Try as the NFL might to provide the proverbial level playing field, no two franchises are created equal. Certainly, no two franchises perform equally.
In fact, for some organizations, it's a triumph simply to have a winning record and reach the playoffs. For other organizations, the season's a failure if they don't add another Lombardi to the trophy case.
Naturally, inquiring little pigskin minds want to know: what is the best franchise in football? Which is the worst?
We don't mean which are the best and worst today. We mean, the best and worst for all time.
Even for the Cold, Hard Football Facts, there's no truly empirical answer. Sure, overall winning percentage, winning seasons and championship seasons all factor into the equation. But they're not the only criteria. What about the great players who have donned the uniform of your favorite team? How do you quantify their contributions? How do you value the impact a Papa Bear Halas or a Dan Marino had on a team's greatness?
It's simply not possible to do so empirically.
So here's what we did: we tackled the challenge of ranking the franchises from the point of view of the fans, using our Misery-to-Joy Theory of Fan Relativity. Essentially, we measured the amount of misery a franchise has forced upon its fans against the amount of celebratory games, moments, titles and great players and coaches a franchise has gifted upon its fans.
The fans who have endured the most misery will find their teams at the bottom of the list. The fans who have enjoyed the most celebratory moments will find their teams at the top of the list.
This Misery-to-Joy system also allows us to compare franchises of various ages. Some teams have been around since 1920. Other teams are barely a decade old. But, measuring each team by the relative misery-to-joy it has provided its fans, the age is almost irrelevant. A 10-year-old team that won two titles (purely as an example, as no such team exists) would rate incredibly high on the list. An 88-year-old team that won two titles would probably have a lot of 'splaining to do for those other 86 seasons.
So here goes.
(By the way, most of the cards here come from the site CheckOutMyCards.com. In most cases, you can click on the image to find its source.)
32. ARIZONA CARDINALS
First Cardinals season:
History: Chicago (1920-43; 45-59); Card-Pitt (1944); St. Louis (1960-87); Phoenix (1988-93); Arizona (1994-present)
Cardinals championships: 1925 (pre-title game era), 1947
Face of the Cardinals franchise: Dan Dierdorf
Greatest Cardinals players: Dierdorf, Jim Hart, Night Train Lane, Ernie Nevers, Jackie Smith, Charley Trippi, Larry Wilson
Greatest Cardinals coach: Jimmy Conzelman (1940-42, 1946-48); 34-31-3 (.522) – Led Cardinals through their glory years of 1947 and 1948.
Cardinals claim to infamy: Two playoff wins in 88 seasons.
It never got any better for Cardinals fans than it did on: Dec. 28, 1947
The Cardinals – then in Chicago and still under Bidwill ownership – won their one and only championship game in 88 seasons of NFL football. Elmer Angsman ripped off a pair of 70-yard TD runs, including the game-winning score in the fourth quarter, as the Cardinals beat the Eagles, 28-21, for their sad, lonely, singular NFL title. The Cardinals could have notched back-to-back titles in 1948. But the dominant 11-1 Cardinals fell in a blizzard-coated rematch with the Eagles, 7-0.
The Cardinals have a long and storied history – it's a sad, sorrowful and pathetic story, but definitely a long one. Like an itinerant Depression Era urchin, the Cardinals have meandered along the old Route 66, dragging their sorry, underfed ass of a franchise from Chicago to St. Louis to the desert of Arizona. It would be truly poetic if the Cardinals some day ended up in L.A., at the end of the old Route 66. Like a Tom Joad of the gridiron, they've starved for success every step of the way.
The Cardinals can trace their roots back to 1898, making it the oldest football franchise in the country. They were one of the original NFL franchises in 1920. Along the way, they've lost more games (667) and fielded more losing teams (56) than any other organization in football, losing nearly 59 percent of all the games they've ever played. The organization bottomed out in the 1950s, posting a decade-long record of 33-84-3 (.288). It hasn't really got a whole lot better since.
The systemic troubles for the Cardinals are so old and run so deep that not even great coaches can win there: Joe Stydahar, Curly Lambeau, Don Coryell, Bud Wilkinson and Gene Stallings all headed the Cardinals franchise. All had great success elsewhere, whether in college or the pros. All lost with the Cardinals.
The postseason numbers say it all: in 88 NFL seasons, the Cardinals have won just two playoff games. They beat the Eagles in the 1947 NFL championship game and celebrated the glory of 1998 wildcard victory over Dallas. At this rate, the Cardinals – the Los Angeles Cardinals – should celebrate another playoff win around 2040.
31. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
First Saints season:
Saints championships: none
Face of the Saints franchise: Archie Manning
Greatest Saints players: Joe Horn, Ricky Jackson, Manning, Eric Martin, Sam Mills,
Greatest Saints coach: Jim Mora (1986-96), 93-74 (.557) – Led New Orleans to four of its six playoff appearances and five of its eight winning seasons.
Saints claim to infamy: One conference title game appearance in 41 seasons.
It never got any better for Saints fans than it did on: Jan. 13, 2007
A year and a half after the city of New Orleans was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints, at home in the reconstructed Superdome, won just the second playoff game in franchise history with a 27-24 victory over the Eagles and earned the franchise's first-ever appearance in a conference title game.
How bad has it been for the Saints? They've lost more games since joining the NFL in 1967 (367) than the Browns have lost (360) since joining the NFL in 1950 ... and it's been a long time since the Browns were any good.
The Saints have fielded just eight winning teams in 40 seasons, played 20 years in the NFL before posting a first winning record, and have yet to produce a single Hall of Fame performer (three HOFers ended their careers with the Saints: Doug Atkins, Earl Campbell and Jim Taylor).
And, in one of the great unbelievable Cold, Hard Football Facts ever uncovered, the Saints have an all-time losing record against 23 of the other 31 teams in the NFL. They have a winning record against just one of the 31 other teams in the NFL, Tampa Bay.
The outlook is definitely getting better for Saints fans: they've had just two losing seasons in the past six years – an enviable rate by the franchise's standards – and one of those was the disastrous, post-Katrina 2005 campaign in which it would have been unreasonable to expect any team to win anything. The Saints also appeared in the conference title game just two seasons ago, and seem to have the talent to at least compete in the weak NFC South for a few years to come.
But it will take years of success to erase the dreadful memories of seasons past and for the organization's highlights to surpass the football-folly lowlights that have defined the No. 31-ranked Aints.
30. HOUSTON TEXANS
First Texans season:
Texans championships: ha, ha, ha! You're kidding, right?
Face of the Texans franchise: David Carr (for better or worse, he was the team's most recognizable player and symbolic of its frustrations)
Greatest Texans player: DeMeco Ryans, 2006 NFL Rookie of the Year (you got someone better?)
Greatest Texans coach: Gary Kubiak (2006-present), 14-18 (.438) – The jury's still out, but Kubiak has the inside track over original coach Dom Capers, who led the franchise through its highly unsuccessful first four years.
Texans claim to infamy: No winning seasons.
It never got any better for Texans fans than it did on: Dec. 24, 2006
After nine straight losses, the Texans defeat AFC powerhouse Indy for the first time in franchise history. Humiliated by the loss, the Colts go on to win Super Bowl XLI. Running back Ron Dayne led the victory with a career-high 153 yards, while Kris Brown kicked a game-winning 48-yard field goal as the clock ran out.
The bar for expansion franchises was set high by Carolina and Jacksonville, who joined the NFL in 1995 and each played in conference title games in 1996. The Texans are following a more traditional expansion-franchise model, struggling to grow competitive.
They had losing records in each of their first five seasons of existence, before climbing to a respectable 8-8 last season in the tough AFC South. They still have, technically speaking, the worst winning percentage of any NFL franchise. But, given Houston's youth, it's a little unfair to compare their few short years of ineptitude to the team 31st on the list of all-time franchise records, Tampa Bay.
Among the teams in the bottom quarter of the all-time franchise rankings, Houston is more likely than any other team to rocket up the list toward respectability. A few good seasons over the next five years or so, and the Texans can quickly erase the painful memories over their first six years in the league.
29. ATLANTA FALCONS
First Falcons season:
Falcons championships: none
Face of the Falcons franchise: Michael Vick
Greatest Falcons players: Steve Bartkowski, Terence Mathis, Tommy Nobis, Gerald Riggs, Deion Sanders
Greatest Falcons coach: Leeman Bennett (1977-82), 46-41 (.529) – Led franchise to its first three (of eight total) postseason appearances.
It never got any better for Falcons fans than it did on: Jan. 17, 1999
The Falcons earned their first and only Super Bowl appearance by knocking off the 15-1 Vikings at Minnesota in the 1998 NFC title game. Atlanta trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter to the then highest-scoring team in NFL history (556 points), but forced overtime, thanks in large part to a missed field goal my Minnesota's Gary Anderson, who was a perfect 35-for-35 that entire season.
The Falcons inhabit a place somewhere behind the University of Georgia and Valdosta High School
on the list of most popular football teams in the Peach State.
Of course, those two programs built tradition upon mountains of victories, Georgia as the perennial SEC power; Valdosta is the winningest high school football team
in U.S. history. The Falcons, however, have fielded 28 losing teams in 42 seasons of NFL football. The most popular player in franchise history, meanwhile, was a dysfunctional quarterback who could barely pass the football at a pro-caliber level, was embroiled in one controversy after another, and finally got busted for, of all things, running a violent dog-fighting ring. Good job, Michael Vick.
The 2007 campaign, with all its problems – the Vick saga, coach Bobby Petrino quitting in the middle of the season – was indicative of a franchise that's never been well grounded.
The sad part is that you could argue that Atlanta is an organization on the upswing. Three of its eight playoff appearances, and four of the six postseason victories in franchise history, have come over the last 10 years. And with a new coach and a new franchise quarterback, the organization has definitely attempted to make a break with its past. But like the Saints, it will take years of success to erase the history of ineptitude that has marked the organizations first four decades.
28. CINCINNATI BENGALS
First Bengals season:
Bengals championships: seriously, do you have to ask?
Face of the Bengals franchise: Paul Brown
Greatest Bengals players: Ken Anderson, Chris Collinsworth, Corey Dillon, Boomer Esiason, Anthony Munoz
Greatest Bengals coach: Paul Brown (1968-75), 55-56-1 (.496) – The legendary coach founded his second pro football franchise with the Bengals in 1968 and remains its most successful leader. Despite the team's expansion status and the smaller playoff format of the era, Brown led the Bengals to three of their eight postseason appearances and to their best single-season record of 11-3 (.786) in 1975.
Bengals claim to fame: Annually leads league in disgruntled stars.
It never got any better for Bengals fans than it did on: Jan. 10, 1982
In the coldest game in NFL history (-37 degrees with wind chill), the Bengals beat up the warm-weather Chargers, 27-7, in the AFC championship game. The Bengals fell in the Super Bowl two weeks later to Joe Montana's first 49ers championship team.
The Bengals began with such promise, founded by pro football legend Brown in a football-mad state as an effort to spite owner Art Modell who fired him from Cleveland. The organization has been blessed with its fair share of talent, including three Pro Bowl quarterbacks over the past 35 years at the toughest position on the field to fill (quarterbacks Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason and Carson Palmer). Most organizations should be so lucky. Somewhere along the way, though, it's just never clicked for this franchise.
There have been just 12 winning campaigns in 40 NFL seasons, and four of those came in the franchise's first eights years of existence under Brown. The Bengals have fielded just a single winning team since 1990: The 2005 Bengals went 11-5 and looked like they might be a contender – then Palmer went down with a nasty injury early in a home playoff game against Pittsburgh, setting the stage for their hated divisional rivals to march to their fifth Super Bowl title.
Even the great Cincinnati teams have been snakebitten. The Bengals reached two Super Bowls, but both times fell just a wee dram short of victory against the dynastic 49ers. The Bengals could have bested San Francisco in Super Bowl XVI, but were stuffed four straight times at the goal line, allowing the 49ers to hang on to a 26-21 victory. The two teams met again seven years later in Super Bowl XXIII. The Bengals held a 16-13 lead in the final 3 minutes of the game, but allowed Joe Montana and company to march 92 yards for the game-winning score.
27. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
First Buccaneers season:
Buccaneers championships: 2002
Face of the Buccaneers franchise: Lee Roy Selmon
Greatest Buccaneers players: Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber, Warrick Dunn, Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Selmon, James Wilder
Greatest Buccaneers coach: Tony Dungy (1996-2001), 54-42 (.563) – After years of futility, included 14 straight losing seasons, Dungy lifted the inept Buccaneers to respectability, including three straight playoff appearances for the first and only time in team history.
Buccaneers claim to fame: Record 26-game losing streak (1976-77).
It never got any better for Buccaneers fans than it did on: Jan. 26, 2003
The Buccaneers won their first and only championship with a 48-21 win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXIV. They were led by a tour de force defensive performance as Jon Gruden's team stifled the Raiders offense he had coached just one year earlier. The Bucs picked off Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, the MVP of the 2002 season, five times, while returning three of those INTs for TDs.
The victory in Super Bowl XXXVII is the only thing that keeps the Buccaneers from being mired at the very bottom of the list. Other than that win – a true fluke when compared with the rest of the franchise's history – Tampa has clearly been one of the worst franchises in all of pro sports.
The organization's .393 winning percentage is the worst of any team in football, other than the .333 of the Texans, who joined the NFL just six seasons ago. The tone was set for the Bucs in their debut season of 1976, as they went 0-14 to become the only winless team in modern NFL history. They also lost their first 12 games of 1977, for a truly fantastical record 26-game losing streak. No other team, expansion or otherwise, has ever lost more than 19 consecutive games.
The organization has produced just one Hall of Famer, Lee Roy Selmon, and even players who prospered elsewhere – HOFer Steve Young and Vinny Testaverde, for example – performed miserably in Tampa.
The organization boasts 10 winning campaigns in 32 NFL seasons, and a full half of its all-time postseason victories – three – came in that Super Bowl-winning season of 2002. But, hey, at least they have that one Super Bowl championship. Which is more than the Cardinals, Saints, Texans, Falcons, Bengals, Bills, Lions, Jaguars, Panthers, Chargers, Titans, Eagles, Vikings, Seahawks or Browns can say.
26. BUFFALO BILLS
First Bills season:
Bills championships: 1964 (AFL), 1965 (AFL)
Face of the Bills franchise: O.J. Simpson
Greatest Bills players:
Joe DeLamielleure, Doug Flutie
, Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Billy Shaw, Bruce Smith, Simpson, Thurman Thomas
Greatest Bills coach: Marv Levy (1986-97), 112-70 (.615) – The force behind Buffalo's near-dynastic status of the 1990s and the only man to bring a team to four straight Super Bowls.
Bills claim to fame: Lost four straight Super Bowls; greatest player (allegedly) killed his wife.
It never got any better for Bills fans than it did on: Jan. 20, 1991
The Bills never looked better than they did on this day, with a 51-3 thrashing of the Raiders in the AFC championship game, just a week after they hung 44 on hated divisional rival Miami in the divisional playoffs. The Bills were fresh off a franchise-record 13-win season and headed into the Super Bowl with the No. 1 scoring offense in football and playing at the peak of its offensive power ... then they couldn't get Ottis Anderson off the field and Scott Norwood missed a field goal.
No group of fans have been kicked in the gonads by their team and by sporting society at large more often than fans of the Bills.
It pretty much says it all when your greatest player is best remembered for committing the crime of the century, your greatest quarterback couldn't nail anybody better than a B-list wrestling star
and your greatest accomplishment is losing four straight title games – one of the them of the aforementioned painful kick-in-the-nuts variety, the other three of the bloody, humiliating, woodshed-beating variety.
But at least the Bills can look back upon their mid-60s dominance of the old AFL, when they won two championships, and their early 1990s dominance of the AFC. Fans in six other cities wish they ever had it so good.
25. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
First Seahawks season:
Seahawks championships: none
Face of the Seahawks franchise: Steve Largent
Greatest Seahawks players: Shaun Alexander, Kenny Easley, Cortez Kennedy, Dave Kreig, Matt Hasselbeck, Largent
Greatest Seahawks coach: Mike Holmgren (1999-present), 82-62 (.569) – architect of the glory years, relatively speaking, in franchise history, including the current streak of five straight playoff appearances for an organization that reached the playoffs just five times in the previous 27 seasons.
Seahawks claim to fame: Largent retired after 1989 season with then NFL records in catches (819), receiving yards (13,089) and receiving TDs (100)
It never got any better for Seahawks fans than it did on: Jan. 22, 2006
The Seahawks demolished Carolina, 34-14, before a raucous home crowd to earn its first and only trip to the Super Bowl. They lost two weeks later to Pittsburgh, 21-10, in one of the least entertaining Super Bowls in history.
The Seahawks have been fairly easy to miss. They've worn two lousy uniforms, they play in the NFL equivalent of Siberia (in fact, the distance from Seattle to Siberia is about the same as the distance from Seattle to Miami), and they've been about as perfectly mediocre as a franchise can be: they've won between 6 and 10 in 25 of the 32 seasons in their history and, over those 32 years, they stand just four games from a perfectly mediocre .500 record.
The Seahawks are actually in the midst of their glory years, with a potential Hall of Fame coach, a franchise quarterback, a star-studded young defense and five straight playoffs seasons, easily the longest stretch of success in franchise history.
With only a couple of exceptions, including their debut 2-12 season, the Seahawks have never been a truly awful franchise. Yet they've also done little to distinguish themselves beyond a single token Super Bowl appearance at a time when the NFC was clearly inferior to the AFC. Simply note the outcomes of that game, in which the No. 1 NFC seed Seahawks were outmanned and outmuscled by the No. 6 AFC seed Steelers, 21-10.
The Seahawks are just kind of "there" until they can pull together a championship team. And, given the current make-up of the franchise, the present may be the best chance they'll have for years to come.
24. DETROIT LIONS
First Lions season:
Names: Portsmouth Spartans (1930-33); Detroit Lions (1934-present)
Lions championships: 1935, 1952, 1953, 1957
Face of the Lions franchise: Bobby Layne (great Lions teams), Barry Sanders (lousy Lions teams)
Greatest Lions coach: Buddy Parker (1951-56), 47-23-2 (.674) – winning records in five of six seasons and architect of Detroit's dynastic 1950s teams.
Lions claim to fame: Team of the 1950s has earned just one playoff victory since 1957.
It never got any better for Lions fans than it did on: Dec. 27, 1953
In the greatest fourth-quarter drive
in championship history before Eli Manning's miracle this past February, Bobby Layne marched the Lions 80 yards
, connecting with Jim Doran, a defensive end pressed into offensive duty because of injuries, for a 33-yard score that tied up the mighty Browns at 16-16. Doak Walker's extra point gave the Lions their second consecutive championship, one of three they'd win with Layne in the 1950s.
The Lions in modern times are known only for futility. After all, among all the teams that have been in the NFL every year since the creation of the Super Bowl, they're one of just three franchises that have failed to reach the big game (the others are the once-proud Browns and the always embarrassing Cardinals, No. 32 with a bullet on your franchise rankings list).
The fact that the Lions have won a truly Cardinals-esque one (1) playoff game since the 1957 championship game speaks to the modern futility of the organization, annually one of the league laughingstocks.
But a bevy of great past players, not to mention a claim to "team-of-the-decade" status in the 1950s (three championships), keeps the Lions out of the sad-sack basement of defeat and humiliation inhabited by the basement-dwelling shut-ins of the NFL like Arizona, New Orleans ... and, well, you.
23. New York Jets
First Jets season:
Names: New York Titans (1960-62); New York Jets (1963-present)
Jets championships: 1968
Greatest Jets players:
Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau, Mo Lewis
Don Maynard, Curtis Martin,
Joe Namath, Gerry Philbin
Greatest Jets coach: Weeb Ewbank
(1963-73), 71-77-6 (.481) – coached the Jets for 11 years, the longest tenure in the volatile history of the franchise, while leading the team to its greatest moment of triumph.
Claim to fame: Beat the mighty Colts in Super Bowl III in a triumph for the upstart AFL.
It never got any better for Jets fans than it did on: Jan. 12, 1969
In a game still widely regarded as the greatest upset in pro football history, the AFL's Jets shocked the Colts, one of the most dominant teams in NFL history
, 16-7, in Super Bowl III. Looking at it purely from the point of view of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, Super Bowl III was not as shocking an upset as Super Bowl XLII (Giants over Patriots). But in terms of perception and culture, it remains one of the defining games in football history, as the AFL proved it could beat the very best the NFL could throw its way.
Save for one fleeting afternoon of glory in Miami 40 seasons ago, it's just never quite clicked for the Jets. They've fiedled some very good players, but few that were ever great. They've had some very good coaches, but few that were ever great. They've had some very good seasons, but fewer that were ever great.
On the player front, even their most iconic players lean woefully to the overrated side: Face-of-the-franchise Joe Namath is in the Hall of Fame purely for the win over the Colts. His overall career numbers otherwise mediocre at best, even for his era.
And from season to season the Jets are hardly ever awful, save for that 1-15 abortion of a 1996 season under Rich Kotite. But nor are they hardly ever great. The champion 1968 Jets, at 11-3 (.786), still boast the best record in franchise history, and only one Jets team, Tuna's 12-4 club of 1998, won more games.
The Jets are below .500 in the regular season, below .500 in the playoffs, below .500 on the talent and coaching front, below .500 on the list of highlight moments, and below .500 on our franchise rankings list.
22. CAROLINA PANTHERS
First Panthers season:
Panthers championships: none
Greatest Panthers players: Kerry Collins, Jake Delhomme, Kris Jenkins, Mills, Julius Peppers, Steve Smith
Greatest Panthers coach: John Fox (2002-present), 51-45-0 (.531) – led Panthers to five of franchise's six postseason victories and two of its three conference title-game appearances.
Claim to fame: Appeared in the NFC title game in just its second year in the league.
It never got any better for Panthers fans than it did on: Jan. 18, 2004
Making just the second postseason appearance in franchise history, the upstart Panthers walked into Philly and staggered the Eagles, the class of the NFC, with a 14-3 upset victory. Rookie cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. ensured himself a chapter in the very short book of Carolina franchise lore by picking off three Donovan McNabb passes that day. The Panthers went on to play one of the most exciting Super Bowls in history two weeks later, but fell 32-29 to the dynastic Patriots.
The Panthers seem to have enjoyed more than their share of success. Hell, they appeared in three conference title games in their first 11 years of existence, including two of the past five. They even enjoy, believe it or not, the best postseason winning percentage in the NFL (.667). But with just nine total postseason games, it's hard to compare the .667 postseason winning percentage of the Panthers to the .625 of the Packers in 40 postseason games, or the .618 of the Patriots in 34 postseason games.
And, sadly, the few moments of glory for the Panthers have yet to provide a championship. These few moments merely serve as a pigskin perfume that masks the stench of what has otherwise been a fairly moribund franchise: the Panthers have enjoyed just three winning seasons, and three postseason appearances, in their 13 years in the NFL.
But it could be worse, Carolina fans. Your team's six playoff victories in 13 years compare quite favorably to the two playoff victories in 88 years of the Cardinals.
21. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
First Jaguars season:
Jaguars championships: none
Face of the Jaguars franchise: Jimmy Smith
Greatest Jaguars players: Tony Boselli, Mark Brunell, Smith, Fed Taylor, Marcus Stroud, John Henderson
Greatest Jaguars coach: Tom Coughlin (1995-2002), 68-60 (.531) – turned an expansion franchise into a consistent AFC contender within two years.
Claim to fame: Made an expansion-team record four playoff appearances in its first five years in the league.
It never got any better for Jaguars fans than it did on: Jan. 15, 2000
After a dominating season in which they posted a league best (and franchise record) 14-2 mark, the Jaguars hosted cross-state rival and established AFC power Miami in the divisional playoffs. In the final game of Dan Marino's career, the upstart Jaguars utterly embarrassed the legend, 62-7 – one of the greatest blowouts in NFL history. Then Jacksonville promptly got embarrassed, 33-14, at home against the Titans in the AFC championship game.
Forever linked with the Panthers by virtue of the fact that both joined the league in 1995 and both appeared in conference title games in 1996 (where both lost), it's no surprise to find the Jaguars just one spot from the Panthers in our all-time franchise rankings.
Jacksonville has yet to have a true signature moment. But, compared with Carolina, they've consistently fielded better teams with a much better winning percentage and twice as many playoff appearances (six) to stand as proof.
The Jaguars, in fact, have become one of the most consistently competitive teams in the league, with seven winning campaigns in 13 NFL seasons and enviable consistency: three leading quarterbacks and two head coaches over 13 years is fairly rare, and also quite necessary in a league where institutional stability seems to preface onfield success. The fact that such a young franchise boasts the league's 8th-best winning percentage is a tribute to this consistency.
However, the Jaguars will not jump into their upper echelon of franchises until they become a consistent threat to win a championship. As of yet, even their best teams have not been up to the task and they've yet to boast a signature season in which they live up to the potential that's been bubbling through the surface of Jacksonville, like a tempting crude oil of success, since 1996.
However, no team stands to jump higher on the franchise rankings list than Jacksonville. With a championship or two in the next few years, it will become easier to hold up this organization as a paragon of consistency and success.
20. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
First Chargers season:
Names: Los Angeles Chargers (1960); San Diego Chargers (1961-present)
Chargers championships: 1963 (AFL)
Face of the Chargers franchise: Sid Gillman
Greatest Chargers players: Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Ernie Ladd, Ron Mix, Junior Seau, LaDainian Tomlinson, Kellen Winslow
Greatest Chargers coach: Sid Gillman (1960-69; 1971), 86-53-6 (.614) – a seminal figure in pro football history, largely responsible for the creation of the West Coast offense and for the bevy of offensive talent that always seems to play for the Chargers; later Chargers offensive whiz Don Coryell was a student of the Gillman school of offense.
Chargers claim to fame: The dominant team in the early years of the AFL, largely creating the league's reputation for wide-open, more exciting football.
It never got any better for Chargers fans than it did on: Jan. 2, 1982
Sure, the Chargers boast a 1963 AFC championship. But the AFL was still a side show in 1963. Instead, one of the iconic images in NFL history belongs to the Chargers: Kellen Winslow being carried off the field by his teammates after nearly five quarters of football and a thrilling 41-38 win over the Dolphins in the 1981 divisional playoffs, on an unseasonably hot and humid January evening in Miami. San Diego seemed like a team of destiny ... and then they walked into the coldest game in NFL history, the Freezer Bowl AFC championship game in Cincinnati, where they were whipped by the Bengals.
No team has boasted such an enviable collection of offensive talent through its history. From John Hadl and Lance Alworth in the AFL days, through the Fouts-Muncie-Joiner-Jefferson-Winslow Chargers of the Air Coryell Era, to the amazing LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates of today's team, it seems there has always been an abundance of offensive talent wearing blue and gold.
And it all started out so well for San Diego, too. They were the dominant power in the early days of the AFL, appearing in five of its first six championship games, though winning just one (51-10 over the Boston Patriots in the 1963 championship game).
But for all the sizzle, the Chargers have produced surprisingly little steak. They're under .500 as a franchise, and boast a respectable but disappointing nine postseason victories. And, from John Hadl through Dan Fouts through playoff pine-rider LaDainian Tomlinson, this organization always seems to come up just short when it matters most.
19. TENNESSEE TITANS
First Titans season:
Names: Houston Oilers (1960-96): Tennessee Oilers (1997-98); Tennessee Titans (1999-present)
Titans championships: 1960 (AFL), 1961 (AFL)
Face of the Titans franchise: Earl Campbell
Greatest Titans players: Elvin Bethea, George Blanda, Robert Brazile, Ken Burrough, Campbell, Billy Cannon, Eddie George, Ernest Givins, Ken Houston, Bruce Matthews, Mike Munchak, Warren Moon
Greatest Titans coach: Jeff Fisher (1994-present), 115-99 (.537) – The longest tenured coach in team history (and currently in the NFL), with the most regular season and postseason wins (five) for the organization, while leading the team to its first league championship game (1999 Super Bowl) since 1962 AFL title tilt.
Titans claim to fame: Since 1960, has consistently played in the most unattractive uniforms outside of Seattle.
It never got any better for Titans fans than it did on: Jan. 8, 2000
The true Springsteenian Glory Days
for the Oilers/Titans franchise came back in the early 1960s, when they won the first two AFL titles. But only like three people actually cared about the AFL back in 1961, and it was so long ago that filthy hippies still hadn't infected our nation with their dirty communes, their pot and their psychedelic drugs, ruining everything for those of us who prefer opiates, amphetamines and good old-fashioned, all-American alcohol.
But we digress.
Since then, there have been a handful of highlights for the organization, most provided by Earl Campbell and Warren Moon. But one highlight stands out above the others: the Music City Miracle in the 1999 wildcard playoffs, as the Titans shocked the sad-sack Doug Flutie-less Bills
, 22-16, after using some controversial razzle-dazzle to return a kick for a touchdown on the last play of the game. Coming just three years after the organization had moved to Nashville from Houston, it helped endear the team to fans in its new hometown.
The Oilers/Titans have never truly been dominant. And 47 years have elapsed since the organization's last championship, back in the early days of the upstart AFL. But the franchise has been consistently competitive, with high-quality, playoff-caliber teams in the early 1960s, late 1970s, late 1980s/early 1990s, and pretty regularly over the past decade.
With a championship or two over the next few years, this organization, like Jacksonville at No. 21, could move fairly quickly up the franchise rankings. But until then, they inhabit a place here at No. 19, amid the pack of teams that boast only institutional mediocrity.
18. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Eagles first season:
Names: Philadelphia Eagles (1933-42; 1944-present); Phil-Pitt Steagles (1943)
Eagles championships: 1948, 1949, 1960
Greatest Eagles players: Bednarik, Boomer Brown, Harold Carmicheal, Randall Cunningham, Ron Jaworski, Tommy McDonald, Pete Pihos, Tommy Thompson, Steve Van Buren, Reggie White.
Greatest Eagles coach: Greasy Neale (1941-50), 63-43-5 (.594) – led otherwise hard-luck Eagles to three straight championship games and back-to-back titles in the late 1940s.
Eagles claim to fame: Fans booed Santa Claus.
It never got any better for Eagles fans than it did on: Dec. 26, 1960
If you wonder why Eagles fans are so cranky, why they boo none other than Santa himself, consider that the last time the Kris Kringle of Pigskin delivered to them anything other than PA coal was 48 years ago. On the day after Christmas 1960, at Philly's glorious old Franklin Field, Bednarik wrestled future Hall of Famer Jim Taylor to the ground, then sat on him as time expired, to hand Philly its last football championship and hand Lombardi's Packers their one and only postseason defeat.
The Eagles are a proud old-school NFL franchise, but with little to show for it since the Eisenhower Administration. They're certainly not a sad-sack old-school franchise, like the Cardinals (have we mentioned at any point how much the Cardinals have always sucked?) or Lions. But nor are they a marquee old-school franchise like the Packers, Bears or Giants.
Instead, since 1960, they've occasionally dabbled with greatness, seemingly able to pair the right combination of coach-QB-defense to deliver a title: the Vermeil-Jaworski Eagles, the Ryan-Cunningham Eagles, the Reid-McNabb Eagles. But it never seems come together, rendering Eagles fans what they are today: frustrated, miserable a-holes (hey, our people!) who would run over their own mothers if they though it would bring them a title.
Old-time Eagles fans can always look back on the great glory days of the post-World War II Eagles, and to the great victory over the Packers in 1960. But other than that, it's been 17,300-plus days and counting
since the Eagles won a championship. Often a contender, rarely a champ.
17. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Ravens first season:
1996 (* In other instances, we consider for this article a franchise's entire history, even as it has moved from town to town. But the Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens present a unique situation, as another Cleveland Browns franchise, of course, has entered the league since the original left. So, given these circumstances, we treat the Ravens as its own unique franchise that has played only in Baltimore.)
Ravens championships: 2000
Face of the Ravens franchise: Ray Lewis
Greatest Ravens players: Peter Boulware, Jamal Lewis, Ray Lewis, Chris McAlister, Jonathon Ogden, Matt Stover.
Greatest Ravens coach: Brian Billick (1999-2007), 80-64 (.556) – just the second coach in franchise history, leading organization to its only championship.
Ravens claim to fame: 2000 Ravens sported greatest defense of the Live Ball Era.
It never got any better for Ravens fans than it did on: Jan. 28, 2001
Sparked by MLB Ray Lewis and the most suffocating defense in modern history, the Ravens pasted the Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV, earning a championship just five years after the franchise moved from Cleveland and 17 years after Baltimore lost its original NFL franchise, the Colts.
Right about here with the Ravens, at the top of the bottom half of our all-time franchise rankings, you start to get into those teams where the disappointments have not necessarily outweighed the highlights. In fact, after years of kicking fans in the nuts in Cleveland, where the organization played as the Browns, the franchise has generally been better in Baltimore. The Ravens' postseason .625 winning percentage, for example, is tied with the Packers (behind only the young Panthers) for No. 2 all time. But with just eight playoff games (nine for the Panthers), they hardly compare to the 25-15 postseason mark of the Pack.
Baltimore has gone to the playoffs four times in 12 years, a fairly solid rate, and even has a championship to show for it. There are 15 other teams that would probably kill for that rate of success. The organization even has a strong institutional identity, as the home of modern rock-solid defense in a league that has almost abandoned that side of the ball, sacrificed like a gridiron island of Corregidor
Of course, that institutional identity also includes a complete and utter inability to play offense, ever. So here the organization sits, smack dab in the middle of mediocrity, hoping one day to join the top half of NFL organizations. All it would probably take is a franchise quarterback ... and maybe a coach people have heard of. Good luck, John Harbaugh.
16. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
First Chiefs season:
Names: Dallas Texans (1960-62); Kansas City Chiefs (1963-present)
Chiefs championships: 1962 (AFL), 1969
Face of the Chiefs franchise: Lamar Hunt
Greatest Chiefs players: Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, Len Dawson, Tony Gonzalez, Willie Lanier, Will Shields, Derrick Thomas, Otis Taylor
Greatest Chiefs coach: Hank Stram (1960-74), 124-76-10 (.614) – led organization through its first 15 seasons and to its greatest triumphs, including 1962 AFL and 1969 Super Bowl championships.
Chiefs claim to fame: From 1967 to 1974, fielded three Hall of Fame defenders in its front seven (Bell, Buchanan, Lanier).
It never got any better for Chiefs fans than it did on: Jan. 11, 1970
Super Bowl IV is really one of the underappreciated games in pro football history, and it was a game dominated by the Hall-of-Famer-littered Chiefs. Sure, the Jets broke the ice and poured a little celebratory Scotch over it when they shocked the NFL's mighty Colts in Super Bowl III. But the AFL victory was widely seen as a fluke in the months that followed.
The Chiefs proved the AFL victory was no fluke by thoroughly dominating the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, 23-7, a game that wasn't even as close as the score indicates. It was a remarkable victory, too, considering the 1969 Vikings remain to this day one of the single most dominant teams in NFL history
and were 12½-point favorites over the Chiefs. Yet the AFL representative from Kansas City toyed with the mighty NFL power like a kitten toys with a ball of yarn or a cougar toys with a 19-year-old college boy. Equality had been reached, just as the two leagues prepared to fully merge for the 1970 season.
On the surface, the Chiefs might appear as an elite franchise. Their all-time record is well over .500. They've produced far more than their share of Hall of Famers
for a relatively young franchise. They boast a Glory Era in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They have a championship on their resume. They have intensely loyal fans. And the AFC championship trophy is even named for their founder, Lamar Hunt.
But the Chiefs also have a dark side: a dismal postseason record that includes just eight (8!) career playoff wins and zero since 1993. Even worse, four of those playoff wins came against AFL competition in the pre-merger era (1960-69). In other words, since that franchise high-water mark – the victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV in January 1970 – the Chiefs have won just three postseason contests. Even Cardinals and Saints fans would be embarrassed by that performance (well, maybe not Cardinals fans).
The Chiefs are often good and routinely field solid – even great – teams. But 10 one-and-done performances in 15 playoff seasons mar and otherwise enjoyable franchise to have followed since its inception. Still, their great teams and bevy of great talent past earn Kansas City a spot here in the top half of our all-time franchise rankings.
15. MINNESOTA VIKINGS
First Vikings season:
Vikings championships: none
Face of the Vikings franchise: Bud Grant
Greatest Vikings players: Cris Carter, Randall Cunningham, Carl Eller, Chuck Foreman, Paul Krause, Jim Marshall, Randy Moss, Alan Page, Robert Smith, Frank Tarkenton, Ron Yary, Gary Zimmerman
Greatest Vikings coach:
Bud Grant (1967-83; 1985), 158-96-5 (.620) – nearly a quarter century later, the man who put the late, great Met on the map remains one of the winningest coaches in league history
, and one of just five coaches to lead his team to four Super Bowls.
Vikings claim to fame
: Fielded three of the most dominant teams in modern history
history – and the No. 2 scoring offense in league history (556 points scored in 1998) ... yet still have zero titles to show for it.
It never got any better for Vikings fans than it did on: Jan. 4, 1970
The world in the eyes of Vikings fans seemed so bright and hopeful on Jan. 4, 1970, the day Minnesota pummeled the 10-3-1 Browns, 27-7, in the last NFL championship game before the merger.
The Vikings had rolled through the 1969 season with a 12-2 record, while whipping opponents by an average score of 27.1 to 9.5. Basically, the Vikings bitched-slapped the NFL that year
much like the original sack specialists from Scandanavia laid waste to western Europe in the 9th century.
The victory over the Browns proved no different. Minnesota cruised to a 27-0 lead in the third quarter before putting riding out the fourth quarter. No surprise with the ease of the victory: the Vikings had crushed the Browns, the NFL's Century Division champion, 51-3, earlier that year.
Did we mention this was a pretty good team?
The Vikings were less than a decade old and clearly the dominant power in the old, established NFL. They were carrying on a tradition of winning football in Minnesota created by its state university, which was once a great college football powerhouse and had produced some of the best talent the game had ever seen. (The University of Minnesota, for example, is the only school with two members on the greatest team ever assembled, the Cold, Hard Football Facts All-Time 11
And after the highwater mark of Jan. 4, 1970, the Vikings, and their fans, were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, like a little North Woods gopher, reveling in their dominance over this pro football thing that was all so new to them. All Minnesota had to do was beat the AFL's Chiefs in Super Bowl IV.
The Vikings have consistently been one of the best, most competitive and most talent-laden teams in the NFL, as evidenced by their .549 all-time franchise record (sixth best among the 32 NFL teams).
But they've never quite made the big time, either, as evidenced by their zero championships, four Super Bowl losses, and four other losses in NFC championship games.
And then the Vikings gave up their greatest ally, the brutal Minnesota winters, and it's been all downhill since there: zero Super Bowl appearances and three NFC title-game losses since moving into the Metrodome back in 1982.
All of which makes the Vikings one of the most infuriating teams to have followed. They've given their fans more to cheer about than most other teams – at least in the regular season, yet they're the only team in our Top 18 that can't boast a single championship. But they earn a spot in the top half of our rankings because they've fielded so many great teams.
Now if they had only beat the Chiefs that day ...
14. DENVER BRONCOS
First Broncos season:
Broncos championships: 1997, 1998
Face of the Broncos franchise: John Elway
Greatest Broncos players: Lyle Alzado, Steve Atwater, Terrell Davis, Elway, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Tombstone Jackson, Floyd Little, Karl Mecklenburg, Haven Moses, Shannon Sharpe, Dennis Smith, Rod Smith, Gary Zimmerman
Greatest Broncos coach: Mike Shanahan (1995-present), 130-78 (.625) – led Broncos through its championship years of 1997 and 1998 and to most consistent period of competitive football.
Broncos claim to fame: Lost first four Super Bowl appearances before winning next two.
It never got any better for Broncos fans than it did on: Jan. 25, 1998
Well, what more could you say? After four Super Bowl losses, including the most devastating defeat in Super Bowl history (55-10 to the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV), and a crushing playoff loss to Jacksonville after dominating the 1996 season, the Broncos finally pulled it all together, with an upset victory over the Brett Favre, Reggie White and the potentially dynastic Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. The game gave NFL legend Elway his first ring after 15 years in the league, and was highlighted by the quarterback's helicopter dive for a first down that remains the most indelible image in franchise history.
The Broncos are one of the marquee franchises in football these days – great owner, new stadium, winning coach, great tradition, shiny new stadium and devoted fan base. It's a hard combination to beat.
But like so many other organizations, it wasn't always that way. Like several teams still to come, the Patriots and Steelers most notably, the Denver tradition was that of a laughing stock franchise before the glory days arrived. For the Broncos, those days started to peak through the soil in the mid-1980s and fully bloomed in the 1990s.
In fact, perhaps like no other team, the Broncos organization has incrementally improved over the years, from one-time laughing stock to perennial contender.
The Broncos did not field a winning team until 1973, their 14th season of pro football, and they were generally the worst team in the league during the AFL years (1960-69). The fortunes of the organization began to change during the Red Miller-Craig Morton years of the late 1970s, when the Broncos produces their first great teams – three straight to the playoffs – and reached their first Super Bowl in 1977, summarily being crushed by the powerhouse Cowboys in Super Bowl XII.
But the wheels of success were in motion, and the franchise took another leap forward in 1983 when it landed quarterback John Elway, the prize talent of the great QB class of '83, after he threatened to play baseball with the Yankees instead of football with the Colts, the team with the No. 1 overall pick. The Broncos became consistent contenders with Elway, but never a champion – they lost three Super Bowls, generally with undermanned teams being steamrolled by NFC opponents during the height of the power of pro football's senior circuit.
Denver took the next leap forward with the arrival in 1995 of head coach Mike Shanahan and his historically and consistently productive ground attack. By 1998, the Broncos were two-time defending champs and the most feared team in football. They've yet to recapture the glory of a title in the decade since Elway's departure. But, with a few exceptions these days, you can generally count on the Broncos to be a prime-time AFC contender. In fact, they hosted the AFC title game as recently as January 2006 and the sad-sack Broncos of the 1960s and 1970s are a distant memory for even old-time football fans.
13. ST. LOUIS RAMS
First Rams season:
Names: Cleveland Rams (1937-45); Los Angeles Rams (1946-94); St. Louis Rams (1995-present)
Rams championships: 1945, 1951, 1999
Greatest Rams players: Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Tom Fears, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Deacon Jones, Tom Mack, Ollie Matson, Merlin Olsen, Jackie Slater, Norm Van Brocklin, Bob Waterfield, Jack Youngblood
Greatest Rams playa: Waterfield
Greatest Rams coach: George Allen (1966-70), 49-17-4 (.729) – Allen did not win a championship with the Rams (or later with the Redskins). But his teams were consistently great during his five-years at the helm and he still boasts the best record on a team blessed with a bevy of great (but short-lived) coaches.
Rams claim to fame: Only team to win championships while playing in three different cities.
It never got any better for Rams fans than it did on: Jan. 30, 2000
With all due respect to the great star-studded Rams teams of old in Cleveland and L.A., few, if any, football teams in history enjoyed such a remarkable rise from oblivion more so than the Super Bowl XXXIV champion Rams of St. Louis.
Their 23-16 victory over the Titans was, in and of itself, perhaps the most exciting Super Bowl in history, with the Rams stopping the Titans inches from a game-tying TD as time expired. You beg for Super Bowls like that, no matter who is involved.
But the thriller also punctuated a remarkable rise from oblivion for a once-great NFL power, a teary-eyed old coach and a former supermarket stock boy turned NFL MVP. In 1998, the Rams were just 4-12, Vermeil was an aging coach with a Super Bowl loss back in 1980 the highlight of his career, and Warner was known only by fans of the Arena League's Iowa Barnstormers. On Jan. 30, 2000, all were Super Bowl champions.
The Rams organization should be a Top 5 team in our franchise rankings. They've been literally littered with Hall of Fame stars since their earliest days, they've fielded some of the greatest offensive teams in history (the 1950 Rams still hold the record 38.8 PPG
), they've fielded some of the greatest defensive teams in history (especially in the 1970s
), and they've fielded some of the single most dominant teams in league history (4 of the top 21
). No team can claim so many teams that have won so often so many different ways.
It's a feat made more remarkable by the general lack of stability – normally a prerequisite for success – within the organization. The team has played in three different cities and has absolutely no consistency within its coaching ranks. In fact, even the great coaches who have walked through the doors – Clark Shaughnessy, Joe Stydahar, Sid Gillman, George Allen, Chuck Knox, Dick Vermeil, a pretty impressive list – have never lasted more than five years. (John Robinson, who led the team from 1983 to 1991, is the only coach in franchise history to last more than five years at the helm, though Knox did return for a wildly unsuccessful three-year stint in 1992 years after his original five-year run in L.A.).
However, more often than not, the Rams failed to truly capitalize on their potential and regular-season greatness. Though they boast three NFL championships, they've lost 11 times in NFL championships, Super Bowls, or conference title games, often to inferior teams. The 2001 Rams, who lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, were just the most recent in a sad franchise history. In addition:
- The 1967 Rams went 11-1-2 and were the best team in football. They couldn't win a single playoff game, getting bounced by the 9-4-1 Packers (at home!) a week before the Ice Bowl.
- The 1973 Rams were dominant, too, with a league-best 12-2 record, +210 scoring differential, and a suffocating defense. They couldn't win a single playoff game, either, getting bounced by the Cowboys in the divisional round.
Even during the 1950s, when the Rams fielded the greatest offenses in history, thanks largely to the Hall of Fame QB-ing tandem of Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield, the Rams squeaked out just a single championship.
All in all, the Rams have been a very, very exciting franchise to follow through the years, and routinely competitive (and sometimes dominant) year after year. But it's a franchise that leaves you wondering what might have been ... which leaves us placing them just outside the Top 12.
12. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
First Patriots season:
Names: Boston Patriots (1960-70); New England Patriots (1971-present)
Patriots championships: 2001, 2003, 2004
Face of the Patriots franchise: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady
Greatest Patriots players: Houston Antwine, Brady, Gino Cappelletti, Ben Coates, John Hannah, Mike Haynes, Stanley Morgan, Jim Nance, Richard Seymour, Andre Tippett, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel
Greatest Patriots coach: Bill Belichick (2000-present), 91-37 (.711) – architect of the current Patriots juggernaut, only coach to win three Super Bowls in four years and considered by most the best coach of his generation and by some perhaps the best coach ever.
Patriots claim to fame: Owners of the longest win streak in NFL history (21 games, including playoffs), the two longest "official" (not including playoffs) winning streaks in NFL history (19 games and 18 games), and the longest postseason winning streak in NFL history (10 games).
It never got any better for Patriots fans than it did on: Feb. 3, 2002
Really a no brainer: the inept Patriots organization rose from obscurity in 2001 and then ended the season with a walk-off field goal in a 20-17 victory over the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. It's considered by most one of the great upsets in Super Bowl history and the shocker set in the motion the wheels of the first NFL dynasty of the 21st century.
If this list had been published, say, at the end of the 2000 season, there's a good chance the Patriots would occupy a spot somewhere around the Cincinnati Bengals (No. 28).
They were an organization that had showed flashes of potential excellence (two Super Bowl appearances, and losses, like the Bengals) and were largely competitive for a decade from the mid-1970s to late 1980s. But otherwise, the Patriots were also largely noted for failed opportunities, bad luck and just plain old organizational ineptitude (like the Bengals).
Then Mo Lewis
decked Drew Bledsoe early in 2001, Tom Brady stepped on the field, and everything for the organization changed on a dime.
Since then, the Patriots have gone through one of the single greatest periods of dominance the league has ever seen, with three Super Bowl victories in four years, the first 16-0 season in league history, ownership of every win streak imaginable, and, including playoffs, a mind-boggling record 77 victories (against 17 defeats, .819) in a five-year period from 2003 to 2007. And after just seven postseason victories in their first 41 seasons, the Patriots now boast a .618 playoff winning percentage (21-13) that's second only to the TitleTown Packers among organizations that have appeared in 10 or more playoff games. The 21 postseason victories is more than five of the 11 teams ahead of them on our list of all-time greatest franchises.
If not for a series of crushing postseason collapses the last two seasons, we might be talking about a team that had won five Super Bowls in seven years and had quickly risen from obscurity to one of the 10 best franchises in history.
Instead, when coupled with a relatively ingloriously first four decades, the Patriots are still a pretender to the throne of all-time NFL elitism.
11. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
First Colts season:
1946 (AAFC), 1953 (NFL)
Names: Baltimore Colts (1950; 1953-83); Indianapolis Colts (1984-present)
Colts championships: 1958, 1959, 1970, 2006
Face of the Colts franchise: Johnny Unitas
Greatest Colts players: Raymond Berry, Mike Curtis, Art Donovan, Marvin Harrison, John Mackey, Peyton Manning, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, Unitas
Greatest Colts coach: Tony Dungy (2002-present), 73-23 (.760) – Weeb Ewbank won two titles to Dungy's one with the Colts, and Don Shula's Colts were perennial contenders, but Dungy has fielded the most consistently excellent Colts teams, with an average of more than 12 wins per season.
It never got any better for Colts fans than it did on: Dec. 28, 1958
Current Colts fans certainly remember better the stupendous 2006 playoff run that ended with the organization's most recent championship. But perhaps nothing could ever match the thrill Colts fans (then the Baltimore Colts) experienced with their 23-17 road victory over the Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game.
CHFF readers, those socially awkward shut-ins who shun human companionship in favor of football knowledge, certainly know the story well: it was the first overtime game in NFL history, one of the most-watched television events, sporting or otherwise, in American history at the time, it featured no fewer than 15 Hall of Famers on the field or the sidelines, spurred the popularity of the NFL and is now known simply as "The Greatest Game Ever Played" (it's also the subject of the brand-new book
, "The Best Game Ever" by Mark Bowden, the guy who wrote "Black Hawk Down"). Oh, and it was a pretty exciting game, too, and the first championship for the young Colts organization.
The Colts began as a member of the old All America Football Conference from 1946 to 1949 and were one of three AAFC teams (along with the Browns and 49ers) to join the NFL in 1950 when the upstart league folded. They were a disaster (1-11), and themselves folded after one year in the NFL. A team of the same name was reborn and joined the league permanently in 1953 (it is generally considered a new franchise for statistical and historical purposes).
The Colts were largely successful from the late 1950s, when they won back-to-back NFL championships, through the early 1970s. They did not suffer a single losing season from 1957 to 1971, and fielded a star-studded cast of talent, especially on offense. In fact, there was a period from 1963 to 1967 when the Colts took the field with five of 11 offensive starters destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Berry, Mackey, Moore, Unitas, Parker).
But it was the right team at the wrong time, as the Colts played second fiddle to their even more talented Western Conference foe from Green Bay, which would rule the decade.
With a few exceptions, the Colts grew largely uncompetitive, even downright awful, following their 1971 Super Bowl victory through the late 1990s. They even fielded a winless 0-8-1 team in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and bumbled through campaigns of 1-15, 2-14 and 3-13 over this period. The move to Indianapolis in 1984 also served to heighten the disarray of the organization during its down-and-out era
But then came Peyton Manning in 1998, and Tony Dungy in 2002, and the organization has enjoyed a renaissance and a return to the status it enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the elite franchises in the NFL.
10. MIAMI DOLPHINS
First Dolphins season:
Dolphins championships: 1972, 1973
Face of the Dolphins franchise: Don Shula
Greatest Dolphins players: Nick Buoniconti, Mark Clayton, Larry Csonka, Mark Duper, Manny Fernandez, Bob Griese, Bob Kuechenberg, Jim Langer, Larry Little, Dan Marino, Dwight Stephenson, Paul Warfield
Greatest Dolphins coach: Don Shula (1970-1995), 257-133-2 (.658) – The winningest coach in NFL history (328 total victories) who took over the struggling expansion Dolphins in their fifth season and instantly turned them into perennial contenders over the next three decades.
Dolphins claim to fame: Best winning percentage (.580) of any NFL franchise and architects of the league's only undefeated season (17-0 in 1972).
It never got any better for Dolphins fans than it did on: Jan. 14, 1973
In their third year under Shula, the Dolphins closed out the only undefeated season in NFL history with a 14-7 victory over the Redskins in Super Bowl VII, an accomplishment which continues to grow in stature with each passing season.
We're actually shocked by this ranking ... and it's our own ranking! Just by their historic reputation, their great talent, their league-best winning percentage and their truly marvelous and unmatched 17-0 season of 1972, we expected the Dolphins would be a Top 5 organization.
But then we stepped back to take the wide-angle view of the organization's history necessitated by this study (for each team), and realized that it's been 35 years since Miami's last championship and that this organization, with the greatest winning percentage in history, boasts just two total championships, fewer than any team among our top baker's dozen (of course, it's also the youngest organization this highly ranked).
After the usual fits and starts of an expansion organization, Miami grew into one of the most consistent winners the league had ever seen, with just two (2!) losing seasons during Don Shula's 26 years at the helm. They've struggled since the departure of Shula in 1995, and haven't even reached a Super Bowl since the 1984 season – nearly a quarter-century ago. And last year, of course, the Dolphins truly bottomed out, with a 1-15 campaign that stands as one of the worst single seasons of the Super Bowl Era and clearly the worst in franchise history.
These are all-time franchise rankings, so we don't weigh a 1-15 season of last year any more heavily than we would one in, say, 1966. However, after you take this wide angle view, you find an organization that peaked in 1972 and has been on a slow, almost impercetible downward descent ever since – a descent that drops the organization here to the periphery of the Top 10 all-time franchises.
9. CLEVELAND BROWNS
First Browns season:
1946 (AAFC), 1950 (NFL)
Browns championships: 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949 (all in AAFC); 1950, 1954, 1955, 1964
Greatest Browns players: Jim Brown, Len Ford, Frank Gatski, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Gene Hickerson, Leroy Kelly, Dante Lavelli, Mike McCormack, Marion Motley, Ozzie Newsome, Greg Pruitt, Paul Warfield, Bill Willis
Greatest Browns coach: Paul Brown
(NFL: 1950-62), 111-44-5 (.709); (AAFC: 1946-49), 47-4-3 (.898) – Seminal figure in pro football history, one of its winningest coaches, founder of two NFL franchises, and master innovator and educator whose influences still ripple throughout football today.
It never got any better for Browns fans than it did on: Dec. 24, 1950
Cleveland's first NFL season after four years dominating the AAFC ended as offensive tackle Lou "The Toe" Groza kicked a field goal in the final seconds to lift the Browns to a 30-28 victory over the L.A. Rams in the NFL championship game. The thrill of victory was compounded by the delicious joy of revenge: the Rams had played in Cleveland from 1937 to 1945 before abandoning the Mistake by the Lake for the sunshine of La-La Land. (Read a great contemporary report of that 1950 championship game here
The Browns are really one of those organizations we struggled over for a long time. They've been defined by nothing but frustration during the Super Bowl Era, as evidenced by their nice round 0 Super Bowl appearances. Every other team in our Top 12 boasts at least at least one Super Bowl championship, and all but one boasts multiple Super Bowl championships, let alone the mere appearances in the big game that have eluded Cleveland. There have also been numerous nut-crushing defeats over the years with glory so near: the Browns have lost six NFL or conference championship games since their last league title in 1964.
However, Cleveland's period of greatness was so truly dominant, their past rosters littered with so many legendary names, the influence of their founder
, Paul Brown, so great upon the modern game, that we absolutely had to include them in the Top 10. As was the case with the Patriots at No. 12, Cleveland's period of dominance was so brilliant, its influence so profound, that it necessitated a higher ranking than perhaps was apparent at first glance.
The Browns, of course, dominated the old AAFC, winning the championship in all four years of the league's existence, while posting a truly remarkable 47-4-3 record during those four seasons. They even fielded an undefeated 15-0 team in 1948. The Browns quickly proved that they belonged in the big leagues by winning a championship in their first year of NFL competition (1950). In fact, they would play in six straight NFL championship games, winning three of them, during their first six years in the NFL.
In other words, the Browns appeared in 10 straight pro football championship games – probably the most untouchable record in the sport's history.
The Browns can also lay claim to, arguably, the greatest running back (Jim Brown), the greatest quarterback (Otto Graham) and the greatest coach (Paul Brown) in league history. They even boast two players on the All-Time 11
, the greatest collection of all-around football talent ever assembled. No other organization can make the same claim.
Yes, it's all a distant memory for Browns fans. But what a memory.
8. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
First Steelers season:
Names: Pittsburgh Pirates (1933-40); Pittsburgh Steelers (1941-42; 1945-present); Phil-Pitt (1943); Card-Pitt (1944)
Steelers championships: 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 2005
Face of the Steelers franchise: Art Rooney
Greatest Steelers players: Jerome Bettis, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Dermontti Dawson, Bill Dudley, Alan Faneca, Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, John Henry Johnson, Jack Lambert, Ben Roethlisberger, Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, Ernie Stautner, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, Rod Woodson
Greatest Steelers coach:
Chuck Noll (1969-91), 193-148-1 (.566) – Prized pupil of the Paul Brown School
and still, with Vince Lombardi, the only coach to win four NFL championships in six years.
Steelers claim to fame: First organization to win four Super Bowls and only organization to win four in six seasons.
It never got any better for Steelers fans than it did on: Jan. 12, 1975
A towering four decades of futility crumbled to dust as the Steelers rumbled over the Vikings, 16-6, to capture the franchise's first championship and launch the dynasty of the 1970s. The game was not as close as the 10-point margin would indicate, as the Steel Curtain held the high-scoring Vikings to just 119 yards of total offense and nine first downs. It remains the organization's most dominant championship-game performance.
The Steelers organization is, in many ways, a lot like the Broncos (No. 14) or Patriots (No. 12). Sure, they're a marquee franchise today – in fact, the Steelers have been marquee all the way back to the mid-1970s, a time when marquees were printed in that cheesy disco-style neon font.
Clearly, the Steelers are one of the dominant teams of the Super Bowl Era, as their 28 Super Bowl Era playoff victories – second only to the Cowboys (32) – can attest.
But before that, the Steelers were so bad that even Cardinals fans made fun of them, and that's as low as it gets on the totem pole of pigskin politics. The Cardinals could at least claim two NFL championships in their first 30 seasons. The Steelers enjoyed just seven winning seasons from 1933 to 1971, and made just a single postseason appearance over that period, losing an Eastern Division tie-breaker game to the Eagles in 1947.
To understand just how bad the Steelers were for so long, it pays to remember that they've been a perennial contender for the past 35 years, yet still have a mere .507 all-time franchise winning percentage – not even in the top half of the league's current 32 teams.
The arrival of Chuck Noll in 1969 and Terry Bradshaw in 1970 started to mark a change of fortunes for the franchise; 1972 provided another milestone year, first with drafting Franco Harris in the spring and then with the Immaculate Reception in the divisional playoff win over the Raiders that season. To understand the Immaculate Reception's impact on the psyche of Steelers fans, it pays to remember that it was not only a miracle win, it was the first postseason victory in franchise history, a victory 40 years in the making. Then came the great draft class of 1974 (four Hall of Famers) and a first NFL championship immediately followed.
As the old advertisement used to say, "You've come a long way, baby."
Since then, the Steelers have clearly been an elite franchise, as evidenced by their four Super Bowl titles and team-of-the-decade status in the 1970s, and the "one for the thumb" title in 2005. The organization has boasted historic stability since 1969 (just three coaches), not to mention great talent. They've defied the "level playing field" doctrine of the NFL and have consistently fielded contenders during the salary-cap era. If the franchise had not been so inept through its first four decades, had it just managed two championships over that time, we might be talking about the NFL's all-time greatest franchise.
But No. 8 is not bad ... and at least the Cardinals fans have stopped laughing.
7. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
First Redskins season:
Names: Boston Braves (1932); Boston Redskins (1933-36); Washington Redskins (1937-present)
Redskins championships: 1937, 1942, 1982, 1987, 1991
Face of the Redskins franchise: Sammy Baugh
Greatest Redskins players: Cliff Battles, Baugh, Dave Butz, Turk Edwards, Darrell Green, Russ Grimm, Ken Houston, Joe Jacoby, Sonny Jurgensen, Charles Mann, Wayne Millner, Bobby Mitchell, Brian Mitchell, Art Monk, John Riggins, Charley Taylor
Greatest Redskins coach: Joe Gibbs (1981-92; 2004-07), 154-94 (.621) – Led the Redskins to all three of their Super Bowl championships with each one won, famously, with a different quarterback.
Redskins claim to fame: Won at least one championship in four different decades.
It never got any better for Redskins fans than it did on: Dec. 13, 1942
The Redskins, 14-point underdogs, pulled off one of the great shockers in pro football history as they bested the undefeated Bears, 14-6, in the 1942 NFL championship game.
The 11-0 Bears entered the game as the single most dominant team in the history of the NFL, outscoring opponents 376 to 84. They were unstoppable ... or at least it seemed that way. The Redskins (who were 10-1) not only shut out the juggernaut Bears offense (the only Chicago points came off a fumble forced by the defense), they produced one of the great goal-line stands in history: the Redskins stuffed the Bears on four straight plays after Chicago had reached 1st-and-goal at the 2.
According to a contemporary report on the game in the Chicago Daily Tribune, jubilant fans in Washington (which hosted the game) "raced upon the gridiron, shook the goal posts from their moorings and broke them up as so much kindling wood" ... sounds like our reaction everytime the barkeep announces last call.
For many, the celebration was short-lived: Several players on both sides of the ball marched off to war right after the game. (A Navy officer by the name of George Halas got leave for the game and watched from the sidelines.)
Hail to the Redskins ... the braves on the warpath are the first team on our list to enjoy two periods of multi-championship success: first the Ray Flaherty-Sammy Baugh Redskins, who produced two titles, and then again under Joe Gibbs, who won three.
The Redskins have never quite produced a "dynasty" – but their two periods of greatness were impressive nonetheless. The Redskins appeared in six NFL title games from 1936 to 1945 (the height, not so coincidentally, of the Baugh Era), and then in four Super Bowls from 1982 to 1991.
The organization suffered a long period of mediocrity, with zero postseason appearances from 1946 to 1970, but rose again to prominence with the arrival of George Allen in 1971, who produced five playoff teams and a Super Bowl appearance in 1972.
The Redskins have another interesting claim as an elite organization: save for a brief period in the early 1960s (two total victories in 1960 and 1961), the Redskins have never really fielded bad teams, at least not for long. Oh, sure, there have been plenty of underwhelming teams – which organization hasn't had those? – but there have been remarkably few Norv Turner-type 3-13 campaigns along the way. In fact, 47 of the 76 teams in franchise history have been .500 or better.
All in all, it's a franchise that has consistently provided its fans with competitive teams and memorable moments, not to mention five championships.
6. OAKLAND RAIDERS
First Raiders season:
Names: Oakland Raiders (1960-81; 1995-present); Los Angeles Raiders (1982-94)
Raiders championships: 1976, 1980, 1983
Face of the Raiders franchise: Al Davis
Greatest Raiders players: Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, George Blanda, Cliff Branch, Tim Brown, Willie Brown, Dave Casper, Todd Christensen, Robert Gallery (o.k., just kiddin'), Lester Hayes, Mike Haynes, Ted Hendricks, Daryle Lamonica, Howie Long, Jim Otto, Jim Plunkett, Art Powell, Art Shell, Ken Stabler, Jack Tatum, Gene Upshaw
Greatest Raiders coach:
John Madden (1969-78), 103-32-7 (.750) – Led franchise to its first championship while his .750 winning percentage remains the best in history
; in nine seasons coaching in the 14-game era, Madden's Raiders went 10-3-1 or better six times.
Raiders claim to fame: Raiders reached better than 1 in every 3 AFL/AFC championship games (14 of 36) from 1967 to 2002.
It never got any better for Raiders fans than it did on: Jan. 22, 1984
The Raiders' last Super Bowl championship was also its finest hour, as they utterly deconstructed one of the great teams in history
, the 14-2 Redskins of 1983, by a 38-9 margin.
The Redskins entered the game after scoring a then-record 541 points, but they could barely move the ball against what had been a fairly pedestrian Raiders defense that year (338 points allowed). Though the Raiders defense carried the day, it was the spectacular Marcus Allen who stole the show, with 191 yards rushing highlighted by a magical 74-yard TD scamper through a Redskins defense that parted as if Allen were Moses himself.
There have been bigger Super Bowl upsets – but never an upset where the underdog so thoroughly demolished what had been a superior team throughout the season.
The Raiders legend actually began humbly enough, winning just nine games in their first three seasons. They were something of a poor sister even among poor sisters in the AFL. But then – a little credit here to the much-maligned Leisure Suit Lothario
– Al Davis arrived on the scene in 1963 as head coach and general manager. The Raiders were the worst team in football, with a 1-13 record in 1962. They improved by an amazing nine games, to 10-4, in their first year under Davis.
A new era in pro football had dawned.
Head coaches came and went – Davis was followed by John Rauch, John Madden and Tom Flores – but the victories flowed like cheap booze at the CHFF Christmas party. The Raiders posted winning records every year from 1965 to 1985. They reached the postseason in 15 of 19 seasons from 1967 to 1985. They won so frequently, highlighted by Madden's record .750 clip, that even here after several pathetic seasons at the ebb of the organization's history, Oakland still boasts the fourth-best overall record of any NFL franchise.
The Raiders have also fielded plenty of talent (far more Hall of Famers than any other AFL franchise), and some of the most colorful characters and teams in league history, while earning legendary status as the bad boys of the NFL.
Given their historic status as perennial postseason contenders, the Raiders should be able to lay claim to the top spot on our all-time franchise rankings.
But they can't.
One thing has generally eluded the Raiders: ultimate success. Just three of their 21 playoff appearances have ended with a Super Bowl championship. Simply put, too many Raiders seasons have ended with too much disappointment to justify placing them any higher than an already lofty No. 6 in our rankings. In fact, if anything, an argument could be made that they're overrated. But, from this vantage point, Raiders at No. 6 fits about as perfectly as a robe on Hugh Hefner.
It's an organization that has consistently fielded title contenders over the better part of its history. And few other franchises can make that claim.
5. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
First 49ers season:
1946 (AAFC), 1950 (NFL)
49ers championships: 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994
Face of the 49ers franchise: Joe Montana
Greatest 49ers players: Roger Craig, Randy Cross, Charles Haley, Jimmy Johnson, Ronnie Lott, Hugh McElhenny, Montana, Leo Nomellini, Terrell Owens, Joe Perry, Jerry Rice, Bob St. Clair, Y.A. Tittle, Gene Washington, Dave Wilcox, Bryant Young, Steve Young
Greatest 49ers coach: Bill Walsh (1979-88), 92-59-1 (.609) – Gridiron revolutionary who ushered in the era of the modern, ball-control pass attack while winning three Super Bowls and launching one of the greatest periods of dominance the game has ever witnessed.
49ers claim to fame: Team of the 1980s.
It never got any better for 49ers fans than it did on: January 22, 1989
On one magical January evening in Miami, the 49ers wrapped up team-of-the-decade status, while their signature performer secured quarterback-for-the-ages legend
, courtesy of a thrilling 20-16 victory over the Bengals.
It was the third Super Bowl title in team history, but certainly the most dramatic, as Joe Montana led a 92-yard drive in the final minutes that he capped with a 10-yard needle-threading laser to John Taylor with 34 seconds to play.
For thrills, chills and the historic status gained in one evening, no game in franchise history (and few in league history) can compare.
If we were surprised to find the Dolphins so low on our list (No. 10), we're surprised to find the 49ers so high.
Sure, San Francisco dominated the NFL from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s like no other team at any other period in history. But the organization had certainly accomplished little in its first three decades in the NFL, at least little that the average football fan could recall.
But enter again our wide-angle view of each organization's history (the one we first discussed with Miami and one, by the way, that comes in handy when spying on the girl's locker-room shower), and it reveals a franchise that's been consistently competitive almost from its earliest days, while fielding more than its fair share of great players.
On the talent side, just consider the blessed state of quarterbacking San Francisco has enjoyed: In all but five years from 1951 to 1999, virtually the entire history of the organization, the 49ers roster included either Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie, Joe Montana or Steve Young, and sometimes two of them at once. (Tittle, Montana and Young, of course, are all in the Hall of Fame, while Brodie reached two Pro Bowls while playing in the same conference with Fran Tarkenton, Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas.)
And between Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry (both HOFers) and Roger Craig, the franchise has also enjoyed some of the most exciting ball-carriers the game has ever seen. Jerry Rice, meanwhile, stands unchallenged as the best receiver in modern NFL history, while Terrell Owens, who spent most of his career with the 49ers, is also a historically productive receiver.
Hall of Fame 49ers tackle Bob St. Clair, meanwhile, enjoys special status as an all-time CHFF favorite. He was known, as he so lustily described in old NFL Films segments, for eating raw meat
. Our kind of guy. He was also elected mayor of Daly City, California while still playing in the NFL ... which means he was far too ambitious to be our kind of guy.
The talent, naturally, has produced a lot of victories.
The 49ers fielded a strong 7-4-1 team in just their second NFL season (1951) and suffered just six losing seasons through 1973. And the night grew longest for the organization just before the crack of dynastic dawn: the organization won just 4 of 32 games in 1978 and 1979. The 1979 season marred by so much defeat, however, was a pivotal season in franchise history: it's the year that marked the arrival of the two figures who would change the image and stature of the organization forever, Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.
From 1981 to 1998, the 49ers suffered just one (count 'em, 1) losing season, and even that was an abberation of an abberation: it came during the strike-shortened 1982 campaign, a year in which the 49ers battled through the hangover of their first Super Bowl title with a 3-6 record.
The organization competed well for most of its first three decades in the NFL, and then enjoyed a nearly two-decade period of unmatched prosperity. It all adds up to a team just on the edge of our Final Four of the greatest franchises in NFL history.
The best is yet to come ...
4. CHICAGO BEARS
First Bears season:
Names: Decatur Staleys (1920); Chicago Staleys (1921); Chicago Bears (1922-present)
Bears championships: 1921, 1932 (pre-title game era); 1933, 1940, 1941, 1943, 1946, 1963, 1985
Face of the Bears franchise: George "Papa Bear" Halas
Greatest Bears players: Doug Atkins, Dick Butkus, George Connor, Richard Dent, Mike Ditka, Paddy Driscoll, Dan Fortman, Bill George, Red Grange, Dan Hampton, Ed Healey, Bill Hewitt, Stan Jones, Sid Luckman, Link Lyman, George McAfee, George Musso, Bronko Nagurski, Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Mike Singletary, Joe Stydahar, George Trafton, Bulldog Turner
Greatest Bears coach:
Halas (1920-29; 1933-42; 1946-55; 1958-67), 318-148-31 (.671) – A pro football pioneer, perhaps the single most important individual in the history of the NFL and winner of 318 games. His victory total is second all time to Don Shula (328) – a coaching legend who did not
have to uproot his career to serve three years in the Navy in World War II – and is far ahead of the No. 3 man on the list, Tom Landry (250). Halas was also a great athlete: star at Illinois and Great Lakes Naval College, MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl
and, briefly, an outfielder for the New York Yankees before serving as player-coach for the Bears during their first nine seasons.
Bears claim to fame: Won more games (677) and boast more Hall of Famers (31 total, 26 who spent most or all of their careers with the Bears) than any other NFL team.
It never got any better for Bears fans than it did on: Dec. 29, 1963
The Bears entered the 1963 NFL championship game with an 11-1-2 record and one of the toughest defenses in the history of football (10.3 PPG). Their opponent, the Giants, entered the game with an 11-3 record and one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history (32.0 PPG).
Let's just say that defense wins championships.
In perhaps the signature game in the history of the "Monsters of the Midway," the Bears won 14-10 as they stifled the high-flying Giants offense and physically destroyed their quarterback, Y.A. Tittle. The Hall of Fame passer was sacked seven times, intercepted five times and twice knocked out of the game. (Miraculously, Tittle twice returned to the game, but only after being shot up with so many painkillers that the people watching the game at home couldn't feel anything.)
As an alternative moment, you might cite Dec. 17, 1933: Football immortal Bronko Nagurski threw two second-half TD passes to lift the Bears to a dramatic 23-21 victory over the Giants in the first NFL championship game.
The Bears are one of the small handful of teams that surprised us when we stepped back and looked at their entire history. Sure, we knew they were one of the original NFL franchises and had a long and storied history. But age doesn't mean everything or insure success. Simply look at the Cardinals, the only team other than the Bears that's been in the NFL since its inception. They're ranked No. 32. We also knew that the Bears have provided more than their fare share of great teams, great players and great contributions to football lore.
But their relative lack of success in the Super Bowl Era (one championship) tends to cause people, including us, to forget that the Bears:
- have won a record 677 games, 40 more victories than the Packers (the No. 2 team on the victory list)
- still boast the third-best winning percentage in league history (.577), better than every other team but the Donnies- and Tommies-come-late from Miami and Dallas.
The Bears, in other words, have produced competitive teams over a longer period than any other franchise. They've fielded a veritable who's who of NFL legends. They helped usher in modern offense with the T-formation (which produced a record 73-0 win over the Redskins in the 1940 championship game). They boasted some of the most dominant teams in league history. They've twice won back-to-back championships. And their nine NFL titles are second only to the Packers (12).
The Bears might have been the greatest franchise in NFL history.
But they're not, because too often they've fallen short when it mattered most.
The Bears produced two of the four teams in the NFL's title-game-era history (since 1933) to march through the regular season undefeated (1934, 1942). But both of those teams lost in the championship game, both shocking upsets along the lines of the Patriots falling to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Many other Bears teams – as the franchise's third-best overall record indicates – were good enough to win championships but didn't, including several of their famouse defensive clubs in the 1980s. As a result, the Bears have won just 16 postseason games in their history. To put those 16 postseason victories since 1920 into perspective, consider that the Patriots have won 14 postseason games since 2001. And the bulk of the franchise's success came in its first 30 years. The Bears have won just two NFL championships – and only a single Super Bowl – over the past 62 seasons. That's not good, folks.
But even when they're not winning titles, the Bears have remained a flagship franchise that's consistently competitive, that's second in league history with nine championships, and that may have contributed more than any other organization to the history and growth of the sport.
3. NEW YORK GIANTS
First Giants season:
Giants championships: 1927 (pre-title game era); 1934, 1938, 1956, 1986, 1990, 2007
Face of the Giants franchise:
Greatest Giants players: Red Badgro, Tiki Barber, Roosevelt Brown, Harry Carson, Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Mel Hein, Sam Huff, Tuffy Leemans, Steve Owen, Andy Robustelli, Ken Strong, Lawrence Taylor, Y.A. Tittle, Emlen Tunnell, Alex Webster, Arnie Weinmeister, Ray Wietacha
Greatest Giants coach: Steve Owen (1931-53), 151-100-17 (.595) – Star player went on to become the organization's longest-serving head coach, reaching the postseason in 10 of 23 seasons, winning two championships and reaching a coaching-record eight NFL championship games (tied with Halas).
Giants claim to fame: Appeared in more NFL championship games (18) and lost more championship games (12) than any team in league history.
It never got any better for Giants fans than it did on: Feb. 3, 2008
The Giants stifled the highest-scoring offense in NFL history then drove 83 yards for a touchdown in the final two minutes
to capture a 17-14 victory over the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It stands as one of the greatest and most thrilling upsets in North American sports history.
The Giants are the final team in our rankings that ended up in a wholly unexpected place. We expected possibly a Top 10 franchise, but certainly not one in the Top 3. But then we stacked up the organization's accomplishments over the past 83 years, and discovered one of the most consistently competitive and most star-studded teams in league history.
New York's historic victory over the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII earlier this year certainly didn't hurt the organization's ranking, either. But, amazingly, it was not the first time the Giants knocked off a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut. The 1934 Bears went 13-0 and outscored their opponents 286-86. Yet they were pounded, 30-13, by the humble 8-5 Giants in the NFL championship game.
The consistency with which the Giants have been NFL contenders is evident by their 18 championship game appearances. Basically, the Giants play for the NFL title two to three times each decade. That rate of success will certainly keep fans interested and will help explain why Giants season tickets are family heirlooms and the stadium-mate Jets are about as popular as herpes in the eyes of the average New York-area football fan. The Giants never produced a so-called "dynasty," but they've won at least one championship in a record six different decades, failing only in the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s. But even in the empty years of the 40s and 60s, the Giants remained one of the league's marquee franchises, playing in a combined five NFL title games over those decades.
The Giants, of course, have also benefitted from playing in the Big Apple. The organization has produced more than its fair share of legendary players and coaches – individuals who probably appear bigger than they otherwise might have had they played in Podunk-Ville. Quarterback Charlie Conerly doubled as the American advertising icon Marlboro Man in the 1950s; Frank Gifford was as big a star after football as he was while serving as the Giants' all-purpose offensive threat; and Pat Summerall is remembered one of the signature voices in NFL history as an announcer – but he was also the Adam Vinatieri of his era, nailing a 50-yard kick in a blizzard to lift the Giants over the Browns in the last week of the 1958 season and send the team into the playoffs, where they beat the Browns again to set up the championship showdown against the Colts in the "Greatest Game Ever Played."
Hell, even Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete of the 20th century, had a cup of coffee with the Giants in 1925. And don't forget the Giants coaching staff of the 1950s, whose coordinators were Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi.
Big-time victories. Big-time success. Big-time consistency. Big-time stars. Sounds like No. 3 to us.
2. DALLAS COWBOYS
First Cowboys season:
Cowboys championships: 1971, 1977, 1992, 1993, 1995
Face of the Cowboys franchise: Tom Landry
Greatest Cowboys players: Troy Aikman, Larry Allen, Tony Dorsett, Walt Garrison, Bullet Bob Hayes, Chuck Howley, Michael Irvin, Too Tall Jones, Lee Roy Jordan, Bob Lilly, Harvey Martin, Don Meredith, Don Perkins, Dan Reeves, Mel Renfro, Emmitt Smith, Roger Staubach, Everson Walls, Charlie Waters, Randy White, Erik Williams, Rayfield Wright
Greatest Cowboys coach: Landry (1960-88), 250-162-6 (.605) – A star NFL defensive back and World War II bomber co-pilot who became the dynasty-building leader of the 1960 expansion Cowboys, posting winning records every year from 1966 to 1985 while capturing five conference championships and two Super Bowl titles.
Cowboys claim to fame: America's Team.
It never got any better for Cowboys fans than it did on: January 16, 1972
Led by phenom quarterback and Navy veteran Roger Staubach, eight years removed from his Heisman-winning season in Annapolis, the Cowboys crushed the Dolphins, 24-3, in Super Bowl VI to capture the organization's first NFL championship. It ended the reputation as the "team that can't win the big game" the club had acquired after losing five straight years in the playoffs, often in excruciating fashion.
It's really hard to comprehend how consistently good the Cowboys were during the Landry years.
From 1966 to 1985 – the first two decades of the Super Bowl Era – the Cowboys reached the playoffs every single season but two (1974, 1984). Perhaps even more remarkable, the Cowboys played in 12 of the first 17 NFL/NFC title games of the Super Bowl Era.
And remember, for many of those years of Cowboys consistency there was only one wildcard team from each conference, not the three we have today. The Cowboys earned their way into the playoffs.
Their record 32 playoff victories – four more than the No. 2 team (Pittsburgh) and at least double the postseason wins of 19 other franchises – stand as testament to Dallas's period of greatness.
No wonder they earned the moniker America's Team: the Cowboys were a dominant power just as the NFL was becoming a dominant force on the nation's cultural landscape.
The Cowboys were also a pro football marketer's dream team: the star-studded club was symbolized perfectly by the star on the helmet that represented the big, brash, boisterous, football-obsessed Lone Star State. The fact that Dallas was the first – and for many years only – successful team from the American South (in any sport) only served to compound their reputation and build their following. (From east to west, no NFL team was within 1,200 miles of Dallas when the team was founded. Its closest competitor, St. Louis, was 650 miles to the northeast).
The Cowboys captured three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s to lay claim to "team of the decade." And if they were able to beat the Steelers just once in two Super Bowl meetings during the 1970s, rather than suffer two close losses, they might have been known as the team of that decade, too.
The organization's media-darling status does tend to overrate the team in any given year (much like their media-darling college counterpart in Notre Dame). Take, for example, those 1990s Cowboys. Great teams, to be sure. But certainly not the unstoppable juggernaut they're made out to be today in popular press. Simply look at the victories (the Aikman-Irvin-Smith Cowboys topped 12 wins just once); or the typical scoring differentials (in their best years, the Aikman-Irving-Smith Cowboys outscored their opponents by 166 points, well below the levels of dominance achieved by virtually all other NFL dynasties).
The organization is not without its flaws. Sixteen conference title game appearances, for example, have yielded an even 8-8 record. That's more Super Bowl visits than any other team, but still falling short of the team's full potential.
The Cowboys have also suffered an inordinate number of crushing postseason losses that brought an inglorious end to otherwise great seasons. Most notably, the 1966 Cowboys lost by a touchdown, at home, to the Packers in the NFL title game. Dallas drove to the shadows of the goal line in the final seconds of that game, only to have Don Meredith's final pass picked off in the end zone. The next season, of course, the Cowboys held a late 17-14 lead over the Packers in the 1967 NFL title game, only to watch Green Bay drive 68 yards in the final minutes for a game-winning TD in the legendary Ice Bowl
If the Cowboys had been able to make just one more play in each of those two NFL championship games, they – and not the Packers – probably would have gone on to win the first two Super Bowls and they – not the Packers – would stand as the undisputed No. 1 franchise in NFL history.
And some people think a single play doesn't make a difference.
1. GREEN BAY PACKERS
First Packers season:
Packers championships: 1929, 1930, 1931 (pre-title game era); 1936, 1939, 1944, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1996
Face of the Packers franchise:
Earl "Curly" Lambeau (pictured here with star receiver Don Hutson
Greatest Packers players:
Herb Adderley, Tony Canadeo, Willie Davis, Brett Favre, Forrest Gregg, Arnie Herber, Clarke Hinkle, Paul Hornung, Cal Hubbard
, Don Hutson
, Henry Jordan, Jerry Kramer, James Lofton, Blood McNally, Mike Michalske, Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr
, Jim Taylor, Reggie White, Willie Wood
Greatest Packers coach:
Vince Lombardi (1959-67), 89-29-4 (.746) – the definitive figure in the NFL's "coming of age" decade of the 1960s, one of the winngest coaches in league history
and the only coach to capture five championships in a seven-year period.
Packers claim to fame: The only team to win three straight NFL championships, and they've done it twice, as part of a record 12 crowns for TitleTown.
Green Bay legend Bart Starr, the greatest quarterback in history
, completed 5 of 5 passes in the ball-busting frost and then literally took matters into his own hands: he called a handoff to Chuck Mercein but kept the ball himself, without telling his teammates, plowing into the end zone for the game-winning TD.
More than a thrilling victory, it marked a historic milestone that had never been preceded or since duplicated: The Packers were now the first team in history to win three straight NFL championship games. Two weeks later, the Packers beat the AFL's Raiders in Super Bowl II, thus becoming the first team to win consecutive Super Bowls.
As much as you might like to find a "controversial" pick at the top of our (or anybody else's) all-time franchise rankings, there simply is no way to justify selecting any other organization other than the Packers.
In fact, we could have put a "controversial" team in the No. 1 spot just to get a rise out of people and stir up a hornet's nest of head-scratching hype. But then we'd be no better than the hairy-palmed hacks at ESPN and would not be a doing a service to you, our readers.
The truth is that only one team belongs at the top.
From the time the Acme Packing Co. first fielded an NFL team in 1921, right through to the overtime loss in the 2007 NFC championship game, the Packers have been a powerhouse on pro football playing fields.
Green Bay met with success instantly: the Packers fielded just one team with a losing record from their debut season of 1921 through 1947 (5-7-1 in 1933).
Green Bay has also met with success recently: the Packers fielded just one team with a losing record from Brett Favre's debut season of 1992 through 2007 (4-12 in 2005).
(A bit of trivia: The Packers are the only existing franchise, with the Dolphins, to march through an entire NFL season undefeated. The 1929 Packers went 12-0-1 to earn the first of three-straight league championships in the pre-title-game era, when the championship was simply handed to the team with the best record. The Dolphins, of course, went 17-0 in 1972, capping the season with a win in Super Bowl VII.)
Green Bay's contributions to pro football lore are unmatched:
The Packers play in the most famous arena in football, named for their founder, first star player, first great coach (arguably its greatest) and the man who willed football into this little Great Lakes harbor town: Earl "Curly" Lambeau.
The Super Bowl trophy is named for Green Bay's 1960s coach, Vince Lombardi, one of the great icons of the game and a symbol of old-school American values whose reputation extends beyond sport.
The Packers have won more titles than any other team (12). They're the only organization to win three straight NFL championships, and they've done it twice: Green Bay won three straight from 1929-31, in the pre-title-game era, and then did it again from 1965 to 1967.
When the modern NFL was born in 1966 with the first AFL-NFL championship the Packers, naturally, won the first two Super Bowls.
And from Blood McNally to Brett Favre, the Packers roster has read like a who's who of legends decade after decade.
Yet the greatest attribute of the Packers is not just the two different dynasties they've fielded, the record 12 championships, or the cast of legendary characters who have worn green and gold.
The greatest attribute of the Packers, instead, is that they're the last vestige of the small-town Midwestern roots of pro football. While the Dayton Triangles and Duluth Eskimos of the football world have been ground into dust, the Packers have persevered and excelled against all odds. In a sports world otherwise dominated by big egos with big dollars from big cities, teams from the Big Apple and the Big D have never been quite as good as the publicly owned non-profit club from little Green Bay.
Nearly a century later, the team pulled together in this frosty, isolated Midwestern harbor town by Curly Lambeau and the Acme Packing Co. remains a dominant force on the field and in the culture and lore of American sport.