Our dynasty rankings conclude, with the top 10 teams of all time.
If you were to pick any of these ten as the best squad ever to play the game, you’d have plenty of evidence to back you up. Multiple championships, decades of success, Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer. The teams of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s are all represented. The greatest multi-year runs in actual DVOA, estimated DVOA, and SRS-to-DVOA conversion are all represented. All of them have legendary coaches; all of them played in legendary games. They boast the greatest quarterbacks of all time; the greatest receivers of all time; the greatest defenses of all time; the greatest front offices of all time. Tweak how the rankings work, and what is counted and what isn’t, and I could put five different teams in the No. 1 slot — and defend each and every one of them, too.
But, in the end, we can only have one winner.
No. 10: 1991-1996 Dallas Cowboys
Peak Dynasty Points: 21
Average DVOA: 26.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 29.9%
Record: 70-26 (.729)
Head Coaches: Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer
Key Players: QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith, WR Michael Irvin, T Erik Williams, G Nate Newton, S Darren Woodson
Our top ten kicks off with our first of the traditional “teams of the decade.” Yes, that technically means they’re the worst of those teams of the decade, but they also have the distinction of being the only one of those teams to wrench that title away from an active reigning champ. The 1950s Browns were done before the Packers started running the 1960s; the Lombardi era was well over before the Steelers dominated the 1970s; and the Steel Curtain parted in time for the 49ers to ascend to the top. But the 49ers were still going strong in the 1990s, and likely would have won two or three more titles had the Cowboys not come along and beaten them in multiple NFC Championship Games. It’s one thing to claim a vacant throne. It’s another entirely to slay the beast.
You certainly can’t accuse Jerry Jones of lacking chutzpah. Within 24 hours of buying the team in 1989, he had fired Tom Landry, the only coach in franchise history. Replacing him was Jimmy Johnson, who had undeniable success at the University of Miami, but bringing in the leader of the so-called “Bad Boys of College Football” turned just a few heads. Jones also disassembled the legendary front office of Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt that had assembled America’s Team and had produced 20 years of success before things fizzled out in the late 1980s. He replaced them with, well, himself. Like I said, plenty of chutzpah.
The rebuild was bold, too — the Cowboys selected UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman with the first overall pick in the 1989 draft, then a few months later gave up their 1990 first-round pick to take another quarterback, Miami’s Steve Walsh, in the supplemental draft.Then, to recoup some of those lost draft picks, they traded away their best player, Herschel Walker, getting 12 players and draft picks in return. In what is the most lopsided trade in NFL history, the Cowboys used those picks to draft Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Darren Woodson, Clayton Holmes, and Kevin Smith. It’s not like the Cowboys were talentless beforehand, with Michael Irvin, Ken Norton, and Nate Newton being Landry-era holdovers, but the Cowboys do not become perennial Super Bowl contenders without fleecing the Vikings.
As we mentioned last time around, the Cowboys three-peated as DVOA champions from 1992 to 1994, and only fell to second place in 1995. Their best teams don’t quite hit the highs of their 1970s teams, but they came darn close, and didn’t have to play second fiddle to the Steelers this time around. Beating Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX probably exorcised a few 1970s demons, and their back-to-back wins over the Bills were some of the most lopsided excuses for title games we’ve ever seen. The real title bouts in those years were the three consecutive conference championship games against the 49ers, famously called the “Real Super Bowl” by Sports Illustrated. The Cowboys went 2-1, putting the Team of the 1980s in their rearview mirror.
So, why aren’t the Cowboys No. 1? Their biggest flaw is the short length of their run; they tumbled to 6-10 in 1997 and didn’t win another playoff game until 2009. The big What If? is what would have happened if friction between Jones and Johnson hadn’t caused the latter to resign after the 1993 season. Barry Switzer, I feel it’s safe to say, was not the driving force behind the Cowboys’ third Super Bowl in four years. At the end of the day, I don’t think Johnson’s presence alone would have kept the Cowboys train moving. He certainly couldn’t have prevented the injuries to Emmitt Smith, Jay Novacek, or Charles Haley, and if you’re expecting the coach of The U to step in and stop the narcotics incidents that cost Michael Irvin and Leon Lett time, I have an oil rig to sell you.
I suspect the Cowboys under Johnson would have had a gentler slope down from their glory days, and would probably move up one or two spots had Johnson and Jones been able to get along. In the end, though, the 1990s Cowboys were always destined to burn brightly, and burn quickly.
— NFL (@NFL) September 28, 2019
No. 9: 1935-1944 Green Bay Packers
Peak Dynasty Points: 22
Average DVOA: 23.8%.
Top-Five DVOA: 28.1%
Record: 81-25-4 (.755)
Head Coach: Curly Lambeau
Key Players: FB Clarke Hinkle, TB Cecil Isbell, TB Arnie Herber, TB Tony Canadeo, E Don Hutson, E Milt Gantenbein, G Lon Evans, T Ernie Smith
Place yourself in the shoes of a defensive halfback in 1935. Your main responsibility is containing the edge, preventing wingbacks and tailbacks from sweeping to the outside. The passing game? Please. Teams throw an average of 13 passes a game, complete less than a third of them, and average less than 60 yards a game. The passing philosophy of the time is “go deep and run around a bit, and maybe we’ll get lucky.” Desperation, or an act of surprise. Pretty sweet gig, all in all.
And then, here comes Don Hutson out of Alabama to ruin their lives. Hutson was to pass-catching what Babe Ruth was to home run-hitting; he is the genesis of the wide receiver as a concept. Curly Lambeau, coming off of a pair of subpar seasons after the Packers’ initial run of success, knew he had to have Hutson. They were already the league’s most prolific passers with Arnie Herber throwing as many as 15 passes a game and completing a whopping 36.5% of them, but Lambeau thought Hutson could take them to the next level, altering the Packers’ classic Notre Dame Box to allow Hutson to line up out wide rather than at end.
Hutson was the first player in the NFL to run specific passing routes; with cuts, stop-and-goes, and general precision literally unheard of for his time. He also could run a 9.7-second 100-yard dash, and had hands great enough that he once (apocryphally) caught one of the old, fatter NFL footballs, in full stride, around his ankles, one-handed, palm-down. Eat your heart out, OBJ. At that point in the history of the league, defenses didn’t really scheme to stop individual players, so it was Hutson against our poor defensive halfback, one-on-one, with the better man winning. Hutson was, more often than not, that better man; he scored a touchdown once every five receptions, on average.
Hutson caught 99 touchdowns over the course of his career; the next-closest player, Johnny Blood, had 37 when Hutson retired. By similar margins, Hutson was the all-time leader in receptions (488 to 190) and receiving yards (7991 to 3309). He’s still in the top hundred in career receiving yards, the only player before 1950 to do so. He led the league in all three stats five times, including every year from 1941 to 1944, and led the league in touchdowns eight times — no one else has done it more than three. He was an outlier in every sense of the word — in 1942, he caught 74 passes, which was more than the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, or Pittsburgh Steelers managed as a team. It should come as little surprise that he was a two-time league MVP; the only question is why he didn’t win it more often.
Hutson was obviously, self-evidently the star, but he had plenty of backup. Arnie Herber and then Cecil Isbell broke passing records throwing to Hutson. Clarke Hinkle was every bit as hard a hitter as Bronko Nagurski, and was a four-time All-Pro. Tony Canadeo was the third rusher to ever hit 1,000 yards in a season. Together, they won three NFL title games, reaching a fourth one in 1938. They were the league’s best offense in the late 1930s, and near the top throughout the 1940s even as the T-formation and players such as Sammy Baugh throughout the rest of the league began to catch up to their passing prowess.
So, why aren’t the Packers No. 1? Their biggest problem is that they only won their division five times in ten seasons, with the Chicago Bears specifically hamstringing them in four of the five missing seasons. It’s hard to be the best team of all time when another team in your own division is beating you out as often as not. Winning a few more NFL West titles, even if they couldn’t finish the deal in the championship game, would have bumped the Packers up one or two slots. They’re just not quite legendary enough to get higher than that.
No. 8: 1967-1977 Oakland Raiders
Peak Dynasty Points: 26
Average DVOA: 25.1%.
Top-Five DVOA: 33.8%
Record: 119-28-7 (.795)
Head Coaches: John Rauch, John Madden
Key Players: QB Daryle Lamonica, QB Ken Stabler, RB Marv Hubbard, WR Fred Biletnikoff, WR Cliff Branch, T Art Shell, G Gene Upshaw, C Jim Otto, LB Dan Conners, LB Phil Villapiano, CB Willie Brown, S George Atkinson, S Jack Tatum
Just win, baby.
The peak of the Raiders franchise, the era that spawned the Commitment to Excellence and Pride & Poise and Raider Nation and the Black Hole and all those things you think of when you think of the Rrrrrrraidahs began when Al Davis re-joined the team in 1967 as part-owner and general manager. Before 1967, the Raiders did have the vertical, aggressive passing system we associate with the franchise, but they didn’t have the swagger, the attitude, the menace that they established as their identity. Davis was constantly fighting with Pete Rozelle and the NFL, and he consciously built his team to play the antagonist, cultivating and embracing the image of the dirty, violent bad guys. And the league was better for it.
This 11-year run kind of smashes two Raiders teams together, though it’s a continuous stretch with enough similarities to make it track easily enough. The first is the AFL version, coached by John Rauch. Davis went and grabbed Daryle Lamonica to replace Tom Flores as quarterback in 1967, and the Raiders leapt from an 8-win team to a 13-win team overnight. That 1967 team was the one that got to Super Bowl II, with Lamonica-to-Fred Biletnikoff providing the offensive firepower, and Willie Brown (who had just been traded to Oakland) helping lead the defense to a -26.0% estimated DVOA, 16th-best all-time. While acknowledging the same AFL-to-NFL issues that make judging teams from the younger league difficult, we still have to point out that the 1967 Raiders had a 44.3% estimated DVOA, which would be the eighth-best total in history, and would have made them favorites over Vince Lombardi’s Packers (30.1% estimated DVOA) if we take the numbers at face value. They ended up losing quite badly, and becoming the runners-up would become an ongoing theme — they lost the AFL Championship Game each of the next two seasons to the eventual Super Bowl champion Jets and Chiefs.
And then you have the 1970s version, with John Madden taking the helm. Rauch had resigned after the 1968 season due to Davis’ frequent interference in how his team was run — and he certainly wasn’t the last Raiders coach to feud with the owner. Madden was young and inexperienced, having just been a position coach the year before, but Davis liked him enough to give him a shot to run the team. Madden responded by never having a losing season, winning the division in seven of his ten years, and having the best winning percentage of anyone in NFL history with at least 100 games coached. So yeah, that worked out OK.
Those teams had the Soul Patrol secondary of Brown, Jack Tatum, Gene Atkinson, and Skip Thomas, back in the days where it was legal to clobber receivers early and often. An offensive line featuring Hall of Famers Bob Brown, Jim Otto, Art Shell, and Gene Upshaw is in the running for the best of all time. Biletnikoff was eventually joined by Dave Casper, and Lamonica was eventually replaced by Ken Stabler, Hall of Famers all. With all this talent at their disposal, the Raiders made a habit of … being the villain eventually dispatched by the champ, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Jets, Chiefs, Colts, Dolphins, and Steelers (twice) in six championship games between 1968 and 1975. They finally, finally got to be the ones laughing last in 1976, taking advantage of an injured Steelers team to get to the Super Bowl, and beating the NFC’s perennial runner-up Vikings to bring home their first Lombardi trophy.
So, why aren’t the Raiders No. 1? They didn’t just win baby enough. The 1970s are a rough time for dynasties — by this list, there were an average of 5.7 dynasties active at any given time, peaking as high as seven in 1970 and 1971. The AFC alone had the Raiders facing off with the Steelers (No. 6), Chiefs (No. 14), Colts (No. 15), Dolphins (No. 27), and Browns (No. 46). There’s only room for one champion in any season, and far too often, it wasn’t the Raiders. They never led the league in estimated DVOA throughout the 1970s, and lost conference championship games seven times. Reaching nine AFL/AFC championship games in 11 seasons is crazy-good considering the level of competition they faced, which is why they rank as high as they do — they are the highest-ranking team with just one championship to their name. Flip some of those results, make more Super Bowls, and the Raiders could have been in the top five
— Tom’s Old Days (@sigg20) February 5, 2020
No. 7: 1950-1958 Cleveland Browns
Peak Dynasty Points: 29
Average DVOA: 23.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 32.9%
Record: 81-25-2 (.759)
Head Coach: Paul Brown
Key Players: QB Otto Graham, FB Jim Brown, HB Dub Jones, E Dante Lavelli, T Lou Groza, T Mike McCormack, C Frank Gatski, DE Len Ford, MG Bill Willis
September 16, 1950, is one of the most important days in the history of professional football. The two-time defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles were opening the season at home, and they were going to show some scrub expansion team, dragged over from a piddling minor league where they called themselves “champions,” just what real football was supposed to look like. One 35-10 drubbing later, the Eagles were dragging their tails between their legs, Giants coach Steve Owen was rushing home to invent an entirely new kind of defense, and the Cleveland Browns had given notice that they were the true defending champions of professional football.
Paul Brown’s Browns were already four-time defending champions the year they entered the NFL — champions of the All-American Football Conference, a league which the NFL does not consider part of its history, despite absorbing three teams from it after it folded in 1949. An undefeated season in 1948? Doesn’t count. The fact that one of the main reasons the AAFC was folded was that the Browns were too good, making the games uncompetitive and killing attendance? Meh. As far as the NFL is concerned, the Browns were born in 1950, fully mature. A well-oiled offensive machine, led by Otto Graham under center, the incredible running back combo of Marion Motley and Dub Jones, Dante “Gluefingers” Lavelli out wide, and Lou Groza clearing the way at tackle? Just magically popped into existence, fully formed and with great chemistry. Alright, sure. Be that way.
The Browns pop up all over our greatest team of all-time DVOA charts. Their biggest accomplishment is their passing offense in 1953, which hits an estimated DVOA of 75.0%, the greatest in NFL history. Brown’s modified T-formation split both Lavelli and Pete Brewster wide, which spread out the defensive line and let Motley run through massive gaps. As for the passing attack? Brown’s offense was innovative in developing timing routes, routes down the sideline to Lavelli and Brewster, blocking specifically to create a pocket to work out of — stuff that’s baked into every modern offense to this day.
Otto Graham, league MVP, led the league with 2,700 passing yards and an incredible 64.7% completion rate (at 10.6 yards per attempt, which also led the league — no dinking and dunking here). Only three other passers even topped 50% completion in 1953! Graham is the only quarterback in NFL history to complete more than 60% of his passes while averaging over 10 yards per pass attempt, and he did it twice — once in 1953, once in the AAFC in 1947. New defenses had to be created to stop him — Steve Owen took his 6-1-4 “umbrella” defense, dropped two of his defensive linemen into the wide flat zones to give them some mobility, and created the 4-3 as a direct response to what the Browns were doing. Way back in the wee early days of Football Outsiders, writing for ESPN’s Page 2, our own Aaron Schatz listed Graham’s 1953 season as the second-best of all time, behind the then-still-happening 2004 Peyton Manning year. Our methodology has changed since then, and there have been a few challengers to the top of the throne, but Graham’s numbers jump out no matter how you look at it.
That 1953 offense ends up as the third-best since 1950, with an estimated DVOA of 40.2%, and the team overall ranks 16th all-time with a 39.2% estimated DVOA (their defense was below average, but it just didn’t matter with that offense going off). They came close to that mark multiple times in this run, as they were nearly as good in the NFL as they were in the AAFC. They made the NFL Championship Game in each of their first six seasons in the NFL, winning three, and then made the championship game again in 1957 after a one-year, Graham-retirement-induced lull. No team has ever played in six straight championships before or since, and again — that’s not including the four championship wins in a row in the AAFC. The Browns, as we all know, are synonymous with championship football.
So, why aren’t the Browns No. 1? Because the AAFC wasn’t on par with the NFL. Five of its eight teams folded outright with the league, the Baltimore Colts lasted one year in the NFL before folding, and the San Francisco 49ers, perennial-second best in the league, struggled significantly up top. We don’t give credit to the Canton Bulldogs for their Ohio League wins; we don’t count the 1990s Toronto Argonauts three Grey Cup titles; the New Yorker Lions do not get credit for dominating the Eurobowl. This is a list of NFL dynasties, and the first four years of the Browns’ existence were spent dominating non-NFL quality talent.
… but, then again, we do give full credit to the NFL teams in the 1920s, and the AAFC was certainly more competitive than that. So, just to see, I punched in the Browns’ four AAFC titles and ran their SRS-to-DVOA conversions, and they jumped all the way up … to second-best, all-time. So, if you can defend the honor of the Chicago Rockets or Buffalo Bisons, you can argue the Browns up to next to the very tippy-top of this list. Or, at the very least, you can give them partial credit and argue that they should hit the top five.
No. 6: 1972-1979 Pittsburgh Steelers
Peak Dynasty Points: 29
Average DVOA: 27.4%.
Top-Five DVOA: 33.4%
Record: 88-27-1 (.763)
Head Coach: Chuck Noll
Key Players: QB Terry Bradshaw, RB Franco Harris, WR Lynn Swann, C Mike Webster, DE L.C. Greenwood, DE Dwight White, DT Joe Greene, LB Jack Ham, LB Jack Lambert, LB Andy Russell, CB Mel Blount, S Mike Wagner
Well, here’s one that won’t cause any controversy. The Pittsburgh Steelers not only fail to make the top five, but they also end up without the highest score from the 1970s.
Now, don’t get us wrong — everything you’ve heard, seen, and remember about the Steel Curtain defense is true, at least by estimated DVOA. No individual Steelers defense quite makes the top five all-time, but three different defenses from 1973 to 1976 all make the top 11. No one else — not the Legion of Boom, not the 1980s Bears, not the Purple People Eaters — can put so many squads near the top of the table. So, while the Steelers don’t end up with the best individual defense ever, you can make a strong argument that they had the best defensive era ever. And it’s close enough that it’s not inconceivable that if we ever get play-by-play from the 1970s, one of those Steelers squads could end up taking the throne in official DVOA.
It’s astonishing in retrospect that the Steelers got so good so quickly, because the Steelers were not a good franchise before the 1970s — poorly managed, poorly coached, and just plain poor. They had a grand total of seven winning seasons between 1933 and 1971. Despite playing in one of the hot-beds of football talent, they didn’t really bother doing much scouting or drafting of young players — there were drafts in the 1960s where they don’t bother making a pick until round eight. When they did hit on young players, they didn’t realize it — they famously cut Johnny Unitas and traded away Len Dawson. It didn’t help that they were near-broke, too, often drafting players based not on their potential, but on the odds they could actually complete the signing at a budget price. If they hadn’t agreed to move to the AFC after the two leagues merged — and picked up a nice $3 million check in the process — they might have kept looking for budget picks forever, letting wealthier, better-run teams scoop up the top talent.
But no, now they had money. Money that let them hire Chuck Noll, and to actually use those draft picks. In 1969, they draft Joe Greene. In 1970, Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount. In 1971, Jack Ham. In 1972, Franco Harris. In 1974, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster — all Hall of Famers. Take notes, Cleveland: all it takes to turn the league’s laughingstock into the Team of the Decade is the best run of drafting in NFL history. It’s so simple when every pick you make turns to gold.
1976 is when all that talent meshed together. It was the best individual campaign of any of those great defenses, as they allowed just 28 points over the last nine games of the season. It was the point where the offense finally got their act together, too — the Steelers had a negative estimated DVOA on offense in four out of five years between 1970 and 1974, but were a top-ten offense over the course of the rest of the decade, because adding Swann and Stallworth gave Bradshaw a wee bit of an upgrade over Ron Shanklin and Frank Lewis. The 1976 Steelers rank as the ninth-best team since 1950 with an estimated DVOA of 42.7%, and likely would have won the Steelers’ fifth Super Bowl of the decade had 1,000-yard rushers Harris and Rocky Bleier been healthy and available in the AFC Championship Game. As it is, four Super Bowl titles in six seasons is a feat that has never been matched.
So, why aren’t the Steelers No. 1? There are a couple minor flaws in their resume. Their Top-Five DVOA is lower than any of the teams above them because their offense wasn’t anything particularly special. They “only” lasted eight seasons, eventually running out of steam as they clung on to veterans a little too long. But their big problem is their record outside of the four Super Bowl years. Teams get a bonus in the rankings for seasons with three or more dynasty points — high-quality seasons, in other words. Those are Super Bowl seasons, or division-winning seasons at 12-2/13-3 or better. Well, outside of the Super Bowl years, the Steelers don’t have any of those. Four of the five teams above them made championship games more often than Pittsburgh did, and all of them had at least as many quality seasons as Pittsburgh. It’s a nit, we admit, but we’re talking about the top six teams in NFL history; you have to pick nits to separate them.
“When that chemistry meshed, it was unstoppable.”
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 16, 2019
No. 5: 1940-1943 Chicago Bears
Peak Dynasty Points: 21
Average DVOA: 42.7%.
Top-Five DVOA: 34.1%
Record: 37-5-1 (.872)
Head Coaches: George Halas, Luke Johnsos, Hunk Anderson
Key Players: QB Sid Luckman, HB Harry Clarke, HB George McAfee, E George Wilson, T Lee Artoe, T Joe Stydahar, G Danny Fortmann, C Bulldog Turner
Allow me to introduce you to the greatest football team of all time.
50.0% DVOA is rarified air. Only three teams have ever hit it — the 1991 Redskins, 2007 Patriots, and 1985 Bears. No team’s estimated DVOA from 1950 to 1984 quite hits that mark; it may be a tad conservative, but the closest a team comes is the 1962 Packers at 47.9%. I knew coming in that there would likely be a couple additions to the 50.0% club when doing SRS-to-DVOA conversions pre-1950; the “average” team before 1933 is basically “a team which didn’t fold,” so your baseline is a little screwy. So one of the three teams to join the club, the 1920 Akron Pros and their 54.7% DVOA, should be taken with massive grains of historical salt.
But by the pre-war 1940s, the league had settled down somewhat. No teams were added or removed between 1937 and 1942, so while there wasn’t exactly league parity, there was at least a consistent baseline against which to measure. So when I tell you that the 1941 Bears had an estimated DVOA of 54.5%, and the 1942 Bears set a new all-time record at 57.4%, know that that’s not a historical artifact or a mirage. While we’ll never have 1940s play-by-play to run actual DVOA for these teams, there has never, ever been a team more dominant on a game-by-game level than George Halas’ 1940s Bears.
The Bears had been tinkering with the T-formation throughout their history, and especially since the passing rules were liberated in 1933, but they didn’t try to implement it full-time until they got a quarterback who they thought could run the system. Halas and advisor Clark Shaugnessy found their man in Sid Luckman, who reportedly was so overwhelmed by the complex offense when they introduced it to him that he broke down in tears. Within two years, however, Luckman had mastered the intricate system, with its men in motion and its counter plays, its complicated blocking schemes and its advanced passing routes. By the time of the 1940 championship, the Bears had perfected their version of the T, and went on to wallop the Redskins 73-0 in the title game. That’s not only the biggest win in NFL history; it’s the biggest margin of victory in any of the big four professional sports. They scored so often that Halas was asked to stop kicking extra points, because they were running out of footballs.
From that point on, the Bears couldn’t be stopped. With Bulldog Turner, Joe Stydahar, and Danny Fortmann paving the way on the line on both sides of the ball; Bill Osmanski and George McAfee running; Ken Kavanaugh catching passes — all members of the 1940s All-Decade team — the Bears’ average margin of victory over the next two seasons was 24.6. They lost two games: one to the Packers in 1941, which they avenged in a one-game divisional playoff, and one to the Redskins in a shocking upset in the 1942 championship game. The 1942 Bears scored 376 points and allowed just 84. They led the league in everything — their 5.8 yards per play dwarfed second-place Green Bay’s 5.0; they were tops with 10.2 yards per pass attempt and 4.0 yards per rushing attempt; they allowed just 3.0 yards per play, and just 1.8 yards per rush; they had 33 interceptions, ten Pro Bowlers … you name it, the Bears led in it. Had Halas not left in November to rejoin the Navy, I believe the Bears would have beaten the Redskins and completed the undefeated season. They were playing modern football while everyone else was futzing with the single wing and the Notre Dame box; the last stragglers finally joined the Bears’ T-formation revolution in 1953.
Oh, and even without Halas, they got revenge on Washington in 1943 for their third title in four years. And that was despite Luckman not being able to practice with the team, due to his job with the U.S. Merchant Marines — he was stationed stateside and allowed to play on gamedays from 1943 to 1945, but had more important things to do with his weekdays.
So, why aren’t the Bears No. 1? Well, a little thing called World War II hit the team hard. Halas went back to the Navy, and half of the 1942 team entered the military as well. That kind of thing sort of halts a team’s momentum, which is why this Bears run only lasts for four seasons. It simply is not long enough to crack the top four. But the Bears of the last half of the decade also qualified for the list, down at No. 25, when Halas and a bunch of the starters came back. If you give the Bears a pass for World War II and consider it one continuous run, then the Bears vault up to third on the list — still not quite long enough to grab a top spot, but darn close. In terms of sheer talent, this may have been the best collection ever; in 1984, Paul Zimmerman said that only the Vince Lombardi Packers could come close to matching them. Who am I to argue with Dr. Z?
No. 4: 1966-1985 Dallas Cowboys
Peak Dynasty Points: 40
Average DVOA: 20.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 34.4%
Record: 208-79-2 (.723)
Head Coach: Tom Landry
Key Players: QB Roger Staubach, RB Calvin Hill, RB Tony Dorsett, WR Drew Pearson, WR Tony Hill, T Rayfield Wright, T Pat Donovan, G John Niland, G Herbert Scott, DE George Andrie, DE Too Tall Jones, DE Harvey Martin, DT Bob Lilly , DT Randy White, LB Chuck Howley, LB Lee Roy Jordan, LB Bob Breunig, CB Mel Renfro, CB Everson Walls, S Cornell Green, S Cliff Harris, S Charlie Waters
The longest-reigning dynasty on our list, Tom Landry’s Cowboys won 13 division titles in 20 years, a stretch of time that started with battles against the Packers in the 1960s, and went through fights with the 49ers and the West Coast offense in the 1980s. In those two decades, the Cowboys never had a losing season, a record which stands to this day. That’s why they end up ranking above the Steelers as the best team from the 1970s — while Pittsburgh won more championships, Dallas was a contender for over twice as long. Unless the Patriots can pull a Brady-less winning season out of their hat in 2020, the Cowboys’ sustained run of winning seasons may forever remain untouched.
Summing up two decades of success in a way that won’t make my editors murder me anymore than they already were planning to is exceptionally difficult. Do you talk about building to the early 1960s success, with Don Meredith throwing to Bob Hayes, the fastest man in the world? Mel Renfro, Bob Lilly, and Chuck Howley roaming the field? Do you talk about Roger Staubach, the greatest quarterback of the 1970s? The Doomsday Defense with Cliff Harris, Harvey Martin, Too Tall Jones, Herb Adderley, and Randy White? The 105 games won in the 1970s, leading the league? Tom Landry’s development and evolution of the 4-3 defense? The glitz and glamor of the cheerleaders, the Thanksgiving Day tradition? Any and all of those could be the subject of multiple essays.
Instead, just take a look at that laundry list of key players. I generated those for modern teams by looking at players with multiple Pro Bowl appearances and at least 50 AV, and that doesn’t cut the Cowboys’ list down at all. Part of the reason for the long list is two decades of success, of course, but you have to give extensive credit to the Cowboys’ front office. Landry, general manager Tex Schramm, and chief scout Gil Brandt ran the smoothest, most modern office in the league; there may have never been a better franchise at knowing when to move on from veterans and being able to find good, young players to plug in. Landry’s defensive innovations and his perfection of the 4-3 in the run-heavy 1970s are the stuff of legend. Schramm and Brandt are the fathers of modern scouting; the first to use computers to analytically evaluate and sort through prospects, willing to dive down into small colleges (Cliff Harris, Drew Peason), check out non-football athletes (sprinter Bob Hayes, small forward Conrell Green), and take chances on players whose NFL prospects were in doubt (Roger Staubach and his Navy commitments; Herschel Walker and his USFL contract).
The three of them made transitioning from player to player and season to season as smooth as any other team in NFL history, and as a result, the Cowboys were always in contention. Only ten teams in NFL history have put together ten consecutive winning seasons; only five have hit 15 straight years. The Cowboys managed 20. Although they only managed to win Super Bowls VI and XII, they had an average estimated DVOA of 24.4% in the 1970s, best in the league by more than four percentage points. The team of the 1970s in every way but titles.
So, why aren’t the Cowboys No. 1? Well, it turns out titles are important. We can argue all we want about advanced stats and team quality and the long length of the run, but only managing to win twice is a major blow to their legacy. They played a bunch of these other top teams, and couldn’t get past them — they were upset by the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, couldn’t beat the Steelers in multiple Super Bowls, lost twice to Lombardi’s Packers in the NFL Championship Game, got knocked down by the Vikings and Redskins and 49ers in multiple conference title games. They lost the Ice Bowl. They lost The Catch. To put them above these teams, you have to argue that the breadth of being very, very good for very, very long is more important than winning championships. That’ll get you past a lot of teams, but the three teams above the Cowboys all came home with at least five championships. This is far as they can go.
No. 3: 1960-1967 Green Bay Packers
Peak Dynasty Points: 30
Average DVOA: 30.8%.
Top-Five DVOA: 37.6%
Record: 82-24-4 (.764)
Head Coach: Vince Lombardi
Key Players: QB Bart Starr, HB Paul Hornung, FB Jim Taylor, WR Boyd Dowler, T Forrest Gregg, G Jerry Kramer, C Jim Ringo, DE Willie Davis, DT Henry Jordan, LB Bill Forester, LB Ray Nitschke, CB Herb Adderley, S Willie Wood
The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field…
If the premise of this article was slightly different — if we were looking at the best teams over any given ten-year period — then Vince Lombardi’s Packers would take their place at the very top of this list. No one — not the 1950s Browns, not the 1970s Cowboys, not the 1990s 49ers, not the 2010s Patriots — has ever been as concentratedly good as the team from Titletown.
Judging a team by the number of Hall of Famers they have isn’t always the best metric — voters have their own idiosyncrasies, and the aura of being on a great team can boost borderline players across the line. That being said, the 1961 Green Bay Packers boast thirteen Hall of Famers — Lombardi, Willie Davis, Forrest Gregg, Paul Hornung, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, Jim Ringo, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Emlen Tunnell, Willie Wood, Jerry Kramer, and Herb Adderley. The 1953 Browns, 1971 Cowboys, and 1974-1981 Steelers all had ten apiece, but no team has collected more talent in one place at one time than the Green Bay Packers.
Perhaps Hall of Famers aren’t your metric of choice. You’re on Football Outsiders; you’re here for DVOA. Alright. Going back to 1950 with estimated DVOA, the 1961 Packers were the sixth-best team of all time, at 46.0%. And then the 1962 Packers were fourth-best of all time, at 47.9%. That’s the best two-year run of any team ever, and it’s not like they got much worse after that. And, to top it off, we should point out that estimated DVOA can sometimes be a bit more conservative than actual DVOA. If we replaced actual DVOA from 1985-2019 with the same estimations we use for 1950-1984, then these two Packers teams would end up third and first, all-time. We’ll never get back to the 1960s to see what their actual DVOA would have been, but if you want to proclaim the 1962 Packers as the best team to ever play, you have plenty of grounds to do so.
The Packers were one of the worst-run franchises in the league in the 1950s, winning just 20 games from 1953 to 1958. The talent was certainly there — eight of those Hall of Famers were already on the team in 1958, as they stumbled to a 1-10-1 record. Lombardi didn’t blow up the team when he took over from Ray McLean; he didn’t have to. Don’t get me wrong; the terrible 1950s Packers weren’t secretly a superstar team, waiting for a coach. Lombardi still cut a third of the roster, traded away stars like Billy Howton, and brought in veterans to help him run the team his way. But the Packers didn’t become great because of a free-agent haul, or a stellar draft class, or a sudden rules change. They became great because Vince Lombardi squeezed every drop of potential from every one of his players.
Green Bay is remembered for the Packers Sweep and “running to daylight,” with Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston pulling and paving a way for Hornung; a simple play, drilled over and over again until it was run to near perfection. But don’t think that the Packers were just a 4-yards-and-a-cloud of dust team; Lombardi was one of the first coaches to implement automatic reads and pre-snap adjustments in the passing game, and while Bart Starr never compiled the most amazing totals, he was arguably the best of his era at reading defenses and calling plays, back when your quarterback was as much a coach on the field as he was a passer. It is not in the least surprising that the Packers were the second, and as of now, last team to win three consecutive championships; who was going to stop them?
So, why aren’t the Packers No. 1? Because when Lombardi left after 1967, they almost immediately crumbled into dust. All of those Hall of Famers got old and left the team at roughly the same time, and Lombardi’s replacements were not even in the same universe when it came to coaching or acquiring talent. The 1960s Packers do not have a legacy of success; they have a history of success, one that wasn’t continued either in Green Bay or with essentially any of the Lombardi disciples that went out into the league after him. That concentrated dash of perfection vaults them over nearly everyone. Nearly.
— NFL (@NFL) November 16, 2019
No. 2: 1981-1998 San Francisco 49ers
Peak Dynasty Points: 47
Average DVOA: 26.8%.
Top-Five DVOA: 37.1%
Record: 207-72-1 (.741)
Head Coaches: Bill Walsh, George Seifert, Steve Mariucci
Key Players: QB Steve Young, QB Joe Montana, RB Roger Craig, WR Dwight Clark, WR Jerry Rice, WR John Taylor, TE Brent Jones, T Harris Barton, G Randy Cross, G Guy McIntyre, C Jesse Sapolu, C Fred Quillan, NT Michael Carter, DT Dana Stubblefield, LB Charles Haley, LB Ken Norton, CB Eric Wright, CB Dwight Hicks, S Ronnie Lott, S Merton Hanks
Paul Brown did not want Bill Walsh to become a head coach in the NFL. Walsh, an offensive assistant with Browns’ Bengals from 1968 to 1975, had enough success that teams were interested in bringing him in for interviews, but Brown repeatedly gave him terrible reviews when he was asked about it, and passed Walsh over for Bill Johnson in 1976. Without that, maybe the Ohio Valley Offense blooms in Cincinnati with Ken Anderson, or the Great Lakes Offense takes off in Green Bay with Lynn Dickey, or maybe the … well, it would still have been the West Coast Offense with the Rams and Pat Haden.
Would the WCO have worked without the 1978 passing game rules changes? Obviously, the fact that defensive backs could no longer clobber receivers all willy-nilly opened up plenty of room for short, precise passing, and allowing offensive linemen to extend their arms and use open hands allowed for better pass protection. But Walsh’s offense made Ken Anderson the computer’s favorite quarterback of the 1970s, with efficiency numbers jumping off the screen. Walsh made Virgil Carter into the league leader in completion percentage. There has never been a more creative and detail-oriented playcaller in the history of the NFL, and if the 1978 rules changes had never come into play, then he would have gone back to what he learned with Al Davis and Sid Gillman and mastered that style of football.
It is hard for me to objectively talk about the 49ers, because this is the team I grew up with, and the team I still compare everyone to to this day. I’m unimpressed by barking, scowling coaches; give me the genius psychologist, scripting plays and designing new formations practically every week. I still believe Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback of all time, and Steve Young had even better numbers. Jerry Rice is the receiver to whom all others are compared. Part of the reason I enjoy watching Christian McCaffrey so much today is his receiving chops, and well, Roger Craig was the first running back in history to pull off the 1,000-yard rushing/1,000-yard receiving combo. Call them a finesse team and take a shot from Ronnie Lott, or Ken Norton, or Charles Haley, or watch Merton Hanks chicken-necking his way into the end zone yet again. Every writer, every analyst is colored by the teams they watched when they were growing up, and these were my guys.
The most impressive thing about these 49ers isn’t the five Super Bowls — though yes, they would not be this high without the five Super Bowls. It’s the continuity. Every other team on this countdown has at least a few key personnel in common the entire time — a legendary head coach, an all-world quarterback, a two-way superstar. But the 49ers are a dynasty in the classical sense — a succession of rulers, keeping the reign going long after the founders have left. So Walsh begat George Seifert who begat Steve Mariucci. Montana gave way to Young. Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon became Jerry Rice and John Taylor became Rice and Terrell Owens. The team never skipped a beat.
And even outside the franchise, the 49ers dynasty created vassal states and dependencies. The Walsh coaching tree is all over the dynasty rankings. Coaches with a short path back to Walsh — either working for him, or one of his direct assistants — include Tony Dungy (No. 16 Colts), Mike Shanahan (No. 21 Broncos), Mike Holmgren (No. 25 Packers and No. 56 Seahawks), Mike McCarthy (No. 26 Packers), John Fox and Gary Kubiak (both No. 30 Broncos), Andy Reid (No. 33 Chiefs, No. 36 Eagles) and John Harbaugh (No. 40 Ravens), not to mention the countless of other coaches inspired by Walsh’s seminal Finding the Winning Edge — Bill Belichick has called it one of the two most influential books of his career. The 49ers colonized the NFL.
So, why aren’t the 49ers No. 1?
Because whoever created this system is a moron who wouldn’t know greatness if it bit him on the chin…
So, why aren’t the 49ers No. 1? Their stellar 5-0 record in Super Bowls sort of hides the fact that they only made five Super Bowls. Yes, I know, “only,” but we’re talking about the top two dynasties of all time here. Eric Wright interfered with Art Monk in the 1983 NFC Championship Game (well, no he didn’t, but that’s what the history books say). Roger Craig fumbled against the Giants in 1990. The Triplet Cowboys took two of three title games in the early 1990s. Brett Favre took the 49ers down in in 1997. This was an era where the NFC was, for the most part, significantly better than the AFC — of those teams that beat San Francisco, only the Packers didn’t go on to win the Super Bowl. The 49ers would have been favored in the Super Bowl each time. Flip a couple of those San Francisco’s way, and they’re probably still on top of this list. But if wishes were horses…
No. 1: 2001-2019 New England Patriots
Peak Dynasty Points: 59
Average DVOA: 24.6%.
Top-Five DVOA: 39.3%
Record: 232-72 (.763)
Head Coaches: Bill Belichick
Key Players: QB Tom Brady, WR Wes Welker, TE Rob Gronkowski, T Matt Light, G Logan Mankins, DE Richard Seymour, DT Vince Wilfork, LB Jerod Mayo, LB Dont’a Hightower, S Devin McCourty
If it’s over (and we won’t know for sure until we see a couple seasons of Jarrett Stidham turning into a pumpkin — horror movie icons tend to pop back up even if you’ve seen the body) then it’s worth mourning. Over the past two decades, we got to watch the greatest dynasty to ever play the game.
This is not supposed to be a thing in the modern era. Since modern free agency began in 1993 and the salary cap was put into place in 1994, ultra-long-term dynasties were supposed to be a thing of the past. Good players become too expensive and move on. Tough decisions force great teams to rely on untested rookies. Parity is the name of the game. Fourteen teams on this table started in 1994 or later; only four of them had a run longer than five years. And none, of course, approach the two decades of success that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have brought to New England.
Just as the Cowboys’ or 49ers’ entry was impressive due to the long list of long-term contributors they had listed as key players, the Patriots entry is impressive due to its short list. The Patriots are probably the best team we’ve ever seen at rotating through players without missing a beat: knowing which veterans to pay and which to let go, and finding bargains in the draft, in free agency and in trades to keep the machine rolling. That’s comparatively easy to do when your sixth-round quarterback flyer ends up being arguably the greatest to ever play his position, and your retread coach is a defensive genius on the Mount Rushmore of all-time playcallers, but still. And I wouldn’t count out the Patriots bouncing back sooner rather than later, if and when they sort out their post-Brady quarterback situation.
But, assuming it’s over, the Patriots end with the highest top-five DVOA on the table, counting their 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2019 teams. They have the most dynasty points at 59. They have the most championships, with six Super Bowl rings on their fingers. They have the most quality seasons, with 10 — all nine Super Bowl appearances, plus the 2010 14-2 squad. They are, without a doubt, the greatest dynasty of all time.
To cut-off a dynasty, a team needs two consecutive seasons with one or fewer dynasty point, and at least one of those years to be a zero-point season. That second caveat is huge at the top of the list. If you took it out, and just counted one-point years as strikes, than the Patriots dynasty gets split in twain. The 2008 Brady-less year and the 2009 wild-card loss to the Ravens both earn a single, solitary point. That would count as their two strikes, and we’d instead have the 2000s Patriots and the 2010s Patriots as two separate entries on the table.
The 2001-2007 version — starting with the loveable underdog Patriots upsetting the Rams machine, and ending with the loveable underdog Giants killing the perfect season — would rank tenth all time, sandwiched between Don Hutson’s Packers and the Triplet Cowboys. The 2010-2019 version, which cuts out any of those early building years and has Brady in full force, would rank fifth, right after Halas’ Bears and right before Brown’s, uh, Browns.
So, are the Patriots the single greatest dynasty to ever play the game, or just two of the ten best, with the same head coach and same quarterback? I tend to side with the former, but that’s one you guys can have out in the comments; I wouldn’t want to excessively ramble.
The Final Rankings
The following graphic shows the rankings of all teams. Click the image to open it in a larger size in a new window. You can also find a sortable table with the actual numbers (not z-scores) in the original article that explained the dynasty rankings.