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.