A decade ago, NFL Networking aired a series called America’s Game: The Missing Rings, looking at five great NFL teams that failed to win a Super Bowl. These were the Minnesota Vikings from 1969 and 1998, the 1981 Chargers, the 1988 Bengals, and the 1990 Bills. None of those franchises have ever won a Super Bowl, but those five teams all came very close to winning or at least making a Super Bowl.
But what about the 6 great pro football dynasties since World War II? The ’50s Browns, ’60s Packers, ’70s Steelers, ’80s 49ers, ’90s Cowboys, and modern Patriots all had (at least) one great team that failed to win it all, too. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the great Brady/Belichick, Graham/Brown, and Montana/Walsh teams that didn’t win it all. But in some cases, those were the very best teams they ever fielded.
You know the story. New England became the first and only team to ever go 16-0, and the first and only team to ever outscore its opponents by 300 points. QB Tom Brady was the NFL MVP, and WR Randy Moss, LT Matt Light, LB Mike Vrabel and CB Asante Samuel were all 1st-team All-Pros. WR Wes Welker led the NFL in receptions, and G Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, and NT Vince Wilfork all made the Pro Bowl (and the defense also had veteran stars in LB Junior Seau, DE Richard Seymour, and S Rodney Harrison). The year before, without Moss and Welker, the Patriots nearly won the Super Bowl: New England lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Colts, a game the Patriots led 21-3 early on.
The graph below shows the Patriots simple rating system grades in each season of the Brady/Bill Belichick era. The years where New England won the Super Bowl have a red marker, with 2007 shown in white:
The 2007 Patriots declined as the season went on, but it’s not a stretch to say that this was the best team of the Brady/Belichick era. By SRS standards, it’s far and away the best team in New England history. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots faced Eli Manning and a Giants team that barely outscored its opponents in the regular season. Despite being 12.5-point favorites, Manning, David Tyree (helmet catch), Plaxico Burress (game-winning touchdown), and Justin Tuck (two sacks) engineered a shocking 17-14 upset. Brady and the New England offense averaged a pathetic 4.3 NY/A, the lowest output by the team in any game that season.
Brady missed nearly all of the 2008 season with a torn ACL, and Welker missed the 2009 playoff loss to the Ravens with a torn ACL and MCL. Moss was traded by the Patriots during the 2010 season, which means Super Bowl XLII was the last postseason game where Brady, Moss, and Welker shared the field.
Like the ’07 Patriots, the Browns were undefeated for most of the season. Cleveland began the year 11-0, and through 11 games, the Browns had outscored opponents by 201 points. That’s an average margin of victory of 18.3 points per game, nearly matching what the Patriots did a decade ago. The Cleveland quarterback, Otto Graham, was having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Graham’s performance that year ranks 6th in era-adjusted passer rating (and 2nd since 1950) and 5th all-time in ANY/A value added over average. If Graham 1953 wasn’t as good as Brady 2007, it was certainly in the ballpark. The Browns passing attack finished the year with a whopping +5.0 in Relative ANY/A, thanks to Graham and WRs Dante Lavelli, Ray Renfro, Pete Brewster, and Dub Jones. The Browns passing attack was so dominant that it ranked 2nd in passing yards despite ranking 2nd from last in pass attempts.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the Browns also had the best defense in the league, allowing just 120 points through 11 games; for reference, every other team had allowed at least 188 points by that point in the season. DE Doug Atkins, MG Bill Willis, and DE Len Ford are all in the Hall of Fame; that year, LB Tommy Thompson was a first-team All-Pro, and cornerbacks Warren Lahr and Tommy James made the Pro Bowl, while S Ken Gorgal made both the NYDN and the UPI 1st-team All-Pro team.
But a funny thing happened on the way to perfection. The Browns had clinched an appearance in the title game, but entered the final game of the year with a chance to have their second perfect season in six seasons. Cleveland traveled to Philadelphia and was shredded by Bobby Thomason and the Eagles for 331 yards and 3 TDs, by far the best performance by any opposing passer against the Browns that year.
In the NFL Championship Game, the Browns lost 17-16, when Bobby Layne hit Jim Doran with a 33 yard game-winning touchdown in the final minutes. It marked the second straight year the Lions beat the Browns in the title game, although Cleveland would exact revenge the following season. It was also a game that featured a bad beat for the Browns: as noted by Bryan Frye, the rules of the time called for a pass to be incomplete if it was touched by more than one receiver. That nullified a huge gain in the 4th quarter for the Browns (video here).
Under Graham and owner/head coach Paul Brown, Cleveland won the AAFC Championship each year from 1946 to 1949,and won NFL titles in 1950, 1954, and 1955. But the ’53 Browns outscored opponents by 15.5 points per game, still the most by any Cleveland team since joining the NFL. But just like the ’07 Patriots, the team’s offense and star quarterback disappointed in the championship game, losing in the final minutes to an opponent that scored 17 points.
As noted yesterday, the 1987 49ers were ridiculously good. Since 1985, only five teams have posted an ANY/A Differential of at least +4.00, and the only two to do so and not win the Super Bowl were the ’07 Patriots and 1987 49ers. San Francisco was the best team in weeks 3 through 5, which featured replacement players, so we probably want to exclude those games from the analysis. Even still, the 49ers had an outstanding +12.4 SRS in the other 12 games that season. And based on DVOA ratings that excludes the replacement games, the 49ers were still easily the best team in football, finishing 1st in both offensive and defensive DVOA.
HC Bill Walsh was in the prime of his coaching career. QB Joe Montana was the best passer in football. WR Jerry Rice was the best player in football. RB Roger Craig remained one of the top double threats in the NFL. And on defense, NT Michael Carter and S Ronnie Lott were first-team AP All-Pros, and CB Don Griffin chipped in with five interceptions.
From 1981 to 1995, the 49ers were the best franchise in football. But other than perhaps their 18-1 team in 1984, there wasn’t a better San Francisco team than the ’87 squad. Here are the yearly SRS ratings:
This 49ers team would go on to win the Super Bowls in ’88 and ’89, and came within a bad bounce of making another appearance in ’90. So what happened in ’87, easily the best team that had Walsh, Montana, and Rice all on the same squad? San Francisco went 10-1 after the strike ended, and was white hot down the stretch, finishing with wins of 41-0, 35-7, and 48-0. To be fair, those were Steve Young-powered wins, but the 49ers soon became one of the first teams to see a magical season cut short — perhaps due to rust? — following a bye week.
In the first round of the playoffs, an 8-4 (0-3) Vikings team went into New Orleans and obliterated the Saints, who had been favored by 6.5 points. This Minnesota team was peaking late in the year: in the final game of the regular season, the Vikings passed and rushed for over 200 yards before losing in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champion Redskins. Against New Orleans, the Vikings once again hit 200/200, and Anthony Carter scored touchdowns both through the air and via punt return.
And then Carter got hot. In the second round of the playoffs, Minnesota went to San Francisco to face the best player on the planet. Instead, Rice didn’t even appear to be the best wide receiver on the field. Carter caught 10 passes for 227 yards, and also took a reverse handoff for 30 yards early in the third quarter. Rice was limited to just three catches for 28 yards, finishing the game second in receiving yards among players named Rice. Cornerback Issiac Holt, selected 14 picks after Rice in the ’85 Draft, was given the task of covering the immortal Rice. Holt played at Alcorn State in college, and played against Rice three times in college. And it was Holt who won the battle on this day, as did most of his Vikings teammates.
Minnesota won 36-24, abruptly ending the 49ers great season. The Vikings were up 27-10 midway through the third quarter when Walsh pulled Montana. On his first drive, Young took the 49ers 35 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to ten points. The Vikings immediately responded with a 40-yard strike to Carter, and a field goal upped the lead to 30-17. Young had a 42-yard rush on the next drive, but it ended with a missed field goal, and the 49ers never really threatened again.
And that’s how the best team to feature Rice, Montana, and Walsh didn’t even win a single playoff game.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of the Missing Links.