The Definition of Dynasty

Five Quick Hits

* The Lions now have two starting quarterbacks. The Browns have three backups.

* Rough offseason for Green Bay. Another year of Brett Favre isn't much consolation when you lose Darren Sharper, Marco Rivera, and Mike Wahle. And insult to injury, Sharper signed with the Vikings.

* Minnesota may actually field a defense next season. Adding Sharper, Napoleon Harris, Pat Williams, and Fred Smoot qualifies as a major upgrade. Suddenly, this is one of the best defenses in the NFC.

* Red McCombs pulled one over on Reggie Fowler with that Randy Moss deal.

* One move that hasn't gotten much press, but I think is significant, is Miami releasing FB Rob Konrad. He struggled with injuries in 2004, but Konrad is a good fullback, and the Dolphins will miss him.

Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z) recently wrote an article about the eight dynasties in pro football history. It's interesting timing, because I just finished an extensive study of dynasties sparked by Zimmerman himself. Fooling around on my computer a few weeks back, I found an old text file called "dynasty." It was a paragraph from Dr. Z's February 2003 Mailbag:

"Marcus of Montreal wonders where all this talk about the Bucs becoming a dynasty comes from. Probably from Tampa. You want to know what is meant by "a dynasty?" Try this statistic, which I think I must have mentioned triple-figure times: during the period of the Steelers' playoff run of the '70s, 1972 through '79, their record against teams that eventually finished the season below .500 was — get ready — 50-1. They simply did not lose to the bad teams. They were bullies, tough guys. A dynasty."

That is impressive. How, I wondered, do other great teams compare? I looked up 32 potential "dynasties" and came up with their records against sub-.500 teams. And non-losing teams. And overall regular-season record, playoff record, number of winning seasons, number of postseason appearances, number of championship appearances, and championship wins.

To determine which teams I looked at, I figured a dynasty has to last at least half a decade, be consistently great, and play on the biggest stage. So a dynasty covers a minimum of five seasons, has no more than one non-winning year, no more than six seasons without a championship appearance, and never went five consecutive seasons without a championship appearance. Lax standards, but I'm trying to be inclusive. We can narrow things down later. Teams prior to the establishment of an official championship game are excluded.

Some teams that technically met the criteria didn't make my list. The 1965-69 Raiders had an awesome .779 winning percentage (that's like going 12-4, 13-3, 12-4, 13-3, 12-3-1), but they played in only one Super Bowl and got annihilated by the NFL's Packers. The Air Coryell Chargers and today's Colts have been nice in the regular season, but never made the big game. Bill Cowher's mid-'90s Pittsburgh teams were consistently good, but not a dynasty in any meaningful sense of the word.

One noteworthy point is that I deliberately included several "losing dynasties", such as the '70s Vikings and '90s Bills. Those teams were dynasties within their own conferences, but I included them mostly because it's interesting for comparisons. They were also among the most dominant regular-season teams in history.

I'll present the teams I examined soon, but first, there's a problem with Dr. Z's 50-1 stat. Not its accuracy — its effectiveness as a tool in evaluating dynasties. The 1972-79 Steelers went .980 against teams that finished the season under .500. That's better than any other group I evaluated.

Second on the list, the 1936-44 Packers went 45-0-2. That was considered 1.000 at the time, but for all teams, I used the modern rating in which ties count as ½-win, ½-loss. That puts Green Bay at .979. Zimmerman cited the 36-39 Packers as one of his eight dynasties, but since I had to tack on a fifth year, I also included GB's impressive 33-7-2 run from 1940-44, which included another championship. Either way, this is clearly one of the great teams in history. So far, so good.

The problem is numbers three and four on the chart: the 1973-77 Vikings (40-1, .976) and the 1973-77 Raiders (34-1, .971). That's not a typo: same five-year span for both teams, and it overlaps entirely with Pittsburgh's '72-'79 dynasty. Throw in another top-10 team from the list, the 1969-78 Cowboys (67-6-1, .912), and it appears that the worst teams of the 1970s were simply incapable of defeating the best teams. In that context, three of the top four teams in this category are less impressive than they initially appear.

Even worse, the 1973-77 Vikings and Raiders combined for only one Super Bowl victory. Minnesota went 0-3 in the big game, and the Raiders only won their own conference once. Both teams were exceptional in the regular season, but it's tough to really consider them dynasties.

Another problem is that the quintessential dynasty, the Vince Lombardi Packers, comes in 31st out of 32 teams in this category, with an ordinary .798 winning percentage against teams that finished under .500. The only team below them? Another true dynasty, the 1981-89 49ers, with a measly .764.

Zimmerman's point about Pittsburgh's 50-1 mark has value. A team that always wins the games it should is dominant. But conversely, isn't a team with a good record against winning teams even more impressive than one with a great mark against losing teams? What about dynasties that usually win whether they're supposed to or not? On that list, the Lombardi Packers and Montana 49ers are in the top five.

What probably makes the most sense is to scrap the level of competition and just look at regular season winning percentages as a whole. And don't worry, I am getting to the postseason.

Regular Season Winning Percentage

Regular Season Winning Percentage

Didn't remember that Ditka's Bears (.785) were that good, did you? Of course, they benefited from a five-year term here, as opposed to the Montana 49ers (.724), who put in nine seasons, and Joe Gibbs Washington (.704), which kept things up for ten years. And while Montana and Gibbs combined for seven Super Bowl wins and eight appearances, the Bears only got to the Super Bowl once. It's time to look at championships.

I divided all the potential dynasties into five categories. The most elite requires that the team won the Super Bowl (or equivalent league championship) in at least half the seasons listed, had a .750 regular-season winning percentage, and a .700 postseason record. It's important to note that before the AFL merger in 1970, teams posted lower postseason winning percentages, since the postseason usually consisted of a single title game. Today, a team that loses the championship finishes with a 2-1 or 3-1 record; in the old days, second-best usually meant 0-1.

GROUP ONE: 50% Championship wins, 50% Championship appearances, .750 regular season, .700 postseason — 1939-43 Bears, 1946-55 Browns, 1972-79 Steelers, 1991-95 Cowboys

GROUP TWO: 30% Championship wins, 40% Championship appearances, .700 regular season, .667 postseason — 1944-49 Eagles, 1959-67 Packers, 1970-75 Dolphins, 1981-89 49ers, 1982-91 Redskins, 1996-00 Broncos

GROUP THREE: 0% Championship wins, 40% Championship appearances, .667 regular season, .500 postseason — 1936-44 Packers, 1952-57 Lions, 1969-78 Cowboys, 1973-77 Vikings, 1981-85 Dolphins, 1984-89 Broncos, 1988-93 Bills, 1994-98 Packers, 1999-03 Rams

GROUP FOUR: 10% Championship wins, 20% Championship appearances, .667 regular season, .400 postseason — 1936-45 Redskins, 1949-53 Rams, 1964-71 Colts, 1973-77 Raiders, 1980-85 Raiders, 1984-88 Bears, 1985-90 Giants, 1990-94 49ers

GROUP FIVE: 0% Championship wins, 10% Championship appearances, .650 regular season, .200 postseason — 1933-41 Giants, 1956-63 Giants, 1960-65 Chargers, 2000-04 Patriots, 2000-04 Eagles

As you look at the fifth group, I'd like to reinforce the point I made earlier about postseason percentages. The Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb Eagles are notorious postseason underachievers, yet their postseason record is .583. Frank Gifford's Giants, who played for the NFL title six times in eight years, are less than half that, below .300. The two earliest teams on this list, the Giants, are dragged down by poor postseason percentages and should probably be one or two categories higher. And the Belichick Patriots, weighed down by a 5-11 2000 season, but boasting three titles and a perfect record in the playoffs and Super Bowl, clearly are better than their .663 winning percentage, the lowest of any team I evaluated.

It's time to get serious, so we wave goodbye to: Sid Gillman's Chargers (.667 winning percentage, 1-4 in AFL title games), Reid's Eagles (with only one Super Bowl appearance and no victories, probably the least-dynastic team on the list), Sammy Baugh's Redskins (.415 against teams without losing records), the Waterfield/Van Brocklin Rams (a short five-year run and only one title), the Shula/McCafferty Colts (barely even eligible for my list, with five seasons between championship appearances), Jim Plunkett's Raiders (a blah .685 winning percentage), and the Bill Parcells Giants (not even one of the top three teams of its own era).

We're also dropping the 1973-77 Raiders, 1984-88 Bears, and 1990-94 Niners. They are among the most dominant regular-season teams in history, with the 3rd-, 5th-, and 11th-best regular season winning percentages, all above .750. But they meet only the minimum five-year standard, and none appeared in more than one championship game. They have excuses — the Steel Curtain, Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs, Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys — but one and done is no way to build a true dynasty.

We've cut 10 teams now, so there are 22 left. Let's make it an even 20 by dropping the David Woodley/Dan Marino Dolphins, who had little postseason success, and the Broncos under Dan Reeves, who reached three Super Bowls in a pathetically weak AFC only to lose by an average of 32 points.

Now even the weakest of the remaining teams has some claim of being a dynasty. The 1973-77 Vikings and 1989-93 Bills are the only teams without any Super Bowl wins (or equivalent), but they dominated their conferences and went to the big game almost every year. Both were over .500 in the postseason and won well over 70% percent of their games.

Minnesota's .779 regular-season mark is the fourth-best of any team remaining on the list, and its .976 record against sub-.500 teams (remember the inspiration for this whole project, from Dr. Z?) trails only the Steel Curtain and Don Hutson's Packers. Buffalo couldn't get past Dallas in the Super Bowl, but it was an impressive .644 against teams at or above .500 — good for seventh-best on the list. For all that, dynasties are about winning championships, and while those teams were certainly dominant, only the most liberal of judges would deem them dynastic.

For similar reasons, we can probably eliminate Gifford's Giants, with a .286 postseason percentage and only one NFL title. We'll cut the list to 15 by dropping Mike Holmgren's Packers, whose brief five-year run produced only one Super Bowl victory, and the Marshall Faulk Rams, who were really dominant for only two of their five years.

That leaves us with 15 potential dynasties.

Fifteen Potential Dynasties

All eight of Zimmerman's dynasties — Hutson's Packers, Luckman's Bears, Graham's Browns, Parker's Lions, Lombardi's Packers, the Steel Curtain, Montana's Niners, and Johnson's Cowboys — are still around, but it's time to cut one of them.

Buddy Parker's Lions won three NFL titles in six seasons, losing another to Graham's Browns, which is nothing to be ashamed of. But Detroit wasn't really a dominant team. Its .674 regular-season record is unimpressive in the context of this list, and its .853 mark against sub-.500 teams doesn't denote true dominance. Furthermore, being the best in a 12-team league isn't nearly as tough as winning consistently in a league with more than 20 teams, as all but a few of the remaining groups did. And the Lions fell apart after their six-year reign, stumbling to 4-7-1 and then 3-8-1. The "dynasty" had no staying power. I think Zimmerman was just looking for a connector between Graham and Lombardi; the Lions aren't of the same caliber as the other dynasties he named.

For similar reasons, the 1930s Giants seem out of their league at this point. Their sub-.700 record indicates that they weren't nearly the best team of the late 30s, trailing the Bears (.843), GB (.765), and already-dismissed Boston/Washington (.708). Three championships seems like a reasonable cutoff for determining dynasties, and the Giants fail to meet that standard, as well. The team's consistency is countered by its lack of real dominance.

The Mile-High Salute Broncos are still pretty clear in our memories, and it seems easy to drop them from the list now, as well. Few really considered Denver a dynasty at the time, and a five-year, two-title, barely-.700 legacy isn't enough to change our minds.

With 12 teams remaining, it's long past time for me to address Belichick's Patriots. They don't belong on this list. Not as it stands. My five-year minimum is arbitrary, but that's what I've been using, and with that standard, New England should have been eliminated long ago. It's easy to project another winning season for the Pats in 2005-2006, but as this list stands, Bill Belichick's crew is more than 50 percentage points down from the next team with fewer than nine seasons. Make it a four-year dynasty, and the Pats are .750 with three championships in four years, but I can't wrap my brain around such a short reign being called a dynasty. Maybe it is, but I wouldn't put it, at this point, ahead of San Francisco or Washington in the 80s, or Dallas in the 70s. It's probably ahead of Steve Van Buren's Eagles. That would leave the Pats 11th on the list. Just my opinion.

Van Buren's Eagles are my favorite neglected team, but they feel like Parker's Lions: a connector between dynasties rather than one that stands on its own. Philadelphia was the NFL's best team during the four years between the birth of the AAFC and its partial merger with the NFL. The 1950 season-opener between the defending-champion Eagles and the AAFC's Browns was probably the most highly-anticipated pro football game until the first Super Bowl. Cleveland stunned the Eagles 35-10, and when the two rematched later in the season, the Browns won without throwing a pass. Cleveland went on to win the NFL Championship, and that was the end of Philadelphia's reign. Although they won NFL titles in 1948 and '49, the Eagles might never have been the best team in professional football.

The remaining ten teams, in chronological order:

Fifteen Potential Dynasties

The astute will notice some overlap: the Packers and Bears from '39-'43; Dallas, Miami and Pittsburgh from '72-'75; San Francisco and Washington from '82-'89. Dynasties don't overlap. A dynasty cannot be born until its predecessor has fallen.

Cut 1972-73 off the Steelers if you like, but their dynasty clearly supercedes the Paul Warfield Dolphins, and with a 2-0 Super Bowl record against Staubach's Cowboys, the Steel Curtain obviously ruled the 1970s.

The 1980s, on paper, are harder to divide — Washington had a better postseason record and was an upset away from a fourth Super Bowl — but we all know who comes first in that era, and it was San Francisco. I'm going to justify keeping both the Packers and Bears by expanding Chicago's run to 1950; this breaks my "six years without a championship appearance rule," but I don't care.

The Top NFL Dynasties

Of these remaining seven, the only questionable one appears to be Jimmy Johnson's Dallas teams of the early '90s, whose five-year run is by far the shortest in this group. We could expand things to include the team's 10-6 campaign in 1996, but there are losing records on either side, so it's tough to make the case for anything longer than a six-year reign. I'm willing to consider that a dynasty, I guess, but not in the same league as Lombardi or Graham or the Steel Curtain.

The greatest dynasty in NFL history, in my opinion, must be the Browns from 1946-55, the Packers from 1959-67, or the Steelers 1972-79. Cleveland has huge statistical edges in every category, but four of its ten seasons were in the AAFC. In the NFL from 1950-55, the Browns were 58-13-1 (.813), made the NFL Championship Game every season, and won it three times. They were 34-2 (.944) against sub-.500 competition and 24-11-1 (.681) against teams without losing records. Even excluding the AAFC years, that kind of dominance is unparalleled in the modern era. Throw in four-for-four in the AAFC from 1946-49, and I'm inclined to regard Otto Graham's Browns as the greatest dynasty in the history of professional football.

Finally, some other things that deserve mention:

Tom Landry's Cowboys had 20 winning seasons in a row, including five Super Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl wins, and a last-minute loss in the Ice Bowl. That's a dynasty.

The Raiders had 16 winning seasons in a row. Over 22 years, they won three Super Bowls and had only one losing season. That's a dynasty.

In the 1990s, Dallas owned the burgeoning Holmgren mini-dynasty. From 1993-97, the Cowboys were 7-0 against the Packers, all by double-digits and including three playoff wins. Crushing your rivals consistently is pretty dynastic. Belichick's consistent success against Peyton Manning's Colts has certainly added to the Patriots legend.

If New England somehow wins its third consecutive Super Bowl next season — something that has never been done — I'll rewrite this article a year from now with the top eight.

Comments and Conversation

March 15, 2005

James Lavin:

This is an interesting project, and I commend you on your research and analysis. Having said that, I don’t believe comparing winning percentages across decades is an ideal methodology. Context matters a great deal. As you point out in your discussion of the ’70s, there were a bunch of excellent teams and many crappy teams. Competitiveness has ramped up since the late 1970s. There are now more teams, and the teams are less unequal.

In the 2000s, three championships in four seasons in a 32-team league with a salary cap is dynasty-worthy. And, because they play in the AFC, the Patriots had to beat three great playoff teams to win each Super Bowl. Your five-year minimum is arbitrary. What if the Patriots had gone 76-0 over four years, winning all four titles? Would their crappy 2000 season still disqualify them from consideration?

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