Throughout the history of the NFL, there have always been teams that go on streaks of two to three years where they find themselves in the hunt for the league championship. The Canton Bulldogs of the 1920’s, the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers of the 1930’s and the Chicago Bears of the 1940’s all won multiple championships in those respective decades. But with the advent of an actual championship game, rule changes to the draft and revenue sharing intended to instill parody within the league, the addition of more and more teams in the league and resulting expanded playoff format, this was supposed to be harder to accomplish. Yet somehow there has been a team in each decade since 1950 that dominated the league more than any other team of that decade.
The Cleveland Browns of the 1950’s, the Green Bay Packers of the 60’s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70’s, the San Francisco 49ers of the 80’s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 90’s and the New England Patriots of the 2000’s all found themselves battling for the NFL title for the majority of their respective decade.
So how did they do it? What set them apart from the rest of the league? Were there any common traits of these teams that would lend a clue to their success? In an attempt to find answers to these questions, I set out to dig into the nuts and bolts of each of these teams during the time frame in which they became what we refer to today as a “Dynasty“. I elected to look at the four years prior to the start of the decade to form a base line and then proceeded to look at various facets of the team and organization during the respective decade. (I picked four years prior in order to keep the comparisons between teams equal as the Browns only existed for four years prior to their joining the NFL in 1950.)
1950’s Cleveland Browns;
From 1946 to 1949 the Browns went 47-4-3 (87.0 winning percentage) in the All American Football Conference. They became part of the NFL in 1950 as a result of the merger between the AAFC and the NFL. From 1950 to 1959, the Browns compiled a record of 88-30-2 (73.3 winning percentage). During the ten years of the 1950’s, the Browns played for the NFL championship seven times, winning three (1950, 1954 and 1955). In 1958, they ended up tied with the New York Giants for the Eastern Division crown and lost a one game playoff tie breaker. During the same ten year period, the Browns had only one losing season (5-7 in 1956).
Arthur “Micky” McBride purchased the initial Browns franchise in 1945 (as part of the AAFC) and retained ownership of the franchise until 1953 when he sold it to an ownership group headed up by David Jones. Jones retained ownership of the Browns throughout the balance of the 1950’s until he sold it in 1960 to Art Modell. It should be noted that Head Coach, Paul Brown, received ownership shares as part of his compensation throughout his tenure to the point where he owned a reported 40% of the franchise when he was fired in 1962. Based on Paul Brown’s status in the football community and the fact that he was a part owner, it can be safely assumed that the change in majority ownership in 1953 had no effect on the operation of the franchise throughout the entire decade.
Paul Brown was the only Head Coach the Browns ever had from their inception in 1946 through the entire decade of the 1950’s. Known as an innovator, he brought classroom settings with film study to the NFL. He was a “my way or the highway” type coach who demanded discipline both in the classroom and on the field. Paul Brown was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame as a coach in 1967.
As was the custom of that time period, the Head Coach also served as (what we call today) the General Manager. As such, Paul Brown had total control over player acquisition during his entire tenure as Head Coach of the Browns.
During the 1950’s, the Browns’ active roster varied from a high of 39 in 1956 to a low of 33 in 1950. The average active roster during the decade was 35.5 players. Of that, 38% of the roster had four (or more) years of NFL game experience, 10% had three years, 14% had two years, 16% had one year and 21% were rookies. The Browns averaged ten players per year (28% of the roster) named to the All-Pro team.
1960’s Green Bay Packers;
From 1956 to 1959, the Green Bay Packers went 15-32-1 (31.3 winning percentage). The low point came in 1958 when the Packers went 1-10-1 prompting the firing of Head Coach Ray McClean and the hiring of an unknown New York Giants coach named Vince Lombardi. From 1960 to 1969 the Packers posted a combined record of 96-37-5 (winning percentage of 69.9). In this ten year span, the Packers played for the NFL Championship six times winning five (1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967). Their only losing season of the decade was 1968 (the year following Lombardi’s temporary retirement) when they finished the season at 6-7-1.
Its well known that the Packers are the only NFL team that is publically owned so a change in ownership would not apply when looking at the overall structure of the team during the 1960’s. Even given this, the Packers’ Board of Directors elects a Team President to oversee the operation of the franchise. Green Bay Mayor, Dominic Olejniczak, was named as Packers President in 1958 (and was instrumental in hiring Vince Lombardi). He remained in that office until 1982.
Head Coach and de facto General Manager Vince Lombardi. Need I say any more? He took over a team that went 1-10-1 the year before (and was literally about to become extinct) and in only his second year on the job, he had the Packers playing for the 1960 NFL Championship. They lost that game to the Philadelphia Eagles 17-13 but it would be the only NFL playoff loss on his Head Coaching resume.
From 1960 to 1969, the Packers active roster varied from a high of 47 in 1968 to a low of 38 in 1961. Their average roster size during the decade was 40.9 players. Of that, 50% of the roster had four (or more) years of NFL game experience, 11% had three years, 11% had two years, 11% had one year and 17% were rookies. Clearly, Lombardi favored fielding veteran teams. The Packers averaged 10 players per year (25% of the roster) named to the All-Pro roster.
1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers;
The Pittsburgh Steelers joined the NFL in 1933. From 1933 until 1971, they had exactly one playoff appearance and that was a 21-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947. And that is precisely what makes this decade so special to the Steelers. In the four years leading up to the 1970’s, the Steelers record was 12-41-3 (21.4 winning percentage). The first two years of the 1970’s were basically more of the same finishing 5-9-0 in 1970 and 6-8-0 in 1971. But 1972 was their coming out party. From 1972 through 1979, the Steelers posted a combined record of 88-27-1 for a winning percentage of 75.9. In those eight years, they made the playoffs all eight times, played for the NFL Championship four times and won all four of them.
Art Rooney was the founding owner of the Steelers in 1933 and, with the exception of a brief stint from December 1940 until April 1941, has maintained controlling interest in the franchise through 1988 when he turned it over to his son, Dan Rooney.
Head Coach Chuck Noll was hired prior to the 1969 season. Noll was drafted as a Guard and Linebacker by the Cleveland Browns in 1953. After his retirement from playing in 1959, he held coaching positions with increasingly more responsibility with the AFL’s Chargers coaching staff eventually rising to Defensive Coordinator in 1965. He then spent three more years as Defensive Coordinator with the Baltimore Colts before accepting his first head coaching job with the Steelers.
Like most NFL teams of that era, Noll’s predecessor Bill Austin also served as de facto General Manager. I can only assume that Art Rooney, due to Noll’s relatively short coaching career, wanted to both provide Noll with some help in the personnel side of the franchise and involve his son, Dan Rooney, in the running of an NFL franchise. For Noll’s first two years as Head Coach, Dan Rooney served as Director of Player Personnel (de facto General Manager). Then in 1971, Art Rooney hired Dick Haley to replace Dan Rooney as Director of Player Personnel. And the rest, as they say, is history. There are some that credit Dick Haley as the man most responsible for turning the Steelers franchise around and it would be hard to argue against that notion. (Dick Haley’s son, Todd is the current Steelers Offensive Coordinator. Coincidence?)
The Steelers’ active roster averaged 47 players during the 1970’s. In the first two years, only 24% of the roster had four or more years of NFL experience and rookies comprised 30% of the roster. In contrast, by 1979, 51% of the roster had four or more years experience while rookies held only 15% of the roster positions. This team was clearly built through the draft with 1974 being the mother lode of all drafts before or since. From 1970 through 1979, 95 players were drafted and 15 of them were named to an All-Pro team. The 1974 draft alone harvested four Hall of Famers.
Halfway through this exercise, this is what we know so far . . .
For every game in the NFL, there is one winner and one loser (with an occasional tie). Therefore it is safe to assume that, over an extended period of time, the average winning percentage for any given team will be right around 50%. These three teams over a span of eight to ten years had a winning percentage 19 to 23 percentage points higher than the league average (50’s Browns 73%, 60’s Packers 70% and 70’s Steelers 69%). On the surface, this may come across as a Captain Obvious statistic. Of course they had a high winning percentage. So would any team that won the championship. While true, these teams maintained that high winning percentage over an extended period of time. The occasional title winners do not. I should state here that this trait is more of an effect than a cause.
Organizational Stability is clearly present in all three cases. There were no radical changes in ownership that caused uncertainty in the organizations. The only ownership blip present was the sale of the Browns in 1953 but, even then the presence of minority owner Paul Brown made that change transparent. Even the publically owned Packers retained the same Team President throughout their championship run and beyond.
In all three cases, the Head Coach was in place at least two to three years prior to start of their championship runs and in all three cases, he remained in place throughout the run. This is further evidenced by the fact that when Vince Lombardi retired at the end of the 1967 season (after the fifth title), the Packers slipped back into NFL mediocrity. It should also be no surprise that all three of these Head Coaches have been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame – as coaches. (Again, another effect rather than a cause.)
To paraphrase Bill Parcells, both Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi not only “cooked the meal, they bought the groceries”. Obviously both Brown and Lombardi could coach but they also both had a keen eye for talent. Perhaps Chuck Noll did as well but he had the added benefit of a right hand man for personnel acquisitions in Dick Haley so we will never know for sure. Regardless, the Steelers organization of the 1970’s most closely resembles today’s typical NFL front office with a dedicated (and very good) person in charge of player acquisition.
Roster Makeup appears to be a consistent trait among these three teams. Clearly, both the 1960’s Packers and the 1970’s Steelers were built through the draft. The 1950 Browns were, in essence, a team that already existed for four years prior to joining the NFL. Even given that, the Browns’ roster from 1950 to 1960 averaged 21% drafted rookies and 38% veterans with at least four years experience. The 1960’s Packers’ roster averaged 17% rookies with 50% veterans with at least four years experience and the 1970’s Steelers’ roster averaged 20% rookies with 42% veterans with at least four years experience.
Successful Drafts further enhanced each of these three rosters. Regardless of who was “buying the groceries”, these three teams excelled on draft day. In Cleveland during the 1950’s, 13 players drafted were named as an All-Pro. In the 1960’s, Green Bay drafted 17 players that became All-Pros and in the 1970’s, the Steelers had 15 drafted rookies named as an All-Pro. All three of these teams averaged 10 players per season named to the All-Pro team.
[I should note here that I elected to use the All-Pro Player status rather than Hall of Fame Player status because, as I get into the next three decades in Part 2, the time element associated with induction in the Hall of Fame wouldn’t necessarily give an apples to apples comparison. The time frame on All-Pro is an annual event. I also discounted “Pro Bowls” because – well . . . because they’re a farce.]
Statistical Ranking of these three teams against their peers also shows some similarities. Offensively, I used “Points Scored” and defensively I used “Points Allowed”. Again, looking forward to the changes coming in the next three decades, I didn’t care if a team scored via the run or the pass – simply did they score. Conversely, I didn’t care how a defense faired against the run or the pass – did they let the opponent score.
The Browns of the 1950’s (less 1956 and 1959) scored an average of 26.6 points per game good enough for an average rank of 2.9. Defensively, they allowed 15.0 points per game for an average ranking of 1.5.
The Packers of the 1960’s (less 1968 and 1969) scored an average of 26.6 points per game good enough for an average rank of 4.0. Defensively, they allowed 15.0 points per game for an average ranking of 1.8.
The Steelers of the 1970’s (less 1971 and 1972) scored an average of 23.8 points per game good enough for an average rank of 4.9. Defensively, they allowed 13.2 points per game for an average ranking of 4.3.
In all three cases, these three teams were ranked in the top five in the league both offensively and defensively with the defenses generally ranked a bit higher than the offense.
So, God willing and time available, I’ll pull together the data for the next three decades and finish this up in Part 2.