Some NFL teams seem to be good year after year. Others go from the top of the division to the bottom. Why is that? What’s the difference between a great year and a great team? Forget balance. Great teams dominate on one side of the ball or the other. And if you want to win with offense, you need a winning quarterback. Dynasties aren’t built on running backs and receivers.
Which teams are most consistent?
Being consistent isn’t always a virtue. Since 2000, the most consistent team in football has been the Buffalo Bills, who have endured 11 losing seasons out of 14. That’s a kind of consistency, but hardly the sort most teams are hoping for.
The Patriots have been the most consistently good team in the NFL since 2000, racking up 163 wins and 13 winning seasons. That’s 45 percent more wins than the NFL average, and twice as many winning seasons.
Which teams are most volatile?
If you’re looking for a team that bounces between contender and also-ran, it’s hard to compete with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since their championship season in 2002, every one of their strong seasons has been followed by a weak one. That 12-4 Super Bowl team morphed into a 7-9 squad, while the winning teams from 2005 and 2010 both finished 4-12 the following year.
The Tennessee Titans, too, have proven adept at rising and falling, though unlike the Bucs, they seem to have two-year spurts. After playoff runs in 2002 and 2003, the Titans won just nine games over the next two seasons. And since making the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, they haven’t managed to put together a 10-win season.
Back to the good teams: What’s the secret?
There’s no secret to winning in football: You need to score more points than your opponent. Going back to 2000, the six best franchises are also the six teams with the highest point differential. That’s the Patriots, Colts, Ravens, Steelers, Eagles, and Packers.
Top Franchises since 2000
|Wins||Winning seasons||Avg. point difference|
There are basically two ways to outscore opponents. You can put up a lot of points or you can stop other teams from scoring.
■ High-scoring offenses: Patriots, Packers, Colts. Between 2000 and 2014, these three teams scored more points than everyone else in the NFL. The Patriots averaged 27 points per game, which is 25 percent above the league average.
■ Great defenses: Ravens, Steelers, Eagles, Patriots. These four defenses gave up the fewest points in the NFL. The Steelers and Ravens conceded just 17.5 points per game, compared with a league-wide average of 21.5. Note that the Patriots are the only team that has had both a premier defense and a premier offense. Even in the last three years, when the overall quality of the defense has slipped, they’ve been much more successful at limiting points than at limiting yardage.
All six of the best teams since 2000 achieved their success by being dominant on at least one side of the ball. No team managed to be consistently good by way of balance — by having, say, the 10th-best offense and the 10th-best defense.
This isn’t to say that balanced teams never win. The 2012 Ravens took the Super Bowl while ranking 10th in points scored and 12th in points allowed. But this doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy over the long term.
|Points Scored||Points Allowed|
What’s the key to offensive dominance?
A lot seems to hinge on the quarterbacks. The Patriots, Packers, and Colts built their offensive success around just four quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers. Look at any other skill position and you’ll see much more turnover, which suggests that running backs and receivers are replaceable in a way that quarterbacks aren’t.
At least in recent history, there is no such thing as a franchise running back or franchise receiver. Dynasties just aren’t built around these other skill players.
And on the defensive side?
Defensive consistency seems to be much less dependent on a single key player. While you might make an argument for Ray Lewis as the linchpin of the Ravens, there was no one dominant player holding the line for the Steelers, Patriots, or Eagles. They had good personnel, and they had good systems.
Does this hold for earlier dynasties?
It does seem to. Here are a few examples.
■ San Francisco 49ers, 1983-98. The 49ers had 16 straight winning seasons between 1983 and 1998. With both a high-powered offense and a stingy defense, they won their games by an average margin of 10 points, which is 25 percent better than the Patriots of recent years. And that team was not built around a running back. It was girded by two great quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young — though you can argue that the 49ers had a “franchise receiver” in Jerry Rice.
■ Pittsburgh Steelers, 1972-79. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years but their success was nowhere near as long-lived as the Patriots’ or Niners.’ But in the eight seasons from 1972-79, their defense was truly dominant. They gave up an average of just 13.5 points per game, which is far better than the 18 points per game the Ravens allowed during their best eight-year stretch.
■ Green Bay Packers, 1959-67. These are the Vince Lombardi years, but it’s really a case of two teams. From 1960-63, the Packers were dominant on both sides of the ball, outscoring opponents by a whopping 13 points per game. After that, the offense lost some of its scoring power, while the defense led the way to another championship and the first two Super Bowl wins. The fact that the offense faltered with Bart Starr still at the helm suggests that sometimes even a great quarterback isn’t enough to secure offensive consistency.
Are there any examples of a great offense without a great quarterback?
Not in recent decades. One possible argument is that great receivers make great quarterbacks, and that Rice, for instance, was the real reason the 49ers maintained their dominance after Montana left and Young stepped in.
With regard to running backs, though, it’s hard to find an example of a great team built around a great runner. Perhaps the closest you get is Jim Brown, whose nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns resulted in three championship game appearances and a 79-34-5 record. Even then, Brown’s teams outscored opponents by only 6 points per game, and in most of those years the defense was actually more effective than the offense.
So what can this tell us about 2014?
Which top teams from last year will stand, and which will fall? Judging from what we’ve found, here are two things to look for:
■ Teams that rely heavily on a running back seem less likely to repeat (Philadelphia, Kansas City).
■ Teams that win by small margins are also less likely to win again (Arizona, Indianapolis, Philadelphia).
As for the Patriots, their point differential fell from 14 in 2012 to less than 7 last year, even though they won 12 games. It may be that even when they’re not winning big, the team still “knows how to win.” But good luck probably played a part. If luck cuts the other way in 2014, the Patriots are going to have to improve their defense if they expect to keep on winning.