Dynasties of Heartbreak 6-10: Raiders of the Lost Titles
NFL Offseason - We have reached the penultimate stage of the Dynasties of Heartbreak countdown. There's just too much pain here for 10 teams to share one article, so we're counting down numbers 10 through six today and saving the final five for tomorrow.
This is far as teams can realistically go if they started or ended their run with a relevant championship. We had a few teams in the last run who earned some championship penalty points, but those were for titles sometimes as much as a decade removed from the peak of their heartbreak pain. We have two teams today—the New York Giants of the 1950s and the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s—which won a championship right before their heartbreak runs began and were hoping for more, only to find sterner opposition that kept them from becoming a full-fledged dynasty. We have one team—the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s—which suffered through years of losses to some of the greatest teams in NFL history before finally scaling the mountaintop for themselves, at least providing some relief to years of frustration. Any of these three squads would have comfortably sat in the final five if there wasn't a championship on one side or the other of their runs. Instead, they're here, squinting into the sun at the small handful of teams that can claim more pain than them, and thanking their lucky stars they're not included in that group.
Oh, and the Minnesota Vikings have finally decided to turn up. Nice of them to join us.
Links to the full series:
- Part I: No. 41-44 and Methodology
- Part II: No. 31-40: Cry, Eagles, Cry
- Part III: No. 21-30: Saints of Bad Luck
- Part IV: No. 11-20: Schottenheimer Comes Up Short
- Part V: No. 6-10: Raiders of the Lost Titles
- Part VI: No. 1-5: Minnesota Vikings, Champions of Heartbreak
No. 10: 1986-2000 Minnesota Vikings
Total Heartbreak Points: 824.2
Playoff Points: 307.2
Win-Loss Points: 265.4
DVOA Points: 251.8
Record: 144-95 (.603)
Playoff Record: 7-11 (three NFCCG losses, four divisional losses, four wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 10.3%
Head Coaches: Jerry Burns, Dennis Green
Key Players: QB Warren Moon, RB Robert Smith, WR Cris Carter, WR Anthony Carter, WR Jake Reed, WR Randy Moss, TE Steve Jordan, OT Gary Zimmerman, OT Todd Steussie, OT Tim Irwin, G Randall McDaniel, C Jeff Christy, DE John Randle, DE Chris Doleman, DT Henry Thomas, DT Keith Millard, LB Ed McDaniel, LB Scott Studwell, CB Carl Lee, S Joey Browner
It's fitting that they're bedecked in purple, because the Minnesota Vikings are heartbreak royalty.
Other franchises will claim they are the most tortured in NFL history—and you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out who ends up at No. 1—but the Vikings are unquestionably, undoubtedly, and undeniably the most frequently heartbroken team in the NFL. They have played 61 NFL seasons. For 30 of those seasons, they have been in the middle of a top-10 all-time heartbreak dynasty. And that's before you include some of their smaller periods of pain—both the 2003-2009 Tice/Childress teams and the 2015-2019 Zimmer era end up with 300-plus heartbreak points themselves. Add in years like that, and more than two-thirds of Minnesota seasons have been part of an era of disappointment. Long live the king.
Most of this particular swath of pain comes from Dennis Green's tenure in the 1990s as Jerry Burns' teams had become a bit lackluster towards the end of his run. Minnesota had a small window of success with Wade Wilson under center, filled with moments that would be highlights of pain for other, longer runs, but are just footnotes for these Vikings: Darrin Nelson dropping a game-tying touchdown in the 1987 NFC Championship Game against Washington, for instance, or Joe Montana and Jerry Rice taking out the frustrations of the 1987 divisional upset by the Vikings by destroying them in back-to-back divisional rounds the next two seasons.
There is no doubt that @darrellgreen28 was a key player in Redskins' path to Super Bowl XXII. He made the most important defensive play of the 1987 NFC Championship game. #HTTR #AgelessWonder pic.twitter.com/gaUsoLAsFE
— David Menassé (@Frekiwolf) February 15, 2018
Honestly, the most painful moment for Burns' Vikings didn't even happen on the field—it's the Herschel Walker trade. General manager Mike Lynn thought Walker would be the piece that would help the Vikings get past Washington and San Francisco and back into the Super Bowl, and they were willing to send away three first-round picks and a passel of other selections and players to get him. That, uh, didn't work. The Vikings went 21-22 in Walker's two-and-a-bit years with the team, making the playoffs just one time, while the Cowboys used Minnesota's draft picks to win three Super Bowls. Walker left after 1991, as did Burns.
It was time for a clear-cut change in Minnesota. Burns had been Minnesota's offensive coordinator stretching back through the Purple People Eater days. His style was getting outdated in the face of the passing changes of the 1980s. Hiring Dennis Green made tons of sense—a disciple of the West Coast offense under Bill Walsh, and just the guy to modernize Minnesota's offense.
That's not what ended up happening—at least, not until 1998, when a veteran named Randall Cunningham and a rookie named Randy Moss happened. But while the Vikings' offense was stumbling with Warren Moon and Brad Johnson, the defense stepped up to carry the load—four top-five DVOA finishes between 1992 and 1995. That set the picture for those early Green teams: the defense led them to nine or 10 wins and they'd earn a wild card, then lose in the first round of the playoffs when their offense couldn't get out of the starting blocks (24-7 to Washington in 1992, 40-15 to Dallas in 1996) or late turnovers doomed comeback attempts (17-10 to the Giants in 1993, 35-18 to Chicago in 1994). Until 1998, that was the story of the 1990s Vikings—four solid months and a postseason failure as the attitude towards Green slowly turned from praise for the quick turnaround to frustration at the postseason flops.
And then there's 1998.
Minnesota's 15-1 season comes out as the second-most-painful year in Vikings history, and I think you can make a strong argument that is still underrating it. That's an insane thing to say about a franchise with four Super Bowl losses, but Minnesota's offense was just that amazing to watch, with Randall Cunningham having the greatest year of his career by a landslide. Randy Moss had the record for most receiving DYAR by a rookie until Michael Thomas took it in 2016, and his 17 touchdowns remain the rookie record. Cris Carter was still performing well. Robert Smith was excelling on the ground. It was a pretty thing to watch. It didn't end up ranking top in our DVOA ratings for the year, in part because they were uncommonly reliant on the long ball—56 plays of 25 yards or more, and 22 plays of 40-plus. Those would be among the league leaders today, so it might as well have been witchcraft in 1998. Usually, that's more a factor of field position and coverage rather than something predictive, which is why DVOA has diminishing returns on huge plays like that. I would argue that, at least in this case, having Rookie Randy Moss is somewhat predictive. The Vikings set a scoring record that wasn't broken until 2007, rolling through the regular season with just one defeat (a 27-24 loss in Tampa Bay). Gary Anderson became the first kicker in history to be perfect on both field goals and extra points, he said, foreshadowing. The Vikings were 11-point favorites entering the NFC Championship Game against a plucky, but not particularly special, Falcons team.
So of course Minnesota would blow a 13-point lead. And of course Anderson would pick 2:07 left in the title game to finally miss a very makeable 38-yard kick, giving the Falcons the ball back down a touchdown. And of course Robert Griffith would miss an interception on Atlanta's desperation drive. And of course the Falcons would tie the game with 49 seconds left, and of course Green would opt to kneel on the ball rather than let his uber-big-play offense take shots to win the game, and of course a limping, injured Chris Chandler would be able to drive the Falcons to a game-winning kick in overtime. It's the Vikings. What else could possibly have happened? It ends up scoring as the most painful season ever that did not end in the Super Bowl, with 242.3 heartbreak points all by itself. Frankly, it should be more.
January 17, 1999: The Falcons upset the Vikings 30-27 in Overtime in the NFC Championship Game.
Vikings Kicker Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed a FG in two years, missed a 38-yarder with two minutes left in the 4th Quarter that would have sealed the game. pic.twitter.com/3DEnwkC9ho
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) January 17, 2021
Green's Vikings never got that close again. They lost a shootout to the Greatest Show on Turf Rams in the divisional round the next season and then got annihilated 41-0 by the Giants in the most lopsided NFC Championship Game in history in 2000. And that was it. Minnesota collapsed in 2001, Green's contract was bought out, and the Vikings entered one of their occasional periods of just being disappointing rather than devastating.
No. 9: 1987-1997 Pittsburgh Steelers
Total Heartbreak Points: 845.4
Playoff Points: 410.6
Win-Loss Points: 200.9
DVOA Points: 234.0
Record: 102-73 (.583)
Playoff Record: 7-10 (one Super Bowl loss, three AFCCG losses, four divisional losses, two wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 9.3%
Head Coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher
Key Players: QB Neil O'Donnell, RB Barry Foster, RB Jerome Bettis, WR Yancey Thigpen, TE Eric Green, OT John Jackson, OT Tunch Ilkin, C Dermontti Dawson, NT Gerald Williams, LB Greg Lloyd, LB Levon Kirkland, LB David Little, LB Kevin Greene, CB Rod Woodson, S Carnell Lake, S Darren Perry
The Steelers spent the early 1980s watching the key cogs from the Steel Curtain go away one-by-one. Every year between 1980 and 1984, another franchise legend left—losing Rocky Bleier, Mean Joe Greene, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, and Jack Lambert in consecutive seasons is a massive talent drain, and that's before you mix in the losses of L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, and Franco Harris in between. Chuck Noll still did have one or two more punches left in him, mind you, with the 1989 team becoming just another victim of a late John Elway drive in the divisional round. That's impressive, considering Noll spent the 1980s shuffling between David Woodley, Mark Malone, and Bubby Brister under center, not precisely ideal circumstances.
That's not to say Noll's late 1980s teams were lacking in substance entirely. The 1987 draft class at the very beginning of this run included Rod Woodson, Hardy Nickerson, and Greg Lloyd, and they would be followed in subsequent years by Dermontti Dawson, John Jackson, and Carnell Lake. It's not quite the fabled 1974 draft, but considering Noll was commonly criticized for a series of mistakes in the drafts early in the decade, it's worth noting that he and the Pittsburgh front office found quite a bit of talent on his way out the door. Emphasis, however, on out the door—Noll retired in 1991 after Pittsburgh had missed the playoffs in six of the previous seven seasons. A fresh start was needed.
Bill Cowher was the league's youngest coach when he was hired in 1992, but he didn't come alone. Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers, and Marvin Lewis all came with him, forming one of the best collections of defensive minds in recent NFL history. It's a myth that LeBeau and Capers invented the zone blitz, but they certainly refined and popularized it and made it more than a gimmick, basing their entire 3-4 defense around the concept.
The linebacker corps of Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, and Lloyd holds their own against any other in league history, and with Woodson and Lake backing them up, passing against Blitzburgh was a fool's errand. The Steelers had a top-10 defensive DVOA in every year between 1992 and 1997, and their average defensive DVOA of -13.3% over those six seasons led the league. And with first Barry Foster and then Jerome Bettis carrying the load and the Neil O'Donnell-to-Yancey Thigpen combination at least being an upgrade on what they could put together in the 1980s, Cowher's Steelers made the playoffs in each of his first six years in Pittsburgh, with two No. 1 seeds and four bye weeks among the lot.
The Steelers history page on Wikipedia is hilarious at this point, because its next entries are all "Year: Upset By Team." Three seasons in a row. In 1992 it was at the hands of the Bills, who forced three consecutive turnovers from a banged-up O'Donnell in a 24-3 upset. In 1993, Joe Montana and the Chiefs tied the Steelers on a fourth-and-game play with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, then proceeded to win in overtime. And in 1994, the Steelers pushed all the way to the AFC Championship Game before being shockingly upset by the Chargers. Pittsburgh dominated the first half, outgaining San Diego 229-46, but Stan Humphries hit multiple big plays in the second half to take the lead before O'Donnell's potential game-winning touchdown pass was knocked away by Dennis Gibson as time expired.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) January 13, 2019
O'Donnell was not interception-prone in his career. When he retired, he actually had the lowest interception rate in NFL history at just 2.1%. But he was developing a reputation for coming up small in huge moments. Fortunately, the Steelers looked good enough to overcome those mistakes in 1995. They managed to overcome O'Donnell's two interceptions against the Bills in the divisional round, with Blitzburgh forcing four turnovers in a 40-21 win. They managed to overcome an interception on the very first play against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, with Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary falling incomplete at the final gun. The Steelers were going back to the Super Bowl, and there was nothing O'Donnell could do to stop them!
Unless, of course, he decided to throw three second-half interceptions in Super Bowl XXX, two of them going to Larry Brown and setting up short Dallas touchdowns. The Brown interceptions were both particularly terrible, too—thrown to avoid a heavy Cowboys blitz, fired out at areas of the field with no Steelers receiver in sight, to a cornerback who had a reputation for having stone hands. After the game O'Donnell claimed he was throwing the ball to where he thought his receivers should have been. Whether someone should have been there or not, he couldn't have thrown the ball better to Brown if he had tried. It's one thing to lose to an all-time legend making a great play. We have seen plenty of examples of John Elway or Joe Montana or the Steel Curtain proving to be unbeatable obstacles. But to lose because of domination by an average player like Brown? That adds a little bit of extra sting to things. In a game where the Steelers only lost by 10, O'Donnell cuing up the Cowboys for 14 points all by himself was a killer.
Super Bowl XXX was O'Donnell's last game for the Steelers—they tried to re-sign him in free agency, but didn't seem to be overly concerned when the Jets outbid them. First Mike Tomczak and then Kordell Stewart would get their chances, but neither could get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl. Tomczak threw a couple of interceptions and was eventually pulled for Stewart in the 1996 divisional blowout by the Patriots. Stewart turned the ball over four times in the 1997 AFC Championship Game as John Elway and the Broncos slipped past them, aided by a couple of iffy but probably correct pass interference calls.
Blitzburgh never did win a title as the Steelers ended up shuffling first between Tomczak and Stewart and then Stewart and Tommy Maddox. They never really bottomed out, never going worse than 6-10 in Cowher's career, but they never returned to the Super Bowl, let alone won one, until they settled their quarterback situation with Ben Roethlisberger. A generation of pass-rushers, wasted at the hands of Larry Brown.
Two picks by a former 12th-round pick.
Larry Brown's @SuperBowl XXX was legendary.
— NFL (@NFL) August 6, 2019
No. 8: 1957-1963 New York Giants
Total Heartbreak Points: 872.2
Playoff Points: 528.2
Win-Loss Points: 212.2
DVOA Points: 131.8
Championship Penalty: 368.1
Record: 65-22-3 (.739)
Playoff Record: 1-5 (five NFLCG losses)
Average DVOA: 14.4%
Head Coaches: Jim Lee Howell, Allie Sherman
Key Players: QB Y.A. Tittle, HB Frank Gifford, HB Alex Webster, E Bob Schnekler, E Del Shofner, OT Rosey Brown, OT Jack Stroud, G Darrell Dess, C Ray Wietecha, DE Andy Robustelli, DE Jim Katcavage, LB Sam Huff, CB Erich Barnes, S Jimmy Patton
Fans of the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills have been assuming that they'll finish one-two in some order when this countdown concludes. After all, what could possibly be worse than losing four Super Bowls in a decade? While I will not yet confirm nor deny the final standings, I will say that there is something worse than losing four championship games in a decade: losing five championship games in a decade.
Unlike those Vikings and Bills, the Giants did win a championship somewhere along the line of all of their playoff woes. The Giants won the 1956 title behind league MVP Frank Gifford; All-Pros Rosey Brown, Sam Huff, Rosey Grier, Andy Robustelli, and Emlen Tunnel; and the greatest pair of coordinators in NFL history. In The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman relates a story about head coach Jim Lee Howell sitting in his office, reading the newspaper. Next door, offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi was working on the option blocking that would blossom into the Run to Daylight Packers in the 1960s; next to him, defensive coordinator Tom Landy was busy inventing the 4-3 defense. Give me Lombardi, Landry, and that collection of Hall of Famers, and I'm fairly sure I could win a title.
Maybe just the one, however. The Giants continued to dominate the NFL East of this era. Sam Huff and the 4-3 defense gave Jim Brown and Cleveland no end of trouble throughout this decade, famously holding him to just 8 rushing yards in the 1958 divisional playoffs. That win brought the Giants back to the NFL Championship Game to take on Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts.
Even all these years later, the NFL still considers the 1958 NFL Championship Game to be the greatest in NFL history. It topped the Catch and the Ice Bowl when they listed their 100 greatest games of all time for the league's 100th anniversary. A lot of that comes from the historical significance, for sure—a huge game, nationally televised in front of a large audience that served as a tipping point that turned the sport from specialist interest to national craze. But the actual gameplay still holds up as well. It's not hard at all to see why 45 million people were glued to their sets watching. It's still compelling more than 60 years later.
The Giants had to rally back against the Colts as two early fumbles had put them down 14-3. It could have been 21-3 too, but linebacker Cliff Livingston stuffed Alan Ameche at the goal line on fourth down, shifting the momentum back towards New York. The Giants scored on both of their next two drives with a little help from a fortuitous 86-yard catch, fumble, recovery, and run that would have been on endless loop had sports television been a thing at the time. But Unitas and the Colts kept wearing the Giants' defense down, repeatedly driving deep into New York territory but coming up short.
Leading 17-14, the Giants could have sealed it late in the fourth quarter. But Gifford was stopped inches short on third down, and New York opted to punt the ball back to Johnny U. What ensued is widely considered the first two-minute drill in NFL history, with Unitas repeatedly hitting Raymond Berry as the Colts shot down the field over the demoralized and exhausted Giants defense, tying the game at the gun with a field goal. For the first time in NFL history, we had overtime. And after a quick three-and-out from the New York offense, Unitas and the Colts marched right back downfield on a visibly dragging Giants defense, with Ameche scoring his famous touchdown to give the Colts the championship. This is one of six games to earn the highest possible 200-point score for playoff heartbreak, and it earned every last bit of it.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) December 28, 2021
The Giants would get a chance for revenge in 1959, in what was not the greatest game ever played. The Colts ran away with the championship in the fourth quarter to win 31-16. That was the end of the line for the 1950s Giants. Vince Lombardi left to coach the Packers after 1958, Tom Landry left for the Cowboys after 1959, Frank Gifford suffered a devastating hit that cost him a season and a half in 1960, and former MVP Charlie Conerly aged out of the league in 1961. Even Howell was gone, moving into the front office as director of player personnel. But the defense was still strong and ferocious. New coach Allie Sherman was named Coach of the Year twice in a row and brought some offensive fireworks to replace Howell's conservative mindset. They traded for Y.A. Tittle, thought to be washed up at age 34. All he did was go on to win a league MVP and a pair of first-team all-pro selections in New York. The Giants domination would continue into the early 1960s.
The domination of the East, we should clarify. In both 1961 and 1962, the Giants ran into Lombardi's Packers. The 1961 game wasn't close, ending in a 37-0 blowout for Green Bay, but the Giants had a real shot at knocking off the legendary 1962 Packers in a windstorm at Yankee Stadium. The New York defense forced five fumbles, but Green Bay recovered all five on their way to a 16-7 victory.
1963, though, would surely be different. Gifford returned from his injury, switching from halfback to flanker. Tittle won MVP, throwing for 3,600 yards and 36 touchdowns; the 448 points they scored remains the record in a 14-game season. But the offense was absolutely shut down by the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field. Tittle was rendered utterly ineffective by a combination of the icy conditions and the innovative zone defense of the Monsters of the Midway, not to mention a knee injury suffered when Larry Morris slammed his helmet into Tittle's leg, rendering him gimpy and lame. But the Giants had little choice but to stick with Tittle, not just because he was MVP, but because backup quarterback Glynn Griffing had missed practices leading up to the game because he was on his honeymoon. Tittle gutted through it, taking shots of cortisone and Novocaine to fight through the pain, but he was basically forced to throw off his back foot the rest of the way. That led to five interceptions, the decisive factor in the 14-10 loss.
The Giants fell apart after 1963. Wellington Mara blamed the AFL, saying that the addition of the Jets in the media market forced the team to focus on the short term rather than the long haul. I'm not sure how trading away Sam Huff and other key defenders counts as "focusing on the short term," mind you. One way or another, the Giants wouldn't play in the postseason again until 1981 as they spent the next few decades wandering through the wilderness, only to end up in New Jersey. A worse fate we can hardly imagine.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) December 11, 2019
No. 7: 1974-1987 Miami Dolphins
Total Heartbreak Points: 943.9
Playoff Points: 309.4
Win-Loss Points: 401.4
DVOA Points: 233.1
Championship Penalty: 264.8
Record: 138-69-1 (.666)
Playoff Record: 6-8 (two Super Bowl losses, one AFCCG loss, four divisional losses, one wild-card loss)
Average DVOA: 11.9%
Head Coach: Don Shula
Key Players: QB Dan Marino, QB Bob Griese, RB Tony Nathan, WR Nat Moore, WR Mark Duper, WR Mark Clayton, OL Bob Kuechenberg, OL Larry Little, G Ed Newman, G Roy Foster, C Dwight Stephenson, C Jim Langer, DE Doug Betters, DE Vern Den Herder, NT Bob Baumhower, LB Kim Bokamper, LB John Offerdahl, S Glenn Blackwood, S Jake Scott
The Dolphins are always a thorn in the side of the various dynasty projects. The break in their run of success comes not between the Bob Griese and Dan Marino eras, but rather from the defensive struggles that characterized the late 1980s teams. Thematically, that doesn't make sense. It feels like all the Don Shula teams should either be grouped together, or the WoodStrock era should be enough of a dividing line that the Miami gets divided into pre- and post-Marino teams. But no, history doesn't always follow nice narrative structure. And so while the 1990s Dolphins clocked in at No. 15, their earlier, better counterparts crack the top 10. The diminishing returns of adding extra years doesn't quite get them to the top five even if you bridge the two-year gap between them, but Dolphins fans have a strong case as an underrated heartbreak franchise when you combine the totality of their post-AFL life.
We have three eras blending together here, so it makes sense to tackle them one by one.
They keep it very quiet, and don't like making a big deal out of it, but the 1972 Dolphins actually completed a perfect season, which is a fun little historical tidbit that might have gotten lost for all time if you didn't read Football Outsiders. They followed that up by winning the Super Bowl again in 1973 and looked poised to dominate the rest of the 1970s as well. That means that the most painful loss of the Griese era doesn't actually earn Miami any points. In 1974, the Dolphins lost to the Raiders in the Sea of Hands game. Vern Den Herder had Kenny Stabler wrapped up, but Stabler managed to fire off a desperation pass to a triple-covered Clarence Davis, who somehow managed to get his hands on the ball in the midst of Larry Ball, Mike Kolen, and Charlie Babb for the game-winning touchdown. The matchup between the Dolphins and Raiders was supposed to be the "real" Super Bowl that year, with the winner obviously going on to win the title two games later. Shula called this the toughest loss of his career, despite having lost multiple Super Bowls. Adding insult to injury, the Dolphins would then lose several stars to the World Football League, with Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, and Jim Kiick all leaving in search of greener pastures.
Maybe they just saw the writing on the wall. The Raiders didn't win the Super Bowl in 1974—and we'll get back to that shortly. It was instead was the first win for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their nascent dynasty, firmly dethroning the Dolphins as the team to beat in the NFL. The 1970s was the time giants walked the earth in the NFL, some of the biggest dynasties and near-dynasties clogging the path to glory. Seven teams in the 1970s won more than 60% of their games, which is by far on the upper end of that scale. The 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s had just five such teams, the 2000s just four. The Dolphins were about to find themselves on the bottom of the top of the totem pole in the AFC. With the Steel Curtain and the Silver & Black hogging the spotlight, the Dolphins were left as an afterthought
They missed the postseason in both 1975 and 1977 despite going 10-4 each season, losing out to the Baltimore Colts on tiebreakers both times. By estimated DVOA, these were the best of the Dolphins post-Super Bowl teams, with a strong running game making up for the slow decline of the No-Name Defense, but they ended up staying at home for January each time. They didn't manage to claw their way back into the playoffs until 1978, where they were upset by Dan Pastorini and the Houston Oilers in the wild-card round. A Garo Yepremian missed field goal and an ugly Griese interception to Gregg Bingham spoiled a solid defensive effort. And then in 1979, when they finally got a crack at the Steelers to try to show those whippersnappers who the team of the 1970s should have been, they got swallowed up 34-14 in the divisional round.
You can't feel too sorry for the 1970s Dolphins, because they do have the two titles, after all. So when Bob Griese suffered his career-ending shoulder injury in 1980, that should have been the end of the story. After all, no one quarterback could replace a Hall of Famer like Griese. The Dolphins didn't even try. They instead replaced him with two quarterbacks.
Eighth-round pick David Woodley started his rookie season in 1980 as the fourth quarterback on the Dolphins depth chart, but fought his way to the starting job by year's end. He was joined by long-time veteran Don Strock, and the WoodStrock era truly kicked off. In all honesty, it's a bit overstated of a story. Shula had a quick hook for Woodley, bringing Strock in repeatedly in situations where most coaches would ride or die with their starter. In truth, Strock only played quarterback in five games in 1980, six in 1981, and three in 1982. Strock was the better pure passer, and Shula was ready to plug him in whenever the offense sputtered, but it was much more of a Ryan Fitzpatrick replacing Tua Tagovailoa situation rather than a true swap-in and swap-out platoon. Still, WoodStrock is an all-time great nickname for a group, as is the Killer Bs defense—Baumhower, Barnett, Blackwood (both of them), Bokamper, Betters, and Brudzinski, bulldozing and bullying their way to victory.
In 1981, that meant a matchup with the Chargers in the Epic in Miami, where Woodley was pulled after the Dolphins fell behind 24-0. Strock led Miami all the way back in a game which, at the time, set records for points, yards, and passing yards in the postseason, with Strock matching Dan Fouts and the dreaded Air Coryell offense punch for punch in possibly the best game in both quarterbacks' careers. Miami had the lead with 58 seconds in regulation, but a blitzed Fouts managed to overthrow Kellen Winslow and somehow found James Brooks for the game-tying touchdown, and Uwe von Schamann's attempt at a game-winning kick at the gun was blocked by Winslow. von Schamann had another kick blocked in overtime and the Chargers finally outlasted Miami in one of the greatest games ever played.
1982 wasn't nearly as good from a historic perspective, but it saw Miami return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1973, so that's better. This time, Woodley wasn't pulled until the very end of the game, but the result would have been the same either way—he went just 4-for-14 for 97 yards, with 76 of those yards coming on play. No Miami rusher even topped 50 yards on the ground as the Dolphins were bottled up. Despite all this, Miami actually had the halftime lead in Super Bowl XVII thanks to the one big Jimmy Cefalo reception and Fulton Walker returning a kickoff for a touchdown, but the lack of offense eventually caught up to Miami as John Riggins and Washington ran all over them. It was clear to all involved that the offensive situation was not going to stand for the Dolphins, and that something had to be done if they wanted to get over the hump. They needed a quarterback to help make the Dolphins synonymous with championships once again. They needed Dan Marino.
One of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history took place 38 years ago today, when John Riggins broke loose for a 43-yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter to give the Redskins a 20-17 lead over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. #TheDiesel #70Chip pic.twitter.com/kaP3T1oHiU
— David Menassé (@Frekiwolf) January 30, 2021
There was a recent piece of Content™ going around this offseason, trying to argue that Justin Herbert had the best first two years of any quarterback in NFL history. No, that is and likely always will be Marino. His 33.8% DVOA in 1983 is still the rookie record, and his 2,437 passing DYAR in 1984 is the third-most of all time. Marino was 1,084 DYAR ahead of second-place Dan Fouts that year, the only time we have ever seen a quadruple-digit gap between the top two passers. It is impossible to overstate just how exciting and impossible Marino seemed when he first entered the league. He wasn't just good; he seemed impossibly good. As a rookie, he was done in by turnovers in a close divisional-round game against the Seahawks, with back-to-back fumbled kickoffs from Fulton Walker in the fourth quarter preventing Marino from having a chance at a game-winning drive.
In 1984, though, Marino got his first of what was surely going to be many shots at the Super Bowl, meeting with Joe Montana and the 49ers in a clash between the two best quarterbacks of the decade. And for the second time in three years, the Dolphins would come up short. Only this time, it was the defense that failed to get the job done. Miami had a defensive DVOA of 57.2% in the game as Montana threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns, scrambling for another 59 yards and a score. Marino also topped 300 yards but was harassed in the pocket for basically the first time all season, and he threw a couple of picks late in desperation mode in the 38-16 loss. And that's the end of Marino's Super Bowl résumé, a statement that would have been entirely unbelievable at the time.
Many years later, Bill Walsh would dismiss the 1984 Dolphins as a "one-dimensional team" with no ground game to complement Marino. He pointed out their massively undersized defensive line and overall lack of physicality, and he stated that there was just a distinct difference between the two clubs. And yes, that's the story of the 1980s Dolphins—Dan Marino and the Marks Brothers succeeding while the defense and running game flopped. Miami was punched around in the 1985 AFC Championship Game, with the Patriots rushing for 255 yards in a 31-14 upset, and then failed to make the playoffs for the rest of the decade as defensive woes added up. If Marino had had a full supporting cast, he probably wouldn't have gone 0-for-his career on Super Bowl trips, and the Dolphins wouldn't be on this list.
🏆 OTD in 1985: The 49ers Dynasty claimed their 2nd crown by overwhelming the Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX! The high flying fins scored only 1 TD & were shutout in the 2nd half. Marino, who had been sacked only 13x in the regular season, was taken down 4x by the SF D! #FTTB pic.twitter.com/WjAk7NYl43
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) January 20, 2022
No. 6: 1963-1975 Oakland Raiders
Total Heartbreak Points: 1026.8
Playoff Points: 369.6
Win-Loss Points: 357.2
DVOA Points: 299.9
Championship Penalty: 556.1
Record: 126-45-11 (.723)
Playoff Record: 7-8 (one Super Bowl loss, two AFLCG losses, four AFCCG losses, one divisional loss)
Average DVOA: 19.4%
Head Coaches: Al Davis, Jon Rauch, John Madden
Key Players: QB Daryle Lamonica, QB Ken Stabler, RB Clem Daniels, WR Fred Biletnikoff, WR Warren Wells, WR Cliff Branch, TE Raymond Chester, OT Art Shell, OT Harry Schuh, G Gene Upshaw, G Wayne Hawkins, C Jim Otto, DE Ben Davidson, DE Art Powell, DT Tom Keating, LB Dan Conners, LB Gus Otto, LB Phil Villapiano, CB Willie Brown, CB Kent McCloughan, S Dave Grayson, S George Atkinson, S Jack Tatum
From 1963 to 1975, the Oakland Raiders finished 81 games over .500. The Cowboys were in second at 55 games, and no one else topped 50. The Packers may be the team of the 1960s and the Steelers may be the team of the 1970s, but the Raiders would have a fair claim to the decade in between, had they managed to just win even one championship, baby.
The Raiders were not good in their first few years in the AFL. They had an even lower win percentage in their first three seasons than the lowly Denver Broncos, who remain the standard for AFL terribleness. That changed in 1963, when Al Davis was brought in as coach and general manager—the youngest coach in over 30 years, and the youngest general manager ever. The Raiders just weren't the Raiders before Davis gets there. There was no "commitment to excellence," no "pride and poise"—hell, they didn't even wear silver and black. Davis brought all of that with him, along with the vertical passing game that he learned working with Sid Gillman, and the Raiders jumped to contenders overnight. They never actually made the AFL playoffs under Davis before he briefly left to be commissioner of the AFL—they finished one win behind the Chargers in both 1963 and 1965—but they stopped being the butt of jokes.
They didn't take off, however, until 1967, jumping from a franchise high of 14.0% estimated DVOA all the way into the 40s. Their coach was John Rauch, who kind of gets forgotten when sandwiched between larger-than-life figures like Davis and John Madden. Rauch also sort of becomes persona non grata in Raiders lore because he ended up quitting in 1969 out of frustration of being interfered with on a day-to-day basis by Davis, who regretted taking the AFL commissionership after the rest of the league decided to merge with the NFL. But Rauch's teams would have taken Davis' teams to the woodshed. By estimated DVOA, Rauch's Raiders ranked first (1967) and fifth (1968) in AFL history, with the 1967 squad still sitting as the eighth-best team in either league since 1950.
It's difficult to compare AFL and NFL stats as the junior league started much worse than its older counterpart and never quite reached parity before the merger. Many would point to the Raiders' 33-14 loss in Super Bowl II as evidence that the AFL's numbers were inflated as Oakland was thrashed by Vince Lombardi's Packers. But with Daryle Lamonica opening up the passing game far more than Tom Flores ever did, and the additions of legends such as Gene Upshaw, Willie Brown, and Art Shell, the Raiders were a terrific football team. There's every reason to believe they could have won Super Bowls III or IV, but the Jets (with the benefit of an extra bye week before the AFL Championship Game) upset them in 1968, and Lamonica was knocked out of the 1969 AFL Championship Game after smashing his hand on a Chiefs helmet. The 1968 Jets, at least, claimed the Raiders were tougher opponents than the NFL champion Colts, and Len Dawson said Oakland could have beaten Minnesota the year after. Some of that is just league pride and respect, but the prevailing thought at the time was that the Chiefs and Raiders were teams 1 and 1A as the two leagues merged, and that Oakland could very easily become the team to beat in the new decade.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 14, 2022
Sadly, the new decade was the 1970s, when giants roamed the league. Under John Madden, the Raiders were the clear second-best team in the AFC over the decade, but second-best leads to a lot of pain. Oakland would go to six AFC Championship Games in the 1970s and lose five of them. Not all of them count for this dynasty. The Raiders won the Super Bowl in 1976, which keeps them out of the top five on this countdown by completely wiping out the 1975 and 1977 conference losses and putting a damper on the 1973 loss. But even with those caveats, it's exceptionally hard to beat coming so close over and over again, only to repeatedly fall short. The Raiders lost in the last or second-to-last game of the season in seven of the last nine years of this run, something no other team in the Super Bowl era can claim.
If it wasn't for those damned Pittsburgh Steelers. The Raiders and Steelers played in five consecutive postseasons between 1972 and 1976, with the last three happening in the AFC Championship Game. In 1974, Oakland allowed Pittsburgh to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter on their way to a 24-13 win as both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier ran free—fairly standard stuff. 1975 was a bit less standard as the Raiders accused the Steelers of intentionally letting their artificial turf freeze over in an attempt to stop the Oakland aerial attack. Intentional or not, it worked as the game featured 12 turnovers and just three points before the final quarter. Pittsburgh turned the ball over more, but Oakland was the one who turned the ball over in crucial situations. Pete Banaszak fumbled inside the red zone to prevent a Raiders score; Marv Hubbard fumbled inside Oakland's own 30 to set up a score for the Steelers. Critical mistakes at critical times, and Oakland's day was over when Mel Blount stopped Cliff Branch in bounds with time running out to preserve the 16-10 Steelers win.
Neither of those are the game you're thinking of, however. That would be the 1972 divisional round game and the Immaculate Reception, which may be the single most painful play in history—or, at the very least, the most painful one that didn't occur in a conference championship or title game. This is a take that goes against conventional wisdom (after all, the NFL declared this the 13th-best contest in league history), but the game itself wasn't much to write home about before the final sequence. The Steelers-Raiders rivalry wasn't really a thing yet, and the game was just 7-6 going into the final moments. It mostly had been a showcase for Steelers punter Bobby Walden pinning the Raiders deep all day. Lamonica had played badly enough that Madden ended up pulling him for Kenny Stabler late in the game. Stabler led the Raiders to their first and only points of the day, giving Oakland a 7-6 lead with 1:16 left. Entirely forgettable football up to that point.
You have seen the Immaculate Reception, you know the Immaculate Reception. You have seen Terry Bradshaw dodging Tony Cline and Horace Jones, chucking a prayer down the middle of the field. You have seen the ball fly off of … well, either Frenchy Fuqua or Jack Tatum, one or the other. You have seen Franco Harris pick the ball up inches from the turf, stiff-arm Jimmy Warren, and score one of the most improbable touchdowns in NFL history. The Raiders, to this day, still insist that they should have won and the play was illegal. Under the rules at the time, had the ball hit Fuqua first, then only Fuqua could have caught the ball. The play has been the subject of forensic analysis, scientific reconstruction, and careful, Zapruder-esque analysis of the three camera angles that exist(ed) of the play. No one has ever provided clear evidence that Fuqua touched the ball first, and it's worth noting that Curt Gowdy, live and in the moment, called the play as a deflection off of Tatum. From a physics perspective, the ball ricocheting that far makes more sense off of a charging Tatum than it does off of Fuqua crossing the field. But we'll never have a shot that proves it, and no evidence that's ever presented will convince Raiders fans of anything other than the injustice they suffered. That's what triggered the Raiders-Steelers rivalry that made those 1974 and 1975 games so heated. That's what really set the Raiders-NFL rivalry into full force, with an "us against the world" attitude which still exists in elements of the fanbase to this day.
The Raiders did occasionally get the upper hand on the Steelers. They beat them in a rematch in 1973, only for Larry Csonka to run all over them in the AFC Championship Game. And, of course, they beat them in 1976, when Oakland took advantage of a banged-up Steelers rushing attack to win, go to the Super Bowl, and finally give Madden and the Raiders the title they had been looking for for over a decade. Without that win, the Raiders don't just jump into the top five, they jump all the way to number one. If Madden retires with the best winning percentage in (modern) NFL history, but no title, no team could possibly hold a candle to that. No, the Raiders didn't make the Super Bowl very often, but that's because they kept slamming up against the team that did win the title. But Oakland won Super Bowl XI handily, stomping all over the Vikings, and thus transferred at least a portion of their pain to a team we'll meet … well, soon enough.
This Day in #PGHistory: During the 1972 AFC Playoffs, the Steelers defeat Oakland in the final seconds of the game, on what would be considered the greatest play of all time—the Immaculate Reception. pic.twitter.com/22PH96Yyat
— Pittsburgh Clothing Company (@PGHClothingCo) December 23, 2020
The Rankings So Far
The Raiders are not only our first team to top 1,000 heartbreak points, they're also very nearly our first team to top 300 DVOA points. Seeing how they lost more than 150 DVOA points from the Super Bowl XI title, they have an argument for being the best team in the entire rankings ... or they would, if the interregnum Patriots didn't also exist. Still, the Raiders remain one of the league's all-time great teams and are rewarded handsomely for it even after the penalty for their eventual success.
But it's the Giants who sit atop our rankings for playoff pain as losing five title games in a decade is a feat no other team can match. They might well have remained the playoff point leader even after the final five get included had the NFL of the 1950s and 1960s had wild-card berths and divisional-round matchups. Teams can earn more playoff heartbreak nowadays than they could when it was championship or bust.
And it's the Dolphins who become the first team to cross the 400-point barrier for regular-season success. Winning 67% of your games over a sample size of 208 games is exceptionally good; Don Shula could coach a little.
|Dynasties of Heartbreak ... So Far|