Monday, October 21, 2013

Best NFL Teams Ever, Part III: 1970-2012

And here we are:  post AFL-NFL merger.  Basically, this is the part of history football fans are generally familiar with.  Let's get straight to it.  Here's the 1970s:

1973 Los Angeles Rams, .885
1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, .880
1972 Miami Dolphins, .877
1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, .865
1970 Minnesota Vikings, .856
1973 Miami Dolphins, .854
1975 Minnesota Vikings, .841
1971 Dallas Cowboys, .839
1973 Dallas Cowboys, .828
1977 Los Angeles Rams, .824

Okay, be honest:  raise your hand if you thought the 1972 Dolphins were going to be the top team of the decade.  It's fine if you didn't.  But seriously, I'm SUPER impressed if you had the Rams with TWO of the top-ten teams of the decade.  The Rams did make one Super Bowl, but that was in 1979, when they scored only 14 more points than they allowed and went 9-7.  Both years, 1973 and 1977, they were upset in the  first round of the playoffs.  And in 1973, they actually did have the best record in the league:  12-2 - which is the record my system predicts, more or less (12.4-1.6).

The Vikings also had two great teams this decade, and made the Super Bowl thrice; just not in their best years, appearing in 1973, 1974, and 1976 (they also lost the Big Game in 1969).  The stars never seemed to align for the Vikes in the 1970s... or otherwise.

The 1972 Dolphins went undefeated, but weren't that great of a team.  In my opinion, calling them even a top-five all-time team is preposterous, and there's certainly an argument to be made via this model that they're not a top-20 team.  They just got lucky enough to win one-and-a-half more than they were expected.

The 1980s:

1985 Chicago Bears, .874
1984 San Francisco 49ers, .865
1984 Miami Dolphins, .817
1983 Washington Redskins, .799
1987 San Francisco 49ers, .798
1989 San Francisco 49ers, .786
1988 Minnesota Vikings, .767
1986 Chicago Bears, .751
1980 Philadelphia Eagles, .747
1981 Philadelphia Eagles, .722

Remember how, in the 1980s, the Raiders won two Super Bowls, and all the rest were won by NFC teams?  Well, this nearly-all-NFC top-ten may give an indication why that was.  The 1980s had probably the most parity of any decade.  It's actually crazy in how many seasons the teams were jammed pretty closely together.  In the 1960s, there were more teams with a .900 "record" than there were .800 teams in the 1980s!  The reason this is interesting, I think, is that you often hear the 1985 Bears and the 1984 'Niners and the 1989 'Niners in
discussions of greatest ever teams.  Only the top two teams of the 1980s would have even made the 1970s top ten.  It seems to me that the most dominant teams of the 1980s simply weren't that dominant relative to their peers, at least in the regular season.  That being said, the 1985 Bears were a pretty special team.  They are a reasonable group to have in a discussion of the best-ever teams, as are the 1984 49ers.  But the fact of the matter remains, neither of those teams can stack up to the sheer dominance of earlier teams, like the 1968 Colts or 1962 Packers, or the later dominance of some teams from the 1990s or the 2000s.  Actually, the 1980s look a lot like the 2010s.  The only difference is, the 2010s aren't even half over, and have plenty of time for a few dominant teams to sneak in.

The 1990s:

If I asked you to guess the best team of the 1990s, I can guess that you'd think of a few teams:  perhaps the 1992, '93, or '95 Cowboys.  Maybe you're sneaky, and you know how great the '94 49ers were.  Perhaps you remember 1998:  the year of five truly dominant teams, particularly Denver and Minnesota.  Maybe you like a team that was basically the 1998 Vikings 2.0:  the 1999 Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf.  Or maybe you favor the all-around dominance of the 1996 Packers.  Do you know which one was best?  Take a look:

1991 Washington Redskins, .929
1999 St. Louis Rams, .926
1998 Minnesota Vikings, .882
1996 Green Bay Packers, .876
1992 San Francisco 49ers, .825
1994 San Francisco 49ers, .822
1993 San Francisco 49ers, .797
1995 San Francisco 49ers, .789
1998 Denver Broncos, .782
1997 Denver Broncos,  .779

The 1991 Washington Redskins are a team that I often worry history will somehow forget.  They weren't dynastic.  They played a little worse than they're points scored/allowed total should have indicated (I have them at 14.87 wins; basically, they should have gone 15-1).  They rolled through the playoffs, thrashing Atlanta 24-7, crushing Detroit 41-10, and very solidly handling a very good Bills team, 37-24.  It was an excellent team, but the year before they were 10-6, the year after 9-7.  And they were sandwiched in the 49ers-Cowboys era of dominance, which makes them forgettable - even if they were the best team of the bunch.
The four 49ers squad above rank as the #2, 3, 5, and 6 49ers teams of the 1980s-1990s dynasty.  It's actually quite possible that, in spite of only winning one Super Bowl, the 49ers were better in the 1990s than they were in the 1980s.  That's insane to think about, considering they won four titles in the 1980s.
The 1997 Broncos were supposed to lose the Super Bowl to Green Bay, who was coming off a title in 1996.  The AFC hadn't won a Super Bowl since the 1983 season, when the LA Raiders defeated the heavily-favored Redskins.  What all the pundits ignored, though, was that the 1997 Broncos were a better team than the Packers.  The 1998 Broncos get more press because they started off 13-0; what no one ever tells you is that they were, from a point-differential perspective, more or less the exact same team as the year before - only 3 one-thousandths of a point different.
The 1996 Packers are a team that I have often, in barroom-type arguments, argued were more or less the equal of the 1985 Bears.  I used to make this claim in spite of not having done this research.  Those Bears outperformed their expected record by a game; the Packers underperformed theirs.  But they profile, basically, as exactly the same.

The 2000s:

2007 New England Patriots, .954
2001 St. Louis Rams, .856
2005 Indianapolis Colts, .791
2006 San Diego Chargers, .785
2005 Seattle Seahawks, .774
2000 Oakland Raiders, .772
2007 Indianapolis Colts, .771
2006 Chicago Bears, .760
2004 New England Patriots, .757

If you're surprised by the top team of the 2000s, you weren't paying attention to the teams of the era.  I'm quite certain that, even if I included playoffs, I would reach the same conclusion:  the 2007 Patriots were the best team of the decade, bar none.  And, if you're into making timeline adjustments when ranking teams, there's an extremely reasonable argument that the 2007 Pats are the greatest team ever.  The only other team since 1943 to best the Pats' .954 mark is the 1946 Browns of the AAFC.  And if you don't want to count them, that's fine.  The only team who's particularly close to the Pats is the 1968 Colts, at .949.
Of all the various top-tens I've shown, this one had the best rate of getting to the Super Bowl:  half of these teams made the Big Game.  They have the worst rate of winning it; only one team did (the 2004 Pats).
The gap between the best team of the decade and the 3rd-best is astronomical, with the #2 team closer to #3 than #1.  The near-100-point-gap between 1st and 2nd is also, far and away, the largest of any decade.  The 1999 Rams were much closer to the 2007 Pats than the 2001 Rams were.
Much like the 49ers of the 1990s being superior to the 49ers of the 1980s, there's ALREADY an argument that the Patriots teams of the 2010s will have been better than the Patriots teams of the 2000s, even if they go completely without a title.

The 2010s;

Admittedly, there's not much to write home about here... yet.  We're still waiting for our most dominant teams, which I assume will be coming later.  Here's the top-5 so far:

2010 New England Patriots, .791
2011 Green Bay Packers, .783
2012 Denver Broncos, .764
2011 New England Patriots, .741
2012 Seattle Seahawks, .729

Yup, Denver and Seattle were the two best teams last year.
I can't help but think that a Green Bay-New England matchup in 2011 would have made for a great Super Bowl.  Not that the Giants-Pats game was a bad one.  It just would have been interesting.
I think most people would have guessed the 2011 Packers as the top team of the decade so far, since they went 15-1.  Of course, they actually profiled to be a 12.5-win team, not a 15-win team.

So far, the best team of the current season is the Denver Broncos (in spite of their first loss to the Colts yesterday), who are +101 on the season.  The undefeated Chiefs are at +88.  If I were to do percentages today, before the Monday Night game, I could do that.  There have been 106 games this year.  There have been 4896 points scored.  That's 46.188 per game - the highest scoring season since 1965, if the trend were to continue.  The Broncos are +101 through 7 games, which profiles to 5.6867 wins in 7 games, a percentage of .812.  The Chiefs are at .772.  So it's possible that Denver is headed towards being the best team of the decade so far.  Only time will tell.

It's been a couple weeks since I last updated this, which was in week 11.  Whoops.  We're officially 224 games into the 256-game NFL season, so just two weeks remain.  At the moment, there have been 10634 points scored in the NFL this year.  That's 47.5 per game (one of the highest numbers of all-time; maybe THE highest number of all-time; I haven't checked for a while).  Here are the top seven "winning percentages" as of week 15:

Seattle Seahawks - .763
Denver Broncos - .745
Kansas City Chiefs - .717
San Francisco 49ers - .682
Carolina Panthers - .681
New Orleans Saints - .634
Cincinnati Bengals - .620

I should really schedule-adjust these rankings, but I'm not going to do that just yet, as it would be a crapton of work, and I do this all manually.  As it stands, Denver is 12 points behind Seattle; we'll see if one of them can manage two blowouts in the last to weeks to go down as the "team of the decade."


  1. The 1991 Redskins had guys have seasons that they would never have again, like Charles Mann, Mark Rypien, and Art Monk. After that, those guys started to fade. I think that the 87 Skins were better than the 91 Skins, especially on defense.

  2. Thanks for the comment, JB.

    Well, the defense probably was better in 1987. There are a couple of issues, though. First of all, I was ranking teams only on single-season performance. So if the players had unrepeatable performances, that's not really a relevant issue - only their performance in the given season.

    The other issue is that 1987 is a WEIRD year: 15 games instead of 16 because of the player strike, first of all. The Redskins' replacement players went 3-0 (the only undefeated squad in the league - the replacement games were weeks 4-6 - notably, they beat the Cowboys, who were notorious for not having had many players actually strike). The ACTUAL Redskins went 8-4 the rest of the way. Not exactly inspiring stuff. Plus, while the '87 absolutely crushed Denver in the Super Bowl, they barely snuck by Chicago (21-17) and Minnesota (17-10) on their way there. In total in the playoffs, the '87 team was +43. The '91 team crushed EVERYONE in the playoffs: Atlanta 24-7; Detroit 41-10; Buffalo 37-24. That's a total of +51. Admittedly, the '87 team played tougher opponents. But the '91 team took care of business. They may have been a one-year wonder, but they WERE a pretty great team.

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