The conclusion may not be “the 2007 New England Patriots,” but the question is still relevant - and WhatIfSports.com has a definitive answer.
The debate is why the site exists. It is one of the major reasons why sports talk radio exists. It is why we all talk sports with our fathers and grandfathers, just like we do or will with our children. The conversation concerns historical context. On the heels of one of the most exciting and dramatic Super Bowls ever and, with so much recent discussion about NFL history, the specific question is, “Which team was the greatest Super Bowl champion of all-time?” Or, more appropriately, “what if” the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins and other elite teams played all of the other Super Bowl champions? The answer: the Dolphins would win just more than 60% of the time, while the 1985 Chicago Bears and 1999 St. Louis Rams would each win well over 70% of their games.
To find out more about how this analysis was conducted, please read the About the Analysis section below the top ten. Some recent teams that just miss the cut include the 1993 Dallas Cowboys at #14, the 1998 Denver Broncos at #12 and the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at #11. All five of the Dallas Cowboys teams win over 50% of their games and rank in the top half. Conversely, the two Colts teams, 1970 and 2006 (go look at the rush defense numbers for validation), finish in 41st and 42nd. The 2007 New York Giants rank #23. The Giants looked like the better team in Super Bowl XLII, but it was still an upset. Had the Patriots just won, they would appear among the top few on this list. Now they are not on it. That is how big that game was.
The top ten starts with a bit of a surprise:
#10 1972 Miami Dolphins (60.7% winning percentage)
We would even go so far as to say that the undefeated Dolphins were very lucky. The team had a good running game, yet was relatively one-dimensional on offense and the defense allowed some otherwise poor rushing teams, to do well on the ground. Miami also played one of the weakest overall schedules of any team on this list and it shows in the ranking.
That being said, they were clearly the best team that year and have good numbers across the board, yet are not really outstanding at anything. In 1972, that wins a ring; but, against 41 of the other best teams in NFL history, that gets you tenth place.
The very lucky part is in the “0” (as Mercury Morris would say). Re-simulating the games from 1972, the Dolphins are a 77% favorite on average in their 17 games. That sounds dominant, but, even as a big favorite, the chance of winning those 17 games in a row is 1.2% (i.e. very lucky). For comparison purposes, the Patriots were a 92% favorite on average in their first 17 games this season. The chance of winning all of those games is 24.2% - still not likely, but not necessarily “lucky.”
Pro Bowlers: Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, Paul Warfield, Dick Anderson, Nick Buoniconti, Jake Scott, Bill Stanfill, Larry Little
#9 1994 San Francisco 49ers (62.4%)
Steve Young’s 1994 season is the epitome of statistical efficiency from the quarterback position. Young completed 70.3% of his passes for over eight yards-per-attempt, threw just one interception every 45 passes and averaged 5.1 yards-per-carry on the ground with seven rushing touchdowns. In the conference championship, the 49ers defeated a Cowboys team that won three of four Super Bowls by ten points and then routed the San Diego Chargers 49-26. Young, the NFL and Super Bowl MVP, had six touchdowns in the finale. He definitely made his lone championship season as the 49ers starter count.
Pro Bowlers: Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones, Merton Hanks, Deion Sanders, Tim McDonald, Dana Stubblefield, Jesse Sapolu, Bart Oates
#8 1996 Green Bay Packers (62.8%)
A team with no glaring weakness, the 1996 Green Bay Packers scored the most points in the league and allowed the least points. Yet, what sets this squad apart from other balanced teams on this list may be the special teams. Desmond Howard averaged an astounding 15.1 yards-per-punt return, taking three back for touchdowns in the regular season.
Pro Bowlers: Brett Favre, Keith Jackson, Frank Winters, Reggie White, LeRoy Butler
#7 1992 Dallas Cowboys (63.2%)
Some may contend that the 1993 (#14 on this list) team was better, but the 1992 team was more balanced overall. This Cowboys squad is one of the top ten Super Bowl champs in passing, avoiding sacks and stopping opposing team’s momentum (aka “bend a little, but don’t break”). They did not cause many turnovers or get many sacks; but, they did not need to because the offense was not allowing those things either. 52-17 against a team playing in its fourth-straight Super Bowl looks pretty good too.
Pro Bowlers: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Steve Wisniewski, Mark Stepnoski, Jay Novacek, Nate Newton
#6 1984 San Francisco 49ers (66.5%)
One of two Joe Montana-led teams to crack the top ten, this team may have had one of the top three most efficient offenses in NFL history. Joe Montana averaged over 8 yards-per-pass-attempt, a full two yards more than his opponents, and the running game picked up 4.6 yards-per-carry, a half-yard better than the league average. The defense was great at keeping opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone, but that is generally overcome by the other teams in this analysis.
Pro Bowlers: Joe Montana, Wendell Tyler, Keena Turner, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Hicks, Carlton Williamson, Eric Wright, Fred Quillan, Randy Cross, Keith Fahnhorst
#5 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers (66.6%)
The best Steeler’s team of the 1970’s came at the end of the decade. For reasons this team is so high, please see “Pro Bowlers” (all but Shell and Greenwood are in the Hall of Fame).
Pro Bowlers: Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell, Mike Webster, L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene
#4 1991 Washington Redskins (66.8%)
Mark Rypien and his “Posse” rate as the most prolific passing offense of any Super Bowl champion. The Redskins also give up the fewest sacks of any team. The rest of their stats are pretty average, but those facts are enough to put this team in the top five.
Pro Bowlers: Mark Rypien, Earnest Byner, Gary Clark, Charles Mann, Chip Lohmiller, Darrell Green, Mark Schlereth, Jim Lachey
#3 1989 San Francisco 49ers (68.2%)
The best 49ers team on this list, the 1989 team combined the offensive efficiency of the previous Bill Walsh-coached teams with the defensive mentality of new head coach George Seifert. That season, the 49ers recovered 11 more fumbles and intercepted 11 more passes than their opponents.
Pro Bowlers: Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Guy McIntyre
#2 1985 Chicago Bears (74.9%)
As the winning percentages suggest, there are two elite teams on this list and the 1985 Chicago Bears are clearly one of them. They have the most dominant defense of any Super Bowl champion; and, they have Walter Payton. The passing offense is the only minor weakness, lacking true explosion and turning the ball over against ball-hawking teams like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 1971 Dallas Cowboys and 2003 New England Patriots. The main difference between #1 and #2 on this list is that the margin for error of a team that’s strength is in the running game is much narrower than the margin for error of a team that can pass the ball effectively (we have found that this is actually true with all sports: the margin for error is greater for high scoring teams as opposed to defensively focused teams). The Bears may not get behind much; but, when they do, they cannot catch up easily.
Pro Bowlers: Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, Dave Duerson, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary, Jay Hilgenberg, Otis Wilson, Jimbo Covert
#1 1999 St. Louis Rams (77.1%)
This ranking may surprise most people, but the “Greatest Show on Turf” was also the greatest single-season team in NFL history. Fans generally think of this as a pass-heavy offense, yet it is the running game and opportunistic defense that set this apart from teams like the 1991 Redskins and 2006 Colts. The Rams actually rank as the third most efficient rushing Super Bowl champion of all-time as well as one of the best passing teams ever. Marshall Faulk averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry to go with an astonishing 12.0 yards-per-reception out of the backfield. The Rams also forced 14 more interceptions than they threw en route to outscoring opponents by an average of 17.8 points per game, which is the highest average margin of victory on this list. The defense was pretty good too. Without Mike Jones’ last second stop in the Super Bowl, this team may be in the same category as the 2007 Patriots.
“Lightning in a bottle.” “Flash in the pan.” “Perfect storm.” Pick your cliché and they may have been it in 1999. But, there is no doubting that the 1999 St. Louis Rams are the best champion the sport has ever seen.
Pro Bowlers: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Kevin Carter, Todd Lyght, Orlando Pace
About the Analysis
To come to this conclusion, sports simulation website, WhatIfSports.com used its free NFL SimMatchup technology (you could do this too!) to simulate the 42 Super Bowl champions against each other 100 times each. This means that each team played 4,100 games and 86,100 games were played in total (took a couple of hours). At the end, we looked at all of the games and ranked teams by winning percentage to find the top ten. This is the most accurate and thorough approach to answering “the question.”
When running these games, the simulation “engine” factors in actual regular season statistics that are adjusted equally on a historical and relative (to other teams that season and to strength of schedule) basis. This means that if a team or player had a record breaking rushing season against a schedule that includes very weak rush defenses, the team or player will still perform well, but may not perform as well it did that year. This also means that the computer does not have to try to figure out how a 230 pound offensive lineman can block a 330 pound defensive tackle. Everything is in the numbers and relative to the context of that season.
There are about 15 team and 10 individual stats that are utilized. Durability, playbook and “touch” distribution are important, but the most important statistics are on a per-play basis. For that reason, the most important statistics by which teams should be measured are yards-per-rush for and against, yards-per-pass for and against, sacks-per-pass-attempt for and against and interceptions-per-pass-attempt for and against. Furthermore, we found that almost all of these teams seemed to have well better than league average yards-per-pass-attempt figures on both offense and defense. In fact, we would suggest that those two figures relative to other teams are the most important non-scoring-related statistics to use when predicting the Super Bowl champion for any season.
Record has nothing to do with this analysis, but do not confuse that with a neglect for “heart” or “clutch.” The engine is not a measure of athletic ability - 40-yard dash times or bench press numbers are not included – it looks at overall football ability. Those can always be found in the numbers. Strengths, weaknesses, consistency, comfort under pressure, etc. All of those “intangible” factors show through in the numbers. And teams with better numbers typically win – especially when the games are played A LOT of times.