Grid-Iron Greats

We rank the top 10 NFL teams ever, with the 1962 Packers leading the way
| By Kenneth Shouler | From 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.


1975 Pittsburgh Steelers

In 1933, Art Rooney had a great day at the track and thought about the new Pennsylvania law that allowed Sunday sports. So he bought an NFL franchise for $2,500. He named his team the Pirates, after the local Major League baseball team. Before the 1940 season he changed the name to the Steelers.

It didn't change their luck. In 39 seasons, from 1933 to 1971, Pittsburgh won as many games as it lost just 13 times. To call Rooney a patient man would be a world-class understatement. This philanthropic soul, who kept hundreds of one-dollar bills to give out to kids who came to his door, had a saintly reputation in the steel town. He had lived through the era of the Bears' and Packers' domination and had watched as the Eagles, Giants, Colts and Redskins won titles. But the parade never stopped in Pittsburgh. In 1969, he appointed Chuck Noll, a defensive-minded assistant who had coached with the Colts and the Chargers, as head coach.

Pittsburgh drafted defensive tackle Joe Greene, quarterback Terry Hanratty, offensive lineman Joe Kolb and defensive end L. C. Greenwood. In 1970, the team added Terry Bradshaw and defensive back Mel Blount. In 1971, Jack Ham came via the draft and in 1972, the Steelers added back Franco Harris and quarterback Joe Gilliam. They finished 11-3 in 1972 and 10-4 in 1973 but were eliminated by Miami and Oakland in the playoffs. Pittsburgh followed those losses with a 1974 draft that many consider the best in NFL history. The Steelers' first five picks included four future Hall of Famers: middle linebacker Jack Lambert, center Mike Webster and receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

Now that the pieces were in place, Pittsburgh went 10-3-1 in 1974, then took care of Buffalo and Oakland in the playoffs and rode Harris's Super Bowl-record 158 rushing yards to a 16-6 win over Minnesota.

It got even better in 1975. Pittsburgh finished 12-2 and its "Steel Curtain" defense allowed the fewest points in the league. This time the Steelers bested Dallas, 21-17, in the Super Bowl, with Bradshaw's game-winner finding Swann, who won MVP for his four catches and 161 yards.

After the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl, following the 1979 season, Bradshaw was asked what the key was to Pittsburgh's success. "One word: defense," he said.


1948 Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles joined the league in 1933 and couldn't get a sniff of a title, posting losing seasons in their first 10 years. In seven of those years, they won two games or fewer! Their moment arrived when they signed Steve Van Buren in 1944. A blocker at Louisiana State University who seldom carried the ball until his senior year, Van Buren developed into the outstanding back of his time. In 1945, he led the NFL in scoring and rushing. With linemen Frank (Bucko) Kilroy and Vic Kindskog, Philly was finally building a winner.

Philadelphia should be remembered for playing title games in the most challenging weather. In 1947, the Eagles lost, 28-21, to the Chicago Cardinals on an icy surface that resembled a hockey rink. In the next two years, they turned bad weather to their advantage

They were 9-2-1 in 1948 and were easily the most dominant team in the league, scoring 31 points per game and allowing 13. They played the title game against the Chicago Cardinals at Shibe Park, home of baseball's Phillies. A heavy snow made it nearly impossible to spot the ball or even determine where the playing surface began and ended. The sidelines had to be marked with stakes and ropes. The teams combined for just 42 passing yards and turnovers abounded, offering many opportunities. Still, neither team could execute its offense in the snow. Then the Cardinals' Elmer Angsman fumbled at his own 17-yard line and the Eagles recovered. Van Buren, who trudged 98 yards for the day, carried it in from the five-yard line. The Eagles won, 7-0.

With a 14-0 win over the Los Angeles Rams in 1949, the Eagles became the only team ever to win consecutive title games by shutouts.


1938 New York Giants

In 1925, Tim Mara paid $5,000 for the New York franchise, reasoning that exclusive rights to anything in New York was worth the price. The Giants struggled at the gate during their first season, but salvation came in the form of the Chicago Bears' "Galloping Ghost," Red Grange, who attracted a crowd of 70,000 to a December game. The Giants won a title in 1927, six years before divisional play and official championships began.

In 1936, the Giants drafted Tuffy Leemans, who led the league in rushing that season. The following year, they had 17 rookies on their 25-man roster. Youth paid dividends: the Giants won eight divisional titles and two championships from 1933 to 1946.

The rookies of '37 came of age in '38 and the Giants posted an 8-2-1 record, due to a league-best defense that allowed only 79 points, a spectacularly stingy average of just 7.2 a game. A crowd of 48,120 -- a record for a championship game -- piled into the Polo Grounds to watch the Giants take on the Green Bay Packers, and the Packers nearly doubled the Giants in total yards. But the Giants got 10 points off two blocked punts and won the title, 23-17.


1984 San Francisco 49ers

In 1984, San Francisco was close to perfect, winning a record 15 regular-season games. In points scored the 49ers were second to Miami; in defense, second to none.

Miami was 14-2 on the strength of Dan Marino's arm and an amazing 513 points scored. Super Bowl XIX was expected to mimic two cannons firing at each another. But after building a 10-7 lead, Miami couldn't score a touchdown in the remaining 46 minutes. San Francisco's 21 points in the second quarter forced Miami to turn exclusively to the pass. Marino threw 50 times, but San Francisco adjusted by using six defensive backs and intercepting him twice. Miami ran for 25 yards; San Francisco, for 211. Joe Montana connected on 24 of 35 passes for 331 yards and took MVP honors as San Francisco won, 38-16. It was the second of five Super Bowl wins for the 49ers.


1973 Miami Dolphins

In some ways, the 1973 Dolphins were more dominant than the undefeated '72 team. While the '72 squad had some close calls in the post-season, the 1973 team bombed opponents, winning 34-16 over the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-10 over the Oakland Raiders, and 24-7 over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII.

It was Larry Csonka's stage. First he ran wild against Oakland, amassing 117 yards and three touchdowns. Then he chugged for 145 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota to capture Super Bowl MVP honors.

Miami's 32-2 mark over the 1972-1973 seasons remains the best two-year mark in NFL history. Injuries slowed the Miami ground machine in 1974 and the World Football League then signed Csonka and Jim Kiick to contracts in 1975 to end any chance at a dynasty.

As NFL football marches through its ninth decade, it is important to remember the greats of yesteryear and examine which team among today's squads will challenge the 1962 Packers' NFL supremacy.


Kenneth Shouler, of Harrison, New York, is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado. Steven Shouler helped analyze the data for this story.