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Ranking The Almost Dynasties

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Healy contributed a guest post titled, “One Play Away.” He’s back at it today, and we thank him for another generous contribution. Andrew Healy is an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University. He is a big fan of the New England Patriots and Joe Benigno.

What teams do we remember the most? Going back to the merger, the 1970s Steelers, the 1980s 49ers, the 1990s Cowboys, and the 2000s Patriots seem to stand above the rest. Each of these teams earned that place in our collective memory by winning the most Super Bowls in the decade.

How different could it have been? In other words, were the dynasties that happened by far the most likely ones? Or were there others that were equally, or even more likely? Think of teams that have suffered unusually cruel sequences of defeats (cue nodding Vikings, Bills, and Browns fans). We all know that those teams could have won Super Bowls. But maybe the more interesting question is whether those teams realistically could have won multiple Super Bowls, or even have become the dominant team of the era.

Today, I estimate the chances that different teams had of becoming the Team of the Decade (the TOD) for the ’70s, ’80, ’90s, and ’00s. Some of the results are surprising. One of the teams that became the TOD was actually much less likely than another to dominate that decade. Only two of the four teams truly stand out as being clearly the single most-likely team to be the TOD.

Even more interesting are the teams that might have been dynasties instead of the ones we’ve come to know. In most cases, these teams won at least one Super Bowl. In one case, though, a team that became famous for losing easily could have been not just a one-time winner, but a team that became a dynasty and dominated the decade.

To come up with the estimates of a team’s chances of winning Super Bowl, I simulated the playoffs 50,000 times. I used the actual playoff brackets and then created win probabilities for each game based on team strength. In tables that follow below, I’ll describe the probabilities that teams won multiple titles in a decade. I’ll also pick a True Team of the Decade (most expected Super Bowl wins), a What-Might-Have-Been-Dynasty that Won Nothing, a Team that Wasn’t as Good as We Remember, and a A Bottom-Feeder Team(s) for each decade.

First, a brief description of how I performed the simulations before getting to the rankings:

  • The playoffs were run under the rules in a given year: All rules relating to seeding, home field, and number of teams were used. If there was a rule in place preventing matchups between divisional opponents in a given round, I also applied that rule. To some extent, the fewer teams in earlier years helped make dynasties more likely in those decades.
  • Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System was used to measure team strength: I used PFR’s for all years to be consistent. It’s worth noting that their ratings and DVOA usually match up closely. Another possibility is to try to simulate DVOA ratings, but it seems simpler to just use SRS throughout. In some cases, there are some differences, such as for the 1998 Broncos and 1999 Titans.
  • I used the beginning of the NFL season to define the decades: So 1970-79 means Super Bowls V-XIV. An interesting thought experiment is to consider Super Bowl time instead of calendar decades. Then the Raiders would have been the team of Super Bowls XI-XX. Anyway, I’ll stick with the convention. It’s worth noting that my results suggest the Raiders were not as good as we might remember.


The table below shows each franchise’s probability of having won 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 Super Bowls during the decade according to the methodology described above. The final column shows the expected number of Super Bowl wins for the decade.


The True Team of the Decade: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers had only a 14.5% chance of winning no Super Bowls in the ’70s and a 4.9% chance of winning the four that they did. The expected value of SB wins for Pittsburgh was 1.67, the highest value for any team in any decade.

The What-Might-Have-Been-Dynasty that Won Nothing: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are not too far away from the Steelers and Cowboys. There was only a 23.6% chance the Vikings would have won nothing in the ’70s. And they certainly could have won multiple championships. There was over a 35% chance the Vikings would have won at least two titles and a 9.6% chance they would have won at least three. Of all the teams that won nothing, the 1970s Vikings are the best candidate for the team that could have been the TOD.

The What-Might-Have-Been Dynasty that Won Nothing, Part 2: Los Angeles Rams

A little bit behind the Vikings are the Rams. Los Angeles had only a 39% chance of winning no Super Bowls in the ’70s and a 20.3% chance of winning multiple titles.

The Team that Wasn’t as Good as We Remember: Oakland Raiders
When I starting working with the data, I expected the Raiders to challenge for the TOD. Five losses in the AFC championship to go with the one title. Seven playoff appearances. Despite all that, the Raiders only had the sixth-most expected titles in the decade. In fact, they didn’t really underperform at all in terms of titles. They had a 39.5% chance of winning none at all. The Raiders’ SRS ratings explain this. Oakland was never really great, only passing +10.0 in a year (1977) where they finished second in the division.

Bottom-Feeder Teams: New York Giants, New York Jets
Only two teams played the entire decade and missed the playoffs every single year. They happened to be the two teams that played in New York. The chance that two teams would miss the playoffs every year and New York would happen to miss playoff football entirely: about 0.2%.



The True Team of the Decade: San Francisco 49ers
Unlike the 1970s, the ’80s weren’t close. The Niners were similar to the ’70s Steelers with an expectation of 1.64 Super Bowl wins in the decade. The ’80s 49ers had about a 4.2% chance of winning the four Super Bowls they did and 51.7% chance of winning at least two. And, while not shown in the table above, it’s exciting to note that the Niners had a 0.004% chance of winning seven Super Bowls in the 1980s.

The What-Might-Have-Been-Dynasty that Won Nothing: Miami Dolphins
I was really surprised by this one. The Dolphins come in third in the 1980s in expected SB wins with 0.81. Based on their consistency in the first half of the decade, the Dolphins had an 18.6% chance of winning multiple Super Bowls in the 1980s. That’s substantially higher than the 12.4% chance for their nearest competitor: the much better-remembered Denver Broncos who were annihilated in three Super Bowls.

The Team that Wasn’t as Good as We Remember: Oakland/LA Raiders
Despite never being close to dominant, the Raiders won two Super Bowls in the 1980s. According to the number of SB wins we would have expected them to have, the Raiders actually rank 11th, behind six teams that won none in the decade. They had about a 5.5% chance of winning multiple titles in the decade.

A Bottom-Feeder Team: Houston Oilers
For teams that played every season since the merger, the Oilers had the least hope of winning a title over the 1970s and 1980s combined. That’s a little surprising given that they had at least one memorable moment in the playoffs during that stretch, unlike some of the teams ahead of them.



The True Team of the Decade: San Francisco 49ers
This one almost leaps off the page. Not only were the Niners on top in the 1990s in terms of expected SB wins, they were way on top. Given the Cowboys’ relatively short run, it’s not surprising that they would do worse here, but they’re closer to the 10th place Rams on this list than they are to the 49ers. Even though they only won one in the decade, the Niners had the same number (1.64) of expected titles in the ’90s as they did in the ’80s, and a 51.7% chance of multiple titles.

The What-Might-Have-Been-Dynasty that Won Nothing: Buffalo Bills
The Bills actually do worse on this list than I would have expected. They were about even money to win the zero titles that they did in the ’90s. They had an 11.0% chance of winning multiple titles, making them the top-ranked no-title team of the ’90s, but ranking them well behind the ’70s Vikings, the ’70s Rams, and the ’80s Dolphins.

The What-Might-Have-Been-Dynasty that Won Nothing, Part 2: Kansas City Chiefs
On the field, the ’90s Chiefs only went to one AFC Championship game and no Super Bowls. Nevertheless, they’re about even with the Bills in terms of the Super Bowls they could have won. They had a 10.4% chance of winning multiple titles in the ’90s.

The Team that Wasn’t as Good as We Remember: Pittsburgh Steelers
I’m not sure there’s a great candidate in this category, so I was tempted to just pick the Raiders again to keep the pattern. You could go with Broncos here, but the 1998 Broncos are one case where there’s a clear gap between SRS and DVOA, which gives them more credit. The ’90s Steelers had four playoff byes in a run of six straight playoff appearances. Still, they had a 59.3% chance of winning no Super Bowls and only a 7.9% chance of winning multiple titles.

A Bottom-Feeder Team: Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals
The worst team in two consecutive decades. Over twenty years, the Cardinals had 0.003 expected titles. That’s only 0.003 more expected titles than the Houston Texans and they weren’t even in the league yet.



The True Team of the Decade: New England Patriots
Less dominant than the other True TODs, the Patriots of the aughts still have a healthy gap over their closest rival, the Colts. There was only a 17% chance the Patriots would have gotten shut out in the ’00s. There was a 41.7% chance that the Pats would win multiple titles in the decade, more than double the chance of any other team.

The What-Might-Have-Been-Dynasty that Won Nothing: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles rank third in expected titles in the ’00s with 0.78, just a hair behind the Colts for second. They also look similar to the 1970s Rams and 1980s Dolphins in terms of multiple-title potential. They had about a 17.4% chance of winning multiple titles in the aughts.

The Team that Wasn’t as Good as We Remember: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Hopefully, it’s not too hard to remember a decade that ended with President Obama in the White House, but the Bucs come in lower here than I might have guessed. They made the playoffs five times, but still are only 14th in expected SB wins. They actually had a 71% chance of winning no titles in the decade. Even in their best year, 2002, where they ranked #2 in SRS and #1 in DVOA, they were far from dominant and so had only about a 21% chance of winning the title.

Bottom-Feeder Teams: Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions
Neither team made the playoffs in the decade, a more impressive accomplishment than the ’70s Giants and Jets in an era of expanded playoffs. Both cities also suffered through deindustrialization and so seemed to deserve better football as a compensating differential.

Closing Thoughts

I was excited to check this out because I wanted to compare teams like the ’90s Bills and the ’70s Rams. That comparison makes it pretty clear that the ’70s Vikings are hands-down the clearest What-Might-Have-Been-Dynasty that Won Nothing. This is all post-merger, so arguably the best Vikings team of that era (the ’69 edition) doesn’t even count in the calculation. If you count the 1969 Vikings, there was only about a 1-in-6 chance that those Vikings would end up with no Super Bowls.

Maybe the most remarkable regularity over the years is how the Cardinals have been so bad for so long. Even though Arizona came close in 2008, the Cardinals had only an 11.2% chance of winning any of the last 44 Super Bowls. In fact, they were lucky just to make the one Super Bowl that they did (in more ways than one).

Finally, a couple of thoughts about this decade. While we’re only four years in, this decade could wind up resembling the 1990s. The Patriots right now are playing the role of the ’90s Niners, while the Seahawks may be the best candidate to be the Cowboys. So far, the Patriots have been (perhaps surprisingly) dominant. There’s only about a 27% chance that New England would have no titles in the 2010s and there was even a 28.5% chance that the Patriots would have already won multiple titles; that likelihood is more than four times more as any other team. Despite having none on the field through four seasons, the ’10s Patriots are on pace through four years to have the most expected SB wins for any decade. They already have 1.07 expected wins, more than double their nearest competitor.

  • Excellent post, Andrew. It always seemed heartbreaking that Alan Page couldn’t pick up at least one title.

    Two thoughts:

    1. I know it doesn’t really follow the spirit of the post, but how much do you think this would change if you measured all 10 year spans instead of just decade cutoffs? For instance, I imagine the Bucs would look better from ’98 to ’07. I did something like that, but based on Pythagorean wins, and the top four teams were all ’50s Browns squads.

    2. What are the odds of a followup post that covers maybe the ’40s through the ’60s? I know PFR only has SRS going back to 1950, but I have it going back to 1941 and would gladly send it your way if it meant another sweet study like this.

    • I wondered exactly the same thing about measuring different ten-year spans. I’m not sure how all of it would change, but I think it would make the mid-80s to mid-90s 49ers stand out even more clearly. It would also identify more clearly how fortunate those Raiders teams were to win three SBs in that eight year stretch (since their expected wins during that time was well under 1).

      And I’d actually love to write that followup post. If it’s not too much trouble, please do send the data my way.

    • And you can reach me at ahealy1976 at gmail dot com.

  • This is really cool. If I add up the decades, it looks like the Steelers and Giants are the biggest overperformers, each winning 2 more super bowls than they “should” have (not including their wins after 2009). The Vikings are the biggest underperformers. They were expected to win 2.2 super bowls, which is 2.2 more than they’ve actually won.

    If you are curious to re-run this analysis with DVOA instead of SRS, I actually went through the exercise of estimating DVOA ratings back to 1950 (see the link in my name). I doubt it will change the results too much, but if you want the data, let me know.

    • Thanks, Andreas. I just did it quickly before running to teach (please excuse any errors), but I get PIT as the biggest overachiever, 3.06 SBs above expectation, with NYG second with 1.93. This doesn’t count 2011 for the Giants, which would bring them pretty close. MIN biggest underachiever by a healthy margin over PHI.

      And I was actually referring to your post when I talked about the correlation b/w SRS and DVOA (and I meant to link to your post). But it would be great to check out the historical DVOA numbers, too, so thanks for the offer on that. Now that I’ve got the simulations set up, won’t be too hard to check things out.

  • Jp

    Fantastic post.
    Again, hammers home the high variance nature of the NFL given that each season has such a small sample size and the playoffs are single-elimination.
    I would expect less startling deviation from expected championships in the other three major American sports.

  • Michael Terry

    Isn’t it a trifle odd that Pittsburgh, SF, and New England had such vanishingly small chances of winning the number of Super Bowls they did and yet they did? This tells me that SRS (and DVOA and every other rating system) underpredicts the odds of a dynasty emerging. When the Patriots won 3/4 Super Bowls, were their odds to win in any of those particular years really something tiny like 20%? Not likely.

    Going by SRS, what are the odds that some team in each decade won at least 3 Super Bowls and that in 3 of the last 4 decades some team did AND that team was the team most likely to do it, even though the odds of each of those teams winning as many as they did is Pittsburgh=~5%, SF=~5%, and NE=~10%?

    One possibility is that play-off football is different than regular season football and dynasty teams are much better in the play-offs. Another possibility is officiating bias in the play-offs.

    • Kibbles

      By far the more likely possibility is that this is just one more example of the “Wyatt Earp effect”. If I asked you to flip a coin 10 times, the odds of you getting heads each time would be just under 0.1%. If I asked everyone in America to flip a coin 10 times, hundreds of thousands of them would flip heads 10 times in a row. Each of those people would probably say “Oh my God, I just flipped heads 10 times in a row… what were the odds of that?!”. In reality, that’s the wrong question to ask- while each individual occurrence would be an unlikely event, it’s a statistical certainty that it would happen to someone somewhere.

      Similarly, the odds of any individual team becoming a dynasty might be low, but when you aggregate all of those odds together, the odds that someone somewhere will accomplish the feat becomes quite high. Whichever team accomplishes the feat will have overperformed expectations, but that doesn’t make it an unexpected event. With enough trials, it’s incredibly likely that you will encounter something incredibly unlikely.

    • Trepur

      The Patriots actually present a great examples of regression to the mean:
      After over-performing and winning 3 Super Bowls, the Patriots badly underperformed for a decade, looking exclusively at 2005-2013 the Patriots had a 6% chance of winning no titles, which is what happened.

      Overall, looking over the last 15 years, the Patriots had a 40% chance of winning four titles, meaning they overall barely over-performed.

  • It sure feels wrong to me, too, that Pittsburgh had only a 5% chance to win 4+ SBs in the 70s. But it’s hard to get past the fact that the one observation we have had that happen. If we were to replay the 1970s, my guess is that their chance of winning 4 or more is substantially less than 20%. Still, I agree it’s likely somewhat higher than 5%.

    One way I thought about adjusting these simulations was to account for performance in prior years. Then teams like the 2006 Colts would get a bump. Their DVOA or SRS for ’06 seems like it was pretty likely to underpredict their true chances that year.

    And great point about the most likely team becoming the dynasty so often. I thought about this, too. So hard to know when we’re talking about four decades, since chance can explain a lot of apparent patterns. But I think that’s maybe the clearest case for the probabilities for the actual dynasties being low.

    One last thought: Pats chances in their SB winning years according to SRS: 8% in 2001, 18% in 2003, and 29% in 2004. I don’t think those numbers seem low either, actually. In 2001, Pats were 10 pt underdogs in AFC Champ and 14 pt dogs in the SB.

    • JeremyDe

      Very interesting article/read. I tried to do something related a while back, looking at how many Super Bowls the Buffalo Bills would have been expected to win between 1988 and 1997. Admittedly, I got distracted and only finished calculations for 1990 to 1997. Also, I used Pythagorean Expectation instead of SRS, and I used a table that calculated the likelihood of the 2,048 possibly scenarios (with a 12-team playoff) instead of simulating.

      Thanks. You’ve inspired me to revisit this.

      Regarding the Steelers 5% chance feeling wrong, I thought that number seemed right on the money. It’s always easier to look at what did happen and feel that was ‘right’, because it was witnessed, than what was possible or likely. Using your methodology , the Steelers had 8 opportunities to win a super bowl. They were the #1 SRS in 75, 76, and 79. In 72 they were 2nd (Miami), 4th in 73 (Mia, Dal, LARams), 3rd in 74 (Oak, Was), 7th in 77 (Den, Oak, Mia, Dal, LARams, Hou), and 2nd in 78 (Dal). When I did my study (although with 12 teams in the playoffs), the typical ‘best’ team was projected to win the title in the range of 22-30% range (3 high outliers, 46% was the high), so your Patriots number seem in line with what I found, and the Steelers numbers seem ‘right’, at least to me. Any idea what the typical ‘best’ team’s odds were in the 70s?

      • Thanks, Jeremy. Totally agree on what you said about things feeling right and biasing our probabilities for what might have happened. I also think there being at least one team each decade winning at least 3 SBs makes us tend to think that there will be a team this decade that will be the clear team of the decade. At this point, the chances of any team winning 3 SBs in the 2010s are under 50%, and probably even under 20-25%. That might be a fun thing to estimate.

        And here are the highest probabilities I got for the 1970s:
        1970: 44.8% (MIN)
        1971: 22.3% (BAL)
        1972: 24.8% (MIA)
        1973: 32.8% (MIA)
        1974: 24.0% (OAK)
        1975: 37.2% (PIT)
        1976: 27.2% (PIT)
        1977: 28.5% (DEN)
        1978: 38.3% (DAL; maybe my favorite one, nobody else good in the NFC that year)
        1979: 36.1% (SD; PIT was at 30.1% despite having a slightly higher SRS b/c SD had #1 seed)

      • Michael Terry

        But it’s not just “the Steelers 5% chance”. It’s that the best chance any team had to win 4 Super Bowls in the 70s was the Steelers and they did it. And the best chance any team had in the 80s had to win 4 Super Bowls was the 49ers with 5% and they did it. And the best chance any team had to win 3 Super Bowls in the 00s was the Patriots with 10%, and they did it too! This can’t just be explained away by humans being bad at intuiting probabilities. By the odds given, it’s significantly more likely that not a single one of Pittsburgh, SF, or New England would have achieved their dynasties, but instead all 3 did.

        • Michael: Please see the bottom for my thoughts on your last comment. Was getting on a plane yesterday and could only reply there.

  • Tom

    No insightful comments here, just want to say that this was a great post, a very enjoyable read. Thanks.

  • Andrew Healy

    Response to Michael: I agree with this to an extent, as i was saying yesterday (best argument I see). But I think it’s important to point out that the 70s Steelers had a reasonable chance to win 3+ sbs and still be team of decade. Same for niners. And you left out the 90s, where the most likely dynasty didn’t happen. Really could be random chance explaining things.

  • Tim Truemper

    Just looking at the 1970’s as a specific case given the outcome of the Vikings being the all time “almost dynsasty” across all decades. And am comparing them to the team that came out second in the standings for that same decade- Dallas. Without using the SRS metric but focusing on a more crude measure- playoff appearance & playoff progress/success. Playoff Appearances: Dallas – 9 ; Minnesota 8 . Conference championship appearances: Dallas- 7 ; Minnesota- 4; Conference champions/SB appearances: Dallas- 5 ; Minnesota-3.
    As a marker of almost dynsasty, Minnesota falls a bit behind Dallas. Plus, in all three of Dallas’ losses, they were within one score while Minnesota was handily defeated in all three of their appearances. If the dynasty label was applied to conferences and not league wide, I think Dallas would have to be considered the NFC team of the decade by a good margin. I understnad this ignores the regular season measure of SRS, but once in the playoffs, it appears SRS loses some of its predictive validity as current team status (for example injuries) and unequal effects of comparison (strenght of schedule influenced by what division your in) may have more of a proportionate effect. For the latter, it can be argued that the NFC East Division (Dallas) in the 1970’s was more challenging than the NFC Central (Minnesota).

  • Greg Thomas

    Do the SRS scores for each team include their playoff performances, or do they just cover their regular season performances?

    • Trepur

      only regular season. Which is a big problem with most of the sports analytical community.

      Almost every sports analysis excludes playoffs, which I think is silly.

  • John

    For the 80’s, I would have Denver as the almost dynasty that won nothing. They were in more SB’s than Miami in that decade, and they had other years (1981, 84, 85) where they could have done better than they did.

    For the 90’s, I would have the Steelers as the second almost dynasty, and I would have the Cowboys as the team that wasn’t as good as you remember. Dallas beat up on two Bill teams that didn’t deserve to be there in 92 and 93, and in 95, O’Donnell handed them a game that Pittsburgh should have won.

    On the other hand, though, I agree with you about the Raiders not being as good as people thought in the 70’s. They dominated a mediocre division, and if the Sugar Bear Hamilton play doesn’t happen, that organization ends up ringless.