Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Dec 2006

Are the Colts the best team to never win a Super Bowl?

A year ago at this time, the Indianapolis Colts were 12-0 and a strong favorite to win the Super Bowl. Their season spiraled out of control and ended up with a Divisional Round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year, the Colts share the best record in football, 10-2, but they are certainly not a presumptive favorite. Their defense has collapsed from a year ago. Of the five other top teams in football (New England, Baltimore, San Diego, Dallas, and Chicago), four can comfortably play a 3-4 defense, an effective strategy against the Colts.

The Colts could win the Super Bowl this year, but odds are against it. If they lose, that would make four straight very good seasons where the team has come up short in the playoffs. The Colts have won 48 (and counting) games over the past four seasons. What other teams have won this many regular season games in four years and not won a Super Bowl?

Only one team has won more than 48 games and not won the Super Bowl, and the identity of the team is no surprise. The 1990-1993 Bills won a total of 49 games which combined with their four straight trips to the Super Bowl clearly make them the greatest team to never win a Super Bowl. Other teams that have won 48 games include the 1990-1993 49ers, the 1995-1998 49ers, the 2001-2004 Eagles, and the 2002-2005 Colts. The 49ers won a Super Bowl in the middle of those two stretches, and the Eagles lost in the Super Bowl at the end of their run.

Of course, this season is not over, and it is reasonable to assume the Colts will win at least two more games, giving them 50 for the four-year stretch. That would tie them with the 1984-1987 Bears with the fourth most wins in a four-year period. If they can somehow win all four games, they will match the record for most wins in a four-year period of any team. That honor is currently held by the 1985-1988 Bears and the 1989-1992 49ers. The third most wins are 51 from the 1987-1990 49ers. (Topic for another day: How great were the 49ers between 1981-1998?)

Of course, this comparison is not entirely fair because the Colts will play 64 games in this stretch. Before 1978, teams played only 14 games a season, and the strikes in 1982 (9 games played) and 1987 (15 games, but some with “replacements”) affect the data.

A fairer comparison may be winning percentage, but the non-salary cap era of the 1970s tends to dominate that list. The early 70s Dolphins and mid-70s Raiders played over .800 ball over the course of many years. Unlike the Colts, both those teams won a Super Bowl. Among non-Super Bowl winners, the Colts still measure impressively. Conservatively assuming two wins for 50 total wins in 64 games, the Colts winning percentage would be .781. Among non-Super Bowl winners, the only teams with better four-year winning percentages are the 1966-1969 and 1967-1970 Raiders, the 1973-1976 Vikings and Rams, and the 1981-1984 and 1982-1985 Dolphins. All of these teams except the Rams reached at least one Super Bowl. Again, if the Colts can win out, they would top the list.

The mid-1970s Rams are an interesting comparison. They were great in the regular season over those four years but kept coming up short in the playoffs. Each season, they lost in the playoffs to a team they had played during the regular season. They were 2-1-1 in the regular season. History tends to forget those Rams who were the equal of the more respected Vikings and Cowboys. If Colts fans are looking for a silver lining, the Rams finally reached a Super Bowl following the 1979 season. That year, the Rams were 9-7, their worst record between 1973 and 1980. I guess it just goes to show that you never can predict what year will be your year.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 07 Dec 2006