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Ranking the NFL’s most dominant dynasties (part II)

A look at the team’s regular season performance

2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game: Arizona Cardinals v Dallas Cowboys

Previously we made the case for the why the following teams represent the most dominant dynasties in the Super Bowl era of the NFL:

Today we’re going to look at these team’s regular-season performances. Some might wonder why I’d take time to measure regular-season results when what matters is winning playoff games. That’s true to some extent, and playoff results surely trump regular-season results. However, part of the reason teams are dominant is they went out and beat opponents consistently. This means big win totals, division titles and beating teams decisively from September through the end of the season. We’ll see that all of these teams (for the most part) met this standard, but some more so than others.

Wins and losses

The following shows the raw numbers for each of the dynastic teams, by year:

We knew these were great teams, but the above table really does capture thorough dominance:

  • Overall win percentage of 78.5% (translates to more than 12.5 wins per 16-game season)
  • Average differential of 9.5 points per game
  • Half of the seasons saw point differentials above 10
  • The teams combined to win 21 of a possible 22 division titles
  • Miami’s 47-8-1 record clearly ranks best.
  • San Francisco’s 51-12 record is second.
  • Dallas and Pittsburgh both sport similar records while New England ranks slightly below those two.

A closer look at the teams winning percentage by season (years are represented horizontally; the Pittsburgh dynasty lasted two more years than all the others, which lasted four years):

Only five times out of 22 did teams fail to win at least 75% of games

  1. 1976 Steelers (71%)
  2. 1977 Steelers (64%)
  3. 1988 49ers (63%)
  4. 2001 Patriots (69%)
  5. 2002 Patriots (56%)

Nine times teams won 86% or more of games (14 wins in a 16 game season)

  1. 1972 Dolphins (100%)
  2. 1973 Dolphins (86%)
  3. 1975 Steelers (86%)
  4. 1978 Steelers (88%)
  5. 1987 49ers (87%)
  6. 1989 49ers (88%)
  7. 1990 49ers (88%)
  8. 2003 Patriots (88%)
  9. 2004 Patriots (88%)

Man, that’s a lot of winning. The other 8 teams ended up with win percentages between 75% and 81%.

Points for and against

Here’s a closer look at each team’s points per game rankings. I used rankings because “points per game” raw numbers have gradually increased over time, so it wouldn’t be fair to look at gross point totals:

Notes:

  • On average, these teams tied for fourth in scoring. Four of the teams ranked #1, nine ranked in the top three and 12 of the 22 ranked in the top five.
  • Dallas ranks highest (2.3 average ranking) and was the most consistent, finishing no worse than third in scoring in any one year. While ranking twice three different times, they never managed to rank first in points scored.
  • Miami is a clear second, with an average ranking of 3.3
  • San Francisco (4.3) and Pittsburgh (4.8) rank pretty similarly. SF twice ranked first in the league, while Pittsburgh ranked first once.
  • New England lags significantly behind all others. They failed to rank in the top three once, and had the two worst rankings (10th in 2002 and 12th in 2003). No other team finished worse than eighth.

The following shows points against rankings:

In many ways, this is similar to the points scored rankings.

  • On average the teams ranked fourth in points allowed. Five teams ranked #1 and 15 of the 22 teams ranked in the top three. Only four units failed to rank in the league’s top fvie.
  • Miami ranks first with an average ranking of 2.8. Twice they finished with the league’s top ranking.
  • Dallas ranks second with an average ranking of 3.3. Like their points scored number, they were very consistent, but never once ranked first overall.
  • San Francisco (4.0) and Pittsburgh (4.7) again have similar results. SF had three seasons in the top three but finished eighth in 1988. Pittsburgh probably had the most consistently dominant defense, four times finishing in the league’s top two and twice as the best in the league. The 17th ranking in 1977 weighs down their average number.
  • New England again finishes at the “bottom” of the list. However, they finished with top-two units twice and the best in the league once.

Point differential

Which of course brings us to what I consider to be the most interesting numbers... point differential. The advanced analytics guys will tell you point differentials are a better indicator of a team’s future performance than past record. But we’re not looking to determine these team’s future performance, we’re judging them by their actual past performance. But from my perspective, point differentials, just as much as final record, tell which team was better. Simply put, the greater the differential the better the team.

And here we really see just how good these teams were, with an average ranking of 3.5. Sixteen of the 22 units finished first, second or third in overall point differential.

  • The Dolphins had consecutive years finishing 3rd, 1st, then 2nd.
  • Pittsburgh finished 1st twice, 2nd twice and 3rd once in six seasons.
  • The 49ers finished 1st twice and 3rd once in four seasons.
  • The Cowboys finished 2nd four consecutive seasons.
  • The Patriots lag far behind all others, with an average of 7th but even they managed one 1st place finish.

Overall Miami ranks highest, a full 1.7 points above second place Pittsburgh. Over four entire seasons the Dolphins outscored opponents by an average of 11.8 points (versus 10.1 for the Steelers).

Only 0.8 points separates Pittsburgh, Dallas and San Francisco. Each outscored opponents by 9+ points over their long dynastic runs.

The Patriots, again, are penalized for their weak 2002 season. Even excluding that season their average (8.1) would still rank last among these teams.

Strength of schedule

Some would argue gross point totals fail to account for strength of schedule. To address that we can use Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System. PFR’s system is called “simple” because it is: it takes every team’s gross point differential then increases it or decreases based upon opponent’s point differential. You can read the details using the above link.

The following shows each team’s gross point differential, the strength of schedule adjustment and the resulting Simple Rating System score.

A couple things stand out:

  • The final SRS numbers are still very impressive; by any measure all but the Patriots were dominant teams that were regular season forces of nature.
  • Miami faced inferior competition all four years of their dynasty but especially in their perfect 1972 season. The team’s 1972 4.3 point SOS adjustment is one of the highest I’ve ever seen.
  • The 1977 Pittsburgh team was that dynasties worst performer (9-5 record; +2.9 point differential) but also faced a particularly difficult schedule (+3.4 SOS).
  • San Francisco and Dallas faced neither particularly difficult or easy schedules; their SOS was generally neutral.
  • New England faced an easy schedule in 2001 but then faced difficult schedules in 2003 and 2004.

Here’s the table using PFR’s SRS:

Note the averages (final column) have adjusted somewhat compared to the raw point differential table above:

  • Miami no longer ranks #1. The SOS adjustment reduced their point differential 2.3 points, which is significant.
  • This allowed Pittsburgh to move into first (10.4) and Dallas to move into second place (9.9)

Yards gained and allowed

Points rule in the NFL but yards gained are also important. Dominant teams are able to move the ball consistently and prevent opponents from doing the same. Let’s see how our dynasties rank in this metric (avg. league ranking for yards gained and allowed):

We again see good numbers, but the yardage rankings, on average, aren’t as good as the points rankings:

Still, we see a lot of good numbers. Four teams finished first in yards gained; six finished first in yards allowed.

Offensive rankings:

  • San Francisco never finished worse than second in yards gained, finishing first twice.
  • Dallas, Pittsburgh and Miami were all bunched around each other.
  • New England again is a poor outlier, ranking below average on three occasions and only once (barely) making the top 10.

Defensive rankings:

San Francisco again ranks highest, never finishing worse than fourth.

  • Pittsburgh also ranks very high, ranking first twice, second once, third once and fourth once.
  • Miami ranked first once, but otherwise fell between fifth and 10th.
  • Dallas ranked first twice but also ranked ninth and 10th.
  • New England’s average ranking of 16th lags far behind the other dynasties. Twice they finished in the bottom 10 of the league; their other finishes were top 10. Not once did they rank in the league’s top five.

Turnover differential

Up until now we’ve seen that all the units other than the Patriots have been dominant in virtually every point and yardage category. Perhaps turnovers is what enabled the Patriots to overcome relatively modest point and yardage totals.

Here we see a couple trends. First, unlike points or yards, these teams weren’t as dominant. Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dallas all had average rankings of 6.0 or better in every category we’ve looked at thus far: points for, points against, points differential, yards for and yards against. Only one of those four, however, managed an average ranking as high as 6.0 (San Fran at 4.5) in turnovers.

None of the teams ever ranked as high as first and there’s only five seasons out of 22 where a team ranked as high as third. In fact, six of the 22 teams actually had negative turnover margins, including Pittsburgh ranking 24th in 1979.

This supports that notion that unlike yards or points, turnovers are more difficult to sustain. I’m not going to go so far as to say turnovers are luck based, but even the very best teams of the Super Bowl era were unable to maintain anything close to their high levels in terms of points and yards.

Still, we generally see top 10 results. Also note that New England had the best turnover margin, ranking in the top 10 all four seasons and notching a second place ranking in 2003.

Dominant wins, bad losses and 1-score results

Finally, we’re going to look at what I call “dominant wins”, “bad losses” and 1-score results. One characteristic of dominant teams is they win often and they win big. Winning big indicates a team that simply outperformed an opponent. When you win (or lose) by 17 points there’s no blaming the referees or moaning about a lucky bounce. Thus, the following segments each team’s wins and losses into those that were greater than 7 points (dominant wins and bad losses) and those that were less than 8 points (1-score wins and losses).

Notes:

  • As expected, we see a huge imbalance in terms of dominant wins and bad losses, with the teams combining to go 175-30 in such games (.854 winning percentage).
  • Miami, San Fran and Dallas averaged only one bad loss per season; Pittsburgh averaged 1.5 and New England averaged 2.25.

One measure of each team’s dominance is the percentage of games won by more than 1-score. The following shows each team’s percent of games played by outcome:

  • Miami enjoyed the highest share of dominant wins (59%).
  • Dallas was close behind with 56%.
  • San Francisco won only 48% of games in dominant fashion but also won the highest share of 1-score games (33%)
  • New England had both the lowest share of dominant wins (47%) and the highest share of bad losses (14%)

A good measure of a team’s overall dominance would be a comparison of the number of dominant wins versus number of bad losses:

Note that no team while every team (other than the Patriots) has less than a 5.1 ratio of dominant wins versus bad losses, not team has a higher ratio than 3.5 of 1-score wins versus 1-score losses. This sort of supports the idea that 1-score games are a toss-up and yet, overall, these teams went 87-41 in such games. In short, these dominant teams won 1-score games at a high rate, but not as high of a rate as they won blowout games.

The Cowboys rank highest (nine dominant wins for every one bad loss) and Miami (8.3 wins for every loss). In fact, Dallas, Miami and San Francisco all rank high in this category with Pittsburgh a bit lower and New England finishing significantly lower than the others.

On the flipside, Dallas has the lowest 1-score wins to 1-score losses ratio (1.2), while Miami has the highest. A high 1-score ratio could be interpreted as either:

  • Indication of a “clutch” team that was able to win close games
  • Indication of a less dominant team that was sometimes lucky

Frankly, I think it’s a bit of both. Both New England and San Francisco won close games at a 72% rate, which is incredibly high. They also had two of the greatest clutch quarterbacks (Joe Montana and Tom Brady) to ever play the game; I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think it’d be ludicrous to say they were “lucky” to win at such a rate.

But I also know that Pittsburgh and Dallas had great quarterbacks and great teams and when I look at their losses in those situations... it often came down to a fluke play, bad bounce or questionable referee’s decision.

Interestingly, overall the teams won 68% of their 1-score games. This contradicts much of the popular wisdom that 1-score games are a “toss-up”:

Closely related to the gap between a team’s point differential and their actual record is how they perform in close contests. Historically, with precious few exceptions, teams will win games that are decided by seven points or less about 50 percent of the time.

These dynastic teams throw this logic on its head. Only twice did any of these 22 teams lose more 1-score games than they lost:

  • 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3)
  • 1994 Dallas Cowboys (3-4)

Summary

In summary, I think four of these teams conclusively demonstrate unsurpassed regular season domination. Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dallas all had teams that were simply better than virtually all competitors. If you were an opponent and you had them on your schedule it was a likely loss; your only real chance was to be a high-quality, Super Bowl caliber team yourself.

Regarding New England, I did not set out to pick on the Patriots. They’re included in this analysis for two reasons:

  • First, they accomplished something only one other team in the Super Bowl era has accomplished, which is win three Super Bowls in four seasons. That’s a sign of dominance.
  • In my own mind, when I’ve thought about the best teams of the Super Bowl era I’ve always included those teams. In some ways, they get penalized by having (by far) the worst individual team among all these dynasties (the 2002 squad, which is the only one to miss the playoffs).

Looking at their numbers, however, you can see a clear distinction between the 2001-02 teams and the 2003-04 teams. The 01-02 teams really aren’t the same caliber as most of the other teams analyzed here while the 03-04 teams would rank very evenly with the others.

So, let’s summarize all of this. The following awards points to each team based on each category we’ve looked at thus far. A first place finish in, say, points scored, nets five points while a last place finish nets only 1 point. Here are the results:

We find the 49ers, Dolphins and Cowboys all rank very similarly with Pittsburgh a bit behind and the Patriots at the bottom (one has to wonder if the Patriots didn’t have such strong turnover results would they have won at the same rate they did during that era).

Honestly, I expected more insightful results. I thought one team or another would prove significantly better but in reality all this has shown me is two things:

  1. Four of these teams were truly dominant by any measure
  2. One of these teams wasn’t nearly as dominant

Our final section will look at playoff results, which should truly reveal which dynasty was the most dominant.