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Grid-Iron Greats

We rank the top 10 NFL teams ever, with the 1962 Packers leading the way
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

Jerry Kramer was once asked what it was like to play for legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. "Lombardi was a cruel, kind, tough, gentle, miserable, wonderful man who I often hate and often love and always respect," the former offensive guard said. Such was the effect of Lombardi's leadership on his players. In Lombardi's fourth year at Green Bay, his team dominated like no team had before or since. So strong were the 1962 Packers that 10 of its players, and their coach, ended up in the Football Hall of Fame.

Even before the Packers' storybook 1962 season, football enthusiasts had debated over the greatest teams ever assembled. The arguments continue each winter, when championships are up for grabs. Many clubs, led by great players, win championships. The Steelers in the 1970s, the 49ers in the '80s, and the Cowboys of the early '90s all made their mark. Those are just the dynasty teams. Miami ran the table in 1972, finishing a perfect 17-0 season with a Super Bowl victory over Washington, then won again in 1973. The 1985 Chicago Bears walloped the league with a 15-1 record and a combined score of 91 to 10 in three post-season victories.

But who can say which team is preeminent? To remove the debate from the realm of opinion and get a considered answer, a formula helps. If the formula includes elements such as winning percentage and offensive and defensive dominance, then one American professional football team rises above the rest: the 1962 Green Bay Packers. It's been 40 years now, but history can't bury that Lombardi bunch. "The Packers were different because they were the greatest team," said Hall of Famer Deacon Jones in 75 Seasons, a film about the history of the NFL from 1920 to 1994. "Underline 'team.'" Jones was talking about Packers teams in general. From 1961 to 1967 they won five titles, but the 1962 squad was the best.

It is easy to ascertain Green Bay's supremacy. Just as Albert Einstein eschewed absolute measures in favor of relativity, the formula for the best pro football team contains more than a little relativity. For one, National Football League championships have only been played since 1933. From 1920 through 1932, there was no divisional play; the team with the best record was declared champion without playoffs. Only those NFL champions since -- plus the American Football League champions from 1960 through 1965, before Super Bowls and the leagues' merger -- are candidates for the throne. But championships are not the only measure of a team's dominance. Winning percentage counts, too, as well as the margin a club wins by. Teams can dominate offensively and defensively and here's where relativity comes in: A team's offensive dominance can be measured by seeing how its scoring stacks up against the league average in a given season. Defensive dominance can be measured the same way -- by comparing how many points a team gives up with the league average.

The 1962 Packers scored 415 points (29.6 per game), allowed 148 points (10.6), and compiled a win-loss record of 13-1. Its winning percentage was .929; the 29.6 points scored were 1.33 times better than the league average; the 10.6 points were 2.11 times better than the league average. Multiply .929 by 1.33 by 2.11 and the product is 2.607, the highest ever.

So which teams are at the head of the pack?

1962 Green Bay Packers

So many teams in football history have had great offenses or great defenses but not both. That wasn't the case with the Packers. In 1961 Paul Hornung became a left halfback and Lombardi made the option sweep a Packers staple. Bart Starr became quarterback and Lombardi annihilated his old team, the New York Giants, 37-0, in the title game.

The Pack ran out to a 10-0 record in 1962, clobbering opponents by a combined score of 309 to 78. With just minutes remaining in the season's fourth game, they trailed the Detroit Lions, 7-6. Instead of running the clock out, Lions quarterback Milt Plum passed. His receiver fell and the Packers' Herb Adderley picked off the ball. After Hornung's field goal, the Packers stole the game, 9-7.

In Game 10, the Pack passed another tense test. Down 13-10 against Baltimore, Herb Adderley ran a kickoff back 103 yards for a 17-13 victory. Detroit had a chance for revenge on Thanksgiving Day and came at Starr with everything but tanks and planes. A hellacious rush led by Alex Karras and Roger Brown who teamed for 11 sacks, buried Starr. Green Bay endured its first and last loss, 26-14.

Thereafter, the Packers sweep tunneled through defenses with disdain. For the season, back Jim Taylor gained 1,474 yards, the only time in nine years when someone other than Jim Brown led the league in rushing. Starr passed with 63 percent accuracy. Linebacker Ray Nitschke took Most Valuable Player honors in the title game at Yankee Stadium, where the Packers beat the Giants, 16-7.

 

1949 Philadelphia Eagles

Paul Brown, the renowned Cleveland Browns coach, once theorized that pro football in the late 1940s and '50s was so unabashedly rough because the players had come back from the war, and football was a picnic compared to what they'd lived through. It was a no-face-masks, no-holds-barred affair. By the '50s, substitutes were allowed; players were no longer forced to play both offense and defense.

Post-war offenses used the pass more often, as Chicago's Sid Luckman, Washington's Sammy Baugh and Los Angeles's Bob Waterfield filled the air with spirals. As much as bullheaded running back Steve Van Buren and quarterback Tommy Thompson headed Philly's offense, the Eagles' trailblazing defense kept opponents off-kilter. Philly's 5-2-4 defense was the best counter to the NFL's aerial attack. Offenses saw seven Eagles on the line, two of whom made momentary adjustments and dropped back into pass coverage. They held opponents to 11 points per game, winning 11 and losing one.

Rarely, if ever, were the conditions for a title game worse than they were in December 1949. Three inches of rain turned the Los Angeles Coliseum field into a sopping green-and-brown sponge. Philadelphia protested the loudest, preferring to wait for better weather to get an audience of 92,000 to spike the payday. But NFL commissioner Bert Bell wouldn't postpone the game.

The field tilted toward the Eagles, who were used to sloshing around in northeastern elements. The Rams hadn't played a game in the rain since they moved from Cleveland three years before. With the soggy turf favoring a running game, Van Buren plowed ahead, carrying 31 times for 196 yards and keeping the ball away from the Rams' airborne offense. Before a crowd of 22,245, less than a quarter of the Coliseum's capacity, Philly also squelched the Rams' running game, allowing just 22 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Thompson hit Pete Pihos for a 15-yard scoring pass and Leo Skladany blocked a Waterfield punt and took the ball into the end zone for a 14-0 win.

 

1941 Chicago Bears

If ever a team came to camp bursting with confidence, it was George Halas's Bears. In the 1940 championship game, they had employed the latest in offenses -- a T-formation and a man in motion -- and humiliated the Washington Redskins, 73-0. Three weeks before, Washington had edged Chicago, which benefited from an official's controversial call. Chicago complained, leading 'Skins owner George Preston Marshall to call the Bears "crybabies" and "quitters" in the press, providing Halas with bulletin board material to rally his troops. "If you want to make people mad, just insult them," lamented Washington quarterback Slingin' Sammy Baugh in 75 Seasons. "I'd have let sleepin' dogs lie."

Following the championship rout, the most lopsided victory in NFL history, the 1941 Bears became known as the Monsters of the Midway. They so dwarfed the opposition that they scored 396 points and allowed only 147, winning by an average score of 36 to 13. Their leader was quarterback Sid Luckman, a tailback at Columbia just three years before. Chicago finished the regular season 10-1 and then routed Green Bay, 33-14, and New York, 37-9, for its second straight title.

The Bears' attempt to three-peat was thwarted when Washington exacted a 14-6 measure of revenge in 1942 -- if a final score of 73-0 can ever be avenged in this lifetime.

 

1972 Miami Dolphins

Since the dawn of the NFL in 1920, only one team has gone through an entire season undefeated: the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who finished 17-0.

General manager Joe Thomas had built his team masterfully. Miami drafted two-time All-American quarterback Bob Griese in 1967 and backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick in 1968. Two years later, the Dolphins traded for All-Pro linebacker Nick Buoniconti and guard Larry Little, and drafted lightning-quick halfback Mercury Morris. In 1970, Thomas added wide receiver Paul Warfield and drafted safety Jake Scott. Miami won 10 games in 1971, but Dallas thrashed the Dolphins, 24-3, in Super Bowl VI.

In 1972, Miami found its stride. The Dolphins faced adversity early on, when Griese broke a leg in October. Fortunately, his replacement, Earl Morrall, who was acquired from the Baltimore Colts via waivers, completed what he couldn't complete four years earlier against the New York Jets. In Super Bowl III, Don Shula and the Colts were favored by 18 points -- still the largest margin for a championship game -- but fell, 16-7, to the Jets. Now Morrall, reunited with Shula, finished as the top-ranked quarterback in the American Football Conference.

Csonka and Morris became the first backfield tandem to rush for 1,000 yards each. To lay icing on the cake, Kiick scored four touchdowns in the post-season.

The Dolphins eked out close playoff victories over Cleveland and Pittsburgh, beating the Steelers when Griese came off the bench to rally the offense. Griese started the Super Bowl and threw only 11 passes, one of them a 28-yard touchdown to Howard Twilley. But Miami shut down the Billy Kilmer-to-Charlie Taylor connection and Washington's vaunted aerial game. Jake Scott earned MVP honors with two interceptions.

 

1942 Washington Redskins

Before they were 'Skins in D.C., they played in anonymity in Boston. In 1936, their last year in Boston, the Redskins made it to the title game and lost to Green Bay. But owner George Preston Marshall was tired of being ignored. The last straw, he said, was the decision of the Boston papers to cover a high school football game instead of the Redskins game. He moved the team to the nation's capital.

It was Boston's loss, since the Redskins won a title their first year in Washington. Marshall had signed rookie Texan Sammy Baugh, a lanky leader with a powerful arm. Baugh served up an entire offense, since the threat of his passing opened up the running game as well. Halfback Cliff Battles led the NFL in rushing with 874 yards.

Five years later, Washington finished 10-1 but had to beat the 11-0 Bears, an imposing squad with the league's best offense. Chicago's average victory was 34-8. Mindful of the annihilation bowl two years before, Washington coach Ray Flaherty resisted a rah-rah speech and simply wrote "73-0" on the locker-room chalkboard.

Baugh flummoxed the Bears, throwing a 38-yard pass to Wilbur Moore to give Washington a 7-6 lead and later intercepting one in the end zone to help seal the 14-6 victory. By the time Baugh retired, his reputation as a triple threat was established: his career average of 45.1 yards per punt remains the record.


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