playoff games at home, the second over "America's Team," who not only had to wear their dreaded blue jerseys when the Eagles opted to wear their white jerseys, but had to play in 12-degree weather, with a wind chill of 3-below zero.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, however, Ron Jaworski must have thought that the Eagles were wearing white in the Super Bowl as well, since he threw 3 interceptions against the Raiders in that game, and the Eagles lost, 27-10.

The very next year, the Eagles raced to a 6-0 start, only to go 4-6 the rest of the way to finish 10-6, and get unceremoniously bounced in the then-lone NFC wild card game by the Giants, with special-teamer Wally Henry fumbling twice in the game.

Less than a year before, the same city's NHL entrant, the Flyers, were on the business end of the "Peaked Too Early" argument: After entering the month of March with an imposing 41-5-14 record, the Flyers went 7-7-6 the rest of the way — and despite holding on for the NHL's best overall record, they nonetheless lost to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup finals.

This would prove to be the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups for the Islanders, the fourth prompting the iconic back-page headline that the New York Daily News ran on May 18, 1983: "Four On the Isle."

But do teams ever overcome the "peaked too early" label?

Once in a while they do: In the 1976-77 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers, who had never made the playoffs in franchise history up to that point, had a 34-17 record at the end of January. From there, however, Portland had a 15-16 record to fall to fifth place in the overall standings after battling for the lead for most of the season (in one of the losses, they covered the spread when Knicks guard Earl Monroe dunked the ball into his own basket).

In all fairness, however, it must be pointed out that Portland center Bill Walton missed significant playing time with various injuries in February and March — injuries that many scribes blamed on Walton's vegetarian diet.

But the Trail Blazers found their second wind in the playoffs — and how, sweeping the regular-season champion Lakers in four games in the Western Conference finals, then upsetting the Sixers in the NBA Finals (remember that "Finals" with a capital "F" is a registered trademark of the National Basketball Association!) in six games, winning four in a row after having lost the first two.

Occasionally, "peaking too early" can be attributed to a simple lack of stamina — see the superannuated then-Redskins of the '70s, who finished 8-6 after a 6-2 start in 1975, and 8-8 after a 6-0 start in 1978 — but not generally.

So does "peaking" — either "at the right time," or, far more commonly, "too early" — actually exist?

The late Pete Franklin would probably say no — but then again, he went to his grave (he died in 2004 at the age of 77) insisting that there is no such thing as choking in sports either.

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