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.