Ranking the Greatest Ever NFL Franchises, 1920-2012
Note: Newer franchise rankings can be found on my Sports Lists page.
For several years I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how all of the NFL franchises are ranked in terms of the best ever. And one major fault I find with even the best ranking systems is that they invariably omit anything that happened before the advent of the Super Bowl, aka the dawn of the NFL’s Modern Era. So while a lot of franchises boast proud histories prior to the late ’60s, it’s as if all those achievements didn’t count in the eyes of most sportswriters or even fans.
So instead of complaining about it, I’ve decided to do something about it. Namely, I’ve developed my own mathematical formula for determining which teams are the best (and worst) in NFL history. No personal bias, no favoritism, just cold, hard numbers.
I don’t pretend that my system is the best, but it is consistent and I think it’s fair. A few things that make my system unique are that:
- It takes into account the entire history of the NFL, from its founding as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920 through the current day.
- It rewards consistency in the regular season, not just postseason success or championships.
- I actually took the time to calculate scores for defunct NFL franchises, as long as they played for at least five seasons, but will handle them in a separate section.
- Final rankings are ordered by average points per season, not total points. This means newer franchises aren’t penalized.
The categories and point values are as follows:
- 25 points for a championship, 15 points for a championship loss (starting in 1932).
- 5 points for a season with a playoff appearance, 8 points for a season with a playoff win. This is only counted starting in 1967.
- 1 point for a winning regular-season record.
- 3 points for a season with a regular-season winning percentage of at least .750, -3 points for a regular-season winning percentage of .250 or less.
- Consecutive winning regular seasons are worth 2 points starting with the second, 3 points for the third, 4 points for the fourth, and so on. The counter is reset after any non-winning season. So if a team has three winning seasons in a row, they get a total of 5 points.
- I apply a unique multiplier to a franchise’s all-time winning percentage, such that anything below .500 essentially incurs a penalty.
And that’s about it! Feel free to share your thoughts on my rankings in the comments below. Oh and before I get started, I must give credit to two sites that helped form the basis of my own formulations — Bob’s Blog and Page 2.
(All rankings are current through the 2012 NFL season.)
#1. Dallas Cowboys (15.42 avg.)
As much as it pains me to say it, by any objective criteria the Cowboys are the greatest franchise around. They’ve made an incredible 29 postseason appearances in their 53 seasons, won five Super Bowls, and logged 33 winning seasons. Not to mention 18 seasons with a playoff victory, tied for the most ever.
The ‘Boys were also awarded 243 points on the basis of their various winning season streaks, the longest being from 1966 through 1985.
#2. Baltimore Ravens (12.85 avg.)
The Ravens tend to get overlooked in systems that rank based on total franchise accomplishments, but they’ve done so much over the course of 17 seasons that you can’t argue the math. They’ve already claimed two Super Bowl trophies, had 10 winning seasons, and have already finished four years at .750 or higher. They also currently boast a gaudy .561 winning percentage.
While it’s likely that the Ravens will come down to earth over the next several years, as of 2013 they are by far the youngest franchise to crack the top 10.
#3. Oakland Raiders (11.35 avg.)
Despite a decade-plus of ineptitude, the Raiders still have enough past glory in the bank to hold onto the number three spot. Since 1960 they have won four league championships (three NFL, one AFL), appeared in five more, and made the postseason 19 times. And it would still take several more years of lousy play for the Raiders to dip below .500 for their history.
#4. Green Bay Packers (10.45 avg.)
In terms of total points for a franchise, nobody else comes close to Green Bay’s 961. But it’s nearly impossible to be great all the time, and the Pack spent pretty much all of the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s in the NFL desert. That is mainly what’s keeping them from finishing higher in this list. Still, Packer Backers have a lot to be proud of with this franchise.
#5. San Francisco 49ers (9.87 avg.)
You might be inclined to assume that the 49ers made the top 10 on this list based on their dominance throughout the ’80s and ’90s. You’d be right on that count. Of their 35 winning seasons since 1950, half came during this period. And of course we can’t forget those five Super Bowl wins and numerous playoff appearances.
And if the past few years are any indication, the 49ers stand ready to climb even higher on this list after a decade of mediocrity.
#6. Miami Dolphins (9.55 avg.)
Much like the Raiders, Miami’s long-ago dominance is what keeps them on this list. From 1970 through 1985, Don Shula’s Dolphins had just two losing seasons, won their only two Super Bowls, and appeared in three others. Further, during that run of greatness the team logged a .750 or better winning percentage seven times — sorry, no bonus points for the undefeated 1972 season.
That said, Miami did also enjoy a resurgence starting in the late ’90s and lasting through about 2005. It was during this time, surprisingly, that the team broke its longest streak for consecutive winning seasons, finishing better than .500 from 1997 through 2003.
#7. New England Patriots (9.22 avg.)
The Patriots are a perfect example of why it’s important to take a longer view of a franchise when ranking it. For all the success they’ve enjoyed under Bill Belichick — and they’ve arguably been the best team in the NFL over the last decade-plus — they still have a lot of mediocrity to overcome.
What New England’s average does underscore, however, is just how great they’ve been of late. Since 2000 (the start of the Belichick era), the Pats have finished .750 or better a jaw-dropping seven times — more than 14 other teams have done in their histories — and suffered just one losing season.
#8. Chicago Bears (8.73 avg.)
The fact that the Chicago Bears, a charter NFL franchise, have maintained a nearly nine-point average over nine-plus decades is a testament to their greatness. The Bears have won NFL titles in five separate decades and compiled a league-high 23 seasons with a plus-.750 regular season winning percentage.
Even more impressive is the fact that they’ve finished .250 or worse only five times. So while there have been plenty of average or below-average Bears teams, they are very rarely outright bad.
#9. Indianapolis Colts (8.63 avg.)
Is it any surprise that a franchise boasting two of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time — Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning — should appear in the top 10? From those two eras of Colts history come five NFL titles (including one two Super Bowl trophies), fourteen seasons of .750+ regular season winning percentages, and two strings of nine winning regular seasons each.
If Andrew Luck becomes the third great QB in Baltimore/Indianapolis history, look for the Colts to start moving even higher on this list.
#10. Minnesota Vikings (8.58 avg.)
For Vikings fans, I doubt that cracking my top 10 takes the sting out of Minnesota’s star-crossed playoff history, but it’s something to hang your horns on at least. While a lot of people don’t think of the Vikings as a great franchise, there’s something to be said for being very good most of the time.
To be more specific: Minnesota has averaged more than eight wins a season since their debut season in 1961, has appeared in the playoffs for just more than half of their existence, and has logged 30 winning seasons out of 52.
And yes, according to my scoring system the Vikings get credit for winning the NFL title in 1969.
#11. New York Giants (8.33)
#12. Cleveland Browns (8.13)
#13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7.61)
#14. Washington Redskins (6.88)
#15. Denver Broncos (6.84)
#16. St. Louis Rams (6.38)
#17. Tennessee Titans (5.61)
#18. San Diego Chargers (5.46)
#19. Kansas City Chiefs (5.32)
#20. Buffalo Bills (5.24)
#21. Philadelphia Eagles (4.71)
#22. Seattle Seahawks (4.18)
#23. Jacksonville Jaguars (4.03)
#24. New York Jets (3.08)
#25. Detroit Lions (2.99)
#26. Carolina Panthers (2.25)
#27. Atlanta Falcons (2.06)
#28. Cincinnati Bengals (1.73)
#29. New Orleans Saints (1.60)
#30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1.51)
#31. Arizona Cardinals (-0.02)
#32. Houston Texans (-0.23)
The Defunct Franchises
A list of the defunct NFL franchises that played at least five seasons reads like a who’s who of bad football. All but five of them have a lower scoring average than the 32 active teams, so let’s talk about the exceptions.
#1. Canton Bulldogs (15.92 avg.)
The Bulldogs’ 15.92-point average is half a point higher than even the Dallas Cowboys, so technically I could have made them #1 overall. Over the course of six APFA/NFL seasons, the Bulldogs — best known as the home of sports legend Jim Thorpe for several seasons — captured two league titles and suffered just one losing season. Poor attendance doomed the team, however, and they were one of a dozen franchises kicked out of the NFL prior to the 1927 season.
#2. Frankford Yellow Jackets (7.31 avg.)
Before the Eagles, Philadelphia’s pro football team was the Yellow Jackets. During their 8-year existence, Frankford won the NFL championship in 1926 and logged five winning campaigns. A stadium fire and poor fan support led to the dissolution of the team after 1931.
#3. Pottsville Maroons/Boston Bulldogs (6.80 avg.)
Pottsville’s brief history is marred by a controversial ruling during the 1925 season, which cost the Maroons a title and led to the entire franchise being suspended for a time. After a few sub-par finishes the team relocated to Boston for the 1929 season, which turned out to be their last.
#4. Providence Steam Roller (3.57 avg.)
Providence holds the distinction to be the last franchise to win an NFL title (1928) and no longer be in the league. That pretty much accounts for most of the team’s points, as they were never better than mediocre in any other year. The Steam Roller suspended operations after 1931 and finally folded two years later.
#5. Rock Island Independents (1.50 avg.)
Rock Island’s 1.50 average may be paltry but it’s still better than the Cardinals or Texans, so they deserve mention. The Independents were a charter NFL franchise and played six unremarkable seasons in the league before jumping to the original American Football League in 1926. They finished no better than fifth place during their time in the APFA/NFL.
#6. Buffalo All-Americans/Bisons (-1.06)
#7. Akron Pros (-2.07)
#8. Brooklyn Dodgers/Tigers (-5.43)
#9. Duluth Kelleys/Eskimos (-8.60)
#10. Dayton Triangles/Brooklyn Dodgers (-15.20)
#11. Milwaukee Badgers (-18.90)
#12. Columbus Panhandles/Tigers (-22.50)
#13. Hammond Pros (-25.07)
#14. Boston Yanks (-26.30)
#15. Rochester Jeffersons (-26.42)
#16. Minneapolis Marines/Red Jackets (-33.00)