Dynasty Rankings, Part IV: Nos. 21-30
Bust out the leather helmets, book a train across the Great Lakes states, and wonder where your $50 game check is -- the dynasty rankings continue in a list dominated by some of the oldest teams in professional football.
The three teams that show up most frequently on the dynasty table are the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers with five appearances, followed by the New York Giants with four respectively. As these are three of the four oldest franchises still active today, it's not a surprise that they would pop up over and over again; they've all had at least 95 years to put together multiple runs of success. When you're talking about 1920s and 1930s football, especially, the best teams are the ones who were the best run; the ones who could convince superstar college athletes to give this professional football thing a try instead of going into something more likely to succeed -- like joining a rubber factory. Teams that couldn't pull that off faded away, leaving us with only the cream of the 1920s and 1930s still with us today.
Explaining why the fourth 1920s team remaining, the Arizona Cardinals, do not show up on this list even one time is left as an exercise for the reader.
The four 1920s teams built their dynasty counts in different ways. The Packers' five dynasties start in five different decades; they have spread their success out fairly evenly over their entire history, all things considered. That means that more generations of Packers fans can point to one of the great Green Bay teams as their great Green Bay team, even if it also means those eras tend to leave significant lulls in between them. The Bears achieved four of their five dynasties before free substitution and the platoon system came in in 1950. They were the football team in the pre-war era, and have graciously let their rivals in Green Bay catch up over the last 60 years.
The Giants just had Steve Owen doing Steve Oweny things. Without spoilering too much, I can say that today's list finishes off our look at Giants squads, while both the Bears and Packers have multiple teams jockeying for position further up the list.
So, I'm afraid if you're not a fan of one of the classic teams, you're not going to get much of a shoutout in this particular article. Eight of the ten slots this week are filled by a classic team pulling double duty. We've got two Packers squads, two Bears squads, two Giants squads and ... the Denver Broncos?
OK, maybe you don't need to start in the 1920s to have multiple runs of success.
No. 30: 2011-2015 Denver Broncos
Peak Dynasty Points: 16
Average DVOA: 20.9%.
Top-Five DVOA: 20.9%
Record: 58-22 (.725)
Head Coaches: John Fox, Gary Kubiak
Key Players: QB Peyton Manning, WR Demaryius Thomas, T Ryan Clady, DE Elvis Dumervil, LB Von Miller, CB Chris Harris
Seeing 2011 tacked on to this Broncos era feels very, very weird. Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, and it is his teams that put up 14 of the Broncos' 16 dynasty points from this era. And yet, there's Tim Tebow's 8-8 AFC West winners, hanging out there in front. I suppose it's fitting that the run both begins and ends with terrible quarterback play -- and, for the record, Tebow's -22.8% passing DVOA in 2011 beats out Manning's -25.8% DVOA in 2015. Still, that 2011 Broncos team had an -11.8% DVOA in 2011; it was a fluke divisional title that would in all likelihood not have started anything of note had Manning not come around.
Still, 2011 is an obvious major turning point for the Broncos franchise, even if the year itself wasn't super-great. Out went Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders, in came John Fox and John Elway. Von Miller arrived with the second pick in the draft, which leads to some really interesting hypotheticals. Miller was obviously in retrospect the correct choice (you could make an argument for J.J. Watt, but you're splitting hairs there), but the new administration was clearly not particularly in love with either Tebow or Kyle Orton, holdovers from previous unsuccessful teams. What if the Panthers hadn't taken Cam Newton with the first overall pick? Or what if Elway's well-documented love of tall quarterbacks had led him to take 6-foot-4 Blaine Gabbert, a top-ten pick in 2011, as the Broncos quarterback of the future? Imagine the Broncos of the early 2010s without Manning or Miller. One shudders to think.
But no, they drafted the right guy, and then one legendary quarterback recruited another. Manning broke Elway's franchise record for quarterback DYAR in 2012, broke that record in 2013, and came darn close to doing it again in 2014. The 2013 Broncos' 33.5% offensive DVOA just misses out on being a top-10 all-time unit when you add in 1950-1984 historical estimates, but their 60.3% passing offense sure does. Just a bit of a whiplash from the Tebow era.
But, of course, the Broncos weren't just an offense. The 2012 and 2013 teams are, by DVOA, the best teams in franchise history. In 2014 the defense really kicked things into gear, which was good because Manning fell off a cliff in his last pro season and had to be carried … by a defense that ends up as the 20th best of all time at -25.8% DVOA thanks to the emergence of the No Fly Zone.
There's no shame in losing Super Bowl XLVIII to the Seahawks, who savvy readers will have noticed have not yet shown up on this countdown. There's a little shame in losing 43-8, but just consider that the modern Broncos paying tribute to the classic Broncos teams of the 1980s. Winning Super Bowl 50 does help bolster their ranking significantly, even if that ended up being the worst of the Manning Broncos teams by a significant margin; I'd take that Super Bowl-losing squad of 2013 over the winners of 2015 any day of the week. Broncos fans can truly state that, with Manning, Miller, and the rest of that defense, they had one of the best teams of all time and the Lombardi Trophy to back it up. They just don't have to go on to admit that those things happened in different years.
55 touchdowns in a single season — still an NFL-best.
Every Peyton Manning TD from 2013 pic.twitter.com/o4FpLMxtoq
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) March 24, 2020
No. 29: 1956-1963 New York Giants
Peak Dynasty Points: 18
Average DVOA: 14.0%.
Top-Five DVOA: 18.1%
Record: 73-25-4 (.735)
Head Coaches: Jim Lee Howell, Allie Sherman
Key Players: HB Frank Gifford, T Rosey Brown, DE Andy Robustelli, DE Jim Katcavage, LB Sam Huff, S Jimmy Patton
Finally, a Giants entry that does not begin with "Steve Owen was really good!" Owen's last NFL championship appearance was in 1946; his best ideas had become commonplace throughout the rest of the league. The Giants finally had to let go of the long-time fan favorite and legend after 1953. Technically, they replaced him with Jim Lee Howell, who was solid enough as a coach, but he wasn't the strategist or tactician that Owen was. He left that to his coordinators, a couple guys you may have heard of -- Vince Lombardi on offense and Tom Landry on defense. Howell mostly let his assistants do much of the actual coaching, while he served more as an administrator and general. Full credit to Howell for dragging Lombardi out of Army and moving Landry from player to coach, but I'm fairly sure I could coach a team if I had two of the best minds in the history of football running things for me. You can find the prototypes of the Cowboys' 4-3 defenses of the 1970s and the Packers' sweeps and pulling guards of the 1960s in the Giants of the 1950s.
It also helped that the Giants were loaded with superstars. Under Howell, they boasted Hall of Famers Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, Rosey Brown, Emlen Tunnel, Don Maynard, and Frank Gifford. The last one is a big deal -- Gifford, a college star from Los Angeles who did not get along well at all with Owen, found a lot more success with Howell and Lombardi in charge. Lombardi moved Gifford from defensive back to halfback, where he became a perennial Pro Bowler as a receiving/running combo player, regularly appearing near the top of the league in yards from scrimmage. Couple that with Charlie Conerly as a league MVP quarterback, and Huff serving as the anchor point for a 4-3 defense designed to stop the powerful rushing attacks of Jim Brown and the other stars of the day, and you had a championship-caliber team.
This specific breakdown of Giants teams is kind of an odd amalgamation of two eras. The Giants made three title games in four years from 1956 to 1959, beating George Halas' Bears before losing a pair of title games to the Colts, including the legendary Greatest Game Ever Played in 1958. And then you have the Giants who made three straight title games from 1961 to 1963, falling to the Packers twice and the Bears once. But between them, there was a ton of turnover. Lombardi left for the Packers in 1959; Landry left for the Cowboys in 1960. Howell retired in 1960. Conerly got old fast and was replaced late in 1960. Gifford suffered an injury so devastating in 1960 that he had last rites given to him in the locker room; he would miss the next two seasons. That's a lot of turnover.
But Y.A. Tittle came in to play quarterback in 1961, an improvement over Conerly -- he would win multiple MVP awards in New York and was the career leader in every meaningful passing category when he retired after the 1964 season. Del Shofner came in as flanker the same year, and the duo set franchise records that lasted until very, very recently. Allie Sherman came in first as offensive coordinator and then as head coach; not as legendary as Lombardi by any means, but still winner of back-to-back Coach of the Year awards. Because the transition between the two eras was relatively painless, it counts as one consecutive run for the purposes of the dynasty rankings.
To sum these Giants up, they were the best team in the NFL East in a time when the absolute best football was being played in the NFL West. That led to plenty of championship opportunities, but only one title to their name. Still, that has them as the second-best Giants run of all time, only behind…
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2019
No. 28: 1925-1930 New York Giants
Peak Dynasty Points: 12
Average DVOA: 20.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 25.0%
Record: 57-21-5 (.717)
Head Coaches: Bob Folwell, Doc Alexander, Earl Potteiger, Roy Andrews, Benny Friedman, Steve Owen
Key Players: TB Benny Friedman, FB Jack McBride, B Jack Hagerty, T Steve Owen, C Joe Wostoupal, C Mickey Murtagh
As you know, this offseason the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for Rob Gronkowski, pairing him with Tom Brady to try to find a return to relevance. This has led to a lot of jokes about the Buccaneers just importing all of the Patriots' old players, giving them a fresh coat of paint, and calling them a brand-new team. And that brings us to the 1920s New York Football Giants.
The NFL had tried to put a team in New York before 1925, to limited success. The New York Giants baseball team had tried, but folded before playing a game. The New York Brickley Giants (sometimes known as the Brooklyn Giants, and sometimes as Brooklyn's Brickley Giants -- brand identity was somewhat spotty in the 1920s!) left the league after just two games. So, when the league turned to Tim Mara to kickstart football in the Big Apple in 1925, it was a real risk of his $500 investment. And indeed, that first year was a struggle -- not on the field, where they went 8-4 (albeit with an SRS-to-DVOA conversion of -0.1%), but in the financial department. It wasn't until a home-and-home series with the famous and popular Chicago Bears that the Giants got into the black. Halas' boys drew over 70,000 fans to the Polo Grounds, more than quadrupling New York's average attendance. You can thank the Bears for professional football succeeding in New York.
The Giants improved in our estimated DVOA in 1926, but 1927 is the season they really were put on the map. They won the league championship that year, going 11-1-1 and allowing just 20 points all season long, including 10 shutouts. Yes, offensive football was worse in the 20s, with teams scoring just 9.1 points per game, and the nature of teams coming and going gave any squad that had a bit of money and stability an advantage, but ten shutouts is still an astronomical number; it would be the equivalent of allowing 62 points in a season in 2019's offensive environment. They key behind this defensive juggernaut? Money! Tackle Cal Hubbard was brought in for the astronomical price of $150 per game; paired with Steve Owen, New York had easily the best defensive line in the league.
And that should be where this story ends. Hubbard didn't like the big city and ended up being traded away. The Giants fell to 4-7-2 and a -4.2% estimated DVOA in 1928, and things looked bleak. Mara knew what he needed to get his team back to competitiveness again, however -- tailback Benny Friedman, who led the league in both passing and rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, he was a member of the Detroit Wolverines, who had finished third in the league. Bringing him to New York wouldn't be easy.
So Mara just bought the Wolverines. Straight-out bought them, and disbanded them. He then cut his own worst players and replaced them with Wolverines stars like Friedman, Joe Wostoupal, Bill Owen, and Tiny Feather. The newly Wolverized Giants went 26-5-1 over the next two years with these outside ringers, with estimated DVOAs over 35.0% and two second-place finishes, pulling themselves across the 10-dynasty point line, all thanks to the power of the pocketbook.
The NFL of the 1920s was like that; not quite a joke, but certainly not a respected league either, where a few talented players drawn to one location by deep pockets could dominate. Amateur football was where it was at; those players played with more intensity and integrity than their professional counterparts, or so it was said. It's worth finishing this capsule by noting that public opinion really started swinging around in 1930, when a team of Notre Dame legends, coached by Knute Rockne with the Four Horsemen in the backfield, came to the Polo Grounds for a charity game. Everyone thought it would be a blowout, and it was -- in favor of the Giants; a 22-0 stomp that led Rockne to call the Giants the greatest football machine he had ever seen. If you had to put one pin in a moment where public opinion began to feel that professional football was a legitimate thing and not a sideshow, that would be it.
No. 27: 1970-1974 Miami Dolphins
Peak Dynasty Points: 18
Average DVOA: 20.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 20.1%
Record: 57-12 (.826)
Head Coach: Don Shula
Key Players: QB Bob Griese, RB Larry Csonka, WR Paul Warfield, G Larry Little, DE Bill Stanfill, S Jake Scott, S Dick Anderson
I know they've kept it very quiet, but the 1972 Dolphins are the only team to ever pull off the perfect season. It's not something they like to talk about very much, preferring to stay modest and let their record speak for itself, but it's true!
You don't get any bonus dynasty points for completing a perfect season, and estimated DVOA actually ranks the 1973 squad as the best of the Dolphins teams of the early 1970s. As a matter of fact, the 1972 Dolphins' estimated regular-season DVOA of 34.5%, while very, very good, is actually the worst of any of the four teams to have completed a perfect regular season. To which point I'm sure Larry Csonka will thumb his nose, point to his Super Bowl ring, laugh at the other three teams for losing their respective championship games, and pop open a bottle of champagne.
You can hardly blame Dolphins fans for still loving those early 1970s teams. Before coach Don Shula arrived in 1970, the Dolphins had been sitting on a historical record of 15-39-2. Shula got them to the playoffs in one year, and to contender status in two. The Dolphins were actually docked a first-round pick for tampering when they signed Shula, who was the Baltimore Colts' coach at the time -- they had started negotiating when the AFL and NFL were two separate leagues, and teams stole big names from the other league all the time, but the actual move happened post-merger, and that's a big no-no. Considering the immediate success the Dolphins had with Shula, losing out on Don McCauley in the 1971 draft was probably worth it.
The accepted wisdom is that the 1970s Dolphins won thanks to their power football; with Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Mercury Morris running behind a who's who of offensive lines. That certainly isn't wrong, mind you -- Csonka and Morris became the first teammates to each run for 1,000 yards in the 1972 perfect season, and all three Dolphins Super Bowl teams of this era ranked in the top five in estimated run DVOA. But they also ranked in the top five in passing DVOA in those three seasons, no matter whether it was Griese or Earl Morrall under center. The Dolphins traded a first-round pick to bring Paul Warfield over for a reason; they were certainly a run-heavy team, but they were an efficient passing offense when they had to be, too.
The big difference between the Super Bowl VI loss and the Super Bowl VII and VIII wins was the defense. The so-called "No Name" Defense ended up first in estimated DVOA in 1972 and fourth the year after, sandwiched between a pair of below-average seasons. Shula's offense was basically great throughout the 1970s until Griese suffered a career-ending shoulder injury in 1980; it was the rise and fall of the No Namers that took the Dolphins to the top of the mountain and then down into the three-year hole between this and the late 1970s/early 1980s dynasty we covered back down at No. 44.
Put a top-five defense with a top-five running attack and a top-five passing attack, and you have one of the NFL's best all-time teams. The 1972 Dolphins have the 16th-highest (estimated) DVOA of any NFL champion since 1950. The 1973 Dolphins are even better, up at No. 7 thanks in no small part to a full season from Griese. At least when it comes to championships, the best team of the 1970s wasn't a Steel Curtain special or America's Team in Dallas -- it was Shula's Dolphins.
For the record, had the defense not struggled in the mid-1970s, and you were able to draw a straight dynastic line from Shula arriving in 1970 to the early Dan Marino years, the Dolphins would be knocking on the door of the top ten.
The only undefeated team in @NFL history.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) November 16, 2019
No. 26: 2009-2016 Green Bay Packers
Peak Dynasty Points: 17
Average DVOA: 18.2%.
Top-Five DVOA: 25.8%
Record: 87-40-1 (.684)
Head Coaches: Mike McCarthy
Key Players: QB Aaron Rogers, WR Jordy Nelson, WR Randall Cobb, G Josh Sitton, G T.J. Lang, LB Clay Matthews
Consider the race to the top joined! The Packers and Bears share the honor of being on this list five times apiece. Part of that, of course, is the fact that they're 100 years old and have had plenty of opportunities to be great. But hell, the Cardinals are older than the NFL itself and have yet to have a single dynasty, so more power to the kings of the NFC North … or NFC Central … or NFL Western, depending on how old you want to get. Place your bets now for which of the two long-time rivals will end up higher on the eventual list.
The Packers are arguably the more interesting of the two, because they're so spread out. While four of the five Bears dynasties can be described as "because George Halas," the Packers have four different generations represented on the list, including this very recent one. The worst Packers dynasty only definitively could be declared dead in 2018, and remnants of it still don the green and gold today.
Moving on from a Hall of Fame quarterback is never easy, and the Packers knew that when they drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005 while Brett Favre was … well, not in his prime anymore, but still a very productive passer. You can't blame the Packers for looking for a backup; there had been rumors that Favre was going to retire as early as 2002, and Rodgers was a candidate for the top pick; his slide down the draft board was a once-in-a-generation event. Still, bringing in a first-round pick while a franchise legend is still going strong is a ballsy move, and one I can't imagine many teams would care to repeat.
The Aaron Rodgers Packers never quite hit great levels of success; they never hit 30.0% in DVOA, even in their Super Bowl XLV-winning season or their 15-1 season in 2011. They were more of a very, very good team that could always be counted on to be in the mix rather than a dominant favorite. Their eight straight playoff appearances is a franchise record, which is both impressive and misleading for a franchise with this much history (no wild-card games for the Lombardi units!), but they ended up falling in the postseason earlier than you would expect for truly great teams.
They did have one truly incredible offensive season in 2011; that was Aaron Rogers' MVP year, when he had a franchise-record 2,130 DYAR while throwing for 45 touchdowns, and when Jordy Nelson set the franchise record for receiving DYAR. Green Bay's 33.8% offensive DVOA is the sixth-highest we've recorded, and only falls to 10th when you include estimated DVOA. Their 67.6% passing DVOA is second or third; Rodgers was walking on rarified air that year. But that was also the year the defense collapsed, ranking 25th in the league, and the Packers washed out of the playoffs. If you could combine that offense -- with Nelson and a healthy Greg Jennings catching passes and Ryan Grant and James Starks splitting the running workload -- with the Packers defenses of 2009 or 2010, you'd have an argument for the best Packers team of all time. Instead, the closest the Packers offenses and defenses of this era came to synching up was at the very end of 2010, in their wild-card run to a Super Bowl victory.
You can come close to pinpointing the exact moment the Packers' run ended: with Aaron Rodgers breaking his collarbone in 2017. Before the injury, Rodgers averaged a passing DVOA of 22.0%; since the injury, it's down to just 8.3%. That's the difference between a top-five quarterback and perennial MVP candidate, and a good-but-not-great cog. You can blame some of that on a lack of talented skill position players placed around Rodgers, but the Packers weren't exactly loading up on high draft pick receivers before Rodgers' injury. It's just that late-20s Rodgers was able to elevate the Randall Cobbs and James Joneses of the world into quality players; something he may simply no longer be capable of doing.
No. 25: 1946-1950 Chicago Bears
Peak Dynasty Points: 11
Average DVOA: 26.0%.
Top-Five DVOA: 26.0%
Record: 44-14-1 (.754)
Head Coach: George Halas
Key Players: QB Sid Luckman, HB George McAfee, E Ed Sprinkle, T Fred Davis, G Ray Bray, C Bulldog Turner,
The Bears are often considered the team of the 1940s, winning four championships in the decade. As the dynasty rankings evolved, and different cut-off points were tested, the system went back and forth between having one Bears dynasty last throughout the 1940s or splitting it into two around World War II. In the end, here we are, with the lesser half of the Monsters of the Midway still cracking the top 25.
The argument against splitting the 1940s Bears is on-field continuity; Sid Luckman was only in the merchant marines, and thus got to stay stateside and play quarterback throughout the war. The argument for splitting the 1940s Bears is, well, there was a World War on! George Halas and 45 different Bears joined the military in 1942, and the Bears nearly merged for a season with the Chicago Cardinals. Even Luckman wasn't always there -- his service meant that he couldn't practice with the team, only being allowed to rejoin them on game days. They had co-coaches in Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos, struggled to a 9-10-1 record in the mid-1940s, and generally weren't the same quality team until Halas and a significant chunk of those veterans returned. There is no "there was a massive war" adjustment in the rankings, and a few franchises were able to find continuous success even throughout the mid-1940s, so I stand by the decision to split these Bears up. We'll talk about what it would mean to keep them together when we cover the earlier, better half of the 1940s Bears next week.
The 1946 season was when Halas returned, being joined by veterans (in every sense of the word) like Hugh Gallarneau, Ken Kavernaugh, Joe Stydahar, and Hall of Famer Bulldog Turner. It turns out, getting all of your really good players back at one time helps boost a team's results, as they went from a 3-7 record with a -7.9% SRS-to-DVOA estimate to 8-2-1 and 20.8%, respectively. They beat the Giants handily to win the NFL Championship, their fourth of the decade; it looked like a return to power for the Bears.
On paper, the Bears only got better from there over the next couple of years -- their point differential rises from +96 to +122 to +224, and their SRS-to-DVOA conversion has them hit a peak of 46.4% in 1948, which would be one of the top ten teams on record. But time after time, they would fall just short of championship glory. In both 1947 and 1948, they finished one game short of the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL West, losing the last game of each season at home to their crosstown rivals. They changed things up by being a game behind the Rams in 1949, and then they managed to tie with the Rams in 1950, only to lose the one-game divisional playoff. By SRS, the Bears were the best team in the league in 1947 and 1948, and the best team in their division in 1949, but they never got to play for the championship. It's hard to call that unfair, per se -- they did repeatedly lose to the Cardinals and Rams on the field, after all -- but in the modern era, a team like these Bears would be an incredibly dangerous wild-card team. It's exceptionally unlucky that they never had another shot at a title in the late 1950s; eight wins could easily have resulted in a divisional title at this point in history, but the Bears were runners-up with eight, nine, nine, and 10 wins in a span of four years.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) November 7, 2019
No. 24: 1993-1998 Green Bay Packers
Peak Dynasty Points: 15
Average DVOA: 22.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 24.8%
Record: 66-30 (.688)
Head Coach: Mike Holmgren
Key Players: QB Brett Favre, RB Dorsey Levens, WR Antonio Freeman, C Frank Winters, DE Reggie White, S LeRoy Butler
Score one point for Brett Favre over his successor; his Packers teams end up with a higher score than the 2010s edition.
It's close, mind you -- a matter of very tiny nits here and there. Rodgers' Packers had a longer run of success, and the better top-five DVOA. Four of Rodgers' teams managed to top a 20.0% DVOA, compared to three of Favre's. Both teams won only one Super Bowl, though Favre's Packers do get a bonus from not only winning Super Bowl XXXI, but also reaching Super Bowl XXXII the next year. But it's average DVOA that puts Favre's Packers over the top. Unlike the 2010s editions, the 1990s Packers did produce an all-time great team.
This was Ron Wolf's baby. Wolf was hired as general manager in late 1991, taking over a franchise which had hit the skids pretty hard since the Lombardi era. You could see the potential in Wolf's first full season as he hired Mike Holmgren from San Francisco and traded for some backup Falcons quarterback named Favre and immediately saw a five-win swing on the field. But 1993 brought with a new tool for Wolf -- free agency.
Free agency as we know it only started in 1993 after years of restrictions and limitations and owner's control. The idea that a superstar like Reggie White would be able to just leave his team without them getting anything in return was unthinkable. The thought that White would choose Green Bay, a team which had just two playoff appearances since 1968, over their fellow finalist 49ers was considered crazy. But Wolf and Holmgren wined him, dined him, and convinced him that Green Bay was the best place for him, both on and off the field. (After White say he would go where God wanted him to go, Holmgren left him a voicemail saying "Reggie, this is God. Come to Green Bay.") A larger check than San Francisco could offer didn't hurt, either.
White's addition opened the floodgates. At the time, Green Bay did not have a reputation as a city where African-American players felt welcome. The addition of White, however, enticed names such as Santana Dotson and Sean Jones to join the team, building a top-ten defense practically overnight. Nowadays, we're used to teams bringing in a bunch of free agents to push themselves into contention, but this was a new idea in the mid-1990s! The Packers were the first free-agency dynasty.
Favre didn't become Brett Favre until 1994; his first couple of Pro Bowl berths were not the most deserved nods in the history of the game. But Favre managed over 1,000 DYAR each year from 1994 to 1997 -- one of only two quarterbacks to pull off that feat for four straight years in the 1990s. While all of Favre's franchise highs in our stats were eventually taken down by Rodgers, that's due in part to the fact that teams throw more than they did 25 years ago; Favre was putting up huge numbers in a relatively run-heavy environment. There's a reason he's the only man to win back-to-back-to-back MVP awards.
And, because Favre's peak coincided with the peak of White and the defense, the 1996 Super Bowl team remains one of the best of all time. Their 41.9% DVOA is the tenth-best since 1950, and the third-best Super Bowl-winner ever. They remain the only team in the salary cap era to both score the most points and allow the fewest in the regular season. They were an astonishingly good team, and one that maybe doesn't get the sort of historical acknowledgement of some other greats because of their relative lack of follow-up success. For most franchises, a team as good as the 1996 Packers would be the best in their history, even if it was an outlier amid some other seasons only very good.
The Packers are not most franchises, of course.
No. 23: 1973-1980 Los Angeles Rams
Peak Dynasty Points: 18
Average DVOA: 19.7%.
Top-Five DVOA: 25.6%
Record: 86-31-1 (.733)
Head Coaches: Chuck Knox, Ray Malavasi
Key Players: RB Lawrence McCutcheon, WR Harold Jackson, G Tom Mack, C Rich Saul, DE Jack Youngblood, DT Larry Brooks, LB Isiah Robertson, LB Jack Reynolds
Our first team to hit a positive combined Z-Score may not be one you were expecting to see this high. Ten teams without a championship to their name made the 10-point dynasty cutoff, but most of them appeared way down the list. By our numbers, the 1970s Rams are better than the 1990s Bills or the 1980s Broncos or the Killer Bs Dolphins, with Chuck Knox's boys standing tall as the cream of the NFC West of the era.
The Rams won seven straight division titles from 1973 to 1979. They've only won 20 divisional crowns period, so seven in a row is fairly notable. Admittedly, this was not a strong period for the NFC West; the Rams' divisional rivals managed six seasons with positive estimated DVOA in 22 tries. Still, titles are titles.
And it's not like the Rams were excuse-me shrugging their way into the playoffs in a weak division, either. They were in the middle of a run of 15 straight years with positive estimated DVOA, easily the franchise record. And they went 6-8 in the postseason during this run, with their only losses (Dallas four times, Minnesota three times, and Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIV) coming against other teams in the midst of their own, superior dynastic runs. And they did beat Landry's Cowboys in 1976 and 1979, and they did beat the Purple People Eaters in 1978; this was a very good team that had the misfortune to play when giants roamed the league -- give them a win in one of three straight NFC Championship Games from 1974 to 1976, and history probably regards these Rams much differently.
Growing up, I had sort of assumed that the 1979 Rams Super Bowl appearance was an aberration -- a mediocre team that had gotten lucky. And that's not entirely inaccurate; they had an estimated DVOA of just 0.7%, were terrible on offense, and had just a +14 point differential on the season, third-worst in Super Bowl history. Backup Vince Ferragamo did just enough to keep the Rams afloat through a series of improbable upsets. That's the image of these Rams that history has saved, but that was easily the worst Rams team of this decade. The 1973 and 1976 Rams each had estimated DVOAs over 30.0%, and the rest of their off years were mostly above 15.0%. This was a good team that just had its worst possible representative on the national stage.
Knox was known as "Ground Chuck" by his detractors for his emphasis on running the ball and sitting on close leads, and you know how conservative you have to be to get that reputation in the 1970s. I think that renown comes more from the parade of quarterbacks he was forced to trot out -- three primary starters in five years in John Hadl, Pat Haden, and James Harris, plus cameos from a baby Ron Jaworski and the decaying knees of Joe Namath. You'd lean on Lawrence McCutcheon plenty too if you were that uncertain about your quarterback situation. Anyway, this was a defensive team first and foremost, ranking in the top 10 in estimated DVOA (and usually in the top five) in all but one of these seasons. Very solid drafting brought in Jack Youngblood, Isiah Robertson, and Hacksaw Reynolds to anchor the team, with a plethora of useful players like Larry Brooks and Dave Elmendorf to pad out the roster. The Rams allowed fewer than 11 points a game in both 1975 and 1977.
Those playoff losses to better teams (plus arguments with owner Carroll Rosembloom, including but not limited to bringing in the crumbling Namath over Harris and Jaworski) led to Knox being fired after the 1977 season. L.A. brought back George Allen to get the team over the hump, but fired him during the preseason, leaving Ray Malavasi to guide the Rams through the rest of this run. Malavasi may have gotten the Rams to the Super Bowl, but it was Knox's teams that were, by a wide margin, the better squads.
No. 22: 1920-1926 Decatur/Chicago Staleys/Bears
Peak Dynasty Points: 21
Average DVOA: 16.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 20.0%
Record: 64-14-14 (.772)
Head Coach: George Halas
Key Players: QB Joey Sternaman, E George Halas, T Ed Healey, T Hugh Blacklock, G Jim McMillen, C George Trafton
No team is helped more by our decision to give 1920s runners-up credit for losing non-existent title games than these Bears. They finished second in the league in 1920, 1922, 1923, 1924, and 1926, with one controversial title sprinkled in. Without that bonus, this team wouldn't even crack the top 40. As it is, they stand as the lowest-ranked team with 20 or more dynasty points, thanks in large part to their low top-five DVOA; SRS-to-DVOA estimation saw only the 1920 Decatur Staleys top 20.0% DVOA. They get credit for being the 1920s NFL's perennial bridesmaids more than anything else.
This is in no way to suggest the Bears were not a great team at this point in time. George Halas was a star player before he became entrenched as the Bears' long-time coach, general manager, owner, and icon. The 1920s All-Decade team is filled with Staleys and Bears -- Ed Healey and George Trafton are in the Hall of Fame on the line, while the Sternaman brothers scored points left and right out of the backfield. The Bears also made arguably the most important signing in league history, bringing amateur legend Red Grange in for the unheard-of price of $100,000. The Bears were massive draws; teams would bank on bringing the Bears to town to double, triple, or even quadruple their attendance, getting them into the black and helping them survive to play another year.
The Bears were so in demand that they basically worked themselves into a rut. Their 1925 season saw them play 17 regular-season games in two and a half months; three more games in that window against independent teams; and then nine more games the month after that as they barnstormed around the country, bringing the Bears show to anyone who wanted to see it. It's a shock they didn't all die of exhaustion, and you can perhaps excuse their 9-5-3 record as a side effect of them being dead on their feet.
The Bears might have won a few more titles had the NFL (and before them, the AFPA) had regular, rigorous procedures in place for scheduling and/or playoffs, but the list of 1920s champions is, shall we say, somewhat short of impeccable. The 1920, 1921, and 1925 championships are all in one way or another disputed, and that includes the Staleys twice. The Staleys finished as a runner-up in 1920 with a 10-1-2 record, compared to the Akron Pros' 8-0-3 mark. The Staleys didn't give up a single point in those 10 games, but lost out on the title because A) they scheduled more games than the Pros, and B) ties simply didn't count in the standings, so the Pros could play their last two games simply not to lose, pulling off a pair of thrilling 0-0 ties to earn the title.
The Staleys were on the other end of a championship controversy the next year. The Buffalo All-Americans finished their schedule at 9-0-2, including a win over the Staleys in November. They then scheduled one more game against the Staleys which they viewed as an exhibition game, allowing a few of their star players to go play for a different team. Halas and the Staleys, however, thought the game counted -- with no set end of the season, how could you have postseason exhibitions? The Staleys won the rematch, bringing them to 8-1. That was still behind the All-Americans' 9-1-2 record, so the Staleys quickly scheduled two more games, trying to win them both and take first place overall. But they didn't quite succeed, instead tying the Chicago Cardinals, so they brought their own record to 9-1-2, so the AFPA had to come up with some sort of tiebreaker to determine the champion. The Staleys and All-Americans had split their two games, so what they decided was that the rematch should count more than the first matchup, and thus the Staleys were the champions.
Yeah, the 1920s NFL was kind of the Wild West, wasn't it?
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) August 8, 2019
No. 21: 1996-2000 Denver Broncos
Peak Dynasty Points: 14
Average DVOA: 22.7%.
Top-Five DVOA: 22.7%
Record: 56-24 (.700)
Head Coach: Mike Shanahan
Key Players: QB John Elway, RB Terrell Davis, WR Rod Smith, WR Ed McCaffrey, C Tom Nalen, LB Bill Romanowski
The Peyton Manning-led Broncos may have put up the highest DVOA (estimated or otherwise) in franchise history, but not the best offensive performance Denver has ever seen. That one's for John.
The Dan Reeves Broncos could never bring home a title, and the Wade Phillips interregnum ended up as a step back for the franchise. So in 1995, Mike Shanahan came in as head coach, bringing with him his zone blocking scheme and a sixth-round running back named Terrell Davis. As good as Elway could be in the 1980s, he rarely had support from a running game; he had to put most of the Broncos offense on his shoulders. The Broncos only hit double-digit rushing DVOA twice between 1985 and 1994, and that meant they were quite frequently in the upper teens in offensive DVOA as a whole -- solid, and when Elway had some of his best seasons, enough to get them to the Super Bowl in a weak AFC, but not much more than that. That changed when Shanahan and Davis came to town: the Broncos ranked in the top ten in rushing DVOA every year from 1995 to 2000. In 1998, they hit a 31.4% DVOA, the third-best mark we've ever recorded.
The late 1990s also saw Elway's best years; his top five seasons in terms of DYAR all came between 1993 and 1998. It's not that he only began to be a good quarterback in his mid-30s; it's that he was finally getting offensive help for the first time. Shanahan didn't sign Rod Smith as an undrafted free agent, but he gave Smith his first playing time in 1995. He signed Ed McCaffrey from his previous stop in San Francisco. He promoted Tom Nalen to the starting lineup. The only big piece of the offensive puzzle you can't directly connect to Shanahan is Shannon Sharpe, but six of Sharpe's seven best seasons came under Shanahan. It turns out, when you surround an all-time great quarterback with offensive weapons, he puts up bigger numbers.
I suspect that beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII is more fondly remembered by the Broncos fan base -- it was their first title; it was against a great team in and of itself; it was a close, exciting game; it featured Elway's spinning helicopter dive. But the 1998 season, which culminated in crushing the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, was the better squad. We mentioned the third-best ever rushing DVOA already, with Davis rushing for over 2,000 yards in his last healthy season, but the passing offense hit a 52.5% DVOA -- not quite the franchise record, as Manning and company were able to top it in 2013, but damn close. Put it all together, and you have a 34.5% offense DVOA, making the 1998 Broncos the fourth-best offense of the DVOA era as things currently stand.
The Broncos don't crack the top 20 for two reasons. First of all, Elway retired and Davis was hurt after 1998, and while the Brian Griese/Any Running Back Off the Street Broncos offense still had some residual success, it wasn't the same. Secondly, the defenses of these teams don't hold a candle to, say, the No Fly Zone. The 1998 Broncos would rank as Denver's best team ever if their defense was even just average, but they ranked 20th out of 28 teams that season. Still, with an offense like that, it's hard to whine too much about a few minor imperfections.
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.