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Missing Links In The Dynasty Chain, Part I

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.

2007 Patriots

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.

1953 Browns

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.

1987 49ers

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.

  • sacramento gold miners

    The common denominator between the downfall of the 2007 Patriots and 1987 Niners were the defensive fronts of their opponents. A tremendous defensive line is capable of neutralizing even one of the great offenses in NFL history. To be the champ, it must be earned. New England just couldn’t come close to duplicating their offensive success against that same Giants team earlier, and the Niners had home field advantage, along with three easy wins leading up to their defeat.

    • Brock

      Except they put up 38 points against that same front just a month earlier

      • sacramento gold miners

        Yes, it was very surprising to see how difficult it was for New England to adjust the second time around. Even if you think the Giants defense is better prepared, nobody saw 14 points coming.

  • WR

    If you study the best teams in history, you’ll see that there really isn’t one that stands out from the crowd as clearly the best ever. It’s extraordinarily difficult to produce both a historic offense and a historic defense in the same season. If the Patriots had combined their offense from 2007 with their defense from 2003 or 2004, that would be the best team ever. If Denver combined their offense from 2013 with the defense from 2015, or the 1984 49ers had Jerry Rice producing at the level he did in 1987, that would be the best team ever.

    But none of those teams actually existed. That’s why a lot of best team ever debates break down like player MVP debates. It really depends on what your definition of “greatest” is.

    • Anders

      Football outsiders put the 1991 Skins has the only team to project a 16-0 record and they ranked 1st in offense and ST and 3rd in defense in DVOA.

      • Richie

        I wonder why the 1991 Redskins aren’t usually thought of as a great team. Is it because Mark Rypien isn’t an all-time great QB? But the 1985 Bears are usually considered great, and they don’t have an all-time great QB. The Redskins actually have a better SRS (16.6) than the Bears (15.9).

        • t.d.

          It isn’t really a fair knock, but the Redskins didn’t have to face any of the other contenders for best team in those playoffs (the 49ers were white hot down the stretch,much like the ’87 team, but they missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker; the Eagles had a historically great defense, but Cunningham missed the season injured; and the Cowboys, about to win 3 of the next 4 Super Bowls and having beaten the Redskins already that season, laid an egg against Detroit- just weren’t ready yet)

        • JeremyDeShetler

          Flash over substance? People remember the Shuffle and the bigger than life personalities on the Bears. Who on Washington was brash? Gary Clark and Wilber Marshall? Rypien? No. Monk? No. The Hogs? No. Byner? No. Charles Mann? No. Darrell Green? No. Joe Gibbs? Resounding no.

          O-line play isn’t sexy. And they weren’t a dynasty in the way most people think of a dynasty because I think most fans associate a dynasty with 1 individual QB, for better or worse.

      • WR

        Rypien’s 1991 season is probably the most underrated QB season ever. It was a long time ago, but as I recall, there was a perception at the time that Washington had a great team, and Rypien was sort of just along for the ride. But Rypien in 1991 ranks as the 6th best season since the merger by ANYPA+, with at least 400 pass attempts, alongside 1994 Steve Young. And that wasn’t Rypien’s only big year. For the period from 1988-92, Rypien ranks 3rd among all QBs in ANYPA, behind Young and Montana and ahead of Moon, Kelly, and Marino.

        • Oh yeah, Rypien was a monster in 1991. I remember the guy who just lucked into having him in Strat that year just going bonkers on the league.

    • t.d.

      Yeah, the 49ers drafted Jerry Rice when they were coming off an 18-1, Super Bowl winning season. I’d actually argue the point that Walsh was in the midst of his prime in ’87- he only coached one more season before walking away with burnout. The fact that the 49er dynasty lasted close to another decade after Walsh left is pretty damned amazing (though leaving them with Young and Rice in place helped, I’m sure)

  • Mark Growcott

    I very much enjoyed that “Missing Rings” series and would have liked them to have done more such episodes. The teams selected in those 5 episodes are among those teams that have never won a Super Bowl and it would be fun to consider given that qualification which other teams could be featured if they did indeed resurrect the series. Teams that spring to mind are the 1999 Titans, 2006 Chargers, 2015 Panthers and of course the 2016 Falcons.

  • Tom

    Quite a Cinderella playoff run for the Vikings in 1987…they overachieved big time: underdogs by an average of 6.8 points throughout the playoffs and outscored their opponents by an average of 13. The 49ers got snake bit…wonder if that game is on YouTube…

    • Mark Growcott

      Yes it is

  • Tom

    I’m thinking the 1976 Steelers would belong with this group as well. Highest regular season SRS (15.3) for Pittsburgh during their Super Bowl run, some consider that team the best of the 1970’s. Can’t say for sure that they would have beaten Oakland in the Conference game if Harris and Bleier were in the game, but certainly would have had a better shot. Definite missing link there…

    • Mike G.

      They at least deserve an honorable mention, if only for the fact that it was the best defensive year for a dynasty that owed much of their success to their defense.

      • Tom

        Just noticed that Chase does mention the Steelers in the second paragraph…perhaps they’ll show up in Part 2.

  • Mike G.

    Do they do computer simulations of old teams against each other anywhere? It’d be interesting to see the ’87 49ers play the ’84 or the ’89 squad and see who comes out on top. Or maybe the ’07 Patriots offense against the ’03 defense….Belichick v. Belichick for all the marbles.

    • Mr. Dunwich

      That would be cool. Could try setting something up in Madden I guess.

    • sacramento gold miners

      NFL Films did a simulation of great teams years ago, they cleverly edited the footage to appear as if a real game was taking place. They had the ’78 Steelers beating both the 1972 Dolphins, the 1989 49ers. Years after that simulation, they altered the format to include players who played on teams of the decade. The 1980s 49ers knocked off the 1960s Packers, while the 1970s Steelers edged the 1990s Cowboys. In the “Millennium Bowl”, the 80s Niners fell to the 70s Steelers.

    • JeremyDeShetler

      https://www.whatifsports.com/nfl/

      Not the greatest simulation ever, but you can probably kill an hour or two on it.

  • Mr. Dunwich

    Ok, I realize this is pre-modern but the 1942 Bears definitely deserve a mention here.
    For a modern team, the 68′ Colts face palming to Mister Guarantee is a big one.

    • Can’t forget the 1934 Bears, either. Went 13-0 before getting blown out to the Giants in the title game, costing them a three-peat. It would’ve been either the second or third three=peat in NFL history, depending on how you want to treat the Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs situation.

      I wouldn’t count the 1968 Colts, since losing the game didn’t take a piece from a dynasty in the way that either undefeated Bears upset did. The Colts squad was more of a historically great team that wasn’t part of a dynasty, like the 69 Vikings or 85 Bears.

  • Adam Grossberg

    Chase — A correction for you: Paul Brown never owned the Cleveland Browns.