Great Teams and NFL Dynasties
June 5, 2012 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Earlier this year, while working on an article about the greatest wide receivers snubbed by the Hall of Fame, I realized that the 1990s Bills have more Hall of Famers than any of the teams that beat them in the Super Bowl. It made me curious about which great teams are over- and under-represented in Canton. But first, I had to decide which teams to look at.
The analysis of which great teams have too many or too few Hall of Famers is coming in a week or two. Below, however, are the results of my initial research — identifying great teams. I used a purely mathematical formula, a quick-and-dirty method that shouldn't be taken as anything other than a general guide.
The formula is simple. A winning season is worth 1 point. That rises to 2 points if the team finished at least .750, and 3 points if it was over .850. For all seasons, I used the modern system in which a tie counts as ½-win, ½-loss. A championship victory is worth 3 additional points, but a championship appearance is worth 1 even if the team loses. A losing season incurs a -1 penalty, as do all AAFC seasons and all AFL seasons prior to 1966 (beginning of Super Bowl Era).
From 1966-69, the loser of the AFL title game doesn't get the normal 1-point bonus, and starting in '66, only Super Bowl winners get the +3 bonus for league champions. Basically:
We'll break this down by length of dynasty, starting with five years. There are 48 teams with more than 10 "points" over a five-year span, not including overlaps:
Obviously, most of these teams are not true dynasties, but with even with so many teams making the cut, 10 is a competitive standard. It omits the Dan Reeves Broncos (1985-89, 7 pts), the Sid Gillman Chargers (1961-65, 8 pts), the Lou Saban Bills (1962-66, 9 pts), the Donovan McNabb Eagles (2000-04, 9 pts), and any number of other fine teams that dominated their conferences, but not necessarily their leagues. Even multiple champions like the Jim Plunkett Raiders and Tom Coughlin Giants barely meet the cutoff. Certainly I would regard any discussion of the Giants as a dynasty to be premature.
The obvious standout is the Marion Motley Browns, who lost six games in five seasons and won the league championship every year. In the Super Bowl era, the standout is the Steel Curtain, closely followed by the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys, the Tom Brady Patriots, and — somewhat surprisingly, since few people consider them a dynasty — the Paul Warfield Dolphins, who played in three straight Super Bowls and won back-to-back titles.
At six years, there are 33 teams with at least 13 points, and curiously, all of them have at least 14:
The Browns are joined at the top by the Vince Lombardi Packers and the Steel Curtain, then several very old teams and the Joe Montana 49ers. There are only four teams in history with an .800 winning percentage over six seasons or more: the Manning/Dungy Colts, the Paul Warfield Dolphins, the Sid Luckman Bears, and the Otto Graham Browns, who are at almost .900. It's worth noting that you could easily name two mini-dynasties after Warfield, with the Dolphins joining the 1964-69 Browns, who played in four NFL Championship Games in six years.
Finally, please remember that I haven't listed any overlapping years for the same team, so (for instance) the 2007-11 Patriots and the early years of the Montana/Walsh Dynasty aren't listed at all. Those seasons will reappear as we look at longer time periods.
There are 24 teams with at least 17 "points" over seven years.
Some readers may feel that I am putting insufficient weight on championships. Certainly dynasties are first and foremost about winning titles. At the same time, I'd consider a team that goes 12-4 every year to be more dynastic than one that wins a couple titles and immediately fades away. The Broncos from 1999-02 were 34-30 and only made the playoffs once. Should their two championships in 1997-98 count as more dynastic than seven years of dominating your own conference? Obviously I don't consider a team like the 1969-75 Vikings or the 1966-72 Cowboys a true dynasty, but it seems entirely reasonable to me to rate them ahead of the Terrell Davis Broncos or the Tom Coughlin Giants. Dynasties are the teams other clubs are scared of facing, or excited to test themselves against, year-in, year-out, and throughout the season. Going 9-7 and getting hot in the playoffs is hardly dynastic.
Third place at this level (7 years) features a tie between the Steel Curtain and the Sid Luckman Bears. 1937-43 provides Chicago with maximum points, but the Bears would also qualify for the top ten from 1931-37 (21 pts) and 1938-44 (22 pts), 14 years back to back. The 1967-73 and 1974-80 Raiders nearly did the same thing, with the earlier group netting 15 points in the formula.
Looking at eight-year blocks, there are 21 teams that meet a 19-point standard:
For anyone confused as to how the no-rings Vikings are sticking on the list, look at their winning percentage. It's better than everyone except the Otto Graham Browns and the Sid Luckman Bears. I know they didn't win any Super Bowls, but that was a scary team. Another team that failed to win any Super Bowls, the 1967-74 Raiders (84-21-7, also .781), just missed the list. The Joe Gibbs dynasty has dropped off, as well, though it will be back.
Moving on to nine years, we're under 20 teams, with only 18 rating at least 20 points in the formula.
The early Bears and Packers both maximize their nine-year scores from 1936-44. During those nine seasons, the Bears won the NFL Western Division five times and the Packers won the Western Division four times. It was a similar story in the Eastern Division, dominated by the Redskins (5) and Giants (4). Those were consistently great teams (especially in the West, which won six of the nine titles), but probably less impressive than modern dynasties, which dominate a much larger, much more competitive league.
From 2010-11, the Patriots were 27-5 and lost a Super Bowl. For 2001-02, they won a championship, but went 20-12 and missed the playoffs one year. New England's score is one point better for 2003-11 than 2001-09. Similarly, the 49ers went 3-6 in the strike-shortened '82 season, so 1984-92 actually rates better in the formula than 1981-89, which includes a fourth Super Bowl.
Eighteen teams averaged more than two formula points over 10 seasons. For the most part, these are the greatest dynasties in NFL history.
It's surprising how often historic teams are great at the same time. The Bears, Packers, Redskins, and Giants were the only teams to appear in an NFL Championship Game between 1936-44. The Browns, Lions, and Rams were the only ones from 1950-55. The Packers and Colts in the '60s. The '70s were a decade of dynasties: the Steel Curtain, Roger Staubach Cowboys, Paul Warfield Dolphins, the Vikings, the Raiders — even the Rams, who from 1966-80 had 14 winning seasons in 15 years and won more than two-thirds of their games (149-60-7, .706).
In the 1980s, San Francisco is not strongly distinguished from Washington, and at times the Bill Parcells Giants or Mike Ditka Bears seemed just as dominant. Perhaps most notably, the 2001-10 Patriots and Colts are both listed above. These teams, division opponents only in 2001, when the Colts were awful ("Playoffs! Playoffs?! Don't talk about playoffs!") nonetheless formed the NFL's greatest and most anticipated rivalry over the last decade.
No team really stays together for more than 10 seasons, but just for fun, here are the top five at 12, 15, and 20 years. Twelve:
Okay, actually top six at this level because of a tie between the Lombardi Packers and Belichick Patriots. Something interesting about the Packers is that their .680 winning percentage over these 12 seasons is actually three games worse than the Baltimore Colts (112-47-5, .698) over the same time, 1959-70. Both teams played in the NFL's Western Conference, so their schedules were effectively the same. Baltimore registers 27 "points" during this period.
Other than the Niners with Bill Walsh and George Seifert, all of these teams are identified with a single head coach who sustained success: Paul Brown, George Halas, Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, and Bill Belichick. A reasonable argument could be made that those are the five greatest coaches in history.
The top five after 15 seasons:
The Browns and Bears average better than three points per season even over a decade and a half. Teams just missing the list include the 1957-71 Colts, 1966-80 Raiders, and 1971-85 Dolphins. From 1981-83, the Niners went 26-15. From 1996-98, they were 37-11. Yes, I know this means going with Terrell Owens over Dwight Clark. It's just a stupid formula, okay? Blame math.
The 1966-85 Raiders barely edge the 1966-85 Cowboys (43). Over those 20 years, the teams combined for one losing season (the '81 Raiders were 7-9). For all the praise and attention rightly lavished on the Lombardi Packers and the Steel Curtain and the Montana 49ers, it's surprising (and a shame) how seldom fans and writers mention the Paul Brown years in Cleveland and the Steve Young era in San Francisco. Those were dominant teams. The Browns pretty clearly were the greatest dynasty in history, but because their best years came before football was widely televised, ESPN pretends they didn't exist and no one remembers them.