In an era with Super Bowl teams that have shoddy defenses, inconsistent ground attacks and mediocre records, it’s easy to forget that decades ago, many Super Bowl teams not only had outstanding individual units but were balanced in every area. In fact, five of the greatest Super Bowl teams of all time played in the 20 years from 1972 to 1991.
The somewhat subjective rankings are:
- 1991 Washington Redskins
- 1985 Chicago Bears
- 1972 Miami Dolphins
- 1989 San Francisco 49ers
- 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers
Twenty years ago, the greatest team of the Super Bowl era, the 1991 Washington Redskins, dominated the league from start to finish. The 1985 Chicago Bears had the most stifling defense, while the 1989 San Francisco 49ers possessed an unstoppable offense. The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers were balanced on both sides of the ball as were the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins, but the Redskins faced a tougher schedule than all of them.
The Redskins of 20 years ago aren’t usually regarded as the best team of the Super Bowl era, and part of that is because of the quarterback, Mark Rypien. Though Rypien had a mostly pedestrian career, he did have a truly great season in 1991, and the numbers prove that. Rypien, an excellent deep passer, threw for 28 touchdowns, second in the NFL.
Rypien was second in passer rating, and he threw 14 TDs of 25 yards or more, most in the NFL. Rypien led the NFL in yards per pass-completion, ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Young, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Dan Marino and Warren Moon. Plus, Rypien’s 28 TDs were nearly twice as many as Bears quarterback Jim McMahon’s greatest single-season output of 15.
Washington had a strong running attack with Earnest Byner, Ricky Ervins and Gerald Riggs combining for nearly 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. Byner was the workhorse, Ervins provided elusiveness, and Riggs served as the short yardage back. Incredibly, the posse, Hall of Famer Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, combined for more than 3,000 yards receiving.
Most impressively, the 1991 version of the Hogs allowed Rypien to be sacked only nine times all season. The feat is even more remarkable because Rypien was anything but a mobile quarterback. The Hogs’ only Hall of Famer, left guard Russ Grimm, was a backup to Raleigh McKenzie that season. The two best linemen on the team were tackles Jim Lachey and Joe Jacoby. Brian Mitchell ran back two punts for touchdowns to lead Washington’s excellent special teams, and kicker Chip Lohmiller made the Pro Bowl.
The 1991 Redskins led the league in points and were second in points allowed. Washington sacked quarterbacks 50 times, dominating both lines of scrimmage. Defensive end Charles Mann, linebackers Wilber Marshall and Andre Collins and Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green led a Redskins defense that held opponents to 14 points per game and shut out three opponents.
Of the five teams listed here, the 17-2 Redskins had the greatest point differential, outscoring opponents during the regular season by an average margin of victory of 16.3 points, slightly higher than that of the 1985 Bears (16.1). Washington also had the toughest schedule of the five teams, with an opponents’ winning percentage of .529.
The Redskins swept the 1990 Super Bowl champion New York Giants. They split with the Dallas Cowboys, who went on to win the Super Bowls after the 1992 and 1993 seasons. Washington also defeated Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles, who possessed one of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history.
At 11-0 the Redskins slipped up against Dallas by three points. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones credits that win with giving the Cowboys the confidence to begin their Super Bowl run. The Redskins’ other loss was to Philadelphia in the final game of the year when the Redskins pulled their starters.
The Redskins beat the Atlanta Falcons 56-17 during the regular season and 24-7 in the first round of the playoffs when Deion Sanders returned from injury. The Redskins defeated the second-best team in the NFC, the Detroit Lions, 45-0 during the regular season and 41-10 in the NFC Championship game, holding Barry Sanders to 44 yards rushing. The Lions were 13-3 when they didn’t face the Redskins.
In the Super Bowl, Washington dominated Buffalo, 37-24, but it wasn’t that close. Washington led 24-0 in the third quarter. It was the Bills’ second of four consecutive Super Bowls, and Buffalo featured Hall of Famers Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton and Bruce Smith. The Redskins held Thomas, the NFL MVP, to 13 yards on 10 carries. The Redskins never trailed in any of their playoff games.
If there’s one other team that can stake a claim to the number one spot, it’s the 1985 Chicago Bears. They finished 18-1, may have had the best defense of all time and outscored playoff opponents 91-10. Ryan’s swarming "46" defense had 64 sacks and held opponents to 12.4 points per game.
The Bears had two regular season shutouts and two playoff shutouts, defeating the Giants 21-0 and the Rams 24-0 before thrashing the Patriots, 46-10. The 1985 Bears had four players named to the Hall of Fame, including running back Walter Payton, defensive linemen Richard Dent and Dan Hampton and linebacker Mike Singletary. The Bears also featured nine Pro Bowlers, five on defense.
So why aren’t the 1985 Bears the best team of the Super Bowl era? The 1991 Redskins had eight Pro Bowlers and three Hall of Famers in Monk, Grimm and Green, but could easily have had more. Lachey and Jacoby were more dominant than Grimm, Clark had similar statistics to those of Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, and Mann was just as good as Hampton.
People remember the Bears more because they were the more glamorous team. They developed a Super Bowl music video, they used gimmicks such as lining up William “Refrigerator” Perry in the backfield and McMahon seemingly had a controversy per week. The bluster from Bears coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan also gained headlines. Finally, the Bears versus Dolphins game on December 2, 1985 was the highest-rated game in Monday Night Football history. Though the Bears lost 38-24, the publicity from the game etched them into the public consciousness.
While the Bears finished 15-1, the teams they faced had a combined winning percentage of .473. No other teams in the NFC Central Division finished above .500. Also, although the Bears routed the Patriots in the Super Bowl, New England was a non-descript team that finished 11-5 in the regular season. Patriots quarterback Tony Eason threw more interceptions than touchdowns during the regular season – 17 to 11.
Speaking of interceptions, the Bears threw just 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, while the Redskins threw 30 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions.
Payton, one of the best running backs in NFL history, led a potent rushing attack for the Bears with 1,551 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns. But the Bears’ weakness was that they were somewhat one-dimensional on offense. Chicago’s starting wide receivers, Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon, combined for just 64 catches for 1,259 yards and eight touchdowns.
Clark out-performed them himself with 70 catches for 1,340 yards and 10 touchdowns. Monk also had more than 1,000 yards receiving. So the Redskins were a much more balanced team even though the Bears had the better defense. But the gap between the defenses wasn’t as great as is perceived – Washington surrendered 14 points a game, just slightly more than the Bears’ 12.4.
Who would have won between the 1985 Bears and 1991 Washington Redskins? We’ll never know, but Gibbs was 5-3 against Ditka in his career. Though the Bears defeated the Redskins in the playoffs in 1984, Washington knocked Chicago out of the playoffs in both 1986 and 1987. In 1986, Richie Petitbon’s Redskins defense held Payton to 38 yards on 14 carries in the playoffs, and the Bears had no answer for Monk and his two touchdowns. Gibbs was also 8-3 against Ryan, who coached Philadelphia from 1986 to 1990.
Coached by the legendary Don Shula, the 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only NFL team to ever go through a season undefeated. They beat the Redskins 14-7 in the Super Bowl. Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris became the first running back tandem to each go over 1,000 yards in the same season. Linebacker Nick Buoniconti led the Dolphins’ no-name defense. The Dolphins were so good that they went 9-0 with backup quarterback Earl Morrall after Bob Griese led them to a 5-0 start. Griese came back from injury to start the Super Bowl, and the rest was history. The Dolphins played a weak schedule, however, with their opponents’ winning percentage at .367.
The 1989 San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, finished 17-2 and dominated John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 55-10. The 49ers lost two games by five points total. They were stacked at the skill positions, with running back Roger Craig and receiver John Taylor. Safety Ronnie Lott and linebacker Charles Haley anchored a defense that finished third in the NFL in points allowed. The 49ers outscored their opponents by nearly 12 points per game in the regular season.
The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 17-2 in defeating the Dallas Cowboys 35-31 in the Super Bowl. They had Pro Bowlers representing each unit of the team: quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, receiver Lynn Swann, center Mike Webster, defensive end L.C. Greenwood, defensive tackle Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, cornerback Mel Blount and safety Donnie Shell. Seven of those players, plus receiver John Stallworth, went onto the Hall of Fame. In the playoffs they defeated Earl Campbell and the Houston Oilers and Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and the Cowboys. However, their opponents’ winning percentage was .449, and their point differential of 10.1 was significantly less than that of the 1991 Redskins and 1985 Bears.
All five teams on the list can stake a claim to being the greatest team of the Super Bowl era. In fact, several other Super Bowl champs would assert that they were the best. But the dominance the 1991 Redskins and 1985 Bears displayed came in an era of more parity than there had been in the 1970s, when the haves and have-nots were more distinguishable. What the Redskins and Bears did by defeating their opponents by an average of 16 points a game was spectacular. The Redskins get the slight edge because of their balanced offense, which included a deep passing game that the Bears could not match.