The almost-greatest teams
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 12, 2006
Ed's note: This piece originally ran in December 2006.
Cold, Hard Football Facts history buff
The NFL Network is counting down the 20 greatest Super Bowl champions in its new "America's Game" series. The teams on the list all deserve their return to glory.
Are they the 20 greatest teams of the Super Bowl Era? It's hard to argue otherwise.
But they're not the only great teams of the Super Bowl Era. History is littered with the almost-greats: teams that dominated the NFL throughout the regular season, but just couldn't close it out in the playoffs.
So here's a nod to the great ones that didn't win it all, the teams and the fans that lead lives of regret, wondering what might have been.
The best team to fall short of a title came long before the NFL took its place atop the American sporting landscape and long before – as the name of the series indicates – the Super Bowl became "America's Game." In 1934, the Chicago Bears were a juggernaut. Coached by George Halas and led by running back Bronko Nagurski (a member of the Cold, Hard Football Facts All-Time 11), the Bears went 13-0 and won each of their first nine games by at least two touchdowns. They ended the regular season with 286 points scored, and just 86 allowed.
But the Bears peaked too early. They struggled to win three of their last four and then lost, 30-13, to the 8-5 Giants in the title game.
If any of those old Bears are still alive, the loss probably still wakes them up angry every now and then: "We shoulda been perfect!"
Undefeated teams are nearly an extinct species in the NFL – as we all know, only one has ever been sighted. But there are plenty of great teams in the last 40 years that have followed the lead of those star-crossed Bears: teams that looked unbeatable, but fell short of their destiny.
So today, we salute what might have been, and present the Top 10 non-champions of the Super Bowl Era:
10. THE 1990 BUFFALO BILLS
- Coach: Marv Levy
- Record: 13-3
- Offense: 26.7 PPG (1st)
- Defense: 16.4 PPG (6th)
- Pro Bowlers: 8
- Five best players: QB Jim Kelly (24 TDs, 9 INTs), WR Andre Reed, RB Thurman Thomas (13 TDs), DE Bruce Smith, LB Cornelius Bennett
- Sob story: Maybe the most memorable loser in NFL history thanks to Scott Norwood's slightly errant foot, this was the best of Buffalo's four Super Bowl also-rans. Jim Kelly led the No. 1 offense in the league, and the Bills scored 95 points in their two AFC playoff games. They hung 44 on the Dolphins – one of the league's top defenses – in the divisional round, and then humiliated the Raiders, 51-3, in the AFC title game. They should have saved two of those points for the Super Bowl, where their 20-19 loss to the Giants still causes heads to drop in melancholy throughout Western New York.
9. THE 1973 LOS ANGELES RAMS
- Coach: Chuck Knox
- Record: 12-2
- Offense: 27.7 PPG (1st)
- Defense: 12.7 PPG (4th)
- Pro Bowlers: 8
- Five best players: DL Merlin Olsen (pictured here), RB Lawrence McCutcheon (5.2 YPC), WR Harold Jackson (13 TDs), OL Tom Mack, DL Jack Youngblood
- Sob story: Led by first-year coach Chuck Knox, the Rams came within a couple of field goals of replicating the perfect season of the 1972 Dolphins; their two losses (on the road at Minnesota and Atlanta) came by a total of three points. They had eight Pro Bowlers, the top scoring offense in the NFL and an Olsen-led defense that would become the best in the league in 1974. The 1973 Rams were primed for glory ... and then they lost their playoff opener, 27-16, to Dallas. Oops.
8. THE 1983 WASHINGTON REDSKINS
- Coach: Joe Gibbs
- Record: 14-2
- Offense: 33.8 PPG (1st)
- Defense: 20.7 PPG (11th)
- Pro Bowlers: 6
- Five best players: QB Joe Theismann, RB John Riggins (24 TDs), OL Russ Grimm, OL Joe Jacoby, DL Dexter Manley
- Sob story: The Redskins were coming off a Super Bowl win in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and looked to add a more legitimate crown under their hot, young coach, Joe Gibbs. Their defense was just good (11th in the league), but the offense scored a then-NFL record 541 points. This was a team littered with stars on offense: the Hogs, the Diesel, the Fun Bunch, and MVP quarterback Theismann. They entered the Super Bowl with an 11-game win streak, including a 51-7 demolition of the Rams in the divisional round, and were prohibitive favorites against the 12-4 Raiders in the Super Bowl ... but they just lost, baby – 38-9, no less.
7. THE 1967 OAKLAND RAIDERS
- Coach: John Rauch
- Record: 13-1
- Offense: 33.4 PPG (1st in AFL)
- Defense: 16.6 PPG (2nd in AFL)
- Pro Bowlers: 12 (pre-merger)
- Five best players: WR Fred Biletnikoff (21.9 YPC), OL Jim Otto (pictured here blocking for ...), QB Daryle Lamonica (30 TDs), DL Ben Davidson, DB Willie Brown
- Sob story: This might have been the AFL's greatest team. No other club in the 10-year history of the league matched its 13-1 record, and it was teeming with Raiders legends in various stages of their careers. They scored 468 points in 14 games – still among the greatest offenses of the Super Bowl Era – and had a four-game edge on their closest competitors, the Oilers, who had the decency to lose 40-7 to Oakland in the league title game. The Raiders were given a chance in Super Bowl II against a battered Packers team that finished 9-4-1 while clinging to the last vestiges of its dynasty. But they lost 33-14 in a game that seemed to prove the almighty dominance of the NFL.
6. THE 1992 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
- Coach: George Seifert
- Record: 14-2
- Offense: 26.9 PPG (1st)
- Defense: 14.7 PPG (3rd)
- Pro Bowlers: 7
- Five best players: WR Jerry Rice (1,201 yards, 10 TDs), QB Steve Young (107.0 rating), OL Guy McIntyre, RB Ricky Watters (11 TDs, 1,418 yards from scrimmage), DL Tim Harris (17 sacks)
- Sob story: The 49ers didn't lose a Super Bowl in five tries, but suffered plenty of postseason disappointment. Their 14-2 team in 1990 fell in the NFC title game to the Giants. Joe Montana was injured in that game, effectively ending his career in San Francisco while opening the door for Steve Young. This 1992 team, another 14-2 juggernaut, exceeded the disappointment. Young was brilliant in his first full season running the offense and earned MVP honors. The 49ers also beat some top competition, with a 6-1 record against playoff teams heading into the conference title game against the upstart Cowboys. But they lost, at home, to eventual champ Dallas, 30-20. In Bay-ville, they say that the small monkey on Young's back grew three sizes that day. He would famously remove it two years later with 6 TD passes in a Super Bowl win over San Diego.
5. THE 2001 ST. LOUIS RAMS
- Coach: Mike Martz
- Record: 14-2
- Offense: 31.4 PPG (1st)
- Defense: 17.1 PPG (7th)
- Pro Bowlers: 5
- Five best players: OL Orlando Pace, RB Marshall Faulk (2,147 yards from scrimmage, 21 TDs), Kurt Warner (MVP), WR Torry Holt, DB Aeneas Williams
- Sob story: The Rams and their "Greatest Show on Turf" offense won the Super Bowl in 1999, bumbled through a 10-6 campaign in 2000 as their defense decided to take the season off, and then returned to form under second-year coach Martz in 2001. Marshall Faulk scored 21 TDs and averaged 6.3 yards every time he touched the ball. The Rams outgained opponents by an average of 137 YPG, they became the first team in NFL history to score 500 or more points in three straight seasons, and their average game was a 14-point blowout. They were favored by that many points in their Super Bowl coronation lap against overmatched New England, an 11-5 team that didn't even know who would play quarterback until three days before the game. But the Patriots physically beat up Faulk, the St. Louis receivers and two-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, and held on for a 20-17 win.
4. THE 1969 MINNESOTA VIKINGS
- Coach: Bud Grant
- Record: 12-2
- Offense: 27.1 PPG (1st in NFL)
- Defense: 9.5 PPG (1st in NFL)
- Pro Bowlers: 7 (pre-merger)
- Five best players: DL Alan Page, DL Carl Eller, DB Paul Krause, WR Gene Washington, OL Ron Yary
- Sob story: The first of Minnesota's four Super Bowl losers, this Vikings team had it all: the best defense in the league, the best offense in the league, nine Pro Bowlers, five future Hall of Famers and a great leader in fiery quarterback Joe Kapp (pictured above). Their defense was so good that it remains one of the stingiest in modern NFL history. They lost their regular-season opener and finale, but won 12 straight in between. When they reached the Super Bowl, they were primed to put an end to the upstart AFL, which had broken through with the Jets the year prior. Instead, the AFC officially arrived as the Chiefs humiliated Minnesota with a 23-7 beating. As far as upsets go, it was just slightly sub-Namath in proportions.
3. THE 1984 MIAMI DOLPHINS
- Coach: Don Shula
- Record: 14-2
- Offense: 32.1 PPG (1st)
- Defense: 18.6 PPG (7th)
- Pro Bowlers: 7
- Five best players: QB Dan Marino (48 TDs), WR Mark Clayton (18 TDs), WR Mark Duper (1,306 yards), OL Dwight Stephenson, LB A.J. Duhe
- Sob story: Dan Marino's only trip to the Super Bowl came with what was clearly his best team. The Dolphins had a stifling defense and an effective ground game that accounted for 18 touchdowns, while Marino rewrote the NFL record books with 48 TD passes and 5,084 passing yards (still the NFL standard). Mark Duper and Mark Clayton were in top form – they combined for 144 receptions, 2,698 yards and 26 TDs, and each averaged more than 18 yards per reception. Mesmerizing numbers. Marino was the story of the year, and the Fish swam through the AFC playoffs without as much as a wave, outscoring their two opponents, Seattle and Pittsburgh, exactly 2-to-1 (76-38). One problem: Their Super Bowl opponent was better. The 15-1 49ers were also explosive on offense, but they had the league's best D to back it up. It was supposed to be the greatest Super Bowl of all time, and it was ... for San Francisco, which won 38-16.
2. THE 1998 MINNESOTA VIKINGS
- Coach: Dennis Green
- Record: 15-1
- Offense: 34.7 PPG (1st)
- Defense: 18.5 PPG (6th)
- Pro Bowlers: 9
- Five best players: WR Randy Moss (17 TDs), WR Cris Carter (78 catches), DL John Randle, QB Randall Cunningham (34 TDs, 10 INTs), OL Randall McDaniel
- Sob story: The Vikings scored 556 points, thanks in large part to the unstoppable receiving duo of veteran Cris Carter and rookie sensation Randy Moss. No team in NFL history has ever scored more points in a single season. Their only loss was a three-point job in Tampa, and they reached the NFC championship with ease. In the late stages of that game with Atlanta, Minnesota sent Gary Anderson out to kick a 39-yarder and take a 10-point lead – the same Anderson who was a perfect 35-for-35 on field goals in the regular season. What could go wrong? Of course, Anderson missed, and Atlanta went on to win in overtime. The Vikings' quarterbacks and coaches have changed over the years, but their bridesmaid existence has continued – even their best teams have never been quite good enough. But it could have been worse ... they could go through history as ...
1. THE 1968 BALTIMORE COLTS
- Coach: Don Shula
- Record: 13-1
- Offense: 28.7 PPG (2nd in NFL)
- Defense: 10.3 PPG (1st in NFL)
- Pro Bowlers: 8 (pre-merger)
- Five best players: TE John Mackey (644 yards), QB Earl Morrall (26 TDs), LB Mike Curtis, DB Bobby Boyd, DL Bubba Smith
- Sob story: The Colts were already a frustrated bunch going into the 1968 season. In 1967, they were 11-0-2 heading into the final game of the season, but they missed the playoffs by losing to the rival Rams in that finale. The NFL had gone to a divisional format that year for the first time in its history, and when both teams finished 11-1-2, it was the Rams who earned the Coastal Division's only spot. The mighty one-loss Colts sat at home while the NFL sent three nine-win teams to its first-ever playoff. It got worse in 1968. The Colts had the NFL's No. 2 offense and No. 1 defense in 1968, and with their 34-0 shutout of the Browns in the NFL title game, the world championship was basically theirs. They just had to handle the AFL pretenders from New York ... which, of course, they didn't. Joe Namath parlayed Super Bowl III into a Hall of Fame ticket (and years of charming tipsiness). The Colts had to settle for their role as the greatest non-champion of the era.
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