The "Greatest Teams": How Repeated "Greatness" Has Hurt the Debate
Someone recently posted a poll, asking which team was the Greatest Football Team of all-time. The choices were the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 1972 Miami Dolphins. A gut reaction from four fan bases was undoubtedly the same: Those are our choices?
In sports, everything is about winning, and that drive never fades. When your team wins the game, you want them to win the next game. Soon it becomes the desire for them to win the division. Then it is a first-round bye and so on until they win the Super Bowl. If they win the Super Bowl, you want them to repeat.
It is this drive that makes us fans. Wanting to win. We want our players to be the best and our teams to go down in history. In the offseason, all we have is the past and the future, so we are left to speculate on what will come and debate what has passed.
Even the NFL knows this, as the current NFL Network schedule consists of highlight reels, draft coverage, and Top 10, a show ranking some aspect of NFL history from Pass Combinations to Great College/Failed NFL Coaches.
This site is no exception, with the most popular articles often being debates over the top this or greatest that. I would not be surprised to see an article listing the Top 10 NFL Debates. Undoubtedly, that list would include "Who is the Greatest Quarterback?"; "Who is the Greatest Player?"; and "Which is the Greatest Team of All Time?"
It is the last one which I am drawn to the most. Not because of some hesitation over which QB I would pick or my uncertainty of how to adequately assess different players from different positions, but because of how complex the "Team" debate is.
Do you rely on a team's record? Their statistics? Their statistical ranking at the end of the season? Their post-season performance? If you argue some combination of these factors, how do you weigh them?
How do you account for the change in eras? You can have a debate about the best method to debate the debate. How do you handle a team that was undefeated and likely could have all but ended the debate, but they did not win the Super Bowl?
My problem with the debate is that, more often than not, teams that belong in the debate are left out. When the NFL had its own Debate, it asked a "Blue Ribbon Panel" to rank the 40 Super Bowl Winners. It ended with the top two teams being the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 1972 Miami Dolphins, respectively.
Most people can walk away, thinking that the decision makes perfect sense. The Bears lost only one game while dominating every other one they played and Dolphins had the perfect season. No other team on the list can make that claim.
However, I think it is cheap to end the debate there. Especially when this panel could not take into account a key to the voting, it had it's members listing the teams.
I see something in common between the third, fourth, fifth and sixth teams on the list which is not true of the teams at first and second. Multiple entries on the list. Why does that matter? Because it affects how people vote.
ESPN's Page 2 gave one of the more extensive arguments about rankings of every Super Bowl participant. In the comments about the fifth greatest team, the writers pose a question: "So why isn't this team ranked even higher?"
A stunning question since the writers clearly had the power to rank them higher. The answer they provide: "Largely because it wasn't even the best team in 49ers history..." And there it is. There needed to be some separation between the choice at No. 1 (the 1989 San Francisco 49ers) and a team from the same franchise.
Now, I am not trying to argue about whether I agree with their assessment or attempting to make a point about how great the 49ers are. My point is this: When teams are ranked, repeated success can hurt them.
If you take 10 fans of any "Team of the Decade" and asked them which of the years was their team's best year, you'll get two or three different answers.
Ask a Dolphins or Bears fan about their team's best year, and you will only get one answer (I am aware the Dolphins won again in 1973, but no one brings that team up for this discussion, so it is a moot point).
I will admit I do not have a great sense of how heavy the debate is amongst fans of the Steelers, Cowboys, or Packers. But, I have seen 49ers fans argue that the 1994, the 1984, and the 1989 teams were the Greatest in the franchise's history.
When people are polled, those teams hurt each other when someone puts the 1994 team in the top five over the 1989 team.
In the moment of the wins, it did not matter. Current champions have a limited view of how history will look on them. But, as we get further from the success of those teams, the sight of their greatness becomes blurry as the extra diamonds on their rings obscure our vision.
The Bears team stands out. They only lost one game and they rolled through the post season. They also lost that one game by 14 points and faced the fifth seed from the AFC while the second seed had been the only team to beat them.
The Dolphins went undefeated. How can anyone argue with perfection? It was also a team that faced one of the weakest schedules in the NFL and racked up a post season average margin of victory of 5.8, never winning by more than 7 points.
I am not going to list the credentials of the 1989 or 1984 49ers, the 1978 or 1975 Steelers, the 1992 or 1977 Cowboys, or any of the great Packer teams because that is not the point. The point is to open up the debate to those teams who had more than one great year.
Because those franchises and their teams belong in the debate, and it is a debate worth having.
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