Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» Defense and Rest Time

Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

01 Jun 2004

Guest Column: And the Winner Is...

Guest Column by Mark Hutson

Numbers now adjusted to fix mistakes with early NFL championships in original posting of article.

Recently I developed a ranking system to determine the worst franchise in NFL history as a way to cheer up my girlfriend (a Bengals fan).  Thanks to several people's very nice comments, and suggestions on tweaking the ranking, I decided that the glory of being published on this website was too much to resist another half-assed attempt at an article. Seeing my name and my incoherent ramblings on my computer screen was addictive. The ego boost it gave me was a high that can only be matched by my graduation day, my first paycheck, a child's smile, and heroin. Settle down, I'm just joking. I don't like children.

Anyhow, as a few people suggested, I decided to embark on the logical next step, which would be to determine the most successful franchise in NFL history. However, the formula used to determine the worst franchise in history was designed to accentuate losing more so than winning, and the ultimate prize of a championship was probably a little undervalued. So, I've recalibrated the variables somewhat and added a pair of new ones that add further weight to the ultimate achievement of a championship.

As in the last article, I've decided to remain with continuous active franchises (i.e. moves from city to city), mostly because not counting a team that had won a championship would mess up the rankings.  Not to mention that I would have to deal with no fewer than 40 defunct franchises from the 1920's and 30's, though I did drop the years that now defunct franchise won it all. Again, I set out to determine what the most successful franchise is, and not the most successful city, as I am originally from a rural town and think that cities take themselves far to seriously.

A few people also mentioned that perhaps more weight should be given to recent success. I can assure you that the idea is very tempting to me, both because of the idea that recent success cancels out woeful histories, and also because I am a Patriots fan. As such, I've decided to only count from the year 2001 onward, and to save you the suspense the Patriots are the most successful franchise in history, thank you for playing. I'm serious, that's all the work I'm going to do. Go home.

Actually, I've also considered that since I am a Red Sox fan (five-time world series champs!), and a distant descendent of an old time Packer player, each championship year should be given equal weight. Whether a championship came in 1929 or 1999, the franchise was still the most successful team that year, and that should not be tarnished by the fact that nobody can remember it who hasn't reverted to wearing the same brand of diapers they had on when they watched it live. Its still nice for suffering fans to be able to reach back and point at their teams achievements, even if they were before they were born. Therefore, I think that counting each (non-strike) year equally is the only way to be truly fair. Also, the modern expansion of the playoffs tilts things forward a bit, anyway, so recent success is in there.

Win-Loss Record: The Beat Up Factor

I didn't change this variable at all, except to change the name from Beat Down to Beat Up. Quite simply, add up all the wins (with ties counting as half a win), then divide by total games, and that is the winning percentage for each year. To adjust for different schedule lengths, take the average of each year's winning percentage, and we come up with the variable Average Winning Percentage, or AW%. From here, I turn that number into the franchises' +/- ratio, which shows how far on average the teams were above .500 per year, regardless of schedule length. Here are the numbers for the 23 active franchises who have won a championship in either the NFL or AFL:

Rank Team AW% +/- Per Year Rank Team AW% +/- Per Year
1 Dolphins 0.611 127 3.35 13 Colts 0.490 -16 -0.30
2 Raiders 0.597 129 2.92 14 Steelers 0.489 -20 -0.30
3 Cowboys 0.578 103 2.33 15 Titans/Oilers 0.487 -17 -0.38
4 Ravens/Browns 0.578 121 2.24 16 Patriots 0.482 -24 -0.55
5 Bears 0.572 159 1.96 17 Chargers 0.479 -28 -0.64
6 49ers 0.565 101 1.86 18 Bills 0.477 -30 -0.68
7 Packers 0.559 130 1.58 19 Lions 0.476 -46 -0.66
8 Giants 0.552 110 1.41 20 Eagles 0.469 -61 -0.85
9 Chiefs 0.534 46 1.03 21 Jets 0.453 -63 -1.42
10 Rams 0.528 51 0.77 22 Cardinals 0.413 -190 -2.29
11 Redskins 0.527 52 0.73 23 Buccaneers 0.382 -103 -3.66
12 Broncos 0.512 16 0.36          

As we can see, the Dolphins are the only team that consistently wins more than 60% of their games, and are better than 3 games over .500 every year. That consistency is very impressive, especially when you consider that they haven't been to the big game since Marino was less than 50% bionic. We also can see that the Buccaneers appear to be in a pretty intense battle with the Cardinals for the title of "worst franchise to ever win a championship".

Seasonal Success: The Ho-Hum Theory

Just as in the last article, this measures how many winning seasons a team has compared to losing ones. For every season a team wins more games than they lose, they get a point. If they lose more games than they win, they lose a point. .500 seasons count as zero. Here we come up with the Aggregate Winning Seasons (AWS) variable, which shows the general trend of how successful a team is.

Whereas the Beat-Up factor is more a vehicle for showing on average how dominant a franchise is in any given year, the AWS shows how consistently a team wins (or loses) across years. Take for example a team that goes 16-0 one year, then 7-9 the next two years. They would have a record of 30-18, but an AWS of -1 (+1-1-1=-1). Now compare that to a team that goes 10-6 three years in a row, who also has a record of 30-18, but an AWS of +3 (1+1+1=3). AWS rewards the more consistent team, whereas the Beat-Up factor doesn't account for the team with the perfect season's mediocre performance the next two years.

Here again are the 23 teams who have won a championship, with their AWS numbers:









1 Dolphins 21 0.55 13 Rams 6 0.09
2 Raiders 17 0.39 14 Titans/Oilers 2 0.05
3 Ravens/Browns 18 0.33 15 Colts 2 0.04
4 Cowboys 14 0.32 16 Bills -1 -0.02
5 49ers 17 0.31 17 Chargers -2 -0.05
6 Packers 21 0.26 18 Lions -4 -0.06
7 Bears 16 0.20 19 Steelers -4 -0.06
8 Chiefs 8 0.18 20 Eagles -10 -0.14
9 Giants 12 0.15 21 Jets -8 -0.18
10 Patriots 5 0.11 22 Buccaneers -11 -0.39
11 Redskins 8 0.11 23 Cardinals -33 -0.40
12 Broncos 4 0.09        

Not surprisingly, the Dolphins and Raiders top the list again. Both teams appear to be regular contenders, and their success in AW% is directly related to their success in AWS, I'm sure. The largest jump between the two lists belongs to the Patriots, who only rank 16th in AW%, but rank 10th in AWS. This shows how the Pats have had quite a few miserable years, yet never were particularly dominant when they were good. The Steelers, on the other hand, had the largest dropoff, falling five spaces from 14th to 19th, which shows that despite a history of losing, they have had quite a few dominant years to ratchet up their AW%.

Playoff Success: The Anti-Whining Window

This metric is the rate at which teams make the playoffs, how they get into the playoffs, and what accomplishments they achieve. The theory is that whenever your team accomplishes a feat in the playoffs, there is a certain amount of time for which the fan base can be reasonably satisfied, and thus should not be allowed to whine. The scoring works likes this:

  • 5 points for winning a championship.
  • 3 points for making the championship game.
  • 2 points for winning a division.
  • 1 point for making the playoffs as a wildcard, and a bonus point if a wildcard wins two games and makes it to the conference championship game.  This is the one change from the previous article, since I figured that winning two games in the playoffs had to be worth something in the modern era.

Also note that since the expansion of the playoffs, it is now easier to get a berth than in the past, and this variable thus tilts more towards recent success. I didn't try to tease out recent success, because as many readers pointed out, Buccaneers and Patriots fans have had a nice couple of years recently despite a history of pretty bad performances, and that ought to be reflected in here somewhere. 

Here are the results of the playoff variable, as well as the per year ranking:



Playoff Points




Playoff Points


1 Cowboys 66 1.50 13 Steelers 50 0.72
2 Ravens/Browns 64 1.19 14 Colts 37 0.71
3 Dolphins 43 1.13 15 Redskins 50 0.70
4 Raiders 48 1.09 16 Chargers 30 0.68
5 Packers 83 1.01 17 Patriots 28 0.64
6 49ers 52 0.96 18 Chiefs 27 0.60
7 Bills 38 0.86 19 Buccaneers 15 0.54
8 Giants 66 0.85 20 Eagles 37 0.52
9 Rams 55 0.83 21 Lions 34 0.49
10 Bears 69 0.83 22 Jets 21 0.48
11 Titans/Oilers 36 0.82 23 Cardinals 18 0.22
12 Broncos 35 0.80        

The Cowboys seem to have pretty much run away with this category, which pisses me off to no end, I can assure. I am standing by the party line, saying that they are merely benefiting from coming into the league right as the playoffs were expanding, and feasting on the Cardinals and Eagles during their prolonged stretches of suckitude.

Championships per Year: How Long You Gotta' Wait

While those previous three variables were all well and good for picking out the losers, winning seasons don't cut it when it comes to being a successful franchise (just ask Tony Dungy). It's all about the championships, baby, and that's why I've added these next two variables. I took each team, and divided the number of championships they won by the number of years they have played in the league to get a number that represents how long each team has waited between titles.  This includes the AFL, but not the 1982 strike season -- except for the Skins, who won it all that year.  Here are the numbers:

Rank Team Titles Years/Title Rank Team Titles Years/Title
1 Packers 12 6.8 12t Bills 2 22.0
2 Cowboys 5 8.8 12t Broncos 2 22.0
3 Bears 9 9.1 12t Chiefs 2 22.0
4t 49ers 5 10.8 12t Patriots 2 22.0
4t Ravens/Browns 5 10.8 12t Rams 3 22.0
6 Giants 6 13.0 12t Titans/Oilers 2 22.0
7 Redskins 5 14.2 18 Eagles 3 23.7
8 Raiders 3 14.7 19 Colts 3 26.0
9 Steelers 4 17.3 20 Buccaneers 1 28.0
10 Lions 4 17.5 21 Cardinals 2 42.0
11 Dolphins 2 19.0 22t Chargers 1 44.0
        22t Jets 1 44.0

As we can see, Green Bay has abducted this one. If Green Bay goes 7 years without a championship, that is considered a drought in Cheesetown. That's pretty nuts. That makes the Cowboys' 8.8 years seem pedestrian.

Longevity and Championship Difficulty: The Conquering Hero

I am by no means trying to make the argument that one championship was harder fought than any other, nor am I trying to rank the teams from year to year as better or worse. However, I do think that -- just by sheer numbers -- the probability of any one team to win a championship goes down with every team that enters the league. I also feel that there needs to be some credit given for teams that have more championships than others, and give a little spread to the teams that have won the same number. Thus, this new variable benefits more recent success (weighing recent championships more heavily because they beat out more teams) as well as historic dominance (teams with more championships get more points).

The Conquering Hero variable assigns 100 points to a team for each championship a team has won, as well as 1 bonus point for every team in the league that year (including themselves). Thus the Patriots championship this year gives a total value of 132, whereas the Chargers' AFL championship in the pre-Super Bowl era only gives 108 points. Teams like the Packers, Bears, and Giants that have storied histories are elevated for their sheer number of championships, but teams with short histories get the boost from winning a crowded league.

The Conquering Hero variable also helps spread teams out a bit more that have won the same number of championships. For example, the Patriots and the Titans (as the Oilers) have ruled the league for 2 years apiece. However, those Oilers beat out only 7 other teams back in the 1960s, and have not won a championship since. But the Oilers still have a higher number of trophies than the Buccaneers, even though the Bucs had more competition. Let's look at the numbers:

Rank Team Titles


Rank Team Titles


1 Packers 12 1461 13 Eagles 2 333
2 Bears 8 1021 14 Patriots 2 263
3 Giants 8 701 15 Broncos 2 260
4t 49ers 5 640 16 Dolphins 2 252
4t Cowboys 5 640 17 Chiefs 2 234
6t Redskins 5 604 18 Cardinals 2 230
6t Ravens/Browns 5 604 19t Bills 2 216
8 Steelers 4 508 19t Titans/Oilers 2 216
9 Lions 3 445 21 Buccaneers 1 132
10 Raiders 3 382 22 Jets 1 125
11 Rams 3 353 23 Chargers 1 108
12 Colts 2 350

If nothing else, this is a quick guide to bragging rights when it comes to franchises that have won the same number of trophies. Obviously, with four more championships than any other team (12), Green Bay takes the cake again. 


We looked at five measures to determine which franchises have been the most successful throughout their history. We found that the Dolphins are the most successful and consistent team when it comes to winning regular season games, sitting atop both the AW% ranking and the AWS rankings. The Cowboys are tops when it comes to qualifying for and going deep into the playoffs. The Packers have been crowned as the league's best most often and the most frequently. So without further ado, now its time to pull back the curtain:

And The Winner Is...

The Cowboys.

The Cowboys?!?!?

Son of a motherless goat, how the hell did that happen? How did they get the top ranking while only placing first in one variable? More importantly, how do I go back and change my system to bump them out of the top spot? Couldn't we just let Texas go back to being its own country? I don't think anybody would notice, much less mind.

Well, I've come this far; let's take a look at how it happened:

Team +/-
per Year
Playoff Score
per Year
per Year
Cowboys 3 4 1 2 4 2.8
Ravens/Browns 4 3 2 4 6 3.8
Packers 7 6 5 1 1 4.0
49ers 6 5 6 4 4 5.0
Raiders 2 2 4 7 10 5.0
Bears 5 7 10 3 2 5.4
Dolphins 1 1 3 11 16 6.4
Giants 8 9 8 6 3 6.8
Redskins 11 11 15 7 6 10.0
Rams 10 13 9 12 11 11.0
Broncos 12 12 12 12 15 12.6
Steelers 14 19 13 9 8 12.6
Chiefs 9 8 18 12 17 12.8
Patriots 16 10 17 12 14 13.8
Titans/Oilers 15 14 11 12 19 14.2
Bills 18 16 7 12 19 14.4
Colts 13 15 14 19 12 14.6
Lions 19 18 21 10 9 15.4
Eagles 20 20 20 18 13 18.2
Chargers 17 17 16 22 23 19.0
Buccaneers 23 22 19 20 21 21.0
Cardinals 22 23 23 21 18 21.4
Jets 21 21 22 22 22 21.6

As we can see, despite only topping one category, it's the Boys' steady presence in the top five of every list that pulled out this come from behind victory. Since 1960 they have won a very respectable 5 championships, as well as three losing efforts in the Super Bowl and an almost annual presence in the playoffs. They put together winning records and playoff runs, ad nauseum. It is more sickening to note that even in a year in which they didn't have a winning record (8-8 in 1999), they still made the playoffs as a five seed. Lucky bastards.

Wait, that's it! That fact alone proves that they are the luckiest franchise in history, and thus this whole thing is just a statistical anomaly. They were the beneficiaries of some off years, kooky games, and standard error! How else do you explain that Barry Switzer is a Super Bowl winning coach? It just does not make sense any other way!

Also, on a personally very satisfying note, it does seem that the Joe Namath Jets have managed to finagle their way past the Cardinals and the Buccaneers to claim the right as the worst franchise to ever win a championship. This occurs mostly due to their longer history than the Bucs and their dismal track record when it comes to making the playoffs. The Cardinals, considering they own twice as many championships as the Bucs and Chargers, also seem to stink up the place pretty well by dropping to the second to last spot (by far the worst franchise to win two trophies). But still, the J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS are pathetic. At least this whole thing wasn't a complete waste of time…

Mark Hutson is an economist in Washington, DC. He is a rabid Pats fan, and strongly believes that Marion Butts is being slighted by the Hall of Fame.

Posted by: Guest on 01 Jun 2004