Football

The 25 most dominant rushing seasons in football history

Methodology: Each runner’s rating is based on two elements. The first is the average of the standard deviation of his rushing yards per carry for four consecutive seasons measured against all runners with sufficient rushing attempts to qualify. The second is the average of the standard deviation of his number of carries annually for four consecutive seasons measured against all runners with sufficient rushing attempts to qualify. Given the NFL’s historical 12 to 16 game season, a four-season requirement is used in order to provide a sufficient data base to reduce the prospect of random events influencing the rating. A runner may have more than one rating among the top 25, but the same seasonal rating may not be used more than once. The illustration below, from the 2016 NFL season, serves as an illustration of how each year’s rating is calculated. The average yards per carry of the 42 qualifiers was 4.19. The standard deviation was 0.66. The average number of carries was 191.29; the standard deviation was 64.90.

The average: Calculating the average is pretty straightforward: It is based on any four consecutive seasons. All averages are rounded to two decimal places. The trick isn’t in the math, but in the sheer physical difficulty of surviving four NFL seasons with enough health to qualify annually in terms of carries. Many rushers put together one or two great seasons, but could not stay on the field long enough to string four together. That task alone is so daunting that for the period 2013-16 only ten running backs managed to accomplish it. For the record, here is an illustration using the statistics for those ten:

 

2013       2014       2015       2016       Avg.

LaSean McCoy                   1.71       0.96       0.35       1.25       1.07

DeMarco Murray              1.01       1.90       -0.49      0.94       0.84

Le’Veon Bell                       -0.04      1.10       -0.02      1.07       0.53

Frank Gore                         0.66       0.58       0.23       0.33       0.45

Matt Forte                          1.14       0.42       0.21       -0.17      0.40

Lamar Miller                       -0.21      0.78       0.36       0.45       0.34

Lagarrette Blount             0.34       -0.37      -0.10      0.61       0.12

Chris Ivory                           0.28       0.01       0.66       -0.87      0.02

Rashad Jennings               0.05       -0.42      0.27       -0.75      -0.21

Doug Martin                       -0.91      -0.74      1.60       -1.34      -0.35

 

Summary: Judging from this list, there’s no question about the glory days of the NFL’s rushing game. Eight of the 25 best sets of four consecutive rushing seasons began in the 1970s. By contrast, there are none from the 1930s, only one from the 1940s and only two since the retirement of Barry Sanders. Only two running backs – Jim Brown and Walter Payton — managed to make the list twice.

 

Disclaimer: Our perceptions of the strength of individuals can be colored by factors that are extraneous to their actual dominance: general familiarity, the presence or absence of attention-getting personalities, subjective opinions that become engrained over time, superiority in certain statistical categories being the most likely. This rating is based on an objective methodology, meaning that it is immune to influence from any of those criteria. That also means its findings may vary – in some cases substantially – from the historical consensus. As you scan this list, be prepared to have your presumptions of relative greatness challenged.

 

  1. William Andrews, 1980-83 Atlanta Falcons, 1.13. The short duration of his career combined with the Falcons’ relative mediocrity combine to make Andrews a relatively anonymous figure among the game’s best running backs. During the five seasons that comprised the bulk of his career, Andrews was the peer of Dorsett and Payton. He topped 1,000 yards in 1979, 80, 81 and 83, missing out in 1982 only due to the players’ strike, which limited him to nine games. His best season was probably 1980, when he averaged 4.9 yards over 265 carries. A pre-season knee injury cost him all of 1984 and1985; he returned as a backup in 1986 and then retired at age 31.

 

  1. Adrian Peterson, 2007-10 Minnesota Vikings, 1.16. Peterson was a three-time rushing leader, rolling up 1,760 yards in 2008 and topping 2,000 yards in 2012. A 2008 and 2009 Pro Bowler, he topped 310 carries each season, failing only to drive the Vikings to the Super Bowl. He tried, running for 122 yards and three touchdowns in Minnesota’s 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints in NFC Championship Game following the 2009 season. Peterson was named the league’s MVP in 2012.

 

  1. Larry Csonka, 1970-73 Miami Dolphins, 1.17. So deep were the Dolphins in offensive threats – Bob Griese, Paul Warfield, Mercury Morris – that Csonka never got enough carries to enable him to lead the league in rushing yards. Still, in 1971 and 1972 he topped 5 yards per carry, making him a principal reason why the Dolphins won a pair of Super Bowls, completing an undefeated season in 1972. Thanks in good measure to Csonka carrying the ball, Miami reached five consecutive post-seasons between 1970 and 1974. With 1,506 yards, he remains Miami’s all-time rushing leader.

 

T-21. Marshall Faulk, 1998-2001 Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams, 1.18. A solid contributor through five seasons with the Colts, Faulk was acquired by the Rams in a pre-season trade in 1999 and developed into a dynamic weapon in Dick Vermeil’s innovative offense. During his first three seasons with the Rams he ran for 1,350 yards or more, averaging more than 5 yards per carry in each of them. Faulk, the 2000 Most Valuable Player, was a 2011 Hall of Fame inductee.

 

T-21. Ottis Anderson, 1979-82 St. Louis Cardinals, 1.18. With Jim Hart directing the offense, the late 1970s Cardinals were predominantly a passing team, making Anderson something of a hidden weapon.  He filled the role beautifully, rushing for more than 1,350 yards in each of his first three seasons and making the All Pro team in 1979. Limited to a half season of activity by the 1982 strike, he strung together two more 1,000 yard seasons, averaging 309 carries during those first five full seasons. By 1986, the wear and tear took its toll; he played sparingly through 1992 for the Giants, including supporting roles in their 1986 and 1990 Super Bowl wins.

 

T-19. Walter Payton, 1983-86 Chicago Bears, 1.20. Payton was 29 in 1983, but the Bears were a better team with a more diversified attack that eased his responsibilities. In 1984 they played a post-season game for only the third time in two decades. They won the Super Bowl a year later and followed that with three more playoff seasons. Payton more than played his role, being named All Pro in 1984 and 1985 for the fourth and fifth times. He set a personal standard with 381 carries in 1984. He retired following the 1987 season, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993.

 

T-19. Lawrence McCutcheon, 1974-77 Los Angeles Rams, 1.20. McCutcheon played sparingly as a rookie in 1972, but surpassed 1,000 yards in 1973 and three of the following four seasons. His career path was an abbreviated one; McCutcheon was reduced to part-time status by injuries starting in 1978 and retired in 1981.  When he took off his pads, McCutcheon became a scout for the Rams, retaining those duties until 2016.

 

T-17. Larry Brown, 1969-72 Washington Redskins, 1.22. Since he competed during the era of Larry Csonka, O.J. Simpson, Franco Harris and Lawrence McCutchen, it was easy to lose sight of Brown’s greatness. An eighth round draft pick out of Kansas State, Brown nonetheless led the NFL in rushing yards in 1970 (with 1,125) , topping that with 1,216 in 1972. An All-Pro selection both seasons, Brown helped the Redskins to Super Bowl VII, where he gained 72 yards in the Skins’ 14-7 defeat at the hands of the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Brown retired following the 1976 season having accumulated 5,875 rushing yards.

 

T-17. Dan Towler, 1951-54 Los Angeles Rams, 1.22. Towler is certainly the least-known name on this list, but anonymity was his constant companion. Drafted by the Rams as the 324th pick out of Washington and Jefferson prior to the 1950 season, the 6-2, 225 pound fullback became a regular in 1951, when he average 6.8 yards per carry. A season later Towler led the league in rushing with 894 yards and ten touchdowns. That earned him All-Pro status. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry in 1953, but a significantly reduced workload cost him the rushing title, which went to Joe Perry. Towler was a four-time Pro Bowler who retired at age 27 following the 1955 season…just before the advent of the television era.

 

  1. Tony Dorsett, 1978-81 Dallas Cowboys, 1.23.Taken by the Cowboys as the second overall pick in 1977, Dorsett ran for 1,000 yards as a rookie and for each of the following four seasons. The only plausible criticism of him was a relatively light workload occasioned by the Cowboys’ versatility. In an age when the elite running backs ran up 300 carries and more, Dorsett generally averaged about 260…although he did hit 342 in 1981 when he piled up a career high 1,646 yards. The Cowboys, of course, were a juggernaut in those days, making seven post-season appearances in Dorsett’s 10 years and winning the Super Bowl in Dorsett’s rookie season. He ran for a team-leading 66 yards and scored the first touchdown. He carried 16 times for 96 yards in the following season’s Super Bowl, but the Cowboys lost 35-31 to Pittsburgh.

 

  1. Franco Harris, 1974-77 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1.27. A first round draft pick out of Penn State, Harris was an immediate sensation, carrying for more than 1,000 yards as a rookie with a Steelers team that broke a quarter-century post-season drought. He went on to be a part of four Super Bowl champions (1972, 1973, 1978, 1979), annually leading Pittsburgh in rushing through 1983. Like Csonka, he never led the NFL in either rushing or yards per game, probably because the Steelers boasted so many weapons that the work load was diffused. He was a 1990 Hall of Fame inductee.

 

  1. Thurman Thomas, 1990-93 Buffalo Bills, 1.36. With quarterback Jim Kelly, Thomas was the major offensive weapon of the Bills teams that went to four consecutive Super Bowls, famously losing all four. Thomas topped 1,000 yards for eight consecutive seasons between 1989 and 1996, won All Pro honors in 1990 and 1991, and compiled a personal best 355 rushing attempts in 1993. In Super Bowl XXV, Thomas ran for a game-high 135 yards and his 31-yard fourth quarter touchdown run gave the Bills a 19-17 lead that failed to stand up when New York’s Matt Bahr kicked a late field goal. A year later The Redskins’ ability to stop Thomas – who got only 13 yards in 10 runs – was crucial to Washington’s 37-24 victory. Thomas won the 1991 Most Valuable Player award.

 

  1. Joe Perry, 1952-55 San Francisco 49ers, 1.45. They called Joe Perry “The Jet” for his speed, but his pure power should not be overlooked. A fullback, he was signed by the AAFC’s 49ers out of Compton Community College, quickly settling in at fullback. He led the AAFC with 783 yards in 1949, and led the NFL twice – in 1953 and again in 1954 – both times topping 1,000 yards. A first-team All Pro both seasons, Perry often provided the inside running complement to speedy halfback Hugh McElhenny, although the 49ers somehow always managed to just miss winning the championship. They lost the AAFC title game to Cleveland in 1949, lost a playoff game to Detroit for the West division title in 1957, and were runners-up three other times between 1951 and 1960. In 1954 Perry was voted Most Valuable Player by United Press International.

 

  1. Jim Taylor, 1960-63 Green Bay Packers, 1.55. Paul Hornung was The Packers’ Glamour Boy in the 1960s, but Taylor was the more effective offensive threat. Between 1958 and 1966, when the two provided backbone to the Packers’ offense, Taylor carried the ball from scrimmage twice as often, gained more than twice as many yards, and scored 34 more touchdowns. Horning averaged 35.7 rushing yards per game; Taylor averaged 70. In 1962 Taylor led the NFL in rushing attempts and touchdowns, and became the only runner during the Jim Brown era –- aside from Brown himself – to lead the league in rushing yards, winning the MVP award in the process. Vince Lombardi’s packers had a deep and talented cast, so the fact that they won three straight NFL titles from 1960 through 1962, then won again in Taylor’s two final seasons in Green Bay cannot be laid entirely at Taylor’s feet. But he was enough of a reason for that streak to merit election to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

 

  1. Gale Sayers, 1966-69 Chicago Bears, 1.57. A mid-season 1968 injury sidelined Sayers at his peak, and eventually cut short his career. Until then he was a phenom, being named All Pro in each of his first five seasons, scoring 14 rushing touchdowns in 14 games as a rookie in 1965, and leading the league in rushing yards with 1,231 in 1966. Six of his NFL record total of 22 touchdowns overall came in one remarkable afternoon against the 49ers. Two seasons later, again against the 49ers in 1967, he famously scored on a kickoff return, a punt return and a run, all in bad weather. Following his injury, Sayers came back in 1969 to lead the NFL in rushing a second time, but that amounted to a last hurrah. Sayers managed only four starts in 1970 and 1971, then retired. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

 

T-9. Emmitt Smith, 1991-94 Dallas Cowboys, 1.64. Smith succeeded Herschel Walker as Dallas’ primary ground threat, and to the surprise of many turned out to be a major upgrade. He led the league in rushing four times between 1991 and 1995, topping out at 1,773 yards in 1995 when he was named All Pro for the fourth consecutive season. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls with Smith as a leading weapon, including a 52-17 whipping of the Bills when Smith ran for 108 yards and a touchdown. They repeated that victory a year later, Smith scoring twice and piling up 132 yards. In 17 post-season games spanning seven seasons, Smith scored 19 touchdowns. The 1993 MVP, he was a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee.

 

T-9. Leroy Kelly, 1966-69 Cleveland Browns, 1.64. As a Cleveland Browns rookie in 1964, Kelly learned alongside Jim Brown, making for a seamless transition when Brown left football for acting following the 1965 season. Kelly rushed for 1,141 yards in 1966, then led the league in both 1967 (1,205) and 1968 (1,239). As with many great running backs, Kelly’s secret was workload. He carried 235 times in 1967 and 248 times in 1968, both league-leading totals.

 

  1. Steve Van Buren, 1946-49 Philadelphia Eagles, 1.69. Taken fifth overall in the 1944 draft, Van Buren was a sensation for the Eagles. He led the league in yardage, rushing attempts and touchdowns four times each, and in yards per game five times. In 1947 he became the first player in NFL: history to rush more for more than 1,000 yards, and two seasons later he extended the record to 1,146. Largely fueled by Van Buren, the Eagles reached the NFL Championship game in 1947 — losing 28-21 to the Chicago Cardinals – and did it again in 1948. This time they beat the Cardinals 7-0, Van Buren running for a game-high 98 yards and scoring the only touchdown in the fourth quarter. He retired following the 1951 season and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1965.

 

  1. Earl Campbell, 1978-81 Houston Oilers, 1.75. Campbell’s NFL career was meteoric. As the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft, he exploded with a league-leading 1,450 rushing yards, led again with 1,697 in 1979 and a third time with 1,934 in 1980. The Oilers, barely .500 before Campbell’s arrival, went 10-6 and reached the AFC Conference championship game his first two seasons, losing both years to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers. A succession of minor injuries limited him to nine games in 1982, then following a solid 1983 the Oilers traded him to New Orleans. Campbell retired at age 30 in 1985, declaring his desire not to risk further wear and tear on his body. The 1979 MVP, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.

 

  1. Eric Dickerson, 1986-89 Los Angeles Rams, 1.76. The debate about the best running back in NFL history generally focuses on the same handful of names; Brown, Simpson, Payton, Sanders and Dickerson. The case for Dickerson is straightforward: In 1984 he ran for 2,105 yards, a single-season record that still stands more than three decades later. That was only Dickerson’s second season; as a rookie he carried an extraordinary 390 times for 1,808 yards. He topped that with 404 tries in 1986, still the fourth most all time. Across an 11-season career Dickerson average 272 carries per season, 1,205 yards per season and 90.8 yards per game. He was All-Pro five times between 1983 and 1988.

 

T-4. Barry Sanders, 1994-97 Detroit Lions, 1.95. The third overall pick in the 1989 draft, Sanders was the dominant running threat throughout the 1990s. In his best seasons, 1994 through 1997, Sanders averaged 1,725 yards and better than five yards per carry, a feat made all the more impressive by the mediocre status of his Lions teams. Detroit did manage to reach five post-seasons in Sanders’ 10 years, but the Lions were 78-82 over that span, and won just one post-season game. Sanders led NFL rushers four times, topping out at 2,053 yards – still the fourth most active season in history — in 1997, sharing MVP honors with Brett Favre. Sanders surprised the Lions and the league generally by announcing his retirement prior to the 1999 season; he was only 30 and in good health.

 

T-4. Walter Payton, 1976-79 Chicago Bears, 1.95. Because the Bears were more successful, we think of the 1980s as Payton’s heyday. The truth is he was a more potent weapon in the 1970s – possibly because the Bears – who made just two playoff appearances between 1964 and 1983 — were more desperate to utilize him then. In 1977 he ran for 1,852 yards – two-thirds of the team’s total – adding 269 receiving yards and averaging 5.5 yards per carry on his way to the MVP Award. Payton led the NFL in carries annually from 1976 through 1979, averaging 338 per season. He was, in short, the apotheosis of the running game in the days when the NFL was all about running.

 

  1. Jim Brown, 1957-60 Cleveland Browns, 1.98. Although the more mature Brown was slightly more dominant as an offensive force, that is no slight to the young Brown. A 21-year-old rookie in 1957, he led the NFL in rushing for the first of eight times, which is to say every season he played except for one. The Browns lost the NFL title game to Detroit, then in 1958 – when Brown set a record with 527 rushing yards – lost a division playoff to the Giants. Brown’s secret was durability. Between 1957 and 1960 he averaged 241 carries per season…better than 20 per game. When the Associated Press instituted its MVP Award in1957, Brown was the first choice. He was also the second, repeating in 1958.

 

  1. Jim Brown, 1962-65 Cleveland Browns, 2.295. By 1962 Brown was the undisputed pre-eminent NFL star, having led the league in rushing annually since coming into the league. He fell to fourth that season behind Jim Taylor, John Henry Johnson and Dick Bass, but bounced back in 1963 to accumulate 1,863 yards in 14 games. Breaking his only record by more than 300 yards, he averaged nearly a TD per game and set a career best 133.1 yards per game. The Browns somehow failed to ride that to anything better than second place in the NFL East, but in 1964 they won the championship, beating Baltimore 27-0 with Brown running for 114 yards. Following a 1965 season in which he ran his career yardage total to 12,312, Brown retired to pursue an acting career. Claiming his third MVP in 1965, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971.

 

  1. O.J. Simpson, 1973-76 Buffalo Bills, 2.301. Simpson’s signature season remains 1973, when he became the first runner in NFL history to top 2,000 yards, finishing at 2,003. He carried 332 times – nearly 60 more than any other running back – and averaged 6 yards per carry, a standard bettered only by Miami’s far more lightly used Mercury Morris. It may have been Simpson’s best season – the voters thought so, selecting him as the league MVP — but it was hardly valedictory. A four-time rushing leader, he carried 329 times in 1975, leading the league that season in touchdowns, average per carry and average per game while attaining All-Pro status for the fourth of five consecutive seasons. Simpson’s rating amounts to a functional tie with Brown’s best four seasons, but since a tie for first place is not an acceptable outcome, let it be noted that the numbers taken out to the third decimal point favor Simpson.

 

The 25 most dominant receiving seasons in football history

Methodology: Each receiver’s rating is based on two elements. The first is the average of the standard deviation of his receiving yards per game for four consecutive seasons measured against all receivers with sufficient receptions to qualify. The second is the average of the standard deviation of his number of receptions annually for four consecutive seasons measured against all runners with sufficient receptions to qualify. The qualification standard equals twice the number of teams playing during the season. In other words, in the 32-team NFL of 2017, the 64 receivers with the greatest number of receptions are considered. In different eras, the number will vary. Given the NFL’s historical 12 to 16 game season, a four-season requirement is used in order to provide a sufficient data base to reduce the prospect of random events influencing the rating. A receiver may have more than one rating among the top 25, but the same seasonal rating may not be used more than once. The illustration below, from the 1941 NFL season, serves as an illustration of how each year’s rating is calculated. A historical note: I am using 1942 as an illustration because it featured the single most dominant receiving season in NFL history to date. The average yards per game of the 20 qualifiers was 30.82. The standard deviation was 20.67. The average number of receptions per season was 22.05; the standard deviation was 12.73.

Receiver                              Team     Yds/G                   Rec.       SD Yds/G             SD/Rec.                Avg.

Don Huston                        GB          110.1                     74           4.56                        4.08                       4.32

Ray McLean                       ChB          51.9                     19           1.21                       -0.24                      0.49

Jim Benton                         LA             38.3                     23           0.43                       0.07                       0.25

Andy Uram                         GB            38.2                     21           0.42                       -0.08                      0.17

Dick Todd                            Was         29.8                     23           -0.06                      0.07                       0.01

Pop Ivy                                 ChC          23.5                     27           -0.42                      0.39                       -0.02

Johnny Martin                   ChC          28.4                     22           -0.14                      0.00                       -0.07

Bob Masterson                 Was         28.0                     22           -0.16                      0.00                       -0.08

Dante Magnani                 LA             25.1                     24           -0.33                      0.15                       -0.09

Ben Hightower                  LA             31.7                     19           0.05                       -0.24                      -0.09

Fred Meyer                        Phi            32.4                     16           0.09                       -0.48                      -0.19

Steve Lach                           ChC          29.0                     18           -0.10                      -0.32                      -0.21

Hugh Gallarneau              ChB          29.1                     14           -0.10                      -0.63                      -0.37

Ward Cuff                           NYG         24.3                     16           -0.38                      -0.48                      -0.43

Al Coppage                         ChC          18.8                     20           -0.75                      -0.16                      -0.46

Ed Cifers                              Was         17.8                     18           -0.75                      -0.32                      -0.53

Larry Cabrelli                      Phi            20.8                     15           -0.58                      -0.55                      -0.57

Lou Brock                            GB            12.6                     20           -1.05                      -0.16                      -0.60

Walt Kichefski                   Pit             17.2                     15           -0.78                      -0.55                      -0.67

Bill Fisk                                 Det           16.1                     15           -0.85                      -0.55                      -0.70

 

Dominance in action: The above list is a superb illustration of how dominance works to singularize a player. Hutson operated in an era when teams preferred to move along the ground. In 1942 the average NFL team made 405 rushing attempts, but only 225 passing attempts, nearly a two-to-one ratio. But Hutson’s Packers relied on a far more balanced attack, adding a league-leading 330 passing attempts to their 422 rushing plays. The Pack completed 172 of those passing attempts, 74 of them to Hutson. How big a number was 74 receptions in 1942? The runner-up, Pop Ivy, caught 27. When one player or one team is successfully doing things no other team is attempting, that’s dominance. Of course other teams are likely to soon catch on. While Hutson’s total demolished the existing NFL record at the time, his record did not survive the decade; Tom Fears broke it in 1949.

 

The average: Calculating the average is pretty straightforward: It is based on any four consecutive seasons. All averages are rounded to two decimal places. The trick isn’t in the math, but in the sheer physical difficulty of surviving four NFL seasons with enough health and skill to qualify annually in terms of receptions. Many receivers put together one or two great seasons, but could not stay on the field long enough to string four together. For the period 2014-17 only 17 receivers managed to accomplish it. For the record, here is an illustration using the averages for those 17:

 

2014       2015       2016       2017       Avg.

Antonio Brown                  2.60       2.98       2.91       2.03       2.63

Julio Jones                          2.15       1.62       2.97       1.67       2.10

Demaryius Thomas          0.56       2.25       1.28       0.85       1.24

DeAndre Hopkins             0.40       0.13       1.78       1.93       1.06

Larry Fitzgerald                 -0.56      1.25       1.35       1.81       0.96

Jarvis Landry                      -0.09      1.61       1.19       1.10       0.95

Golden Tate                       0.14       0.87       0.96       1.37       0.84

A.J. Green                           0.29       0.78       0.90       0.53       0.62

T.Y. Hilton                            -0.28      0.98       0.06       1.63       0.60

Mike Evans                         -0.01      0.44       0.37       1.56       0.59

Doug Baldwin                    -0.57      0.21       0.37       1.09       0.27

Travis Kelce                        -0.48      -0.24      0.85       0.75       0.22

Delanie Walker                 -0.47      0.01       0.77       -0.56      -0.06

Randall Cobb                     -0.13      -0.95      -0.46      1.03       -0.13

Michael Crabtree             -0.72      0.17       0.65       -0.71      -0.15

Zach Ertz                              -1.05      -0.11      0.09       0.25       -0.20

Jason Witten                      -0.36      -0.78      -0.80      -0.85      -0.70

 

 

The dominant era: For receivers, it’s the 1990s. Of the top 25 blocks of seasons, seven began in the 1990s, only four in the next most represented decade. There’s a qualitative reason for the 1990s’ dominance: talent. Jerry Rice is in there, as are Marvin Harrison, Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe, and Cris Carter. Having said that, the list also has a notable balance to it, with every decade represented at least once since the NFL went to a uniform schedule in 1935. The list of 25 is comprised of 23 different individuals. Only two receivers make the list with two distinct blocks, and they are probably the two greatest receivers in history, Rice and Don Hutson. Seventeen of the existing 32 franchises are represented at least once, although five of the 10 “original” franchises – the Bears, Cardinals, Giants, Redskins and Eagles – are not represented.

 

 

 

Disclaimer: Our perceptions of the strength of individuals can be colored by factors that are extraneous to their actual dominance: general familiarity, the presence or absence of attention-getting personalities, subjective opinions that become engrained over time, superiority in certain statistical categories being the most likely. This rating is based on an objective methodology, meaning that it is immune to influence from any of those criteria. That also means its findings may vary – in some cases substantially – from the historical consensus. As you scan this list, be prepared to have your presumptions of relative greatness challenged.

 

  1. Cris Carter. 1993-96 Minnesota Vikings, +1.67: Carter’s best season was 1994, when he led the NFL with 122 receptions and made them work for nearly 80 yards per game. That put him in a class with Jerry Rice. His 122 receptions, 10 more than any other teammate, translated to 3.09 standard deviations better than the field average.

 

  1. Steve Largent, 1978-81 Seattle Seahawks, +1.71: Largent was the Seahawks’ deep threat. In 1979 he averaged 82.5 yards per game, leading the league with 1,237 receiving yards and resulting in nine touchdowns. For his career Largent’s catches were good for an average of 16 yards.

 

  1. Mac Speedie, 1946-49 Cleveland Browns, +1.73: The best receiver in the four-season history of the All America Football Conference, Speedie was a key weapon in Paul Brown’s unstoppable Cleveland offense. Between 1947 and 1949 he led the AAFC in receptions three times, in total yards and yards per game twice. His 1,146 yards in 1947 amounted to 20 per game more than the league’s runner-up.

 

  1. Herman Moore, 1994-97 Detroit Lions, +1.74: In a league featuring Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Irving Fryar and Cris Carter, Moore was the NFL’s dominant receiver in 1996. He also led in receptions in both 1995 and 1997, averaging 111 catches and more than 1,400 yards for that three-season span.

 

  1. Lionel Taylor, 1960-63 Denver Broncos, +1.75: The Broncos were a bad team in the AFL’s early days, only once in their first eight seasons winning more than four games. Taylor was their weapon. He led the AFL in receptions each of the league’s first four seasons, his 92 catches in 1960 amounting to 20 more than any other player. He averaged a touchdown catch per game that first season, and in 1961 he became the first player in pro football history with 100 catches.

 

  1. Lance Alworth, 1965-68 San Diego Chargers, +1.77: The question of who was the best receiver in AFL history comes down to Alworth vs. Taylor, and it’s a close call, the data giving Alworth a narrow edge. He led the league in receiving yards three times between1965 and 9168, peaking at 1,602 yards in 1965. That remarkable season included 14 touchdown receptions in 14 games at an average of more than 23 yards per catch.

 

19: Jimmy Smith, 1998-01 Jacksonville Jaguars, +1.78: Drafted by Dallas in 1992, Smith blossomed with Jacksonville’s expansion franchise. He topped 1,000 receiving yards annually between 1996 and 2002, peaking at 1,636 yards on a league-leading 116 receptions in 1999.  At his peak, Smith averaged a 62 percent catch rate on passes targeted toward him.

 

T-17. Jim Benton, 1944-47 Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams, +1.81: Exempted from military service due to a heart murmur, Benton’s role grew in the wake of Don Hutson’s ongoing illustration of the value of a strong passing game. In 1945 he caught 45 passes for a league-leading 1,067 yards, helping the Rams to a 9-1 regular season record and added a 37-yard touchdown 0ass from Bob Waterfield in Cleveland’s 15-14 championship game victory over Washington. Benton accumulated 125 receiving yards in that title game, twice as much as all other Cleveland receivers combined. In 1946 he ramped up his catch total to 63, again leading the NFL, this time for 981 yards.

 

T-17. Andre Johnson, 2007-10  Houston Texans, +1.81: Between 2008 and 2010, Johnson was the game’s best receiver. He led the NFL in catches with 115 in 2008, led in yards gained in both 2008 and 2009, and was a consistent presence at or near the top in yards per game, leading the league in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

 

T-15. Sterling Sharpe, 1991-94 Green Bay Packers, +1.83: Sharpe’s relatively brief career lasted just seven seasons. In the final four of those, 1991 through 1994, Sharpe led the league twice in receptions, once in yards, twice in touchdown passes and once in receiving yards per game. A five-time Pro Bowler, he retired at age 29 following a neck injury sustained during the 1994 season.

 

T-15. Michael Irvin, 1991-94 Dallas Cowboys, +1.83: Irvin was the distance threat in the offensive triumverate that also included Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. That also made him a key cog in the Cowboys’ run to consecutive Super Bowl victories in the early 1990s. In those back-to-back routes of Buffalo, Irvin caught two touchdown passes and 11 overall for 180 receiving yards. He led the nFL in receiving yards with 1,523 in 1991, averaging a league-leading 95.2 per game.

 

  1. Billy Wilson, 1954-57 San Francisco 49ers, +1.84: Drafted by the 49ers out of San Jose State, Wilson quickly became one of the league’s pre-eminent downfield threats. He led the league in receptions three times between 1954 and 1957, averaging70 reception yards per game in an era when the average for a regular receiver was below 50. In 1957 Wilson was an All-Pro selection, beating out Raymond Berry for the honor.

 

  1. Calvin Johnson, 2010-13 Detroit Lions, +1.94: Johnson played nine seasons, all of them for the Lions, where he was usually the primary weapon on an otherwise ineffective team. In his second season, 2008, Johnson caught a dozen touchdown passes for a winless team that only scored 28 of them. Johnson was the dominant force among NFL receivers in 2011 and 2012, leading the league both seasons in receiving yards with more than 3,600. They came on 218 catches, Johnson averaging better than 110 yards per game and scoring 21 touchdowns.

 

  1. Torry Holt, 2002-05 St. Louis Rams, +1.99: Holt was a driving force as a rookie on the Rams’ ‘Greatest Show on Turf” that swept to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. His performance and reputation took off from there; a league-leading 1,635 yards in 2000, and an All-Pro 2003 in which he led receivers in receptions, yards and yards per game. His 106 yards per game in 2003 were more than twice the average for eligible receivers, and his 117 receptions approached that level of exceptionality.

 

  1. Jerry Rice, 1989-92 San Francisco 49ers, +2.06: Rice was already an established star – a three-time All-Pro, by 1989, when he led the NFL in receiving yards (for the second time) and touchdowns (for the third time). He repeated in both categories in 1990, adding receptions and yards per game (for the third time). The 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII and XXIV, with 18 receptions for game-high 215 and 148 yard totals respectively and four touchdowns.

 

  1. Wes Welker, 2009-12 New England Patriots, +2.07: Between 2009 and 2012, Welker led the NFL in receptions twice, caught 26 touchdown passes, and was twice named All-Pro. Tom Brady targeted Welker 632 times in those four seasons, and Welker made the catch 449 times, a 71 percent success rate.

 

T-8. Kellen Winslow, 1980-83 San Diego Chargers, +2.10: At 6-5 and 250 lbs., Winslow was virtually an unstoppable force once he got the ball and a shred of momentum. Through the first eight seasons of his nine-season career, he always averaged more than 10 yards per catch despite rarely running a deep rout. Winslow led the NFL in receptions in 1980 and again in 1981, topping 1,000 yards in 1980, 1981 and again in 1983.

 

T-8. Julio Jones, 2014-17 Atlanta Falcons, +2.10: Atlanta’s sixth overall pick out of Alabama in the 2011 draft, hardly needed a learning curve. He made All-Pro in 2015and 2016, leading the NFL in receptions (with 136) and in yards (with 1,861) in 2015. Since 2014, he has staged a high-level battle for receiving supremacy with Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, besting Brown in yards per game in 2015 and 2016.

 

  1. Tom Fears, 1948-51 Los Angeles Rams, +2.16: When Don Hutson’s performance illustrated the potential inherent in the passing game, Tom Fears was the first beneficiary. Drafted by the Rams – then playing in Cleveland – in 1948, Fears led the league in receptions in each of his first three seasons. Fears topped 1,000 yards in receptions in 1949 when such a thing was rarely done, and topped that with 1,116 in 1950. He was an All-Pro that season. Fears played with the Rams in three consecutive NFL Championship games, beating the Cleveland Browns for the 1951 title. He had four receptions for 146 yards in that game, and hauled in the deciding touchdown – a 73-yard pass from Bob Waterfield – in the fourth quarter to break a 17-17 tie.

 

  1. Raymond Berry, 1957-60 Baltimore Colts, +2.27: Berry was the recipient of many of John Unitas’ passes, which is all by itself a pretty good credential for success. Berry led the NFL in receptions annually from 1958 through 1960, made All-Pro each of those years, and led in yards per game in 1959 and again in 1960. He also led receivers in touchdown catches twice. In the legendary 1958 overtime championship game victory over the Giants, Berry caught a dozen passes for 178 yards and a touchdown. Berry’s 66 catches in 1959 were 19 more than any other receiver, meaning there was a larger margin between Berry and the runner-up than there was between the runner-up and the receiver who finished 21st.

 

  1. Jerry Rice, 1993-96 San Francisco 49ers, +2.32: In this more mature phase of Rice’s career, he was clearly the dominant receiving force. Rice led the NFL annually from 1993 through 1995 in receiving yards and yards per game, averaging more than 1,600 yards per season and more than 100 per game. Virtually an automatic All-Pro, he earned his seventh through 10th such acclimations. In Super Bowl XXIX, Rice caught 10 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns, the 15th through 17th scores of his post-season career that would eventually rise to 22.

 

  1. Marvin Harrison, 1999-02 Indianapolis Colts, +2.51: Harrison blossomed in tandem with Peyton Manning, catching more than 100 passes in each o f his peak seasons, and translating those receptions into more than 6,200 yards and 52 touchdowns. An All-Pro in 1999 and again in 2002 (as well as 2006), Harrison led the Colts in receiving nine times between 1996 and 2006.

 

  1. Don Hutson, 1936-39 Green Bay Packers, +2.52: The pre-war Hutson’s numbers are unremarkable by modern standards, but stratospheric by the standards of his rush-happy era. Between 1936 and 1939 he averaged 35 receptions for 625 yards per season against averages for the era’s best receivers of 17 receptions and 250 yards per season. That’s dominance of a redefinitional level. During that four-season period, Hutson caught 141 passes; the next highest total by any individual receiver was 81.

 

  1. Antonio Brown, 2014-17 Pittsburgh Steelers, +2.63: The Steelers stole Brown in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, and he has rewarded them for their scouting insight ever since. Statistically, Brown was the NFL’s best receiver in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017 (he was edged out by Julio Jones in 2015). He was the first four-time leader of this receiving yardstick since Marvin Harrison in 2006.

 

  1. Don Hutson, 1941-44 Green Bay Packers, +3.39: Hutson is the only player in NFL history to have led this receving measurement more than four times; he did it seven times between 1936 and 1944. Obviously Hutson’s World War II totals could be viewed suspiciously in the context of the general talent drain that affected all professional sports. The defense of Hutson’s exceptionality during that period is three-fold. First, as noted above, he had been exceptional during the pre-war seasons when there was no talent drain. His 1941-44 numbers merely continue and magnify his pre-1941 record. Second, the Packers’ passing-heavy style of play that fueled Hutson’s success during World War II was also an extension of a trend that was previously in place. The full data for the 1992 season is presented above, but some fuller elaboration is in order. During that season, Hutson caught as many passes (74) and the second, third and fourth most prolific receivers combined. His yardage per game was more than twice that of any other receiver, as was his receiving yardage (1,211; the runner-up had 571.) Third, the performance of other stars of the game was not similarly exceptional during that period. Like Hutson, Sid Luckman was the dominant NFL quarterback both prior to and during the war. But Luckman’s best passing score during the World War II era never exceeded 1.87. Cecil Isbell was Hutson’s primary quarterback in 1942, yet his passing score that season topped at 1.80. In short, the deciding force wasn’t the war; it was Hutson, the most dominant, most revolutionary phenomenon in the history of professional receiving…and possibly in the history of professional football.

 

The 25 most dominant passing seasons in football history

Methodology: Each quarterback’s rating is based on the average of the standard deviation of his passing yards per game for four consecutive seasons measured against all quarterbacks in the league with sufficient passing attempts to qualify. Given the NFL’s historical 12 to 16 game season, a four-season requirement is used in order to provide a sufficient data base to reduce the prospect of random events influencing the rating. A quarterback may have more than one rating among the top 25, but the same seasonal rating may not be used more than once. The illustration below, from the 2016 NFL season, serves as an illustration of how each year’s rating is calculated. The average yards per game of the 32 qualifiers was 253.81. The standard deviation of the 32 qualifiers was 31.34.

Rank      2016 quarterback            Team     YPG       Std. Dev.             

  1. Drew Brees NO         325.5     2.29
  2. Matt Ryan Atl          309.0     1.76
  3. Kirk Cousins Was       307.3     1.71
  4. Tom Brady NE          296.2     1.35
  5. Andrew Luck Ind         282.7     0.92
  6. Carson Palmer Ari          282.2     0.91
  7. Aaron Rodgers GB          276.8     0.73
  8. Philip Rivers SD           274.1     0.65
  9. Ben Roethlisberger Pit           272.8     0.61
  10. Matthew Stafford Det         270.4     0.53
  11. Joe Flacco Bal          269.8     0.51
  12. Russell Wilson Sea         263.7     0.32
  13. Andy Dalton Cin          262.9     0.29
  14. Derek Carr                          Hou        262.5     0.28
  15. Sam Bradford Min        258.5     0.15
  16. Jameis Winston TB           255.6     0.06
  17. Eli Manning NYJ         251.7     -0.07
  18. Blake Bortles Jax          244.1     -0.31
  19. Trevor Siemian Den        242.9     -0.35
  20. Brian Hoyer Chi          240.8     -0.42

21           Carson Wentz                    Phi          236.4     -0.56

  1. Cam Newton Car         233.9     -0.64
  2. Alex Smith KC           233.5     -0.65
  3. Ryan Tannehill Mia        230.4     -0.75
  4. Matt Barkley Chi          230.1     -0.76

26           Dak Prescott                      Dal          229.2     -0.79

  1. Marcus Mariota Ten        228.4     -0.81
  2. Case Keenum LA           220.1     -1.08
  3. Josh McCown Cle          220.0     -1.08
  4. Jay Cutler Chi          211.8     -1.34
  5. Tyrod Taylor Buf         201.5     -1.67
  6. Brock Osweiler Hou        197.1     -1.81

 

The average: Calculating the average is pretty straightforward: It is based on any four consecutive seasons. All averages are rounded to two decimal places. But for the record, here is an illustration using New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s ratings from 2013 through 2016:

 

2013       2014       2015       2016       Avg.

Tom Brady          0.77        0.30        1.28        1.35        0.93

 

Summary: The list of greatest passing seasons in history is diverse, with four-season blocks from every decade since the 1940s, and no more than four representatives from any single decade. There are 23 quarterbacks on the list, only two of whom make it twice.

 

Disclaimer: Our perceptions of the strength of individuals can be colored by factors that are extraneous to their actual dominance: general familiarity, the presence or absence of attention-getting personalities, subjective opinions that become engrained over time, superiority in certain statistical categories being the most likely. This rating is based on an objective methodology, meaning that it is immune to influence from any of those criteria. That also means its findings may vary – in some cases substantially – from the historical consensus. As you scan this list, be prepared to have your presumptions of relative greatness challenged.

 

Finally, please keep in mind…: This is a passing rating, not an overall rating of quarterback proficiency. Quarterbacks do many things that factor into their overall evaluation, some of them (such as leadership and game management) partly or wholly immeasurable. Because those elements are to a greater or lesser degree subjective, they are not factored into this rating.

 

T-25. Norm VanBrocklin, 1957-60 Los Angeles Rams/Philadelphia Eagles, 1.14: Thanks largely to Johnny Unitas, VanBrocklin never led the league in passing yards per game in any of his four seasons…but he could content himself with the 1960 NFL championship, leading the Eagles past the Green Bay Packers. In an era when quarterbacks averaged about 150 passing yards per game, VanBrocklin averaged 200, including 218.1 yards in 1959. More impressively, he did it on generally non-descript teams. Aside from the Eagles 10-2 1960 season, VanBrocklin’s teams only managed a combined 15-20 record between 1957 and 1959.

 

T-25. Fran Tarkenton, 1968-1971 New York Giants, 1.14. Tarkenton averaged nearly 200 yards per game in an age when he averaged was under 160, and did so on sub-par Gants teams that lost more games than they won. One of only two quarterbacks who makes the top 25 list twice, Tarkenton was a nine-time Pro Bowler who was elected t the Hall of Fame in 1986.

 

T-23. Roger Staubach, 1973-76 Dallas Cowboys, 1.15. The Cowboys reached both the 1973 and 1976 post-seasons behind Staubach, who in 1973 led the NFL in touchdowns with 23. He averaged about 190 yards per game, completing nearly 60 percent of his passing attempts. A six-time Pro Bowler and to-time Super Bowl champion, Staubach was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985.

 

T-23. Jim Everett, Los Angeles Rams, 1988-91, 1.15. Like Tarkenton, Everett was a good passer on a bad team. The Rams went 8-25 in the final two of Everett’s best four seasons. He excelled in those dire conditions, averaging nearly 250 yards per game and ranking among the top three annually from 1988 through 1990.  Everett led the league in touchdown passes in both 1988 and 1989.

 

T-21. Joe Namath, New York Jets, 1966-69, 1.18. Namath’s famous guarantee of victory in the Super Bowl made him famous, but it actually came at the end of his most productive period. In his second pro season, Namath led the AFL in completions with 232, repeating that achievement (with 258) in 1967. He topped 3,000 passing yards in 1966 and topped 4,000 in 1967, his career best. He also led the AFL in yards per game both of those seasons. By 1969 Namath was beginning to show the signs of chronic injuries that would limit him to a total of just eight games in 1970 and 1971.

 

T-21. Tom Brady, New England Patriots, 2009-12, 1.18. The Pats were the NFL’s dominant team during Brady’s tenure, winning in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2014 and 2016, and losing three others. With the exception of 2008—when Brady was injured — the Pats have won the AFC East annually since Brady’s arrival in 2001. It’s interesting to speculate whether Brady’s individual passing statistics were sublimated in deference to his team’s success.

 

  1. Trent Green, Kansas City Chiefs, 2002-05, 1.19. In his prime, Green averaged more than 250 passing yards per season, notably topping 500 attempts in three of those seasons. Like Everett, Green’s reputation is probably hurt by a thin post-season resume. During those four peak seasons, he played in only one (losing) post-season game.

 

  1. Daunte Culpepper, 2001-04 Minnesota Vikings, 1.22. Culpepper’s 2004 season was the best of his career. He led the NFL in completions (379), yards (4,717) and yards per game (294.8)…and did it with a .500 team. In fact the Vikings only had one season above .500 during Culpepper’s peak, and that was a tepid 9-7 in 2003.

 

  1. Matt Ryan, 2013-16 Atlanta Falcons, 1.26. Ryan took the 2016 Falcons to the Super Bowl, only losing in overtime to the Patriots. His career-best 309 yards per game passing performance that season was second only to Drew Breese.

 

  1. Jim Hart, St. Louis Cardinals, 1970-73, 1.27. Hart was virtually the only Cardinals’ weapon in the early 1970s; St. Louis won just 20 games, losing 32 during his peak seasons. Nonetheless, Hart led the NFL in passing yards per game in 1973 (185.3), and his place on this list would be even higher but for a decidedly sub-par 1972 in which injuries limited him to just three starts.

 

  1. John Brodie, 1968-71 San Francisco 49ers, 1.30. A three-time leader in passing yards per game, Brodie blossomed as a thrower toward the tail-end of his career. In 1970, at the age of 35, Brodie enjoyed his best season, leading the NFL in completions (223), yards (2,941) touchdowns (24) and yards per game (210.1). The Niners went 10-3-1 in winning the NFC West, and Brodie captured MVP honors in taking San Francisco to the conference championship game.

 

  1. Sammy Baugh, 1945-48 Washington Redskins, 1.33. Baugh is best recalled for his leadership of the late 1930s and early 1940s Redskins, who won two championships and played for three more between 1936 and 1943. As a passer, however, his best seasons actually came after 1943. Baugh led NFL quarterbacks in yards per game in 1945 and again in 1948. In 1945 he averaged 208.6 yards per game, and while that sounds modest by current standards, it must be kept in mind that the league average in those days was only a bit more than 100. In fact the runner-up, Chicago’s Sid Luckman, averaged just 172.7, 36 yards less than Baugh.

 

  1. Otto Graham, 1950-53 Cleveland Browns, 1.34. So dominant were the Browns during Graham’s prime that his passing numbers – primarily viewed in those days as a weapon of the needy — may have suffered. During Graham’s career as a starter – essentially the decade of 1946 through 1955 – Cleveland’s composite record was 105-17-4 with seven AAFC or NFL championships and three other trips to the title game. In 1952 Graham posted a league-leading and career-best 234.7 passing yards per game, 42 more than the runner-up. He led a second time in 1953, that season with 226.8.

 

  1. Brett Favre, 1995-98 Green Bay Packers, 1.40. Favre was in his late 20s and dominant both for his physical skills and his leadership. He took the Packers to back-to-back Super Bowls following the 1996 and 1997 seasons, beating New England 35-21 and then losing to Denver. Annually among the top four in yards per game, Favre’s Packers never lost more than five games during his peak seasons, winning the NFC Central all four years. Favre retired in 2010 ranking second all time in passing yards with nearly 72,000.

 

  1. Steve Young, 1992-95 San Francisco 49ers, 1.42. The Young era – essentially the 1991 through 1998 seasons – produced only one Super Bowl title – that following the 1994 season – but seven consecutive post-season appearances, five division championships and a cumulative 95-33 record. At his peak, Young was annually among the league’s top five in yards per game, leading the league with a 290.9 average in 1995.

 

  1. Ken Anderson, 1973-76 Cincinnati Bengals, 1.47. Probably the Bengals’ first star, Anderson quarterbacked them to the 1973 division title plus a 1975 post-season berth. He led all NFL quarterbacks in passing yards in 1974 and again in 1975 – besting the legendary Fran Tarkenton both years. Anderson also led in passing yards in 1974 and 1975, and in 1974 he added the completion and completion percentage titles, the latter at 64.9 percent.

 

  1. Sid Luckman, 1943-46 Chicago Bears, 1.51. Luckman probably would have been the dominant passing talent of his time under normal circumstances; with much NFL talent away at World War II, it was no contest. In 1943 he averaged 44 more passing yards per game than Baugh, the best of his competitors. He maintained that margin in 1944, and in 1946 – facing a cohort of new or returning challengers of the stripe of Bob Waterfield and Paul Christman, he regained the top position. Along the way, he led the Bears to the 1943 and 1946 NFL championships, the team’s third and fourth behind Luckman.

 

  1. Drew Brees, 2006-09 New Orleans Saints, 1.52. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints needed a hero, and Brees filled the role. Signed as a free agent following five seasons with the Chargers, he passed for a league-leading 4,418 yards and lifted the Saints from 3-13 the previous season to 10-6 and the NFC South division title. He led in yards per game that season and again in 2008 at 316.8, then in 2009 he took the Saints to a 13-2 record and a Super Bowl championship.

 

  1. Kurt Warner, 1999-2002 St. Louis Rams, 1.56.Warner was a lightly known second year player out of Northern Iowa when he led the Rams to a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl championship in 1999. Until an injury sidelined him midway through the 2002 season, Warner had led the NFL in completion percentage for three consecutive seasons, in yards per game twice, and in passing yardage and completions in 2001. He was a 2017 Hall of Fame inductee.

 

  1. Peyton Manning, 2001-04 Indianapolis Colts, 1.61. Manning was the All-Pro selection annually between 2003 and 2005, leading the NFL in yards per game in 2003 at 266.7. His Colts teams ran up a cumulative 50-14 record in his four peak seasons, winning the AFC Central in 2003 and 2004, the first two of five consecutive such titles (plus a win in Super Bowl XLI).

 

  1. Fran Tarkenton, 1974-77 Minnesota Vikings, 1.65. Traded in 1972 from the Giants back to the Minnesota Vikings – with whom he had begun his NFL career a decade earlier – Tarkenton was 34 and toward the end of his career in 1974. His performance on the field, however, belied that reality. He finished second annually in yards per game annually between 1974 and 1977, twice to Ken Anderson, once to Ken Stabler and once to Joe Ferguson. The Vikings won the NFC Central all four of those years, and made it to the Super Bowl in 1974 and 1976.

 

  1. John Unitas, 1957-60 Baltimore Colts, 1.75. Unitas was the NFL’s dominant passing force for the better part of a decade, leading the league in yards per game four times, including three times between 1957 and 1960. In 1960, probably his best season, he averaged 258.3 yards per game; the runner-up averaged 206. Unitas led the Colts to their famous overtime victory over the Giants for the 1958 NFL championship, a victory they repeated in far more decisive 31-16 fashion one year later.

 

  1. Dan Marino, 1984-87 Miami Dolphins, 1.82. Marino destroyed the axiom that an NFL quarterback needed years of seasoning to develop. A rookie in 1983, he led the Dolphins to a 14-2 record and Super Bowl loss to the 49ers in 1984, throwing for a league-leading 317.8 yards per game and also leading in completions, total yards and touchdowns. The Dolphins gradually retreated, but not due to Marino, who averaged 285 passing yards per game through 1987.

 

  1. Drew Brees, 2012-15 New Orleans Saints, 1.95. Brees and Tarkenton are the only quarterbacks with two four-season blocks among the all-time top 25. Brees was the only one, however, to do it twice with the same team. Between 2012 and 2015, Brees twice led the league in yards per game, and three times led in passing yards. Those performances continued a remarkable string for Brees of never having finished lower than third in yards per game since 2005. Of the 10 best seasons in NFL history measured by passing yards, Brees holds five. As of the end of the 2017 season he lacked 1,700 passing yards – about a third of a normal season — to supplant Peyton Manning as the all-time leader.

 

  1. Warren Moon, 1990-93 Houston Oilers, 2.05. Between 1987 and 1993, Moon annually directed the Oilers to a post-season berth, although they were never able to reach the Super Bowl. That was no fault of Moon, who finished first, first, second and third in passing yards per game. In 1990 he threw for 312 per game, becoming the only quarterback between Marino in 1984 and Warner in 2000 to surpass 300.

 

  1. Dan Fouts, 1980-83 San Diego Chargers, 2.43. Fouts led the NFL in yards per game for five successive seasons from 1979 through 1983. In 1980 he became the first quarterback since Norm Snead in 1965 to throw for more than 300 yards per game. He raised that average to 320 in 1982, and averaged 303 for his four-season peak. He took the Chargers to the post-season each season between 1979 and 1982.

 

 

The 25 most dominant pro football dynasties in history

Preface: Because NFL teams play relatively short schedules – historically between 12 and 16 games – I rate them based on multi-year periods rather than single seasons. Doing so reduces the role of random chance in the rankings.  Basing rankings on four consecutive seasons provides a base of between 48 and 64 games, enough to reduce the chance element to an acceptable level.

Methodology: Each team’s rating is based on the sum of the standard deviation of its point production measured against the league or conference average plus the inverse of the standard deviation of its point prevention measured against the league or conference average for any period of four consecutive seasons. Those scores are adjusted by a Strength of Schedule factor taking into consideration that teams do not play identical opponents. Since the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970, teams are rated by conference. Prior to the AFL-NFL merger, AFL teams are rated together while NFL teams are rated by conference.  The example below shows the scores for each team during the 2016 NFC season. The average points scored per game was 369.69; the standard deviation 76.59. The average points allowed was also 369.69; the standard deviation was 55.77:

2016-17                                                Points   St. Dev. All’d.     Inv. SD. Score

Dallas Cowboys                                421         0.76        306         1.14        1.90

Atlanta Falcons                                 540         2.53        406      -0.65       1.88

Seattle Seahawks                             354       -0.23       292       1.94        1.16

Arizona Cardinals                             418         0.72        362        0.14        0.86

New York Giants                               310       -0.89       284       1.54       0.65

Philadelphia Eagles                          367       -0.04       331        0.69        0.65

Green Bay Packers                           432         0.92        388      -0.33       0.59

Minnesota Vikings                           327       -0.63       307        1.12        0.49

Washington Redskins                     396         0.39        383      -0.24       0.15

New Orleans Saints                         469         1.47        454      -1.51      -0.04

Detroit Lions                                      346       -0.35       358        0.21      -0.14

Tampa Bay Buccaneers                  354       -0.23       369        0.01      -0.22

Carolina Panthers                            369       -0.01       402      -0.58     -0.59

Chicago Bears                                    279       -1.35       399      -0.53     -1.88

Los Angeles Rams                            224       -2.16       394      -0.44     -2.60

San Francisco 49ers                         309       -0.90       480      -1.98     -2.88

 

Disclaimer: Our perceptions of the strength of teams (or individuals) can be colored by factors that are extraneous to their actual dominance: general familiarity, the presence or absence of attention-getting personalities, subjective opinions that become engrained over time, superiority in certain statistical categories being the most likely. This rating is based on an objective methodology, meaning that it is immune to influence from any of those criteria. That also means its findings may vary – in some cases substantially – from the historical consensus. As you scan this list, be prepared to have your presumptions of relative greatness challenged.

 

  1. 1967-70 Oakland Raiders (2.12)

Cumulative record: 45-8-3

Post-season: beat Houston Oilers 40-7, lost to Green Bay Packers 33-14 in Super Bowl; 1968. Beat Kansas City Chiefs 41-6, lost to New York Jets 27-23 in AFL championship; beat Houston Oilers 36-7, lost to Kansas City Chiefs 17-7 in AFL championship; 1970. Beat Miami Dolphins 21-14, lost to Baltimore Colts 27-17 in conference championship.

Core players: Ben Davidson (defensive lineman), Bill Laskey, (linebacker), Billy Cannon (tight end), Bob Svihus (offensive lineman), Carleton Oats (defensive lineman), Dan Conners (linebacker), Daryle Lamonica (quarterback), Dave Grayson (defensive back), Fred Biletnikoff (wide receiver), Gene Upshaw (offensive lineman), George Atkinson (kick returner/defensive back), George Blanda (kicker), Gus Otto (linebacker), Harry Schuh (offensive lineman), Hewritt Dixon (running back), Ike Lassiter (defensive lineman), Jim Harvey (offensive lineman), Jim Otto (offensive lineman), Kent McCloughan (defensive back), Mike Eischeid (punter), Tom Keating (defensive lineman), Warren Wells (defensive back), Willie Brown (defensive back).

Points-per-game differential: +10.66.

Hall of Famers (9): Fred Biletnikoff (wide receiver), George Blanda (quarterback), Willie Brown (cornerback), Al Davis (general manager-owner), John Madden (coach), Jim Otto (center), Art Shell (offensive lineman), Ken Stabler (quarterback), Gene Upshaw (offensive lineman).

In a paragraph: Through the late 1960s, the Raiders presented a stable cast of serious, hard-hitting head-knockers led by defensive end Ben Davidson and defensive backs Willie Brown, George Atkinson and Willie Wells.  They played for the AFL Championship all four seasons, reaching Super Bowl II but losing to the Green Bay Packers.

 

  1. 1982-85 Miami Dolphins(2.16)

Cumulative record: 45-12

Post-season: Beat New England Patriots 28-12, beat San Diego Chargers 34-13, beat New York Jets 14-0, lost to Washington Redskins 27-17 in Super Bowl; 1983. Lost to Seattle Seahawks 27-20 in division round; 1984. Beat Seattle Seahawks 31-10, beat Pittsburgh Steelers 45-28, lost to San Francisco 49ers 38-16 in Super Bowl; 1985. Beat Cleveland Browns 24-21, lost to New England Patriots 31-14 in conference championship.

Core players: Dan Marino (quarterback), Tony Nathan (running back), Mark Duper (wide receiver), Jon Giesler (offensive lineman), Dwight Stephenson (offensive lineman), Ed Newman (offensive lineman), Eric Laakso (offensive lineman), Doug Betters (defensive lineman), Bob Baumhower (defensive lineman), Kim Bokamper (defensive lineman), Bob Brudzinski (linebacker), A.J. Duhe (linebacker), Glen Blackwood (defensive back), Uwe von Schamann (kicker), Fulton Walker (kick returner), Reggie Roby (punter), Mark Clayton (wide receiver).

Points per game differential: +9.28.

Hall of Famers (3): Dan Marino (quarterback), Don Shula (coach), Dwight Stephenson (offensive lineman).

In a paragraph: The 1980s iteration of the Dolphins is famous or three games, two of which they lost. Both defeats came in the Super Bowl, 27-17 to the Redskins and 38-16 to the 49ers in Dan Marino’s rookie season. A year later they pulled off one of the NFL’s memorable upsets, sinking the 1985 Super Bowl-bound Bears’ hopes of an undefeated season 38-24 as Marino threw for 270 yards.  Between 1981 and 1985 the Dolphins won five consecutive AFC East titles under Don Shula.

 

  1. 1965-68 Baltimore Colts (2.18)

Cumulative record: 43-10-3

Post-season.  1965: Lost to Green Bay Packers 13-10 in division championship; 1968: Beat Minnesota Vikings 24-14, beat Cleveland Browns 34-0, lost to New York Jets 16-7 in Super Bowl.

Core players:  John Unitas (quarterback), Lenny Moore (running back), Raymond Berry (wide receiver), John Mackey (tight end), Bob Vogel (offensive lineman), Dick Szymanski (center), Fred Miller (defensive lineman), Billy Ray Smith (defensive lineman), Ordell Braase (defensive lineman),  Dennis Gaubatz (linebacker), Don Shinnick (linebacker), Bobby Boyd (defensive back), Lenny Lyles (defensive back), Jerry Logan (defensive back), Lou Michaels (defensive lineman/kicker), Alvin Hammond (kick returner).

Point-per-game differential +11.55.

Hall of Famers (6): Raymond Berry (wide receiver), Gino Marchetti (defensive lineman), Lenny Moore (running back), Jim Parker (offensive lineman), Don Shula (coach), John Unitas (quarterback).

In a paragraph: Although the Colts did not win a championship during the mid 1960, they were actually more consistently dominant than during the late 1950s, when they won two. Don Shula still had John Unitas at quarterback plus a dominant defense that allowed just 15 points per game. Although best known for playing Joe Namath’s foil in the stunning Super Bowl III upset, Baltimore was the superior team, having marched through the regular season 13-1, and having avenged its only defeat with a 34-0 conference championship beatdown of the Cleveland Browns two weeks earlier.

 

  1. 1973-76 Minnesota Vikings (2.21)

Cumulative record: 45-10-1

Post-season:  Beat Washington Redskins 20-17, beat Dallas Cowboys 27-10, lost to Miami Dolphins 24-7 in Super Bowl; 1974: beat St. Louis Cardinals 30-14, beat Los Angeles Rams 14-10, lost to Pittsburgh Steelers 16-6 in Super Bowl; lost to Dallas Cowboys 17-14 in division round; 1976: beat Washington Redskins 35-20, beat Los Angeles Rams 24-13, lost to Oakland Raiders 32-14 in Super Bowl.

Core players: Fran Tarkenton (quarterback), Chuck Foreman (running back), John Gilliam (wide receiver), Stu Voigt (tight end), Mick Tingelhoff (center), Ron Yary (offensive lineman), Carl Eller (defensive lineman), Alan Page (defensive lineman), Jim Marshall (defensive lineman), Roy Winston (linebacker), Jeff Siemon (linebacker), Wally Hilgenberg (linebacker), Nate Wright (defensive back), Paul Krause (defensive back), Fred Cox (kicker), Brent McClanahan (kick returner).

Point-per-game differential: +10.16.

Hall of Famers (5): Carl Eller (defensive lineman), Jim Finks (general manager), Bud Grant (coach), Paul Krause (defensive back), Alan Page (defensive lineman).

In a paragraph: As with their late 1960s cousins (see below), the Vikings seemed cursed at times. With veteran Fran Tarkenton at quarterback, they compiled an .818 regular season winning percentage, then stumbled through three Super Bowl defeats in four years. It was the Vikes’ misfortune to continually run into AFC champions with pedigrees for the ages: the 1973 Dolphins (No. 9 on this list), 1974 Steelers (No. 15) and the 1976 Raiders.

 

  1. 1947-50 Philadelphia Eagles (2.24)

Cumulative record: 34-13-1

Post-season: 1947: Beat Pittsburgh Steelers 21-0, lost to Chicago Cardinals 28-21 in NFL Championship; 1948: Beat Chicago Cardinals 7-0 in NFL Championship; 1949: Beat Los Angeles Rams 14-0 in NFL Championship.

Core players: Tommy Thompson (quarterback), Joe Muha (running back), Steve Van Buren (running back), Bosh (Pritchard (running back), Jack Ferronte (wide receiver), Vic Sears (offensive line), Bucko Kilroy (offensive line), Al Wistert (offensive line), Pete Pihos (wide receiver).

Point-per-game differential: +13.17.

Hall of Famers (5): Chuck Bednarik (center-linebacker), Greasy Neale (coach), Pete Pihos (wide receiver), Steve Van Buren (running back), Alex Wojciechowicz (offensive lineman).

In a paragraph: These were Steve Van Buren’s Eagles. Drafted out of LSU during World War II, he became the league’s first 1,000 yard rusher in 1947 as the Eagles played in their first post-season game, a 28-21 loss to the Chicago Cardinals. With Van Buren again leading the offense, they dominated in 1948-49, going a cumulative 20-3-1 and sweeping both championship games, 7-0 over the Cardinals and 14-0 over the Rams.

 

  1. 1940-43 Chicago Bears (2.27)

Cumulative record: 37-5-1

Post-season:  1940: Beat Washington Redskins 73-0 in NFL Championship; 1941:  beat Green Bay Packers 33-14 in division game, beat New York Giants 37-9 in NFL Championship; 1942: lost to Washington Redskins 14-6 in NFL Championship; 1943: beat Washington Redskins 41-21 in NFL Championship.

Core players: Sid Luckman (quarterback), Bill Osmanski (running back), Ray Nolting (running back), Dick Plasman (tight end), Danny Fortmann (offensive line), Bulldog Turner (offensive line), Lee Artoe (offensive line), George Wilson (wide receiver).

Point-per-game differential: +17.74.

Hall of Famers (8): Dan Fortmann (offensive lineman), George Halas (coach/owner), Sid Luckman (quarterback), George McAfee (running back), George Musso (lineman), Bronko Nagurski (linebacker), Joe Stydahar (offensive lineman), Bulldog Turner (offensive lineman).

In a paragraph: It would be easy to make the case that the 1940s Bears ought to rank higher – maybe a lot higher – on this list. That case begins with their scoring differential, +17.74 points across four seasons, the largest of any of the top 25 teams. Of their 37 victories, 28 came by 10 points or more, 16 of those by 20 points or more, and nine of those by 30 points or more. And that doesn’t count their three NFL Championship game victories, 73-0 and 41-21, both over the Redskins and 37-9 over the Packers. The Bears didn’t just beat their opponents; in the manner of the best teams across generations, they mauled them.

 

  1. 1969-72 Minnesota Vikings (2.37)

Cumulative record: 42-14

Post-season: 1969: Beat Los Angeles Rams 23-20, beat Cleveland Browns 27-7, lost to Kansas City Chiefs 23-3 in Super Bowl; 1970: Lost to San Francisco 49ers 17-14 in division round; 1971: lost to Dallas Cowboys 20-12 in division round.

Core players: Gene Washington (wide receiver), John Beasley (tight end), Grady Alderman, offensive lineman), Mick Tinglehoff (center), Milt Sunde (offensive lineman), Carl Eller (defensive lineman), Gary Larsen (defensive lineman), Alan Page (defensive lineman), Jim Marshall (defensive lineman), Roy Winston (linebacker), Karl Kassulke (defensive back), Paul Krause (defensive back), Fred Cox (kicker), Charlie West (kick returner).

Points-per-game differential: +10.59.

Hall of Famers (8): Carl Eller (defensive lineman), Jim Finks (general manager), Bud Grant (coach), Paul Krause (defensive back), Alan Page (defensive lineman), Fran Tarkenton (quarterback), Mick Tingelhoff (offensive lineman), Ron Yary (offensive lineman).

In a paragraph: The Vikings were the NFL’s first Shakespearean tragedy. They dominated the regular season, only to stumble in the post-season, notably including their loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl IV. One year later they rolled through the regular season 12-2, only to come up short against San Francisco in their playoff opener.  It happened again in 1971, a superb 11-3 regular season followed by a first round playoff defeat at the hands of the Cowboys.

 

  1. 1995-98 Denver Broncos (2.388)

Cumulative record: 47-17

Post-season: 1996: Lost to Jacksonville Jaguars 30-27 in division round; 1997: Beat Jacksonville Jaguars 42-17, beat Kansas City Chiefs 14-10, beat Pittsburgh Steelers 24-21, beat Green Bay Packers 31-24 in Super Bowl; 1998: Beat Miami Dolphins 38-3, beat New York Jets 23-10, beat Atlanta Falcons 34-19 in Super Bowl.

Core players: John Elway (quarterback), Terrell Davis (running back), Ed McCaffrey (wide receiver), Shannon Sharpe (tight end), Gary Zimmerman (offensive lineman), Mark Schlereth (offensive lineman), Tom Nalen (offensive lineman), Brian Habib (offensive lineman), Michael Dean Perry (defensive lineman), Bill Romanowski (linebacker), John Mobley (linebacker), Ray Crockett (defensive back), Tyrone Braxton (defensive back), Steve Atwater (defensive back), Jason Elam (kicker), Tom Rouen (punter), Vaughn Hebron (kick returner).

Points-per-game differential: +8.38.

Hall of Famers (2): John Elway (quarterback), Shannon Sharpe (tight end).

In a paragraph: In many ways, the story of John Elway is the story of the Broncos’ franchise. A rookie starter in 1983, Elway was 37 and in his 15th season when he finally led Denver to its first Super Bowl victory, 31-24 over Green Bay. The Broncos repeated a year later, this time 34-19 over Atlanta, in what would be Elway’s swan song to a career that had seen him rack up more than 50,000 passing yards. Today Elway is the Broncos’ general manager.

 

  1. 1990-93 Buffalo Bills (2.390)

Cumulative record: 49-15

Post-season. 1990: Beat Miami Dolphins 44-34, beat Los Angeles Raiders 51-3, lost to New York Giants 20-19 in Super Bowl; 1991: Beat Kansas City Chiefs 37-14, beat Denver Broncos 10-7, lost to Washington Redskins 37-24 in Super Bowl; 1992: Beat Houston Oilers 41-38, beat Pittsburgh Steelers 24-3, beat Miami Dolphins 29-10, lost to Dallas Cowboys 52-17 in Super Bowl; 1993: Beat Los Angeles Raiders 29-23, beat Kansas City Chiefs 30-13, lost to Dallas Cowboys 30-13 in Super Bowl.

Core players: Jim Kelly (quarterback), Thurman Thomas (running back), Don Beebe (fullback), James Lofton (wide receiver), Andre Reed (wide receiver), Keith McKeller (offensive lineman), Will Wolford (offensive lineman), Jim Ritcher (linebacker), Kent Hull (offensive lineman), John Davis (offensive lineman), Howard Ballard (offensive lineman), Jeff Wright (defensive lineman), Bruce Smith (defensive lineman), Cornelius Bennett (linebacker), Shane Conlan (linebacker), Darryl Talley (linebacker), Nate Odomes (defensive back), Mark Kelso (defensive back), Chris Mohr (punter).

Points-per-game differential: +7.66.

Hall of Famers (7): Marv Levy (coach), James Lofton (wide receiver), Bill Polian (general manager), Andre Reed (wide receiver), Bruce Smith (defensive lineman), Thurman Thomas (running back), Ralph Wilson (owner).

In a paragraph: Like the 1960s and 70 s Vikings, the Bills are famous more for their post-season flops than for their accomplishments. They are the only team to have played in four consecutive Super Bowls, yet they lost all four …generally by decisive margins.  Perhaps it would be worth a moment to recall the achievements of Hall of Famers of the caliber of Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith. Just sayin’.

 

  1. 1985-88 Chicago Bears (2.41)

Cumulative record: 52-11

Post-season: 1985: Beat New York Giants 21-0, beat Los Angeles Rams 24-0, beat New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl; 1986: Lost to Washington Redskins 27-13 in division round; 1987: lost to Washington Redskins 21-17 in division round; 1988: Beat Philadelphia Eagles 20-12, lost to San Francisco 49ers 28-3 in NFC Championship.

Core players:  Jim McMahon (quarterback), Walter Payton (running back), Matt Suhey (fullback), Willie Gault (wide receiver), Emory Moorehead (tight end), Jimbo Covert (offensive lineman), Mark Bortz (offensive lineman), Jay Hilgenberg (offensive lineman), Tom Thayer (offensive lineman), Keith Van Horne (offensive lineman), Dan Hampton (defensive lineman), Steve McMichael(defensive lineman), William Perry (defensive lineman), Richard Dent (defensive lineman), Otis Wilson (linebacker), Mike Singletary (linebacker), Wilber Marshall (linebacker), Mike Richardson (defensive back), Vestee Jackson (defensive back), Dave Duerson (defensive back), Kevin Butler (kicker).

Points-per-game differential: +9.28.

Hall of Famers (5): Richard Dent (defensive lineman), Mike Ditka (coach, inducted as player), Dan Hampton (defensive lineman), Walter Payton (running back), Mike Singletary (linebacker).

In a paragraph: Many view the 1985 Bears as the best defensive team in history. On their way to a Super Bowl rout of the Patriots, they allowed just 198 regular season points – less than two touchdowns per game and about 140 fewer than the league average. What they failed to do was sustain that excellence, a shortcoming that particularly showed up during the post-season. In the three years following their Super Bowl championship, the Bears played four post-season games, losing three and being outscored 88-53. .

 

  1. 1973-76 Pittsburgh Steelers (2.43)

Cumulative record: 42-13-1

Post-season: 1973: Lost to Oakland Raiders 33-14 in division round; 1974: Beat Buffalo Bills 32-14, beat Oakland Raiders 24-13, beat Minnesota Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl; 1974: Beat Baltimore Colts 28-10, beat Oakland Raiders 16-10, beat Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in Super Bowl; 1976: Beat Baltimore Colts, lost to Oakland Raiders 24-7 in AFC Championship.

Core players: Terry Bradshaw (quarterback), Rocky Bleier (running back), Franco Harris (running back), Frank Lewis (wide receiver), Larry Brown (tight end), Jon Kolb (offensive lineman), Sam Davis (offensive lineman), Ray Mansfield (offensive lineman), Gerry Mullins (offensive lineman), L.C. Greenwood (defensive lineman), Joe Greene (defensive lineman), Ernie Holmes (defensive lineman), Dwight White (defensive lineman), Jack Ham (linebacker), Jack Lambert (linebacker), Andy Russell (linebacker), Mel Blount (defensive back), Mike Wagner (defensive back), Glen Edwards (defensive back), Roy Gerela (kicker), Bobby Walden (punter) .

Points-per-game differential: +11.93.

Hall of Famers  (12): Mel Blount (cornerback), Terry Bradshaw (quarterback), Joe Greene (defensive lineman), Jack Ham (linebacker), Franco Harris (running back), Jack Lambert (linebacker), Chuck Noll (coach), Art and Dan Rooney (owners), John Stallworth (wide receiver), Lynn Swann (wide receiver), Mike Webster (center).

In a paragraph: The 1970s were the Steelers’ Golden Age; they won four Super Bowls between 1974 and 1979.  In their second Super Bowl season, 1975, the Steelers lost only twice and outscored opponents by an average of 27-12. That season Lynn Swann caught 11 touchdown passes in 14 games, and Franco Harris ran for 1,246. Pittsburgh’s legendary “Steel Curtain” defense featured four future Hall of Famers: Mean Joe Green, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount.

 

  1. 1966-69 Dallas Cowboys (2.43)

                Cumulative record: 42-12-1

Post-season: 1966: Lost to Green Bay Packers 34-27 in NFL Championship; 1967: Beat Cleveland Browns 52-14, lost to Green Bay Packers 21-17 in NFL Championship; 1968: Lost to Cleveland Browns 31-20 in division round; 1969: Lost to Cleveland Browns 38-14 in division round.

Core players: Don Meredith (quarterback), Don Perkins (fullback), Lance Rentzel (wide receiver), Bob Hayes (wide receiver), Pettis Norman (offensive lineman), Tony Liscio (offensive lineman), Ralph Neely (offensive lineman), Jethro Pugh (defensive lineman), Bob Lilly (defensive lineman), George Andrie (defensive lineman), Chuck Howley (linebacker), Lee Roy Jordan (linebacker), Dave Edwards (linebacker), Cornell Green (defensive back), Mike Gaechter (defensive back), Mel Renfro (defensive back).

Points-per-game differential: +11.98.

Hall of Famers (7): Bob Hayes (wide receiver), Tom Landry (coach), Bob Lilly (defensive lineman), Mel Renfro (defensive back), Tex Schramm (general manager),  Roger Staubach (quarterback), Rayfield Wright (offensive lineman).

In a paragraph: Groundwork for the Cowboys dynasty was led by the 1960s units, which reached post-season play for the first four times in the franchise’s history. This was a better team than its post-season record suggests largely because the Cowboys had to compete against the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns. They lost the 1966 conference title to Green Bay 34-27, and lost memorably 21-17 in the following season’s “Ice Bowl” championship game when Bart Starr scored with seconds left on what quickly became known as “the frozen tundra.”  The Browns, soon to transition to the AFC as part of the merger, knocked Dallas out in the 1967 and 1968 playoffs. Still, let it not be forgotten that Dallas won a franchise record six consecutive East conference championships between 1966 and 1971.

 

  1. 1994-7 Green Bay Packers (2.443)

Cumulative record: 46-18

Post-season: 1994: Beat Detroit Lions 16-12, lost to Dallas Cowboys 35-9 in division round; 1995: beat Atlanta Falcons 37-20, beat San Francisco 49ers 27-17, lost to Dallas Cowboys 38-27 in NFC Championship; 1996: Beat San Francisco 49ers 35-14, beat Carolina Panthers 30-13, beat New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl; 1997: beat Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-7, beat San Francisco 49ers 23-10, lost to Denver Broncos 31-24 in Super Bowl.

Core players: Brett Favre (quarterback), Robert Brooks (wide receiver), Mark Chmura (tight end), Aaron Taylor (offensive lineman), Aaron Taylor (offensive lineman), Frank Winters (offensive lineman), Earl Dotson (offensive lineman), Reggie White (defensive lineman), Sean Jones (defensive lineman), George Koonce (linebacker), Doug Evans (defensive back), LeRoy Butler (defensive back), Chris Jacke (kicker), Craig Hentrich (punter).

Points-per-game differential: +8.92.

Hall of Famers (5): Brett Favre (quarterback), Reggie White (defensive lineman), Ron Wolfe (general manager).

In a paragraph: With Mike Holmgren coaching and Brett Favre at quarterback, the Packers’ resurgence actually began in 1992, when they improved five games in the standings. They lost the conference title game in 1995, but reached the Super Bowl the next two seasons, beating New England 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI. Favre threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns.  Their bid for two straight ended when Terrell Davis scored from a yard in the final minutes out to give Denver and Denver a 31-24 victory.

 

  1. 1973-76 Los Angeles Rams (2.49)

Cumulative record: 44-11-1

Post-season: 1973. Lost 27-16 to Dallas Cowboys in division round; 1974: Beat Washington Redskins 19-10, lost to Minnesota Vikings 14-10 in conference championship; 1975: Beat St. Louis Cardinals 35-23, lost to Dallas Cowboys 37-7 in conference championship; 1976. Beat Dallas Cowboys 14-12, lost to Minnesota Vikings 24-13 in conference championship.

Core players: James Harris (quarterback), Lawrence McCutcheon (running back), Harold Jackson (wide receiver), Bob Klein (tight end), Charlie Cowan (offensive lineman), Tom Mack (offensive lineman), Joe Scibelli (offensive lineman), John Williams (offensive lineman), Jack Youngblood (defensive lineman), Larry Brooks (defensive line man), Merlin Olsen (defensive lineman), Fred  Dryer (defensive lineman), Ken Geddes (linebacker), Jack Reynolds (linebacker), Isiah Robertson (linebacker), Eddie McMullen (defensive back), Dave Elmendorf (defensive back), Cullen Bryant (kick returner).

Points-per-game differential: +11.16.

Hall of Famers (5): Bob Brown (offensive lineman), Tom Mack (offensive lineman), Merlin Olsen (defensive lineman), Dan Reeves (owner), Jack Youngblood (defensive lineman).

In a paragraph: For a team that never made the Super Bowl, the mid 70s Rams had a great run. They won seven consecutive division championships and three straight conference title games from 1974 through 1976. In the waning years of the “Fearsome Foursome” era, the Rams remained defensively oriented. In 1973 they outscored opponents by an average of 28-13; in 1975 the margin was 22-10.

 

  1. 1966-69 Kansas City Chiefs (2.51)

Cumulative record: 43-12-1

Post-season: 1966: Beat Buffalo Bills 31-7 for AFL Championship, lost to Green Bay Packers 35-10 in Super Bowl; 1968: Lost to Oakland Raiders 41-6 in division round; 1969: Beat New York Jets 13-6, beat Oakland Raiders 17-7 in AFL Championship, beat Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl.

Core players: Len Dawson (quarterback), Mike Garrett (running back), Otis Taylor (wide receiver), Fred Arbanes (tight end), Jim Tyrer (offensive lineman), Ed Budde (offensive lineman), Dave Hill (offensive lineman), Jerry Mays (defensive lineman), Buck Buchanan (defensive lineman), Bobby Bell (defensive lineman), Willie Mitchell (defensive back), Johnny Robinson (defensive back), Jan Stenerud (kicker), Jerrel Wilson (punter).

Points-per-game differential: +12.66.

Hall of Famers (9): Bobby Bell (linebacker-defensive end), Buck Buchanan (defensive lineman), . Curly Culp (defensive lineman),  Len Dawson (quarterback), Lamar Hunt (owner), Willie Lanier (linebacker), Jan Stenerud (kicker), Hank Stram (coach), Emmitt Thomas (defensive back).

In a paragraph: When Chiefs fans wax romantic about the “good old days,” these are the days they’re recalling.  The 1966 team won the AFL Championship before losing the first Super Bowl game to Green Bay. Satisfaction came in 1969 when the Chiefs – a wild card entry after losing the division to Oakland – defeated the Raiders 17-7 for the conference title and then bounced Minnesota 23-7 in Super Bowl IV. About those Chiefs-Raiders battles: Between 1966 and 1970, the Chiefs lost only 17 games, seven of those defeats coming at the hands of the Raiders.

 

  1. 1978-81 Dallas Cowboys (2.540)

Cumulative record: 47-17

Post-season: 1978: Beat Atlanta Falcons 27-20, beat Los Angeles Rams 28-0, lost to Pittsburgh Steelers 35-31 in Super Bowl; 1979: Lost to Los Angeles Rams 21-19 in division round; 1980:  Beat Los Angeles Rams 34-13, beat Atlanta Falcons 30-27, lost to Philadelphia Eagles 20-7 in NFC Championship; 1981: Beat Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-0, lost to San Francisco 49ers in NFC Championship.

Core players:  Tony Dorsett (running back), Robert Newhouse (running back), Tony Hill (wide receiver), Drew Pearson (wide receiver), Billy Joe DuPree (tight end), Pat Donovan (offensive lineman), Herbert Scott (offensive lineman), John Fitzgerald (offensive lineman), Tom Rafferty (offensive lineman), Jim Cooper (offensive lineman), Too Tall Jones (defensive lineman), Randy White (defensive lineman), Harvey Martin (defensive lineman), Bob Breunig (linebacker), D.D. Lewis (linebacker), Charlie Waters (defensive back), Rafael Septien (kicker).

Points-per-game differential: +7.45.

Hall of Famers (2): Tony Dorsett (running back), Tom Landry (coach), Tex Schramm (general manager), Jackie Smith (tight end), Roger Staubach (quarterback), Randy White (defensive lineman).

In a paragraph: Coming off a Super Bowl victory following the 1977 season, the Cowboys of Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett were firmly established as a powerhouse. Between 1978 and 1981 they failed to add another Lombardi Trophy – coming closest in a Super Bowl XIII 35-31 loss to the Steelers. But that should not obscure their three division titles and three conference championship appearances. The 1980 transition from Staubach to Danny White at quarterback proved seamless; White led Dallas to consecutive 12-4 seasons.

 

  1. 1971-74 Miami Dolphins (2.543)

Cumulative record: 47-8-1

Post-season: 1971. Beat Kansas City Chiefs 27-24, beat Baltimore Colts 21-0, lost to Dallas Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl; 1972. Beat Cleveland Browns 20-14, beat Pittsburgh Steelers 21-17, beat Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl; 1973; beat Cincinnati Bengals 34-16, beat Oakland Raiders 27-10, beat Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in Super Bowl; 1974.  Lost to Oakland Raiders 28-24 in division round.

Core players: Bob Griese (quarterback), Mercury Morris (running back), Larry Csonka (running back), Paul Warfield (wide receiver), Marv Fleming (tight end), Bob Kuechenberg (offensive lineman), Jim Langer (offensive lineman), Larry Little (offensive lineman), Norm Evans (offensive lineman), Vern DenHerder (defensive lineman), Manny Fernandez (defensive lineman), Bob Heinz (defensive lineman), Bill Stanfill (defensive lineman), Doug Swift (linebacker), Nick Buoniconti (linebacker), Mike Kolen (linebacker), Tim Foley (defensive back), Curtis Johnson (defensive back), Dick Anderson (defensive back), Jake Scott (defensive back), Garo Ypremian (kicker), Larry Seiple (punter).

Points-per-game differential: +11.77.

Hall of Famers  (7): Nick Buoniconti (linebacker), Larry Csonka (fullback), Bob Griese (quarterback), Jim Langer (offensive lineman), Larry Little (offensive lineman), Don Shula (coach), Paul Warfield (wide receiver).

In a paragraph: Don Shula (1960s Colts, 1970s and 1980s Dolphins) is the only head coach with three teams on this list. The undefeated 1972 club is, obviously, the most memorable, but it’s well to keep in mind that the Dolphins added a second Super Bowl trophy following the 1973 season, and came close to setting the stage for three straight or more. In 1971 they lost to Dallas 24-3, and in 1974 only a late Oakland Raiders rally for a 28-26 victory ended their drive for three straight.

 

  1. 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys (2.55)

Cumulative record: 49-15

Post-season: 1992: Beat Philadelphia Eagles 34-10, beat San Francisco 49ers 30-20, beat Buffalo Bills 52-17 in Super Bowl; 1993: Beat Green Bay Packers 27-17, beat San Francisco 49ers 38-21, beat Buffalo Bills 30-13 in Super Bowl; 1994: Beat Green Bay Packers 35-9, lost to San Francisco 49ers 38-28 in NFL Championship.

Core players: Troy Aikman (quarterback), Emmitt Smith (running back), Daryl Johnston (fullback), Alvin Harper (wide receiver), Michael Irvin (wide receiver), Jay Novacek (tight end), Mark Tuinei (offensive lineman), Nate Newton (offensive lineman), Mark Stepnoski (offensive lineman), Erik Williams (offensive lineman), Tony Tolbert (defensive lineman), Russell Maryland (defensive lineman), Charles Haley (defensive lineman), Dixon Edwards (linebacker), Robert Jones (linebacker), Darren Woodson (defensive back), John Jett (punter), Kelvin Williams (kick returner).

Points-per-game differential: +9.73.

Hall of Famers (7): Troy Aikman (quarterback), Larry Allen (offensive lineman), Charles Haley (defensive end), Michael Irvin (wide receiver), Jerry Jones (owner), Deion Sanders (defensive back), Emmett Smith (running back).

In a paragraph: The apex of the Dallas dynasty featured the franchises’s three final Super Bowl victories by a collective 62-point margin. With Troy Aikman throwing to Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith running, not even a coaching change – Barry Switzer for Jimmy Johnson following the 1993 season —  could slow Dallas down. Between 1992 and 1996 they won five straight division titles.

 

  1. 1951-54 Cleveland Browns (2.58)

Cumulative record: 39-9

Post-season: 1951: Lost 24-17 in NFL Championship; 1952: lost 17-7 to Detroit Lions in NFL Championship: 1953: lost to Detroit Lions 17-16 in NFL Championship; 1954: beat Detroit Lions 56-10 in NFL Championship.

Core players: Otto Graham (quarterback), Ken Carpenter (halfback), Dub Jones (halfback), Lou Groza (offensive lineman/kicker), Abe Gibron (offensive lineman), Frank Gatski (offensive lineman), John Sandusky (offensive lineman), Dante Lavelli (wide receiver), Bill Willis (defensive lineman), Len Ford (defensive lineman), Warren Lahr (defensive back), Tommy James (defensive back).

Points-per-game differential: +13.25.

Hall of Famers (10): Doug Atkins (defensive lineman), Paul Brown (coach-general manager), Len Ford (defensive lineman), Fran Gatski (offensive lineman), Otto Graham (quarterback), Lou Groza (offensive lineman/kicker), Dante Lavelli (wide receiver), Mike McCormack (offensive lineman), Marion Motley (running back), Bill Willie (defensive lineman).

In a paragraph: Coming off their successful transition from the AAFC to the NFL – a championship- in 1950 – the Browns lost little in the way of momentum. Through 1955, they ran their string of annual conference championship game appearances to 10, although losing the title game in 1951, 52 and 53. In 1954 they ended what passed for their string of failures, thrashing the Lions 56-10 to claim their second NFL championship in five seasons as a league member.  For good measure, they added a third NFL championship in 1955.

 

  1. 2014-17 New England Patriots. (2.61)

Cumulative record: 51-13

Post-season: 2014:  Beat Baltimore Ravens 35-31 in divisional game, beat Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in AFC championship, beat Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in Super Bowl; 2015: Beat Kansas City Chiefs 27-20 in divisional game, lost to Denver Broncos 20-18 in AFC Championship game; 2016: Beat Houston Texans 34-16 in divisional round, beat Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 in AFC Conference championship, beat Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in Super Bowl.

Core players: Tom Brady (quarterback), David Andrews (offensive lineman), Nate Solder (offensive lineman), Julian Edelman (wide receiver), Malcolm Butler (defensive back), Malcolm Brown (defensive lineman), Ryan Allen (punter), Shaq Mason (offensive lineman), Devin McCourty (defensive back), Don’t’a Hightower (linebacker), Rob Ninkovich (defensive lineman), Rob Gronkowski (tight end), Patrick Chung (defensive back), Stephen Gostkowski (kicker).

Points-per-game differential: +10.28.

Hall of Famers: None eligible.

In a paragraph: The Patriots are indisputably the dominant franchise of the 21st Century to date. Through the conclusion of the 2017 regular season, they’ve won all but two of the AFC East division titles since 2001, a dozen of them with records of 12-4 or better. The 2014-17 iteration features the usual suspects – quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski  and head coach Bill Belichick. It also features the usual outcome: Super Bowl victories in 2014 and 2016. They might have made it three straight, but a last-second failed attempt at a two-point conversion concluded a 20-18 defeat at the hands of the Broncos in the 2015 conference title game.

 

  1. 1946-49 Cleveland Browns (2.70)

Cumulative record: 47-4-3

Post-season: Beat New York Yankees 14-9 in AAFC Championship; 1947: Beat New York Yankees in 14-3 AAFC Championship; 1948: Beat Buffalo Bills 15-0 in AAFC Championship; 1949: Beat Buffalo Bills 31-21, beat San Francisco 49ers 21-7 in AAFC Championship.

Core players: Otto Graham (quarterback), Marion Motley (fullback), Don Greenwood (halfback), Mac Speedie (end), Mike Scarry (lineman), Bill Willis (lineman), Lou Rymkus (lineman), Dante Lavelli (end).

Points-per-game differential: +16.26.

Hall of Famers (7): Paul Brown (coach-general manager), Frank Gatski (offensive lineman), Otto Graham (quarterback), Lou Groza (offensive lineman/kicker), Dante Lavelli (wide receiver), Marion Motley (running back), Bill Willis (defensive lineman).

In a paragraph: An argument could easily be made that the Browns merit consideration for the top spot in their ranking. Their .911 winning percentage is highest among the 25 best teams, two of their four losses came by three points or fewer, and they sailed undefeated through 1948, an achievement generally overlooked today – especially by partisans of the Miami Dolphins – because they did it in a defunct league. Do not tread easily past the Browns’ 1948 accomplishments; they outscored their opponents 389-190, outgained them by 383-258 per game, and defeated Buffalo 49-7 in the conference championship game. Those skeptical of the quality of the AAFC may wish to note that when the Browns transferred into the NFL in 1950, they went 10-2 and defeated the Rams in the championship game. That was Cleveland’s fifth straight title, an accomplishment some team may get around to matching someday … but probably not soon.

 

  1. 2007-10 New England Patriots (2.74)

Cumulative record: 51-13

Post-season: 2007: Beat Jacksonville Jaguars 31-20, beat San Diego Chargers 21-12, lost to New York Giants 17-14 in Super Bowl; 2009: lost 33-14 to Baltimore Ravens in wild card; 2010: lost to New York Jets 28-21 in division round.

Core players: Tom Brady (quarterback), Randy Moss (wide receiver), Wes Welker (wide receiver), Matt Light (offensive lineman), Logan Mankins (offensive lineman), Dan Koppen (offensive lineman), Steve Neal (offensive lineman), Nick Kaczur (offensive lineman), Ty Warren (defensive lineman), Vince Wilfork (defensive lineman), Adalius Thomas (linebacker), James Sanders (defensive back), Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Chris Hanson (punter).

Points-per-game differential: +11.92.

Hall of Famers (1): Junior Seau (linebacker).

In a paragraph: This portion of the Patriots dynasty featured the undefeated 2007 team – famously upset by the Giants in the Super Bowl – but no actual Super Bowl champions. That 2007 team outscored regular season opponents by an average of 37-17, with only four single-digit margins prior to that Super Bowl defeat. The 2010 team was nearly as dominant, winning by an average margin of 32-20. That team’s bugaboo was the Jets, who surprised the Pats 28-14 in Week 2, then did it again in the division round of the playoffs, this time 28-21.

 

  1. 1960-63 Green Bay Packers (2.79)

Cumulative record: 43-10-1

Post-season.  1965: Beat Baltimore Colts 13-10, beat Cleveland Browns 23-12 in NFL Championship; 1966:  Beat Dallas Cowboys 34-27, beat Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl.

Core players: Bart Starr (quarterback), Jim Taylor (running back), Paul Hornung (running back), Boyd Dowler (wide receiver), Bob Skoronski (offensive lineman), Fuzzy Thurston (offensive lineman),  Jerry Kramer (offensive lineman), Forrest Gregg (offensive lineman), Willie Davis (defensive lineman), Ron Kostelnik (defensive lineman), Henry Jordan (defensive lineman), Lionel Aldridge (defensive lineman), Ray Nitschke (linebacker), Dave Robinson (linebacker), Lee Roy Caffey (linebacker), Herb Adderley (defensive back), Willie Wood (defensive back), Tom Brown (defensive back).

Points-per-game differential: +13.17

Hall of Famers (12): Herb Adderley (cornerback). Willie Davis (defensive lineman), Forrest Gregg (offensive lineman), Paul Hornung (running back/kicker), Henry Jordan (defensive lineman), Vince Lombardi (coach/general manager), Ray Nitschke (linebacker), Jim Ringo (offensive lineman), Dave Robinson (linebacker), Bart Starr (quarterback), Jim Taylor (running back), Willie Wood (defensive back).

In a paragraph: Vince Lombardi’s resurrection of the Green Bay franchise took hold in 1960, when the Pack went 8-4 and reached the NFL Championship game. They won in 1961, and repeated in 1962 following a 13-1 regular season, defeating the Giants for the title both years. The only blemish on that 1962 season was a shocking 26-14 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Lions  that gave momentum to that holiday game tradition. The 1963 Pack managed an 11-2-1 record, but that was only good enough for second behind the Bears, who went 11-1-2 and beat Green Bay twice.

 

  1. 1984-87 San Francisco 49ers (2.88)

Cumulative record: 48-14-1

Post-season: Beat New York Giants 21-10, beat Chicago Bears 23-6, beat Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl; 1985:  Lost to New York Giants 17-3 in wild card; 1986: Lost to New York Giants 49-3 in division round; 1987: Lost to Minnesota Vikings 36-24 in division round.

Core players: Joe Montana (quarterback), Roger Craig (fullback), Dwight Clark (wide receiver), Russ Francis (tight end), Bubba Paris (offensive lineman), John Ayers (offensive lineman), Fred Quillan (offensive lineman), Randy Cross (offensive lineman), Keith Fahnhorst (offensive lineman), Michael Carter (defensive lineman), Dwaine Board (defensive lineman), Riki Ellison (linebacker), Keena Turner (linebacker), Carlton Williamson (defensive back), Ronnie Lott (defensive back), Ray Wersching (kicker), Max Runager (punter), Dana McLemore (punt returner).

Points-per-game differential: +11.57.

Hall of Famers (8): Fred Dean (defensive lineman), Edward DeBartolo (owner), Charles Haley (defensive end/linebacker), Ronnie Lott (defensive back), Joe Montana (quarterback), Jerry Rice (wide receiver), Bill Walsh (coach), Steve Young (quarterback).

In a paragraph: The famously innovative Walsh developed the “West Coast offense” and rode it to three Super Bowl titles, the second coming in 1984. That team went 15-1 through the regular season, only Gary Anderson’s fourth quarter field goal for Pittsburgh preventing a perfect regular season. Those Niners dominated the post-season s well, winning three games by a combined 82-26. They were almost as good in 1987, going 13-2 and outscoring opponents by an average of 13 points before being upset by the Minnesota Vikings 36-24 in the divisional round of post-season play.

 

  1. 1992-95 San Francisco 49ers (3.08)

Cumulative record: 48-16

Post-season: 1992: Beat Washington Redskins 20-13, lost to Dallas Cowboys 3-0-20 in conference championship; 1993: Beat New York Giants 44-3, lost to Dallas Cowboys 38-21 in conference championship; 1994: Beat Chicago Bears 44-15, beat Dallas Cowboys 38-28, beat San Diego Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl; 1995: Lost to Green Bay Packers 27-17.

Core players. Steve Young (quarterback), Ricky Watters (running back), William Floyd (blocking back), Jerry Rice (wide receiver), John Taylor (wide receiver), Brent Jones (tight end), Steve Wallace (offensive lineman), Jesse Sapolu (offensive lineman), Bart Oates (offensive lineman), Harris Barton (offensive lineman), Dennis Brown (defensive lineman), Bryant Young (defensive lineman), Dana Stubblefield (defensive lineman), Ricky Jackson (defensive lineman), Lee Woodall (linebacker), Ken Norton (linebacker), Eric Davis (defensive back), Tim McDonald (defensive back), Merton Hanks (defensive back), Klaus Wilmsmeyer (punter), Dexter Carter (kick returner).

Points-per-game differential: +12.20.

Hall of Famers (7): Edward DeBartolo (owner), Richard Dent (defensive lineman), Rickey Jackson (linebacker/defensive end), Joe Montana (quarterback), Jerry Rice (wide receiver), Deion Sanders (defensive back), Steve Young (quarterback).

In a paragraph: George Seifert succeeded Walsh as coach in 1989, and Steve Young replaced Joe Montana at quarterback two years later, but there was no performance dropoff. Between 1992 and 1995, the Seifert-Young 489ers won all four NFC West titles, and added the 1994 Super Bowl. It would be hard to pick among those four teams. The 1992 club went 14-2, but the 13-3 1994 team outscored opponents by 13 points per game and won the Lombardi Trophy.

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