ESPN, using Football Outsiders “Advanced DVOA metric”, has come up with a list of the best NFL teams of the last 30 years. I like Football Outsiders, and I like lists, but this one doesn’t pass the sniff test. In fact it has to be one of the dumbest lists I’ve seen, and I suspect many a fan will agree after reading on. Computer generated stats make for plenty of fun conversation, but they never will tell the whole story. There are just too many factors that can’t be measured. Yes, the DVOA is a clever model that tells more of the story than just plain ole black & white stats, but it can’t take into account things like year-over-year team strengths, coaching, any many other dynamics.
The following is my top-10 list based on what I think odds-makers would do. I submit its a good guess because I’ve been following and setting lines for 25 years as the originator of the Bookie Pool (now called Play Money pool) on this site (I can tell you ahead of time what the line for any NFL game will be, within 1.5 points). Here are the 10 best teams of the last 30 years, and where they ranked on ESPN’s laugher list:
- 1992 Dallas Cowboys. ESPN List: #7. The ESPN list really blows on this one. They rank the 2013 Seahawks and 1996 Packers higher (neither make my top #10). Only one play separated the Hawks from even making the Super Bowl by barely holding off the Colin Kaepernick led 49ers after trailing them most of the game. They then beat a poorly prepared Broncos team to seal their over-ranking. The 1996 Packers were virtually identical to the 1997 version that lost to the Denver Broncos. This ’92 Cowboys team was loaded with Hall of Fame players with top talent at all skill positions (Troy Aikman, Michael Irving, etc). They had a strong defense, a huge and effective offensive line, and arguably one of the top 5 running backs in history (Emmett Smith).
- 1989 San Francisco 49ers. ESPN List: #3. The ESPN list is respectable on this one. The 49ers were loaded with future Hall of Fame players on both sides of the ball. They dominated the regular season in a tough NFC, and breezed through the post season. Don’t be fooled by the Super Bowl score though, as it was not as impressive as it sounds (55-10 over the Broncos). The Broncos were at best the 5th best team coming out of a super weak AFC. They also played a super easy 5th place schedule (the NFL later improved scheduling so that such blatantly easy schedules no longer occur). I mention this only because it would add a perception of dominance that odds-makers would have to take into account when setting favorites to win this top 10 list. If this team played the ’92 Cowboys, it would likely be a pickem. It’s that close.
- 1991 Washington Redskins. ESPN List #1. I also can’t fault the ESPN list for this one. This 1991 Redskins team truly was special. Their only “weakness” if you can call it that was a QB who happened to play great that year, Mark Rypien. They had arguably the best O-line in history with The Hogs. Odds-makers would still slightly favor the ’89 49ers and ’92 Cowboys above them. I would install this team as a 2 point underdog against to the ’92 Cowboys and ’89 49ers.
- 1998 Denver Broncos. ESPN List #8. The 1998 Broncos dominated the regular season and post season. Their only real blemish was a 20-16 fluke loss in the Meadowlands to the Giants. If they had won that game they likely would have finished a 19-0 season. Yes, they also lost to the Dolphins in the regular season, but that was only because they had already lost to the Giants and secured the #1 seed in the AFC. Hence they resorted to a generic game plan. They happened to beat those same Dolphins 38-3 in the playoffs on their way to repeat as Super Bowl Champions. Denver would be a 3.5 point underdog to the ’92 Cowboys and ’89 49ers, and a 2 point underdog to the ’91 Redskins.
- 1993 Dallas Cowboys. ESPN List NOT RANKED. A huge oversight by ESPN. How is this team not in even the top 30? This is pretty much the same Cowboys team that made #2 on this list.
- 1992 San Francisco 49ers. ESPN List NOT RANKED. What are the guys at ESPN smoking? This team was favored but lost to the 1992 Dallas Cowboys (#1 on this list) in the NFC championship that year. This was a great team that happened to lose to a slightly better and all-time great Cowboys team.
- 1994 San Francisco 49ers. ESPN List #21. This was Steve Young’s 1st Super Bowl win on a still dominant 49ers team. They went through a powerful Cowboys team before going on to slaughter the San Diego not-so-Super Chargers in the Super Bowl. ESPN has 20 teams better than this squad, including the 2004 Steelers who were spanked in the AFC Championship game by the Patriots and didn’t even make it to the Super Bowl. At this point the ESPN list has lost virtually all credibility.
- 1994 Dallas Cowboys. ESPN List #22. Turnovers dug Dallas too big a hole to come back from in the NFC Championship game against #7 in our list. Does ESPN seriously think teams like the afore-mentioned 2004 Steelers, or the 2012 Broncos who they also ranked higher (#18 losers by 43-8 in the Super Bowl), would beat this Cowboys team? Other gems on their list that were “better” than this Cowboys squad include the immortal powerhouse 2000 Titans and 2012 Seahawks, neither of which even reached the Super Bowl. The writers at ESPN need to cut back on the crack.
- 2007 New England Patriots. ESPN List #2. The Patriots truly were absolutely dominant in the 2017 regular season. But the post season was another story. They won a close game over the Chargers in the AFC Championship game, and played another close game in the Super Bowl loss against the Giants. Still, this was the best of all the Patriots teams. Its worth noting that any one play going the other way could have changed the outcome of each and every game the Brady/Belichick Patriots played in the Super Bowl. Despite all the great success of the Patriots, the only dominant team they had didn’t win the Super Bowl.
- 1997 Denver Broncos. ESPN List #39. Some will view this as a homer pick (disclaimer, I’m a Broncos fan). But here is what homer stats like the DVOA fail to take into account. That year Denver was robbed by poor officiating of a road game in KC with two phantom interference calls that gifted the Chiefs 8 points (in both cases it was 3rd and long and field goals were changed to TDs). With that win they have the AFC top seed and more respect. This forced Denver to have to play 2 playoff games on the road as a wildcard team. Despite being on the road, they were still favored in each of those games. After finishing off the AFC, they then produced a solid win over the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. This is essentially the same Packers team that ESPN ranked #4 on their now discredited list. Scoreboard. I rest my case.