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Ranking the NFL’s most dominant dynasties (Part I)

How do the early 90’s Cowboys rank among the best teams ever?

NFL: Super Bowl LI-Super Bowl Rings Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So, a while back I did an analysis of the top NFL dynasties of the Super Bowl-era. There were sixteen different units that made my rather liberal list. I had always planned to follow that up with a look at the most dominant teams of that era and today we start that journey. This is a much more exclusive list with the basic requirements being:

  1. Minimum four-year run of excellence.
  2. Won three Super Bowls in four seasons.
  3. Won four Super Bowls in six seasons.
  4. Or, won two consecutive Super Bowls and had a high quality team that came close to winning a third-straight Super AND had four consecutive high quality, playoff teams.

Using that criteria we end up with five teams who deserve consideration for our little exercise here. Below, I’ll make the summary case for each team, as well as any other teams that were considered. In future posts, we’ll look at each team in detail:

  • Regular season performance (overall record, dominant and close wins and losses, points for and against, turnover margin, strength of schedule)
  • Playoff performance (record, point differentials, dominant and close record, quality of opponent)
  • How were these dynasties defeated and by who?

Let’s get to the contenders:

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Notes:

  • “Dominant Wins / Bad Losses” are games decided by more than 7 points
  • 1-Score games are those decided by 7 points or less
  • League rankings are the team’s average across the years analyzed

The Dolphins of the early 70’s are most well-known for recording the NFL’s only perfect season, going 17-0 in 1972. While there are those who like to dismiss or belittle the accomplishment, by any measure the early 70’s Dolphins rank among the best teams ever.

Accomplishments

  • Super Bowl VI and VII champions
  • Three consecutive Super Bowl appearances (V, VI, VII)
  • NFL’s only perfect season
  • 93-10 over four seasons, a .903 winning percentage (that translates to 14.4 wins per 16-game season)
  • Only team in Super Bowl era to rank first in points scored, first in points allowed, first in yards gained and first in yards allowed (the ‘72 team that also won all 17 games they played)
  • Won 27 of 28 games at one point

Best season

Key players

Both sides of the ball were populated with Hall of Fame and All-Pro level talent. Hall of Famers included:

  • Bob Griese - QB
  • Larry Csonka - RB
  • Jim Langer - OL
  • Larry Little - OL
  • Paul Warfield - WR
  • Nick Buoniconti - LB
  • Don Shula - Head Coach

For those counting that’s seven Hall Famers, including five on offense alone. Other All-Pro caliber players from those Dolphins squads:

  • Earl Morral - QB
  • Bill Stanfield - DL
  • Jake Scott - S
  • Dick Anderson - S

One of the amazing things about the perfect Miami season is they lost their starting quarterback for nine games. Thirty-eight-year-old backup Earl Morrall started those games and earned All Pro honors for his efforts. That’s some kind of depth.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

The Steelers’ most dominant run is a little different than our other candidates. Every other dominant dynasty lasted four years, while the Steelers run extended a full six years. They won consecutive Super Bowls twice, but also had two seasons in between where they failed to make the Super Bowl.

Accomplishments

  • Four Super Bowl championships in six seasons
  • Thirteen playoff wins in six years
  • Averaged top-five rankings in points scored, points against and yards against.
  • Six consecutive division titles

Best season

Key players

Many Dallas fans (myself included) consider the 70’s Steelers to be overrepresented in the Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t diminish the fact this unit was blessed with an abundance of top shelf talent. Hall of Famers:

  • Terry Bradshaw - QB
  • Mike Webster - C
  • Franco Harris - RB
  • Lynn Swann - WR
  • John Stallworth - WR
  • Joe Green - DL
  • Jack Ham - LB
  • Jack Lambert - LB
  • Mel Blount - CB
  • Chuck Noll - Head Coach

That’s a Hall of Famer at every position group, with two represented twice. About the only really noteworthy names not listed above are:

  • L.C. Greenwood - DL (2-time All Pro, 6-time Pro Bowl)
  • Andy Russell - LB (7-time Pro Bowl)
  • Rocky Bleier

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

The 49’ers were an 80’s juggernaut, winning 4 Super Bowls, 8 division titles and 126 of 170 games played (.741 winning percentage). Included in those 126 victories were 14 playoff wins. But the teams from 1987 to 1990 were clearly superior to those from earlier in the decade.

Accomplishments

  • Back-to-back Super Bowl wins (XXIII and XXIV)
  • Overall record of 58-12 (0.828 winning percentage)
  • 7 playoff wins by an average score of 33.7 to 9.1 (average margin of victory: 24.6 points)
  • Never finished worse than 2nd in yards gained; never finished worse than 4th in yards allowed. Ranked 1st, 2nd, 1st and 1st in yards differential.

Key players

One thing that seems obvious but also jumps out when looking at these teams is they were all loaded on both sides of the ball. However, the 49’ers list of Hall of Famers from this era is rather short compared to the Dolphins and Steelers:

  • Joe Montana - QB
  • Jerry Rice - WR
  • Charles Haley - DL
  • Ronnie Lott - S
  • Bill Walsh - Head coach

Other key players:

  • Roger Craig - RB (All Pro, 4-time Pro Bowler)
  • Guy McIntyre - OL (5-time Pro Bowler)
  • John Taylor - WR (2-time Pro Bowler)

DALLAS COWBOYS

Hey, this is really why we’re here right? To see how the Cowboys stack up, and on the surface they stack up very well. Unlike the three teams we’ve seen thus far, the Cowboys never enjoyed a totally dominant beginning-to-ending season, losing at least three games each season. However, they were the most consistent team among the contenders, losing only one playoff game over four seasons.

Accomplishments

  • Three Super Bowl championships in four seasons (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX)
  • 10 playoff wins in four years against a single loss
  • All ten playoff wins by a minimum of 10 points with an 18-point average margin of victory
  • Finished 2nd in point differential all four seasons
  • Finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in yards differential (average 2.5)

Best season

Key players

We again see stars at the usual positions (QB, RB, WR, edge rusher). The Hall of Famers:

  • Troy Aikman - QB
  • Larry Allen - OL
  • Emmitt Smith - RB
  • Michael Irvin - WR
  • Charles Haley - DL
  • Deion Sanders - CB

The Cowboys seemingly had playmakers all over the field as a number of complimentary players won numerous awards:

  • Erik Williams - OL (2-time All Pro, 4-time Pro Bowl)
  • Mark Stepnoski - OL (3-time Pro Bowl)
  • Mark Tuinei - OL (2-time Pro Bowl)
  • Jay Novacek - TD (5-time Pro Bowl)
  • Nate Newton - OL (2-time All Pro, 6-time Pro Bowl)
  • Darren Woodson - S (3-time All Pro, 5-time Pro Bowl)

New England Patriots

Accomplishments

  • Three Super Bowl championships in four seasons (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXIX)
  • 9-0 playoff record
  • Back-to-back 17-2, Super Bowl winning seasons

Key players:

Shockingly, the two primary drivers of this dynasty from 15 years ago are still active; Bill Belichek is still coaching and Tom Brady is still quarterbacking. In fact, if they’re successful in winning their next two games I’ll have to add another chapter to this analysis as it will be their third Super Bowl win in four years.

Looking at their 2001-2004 run, however, the only sure Hall of Famers are the legendary coach and quarterback. No other Patriot player from that era is likely to have their bust permanently on display in Canton.

Still, these are the key players:

  • Tom Brady - QB (3-time All Pro, 13-time Pro Bowl)
  • Richard Seymour - DL (3-time All Pro, 5-time Pro Bowl)
  • Ty Law - CB (2-time All Pro, 4-time Pro Bowl)
  • Lawyer Milloy - CB (All Pro, 4-time Pro Bowl)
  • Bill Belichek - Head coach

Other players had a good season here or there or were significant contributors:

  • Rodney Harrison
  • Adam Vinatieri
  • Mike Vrabel
  • Willie McGinest
  • Troy Brown
  • Teddy Bruschi

That finishes our case for why each team is included. Team not included:

  • Early 60’s Green Bay Packers: this team deserves to be included for winning the first two Super Bowls as well as the NFL Championship prior to the first Super Bowl. However, I wasn’t alive then and can’t judge this team except from the record book. Every other team in this analysis I watched and experienced their exploits as they happened. However, why the Packers won three consecutive NFL Championships, they failed to make the playoffs either the year before or the year after that three-year run.
  • The late 90’s Denver Broncos were pretty close to consideration. They won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998 and also won 13 games in 1996 before being surprisingly knocked out in the divisional round of the playoffs. Their three-year run was almost identical to the 49ers’ run from 1987 to 1989. The difference is the Broncos followed up their consecutive championships with a 6-10 season. The retirement of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway made a three-peat unlikely but when Terrell Davis went down with a season-ending knee injury early in the season any hopes were dashed.
  • As mentioned, the current New England Patriots are serious candidates for inclusion. They will automatically qualify with a Super Bowl win. However, even a Super Bowl loss would put them on even footing with squads like the Dolphins and 49ers. I’d be reluctant to include them if they lose in the AFC championship game to the Jaguars as that would be a loss to a (relatively) mediocre team with no real history of success.

Next up, we’ll look at the regular season performances of each candidate.

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