A couple of weeks ago, prompted by the ongoing state of the Cleveland Browns, we took a look at the 10 most consistently miserable franchises the NFL has ever produced. It’s only fair, then, if we balance things out and take a look at a much happier list.
Below is a list of the 10 greatest long-term runs of brilliance in NFL history.
Through some combination of consistent ownership, fantastic quarterback succession, or fantastic coach succession, the franchises below won bigger and for a longer period of time than any team should ever expect. Three of them have played in the current day, and at least two are still playing at or near this level.
Once again, this list is entirely subjective, but I’m using a few numbers as a guideline, namely a team’s overall record during the time span in question, its average SRS percentile rating (you can learn more about Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System here), and the number of playoff bids and wins it experienced during the run.
First, four franchises that earn honorable mention:
- Baltimore Colts (1958-77): Step one toward having a great run of success: have a great quarterback. Johnny Unitas was Baltimore’s leading passer for 12 years within this run, and successor Earl Morrall was NFL MVP in 1968 when Unitas was hurt. With these two and the underrated Bert Jones, the Colts won 64 percent of their games and enjoyed an average SRS percentile rating of 71.6 percent. They made the playoffs 10 times and reached either the NFL championship or the Super Bowl five times, winning three rings.
- Los Angeles Rams (1967-89): Yes, the Rams. During this 23-year span, the Rams won 65 percent of their games with an average SRS percentile of 71.6, basically a mirror image of the Colts above. Unfortunately, there was always someone better. They made the playoffs 16 times but only reached one Super Bowl (XIV) and lost to the fading Steelers dynasty. They lost in the conference title game five times between 1974 and 1985. So close, so many times.
- Washington (1971-92): This 22-year run began when George Allen was hired to resurrect a moribund franchise and ended with Joe Gibbs’ head coaching retirement. These two men led Washington to the playoffs 13 times and reached five Super Bowls despite spectacular competition in the NFC. They won three rings. They won 65 percent of their games with an average SRS percentile of 70.7 percent. They’ve been to the playoffs just five times since Gibbs retired and have never advanced beyond the divisional round.
- Denver Broncos (1983-2005): What happened to kick start the Denver mini-dynasty in 1983? Oh right, the Broncos drafted John Elway. With him in place for 16 seasons, and with Brian Griese and Jake Plummer serving as mostly competent successors for a few more, the Broncos went to the playoffs 14 times over 23 seasons, reaching the Super Bowl five times and winning twice. Because of a brief funk after Elway’s retirement, they only won 62 percent of their games with an average SRS percentile of 69.7 percent. The shame.
10. Green Bay Packers (1993-2016)
- Record: 245-138-1 (0.639)
- Average SRS percentile: 74.6
- Playoff bids: 19, with 3 Super Bowls (2-1)
In the 1960s and 1970s, Baltimore found steady success not only because of quarterback play but because of great quarterback succession. The Packers of the last 25 years, however, are the model for that. Brett Favre took over in the starting lineup in 1992 and threw and threw and threw and threw until he was eased out the door in 2008 and replaced by first-rounder and three-year backup Aaron Rodgers.
The result: Green Bay ranked in the league’s top six in scoring offense 17 times over a 24-year period. The head coaches changed (Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman, Mike McCarthy), the defense fluctuated between good and bad, and Green Bay just kept right on winning. They not only made three Super Bowls, but they also came close to four more, losing in the NFC championship in 1995 (38-27 Dallas), 2007 (23-20 Giants), 2014 (28-22 Seahawks), and 2016 (48-22 Falcons).
Rodgers missed most of 2017 to injury, and the Pack went 7-9. With the almost-35-year-old Rodgers nagged by different injuries this year, they’re just 4-4-1. So perhaps the run has come to an end. But what a run it was.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers (1992-2018)
- Record: 271-152-2 (0.640)
- Average SRS percentile: 72.3
- Playoff bids: 18, with 4 Super Bowls (2-2)
Score one for continuity. Sports are fraught with panic moves, but the Steelers, presided over by the Rooney family, have shown that patience can pay, at least when it comes to the head coaching gig. Over this nearly three-decade run of quality, they have employed exactly two head coaches: first Bill Cowher, then Mike Tomlin. Including four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll, they’ve employed three head coaches in 50 years.
After a run of .500-or-close-to-it seasons at the end of Noll’s career, Cowher rejuvenated the club. With first Dick LeBeau and then Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator, Cowher’s defenses drove early success while the Steelers churned through Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, and Kordell Stewart at QB. And when Pittsburgh drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, it gave the defense a little more margin for error. He’s led the team in passing every year since.
Roethlisberger is approaching his 37th birthday, and while the defense is still solid, it hasn’t been as dominant in a few years. But they’re well on their way toward their 19th playoff bid in 26 seasons. That sort of consistency is not supposed to happen in this salary-capped league.
8. Miami Dolphins (1970-2001)
- Record: 315-171-2 (0.648)
- Avg SRS percentile: 69.2
- Playoff bids: 21, with 5 Super Bowls (2-3)
Really, Miami’s recipe beginning in the 1970s was the same as Pittsburgh’s current run: lean on defense, shift your identity after drafting a star quarterback, and make the smallest possible number of coaching hires.
The Dolphins hired Don Shula in 1970, and after 26 seasons in charge, he retired and was replaced by Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson. Despite slight slumps in both the late-1970s and late-1980s, they still reached the playoffs 21 times in 32 seasons. At first, they did it with balance. They finished in the top 10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense seven times between 1971-78. But after they drafted Dan Marino in 1983, they became a little more lopsided toward the offense. Regardless, they kept winning.
Miami was as steady as anyone, but there was a whiff of regret regarding how this dynasty came to an end. The team’s last Super Bowl appearance (and Marino’s only one) came in 1984, and while they were steady playoff contenders, they lost in the AFC championship twice (1985, 1992) and lost in the divisional round five times. Marino eventually got old, Johnson retired to TV life in 1999, and while Dave Wannstedt enjoyed brief success, the formula eventually faltered. The Dolphins have been to the playoffs only twice since 2001.
7. Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders (1967-91)
- Record: 247-116-7 (0.677)
- Avg SRS percentile: 73.5
- Playoff bids: 17, with 4 Super Bowls (3-1)
Former Raiders owner Al Davis became something of a cartoon villain in his later years, known primarily for his crankiness and impatience. Between 1994 and his death in 2011, he employed Art Shell, Mike White, Joe Bugel, John Gruden, Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Shell again, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, and Hue Jackson as head coaches. And the Raiders are on their fourth coach in eight seasons since his death, too. Oh yeah, and they’ve been to the playoffs just four times in 25 seasons.
In the 25 seasons before that, they went to the playoffs 17 times and won three Super Bowls. And they were close to so much more: they lost in the conference title game eight times, three times by a touchdown or less. And they did this without any long-term answer at quarterback — Daryle Lamonica led the way for six years, Ken Stabler did for seven, Jim Plunkett for four, Marc Wilson for four, and Jay Schroeder for four. But the defense always hit, and the offense always had home run threats, from Cliff Branch to Marcus Allen to Bo Jackson.
Davis’ focus on outrageous athleticism and attitude earned wins, big plays, and lots of penalties; his teams probably had the strongest identity in all of football. And before that identity became a punchline, it was devastatingly effective.
6. Green Bay Packers (1926-45)
- Record: 163-59-15 (0.719)
- Avg SRS percentile: 77.8
- Playoff bids: 8, with 7 title games (6-1)
The National Football League’s first three decades were defined by two franchises, both of which are on this list.
In 1919, barely 21 years old, Curly Lambeau helped to found the Green Bay Packers, which joined what would become the NFL in 1921. When the Packers won their first league title in 1929, Lambeau’s last year as player-coach (he would continue to serve as head coach until 1949), they beat out teams like the Frankford Yellow Jackets, Chicago Cardinals, Boston Bulldogs, and Staten Island Stapletons for the crown. When he won his last title in 1944, the league was, shall we say, a bit more recognizable: the Packers won the NFL West over the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears and beat the New York Giants in the title game.
While the league became more of a big-city affair, Lambeau’s success assured that the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, with a population of barely 100,000, will always have a presence. It is, after all, the only franchise with two entries in this top 10, and that doesn’t even include the team’s run of five championships in the 1960s. Green Bay calls itself Titletown, and Lambeau is why.
5. Dallas Cowboys (1966-85)
- Record: 208-79-2 (0.723)
- Avg SRS percentile: 82.0
- Playoff bids: 18, with 5 Super Bowls (2-3)
Coach continuity? Check. Tom Landry became Dallas’ first head coach in 1960, and the team didn’t need to hire a second one until 1989.
Front office continuity? Check. Tex Schramm began in 1960, too, and rode out all of Landry’s tenure.
Quarterback continuity? Check. Don Meredith was Dallas’ leading passer for most of the 1960s, Roger Staubach for most of the 1970s, and Danny White for much of the 1980s.
Innovation? Check. Landry invented the 4-3 defense and its cousin, the 4-3 Flex, and he was among the first to emphasize strength and conditioning and go all-in on film analysis. Schramm’s scouting advances were considered innovative as well and produced an absurd run of draft success.
Dallas took over as the NFC’s dominant team when Vince Lombardi left Green Bay, and they went to the playoffs 17 times in 18 seasons, reaching five Super Bowls and seven other conference title games. They became known as America’s team because their run of success coincided with the NFL’s emerging football presence, and they were on TV all the damn time. They were dominant and unique and fun, even with a fedora-wearing, NASA-scientist-looking engineer as a head coach.
4. San Francisco 49ers (1981-2002)
- Record: 239-104-1 (0.696)
- Avg SRS percentile: 81.2
- Playoff bids: 18, with 5 Super Bowls (5-0)
When the legendary Paul Brown (we’ll get to him) retired as Cincinnati’s head coach in the mid-1970s, he decided that his star offensive assistant, Bill Walsh, was too sensitive and emotional to withstand the rigors of head coaching in the NFL. So he chose another assistant, Bill Johnson, as his successor instead. He wanted to keep Walsh with the Bengals, though, so he also bad-mouthed his protege when other teams called about him.
In a way, Brown was right — after eventually becoming Stanford’s head coach for two years, then scoring the San Francisco job, Walsh lasted only a decade as an NFL head coach before burning out. But in that decade, he both turned around a moribund franchise and redefined the game of football. His quick-passing, timing-based offense became the subject of massive imitation when he won Super Bowls in 1981, 1984, and 1988. (Two of the three wins came against the Bengals. Cincinnati’s owner: Paul Brown.)
Walsh and his staff were outstanding evaluators of talent, nailing their top picks more often than not (they got Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice in the first round, Roger Craig, Keena Turner and Eric Wright in the second) and drafting undervalued talent later on. Joe Montana, John Taylor, and Bill Romanowski were third-rounders, Charles Haley a fourth-rounder, Michael Carter a fifth-rounder, and Dwight Clark a 10th-rounder. And Walsh saw something that few others did in Montana’s eventual successor Steve Young.
Despite a loaded NFC that featured a peaking Washington, Bill Parcell’s Giants, Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears, and the remnants of Tom Landry’s Cowboys, the Niners were the team of the 1980s. And after Walsh retired, the machine kept right on grinding forward.
San Francisco won two more Super Bowls under George Seifert and reached the NFC Championship four other times in the 1990s. This will be their 15th playoffs-free season in the last 20 years, however.
3. Chicago Bears (1920-50)
- Record: 259-88-33 (0.725)
- Avg SRS percentile: 75.5
- Playoff bids: 11, with 10 title games (7-3)
In the 1919 Rose Bowl, Great Lakes Navy’s George Halas scored on a touchdown pass and nearly took a long interception to the house as well in a 17-0 win over Mare Island. In 1920, he took over as player/coach for the Decatur Staleys. A year later, the franchise moved to Chicago and won the AFPA championship over the Buffalo All-Americans and Akron Pros. And it kept right on winning.
The Bears finished second in the NFL four times in the 1920s, reached the championship game four times in the 1930s (winning two), then reached it five times in the 1940s (winning four). All but one title came with Halas at the helm, and the other one happened while he was serving as a Navy lieutenant commander in World War II.
Halas won one final title in 1963 and retired four years later at the age of 72. He continued on as the Bears’ owner until his death in 1983. He was around to coach Red Grange, Bronco Nagurski, and Gale Sayers, not to mention George Blanda, Sid Luckman, and countless other hall-of-famers. He was also in charge for the drafting of Walter Payton. This franchise has become a bit snake-bitten, winning just one title in 55 years and reaching the playoffs just four times in the last 24. But this team was the NFL’s crown jewel for the first 40-50 years of its existence. The NFL doesn’t become the NFL without Halas.
2. New England Patriots (1994-2018)
- Record: 275-119 (0.698)
- Avg SRS percentile: 80.5
- Playoff bids: 19, with 9 Super Bowls (5-4)
The symmetry is damn near poetic. In 1995, the Cleveland Browns fired head coach Bill Belichick and became the Baltimore Ravens. Cleveland got a new Browns franchise soon after and embarked on the third-most miserable long-term run the NFL has ever seen. Right around the same time, the Patriots got their act together. They made the playoffs in 1994 and made the Super Bowl in 1996 under Bill Parcells, and after a couple of rocky years, they won their first Super Bowl in 2001. Their head coach: Belichick.
The Patriots were already becoming a pretty sturdy franchise when Tom Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001, but the Belichick-Brady relationship has been the most fruitful in league history. Barring collapse, the Patriots will make the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 years this season, and one of the two misses came when Brady missed the year with a knee injury.
They became the first league team to pull off a 16-0 regular season in 2007 and have won at least 10 games every year since. Early on, they won with defense and Brady’s game management; then one day, Brady became the best QB of his generation, and they won with that instead. But they just keep winning. Brady won the league MVP award at age 40 in 2017 and basically plans to play forever, and somehow Belichick is still only 66 years old — he’s got another six years before he reaches Halas’ retirement age. The Pats have been rickety at times in 2018, but they’re still 7-3 and might have another Super Bowl run (or five) left in them.
1. Cleveland Browns (1946-69)
- Record: 227-75-10 (0.744)
- Avg SRS percentile: 75.7
- Playoff bids: 17, with 13 title games (8-5)
Also poetic in its own way: the Pats still haven’t dominated the league, long-term, the way the Browns did once upon a time.
Paul Brown’s final act as a head coach, attempting to sabotage Walsh, was a bitter and negative one. But it can’t cast too much of a pall on what was otherwise one of the most unique and spectacular coaching careers in the sport’s history. Before he even became a professional coach, he had...
- won a Maryland state championship with as head coach of the Severn School at age 22;
- won six Ohio state championships at Massillon Washington, fielding what are regarded as some of the greatest high school teams of all time;
- and won a college football national title with Ohio State in 1942.
He was only getting started. He took over as head coach of the AAFC’s Cleveland Browns in 1946, went 47-4-3 while winning four consecutive league titles, and earned the team a spot in the National Football League. The Browns then won the NFL in their first year in the league. They would play in the league title game in each of their first six seasons, winning three titles.
Brown’s rift with owner Art Modell (who would end up with plenty of rifts during his ownership of the franchise) led to his firing following the 1962 season. He would end up coaching Cincinnati’s expansion franchise a few years later and taking the Bengals to the playoffs in just their third year of existence. But for a few years following Brown’s absence, the Browns kept winning. They reached the NFL championship game in 1964 (winning) and 1965 (losing) and came within a game of the Super Bowl in both 1968 and 1969.
Over this span, Cleveland constantly boasted a top-five defense while giving ridiculous offensive talents like quarterback Otto Graham and running back Jim Brown on full display. These teams were well-rounded, dominant, and consistent in a way that no other team has been able to match over a two- or three-decade span.
So Cleveland’s still got that going for it.