The 10 Steps for Building an NFL Dynasty
At least it appears so.
But what exactly does a team have to do to become a dynasty? Is it two Super Bowl titles? Three? Four? Three appearances? No one is sure, and I thought I would do my best to clarify my personal opinion on what makes a dynasty in the National Football League.
First of all, a dynasty is defined as “a succession of rulers who belong to the same family for generations.” This means a team has to be dominant. They must be the No. 1 team in the NFL over a certain period of time.
It is very difficult for a NFL team to become a dynasty in the modern era, given the fact that there are 32 teams competing for the Lombardi Trophy every year and only one wins it. The fact that any team can make the Super Bowl (the Arizona Cardinals) and the always-challenging salary cap guidelines are also factors that make becoming a professional football dynasty next to impossible.
It's probably the toughest sport in which to become a dynasty.
All the other sports have had teams win championships at a greater rate than the NFL. In major league baseball, the Yankees captured 14 pennants and nine World Championships in 16 seasons ('49-'64). In basketball, the Celtics won eight titles in a row (and 10 out of 11) in the '60s. And in the NHL, the Montreal Canadians won 15 titles in 24 years from '55 through '78.
As of now, there have only been five NFL dynasties since the Super Bowl era. And each dynasty fits nicely into one decade: The Green Bay Packers of the '60s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s, the San Francisco 49ers of the '80s, the Dallas Cowboys of the '90s, and the New England Patriots of the '00s.
For any team interested in becoming a dynasty in today's world—notably the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are on their way to becoming a dynasty twice—here is a simple 10-step process to follow.
1. You must be a winner
This is obvious. You must win football games to be a dynasty. And not just football games, but championships. There's always a debate for how many Super Bowls a team has to win to be considered a dynasty.
Some say three titles in four years. Personally, I don't think a dynasty needs to be limited to a four-year span. The Steelers in the '70s, widely considered to be the greatest dynasty of all time, never won more than two in a four-year span. But they also won four in six years. And no one would dare say they're not a dynasty. Same with the '49ers of the '80s, who won four in nine years.
I think, to be a dynasty, a team needs to win at least three titles. Two doesn't quite cut it in today's game. No one considers the '97-'98 Broncos a dynasty, even though they won back-to-back championships.
The Dolphins of the '70s are borderline, with two Super Bowls and three appearances in a three-year span, including that perfect 17-0 season. And the Bills of the '90s went to four consecutive Super Bowls, but never won any.
Three titles are essential for a dynasty. All the dynasties of the Super Bowl era—the Packers of the '60s (5), the Steelers of the '70s (4), the 49ers of the '80s (4), the Cowboys of the '90s (3), and the Patriots of the '00s (3)—have won at least three titles.
2. You need to be a perennial playoff team
In order to maintain your status as a dynasty, a team must continue to be a perennial playoff team. For example, let's visit the case of this decade's New England Patriots.
The Patriots shocked the world with an 11-5 record in '01 and a Super Bowl triumph over The Greatest Show on Turf. They missed the playoffs the next season at 9-7, but rebounded to win Super Bowls in '03 and '04, giving them three Super Bowls in four seasons. What followed was three straight seasons without a title, but these years still included three division titles, 38 regular season wins, and five more in the postseason, plus a Super Bowl appearance ('07).
Even this past season without Tom Brady, the Patriots still finished 11-5, giving them six straight seasons with 11 or more wins. As it stands right now, I still wouldn't say the Patriots' dynasty is finished. If they can come back next season and win the Super Bowl, I think their dynasty is still intact. Four titles in nine years.
Let's check another dynasty. How about the 1980s San Francisco 49ers?
Like the Patriots, the 49ers came out of nowhere in 1981 to post a 13-3 mark en route to their first Super Bowl championship.
In '82, the 49ers finished just 3-6, but it was a strike season. In '83 they captured the NFC West division at 10-6 and won a playoff game. The next year, the 49ers became the first team in the 16-game schedule to finish 15-1 in the regular season, leading to the team's second Super Bowl title in four seasons.
Although the next three seasons brought no championships, the Niners continued to make the playoffs, with 10 wins in '85, 10 in '86, and a league-best 13 in '87. When they captured back-to-back Super Bowl titles in '88 and '89, the 49ers officially became an NFL dynasty, joining the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only teams with four Lombardi trophies.
Even though they only captured one title between '82 and '87, the 49ers remained a dynasty in the making due to their repeated playoff appearances. In all, the dynasty spanned nine years and included four Super Bowl championships, seven division titles, and eight trips to the playoffs.
Many people want to extend the dynasty to 1994, when the 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl, which gave the franchise five titles in 14 years, and makes it the longest tenured NFL dynasty of all-time. However, this would be a violation of rule No. 3, which states that...
3. You must be the most dominant team in your sport during your reign
This means that the 49ers dynasty was ended by the Dallas Cowboys, who captured back-to-back titles before the Niners' win in '94. The Cowboys won another Super Bowl in '95, giving them three titles in four years. To extend the 49ers' dynasty through the '94 season means two dynasties overlap at one point.
It is because of this reason (and No. 4) that the Cowboys of the '70s are not considered a dynasty. The Cowboys captured five conference championships and two Super Bowls, but were overshadowed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat them twice for the world title and went a perfect 4-for-4 in Super Bowls.
4. You can't lose in the Super Bowl...at least not consistently
Of the five dynasties, only one team has lost a Super Bowl. The Packers were 5-for-5, the Steelers 4-for-4, the 49ers 4-for-4, the Cowboys 3-for-3, and the Patriots 3-for-4. And it's not like the Patriots snuck into the playoffs; they did manage to become the first team to go undefeated in the regular season while setting the single season record for points scored (589) and fielding the league MVP, Tom Brady.
So sorry, Bills fans, but four straight appearances doesn't cut it. Same with the Cowboys in the '70s, who lost three times, including twice to the Steelers.
5. You should be remembered years later
Every dynasty in the NFL has left its mark in some way.
The Packers won the first two Super Bowls. There was Vince Lombardi, the greatest coach in football history, who now has the Super Bowl trophy named after him. There was Bart Starr, the Ice Bowl, and the power sweep.
The Steelers had that Steel Curtain defense, which could shut you out in any given game. They had a defense so good that it carried the team to four Super Bowls, but an offense that also featured Hall of Famers at the most important positions—quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, and center Mike Webster.
The 49ers had Joe Cool, the guy capable of engineering an 11-play, 92-yard drive with his precision passing to beat you in the Super Bowl. They had Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense and Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver of them all.
The Cowboys were America's Team. Stars at every position, including the NFL's all-time leading rusher in Emmitt Smith, and Dallas was the first team to win three Super Bowls in four years.
And the Patriots have Tom Brady, the second coming of Joe Montana, and during the reign, had Adam Vinatieri, a kicker so clutch that he merits a Hall of Fame spot.
6. You must maintain the same big-name guys
Players come and go in the NFL, but, for the most part, if you want to be a winner, you must retain the same stars year in and year out. All these teams kept their quarterback and their biggest defensive stars, to say the least.
The Packers kept Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, and Willie Wood. The Steelers kept virtually the same list of playmakers throughout the entire '70s—Bradshaw behind center and that legendary defense. The Niners only had Jerry Rice for their third through fifth championships, but retained Montana and Ronnie Lott, arguably the greatest offensive and greatest defensive players to ever play the game.
And the Patriots? Well, this roster has changed the most, due to the salary cap years, but Brady, Bruschi, Harrison, Seymour, and Vrabel have always been a constant, as well as Vinatieri for the first five years.
7. You should prevent another team from becoming a dynasty
This doesn't apply to every team, but for the most part, this rule applies for a dynasty. It can be argued that Peyton Manning and the Colts would be the NFL's newest dynasty had it not been for Tom Brady and the Patriots.
The Cowboys of the '90s halted the 49ers' dynasty prematurely, and the Packers probably would have been a dynasty if not for the 'Boys. The Steelers of the '70s kept the Dolphins (two titles, three SB appearances), Raiders (five straight conference championship game appearances from '73 through '77 but just one title) and the Cowboys (two titles, five appearances) from establishing themselves as a dynasty.
8. You must have a Hall of Fame quarterback and coach
And your quarterback must come up big in the Super Bowl.
There's Starr and Lombardi for the Packers, who captured a record five titles in one decade. There's Bradshaw and Noll for the Steelers, and whether you think Bradshaw was overrated or not, he did come up big in all four Super Bowls, twice winning the game's Most Valuable Player award.
Montana was the master of the two-minute drill, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the four biggest games of his life, using the offense that coach Bill Walsh perfected to no end. Under Jimmy Johnson, Aikman won a Super Bowl MVP for the Cowboys. For Belichick, Brady led big drives in all four of his Super Bowls, twice earning the MVP award.
All five of those dynasties had the same coach for every year, except the Cowboys for their final ring in '95 (but it was still Jimmy Johnson's team).
9. You need homegrown stars
Dynasties can't be bought. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys. This is a franchise that has sought virtually every available free agent—and gotten many of them—but hasn't won a playoff game since 1996.
Dynasties should be homegrown, like the Cowboys in the early to mid-'90s. All the franchise's stars—Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Leon Lett—were brought to the team via the draft. Sure, some stars were imported through trades or free agency, like Charles Haley and Deion Sanders, but most were lifers on the Cowboys.
This is where the draft plays a major role in a team's success. For instructions on how to properly draft, see: Steelers, Pittsburgh, 1974. This was a draft that featured four Hall of Famers, easily the greatest draft of any franchise in history. These Hall of Famers—Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster—formed the foundation of a franchise that would capture four championships in six seasons.
10. You must have an elite defense
It is virtually impossible to be a dynasty without a successful, even dominant, defense.
Everyone knows the Steelers of the '70s had arguably the greatest defense in NFL history. But even the '80s 49ers—a team that was more known for Montana, Rice, and Craig—still featured an elite defense. During their dynasty that spanned nine seasons, the defense ranked in the top three in scoring defense seven times.
Must you have one team that stands out as the greatest of your dynasty?
I figured this would be true. But after checking back through the five dynasties, I'm not sure that it is for sure.
I doubt anyone other than Packers fans could tell you which of their '60s teams went 13-1. The Steelers had four teams that were pretty equal in dominance. For the 49ers, I've always heard the '94 team to be the best, but that wasn't even part of the dynasty.
The Cowboys never had a 15-1 or 14-2 season that stood out from the rest (not that they didn't field fantastic teams). Probably the only team with an unquestioned best year is the Patriots, who went 16-0 in 2007 and won the Sup... Oh. Never mind.
With these 10 steps, do the Steelers seem to be on their way to a dynasty? Two rings in four years certainly puts them on the right track. You could even throw in the 15-1 season and the trip to the AFC Championship Game back in '04 (but then, it does interfere with the Patriots' dynasty).
The Steelers have definitely been a perennial playoff team. Other than that 8-8 season in '06, they have been to the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, including three trips to the conference championship game. Only the Patriots and Colts (63 each) have won more regular-season games over the past five years than the Steelers (56). And only the Patriots have won as many playoff games (eight) as the Steelers.
There are a boatload of stars on this dynasty in the making: Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, and an ever-changing group of linebackers that never fails to include anything but Pro Bowlers. No one would argue that their defense isn't anything but dynamic. The only minor knock on this team would be two coaches for the two separate titles.
As of now, it seems the Steelers are just another world championship away from becoming the NFL's sixth dynasty—and the first team with two separate dynasties.
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