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.