Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Top 30 NFL Dynasties and the Hall of Fame
The term "dynasty" is not uncommon in sports discussions. The Vince Lombardi Packers. The Michael Jordan Bulls. The Yankees. But what constitutes a dynasty? The usual definition is something to the effect of a succession of rulers. To me, sports dynasties are measuring sticks. If you wanted to win a World Series in the 1940s, you had to beat the Yankees. In today's NFL, someone has to beat the Patriots. And so on. And to be the measuring stick, to establish a legacy that might merit that word, dynasty, you have to sustain greatness: you need a series of great teams — a succession of rulers.
The 1997-98 Denver Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls, but they didn't win a playoff game for six years before those Super Bowls, and they didn't win a playoff game for six years after those Super Bowls. Those Bronco teams were excellent, but they weren't excellent for long enough to qualify as a dynasty. They never became the measuring stick.
On the other hand, there are teams that never won championships but did become measuring sticks. The 1990-93 Buffalo Bills played in four consecutive Super Bowls. Every team in the AFC circled Buffalo on its schedule. The Minnesota Vikings played in four Super Bowls from 1969-1976. They went 11-3 or better in six of those eight seasons, and 10-4 in a seventh. From 1969-78, the Cowboys or Vikings represented the NFC in nine out of 10 Super Bowls. To me, that's more of a dynasty than the Terrell Davis-era Broncos. Teams were intimidated by the Vikings.
I know that some people disagree with my interpretation of the term dynasty. Even if that's the case, though, anyone with an interest in pro football history should get something out of what follows here. As regular readers know, I am a connoisseur of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And through much of NFL history, dynasties are actually overrepresented in the Hall of Fame. For this piece, I updated a formula I introduced six years ago to "score" the dominance of pro football dynasties, and to evaluate them with regard to the PFHOF. The new formula emphasizes sustained dominance, but you can skip to just past the next chart if you're not worried about the specifics.
For teams that made the playoffs, a winning percentage over .500 is worth 1 point. That rises to 2 points if the team finished at least .750, and 3 points if it was over .850. Prior to playoff expansion (1967 in the NFL, 1969 in the AFL), the latter bonuses apply regardless of postseason status. Teams that made the playoffs with a winning percentage of .500 or lower score zero.
A championship victory is worth 3 additional points, but a championship appearance is worth 1 even if the team loses.
A record over .667 is worth 1 point even if the team missed the postseason. Teams that missed the playoffs with a winning percentage between .501-.667 score zero for that season. A .500 season or a losing season incurs a -1 penalty, unless the team made the playoffs. A season more than one game below .500 incurs (e.g. 6-10) a -2 penalty. That drops to -3 if the team finished below .300, and -4 at or below .150. Dynasties don't go 2-14 in between championships.
The most important change to the formula is that consecutive seasons with negative scores incur an additional -1 penalty for each season after the first. Thus, back-to-back losing seasons would cost -3. Three in a row would score -6. A 6-10 season followed by a non-playoff .500 season would score -4. Any positive or neutral season breaks the cycle.
This is easier to digest in chart form:
In today's league, teams score for going at least 9-7, 12-4, or 14-2, for making the Super Bowl, and for winning the Super Bowl. They lose points for missing the playoffs, having a losing record, going 6-10, 4-12, or 2-14, and for having consecutive seasons at or below .500. Good teams get high scores and bad teams get low scores, especially if the bad teams have been bad for a while. The methodology is not perfect, but I think it generally measures what it's supposed to.
What I'm doing here is evaluating which dynasties may be over- or under-represented in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I used five-year blocks the last time I examined this topic, and I think that's too short — all the greatest dynasties last longer than that, and five years really didn't offer an accurate picture of which players and coaches built those team legacies. For this piece, I originally intended to use seven years, but I realized that several great dynasties, including the Lombardi Packers and the Steel Curtain, peaked at eight seasons, so all teams are evaluated by their best eight-year results. What follows are the top 30 teams — actually 31 because of a tie — presented by ascending score. In order to be listed as part of the dynasty, a player or coach must have appeared in at least 50% of the team's games.
t28. Philadelphia Eagles, 1944-51
58-30-3 (.659), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
14 dynasty points
HOFers (4): Greasy Neale, Pete Pihos, Steve Van Buren, Alex Wojciechowicz
Possible snubs: Bucko Kilroy, Tommy Thompson, Al Wistert
In each section, I've bolded the name of the player or coach who most closely aligns with the time frame listed. Record-setting running back Steve Van Buren was the star of this dynasty, and the team collapsed after his injury in 1950. Kilroy, a four-time All-Pro, was infamous, the dirtiest player of his era, but also one of the premier linemen of his generation. After his playing career, he remained in the game as a consultant, assistant coach, scout, personnel director, general manager, and vice president of the Patriots. His many enemies and the objections to his playing style make Kilroy unlikely to receive serious HOF consideration, but he was a genuinely great player and contributor.
The Eagles won back-to-back NFL titles in 1948 and 1949, but they probably were never the best team in professional football. Those two seasons, the Cleveland Browns went 23-1-2 in the AAFC, and they swept the Eagles in 1950 after a partial merger between the leagues. The Eagles rate much better as a six-year dynasty than they do at eight years.
t28. Detroit Lions, 1951-58
59-34-3 (.615), 3 championships, 4 title appearances
14 dynasty points
HOFers (6): Jack Christiansen, Lou Creekmur, Yale Lary, Bobby Layne, Joe Schmidt, Doak Walker
Possible snubs: Buddy Parker, Jim David, Bob Hoernschemeyer, Harley Sewell
The lowest winning percentage of any team in the top 30. They won three NFL championships and played in a fourth, but they only had the outright best record in their conference twice. Like the Steve Van Buren Eagles, they do a lot better at six years (1952-57) than eight.
The Lions, not known as a great offensive team, have three Hall of Famers on offense (Creekmur, Layne, and Walker), not to mention 39 games from HOF guard Dick Stanfel. I'd rather see Hatchet Jim David in Canton than Stanfel or Walker, but the voters don't want to enshrine an entire defensive backfield. Today's selectors have largely forgotten that Christiansen and Lary, listed as safeties, were at least as famous for their special teams as their defense (Lary as a punter and Christiansen as a punt returner). David, a six-time Pro Bowler, may have been the greatest pure defender in the secondary.
Layne and Schmidt were the outstanding players on this dynasty, but Christiansen is the one whose career corresponds to the team's success: he played from 1951-58. The Lions won titles without Layne (1957) and Schmidt (1952). I just call them "the 1950s Lions" rather than "the Jack Christiansen Lions."
t28. Buffalo Bills, 1988-95
87-41 (.680), no championships, 4 title appearances
14 dynasty points
HOFers (5): Marv Levy, Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas
Possible snubs: Cornelius Bennett, Kent Hull, Steve Tasker
The 1951-58 Lions were champions of the 12-team NFL three times. The 1988-95 Bills were champions of the 14-team AFC four times. It's not obvious to me that the former is a greater achievement than the latter, especially since Detroit's regular-season record doesn't suggest a team that would win consistently in longer playoffs.
If you wanted to assign a name to this dynasty, the K-Gun Bills would be an appropriate moniker, but with a single player, I'd choose the Thurman Thomas Bills. He was an impressive rookie in '88, and his last 1,000-yard season was '96, so the Bills' success essentially reflects his own. Kelly and Levy joined the Bills in '86, and Reed and Smith in '85, but they didn't start winning until Thomas came along.
t28. Green Bay Packers, 2009-16
87-40-1 (.684), 1 championship, 1 title appearance
14 dynasty points
HOFers: none so far
Potential HOFers: Mike McCarthy, Mike Daniels, T.J. Lang, Clay Matthews III, Aaron Rodgers, Josh Sitton
The Packers are an interesting contrast with the Bills. Whom was more dynastic? They have essentially the same record, so the question becomes whether you prefer Buffalo's four Super Bowl appearances, or Green Bay's Super Bowl victory. The Packers don't have that succession of rulers I mentioned at the beginning. If you asked me to name teams that might be considered dynasties, I'd bring up the K-Gun Bills before the Aaron Rodgers Packers.
Rodgers is a cinch Hall of Famer, but it's not obvious that anyone else from this team is bound for Canton. Daniels is early enough in his career that he's difficult to project with any confidence, but interior linemen don't typically attract much sympathy from the voters. Sitton might have a chance if he can stay healthy, but he'd need a couple more first-team All-Pro selections. Matthews is high-profile, and he was terrific in 2010-11, but I think his dad has a stronger case for induction.
David Bakhtiari didn't quite play enough games (62) to qualify in this time frame, but he might have a shot one day. Charles Woodson (54 games) and Julius Peppers (48 games) didn't nearly play enough to qualify, though Woodson played a huge role in the team's success.
t26. Cleveland Browns, 1954-61
66-28-4 (.702), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
15 dynasty points
HOFers (5): Paul Brown, Jim Brown, Lou Groza, Mike McCormack, Bobby Mitchell
Possible snubs: Don Colo, Bob Gain, Warren Lahr, Don Paul
This time period represents the transition from the Otto Graham era (1946-55) to the Jim Brown era (1957-65). The '55 Browns had four Hall of Famers who aren't listed above: Graham, Len Ford, Frank Gatski, and Dante Lavelli. The '61 Browns had HOF guard Gene Hickerson. McCormack (1954-62) is the player who bridges the two eras, but Graham and Brown are two of the greatest players in history, and there's a sound argument that they carried the dynasty: in its one season with neither Graham nor Brown (1956), the team went 5-7.
When we examine the best teams of the last 35 years or so, remember that this group — which won both of its championships with four additional HOFers — already has five members in Canton.
t26. Los Angeles Rams, 1973-80
86-31-1 (.733), no championships, 1 title appearance
15 dynasty points
HOFers (3): Tom Mack, Jackie Slater, Jack Youngblood
Possible snubs: Chuck Knox, Nolan Cromwell, Harold Jackson, Isiah Robertson, Rich Saul
Hall of Fame defensive tackle Merlin Olsen played 56 of the 59 games necessary to qualify as part of this dynasty, so he just misses the cut. Harold Jackson stands out among the snubs; he was the dominant receiver of the 1970s, leading all players in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Jackson retired with the most receptions and receiving yards of anyone who played his whole career in the NFL.
Of course, this isn't really a dynasty. The Rams made the playoffs for eight seasons in a row, including three 12-win seasons, but they only reached one Super Bowl. They were a very good team, but if you made me choose between the Jack Youngblood-era Rams and the Mike Ditka-coached Bears (who were less consistent but won a Super Bowl), or the 1960s Chargers (who reached the AFL title game five times), I wouldn't pick the Rams. The Bears and Chargers scored 13 dynasty points each, if you're interested.
t24. Washington, 1982-89
83-37 (.692), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
16 dynasty points
HOFers (4): Joe Gibbs, Darrell Green, Russ Grimm, Art Monk
Possible snubs: Dave Butz, Gary Clark, Joe Jacoby, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, Mark Moseley, Richie Petitbon
This dynasty's other Hall of Famer, John Riggins, didn't play enough games in this time period (49 of 120) to qualify. It's also unfortunate that the eight-year cutoff omits the 1991 season, when Washington went 14-2 and won Super Bowl XXVI. Most great teams fade over longer time periods, but this is distinctly a 10-year dynasty. While all the "possible snubs" listed above were excellent players, the ones who really merit Hall of Fame consideration are Clark, Jacoby, and Petitbon.
I've written at length about Gary Clark. Despite playing alongside Monk, Gary Clark led Washington in receiving yardage six times in eight years — including the 1987 and 1991 Super Bowl seasons — and he was the leading receiver in Super Bowl XXVI, with 7 catches for 114 yards and a score. For years, Monk was passed over in HOF voting partly because Giants players told the New York sportswriters that Clark was Washington's best receiver. I don't think it's a travesty that he's not in Canton, but it's a shame he hasn't gotten more recognition. Clark was every bit as good as Andre Reed.
Jacoby was the brightest star on the most famous offensive line in history, a team that won three Super Bowls with three different starting QBs and three different lead rushers. The offensive line, the Hogs, was the unifying element of those offenses. Jacoby only made four Pro Bowls, but he had a Hall of Fame-caliber career based on quality, not quantity. In the mid-1980s, he was the best offensive tackle in football. He was more outstanding than his teammate Grimm, who is already in Canton.
Richie Petitbon made four Pro Bowls as a safety with the Bears, including the 1963 championship season, when he intercepted eight passes, for 161 yards and a touchdown. He retired with 48 INTs, returned for 801 yards and 3 TDs. Thirty-five years later, he is still one of only 28 players with over 800 INT return yards. He later served as the defensive coordinator for Gibbs — a Don Coryell disciple with little interest in running the defense — and won three Super Bowl rings. Based on his combined achievements as player and coach, he gets nominated for the Hall of Fame every year. I'd like to see those nominations advance.
t24. San Francisco 49ers, 1991-98
95-33 (.742), 1 championship, 1 title appearance
16 dynasty points
HOFers (2): Jerry Rice, Steve Young
Possible snubs: George Seifert, Ken Norton, Bryant Young
I know this team only played in one Super Bowl, but the 49ers had a substantially better record than the Cowboys of the same period (86-42, .672) — that's a difference of more than one win per season. The Niners won double-digit games every year, 12-4 or better in five of the eight seasons. Beating the 49ers was a big deal.
How does such a great team only produce two Hall of Famers? Granted, Jerry Rice and Steve Young are not just normal Hall of Famers, but true all-time greats. Nonetheless, I'd like to see Seifert and especially Bryant Young get more serious HOF consideration in the future.
t21. Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams, 1945-52
61-28-4 (.685), 2 championships, 4 title appearances
17 dynasty points
HOFers (2): Tom Fears, Bob Waterfield
Possible snubs: Fred Gehrke, Mike Lazetich, Don Paul
Two more Hall of Famers — QB Norm Van Brocklin and receiver Crazy Legs Hirsch — barely missed the cutoff to qualify in this group, playing 46 games and 44, respectively, rather than the 47 needed to qualify. If you count them towards the total, I think the Rams of this era are adequately represented in Canton.
Here's a curiosity: the Rams had five different head coaches during this period: Adam Walsh (1945-46), Bob Snyder (1947), Clark Shaughnessy (1948-49), Joe Stydahar (1950-52), and Hampton Pool (1952). None of the five had a losing season, and three of them got replaced within a year of reaching the championship. Pool went 9-2 in 1952, followed by 8-3-1 and 6-5-1, then lost his job to Sid Gillman in 1955. Five coaches in seven years would be recklessly impatient in a bad team, but the Rams were terrific.
t21. Oakland Raiders, 1967-74
84-21-7 (.794), no championships, 1 title appearance
17 dynasty points
HOFers (8): John Madden, Fred Biletnikoff, George Blanda, Willie Brown, Jim Otto, Art Shell, Ken Stabler, Gene Upshaw
Possible snubs: Dan Conners, Daryle Lamonica
Let's compare the 1967-74 Raiders to the 1991-98 49ers. The Raiders were even more dominant in the regular season, and even less effective in the postseason. The Raiders score 17 dynasty points, the Niners 16, essentially equal.
Yet the Raiders have eight — eight! — Hall of Famers, and the 49ers only have two. And sure, most of the guys listed in this dynasty were on the team that won Super Bowl XI. But a lot of the Niners played on the teams that won back-to-back titles in 1988-89. This Raider team, which only reached one Super Bowl (and lost by three touchdowns), has more Hall of Famers than any team with fewer than 27 dynasty points. I have exactly zero HOF sympathy for Conners and Lamonica — and Stabler, too, for that matter.
t21. Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004-11
89-39 (.695), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
17 dynasty points
HOFers (1): Dick LeBeau
Potential HOFers: Bill Cowher, Alan Faneca, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward
Dick LeBeau is technically in the Hall of Fame as a cornerback for the 1960s Lions, but everyone knows his election was based partly on his reign as defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. Most of the "potential HOFers" are unlikely to get much support in the Hall of Fame voting, but I'm trying to be inclusive. Roethlisberger, Polamalu, and Faneca have the best chances. Including LeBeau, that would give Pittsburgh four HOFers from this generation.
If you're not familiar with some of the older teams in this piece, the Steelers can be a frame of reference for teams with 16-18 dynasty points. This was a consistently good team that won a couple Super Bowls but never really seemed like the best in the league. The Patriots and Colts were the great AFC rivalry of this era. The Steelers' major rival, the Baltimore Ravens, was for control of the division, not the conference.
t19. New York Giants, 1933-40
62-27-6 (.697), 2 championships, 5 title appearances
18 dynasty points
HOFers (4): Steve Owen, Mel Hein, Tuffy Leemans, Ken Strong
Possible snubs: Ed Danowski
Our first Pre-Modern Era dynasty. The 1933 Giants lost the first NFL Championship Game on a controversial pass by the Bears' Bronko Nagurski. They won a rematch the following year by switching their shoes at halftime — the famous "Sneakers Game." Hein, the 1938 NFL MVP, was the team's centerpiece, the best center of his era and one of 11 players in the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class. Danowski — a quarterback whose excellence was limited to offense, without major contributions on special teams or defense — was a very good player but not a serious HOF contender.
This was a very different era of pro football. In 1933, the schedule wasn't even fully regulated. The Giants played 14 games, with a league-best 11-3 record. But the Eastern Division's second-place team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, only played 10 games. The Eagles only played nine. The Giants were a dynasty, but at a time when that didn't mean as much as it does today.
t19. Dallas Cowboys, 1991-98
86-42 (.672), 3 championships, 3 title appearances
18 dynasty points
HOFers (4): Troy Aikman, Larry Allen, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith
Possible snubs: Daryl Johnston, Brock Marion, Nate Newton, Jay Novacek, Erik Williams, Darren Woodson
Hall of Famer Charles Haley came up one game short of qualifying for this time period, while Deion Sanders came up one season short. Similarly, possible snubs Jimmy Johnson and Mark Stepnoski left the team following the 1993 and 1994 seasons, respectively.
The Cowboys were a magnificent six-year dynasty (1991-96), but they don't rate nearly as well over eight years. They had losing records in 1990 and 1997, and they didn't win a playoff game between 1984-90 or 1997-2008. They rank tied for 19th on the eight-year list. From that perspective, I think four gold jackets — five if you include Haley — is reasonably fair. I'm sympathetic, however, to the doomed Hall of Fame case for Moose Johnston, the best of the modern fullbacks. He cleared paths for Smith, blocked blitzers to protect Aikman, and he was good for 300 yards and 2 TDs every season. Unlike today's fullbacks, Johnston was a full-time player, a 16-game starter in each of the team's Super Bowl seasons. He's never drawn any support, and he'll never get in, but I'd vote for him.
t14. Green Bay Packers, 1925-32
72-22-10 (.766), 3 championships, 0 title appearances
19 dynasty points
HOFers (2): Curly Lambeau, Mike Michalske
Possible snubs: Lavern Dilweg, Verne Lewellen
This was before the NFL instituted an official championship game, so Green Bay won three league titles simply by having the best record.
The minimum number of games to qualify for this dynasty is 52. Hall of Famer Cal Hubbard played 51, while Johnny Blood played 49. The Pre-Modern Era is already well-represented in the PFHOF, and I don't believe that anyone else from this era ought to be enshrined. If another were, however, Lavvie Dilweg would be the strongest candidate. Dilweg played end, a position which has evolved into wide receiver and defensive end. He was a good receiver and a good defensive player, but particularly renowned for his blocking. Dilweg was a consensus All-Pro every year from 1927-30.
t14. Boston/Washington Redskins, 1936-43
60-24-4 (.714), 2 championships, 5 title appearances
19 dynasty points
HOFers (4): Ray Flaherty, Sammy Baugh, Turk Edwards, Wayne Millner
Possible snubs: Andy Farkas
By the rating formula used for this project, the third-best team of 1936-43. During those years, no one else except the Giants won an Eastern Division title, and no one but the Bears and Packers won a Western Division title. Washington's superstar was Sammy Baugh, perhaps the greatest all-around player in the history of the game. Baugh was the league's best passer, but he was also its best punter, and a good defensive back. In 1943, Baugh led the league in passing, punting, and interceptions (as a safety).
Farkas was a fine player, but this team, built by Flaherty and around Baugh, is adequately represented in Canton already. This time period was less competitive than the Super Bowl era, and Washington was fortunate that its best player (Baugh) didn't go to war. Dynasty points became more meaningful following the partial merger of the NFL and AAFC in 1950, and again in the 1960s, as the number of teams competing for greatness doubled.
t14. Baltimore Colts, 1964-71
84-23-5 (.785), 1 championship, 3 title appearances
19 dynasty points
HOFers (3): Don Shula, John Mackey, Johnny Unitas
Possible snubs: Bobby Boyd, Mike Curtis, Jimmy Orr, Bob Vogel
The 1958-65 Colts went 69-36-1 (.657) and won back-to-back titles in 1958-59, plus a championship loss in 1964. That eight-year iteration of the Colts scored 12 dynasty points. This era has one fewer championship win (technically), but a winning percentage 128 points higher. The dominant teams of the early '60s were the Packers and Giants. In the late '60s, no one was better than the Colts. I named this dynasty after Mackey rather than Unitas, because the "John Unitas Colts" would probably imply the 1958-59 championship teams. Shula doesn't work because Don McCafferty coached the 1970 squad that won Super Bowl V.
Addressing the parenthetical footnote above, the 1968 Colts did win an NFL Championship, but they lost Super Bowl III to the AFL's New York Jets, and for every season of the Super Bowl era, I count the Super Bowl as the "true" championship. Curtis, a ferocious-hitting middle linebacker, has the strongest Hall of Fame case among the possible snubs listed here.
t14. Miami Dolphins, 1970-77
83-28-1 (.746), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
19 dynasty points
HOFers (7): Don Shula, Nick Buoniconti, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Jim Langer, Larry Little, Paul Warfield
Possible snubs: Dick Anderson, Norm Evans, Bob Kuechenberg, Jake Scott, Bill Stanfill
The greatness of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins overshadows this team's legacy. They weren't a one-year wonder: from 1970-75, they had six straight seasons 10-4 or better, and they're one of only two teams to reach three straight Super Bowls (the 1990-93 Buffalo Bills are the other). Miami went 104-39-1 in the '70s, a better record than the Steelers (99-44-1), Vikings (99-43-2), or Raiders (100-38-6).
Bob Kuechenberg was an eight-time Hall of Fame finalist, but Miami's offense is already well-represented in Canton, with five Hall of Famers, while the great No-Name Defense has only Buoniconti. Kuechenberg has also become grumpy and unpleasant as a public figure, which doesn't affect his qualifications, but certainly doesn't make him a more sympathetic Seniors candidate. Dick Anderson, the 1971 Defensive Player of the Year, and Jake Scott, the MVP of Super Bowl VII, are more deserving in my view.
t14. Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, 1976-83
80-37 (.684), 3 championships, 3 title appearances
19 dynasty points
HOFers (5): Dave Casper, Ray Guy, Ted Hendricks, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw
Possible snubs: Tom Flores, Cliff Branch, Todd Christensen, Lester Hayes
A lot of HOF Raiders played part of this dynasty, including Fred Biletnikoff and Willie Brown (both 1976-78), Ken Stabler (1976-79), Howie Long (1981-83), Marcus Allen (1982-83), and Mike Haynes (1983). It's curious that the team only reached one Super Bowl in 13 seasons with Daryle Lamonica and Stabler, then won two championships in four years with journeyman QB Jim Plunkett, even as stars like Biletnikoff and Brown — and, of course, John Madden (1976-78) — retired.
The Raiders already have a glut of busts in Canton, but I could probably be persuaded to support Christensen and Hayes. Both had short careers with brilliant peaks, and I believe the Hall of Fame voters tend to overemphasize longevity. Christensen led the NFL in receptions twice and had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons — as many as Kellen Winslow and more than Ozzie Newsome, plus he was a better blocker than either of them. Hayes, a linebacker in college but a cornerback in the pros, was a brilliant pass defender. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, Defensive Player of the Year in 1980, and one of the most successful postseason players in history.
t9. Decatur Staleys/Chicago Bears, 1920-27
73-17-16 (.811), 1 championship, 0 title appearances
20 dynasty points
HOFers (3): George Halas, Ed Healey, George Trafton
Possible snubs: Dutch Sternaman
Not a dynasty. They rate well by my system, but the system wasn't designed for the 1920s. These were the first eight years of the NFL's existence — actually in 1920 the league was called the APFA: American Professional Football Association. Teams not only played variable numbers of games, they regularly played against teams who weren't even in the league. In 1921, the Louisville Brecks, Muncie Flyers, New York Brickley Giants, and Tonawanda Kardex combined to go 0-7, getting outscored by a total of 172-0.
Only four of the 12 NFL teams in 1927 were still in the league five years later. The Bears, Giants, and Packers combined to outscore their opponents 459-161 that season. In this environment, it was easy for real teams to pad their records, but the Bears only won one championship. Furthermore, ties weren't counted towards winning percentage, so when the Bears went 6-1-4 in 1924, that counted as an .857 record, worth three dynasty points. I'm sorry, but there's no way going 6-1-4, with two draws each against the Racine Legion and the Rock Island Independents, should earn as many dynasty points as the 2010 Patriots or the 2011 Packers.
I include this team for the sake of completeness, but subjectively, it wouldn't make my top 30, to say nothing of tied for 9th.
t9. Green Bay Packers, 1936-43
65-19-3 (.774), 2 championships, 3 title appearances
20 dynasty points
HOFers (4): Curly Lambeau, Arnie Herber, Clarke Hinkle, Don Hutson
Possible snubs: Buckets Goldenberg, Cecil Isbell, Bill Lee
Like the Joe Gibbs Dynasty in Washington, this team would actually benefit from a longer period than eight years: they were NFL champions in 1944. At a time when everyone played both offense and defense, the Packers had two great QBs (Herber and Isbell), a fullback who retired as the league's all-time leading rusher (Hinkle), two very good linemen (Goldenberg and Lee), a Hall of Fame coach (Lambeau), and Don Hutson.
Hutson was more than revolutionary; he was an anomaly. It is an understatement to say that he shattered records. Around the same time, Sammy Baugh redefined ideas about what passers could do, but Hutson was so outstanding that no one even thought to replicate what he was doing. In an 11-year career, he led the NFL in receptions eight times, in receiving yards seven times, and in receiving touchdowns nine times. He was also an excellent defensive player, with 30 interceptions in the six seasons the stat was kept. He led the league in 1940 and led in INT return yards in 1943. He was also a pretty good kicker, with nearly 200 extra points made. Like his contemporary Baugh, there's a compelling argument that he is the greatest football player who ever lived.
t9. New York Giants, 1956-63
73-25-4 (.745), 1 championship, 6 title appearances
20 dynasty points
HOFers (4): Roosevelt Brown, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli
Possible snubs: Charlie Conerley, Rosey Grier, Jim Katcavage, Jimmy Patton, Jack Stroud, Ray Wietecha
Six championship appearances in eight years mark this as one of the great Eastern Conference dynasties of all time. Following a 47-7 victory in the 1956 NFL Championship Game, the Giants lost to the Colts twice (1958-59), the Packers twice (1961-62), and the Bears (1963). They collapsed pretty quickly after that, with their best players retiring, switching teams, or suffering career-altering illness and injury.
Gifford and Huff are the most famous players from this dynasty, but Brown and Robustelli were the greatest players. Rosey Brown in particular powered the dynasty: he was All-Pro all eight years, including a consensus first-team choice in 1956, '57, '58, '59, and '61. Along with Forrest Gregg, Art Shell, and Anthony Muñoz, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest offensive tackles in history. Robustelli, a defensive end, played for the Rams in the early '50s, and his teams had a winning record in each of his first 13 seasons. Robustelli appeared in eight NFL title games, winning two. Very few players have such a consistent record of success. There's not a lot of tape on Robustelli, but what exists is very impressive.
From this era, the Giants' strongest HOF candidates not yet enshrined are probably Grier, most famous as part of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, and Jimmy Patton, a five-time All-Pro with 52 career interceptions.
t9. Minnesota Vikings, 1969-76
87-24-1 (.781), 0 championships, 4 title appearances
20 dynasty points
HOFers (7): Bud Grant, Carl Eller, Paul Krause, Alan Page, Fran Tarkenton, Mick Tingelhoff, Ron Yary
Possible snubs: John Gilliam, Jim Marshall
The Vikings have never won a Super Bowl, but they reached the title game four times in eight years. They went 11-3 or better in six of those eight seasons, and 10-4 in a seventh.
They did it with Hall of Fame talent: Tarkenton, Tingelhoff, and Yary on offense, plus Eller, Krause, and Page on defense. Jim Marshall, who for many years held the record for consecutive games played, is the strongest contender to join them. Undersized at 235 pounds, he was an athletic and intense defensive end, a two-time Pro Bowler and a four-time Super Bowl starter. With seven HOFers and no championships, though, I'm inclined to think the Vikings are properly represented already.
t9. Dallas Cowboys, 1971-78
84-30 (.737), 2 championships, 4 title appearances
20 dynasty points
HOFers (5): Tom Landry, Mel Renfro, Roger Staubach, Randy White, Rayfield Wright
Possible snubs: Cliff Harris, Too Tall Jones, Lee Roy Jordan, Harvey Martin, Ralph Neely, Drew Pearson
The greatest dynasty in Cowboys history. The 1990s Cowboys won three championships in four years, but then disappeared. The 1970s Cowboys ruled the NFC for a decade. They won two Super Bowls, not three, but they had a winning percentage 65 points higher, and they made five Super Bowls in 10 years, the only team in history to do so.
There are some interesting names on the potential-snub list for this team. Jordan and Martin probably draw the most attention, but my favorite is free safety Cliff Harris. Defensive backs are judged by interceptions, Pro Bowl selections, and Associated Press All-Pro honors. Harris only played 10 seasons, and he was a hitter, not a ballhawk, so his career interception total is low (29). It took the public, and especially Associated Press, a while to catch on to Harris, so his postseason honors (5 Pro Bowls, 3 first-team All-Pro) merely suggest a borderline Hall of Famer. The Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) All-Pro team, voted upon by players, named Harris twice before AP took notice of him. He's underrated by the traditional criteria, but he was a devastating player.
8. Indianapolis Colts, 2003-10
99-29 (.773), 1 championship, 2 title appearances
21 dynasty points
HOFers (2): Tony Dungy, Marvin Harrison
Potential HOFers: Dwight Freeney, Peyton Manning, Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday, Adam Vinatieri, Reggie Wayne
The Colts had two 14-0 starts in eight seasons, won double-digit games every year, and finished three games above an average of 12-4 every season. They lost on the road to the eventual Super Bowl champion in the 2003, 2004, and 2005 playoffs before winning it all in 2006. They were less successful than the Patriots of the same period, but they were a dominant, dynastic team that produced a lot of wins, and probably at least four Hall of Famers.
Manning is a lock for Canton, and it seems like Adam Vinatieri will have a good chance. Freeney, Mathis, Saturday, and Wayne are harder to predict. I would guess that Freeney has the best chance, but my choice would be Saturday, followed by Wayne, Mathis, and Freeney, in that order.
7. New England Patriots, 2001-08
97-31 (.758), 3 championships, 4 title appearances
24 dynasty points
HOFers: none so far
Potential HOFers: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, Vince Wilfork
Rodney Harrison played 63 of the 64 games necessary to qualify as part of this dynasty. His Hall of Fame candidacy has attracted no momentum so far, but I'd vote for him. He was better than contemporary strong safety John Lynch, a five-time HOF Finalist.
Anyway, Belichick and Brady are obviously locks. Vinatieri will probably get in, and Mankins and Seymour should have a chance. Wilfork might be a long shot, and Light is a really long shot. He'll never get any meaningful support from the voters, and that's fine, but he was a very good player and he deserves to be mentioned here.
I call this dynasty the Richard Seymour Patriots for two reasons. (1) Seymour, a five-time All-Pro defensive lineman, played for New England from 2001-08. His name specifies this time period. (2) Brady has been equally dominant in the last nine years, so "Tom Brady Patriots" calls to mind seasons pretty far removed from 2001-08. Belichick has the same issue.
t5. New England Patriots, 2010-17
102-26 (.797), 2 championships, 4 title appearances
25 dynasty points
HOFers: none so far
Potential HOFers: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Matthew Slater, Vince Wilfork
Given this team's incredible success — it has the most dynasty points of any team in the era of modern free agency — it is remarkable that it only has three or four serious Hall of Fame candidates. I suppose Stephen Gostkowski or one of the linemen might eventually emerge as a candidate, but it seems unlikely.
The 2010-17 Patriots rate slightly ahead of the 2001-08 Patriots based on their consistent regular-season dominance. The 2001-08 Patriots missed the playoffs twice in eight years; from 2010 onward, they've not only made the playoffs every year, they've never failed to earn a first-round bye. That level of consistent excellence is unheard of since Otto Graham retired — more than sixty years ago.
t5. San Francisco 49ers, 1983-90
96-30-1 (.760), 3 championships, 3 title appearances
25 dynasty points
HOFers (5): Bill Walsh, Charles Haley, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice
Possible snubs: Michael Carter, Roger Craig, Randy Cross, George Seifert
The Joe Montana 49ers won their Super Bowls over nine seasons, so there's no eight-year period that includes them all. They were a much better team from 1989-90 (28-4) than 1981-82 (16-9), but they'd rank highly in this project either way (19 dynasty points). The earlier time period excludes Haley and Rice, meaning the 1981-88 Niners only have three Hall of Fame representatives.
Among the possible snubs, Craig is the only one who might generate momentum in the foreseeable future, though history may remember Seifert more kindly with time. He's listed here as a defensive coordinator rather than head coach (a role he assumed in 1989).
Let's compare the 1983-90 49ers to the 2010-17 Patriots. Both have quarterbacks and head coaches who rate among the greatest of all time, and both have a transcendent receiving talent. Both have 25 dynasty points, with New England's four Super Bowl appearances and superior regular-season record compensating for San Francisco's additional championship. The Niners still have an all-time great defensive back (Lott) and a Hall of Fame pass rusher (Haley), while the Pats could be out of HOFers after Brady, Belichick, and Gronk. So where are the Patriots' Hall of Famers?
The Pats are underrated. Not as a team, but as individuals. I think Wilfork, for one, deserves more serious Hall of Fame consideration than he's likely to receive. I would also suggest that offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has been a key figure in the dynasty, more impactful than many players who have made the Pro Bowl.
t3. Chicago Bears, 1936-43
69-17-2 (.802), 3 championships, 5 title appearances
27 dynasty points
HOFers (5): George Halas, Danny Fortmann, Sid Luckman, George Musso, Joe Stydahar
Possible snubs: Jack Manders, George Wilson
Hall of Fame center Bulldog Turner came up one game short of qualifying for this time period. Most fans have heard of Sid Luckman, the first great T formation quarterback. Fortmann, Musso, and Stydahar — all linemen — are comparably anonymous, but they were critical players, perennial All-Pros. The best was probably Fortmann, an undersized guard. These eight seasons constituted his entire professional football career, and it's no coincidence that the team thrived during his tenure. Fortmann is virtually anonymous today, but he was a truly great player on both offense and defense, the team's captain his last four seasons.
"Automatic Jack" Manders was a running back, but particularly distinguished as the greatest kicker of the 1930s. He led the league in extra points three times and in field goals four times. Wilson was a Pro Bowl end in the 1940s, later a championship-winning coach with the 1957 Detroit Lions. Wilson gave Don Shula his first assistant coaching job.
t3. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1972-79
88-27-1 (.763), 4 championships, 4 title appearances
27 dynasty points
HOFers (10): Chuck Noll, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster
Possible snubs: L.C. Greenwood, Andy Russell, Donnie Shell
This is the only team to win four Super Bowls in an eight-year span. During those seasons, they went 50-1 against teams that eventually finished the season below .500. You want a dynasty, a team that others measure themselves against, it was the Steelers of the 1970s.
Swann and Stallworth are the weakest HOFers from this great dynasty. It's curious that the famous Steel Curtain has more offensive HOFers (5) than defensive (4). Personally, I'd trade both receivers to get Donnie Shell inducted. Shell played for 14 seasons, over 200 games, made five Pro Bowls, and retired with 51 interceptions. As a point of comparison, fellow strong safety Troy Polamalu retired with 32 interceptions.
2. Green Bay Packers, 1960-67
82-24-4 (.774), 5 championships, 6 title appearances
30 dynasty points
HOFers (12): Vince Lombardi, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, Forrest Gregg, Paul Hornung, Henry Jordan, Jerry Kramer, Ray Nitschke, Dave Robinson, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Willie Wood
Possible snubs: Ron Kramer
Still the only team to win three consecutive NFL championships, the Lombardi Packers are the most celebrated dynasty in pro football history, and the one with the greatest Hall of Fame representation. I've always been interested in a line from Paul Hornung's Hall of Fame induction speech: "There were only two athletes off that team that would have been in the Hall of Fame on [another team]: Herb Adderley and Forrest Gregg were those two athletes, they were that good. But the rest of us — including Nitschke [turns to Ray Nitschke; general laughter] — needed Lombardi."
This list of HOFers doesn't even include center Jim Ringo, who was traded to Philadelphia after the 1963 season. Ringo came up one game short of qualifying (54 G), but he played on two championship-winning teams and is clearly part of the Lombardi Dynasty. With 13 members already enshrined — more than half the team — I think we've honored everyone deserving. Ron Kramer was the first modern tight end, primarily a blocker rather than a receiver. He was a very good player for a few years, but injuries limited his career.
1. Cleveland Browns, 1946-53
87-12-3 (.879), 5 championships, 8 title appearances
39 dynasty points
HOFers (7): Paul Brown, Frank Gatski, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, Bill Willis
Possible snubs: Horace Gillom, Warren Lahr, Lou Rymkus, Mac Speedie
Even if you apply an absurdly harsh penalty for AAFC seasons, like -2 dynasty points per year, the Browns would still rate as the greatest dynasty in pro football history. Their winning percentage was at least .900 in five of these eight seasons. They played in 10 straight championship games, winning seven of them. Paul Brown was the greatest football coach in history, maybe second depending on how you rate Bill Belichick. Graham is in the discussion for greatest QB of all time, and Motley was a dominant, game-changing force. Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z, named Motley the greatest player he'd ever seen.
Mac Speedie has long been considered a Hall of Fame snub, and his case is discussed in depth here. Rymkus, an All-Pro tackle, later coached the Houston Oilers to the inaugural championship of the American Football League, and probably should be just as serious a candidate as Speedie.
Best winning percentage:
1. 1946-53 Cleveland Browns, .879
2. 1936-43 Chicago Bears, .802
3. 2010-17 New England Patriots, .797
4. 1967-74 Oakland Raiders, .794
5. 1964-71 Baltimore Colts, .785
29. 1991-98 Dallas Cowboys, .672
30. 1944-51 Philadelphia Eagles, .659
31. 1951-58 Detroit Lions, .615
The Browns went 47-4-3 (.922) in the AAFC, but they also went 40-8 (.833) in the NFL from 1950-53. Furthermore, the drop-off can be explained by the decline and departure of players like Motley and Speedie, as well as evolutions in strategy that contained the Browns' dominance. They don't rank where they do because they played in a weak league. The present-day Patriots are equally remarkable, with by far the highest winning percentage of any team in the last 40 years.
Conversely, the relatively low winning percentage of the 1990s Cowboys demonstrates why they rank in the bottom half of this list despite their three Super Bowl victories. They were a great team for 4-6 years, but not the same type of dynasty as the teams in the top 10.
t1. 1946-53 Cleveland Browns, 5
t1. 1960-67 Green Bay Packers, 5
3. 1972-79 Pittsburgh Steelers, 4
4. seven teams tied, 3
t28. 1967-74 Oakland Raiders, 0
t28. 1969-76 Minnesota Vikings, 0
t28. 1973-80 L.A. Rams, 0
t28. 1988-95 Buffalo Bills, 0
If you asked me to name 10 pro football dynasties, I wouldn't mention the Raiders (at least not of this era) or Vikings. I wouldn't mention the '70s Rams or the '90s Bills, or the Dan Reeves Broncos and the Donovan McNabb Eagles. But those were great teams and consistent winners, and on an expansive list of dynasties, I believe they're more deserving than teams that won a fluke championship or two but never established themselves as year-in, year-out contenders, the team to be reckoned with in their division or conference.
Most championship appearances:
1. 1946-53 Cleveland Browns, 8
t2. 1956-63 New York Giants, 6
t2. 1960-67 Green Bay Packers, 6
4. four teams tied, 5
All of these teams precede the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. It's a lot easier to dominate a small league than a large one. The post-merger leader is the Cowboys, who reached five Super Bowls from 1970-78.
Fewest championship appearances:
t29. 1967-74 Oakland Raiders, 1
t29. 1973-80 L.A. Rams, 1
t29. 1991-98 San Francisco 49ers, 1
t29. 2009-16 Green Bay Packers, 1
Other than the Pre-Modern Era teams (especially those from the 1920s), these are the "dynasties" I'm most skeptical of. If you can't win your own conference more than once, I think you're just a consistently good team, not a dynasty. The 49ers and Packers at least won a Super Bowl, and the Raiders have the fourth-highest winning percentage in history. The 1973-80 Rams are probably the least dynastic team in this project.
When we look at each dynasty's Hall of Fame count, what stands out?
To me, it's the two teams in double-digits. The Packers and Steelers were legendary teams, but they have enough Hall of Famers already! Let's nominate Seniors candidates who have been overlooked because they excelled for less celebrated teams.
The next number that jumps out at me is the Browns, stuck at seven. I actually think that's about right, but it's jarring that such a dominant team has so many fewer HOFers than the Packers and Steelers. More about this below.
I also notice the teams near the bottom with a lot of Hall of Famers, the Willie Brown-era Raiders and the Jack Christiansen Lions. Voters have been generous to those teams. The 1967-74 Raiders, who never won a Super Bowl and never came close, have twice as many Hall of Famers as most of the teams above them. The Lions have almost as many Hall of Famers as the top-ranked Browns.
Conversely, the 1925-32 Packers, 1945-52 Rams, and 1991-98 49ers have only two representatives apiece. The Packers have two Hall of Famers who missed the cutoff by three games or less, and end Lavvie Dilweg is probably the greatest Pre-Modern Era player not in Canton. It's a similar story for the Rams, with Norm Van Brocklin and Crazy Legs Hirsch within three games of the cutoff.
The 49ers are different. Although there are some Hall of Famers who played part of that era — Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Deion Sanders, Chris Doleman, Rickey Jackson — none came especially close to meeting the 50% of games requirement. Rather, the problem is that head coach George Seifert and defensive tackle Bryant Young are underrated. Seifert was a three-time Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator, a two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, and he had a better regular-season record than Bill Walsh. Bryant Young played at a position that doesn't typically generate big stats, and defensive linemen are mostly judged by their sack totals. But Bryant wasn't a sack specialist, he was a run-stopper and space eater who created opportunities for teammates like Doleman and Jackson.
Finally, I notice that recent dynasties like the Patriots and Colts probably merit at least five Hall of Famers apiece. However, there has been a clear chronological bias in Hall of Fame voting:
The voters love teams from the '60s and '70s. The Pre-Modern Era teams are low, and that makes sense: with two-way players, those teams had fewer contributors. But the early Modern Era (Rams, Browns, Giants) is equally destitute. Green Bay and Pittsburgh got their secondary stars into Canton; Cleveland did not. Are Lou Rymkus and Mac Speedie any less worthy than Paul Hornung and John Stallworth? Probably not.
The best teams of the '80s and '90s have been equally unfortunate. Washington (Joe Gibbs era), San Francisco (Joe Montana era), and Dallas (Aikman/Irvin/Smith era) combine for 10 Super Bowl wins and 13 Hall of Famers, 1.3 HOFers per championship. The dynasties of the '60s and '70s combine for 14 championships and 52 Hall of Famers, nearly three times as many (3.7 per title).
There are multiple explanations that could account for this chronological disparity. One is that the '60s and '70s were the golden age of pro football, and that players just aren't as good today. I don't buy that, and you probably don't either.
Another potential explanation is rising standards. Perhaps today's voters are simply tougher than the voters 30 years ago. But when you look at yearly Hall of Fame classes, there aren't fewer players being elected today; in fact, there are more.
Rather, I think four factors combine to account for the chronological bias: league size, free agency, forgotten short-comings, and nostalgia. There were 21 major league professional football teams in 1960. There were 26 in 1970, 28 in 1980 and 1990, 31 in 1999. The best players are no longer concentrated on a handful of dynasties; they're spread out across a league that has grown by 50%.
Modern free agency probably plays a role in this as well. In the '70s, the best players were concentrated on a few dominant teams. The Dolphins and Cowboys and Steelers don't have much higher winning percentages than dynasties from other eras, because they had to play each other, but they simply dominated the league's have-nots. From 1972-79, the Steelers went 50-1 against teams that finished the season under .500. From 1973-77, the Vikings and Raiders combined to go 74-2 against teams that finished the season under .500. The 1970s Cowboys lost less than one game per season against opponents with losing records. The dynasties of that era competed fiercely with each other, but they were extraordinarily dominant compared to everyone else, and Hall of Fame-caliber players disproportionately played for dynasties.
Another factor in HOF selections is that, over time, player weaknesses fade into memory. All that's left are the numbers: personal stats, Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, championship rings... personal impressions start to matter less as we re-check stats and histories to remind ourselves. Personal habits, accessibility for interviews, and isolated bad games all have less impact over time. Some of the recent players getting passed over by voters may benefit from that a decade or two down the line.
Perhaps most importantly, PFHOF voters, like the rest of us, are vulnerable to nostalgia. Most of the voters are Baby Boomers, and they grew up with the football heroes of the '60s and '70s. Everyone tends to regard their formative years as an ideal, and each generation prioritizes its own experiences and memories.
Moving forward, I'd like to see the voters display more consciousness of their potential biases, and try to balance their selections more evenly.