Who’s really the greatest NFL franchise in history?

As the Super Bowl approaches, I’m hearing a lot of talk centering around the question of which franchise is the NFL’s greatest. In some cases it takes the form of “who is really America’s team?” Whatever the heck that gets you. Other times, as with countless spirited “debates” on sports talk radio’s arguing with idiots shows, the question is a more germane “who is the greatest franchise in NFL history?” Which is actually an interesting enough topic, and one that bubbles up from time to time. This year I think we’re hearing more of it because the Super Bowl features two of the primary candidates, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, and they’re playing in the home stadium of a popular third candidate, the Dallas Cowboys.

Like a lot of sports-related subjects, this is one that generates strongly held, if only marginally informed opinions. For instance, I caught a few minutes of a radio show over the weekend where Mel Kiper was on the mic, and one of his callers was arguing that the Cowboys are the greatest franchise in NFL history because – and I’m just telling you what he said here – they made the Redskins and Packers relevant. I don’t know exactly what that means, to be honest. It can’t be about winning, because Green Bay and the Boston/Washington franchises combined to win eight NFL championships before the Cowboys were even founded. So maybe he was trying to make a point about TV ratings. Or something. The guy didn’t say what he does for a living, but I don’t think he’s a rocket surgeon.

America’s Team

If his “relevance” argument was trying to suggest that greatness has to do with ratings or revenue, I’d respond that most savvy fans are more concerned about the best football team, not the best marketing department. This, of course, circles back around to the “America’s Team” question, which tends to focus on Dallas, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. (There may be somebody out there who thinks that the Cardinals are America’s Team, but I haven’t run across them yet.)

So, what makes a franchise “America’s Team”? I think there are generally three criteria. You may be America’s Team if, everywhere you go in the US, there are bars where people gather to watch the games on Sunday, where there are lots of people sporting your logo merchandise, and where your games, when televised, draw great ratings. In other words, it’s about how many fans you have dispersed over the widest area. In the case of Dallas, their claim results from successful marketing. In the case of the Packers and Steelers it’s about being located in places where everybody wants to move somewhere else. That isn’t snark, either. Do you have any idea how many people I know here in Colorado who are from Wisconsin and western PA? Lots. Lots and lots. I probably know more Pennsylvanians here than I do native Coloradans and they love their Steelers.

If you follow one of America’s Teams, good for you, but it’s kinda like when Bobby “The Brain” Heenan decreed that Haku was the King of the WWF. It’s a pretty crown and all, but it didn’t actually have anything to do with winning.

Just saying.

Way Back When They Invented Football in the 1960s

The problem with these conversations, though, is that many of the most passionate participants believe the NFL was founded in 1966-67. That’s the season the Super Bowl was first played, and bajillions of fans like to base their arguments on criteria like “who won the most Super Bowls?” Mel Kiper’s caller, noted above, is a related species who thinks football began when the Dallas Cowboys were formed in 1960. If the Vikings weren’t 0-4 in Super Bowls we’d probably hear the same kind of silliness out of them.

Sadly, this kind of thinking is common, and it leads people to argue that the Steelers are the best ever because they have more Super Bowl wins than anybody else. There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh is a great and successful franchise, but there’s a difference between “history” and “recent history.” The Steelers were founded in 1933 and didn’t win their first title for 45 years. That kind of futility has to factor into our thinking, right? I mean, if the Clippers win the next three NBA titles, we’re not going to rename the trophy for Donald Sterling, are we?

The thing to understand, folks, is that NFL has been around since 1920, not 1966, and if we’re going to have opinions on the greatest franchise ever, we need to pay attention to the early days, too. With this in mind, let’s have a look at how many championships the top teams have won. This list includes Super Bowl wins from 1966 to the present and NFL championships from 1920-1965.

  • Packers: 12
  • Bears: 8
  • Giants: 8
  • Steelers: 6
  • Redskins: 5
  • Cowboys: 5
  • 49ers: 5
  • Lions: 4
  • Browns: 4
  • Colts: 4
  • Eagles: 3
  • Rams: 3
  • Patriots: 3
  • Raiders: 3
  • Cardinals: 2
  • Broncos: 2
  • Dolphins: 2
  • Chiefs: 1
  • Jets: 1
  • Ravens: 1
  • Buccaneers: 1
  • Saints: 1

Hmmm. Check that. The Pack has twice as many trophies as Pittsburgh. Four franchises have more than Dallas, which is tied with Boston/Washington.

The Verdict

If you like, feel free to argue for criteria other than championships. Wins matter, winning percentage, playoff appearances, etc. In the end, though, this is professional football, and if you didn’t win it all you’re just jockeying for position among the also-rans. First is first and second is King of the Losers, right?

By the ultimate standard – filling trophy cases – not only is Green Bay the greatest franchise of all time, it looks like it’s going to be a minimum of five or six years before there’s even a potential argument to had. But those of you who value lesser metrics and feel strongly about the importance of marketing, feel free to light up the switchboards, yo. Where would sports talk radio be without your … passion?

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5 Comments

  1. Matt Browner Hamlin
    Posted February 4, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    In the case of the Packers and Steelers it’s about being located in places where everybody wants to move somewhere else. That isn’t snark, either.

    Pittsburgh is consistently rated as the most livable city in the US, so I’m not sure this comment is either fair or true.

  2. Posted February 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I know about Pittsburgh’s rankings, and I could live in the area around CMU easily, I suspect. I’m just telling you that the number of people I know out here from Western PA is simply staggering.

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