Dynasty Rankings, Part III: Nos. 31-40
Our dynasty rankings continue, as we enter the top 40. And, just like a band with one song in the Billboard Top 40, this is where you'll find some one-hit wonders.
There's a fairly clear line of demarcation in these rankings when you look at quality seasons -- those with three or more dynasty points. Those are Super Bowl years and 14-2 seasons, as opposed to wild-card appearances and division titles. Don't get me wrong, those lesser seasons are still respectable, and serve as quality padding between championships. But when your run is made mostly of those lower-quality seasons, sometimes a team ends up with more filler than meat, as it were.
The teams ranked 31 to 40 average 2.5 quality seasons, while the teams from 41 to 56 averaged 2.6. Most of these ten teams rank above the teams below them because their non-quality seasons were typically stronger in terms of DVOA and playoff appearances, if not playoff success. The bulk of this article will cover teams with great regular-season reputations, but who just couldn't get over the hump in the playoffs on a regular basis.
In other words, this is the part of the rankings where Marty Schottenheimer and Andy Reid show up.
The top 30 teams in the countdown average 4.2 quality seasons, and that's where we will start to find teams with more quality seasons than some teams have total years in their runs; this is the point where excessively short runs or a continuous failure to reach the title game become a significant liability. These are the almost-dynasties; teams that either collapsed too soon or couldn't get over the hump quite enough to be really considered an all-time great squad.
No. 40: 2008-2012 Baltimore Ravens
Peak Dynasty Points: 10
Average DVOA: 20.5%.
Top-Five DVOA: 20.5%
Record: 54-26 (.675)
Head Coach: John Harbaugh
Key Players: RB Ray Rice, G Marshal Yanda, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Ray Lewis, LB Terrell Suggs, S Ed Reed
Is Joe Flacco elite? Over the next 10,000 words, I will thoroughly and conclusive relitigate the argument, running through all the statistical and anecdotal evidence…
… OK, no, I believe humanity has suffered more than enough of those conversations. Rarely has so much digital ink been spilled on a topic which eventually resolved itself fairly clearly. Patience -- the blogosphere does not have it.
But you can see why Ravens fans were so excited that this young kid from Delaware was performing at adequate levels. Before 2008, the Ravens had had a negative offensive DVOA in nine of the previous 10 seasons. 2008 brought in Flacco, Ray Rice, and John Harbaugh, and all of a sudden, things turn around -- they had a -0.3% DVOA in 2008, and then were solidly in positive numbers throughout the rest of Flacco's rookie contract. You would think Flacco was elite too if you had had to sit through Kyle Boller and Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks and Anthony Wright and so on and so forth. The new and improved Ravens offense never ranked higher than ninth, and usually hovered in the high teens, but that's light-years ahead of what Ravens fans were used to.
And even a modicum of offensive competence was all the Ravens defense really needed to dominate. The Ravens have ranked in the top 10 in defense in all but two years from 1999 to 2019. In that time, they've never wasted a good offensive performance; they've made the postseason every time they've had a positive offensive DVOA in the 21st century. These five years were no exception to the Ravens' defensive dominance, of course -- Ray Lewis was still performing near his peak, Terrell Suggs was the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, and so on and so forth…
… except for 2012, the freaking Super Bowl year. The Ravens defense fell all the way to 19th in the league, and the offense actually had to bail them out. Enter Flacco once again, especially in the postseason. Flacco's 618 DYAR in the 2012 postseason is still the third-most in DVOA history, and his 56.0% DVOA ranks very much near the top as well. In addition to the statistical dominance, Flacco also picked up folk hero-esque feats like the Mile High Miracle bomb to Jacoby Jones, and then a Super Bowl MVP performance in the Harbaugh Bowl.
… and then Flacco was given the (at the time) largest contract in NFL history, after which it was quickly revealed that his small-sample size heroics weren't an accurate prediction of the future. Couple the salary-cap pressure of suddenly having to pay Flacco with the losses of stalwarts such as Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk -- the list goes on -- and you have a very, very fast comedown from a great season. The Ravens missed the playoffs in four of the next five years, only really rebounding now with Lamar Jackson.
If asked, I'm sure no Ravens fan would trade the 2012 title for anything, but man, one bad contract can really crush a team in the salary cap era. It makes the teams that keep a run of success going look all the more impressive in comparison.
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2019
No. 39: 1992-1997 Pittsburgh Steelers
Peak Dynasty Points: 12
Average DVOA: 20.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 22.2%
Record: 64-32 (.667)
Head Coach: Bill Cowher
Key Players: C Dermontti Dawson, LB Greg Lloyd, LB Levon Kirkland, LB Kevin Greene, CB Rod Woodson, S Carnell Lake
There have only been seven head coaches in NFL history to hold down the same job, consecutively, for two decades. Replacing any of them is a nightmare; you're taking the job held by a legend, with multiple titles to their name, and trying to convince a fan base that you're half as good as the Hall of Famer who came before you. Of the six replacements (Bill Belichick is still going strong, thank you), it's a two-way race for most successful successor. Tom Landry begat Jimmy Johnson, but Johnson was already a triumphant college coach and ended up burning his bridges with management shortly after arriving (and, to be fair, shortly after winning multiple titles). The other contender is Chuck Noll handing the Steelers reigns over to Bill Cowher, a 35-year-old Pittsburgh native with no prior head-coaching experience. Having been handed a team that hadn't won double-digit games in nine years, all Cowher did was become the first coach in NFL history to make the playoffs in his first six seasons, and the youngest coach to ever make a Super Bowl appearance. Not a bad start.
It's very interesting that Cowher's teams appear twice in four entries here; the three-year span from 1998-2000 where Pittsburgh failed to make the playoffs splits his tenure into Three Rivers Cowher and Heinz Field Cowher. That means we can do some comparing and contrasting to figure out which squad was actually better.
Heinz Field Cowher was the more successful. That Steelers team actually won Super Bowl XL, as opposed to Three Rivers Cowher's loss in Super Bowl XXX a decade earlier. The Heinz Field squad has the higher winning percentage. While they end up with fewer dynasty points than their Three Rivers counterparts, they boast more quality seasons -- the 2005 Super Bowl win, as well as 13-3 and 15-1 seasons in 2001 and 2004. The Three Rivers squad just has their one Super Bowl loss, and never finished better than 12-4.
On the other hand, the Three Rivers Steelers were more consistently good; they made the playoffs in all six seasons, while their Heinz Field counterparts only managed four out of five playoff berths thanks to Tommy Maddox turning back into a pumpkin. They were also more consistent, year-in and year-out; all six years fell between 29.8% and 12.4% DVOA. The Heinz Field team has the best individual year at 37.6% in 2004, but 2002 was in single digits and 2003 was actually in the negatives.
In the end, it's very close, and a matter of personal opinion more than anything else. The better defense was this Three Rivers' squad -- Kevin Greene, Rod Woodson, Levon Kirkland, and Carnell Lake were all named to the All-90s team, and the Steelers finished seventh, first, first, fourth, fourth, and second in DVOA in those years. The better offense belonged to the Heinz Field squad, with Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward regularly boosting them into or near the top 10 in the league.
Because this is a DVOA-focused list, we're placing the 1990s Steelers, with their 20.6% average DVOA, ahead of the 2000s Steelers, with their 17.5% average, despite the difference in Super Bowl titles. Of course, if you pretended those middle three years didn't exist, and smushed the Cowher tenure into one continuous run of success, it would be better than the sum of its parts. That theoretical team, with over a decade of continuous success to its credit, would have ranked 11th overall on this table. Would that make it the best Steelers team of all time? Well, we'll see, won't we?
No. 38: 1938-1946 New York Giants
Peak Dynasty Points: 14
Average DVOA: 10.2%.
Top-Five DVOA: 17.7%
Record: 60-28-8 (.667)
Head Coach: Steve Owen
Key Players: FB Tuffy Leemans, WB Ward Cuff, E Jim Lee Howell, T John Mellus, T Frank Cope, C Mel Hein
It's the return of Steve Owen and Mel Hein, who we last saw down at No. 51. After making three straight title games, the Giants went just 11-9-3 in 1936 and 1937, thanks in part to the departure of Harry Newman. They certainly weren't talentless in those years, with rookie Tuffy Leemans leading the league in rushing yardage and Ed Danowski taking over from Newman as the primary passer, but the results didn't quite match what they had managed to do earlier in the decade.
So in 1937, Owen's tinkering kicks into high gear with three major changes that would set up this run. On offense, Owen finalized his offensive tinkering into the A-formation, a scheme designed to spread the defense. Nowadays, when we say "spread the defense," we're talking about going with five wideouts and stretching the opponent from sideline to sideline. Football was a little different in 1938. The A-formation uses an unbalanced line -- four linemen to the right of the center, with just a tackle and an end on the left. The backs then unbalanced to the other side, with the center being able to snap to the fullback, quarterback, or blocking back. This takes away some potential for power rushing in exchange for greater flexibility -- both the quarterback and fullback can throw the ball, and the opportunity for fakes and deception kind of balloons. A typical play might see wingback Ward Cuff running a wide sweep back across the formation, fullback Leemans plowing forward with a dive behind blocking back Lee Shaffer, and tailback Ed Danowski running a bootleg to the opposite side of the sweep, with the option to throw.
So opposing defenses wouldn't know where the ball had been snapped to, or which play to cover. The Giants would also frequently use pre-snap shifts, lining up in one set and moving into the A-formation, single wing, double wing, or punt-formation as they desired. Add in the fact that no other team in the era ran the A-formation, as they didn't have Mel Hein at center (he remains the only lineman to win an MVP award), and how do you prepare for that? The answer for most teams is "you don't."
The A-formation wasn't the only new offensive formation in the league at the time -- this was when George Halas and the Bears were beginning to run roughshod with the T-formation. In response, Owen moved the Giants to a 5-3-3 formation full-time, away from the six- and seven-man lines that were the norm of the era. Owen's defense was filled with novelties that have since become standard -- stunting linemen, blitzes from the linebackers and safety, players moving around to match up with motion in the backfield. Unlike the A-formation, this was widely copied, but the Giants did it better than anyone. In 1944, they allowed their opponents to score just 7.5 points per game; still the NFL record. And it's not just because of old-timey football being offensively challenged; it's still an NFL-record 2.56 times better than the rest of the league's average of 19.2 points allowed.
Part of New York's success came from the third major innovation: a platoon system. Free substitution wasn't put into place until 1943, so we're not talking about dedicated offensive and defensive players yet. Instead, Owen would bring in 10 new players at the start of the second half, replacing everyone but Hein to keep everyone fresh. Really, there's no end to the innovations Owen brought to the game.
The Giants won the NFL Championship Game in 1938 and lost it in 1939, 1941, 1944, and 1946, so they ended up often being the bridesmaids in this era. Part of the problem was that the A-formation ended up being no match for the T-formation; George Halas and the Bears took the Giants out in 1941 and 1946. When Heim retired after 1945, Owen struggled to find a center of his caliber to run the offense, and the Giants gave in and joined the T world in 1949.
If you smashed the two Steve Owen eras together, ignoring the two-year interregnum, the Giants would jump all the way into the top 15, so you could make an argument that the system is arbitrarily ranking them too low; eight championship appearances in 14 years is impressive even in a 10-team league. On the other hand, losing the title game six times and being clearly inferior to the Halas Bears and Lambeau Packers does reduce how high you can really place them on a list. There's an alternate universe out there where we're all still running variants on the A-formation and fighting for the Owen Trophy, but Owen's Giants just weren't quite dominant enough to have that level of historical impact.
No. 37: 1982-1987 Washington Redskins
Peak Dynasty Points: 16
Average DVOA: 14.8%.
Top-Five DVOA: 16.8%
Record: 66-22 (.750)
Head Coach: Joe Gibbs
Key Players: QB Joe Theismann, WR Art Monk, T Joe Jacoby, G Russ Grimm, DE Dexter Manley, DT Dave Butz
When I was younger and first learning my NFL history, I tended to somewhat dismiss the success of Joe Gibbs' Redskins. After all, their two Super Bowls in the 1980s came in the 1982 and 1987 strike seasons, so they should have big honking asterisks next to their name, right?
It is true that the Washington Super Bowl teams of the 1980s are not among the all-time greats. The 1987 team had a DVOA of just 6.8%, second-worst since 1985 among Super Bowl champions; they were fortunate enough to A) play in a three-division league in a year when none of their division rivals had a winning record, and B) see the all-time great 1987 49ers get upset in the divisional round. The 1982 team's estimated DVOA of 17.8% barely cracks the top 50 among champions since 1950. If you just judge this Washington era by the years they won the Super Bowl, they don't deserve to be this high.
But the Hogs were more than just the two championship teams, and they were better than just the two championship teams. By estimated DVOA, their best season in the 1980s was the 1983 Super Bowl XVIII-losing squad -- the one that went 14-2, set a then-NFL record with 541 points scored, destroyed the Rams, and squeaked past Bill Walsh's 49ers in the playoffs before losing to the Raiders. With a league-best estimated DVOA of 29.4% (and also ranking first in offense and rushing offense, and second in passing offense), that's the Gibbs Washington team you should remember. Just flip-flop their Super Bowl XVIII and XXII results, and it all ends up working out.
It wasn't all the Hogs -- but let's face it, it was mainly the Hogs. Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby, Mark May, George Starke, Fred Dean, and their various replacements over the years were the heart of this team. They were a different beast than their contemporaries, too -- in 1982, they averaged 273 pounds in an era where the average offensive lineman clocked in closer to 250. Yeah, Joe Theismann, John Riggins, and Art Monk got the press, and the Fun Bunch was more, uh, fun, but no, it was Joe Bugel's offensive line that turned Washington from a decent team into a multiple-time champion.
But Redskins fans and longtime Football Outsiders readers will notice something missing. We've got Thiesmann's championship team here. We've got Doug Williams' championship team here. But where are the 1991 Redskins, the Greatest Team of All Time by DVOA? That's a Joe Gibbs team, that has a later iteration of the Hogs -- why aren't they included in this bunch? Surely, a third Super Bowl win and a 56.9% DVOA would bump Washington up a couple of notches.
Washington missed the playoffs in both 1988 and 1989, which triggers the end of their run in this system. No one will argue much with 1988 -- they went 7-9 with a second-half swoon that ended their playoff hopes -- but the 1989 team went 10-6 with Mark Rypien throwing to a trio of 1,000-yard receivers in Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders. Just because the Giants, Eagles, and (in the wild-card race) Rams all had 11-plus wins doesn't mean that Washington was bad or anything; they clocked in with an 11.4% DVOA which is nothing groundbreaking, but nothing dynasty-ending, either. What if we made an exception, saying that those 10-6 Redskins are enough to keep the dynasty chain going, and add in the Rypien years to Washington's success? It turns out that would vault Washington just outside the top 10; in addition to the extra title, it would bump their average DVOA up over 20.0%. They still wouldn't have the sheer bulk of tippy-top seasons to break into the top 10, but they'd be close. So, you may feel that they've been robbed a little bit by not entering the top 30. To that, I'd reply that Washington finished third in the five-team NFC East in four of the five seasons we'd be adding on; how can you be a dynasty when you can't even finish above average in your own division?
No. 36: 2000-2006 Philadelphia Eagles
Peak Dynasty Points: 11
Average DVOA: 19.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 24.0%
Record: 75-37 (.670)
Head Coach: Andy Reid
Key Players: QB Donovan McNabb, T Tra Thomas, T Jon Runyan, DE Hugh Douglas, LB Jeremiah Trotter, CB Troy Vincent, S Brian Dawkins
I was happy to see Andy Reid lifting the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl LIV. Not because I was rooting for the Chiefs; I'm a long-time 49ers fan and watching Kansas City pull off the comeback was in one of my ten worst things about 2020 so far, and 2020 has been objectively garbage. No, I was happy that Reid would finally be receiving the credit he deserves as one of the best coaches of the 21st century; credit that he hadn't really received because he never could bring the Eagles over the hump.
Then again, I suppose Reid is used to getting no respect. Eagles fans were very skeptical about his hiring; he jumped straight from being the Packers' quarterbacks coach to a head coaching job with no NFL coordinator experience in between. And then, his first major decision was to draft Donovan McNabb over Ricky Williams, which was met with a shower of boos from the always-understanding Philly Faithful. Fans didn't even show up to the the 1999 season; multiple games were blacked out as they failed to sell out the stadium.
In the end, of course, Reid and McNabb proved to be the right calls. Five consecutive playoff berths from 2000 to 2004 remains the franchise record, and Philly put up huge DVOA numbers year after year. To an almost suspicious degree, actually. Football Outsiders was just getting started during the Eagles' run, and it became a concern that became a running gag that became a meme that we must be in some way unfairly balanced towards Philadelphia, who finished with a DVOA over 20.0% in six of these seven seasons. If you go back and read some of those early weekly DVOA columns, especially written just after an Eagles loss and/or during the years we produced FOX's power ratings, you'll see all kinds of theorizing and puzzling as to why Philly kept getting ranked so high. DVOA wasn't taking into account short-yardage enough; DVOA valued long drives too much; DVOA didn't have an "Andy Reid has no time management" variable; we're all secretly Philly fans in disguise.
The actual answer as to why the Eagles kept scoring so high is that they were really good. If they had a problem, it's that they could never get the defense and offense peaking at quite the same time; the defense led the league in 2001 and nearly repeated in 2002 as players such as Hugh Douglas, Jeremiah Trotter, Troy Vincent, and Brian Dawkins led the way. Then they started sinking back towards the pack just as McNabb was really taking off. The addition of Terrell Owens put them over the top in 2004; McNabb's 1,324 DYAR remains the franchise record, and Owens' 307 DYAR (in 14 games) has only been topped once. At the time, the loss in Super Bowl XXXIX was considered a failure, with McNabb throwing up and unable to pull off a fourth-quarter comeback. Looking back, a more common reaction would be "oh, they ran into the Patriots just as the New England dynasty was beginning to kick off."
It's always so much easier to understand these things in hindsight, but no, these Eagles really were good. Things gradually tailed off as McNabb got old and fragile, and Reid was eventually fired after the fizzle of the so-called "Dream Team," so they were never able to finally get that long-awaited ring.
But hey, Reid and the Eagles are happier now, apart. Philly found themselves a man who makes them feel Philly Special; Reid met a man who loves ketchup as much as he likes barbeque. And now that they're both sporting a ring on one finger, they can remember that they did in fact have some great times together, without dwelling on all the things that went wrong.
Fourth and 26.
15 years ago today.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) January 11, 2019
No. 35: 1990-1997 Kansas City Chiefs
Peak Dynasty Points: 10
Average DVOA: 18.5%.
Top-Five DVOA: 23.7%
Record: 86-42 (.672)
Head Coach: Marty Schottenheimer
Key Players: T John Alt, G Will Shields, DE Neil Smith, DT Dan Saleaumua, LB Derrick Thomas, CB Dale Carter
You might have seen the Chiefs receiving the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl LIV. You might have seen the big parade and celebration in Kansas City after the fact. What you probably didn't see was the quieter, more emotional ceremony where Andy Reid returned the title of Best Coach to Never Win a Championship back to Marty Schottenheimer, where it belongs.
This is Marty's second appearance on this countdown, after his short stint with the 2006-2009 Chargers. Both teams barely squeak onto the list, with just 10 dynasty points to their name. Both rank higher than you probably think they should due to their DVOAs -- at 19.1% and 18.5%, they both rank in the top five among teams we've seen up to this point. They are also, by a wide margin, the two least-accomplished teams to ever rack up 10 dynasty points; they're the only teams on this countdown to never even play for a league championship, much less win one. That's the Marty Schottenheimer guarantee for you: consistent regular-season success (the eighth-most wins in league history, and 74 games above .500!), regular playoff berths (13, more than all but five other coaches!), and then bupkis in the postseason (a 5-13 record).
From 1990 to 1997, the Chiefs fell out of the top 10 in both overall and defensive DVOA only one time, and even in their worst years were "just" above average. Schottenheimer drafted Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas in consecutive years, and it's not a long list of teams in the history of the league who can boast a pair of edge rushers quite that successful. Our offensive line stats only go back to 1996, but the John Alt- and Will Shields-led unit finished in the top 10 in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate in 1996 and 1997, and there's no reason to assume they were any less dominant in the seasons leading up to that. That formed the basis of an offense which, well…
The Chiefs' offenses were good, don't get me wrong -- there were even a couple seasons in the middle of this stretch when they outpaced the defense. But there was very little year-to-year cohesion there, in part because the Chiefs got a grand total of zero wins from a quarterback they drafted from 1987 to 2017. Instead, Schottenheimer grabbed any ex-49ers quarterback he could find, with Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Steve Bono, and Elvis Grbac all leading the team in passing (with ex-Seahawks passer Dave Krieg thrown in for spice). That one-way flight from SFO to MCI is one of the weirdest trends in NFL history; one can only assume that Jeff Kemp, Matt Cavanaugh, and Mike Moroski had prior engagements. It does mean that we nearly got a Joe Montana vs. Steve Young Super Bowl in 1993, with both the Chiefs and 49ers reaching their respective championship games. 1990s Football Outsiders (which I assume would have been a keyword search and chatroom on America Online) would have gone nuts.
It is common to blame Martyball (run on first, run on second, pass on third, punt on fourth, a tradition proudly being carried on by his son in Seattle to this day) for the postseason failures of Schottenheimer's teams. It's conservative, for sure, and Schottemheimer's reputation for turtling on small leads and focusing on his defense isn't unearned, but the guy won more than his fair share of games -- 200 of them, as a matter of fact. With Andy Reid finally breaking through, other contenders like George Allen and Bud Grant long retired and/or dead, and the closest active challengers such as Mike Zimmer or Jason Garrett years away from touching his legacy, Marty is once again where he belongs -- the greatest coach who never won a title.
No. 34: 1952-1954 Detroit Lions
Peak Dynasty Points: 14
Average DVOA: 23.9%.
Top-Five DVOA: 14.4%
Record: 28-7-1 (.792)
Head Coach: Buddy Parker
Key Players: QB Bobby Layne, HB Doak Walker, T Lou Creekmur, G Dick Stanfel, DG Les Bingaman, S Jack Christiansen
Buddy Parker was a profane, superstitious, chain-smoking offensive innovator. Bobby Layne was a hard-drinking, hard-living gunslinger, whose off-field partying habits became the stuff of legend. This is not the synopsis of the best ever yet-to-be-accepted football cop drama (In The Lions of Fire, coming to a television near you one of these days, I swear) -- this is the tumultuous relationship which led the Lions to three consecutive NFL Championship Games in the early 1950s.
There are plenty of stories about Parker and Layne's relationship in their time in Detroit. My favorite might be the time Layne forced his teammates to spend all night drinking with him during training camp, leading to the team being absolutely plastered at practice the next day. Furious, Parker forced his team into the most exhausting set of physical drills he could think of, watching them fall out, gasp for air, and evacuate the contents of their stomachs as punishment. Layne would have none of it -- he ordered his teammates to their feet, cursing and kicking at them, pushing and pulling them to the end of the drill. He then marched up to Parker and asked "OK, what now, coach?" Parker was outwardly furious, but inwardly pleased -- he was later quoted as saying that Layne was a "one-man team who goes against all the rules, but by golly, it works."
Seriously. Cop drama, now.
More … relevant, perhaps, than their off-field confrontations were Parker and Layne's on-field contributions. They're credited with creating the two-minute offense -- not so much the idea of playing quickly, but the idea of explicitly practicing for these late game scenarios, calling multiple plays at once and playing to stop the clock as much as possible. Layne's proto-Favreian style led to him holding the NFL career records in attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns … and interceptions when he retired but, by golly, it worked.
The rest of the team took after Layne, really. Swagger; arrogance; plenty of off-field stories of drinking, brawling, and arrests; and a hard-hitting style that probably would have drawn cries of attempting to intentionally injure their opponents, if such a thing was a concern in the 1950s. The Lions' road to the 1953 championship, for example, was made a lot easier when Jimmy "The Hatchet" David slammed his knees into 49ers' star quarterback Y.A. Tittle's jaw, breaking it in three pieces and leaving Tittle unconscious on the field (Tittle was back in action three weeks later, because player safety wasn't really a thing at that point in time). When you played the Lions, you were going to feel it the next day.
In all three seasons, the Lions ended up facing off against the Browns in the NFL Championship Game. Yes, the Lions and Browns once ruled the NFL. I know, crazier times. They actually met again in the title game in 1957, which is separated from this run because of some lean times in the mid-1950s and the absence of Parker, who quit the team at a preseason training camp dinner for the players and media, saying that he simply could not control his players. The Lions went 3-1 in those title games, and anyone can tell you that stopping the Browns of that era was no easy task -- we'll see them further down the line. The 1950s Lions were a rambling, rollicking mess but, by golly, they worked.
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2019
No. 33: 2015-2019 Kansas City Chiefs
Peak Dynasty Points: 11
Average DVOA: 22.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 22.6%
Record: 57-23 (.713)
Head Coaches: Andy Reid
Key Players: QB Alex Smith, QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek Hill, TE Travis Kelce, T Eric Fisher, DE Chris Jones
If you're reading this during the Coronavirus lockdown of 2020, I certainly hope you don't need me to explain who the Kansas City Chiefs are.
If you're reading this as you shelter from the Gammaknives of our benevolent robotic overlords in the far-off future of 2375, hello! Yes, I know that nowadays you think that President Mahomes was the key feature of the Chiefs' eight Super Bowl titles, but at this point, at the very beginning of the 30-year Chiefs dynasty, their success had been just a much a product of Alex Smith and Andy Reid as much as anything else. Funny how things end up working out…
Lacking a crystal ball, we obviously can't say anything about how the Chiefs' run will go from here. This could be it, in which case it's a very tightly compacted run of high-quality play with a title to serve as the crowning jewel, like the Joe Flacco Ravens. Other comparisons would be a less skilled version of the late-1940s Bears under George Halas, or a more-successful 1990s Steelers. These are the sorts of comparisons you can make if the Chiefs just fall off the face of the Earth.
But then again, we can project forward a bit. Like Flacco, Patrick Mahomes does have a big contract coming up, which will alter the Chiefs' roster-building strategy somewhat. Unlike Flacco, Mahomes is elite. So, for fun, I went ahead and punched in some numbers to see what would happen if the Chiefs duplicated their 2019 run in 2020, and the years beyond, racking up Super Bowl wins, 30.0% DVOAs, and five-point dynasty seasons.
Running off back-to-back Super Bowl championships in 2020 would likely bump the Chiefs into the top 20, placing them in the company of teams like Peyton Manning's Colts. A third Super Bowl win in 2021 would vault them into position as the best Chiefs team of all time (spoilers!), while a fourth in 2022 would propel them into the top 10 in near-record setting time.
Of course, that's all speculation. For now, as the Patriots look like their star is fading, the Chiefs have a chance to stand tall as the predominant dynasty in 2020 and beyond.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) February 4, 2020
No. 32: 1932-1934 Chicago Bears
Peak Dynasty Points: 14
Average DVOA: 25.8%.
Top-Five DVOA: 15.5%
Record: 30-3-7 (.838)
Head Coaches: Ralph Jones, George Halas
Key Players: HB Red Grange, FB Bronko Nagurski, E Bill Hewitt, T Link Lyman, G Joe Kopcha, G Zuck Carlson, C Ookie Miller
This is the first time we'll see George Halas and the Bears pop up on this list. It certainly will not be the last. The Bears and the Packers share the mark of having the most entries in the dynasty rankings, with five apiece. Some of that comes with the territory of being successful in the early days of the league, which featured both massive turnover and fewer opportunities for notable success. It's fitting, however, that the two oldest successful teams in the league, and rivals for a full century, would share the honors of being the most lauded clubs in NFL history.
If you're familiar with the Bears' history, or even just "Bear Down, Chicago Bears," these early-1930s teams would look very strange to you. The Bears had experimented with thrilling the nation with their T-Formation by this time, but with the duo of NFL legends Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange in the backfield (and the 1934 addition of Beattie Feathers behind them), Chicago had more or less abandoned it in favor of a single-wing attack to showcase their talents. Grange was getting up there at this point, but Nagurski was in his prime; bowling people over and earning a reputation as one of the hardest-nosed players to every play the game. You certainly can't say it didn't work, as their 30-3-7 record and three championship game appearances would indicate.
In the early 1930s, the NFL was still kind of winging how the rules of the league should work, and these Bears did a very good job keeping up with the times. Take the 1932 season, for example. The Bears finished their slate at 6-1-6 (opening the season with three scoreless ties and a 2-0 loss; thrilling!), while the Portsmouth Spartans finished at 6-1-4. By today's rules, the Spartans would be champions, with a .727 winning percentage beating Chicago's .692, right? (And, while we're at it, shouldn't the 10-3-1 Packers be ahead of both of them?) Well, at the time, ties simply did not count, so the two teams were tied at 6-1. To make matters worse, the NFL's only tiebreaker was point differential in head-to-head matches (rather than just wins and losses), and the Bears and Spartans had played in 13-13 and 7-7 ties earlier in the year. The solution? An impromptu championship game, the first of its kind. And because of a massive winter storm, the game had to be moved from Wrigley Field to Chicago Stadium, which featured an 80-yard dirt field with undersized end zones. The field was so small, the goal posts had to be moved to the goal lines from than the back of the end zone -- a change which persisted until 1973. That's right, a series of random problems led to the playing of the first-ever NFL Championship Game and altered how the field of play would look for two generations.
And that wasn't even the only long-lasting rule changed caused by a shrug! At the time, passing rules required a player to be 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw the ball, which made passing all the more dangerous. But late in the fourth quarter, with the score still tied at zero, the Bears were facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Nagurski had been stuffed on the previous three downs, but took the ball intending to plow into the line one more time. But, as he did so, he saw Grange all alone in the end zone, and leaped and threw him the ball. Touchdown, Bears lead, Bears win -- only there was no way Nagurski was 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball. The Spartans complained, the referees counted the score anyway, and the NFL made passing legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage legal in the ensuing offseason, under the precedent of "holy cow that was the coolest thing I've ever seen." The 1930s NFL: winging it!
The Bears' championship teams in 1932 and 1933 were solid, but not altogether special. 1934 was different. By our SRS-to-DVOA conversion, they would have clocked in with a 38.3% DVOA as they stormed through the league and completed the first ever undefeated regular season -- or, at least, the first to do so without ties. They outscored their opponents 286-86 on their way to a 13-0 record. Feathers became the first 1,000 yard-rusher in NFL history (allegedly -- there's some debate as to whether or not some kick return yardage got mixed in there, because record keeping was not pristine at this point in time). No one else would duplicate that feat until 1946. Nagurski added 586 more yards of his own, sixth-best in league history at the time. The Bears cruised through the first half of November, toughed out some close games against the Lions and Giants late in the season, and entered the 1934 Championship Game against the Giants as the heavy, heavy favorites. But we've covered the 1934 title game already, back when we looked at the Giants of this era: that was the Sneakers Game, where the Polo Grounds was covered in ice, and no one could get any footing. The Bears were without Feathers, and also without access to proper footwear, whereas the local Giants raided the lockers, found some sneakers, and roared to victory in the second half. If the far superior Bears team had won (the Giants' SRS-to-DVOA estimate is a paltry 10.4%), then maybe we would have been spared the 1972 Dolphins popping champagne every season. Instead, the underdog Giants stopped a dominant team from completing a perfect season. Perhaps past really is prologue.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 26, 2019
No. 31: 1960-1965 Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers
Peak Dynasty Points: 15
Average DVOA: 16.7%.
Top-Five DVOA: 20.5%
Record: 54-26-4 (.667)
Head Coach: Sid Gillman
Key Players: QB John Hadl, HB Paul Lowe, WR Lance Alworth, T Ron Mix, DE Earl Faison, DT Ernie Ladd, CB Dick Harris
Sid Gillman is the father of modern offensive football. Al Davis, who worked as receivers coach for Gillman with the 1960s Chargers, said that working in Gillman's office was like going to a laboratory for the highly developed science of professional football. Bill Walsh had just one season as an assistant to Davis, so one rung removed from Gillman's Chargers office, but still was impacted enough to say that much of what he did with the West Coast Offense in the 1980s was taken directly from Gillman in the 1960s. Don Coryell, coaching down the road at San Diego State, would bring his team to watch Gillman's Chargers practice. Everyone who was anyone in offensive football for two generations learned at the feet of Gillman, either directly or indirectly.
Gillman, the only coach in the AFL's first season with prior NFL coaching experience, quickly turned the Chargers into the AFL's perennial bridesmaids. The Chargers made five of the AFL's first six championship games; they went 1-4 as they crashed into the Oilers and Bills. And yet, Gillman's Chargers end up with a higher score than either of their early AFL rivals; in fact, it's the highest score for any pure AFL team on the list. The Chargers were simply a better team -- their 16.7% average estimated DVOA dwarfs the Bills' 9.0% and pips past the Oilers' 15.1%. The 1963 Chargers are the best pre-Super Bowl AFL team, with an estimated DVOA of 34.0%. It is not a coincidence that that was Lance Alworth's first full season, either. Just as getting Gillman as a head coach was a major coup for the fledging league, the fact that the best receiver of the decade spurned the NFL, where he was the eighth overall pick, was a major get.
The AFL pitched itself as the more exciting, innovative league compared to the stodgy old NFL, and the Chargers could really have been exhibit 1A. With his speed, grace and exceptional athleticism, Alworth was the perfect fit for Gillman's offense, which was one of the first to spread the field horizontally as well as vertically, opening more passing lanes and giving more places for his quarterback (usually John Hadl in this era) to throw the ball. To this day, there still may have never been a better receiver at running post routes than Alworth; when you compare Alworth's film to other top receivers of the age -- your Boyd Dowlers, your Gary Collinses, your Del Shofners, even your Don Maynards -- Bambi just leaps off the screen; an entirely different beast.
The offense gets most of the credit, but the Chargers defenses were no slouch either. Chuck Noll was the coordinator for most of the early 1960s, before he went and built the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. The Fearsome Foursome of Earl Faison, Ernie Ladd, Ron Nery, and Bill Hudson were some of the largest and strongest men in professional football at the time, and the Chargers put up the best pre-Super Bowl era defensive DVOA in the AFL with a -22.5% mark in 1961.
Their one title came in 1963, crushing the Boston Patriots 51-10. After the game, Gillman challenged the NFL champion Bears to a match to determine the real champion of the world. The NFL passed on this, mostly to avoid giving the AFL publicity in what was becoming a real competition for fans, money, and players. For the record, estimated DVOA would have favored the Chargers and their 34.0% DVOA over the Bears and their 26.4% DVOA, but that would have been a heck of an offense-versus-defense matchup. The Bears were coming off of an NFL title game where they had five interceptions; the Chargers were coming off of an AFL title game where they picked up 610 yards. A Super Bowl we all missed out on.
No. 26: @ProFootballHOF coach Sid Gillman, one of the innovators of the forward passing offense.
— NFL (@NFL) November 2, 2019
The Rankings So Far
The following graphic shows the rankings of all teams that have been revealed so far. Click the image to open it in a larger size in a new window.