Dynasty Rankings, Part II: Nos. 41-50
Our dynasty countdown continues, as we push boldly into the top 50.
Teams this low on the list generally have one or two highlights, with a few solid enough seasons to pad them out -- a Super Bowl win, or a couple of Super Bowl appearances, but not the sort of sustained success you'd associate with a dominant team. These are the coulda-been dynasties; teams that most fans would put in the "close, but no cigar" bucket. These are teams that got their runs cut short by injury; who were upset by a top-ten dynasty in the making and could never recover; who were just hoping for one field goal attempt to curl just another few inches.
Almost to a one, these teams ended up being bullied by superior teams. They won more than their fair share of games, but couldn't consistently get over the hump because someone else was there to do just that much better. These are the teams that curse the name of Tom Brady, of Troy Aikman, of Joe Montana; the teams with flaws they ultimately could not overcome. It's easy to imagine the what-if scenarios that would lead to any of these teams being among the all-time historical greats; instead, they reside here, in the hall of pretty darn good.
No. 50: 1999-2003 St. Louis Rams
Peak Dynasty Points: 11
Average DVOA: 13.2%.
Top-Five DVOA: 13.2%
Record: 56-24 (.700)
Head Coaches: Dick Vermeil, Mike Martz
Key Players: QB Kurt Warner, RB Marshall Faulk, WR Isaac Bruce, WR Torry Holt, T Orlando Pace, CB Aeneas Williams
The Greatest Show on Turf came out of nowhere. The first years of the St. Louis Rams were horrible. They ranked 20th or worse in DVOA from 1995 to 1998, never topping a -9.9% mark, and their offense topped out at 25th in the league. The franchise had not had a winning season since 1989, and the return of Dick Vermeil from the announcing booth wasn't helping much. The Rams were just 9-23 in Vermeil's first two seasons on the sidelines. To add injury to insult, the 1999 preseason saw newly acquired quarterback Trent Green blow out his ACL. Sure, they had traded for Marshall Faulk, but all they had at quarterback was Kurt Warner -- and not the good Curt Warner, the 1980s Seahawks running back, but some former stockboy; an Arena League and NFL Europe vet. They were going to be the worst team in the league, bar none.
Yeah, about that.
The 1999 Rams did not lead the league in offensive DVOA thanks to a soft schedule -- they played the easiest schedule of opposing defenses we've ever recorded -- and adjustments for playing indoors. Still, they scored over 500 points and led the league in basically every counting stat you can think of. And it wasn't a fluke, either -- they became the first team to ever score 500-plus points in three consecutive seasons. Warner picked up two MVPs, with Faulk getting the other one, and they finished one-two in the voting in each season, which is unprecedented. They led the league in overall DVOA in 1999 at 34.0% (41.0% before opponent adjustments -- again, a super-soft schedule), and held off a feisty Tennessee Titans team to win Super Bowl XXXIV. Vermiel retired, but that just left the keys in the hands of the designer of the offense, Mike Martz. An injury to Warner held the Rams to a wild-card berth in 2000, but the 2001 team was, if anything, more potent than the 1999 version, and they reached the Super Bowl once again, only to be shockingly upset by those loveable underdog Patriots.
Those three seasons match up with any other three seasons in the history of the league; the two Super Bowl years are both over 25.0% DVOA and 2000 isn't that far behind. Warner's 1999 and 2001 campaigns have the first- and second-most DYAR in Rams history. Faulk's 1999-2001 seasons rank first, second, and third among Rams running backs, (and first, third, and fifth among all running backs) as he became the second player ever to break the 1,000-yard rushing/1,000-yard receiving barrier. The top six receiving years in franchise history all belong to Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt, albeit with one Bruce season outside this run. While the offense gets the headlines, the defense ranked in the top five in both 1999 and 2001, too. If we were looking at great three-year stretches, the Rams would be much higher.
But we're not just looking at that, and we have to bring the next couple of seasons into the mix. The Rams flopped in 2002, with Warner getting hurt and struggling even when healthy; Marc Bulger was far and away the better quarterback that season, and ended up taking over the starting job for good in 2003. The Rams did have one more double-digit-win season and an NFC West title behind Bulger, but the writing was on the wall by that point. Even that successful 2002 team still had a negative offensive DVOA, and Martz's mad-scientist ways never produced a positive offensive DVOA ever again, either as a head coach or a coordinator. It's almost like finding a Hall of Fame quarterback in the dumpster pile is fantastic for your resume. As for the Rams, they would have just one positive offensive DVOA season between 2002 and Sean McVay's arrival in 2017.
No. 49: 2009-2013 New Orleans Saints
Peak Dynasty Points: 10
Average DVOA: 13.7%.
Top-Five DVOA: 13.7%
Record: 55-25 (.688)
Head Coaches: Sean Payton, Joe Vitt, Aaron Kromer
Key Players: QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham, T Jermon Bushrod, T Carl Nicks, G Jahri Evans, LB Jonathan Vilma
For someone who is going to retire with all the passing records, Drew Brees has been rather unlucky. He has never played on an offense with a negative DVOA, he has five of the 30 best quarterback seasons since 1985 per DYAR, and has a strong argument that he was robbed of a spot on not only the All-2010s Team, but possibly also the NFL 100 All-Century Team as well. And yet, thanks to the Saints' well-documented defensive struggles and the fact that his career has overlapped those of both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, it feels like Brees hasn't gotten the level of historic respect that some of his contemporaries have gotten. I'm sure he'll be fine with his Super Bowl ring and his eventual first-ballot Hall of Fame nod, but still.
Brees' four best seasons all fall in this five-year window, which starts with the Saints team that beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. Brees had at least 1,600 DYAR in each year in this run except 2012 (we'll get back to that). He's one of only three quarterbacks to ever have at least 1,400 DYAR in four out of five seasons, alongside Manning and Brady (and probably Dan Marino when we add 1984 to the database). And Brees' best years were bolstered by the best defenses money could buy -- or, to put it more plainly, the only three years of negative defensive DVOA in New Orleans between 2001 and 2016. The Saints' Super Bowl season is remembered as much for Tracy Porter's key interceptions in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl as it is for Brees' MVP, record-shattering completion percentage, and general all around-awesomeness.
The Saints mostly kept up that level of play throughout their run, too, even if they never again could turn it into a Lombardi Trophy. For only the second time in franchise history, the Saints made three postseasons in a row, only for the NFC West to get in the way -- the 7-9 Seahawks dumped them in 2010; they had to travel on the road to play the 49ers in 2011 despite ranking second in overall DVOA; and they ran headfirst into the 2013 Seahawks, a team which will feature very prominently later in this list. All in all, then, a fairly successful run, even if it only ended up with one title. Nothing negative to speak of here, nope…
… well, except for Bountygate. When we said the Saints had the best defense money could buy, we were being somewhat literal. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran a bounty scheme, paying players for injuring opponents. The resulting investigation and scandal resulted in mass suspensions, fines, and draft pick losses for the franchise -- that's the reason the Saints have three head coaches listed here, rather than just the one. 2012 was very much a lost season, as Sean Payton and company served their suspensions, and the Bountygate Saints collapsed, allowing a league-record 7,042 yards. If you wave your hands and pretend that year never happened, the Saints would slide up to 43rd place, and obviously there's a big asterisk on the year. But it did happen, and the Saints suffered for it. A brief defensive rebound kept the Saints competitive in 2013, but they finished 31st, 32nd, and 31st in defensive DVOA from 2014 to 2016. You can't win by offense alone, even if your offense is run by Drew Brees.
On this day in 2010:
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) February 7, 2019
No. 48: 1960-1962 Houston Oilers
Peak Dynasty Points: 13
Average DVOA: 15.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 9.1%
Record: 31-10-1 (.750)
Head Coaches: Lou Rymkus, Wally Lemm, Pop Ivy
Key Players: QB George Blanda, RB Billy Cannon, WR Charley Hennigan, WR Bill Groman, T Al Jamison, CB Tony Banfield
When did the AFL reach parity with the NFL? There have been many attempts to answer this question, but the answer certainly isn't "right off the bat." The AFL couldn't really compete with the NFL for players until 1964, when NBC gave them a national television deal. And if you're a hotshot rookie in 1960, why would you go to whatever the "Boston Patriots" were when you could play for a real football team in the NFL -- a team that people have actually heard of. With that in mind, maybe it feels weird to have the Oilers, who won the first two AFL Championship Games and reached the third, even this high in any sort of team rankings. We should apply some sort of minor-league penalty to them, right?
Well, maybe not. Jason Lisk exhaustively tried to figure out league coefficents for the 1960s in a series of Pro Football Reference posts in 2009 and yes, the NFL was superior to the AFL all the way through -- as many as 13 points better in 1960. But the Oilers reached parity much faster than the rest of the league; Lisk's estimates would have had the Oilers as fifth-best team in the 1961 NFL, and seventh-best in 1962, both years above average for a professional football team. Maybe they wouldn't have stood much of a chance against the Green Bay Packers of their day, but they were more Houston Texans than Houston Roughnecks, to put it in 2020 terms. This is a question that's going to come up again, however, so don't think we've settled it quite yet.
Bud Adams was one of the few AFL owners who was financially stable at the start of the league's existence, and that significantly helped him build a team. His big coup was stealing Billy Cannon, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, from the Rams and making him the first $100,000 professional football player. To get Cannon, Adams more than doubled what the Rams had offered him, and even threw in his own wife's Cadillac to seal the deal -- money talks. Cannon joined an offense led by an NFL veteran in George Blanda (who was tired of being used only as a kicker by George Halas), the best pure passer in the early days of the AFL. The 1961 Oilers put up video game numbers (… electric football numbers?), with Blanda throwing for 3,300 yards and 36 touchdowns. Both Charley Hennigan and Bill Groman had over 1,000 receiving yards, only the second pair of teammates in history to manage that feat. Blanda's touchdown mark would stand until Dan Marino broke it in 1984, and Hennigan's 1,746 receiving yards would stand as the record until Jerry Rice broke it in 1995. I don't care about your level of competition; if your records stand until Marino and Rice come along, you're impressive. That 1961 team has an estimated DVOA of 31.8% and an estimated passing DVOA of 56.3%, which ranks 11th all-time. They were years ahead of their competition. Even when they lost, like in the 1962 AFL Championship Game, they did so in style -- that double-overtime loss to the Dallas Texans was, at the time, the longest football game ever played.
And then, eventually, they weren't ahead of the class anymore. That aforementioned added TV money gave AFL teams not named the Oilers, Texans/Chiefs, and Bills the chance to poach NFL players. The Houston defense collapsed -- their 1966 estimated defensive DVOA of 14.8% is the worst among the original AFL teams. Age finally did come for Blanda's arm, as he led the league in interceptions from 1962 to 1965. And the team just got passed up by more modern and innovative squads. The Oilers' 1961 title remains the last championship in franchise history.
No. 100: 1961 Houston Oilers
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2019
No. 47: 1940-1945 Washington Redskins
Peak Dynasty Points: 15
Average DVOA: 9.0%.
Top-Five DVOA: 12.4%
Record: 45-16-2 (.730)
Head Coaches: Ray Flaherty, Dutch Bergman, Dudley DeGroot,
Key Players: QB Sammy Baugh, FB Andy Farkas, WB Wilbur Moore, E Joe Aguirre, T Willie Wilkin, G Dick Farman
World War II did a number on the NFL. A significant chunk of the league's able-bodied players left to join the military, and the teams that remained had to make significant adjustments. The Cleveland Rams shuttered for a season. The Steelers merged for one year with the Eagles and for another year with the Cardinals. Future Hall of Famers such as George Halas and Bill Dudley left to join the armed forces. Older players came out of retirement to fill up rosters. Comparing WWII football to its surrounding counterparts is difficult, is what we're saying. But Washington weathered the war the best, making three of the four NFL Championship Games played between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the surrender of Japan.
Washington was led by Slingin' Sammy Baugh, the greatest two-way quarterback to ever play the game. He's the only pre-modern quarterback that the NFL experts picked to make the NFL 100 Team; he was the all-time leader in passing yards when he retired and still squeaks into the top 100 today. But to call Baugh a quarterback isn't quite right -- or at least, it isn't throughout his career. When Baugh entered the league in 1937, he played tailback in an old single wing formation. Baugh led the league in passing yards per game consistently at tailback … by throwing for about 100 yards a go. Baugh was also an excellent punter and safety; in 1943, he led the league in passing (with 133 completions), interceptions (with 11), and punting yards (with 2,295). He still, in fact, has the all-time record for punting average with 51.4 yards per punt in 1940 (helped by plenty of surprise quick-kicks out of the single wing; football was different then). It was this single-wing, jack-of-all trades player that led Washington to championship appearances in 1940, 1942, and 1943, running in and around out of danger, throwing when he needed to. The closest modern equivalent would be a Lamar Jackson or Russell Wilson, though Randall Cunningham might be a closer match.
But in 1944, Washington finally modernizes. They bring in Clark Shaughnessy to introduce the T-formation, which turns Baugh into a full-time, modern quarterback -- really, the first to use the pass as an offensive weapon in and of itself, rather than just an emergency option. Baugh stops playing defense; his yards per game nearly double. In 1945, his first full year in the offense, he completes 70% of his passes in a league that averages a 46% completion rate, and goes on to lead the league in completion percentage for each of the next five years. That's the Baugh that leads Washington to the championship game in 1945. It's fair to say that he takes to the transition well, but he was equally good before and after his position change. He still is tied for the most seasons leading the league in passing yards -- three as a tailback, and three as a quarterback. Keep your Sid Luckmans; Baugh is the NFL's first great passer.
You would think that four championship appearances in six years would have Washington further up on the list. Unfortunately, those championships did not really go their way. They were on the wrong end of the most lopsided score of all-time, the 73-0 drubbing against Chicago in 1940. They lost to Chicago again in 1943, in a game where Baugh injured himself tackling Luckman. Washington did avoid the sweep by spoiling Chicago's perfect season in the 1942 championship, but Halas' boys had their number, even in Halas' absence. Washington also lost the 1945 championship to the Rams in somewhat controversial manner. At that point in history, the goal posts were on the goal line, rather than the back of the end zone like today. Dropping back in his own end zone, Baugh's pass hit the uprights and bounced backward into the end zone itself. Under the rules of the time, that was a safety -- and Washington went on to lose 15-14. After the season, that was made an incomplete pass, because owner George Marshall basically threw a fit -- and you can't blame him. Flip those title game losses, and Washington slides up to 36th.
After the 1945 title game, Washington begins a slow decline. They used their first-round pick in 1946 on Cal Rossi … who was a junior, and ineligible to be drafted at the time. They then used their 1947 first-round pick on Rossi, but it turns out he never wanted to play football in the first place. So, you know, that didn't work out great. 1946 was also the first year that NFL teams started signing African-American players as the league began to desegregate. Marshall, a virulent racist, refused to sign any black players until ordered to do so by the Attorney General in 1962. It turns out, refusing to sign an entire race of people to your team does somewhat limit your ability to attract talent; Washington had just three winning seasons between 1946 and 1968.
No. 46: 1963-1972 Cleveland Browns
Peak Dynasty Points: 17
Average DVOA: 6.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 14.4%
Record: 95-43-2 (.686)
Head Coaches: Blanton Collier, Nick Skorich
Key Players: QB Frank Ryan, RB Leroy Kelly, FB Jim Brown, FB Ernie Green, WR Gary Collins, WR Paul Warfield, T Dick Schafrath, G Gene Hickerson, DT Walter Johnson, LB Jim Houston
Reaching the 1960s Browns helps us hit two milestones. They are the first team we reach whose run lasted a full decade -- meaning they are also the worst team to have a run that lasts a full decade. They're also the last time we'll see a team on this list with an average DVOA below 10.0% -- assuming we allow rounding to take care of one exception further on down the line. When they were good, these Browns were very good, but they did mix in four negative estimated-DVOA seasons into their decade-long run. These are the sorts of things that happen after you fire a legend.
Yes, in January of 1963, owner Art Modell fired Paul Brown. It was, perhaps, some time in coming -- the Browns hadn't won their division since 1958, after all, and Brown's strict management style and his unusual habit of calling all of the team's plays rubbed many of his players the wrong way, earning him the nickname of Little Caesar. Modell, 38 at the time and closer in age to his star players than his star coach, listened and let the legend go. Blanton Collier, a long-time Brown assistant, stepped in and became much more of a players' coach, letting quarterback Frank Ryan call the plays. It was a vastly different style from what had given Cleveland so much success in the 1950s, which we'll get to later.
More often than not, Ryan's play was "give the ball to Jim Brown and let him be really good." From 1963 to 1966, the Browns' estimated run DVOA was always over 25.0%, with the 1966 team's 32.2% mark being the second-highest in history. In that first year post-Paul Brown, Jim Brown ran for his career high of 1,863 yards, an NFL record at the time. Brown led the league in rushing each of the next two years as well before abruptly retiring to continue his movie career. You don't need advanced stats to know that Brown was insanely good, quite possibly the best to have ever played the game. If firing Paul Brown was what it took to get Jim Brown back atop the league in rushing yards, maybe you can justify that as the right move.
The Browns' terrific offense overcame very porous defenses to make back-to-back title games in 1964 and 1965, the last two NFL Championship Games before the first Super Bowl. They upset Johnny Unitas and the Colts in the first, only to be upset themselves by Vince Lombardi's Packers the next year. To date, that 1964 title is still the Browns' most recent championship.
Jim Brown was amazing, but when he suddenly retired after 1965, Leroy Kelly picked up the workload without skipping much of a beat. By estimated DVOA, the 1966 squad is actually the best of this bunch -- which is a bit ironic, as it's the one of the two seasons the Browns actually missed the postseason in this run. It's also the point where the 1960s Browns go from great to just very good, finishing with negative estimated DVOA in 1967, 1969, 1971, and 1972. That didn't mean they didn't see success -- they made a couple of NFL Championship Games in that span, and won a weak AFC Central in 1971. But as Brown made way for Kelly, and Ryan made way for Bill Nelson, and Collier made way for Nick Skorich, they became more and more a shadow of the team from early in the decade; the same product made with inferior parts. And, without a visionary like Paul Brown to keep the team innovating, they just kept promoting from within, just replacing each generation of player with a slightly inferior substitute.
The winning formula couldn't last forever. 1974 saw the Browns put up only the second losing season in franchise history. They have become a bit better acquainted with losing seasons in the years since, shall we say.
No. 45: 2006-2009 San Diego Chargers
Peak Dynasty Points: 10
Average DVOA: 19.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 15.3%
Record: 46-18 (.719)
Head Coaches: Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner
Key Players: QB Philip Rivers, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, TE Antonio Gates, T Marcus McNeill, G Kris Dielman, LB Shawne Merriman
Now here's a team that sticks out like a sore thumb. The Chargers are surrounded on this list by multiple-time champions -- or, at least, teams that played for the title on multiple occasions. These Chargers never even made the Super Bowl, much less managed to win one. They are the second-least accomplished team to ever have earned ten dynasty points -- four AFC West titles in an era where divisions had just four teams is not exactly a superb endorsement, even if you're running out teams that went 14-2 and 13-3. Why are they ahead of anyone, much less ten teams, all of whom flaunt much better credentials?
This is the first instance where the DVOA part of the formula really kicks into gear. The Chargers' average DVOA of 19.1% over these four seasons is the highest we've seen yet; by our advanced stats, the Chargers were better from game to game than any of the teams previously listed. Their four seasons all range between 13.5% and 29.5% DVOA; they don't have the one or two off seasons that most of the previous ten teams had. If you just look at the 65 seasons contained by the bottom 11 teams on this countdown, the 2006 Chargers are third-best behind the 1999 Rams (34.0% DVOA) and 1961 Oilers (31.8%). They also have two of the top 20 seasons and four of the top 25. So, rather than think of the Chargers as lacking because they never won their conference, think of them instead as the best team to have never won their conference.
You can blame some of that on Tom Brady and the Patriots, who knocked the Chargers out of the postseason in both 2006 and 2007. The Chargers could never get past New England, putting them in a boat with the rest of the AFC. Interestingly, they did seem to have the number of the other great 2000s team, Peyton Manning and the Colts, going 3-1 against them and beating them in the postseason in consecutive years. The AFC of the 2000s seemed to always have a weird rock-paper-scissors thing going on between the Colts, Patriots, and a third team, and the Chargers were that third club in the last half of the decade.
These were Philip Rivers' first years piloting the Chargers, so just after they decided to give up on Drew Brees. Rivers eventually did mature into a great passer, rising to a high of 1,761 DYAR in 2009, but these were really LdT's teams. LaDainian Tomlinson's 581 DYAR in 2006 -- the year he set the record with 28 rushing touchdowns -- remains the Chargers franchise record, and he nearly beat it the year after. San Diego's 27.2% rushing DVOA in 2006 is the tenth-highest in the DVOA era, and only falls to 15th when you include estimated DVOA from 1950 to 1984. All in all, the Chargers ranked in the top 11 in DVOA in each of these four years, and usually had a top-five offense. If they had a defense to go with it, perhaps they could have made some serious noise. Alas, they really didn't, and sharing a conference with Manning and Brady is not good for your health. And then Tomlinson left, and then the well-known Chargers Curse really stepped into high gear, with San Diego losing games in increasingly ridiculous fashion, and things just sort of spiraled from there until we get to the Los Angeles Chargers, struggling in front of a soccer stadium filled with their opponent's fans. Not so great.
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) August 3, 2017
No. 44: 1978-1985 Miami Dolphins
Peak Dynasty Points: 14
Average DVOA: 11.2%.
Top-Five DVOA: 16.9%
Record: 85-35-1 (.707)
Head Coach: Don Shula
Key Players: G Ed Newman, G Bob Keuchenberg, C Dwight Stephenson, DE Doug Betters, DE Kim Bokamper, NT Bob Baumhower
Not all runs of success fit nice and snugly into a narrative. No one would subjectively call the 1978-1985 Dolphins their favorite dynasty, because there's no such thing as the 1978-1985 Dolphins. While head coach Don Shula does provide a common thread throughout, you're broadly grouping the last of the Bob Griese years with the Killer Bs early-1980s teams, then riding into the very early Dan Marino seasons. If Shula is the captain of the ship, it's the Ship of Theseus, shedding and replacing parts and never stopping sailing. The Dolphins made the playoffs in seven of these eight seasons, winning the AFC East six times and making Super Bowls XVII and XIX. They don't quite measure up to Shula's early 1970s squads, but it's still a heck of a second act, with more consecutive division titles than the Dolphins had ever had before or have ever had since.
The best way to think of this run is probably as the Killer Bs plus friends. Bob Baumhower, Bill Barnett, Lyle Blackwood, Kim Bokamper, Glenn Blackwood, Charles Bowser, Doug Betters, and Bob Brudzinski made up the unlikely-named corps, which was gradually being assembled from about from the late 1970s through 1981. Throughout the 1970s, the Dolphins had been an offense-focused team -- yes, we'll talk loads about the No Name Defense when we get there, but Miami's estimated offensive DVOA was higher than their estimated defensive DVOA from 1970 to 1978. But as Griese aged, and eventually had his career ended by a shoulder injury, those Killer Bs shouldered more and more of the load, peaking in 1982 -- their -48.3% estimated pass defense would be the third-best in history. That was the strategy -- a ball-control offense and terrific defense to take the pressure off of David Woodley and Don Strock. Miami allowed opponents to run for a league-worst 4.4 yards per carry, but gave up only 14 touchdowns all season (yes, in a nine-game strike-shortened season, but that was still tied for fewest in the league). They rode that all the way to an AFC Championship.
And then in 1983 they draft Dan Marino and everything flips 100% in the other direction. We're really looking forward to finishing the 1984 DVOA, because Marino's sophomore season may well come out as the most valuable in NFL history -- then-records of 5,084 passing yards and 48 touchdowns that would last until the passing boom of the 21st century. The 1984 Dolphins have an estimated offensive DVOA of 33.5%, and an estimated passing DVOA of 57.6% -- 12th- and 10th-best of all time, respectively. They rode that all the way to an AFC Championship, as well. They had the misfortune to run into Joe Gibbs' Redskins and Bill Walsh's 49ers in those two Super Bowls -- beaten by better dynasties. No shame there, and Marino would have plenty more chances to win a ring, right?
Well, maybe not so much. The Dolphins only provided Marino with an above-average defense four times over the rest of his career, and didn't have one reach double-digit negative DVOA until 1998, when Marino was 37 years old and had finally begun to fall off. The Dolphins ranked in the top 10 in offensive DVOA from 1983 to 1997, and only got one Super Bowl appearance out of it. Don't blame it on Marino.
No. 43: 1958-1959 Baltimore Colts
Peak Dynasty Points: 10
Average DVOA: 22.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 8.8%
Record: 18-6 (.750)
Head Coach: Weeb Ewbank
Key Players: QB Johnny Unitas, HB Lenny Moore, E Raymond Berry, T Jim Parker, DE Gino Marchetti, DT Gene Lipscomb
I know what you're thinking -- how can a "dynasty" last just two seasons? It's certainly the question all my editors asked when they saw the list; these Colts are the only team to hit 10 dynasty points with just a two-year run. The system was set up to be agnostic about how long a team needed to be successful to be a dynasty, but two years does seem ridiculous. Back-to-back championships are always going to be worth at least 10 points, but you would think any team good enough to win back-to-back titles would also have some success in the years around it. Not these Colts. They were 7-5 in 1957, won back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1958, and then followed that up with 6-6 and 8-6 seasons in 1960 and 1961. Maybe in the modern era, that would have been good enough to win a weak division or earn a wild-card playoff spot, but not at this point in the history of the league. Heck, even if they had had six playoff teams in the NFL in those days, the Colts would only have scraped together one wild-card appearance in 1957. This really is a two-and-done team, stifled at the beginning by youth and inexperience, and at the end by injuries.
Ah, but this is probably the most important of any team we've listed to this point. The Colts beat the Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, which is commonly known as the Greatest Game Ever Played -- it was voted the greatest game in NFL history as part of the 100th season spectacular. The game itself was exciting enough -- 12 future Hall of Famers on the field, a dramatic back-and-forth contest, Raymond Berry catching 12 passes for 178 yards, the first overtime game in NFL history, Johnny Unitas marching down the field in the two-minute drill, Alan Ameche plunging over the goal line, et cetera. But more importantly, the game was nationally televised on NBC, with more than 45 million people watching. This wasn't the first nationally televised NFL game, but before this, the rights were owned by the DuMont Network, which had only 18 affiliates, compared to NBC's 100-plus. This was the first really great game that the entire country got to see; it helped whet the nation's appetite for televised football. This led to ABC buying up the rights to broadcast games for the fledgling AFL, which led to the NFL finally getting all of its own regular-season games televised, and the massive expansion which took us from 12 professional football teams at the end of the 1950s to 28 by the beginning of the 1970s. Does that happen without the Colts-Giants title game? Not at that speed, at any rate.
By comparison, the 1959 Championship Game where the Colts beat the Giants again is nearly an afterthought. The Colts' estimated DVOA dropped from 32.6% to 11.6% in a sign of things to come -- it dropped again in 1960, 1961, and 1962. 1960 saw Ameche, Berry, and Lenny Moore all suffer injuries, and Unitas' then-record 47-straight games with a touchdown snapped. Weeb Ewbank could never really pull those Colts out of their mediocrity, and he was fired after the 1962 season.
Many historians group this two-year run with the late 1960s as just the Johnny Unitas era, which is fair. But that 21-19 record for three years splits these two titles off from the 1960s success. Add in the difference between Ewbank's more laid-back style of coaching and the more popular Don Shula, and I think it's fair to consider them two separate runs.
No. 42: 2001-2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
Peak Dynasty Points: 10
Average DVOA: 17.5%.
Top-Five DVOA: 17.5%
Record: 55-24-1 (.694)
Head Coach: Bill Cowher
Key Players: WR Hines Ward, G Alan Faneca, C Jeff Hartings, NT Casey Hampton, LB Joey Porter, LB Jason Gildon
Did you know that Jerome Bettis is from Detroit? And that, coincidentally, that's where Super Bowl XL was held, where Bill Cowher and his Steelers finally won that long-elusive fifth Super Bowl title? I feel like that little piece of trivia was surprisingly underreported at the time; you would have thought someone in the media would have noticed. Huh.
This is the run of Cowher's Steelers career that got him into the Hall of Fame; he doesn't get the ugly yellow jacket without the gaudy championship ring to match. His Steelers had finished their time at Three Rivers Stadium with three straight playoff misses, and we were creeping close to something the Steelers never, ever do -- change coaches. The next five years, however, saw Cowher's team pair a terrific defense with very solid quarterback seasons from a former gimmick player (Kordell Stewart), the reigning XFL MVP (Tommy Maddox), and a rookie thrust into action before the team was ready (Ben Roethlisberger). The resulting Super Bowl win, the first ever as a sixth seed, is a fantastic part of Steelers lore, and it's really too bad Cowher didn't retire immediately afterwards rather than coach his way through one final 8-8 season.
There's very little continuity throughout this run, to be honest -- only eight starters on the 2001 team were still starting in 2005. And the 2002-2003 Tommy Maddox years were kind of fun, but a clear dip in overall quality -- Cowher's Steelers finished in the top 10 in DVOA under both Stewart and Roethlisberger, but couldn't crack double-digit DVOA in either 2002 or 2003. It's the AFC North title in 2002 that pastes the two together; winning the brand-new division in a year when none of their opponents had a DVOA of greater than 1.6%, and winning 10.5 games despite only having 8.2 estimated wins. That's why the Cowher teams of this era rank below his 1990s teams, despite the Super Bowl title -- but we'll compare those squads a little more when they come knocking.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 12, 2015
No. 41: 1988-1995 Buffalo Bills
Peak Dynasty Points: 18
Average DVOA: 11.9%.
Top-Five DVOA: 16.9%
Record: 87-41 (.640)
Head Coach: Marv Levy
Key Players: QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas, WR Andre Reed, G Jim Richter, C Kent Hull, DE Bruce Smith, LB Cornelius Bennett, LB Darryl Talley, CB Nate Odomes
No team in the NFL benefitted more from the USFL's 1986 demise than the Buffalo Bills. General manager Bill Polian and head coach Marv Levy both came from the Chicago Blitz. Jim Kelly came from the Houston Gamblers. That's three of the eight USFL alumni in the Hall of Fame right there, and that's before we mention names like Kent Hull (New Jersey Generals), Ray Bentley (Oakland Invaders), or Scott Norwood (Birmingham Stallions). And, just like the USFL was the runner-up to the NFL in four consecutive (planned) seasons, the Bills ended up as the runners-up to the NFC in four consecutive (Super Bowl) seasons.
When I started this project, there were two teams that I couldn't wait to find in the data -- the Purple People Eater Vikings and the K-Gun Bills. To lose four Super Bowls is crushing to a fanbase and deadly to a team's reputation -- the joke in the mid 1990s was that Bills stood for "Boy, I Love Losing Superbowls." (The acronym doesn't quite work, but that's never stopped cruel playground mockery before.) You wonder if these teams would have better reputations had they actually lost a few more conference championship games along the way.
But that's crazy talk. 30 teams in the league every year have to look up at even a Super Bowl loser, and there's little shame in losing to the 1990s Triplet Cowboys, who will appear later on this list, or the 1991 Washington Redskins, who have the highest DVOA of all time. Even the 1990 Giants, who started this whole Super Bowl losing streak, were the best team in the league that year by DVOA and coached by not one but two future Hall of Famers in Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. There's no shame in losing to any one of these teams…
… unless you do it by pushing a game-winning field goal wide right, Scott Norwood, how could you…
One of the metrics used to rank these teams is "quality seasons" -- basically, checking how many of a team's seasons scored three or more dynasty points, in order to give more credit to teams that consistently went deep in the postseason than to teams that just grinded out wild-card berth after wild-card berth. All four Super Bowl seasons count for the Bills, which ties the high score to this point; if you've got more than that, you're generally quite a ways higher up the list. Obviously, it sucks to lose all four shots at the crown, but most teams don't get four shots at the crown. With 18 dynasty points, the Bills are the first team we've covered who fall above where I would personally draw the line between "dynasty" and "near-dynasty"; they definitely count in my book.
… which of course means they are, then, the worst dynasty of the bunch. The main problem is that the Bills were good -- very good, even -- but very rarely great. Their 16.9% top-five DVOA is the worst of any team with at least 18 dynasty points, and their 11.9% average DVOA is second-worst, with an asterisk for the one team lower. They only had one year over 20.0% in total DVOA, and only once ranked in the top five teams in the league during this run.
Their offense did occasionally rise to the status of greatness, especially after they shifted to the no-huddle offense in 1990. The Bills weren't the first team to bring the full-time no-huddle to the NFL -- that would actually be the Bengals who knocked them out of the 1988 AFC Championship Game -- but they were the ones that turned it into their entire offensive identity. With Kelly calling the plays, and studs like Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton, and Don Beebe running past gassed defenders, it took the rest of the league about half a decade to figure out how to keep up with the Bills offensively.
No, the problem was on defense, where the Bills maxed out at a -6.8% DVOA. Yes, I get that calling any defense led by someone as great as Bruce Smith a "problem" is ridiculous, but these defenses were usually closer to 10th, 11th, or 12th in the league, rather than challenging the very top of the tables. In most eras, a team with a great offense and a good defense would make a Super Bowl or two, and be remembered fondly by their teams fans and not really thought of much by outsiders -- much like many of the teams below the Bills on this list.
Instead, the Bills benefited from playing in a significantly weaker conference. In these eight seasons, only 13 of the 40 possible top-five DVOA ranks went to AFC teams. There is a reason why Sports Illustrated famously called the 49ers-Cowboys NFC Championship Games the real Super Bowl -- the NFC is where you went to see the best teams in football. The Bills were still very good, but they won the AFC so frequently because of a lack of competition, meaning they got to play sacrificial lamb on the biggest stage of them all.
In the alternate universe where the Bills pull off the Four-Peat, they rise all the way to 21st in our rankings -- the rings count for quite a bit. If you just fix Scott Norwood's wayward kick, that bumps them up to 35th.
The Rankings So Far
The following graphic shows the rankings of all teams that have been revealed so far. Click the image to open it in a larger size in a new window.