State of the Quarterback – AFC North

This is the second of eight posts assessing the quarterback situation for NFL teams entering 2015. Analysis is based on my quarterback metric, a score I’ve been using for several years to compare quarterbacks over the course of an entire career.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

Baltimore: Joe Flacco (56, 42, 55) rebounded from a terrible 2013 to give the Ravens that stable presence they need. He doesn’t light up the scoreboard, but he doesn’t make many mistakes, either. At 30, he’s in the prime of his career.

Cincinnati: Andy Dalton (51, 51, 50) seems to be that prototype guy who is good enough that you don’t look at the backup, but not quite good enough to threaten to win a Super Bowl. He needs a lot of pieces around him. Still, he’s only 27, and could have a breakout season. A.J. McCarron is an intriguing backup – maybe more for teams looking desperately for a quarterback than for Cincinnati.

Cleveland: Tyler Thigpen is the only quarterback on the roster with a qualifying season, and that was a long time ago. Thigpen isn’t the answer. Brian Hoyer (49, -, -) may resign with the Browns, but he is a free agent and this isn’t an easy situation for a quarterback. Rookie Connor Shaw looked pretty bad in a week 17 debut, and belongs in the small-hands, short-stature category. So that leaves Johnny Manziel. Manziel has enormous potential, and plenty of experts still believe he could win big in the NFL. He’s short, but has big hands. He’s also, apparently, a heavy partier who doesn’t take the NFL very seriously. Manziel had two starts late in the season, scoring 25 and 40 in the metric. So far, he hasn’t been impressive, but I think the Browns are in a situation where they have to see what they’ve got here. It’s not a great situation, but you play the cards you’re dealt.

Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger (63, 52, 55) has just about sewn up his Hall of Fame resume, and he’s only 33. Including playoffs, he’s 115-55 in his career, with 29 late game-winning drives. The Steelers are working on their break-the-bank contract right now, because he’s headed into a contract season. But they’ll work it out and Pittsburgh will remain a contender.

State of the Quarterback – Introduction and AFC East

I’ve been using my modified quarterback metric for several years now. It is an index of quarterback performance that’s a little like the quarterback rating, only it’s correlated to winning performances every year.

Because the metric changes each year and uses a series of five-year averages for several categories, it can be used to compare players going back to the beginning of the modern era (1978). It’s also very useful in tracking quarterbacks across their careers.

For instance, the data shows quite clearly that most excellent quarterbacks don’t fade away with gradually poorer performances. They either have one bad year and retire, or they stop getting playing time immediately upon no longer being a good starter. Unlike most sports and maybe even unlike many positions in football, if a quarterback can’t get the job done, he loses his starting job.

The average score for a quarterback in 2014 was 51. To qualify for a season score, a quarterback must have at least eight pass attempts in six different games during a season. Thirty-nine different quarterbacks reached that threshold in 2014.

For each quarterback mentioned, the numbers in parentheses indicate their scores from the last three seasons, beginning with 2014. A dash indicates no score for that season. An x indicates the player was not yet in the league. Ages are a quarterback’s age as of September 1, 2015.

AFC East

Buffalo: Kyle Orton (50, -, -) is retiring. E.J. Manuel (-, 46, x) is returning for his third season. This is generally the season after which GMs either sign a quarterback to his big money-making franchise-guy contract, or they let him go. There’s going to be a new coach in Buffalo. Doug Marrone had given up on Manuel. But Manuel, after a somewhat average rookie season, had scores of 58 and 60 to lead off the season with wins, then 41 and finally 21 in week four at New England. Then Marrone went with Orton the rest of the season. Will Rex Ryan give Manuel another look? He probably should. Otherwise, Manuel is playing out his option next year and if he does well, he’ll be a free agent.

Miami: Ryan Tannehill (53, 45, 46) took a step up as a third-year player, but the Dolphins didn’t. As of now, Tannehill will be playing out his option this year. But since he was a first-rounder, the Dolphins have a very expensive option they can use before this season that would extend the contract into 2016. As I wrote with Buffalo, generally it doesn’t get this far. Tannehill had a rough start to 2014, but played like a third-year quarterback who’s starting to get it. It’s a rough spot for Miami, but this might be a rare case where signing the expensive option-year contract is a good idea, then try and work on a long-term deal during 2015 if he continues to improve.

New England: Tom Brady (54, 47, 61) is a legend. He and Joe Montana have three Super Bowl MVPs. Nobody else. When do legends retire? Brady will be 38 in August. That’s the problem. Since 1973, there have been 1,501 quarterback seasons. Forty by 36-year-olds, 30 by 37-year-olds, 20 by 38-year-olds and only seven by 39-year-olds. Brett Favre is unique in terms of having seasons, at 36 and 37, that looked like end-of-the-road seasons. He was then very productive for three years before falling off the cliff at 41. Generally, top quarterbacks retire at about 36-38. I think we can trust Bill Belichick, however, to know what he’s dealing with. If Brady falls off that cliff, the Patriots are a different team. But for now, he’s their guy.

New York Jets: Geno Smith (42, 39, x) has been well below average his first two seasons. He’s looking like a bust, though for a guy drafted in the second round and thrust into the starting role, it’s not a huge bust. Just that he’s had his chance and it didn’t work very well. Todd Bowles is the new coach in New York, and he’s a defense guy. The Jets draft sixth. If Marcus Mariotta is still around, it seems like a good fit. Personally, I don’t think he lasts that long and I don’t think a defense-minded coach will be happy if his GM tries to trade up to grab a quarterback in his first draft. It may not be up to Bowles, but I see the Jets trying to solve this problem through free agency, as meager as free agency looks right now.

So, I’ll take this time to list the free agent quarterbacks currently available… Jake Locker (43, 47, 46) – a lot of talent, but also injury issues and performance issues. A scenery change could be all he needs to break out and justify that number-eight pick in 2011. Mark Sanchez (52, -, 39) – but even with new blood in New York, Jets fans would never accept this and the decent performances this past season could be just the result of a good scheme for him in Philadelphia. Brian Hoyer (49, -. -). Hoyer, 29, will get an opportunity somewhere. Josh McCown (37, 67, -). McCown, 36, might get another starting look. He was dreadful in Tampa Bay after looking like a world-beater in relief of Jay Cutler in Chicago the year before. I don’t see a new head coach investing in a journeyman, though. Colt McCoy (-, 40, 51). McCoy showed some promise for Cleveland before struggling in 2013. Then he went to Washington where he performed decently last year in a limited role, but was buried on the depth chart. The problem here is that short quarterbacks with small hands don’t get handed franchises. He will get a backup role somewhere. That leaves Matt Flynn (age 30), Matt Moore (age 31), Dan Orlovsky (age 32), Tarvaris Jackson (age 32), Jason Campbell (age 33), Michael Vick (age 35) and Shaun Hill (age 35) amongst the journeymen with some experience. And Blaine Gabbert (-, 45, 32) and Christian Ponder (-, 47, 46) as younger guys who looked pretty bad but might get another chance to move up a depth chart.

Yes, free agency looks miserable when it comes to quarterbacks. Offhand, I’d say Hoyer and Locker will get first-team looks somewhere and the others will sign as backups or retire.

The Greatest NFL Teams – The Salary Cap Era

In 1994, the NFL implemented the salary cap, making it far more difficult for teams to stockpile talent in backup positions. Some say the 49ers’ dynasty, with Steve Young backing up Joe Montana as Montana advanced in age was a big motivator in getting the cap approved.

It definitely changed the game. Only two teams have repeated as Super Bowl champions in the cap era. We’ve also had seven different Super Bowl winners in the last seven years – the first time that’s happened in NFL history. Teams in this era didn’t dominate the league the way some teams did in the ’70s and ’80s. A 16-game season is too long for sustained excellence.

In fact, only 14 teams have won 14 or more regular-season games during the last 21 years. What’s truly remarkable is that these 14 teams were only 3-4 in the Super Bowl, meaning seven of them never made it past the conference championship game. There is no 1984 49ers or 1991 Redskins or 1985 Bears in this group. We traded that absolute dominance for parity that is far greater than most people realize.

As before, the numbers in parenthesis after the team name refer to points scored and points allowed, based on standard deviations from the league mean that season.

10. 2000 Baltimore Ravens (0.2, 3.3).

Many don’t consider this Ravens team, which allowed just 9.4 points per game, the best defense of all time, but it was a close second to the 1985 Bears. This team really struggled on offense, overcoming a three-week losing streak mid-season where it scored only 15 total points. The Ravens lost the division to the Titans, but ended up beating them on the road in the playoffs. Trent Dilfer was the quarterback for about half the season and the entire playoffs, but he only had a 15/12 TD/Int ratio, including the playoffs. Ray Lewis and the defense shined, outscoring teams 95-23 in four playoff games, including a 34-7 rout of the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.

9. 2013 Seattle Seahawks (0.7, 2.4).

The best defense in recent years, these Seahawks were 13-3 and capped off the year with a 43-8 victory over Denver in the Super Bowl. They allowed only 14.3 points per game in the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Going up against MVP Peyton Manning, they forced four turnovers in the Super Bowl, while second-year star Russell Wilson threw for 206 yards and a pair of touchdowns. During the regular season, Wilson also ran for 539 yards, while teammate Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,257 and 12 touchdowns.

8. 2009 New Orleans Saints (2.7, 0.2).

The Saints blew out of the gate with 13 straight wins, scoring 30 or more points nine times. They then lost their last three. Drew Brees threw for 34 touchdowns during the regular season. He picked it up in the playoffs, the Saints beating Arizona, 45-14, then Minnesota, 31-28 in Brett Favre’s last playoff game. Brees was 32-39-288-2-0 in a comeback Super Bowl victory over Indianapolis.

7. 2004 New England Patriots (1.4, 1.5).

Very early in his career, Tom Brady was more a game manager. This was the year he broke out as a gunslinger, beating seven yards per pass attempt for the first time. The Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years, defeating Philadelphia, 24-21. The defense, led by Rodney Harrison, was one of the best in the league, allowing just 16.4 points per game. The Patriots were 14-2 during the regular season.

6. 2001 St. Louis Rams (2.8, 0.8).

The Rams went 14-2 and Kurt Warner threw for 4,830 yards and 36 touchdowns during the season. They looked to be peaking in the late season going into the playoffs. Then they hit the Super Bowl, and turnovers created one of the bigger playoff upsets in league history. Warner threw for 365 yards while New England’s Tom Brady threw for only 145. But two interceptions and a fumble made the difference. Warner brought the Rams back from a 17-3 deficit in the fourth quarter, but Brady, just 24 and in his first year starting, drove the team 53 yards after the two-minute warning rather than playing for overtime, and Adam Vinatieri made a 48-yard field goal as the clock expired.

5. 1998 Denver Broncos (2.5, 1.0).

The Broncos were coming off their first Super Bowl title after four losses. They were 14-2 (winning their first 13 games) and had little trouble reaching the Super Bowl. John Elway was 38 and put up the best passer rating of his career. His last game in the NFL earned him his first Super Bowl MVP award, throwing for 336 and a touchdown as the Broncos beat Atlanta, 34-19. Terrell Davis had 2,008 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns during the season.

4. 1998 Minnesota Vikings (3.3, 0.6).

With 34.7 points per game, the Vikings had the top offense in the cap era. They were 15-1 in the regular season, never scoring less than 24 points in a game. They blew out Arizona in the divisional round, then came up against Atlanta and built a 27-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Then the ever-reliable Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal and somehow the game wound up in overtime where the offense sputtered twice before the Falcons won the game. Randall Cunningham, at 35 and in his final season as a full-time starter, was never better in his career. Randy Moss and Cris Carter each had more than 1,000 yards receiving – Moss, as a 21-year-old rookie, averaging 19 yards per catch.

3. 1996 Green Bay Packers (2.2, 2.1).

The Packers were one of a very few teams to lead the NFL both in scoring and scoring defense during the regular season. They were 13-3, and got stronger as the season went on, winning their playoff games easily, including a 35-21 victory over New England in the Super Bowl. Brett Favre was 27, and despite leading teams to the playoffs twelve different times in his career, he was only 1-1 in the Super Bowl. During the regular season, he led the league with a career-best 4,413 passing yards and 38 touchdowns. LeRoy Butler and Reggie White led a defense that wasn’t overpowering, but only allowed more than 21 points twice.

2. 1999 St. Louis Rams (2.8, 1.5).

This was the Greatest Show on Turf, and outscored opponents by an average of 18 points during a 13-3 regular season. Kurt Warner threw for 41 touchdowns and Marshall Faulk ran for 1,381 and caught another 1,048 yards in passes (the 2,429 yards from scrimmage is second-best all-time). Their playoff games were close, but they wound up with the Lombardi trophy as Warner threw for 414 yards in a 23-16 victory over Tennessee.

1. 2007 New England Patriots (3.1, 1.3).

The best team of this era didn’t even win the Super Bowl. How is this possible? Of the three 15-1 regular season teams during the era, none even reached the Super Bowl. The three that were 14-2 and won the Super Bowl weren’t as dominant. Every team has those down stretches. Only one team didn’t. The Patriots were the only 16-0 team in NFL history. They outscored opponents by 20 points per game during the season. They scored 34 or more points in their first seven games and they didn’t give up 30 until the regular-season finale – at the New York Giants. They reached the Super Bowl with relative ease, where they faced the Giants again. This time, it was a defensive battle, and New England took a 14-10 lead with 2:45 to play. Then came an 83-yard drive that featured David Tyree’s helmet catch and the 12.5-point favorites came 39 seconds short of being the second undefeated NFL team to win a Super Bowl. Tom Brady threw for 50 touchdowns and 4,806 yards against just eight interceptions during the regular season. Randy Moss caught 23 of those touchdown passes. I’d rank this team ahead of the 1985 Bears easily if the Super Bowl had ended a minute earlier.

Honorable Mention: 1997 Denver Broncos (12-4, won SB), 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars (14-2), 2011 Green Bay Packers (15-1), 2003 New England Patriots (14-2, won SB), 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4, won SB), 1992 San Francisco 49ers (14-2), 1990 Buffalo Bills (13-3, lost SB), 1993 Dallas Cowboys (12-4, won SB), 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, won SB), 1990 New York Giants (13-3, won SB), 1968 Oakland Raiders (12-2), 1969 Minnesota Vikings (12-2, lost SB), 1966 Green Bay Packers (12-2, won SB), 1969 Kansas City Chiefs (11-3, won SB).

The Greatest NFL Teams – The Modern Age

In 1978, the modern age in the NFL began as the contact rule and blocking rules were modified to open up the passing game. This allowed receivers to use the middle of the field. The NFL also went to a 16-game schedule.

I find it difficult to make comparisons of teams or even players before and after 1978. While the game certainly looked the same, effective strategy was entirely different. Scoring increased, star players stayed healthier, and the NFL exploded in popularity.

I choose to divide the modern NFL into before the salary cap and after. The Modern Age had its dynasties. With the exception of the New England Patriots, no team has been able to string together that kind of success since the salary cap has been in place.

Here are the rankings of the best teams from 1978-1994. The first number in parenthesis is scoring offense, the second number is scoring defense. These are measured by the number of standard deviations from the mean.

10. 1983 Washington Redskins (2.6, 0.3).

The Redskins were 14-2 in the regular season, both losses by just one point. They were the defending champs, and survived a furious comeback from Joe Montana and the 49ers in the NFC championship. They were big favorites over the Los Angeles Raiders in the Super Bowl. And then they completely failed to stop Marcus Allen and were blown out. Joe Theismann was league MVP and John Riggins ran for 24 touchdowns. This was one of the elite offenses in the 1980s.

9. 1984 Miami Dolphins (2.7, 0.4).

This was Dan Marino’s finest season. At 23, he was a second-year player, starting from day one for the first time. He threw for 48 touchdowns during the regular season. The Dolphins were 14-2. They won their first two playoff games with ease. And then they ran into San Francisco in the Super Bowl. Marino threw for 318, but Montana was better.

8. 1986 New York Giants (1.2, 2.1).

This was only year three of the NFC’s 13-year stranglehold on the Super Bowl. Most of these games were routs, and New York’s 39-20 victory over 26-year-old John Elway and the Broncos was no exception. These Giants were 14-2, and won with defense, beating Washington, 17-0 in the NFC championship. Lawrence Taylor was the league MVP with that famous 20.5-sack season. Defensive end Leonard Marshall also usually came from the blind side, and no quarterback was safe.

7. 1992 Dallas Cowboys (2.4, 1.2).

These Cowboys put up a lot of points, winning their playoff games 34-10, 30-20, then blowing Buffalo out in the Super Bowl, 52-17. They were 13-3 during the regular season and could beat you with Troy Aikman through the air or a very young Emmitt Smith on the ground.

6. 1994 San Francisco 49ers (3.4, 0.4).

Steve Young was firmly entrenched as the quarterback, won the league MVP and led what may be the greatest offense in NFL history. He threw for 325 and a record six touchdowns as the 49ers routed San Diego, 49-26 in the Super Bowl. They were 13-3 and the defense was fairly average, but no one stopped the offense, which scored a record 131 points in the playoffs in three games.

5. 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers (1.6, 1.9).

Many consider the 1978 Super Bowl, with MVP Terry Bradshaw throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns, to be the greatest game in NFL history. The Steelers led 35-17 in the fourth quarter and Dallas brought it to 35-31 before running out of time. Bradshaw would beat you deep, making high-risk throws, but coming out ahead more often than not. Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier combined for almost 500 rushing attempts. And the Steel Curtain was still in place, allowing just 260 yards per game. Pittsburgh was 14-2 and had little trouble reaching the Super Bowl.

4. 1989 San Francisco 49ers (2.3, 1.8).

The 49ers won four Super Bowls during the 1980s, and this was Joe Montana’s third Super Bowl MVP, a mark that wasn’t matched until Tom Brady just a couple of weeks ago. The 49ers were 14-2, then beat Minnesota, 41-13 in the division round, routed the Rams, 30-3 in the NFC championship, then saved their best for the Super Bowl, a 55-10 destruction of Denver. Montana completed a career-best 70% of his passes during the season. Many consider this his best work in the NFL.

3. 1984 San Francisco 49ers (2.0, 2.3).

This version of the 49ers was even better on defense than on offense, facing little opposition in a 15-1 season. Their only loss was early in the season on a late field goal. They whipped the Giants in the divisional round, shut out the Bears in the NFC championship and had little trouble with a great Miami team in the Super Bowl, winning 38-16. The defense allowed just 13.3 points per game, and Montana threw for 28 touchdowns during the regular season and another seven in the playoffs.

2. 1991 Washington Redskins (3.3, 1.6).

The 14-2 Redskins deserve some consideration for the greatest team of all-time. Their two losses were close, and late in the season when they had wrapped up the division. None of their playoff games were close, leading to 37-24 victory over Buffalo in the Super Bowl (a game they led 37-10 in the fourth quarter). Mark Rypien led the offense and Charles Mann, Andre Collins and Wilber Marshall led a tough defense.

1. 1985 Chicago Bears (1.8, 3.0).

If you’re talking about defenses, you usually start with this team. The Bears held seven of their 16 regular-season opponents under ten points, shut out the Giants and the Rams in the playoffs, then stuffed New England, 46-10, in the Super Bowl. Richard Dent had 17 sacks, then went on to win the Super Bowl MVP. Jim McMahon led the offense, and was never that good, but this was Walter Payton’s team, and he had more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. They were 15-1 during the regular season, stumbling late against Miami. Overall, they outscored opponents by almost 18 points per game. Chicago is only 1-1 in Super Bowls, but this one stands out. I consider this the best NFL team of all-time.

The Greatest NFL Teams – Age of Expansion

The AFL arrived in 1960, and professional football was never the same. Within a year, every team was playing a 14-game schedule. The Super Bowl began in 1967. The leagues merged in 1970. Before the AFL there were 12 professional teams. By the end of the ’60s, there were 26.

The Age of Expansion ran from 1960 through 1977, when the rules governing the modern passing game were fully implemented. Since teams from this era played a very different brand of football from today’s NFL, it looked and felt like football and is what many of us think of when we indulge in nostalgia.

10. 1961 Houston Oilers.

George Blanda led the high-scoring Oilers to a 10-3-1 record and a victory over San Diego in the second AFL championship. Houston threw for 313 yards per game. The next-best team threw for 203. This was the best offense in the AFL’s short history.

9. 1971 Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys were 11-3 and allowed only 18 points in three playoff games, easily beating the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. Behind Roger Staubach, in his first full season (at the age of 29), Dallas led the league in scoring by a wide margin. They won every game he started. It was probably the best season of his long career.

8. 1976 Oakland Raiders.

The 13-1 Raiders didn’t blow everyone out, they just found ways to win almost every game, avenging their only loss – a September blowout at New England – in their playoff opener. They went on to win the Super Bowl, 32-21, over Minnesota. This was Ken Stabler, easily one of the top five players without a bust in Canton, at his best.

7. 1967 Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders were 13-1 and dominated the AFL, beating Houston 40-7 in the AFL championship game. They faltered in Super Bowl II against the Green Bay Packers, turnovers creating a big hole they couldn’t emerge from. But it was a far more competitive game than Super Bowl I, and helped give the AFL credibility that led to the merger. The Mad Bomber, Daryle Lamonica, served ably as quarterback.

6. 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steel Curtain reached its zenith in 1975 – the second of its four Super Bowl-winning seasons in the ’70s. They beat an excellent Dallas team 21-17 in the Super Bowl, sacking Roger Staubach seven times (four by L.C. Greenwood). Terry Bradshaw completed only nine passes in the game – four to MVP Lynn Swann for 161 of his 209 passing yards.

5. 1977 Dallas Cowboys.

This was the ’70s best offense, with Staubach and Tony Dorsett leading a squad that averaged 25.4 in a season that featured only 17.3 points per team per game – by far the lowest total since 1942. This was the season that led to the last major reform in opening up the passing game. So these Cowboys, who pounded Denver, 27-10, in the Super Bowl, were the last great team before the modern era. They were 12-2 during the regular season.

4. 1973 Miami Dolphins.

Coming off the undefeated season, the no-name defense was just as strong, holding opponents under 11 points per game. Miami was 12-2 in the regular season, and wound up beating Minnesota, 24-7, in the Super Bowl. Bob Griese attempted just seven passes, the defense did its thing, and Larry Csonka led a rushing attack that gained almost 200 yards on 53 carries.

3. 1968 Baltimore Colts.

If you don’t think the 2008 Super Bowl was the biggest upset in NFL history, there’s a good chance you’re thinking about Joe Namath’s victory over these Colts. A game that erased any question about the legitimacy of the AFL. The Colts were 13-1, then destroyed Cleveland, 34-0, in the NFL championship. Earl Morrall started for Baltimore in the Super Bowl, as he did all season. After three interceptions, he was replaced by 35-year-old Johnny Unitas, who couldn’t bring them back in a 16-7 loss. The strength of this team was in its defense, though, which couldn’t overcome five turnovers by the offense.

2. 1962 Green Bay Packers.

The 13-1 Packers had little trouble beating the New York Giants in the NFL championship, forcing three turnovers and riding Jim Taylor and Bart Starr to a 16-7 victory. The Packers allowed just 10.3 points per game with one of the best defenses of all-time.

1. 1972 Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins remain the only undefeated team (14-0) to win the Super Bowl. During the regular season, they led the league both in scoring and scoring defense. 38-year-old Earl Morrall was the quarterback most of the regular season after Griese broke his ankle in week six. Morrall won the first playoff game, but was struggling in the AFC championship. Griese came off the bench as the Dolphins stormed back to beat Pittsburgh. Griese then led the team past the Redskins, 14-7, for the title.

The Greatest NFL Teams – The Formative Years

With major rules changes coming every few years and the financial strength of each franchise being very different, I wouldn’t argue that any teams from this era deserve to be in the “best-ever” category. But they should be recognized.

This era began with the debut of the NFL draft in 1936 and ended with the formation of the AFL after the 1959 season.

10. 1955 Cleveland Browns

The Browns were 9-2-1 in the regular season, then went on to beat the Los Angeles Rams, 38-14, for the championship. Otto Graham led the top offense in the league.

9. 1958 Baltimore Colts

The Colts were 9-3 and outscored the rest of the league by a wide margin, going on to beat the New York Giants, 23-17 in the championship. A 25-year-old Johnny Unitas was just getting started on a career that many considered the best of any quarterback until the modern era.

8. 1940 Chicago Bears

The Bears were 8-3, then beat the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the title game, avenging an earlier loss. This is the most points ever scored in an NFL game. Sid Luckman led the offense.

7. 1954 Cleveland Browns

The 9-3 Browns crushed the Detroit Lions, 56-10, in the championship after losing to the Lions a week earlier.

6. 1948 Philadelphia Eagles

Tommy Thompson and the Eagles defeated the Chicago Cardinals, 7-0, in the championship. This was during the four-year period when the Browns left for the AAFC and barely lost a game while winning all four championships. The Eagles were 9-2-1 and outscored opponents by 18 points per game.

5. 1942 Washington Redskins

The Redskins interrupted the Chicago Bears’ four-year dynasty with a 14-6 victory in the NFL championship behind Sammy Baugh.

4. 1949 Philadelphia Eagles

The 11-1 Eagles shut out the Los Angeles Rams in the title game, holding the Rams to 109 total yards.

3. 1936 Green Bay Packers

The 10-1-1 Packers defeated the Boston Redskins in the league championship game. Hall of Famer Clarke Hinkle led the offense. He was also a dominating linebacker in a time when free substitution was not allowed.

2. 1942 Chicago Bears

The Bears were 11-0 – the only undefeated team in the entire era during the regular season. They outscored opponents by more than 26 points per game. No question this would be considered the greatest team in the era by far if they hadn’t lost to the Redskins in the title game.

1. 1941 Chicago Bears

The 10-1 Bears avenged their only loss of the season, to the Green Bay Packers, in a tie-breaker game. Then they beat the New York Giants 37-9 in the title game. This team scored more per game (35.8 points) compared to the league average (16.7) than any team in this era or later.

The Greatest NFL Teams, Part I

In order to determine the greatest teams in NFL history, I created a season score based on points scored and allowed as well as wins and losses and playoff performance.

I divided NFL history into five distinct eras, as follows:

I. 1922 – 1935: The Beginning.

The NFL was founded in 1922 with 18 teams playing varying amounts of games. Teams hired players, and it’s almost impossible to compare them. The Canton Bulldogs, for example, were 21-0-3 from 1922-23, outscoring opponents 430-34. The average team scored about nine points per game. Rules were very different; the game was only a distant cousin to what we see on the field today. I don’t include this era at any level of analysis.

II. 1936-1959: The Formative Years. The amateur draft was instituted in 1936 (nine rounds, 81 players). Halfback Jay Berwanger from Chicago was the first selection on February 8, 1936. Roger Goddell wasn’t around to read the card or congratulate the Philadelphia Eagles. The forward pass had been instituted three years earlier along with a championship game. Teams were finally playing the same number of games. During this period, the rules changed considerably. Helmets became mandatory in 1943, and free substitution began that year. In 1951, they no longer allowed linemen to catch passes.

It’s hard to compare teams across this entire era, but the NFL had a definite form, was gaining in popularity, and by the 1950s, the game started to look a lot more like what we think of as the sport of football.

III. 1960-1977: The Age of Expansion

In 1960, the AFL joined professional football, and put up a competitive product for ten years, finally merging into the NFL. The leagues competed to expand across the country. In 1959, there were 12 teams. In 1976, Seattle and Tampa Bay brought the total to 28. Schedules went from 12 games to 14 in 1960 and 1961. The AFL innovated with the two-point conversion and a more offense-oriented style of play. The Super Bowl began after the 1966 season.

Strategies were very different, and the passing game was limited by rules that made it very dangerous to be a wide receiver going across the middle. So either vertical attacks or power running games ruled the gridiron and successful defenses were like steel curtains. In 1974, pro football was changed forever with restrictions on blocking and the receiver contact rule.

IV. 1978-1994: The Modern Age.

In 1978, the NFL went to a 16-game schedule and further restricted blocking and contact with receivers. Everyone’s favorite concussion-generator, the head slap, was eliminated from the game. The quarterback-in-the-grasp rule came in 1979. The passing game opened up. Stickem was banned in 1981 (sorry, Jerry).

This is when the modern game began.

V. 1995-today: Any Given Sunday.

In 1994, the NFL introduced the salary cap. Until then, richer teams were able to build incredible depth charts (imagine having Steve Young as Joe Montana’s backup in today’s game). Jacksonville and Carolina were added in 1995. There was far more parity in the game, which might be why popularity exploded and the NFL became a clear #1 as America’s favorite sport.

Over the next few days, I’ll list the top teams from each era.

Defense Wins Titles… or does It?

One of my biggest pet peeves occurs when an NFL announcer states, as if it’s grade-A proven fact, that defense wins titles. It sounds so simple and catchy, yet when we look at how NFL teams behave, they spend as much on defense as they do on offense. They draft offensive players just as highly as they do defensive players.

Why do NFL franchises, with access to top coaches and scouts, as well as more data than an average fan can even imagine, build rosters in a manner that cannot be defended if the NFL announcer’s simplistic truism has validity?

I studied this several years ago, and came up with data that showed scoring offense correlates about 73% with winning and scoring defense correlates about 70% with winning. Since I’m about to go over my ratings of the all-time best NFL teams, and those ratings depend a lot on that data, I wanted to redo that study.

As with most of my studies, I started with the 1978 season – the beginning of the modern NFL.

First, a look at who reaches the playoffs.

There have been 426 playoff teams in the last 37 seasons. The average playoff team’s offense scores 12.3% more points than the average team in the league. The average playoff team’s defense allows 10.1% less points than the average team in the league.

But does that accurately reflect that the limit on scoring is farther from the average than the limit to a team’s defense? After all, you can only shut out a team, but you can score far more than twice the league average. That could account for the 2.2% difference. In fact, the standard deviation on offense is a little higher (19.0 percentage points) than it is on defense (16.2).

Delving into those 426 teams, 101 scored lower than the league scoring average and another 198 were within one standard deviation over the mean. On the other side of the ball, 97 allowed more points than the league average and another 192 were within one standard deviation over the mean.

No smoking guns here. I really can’t settle the question of offense versus defense based on playoff teams alone. This data suggests that the NFL front office behavior of valuing offense and defense equally is defensible.

But the cliche is, as we know, “defense wins titles.” It’s not “defense wins divisions” or “defense gets you to the conference championship game, but then you’re on your own.”

So I looked at teams that reached the Super Bowl since 1978. That’s only 74 teams.

The average Super Bowl team’s offense scores 25.4% more points than the average team in the league. The average Super Bowl team’s defense allows 16.4% less points than the average team.

The way this difference increases as you reach the Super Bowl does suggest an advantage to the offense. So, again, I looked at the shape of the curve.

Of the 74 Super Bowl teams, one (the 1979 Rams) scored below the league average and 33 scored within one standard deviation of the league average. On defense, eight of the 74 teams allowed more than league average in scoring and 29 more allowed scoring within one standard deviation of the league average. Still a slight edge to the offense.

Trying to break this down further, of the 188 teams that lost their only playoff game, the average offense was 8.2% better than average, with 64 below average and 77 within one standard deviation over the average. The average defense in this group was 8.5% better than average, with 43 below average and another 100 within one standard deviation more than the average.

The next group is teams that won a playoff game, but didn’t reach the Super Bowl. Of those 164 teams, the average offense is 11.1% better than average, with 36 below average and 88 within one standard deviation above the mean. The average defense is 9.0% better than average, with 46 below average and 63 within one standard deviation above the average.

So far, I’m not getting a sense that one side is winning over the other. The data does suggest that mediocre offenses are more quickly eliminated in the playoffs, however.

Ah, but you’re reminding me, “defense wins titles.” It’s not just about reaching the Super Bowl.

Of those 37 Super-Bowl winning teams, 16 were within one standard deviation of the mean on offense and 11 were within two standard deviations. And two were below average on defense (the 2006 Colts and 2011 Giants), 11 within one standard deviation and 16 within two standard deviations.

But then, I looked at actual Super Bowl matchups.

In 21 of the 37 Super Bowls, one team was better both on offense and on defense. That team won 16 of 21 times. It’s those other 16 Super Bowls that caught my attention.

Now 16 is a very small sample size, but the average winning team was 22.8% better than average on offense, and the average losing team was 31.7% better. And the average winning team was 23.3% better than average on defense, but the average losing team was only 10.2% better than average.

What that means is that in the 16 matchups where one team was better on offense and the other better on defense, 12 were won by the better defensive team and only four (including the 2014 Patriots) by the better offensive team.

And in all four cases where the defense was more than one standard deviation better than the other team’s defense while the offense was more than one standard deviation worse, the better defensive team won.

Out of all the data I examined, this was the only piece that stood out for the defense. With everything else, the suggestion that the two are equal or the offense has a slight edge was supported.

As an aside, only in three of the 37 Super Bowls, one team was more than a standard deviation better than the other both on offense and defense. In two of those cases (1985 Bears and 1999 Rams), the better team won. For many reasons, the 2007 Patriots’ Super Bowl loss was the biggest upset in NFL history.

To dig a little bit deeper, I wanted to look specifically at records for teams that were one standard deviation better than average on offense or defense.

On offense, this group consisted of 154 teams (out of 1105). Of those, 128 (83.1%) reached the playoffs, where they had a 152-106 record (.589).

On defense, this group consisted of 163 teams. Of those, 137 (84.0%) reached the playoffs, where they had a 166-113 record (.595).

Thirty-two teams were in both sets. Of those, 30 reached the playoffs and they had a 58-17 playoff record (.773). You’ll find 13 Super Bowl winners and another five Super Bowl losers in that group.

That’s still no reason for the cliche, so I went to 1.5 standard deviations above the mean.

The seven teams that met this criteria both on offense and defense all reached the Super Bowl, with only one team (the 1978 Cowboys) losing – and the 1978 Steelers are also in this elite group of seven. We’re talking about the most dominant teams in NFL history here.

Of the 70 teams that met this criteria on offense, 61 reached the playoffs (87.1%) and earned a 99-44 record (.692).

Of the 59 teams that met this criteria on defense, 57 reached the playoffs (96.6%) and earned an 80-43 record (.650).

You have to go to two standard deviations above the mean to find a big difference here, but only 16 defenses reached that level while 32 offenses reached that level. Those 16 defensive teams were 8-0 in the Super Bowl.

I can’t say that something with that small a sample size is significant. But I’ve searched quite a bit for a smoking gun in the argument that great defenses win Super Bowls, and those eight remaining teams are the argument. The fact that they’re 8-0 rather than 4-4 is essentially why this cliche exists.

Is this random chance? Perhaps. But now you know that when an NFL announcer talks about defenses winning titles, he’s talking specifically about teams that are two standard deviations above the mean on defense, which happens with one team every other year on average and even then he’s only talking about the Super Bowl. That certainly isn’t enough to change the behavior of 32 general managers.

Football Frontier Blog

Welcome to the Football Frontier Blog.

Unfortunately, the old Frontier Blog was lost when our ISP was doing maintenance and deleted the database. While they advertised heavily that they did regular backups of web content, it turns out they don’t.

I was able to find some of the old content in web archives, but only about 20% of the blog. Not enough to restore it in its old form. Many of the entries were more a quick take of then-current events. Those that were the meat of the Blog – the original analysis – could stand to be redone. I have years of new data to work with, and I’m trying to expand and improve my data sets.

The focus of this blog is whatever I see in football that interests me. Primarily, that’s the NFL. But I delve into college football as well. I’ve been ranking college football teams every year since 1997.

As far as pro football goes, I have a much more detailed set of data on games. Play-by-play going back to 1996, though it’s not in any consistent form. One of my projects, should I find the time, is to put these files into a consistent form and draw new analysis.

I also focus a lot on quarterback performance. This database goes back to 1974. I often use 1974 as the beginning of studies because that was the year the NFL opened up the modern passing game by restricting contact with receivers. In 1978, the NFL further restricted contact, and went to a 16-game schedule. Now that we have 37 seasons worth of fairly detailed modern quarterback data, there’s a lot to say about the players who run the show.

This blog has never generated many comments, so I’ve turned off commentary (the spam bots would hit it 100 times a day otherwise). But posts are echoed over at Front Office Football Central and I would encourage (and sometimes join) discussion there.