Professional Football Dynasties Part 1

September 9, 2013

Bill James wrote an article called Dynasties back in July, 2012. The article reminded me of the classic Rodney Dangerfield movie Back To School. For one of his final exams, Dangerfield is given a one-question test - with 27 parts. This was one article about baseball dynasties, with 50 parts.

In Part 2, Bill asks "What Exactly Is a Dynasty?" I'll quote him as a refresher for those that haven't read the article, so we can set some ground rules:

 

T​he practical definition of the term "dynasty" in sports is "a series of successful teams that represent the same franchise and have key personnel in common."   Beyond that, trying to observe too closely the meaning of the term "dynasty", as implied by other usages of the term, is just going to lead to trouble; at least it did for me, in the twenty or thirty years I was trying to think through this problem.     We will often see, for example, multiple dynasties running concurrently in the same league.   This used to bother me.  How can there be multiple "dynasties" in the same league at the same time?   Doesn’t one dynasty have to end before the next one begins?  

                Well, no, it doesn’t; it doesn’t always work that way in real history, and it doesn’t always work that way in sports history.   Dynasties overlap with one another; occasionally parallel dynasties compete for long periods of time.    This is not inconsistent with the practical definition of the term "dynasty" as it applies in sports, and it is destructive to focus on that.  

                The same with the term "great team"; what we’re really writing about here is the greatest teams in baseball history.   Don’t get hung up on the term "great".   We may describe a team as "great" when maybe we would be more comfortable describing them as "good", or even "pretty good".   These terms lack precise definition, and it interferes with our scholarly purpose to get hung up on them.     In my view and by my definition there are 37 dynasties in major league history, and if you don’t like my list and my definition, do your own."

 

In my view, there are 30 dynasties in NFL history. I'll borrow Bill's format for this piece, why reinvent the wheel? It also makes it much easier to write in short bursts. Disclaimer: I am not an NFL historian, so my descriptions for some (many?) of these teams will be very high level. My sources are Sean Lahman's incredible book, The Pro Football Historical Abstract, http://www.pro-football-reference.com/ and Wikipedia. The dynasties will be listed chronologically, based on the year they crossed the dynasty threshold. The key figures are typically Hall of Famers, pre-1950, with the occasional ‘team’ Hall of Famer type thrown in. Post-1950 the key figures are determined a little more objectively. More on that later.

 

1. The Canton-Cleveland Bulldogs, 1922-1924

17 Points, Rank 17th to 20th (tie)

Key Figures: Guy Chamberlin (coach/LE), Pete Henry (T/K), Link Lyman (T)

The first dynasty in NFL history was out of the league by 1927. Interesting times those 1920s were for the NFL.

The Canton Bulldogs were the best team in football in the 1910s (Ohio League champions 1915-17, and 1919). They held their own in the pre-cursor to the NFL, the American Professional Football Association (APFA), going 12-6-5 over 1920-21. The NFL was formed in 1922, and Guy Chamberlin was lured from Chicago as a player/coach. The team finished 10-0-2, outscoring their opponents 184-15, winning the championship going away, as the second-place Bears were 9-3.

In 1923 the team once again dominated on the field, finishing 11-0-1 for the repeat championship. Off the field however, owner Ralph Hay sold the team to the Canton Athletic Company. The payroll was too expensive, the team lost $13,000 and they were sold once again; this time to Cleveland's Samuel Deutsch, who also owned the NFL's Cleveland Indians. He added 7 players from Canton including Chamberlin and Lyman (rosters were not deep in 1920), renamed the team the Cleveland Bulldogs and they finished 7-1-1, narrowly edging the 6-1-4 Bears, for a third championship.

It is questionable whether or not to include the Cleveland team with the Canton team. I did, because several of the key players were the same.

Af​ter this things fell apart quickly. Deutsch sold the old Bulldogs team to a group of Canton businessmen. The team was effectively split, and both Canton and Cleveland played as the Bulldogs in the 1925 NFL. Chamberlin left for the Frankford (Northeast Philadelphia) Yellow Jackets where he would win the 1926 NFL championship.

Canton managed a 4-4 record in 1925; they fell to 1-9-3 in 1926. Before the 1927 season, the league cut itself down from 22 to 12 teams. Canton didn't make the cut.

All told the team went 27-1-4 from 1922-24, three-peating as NFL champions.

 

2. The Accounting System, Part I

A few tweaks were needed since football and baseball don't translate exactly. In any given season the team gets credit for whichever description of their season ranks highest according to this system:

6 points - Win Championship w/great record

5 points - Win Championship

4 points - Make Championship game w/great record (after 1949)

3 points - Make Championship game (after 1949)

3 points - Win Division w/great record

2 points - Win Division w/very good record

2 points - Win Division w/bye after 1990 (this has never been used - no team has earned a bye without a very good record - but you never know, it could happen)

2 points - Great record

2 points - Make Conference Championship Game

1 point - Very good record

1 point - Make post-season

Note from 1946-49, both the AAFC and NFL champions receive 5 points. We will not decide which team is better, we just give the benefit of the doubt and give the same points as if two great teams played for the championship (6 and 4), spread evenly.

What is a great record? What is a very good record? We'll get to that a little later.

 

3. The Decatur-Chicago Staleys-Bears, 1920-1927

16 Points, Rank 21st to 24th (tie)

Key Figures: George Halas (coach/RE), Ed Healey (T), George Trafton (C/DT), Dutch Sternaman (LH)

The A.E. Staley food starch company in Decatur, IL started the Staleys in 1919. George Halas and Dutch Sternaman ran the team and took over as owners in 1921. They moved the team to Chicago with a one-year agreement to call the team the Staleys. In 1922 they were renamed the Bears.

The Staleys finished second in the 1920 AFPA with 10-1-2 record. In 1921 they won this dynasty's only championship. This was not without controversy, however. With both teams entering the game at 6-0, Buffalo defeated the Staleys in Chicago on Thanksgiving, 7-6. Chicago demanded a rematch, and Buffalo agreed - under the condition that the game would be considered a post-season exhibition game. The game was played in Chicago and the Staleys won 10-7. Halas claimed the game should count, since December 4 was well before the season typically ended in Illinois. They also beat Canton and the Chicago Cardinals after the Buffalo rematch. Counting the exhibition, Chicago finished 9-1-1, Buffalo 9-1-2. Ties did not count in the NFL before 1972, they were dropped from the record. Now they count as 1/2 win and 1/2 loss.

The league agreed to count the game. The tiebreaker used was this: if teams played multiple times, the last game counts more. The controversy was referred to as the "Staley Swindle" in Buffalo.

The Bears were 24-6-5 from 1922-24, but played second fiddle to the Bulldogs. 1924 is the year both teams could be recognized as dynasties.

After falling back to 9-5-3 in 1925, the Bears came back in 1926, finished second at 12-1-3, behind Frankford's 14-1-2. The Bears finished 3rd at 9-3-2 in 1927.

In 1928 the team slipped to 7-5-1 and in 1929 they fell all the way to 4-9-2, ending the dynasty.

 

4. The Accounting System Part II

You may have noticed that the Bears' first dynasty ended after just two negative seasons, not three. The baseball dynasty system requires three negative seasons to kill a dynasty. For football this just doesn't work. Careers are short, personnel changes faster. Teams go from great to terrible more quickly. So a few tweaks were made to the negative part of the system.

The baseball system gives a -2 for a season with no positive dynasty accomplishments; a -3 if the team is also under .500. For football we are going with a three-tiered approach:

-1 point - record of 9-6-1, 8-5-1, 7-4-1, 6-4-1, 6-3-1 or better while not generating a positive score, dependent on schedule length.

-2 points - .500 record or better while not generating at least -1 point or a positive score

-3 points - sub-.500 record

There are three ways to kill a dynasty. If a team scores -5 points over two years, or has negative points in 3 consecutive seasons, the dynasty is over. A dynasty also dies if they fall to zero (or fewer) points.

There are only a handful of cases where the -5 rule ends a dynasty that would not have ended the following year anyway. I'm more comfortable with ending them in these situations, hence the rule.

Take the 1931-32 Giants. The Giants won the 1927 Championship at 11-1-1 and finished second in 1929 and 1930 with a 26-5-1 combined record. In 1931 they fell to 7-6-1 and by 1932 they were 4-6-2. That's it - the 1927-30 team is dead at that point. They hired a new coach in 1931 and most of the key players were gone by 1933 when the team returned to prominence.

 

5. The Green Bay Packers, 1929-1932

17 points, Rank 17th to 20th (tie)

Key Figures: Curly Lambeau (coach), Cal Hubbard (T), Johnny McNally (TB), Mike Michalske (G), Arnie Herber (QB)

The 1929 squad was one of the all-time greats finishing 12-0-1, and outscoring its opponents 198-22. In 1930 they started 8-0, and held on to finish 10-3-1, narrowly edging the 13-4 Giants (.769-.765). In their final game they blocked an extra point in a 6-6 game to preserve the tie, which won the championship.

In 1931 the Packers became the next-to-last NFL team to win 3 consecutive championships (the 1965-67 Packers are the most recent), clinching the title with a week to spare, finishing 12-2.

This dynasty would have won a 4th consecutive championship under modern rules. The Packers finished 10-3-1 in 1932, while the Bears were 6-1-6 and Portsmouth was 6-1-4. Chicago and Portsmouth at .857 (remember ties did not count), who were tied, played a playoff for the title. Counting ties, Green Bay was .750, while Portsmouth finished at .727 and Chicago at .692.

This team won 30 consecutive home games - a record that still stands.

In 1933 Green Bay fell to 5-7-1. 1934 saw them finish 7-6, ending the dynasty. They finished 8-4 in 1935 (-1), which would have ended the dynasty, even without the -5 rule.

This team’s Hall of Fame tackle, Cal Hubbard is the same Cal Hubbard who is in the baseball Hall of Fame as an umpire.

 

6. Comparing NFL and MLB Won-Loss Records

It's pretty obvious that NFL and MLB won loss records are not directly comparable. 100-62 in baseball will generally be the best record in the league. Whereas 10-6 in the NFL means you are playing on the first weekend of the playoffs, possibly even out of the playoffs.

So I looked at the number of 100 and 90 win teams in MLB each year from 1960-2011. Over this time period 4.2% of teams won at least 100 games, and 20% won 90-99 games. From 1946-57 there were 27 teams that won 100 games-14% of all teams. So I decided to start with 1960 for my comparison.

The number of 100+ win teams is skewed by expansion. In expansion years, 9.7% of teams win at least 100 games. In expansion plus 1-7 years, 4.2% win 100+. After expansion +8 only 2.4% of teams are 100 game winners.

The rule of thumb I worked out was expansion year and expansion +1, 26.5% win at least 90 games. By years 2-4 this is down to 24.7% and after year 4 we see about 22.5% win 90+ games.

What about the NFL?

Based on these numbers, I decided to target 3-5% as my 'great' record for NFL teams, and 20-25% as my 'very good' record.

The NFL has had a 16-game schedule since 1978. Over that time frame 2.7% of teams went 14-2 or better, 6.3% went 13-3 or better. It was a close call, but 13-3 as the 'great' threshold seemed more reasonable.

21.8% of NFL teams finish at least 10-5-1, while 32.5% finish 10-6 or better. I decided to make 10-5-1 the cutoff, feeling 10-6 was just too inclusive. So we were slightly lax with the 'great' designation, and slightly tough with the 'very good designation'.

For the 14 game schedule (1961-77) the cutoffs are 12-2 (6.4%) and 10-4 (24.9%). Only 1.2% of teams went 13-1 or 14-0, which is too tough a standard. Just 15.7% of teams finished 10-3-1 or better. So 10-4 seemed reasonable.

For the 12 game schedule (1935-36, 1947-60), we use 10-2 (6.1%) and 8-3-1 (20.4%) using 8-4 would have pushed us to 29.8% - too loose.

The schedule from 1937-42 and 1946 was 11 games. 10-1 (5.7%) and 8-3 (24.3%) are the standards there.

1943-45 had a war-shortened 10 game schedule. We use 9-1 and 7-2-1 those years.

Prior to 1935, the schedule was not uniform. We break this down into two eras - 1920-26, 1927-1934. This division lines up with when the NFL contracted to 12 teams and the talent gap narrowed a bit.

For 1927-34 a great team finished with an .889 W-L percentage and an .820 W-L-T percentage. Teams need to meet both standards. A very good team is .750/.667.

Fina​lly, from 1920-26 we use .900/.844 for a great team and .727/.700 for a very good team. 

Essentially we are saying the top 6% of regular season records are great, and the top 20-25% are very good. Just like we did for baseball.

 

7. The Chicago Bears, 1932-1950

36 points, Rank 5th

Key Figures: George Halas (coach), Bronko Nagurski (FB/T/LB), Sid Luckman (QB/CB), Dan Fortmann (G/DT), George McAfee (HB/DB), Bulldog Turner (C/DT), Joe Stydahar (T), Bill Hewitt (TE/DE), George Musso (OL)

We've finally hit our first long-term dynasty. The 1932-50 Bears are tied as the second longest dynasty in NFL history. These are the famous Monsters of the Midway.

From Lahman, "The Bears stayed with the T-formation, an offense that most pro and college teams had abandoned and considered outdated . . . Their innovations not only turned the Bears into a powerhouse, they launched an offensive revolution." This was the first team to put the QB under center. Rules changes that made it easier to pass also helped. By the end of this dynasty everyone but the Steelers had adopted the ‘modern T-formation’.

After a 28-23-4 stretch of mediocrity from 1928-31, the Bears emerged to win their second championship in 1932. It was a strange season, as the team finished 6-1-6, but since ties didn't count, they found themselves in a playoff game, despite having the third best record by modern standards. The playoff was the third game of the season between the Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans (who eventually became the Detroit Lions); the first two, of course, were ties. Blizzards and severe cold forced the game indoors. They played on an 80-yard field that was 10 yards narrower than regulation width. This time the Bears won 9-0 and they were on their way to building a dynasty.

In 1933 the league was split into two divisions and the annual championship game was started. The Bears won the Western Division at 10-2-1 and defeated the 11-3 Giants 23-21 to repeat as NFL champions.

In 1934 the team officially became a dynasty, finishing the regular season 13-0. Unfortunately, the undefeated Bears were defeated by a middling Giants team (8-5) in the championship game, 30-13. Fans of the 2007 Patriots can relate.

In 1936 they had the second best record in the league, but the best team was also in their division. They finally returned to the title game in 1937 finishing 9-1-1 and losing to the 8-3 Redskins, 28-21. They were 8-3 in 1939, 2nd in the division.

In 1940 the 8-3 Bears beat the 9-2 Redskins 73-0 to return to the top of the NFL. This win moved them to 18 points and made them the top dynasty of all time to this point.

It was also the beginning of a stretch where they reached the championship game four consecutive years, winning three. In 1941 their only loss was 16-14 to a Packers team that also finished 10-1 (losing to the Bears, 25-17). In the playoff game, the Bears won 33-14. Chicago buried the Giants 37-9, winning another championship.

The dynasty was on the brink after a 6-3-1 1944 was followed up with a 3-7 mark in 1945 – the dynasty’s first sub-.500 season. I suppose a mulligan could be given here since Halas was off fighting the war from halfway through the 1942 season to the end of 1945.

The Bears answered the call when he returned in 1946, winning the 6th championship of this era, following an 8-2-1 season. They went 36-12 from 1947-50, but lost the division by one game each year from 1947-49, and lost a tiebreaker playoff game in 1950 to the Rams, 24-14.

That was the end. In 1951 they dipped to 7-5. By 1952 they were 5-7 and a 3-8-1 record in 1953 marked the end of the greatest dynasty the NFL had seen to that point.

 

9. What is the Standard of a Dynasty?

As Bill said, let's start by asking what isn't a dynasty?

The 1958-59 Colts finished 9-3 each season, (better than 11-5, worse than 11-4-1 by modern standards). They won a championship game in overtime, and another 31-16.

The team was 5-6-1, 5-7, 7-5 from 1955-57. From 1960-62 they went 6-6, 8-6 and 7-7. They score 10 points.

Quoting Bill again:

"Three good seasons, maybe that can be considered a dynasty, depending on how good they are, but two years. ..no.    We drew the line at ten points.   In theory, you could reach ten in a two-year sprint with no other good seasons around two consecutive World Championships, but no team has ever done that (emphasis added).   The shortest dynasties in history are three seasons."

In the NFL someone has done that.

What about the other 10-point teams? The 1992-2000 Vikings, the 1990-97 Chiefs and the 2009-11 Saints. I don't think anyone would call the first two dynasties. Neither made a Super Bowl. The Chiefs had a couple of 13-3 seasons with early playoff exits. There was another year where they made the AFC championship game and lost 30-13. The Vikings reached two NFC championship games in 3 years at the end of that stretch, including a 15-1 season. Still no one is calling that team a dynasty. The Saints have won a championship with a great record. They went 13-3 in 2011. They were 37-11 from 2009-11. They were close before last year’s debacle, but I don't think we'd call them a dynasty just yet.

​In the NFL things are different than MLB. You can be a good team and make the playoffs 7 out of 8 years or 8 out of 9 without ever being great. In baseball, that just hasn't happened. So ten points isn't an NFL dynasty. I think we can all agree here.

What about the 1947-49 Eagles? This team won a division at 8-4 in 1947 (the baseball equivalent of fewer than 90 wins). In 1948, they went 9-2-1 (3rd best record in a 10 team league) and won the championship game 7-0. And don't forget you had the Cleveland Browns over in the AAFC, a league that was about to merge with NFL, at 14-0. In 1949 the Eagles were 11-1 and repeated as champions. That was a great season. Except you've still got the Browns winning titles in the other league.

And that's it. In 1946 the Eagles were 6-5. In 1950 they fell to 6-6 and by 1951 they were 4-8. Is that a dynasty? That's 11 points.

Sticking with the Eagles, how about the 2000-2010 version? In 2000 they emerged with an 11-5 season. Philadelphia followed that up by going to three consecutive NFC championship games, but they lost them all. In 2004 they finally got over the hump, but lost the Super Bowl. They were sitting at 11 points then.

And that's where they peaked. They followed up the Super Bowl season with a 6-10 collapse. They bounced back to win a division at 10-6 - fewer than 90 equivalent wins - one point. The next year they were 8-8, one point forward, two points back, now sitting on 7 points. In 2008 they returned to the NFC championship game, but as a 9-6-1 team. They lost to a 9-7 team. They went 11-5 in 2009, but that only got them a wild card and they got blown out of the game by a 34-14 score. Next up was a 10-6 division win and another first round playoff exit. They were finally back to 11 points. But another 8-8 in 2011 moved them back to 9. They went 4-12 last year, so this run is now in the books.

This was a very good team from 2000-2004. But was it a dynasty? I don’t think so, even with a pretty liberal definition.

How about the 1992-97 Steelers? Another 11-point team, they reached one Super Bowl, and two other AFC championship games. They made the playoffs every year. Is that a dynasty?

Here's one final 11-point team - and it's a tough one: the 1999-2004 Rams. This was a truly great team from 1999-2001. Their record was 37-11 – quite similar to the present-day Saints, but they returned to the Super Bowl instead of losing in the playoffs.

They won a Super Bowl. Lost another in the final seconds. It's 11 points, would have been 13 if they had beaten New England. But in 2002 they slipped to 7-9. The Rams did bounce back with a 12-4 season in 2003, but they lost to Carolina in the playoffs. They snuck into the playoffs at 8-8 in 2004, won a game (against a 9-7 team) and then get rolled 47-17.

Is that a dynasty? It's close. If they were the only 11-point team I could be convinced. But I wouldn't give it to them if it also means including the 1992-97 Steelers.

12 points? Surely we have to cut it here right?

There are only two 12-point teams. The first is the 1983-93 Broncos.

We all know about those Broncos - losers of 3 Super Bowls (all to dynasties). They were also 13-3 in 1984. But that team sprinkled in an 8-8 in 1988 and a 5-11 in 1990. Is that a dynasty? Their average record of (9.8-6.1-0.1) would be the worst of any dynasty, by half a win per year, which feels like a lot since the median dynasty has 11.4 wins per 16 games. Maybe. I'm on the fence. Who is the other team?

The 2005-2011 Giants. A team who’s combined record is 68-44 (9.7-6.3 average). They won two Super Bowls with records that would be under 90 wins in baseball. They also have an 11-5 and a 12-4, but two 8-8s as well. I think they still need to do more. I have a hard time calling these guys a dynasty just yet.

At 13 points you have teams like the 1984-90 Giants and the 1949-55 Rams. Those teams averaged a full win to a win-and-a-half more per season than the 2005-2011 Giants and the 1983-93 Broncos. I don't remember that Rams team, but they only had one season worse than 8-4. The 1984-90 Giants I do remember, and they felt like a dynasty. They had two great teams that won championships. Their championship teams average 13.5 wins, not 9.5.

In the baseball dynasty system, our threshold is 10 points. For the NFL that is too low. More teams make the playoffs. You only needed to win a 5 or 6 team division, not an 8-team league to make the early NFL championship games. Now it's a four-team division and a 7-9 team has won a playoff game.

Football is not the same animal. So our definition of a dynasty is: A running score of at least 13 points in a series of successful seasons.

 

10. The Green Bay Packers, 1936-1944

20 points, Rank 13th to 14th (tie)

Key Figures: Curly Lambeau (coach), Don Hutson (LE/K/S), Clarke Hinkle (FB/LB), Arnie Herber (QB), Tony Canadeo (HB/DB/P)

The late 30s and early 40s Packers took to the new passing rules more than anyone. In 1942, Hutson had 72 catches – the runner-up had 27. He led the league in receptions 8 times and receiving TDs 9 times. He was also a premier defensive back, with 30 interceptions and he was the kicker.

Passing attempts shot up around the league in 1933. The Packers were at the forefront of this revolution, consistently ranking among the league leaders from that point forward. The previous dynasty fell apart in 1933, but by 1936 they were once again on the brink of greatness.

​After a 30-3 loss to the Bears in week two, they put it all together. They outscored their opponents 235-81 the remainder of the season, and finished 10-1-1 winning the league championship game in a 21-6 blowout. They had 38% more pass attempts than the league average.

Green Bay was back in the championship game in 1938 and 1939, splitting them with the Giants. They slipped to 6-4-1 in 1940, but it was more of a reloading year. In 1941 they officially became a dynasty, with a 10-1 season. Unfortunately for the cheese-heads, the Bears also went 10-1 and blew the Packers out in the divisional playoff game 33-14.

They were second to the Bears again in 1942-43, but with positive dynasty point records. In 1944 they had a last hurrah, winning the division at 8-2 and defeating the Giants 14-7 for this dynasty’s 3rd championship.

The team was barely over .500 each year from 1945-47, ending the dynasty. In 1948 they were 3-9, and the Packers would not finish over .500 again until Vince Lombardi arrived 11 years later.

 

1​1. The New York Giants, 1933-1946

12. The Boston-Washington Redskins, 1936-1945

14 points, Rank 26th to 28th (tie)

Key Figures (Giants): Steve Owen (coach), Mel Hein (C/LB), Tuffy Leemans (RB), Ed Danowski (QB/HB)

Key Figures (Redskins): Ray Flaherty (coach), Sammy Baugh (QB/S/P), Wayne Millner (LE), Turk Edwards (T/DT), Andy Farkas (FB)

The Giants and Redskins dominated the NFL’s Eastern Division during this time frame. But the East was clearly the weaker half of the league. Every year from the divisional split in 1933, through 1946, either the Giants or Redskins won the 5-team division (4-team during the war years). At least the Packers and Bears let the Lions (1935) and Rams (1945) in on the fun twice. From 1934-39, no other team in the East even finished above .500.

The representative from the East won just 4 of 14 championship games during this era. The Giants took the title in 1934 and 1938, the Redskins in 1937 and 1942. The Giants lost 6 other championship games, two were close games and a third was 24-14 and they were outscored 90-16 in the other three. The Redskins lost four and only one game was closer than 21-6.

These are definitely borderline dynasties, as 14 points in 14 years for the Giants would suggest. The team averaged the equivalent of a 10-5-1 record over this 14-year stretch, the 3rd worst record of the 30 dynasties. They had six very good records and no great ones.

It took the Giants 9 years to make 13 points, the longest of any team that eventually did it. They officially became a dynasty a week after the 1936-44 Packers when they clinched the 1941 Eastern Division.

The Redskins took eight years to achieve dynasty status, tied for second longest with this century’s Colts and Steelers. In 10 years they had three very good records and one great one. The 1942 team really was great; they went 10-1 with only a 14-7 loss to the Giants early in the season.

All told, these were good teams that were fortunate to be in the weaker division. I’d like to redraw the rules to leave them out. I only gave teams that lost the championship game from this era 1, 2 or 3 points, based on their regular season record. That didn’t do it.

Raising the bar to 15 points would leave out 3 other dynasties, including the aforementioned 1980s Giants, the 1950s Rams and the late 90s Broncos. I don’t think I’m comfortable with that either, as those were great teams.

So we will leave them in, with a big asterisk. This is a good system, but like any it can be gamed by teams just sneaking past the edges.




13. The Leaderboard

We've gotten through World War II. Let’s look at what we have so far:

Rank

City

Team

Start

End

Points

1

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

 

 

 

 

4

 

 

 

 

 

5

Chicago

Bears

1932

1950

36

6

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

 

 

 

 

9

 

 

 

 

 

10

 

 

 

 

 

11

 

 

 

 

 

12

 

 

 

 

 

13

 

 

 

 

 

13

Green Bay

Packers

1936

1944

20

15

 

 

 

 

 

16

 

 

 

 

 

17

 

 

 

 

 

17

Green Bay

Packers

1929

1932

17

17

Canton-Cleveland

Bulldogs

1922

1924

17

17

 

 

 

 

 

21

 

 

 

 

 

21

 

 

 

 

 

21

Decatur-Chicago

Staleys-Bears

1920

1927

16

21

 

 

 

 

 

25

 

 

 

 

 

26

 

 

 

 

 

26

Boston-Washington

Redskins

1936

1944

14

26

New York

Giants

1933

1946

14

29

 

 

 

 

 

29

 

 

 

 

 

 



14. The Approximate Value System

D​oug Drinen invented an Approximate Value system for football that is similar the one Bill James used in the old Baseball Abstracts. The system starts with 1950 and does a solid job of placing appropriate relative value on players at each position, although it seems Tight Ends and modern Fullbacks are a bit undervalued.

The results are posted at www.pro-football-reference.com on individual player pages and the yearly team roster pages. http://www.sports-reference.com/blog/approximate-value/ has the high-level explanation and there are a few links that get into the gory details of the system.

For the key players listed from 1950 on, I will include their approximate value for the team during the dynasty. If I had the time, it would have been better to weigh the approximate value by the dynasty score, but this article took about a year to write as it was (that’s not an exaggeration). Maybe that will be another article some day.

Key players may be a bit of an overstatement in some cases, but I tried to give enough names for you get a feel for who may have been over or underrated; what types of players a team had for stars; which players were part of the dynasty for less actual time than your memory would have you believe, etc.

Also note that the position E is what we would now call a receiver.

 

1​5. The Cleveland Browns, 1946-1972

57 points, Rank 1st (the greatest dynasty of all-time)

Key Figures: Paul Brown (coach), Blanton Collier (coach), Lou Groza (T/K-194*), Jim Brown (FB-172), Dante Lavelli (WR-117*), Otto Graham (QB-87*), Mac Speedie (E-59*), Gene Hickerson (G-122), Dick Schafrath (LT-119), Pete Brewster (LE-103), Leroy Kelly (RB-96), Ray Renfro (HB/FL-94), Warren Lahr (DB-86*), Len Ford (DE-89), Frank Gatski (C-78*), Gary Collins (WR/P-87), Frank Ryan (QB-80), Walt Michaels (LB-80), Bob Gain (DT-76), Mike McCormack (T-75), Galen Fiss (LB-71), Jim Ray Smith (LG-70), Tommy James (DB-60*), Marion Motley (FB-26*), Paul Warfield (WR-64), John Wooten (G-63), Bill Willis (MG/G-0* but Hall of Fame)

*Does not include 1946-49

Lest anyone think the AAFC was something comparable to the USFL, the AAFC started with about 100 NFL players in an 8-team league. According to Lahman, "players like Glenn Dobbs, Frankie Albert, Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli gave the new league instant credibility."

The Browns had 6 rookies on the 1946 team that would end up in the Hall of Fame. Cleveland was 47-4-3 in the four seasons before the merger, winning all four AAFC championships. We conservatively give them and the NFL champion 5 points each for those championships, no matter what their record was.

In 1950 after the leagues merged and cut down from 18 total teams to 13, the Browns were 10-2, tied with the Giants for the best record in the league. They defeated them in the playoff, and came from behind to beat the Rams 30-28 for their fifth consecutive championship.

In 1951 they were 11-1, but lost the championship game rematch with the budding Rams dynasty, 24-17.

They slipped to 8-4 in 1952, but it was a down year in the East and they returned to the championship game, where they lost to the Lions 17-7.

In 1953 the Browns were guaranteed at least a 4-point season once they hit 10-0, which was enough for Cleveland to pass the 1932-50 Bears as the top dynasty of all-time to that point. So you can say this has been the greatest team in pro-football history since November 29, 1953. It took them 8 seasons to accomplish this, compared with 19 for the Bears.

They were 11-0 heading into the final game with a decent Eagles team. The Browns had a 20-14 lead early in the third quarter. At that point, the bottom fell out. They gave up 28 consecutive points, losing the game 42-27.

In the fourth quarter of the championship game, they were leading the 10-2 Lions 16-10, before Bobby Layne threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jim Doran for the game-winning touchdown. Cleveland nearly won despite Graham’s 2-for-15 passing (20 yards and two interceptions).

They made up for it in 1954, posting a 9-3 record and burying the Lions 56-10. It was the third consecutive season where they played each other for the title. Cleveland followed this up with a repeat championship in 1955, blowing out the Rams 38-14 after a 9-2-1 season.

That’s ten consecutive seasons where they played for the championship of their league, and they won 7 of them. 47 points in ten years if you are scoring at home.

Otto Graham retired after the 1955 season and the team fell to 5-7. They regrouped (and by regrouped, I mean they added arguably the greatest player in the history of the league, Jim Brown) returning to the championship game in 1957 (where the Lions annihilated them). Why does no one talk about what must have been the amazing Lions/Browns rivalry of the 1950s? This makes the Cowboys and Steelers of the 1970s look like chump change.

The next year, they tied the Giants for the East title at 9-3, but lost the playoff – that’s the Giants team that lost to the Colts in the classic OT championship game.

I understand that this was a 12-team league, and the AAFC was an 8-team league. But the Browns weren’t squeaking into championship games with 8-5 records in bad divisions. This team averaged slightly less than a 13-3 record per 16 games over 13 seasons – and that is with a 5-7 season in the mix.

They stuttered from 1959-1962. They never fell to .500, but an 8-3-1 record in 1960 is the only thing that kept the dynasty alive. Paul Brown retired after the 1962 season.

If you want to cut them off here, they peaked at 48 points after the 1958 playoff loss to the Giants. That would tie them for the greatest dynasty of all time – and the other team needed 18 years, not 13.

Even if you reboot them to a new team in 1963 when Blanton Collier took over, you have another dynasty by 1969. They won the championship in 1964 and lost to the Packers after an 11-3 1965.

Lose Jim Brown after 1965? No problem, Leroy Kelly steps in and finishes second in the league in rushing, averaging 5.5 yards a carry with 15 TDs in 1966 and the team finishes 9-5. In 1968 and 1969 they were one game from the Super Bowl, with 10-4 and 10-3-1 records. Collier left after a 7-7 season in 1970 – and Browns finished 19-9 over 1971-72.

By 1974 the team was 4-10 and they finished 3-11 in 1975. Once it’s over, it tends to end quickly. But the 27-year run was amazing. It started right after World War II and ended during Nixon’s second term as president. This has to be the most underrated long-term dynasty in the history of US professional sports.

 

16. The Detroit Lions, 1952-1957

17 points, Rank 17th to 20th (tied)

Key Figures: Buddy Parker (coach), Jack Christiansen (S/KR-89), Bobby Layne (QB-73), Lou Creekmur (T/G-67), Jim David (DB-59), Joe Schmidt (LB-49), Yale Lary (S/P-49), Leon Hart (E/FB/DE-47), Dorn Dibble (E/DB-45), Doak Walker (HB/K/P-44), Jim Doran (E/DE-44), Cloyce Box (E-HB-41), Dick Stanfel (RG-38)

The most similar team to the 1950s Lions is probably the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. They were a great team, for a relatively brief period. The Cowboys won three titles in four years; the Lions won three in a six-year stretch.

I’d like see a study done that looks at the overall economic strength of a city – like Detroit in the 1950s, San Francisco today; as well as population trends – to see if there is a correlation between that and the quality of the sports teams a city produces. Is it a coincidence that the Lions were great in the 1950s when their city also peaked? I doubt it, but I’d like to see systematic evidence. Smart people - please get to work on this one.

The Lions were able to acquire Layne because the late-1940s Bears drafted him third overall, promised him the world, and made him the third-string QB. They had drafted Johnny Lujack fourth in 1946 and when Sid Luckman was through, Halas put his eggs in Lujack’s basket. Layne was traded to the New York Bulldogs, who went 1-10-1 in 1949, while Layne learned how to play in the NFL. Brooklyn traded Layne to Detroit for a good DE/WR, Bob Mann – whom they released 3 weeks later after he refused to take a pay‑but I digress. Lujack was out of the league by 1952, the year Layne won his first title. Whoops. That’s how you end one dynasty and start another.

One other note, Layne and Doak Walker are the famous players from this team, but they had a great defense in 1952-53 – note three of their Hall of Famers are defensive players, and they all went in the Hall of Fame before Walker.

 

17. The Los Angeles Rams, 1949-1955

13 points, Rank 29th to 30th (tied)

Key Figures: Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch (E/HB/DB-108*), Tom Fears (E-85*), Norm Van Brocklin (QB/P-84*), Tank Younger (FB/LB/HB-54*), Bob Boyd (E/DB-56), Bob Waterfield (QB/P/K-39*), Andy Robustelli (DE-50), Don Paul (LB-45*), Dan Towler (FB-44), Leon McLaughlin (C-43), Duane Putnam (LG-38)

*Does not include 1949

The Rams headed for California when the AAFC dropped the Browns in to compete with them in Cleveland. Like the Dodgers would find out a decade later, this worked out rather well.

Utilizing​ a three-end formation, this team was an offensive powerhouse. LA finished first or second in the league in points scored from 1949-53, third in 1954 and fourth in 1955.

For every dynasty so far there’s been a pretty clear head coach, even if the same coach wasn’t there all the way through, none of them were in a scenario like the Bronx Zoo of the 1970s/1980s Yankees.

Clark Shaughnessy brought the Rams to prominence over 1948-49. Joel Stydahar took over in 1950, and left after one game of the 1952 season. Hampton Pool had the reigns from 1952-54, before he gave way to Sid Gillman. Gillman returned the Rams to the championship game in 1955, but then the magic wore off. The Rams went 20-28 from 1956-59 and Gillman left for the Chargers and the AFL.

The 1949-55 Rams were a little bit better than the 1952-57 Lions in the regular season (the Rams essentially went 8-0-4 in their extra 12 games), but did not have the same postseason success, winning just one championship (1951). They did play in 3 consecutive Championship games from 1949-51, lost a tiebreaker playoff with the eventual champion Lions in 1952 (31-21) and lost another championship game in 1955.

​That lack of postseason success (a trend that will continue for the Rams) is why they didn’t become a dynasty until they won the West in 1955 – year 7, while the Lions became one in 1954 – year 3. I think that shows that the system has an appropriate balance between regular season and post-season success.

 

18. The New York Giants, 1956-1963

18 points, Rank 15th to 16th (tied)

Key Figures: Jim Lee Howell (coach), Jimmy Patton (S-94), Andy Robustelli (DE-90), Roosevelt Brown (LT-88), Frank Gifford (HB/FL/DB/WR-87), Sam Huff (LB-86), Jim Katcavage (DE/DT-75), Kyle Rote (E/HB-69), Alex Webster (HB/FB-64), Rosey Grier (DT-59), Bob Schnelker (E-57), Ray Wietecha (C-57), Jack Stroud (G/T-52), Dick Lynch (CB-44), Y.A. Tittle (QB-41), Del Shofner (E/DB-41), Charlie Conerly (QB-40)

Seizing the window of opportunity in the East created by Otto Graham’s retirement and the sudden return to earth of the Browns, the Giants came from nowhere to win the 1956 NFL championship. After an 8-3-1 season, they blew out the Bears 47-7 in the championship game. That was the first NFL championship game since 1949 that didn’t feature the Browns against the Rams or the Lions.

They took a step back to 7-5 in 1957, but put it together again in 1958. New York tied the Browns for the East at 9-3, won the playoff and lost the championship game in overtime to the Colts. We all know the story of that game.

What people might not know is that that was the beginning of the Giants winning the East 5 years out of 6, and losing the championship game all five times. Eat your heart out Buffalo.

This wasn’t like 1933-46, where the Giants were in the game by default a fair amount of the time. They were 52-13-1 during those five runner-up seasons.

They lost every way imaginable. In 1959, they carried a 9-7 lead into the fourth quarter. The best defense in the league gave up two TDs, then the Colts ran an interception back for another and they lost 31-16.

The 1961 championship game was a lot like Super Bowl XXII. The Packers put up a 24-0 in the second quarter and won 37-0. The Giants were 10-for-29 passing, turned it over 5 times (to none from the Packers) and ran for 31 yards.

In the 1962 rematch they outgained the Packers 291-244, but turned it over 3 times (0 again for Green Bay) and lost 16-7.

In 1963 they ran into a one-year buzz saw defense in the Bears, who allowed just 144 points during the season (287 the year before and 379 the year after). Still the Giants found themselves leading 10-7 at halftime. But they lost the turnover battle yet again, this time 6-2, and lost the game 14-10, despite outgaining the Bears 268-222.

That’s 17-2 the wrong way for the turnover battle over those last four championship games.

Hall of Fame Defensive End Andy Robustelli deserves special mention, as he starred for the Rams from 1950-55, and moved to the Giants in 1956 played through this dynasty as well.

The fall of the Giants was especially hard. By 1964 Tittle was 38 years old. Gifford was 34. Robustelli was 39. After the 1963 championship game, the Giants went 2-10-2 in 1964. The offense was next to last in scoring and the defense was last in points allowed. It was the beginning of a stretch that saw just 3 winning records and one playoff season (9-7 in 1981) over 20 years.

 

19. The Green Bay Packers, 1960-1967

30 points, Rank 7th to 8th (tied)

Key Figures: Vince Lombardi (coach), Henry Jordan (DT-101), Willie Davis (DE-100), Herb Adderley (CB/KR-97), Forrest Gregg (RT-95), Bart Starr (QB-93), Jim Taylor (FB-92), Ray Nitschke (LB-91), Jerry Kramer (RG-80), Willie Wood (S/PR-78), Boyd Dowler (WR/P-76), Max McGee (E-63), Fuzzy Thurston (G-57), Jim Ringo (C-53), Bill Forester (LB-51), Dan Currie (LB-51), Paul Hornung (HB/FB-50), Dave Robinson (LB-46)

It’s amazing how fast you can build a team in the NFL. I do not know if it is because careers are short, so players all over the league are cycling through, or if it’s that the coach is so important that a good one can take seemingly mediocre players and make them good and take good players and make them great. The 1970s Steelers, 1980s 49ers, 1990s Cowboys are other examples of fast builds. A couple of good drafts and you are raring to go.

The 1960s Packers are the poster boy for this. 3-9, 2-10, 3-9, 3-9, 6-6, 2-9-1, 4-8, 6-6, 4-8, 3-9, 1-10-1. Those were Green Bay’s records under 4 different coaching regimes in the 11 years before Lombardi took over. That 1958 team had Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Max McGee, Ray Nitschke, Jim Ringo, Forest Gregg, Dan Currie (the #3 overall pick that year). It’s not like there wasn’t any talent.

I do get that many of those guys were in their early 20s. Was it inevitable that the Packers would become a good if not great team? I’m not so sure.

Anyway, you know the rest. They immediately became respectable, finishing 7-5 in 1959. In 1960 they lost a 17-13 heartbreaker in the NFL championship game, then proceeded to go out and win 5 of the next 7 NFL championships, including the last three-peat.

Some will be surprised to see that this is only the 7th-8th best dynasty ever. There are a few things that cause them to be somewhat overrated as a dynasty. 1) The team emerged at the same time as NFL Films. So everything is documented on grainy film, with John Facenda’s voice talking about the great Lom-bahhh-di – this is the oldest great team for which there is extensive video. You never see old films of the 1946-55 Browns, for example, even though they won 7 titles in 10 years; 2) The team won the first two Super Bowls in blowouts; 3) The dynasty was short (8-years) and bright (5-championships). Like with players, great peaks in short careers tend to be overrated by the common fan, as compared with long careers with smaller peaks.

Calling them the 7th-8th best dynasty in 90 years of the NFL is no knock. This was a great team. But there have been several dynasties that lasted more than twice as long. This is a tough competition. The Bears of 1932-50 lasted more than twice as long (19 vs. 8 seasons) and only end up with just 20% more points (36 vs. 30). I think that’s an entirely reasonable assessment of the two.

 

20. The Leaderboard

We are about to head into the Super Bowl era. Seems like a good time to stop and assess. Let’s look at what we have so far:

Rank

City

Team

Start

End

Points

1

Cleveland

Browns

1946

1972

57

2

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

 

 

 

 

4

 

 

 

 

 

5

Chicago

Bears

1932

1950

36

6

 

 

 

 

 

7

Green Bay

Packers

1960

1967

30

7

 

 

 

 

 

9

 

 

 

 

 

10

 

 

 

 

 

11

 

 

 

 

 

12

 

 

 

 

 

13

 

 

 

 

 

13

Green Bay

Packers

1936

1944

20

15

New York

Giants

1956

1963

18

16

 

 

 

 

 

17

Detroit

Lions

1952

1957

17

17

Green Bay

Packers

1929

1932

17

17

Canton-Cleveland

Bulldogs

1922

1924

17

17

 

 

 

 

 

21

 

 

 

 

 

21

 

 

 

 

 

21

Decatur-Chicago

Staleys-Bears

1920

1927

16

21

 

 

 

 

 

25

 

 

 

 

 

26

 

 

 

 

 

26

Boston-Washington

Redskins

1936

1944

14

26

New York

Giants

1933

1946

14

29

 

 

 

 

 

29

 Los Angeles

Rams

1949

1955

13

 

21. The Baltimore Colts, 1964-1971

16 points, Rank 21th to 24th (tied)

Key Figures: Don Shula (coach), Don McCafferty (Offensive Coordinator/Coach), Johnny Unitas (QB-86), Bobby Boyd (CB-80), Bob Vogel (LT-80), Jerry Logan (S-72), Fred Miller (DT-71), Mike Curtis (LB-65), Tom Matte (RB-64), Billy Ray Smith, Sr. (DT-62), John Mackey (TE-60), Rich Volk (S/PR-55), Bubba Smith (DE-51), Jimmy Orr (WR-51)

After the 1958-59 championships, the Colts drifted along in mediocrity for four years. They never had a losing record; there were two .500 seasons and two 8-6 campaigns. Unitas was throwing 23-24 interceptions a year from 1960-62 and the team just never put it together.

Shula came on board in 1963 and Unitas showed instant improvement. He cut his interceptions in half in 1963 and threw for 500 more yards in a similar number of attempts. They improved to 12-2 in 1964, winning the West by 3 ½ games. They were blown out in the championship game by the Browns, but the seeds had been planted.

In 1965 they finished 10-3-1, tied with the Packers for the West and blew a 10-0 halftime lead, losing to the Packers 13-10. It was the first of several near misses. Baltimore had a slightly better record than the Packers (84-23-5, vs. 82-24-4), yet the championship count was 5-1. That’s how one team scored 30 points and the other scored 16 – which I think is a good gauge in terms of showing how the system (properly) weighs regular season and post-season accomplishments.

The Colts tied the Rams for the best record in the NFL in 1967 at 11-1-2, but lost the tiebreaker – this was the first time tiebreakers were used instead of a playoff game.

Super Bowl III is what this team is remembered for – a shocking 16-7 loss to the Jets. This was after the Colts went 13-1, led the Vikings 21-0 in a playoff game they won 24-14, and blew out the Browns 34-0 in the NFL championship game.

After a down (8-5-1) year, they finally got over the hump in 1970. They posted the best record in the AFC and beat the Cowboys in a dramatic Super Bowl V.

The following year they split with the Dolphins in the regular season, losing the division by half a game. They took advantage of the wild card and made it back to the AFC championship game, but lost 21-0 in a game that was much closer than the score. They gave up a 72-yard TD pass in the first quarter and a 62 yard interception return in the third quarter before the Dolphins finally sealed it with a fourth quarter touchdown.

That was the end. As we’ve seen so many times, when it’s over the dynasty falls hard. The Colts started 1-4 in 1972, fired McCafferty and went 10-27 over the rest of 1972, 1973 and 1974.

 

22. The Dallas Cowboys, 1966-1985

​43 points, Rank 3rd

Key Figures: Tom Landry (coach), Tex Schramm (GM), Randy White (DT-133), Roger Staubach (QB-128), Tony Dorsett (RB-120), Lee Roy Jordan (LB-107), Mel Renfro (DB-103), Rayfield Wright (RT-103), Ed "Too Tall" Jones (DE-102), Ralph Neely (T-102), Bob Lilly (DT-101), Drew Pearson (WR-99), Cornell Green (DB-96), Harvey Martin (DE-96), Jethro Pugh (DT-96), Cliff Harris (S/PR/KR-92), Chuck Howley (LB-90), Danny White (QB/P-89), D.D. Lewis (LB-87), Bob Hayes (WR-84), John Niland (LG-84), Bob Breunig (LB-80), Charlie Waters (DB-79), Herbert Scott (LG-79), Dave Edwards (LB-77), Larry Cole (DE/DT-77), Pat Donovan (LT-76), Tony Hill (WR-75), Tom Rafferty (C/G-74), John Fitzgerald (C-66), Calvin Hill (RB-64), George Andrie (DE-62), Blaine Nye (RG-61), Walt Garrison (RB-59), Everson Walls (CB-58)

This team was about sustained excellence. They won just two championships, but failed to finish at least 9-5/10-6 just one time between 1966 and 1983, an 8-6 season in 1974. There were just two negative point seasons in the entire run; the second being a 9-7 in 1984. Except for 1974, the team earned at least two points (winning the division at 10-4/11-5, finishing 12-2 or 13-3 or making the conference championship game) every season from 1966-1982. There were seven 3+ point seasons between 1966 and 1978.

Despite the two championships there was definite heartbreak along the way. But it’s not as bad as some think. They underachieved in the playoffs from 1966-69, going 1-4, when they could have been expected to go 2.5-4 – just comparing their records to their playoff opponents. They won a coin-flip game in 1967 and lost games they should have won in 1968-69.

That all changed in 1970. From 1970-78 this team could have been expected to go 8-7 in the playoffs with one championship – they tied for the best record in the NFL twice. They went 14-6 with two championships. Sure they lost three Super Bowls. But they only should have been expected to be in two and they made five, winning two. That’s historic over-achievement. They did as expected or better every year except for 1976, when they lost 14-12 as an 11-3 team to a 10-3-1 – not exactly an epic fail.

In 1979 and 1983 they could have been expected to make the Super Bowl and NFC Championship, respectively and lost their first game both years. But from 1980-82 when they lost 3 NFC Championship Games in a row, that is exactly what should have been expected.

This was a very good, sometimes great team that in its prime nearly always did better in the playoffs than expected. At 20 years it was the second longest dynasty in history, behind only the Browns. For perspective, if you take away the Lombardi Packers record (82-24-4) you have a team that did that and then went 125-54 over the next 12 seasons while the other team did nothing. That’s awfully impressive.

 

23. The Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders, 1967-1985

37 points, Rank 4th

Key Figures: Al Davis (owner), John Madden (coach), Tom Flores (coach), Gene Upshaw (LG-151), Willie Brown (CB-122), Art Shell (LT-121), Fred Biletnikoff (WR-112), Cliff Branch (WR-108), Ken Stabler (QB-93), Dave Dalby (C-86), Ted Hendricks (LB-85), Jim Otto (C-83), Lester Hayes (CB-83), Henry Lawrence (RT-79), Daryle Lamonica (QB-77), Rod Martin (LB-77), George Atkinson (SS/KR/PR-77), Phil Villapiano (LB-75), Jack Tatum (FS-73), Dan Connors (LB-72), Mark van Eeghen (RB-69), Marcus Allen (RB-62), George Buehler (RG-59), Otis Sistrunk (DT-58), Howie Long (DE-54), Clarence Davis (RB-49), Matt Millen (LB-46), Ray Guy (P-44), Dave Casper (TE-41), Jim Plunkett (QB-41), Todd Christensen (TE-41),

The second of the 6 dynasties that were centered on the 1970s, the Raiders are a good contrast for the Cowboys. The Raiders had higher peaks (winning 3 Super Bowls), but they also tossed in a few 9-7 seasons and even had a losing record once (7-9 in 1981). There were 4 negative seasons for the Raiders during this dynasty, and they needed split their last 4 games in 1979 to avoid ending the dynasty (they won 3 of the 4, by just four, seven and five points). That was during the Stabler -> Plunkett transition years.

After their 13-1 mark with a win in Super Bowl XI, they led the Cowboys 26-25. But the Cowboys put up a 6-point season winning Super Bowl XII to take a 31-28 lead, made the Super Bowl again in 1978 and posted a very good record in 1979 while the Raiders turned in two 9-7 campaigns. That put the Cowboys up 36-24, and despite two more Super Bowl wins the Raiders weren’t able to catch up. The system definitely rewards consistency.

That being said I think this is probably the most underrated great team that I can think of. The team is remembered more for being mean than for being great. You always hear about the Cowboys, the Steelers and Dolphins of this era; but the Raiders don’t seem to have that cache.

I really don’t understand it. Maybe it’s because they didn’t win their second Super Bowl until the dynasty’s 13th season, and they were a wild-card (though 11-5) at that? They were 47-9 from 1974-77 when they won one championship, and 61-28 when they won two from 1980-85. You could draw some parallels between the Flores Raiders and the recent baseball Cardinals I suppose. They were always in the hunt and won their fair share, even if it wasn’t always in their best season.

In terms of the ‘dynasty’ definition, these guys fit it to a bill. You had 3 coaches, who went 25-3, 94-25-7, 79-42. Three QBs, all All-Pro caliber. They barely missed a beat through these transitions.

I​’m pretty sure if you asked someone knowledgeable about NFL history to come up with a list of the 4 greatest dynasties of all time, the 1967-85 Raiders probably would not be on the list.

 

24. The Miami Dolphins, 1970-1985

30 points, Rank 7th – 8th (tied)

Key Figures: Don Shula (coach), Larry Little (RG-121), Bob Greise (QB-114), Bob Kuechenberg (LG-113), Jim Langer (C-104), Nat Moore (WR-98), Bob Baumhower (NT-93), Ed Newman (G-90), Vern Den Herder (DE-84), Jake Scott (S/PR-73), Doug Betters (DE-67), Larry Csonka (RB-66), Bill Stanfill (DE-65), Tony Nathan (RB-62), Paul Warfield (WR-61), Dick Anderson (S-61), Dwight Stephenson (C-61), Kim Bokamper (DE/LB-59), Tim Foley (DB-59), Duriel Harris (WR-58), A.J. Duhe (LB-55), Glenn Blackwood (S-54), Larry Gordon (LB-54), Nick Buoniconti (LB-52), Norm Evans (RT-51), Jim Kiick (RB-50), Mercury Morris (RB/KR-50), Dan Marino (QB-46), Garo Yepremian (K-43)

The 1970s were a lot like the 1930s and 1940s. Pre WWII, the NFL was a 10 team league dominated by 4 teams. From the end of the Packers through the mid-80s, the NFL was basically dominated by 6 teams. These 6 teams took 19 of the 24 Super Bowl berths from 1969-80.

The Dolphins reigned over the NFL from 1971-73, finishing 36-5-1, and 8-1 in the post-season to boot. The undefeated team is well documented; Miami lost the Super Bowl the year before and won it the year after.

Like the Cowboys there weren’t many bad seasons, save for a 6-8 record in 1976. However, with the dominance of the Steelers and Raiders, and some bad luck, the Dolphins didn’t return to the Super Bowl until 1982. Despite finishing 10-4 in 1975 and 1977 they missed the playoffs both years. They did not win a playoff game from 1974-81.

In 1982 they finally put it together in the playoffs, dominating all three AFC playoff games (8 teams made the playoffs in each conference that year, due to the strike), and took a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XVII before John Riggins’ famous 43-yard run gave the Redskins their first lead, and eventually the game.

Even after making the Super Bowl, the draft handed them Dan Marino and in 1983 Miami finished 12-4. But, the 9-7 Seahawks in the divisional playoffs shockingly upset them. In 1984 they blew out an improved Seahawks team, and the last hurrah of the Steelers to make the Super Bowl again. The 49ers blew the game open in the second quarter, taking a 28-10 lead on the way to a 38-16 win.

In 1985 they had the best record in the AFC, but barely beat an 8-8 Browns team; they were losing 21-3 in the third quarter before rallying for a 24-21 win. The Patriots blew them out 31-14 in the AFC Championship game and that was the beginning of the end of the dynasty. The team stumbled along at 8-8 and 7-5 (1987 non-replacement record) before a 6-10 in 1988 put the nail in the coffin.

The Dolphins are tied with the 1960s Packers, and that seems about right, with the extra longevity balancing the higher peak. The Packers picked up their 30 points in 8 years, while the Dolphins took twice as long.

 

 25. The Minnesota Vikings, 1968-19(78)82

24 points, Rank 10th

Key Figures: Bud Grant (coach), Alan Page (DT-147), Carl Eller (DE-134), Ron Yary (RT-127), Paul Krause (S-118), Jim Marshall (DE-103), Bobby Bryant (CB-91), Chuck Foreman (RB-90), Fran Tarkenton (QB-89), Wally Hilgenberg (LB-89), Mark Tingelhoff (C-87), Jeff Siemon (LB-80), Matt Blair (LB-78), Roy Winston (LB-75), Gary Larsen (DT-68), Doug Southerland (DT-59), Sammy White (WR-54), Ed White (G-54), Karl Kassulke (S-53), Ahmad Ayers-Allen (WR-52), John Gilliam (WR-46),

What? No ringzzz? How can they be a great dynasty?

The first dynasty to never win a championship - this was a great football team; it just happened to run into other great teams in the Super Bowl. They lost more than 3 games just twice from 1969-76 and one of those was a 10-4 season where they went to the Super Bowl.

This team was built around the defense. They gave up under 150 points every season from 1969-71. They gave up fewer than 200 every season from 1973-76. They were in the top 3 in scoring defense all of those years.

But they never did get over the hump. The fact that they are tenth could show a slight chink in the armor of the system, but I’m not so sure. For one, they are as close to 14th as they are to 9th. They are closer to 25th than 6th. So even if we are overrating them it isn’t by much. They are considered the best of the next tier, but it’s close.

The Vikings were 87-24-1 from 1969-76. That’s a little better but basically the same as Lombardi’s Packers or Shula’s Colts. They threw 5 extra playoff teams in on top of Shula’s Colts in the years outside the core eight, though they were all 8-6, 9-5, 9-7 type teams. That counts for very little (one extra point from the 1968 and 1978 teams). They made four Super Bowls, the Colts two. Is 0-4 better than 1-1? There’s a reasonable case for yes. Say you give 1 point for making the Bowl and 3 for winning. That seems more than fair to the Super Bowl winners. Both teams would have 4 points in that system.

It’s not that hard to see how this team would rank higher than the Colts, unless you put such a disproportionate share on winning the Super Bowl as to dwarf anything else in the system. I mean the Colts won a Super Bowl on a last minute field goal, and had three seasons of 3 points or better; the Vikings didn’t and had six such seasons. That’s not exactly a difference that screams Colts over Vikings when looking at the big picture.

Mi​nnesota also skims by the definition of dynasty in terms of years. This thing really ended in 1978, Tarkenton’s last season. From 1978-82 they were 36-36-1, between 7-9 and 9-7 each year. But their division stunk and they made the playoffs every other year. They predictably went 1-3, outscored 86-33 in the losses – the one win was 30-24 over a 5-4 Falcons team in the strike season. This 5-year stretch added just one point to their total.

I tried to find a way to end this earlier by tweaking the system, but every time I did that the unintended consequences were worse. You would essentially have to say a 9-7 playoff team isn’t worth anything, and I don’t believe that. It’s pretty hard to play .500 ball for 5 years and make the playoffs exactly 3 times, and in such an order that never gets you -5 over two years. The Vikings had -6 combining 1979 and 1981; 1978 and 1980 would have been a -2 if they weren’t in a terrible division. It happens. The fact that it happened immediately after a dynasty is just our tough luck. No system is perfect.

 

26. The Pittsburgh Steelers, 1972-1984

28 points, Rank 9th

Key Figures: Chuck Noll (coach), Jack Ham (LB-139), Jack Lambert (LB-135), Franco Harris (RB-133), Terry Bradshaw (QB-126), Mel Blount (CB-124), Mike Webster (C-119), Mean Joe Greene (DE-111), Donnie Shell (SS-96), L.C. Greenwood (DE-87), John Stallworth (WR-83), Lynn Swann (WR-73), Dwight White (DE-65), Larry Brown (T/TE-64), Mike Wagner (S-64), Andy Russell (LB-55), Loren Toews (LB-55), Robin Cole (LB-54), Rocky Bleier (RB-51)

The team of the 70s. Just how historically bad the Steelers were before 1972 is a little overblown. From 1946-1964 the team was at or above .500 9 times, despite only making the playoffs one time (when you had to win a 6-7 team division to make playoffs). They were never worse than 4-7-1 or 4-8, and only hit that depth three times. As late as 1962-63 they were 9-5 and 7-4-3. The team had four Hall of Famers over this era.

The bottom fell out in 1965 after Buddy Parker left; they posted a 2-12 season. Bill Austin came in and went 11-28-3 for three years, leading to the Chuck Noll hire for 1969. Noll wasn’t any better in his first three years, going 12-30. The difference was, with Noll the trend was going up and with Austin it was going down. I’m just saying, it was more like 19 years of ‘meh’ and 7 years of hell than 26 years of hell after WWII.

In 1972 it reached a critical mass and the next 8 years were something to behold. 88-27-1, with four championships. Pittsburgh is basically just a hair behind the Packers in the post-season and scored as such. Like the Vikings, they died a slow death; over the next five years they were 42-31. After the Super Bowl XIV they didn’t win a playoff game for 5 years, and the AFC Championship Game loss to the Dolphins after the 1984 season was the last hurrah. They started a few years later than the Cowboys, Dolphins and Raiders, technically ended a year earlier, but peaked in points 5 years before the others stopped moving up. That’s why they are only ninth overall. But for an 8-year run they were as good as anyone.

The amazing thing about the Steelers is how well they drafted. They nailed Bradshaw, Harris, Swann and Greene as first rounders, sure. But Donnie Shell was undrafted. John Stallworth was a fourth rounder. In Lambert and Ham they picked up two of the best linebackers in history in the second round. Mel Blount was a third rounder and Mike Webster came in the fifth round. Those guys were all Hall of Famers. Heck LC Greenwood was a tenth rounder and played in 6 Pro Bowls. Rocky Bleier was a 16th rounder.

They’ve stuck with this philosophy 40+ years later. Three coaches since 1969? That’s 44 seasons and the current guy is only 40 years old. The team has always been about consistency. Even before they were good the Rooneys gave Buddy Parker 8 years. John Michelosen was given 4 years from 1948-51 where he never finished better than 6-6. I hate the Steelers, just as a dumb fan, but you have to appreciate the emphasis on consistency, building through the draft and the willingness to stick with a philosophy through thick and thin. In the salary cap era following the philosophy that it is better to dump a guy a year early than a year late, Pittsburgh lets nearly everyone go once they get too expensive, and they just keep on winning. They kind of remind me of Stengel’s Yankees in that no one except for the Whitey Ford’s and Mickey Mantle’s are indispensible, yet they just keep on winning despite the changing faces.

 

​27. The Los Angeles Rams, 1973-1980

18 points, Rank 16h

Key Figures: Chuck Knox (coach), Jack Youngblood (DE-103), Lawrence McCutcheon (RB-82), Isiah Robertson (LB-76), Fred Dryer (DE/Hunter-73), Larry Brooks (DT-73), Hacksaw Reynolds (LB-68), Rich Saul (C-62), Tom Mack (LG-60), Dave Elmendorf (SS-58), Jim Youngblood (LB-58), Harold Jackson (WR-56), Merlin Olsen (DT-42)

OK, so you are willing to give me the four-time Super Bowl participant who never won. But these Rams? Whose only Super Bowl (and a loss at that) came in a 9-7 season? This needs some ‘splain’n.

This team exploits the system because they never had a bad year. They just cranked out 2-3 points a year for 8 years. Well, they had one typical -2 season (9-7), but they were in a bad division, beat 11-5 and 10-6 teams in the playoffs and found themselves in the Super Bowl. -2 became +3. A 14-point team becomes an 18-point team.

Had they missed the playoffs that year (10-6 Washington stayed home), they’d be tied for 25th-28th instead of 16th. That’s how close these teams are. If one of the earlier teams gets to the Super Bowl instead of the 1979 team they are a 15- or 16-point team.

But even so, how does a team become a dynasty without ever making a Super Bowl? The Rams picked up their 13th point in 1978, the year before the Super Bowl appearance.

There are a lot of parallels with the recent Eagles here, except the Rams don’t have the occasional 6-10 season thrown in the middle. The Rams went 66-19-1 from 1973-78, never losing more than 4 games in a season. It wasn’t a fluke, they outscored their opponents by 156-210 points in four of the seasons. Heck, they were a respectable 6-8 in the playoffs – going up against dynasties like the Vikings and Cowboys every year. Unfortunately, there were a lot of 1-1’s, instead of 2-0’s and 0-2’s. They lost the conference championship game 4 times. Two were close and two were blowouts.

So their 1979 trip to the Super Bowl was a lot like the baseball Cardinals 2006 World Series win – the worst team of the bunch went the farthest. Such is the fickle playoffs. I’m OK with calling them a dynasty, but I think the #25 ranking would be more palatable than their #16. Any suggestions for how to tweak the system to make that happen? Or do we just roll with it?

 

28. The Leaderboard

The age of Vietnam and disco is over, we are about to head to the Alex P. Keaton, Ronald Reagan 80’s. Seems like a good time to take stock:

Rank

City

Team

Start

End

Points

1

Cleveland

Browns

1946

1972

57

2

 

 

 

 

 

3

Dallas

Cowboys

1966

1985

43

4

Oakland

Raiders

1967

1985

37

5

Chicago

Bears

1932

1950

36

6

 

 

 

 

 

7

Green Bay

Packers

1960

1967

30

7

Miami

Dolphins

1970

1985

30

9

Pittsburgh

Steelers

1972

1984

28

10

Minnesota

Vikings

1968

1982

24

11

 

 

 

 

 

12

 

 

 

 

 

13

 

 

 

 

 

13

Green Bay

Packers

1936

1944

20

15

New York

Giants

1956

1963

18

16

Los Angeles

Rams

1973

1980

18

17

Detroit

Lions

1952

1957

17

17

Green Bay

Packers

1929

1932

17

17

Canton-Cleveland

Bulldogs

1922

1924

17

17

 

 

 

 

 

21

 

 

 

 

 

21

 

 

 

 

 

21

Decatur-Chicago

Staleys-Bears

1920

1927

16

21

Baltimore

Colts

1964

1971

16

25

 

 

 

 

 

26

 

 

 

 

 

26

Boston-Washington

Redskins

1936

1944

14

26

New York

Giants

1933

1946

14

29

 

 

 

 

 

29

 Los Angeles

Rams

1949

1955

13

 

To be continued...
 
 

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

nettles9
Excellent. Well-researched and well-written.
11:25 AM Sep 14th
 
OldBackstop
Where are the Giants under Eli heading? Two rings in eight years, two other playoff appearances, zero losing seasons.
9:43 AM Sep 11th
 
bearbyz
One problem with having the Vikings 10th is the AFC was a lot stronger than the NFC in those days. The Vikings and Rams had an easier path to the playoffs. I say this in spite being a Viking fan.
11:54 AM Sep 10th
 
DavidTodd
Good read, I remember a lot of those names, haven't thought about them for years since I don't read anything about football anymore.
6:04 PM Sep 9th
 
Trailbzr
Being a teenager at the time, I had no sense of historical perspective at how monotonous NFL division races were in the 70s. The Cowboys, Vikings, Rams, Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders would have the playoffs locked up by Thanksgiving, and the only "race" was whether some upstart would make them settle for a wild card at 10-4.

Turns out they were five of the ten best teams of all time, plus #16. OK.
5:55 PM Sep 9th
 
tigerlily
Looking forward to Part 2.
12:34 PM Sep 9th
 
bearbyz
Excellent write up. I liked how you explained your adjustments for Football as compared to baseball.
11:41 AM Sep 9th
 
 
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