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
"A demolition job from the Doomsday Defense." #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/owjtI655ju
— 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.
Watch the 1999 AFC Wild Card for FREE on https://t.co/TAuzHi7hnf: https://t.co/hfHuYbQJPP pic.twitter.com/wrIYUBlf60
— 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.
#Buccaneers-#Eagles 2002 NFC Championship: Bucs played the Eagles in the playoff for the 3rd straight year & after coming up short the first 2 times, they finally broke through & won in Philly!
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
New England Patriots defeated Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 to claim their 3rd Super Bowl Championship (2nd consecutive).#dynasty #TomBrady
— 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.
14-7 #Vikings pic.twitter.com/1JXvL1KSRh
— 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."
The 73-yard fourth quarter TD bomb from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth — the #Steelers' winning score of Super Bowl XIV. This date in 1980. pic.twitter.com/a4zReF5zai
— 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.
Otis Taylor TD Super Bowl IV#ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/uSnL6JapBl
— 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|
111 comments, Last at 09 Jul 2022, 8:45pm
#1 by HitchikersPie // Jun 22, 2022 - 10:15am
Thanks for running this Bryan, I've enjoyed all three of these the past few seasons, it's great to hear more about football history that hasn't had a light cast on it in a while, and definitely helps fill the offseason satiation for more content!
A few articles back you said to ask you at the end for the total pain scores for each franchise, or at least their highest individual pain year, is that data you still have readily on hand?
#38 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:53pm
I don't have the total pain scores for franchises, mostly (but not entirely) because I am an idiot and didn't save data for years that didn't come close to qualifying. I might dig that back one year to do it, but I would be missing all the years where teams earned, like, 20 heartbreak points in the middle of runs of no importance.
But I do still have all the runs down to 300 points saved, because we weren't sure where we wanted the cutoff when we were planning these articles. So in terms of who generated the most points over multiple significant runs, your top ten:
1. Minnesota Vikings, at 2844.4 This includes the 1968-1982 and 1986-2000 teams that made the top 10, but also brings in the 2003-2009 and 2015-2019 teams. They're not the same as they used to be, but they haven't stopped giving their fanbases heart attacks.
2. Philadelphia Eagles, at 2098.5. That's 1978-1981, 1988-1996 and 2000-2014, all of which made the countdown.
3. Los Angeles Rams, at 1757.9 That's the 1966-1980 and 1983-1989 runs, both on the countdown.
4. New England Patriots, at 1604.2. The 1994-1998 Parcells teams join the 2005-2013 interregnum and the odd welded-together 1974-1988 teams; your mileage may vary on this.
5. Miami Dolphins at 1603.5. That's the 1974-1987 and 1990-2005 eras, otherwise known as "wasting Dan Marino's entire career"
6. Buffalo Bills at 1589.6. The 2024-2021 run is 45th place on this 44-team countdown. We'll see if we revisit them in 10 years.
7. Dallas Cowboys at 1581.6. That adds the 1966-1970 pre-Super Bowl teams to the 1978-1985 and 2003-2021 teams from the countdown.
8. New York Giants at 1516.9. That's just the 1939-1946 and 1957-1963 teams from the countdown; the majority of their pain has been pre-Super Bowl era.
9. Oakland Raiders at 1511.0. Yes, Oakland, as there's no LA or LV in either the 1963-1975 teams or the1999-2002 teams.
10. Cincinnati Bengals at 1483.7. That adds in the 1970-1976 and 1986-1990 runs from way down the countdown with the 1980-1981 Super Bowl loss and the 2009-2015 Marvin Lewis teams.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals have never had a team reach 300 points, so I suppose they come in at zero each on this list. The Lions/Spartans, Texans and Ravens follow them, with the Jaguars, Washington, Jets, Chiefs and Falcons rounding out the bottom 10.
#40 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 22, 2022 - 2:13pm
And the worst season for each franchise -- this isn't including championship penalties, so this is just in-season, no-context pain:
1. Patriots: 2007 (396.8). That's the helmet catch at the end of 18-1.
2. Bears: 1942 (378.8). That's the 11-0 team who surrendered just 84 points, losing the NFL Championship to Washington.
3. Browns: 1953 (361.7). Bobby Layne leads the Lions to a one-point, fourth-quarter-come-from-behind win in the NFL Championship.
4. Colts: 1968 (327.5). Super Bowl III.
5. Rams: 2001 (327.4). The Greatest Show on Turf runs into the loveable underdog Tom Brady.
6. Cardinals: 1949 (324.1). The Million Dollar Backfield gets eaten up by the Eagles, Steve Van Buren, and a massive snowstorm
7. Bills: 1990 (308.5). Wide right.
8. Giants: 1933 (304.7). Bears win the NFL Championship on a jump-pass-hook-and-ladder from Nagurski to Hewitt to Karr.
9. Eagles: 2004 (299.7). McNabb leaves it all on the field in the Super Bowl against the Patriots
10. Seahawks: 2014 (299.4). Hand the ball to Marshawn!
11. Steelers: 2010 (295.4). Super Bowl loss to the Packers
12. 49ers: 2012 (294.2). The Harbaugh Bowl.
13. Packers: 1997 (290.7). Super Bowl loss to a helicoptering Elway.
14. Bengals: 1988 (288.6). Too much time left for Joe Montana in the Super Bowl.
15. Chargers: 1961 (286.0) Loss to the Oilers in the AFL Championship
16. Falcons: 2016 (285.3). 28-3.
17. Raiders: 1967 (284.3). Super Bowl II
18. Cowboys: 1970 (282.3). Super Bowl V
19. Titans (Oilers): 1962 (272.2). Double-overtime loss to the Texans in the AFL Championship
20. Panthers: 2015 (272.5). 15-1 and a loss to the Broncos.
21. Dolphins: 1982 (271.8). Stay tuned to 1982 DVOA on Thursday to learn more!
22. Vikings: 1969 (270.4). Super Bowl IV
23. Broncos: 1977 (242.4). Super Bowl XII, which I rewatched for this and lost three hours of my life I will never get back.
24. Chiefs: 1966 (236.3). Super Bowl I
25. Washington: 1945 (231.2). Lost the NFL Championship to the Rams by one point after a Baugh pass hit the uprights in his own end zone, which at the time was a safety.
26. Lions (Spartans): 1932 (230.5). The "we're making up rules as we go along" NFL Championship.
27. Saints: 2018 (212.9). The no-call against the Rams
28. Ravens: 2019 (185.4). 14-2 and a divisional round exit
29. Jaguars: 1999 (182.2). Three losses to the Titans, zero to anyone else
30. Jets: 1998 (176.0). The best of the Parcells teams.
31. Buccaneers: 2021 (154.1). Yeah, that gets cancelled to zero with championship penalties.
32. Texans: 2011 (105.6). Ed Reed keeps Houston out of the AFC Championship.
#86 by DenverLarry7 // Jun 23, 2022 - 1:14pm
I wonder how much early turnovers made the game. Denver missed out on several early fumbles including one at the 1 yard line, and with a 7 or 10 point lead, I would have liked to see how the Orange Crush would have closed.
So you know I'm not a total homer, I feel the same way about Super Bowl 50.
#42 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 2:36pm
Buffalo Bills at 1589.6. The 2024-2021 run is 45th place on this 44-team countdown. We'll see if we revisit them in 10 years.
Oh my god, they're failing even with a time machine!
19. Titans (Oilers): 1972 (272.2). Double-overtime loss to the Texans in the AFL Championship
It's not tackled at the 1 as time expires?
#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 10:39am
with the losses to Washington, San Francisco, and (much later) Seattle earning the minimum 100 heartbreak points—utter blowouts from the gun
Except they weren't! Denver led Washington 10-0 at the end of the 1st quarter, and somehow were trailing by 25 at the half. To a backup QB and RB.
#20 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 12:31pm
I don't think it's quite the same.
In XX, the Pats took an early turnover, drove 0 yards -- their best drive of the first half -- and took a 3 point lead for about 4 minutes.
In XXII, the Broncos drove into Washington territory on their first four drives. They led for an entire quarter, and by two scores for 10 minutes. The outgained Washington by more than 100 yards. They were blowing Washington out. And then they discovered Washington wasn't left-handed.
#3 by serutan // Jun 22, 2022 - 10:42am
Agree this was a good series; but I do have a question about the Broncos - your chart shows no champ penalties for them despite winning 2 SBs in a row in 1997-1998. and the Raiders getting one for 1977 and the Dolphins for 1973,
#4 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 10:44am
No surprise, I guess, but I was hoping The Purple-Hearted would somehow manage to come in 2nd, just for the yuks.
As a little kid for their 1st Super Bowl, I didn't realize it, but it's obvious now how silly it was for the Vikings to be prohibitive favorites against the Chiefs. The Chiefs were loaded with HoFers as well, and one of those was at qb, with Len Dawson, whereas the Vikings had the entertaining, extremely tough, but mediocre at best passer in Joe Kapp. The other often overlooked big edge the Chiefs had was at kicker, where Jan Stenerud staked the Chiefs to a 9-0 1st half lead, with long field goals which were far less common back then.
The '70 and '71 Vikings defenses were historically great as well, but, alas, paired with qbs like Gary Cuozzo or an aging Norm Snead. By the time Tarkenton came back, the defenses were still extremely good, but no longer the absolute monsters they had been previously. Still, Tarkenton was playing with a significant then-undisclosed arm injury in the latter part of '74, which was a factor in him having so many passes blocked by the Steel Curtain in the Super Bowl. By the time they played the Raiders, they were old and small, in an NFL that had become much bigger.
#50 by Todd S. // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:20pm
Mr. Allen, I was thinking about you while reading this entry (and really most of the series). You've contributed so many great comments on the site over the years...this seems like a way for the FO staff to acknowledge it. Without really acknowledging it, of course. Cheers.
#109 by Atul Thakker // Jul 09, 2022 - 8:32pm
As a fellow Viking fan, I have watched the 1975 Cowboy Viking playoff game so many times I’m considered eccentric by my wife of 30 years.
As a 9 year old fan, that game was the first time I was introduced to the inherent unfairness of life.
A few interesting facts from the game most will have forgotten:
1. Tarkenton overthrew and underthrew a wide open Gilliam twice during the game; Mark Washington would not be so lucky during the Super Bowl.
2. The series before the Hail Mary, Staubach fumbled the snap and Page recovered. Game over. Oops, refs run in and call delay of game. There were three botched snaps and Landry had to bench his center, Fitzgerald and bring in rookie Davis.
3. The 4th and 17 catch by Pearson was incredible, and the end zone view of the GOTW suggests he may have been forced out. But that call could have gone either way. Easily!
4. The Hail Mary catch itself has a great story never discussed. Pearson clearly nudged Wright forward. The ball was underthrown so Pearson reached back with his left hand. Wright kicked out his left foot and the ball banks off Wright’s foot into Pearson’s RIGHT axilla. That’s how he made a one handed catch on a 55 yard throw in the cold. It was just a harbinger of Chris Dishman Antonio Freeman, but infinitely more painful.
Being a sports fan, especially a Vikings fan, is painful but it teaches you the most important life lesson. Happiness and sadness in life are not found on the outside.
#5 by Travis // Jun 22, 2022 - 10:48am
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.
Craig Morton had already retired at the end of the 1982 season; Steve DeBerg was Reeves' other option for 1983.
#6 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 10:56am
Chuck Knox was a terrific coach, but Bud Grant just got the better of him, often via high leverage special teams plays, or other means. They were similar in approaches to winning games, but Grant was more willing to break trends when he saw opportunity. The '77 quagmire bowl in LA was a good example. Grant saw the conditions, knew that passing was going to have a very brief window, before the field was destroyed and all the balls were a sodden mess, and the Vikings passed on nearly ever play on their 1st possession, staking themselves to a 7-0 lead, then played turtle ball the rest of the way.
#8 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 11:04am
I will say, following the Eagles, I think what the Bills went through was worse.
Philly fans were more disappointed in their teams than heartbroken -- mad that they should have gotten farther and less that they lost on the cusp of a title. Had they lost four consecutive SBs, I think they would have rioted.
#108 by horn // Jun 27, 2022 - 3:15pm
I couldn't disagree more that we Iggles fans were more disappointed than heartbroken.
Losing to a TB team you always beat in the playoffs, in the cold, at home = heartbreak. TB wins SB.
Losing to a meh CAR team, at home, after McNabb got speared while lying on the ground -- no penalty = heartbreak.
Losing to NWE in the SB with the better team, with TO playing his ass off at ~75% health = heartbreak. [While Belicheat and co illegally videotaped from the sidelines, no less!]
All in consecutive years. Heartbreak.
#9 by KnotMe // Jun 22, 2022 - 11:29am
A neat thing in the future would be to look at active dynasties of all types (normal, hb, mediocrity and anti).
The problem is, this and dynasty rankings overlap a bit. A possible way to split would be to require dynasties to include a championship. (with HB dynasties being promoted if you win). Could say HB can start after a dynasty but get promoted if you win, (which would make it impossible to get championship penalties from both ends, I think this only affects the 20's bears and 05-14 pats) Could just ignore the overlap also.
It was a fun series, thank you!
#41 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 22, 2022 - 2:26pm
We're mulling over a couple ideas for this, so stay tuned.
I can give you the list of all 18 teams with active heartbreak points at the moment, though!
1. 2003-2021 Dallas Cowboys (782.7)
2. 2017-2021 New Orleans Saints (632.2)
3. 2014-2021 Pittsburgh Steelers (545.4)
4. 2019-2021 Green Bay Packers (445.4)
5. 2019-2021 San Francisco 49ers (414.3)
6. 2014-2021 Buffalo Bills (399.1)
7. 2014-2020 Seattle Seahawks (390.1)
8. 2013-2020 Baltimore Ravens (389.3)
9. 2016-2021 Tennessee Titans (285.6)
10. 2021-2021 Cincinnati Bengals (207.6)
11. 2018-2021 Indianapolis Colts (176.9)
12. 2018-2020 Chicago Bears (115.8)
13. 2020-2020 Cleveland Browns (77.5)
14. 2020-2021 Arizona Cardinals (58.2)
15. 2020-2021 Miami Dolphins (39.8)
16. 2021-2021 Las Vegas Raiders (31.6)
17. 2021-2021 Los Angeles Chargers (23.3)
18. 2020-2020 Washington Football Team (6.0)
#11 by NYChem // Jun 22, 2022 - 11:46am
I don't know if it's the camera angles, the graininess, the fit of the uniforms/helmets, the big ass facemasks, but the front seven videos of 1970's defenses - the players just look enormous and more monstrous than any other era. The slow-mo of Dallas defenders just ripping through Broncos linemen is legit Texas ChainSaw Massacre scary...
Thanks Bryan, fantastic montage of information, anecdote, analysis, controversy.
#17 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 12:13pm
Part of it is that LBs and DEs in the 70s were around the same weight as today, and were often taller. Jack Lambert was bigger than Ray Lewis. Too Tall Jones and Joe Greene were bigger than JJ Watt.
Now remember that offensive lineman have gotten about 4 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier since then, but DEs and LBs have if anything gotten smaller. Defenders in the 70s were comparatively huge.
Some of this was just era. The 70s were the deadball era, and there was a lingering philosophical residue of the Packers Sweep. (Much is made of how much bigger linemen today are than the Lombardi Packers line. The Packers line was small even back then.) For whatever reason, when the league gets run heavy, linemen tend to be smaller; when it gets pass heavy, they get bigger. No one could pass in the 70s, so you got runty offensive linemen.
\This is part of what made Jason Peters so special. He was as enormous as a pass blocking tackle should be, but he would pull and run block like a guy who was 100-lbs lighter.
#21 by ahzroc // Jun 22, 2022 - 12:44pm
Ray Lewis - 6'1" 250
Jack Lambert 6'4" 220 and that "220" is very generous ! Betting he played under 2 clicks most of his career.
Never bigger than Ray Lewis !
"Some of it was 'the Era'...yeah, the Steroid Era!
#64 by DisplacedPackerFan // Jun 22, 2022 - 7:10pm
The height differences between OL and LBs back then played a huge part in perception as you point out. The size of shoulder pads have changed a lot since then. You put those big pads on, and the body type differences between a 6'1'' 190 dude and a 6'1'' 250 dude that you can see in modern gear are mostly gone. You'll still be able to see them but those huge pads will mask a lot of it by adding height, width, and depth to the torso. So both those guys look very similar in the older gear. That makes height differences even more visually striking because the bulk perception of everyone is all masked and dragged to a mean.
Now factor in that human perception is also more attuned to height differences as a threat indicator than we are to bulk. Both have an effect but perceived height differences trigger stronger emotional responses than perceived bulk differences. The pads add to the perceptions of height and bulk, even if they make everyone's bulk seem very similar. All that just amplifies how nasty the older defenders looked. When everyone looks to be about bulky as everyone else the height differences really stand out. Modern padding that doesn't morph the body nearly as much actually lets bulk difference neutralize some of the threat perception of height differences and doesn't limit your initial emotional reactions to mainly just the height differences you are seeing as there are a lot more relative measures you can process. There is some interesting literature out there on the psychology of threat that goes really deep on what triggers emotional responses, how limited stimuli can amplify the response to threatening signal, etc.
Anecdotal personal experience with gear, the last time I played in pads was the mid 90's and they were still big bulky things. They didn't look much different than what my oldest brother had worn in the early 80's. My youngest brother less than 10 year later in the early 2000's was wearing completely different looking gear than I had. This was at the High School level (and one year of D2 NCAA for me) so differences there vs the NFL for sure but the same trends happen at all levels.
Material tech benefited a lot from the computing revolution (as has most things but it's pretty remarkable how different material science is today vs even 1990) and by the mid 80's major firms could do a lot of computer simulation to help with material tech. They eventually trickled into NFL pads as you could get similar or better protection from less material. Couple that with the rule changes that limit hitting and, well, today's players look like they wear about as much padding (outside the helmets) as they did in the leather and wool days but a modern player is much more protected still.
#12 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 11:49am
Here's a better look at the play that generated the Hail Mary label, at the 1:45 mark. The pushoff wasn't the worst noncall on the play. That would be Doug Sutherland getting tackled on a bull rush, which allowed Staubach to make the throw. That noncall wasn't worst thing the refs did on that drive. That would be the "completion" handed to Staubach to Pearson on 4 and 17, which can be seen in this same clip, just before the HM.
I was standing at the top of the lower level of the old Met Stadium, about 200 ft. away, where I usually stood, thanks to the friend (who worked for the security company that had the Met Stadium contract) of my Dad's, who would look the other way when I walked in the entrance he manned, about 5 minutes after kickoff. That one stung a little. Bitter? Who, me?
#19 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 12:24pm
Things I had never noticed before:
- Right in front of Pearson on the 4th-17, a cop is tackling a fan on the sideline.
- A second cop, after it's ruled a catch, kicks Pearson while he's on the sideline.
Watching Tarkenton move and his throwing motion -- god it reminds me of Favre.
#24 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:00pm
Ya' gotta read this column, from the Mpls. Startribune, from a few days ago. That "cop" was actually working for the same security company as my dad's friend, who would let me sneak into games. That guy (the one kicking Pearson) is hilarious, and used to also MC charity/awards banquets in the Twin Cities, along with Mean Gene Okerlund, especially before Gene blew up nationally. If you ever caught those two together in a casual setting where higher octane beverages were being served, you were in danger of losing consciousness from laughter induced oxygen deprivation.
#13 by ahzroc // Jun 22, 2022 - 11:49am
No-One played deeper than Paul Krause.
Curt Flood didn't play as deep as Krause. ( Saw both of them in person many times...Flood played deep, Krause way deeper.
Flood ended up running a bar on Mallorca, one of the very few Americans there)
The Hail Mary game. Remember it like yesterday.
I was a HUGE fan of both Staubach (I still love his throwing motion and athleticism) and Drew Pearson...that smooth glide!
Watch the slow motion replay of the Hail Mary...someone threw an Orange that hit the field right as Pearson scores...
Once you see it, you will never NOT see it.
#15 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 12:01pm
A Viking drunkfan tossed an empty pint bottle of whisky as the Cowboys were celebrating, and plunked the ref right on his dome. Luckily, he wasn't seriously hurt. Tarkenton or Staubach may have made that throw, but Joe Kapp likely couldn't have. After the clock went to 0:00, Tarkenton was informed in the locker room that his dad died of a heart attack, watching the game on t.v.. I was just a stupid kid who was pissed off about a football game.
#27 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:19pm
No one's deep as Paul Krause
Jumps and leaps like Paul Krause
No one cleans up when pass pressure sweeps like Paul Krause
For there's no one back there quite as handy
Perfect when playing his zone
You can ask any Staubach or Landry
And they'll tell you the passes they shouldn't have thrown...
...My brain my in fact be melting out of my ears after writing so much this month. It's conceivable.
#47 by Pat // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:11pm
I mean, usually when people shoehorn words to lyrics it's a bit of a stretch on syllables, but holy cow, that's perfectly singable (although if you sub "half" for "quite" it *really* flows).
Bravo, sir. Bravo.
#110 by Atul Thakker // Jul 09, 2022 - 8:38pm
Notice from that same end zone view, the ball banks of Wright’s left ankle into Pearson’s right axilla. The ball was underthrown and Pearson reaching back with his left hand caught the bank shot off Wright’s foot with his RIGHT armpit!
#16 by BigRichie // Jun 22, 2022 - 12:09pm
Funny how the watered-down field that slowed down the Rams' Fearsome Foursome pass rush didn't slow down the Packers' pass rush. At all. Oh, and the Mighty Pack actually made much of their hay with the ground game, Travis Williams being carried off the field by the fans at the end of the contest. And won the game - blew out the Rams, actually - more with defense than offense. After an early touchdown the Rams' offense was absolutely stoned by the Mighty Pack defense the whole rest of the game.
This was LittleRichie's first ever football game attended in person. And you're questioning the Mighty Pack victory?? Might as well tell me my teddy bear's ugly.
#26 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:11pm
There's another idea for a list for the future -- all the games other fanbases claim were cheated in one way, shape or form.
But I suppose we have enough Patriots-focused content on the site as it stands <_<
#29 by BigRichie // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:28pm
That would fill all the time between February through July for many an off-season. And whatever your cynicism level regarding your fellow human beings, double that amount. Make that triple it when you factor in the comment threads.
#32 by mehllageman56 // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:32pm
That would be a great idea, because then fans would gain a perspective on cheating in the sport, and how it has gotten better or worse. I think a lot of fans here would be upset at how little Patriots-focused such an article would be.
#51 by Shattenjager // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:26pm
I think you can only do that if you define "fanbase" in a way that excludes most mainstream fans. I avoid talking to most fans during the season partly because they are so convinced that literally every game their team loses is somehow stolen from them (fixed in Vegas, the result of bad officiating, the other team using an illegal formation on every play, wild conspiracies involving dozens of organizations and hundreds of people, the opponents having caused injuries ahead of time, the very rules of the game being biased against them, etc.) because they root for the only clean team in the sport.
This list was very informative and fun, Bryan--thanks for doing it!
#106 by Spanosian Magn… // Jun 24, 2022 - 8:56pm
That sounds amazing. Seriously. I'm already looking forward to even the relatively even-keel Packers contingent around here going apoplectic over the Fail Mary and Jerry Rice and whatnot, and everyone else throwing a couple dozen incidents back that went the other way.
This whole series was incredible. All three "Dynasty" series were great, but this one in particular taught me a lot of history and honestly may have changed the way I look at the game. I don't know if it's enough for a book, but... that was an awful lot of words. Throw in the tables, some pictures, maybe a diagram or two, expand on the no-heartbreak franchises a bit, I bet it could get to 300 pages and a spot on a Barnes and Noble shelf. Just sayin'!
#107 by DisplacedPackerFan // Jun 25, 2022 - 4:21pm
Oddly I'm one of the Packers fans who doesn't think the fail mary was a fail. Jerry Rice did fumble though and the video evidence is very clear on it so while that is frustrating it's not much of a controversy. I haven't met a 9ers fan who can watch the play from that behind the play angle and still say it wasn't (https://twitter.com/badsportsrefs/status/1213120576035999745 just jump to like 24s in to get the angle).
But yeah close calls, bad calls, no calls, and controversial calls that are technically correct have been a huge part of the game. Oddly while games would be better it might actually hurt fandom if you can't say "Jerry Rice fumbled", "Dez Bryant caught that pass!", "F the tuck rule!", etc. They create single moments to pin your pain on so you can ignore all the other moments that could have gone better and let you win anyway. Though they do rob us of some potential heavy weight battles where while your team may have come up short you know they left everything on the field, and sometimes you can do everything right and still lose in life.
But since watching sports in the moment is more about emotions perfect officiating might take more emotion and enjoyment out of a game than people think. We don't think of anger or frustration as a fun moment but they are impactful and they can really heighten the joyful moments later.
It would be an interesting project to see though.
I loved all four of the dynasty series (even if the dynasties of mediocrity wasn't really a series) and also agree that combining them creating some franchise timelines adding some photos etc could make for a pretty cool book.
#28 by andrew // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:26pm
Will already mentioned that Tarkenton found out his father died watching the game immediately afterwards, reportedly just as the Cowboys scored to go up 10-7. To be fair, the Vikings benefited from a questionable muffed punt call for their first touchdown. In Tarkenton's book he basically credits Cliff Harris for Dallas' win, he stymied his attempts to hit Gilliam all day, and on the Vikings' final drive, he tried to roll out on a 3rd and 1 and Harris ignored his responsibility to cover someone to crowd the line and stuff him. He was livid, saying Harris had to honor the possibilitiy of a pass there, it was in capital letters in all the playbooks.
In the loss to the Raiders, with the game still scoreless, Matt Blair blocked a Ray Guy punt (first time Guy had ever been blocked in his career) and the vikings recovered it at the 3, not scoring but still you had to think this would be their first first half score in a superbowl. So naturally Brent McClanahan (whom Tarkenton loved to use as a misdirection from Foreman promptly fumbled it right back to Oakland, and Clarence Davis then ripped off a huge run and the rout was on.
They had a knack for fumbling at the worst times. In the loss to Miami, after Miami had run all over them to jump to a 17-0 lead, right before halftime the Vikings finally got a drive going, hit Gilliam for a big gain, and after a Tarkenton scramble had 2nd and 2 at the Miami 7. They then ran Oscar Reed 3 times in a row, the last of which he would have scored if he didn't fumble. But he did, Miami recovered, went into halftime with the lead intact, and that was that.
#111 by Atul Thakker // Jul 09, 2022 - 8:45pm
The beautiful symmetry of Vikings Super Bowl fumbles.
Charlie West and John Henderson in IV.
Reed in VIIi. Ed White blocked no one letting Buoniconti knife and and force the fumble. If Reed went outside and used Foreman’s block, he has the first and maybe a TD.
Foreman at the goal line in IX. The blocked punt still gave them a score on that series. Larry Brown would fumble later, but Ed Marion somehow overruled two officials as both teams already switched units realizing the obvious fumble.
McClanahan ripped off a 41 yard run to start off the 76 Redskins rout, but the goal line fumble in XI was just continuing the legacy.
#30 by CHIP72 // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:28pm
...that hurt the 2003 Eagles more than anything else was Brian Westbrook suffering a season-ending injury in the regular season finale against Washington.
What's funny, speaking as an Eagles fan, is during their 2000s run I often compared them to the 1970s Raiders for often coming up short of the Super Bowl. After their 2000s run was over, I more often compared them to...the 1970s Rams for making only one Super Bowl (while playing in the weaker conference) and losing in the conference championship game a whole bunch of times. And when I made those comparisons, I'd note the Eagles weren't competing with teams like the Steelers and Dolphins (in the Raiders' case) or the Cowboys and Vikings (in the Rams' case); instead the Eagles lost to teams like the 2003 Panthers and 2008 Cardinals, who weren't exactly great (or even very good) teams. (To be fair, those Eagles teams also lost to the Greatest Show on Turf Rams, the "best pass defense in the DVOA era" Bucs, and the two Super Bowl wins in the previous three years Patriots.)
#36 by CHIP72 // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:49pm
...not that I'm aware of. Having said that, you don't need FO DVOA figures to see the disparity in some seasons. Just look at the interconference records and/or season records for playoff teams (and non-playoff teams) in some seasons, like 1989, 1991, 2004, and 2006:
*1989: AFC had ONE team that finished better than 9-6-1, the NFC had SEVEN such teams, plus a 9-7 team (to be fair, most of the AFC seemed to finish between 7-9 and 9-6-1 that year).
*1991: NFC had EIGHT teams win 10 or more games, AFC had an 8-8 team make the playoffs.
*2004: NFC had two 8-8 playoff teams (one of whom, the Rams, only got in because the Eagles rested most of their starters for most of the game in their penultimate regular season game).
*2006: NFC had ONE team that finished better than 10-6.
It is likely the DVOA disparities will show up in those seasons just because teams in the stronger conference had to play tougher schedules and would need to have a better DVOA value to post the same regular season record as a weaker team in the other conference.
#49 by Pat // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:19pm
The '03 and '08 Eagles losses aren't really that surprising, even given the other team. Losing a QB obviously is gonna kill you, and the '08 team was primarily defense (which is already volatile) and their defensive coordinator was dying.
#52 by CHIP72 // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:30pm
...DVOA numbers, the 2008 Eagles ranked third in the NFL in defense that season (-22.2% DVOA).
They lost against the Cardinals because 1) their defense played very poorly (and Jim Johnson's melanoma didn't stop the defense from playing well in the regular season or their first two playoff games that year) and 2) Donovan McNabb played spectacular for about 1 1/2 quarters but very mediocre for 2 1/2 quarters. Really though, they lost mostly because of #1.
#60 by Pat // Jun 22, 2022 - 5:05pm
"and Jim Johnson's melanoma didn't stop the defense from playing well in the regular season"
He didn't know he was dying until literally that week. They saw something after the Giants game (they thought it was disc issues) and sent him for an MRI the week of the Cardinals game. (Technically he didn't know know until after, but in some sense that's worse).
You can put on a bold face all you want, but I *guarantee* that screwed up game planning and prep. How couldn't it?
#65 by CHIP72 // Jun 22, 2022 - 7:29pm
...didn't know he had melanoma until AFTER the NFCCG was played, how would that have impacted Johnson's or especially the players' mental preparation for the game? Many, many times people get themselves checked out because something is bothering them, don't think too much of it, and only get mentally off kilter AFTER they get the much worse than expected diagnosis.
Johnson was physically ailing coming down the stretch of the 2008 season. He did have to coach the NFCCG from the coaches' booth rather than the sideline, which may have had an impact. On the other hand, he also coached the previous week's game, the Eagles' divisional round win against the Giants, from the booth as well, and the Eagles' defense didn't have any major issues in that game, holding the Giants to 11 points, two of which came on an Eagles' safety.
Regardless of the above, Johnson wasn't one of the 11 players out there who didn't perform well.
I suspect the major issue is that Eagles were likely overconfident going into that game. They easily defeated the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night that season 48-20, intercepting Kurt Warner three times, two of them in the 1st quarter. In the playoffs they had beaten the Vikings and Giants, the latter the #1 NFC seed, on the road the previous two weeks without too much trouble. They were favored against the Cardinals even though they were on the road, and probably rightfully so. The Eagles just laid an egg defensively and lost a game against a mediocre opponent.
#71 by Pat // Jun 22, 2022 - 9:39pm
No, you're misunderstanding. He had melanoma back in 2001 but was in remission.
He had back pain the previous weeks (was coaching from the box), but they thought it was disc issues. They took an MRI after the Giants playoff game and saw a tumor.
At that point he knew he was dying, the "know know" part is of course they had to do a biopsy first, etc. etc.. But he (and the other coaches) all found this out literally the week of the Arizona game. There's no way they prepared normally.
It's like Reid's final season with the Eagles. He can say his son's suicide had no effect on that year, and players can say "no, totally normal." Don't care. Don't believe it. Never going to believe finding out you're dying or having your son kill himself during training camp isn't going to cause problems.
#80 by Will Allen // Jun 23, 2022 - 10:08am
It's amazing that this stuff gets discounted. When Tony Sparano died of a heart attack on the eve of training camp in 2018, it had a huge impact on the team, and what might of easily been a 10-12 win season became an 8 win season.
#35 by CHIP72 // Jun 22, 2022 - 1:43pm
One thing I've thought for a long time is the NFL's dip in popularity during the 1970s (a decline mentioned in Michael MacCambridge's excellent mid-2000s book "America's Game" about pro football from 1945 to the 2000s) is that while the decline was primarily due to the low scoring and run-dominated play during the era, some of it also had to do with the lack of competitiveness during the decade.
For much of the 1970s, teams like the Steelers, Raiders, Dolphins (early in the decade), Cowboys, Vikings, and Rams were playoff givens, and a fourth NFC team (often the Redskins) and 1-2 other AFC teams (for a period the Colts were one of the teams) would join them. At the same time, teams like the Giants, Jets, Bears, Eagles, Lions, Patriots, 49ers, and Oilers were down for much or all of the decade; for many of those teams, the season was over almost before it began in many seasons. And most of the major market teams were "down" teams. NFL teams' and the NFL's overall popularity isn't nearly as reliant on having good teams in large markets, but even with the NFL it still helps when most of the large market teams are competitive. However, most of the large market teams weren't very good and had little hope, and that, along with the lack of competitiveness, probably didn't help the NFL's popularity during the 1970s.
#45 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:01pm
First Viking game I attended was the 2nd game of the '69 season. Vikings beat the defending NFL champ Colts 52-14, with Joe Kapp throwing for 7 touchdowns. This was the equivalent of some poor dumb sap walking into a casino, and winning a jackpot on the first spin at a slot machine. I was hooked, and the cruel bastards have been mocking me for 53 years now.
#46 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:07pm
If it makes you feel better, I first became aware of professional baseball watching the 1987 Tigers rally to pass Toronto, only to lose in 5 to a Twins team who would have finished 5th in the AL East.
I've hated the Metrodome and its super ball turf and giant diaper in right field ever since.
#53 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 3:57pm
Weird thing about baseball is that only having two legit good starting pitchers usually means that, at best you'll win around 85 games, but if you get to the post season, those two good starters, like Viola and Blyleven, may be enough to hoist the trophy. That said, the Blue Jays likely would have rolled the Twins. They were just a bad matchup for the Tigers.
#56 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 4:39pm
From '69 to adding wild card teams to the playoffs, no major sport had so much randomness, in terms of your odds for a ring depending on what division the team was in. The demands on starting pitching is just so different in the regular season, compared to the post season.
#61 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 22, 2022 - 5:29pm
It's not just that.
Guys go faster for longer; players block shots at a much higher rates (the injury risk of doing so is non-trivial), etc. But also, the referees call the game differently.
Baseball umpires get a ton of criticism -- much of it deserved -- but they don't change how they make calls in the post-season. Even Eric Gregg; his strike zone sucked in the regular season, too.
#68 by reddwarf // Jun 22, 2022 - 7:46pm
The hockey playoffs are simultaneously some of the most exciting and most irritating playoffs to try and follow. The pace is just electric. But why oh why do they call the game so differently? Hits that would be thrown out of the game major penalties in the regular season don't even get called as a minor. If you aren't cross-checking you aren't trying. Boarding is suddenly only a penalty if the opponent can't get up-if he does, no big deal. But of course, an accidental flip of the puck into the crowd from your defensive zone is still a 2 minute minor, no exceptions. Seriously-it's the only rule called consistently from regular to post-season. Ridiculous.
And don't get me started on how they do video review in hockey (though that's a regular season problem as well).
#85 by KnotMe // Jun 23, 2022 - 12:56pm
In terms of postseason "stability" (better team winning), I think it goes NBA > MLB >
Then it's kinda a toss-up between NFL and NhL. Hockey is super random game to game but 7 games helps while the NFL is a single game.
#95 by crw78 // Jun 23, 2022 - 4:54pm
I think the NFL has a much more stable postseason than MLB. HFA is much more pronounced in the NFL than MLB, and in most years you have a 1 or 2 seed facing a 1 or 2 seed in the SB. That may change moving forward with just the one bye. But a 3 seed vs 4 seed SB is relatively uncommon, whereas in MLB not sure that's the case. Would need to research it, which maybe I'll do since my perception is anecdotal and based on memory, nothing factual.
#97 by crw78 // Jun 23, 2022 - 6:34pm
After some quick number crunching, I realized that it's hard to compare NFL to MLB postseason stability due to the difference in playoff formats over the years. The NFL has had 6 playoff teams per conference since 2002 (now up to 7 the last couple of years). MLB only had 4 up until 2012, then had 5 for a while with a wildcard game, and only now has 6 starting this year. So you can only really compare the NFL from 2002 on to MLB from 2012 on.
So, for the NFL (2002 to now):
Average conference finalist seed: 2.475
Average SB Team seed: 2.15
For MLB (2012 to now):
Average LCS seed: 2.675
Average WS team seed: 2.1
Data set too small to draw any conclusions from, and the numbers are close.
Some interesting things I noticed as part of this though for the NFL. Again, all data since 2002:
Lower seeded team is 10-3 (7 SBs had same-seed matchups). By lower-seeded team I mean the worse-seeded team.
Avg. Winner Seed: 2.7
Avg. Loser Seed: 1.6
15 of 20 SBs had at least one 1 seed (4 were 1 v 1 matchups)
9 of 20 SBs were 1v1 or 1v2 matchups
Only 4 non-division winners have made the SB during that time. They've all won.
Highest combined seeds for the SB was 8, twice: 2010 (Packers #6 vs. Steelers #2) and last year (Rams #4 vs. Bengals #4).
#98 by KnotMe // Jun 23, 2022 - 10:11pm
Yeah, NFL is hard to compare. For the others, you can look at 0-4 comebacks. (Which are almost always...the better team loses 3 in a row)
NHL- a few times
MLB- once ever I think
NBA- never happened
It's hard to figure where the NFL fits but my impression is probably somewhere around NHL level. Maybe a bit less or more but hard to tell.
Individual NFL games are more stable than most other sports but it's hard to compare a series
#69 by BigRichie // Jun 22, 2022 - 8:31pm
I don't know that you've been paying attention the last 5 years, Will. Playoff starting pitching matters much less than regular season starting pitching. Teams are super-quick to go to their bullpens come October.
#70 by Will Allen // Jun 22, 2022 - 9:39pm
That's my point. What we see now is just a continuation of a trend that began in 1969. Prior to that, trying to build a successful roster without 4 solid starting pitchers was nearly hopeless, with only two teams making it to the postseason. Ever since divisions were formed, it has become continually less important to have a deep rotation of talented starting pitchers. We're probably on the brink, absent rules changes, of a team winning a World Series with one consistently good starting pitcher.
MLB's inability to make needed rules changes, and to really think about what makes a baseball game fun to watch, has led to today's hideous product, dominated by homeruns, strikeouts, and (sigh) pitching changes.
#75 by SandyRiver // Jun 23, 2022 - 9:19am
My first NFL game was Vikes-Colts at Memorial Stadium in 1964, my freshman year at Hopkins. Walked in and got an end zone bleacher seat, where my rooting for MN drew some good-natured comment (there'd be more room here if this guy was gone.) Fred Cox doinked a 39-yarder in the 1st half but the Vikes were up 17-14 at the 2-minute warning. Then Johnny U tossed a TD, after which the Colts' front 7 chased Tarkenton all over the field until the final gun.
#76 by JacqueShellacque // Jun 23, 2022 - 9:41am
..to the run later in the game happened too slowly. I suspect had they used #34 earlier in the game, the Giants would've had to adjust, and that may have left Reed or Lofton available for that one play for which we waited but never happened (notwithstanding Lofton's 60yd catch quite early in the game).
#91 by Mike B. In Va // Jun 23, 2022 - 3:55pm
Seriously. That was NHL-level whistle-swallowing.
It also wasn't surprising, though, as that was normal in the playoffs at the time. "Hold until they call it" was a legit playoff strategy up until the rule changes in the '00s, and it still gets through today at times *cough*2020 AFCCG*cough*.
#63 by Salur // Jun 22, 2022 - 7:01pm
Super Bowl IX saw the Dolphins limit the Steelers to just 16 points, but the Minnesota offense completely no-showed
Seems like the defense no-showed too, if the Dolphins replaced them.
More seriously, thanks for this series, Bryan! Always enjoy stuff like this, and it's a good opportunity to learn about some history that I was ignorant of.
For what it's worth, as an Eagles fan too young to remember anything in the NFL before about 1996, that Buccaneers loss in the NFC championship was much more painful to me than the Super Bowl loss two years later. And then, week 1 of 2003 season, it was Bucs at Eagles again, and the Eagles drive right down to the Tampa Bay 1 yard line and on fourth-and-1*, throw a pass that hits rookie LJ Smith right in the hands...and he drops it. The first time that I would get annoyed at LJ Smith, but not the last.
*in my memory this was the first drive of the game, but it was actually their second. And apparently Koy Detmer threw the pass (his only attempt of the game), which I completely did not remember.
#66 by CHIP72 // Jun 22, 2022 - 7:37pm
...most Eagles fans older or even much older than you (I personally go back to the 1981 season, though the first game I remember is Super Bowl 15 at the end of the previous season), feel the 2002 NFCCG loss to Tampa Bay was much worse than the Super Bowl 39 loss to New England.
The only Eagles losses that truly upset me for more than a few hours were the 2002 NFCCG loss to the Bucs and their horrible, 1985 loss at the Vet to the Vikings (Eagles led 23-0 with 9 minutes to go in the 4th quarter and lost 28-23; it was sort of like the Miracle of the New Meadowlands situation in reverse).
#83 by COtheLegend // Jun 23, 2022 - 12:41pm
Count me in as another Eagles fan who feels that the 2002 NFCCG game loss to the Buccaneers was worse than the Super Bowl 39 loss, and the most painful defeat in team history. That may be the most brutal, crushing sports defeat in my life time. I felt that it was the 2002 loss that turned the Eagles into a "tortured", or "cursed/jinxed" franchise. I now know better, but, at the time, I thought that there was no way that they could possibly lose. It felt that it was "meant to be" that year, with it being the last season at the Vet, and how the team was able to sustain itself with A.J. Feeley playing QB. I remember my best friend (who, funny enough, is a Cowboys fan) wondering during the Bucs game if McNabb had come back too soon from his injury.
The 2003 NFCCG game loss was also brutal, but it was brutal because of what happened the previous year. I think I remember an ESPN reporter commenting that the team played nervous during that game, as if the air of the previous two years was hanging over them. When both McNabb and Westbrook went out of the lineup, it felt as if they were helpless. I also remember, in particular, just how poorly the Eagles' receivers played in that game.
I actually was never really "crushed" by the Super Bowl 39 loss. I do remember how dire things looked when T.O. got injured during the end of the season, and the "here we go again" feelings that were stirred up, so to actually make it to the Super Bowl and lose felt like a step forward. I wasn't disappointed in the loss itself, but I was disappointed with how the team conducted themselves afterwards.
Honestly, after 2002, I found the 2008 loss to the Cardinals to be the next most crushing. To me, it was because you knew it was probably their last chance with the Reid/McNabb/Westbrook/Dawkins core, and they couldn't quite get it done against a beatable opponent, and after they had knocked out the number one seed in the conference. That entire season was an emotionally exhausting season, as it was the season of the McNabb benching, his then sudden turnaround, blowing a winnable game against a Washington team that was out of it, and then the miracles that happened on the last day of the season to get the team into the playoffs.
I would like to make note that the 2014 team was actually looking promising halfway through the season, and then Nick Foles broke his collarbone, putting Mark Sanchez into the lineup the rest of the season. Maybe the team would have short-circuited in the playoffs anyway, but they probably would have had a much better chance with Foles than with Sanchez.
#96 by COtheLegend // Jun 23, 2022 - 5:18pm
As it turns out, his rep as a "winner" came from being surrounded by a great supporting cast, and doing just enough to not mess things up. As his supporting cast deteriorated, his play would sink.
I'll always wonder if his career could have been different if the Jets had a better offensive coaching staff in place. With Rex Ryan so focused on the defense, who was ever going to teach Sanchez how to be an NFL quarterback?
#74 by andrew // Jun 23, 2022 - 8:22am
"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 "
The kick wasn't just blocked, it bounced right to Bobby Bryant who caught it without breaking stride and returned it for a touchdown.
"Super Bowl IX saw the Dolphins limit the Steelers to just 16 points"
The Dolphins had beaten the Vikings so bad the year before they started identifying with their abusers.
#77 by JacqueShellacque // Jun 23, 2022 - 9:43am
I wonder if there's scope for adding playoff and SB win probability changes or shifts to the heartbreak metric? The bigger the peak-to-trough swing, and/or the later it occurs, seems like it contributes. Bills-Chiefs or Bengals-Chiefs this past January are partly painful because they went to OT and were close games, but blowing big leads or leads late is probably the bigger factor than simply having the game go to OT.
#99 by Shawn // Jun 24, 2022 - 9:57am
"stuck Kelly in the shotgun and called it the K-Gun"
The K-Gun was not named for Jim Kelly. Nobody in Buffalo cares where the Bills fall on this list, Bryan, but this blatant Keith McKellar erasure WILL get you put on a watchlist if you don't correct the error.
#104 by Bryan Knowles // Jun 24, 2022 - 7:01pm
Oh, I know it wasn't named after Kelly (and that that's a common misconception). But they did stick in him back in the shotgun, and they did call it the K-Gun.
And if pressed, I'll point McKeller at you, point out the typo in the name, and flee for the hills, which should last about 30 seconds until he runs me down.
#100 by McDonald's Facemask // Jun 24, 2022 - 2:02pm
I grew up in an area that was a mish-mash of Browns and Steelers fans. I never really took to either, but I signed on as a Vikings fan on Day 1 in 1961 as an eight-year old. I suffered through those four losses, made worse by my Steelers' extended family. There was absolutely nothing better than watching the Purple in the snow of Metropolitan Stadium. I think even Bud Grant was smiling on the inside. Karl Kassulke was my favorite, and one of the hardest hitting safeties I ever saw (RIP). Anyway, I miss the snow.
#101 by Will Allen // Jun 24, 2022 - 5:04pm
I watched Karl Kassulke do this from a few hundred feet away....
....those teams very rarely blitzed, given the pressure they'd get with their four linemen, so when they did, the offense would often be caught completely off guard, and Kassulke would just get a completely free shot. Different game back then, of course, and it's good that it changed. Loved watching Kassulke play, of course.
Oh, and one more thing. Greg Landry was one tough sunovabitch.
#102 by t.d. // Jun 24, 2022 - 5:14pm
the '70s Rams were before my time, so this is just off of secondhand impressions, but they never had the quarterback play that'd lead you to expect to be going to and winning Super Bowls, which I imagine would take some of the sting off of repeated failure- you weren't let down because you never had your hopes up; even into the '80s with Dieter Brock they were still trying to win without ever really solving the position, at least until Jim Everett (who this series has given me greater appreciation for)
#103 by Will Allen // Jun 24, 2022 - 6:26pm
They had Jaworski for 3 years, traded him to the Eagles, and by age 28 he was an above average starting qb. Always hard to tell whether a different environment, or just gaining maturity, leads to a qb making large strides in his late 20s with a different team. It was mid 30s for Gannon, on his fourth team, and I doubt the coaching at the 3 previous stops was much of a factor.