Welcome to the penultimate stage of the dynasty rankings — the teams that almost, but not quite, crack the top 10. They may not be the greatest teams of all time, but you can see them from here.
Once you get to the top 20, there are no more questionable candidates; no more teams who look out of place among their peers. None of these teams are without flaw — if they were, they’d be in the top 10 — but they were so incredibly good at what they were good at that no history of the league would be complete without mentioning them. These teams aren’t just good; they’re load-bearing for the chronicle of the NFL.
And yet, only three of them have multiple titles to their name. For the most part, this is a list of teams that just couldn’t quite get past the very best of the best; teams that had the misfortune of playing in an era where an all-time great team was hogging titles for themselves. How many rings would Peyton Manning have if it wasn’t for Tom Brady? How many championships would the Minnesota Vikings have brought home if they hadn’t been in the most top-heavy decade in NFL history? How long would the Philadelphia Eagles have dominated the NFL if the AAFC hadn’t folded?
Tweak one or two events in history, alter the outcome of one or two games, and any of these ten teams could take their place among the ten best to have played the game. Instead, they’re stuck just outside the door here; the not-quite best ten teams of all time.
No. 20: 1949-1952 Los Angeles Rams
Peak Dynasty Points: 12
Average DVOA: 28.8%.
Top-Five DVOA: 23.0%
Record: 34-12-2 (.729)
Head Coach: Clark Shaughnessy, Joe Stydahar, Hampton Pool
Key Players: QB Bob Waterfield, QB Norm Van Brocklin, FB Tank Younger, E Elroy Hirsch, E Tom Fears, DE Larry Brink, MG Stan West
The list of NFL passing and receiving records is dominated by modern players, as today’s teams throw the ball more than ever before, brushing up to 35 attempts per game in recent years. But in and among the Mannings, Breeses, and Bradys of the world, you’ll find a couple of standouts from the 1950s who stick out like a sore thumb.
The most points per game in NFL history? The 1950 Rams, with 466 points in 12 games. The most yards gained in a single game? The 1951 Rams, with 722. The most passing yards in a single game? Norm Van Brocklin in that same 1951 game, with 554.
Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch is the only player still in the top 50 in single season receiving yards who played before 1960, and his 17 touchdowns (in 12 games!) in 1951 stood as the record until 1984. Heck, his 124.6 yards per game that season is still the third best of all time. Tom Fears had 18 receptions in a single game for the Rams in 1950, a record which would stand until 2000. Flipping through the record book, it becomes stranger and stranger that a bunch of records from the 1950s could still be standing. They shine like a neon light; how the heck could that happen?
The answer lies with Clark Shaughnessy, the man more responsible for how offensive football looks than possibly anyone else in history. In the 1940s, Shaughnessy had dusted off the T-formation and basically made passing a regular part of the offense. But this was a decade later, first serving as a technical advisor and then as head coach for the Rams, and he had a problem: he had way too much offensive talent to actually use.
He had an existing All-Pro quarterback in Bob Waterfield and had just drafted a future Pro Bowl quarterback in Norm Van Brocklin. He had Crazy Legs Hirsch, who needed to switch from halfback to end to protect his head and give him room in open space to move. He had Tom Fears, another future Hall of Famer, at split end. He had an excellent tight end in Bob Shaw. He had college 100-yard dash champion Bob Boyd. He had a flotilla of halfbacks who could catch, from Glenn Davis to Vitamin Smith to Tommy Kalmanir. He just had to get this talent on the field.
And so the three-end formation was born, with the Rams regularly using three (and sometimes even four or five) wide receivers. This was an era when the standard defensive front was a 5-2 or even a 5-3, so you can imagine the shock when all of a sudden all these tiny speedy guys were running all around the field. There’s a reason the 1950 Rams were the first team to have all their games televised; people have always loved crazy offense, and no offense was crazier than the big plays that Crazy Legs could provide. The Rams’ offense was so prolific that in 1951, Van Brocklin finished fourth in the league in passing yards, and Waterfield finished fifth. Those 1951 Rams have an estimated offensive DVOA of 35.0%, sixth-highest since 1950. Dudes could throw the ball.
Shaughnessy didn’t actually last to coach the 1950s version of these Rams; he was a better innovator than coach, and bringing in new textbooks full of plays every week wasn’t something that exactly endeared him to his players. But it was his system and his ideas that led the Rams to three straight NFL title games, finally winning one in 1951. Had they pulled off a three-peat, or at least kept some of their success going throughout the mid-1950s, they’d be challenging the top 10 on this list.
No. 19: 1984-1991 Chicago Bears
Peak Dynasty Points: 15
Average DVOA: 21.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 27.6%
Record: 90-37 (.709)
Head Coach: Mike Ditka
Key Players: RB Neal Anderson, RB Walter Payton, T Jimbo Covert, G Mark Bortz, C Jay Hilgenberg, DE Richard Dent, DT Dan Hampton, DT Steve McMichael, LB Mike Singletary, LB Wilber Marshall, S Dave Duerson
Bill Walsh called it “the most singular innovation in defensive football in the last 20 years.” The Shufflin’ Crew called it “so bad, you know it’s good.” Whatever you call it, the Bears’ 46 defense was like nothing we’ve ever seen in the Super Bowl era. The 1985 and 1986 defenses rank second and third on the all-time defensive DVOA leaderboards and are two of only seven teams to allow fewer than 200 points in a 16-game season. The one year they were able to roll out an offense even approaching the defense’s skill level, they produced arguably the greatest team of all time — No. 3 on your all-time DVOA leaderboards and No. 1 in Bill Swerski’s cholesterol-laden heart, the 1985 Bears.
Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense was never going to last forever. With eight men in the box, you can shred it with multiple-receiver formations. Even standard sets can beat it if you have impeccable timing on your passes and receivers who can win in one-on-one coverage; see Dan Marino and the Dolphins giving the 1985 Bears their one loss. But a) that wasn’t immediately obvious right off the bat, b) most teams didn’t have a Marino to throw at the Bears, and c) 1980s offensive football was mostly out of two-back, two-wide formations anyway. Ryan was going to send pressure at you over and over again, and dare you to respond; most teams simply couldn’t. If you can sack Joe Montana seven times in one game, you can beat anyone.
It wouldn’t have worked without studs, however. The Bears already had Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton when Mike Ditka arrived in 1982, and his ensuing draft classes brought in Richard Dent, Dave Duerson, Wilber Marshall ,and most of the rest of the 1985 team. In the back half of the 1980s, the Bears defense boasted three Hall of Famers, two more first-team All-Pros, and five more Pro Bowlers. That’s basically an entire starting lineup of lauded players; you could have a group that talented run basic vanilla defenses year in and year out and they’d find a way to stand out.
The offenses weren’t quite as strong, of course. Walter Payton was still around at the beginning, but he was approaching the end of his career. They added Jimbo Covert and Mike Bortz on the offensive line, so they were sturdy enough there. The problem, as has been the case with every Bears team since the mid-1950s, was at quarterback. Jim McMahon was the Punky QB in question, and he’s the real What If? here — 1985 was the last time he started at least 10 games for the Bears, and was the only time in this run where they had an offensive DVOA over 10.0%. It’s no surprise this was the one Super Bowl win this team put up. Give this defense an offense on par with some of their contemporaries, and the team of the 1980s may have been located in Soldier Field.
But no, the Bears weren’t the team of the 1980s. They lost six playoff games during this run, and five of them came to teams in the midst of their own dynasty runs — two to the 49ers, two to the Redskins, and one to the Cowboys. Had they been an AFC team, they might well have made three or four Super Bowls. Instead, they mostly played bridesmaids to the rest of the loaded NFC in the 1980s, except for that one glorious shuffling year.
No. 18: 1947-1949 Philadelphia Eagles
Peak Dynasty Points: 14
Average DVOA: 31.4%.
Top-Five DVOA: 18.9%
Record: 28-7-1 (.792)
Head Coach: Greasy Neale
Key Players: HB Steve Van Buren, HB Bosh Pritchard, E Pete Pihos, T Al Wistert, G Bucko Kilroy, C Alex Wojciechowicz
You have to put these Eagles teams in historical context. Philadelphia entered the league in 1933, and had zero winning seasons until 1943. It’s not like they were getting close and just missing out, either; they had three one-win seasons and four two-win seasons in their history. They were hopeless; and even exchanging the entire roster for that of the Steelers in 1940 (…long story) didn’t change their fortunes. No, the Eagles didn’t become good until they selected Steve Van Buren in the first round of the 1944 draft.
Van Buren was, to that point, the greatest running back to have ever played in the NFL. He certainly had the statistics to back up that claim — he led the league in rushing yards per game every year between 1945 and 1949 and was the all-time leader in rushing yards when he retired, sure. He may have been the first back to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season (there’s some conflicting reports as to whether Beattie Feathers’ 1934 season really was over 1,000 yards or not), and he certainly was the first player to do it twice. He scored 18 touchdowns in 1945 — in a 10-game season. Only Jerry Rice, Marshall Faulk, and LaDainian Tomlinson in their very best seasons managed to score at a higher rate than Van Buren did. Paul Zimmerman called him the greatest sloppy-field runner in the history of the game, and sloppy fields were to be expected in the 1940s. Van Buren arrived right at the beginning of the post-war period, where the NFL was still rebuilding its strength after years of able-bodied men having something better to do with their Sundays. So one all-world player was enough to turn a joke of a team into perennial contenders.
One player wasn’t enough to reach the championship game, though. Hall of Fame coach Greasy Neale did build a roster around Van Buren. Pete Pihos is either one of the best wide receivers of the early days of the NFL or the first great tight end, depending on how you classify him. Bucko Kilroy and Al Wistert paved lanes for Van Buren and Bosh Pritchard. They sort of lucked their way in to the 1947 title game — the other four teams in the NFL East that year all had negative SRS — but they stormed through the league in 1948 and 1949, with SRS-to-DVOA approximations of over 40.0% each season. They won the 1948 title game in a blizzard so bad that Van Buren nearly didn’t show up, assuming the game would be cancelled. They won the 1949 championship with Van Buren running for 196 yards in a driving rainstorm. Again, best sloppy-field runner of all time.
It is worth noting, however, that the Eagles likely were not in fact the best professional football team when they won their back-to-back championships, so perhaps their high ranking should come with a bit of an asterisk. The 1950 season began with the defending NFL champion Eagles taking on the defending champions of the now-defunct AAFC, the Cleveland Browns. The Eagles assumed they would easily dominate the survivors of a clearly lesser league. They, uh, did not, getting blown out 35-10, at home. But we’ll get to those Browns soon enough. As for the Eagles’ run, Neale retired after 1950 and Van Buren suffered a whole smorgasbord of injuries the same season; the Eagles wouldn’t win their division again until 1960.
No. 17: 1968-1980 Minnesota Vikings
Peak Dynasty Points: 27
Average DVOA: 9.9%.
Top-Five DVOA: 24.1%
Record: 128-58-2 (.686)
Head Coach: Bud Grant
Key Players: QB Fran Tarkenton, RB Chuck Foreman, T Ron Yary, G Ed White, C Mick Tinglehoff, DE Carl Eller, DE Jim Marshall, DT Alan Page, DT Gary Larsen, LB Jeff Siemon, LB Matt Blair, CB Bobby Bryant, S Paul Krause
And so we arrive at the last team on our list to never win a championship: the greatest team to never have been the greatest team.
It’s easy to group the Purple People Eater Vikings with the K-Gun Bills; after all, both teams went 0-4 in Super Bowls. But both the dynasty rankings and estimated DVOA think that that’s an entirely unfair comparison. The Bills were a good team that took advantage of a very weak conference to make four Super Bowls in a very short period of time. The 1970s Vikings had to deal with Tom Landry’s Cowboys, among others, to get their shot at the top of the NFC. The Vikings were relevant for significantly longer than the Bills, making more playoff appearances and winning more division titles. The DVOA of their top teams crushes the Bills’ best-of-the-best, 24.1% to 16.9%. The Vikings had three seasons with a 20.0% estimated DVOA or greater; the Bills just had one. The Vikings boasted seven future Hall of Famers; the Bills just five. They may have had the same record in Super Bowls, but the Vikings outclass the Bills in quality pretty conclusively.
Yes, I see their 9.9% average estimated DVOA too; I’ll get to that in a moment.
“The Purple People Eaters” is just a fantastic nickname for a unit, isn’t it? The 1967 addition of Alan Page completed the foursome of Page, Carl Eller, Gary Larson, and Jim Marshall, and that might just be the greatest defensive line to ever be put together. All four of them went to the Pro Bowl in 1969, the only time an entire defensive line has ever all gone together. The Vikings allowed just 133 points that season and just destroyed opposing passers — 49 sacks, a league-leading 30 interceptions, only eight touchdowns allowed, fewer than ten yards per completion, and on and on and on. Estimated DVOA puts them at a -42.5% pass defense, fifth best since 1950, and a -32.9% overall defense, fourth best. Their 1970 season isn’t that far behind at -38.5% and -24.5%, respectively. Add in 1971, and the Vikings join the 1980s Bears as the only two teams to lead the league in defensive DVOA in three consecutive seasons. And it’s not like the Vikings were shabby on defense in other years; they averaged a -12.1% mark from 1968 to 1976.
If the Vikings were just a defensive line, they wouldn’t reach this rarified air. They had been trying to get Bud Grant to be their head coach ever since the franchise started, but he was too busy winning multiple Grey Cups in Canada to join the Vikings until 1967. Fran Tarkenton is the second-best quarterback of both the 1960s and 1970s. He missed out on Super Bowl IV due to a small case of “being traded to New York for five years,” but the mad scrambler was back in Minnesota for the next three Super Bowl appearances. Adding Chuck Foreman in 1973 behind an offensive line that featured Hall of Famers Ron Yary and Mick Tingelhoff gave them a potent rushing attack. The Vikings were a top-10 team year in and year out from 1969 through 1976. They had the misfortune of facing four teams in great runs of their own in the Super Bowls (the Chiefs in IV, the Dolphins in VIII, the Steelers in IX, and the Raiders in XI), but the Vikings would have been credible winners in any of those seasons. In a slightly different world, they’re the team of the 1970s.
And Vikings fans can argue they should be even higher on this countdown. I’ve mostly been describing the Vikings as they were through 1976, the last of their Super Bowl appearances. After that, they became significantly less successful, but not unsuccessful enough for the dynasty counter to actually run out — they alternated playoff appearances and losing seasons between 1978 and 1982. For most teams, a few lesser seasons tacked on to the beginning or end of their dynasty actually helps them; the tradeoff in lower DVOA is made up for by the extra credit for division titles and whatnot. But estimated DVOA hates the late 1970s Vikings.
From 1968 to 1976, the Vikings had an 18.0% DVOA. From 1977-1980, that plummets to -8.5%. The Vikings made the NFC Championship Game in 1977, but with a point differential of +4; DVOA thinks they were a below-average team that year, and each of the two years after. That’s why their average drops all the way down to 9.9%; numbers we haven’t seen since the mid-40s on the countdown. If you were to make a special exception for the Vikings and cut their run short after the 1976 Super Bowl loss, they would jump up to 13th on the list. No titles means they can’t really get into the top 10, but maybe they should be a little higher than this.
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2019
No. 16: 2002-2009 Indianapolis Colts
Peak Dynasty Points: 22
Average DVOA: 19.4%.
Top-Five DVOA: 25.0%
Record: 99-29 (.773)
Head Coaches: Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell
Key Players: QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James, WR Reggie Wayne, WR Marvin Harrison, T Tarik Glenn, C Jeff Saturday, DE Dwight Freeney
In many ways, Peyton Manning’s Colts are the mirror image of Mike Ditka’s Bears teams we saw two entries ago. The Bears were a defensive juggernaut just begging their offense to reach average levels, and won their only Super Bowl in the one year the offense complied. The Colts were the greatest offensive team of the 2000s, but were let down by their defense too often to win more than one title of their own.
Like the Bears, we have some near-record-breaking performances here. With the triplets of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James all in place, Manning shattered records in 2004, both official and advanced. His 58.9% passing DVOA remains the official Football Outsiders record, and his 2,443 DYAR set a record that has only been topped twice — once by 2007 Tom Brady, and once by 2013 Peyton Manning. If you prefer traditional stats, Manning’s 49 touchdown passes and 121.1 quarterback rating also set records at the time, albeit ones that have since been broken.
The Colts’ 67.6% passing DVOA in 2004 is the third best we’ve ever recorded, and their 2006 season cracks the top 10 as well. If you prefer overall offense, the 2004 edition had a DVOA of 31.8% and falls just outside the top 10 since 1985. The Colts finished in the top five in offensive DVOA from 2003 to 2008, a six-year run that remains the best of the 21st century.
And do you know how many times Manning had a solid defense backing him up? Only two Colts teams in this run had a defensive DVOA better than -3.2%. Tony Dungy was brought in to fix the Colts’ defense, and the addition of Dwight Freeney helped, but the defense spent far more time in the cellar rather than the penthouse. A -2.4% average defensive DVOA is an improvement over the shambles the Colts defense was in in the decade before Dungy’s arrival, but it’s hardly worth writing home about. The Colts could put together good runs of defensive play — see the 2006 postseason and victory in Super Bowl XLI for a key example, led by the rare and elusive thing that was a healthy Bob Sanders — but they certainly couldn’t keep it up year in and year out.
Of course, we can’t talk about the Manning Colts without talking about playoff success, or lack thereof. One of the key talking points in the irrational Manning/Brady debates of the 2000s was about the fact that Brady won Super Bowls while Manning went one-and-done in the postseason. Ignoring the fact that that’s a team stat and not an individual stat for the moment, many of those wild-card losses came outside this specific timeframe. The Colts still had four one-and-dones from 2002 to 2009, but these Colts actually have a 7-6 postseason record, thanks to wild-card losses to the Dolphins in 2000 and the Jets in 2010 and a divisional loss to the Titans in 1999. Even without the Patriots’ Super Bowl titles, these Colts kept a close pace with the Patriots for the dynasty point lead, sitting at 28 to 22 at the end of 2009. Of course, Manning hurt his neck and left the team after the 2011 season, while the Patriots just kept right on going, leaving their erstwhile rivals behind.
No. 15: 1964-1971 Baltimore Colts
Peak Dynasty Points: 19
Average DVOA: 18.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 27.5%
Record: 84-23-5 (.772)
Head Coaches: Don McCafferty, Don Shula
Key Players: QB Johnny Unitas, RB Tom Matte, TE John Mackey, T Bob Vogel, DE Bubba Smith, DT Fred Miller, LB Mike Curtis, CB Bobby Boyd, S Jerry Logan, S Rick Volk
Indianapolis can steal the Colts from Baltimore, but they have not yet stolen the title of best Colts team from the Charm City. On the single-season level, that title still belongs to Baltimore’s 1968 team, with their 40.9% estimated DVOA beating out 2005 Indianapolis’ 32.1%. And even though Peyton Manning’s Colts ended up with more dynasty points, the overall quality of Johnny Unitas’ Colts ultimately lets them squeak just past the best of the Hoosiers.
Way back down at No. 43, we covered the origins of this team, and the back-to-back championships in 1958 and 1959. But the years between those championships and this run were middling; they never won more than eight games and coach Weeb Ewbank bickered with ownership about strategy. In 1963, he was fired and replaced by the 33-year-old Don Shula, the youngest coach in NFL history at the time. Within a year, the Colts were back in the title game, Shula was Coach of the Year, and the briefly-paused era of dominant Baltimore Colts teams began again.
It’s a bit odd that 1968 was the year the Colts produced their best team — the 12th-best team since 1950 per estimated DVOA. Unitas won two MVPs during the course of this Colts run, but he missed essentially all of the season with an elbow injury; it was his backup, Earl Morrall, who came in and had an MVP season of his own. The Colts of this era featured future Hall of Famers Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, and Jim Parker — each of whom last played for the Colts in 1966 or 1967. Hall of Famer Ted Hendricks wouldn’t arrive until the following year. With John Mackey as the only future inductee active, you would have thought 1968 would have been a down year for Baltimore.
But no. After years of near-misses — a loss to the Browns in the 1964 title game, a playoff loss to the Packers in 1965 based on an incorrectly called field goal, missing the playoffs in 1967 despite going a league-best 11-1-2 because of terrible tiebreaker rules — the 1968 Colts were going to bring a title to Baltimore for the first time in nearly a decade. They went 13-1 and cruised through the playoffs, and all they had to do was win the Super Bowl. Super Bowl III. Against their old coach Ewbank, some hotshot celebrity quarterback named Joe Namath, and the New York Jets. As 18-point favorites, what could possibly go wrong?
Play Super Bowl III 10 times, and the Colts win six or seven of ’em. But you only get one shot, so the Colts are remembered for losing the biggest upset in NFL history, and not for their many actual achievements on the field.
They would finally get their Super Bowl win two years later, beating the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. That game is remembered for being the sloppiest and ugliest Super Bowl in history, and for featuring the worst Super Bowl-winner ever, per estimated DVOA — the Colts actually clocked in at -3.3% for that one, making them the only champion in league history to be below average by our stats. But hey, the 1970 Colts have a ring and the 1968 Colts don’t, so they’ll take it.
If you connect the Ewbank Colts to the Shula and McCafferty Colts, the resulting Unitas Dynasty would rank ninth all-time. The 21-19 record from 1960 to 1962 is enough to split the two teams in my book, but your mileage may vary, especially if you happen to be from Baltimore.
No. 18: @ProFootballHOF QB Johnny Unitas
— NFL (@NFL) November 2, 2019
No. 14: 1966-1971 Kansas City Chiefs
Peak Dynasty Points: 13
Average DVOA: 24.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 28.3%
Record: 60-20-4 (.738)
Head Coach: Hank Stram
Key Players: QB Len Dawson, RB Mike Garrett, WR Otis Taylor, T Jim Tyrer, G Eric Budde, DE Jerry Mays, DT Buck Buchanan, LB Bobby Bell, LB Willie Lanier, DB Johnny Robinson
Until Patrick Mahomes and company lifted the Lombardi Trophy this past season, the last championship in Chiefs history had been won 50 years earlier, when Hank Stram, Len Dawson, and company won Super Bowl IV. They were the last champions of an independent AFL, and their victory helped confirm that yes, the junior circuit could compete with the NFL, and the 1970 merger was going to be fair and balanced.
Or was it? These Chiefs are the fourth of five AFL teams to appear in the countdown, and we do need to tackle the level of competition a little bit here. When the Chargers, Bills, and Oilers appeared earlier, we just treated their results as equivalent to their NFL counterparts. That’s not entirely fair for the early 1960s, but it’s mostly harmless — no one’s really griping over being ranked 32nd instead of 31st, in the “nice to be nominated” category. But now we’re up in the top 15, where each placement is a bit more prestigious.
In addition, the Chiefs are this high solely because of their estimated DVOA. Even with the emergence of Patrick Mahomes, the three best seasons in Chiefs history by this metric are still 1966, 1968, and 1969, all at 36.0% or higher. The 1968 Chiefs end up with the 17th-highest DVOA since 1950, while the 1969 team is the eighth-best Super Bowl champion by that metric. I try not to get into the nitty gritty of the Z-score grades here, but the Chiefs get +2.90 from their DVOA and -1.30 from their dynasty points, championships, and the lot. They’re one of eight teams on the countdown who get positive Z-score from both DVOA categories and negative Z-Score from the other four, so we had better be comfortable with counting their AFL performances on par with NFL performances of the era if we’re going to call them No. 14. And we shouldn’t be — in 1970, the first post-merger year, the average estimated DVOA for an ex-AFL team was -7.5%, compared to 3.3% for an ex-NFL team. The Chiefs themselves saw their DVOA drop from the 30s down to 13.4% in their first season with NFL opponents on the schedule, going 2-2-1 against them and 5-3-1 against their old AFL brethren. If you want to mentally bump the Chiefs down, you have an argument.
All that being said, the Chiefs have a strong claim to being the best AFL team of all time, and that’s worthy of a high spot in the rankings. They won the league title three times, twice in Kansas City. They did win Super Bowl IV, and they kept up with the Lombardi Packers for a half in Super Bowl I. Maybe their DVOAs are inflated by ten points or so due thanks to the AFL’s level of quality, but this was a team playing in the era of the common draft, when talented players had no qualms about coming to the AFL. They weren’t playing the Little Sisters of the Poor.
The Chiefs were solid on offense, with Len Dawson and company being the first pro team to operate out of the I-formation and regularly use two tight-end sets to matriculate the ball down the field. But the Chiefs were more frequently led by their defense, boating six future Hall of Famers. Stram would mix odd and even fronts, stacking his linebackers behind his defensive linemen in order to frustrate opposing offenses. When you have Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell hiding behind Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp, offenses are going to tear their hair out trying to figure out their protections. The Vikings certainly couldn’t in Super Bowl IV, as the Chiefs recorded three sacks, forced three interceptions, recovered two fumbles, and held Minnesota to 67 yards and just two first downs on the ground. The Vikings had never seen anything like the Chiefs defense before, and it showed.
— NFL (@NFL) November 16, 2019
No. 13: 1921-1923 Canton Bulldogs
Peak Dynasty Points: 13
Average DVOA: 34.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 20.8%
Record: 26-2-6 (.853)
Head Coaches: Cap Edwards, Guy Chamberlin
Key Players: FB Doc Elliott, TB Harry Robb, E Bird Carroll, E Guy Chamberlin, T Pete Henry, T Link Lyman, G Duke Osborn
When putting together a historical piece like this, you have to make some decisions on how you’re going to handle the fledgling early years of the league. The league received some criticism from fans for including old-timey names like Cal Hubbard, Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Mel Hein, et. al. on their NFL 100 team over modern superstars. If you’re thinking of overall quality in raw terms, no, it’s ridiculous to include them — a 225-pound center would get killed, perhaps literally, in the modern era. Yet you can’t tell the story of the league without those early legends; it’s crucial to acknowledge their successes if you’re going to be celebrating all 100 years, and their level of dominance, even in a weaker and less competitive league, deserves acknowledgement. Similarly, when we put teams from the 1920s high on this countdown, we’re not saying that they could get in a time machine, strap on their leather helmets, and run the single wing around even the worst modern defense. We’re saying that they were as dominant, or more, in their time as the best teams of today are in ours; even if the “average” team we’re comparing them to back then were just as likely to move or fold the next season as anything else.
With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to the first back-to-back champions in NFL history, the Canton Bulldogs. In 1922 and 1923, they completed back-to-back undefeated seasons, with a 21-0-3 record against all the best teams the early 1920s had to offer; no team has come close to 25 straight games without a loss since. In 1923, they scored 246 points while allowing just 19 in a 12-game season. Prorate that to a 16-game schedule, and you’d have a point differential of +303, which would be second-best all-time. SRS-to-DVOA conversions estimate their DVOA in 1923 to be 42.4%. You’d be right to point out that they didn’t have the toughest competition in the world, but they beat everyone, good or bad. They beat George Halas’ Bears; they beat Paddy Driscoll’s Cardinals; they beat Jim Thorpe’s Oorang Indians. They destroyed their competition in a way worthy of celebrating.
The Bulldogs might be even higher if we counted their years in the Ohio League, the closest thing we have to a direct predecessor to the NFL. Those teams featured Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th Century who starred as a pro in football, baseball, and basketball and won multiple Olympic gold medals. The Bulldogs won the Ohio League every year from 1915 to 1919, excluding the 1918 season they sat out because of a global pandemic (welp.) The Ohio League wasn’t as well-organized or as competitive as even the early NFL, but they were the highest quality league around, and the Bulldogs dominated.
But Thorpe wasn’t around for the NFL titles, having gone off to form his own all-Native American team. Instead, the star player-coach was Guy Chamberlain, the best end of the 1920s and in the running for best two-way player in football history — we’ve already talked about how he turned the Frankford Yellow Jackets into perennial contenders, but this was his first, and better, squad. Flanked by Hall of Fame tackles Pete Henry and Link Lyman, it is not a surprise that no team in the league could stand up to them; six of their regular 11 players were All-Pros in 1922, though it helps that the closest thing we had to an All-Pro team back then was picked by the Canton Daily News.
So what stopped the Bulldogs? Well, they didn’t play in 1924 — the team was losing money, so they were bought out, and all their players were moved to a brand-new team called the Cleveland Bulldogs … who then won the 1924 championship. The NFL considers that an entirely separate franchise, however, because in 1925, the rights were sold back to Canton, and both the Canton and Cleveland Bulldogs existed at the same time. The stars were split up, neither team had success, and the NFL kicked Canton out after the 1926 season as they cut down from 22 teams to 12 in an attempt to consolidate the league and kill the lesser, money-losing teams. But if you ever wondered why the Hall of Fame was in Canton instead of New York or Chicago or something, the Bulldogs are most of the reason why.
No. 12: 1926-1931 Green Bay Packers
Peak Dynasty Points: 19
Average DVOA: 21.7%.
Top-Five DVOA: 26.0%
Record: 54-14-9 (.760)
Head Coach: Curly Lambeau
Key Players: TB Curly Lambeau, TB Johnny Blood, TB Verne Lewellen, E Lavvie Dilweg, T Cal Hubbard, G Whitey Woodin, G Mike Michalske, C Jug Earp
Although the Packers have won more championships than any other team, they didn’t enter the league and start dominating right away. In fact, they were rather mediocre. While better than the fly-by-night teams that popped up and folded left and right during the early 1920s, Curly Lambeau’s Packers were a pedestrian 29-16-5 from 1921 to 1925, generally finishing mid-table. They were even briefly kicked out of the league in 1921 for secretly using college stars in a game. Lambeau paid his way out of that problem, but imagine if it had stood — we may have been talking about the long-standing rivalry between the Chicago Bears and the Milwaukee Badgers today.
Even when the Packers started putting together winning seasons from 1926 to 1928, they were still really a one-man show, with Lambeau as the team’s primary runner, passer, and kicker. And while Lambeau was a good player, he wasn’t a great one; his legendary status comes from founding, coaching, and administering the team more than his on-field exploits. 1929 was his last season as a player, a decision which was probably sped along by the three Hall of Famers the Packers added that year!
Cal Hubbard was the only player from the 1920s to be named to the NFL 100 team; the most feared lineman of his age and the only person to be in both the pro football and pro baseball Halls of Fame. Iron Mike Michalske was the best guard in the NFL and might have been the league’s best player in 1929; the seven-time first-team All-Pro only missed nine games in his 11-year career. And then there was Johnny “Blood” McNally, the Vagabond Halfback, who should be mentioned in the same breath as a Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. He was as famous for insane off-field exploits (crawling along the top of a moving train to avoid a towel fight; climbing down the outside of a hotel to skip curfew; driving his car into the path of the team train he’d missed due to spending the previous night painting the town red … we could go on) as he is was for his speed and agility on the field.
It turns out, adding three Hall of Famers at one time is a pretty good recipe for success. The 1929 Packers allowed just 22 points in 13 games on their way to a 12-0-1 record and the franchise’s first championship. They followed that up with league titles each of the next two years, too, becoming one of only two teams to win back-to-back-to-back championships in the NFL. And even that wasn’t enough for them — they would have pulled off the unprecedented four-peat in 1932 if ties had been included in the standings back then. They went undefeated in 29 straight home games, which is still an NFL record. One of the most dominant teams to ever play the game — and we still have two Packers teams to go on this countdown.
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2019
No. 11: 2012-2016 Seattle Seahawks
Peak Dynasty Points: 13
Average DVOA: 31.2%.
Top-Five DVOA: 31.2%
Record: 56-23-1 (.706)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll
Key Players: QB Russell Wilson, RB Marshawn Lynch, LB Bobby Wagner, CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas, S Kam Chancellor
If you didn’t include team quality, the Legion of Boom would not rate nearly this high. Remove DVOA from the equation, and the Seahawks would clock in at 43rd. The Super Bowl XLVIII victory was great, and they proved they weren’t a one-hit wonder by returning to the Super Bowl the very next season, but a lot of teams have played in multiple championship games. A five-year run of success isn’t overly impressive when you’re talking about the greatest teams of all time, even adjusting for increased turnover in the salary cap era. A .706 winning percentage is good, but below average among teams on this list. In short, if you’re just standings-scouting, the Seahawks are a fun footnote, interchangeable with other short-lived fun teams like the Greatest Show on Turf or that short period of time when the Saints decided to try playing defense. They’re certainly not knocking on the door of the top ten, for goodness’ sake.
But we are including team quality here — we’re Football Outsiders; we’ve gotta use DVOA for this sort of thing. And the Seahawks have the greatest DVOA dynasty in our database, four-peating as DVOA champions from 2012 to 2015. We’ve seen a three-peat before with the early 1990s Cowboys. Estimated DVOA would give a three-peat to the Lombardi Packers. SRS-to-DVOA conversions guess the late 1930s Packers would have had a four-peat way back in the day, and the 1940s Bears might have pulled off five in a row, but those were in eight- and ten-team leagues. That the Seahawks could be the best team in the league for four straight years, in a league with 32 teams, in an era with unprecedented parity and player movement, is downright insane. These are the sorts of teams the Seahawks are hobnobbing with; this is the rarified air in which they find themselves. Maybe one day, the league will see the light and start handing out championships based on spreadsheets rather than Super Bowls, but until they do, we’ll just keep singing their praises.
The 2012, 2013, and 2015 Seahawks teams are the tenth, ninth, and eleventh-best teams in DVOA history, all at 38.1% or better. The 2013 Seahawks are the third-best champions in the DVOA era, and only drop to sixth if you include estimated DVOA going back to 1950. And the one missing team in that run, the 2014 Seahawks? They had a 29.0% rushing DVOA, the sixth-best in the DVOA era. Four straight seasons above 30.0% DVOA is an unmatched feat, even going back to 1950 with estimated DVOA. You have never seen a team as good for as long as these Seahawks.
And let me tell you, as a 49ers fan, all those previous paragraphs really hurt.
If it makes Seahawks fans feel any better, Seattle wouldn’t crack the top ten even if they had run the ball at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX; you’re not one Malcolm Butler interception away from a higher spot on the list. Instead, it was missing the playoffs in 2017 and stubbornly sticking to a run-first strategy against the Cowboys in 2018 that cut the dynasty short.
As long as they have Russell Wilson under center, the Seahawks could start a new run at any point, but the inability to replicate or replace the trio of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, or Earl Thomas means that Seattle has come down to muddle with the rest of us mortals in recent years. And if you’re not shattering DVOA records, you need to win more titles if you want to rank high on a dynasty list. You can make a strong argument that these Seahawks are the most underachieving team we’re covering here. These Seahawks have the highest average DVOA of any team on the list who played in the era of free substitution and yet walked away with just one Super Bowl title. And so they end up here, and not in our final article about the ten greatest runs in NFL history.
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.