Minnesota Vikings: Champions of Heartbreak
NFL Offseason - We are gathered here today to name a champion. Five franchises who went through a decade-plus of success with nothing to show for it gather for the right to be declared the greatest heartbreak dynasty of them all, the team that deserved the most titles and caused their fans the most pain by not coming through.
In the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, we have two franchises which have never won the Super Bowl, yet came tantalizingly close four times. In the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles, we have fan bases that were defined by failure for decades, leaving scars in their respective cities. And we have our wild-card entry in the Los Angeles Rams, a team whose decade of pain has faded somewhat from popular memory after years of franchise movements. All five deserve to be here; all five racked up thousands of heartbreak points that a title could never fully wash away.
But we can only have one winner.
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. 5: 1973-1996 Denver Broncos
Total Heartbreak Points: 1,114.6
Playoff Points: 525.8
Win-Loss Points: 359.7
DVOA Points: 229.3
Championship Penalty: 223.8
Record: 216-146-4 (.596)
Playoff Record: 9-11 (four Super Bowl losses, one AFCCG loss, three divisional losses, three wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 1.2%
Head Coaches: John Ralston, Red Miller, Dan Reeves, Wade Phillips, Mike Shanahan
Key Players: QB John Elway, RB Otis Armstrong, WR Haven Moses, WR Steve Watson, WR Vance Johnson, WR Rick Upchurch, TE Riley Odoms, TE Shannon Sharpe, OT Ken Lanier, OT Claudie Minor, OT Gary Zimmerman, G Paul Howard, G Dave Studdard, G Keith Bishop, C Bill Bryan, DE Barney Chavous, DE Rulon Jones, DE Lyle Alzado, NT Rubin Carter, NT Greg Kragen, LB Karl Mecklenburg, LB Tom Jackson, LB Randy Gradishar, LB Simon Fletcher, CB Louis Wright, CB Steve Foley, S Dennis Smith, S Steve Atwater, S Bill Thompson
Project Arcturus still going strong, I see. pic.twitter.com/DxOdhiZTc9
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) June 18, 2022
"You Only Move Twice" first aired on November 3, 1996. Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder was originally going to have Homer Simpson be gifted the Houston Oilers, the joke being that Hank Scorpio could only swing getting Homer the lesser of the two Texas teams. But with the Oilers announcing they were moving to Nashville, the joke didn't really land. The writers needed a new team, one who would contrast with the decades of dominance for Homer's beloved Dallas Cowboys. In 1996, the Broncos were the obvious choice. Now, we'll explain why, for Marge's sake.
While every team here in the top five can be described as having achieved a sort of generational heartbreak, to the point where playoff failures have become an integral part of the identity of the fan bases, none took it quite as far as these Broncos. They're the only entry on the list to last longer than 20 years. Most franchises eventually either win that elusive title or dip back into mediocrity, or worse. Not the Broncos. It wasn't always smooth going from Craig Morton and the Orange Crush to John Elway and the Three Amigos, but you couldn't keep Denver down for long. After starting as the worst franchise in the AFL, the Broncos went without consecutive losing seasons from 1973 through 2017. They weren't quite as consistent in DVOA, but 1982-1983 is the only stretch in here where they were below average in consecutive years, and they still managed to punch their way to a 9-7 season and a wild-card berth. If you were going to split these Broncos, that's where you would do it. That would leave the Orange Crush Broncos down in 35th place and the Elway teams in 12th. Whether you ultimately group them together or not is a matter of methodology more than anything else. The point is, both halves were very good, but neither had anything to show for it.
John Ralston dug the Broncos out of their AFL purgatory and would have propelled the Broncos to the fifth and sixth seeds a couple times, had fifth or sixth seeds been something that existed in the early 1970s. Ralston's Broncos could have won the AFC West in 1973, but quarterback Charley Johnson was knocked out of the last game of the season, helping the Raiders win 21-17 and end Denver's chances. That's all well and good, but the dynasty really started racking up heartbreak points with Red Miller and the dawn of the Orange Crush defense.
The Broncos switched to a 3-4 defense in 1976 with Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson coming off the edge and had a brief run of success, with three seasons in a row in the top 10 of estimated defensive DVOA and five seasons in the top 10 of run defense DVOA—the front seven being notably better than the secondary, but never you mind. The early 1970s offenses were better, but veteran Craig Morton stabilized the passing game to the point where the defense could propel them to the division title, and then past the banged-up Steelers and Raiders into the Super Bowl in the franchise's first playoff trip. Unfortunately, "banged-up" also described Morton, who entered the matchup against his old teammates in Dallas with a hip that needed to be drained multiple times. The Doomsday Defense outdid the Orange Crush, forcing eight turnovers and limiting Morton and backup Norris Weese to eight completions for 61 yards—even in the 1970s, that's bad. This may well be the worst Super Bowl in history, as even blowouts can bring entertainment from seeing a team firing on all cylinders. The Cowboys' 27-10 victory was almost entirely Morton and the Broncos' offense floundering and flailing. The Cowboys only scored 17 points off of those eight turnovers. They were struggling themselves, but the Broncos were just "no, really, we don't want to win this game, here you go." Just some terrible football.
Super Bowl XII, 44 years ago today
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 16, 2022
The Orange Crush never made it back. Morton again got pulled for Weese in 1978's divisional playoff round as a healthy Steelers proved that their 1977 loss was a fluke. And in 1979, Morton was sacked six times and threw an interception in 13-7 wild-card loss against the half-strength Houston Oilers. As good as the defense was, the offense was just serving as an anchor.
That would change in 1983. John Elway didn't want to play for the Baltimore Colts; head coach Dan Reeves didn't want to start Morton anymore. It was a match made in … well, not heaven, because Elway and Reeves hated each other by the end of Reeves' time in Denver, but it worked for about a decade. The Broncos seemed to have either a top-10 offense or a top-10 defense every year under the 1980s Elway teams, though only 1984 and 1985 saw them do both at the same time. And while Elway's first two postseason trips would end up as fairly conclusive losses, the Broncos would become heartbreakers themselves as Browns fans can readily confirm, winning AFC titles in three out of four years in the back half of the decade. They were the most successful AFC team of the 1980s!
And it's too bad that all the good teams in the 1980s played in the NFC, as the Broncos would discover on multiple occasions. In 1986, the Giants scored 26 unanswered points as they ran away with the Super Bowl, with some garbage-time Denver scores making the final score somewhat respectable at 39-20. Those garbage scores didn't happen the next year against Washington. This time, the Broncos allowed 42 unanswered points on their way to a 42-10 loss. And if you think that's a blowout, just wait two more seasons—the Broncos would return to the Super Bowl in 1989, only to lose the most lopsided Super Bowl in history as the 49ers finished their decade of dominance with a 55-10 win.
The Broncos are the only franchise in history to have three minimum-value Super Bowl losses, with the losses to Washington, San Francisco, and (much later) Seattle earning the minimum 100 heartbreak points—utter blowouts from the gun, with little in the way of redeeming value. Overall, the Broncos only earn 530 heartbreak points from their five Super Bowl losses. By comparison, the Patriots get 772 from their five losses. The Broncos' total is eclipsed by the four losses by the Bills, and even the three losses by the Cowboys and Bengals. A lot of the reputation for the Super Bowl being unwatchable in the 1980s comes from the Broncos just not showing up for the big game.
These Broncos would never get the chance again. They'd lose the 1991 AFC Championship Game to the Bills in part because Elway was hampered by a thigh bruise and had to be replaced by Gary Kubiak, and in part because David Treadwell couldn't kick a field goal to save his life. They'd lose in the 1993 divisional round to the Raiders when Jeff Hostetler had one of the best games of his career. And more often than not, they'd be sitting at home in January until Mike Shanahan and Terrell Davis came along to help finally win one for John.
The Broncos aren't higher in part because they weren't competitive in their Super Bowls. But even if you cranked all four Super Bowl losses to maximum value, they still wouldn't top the countdown. Their fundamental problem was being good far more often than they were great. Only nine of their 24 seasons saw them with double-digit DVOA, and eight of these years actually hit negative numbers. The Broncos of this era were usually good bordering on great rather than one of the all-time best. Had the league been more balanced in the 1980s, the Broncos don't go to as many Super Bowls and don't rank as highly. But they took advantage of their opportunities, and suffered appropriately for it.
OTD the #49ers went back-to-back!
Relive Super Bowl XXIV pic.twitter.com/SPSZYAQakq
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 28, 2018
No. 4: 1988-1999 Buffalo Bills
Total Heartbreak Points: 1,190.9
Playoff Points: 661.8
Win-Loss Points: 319.4
DVOA Points: 209.8
Record: 124-68 (.656)
Playoff Record: 11-10 (four Super Bowl losses, one AFCCG loss, two divisional losses, three wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 9.2%
Head Coaches: Marv Levy, Wade Phillips
Key Players: QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas, WR Andre Reed, OT Howard Ballard, OT Will Wolford, G Jim Richter, G Ruben Brown, C Kent Hull, DE Bruce Smith, DE Phil Hansen, DT Ted Washington, LB Cornelius Bennett, LB Darryl Talley, LB Shane Conlan, LB Bryce Paup, CB Nate Odomes, S Henry Jones
Wait, fourth? The Buffalo Bills, losers of four straight Super Bowls, finish fourth in terms of heartbreak? Second you could sell me on, as the argument between Buffalo and Minnesota as 0-4 Super Bowlers was one of the inspirations for this list, but fourth? Behind a couple of one-time Super Bowl losers? Man, that's indefensible. Where's the idiot who made this list? He's got to come out and explain this one in public.
… wait, shoot, I'm the idiot who made this list. That's really inconvenient. I was planning on heading to Buffalo for Christmas this year. They won't let me in the city now, They'll stop me at the airport and put me through the table of shame. Fourth place. Good gracious. Well, let me see if I can explain things and try to not become a pariah in the Queen City.
These Bills are the team with the most painful season in NFL history, after adjusting for championship penalties. The Bills benefitted more than anyone else from the demise of the USFL in 1986. That's how they got Jim Kelly (Houston Gamblers), Kent Hull (New Jersey Generals), and Ray Bentley (Oakland Invaders) on the field, and Bill Polian and Marv Levy (Chicago Blitz) on their staff. The USFL additions were a huge influx of talent to a roster that already had Andre Reed at receiver, Bruce Smith at defensive end, and a whole load of quality offensive linemen. Add Thurman Thomas to the mix in 1988 and the Bills were ready to explode. Almost. They had to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals and their no-huddle offense in the 1988 AFC Championship Game, and then to the Browns in the divisional round in 1989 when Scott Norwood slipped on some ice and Ronnie Harmon forgot how to catch in the end zone. But then they stole the no-huddle from Cincinnati, stuck Kelly in the shotgun and called it the K-Gun, and were ready to go.
The 1990 Bills led the league with a 20.6% offensive DVOA as the K-Gun ran wild over a league that really wasn't ready for it. They led the NFL in points scored, storming down the field and catching defenses unable to substitute to match up against the plethora of weapons. They went 13-3, still the most wins in Buffalo history. And they got to play in Super Bowl XXV against the Giants and a backup quarterback named Jeff Hostetler. But the Buffalo defense, despite boasting Smith, was average on the whole, and the Giants took advantage of it. They held the ball for over 40 minutes, leaving the K-Gun unloaded on the sidelines. Hostetler and the Giants never turned the ball over and methodically wore out the Buffalo defense. The Buffalo passing game was stymied by Bill Belichick's shifting coverages as Kelly was never an expert at reading defenses. And while Thurman Thomas ran all over the extra defensive backs the Giants kept in the game, it still left Buffalo down one point, with Norwood needing a 47-yard field goal for the win.
This was a harder kick back then; kickers were only making kicks from 45 to 49 yards 52.7% of the time in that era, compared to 71.9% today. But even if you tack on the extra 10 yards or so to put it in modern terms, most teams would take the opportunity to have the season on the line in that situation in a heartbeat. Norwood couldn't live up to the moment, his kick sailing wide right as time expired. That's 200 heartbreak points for the one-point Super Bowl loss, plus 62.5 points for the 13-3 regular season record, plus 46.0 points for the 23.0% DVOA, for a grand total of 308.5 points. Every season that has earned more points than that gets soothed by championships in their immediate vicinity, but not the 1990 Bills. The most painful season of all time title goes to them.
January 27, 1991: With :08 left in the game, Scott Norwood's 47-yard FG attempt sails Wide Right and the Giants beat the Bills 20-19 to win Super Bowl XXV in Tampa. pic.twitter.com/Z1sckOpbIr
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) January 27, 2021
These Bills are also the team with the most Super Bowl pain in NFL history. The loss in Super Bowl XXV was just the first part of a four-act play of misery. Buffalo would lose to Washington 37-24 in 1991 with Kelly turning the ball over five times and absorbing four sacks. They'd lose to Dallas 52-17 in 1992, getting absolutely flattened and turning the ball over nine times. They made it a little more competitive in 1993, but still lost to Dallas 30-13 after allowing 24 unanswered points in the second half. They're not the most competitive Super Bowl losses in history, but there are four of them, and they combine for 560 heartbreak points. That makes the Bills the team with the most heartbreak points in any four-year span.
The Bills are technically only second in franchise Super Bowl pain behind the Patriots. But the Patriots have also dished out more than a thousand points of pain in Super Bowls, while the Bills haven't hurt anyone. So, in terms of net Super Bowl pain, Buffalo remains on top. If you believe that the heartbreak list should only focus on championship games, Buffalo would be No. 1.
|Net Super Bowl Heartbreak|
So, if the Bills have the worst season on the list, and the worst Super Bowls on the list, how the hell are they down in No. 4?
It's not because of their playoff points. Their 661.8 points are basically tied with the 1970s Vikings for first place overall. The Bills don't get a chance to pull out a big lead here because they don't have a lot outside their four Super Bowl losses to hang their hat on—they have a blowout loss to the Steelers in the 1995 divisional round and then three close wild-card losses, including the Music City Miracle. It's not nothing, but it's not the kind of results that let you lap a field either . Had all four Super Bowl losses been Norwood-esque, the Bills would have finished in first place. If those three wild card games had been divisional-round games instead, they'd at least jump into third. But ultimately, their playoff points are fine.
Their win-loss points could be better, but they still finish sixth on the countdown at 319.4. Nine double-digit-win seasons is a very solid résumé to bring to the table, even if the Bills were generally closer to 11-5 than they were to 13-3. If they had been a dominant regular season team, going 13-3 every year, they would have finished in first place. A 12-4 season every year would have bumped them into third. But ultimately, their win-loss points are fine.
It's DVOA that ends up dragging the Bills down. DVOA just doesn't love the 1990s Bills. The Bills only had one season in this run with a DVOA higher than 20.0% (1990), and only two others (1991 and 1998) above 15.0%. Buffalo never led the league in DVOA in this run but fell outside the top 10 from 1993 to 1997. The period of offensive dominance was 1988 to 1992 as the K-Gun ran out of bullets from 1993 onwards. They never paired a top-10 offense with a top-10 defense. Essentially, DVOA sees the 1990s Bills as a good, sometimes very good team that happened to play in the conference that didn't have the Cowboys and 49ers in it. There's a reason those NFC Championship Games were called the "real Super Bowl" by Sports Illustrated. The Bills' 209.8 DVOA points rank 15th among the 44 qualified heartbreak dynasties. That's less than the 2000s Chargers or the active Cowboys or Saints runs. It's too much for the Bills teams to overcome, and so they settle down into a very, very close fourth place, essentially tied with our next team for third.
So what we're asking here is for Bills fans to take a calm, sober look at their 1990s memories, and recognize that their beloved teams weren't really as good as they thought they were, and to appropriately weigh their four Super Bowl losses in that light.
Yeah, I'll just show myself through the nearest table and save us all some time.
The Music City Miracle.
— NFL (@NFL) April 16, 2020
No. 3: 2000-2014 Philadelphia Eagles
Total Heartbreak Points: 1,195.8
Playoff Points: 533.6
Win-Loss Points: 285.1
DVOA Points: 377.1
Championship Penalty: 100.0
Record: 145-94 (.607)
Playoff Record: 10-10 (one Super Bowl loss, four NFCCG losses, two divisional losses, three wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 15.9%
Head Coaches: Andy Reid, Chip Kelly
Key Players: QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, OT Tra Thomas, OT Jon Runyan, OT Jason Peters, G Todd Herremans, DE Hugh Douglas, DT Mike Patterson, LB Trent Cole, LB Jeremiah Trotter, CB Troy Vincent, CB Asante Samuel, S Brian Dawkins, DB Sheldon Brown, DB Lito Sheppard
Before 2019, Andy Reid was on my Mount Rushmore for best coaches to never win a title, right alongside Marty Schottenheimer, George Allen, and Bud Grant. He probably would have been my top choice, honestly, considering how good his Eagles teams were for a decade and a half. Yes, this run technically includes a few Chip Kelly years at the end, which is what ends up pushing the Eagles to third rather than fourth. But make no mistake that this is Reid's legacy as he took Philadelphia out of the wreckage that was the end of the Ray Rhodes era. Under Reid, the Eagles would be perennial contenders, part of the championship discussion for most of the 2000s. And with five losses in the last two games of the season in the decade, and no late Super Bowl to sooth the pain like we saw with the 1970s Raiders, the Eagles deserve to be in the very top group of heartbreak teams.
It's Andy Reid's Eagles, not the Patriots, who end up with highest average DVOA of the 2000s. They clock in at 20.3% to the 20.2% from New England. In fact, the Eagles are one of just four teams to average a DVOA of 20.0% or greater over at least a decade, joining those Patriots, the 49ers dynasty, and the prime years of the Legion of Boom Seahawks. DVOA loved the 2000s Eagles, to the point where it almost became a meme among early Football Outsiders readers and a source of vitriol from the old FOX power ratings. If you go back and read some of our early weekly DVOA columns, especially written just after an Eagles loss, you'll see all kinds of theorizing and puzzling as to why Philly kept getting ranked so high. DVOA wasn't taking into account short-yardage enough, DVOA valued long drives too much, DVOA didn't have an "Andy Reid has no sense of time management" variable, we're all secretly Philly fans in disguise, etc.
What DVOA was actually valuing, of course, was the fact that the Eagles were really dang good. If they had a problem, it's that they could never get the defense and offense peaking at quite the same time. The defense led the league in 2001 and nearly repeated in 2002 as players such as Hugh Douglas, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, and Brian Dawkins led the way. Then they started sinking back towards the pack just as Donovan McNabb and the offense were really taking off. They had wide receiver problems in the early part of the run, but the addition of Terrell Owens put them over the top in 2004. McNabb's 1,324 combined rushing and passing DYAR in that season remains the franchise record, and Owens' 307 DYAR (in 14 games) was the franchise record at the time, though it has since been passed as we've extended DYAR in both directions by 2013 DeSean Jackson and 1983 Mike Quick. That 2000-2006 stretch is the real heyday for the Eagles; it's the team that qualified for the dynasty rankings. But Reid's Eagles stayed in the top 10 in DVOA every year after that stretch until the bottom fell out in 2012. The Eagles ended up earning the second-most DVOA points of any team on this list, and the most points for any team that we have actual DVOA for rather than estimated DVOA. I do think these Eagles were a historically great team, or at least historically consistently very good, and they should be rewarded accordingly.
For five years in a row, it took the eventual NFC champions to knock the Eagles out the playoffs. In 2000, that was the Giants in the divisional round, a game that went badly for Philadelphia right from the gun as Ron Dixon took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a score. The Eagles mostly shut down the Giants' offense, but Philadelphia allowed six sacks, turned the ball over three times, and generally failed to get any sort of momentum going against New York. In 2001, it was the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk overcoming a 17-13 halftime deficit by keeping Philly's defense on the field for basically the entire second half and wearing them down. Seeing both the Giants and Rams go on to lose in the Super Bowl adds a bit of extra sting—sure, maybe the 2000 Ravens had an all-time great defense, but this Brady kid who beat the Rams? The Eagles could have handled him, no problem.
Before they got a chance to prove that, though, they had to get through a couple more NFC Championship Game flops. Some Eagles fans consider the 2002 Black Sunday loss to the Buccaneers the most painful defeat not just in this run, but in Philadelphia franchise history. We'll stick with the Super Bowl losses for that title, but the Eagles had had beaten the Bucs four straight times, including in back-to-back postseasons, and felt confident they could do it again in the title game. The Bucs had never won a road playoff game and were just 1-21 all-time in the freezing cold temperatures at the Vet. And yet, there they were, marching up and down the field behind Brad Johnson. There Ronde Barber was, taking a McNabb interception 92 yards to the house to close out the game, McNabb's third turnover of the day. The Bucs closed the Vet and shellshocked a city that thought that this was finally going to be their year. It was almost as bad the next season in the NFC Championship Game, with the Eagles unable to conquer the on-paper inferior Panthers thanks in part to McNabb's torn rib cartilage suffered in the first half, in part to Ricky Manning's three interceptions, and in part to Koy Detmer's game-losing interception in the fourth quarter.
Ronde Barber's 92 yard pick-six to secure the win & send the Bucs to the Super Bowl! pic.twitter.com/T6c82jF8OR
— Four Verts 🏈 (@FourVerticals_) January 11, 2022
But these are all character-building losses, leading up to the story of Philadelphia finally throwing off the weight of the drought in Super Bowl XXXIX. The addition of Owens took their offense to a new level, and he worked his butt off to recover from a horse-collar tackle and make it back for the Super Bowl. Three of the four defenders in the secondary were Pro Bowlers. They were ready to take on the Patriots, who by now had established themselves as champions, but were far from the season-destroying dynamo they would eventually transmogrify into. This was Philadelphia's chance.
It wasn't to be. Early on, Philly couldn't take advantage of lucky breaks. Two first-quarter Eagles turnovers were nullified by replay or penalty, but Philadelphia got no points out of either fortunate situation when McNabb finally threw an interception that actually counted to Rodney Harrison in the end zone. They couldn't capitalize on a Brady fumble in the second quarter, either Had Philly taken advantage of these early breaks, they could have built up a lead, but instead the game was tied at 14 going into the fourth quarter. A quarter full of typical early 2000s Patriots plays later—Deion Branch ripping the ball out of Sheldon Brown's hands, a roughing call on Corey Simon, and so on and so forth—gave the Patriots a 24-14 lead with 5:40 left in the game. Plenty of time for the Eagles to score, get a stop, and score again, as long as they showed even the slightest bit of urgency. Rather than go to a no-huddle, however, the Eagles laboriously marched down the field, with McNabb allegedly suffering badly from the beating he took over the course of the game. The Eagles did find the end zone, but ate up all but 1:48 left to do so. That forced the Eagles to attempt an onside kick, which failed, which meant that they had to use all their timeouts to get the ball back. That, in turn, forced a desperation drive where Brian Westbrook got tackled for no gain to keep the clock running, and McNabb's final desperation shot landed in Harrison's hands again to seal the loss. Andy Reid time management, striking again.
That's the peak of Philadelphia's pain, but there's so much more we could go into. The McNabb hernia and Owens holdouts of 2005. The McNabb ACL tear in 2006. Shawn Andrews getting hurt in the first half against the Saints in the 2006 divisional round. Larry Fitzgerald going HAM in 2008. Getting clobbered by the Cowboys in 2009. Tremon Williams' pick in the end zone in 2010. Insult on top of injury on top of insult. The Eagles may only pass the Bills because of the gap in DVOA between the two teams, but I'm OK with defending Philadelphia as being one slot higher than Buffalo, despite the lack of Super Bowl appearances. Your mileage may vary, of course, and that's before we get to the next entry…
16 years ago tonight, Feb 6, 2005, Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, FL
— Boston Radio Watch® (@bostonradio) February 6, 2021
No. 2: 1966-1980 Los Angeles Rams
Total Heartbreak Points: 1,315.3
Playoff Points: 451.2
Win-Loss Points: 453.6
DVOA Points: 410.5
Record: 149-60-7 (.706)
Playoff Record: 6-10 (one Super Bowl loss, four NFCCG losses, two Western Conference losses, two divisional losses, one wild-card loss)
Average DVOA: 20.2%
Head Coaches: George Allen, Tommy Prothro, Chuck Knox, Ray Malavasi
Key Players: QB Roman Gabriel, RB Lawrence McCutcheon, WR Jack Snow, WR Harold Jackson, OT Charlie Cowan, OT Doug France, OT Bob Brown, G Tom Mack, G Joe Scibelli, G Dennis Harrah, C Rich Saul, DE Jack Youngblood, DE Fred Dryer, DE Deacon Jones, DT Merlin Olsen, DT Larry Brooks, LB Isaiah Robertson, LB Jack Reynolds, LB Maxie Baughan, CB Monte Jackson, CB Pat Thomas, S Dave Elmendorf, S Eddie Meador, DB Rod Perry
This isn't the team you expected to be No. 2. I feel fairly comfortable saying that because this wasn't the team I was expecting to be No. 2. The 1970s Rams don't get mentioned in the same breath as the other four teams we're talking about today. Losing Super Bowls is a significant part of your identity as a Vikings or Bills fan. Suffering is a significant part your identity as an Eagles fan. Even the Broncos were considered the butt of jokes until the very end of the 20th century. But the Rams, as a franchise, aren't particularly tortured. They won championships before the 1970s, and they won championships after the 1970s. Even acknowledging that this is heartbreak for eras, and not franchises, they feel a little like the odd team out.
They absolutely belong in this group, however. Yes, I'd likely subjectively place them fifth and then wouldn't have this intro talking about people being surprised, but I am very glad they appear high on the list. The pain of the 1970s Rams has not been mythologized and canonized like some of these other teams. Their struggles have slipped through the historical cracks for a lot of fans, especially from my generation or younger. Heck, we have people reading this who don't remember Kurt Warner's days with the Rams, much less the heyday of Jack Youngblood and Jack Reynolds. Part of this exercise is supposed to be educational, and while I may not be able to convince everyone that the Rams should be the second team on this list—I'm not fully my convinced myself—if I can raise awareness of just how good the 1970s Rams were, and just how much it sucked to support them, then I've done my job.
These Rams do carry with them a decent chunk of postseason pain, going to at least the NFC Championship Game in five out of six seasons. Their 451.2 playoff points is a very respectable sixth place, and if you think that true heartbreak can only come in the postseason, then the Rams are still a top-10 team, but don't quite reach here. But the Rams climb this high because they have the best regular-season metrics, and by a wide margin.
In the heart of this run, from 1973 to 1980, the Los Angeles Rams went 86-31-1. That ties the Steelers for the best record in football over that timeframe, and it surpasses the legendary 1970s squads for the Cowboys, Raiders, or Vikings. From September though December, no team was more dominant than the Rams . Part of that does come from a soft NFC West, with only the 1973, 1978, and 1980 Falcons and 1976 49ers finishing with a winning record. Maybe, then, you think that the Rams' regular season is overrated. That's why we have DVOA, or specifically in this case, Andreas Shepard's estimated DVOA. And if anything, the Rams look even better there.
The Rams hit an average estimated DVOA of 20.2% from 1970 to 1979. Only the Cowboys topped that mark; the Steelers fell a little short because they didn't get good until 1972. The Rams were second in defensive DVOA, behind only the Steel Curtain, and fourth in offensive DVOA. And even if you don't trust estimated DVOA—in which case, Hi, welcome to Football Outsiders, it's a pleasure to see you here for the first time—the Rams were second in the decade in point differential and first among teams that played the entire decade in points allowed. They weren't squeaking by in a subpar division. They were rolling over opponents.
The meat of this era is the 1973-1980 stretch, but we'd be remiss for not mentioning the George Allen- and Roman Gabriel-led teams of the late 1960s into the 1970s. Gabriel was league MVP in 1969, leading the league in touchdowns and interception percentage. The defense was led by the Fearsome Foursome of Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and, uh, a rotating cast at the fourth slot depending on the year. And Allen was beloved—to the point where, when he was fired for personality conflicts with owner Dan Reeves in 1968, 38 of the 40 players on the Rams roster reportedly threatened to retire or demanded a trade if he was not immediately reinstated.
Allen's tenure turned the Rams from laughingstocks to contenders, but they never quite finished the deal. In 1967, they lost to the Packers in the Western Conference finals, claiming that Green Bay watered down their field to slow the Fearsome Foursome in a mud bowl in Milwaukee. They were right, and it worked. In 1969, it was the Vikings stopping Los Angeles in the conference finals, with Alan Page coming up with a huge interception with 30 seconds left in a forgotten classic. That was it for Allen, who was fired again and took as many Rams as he could with him to Washington and started the 14th-ranked heartbreak dynasty. Tommy Prothro was left holding the bag for all of the Rams' departed veterans. His teams weren't successful, although he did a very good job at finding young talent. He left behind the core of the team that would win the NFC West in the next seven seasons.
These were the teams of Carroll Rosenbloom, the equal parts gruff and charismatic owner who made the Rams a destination for Hollywood types after swapping his Colts franchise with Robert Irsay's Rams. Rosenbloom was friends with everyone from Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart to Ricardo Montalbán and Don Rickles, and celebrities swarmed over Rams games and practices—and, of course, the Rams got to return the favor in Hollywood, with Olsen, Fred Dryer, Rosey Grier and more jumping to television.
These were Chuck Knox's teams—"Ground Chuck" himself, with his emphasis on a powerful rushing attack, with Lawrence McCutcheon consistently making the Pro Bowl. Perhaps not the most imaginative or creative offense of the 1970s, but a damn effective one, controlling the ball and allowing his defense to just murder people. Think Martyball, but for a previous era. And who could blame Knox, considering the state of the Rams' quarterback room. Gabriel's constant injuries begat the aging John Hadl; who was shipped to Green Bay and replaced with the strong-armed James Harris; who was banged up and replaced by a combination of Ron Jaworski and rookie Pat Haden; who got pulled for the aging, kneeless corpse of Joe Namath; who gave the job back to Haden; who then lost it to Vince Ferragamo. With that kind of consistency at the quarterback position, you'd stick with the running game too.
These were the defense's teams. The new Fearsome Foursome of Jack Youngblood, Larry Brooks, Dryer, and either Olsen or Mike Fanning, depending on the year, was every bit as intimidating as the group from the 1960s. And behind them were Isaiah Robertson and Dave Elmendorf and a rotating cast of Pro Bowlers and underrated stars. In 1975, they held their opponents to 9.6 points per game, still the second-lowest in NFL history—impressive, even in the run-first 1970s. You had to earn every single yard against the Rams fronts.
You also had to earn every win in the 1970s NFC with the Cowboys and Vikings around, and the Rams couldn't do it.
In 1973, 1975, 1978, and 1980, the Rams fell to Dallas, generally being unable to solve the Doomsday Defense. In both 1973 and 1975, the Rams quarterback (Hadl and Harris) threw an interception on the very first play from scrimmage to set the tone. They avoided that trap in 1978 and 1980, instead turning the ball over five and three times in the second halves, respectively. Learning! They lost by an average score of 32-9. And the Cowboys weren't even the most hated thorns in Los Angeles' side.
In 1974, 1976, and 1977, the Rams met Minnesota in the playoffs, coming up empty all three times. In the 1974 NFC Championship Game, a controversial illegal procedure call moved the Rams from the 6-inch line to the 6-yard line in a 7-3 game. Forced to pass, Harris' throw was tipped and intercepted by Wally Hilgenberg in the end zone, leading to a long Minnesota scoring drive that stuck the dagger in the Rams' chances. Partially scarred by that, and partially annoyed that the owner made him start Joe Haden instead of Harris, Chuck Knox decided to kick a field goal from the 2-yard line in the first quarter of the 1976 championship game … a kick that was blocked, setting the tone for a game that saw the Vikings also block a punt and come up with two key interceptions in their way to victory. Both of those games happened in the cold in Minnesota, so the Rams thought they had their chance in 1977, when they finally got to host the Vikings in Los Angeles. To make matters better, Fran Tarkenton was hurt and unavailable for this one. Unfortunately, Los Angeles was hit with a torrential rainstorm, turning the field at the Coliseum to mud. The Vikings scored early before the field became a barely playable quagmire, and Haden was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter to end any chances of a comeback.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) July 20, 2021
But in 1979, the Rams finally broke through. Knox was gone, replaced (after a bizarre reunion with George Allen that lasted all of two preseason games and is a story for another time) with defensive coordinator Ray Malavasi. Rosenbloom was gone, dead in somewhat mysterious circumstances earlier that year (in another bizarre story for another time). Gone, too, were Olsen, Robertson, and many of the other key players from the run of success. By estimated DVOA, the 1979 squad was easily the worst of the Rams' 1970s teams. But they were the ones that slipped past the Cowboys and got into the Super Bowl, where they were met by … the Steel Curtain Steelers, because there were giants everywhere in the 1970s. But the Rams gave it everything they could, with Youngblood playing through a broken fibula. The Rams intercepted Terry Bradshaw three times, holding a 19-17 lead entering the third quarter against the massively favored Steelers. But in the fourth quarter, Bradshaw hit John Stallworth on two long bombs and Ferragamo threw an interception of his own as Pittsburgh pulled away to win 31-19.
You don't hear as much about these Rams teams as you should. Part of that is the different relationship teams like the Bills or Eagles have with their cities, compared to the Rams' relationship with Los Angeles. The franchise moved to Anaheim in 1980 and were replaced by the Raiders not long after as the cool team to like in L.A. So even before they left for St. Louis, a lot of Rams' fans frustrations with the team were more about them leaving, rather than them losing. The constant quarterback shuffling doesn't help, either—no Tarkenton or Kelly to serve as the face of the era. But these Rams teams are every bit as deserving of your pity-slash-schadenfreude as anyone else in any era.
Except, of course, for one other team, in their same conference, in their same time period.
"Great teams aren't always great, they're just great when they have to be."
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 21, 2022
No. 1: 1968-1982 Minnesota Vikings
Total Heartbreak Points: 1,378.4
Playoff Points: 667.6
Win-Loss Points: 425.1
DVOA Points: 285.8
Record: 140-71-2 (.662)
Playoff Record: 10-12 (four Super Bowl losses, one NFCCG loss, one Western Conference loss, six divisional losses)
Average DVOA: 8.8%
Head Coaches: Bud Grant
Key Players: QB Fran Tarkenton, RB Chuck Foreman, WR Sammy White, WR Ahmad Rashad, WR John Gilliam, WR Gene Washington, OT Ron Yary, G Ed White, C Mick Tinglehoff, DE Carl Eller, DE Jim Marshall, DT Alan Page, DT Gary Larsen, LB Wally Hilgenberg, LB Matt Blair, LB Jeff Siemon, LB Roy Winston, CB Bobby Bryant, S Paul Krause
This is not a surprise.
When we did the dynasty project a few years ago, the Purple People Eater Vikings hit No. 17 despite their lack of world championships. The greatest team to never have been the greatest team. No matter what methodology you use, the 1970s Vikings were always going to come out on top.
While we docked the Bills for being a good team that took advantage of playing in a weak conference to get to their four Super Bowl losses, the Purple People Eaters were a different beast. From 1969 to 1976, the stretch in which those four losses occur, the Vikings average a 19.9% estimated DVOA, topping 20.0% three times and hitting a high of 37.5% in 1969. Their overall average DVOA doesn't quite live up to those numbers, mostly because the last five seasons of the run with Tommy Kramer under center and the defensive line aging and leaving were shadows of the early 1970s teams.
But a few questionable seasons at the end don't change the fact that the Vikings were able to consistently fight through the Cowboys and Rams, which is significantly tougher opposition than any of the other multi-time Super Bowl losers had to fight off. The Vikings had two teams in their conference who averaged over 20.0% estimated DVOA during their Super Bowl appearances. The other four multi-time losers on this list (the Bills, Broncos, Dolphins, and Patriots) combined to face a grand total of one. Reaching the Super Bowl multiple times takes luck as well as skill, and the Vikings had arguably less luck than any of their compatriots on this list.
That leaves the skill. Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, and Gary Larsen (later replaced by Doug Southerland) would be my choice for the greatest defensive front in NFL history, with Page's arrival in 1967 being the final factor that took the Vikings defense to the next level. From 1968 to 1976, Minnesota allowed 12.9 points per game, or a full 6.8 points less than the league average at the time. A lot of that is the front four meeting at the quarterback, but you also have the all-time interception leader in Paul Krause behind them, mopping things up the few times quarterbacks could withstand the pressure. Less-known outside of Vikings fandom were the linebacking trio of Matt Blair, Wally Hingenberg, and Jeff Siemon, swarming the middle of the field in Bud Grant's defense. Given the choice, I'd still take the Steelers' defense of the time over the Vikings, but it's really, really close.
The offense was the weaker unit, but they still finished in the top 10 in estimated DVOA from 1972 to 1976, leading the league with a 29.0% passing DVOA over those five seasons. That lines up with Fran Tarkenton returning to the lineup; he had missed Super Bowl IV with an unfortunate case of "having been traded to the Giants for five years." When Tarkenton retired in 1978, he held all the significant passing records and was known as the best scrambling quarterback in league history to that point. 1970s Football Outsiders (which would have presumably been some sort of curiously mimeographed zine) would have had an Irrational Staubach-Tarkenton debate thread going, I'm sure.
The Vikings don't end up with as much Super Bowl pain as the Bills. After all, only the Super Bowl IX loss ended up even being a two-score game. They do, however, end up topping them with playoff pain in general, because they made the playoffs more consistently and averaged longer runs than Buffalo did, with 12 appearances in the divisional round or later to Buffalo's seven. Even without the Super Bowl losses, there have been plenty of Vikings postseason heartbreaks to track.
Most of the Vikings' non-Super Bowl losses can be grouped as either "man, I wish we had Tarkenton" or "man, I hate the Cowboys"—and sometimes both, simultaneously. In years without Tarkenton, the Vikings committed four turnovers in the 1970 loss to the 49ers, five turnovers in the 1971 loss to the Cowboys, and eight turnovers in the 1980 loss to the Eagles. Tarkenton also missed the 1977 NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys, with Bob Lee having to fill in due to Tarkenton's grotesque broken right fibula. The most painful game, however, was the 1975 divisional loss to Dallas—the Hail Mary game. Staubach and the Cowboys got the ball trailing 14-10 with 1:51 left in the game, and he and Drew Pearson went to work. Staubach completed a controversial pass to Pearson on fourth-and-16. Pearson came down out of bounds but the officials ruled Nate Wright had forced him out and so the catch stood. Two plays later, Staubach hit Pearson on the 50-yard bomb that made Hail Mary part of football terminology forevermore—and a play on which, Vikings fans continue to swear, Pearson pushed off on Wright. They may have a point, but that was never going to be called in that situation, with the game on the line.
2. BIRTH OF HAIL MARY
Dec. 28, 1975
Trailing 14-10 to Vikings in closing seconds of divisional playoff, Roger Staubach throws 50-yard TD pass to Drew Pearson, giving Dallas the victory.
Factoid: The phrase "Hail Mary" was coined after Staubach claimed he said one on the play. pic.twitter.com/EiPeCSztf2
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) September 3, 2019
But, of course, the Vikings don't get here without becoming the first team to lose four Super Bowls. 1969 and the trip to Super Bowl IV ends up as the highest-scoring season for the Vikings at 270.4. Their 37.5% DVOA that year remains the highest in franchise history, and it feels like they should get extra bonus points for being one of the two NFL champions to not be world champions. They were 12-2, leading the league in both points scored and points allowed. No Tarkenton on this team, but they had the Indestructible Joe Kapp, a quarterback perhaps best known for his willingness to lower his shoulder into defenders for extra yards. In a violent collision with Browns linebacker Jim Houston in the NFL Championship Game, it was Houston who had to be helped off the field after the play. Like the Colts the year before, the Vikings were double-digit favorites over the challenger from the upstart AFL, but Hank Stram and the Chiefs double-teamed Marshall and Eller all game long, letting Len Dawson pick apart the short part of the field. In addition, the Vikings were used to lighter NFL defenses rather than the larger AFL teams; center Mike Tingelhoff had to match up against defenders who outweighed him by 60 pounds, and the entire Minnesota offense fell apart. Three interceptions and three fumbles later, and the Chiefs had matriculated the ball right to a title.
The other three Super Bowls were even less competitive. Super Bowl VIII saw the Vikings fall to the Dolphins 24-7, with Larry Csonka running through massive holes for three hours. Super Bowl IX saw the Dolphins limit the Steelers to just 16 points, but the Minnesota offense completely no-showed—nine first downs and 119 yards, with their only score coming on a blocked punt. Because it only ended up as a 16-6 loss, that ends up being the Super Bowl that scores the most points for the Vikings, but when your entire team's offensive performance is beaten by Franco Harris alone, the score doesn't reflect the actual game. And then in Super Bowl XI, the Vikings allowed a then-record 429 yards of offense to the Raiders, who rushed over and over and collapsed the left side of the Minnesota defense.
In their four Super Bowl appearances, the Vikings failed to score a single first-half point. Even in the lower-scoring atmosphere of the 1970s, that's not going to cut it. It doesn't matter how good your defense is—they can't be expected to hold up against the cream of the league when the offense provides literally nothing. None of the Vikings' Super Bowl losses are quite as viscerally painful as Wide Right or the Helmet Catch or 28-3, but there's just a feeling of helplessness as you watch one of the greatest defenses of all time have all their hard work come for naught.
Their DVOA and regular-season records are more than enough to give them a top-five spot on this countdown, but it's a decade's worth of playoff failures and flops that make them legends. The Minnesota Vikings are your kings of heartbreak; we may never see a team so good come up so short so frequently ever again.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 10, 2022
The Final Standings
The Vikings stand tall atop the countdown in both total pain and playoff-specific pain. In any reasonable sort of weighting system, Minnesota comes out first. The Rams end up first in both win-loss points and DVOA points; they slide down the rankings the more you weight playoff failure versus regular-season success. In the final rankings, potential playoff pain points are balanced one-to-one with regular-season pain points. The Rams stay atop the Bills up until the point you make playoff pain worth 60% more than regular-season pain. Where you put that slider is really a matter of personal perspective, and probably has a lot to do to with whether you were born in Buffalo or Philadelphia. Either way, the Vikings stand supreme.
The 1939-1946 Giants end up getting 61.5% of their heartbreak points from their championship game losses. In an era with just 10 teams, it's easier to end up in a championship game to begin with. The 1988-1996 Eagles are their opposite numbers at just 19.0%, as years of great defenses ended up sitting home in January a lot.
Those same Eagles are the team that gets the most value out of their DVOA ratings, clocking in at 44.1%. Even before Football Outsiders was a thing, DVOA loves it some Eagles. Once again, they stand opposite from the Giants, but this time it's the 1957-1963 version at 15.1% as estimated DVOA never ends up loving them. If you prefer actual DVOA, then the low mark on the totem pole are the 1988-1999 Bills at 17.6%. This is the second historic team countdown we've done that has dinged the Bills for their average-at-best defense, but their collection of Lamar Hunt trophies ensures they get a top-five slot here anyway.
The 2008-2012 Falcons lead the way with 43.9% of their heartbreak points coming from their win-loss records. DVOA never really fell in love with them, and they made quite a few exits in the wild-card round. Their opposite numbers are the 2019-2021 49ers, who have that 6-10 injury-plagued season weighing them down from their Super Bowl and NFC Championship Game losses.
|Dynasties of Heartbreak|