1985 DVOA Ratings and Commentary

1985 Bears
1985 Bears
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Are the Chicago Bears the best team in DVOA history? It depends on how you define the "best team."

Today, we introduce for the first time the full 1985 DVOA ratings for all 28 teams. We've been giving hints at these throughout the season. When it looked as if the 2019 New England Patriots or San Francisco 49ers might end up among the greatest defenses of all-time, I rushed to finish running all the 1985 ratings so that we could compare those teams to the 1985 Chicago Bears, often hailed as the best defense and the best overall team in NFL history.

So, are the Chicago Bears the best team in history, at least according to DVOA? Maybe yes, but probably no. It all depends on how much you value the postseason. As good as the Bears were in going 15-1 in the regular season, they were even better in the postseason, obliterating the teams ranked fourth, fifth, and seventh in DVOA by a combined score of 91-10.

Let's start with the regular season, which is normally how we rank teams when we look at historical bests and worsts. In the regular season, the Bears were the No. 3 best team in DVOA history. They still trail the 1991 Redskins and, just barely, the 2007 Patriots.

BEST TOTAL DVOA, 1985-2019
Year Team W-L DVOA
1991 WAS 14-2 56.9%
2007 NE 16-0 52.9%
1985 CHI 15-1 52.5%
1987 SF* 10-2 47.0%
2010 NE 14-2 44.6%
1996 GB 13-3 42.0%
2019 BAL 14-2 41.5%
2013 SEA 13-3 40.0%
1995 SF 11-5 40.0%
2012 SEA 11-5 38.7%
2015 SEA 10-6 38.1%
2004 PIT 15-1 37.6%
*only 12 games due to strike

What happens if we include the playoffs? Chicago had an astonishing 98.9% DVOA for the three postseason games, including -73.1% DVOA on defense. But the 1991 Washinton Redskins had a pretty good ride through the playoffs as well. Their opponents were not ranked as strongly -- Atlanta was only 11th in 1991, and Detroit only 17th -- but Washington won its playoff games by a combined total of 102-41. Washington had 83.9% DVOA for the playoffs, which means that both teams see their ratings go up in the postseason, but the 1991 Redskins stay ahead of the 1985 Bears. Lower down on this list, Super Bowl champions such as the 1989 49ers and 1992 Cowboys climb the rankings once the postseason is included.

Year Team W-L DVOA
1991 WAS 17-2 61.7%
1985 CHI 18-1 59.6%
2007 NE 18-1 50.3%
1989 SF 17-2 48.1%
1996 GB 16-3 45.8%
1987 SF* 10-3 44.1%
2013 SEA 16-3 43.2%
1992 DAL 16-3 42.4%
1998 DEN 17-2 41.9%
2002 TB 15-4 41.0%
2010 NE 14-3 40.6%
2019 BAL 14-3 40.5%
*only 13 games due to strike

OK, but some people might argue that it's not enough to just count the playoffs. The playoffs should count more than the regular season, because those are the most important games of the year. And it turns out that if you decide to count the playoffs with twice the weight of the regular season, you get a list of best teams in DVOA history that's all Super Bowl champions except for the 2007 Patriots, and that puts the 1985 Chicago Bears just an itty bit ahead of the 1991 Washington Redskins.

Year Team W-L DVOA
1985 CHI 18-1 66.7%
1991 WAS 17-2 66.4%
1989 SF 17-2 60.1%
1998 DEN 17-2 51.1%
2002 TB 15-4 50.4%
1992 DAL 16-3 49.8%
1996 GB 16-3 49.7%
2007 NE 18-1 47.8%
1988 SF 13-6 47.4%
2013 SEA 16-3 46.3%
2004 NE 17-2 45.0%
1995 DAL 15-4 42.1%

The Bears join the 1991 Redskins as the only two teams in history to achieve a perfect 16.0 "estimated wins" based on specific DVOA splits. The Bears were the best offense and the best defense in the league when games were close (within one touchdown) in the second half, and they were one of the league's most consistent teams in 1985 (eighth in variance.)

What about defense only? The Bears are known as the most dangerous defense in NFL history, but by our numbers they still come in far behind the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. Essentially, the 1985 Chicago Bears are tied for second with themselves ... the 1986 Chicago Bears. (The 1986 team is better by a tiny 0.03%, which works out to about 3 yards on a random play.) The 1985 Bears allowed 4.38 yards per play, compared to 4.12 yards per play for the 1986 Bears and 3.92 yards per play for the 1991 Eagles. Where the 1985 Bears catch up is on turnovers. The 1985 Bears had takeaways on 5.7% of defensive plays, compared to 4.7% for the 1986 Bears and 5.3% for the 1991 Eagles.

However, fumble recovery rates were one reason the Bears defense looked better than it was. Chicago's defense recovered 18 of 26 fumbles during the regular season, then recovered another seven out of 10 in the playoffs. (In addition, three of the Bears' league-leading 34 interceptions were Hail Mary plays to end a half.)

Year Team W-L DVOA
1991 PHI 10-6 -42.4%
1986 CHI 14-2 -33.6%
1985 CHI 15-1 -33.6%
2002 TB 12-4 -31.8%
2008 PIT 12-4 -29.0%
2004 BUF 9-7 -28.5%
2008 BAL 11-5 -27.8%
2012 CHI 10-6 -26.7%
2018 CHI 12-4 -26.0%
1988 MIN 11-5 -25.9%
2013 SEA 13-3 -25.9%
2015 DEN 12-4 -25.8%

Adding the playoffs improves the rating for the 1985 Bears team. The 1986 team flopped with a 27-13 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs, while the 1991 Eagles didn't even make the playoffs, so they don't have any plays to add to their rating. Still, if we only count each postseason game with the same strength as each regular-season game, the Bears again come in second to the 1991 Eagles.

Year Team W-L DVOA
1991 PHI 10-6 -42.4%
1985 CHI 18-1 -39.7%
2002 TB 15-4 -36.7%
2000 BAL 16-4 -33.1%
1986 CHI 14-3 -32.9%
2004 BUF 9-7 -28.5%
2015 DEN 15-4 -28.3%
2008 BAL 13-6 -27.9%
2008 PIT 15-4 -27.6%
2013 SEA 16-3 -27.4%
2012 CHI 10-6 -26.7%
1991 WAS 17-2 -26.0%

As great as this defense was, the difference between the 1985 Bears and the other Bears teams of the Mike Ditka era was the offense. We don't have DVOA yet for the 1984 season, but the Bears were 16th in points scored. The 1986 team was 20th in offensive DVOA and 13th in points scored. But the 1985 team was fourth in offensive DVOA and second in points scored. The Bears were also No. 5 on special teams, making them just the sixth team in DVOA history to accomplish the feat of ranking in the top five for all three phases of the game. (The other teams: 1991 Redskins, 1992 Eagles, 1996 Packers, 2012 Seahawks, and 2015 Seahawks.)

Before we talk about the rest of the league in the 1985 season, let's run all the numbers for you.


1 CHI 52.5% 55.6% 15-1 15.1% 4 -33.6% 1 3.8% 5
2 NYJ 27.4% 25.4% 11-5 12.0% 6 -10.7% 8 4.6% 3
3 SF 25.6% 25.6% 10-6 23.5% 1 -4.1% 12 -2.1% 21
4 LARM 19.4% 23.1% 11-5 -7.9% 22 -15.7% 2 11.5% 1
5 NYG 19.1% 18.1% 10-6 7.0% 7 -13.7% 5 -1.6% 18
6 LARD 18.3% 14.7% 12-4 -0.2% 14 -14.1% 4 4.5% 4
7 NE 18.0% 19.4% 11-5 1.3% 12 -14.2% 3 2.5% 8
8 WAS 13.8% 7.9% 10-6 1.4% 11 -12.6% 7 -0.2% 15
9 MIA 13.5% 15.8% 12-4 21.8% 2 8.1% 20 -0.2% 14
10 DAL 8.8% 7.4% 10-6 4.2% 10 -6.3% 11 -1.6% 19
11 CIN 4.5% 6.7% 7-9 20.2% 3 11.5% 23 -4.1% 25
12 CLE1 4.3% -2.0% 8-8 0.9% 13 -0.3% 13 3.1% 7
13 SEA 4.1% 0.8% 8-8 -8.1% 23 -13.2% 6 -1.0% 16
14 PIT 3.6% 4.9% 7-9 -5.2% 18 -6.8% 9 2.0% 10
15 DEN 3.4% 8.5% 11-5 4.6% 8 -6.7% 10 -7.9% 27
16 SD -0.7% 2.4% 8-8 14.7% 5 14.1% 25 -1.3% 17
17 PHI -7.3% -7.4% 7-9 -8.4% 24 0.0% 14 1.1% 11
18 KC -8.7% -6.8% 6-10 -4.3% 17 2.3% 16 -2.0% 20
19 GB -13.0% -11.1% 8-8 -5.8% 19 0.7% 15 -6.4% 26
20 MIN -13.6% -13.5% 7-9 -7.0% 21 4.2% 17 -2.4% 23
21 IND -14.2% -12.9% 5-11 -3.8% 16 7.4% 19 -3.1% 24
22 DET -14.9% -19.8% 7-9 -12.9% 25 5.1% 18 3.1% 6
23 STLC -15.5% -17.5% 5-11 4.6% 9 11.5% 22 -8.6% 28
24 ATL -17.2% -20.3% 4-12 -2.3% 15 17.2% 27 2.4% 9
25 TB -23.6% -28.5% 2-14 -6.3% 20 15.0% 26 -2.3% 22
26 NO -27.9% -25.7% 5-11 -19.8% 26 13.1% 24 5.0% 2
27 BUF -35.8% -37.4% 2-14 -26.1% 28 9.7% 21 0.0% 13
28 HOIL -40.2% -37.3% 5-11 -22.3% 27 18.7% 28 0.8% 12
  • ESTIMATED WINS uses a statistic known as "Forest Index" that emphasizes consistency as well as DVOA in the most important specific situations: red zone defense, first quarter offense, and performance in the second half when the score is close. It then projects a number of wins adjusted to a league-average schedule and a league-average rate of recovering fumbles.
  • WEIGHTED DVOA is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. It better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season.
  • 1985 SCHEDULE lists average DVOA of opponents played this season, ranked from hardest schedule (#1, most positive) to easiest schedule (#28, most negative).
  • PYTHAGOREAN WINS represent a projection of the team's expected wins based solely on points scored and allowed.
  • VARIANCE measures the statistical variance of the team's weekly DVOA performance. Teams are ranked from most consistent (#1, lowest variance) to least consistent (#28, highest variance).
RANK 1985
1 CHI 52.5% 15-1 16.0 1 53.4% 1 -3.4% 24 14.1 1 12.8% 8
2 NYJ 27.4% 11-5 12.4 2 30.8% 3 -0.3% 17 11.6 3 15.5% 13
3 SF 25.6% 10-6 10.8 5 31.7% 2 0.3% 15 12.0 2 19.4% 24
4 LARM 19.4% 11-5 11.3 4 21.1% 6 -4.7% 26 9.9 7 20.1% 26
5 NYG 19.1% 10-6 11.5 3 20.3% 7 -4.6% 25 11.2 4 4.1% 1
6 LARD 18.3% 12-4 10.5 7 13.3% 9 3.2% 5 9.3 10 17.1% 16
7 NE 18.0% 11-5 10.7 6 24.3% 5 0.9% 11 10.1 6 9.3% 5
8 WAS 13.8% 10-6 9.9 8 24.7% 4 1.8% 9 7.5 17 18.5% 22
9 MIA 13.5% 12-4 9.8 9 13.8% 8 -3.1% 23 10.8 5 11.6% 7
10 DAL 8.8% 10-6 8.5 12 3.8% 12 2.4% 8 8.7 12 20.5% 27
11 CIN 4.5% 7-9 8.6 11 11.6% 10 -0.4% 19 8.1 14 16.0% 14
12 CLE1 4.3% 8-8 9.1 10 3.2% 14 -0.4% 18 7.8 15 17.5% 18
13 SEA 4.1% 8-8 8.0 15 3.5% 13 4.9% 3 9.4 9 13.1% 9
14 PIT 3.6% 7-9 8.0 14 -2.8% 16 -4.9% 27 8.7 13 11.3% 6
15 DEN 3.4% 11-5 8.1 13 -0.4% 15 -0.7% 20 9.4 8 8.6% 4
16 SD -0.7% 8-8 7.2 16 4.5% 11 -5.4% 28 8.7 11 13.4% 10
17 PHI -7.3% 7-9 7.1 17 -3.5% 17 -0.7% 21 7.2 19 7.4% 3
18 KC -8.7% 6-10 6.9 18 -9.3% 19 0.8% 12 6.8 20 18.2% 19
19 GB -13.0% 8-8 6.4 19 -9.6% 20 2.5% 6 7.5 18 19.1% 23
20 MIN -13.6% 7-9 5.6 23 -18.2% 22 -3.1% 22 7.6 16 6.7% 2
21 IND -14.2% 5-11 5.7 22 -6.4% 18 0.3% 14 6.2 22 26.7% 28
22 DET -14.9% 7-9 6.0 21 -15.0% 21 5.0% 2 6.3 21 18.3% 20
23 STLC -15.5% 5-11 6.2 20 -26.3% 25 -0.2% 16 4.4 25 18.5% 21
24 ATL -17.2% 4-12 5.0 24 -19.9% 23 5.7% 1 3.8 27 13.4% 11
25 TB -23.6% 2-14 4.5 25 -22.9% 24 3.9% 4 4.1 26 20.1% 25
26 NO -27.9% 5-11 4.2 26 -31.7% 26 1.2% 10 5.1 23 17.1% 17
27 BUF -35.8% 2-14 2.7 27 -35.8% 27 2.5% 7 2.9 28 15.0% 12
28 HOIL -40.2% 5-11 2.6 28 -45.7% 28 0.5% 13 4.6 24 17.0% 15

DVOA for 1985 is now listed in the stats pages:

The first thing to understand about going all the way back to 1985 is just how different the game was back then. There are more passes and many more completed passes now, but those completions are shorter. There were also many more negative plays back then: sacks, interceptions, and fumbles. Here are some averages for 1985 and 2019 by team for comparison purposes:

Per Team Stats, 1985 vs. 2019
Year Pts/G Pass/Run
Cmp% Net Y/P Yd/Cmp Sacks Int Fum
1985 21.5 1.15 54.8% 5.83 12.83 46.6 21.5 31.9
2019 22.8 1.43 63.5% 6.29 11.38 39.9 12.8 20.3

(Note: This table was originally incorrect for 2019 yards per pass and yards per completion and has been fixed to make the numbers lower.)

This is the first year we've done DVOA that was seriously impacted by the USFL, which played its final season in the spring of 1985. A number of players participated in both spring and fall seasons that year. Steve Young, Joe Cribbs, Reggie White, and Anthony Carter were among them. Other stars, including Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker, didn't enter the NFL until the 1986 season.

The NFL in 1985 was all about the big cities. Five of the top six teams in DVOA represented the three largest metro areas in the United States, with both New York teams and both Los Angeles teams making the playoffs. The No. 2 team in DVOA was the New York Jets, led by quarterback Ken O'Brien and the New York Sack Exchange defense. No. 3 was San Francisco, which finished only 10-6 thanks to a 1-5 record in one-score games. The New England Patriots finished seventh, but upset the No. 2 Jets, No. 6 Raiders, and No. 9 Dolphins in that order to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, where they famously got crushed.

The Bears were not the only team from 1985 to rank among the all-time best. The 1985 Los Angeles Rams come out with the second-best special teams unit in DVOA history. This actually might be a bit of an underperformance. When Andreas Shepard did his historical DVOA estimates back in 2014, he came out with the 1985 Rams as the best special teams unit ever; now that we have the actual play-by-play breakdown, they come in behind the 2002 New Orleans Saints.

Best Special Teams DVOA, 1985-2019
Year Team DVOA FG/XP Kick Kick
Punt Punt
Top Players
2002 NO 12.2% 8.8 18.4 14.7 9.8 9.2 K J.Carney, RET M.Lewis
1985 LARM 11.5% 6.7 4.6 20.6 20.5 5.3 RET R.Brown, P D.Hatcher
2007 CHI 11.2% 6.5 7.1 13.8 10.6 18.0 K R.Gould, RET D.Hester
1994 CLE1 10.1% 10.8 12.3 11.9 11.7 3.9 RET E.Metcalf, K M.Stover
1986 NYJ 9.9% 10.4 -2.7 9.9 30.7 1.2 P D.Jennings, K P.Leahy
1996 CAR 9.8% 7.1 14.0 13.6 8.1 6.1 RET M.Bates, K J.Kasay
2009 CLE 9.7% 4.8 10.3 21.0 0.9 11.2 RET J.Cribbs, K P.Dawson
1986 NO 9.3% 13.0 9.7 13.2 16.5 -6.2 K M.Andersen, P B.Hansen
2017 BAL 9.2% 19.0 6.6 12.3 4.1 3.9 P S.Koch, K J.Tucker
1998 DAL 9.2% 5.2 22.5 2.3 4.1 11.6 K R.Cunningham, RET D.Sanders
2012 BAL 9.0% 9.4 12.4 13.3 7.4 2.5 RET J.Jones, K J.Tucker
2001 PHI 8.9% 7.7 14.3 6.5 12.1 4.1 K D.Akers, P S.Landeta

The 1985 Rams were above average in all five phases of special teams that we measure, but the biggest star was Olympic sprinter Ron Brown. Brown didn't return kickoffs until Week 7, but he averaged 32.8 yards per return with three touchdowns, including two in a Week 12 victory over Green Bay. Brown was worth an estimated 24.3 points of field position above average; the other Rams returners, mainly running back Charles White, were negative on kick returns. The other star was punter Dale Hatcher. Hatcher was third in the league in gross punt average (43.2 yards) but led the league in gross punt value based on the situations where he punted, and also led the league in net punt average: 38.6 yards, more than 2 yards better than any other punter.

To demonstrate the year-to-year inconsistency of special teams, the Rams ranked only 19th the following year.

The Rams had one of the more peculiar NFL one-year wonders at quarterback in 1985: Dieter Brock. Brock had gone undrafted out of Jacksonville State in 1974 and had an 11-year career in the Canadian Football League. He won back-to-back CFL MVP awards (called "Most Outstanding Player") for Winnipeg in 1980 and 1981. Unsatisfied with Jeff Kemp as their starting quarterback, the Rams reached up north and signed Brock in 1985. He was officially an NFL rookie at the age of 34. Brock's 59.7% completion rate set a new Rams record at the time -- no, seriously, that's how low completion rates were in the '70s and '80s -- but he also had a knee injury in the 1986 preseason and chronic back problems that knocked him out for the rest of the year. The Rams cut him when they traded for the rights to Jim Everett and that was the end of Brock's football career. He has one year in the NFL at the age of 34 and that's it.

Perhaps the strangest team of 1985 was the Washington Redskins. Look at the first table above, and nothing looks too weird about Washington. The Redskins went 10-6 but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. They ranked eighth in DVOA, which is about where you would expect to find a 10-6 team. It only gets strange when you look at the second table and notice that Washington is 17th with just 7.5 Pythagorean wins. Washington finished eighth in DVOA despite getting outscored by opponents. Washington now comes out with the best DVOA ever for a team that was outscored by its opponents during the regular season.

Best DVOA by Team
Outscored by Opponents, 1985-2019
Year Team W-L DVOA Rk Pyth W
1985 WAS 10-6 13.8% 8 7.5
2006 NYG 8-8 13.7% 8 7.8
1993 LARD 10-6 11.1% 10 7.4
1989 CHI 6-10 9.6% 11 7.5
1993 PHI 8-8 9.4% 11 7.3
1996 KC 9-7 9.1% 10 7.9
2008 WAS 8-8 9.1% 12 7.0
1999 DEN 6-10 8.6% 12 7.9
2011 NYG 9-7 8.5% 12 7.8
1999 NYJ 8-8 8.2% 14 8.0

It's fairly easy to explain how Washington went 10-6 despite being outscored by its opponents. Washington was 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less but 2-3 in games decided by three or more touchdowns. The bigger question is how Washington made it up to eighth in DVOA. The Redskins weren't only outscored, but also outgained on average, 4.76 yards to 4.70 yards. Some of this surely has to do with Washington not putting its plays together to make up efficient drives, but there are other reasons. Washington recovered a league-low 35% of fumbles in 1985, including just seven of 24 fumbles on offense. Washington was also second in field goal value against, with opponents hitting 79% of attempts compared to a league average of 72%. And for an overall above-average defense, Washington gave up a lot of very long plays: 17 plays of 40 or more yards, second in the league behind Atlanta.

Washington was 5-5 going into a Week 11 game against the New York Giants. That's the famous game where Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann's leg. Theismann was replaced by Jay Schroeder, a second-year quarterback Washington had selected in the third round of the 1984 draft as Theismann's heir apparent. Schroeder led the Redskins to a close comeback victory in that game with the Giants, and then four wins in their next five games to finish the year 10-6. Although Schroeder only completed 53.6% of his passes, he was more efficient than Theismann by attacking more downfield. He averaged 13.0 yards per completion, compared to 10.6 for Theismann. You can see the change in offensive style through Art Monk's in-season transformation, although in fairness Monk's usage changed a couple of weeks before Theismann's injury. In Weeks 1-8, Monk averaged just 8.5 yards per reception (-14.8% receiving DVOA), and didn't have a single game above 75 receiving yards. In Weeks 9-16, Monk averaged 16.5 yards per reception (9.3% receiving DVOA) and topped 100 yards in six of eight games.

So, were the Redskins a much better team without Theismann? Not really, despite going 5-1 in the final six games. The passing game was much better with Schroeder, but the running game declined, in part because John Riggins was struggling with back issues. He was done for the year (and his career) after Week 13. The Washington defense got a little better in the final six games, but it wasn't a big difference. But four of those six one-score wins that Washington had in 1985 came with Schroeder at quarterback.

Washington DVOA by Week, 1985
Weeks Pass DVOA Rk Run DVOA Rk Offense DVOA Rk Defense DVOA Rk
Weeks 1-10 -17.3% 22 16.6% 4 1.2% 11 -10.2% 10
Weeks 11-16 10.0% 9 -3.3% 17 1.7% 13 -16.6% 4

Another interesting team from 1985 was the Denver Broncos. The Broncos were the first team to ever finish 11-5 but miss the playoffs. They were in a three-way tie, but the Jets had the best conference record while the Patriots had a better record against common opponents. According to DVOA, however, the Broncos deserved to stay at home. Denver was only 15th in DVOA, ranking far below the Patriots and Jets and slightly below the Cleveland Browns, who were the first 8-8 playoff team ever as AFC Central champions. The Broncos played a season of close contests, going 6-4 in games decided by less than a touchdown including four overtime contests. Normally, we would expect an 11-5 team with an average DVOA to regress the next season, but that's not what happened here. The Broncos improved on offense and special teams in 1986 and went 11-5 again, this time ranking fourth overall in DVOA and making it to the Super Bowl.

Cincinnati was the opposite of Denver, with the highest DVOA for a team with a losing record. The Bengals would climb up to fifth with a 10-6 record in 1986.

No team from 1985 is historically bad in any particular way. The Houston Oilers are a bit of a surprise as the worst team by DVOA, since they went 5-11 (4.6 Pythagorean wins) with a top-ten schedule but end up with a lower DVOA rating than two teams that finished at 2-14: Tampa Bay (25) and Buffalo (27).

Now let's take a look at the best and worst players by position.

Quarterbacks: Another year, another Football Outsiders passing crown for Dan Marino, who led the league with 1,517 passing DYAR. Marino also finished No. 1 in 1986, 1988, and 1997. When we get back to 1984, he will assuredly be No. 1 that year as well. However, Marino did not have the best passing performance per play in 1985. The No. 1 spot in passing DVOA belongs to Dan Fouts, who had 8.5 yards per pass attempt compared to just 7.3 for Marino. Fouts doesn't finish No. 1 in DYAR because knee injuries kept him to 12 starts. His backup, Mark Herrmann, wasn't half bad; he had enough pass attempts to qualify for our rankings and finishes in the DVOA top ten.

Joe Montana finishes the year third in both DVOA and DYAR. Third-year quarterback Ken O'Brien from the Jets and second-year quarterback Boomer Esiason from the Bengals round out the top five. Danny White of the Cowboys was a surprising sixth in DYAR. And from the department of strong arms: John Elway, seventh in DYAR, gained 292 yards on Defensive Pass Interference penalties while no other quarterback in the league had more than 160.

The league's worst qualifying quarterback was Buffalo backup Bruce Mathison, forced into the lineup by an injury to starter Vince Ferragamo. Ferragamo wasn't great either, ranking 30th out of 33 quarterbacks in DVOA. Things got a lot better when Jim Kelly finally came over from the USFL a year later. Also near the bottom of the league: Atlanta's David Archer, New Orleans' Dave Wilson, and a surprise, Houston's Warren Moon. Check out Moon's historical record and you can see he certainly took a while to get used to the NFL game.

Buffalo was just one example of a general trend in 1985: lots of quarterback jobs split between two players. Not including DPIs, more quarterbacks fell between 125 and 200 pass plays (10) than over 500 pass plays (nine). So there are some interesting names on our second table of non-qualifiers. New England's Steve Grogan would have been fifth in DVOA if he had qualified, while USFL refugee Steve Young had a dismal -37.7% passing DVOA in Tampa Bay.

A good example of how the game has changed since the 1980s: Only three quarterbacks in 1985 had at least 40 carries, led by Archer with 65. This past season, 13 different quarterbacks had at least 40 carries, and four quarterbacks (Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, and Deshaun Watson) had more than Archer did in 1985.

Running Backs: A number of running backs set or challenged NFL records in 1985. Gerald Riggs was not one of them. However, Riggs was our league leader with 457 rushing DYAR, over 100 DYAR past the rest of the league. That's what happens when you combine a top-ten DVOA rating with 397 carries. Second behind Riggs was the Giants' Joe Morris, whose 21 rushing touchdowns were second all-time as of 1985. Then comes the first of our record-breakers. Marcus Allen of the Raiders won the AP MVP award and set an NFL record with 2,314 yards from scrimmage, a record that stood for 12 years until Barry Sanders broke it in 1997. (Chris Johnson now holds the record with 2,509 yards in 2009.) An easier than average schedule was one reason Allen finished only third in rushing DYAR despite leading the league in yardage, slightly ahead of Riggs. And Allen was only 20th in receiving DYAR among running backs, with a DVOA slightly below zero.

The No. 1 running back in receiving DYAR was San Francisco's Roger Craig, who in 1985 became the first player to ever combine 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. (Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey have done it since.) Craig was eighth in rushing DYAR, one of two running backs from San Francisco in the top ten, with his running mate Wendell Tyler ranking fifth in DYAR and first in rushing DVOA. Craig wasn't the only receiving back to put up over 1,000 receiving yards, though. San Diego's Lionel "Little Train" James outgained Craig in receiving by 12 yards and finished second in receiving DYAR.

Last place in rushing DYAR belonged to Joe Cribbs, who may have been tired out by playing both the USFL and NFL seasons in the same year. He had just 3.27 yards per carry for the Bills on 122 runs. Indianapolis' Randy McMillan was last in receiving DYAR; I have no idea how it is possible to catch just 44% of passes as a running back who averages 5.2 yards per reception.

Wide Receivers: No wide receivers blew away the league in 1985 the way Stanley Morgan did in 1986 or Jerry Rice did in 1987. San Diego's Wes Chandler and Pittsburgh's Louis Lipps were one-two on top of the league in DYAR, though Lipps may deserve extra commendation for putting together a big year for the No. 15 pass offense in the league while Chandler was playing with the No. 3 pass offense. Chandler's teammate Charlie Joiner was a remarkable third in DYAR at the age of 38, and right behind him was Miami's 34-year-old Nat Moore, who finished fourth in DYAR and first in receiving DVOA. Steve Largent, who led the league in receiving yards, ended up fifth in DYAR. As a rookie, Rice was 18th in DYAR, a bit behind Rookie of the Year Eddie Brown from Cincinnati who was 12th.

Stephone Paige of Kansas City finished eighth in both DVOA and DYAR, and no discussion of 1985 is complete without talking about Paige's Week 16 performance against the San Diego Chargers. Paige had 309 receiving yards on only eight catches (10 targets). Flipper Anderson broke the record with 336 yards in 1989 but 40 of those yards came in overtime; Calvin Johnson finally broke the record for yards in a regulation game with 329 against the Cowboys in 2013. Paige had 128 DYAR in this game, which means more than half his DYAR on the season came in one week. That total ranks ninth among wide receiver games all-time thanks to opponent adjustments for playing San Diego's No. 20 pass defense. In YAR, without opponent adjustments, Paige is second behind Anderson's 1989 game.

Top 10 Wide Receiver Games by DYAR, 1985-2019
Rk Player Year Team Total
Pass Rec Yds TD Runs Yds Week DEF
1 Flipper Anderson 1989 LARM 160 154 20 15 336 1 0 0 12 NO
2 Jimmy Smith 2000 JAX 141 129 21 15 291 3 0 0 2 BAL
3 Jerry Rice 1995 SF 136 137 16 14 289 3 1 10 16 MIN
4 DeAndre Hopkins 2014 HOU 135 140 9 9 238 2 0 0 13 TEN
5 Chad Johnson 2006 CIN 133 126 12 11 260 2 1 0 10 SD
6 Terrell Owens 2000 SF 131 134 22 20 283 1 1 5 16 CHI
7 Henry Ellard 1989 LARM 130 122 15 12 230 3 0 0 2 IND
8 Randy Moss 2001 MIN 129 133 13 10 171 3 1 18 10 NYG
9 Stephone Paige 1985 KC 128 142 10 8 306 2 0 0 16 SD
10 Kenny Britt 2010 TEN 127 123 10 7 225 3 0 0 7 PHI

Paige didn't exactly set this record with an All-Pro at quarterback. In fact, Kansas City played two quarterbacks in that game, just as they did all season. Paige caught a 56-yard touchdown and then passes of 51 and 30 yards from Todd Blackledge. Then he caught passes of 12, 17, 20, 39, and 84 (touchdown) from Bill Kenney.

Atlanta's Stacey Bailey was the worst receiver of the year by DYAR. He was coming off a 1,000-yard season in 1984 but in 1985 had only 364 yards with 12.1 yards per reception, no touchdowns, and a 45% catch rate. New Orleans rookie Eric Martin was also near the bottom of the league but he would go on to have much better years including 1992 when he ranked third overall in receiving value.

Tight Ends: Mickey Shuler of the Jets led the league with 226 receiving DYAR, 70 ahead of the Cowboys' Doug Cosbie. The Raiders' Todd Christensen led all tight ends in receiving yards and was chosen first-team All-Pro but finished only third in DYAR. Jamie Williams of Houston, with just a 53% catch rate, was last in DYAR among tight ends.

A few other 1985 notes:

  • Holdouts played a big role in the early part of the 1985 season. The Jets lost 31-0 to the Raiders in Week 1, in part because left tackle Reggie McElroy, right tackle Marvin Powell, and first-round rookie Al Toon were all holding out. The Raiders had 10 sacks against New York's backup tackles. Dan Marino held out for the entire preseason and the Dolphins lost to the Oilers (eventually the worst team of the year by DVOA) by a 26-23 score in Week 1. After his second interception of the game, with the Oilers up 19-16 in the fourth quarter, Marino was actually benched for Don Strock. (You can find this entire game on YouTube.) The other big holdout was in Los Angeles, where Eric Dickerson missed the first two Rams games. His absence didn't stop the Rams from winning both games, over Denver and Philadelphia.
  • In Week 10, Ron Jaworski and the Eagles beat the Falcons with a 99-yard touchdown pass to Mike Quick in overtime. It's the longest play in overtime history. (Video here.)
  • In Week 11, Houston cornerback Patrick Allen was called offside twice in one half against Pittsburgh. You don't often see a cornerback called offside once, let alone twice.
  • To quote from the Week 12 Chicago-Atlanta broadcast: '"Cry for Dave Archer, Atlanta's quarterback. In front of Archer today when the Falcons oppose the Bears will be two rookies [RT Bill Fralic and RG Jeff Kiewel], a 39-year-old center [Jeff Van Note], a five-year veteran whose main job has been as a long snapper [LT Eric Sanders], and a left guard, Joe Pellegrini, who two years ago was a defensive lineman."
  • In Week 4, Washington was ahead of Chicago 10-0 in the second quarter when punter/kickoff man Jeff Hayes got hurt on a 99-yard Willie Gault kick return touchdown. On the next Washington drive, the Redskins put Joe Theismann out to punt on fourth-and-16. Theismann managed to move the ball a whole yard. That's right: punt from the Washington 13, out of bounds at the Washington 14. "The guys said kick it right, and I did," said Theismann after the game. "Dead right." Chicago scored on the next play to take a 14-10 lead. Jay Schroeder punted the rest of the game and managed to average 33 gross yards per punt. The Redskins lost 45-10.
  • This wasn't even the worst punt of 1985. In the divisional round of the playoffs, Giants punter Sean Landeta completely whiffed on a punt from the 12-yard line. His foot just missed the ball completely. The Bears didn't even block it, they just picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. Techincally it was a -7-yard punt with a 5-yard touchdown return.
  • I haven't even started to get into some of the strangest stuff from the 1985 season. Jeremy Snyder, who transcribed most of this 1985 play-by-play for us, also put together a Year in Quotes for 1985 that any fan of NFL history will enjoy.
  • We've now got everything from 1983 and 1984, so that's going to be a project for the next few months, and hopefully we'll be able to unveil those ratings by next offseason.

Addendum: I feel like a dolt, but the original post of the 1985 stats had all the wrong schedule strength ratings due to a sorting error. Schedule strength rating has now been fixed both here and on the individual pages for 1985 offense, defense, and team efficiency. -- Aaron


117 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2020, 8:59pm

#1 by RickD // Mar 09, 2020 - 12:19pm

Did not expect to see them at #2 in DVOA. TBH, I expected to see the Dolphins there, as they were the only team to beat the Bears and had the #1 seed in AFC.

Think about how good the 1983 QB class looked in 1985. Ken O'Brien was a legitimately good QB, Tony Eason led the Pats to a Super Bowl, and then there were the Big Three: Marino, Elway, and Kelly. (It's true that Kelly wasn't in the NFL yet, but he certainly looked like he''d do just fine. His stats for the Houston Gamblers were ridiculous - 83 TDs in 36 games.)

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#2 by Raiderjoe // Mar 09, 2020 - 12:32pm

jets were legitimately ogod in 1985. nto surprised they are 2nd. did lose to Pates in playoffs. thoguht ghame was little freaky like we got gypped and better team did not win whcih is also feeling afetr Pates beat Raiders and Doklphins in next two weeks. 1985 Bears arguabnly bresty team of all timke and probably woudl ahev defeated Jets, Raiders or Dokphins in Super Bowl although Raiders would have been tight squeeze. 

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#10 by Boots Day // Mar 09, 2020 - 2:41pm

In reply to by Raiderjoe

The Bears and Jets played in Week 15, and there was a lot of speculation that the Jets would win, since the Bears had nothing left to play for. Before the game, John Madden said he thought the Bears would win that game, and would win the Super Bowl, because they were the best team in football. He was right.

Incidentally, Summerall and Madden did five Bears games that year, and did not see them give up a touchdown. 

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#92 by LionInAZ // Mar 11, 2020 - 10:59pm

In reply to by Raiderjoe

I'd like to know which of the Bears players Raiderjoe considers the most bresty. 

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#3 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 09, 2020 - 12:36pm

Yes, sort of surprising but the Dolphins don't come out with a lot of big wins. They have four games over 30% plus the Week 16 28-0 win over Buffalo is at 29%. The Jets, on the other hand, have nine different games over 30% and topped the Dolphins in Pythagorean wins as well.

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#21 by mehllageman56 // Mar 09, 2020 - 9:30pm

The Jets blew out Miami at home early on, and then lost in the last two minutes in Miami on a Marino bomb, so they definitely outplayed them head to head that year.  Bud Carson fixing the defense was the big reason for their turnaround, as well as O'Brien's play.  They dropped 62 points on Tampa Bay a couple of weeks before Chicago crunched them the way the Bears beat everyone that year except Marino.

The 83 quarterback class still gets underrated somehow.  In order for another year to be better, the 4th best QB has to be good enough to lead the league in passer rating, and the 5th best has to be competent enough to get to the playoffs (and then go on a run).  I don't think any of the years that get compared to the 1983 class come even close.

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#75 by Tracy // Mar 10, 2020 - 5:06pm

It falls short of 1983's greatness, but the 2004 class may come closer than you give it credit for.  Though none of its top 3 compare well to Elway/Marino, according to pro football reference they all out-performed Jim Kelley in career value. Matt Schaub is a really underrated player from that draft whose 15 year career included about 6 quality years in Houston--he even led the league in total passing yards in 2009. And while J.P. Losman was only a marginal starter for a couple of years, he did have respectable numbers in 2006 for a very bad Bills team, and a better overall career than Todd Blackledge had.

(Of course, I'm cheating a bit by ignoring Eason entirely and reaching all the way into the 3rd round to find Schaub--even if he was the 5th qb taken in 2004)

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#4 by Chip // Mar 09, 2020 - 1:19pm

Chicago has one quarter of the top DVOA DEF in history. Simply amazing. No wonder that town loves their defense and really could care less about QB.

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#34 by BJR // Mar 10, 2020 - 9:20am

Yes, knowing what we know about the perennial inconsistencies in year-to-year defensive performances, putting back to back seasons together at that level surely marks them out as the indisputable GOAT defense. 

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#5 by Dave0 // Mar 09, 2020 - 1:45pm

Interesting article, thanks!

Little Train's last name is James, not Jordan.

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#7 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 09, 2020 - 2:15pm

Dunno how I made THAT mistake. But fixing it now.

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#6 by theslothook // Mar 09, 2020 - 2:02pm

Anyone else surprised to see the 2015 Seahawks on the all time list? I certainly don't remember that team being an all timer(they went 10-6 after all).


Also Aaron, which season were you missing like 1 game of logging?

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#8 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 09, 2020 - 2:17pm

Missing game is missing no more. It was a 1984 game and we have found it!

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#98 by techvet // Mar 12, 2020 - 1:25pm

How you found it...is perhaps be worthy of a story (or a paragraph) when 1984 DVOA is published.

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#22 by dank067 // Mar 09, 2020 - 10:39pm

The 2015 Seahawks have to be one of the funkiest teams in recent memory. They started 2-4 and were possibly lucky to even be that with the batted ball out of the end zone play vs the Lions, but the defense was mostly still prime LoB. Meanwhile the offense struggled somewhat before it and Russell Wilson in particular caught absolute fire in the second half of the season. Pretty wild splits from Wilson:

Games 1-8: 6.5 NY/A, 6.0 ANY/A, including 31 sacks, 9 TD passes, 6 INTs, 2 lost fumbles

Games 9-16: 7.8 NY/A, 9.32 ANY/A, including just 14 sacks, 25 TD passes, 2 INTs, 1 lost fumble

They followed up that scorching stretch by barely surviving Minnesota 10-9 in the Blair Walsh game and then falling behind Carolina 31-0 in the first half of the divisional round before eventually getting within an onside kick of a game-tying drive attempt.

They've seriously almost never been a normal team in the Carroll era. In nearly half of their games they were the Mahomes Chiefs offense + the Legion of Boom defense, while nearly the other half were close games that hinged on some combination of turnovers, defensive/special teams scores, and other odd plays and occurrences. They were even the Bears' opponent in the infamous John Fox all-punts game that year.

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#9 by Boots Day // Mar 09, 2020 - 2:28pm

Did the Bears show much of a split on offense between when Jim McMahon was playing and when Fuller/Tomczak were playing?


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#110 by SportsPhan8 // Mar 16, 2020 - 3:31am

Tomczak only registered 6 pass attempts, while, statistically, McMahon was far superior than Fuller was. See below.


  • DVOA: 16.4% (7th)
  • VOA: 23.1% (4th)


  • DVOA: -25.7%
  • VOA: -21.9%

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#11 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 09, 2020 - 2:47pm

So 1985 Redskins were a good team in DVOA terms, but were outscored. But they were also a 10-6 team that out-played their Pythagorean win projection by 2.5 -- a bad team trait.


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#12 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 09, 2020 - 2:49pm

That top-3 feels right.

I think 1991 Washington would be a slight favorite over 1985 Chicago, and I'm not sure 1985 Chicago matches up well with 2007 New England. But all three are better than 1987 Santa Clara.

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#27 by Will Allen // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:16am

If you play by '85 rules, the Bears beat the '07 Pats 70% of the time. Play by the '07 rules, and it's a 50-50 proposition.

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#31 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 10, 2020 - 8:33am

I kind of see the 2007 Pats being able to Marino that Bears team. The 46 front doesn't get there in time, and Brady carves up the back end.

Now, that said, if they can hold all over the field and murder Welker on a crossing route...

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#35 by Ambientdonkey // Mar 10, 2020 - 9:57am

The 2007 Patriots Offense couldn't exist under the rules in 1985. You'd need to have 15 receivers on the roster to make it through all the injuries.

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#62 by mehllageman56 // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:58pm

Brady's great at moving around, but I remember plays like the one where the Jets D-lineman grabbed Elway and smashed him headfirst into the ground.  Happened to O'Brien a lot too.  The 2007 Pats had a great line, but John Hannah couldn't block the Bears in the Super Bowl, why would they be able to?  Marino torched them because he moved in the pocket well (something Brady does) but mainly because of his release, which no one except Namath probably ever had.  Brady would have to pull off the Eli Super Bowl magic (you know the play I mean) multiple times in order for them to win.

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#84 by BJR // Mar 11, 2020 - 6:33am

OTOH, the Bears couldn't cover Randy Moss, so if Brady did manage to stay in one piece, it could only take a couple of plays. 

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#89 by coremill // Mar 11, 2020 - 2:21pm

I agree with this.  The 46 (and other true 8-man fronts) matches up terribly with spread offenses, which is why it disappeared.  It was designed to overwhelm the offenses of the day, which were mostly traditional 2-back pro-set offenses.  But hardly anyone was running consistent one-back spread formations in 1985, so the Bears could get away with it.  07 NE would consistently throw quick passes out of 3 and 4 WR sets, with WRs matched up on LBs, and the 46 didn't really have an answer for that.  

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#13 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 09, 2020 - 3:14pm

Only three quarterbacks in 1985 had at least 40 carries, led by Archer with 65.

Weirdest part -- not Randall. Although Young only just missed after getting benched for sucking.

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#16 by Travis // Mar 09, 2020 - 3:32pm

Rookie Randall Cunningham was also in the "benched for sucking" category.

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#14 by Another Sean_C // Mar 09, 2020 - 3:18pm

That was a good read.

Aaron, have you thought of skipping a decade or so and going back to, say, 1970, or even earlier, just out of curiosity?

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#19 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 09, 2020 - 5:15pm

I doubt we could collect the play-by-play from any year during the 70s. The gamebooks the league has collected on its own media site only go back to 1981 and even those are incomplete, we had to fill in with VHS copies of games from the 80s. Obviously, there aren't really VHS copies of games from the 70s.

There is the "estimated historical DVOA" article from a few years ago and I'm planning on doing an update to that soon that will add real DVOA from 1985-1988 and 2014-2019 to the estimated numbers that go back to 1950.


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#28 by Will Allen // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:24am

I wonder how much 16mm complete game  film from the 50s, 60s, and 70s survives. One of these billionaire owners ought to fund a preservation and curation effort.

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#40 by Pat // Mar 10, 2020 - 11:07am

Late 40s/early 50s are the real interesting ones to me. Those years are actually the "peak touchdown" years, with a peak of 2.9 offensive touchdowns/team/game in 1948, a number which has never been reached since. That year is just littered with 40+ point performances. And yet, that season ended in a championship game with a score of 7-0!



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#116 by CHIP72 // Oct 18, 2020 - 8:39pm

There's a good reason why the 1948 NFL Championship Game between the Chicago Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles was so low scoring - it was played in a blizzard in Philadelphia.  The snow was so heavy that Eagles running back Steve Van Buren, who was probably the most valuable player in the NFL in the late 1940s, thought the game would be postponed, and only arrived at Shibe Park a short time before the game started.  After the players cleared the snow from the field and the game was able to start, Van Buren ended up scoring the only touchdown of the game, which was set up by a Cardinals fumble at their own 18 yard line.

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#43 by Axe2Grind // Mar 10, 2020 - 11:51am


NFL Films Archives – The World’s Largest Sports Film Library contains:

  • Over 100 Million feet of football action stored in over 50,000 cans
  • 1894 Princeton vs. Rutgers – shot by Thomas Edison
  • 1925 Pottsville Maroons
  • 1925 sync sound of the Bears’ Red Grange
  • 1934 Earliest color coverage (All-Stars/Giants game)
  • 1937 Green Bay Packers – the first team highlight film
  • 1939 The NFL’s first League Season Review highlight film
  • 1972 The Immaculate Reception: Steelers Franco Harris- AFC Playoff Game vs. Oakland
  • Every Championship Game since 1933, highlights of every game since 1949
  • AFL game footage from 1960-1969

They have the world's largest archive of 16mm film in the world and were Kodak's largest customer of the medium.  The next largest collection of 16mm film is World War 2 films.

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#45 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:09pm

We've actually approached NFL Films about games we've been missing in the past, and they don't seem interested in opening up their archives to us.

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#46 by Travis // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:22pm

There was that time they offered to sell the one available quarter of one of the missing games for $50

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#79 by Theo // Mar 10, 2020 - 10:19pm

because you really don't want fans to be looking at the games... oh NFL

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#81 by dank067 // Mar 10, 2020 - 10:37pm

They do seem to have become significantly more relaxed about uploads of TV broadcasts of old games onto youtube compared to a few years ago, and even post full versions of some of the more famous games themselves now... hopefully a sign that they're very, very slowly figuring these things out.

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#94 by LionInAZ // Mar 11, 2020 - 11:10pm

On the other hand, there's probably only so much information that can be gleaned from them. No cable cam, for example.

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#15 by theslothook // Mar 09, 2020 - 3:25pm

I don't know how many fans reading this watched the 80s closely enough to give a sense of which team had the bravura of being the acknowledged best team ever.

I remember when I first started becoming a hardcore fan. Like reading the ten commandments, there were a certain set of factoids every respectable football aficionado was supposed to know. Such as... the 72 dolphins were the only undefeated team, the dynasties(at the time) were the steelers, 49ers, and cowboys; that the goat arguments among the grey beards began and ended with Jim Brown with some minor squawking from Jerry Rice, and of course...the 85 Bears were the best team of all time. ( I had never even realized the 91 Skins were an all time team until DVOA told me so). 


When NE began its march to the undefeated season, there was serious debate but their tepid finish toward the end meant they would end up in the 1972 dolphins category of greatest team of all time, not with the Bears. Something just resonated about this team for some reason in a way thats atypical of the goat teams. For instance, it didn't have the the star qb or receiver that normally grabs all the headlines. I've heard Walter Payton was as circumspect and humble as it gets for a superstar athlete.



As an aside - I have asked a lot of Chicagoans who grew up in the 80s and 90s who their favorite athlete was. To a man, not a single one said Jordan and I was stunned by that fact. It would usually be a mix of one or two Bears. That just seems unthinkable. 

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#17 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 09, 2020 - 4:24pm

The 1985 Bears hurt people in a way most great teams didn't. They weren't just more talented than you were, they went out of their way to punch you out along the way.

Their best comp would have been Georgetown basketball, if they had also won in 1982 and 1985.

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#47 by mrh // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:24pm

Late '89, early '90, overheard in a bar on Chicago's Southwest Side:  "Bulls will never win a title with Jordan." 

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#18 by coremill // Mar 09, 2020 - 5:12pm

The 49ers' third-place DVOA ranking continues their run of top-3 rankings. Starting in 1998 and going backward, they finished 3, 4, 2, 1, 3, 2, 2, 2, 7, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, and they will almost certainly be #1 or #2 in 1984 and likely top 3 in 1983 (WAS will be 1st but SF was 2nd in SRS) as well. That is an absurd run of dominance. Not even the Brady/Belichick Patriots come anywhere close.

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#23 by dmstorm22 // Mar 09, 2020 - 11:21pm

This is a random question but do you think it is more impressive or less that the 80s-90s 49ers were so good while starting two different QBs and two different Head Coaches.

Yes, it is amazing BB and TB have done what they've done, but to me it is equally impressive that the 49ers foundation and run could survive losing Bill Walsh and losing the then-GOAT at QB and still carry on with barely missing a beat.

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#24 by theslothook // Mar 09, 2020 - 11:56pm

I think the 90s 49ers illustrate the perils of only remembering the champions. Luck and circumstances play a huge role in these things. I don't think young was any less of a QB than cool Joe and even if he was, it was by a small amount not to explain the huge disparities in titles.

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#26 by Will Allen // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:08am

For whatever reason, it took Young longer than Montana to fully absorb what Walsh wanted from his qbs, but once he did so, yeah, it takes kind of ridiculous hairsplitting to choose one over the other.

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#32 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 10, 2020 - 8:35am

It requires great front office work.

That said, the Steelers transitioned eras without missing a beat, and the Packers went from borderline HOF coach with GOAT-candidate QB to a completely different set of borderline HOF coach with GOAT-candidate QB.

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#36 by RickD // Mar 10, 2020 - 10:14am

Let's be fair: the 49ers didn't lose Montana.  Montana lost his job.  Young took it from him.  

Just a ridiculous QB situation.  Even Favre/Rodgers doesn't match up to Montana/Young.  

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#67 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 10, 2020 - 2:39pm

I think he meant the 1991 season Montana lost to injury.

That said, San Francisco had been trying to bench Montana since 1987.

\even Bono as Young's backup was a 25% guy!

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#115 by t.d. // May 18, 2020 - 7:58pm

Cowboys had an even slightly longer period of excellence, 20 years, with even more turnover (Don Meredith->Craig Morton->Roger Staubach->Danny White, with every guy reaching multiple NFC title games), albeit for only one coach

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#49 by mrh // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:28pm

Impressive, I agree but most of those 49er teams were built and maintained in the pre-cap era.  1985 was different not just in how the game was played on the field, but in how rosters stuck together from year-to-year.  I have to give the (hated) B/B Pats the edge as long-term dynasty.

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#59 by ammek // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:22pm

Point taken. That said, the front office's decision to move up in the first round of the 1985 draft was a pretty good one. And it wasn't a one-off. The way they retooled their aging offensive line in the second half of the decade was absolutely exemplary.

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#64 by mehllageman56 // Mar 10, 2020 - 2:06pm

The Niners 1986 draft is considered one of the best ever; they got DL Larry Roberts, FB Tom Rathman, DB Tim McKyer, WR John Taylor, DE Charles Haley and OT Steve Wallace.  They traded out of the first round, and ended up with 13 picks.  

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#114 by t.d. // May 18, 2020 - 7:49pm

...and that 7th place finish came in a 14-2 season where they came excruciatingly close to a shot at a third straight title (DVOA clearly favors the Giants that season, but I'd be curious if they still have the edge in "Hostetler only" games;  the Bills also finished surprisingly poorly that season, so a Young-led 49ers-Bills Super Bowl matchup would have been fascinating).  Given that Joe Montana missed almost two full seasons after that NFC championship game (and that the 49ers, despite finishing second in DVOA for the '91 season, missed the playoffs), that Niners-Giants game produced a ton of intriguing what-ifs, really for the course of several seasons  

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#25 by Will Allen // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:02am

He didn't enter the league until 1986, but the best USFL player after Reggie White and Steve Young was probably Gary Zimmerman. Might be the most technically sound pass blocking tackle I ever saw. I can't remember ever seeing him off-balance.

My instinct is that it is unsound to double the weight of playoff games. Who is better, a healthy Mark Rypien, or a healthy Jim McMahon, is kind of an interesting question. That D.C. line, with the now hugely underappreciated Jim Lachey at tackle, would be a fascinating matchup against Buddy Ryan's 46 defense from '85.

Can't wait to see the DVOA analysis of the '84 Niners, an underappreciated historically great team, who also curbstomped 3 playoff opponents.

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#33 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 10, 2020 - 9:05am

I think healthy McMahon is better than healthy Rypien. But the units are pretty close over all. Running backs are close -- Payton is slightly better than Byner+Ervins in rushing, but slightly worse in receiving. Redskins have better receivers. Maybe a slight advantage on O-line. Bears have a better D-line and slightly better LBs. Secondary is close; maybe a slight advantage to Washington. Bears have a better punter. Kickers are comparable. Gault was a better kick returner than Mitchell, but Mitchell was a better punt returner than Taylor. Gibbs is a better coach than Ditka, but Ryan is a better coordinator than Petitbon.

I think Washington could pass on Chicago and I think Chicago could run on Washington. Chicago has a historically great pass defense (-45%), maybe second to the 1991 Eagles. The Redskins have the second highest pass offense (+65%!), to the 2007 Pats. They were the only team really able to move the ball on the 1991 Eagles, who had a comparable defense to the 1985 Bears. I don't think they are a clear favorite -- Chicago handled a better balanced and nearly as effective overall offense in the 1985 49ers, and the 1991 Redskins loved running their 5% rushing attack instead of focusing on their 65% efficient passing attack, but I think they could wear Chicago down with a two-headed running game and then hit shot plays on the Bears, and wouldn't have abandoned the rush like the 1985 49ers did. That said, 1985 Chicago could score on the 1991 Redskins like the 1991 Cowboys (and to an extent, the Giants) could.

This game would likely hinge on turnovers.

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#37 by RickD // Mar 10, 2020 - 10:17am

Inserting a multiplier of 2 for some of the games is an arbitrary choice.  Could be 1.5 or 3.0 or anything.  And I don't really see the point.  The increased difficulty of the playoff games is already taken into account by opponent adjustments.  

I'd prefer for DVOA to not get into the game of measuring "clutchness".  

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#38 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 10, 2020 - 10:47am

Oh, I agree. But I wanted to point out that the title of "best team ever" does depend on the definition. And some people might respond that it is the 1985 Bears specifically because of what they did in the playoffs.

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#42 by Pat // Mar 10, 2020 - 11:20am

"The increased difficulty of the playoff games is already taken into account by opponent adjustments."

That's not the only thing that changes about playoff games, though. The fact that they're lose-and-go-home means that the risk/reward calculation changes, so it's not necessarily without merit to weight them differently. The extreme regular-season examples are week 17 games when teams rest starters, but there are "shades of gray" between that and the playoffs, where there's no longer any reason to be cautious about the amount that you use your full roster in-game.

Similarly (but a separate point), the idea of risk/roster management over the *season* (not just in game) being a skill would imply that you might want to weight game performance in the playoffs differently. This is also just the basic idea of depth - as in, a deeper team could lose less relative performance over the season to injury, and thus be in a better shape at the playoffs.

The fact that the multiplier is arbitrary is just what you have to live with, too. If you try to optimize your rankings such that the highest ranking predicts the Super Bowl winner (i.e. 'best' is a combination of regular season + postseason performance), obviously, postseason performance will get an exceptionally high weighting, but that's just because of the game bias.

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#51 by ammek // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:37pm

An even more acute difference is that top seeds play all their games at home. DVOA doesn't (yet?) account for home-field advantage, and so when we count the postseason (and even more so when we count it double) a team like the 1985 Bears gets a clear boost to its DVOA from playing two extra games at home and none on the road.

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#76 by KaosTheory // Mar 10, 2020 - 9:02pm

Are the 84 49ers an underappreciated team? They were the first to go 15-1 and beat a record-setting Dolphins team in the Super Bowl. IMO, they're a top five all time team since the merger.

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#96 by Will Allen // Mar 12, 2020 - 3:40am

Me too, but when I read about the best teams, my perception is that this is the great team that frequently goes unmentioned.

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#117 by CHIP72 // Oct 18, 2020 - 8:59pm

I think the player who had the best USFL career who later played in the NFL was probably Herschel Walker, who was great in the USFL and very underrated in his NFL career because of the 1989 Cowboys/Vikings trade.  Jim Kelly was also great in the USFL, significantly better than he was in the NFL.

Regarding Jim McMahon and Mark Rypien, I'd say McMahon had a better career and was more consistently good when he was healthy (which was relatively infrequently; he was often injured), but Rypien's 1991 season was probably better than any season in McMahon's career.  Rypien had been good prior to 1991, and very good in 1989 when he was a legitimate Pro Bowl quarterback, but he had a career year in 1991 when he was a serious NFL MVP candidate.  Rypien's drop off in quality after 1991 played a major role in the Redskins' drop off in the early 1990s from their mid-1981 to 1992 period of excellence.

Finally, I suspect the 1984 49ers DVOA rating will be very good, but the 1987 49ers will rank higher.  The 1984 49ers were an excellent team but generally didn't overwhelm opponents and also played a fairly weak schedule; by contrast the 1987 49ers looked like an absolute machine by the latter stages of the regular season (which is part of the reason why their playoff loss to the Vikings is one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history).

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#29 by ammek // Mar 10, 2020 - 4:07am

I've been looking forward to 1985 (if that makes sense!) and it's exciting to see the numbers. Thanks, Aaron!

My first take is the unusual proximity of the offensive and defensive DVOA rankings. What I mean is that, of the top ten teams overall, only one has a below-average defense and only one finished in the bottom half in offense. Equally, among the worst dozen teams overall, there's only one single offensive or defensive unit that finishes with above average DVOA: the Cardinals' offense. The Eagles' defense is at 0.0% and the other 22 units are all worse than average. There seems to have been a lot more connection between offense and defense, suggesting perhaps that game script played a bigger part in the outcome of games in 1985 than it does even today.

I was expecting the Giants to look better than they do here, especially on defense. They led the league in defensive yards per play (4.2 versus the Bears 4.4) as well as sacks and third-down efficiency, and gave up fewer yards per run and per pass than Chicago. They had respectable takeaway numbers too: I think they forced more fumbles than the Bears. So how come they finished so far behind the Monsters – and indeed finished only 5th?

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#41 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 10, 2020 - 11:20am

Good catch about the Giants. It's interesting, I can't quite figure out why we have them just fifth that season. There's a little bit of a yardage discrepancy. I've got them also at 4.4 yards per play, I don't know if that's because of errors in the play-by-play -- there are a lot of errors between the numbers from counting the play-by-play and the numbers that have gone down in the book historically -- or counting fumble recoveries differently. The Giants are fourth in success rate allowed behind CHI, LARD and WAS. One small issue is that the Giants were near the top of the league in defensive pass interference, which I count in DVOA.

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#50 by ammek // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:30pm

Thanks for taking a look at that. Even the pass interference numbers are surprising when I look at PFR, because it says that the Giants gave up the third fewest first downs from penalties. Chicago had way more. Perhaps the differences between the play-by-play and the book account for this, or perhaps the Giants' defensive penalties were almost all DPI. (The PFR/NFL Record Book numbers are pretty funky on this subject: Houston and Minnesota gave up the most yardage on defensive penalties, but the Oilers' fouls produced more than twice as many first downs as the Vikings'.)

In any case the question I had before the 1985 DVOA numbers were published was whether the Giants defense was as close to the Bears' as it looked from a yards per play perspective. The answer seems to be an emphatic No.

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#88 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 11, 2020 - 1:33pm

Aha, I found another difference between my numbers and official NFL totals. Kneeldowns. For example, at the end of Week 2, Lynn Dickey of the Packers took an 11-yard kneeldown against the Giants on a fouth down. That's -11 yards that I am not counting in my Giants average yards allowed. At the end of the Week 6 Cincinnati game, Boomer Esiason took kneels of -9, -10, and -6 yards, a total of 25 yards!

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#100 by ammek // Mar 13, 2020 - 5:18am

So in 1985 offenses were using the shotgun formation to take a knee! Dickey was no Lamar Jackson but I did wonder how he ended up with minus-12 yards rushing.

Looking at the Rams' special teams, I'm pleasantly surprised to see that Dale Hatcher made most of the all-pro rosters, even though he trailed several punters in gross yard average. Perhaps the voters were more clued up than I imagined. However, the NEA did plump for Rohn Stark, the touchback king of 1985, who led the league in gross punting yards by thumping it into the end zone over and over.

One statistic struck me about the Rams' returners. According to the NFL Record Manual, Henry Ellard returned 37 punts and had 9 fair catches. Meanwhile, Johnnie Johnson had 0 returns and 7 fair catches. Does the play-by-play offer any insight as to what was going on here? I can see there were a couple of other teams who seemed to have a fair-catch specialist. Was that a thing in 1985?

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#102 by Travis // Mar 13, 2020 - 10:30am

So in 1985 offenses were using the shotgun formation to take a knee! Dickey was no Lamar Jackson but I did wonder how he ended up with minus-12 yards rushing.

It wasn't a shotgun; Dickey ran around to kill off the final 3 seconds on the clock.

According to the NFL Record Manual, Henry Ellard returned 37 punts and had 9 fair catches. Meanwhile, Johnnie Johnson had 0 returns and 7 fair catches. Does the play-by-play offer any insight as to what was going on here?

The Rams would put two returners back on punts relatively close to the Rams' end zone; six of Johnson's fair catches came on punts that started at the opposition 40 and beyond.   (The seventh came when the Buccaneers punted on a 4th and 5 from their own 10 trailing by 4 with 1:54 left; the Rams easily ran out the clock afterwards.)


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#103 by ammek // Mar 13, 2020 - 11:28am

Thanks for that. So it was not deliberate that Johnson didn't return any of his catches; it just happened that way. Presumably opponents punted in his direction in order to reduce the chances of a return, then.

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#30 by ammek // Mar 10, 2020 - 4:45am

The first thing to understand about going all the way back to 1985 is just how different the game was back then.

Aye, the numbers really bear out this observation. One element you didn't mention is the running game, and 1985 might have been the end of an era in that respect. When writing about the 21st century you like to emphasize the inefficiency of running, but 1985 is the first year of DVOA where that is debatable. For instance, on defense, fully 13 of the league's 28 teams have a positive (ie, below average) run defense. As soon as the following year, 1986, that was down to eight of 28. In 2019, of course, there were only seven teams (out of 32) with a run defense above zero per cent – one of them being the Superbowl champion!

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#80 by dank067 // Mar 10, 2020 - 10:26pm

Good observation - you can see it with DVOA distributions on offense, too. In 2019, only 10 teams had a positive rushing DVOA, and the most efficient run game (Baltimore) would have been the 10th most efficient passing offense. Dallas's 3rd-best rushing offense just beats out Jameis Winston's 18th-best passing offense in Tampa in terms of efficiency.

But in '85, 16/28 teams had a positive rushing offense DVOA, while only 12/28 teams had a positive passing offense DVOA! The top 5 passing offenses are still better than any rushing offense, but there's not nearly as great of a disparity between passing and rushing offenses in general. The top 10 passing offenses are in the 10-32% range, while top 10 rushing offenses are a respectable 8-23%, and the steps down are relatively gradual.

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#39 by coremill // Mar 10, 2020 - 10:59am

Double-weighting playoff games is probably analytically unsound but is more likely to produce results that match with our recollections of dominance, because very few serious fans watched all of these teams every week during the regular season (even for those who were around back then), but nearly everyone watched the playoff games.

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#44 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:02pm

85 was my first full year watching the NFL. Here in England we had to make do with a 1hr15 show on a Sunday evening showing the best game of the previous week followed by a results roundup. About week12 I discovered a weekly newspaper "Quarterback" that came out on Thursday and let me the get the results only four days after games were played !!

A few thoughts ...
- the Bears won their opening game 38-28 against the Bucs who went 2-14 in back-to-back seasons. That was the most points they conceded all year.

- on running backs, Cleveland's Byner and Mack became the third tandem to both rush for 1,000yds - after Dolphins Csonka/Morris and Steelers' Harris/Bleier. Wonder how their combined stats compare to workhorse backs.

- I believe the Bears week 10 demolition of the Cowboys 44-0 was the moment they really announced their credentials as a SB team. That was Landry's last winning season after twenty consecutive. (NB The Patriots have a chance to equal that next season). Being my first season watching I didn't know how impressive that was.

- Obviously the talking point of the year was The Fridge scoring touchdowns.

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#55 by serutan // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:07pm

To me, the big thing about that year was Sweetness getting his ring after having been on terrible teams for years.

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#68 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 10, 2020 - 2:50pm

Thing about being a first year football fan was I didn't realise the significance of that.

Also didn't realise how historically good the Bears holding the Patriots to -7 total yards at halftime was.   (A few years later the same naivety when Doug Williams threw for 5 TDs in a quarter)

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#70 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 10, 2020 - 2:53pm

If it interests anyone this is the Week 1 results roundup from that 1985 season as shown on UK television ... https://youtu.be/cyyHRoQyIy4

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#52 by Raiderjoe // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:39pm

Jets beat Buccs 62 to 28. Bucs actiually led 14-0 art one tpoint. Jjets were ticked at Bucs for 1984 game (yes, they palyed 2 years in row; ditto same teams in 1990 and 1991) when John McKay orderd Bucs deefneders to let jets runner go into end zone with ease jsut so to give Bucs offense more time for James wilder to get combined scrimmage yardage record . Jets didnt; htink it was funny or interesting. so, Bucs felt wrath in 1985. Final legit drive was an 11:13er. 18 plays for 88 yards. Jets scored under 2 minute warning. Bucs fumbled kickofff btu Jets decided to kneel on ball afetr that. Jets easily could have tried for 65-28 or 69-28 if wanted. 


Bucs next road gbame was in snowstorm in Green bay. Good highlight from this game was steve young gettiong sacked where he hit ground face first. obviosuly took some snow to his face

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#53 by Raiderjoe // Mar 10, 2020 - 12:40pm

Intergesting gam was Week 3 Bears at CVikes. Vikes respectable again after horrific 1984 season under L. Steckel. Vikes played Bears on Thursday ngiht game,. Startruing quarterbacks were steve fuller and tommy kramer.

Fuller struggled. Viokes took 17-9 lead afetr their 1st drive of 2nd half. That was enough for Jim McMahon to enter game. first play was 70 yard touchdown pass to willie gault.

A few plays later Kramer was intercepte dbyy wilber marshall.

Next bears offensice play was McMahon touchdown pass to dennis mckinnon. score now, Bears 23, Vikes 17.

Next Bears drive had multiple plays in it byut again ended in mcmahon tochdwon pass again to McKinnon.

3rd quarter ended with bears leading 30-17.

Bears ended up winnign gam,e 33-24.

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#74 by siggyllama // Mar 10, 2020 - 4:51pm

That first TD is the famous play in which McMahon audibled to a pass, threw the TD, then got chewed out by Ditka on the sideline. Payton absolutely crushes a blitzer in pass protection on the play.

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#54 by CHIP72 // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:06pm

I'm old enough to remember the 1985 season (ironically, I started following the NFL in 1981, which appears to be the earliest season where a future DVOA calculation might be possible). One thing I'm surprised that wasn't mentioned in the write-up was the strange game pattern the Seattle Seahawks had in 1985. They alternated pairs of wins and losses (i.e. were 2-0, then 2-2, then 4-2, etc.) the entire season and finished 8-8. I'm unsure any team has had a pattern similar or somewhat similar pattern (i.e. alternating individual or multiple wins and losses in some manner) in NFL history.

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#58 by Travis // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:20pm

There's no other team with a repeating multiple wins/multiple loss pattern like the 1985 Seahawks had, but the 1952 Browns went 8-4 by going win-win-loss four straight times.

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#56 by ammek // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:13pm

It's exciting to see the DVOA for some of my favorite QBs of the era in their primes. Dan Fouts was the one I liked to watch most. He had a reputation for throwing picks toward the end of his career but here he comes out very well indeed on a loaded Chargers offense. In fact almost the entire AFC West was at its Gunslinging best here. I have no idea why the Chiefs persisted with Todd Blackledge for so long when Bill Kenney was on fire in the same offense. In 1985 both Blackledge and Tony Eason compare very unfavorably with the guys they had been drafted three years earlier to replace.

Kenney's and Blackledge's eventual replacement Steve DeBerg really, really stands out in 1985 as a quarterback who was far too good for the team he played on. Kind of the story of his career.

Welcome to DVOA Lynn Dickey, quarterback whose shirt I wanted to buy as a Packers fan but never did as I feared the reaction of walking around town with the word Dickey on my back. It was an underwhelming season to end an up-and-down career but here you are anyway, towering over Warren Moon and Joe Theismann in the rankings, and hanging onto the coattails of Bernie Kosar.

Theismann fell off a cliff didn't he? iirc when PFR's blog did its team of the half-decade Theismann was their choice for the NFC in 1980-84. I wonder how long Coach Gibbs would have stuck with him when he was playing so badly, had LT not made the decision for him.

For Norman Esiason that's four top-five finishes in DYAR/DVOA in the space of five seasons. In his down year he was 8th in DYAR and above average in DVOA. Is Esiason unjustly overshadowed by the other star AFC quarterbacks of the time? In that period 1985-89 he has about 2,400 more DYAR than Elway, who was supposedly at his clutchy peak. In fact it's one of the very best five-year stretches of quarterbacking by DYAR prior to the 2004 rules changes. Does Boomer have a hall of fame case?

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#61 by CHIP72 // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:36pm

It's too bad the gamebooks probably don't go back far enough to put together full season DVOA ratings that fully capture the peak of the Air Coryell Chargers from 1979 to 1982.  They were probably playing a different game offensively, especially in the passing game, than other teams of that era.  I started following the NFL in 1981, and in my 8-9 year old version of me memories it seemed like the Chargers played in the featured NBC late doubleheader game a lot.  With Dan Fouts throwing the ball all over the place, and the Chargers' defense not being that good in 1981-1982, Chargers games at that time were a lot of fun to watch most of the time.  (Also, IMO the Chargers also had their best-ever uniform look at the time - royal blue helmet with yellow lightning bolts on the sides, yellow pants with white lightning bolts, either royal blue jerseys with yellow numbers or white jerseys with royal blue numbers and yellow outlines.  They were actually similar to the Los Angeles Rams' uniforms of the same era but better-looking IMO.  The powder blue jerseys look nice but the Chargers have never had a helmet that properly worked with the power blue jersey IMO.)

Little known fact - Dan Fouts would have thrown for over 5000 yards in 1982 if his season statistics in that 9 game season were pro-rated to 16 games.  He didn't miss that mark by much the previous two seasons, IIRC he threw for 4715 yards in 1980 and 4802 yards in 1981.

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#83 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 11, 2020 - 4:15am

I don't think you should prorate stats from a strike season. The greats dominate because their opponents weren't prepared.

In 1987, Jerry Rice had 22rec TDs + 1 rush in 12 games. Reggie White had 21 sacks in 12 games.  Prorate those up and you're looking at unbreakable records even in a 17-game season.

Same thing happened in the first weeks of 2011 after the lockout derailed training camp. Tom Brady ripped up opposition defenses and posted his only 5,000yd season.  Brees had his best year at 5,476 and Stafford also broke 5K.  No other year has had three QBs hit that mark.

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#111 by CHIP72 // Mar 17, 2020 - 1:12pm

...with the possible exception of Jerry Rice in 1987 (who may have benefited from some of his teammates, most notably Joe Montana, crossing the picket line), I think it is entirely or mostly a coincidence that those players had the big seasons they had in 1987 and 2011.  Using the 2011 examples, none of the guys you mentioned had seasons that stuck out like sore thumbs relative to their career averages; to some degree their stats were a function of higher usage.  Only Tom Brady had his highest yards per attempt season among the guys you mentioned.  Also, guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers did NOT have huge seasons in 2011 relative to their other seasons, even if they had very solid seasons relative to the rest of their careers.

As for Jerry Rice's and Reggie White's 1987 stats, with Rice it was the first season between the end of Dwight Clark's prime and the beginning of John Taylor's prime, plus Joe Montana had one of his best seasons (and Steve Young played excellent when he played).  One could argue the 49ers had their best regular season of the 1981-1998 period in 1987, and their offense played a significant role in that standout season.  Additionally, receiving touchdowns are in some ways a fluky stat.  Rice arguably had better seasons in 1986 (roughly the same number of catches on a per game basis but a higher yards per catch rate), 1988 (much lower per game catch rate but much higher yards per catch), and 1989 (similar to 1986).

With Reggie White, his sack rate in 1987 was spectacular, but he did have 18 sacks in both 1986 and 1988.  Additionally, the Eagles faced BY FAR the highest number of pass attempts of any NFL team in 1987, leading the league by 34 pass attempts (and by 53 pass attempts over the 4th ranked team).  Some of that could have been due to the replacement player games, but speaking as an Eagles fan, the Eagles' regular pass defense at the time was not good.  (Looking at the game by game statistics, their pass attempts defended also was lower during the replacement player games.)  By contrast, the Eagles ranked 11th in pass attempts against in 1986.  (They led the NFL again in 1988, but there were other teams who had a similar number of attempts against; the Eagles only led the league by 7 attempts and six other teams were within 50 attempts.)  All those pass attempts against indicate White and his fellow defenders had more sack opportunities, which White took advantage of and his teammates to a large degree did not in 1987 (and 1988).  The Eagles, by my estimate, had 45 sacks in the 12 regular games (60 sacks pro rated to a 16 game season) in 1987.  In 1986, they had 53 sacks, while in 1988 they had 42 sacks.  Their rate definitely was higher in 1987 than in 1988, but not dramatically higher than it was in 1986.

Dan Fouts' 1982 season, while spectacular, was similar to the quarterbacks listed above; it was arguably the best season of his career, but it wasn't dramatically better than the seasons immediately before or after it, i.e. it wasn't out of the context of his career.

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#112 by t.d. // May 11, 2020 - 5:04am

Jerry might have benefited from Joe crossing the picket line, but Jerry didn't cross it (he also crushed it with Steve Young starting, too;  49ers had an absurd abundance of riches at the position that year)

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#57 by mrh // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:17pm

Chase Stuart's article of yesterday http://www.footballperspective.com/scoring-distribution-from-1950-to-2019/
inspired me to look into the scoring advantage of 2019 over 1985 referenced here.

2019 teams averaged 1.28 ppg more than those of 1985. At first glance, that was mostly Passing TDs: +1.33 ppg. But as Chase points out, that's not the full story. Here's the breakdown by scoring component per PFR:

Points from passing TDs: +1.33 (+/- number is 2019 Points per Game - 1985 PPG)
Rushing TD: -0.69
Punt Return TD: -0.03
Kick Return TD: -0.03
Fumble Return TD: +0.13
INT Return TD: -0.14
Other Return TD: -0.04 (blocked kicks, FG returns)
2pt conversions: +0.21
Extra points: -0.18
Field Goals: +0.71
Safeties: -0.01

Obviously, more passing TDs now vs. more rushing TDs then. Overall, an increase in offensive TDs added about 0.64 ppg from 1985 to 2019.

A very small decrease in scoring from ST return TDs takes 0.1 ppg from the 1985 total to today ("other" TDs being the biggest component of that).

Defensive return TDs are almost a wash between now and then. It's not surprising that there were more pick-sixes in 1985, there were so many more INTs, as Aaron's numbers show. What is surprising to me is how many more fumbles were returned for TDs in 2019 (34 total vs. 20 in 1985, although per team is closer). Still there were a lot fewer fumbles in 2019 just like there were fewer interceptions. I didn't look into this, although I'm curious: was 2019 an outlier in recent years for fumble-sixes?

Scoring via safeties was also essentially the same.

Of course, there were no 2-point conversions in 1985, so that change is purely rules-driven.

The decrease in extra point scoring is only a little affected by the availability of 2-point attempts. Obviously, moving back the LOS for XPs far offsets the increase in kicker skill from 1985 to now.

All those factors combine to increase scoring from 1985 to 2019 by 0.58 ppg vs. 0.71 more ppg from FGs. Teams are only trying 0.08 more FGs per game now, so the change is almost all from better placekicking, a big difference in the game from back then. Again, HT to Chase for this observation.

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#69 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 10, 2020 - 2:51pm

It's conceivable fumbles occur at a higher proportional rate on passes rather than rushes, now versus then. PFR suggests this is the case, although I don't fully trust the raw numbers.


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#60 by CHIP72 // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:24pm

I was genuinely surprised to see the Browns rank ahead of the Broncos in DVOA rating in 1985, though it is perhaps ironically appropriate that they did. I remember when the Browns won the AFC Central that season with an 8-8 record it was a fairly big deal in the sports media that the Browns won their division and advanced to the playoffs with a non-winning record. (It may have been an even bigger deal had it occurred a few years earlier, but during the 1982 shortened strike season both the Lions and ironically the Browns advanced to the playoffs with 4-5 records, though the NFL expanded the playoffs that season to 16 teams and did not use divisional standings.) The Broncos did get their revenge against the Browns in 1986, 1987, and 1989, especially the first two seasons, however.

What's interesting about the 1985 Browns is they almost won their divisional playoff game against Miami. Cleveland matched up well with the Dolphins that season - the Dolphins' run defense was weak, and the Browns' rushing offense, with both Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner running for 1000+ yards, was Cleveland's greatest strength. The Browns jumped out to a 21-3 lead at the Orange Bowl in the first game of the divisional playoffs, and it took an excellent comeback by the Dolphins for them to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Had the Browns held on, and the other AFC playoff results remained the same (Patriots upset the Raiders 27-20 at the LA Coliseum in the last game of the divisional playoff weekend; IIRC the Raiders had a bunch of turnovers in that game that New England was able to capitalize on), the 8-8 Browns would have hosted the AFC Championship Game. There would have been something inherently wrong about that.

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#90 by Boots Day // Mar 11, 2020 - 3:39pm

Yes, that Patriots win over the Raiders was a total fluke; the winning score came when a Raider fumbled a kickoff , and the Pats recovered for a TD. This was after the Raiders had already muffed a punt, had a punt blocked, and threw three interceptions.

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#113 by t.d. // May 11, 2020 - 5:07am

yeah, folks act like the Bears not getting the Dolphins was a bit of luck that season, but the Raiders were the actual number one seed in the AFC

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#63 by CHIP72 // Mar 10, 2020 - 1:59pm

I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania and have been a Philadelphia Eagles fan ever since I started following the NFL and Eagles in 1981. My worst memory as an Eagles fan occurred during the 1985 season. In Week 13, the 6-6 Eagles, coming off a loss the previous week after winning 5 of their previous 6 games prior to that, hosted the Minnesota Vikings and were trying to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. People who have become Eagles fans sometime in the last 30 years can't appreciate this, but in the mid-1980s if the Eagles were even mentioned in the same sentence as the word "playoffs" going into December, that was a cause for celebration. Because the Eagles were generally mediocre at that time and were playing a non-marquee opponent at home, their game was blacked out on both Philadelphia and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area TV, but I listened to the game on the radio.

For most of the game, it looked like the Eagles would get back above the .500 mark and keep their playoff hopes alive. They had built a 23-0 lead by early in the 4th quarter, and the Vikings weren't doing much offensively. Then the Vikings scored a touchdown to break up the shutout, but still trailed by three scores, 23-7. (The NFL didn't adopt the 2 point conversion until 1994.) After the Eagles didn't do anything on offense, the Vikings marched down the field again for another touchdown to cut the deficit to 23-14 with IIRC at least half of the 4th quarter remaining. I was starting to get nervous. The Vikings scored another touchdown on their next possession to cut the Eagles' lead to 2 points, 23-21, with a few minutes left, and then scored a fourth 4th quarter touchdown with less than 2 minutes left to take a 28-23 lead. The Eagles failed to respond, and suffered one of the worst losses in their history, the second of what became four consecutive losses that eliminated them from playoff contention and cost their head coach, the Swamp Fox, Marion Campbell, his job after the last of those losses. I was devastated after that game (only time I ever cried after a loss) and swore I'd never root for the Eagles again. (Don't ask what happened over the last 34 years.)

As a postscript, the Eagles still had one more regular season game remaining after their four losing streak and Marion Campbell's firing. Ironically, their season ending game was against the Vikings at the Metrodome (both teams were 5th place divisional finishers in 1984, so they played twice in 1985), and the Eagles edged Minnesota under interim coach Fred Bruney 37-35. I watched the game; not-so-old habits died hard.

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#65 by Chuckc // Mar 10, 2020 - 2:23pm

Wow the 1989 49ers get a huge boost from including the playoffs, coming from not on the chart up to #4.

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#85 by coremill // Mar 11, 2020 - 9:24am

This is not a surprise.  The 1989 49ers had an incredibly dominant playoff run, winning their 3 games 41-13, 30-3, and 55-10 against the #5, #3, and #4 DVOA teams.  They just blew everyone away -- they led the 3 games at halftime 27-3, 21-3, and 27-3.  

Has FO ever published playoff DVOAs?  I wouldn't be surprised if the 89 49ers end up with the highest ever, but it will be close with the 85 Bears.

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#86 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 11, 2020 - 10:26am

The Bears were more of a "dominant through three quarters" team than dominant at the half. They only outscored opponents 9-7 in the 4th. They had an 89-3 advantage through three.


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#87 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 11, 2020 - 1:32pm

Unfortunately, which years I've done playoff DVOA for is sort of inconsistent. I probably should make sure I do it for every year, that would be a fun offseason article, best playoff performances.

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#66 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 10, 2020 - 2:25pm

Why does Seattle have a big beneficial bump from unadjusted to adjusted DVOA, even though they faced one of the softest slate of opposing offenses?

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#71 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 10, 2020 - 3:12pm

Looks like there may be an error with the schedule strength listing that I need to fix. Not with the schedule strength in the DVOA adjustments themselves, just with the numbers listed in the tables. It looks like the error may only be with a few teams in offensive schedule rating.

The total schedule rating for Seattle is correct; Seattle had the third-hardest schedule of 1985. That explains the DVOA-VOA discrepancy.

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#72 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 10, 2020 - 3:14pm

In reply to by Aaron Schatz


I wasn't 100% I was interpreting it correctly.

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#73 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 10, 2020 - 4:31pm

All the schedule strengths listed originally were wrong due to a sorting error. They have now all been fixed.

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#77 by KaosTheory // Mar 10, 2020 - 9:06pm

This reminded me the 91 Redskins were ranked 15th in the NFL all-time teams that came out last year. If putting the 72 Dolphins first (or the 76 Raiders in the top 10) wasn't enough of an indictment of the list, that is.

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#82 by Jetspete // Mar 11, 2020 - 1:17am

I became of a fan in 86, so it looks like I missed the best jets team for 25 years. One thing of note, looking back their only really bad loss was to a mediocre Lions squad. Of course, the Lions would also beat up the Jets in 91 and 94 and cripple their playoff chances in 97 and 2000.

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#93 by mehllageman56 // Mar 11, 2020 - 11:05pm

Actually, the 1998 team had the best DVOA, with 28.3%, and they were also much closer to the top (only 4.3% behind Denver in 98, opposed to dealing with Monsters of the Midway in 85).  Interestingly, the 15-1 Vikings only ranked 5th in DVOA that year, behind the Niners and Dolphins as well as the Broncos and Jets.  

The 2004 team was close to 1985, with a 27.0% DVOA.  All of this passes the eyeball test to me, who started paying attention when my Father was listening to the 1980 Jets/Saints game on the radio because, as he said then, "they were too bad to be on TV."  The 1981 or 1982 teams might end up with the best DVOA if they can go back that far.

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#91 by trammo71 // Mar 11, 2020 - 3:56pm

It should also be noted that the 1985 Bears started back up QB Steve Fuller for nearly one third of the schedule.

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#95 by Pen // Mar 12, 2020 - 2:24am

watched a bare foot kicker win it.

If the DVOA of teams from the 70's could be calculated I think the Pittsburgh Steelers probably end up being the best of all time at least one if not more than one of their super bowl seasons. Now, having looked at stats from playoffs going back a longer ways than that, the Green Bay Packers under Bart Starr would probably have the greatest QB rating in the playoffs. Regular season, he was meh. Playoffs, OMG. I don't think it would be even close.

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#97 by Will Allen // Mar 12, 2020 - 3:58am

I think the approximations of DVOA go back to 1960 or so, but I could be wrong.

1962 Green Bay Packers: good at football.

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#99 by dank067 // Mar 12, 2020 - 11:22pm

Starr's regular season stats are great (check out PFR's adjusted era rates) - he just didn't throw a ton of TD passes,  especially not in his first few years as a starter in the early 60s. Their '60 runner-up and '61 and '62 championship teams combined for 92 rushing touchdowns in 40 games. He would have gotten benched if he called passes at the goal line!

Thinking about it - goal posts on the front line of the end zone must have closed off a pretty decent chunk of red zone passing compared to today's game. I assume field width was the same back then too (since a lot of those stadiums stayed around for many years), unlike the extra space you get in the CFL

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#101 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 13, 2020 - 9:16am

But that goalpost also provided for a natural pick for defenders.

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#105 by Sixknots // Mar 13, 2020 - 10:27pm

Starr's regular season stats are great he just didn't throw a ton of TD passes

Yeah, but Hornung could roll out left or right on the Green Bay sweep and throw the halfback pass for the TD with either hand.  Then kick the PAT.

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#106 by dank067 // Mar 14, 2020 - 1:01am

Was that a significant thing for Hornung? I know he threw the ball a decent amount in college, but his career NFL passing totals were 55 attempts for 383 yards and 5 TDs. He never completed more than 6 passes in a season. Slightly higher than Taysom Hill's passing usage rate while actually lining up most downs as a halfback.

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#104 by Richie // Mar 13, 2020 - 3:07pm

I liked the tidbit about Joe Theismann's punt. I recall that Theismann did some punt returning when he first joined the NFL. I thought he might be one of the only players to ever have both a PUNT and a PUNT RETURN during his career. But it wasn't as rare as I thought.

Wes Chandler and a guy named Guido Merkens also did it during the 80's (but it hasn't happened since). A total of 64 players have done it since 1950. http://pfref.com/tiny/zsXJ3

There are 4 players in history with at least 100 of each. Strangely, their last names all end in "y": Bill Dudley, Lem Barney, Bill Bradley and Yale Lary. http://pfref.com/tiny/bCgdb

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#109 by MC2 // Mar 15, 2020 - 6:03am

Merkens had a fascinating career, and was probably the most versatile player of the last 50 years.


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#107 by medelste // Mar 14, 2020 - 8:30pm

Thanks for the game-film charting, the research, the article, and the user comments! Gold!

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#108 by t.d. // Mar 14, 2020 - 11:49pm

Intuitively feels like the NFC powerhouses of the pre-free agency era (mid-80s thru mid-90s) were the most dominant teams we'll ever see and the only question will be how the pecking order shakes out; '85 Bears obviously belong somewhere in the mix, just a question of where (i'd have them first, as a kid from suburban Chicago, but there's no way I can be objective about it). Looking forward to seeing how the '84 49ers wind up (an underappreciated all-time great team)

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