In the six plus decades since the 1950’s there have been six teams that have set themselves apart by dominating each of these six decades. In Anatomy of a Dynasty – Part 1, I examined the first three of these teams – the Cleveland Browns of the 1950’s, the Green Bay Packers of the 1960’s and the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s. Moving forward, let’s take a look at the next three decades.
1980’s San Francisco 49ers;
From 1976 to 1979, the 49ers went 17-43-0 (28.3 winning percentage) finishing in last place in the NFC West in both 1978 and 1979 with an identical 2-14-0 record both years. From 1980 to 1989. they compiled a record of 104-47-1 (68.4 winning percentage) and that includes a 3-6-0 record in the strike shortened 1982 season -and- a 13-2-0 record (with three of those games using replacement players) in the 1987 strike shortened season. During the 1980’s, the 49ers made the Post Season Playoffs eight times and played for the NFL Championship five times, winning four.
Edward DeBartolo, Jr. bought the San Francisco 49er franchise in 1977 from the Morabito family who had founded the team as part of the AAFC in 1946. DeBartolo retained controlling interest in the 49ers franchise until legal issues forced him to turn over his controlling interest to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, 1999.
One of the first acts of new owner Ed DeBartolo in 1977 was to replace Head Coach Ken Meyer with Pete McCully. However, McCully was then replaced one year later after going 5-9-0 and DeBartolo hired former Bengals Assistant Coach (1968-1975) and San Diego Offensive Coordinator (1976), Bill Walsh. Those of you who are reading this article on a web-based sports site probably don’t need a history lesson about Bill Walsh any more than you would have needed one for Paul Brown or Vince Lombardi.
Apparently wanting to put his mark on the franchise, DeBartolo also replaced Louis Spadia as General Manager with Joe Thomas. Spadia had been with the 49ers organization since 1952. Thomas was a former Director of Player Personnel for the Minnesota Vikings (1960 – 1965), the Miami Dolphins (1965 – 1971) and General Manager for the Baltimore Colts (a job he landed after arranging the purchase of the Los Angeles Rams by Robert Irsay who then traded franchises with Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom). Thomas lasted two years as 49ers General Manager as Bill Walsh assumed the de facto General Manager title in his second year as Head Coach (1979) and remained as such until 1983 when John McVay was brought in as Vice President/Director of Football Operations.
During the 1980’s, the 49ers’ active roster varied from a high of 60 in 1980 to a low of 51 in 1985. The average active roster during the decade was 56.2 players. Of that, 43% of the roster had four (or more) years of NFL game experience, 11% had three years, 14% had two years, 16% had one year and 16% were rookies. The 49ers averaged six players per year (11% of the roster) named to the All-Pro team.
1990’s Dallas Cowboys
From 1986 to 1989, the Cowboys went 18-45-0 (28.6 winning percentage) finishing in last place in the NFC East in both 1988 and 1989 with a 1-15-0 record in 1989. From 1990 to 1999. they compiled a record of 101-59-0 (63.1 winning percentage). During the 1990’s, the Cowboys made the Post Season Playoffs eight times and played for the NFL Championship four times, winning three.
Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 from H.R. Bright for a reported $140 Million and has remained as the Principal Owner to this day. Just as Edward DeBartolo did with the 49ers, the first action of Jerry Jones’ ownership was to replace his Head Coach. However, this was no ordinary Head Coach. This was Tom Landry who, in his 28 year tenure, had the Cowboys playing for the NFL Championship six times and winning two of them (1971 and 1977). As a matter of fact, Landry’s Cowboy teams of the 1970’s posted a winning percentage of 72.7%, almost a full ten percentage points higher than Jones’ dynasty teams of the 1990’s.
The man Jones hired to replace the legendary Tom Landry was Jimmy Johnson, now two years removed from winning the NCAA Division 1-A National Championship with the Miami Hurricanes. Johnson served as the Cowboys Head Coach and de facto General Manager from 1989 to 1993. At the end of the 1993 season, Johnson and Jones had a parting of ways and Jones then brought in a another former collegiate Head Coach, Barry Switzer. However, this time, Jones officially assumed the role of General Manager and remains in this role to this day.
The on field success of the Johnson coached Cowboys continued with Switzer . In the three years as Head Coach, Switzer led the Cowboys to the playoffs by winning the NFC East division during the first three years and adding the third NFL Championship in the decade in 1995. However, in his fourth year the Cowboys struggled to 6-10-0 record and Jones replaced him with his third Head Coach in ten years – Chan Gailey. Gailey lasted only two seasons with the Cowboys and was fired after the 1999 season. (Incidentally, this “three coaches every ten years” pattern continued into the next decade as Jones brought in Dave Campo, Bill Parcells and Wade Phillips between 2000 through 2010.)
During the 1990’s, the Cowboys’ active roster varied from a high of 63 in 1999 to a low of 52 in 1994. The average active roster during the decade was 56.2 players. Of that, 43% of the roster had four (or more) years of NFL game experience, 10% had three years, 12% had two years, 16% had one year and 19% were rookies. The Cowboys averaged six players per year (10% of the roster) named to the All-Pro team.
2000’s New England Patriots
From 1996 to 1999, the Patriots went 38-26-0 (59.4 winning percentage). Although the Patriots made the playoffs in three of those years, their advancement in the playoffs declined in all three years and they failed to reach the playoffs in 1999. From 2000 to 2009. they compiled a record of 112-48-0 (70.0 winning percentage). During the 2000’s, the Patriots made the Post Season Playoffs seven times and played for the NFL Championship four times, winning three.
Robert Kraft purchased the New England Patriots in 1994 for a reported $172 Million. The team he purchased had posted a winning percentage over 50% for just one decade in their first four decades of existence and that was only 51.3% during the 1970’s.
But when Kraft purchased the Patriots, he also inherited Head Coach/General Manager Bill Parcells who had joined the franchise in 1993 and had the Patriots playing for the NFL Championship against the Green Bay Packers in 1996 (a 35-21 loss). But Parcells’ Head Coaching contract was written as a year-to-year contract with which Kraft wasn’t comfortable. In addition, both Kraft and Parcells later admitted that they were two Alpha Dogs who simply couldn’t co-exist and Parcells left the Patriots after the 1996 season.
Kraft then hired Pete Carroll as Head Coach and added Bobby Grier as General Manager. This duo lasted three years during which the franchise displayed a steady decline. So, in 2000, Kraft hired Head Coach Bill Belichick and General Manager Scott Pioli. This tandem would remain in place throughout almost the entire decade.
During the 2000’s, the Patriots’ active roster varied from a high of 66 in 2006 to a low of 60 in both 2002 and 2009. The average active roster during the decade was 62.5 players. Of that, 49% of the roster had four (or more) years of NFL game experience, 9% had three years, 11% had two years, 13% had one year and 17% were rookies. The Patriots averaged three players per year (5% of the roster) named to the All-Pro team.
As I wrote in Part 1, ” 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%.” Let’s take a look at how these six teams’ winning percentage for the entire decade compare to a league wide 50% winning percentage. Because not all divisions in the NFL are created equal, I’ve added each team’s Conference or Division’s winning percentage (less the subject team) as the bulk of this winning percentage was achieved against teams in their assigned Conference (1950’s & 1960’s) or Division (1970’s through the 2000’s).
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Clearly, these six teams played superior football for an entire decade when compared against the teams that made up the bulk of their schedules. On average, these six teams posted a winning percentage 21.6 points higher than the rest of the teams in their respective Conference or Division.
The San Francisco 49ers hired Bill Walsh in 1978 and he remained as Head Coach through the 1988 season winning three of the 49ers’ four NFL Championships of that decade. George Seiffert, who replaced Walsh, won the fourth in 1989 but was an integral part of Walsh’s coaching staff serving as Defensive Coordinator from 1983 to 1988. As such, it is doubtful that this Head Coaching change had any significant impact on the organization. This is further evidenced by Seiffert taking the 49ers deep into the playoffs (NFC Championship game) four of the first five years of the 1990’s and winning the NFL Championship in 1994. In addition, beginning in 1979, Bill Walsh was also the de facto General Manager until John McVay was brought in after the 1982 season. McVay, a former NFL Head Coach with the New York Giants, joined the 49ers in 1980 as Vice-President of Football Operations and remained with the 49ers through 1996.
The Dallas Cowboys organization of the 1990’s started out the decade as stable as the rest of these six teams. The combination of Owner Jerry Jones and Head Coach / de facto General Manager Jimmy Johnson produced some astonishing results. In their first five years together, the Cowboys made the playoffs three times and won the NFL Championship twice. All that changed in 1994 with Johnson’s highly publicized departure after the 1993 season over control of the roster. Jones then brought in Head Coach Barry Switzer and appointed himself as General Manager of the team.
In Switzer’s four years as Head Coach, the Cowboys made the Conference Championship game one year (1994), won the Cowboys third NFL Championship of the decade in 1995, lost in the Divisional Round once (1996) and failed to make the playoffs in 1997. Enter the Cowboys third Head Coach of the decade, Chan Gailey. In Gailey’s two seasons with the Cowboys, they made the playoffs both years but got knocked out in the Wild Card round both times.
You couldn’t get a more stable management team than the New England Patriots of the 2000’s. Owner Robert Kraft, Head Coach Bill Belichick and General Manager Scott Pioli were in place for almost the entire decade. Not until GM Scott Pioli left for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 did this structure change and even then Head Coach Bill Belichick assumed the de facto General Manager position which he retains to this day.
During the decade of the 2000’s, the Patriots made the playoffs seven times, played in the AFC Championship game five times and won four trips to the NFL Championship. And, if not for a (shall I say) fluke reception by David Tyree , they would have won all four of them. As it is, they won three out of four.
The following table shows the experience level of the players on the rosters at the beginning of a season for these six teams during their respective decade. The data was obtained by reconstructing 14 years worth of rosters for all six teams. Keep in mind the intent was to compare these six teams to each other. Had I had a staff of researchers (or an intern or two) I would have reconstructed the roster of every NFL team for these sixty years in order to establish a control group for comparison.
[table id=75 /]
In each case, these six teams relied heavily on veteran players with four or more years of NFL experience. However, they also were looking towards the future evidenced by the fact that the second highest percentage of players for all six teams were rookies (* either drafted or signed as an UDFA).
During these six decades, the NFL Draft remained the primary method to build and improve a roster. However, in the mid-nineties, another tool was added in the form of Free Agency. (“Plan B” Free Agency was available in the 1980’s but it was rarely used as it was heavily weighted against the team gaining the player.) As shown in the table below, a significant number of All-Pro players were added to each of these six team’s rosters either through the draft or (in the case of the Cowboys and Patriots) via Free Agency.
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(* Includes 12 players drafted while a member of the AAFC)
It is worth noting that, when looking at the Cowboys data, of the players drafted that were selected as an All-Pro, ten of the eleven were drafted prior to 1994 (the year that Jerry Jones took over as General Manager).
The table below reflects how each of these six teams faired when compared to their peers in each respective decade. As I stated in Part 1, ” 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.” I also opted to eliminate data from two seasons for each team. Typically, they were the two worst years for that team during the decade. In the case of the 49ers, it was the two strike shortened years where replacement players were used in one of them.
[table id=77 /]
League Parity started to show in the 1980’s and beyond. The three best teams of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were all ranked (on the average) in the top 5 in both offense and defense. From the 1980’s on, only the Cowboys defense (on the average) made the top 5. It should also be noted that the phrase “Defense Wins Championships” is valid. With one exception each of these teams’ defenses ranked higher (on the average) than their offense. And the difference in that one exception (1980’s 49ers) is negligible (5.6 versus 6.1).
So now that I have rambled on for two articles and probably spent at least that many of your coffee breaks at work, what have I learned? Highly successful teams in the NFL all exhibit the following;
- Organizational Stability. All six of these teams exhibited stability throughout their championship runs. However, not only does a franchise need stability at the top, they also need to have the Owner, Head Coach and/or General Manager not only remain in place, they must also have the ability to accept the organizational structure in place, respect each other’s role within that structure and work together to reach their common goal without regard to who gets the credit and/or blame. There’s a pretty good case study for this point contained within the data presented. The Dallas Cowboys of the 1990’s were well on their way to an even better decade soon after Jerry Jones bought the franchise. For five years (1989 to 1993) Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson put together a pretty damn good team. Then egos and a lack of respect got in the way. Jones took over as General Manager and after Barry Switzer won the 1995 NFL Championship, the franchise started on a downward spiral. As mentioned above, of the drafted Cowboys players that were selected as an All-Pro during the 1990’s, ten of the eleven were drafted prior to this organizational move by the owner.
- Roster Makeup. The model outlined above suggests that for a franchise to be highly competitive on an on-going basis they will have a little over 40% of its roster made up of veterans with four or more years of NFL experience. They will also have around 18% of the roster made up of rookies (either drafted or brought in as an UDFA) in order to back fill positions as the older players retire or move on via free agency. The balance of the roster will be made up of 10% to 15% each of players with one, two or three years NFL experience.
- Build through the draft. If there was ever a model for this it would be the Steelers of the 1970’s. Of the 23 All-Pro players selected from the Steelers during the 70’s, over 78% of these players were drafted by the Steelers. Of the remaining five teams, only the Dallas Cowboys of the 90’s were less than 60%.
- Defense wins championships. This phrase was coined years ago and still valid today. Even with the new rules regarding pass coverage.
- Take a trip to the Hall of Fame. This last point could be a “chicken or egg” item. Were the following inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame because they won championships or did they win championships because they were Hall of Fame Caliber coaches or players?
Coaches: Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh and (no doubt) Bill Belichick.
Quarterbacks: Otto Graham, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and (no doubt) Tom Brady
Running Backs: Marion Motley, Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Franco Harris, Emmitt Smith
Wide Receivers: Dante Lavelli, John Stallworth, Lynn Swan, Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin
Defensive Players: To numerous to list here. Rest assured – there were plenty.
Is there a Dynasty of the current decade in the making ? Only time will tell but it looks like the Seattle Seahawks are well on their way.