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NFL Network Ranks Dynasties: 21st Century Patriots (Only) Number Four?

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The league's television station rated NFL dynasties and the Patriots came in behind three others.

"Gee, that's swell."
"Gee, that's swell."
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

NFL Network's "Top 10" series is often fun to watch and always source for debate. Of course, their newest installment called "Top 10 Dynasties" will spark discussion especially around New England. Why? Because the show ranked the 21st century Patriots as the fourth greatest dynasty of all time (you can find the clip here).

Placed higher than the Patriots are the following teams:

1. '60s Green Bay Packers
2. '70s Pittsburgh Steelers
3. '80s San Francisco 49ers

Those three teams and the Patriots have one thing in common: winning.

The Packers, led by head coach Vince Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr won five NFL Championships in the 1960s as well as the first two Super Bowls against teams representing the new American Football League. The next decade saw the Pittsburgh Steelers dominate the National Football League (which by that point had merged with the AFL), winning four Super Bowls in a span of six years. In the 1980s, the 49ers became the dominant team and went on to win four championships between 1981 and 1989, and a fifth one in 1994.

Those three teams also have had one advantage, the Patriots didn't/don't enjoy: not having to play in the salary cap era.

In 1994, the NFL introduced the salary cap one year after the league's first free agency period. The goal was simple, namely, to create a league of partiy. Each franchise operating under the same financial rules was the step towards this goal. For a couple of years it seemed as if the plan worked and one or two teams dominating an extended stretch of seasons would ultimately become a thing of the past.

Enter the 21st century New England Patriots.

Since 2001, the year Tom Brady became the team's starting quarterback, the Patriots have reached the playoffs in 12 of 14 seasons, reached nine Conference Championship Games, six Super Bowls and won the Lombardi Trophy four times. The team, despite constant personnel turnover, continued to do what the salary cap aimed to end: dominate.

Yet, NFL Network possibly in an attempt to preemptively counter claims of recency bias ranked them lower than the three teams mentioned above. Why? Well, the segment on the Patriots doesn't really mention a reason why the Packers, Steelers and 49ers are ahead of the Patriots. The only negative things pointed out are two massively overblown (non-)stories: Spygate even though it is highly doubtful the team gained any strategic advantage by misinterpreting a league memo and Deflategate even though it is highly doubtful the team did anything wrong in the first place... you know, physics.

But while those unaware of the facts try to taint the team's recent accomplishments, the truth remains: the Patriots have been able to stay on or near the top of the league for 14 years during a time in which one team, thanks to salary cap and free agency, should not stay on or near the top of the league longer than a couple of seasons.

Therefore, the argument that the 21st century Patriots are ranked too low can definitely be made... and backed up by looking at a few numbers.

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First off, it has to be said that it is hard to define a starting and an end point for each dynasty. For example, when does the 49ers' run of greatness start? With the team hiring Bill Walsh in 1979 or with the team starting to win in the playoffs in 1981? History teaches us that things do not simply happen out of nowhere, they develop. Just like teams develop over time.

Therefore, we need to look at this from various timeframes, while factoring in the most important statistic there is: wins. While rules changed over time to a point where the offense clearly now has the upper hand over the defense, winning didn't because every team in the league has had to operate under the same set of rules during their respective era.

The starting points for each dynasty are not that hard to find. When comparing the four teams, each one improved with the hiring of a new coach. Where those teams even close to becoming dynasties at that point? No, but as said above, the development of the champions started when...

the Packers hired Vince Lombardi (1959),
the Steelers hired Chuck Noll (1969),
the 49ers hired Bill Walsh (1979),
and the Patriots hired Bill Belichick (2000).

All teams improved in the following years until finally winning championships.

While finding starting points is relatively easy, it's more difficult to find the end of a dynastic run. However, each past dynasty had one moment, from which on the tide began to turn.

'60s Packers: 1967: Vince Lombardi retires as head coach after the season
'70s Steelers: 1982: Lynn Swann and Jack Ham retire after the season, Terry Bradshaw appears in only one more game
'80s 49ers: 1990: Joe Montana gets knocked out of the NFC Championship Game

While the dominance of the '60s Packers and '80s 49ers ended rather abruptly due to personnel changes, the Steelers' dynasty was the only one to slowly but steadily fade away. After winning Super Bowl XIV in 1979, the team started to decline and missed the playoffs two of the following three seasons, even though the core of players was still intact. Only after 1982 began this core to retire and Pittsburgh's glory days came to an end.

San Francisco is also an interesting franchise. It won another Super Bowl with Steve Young as starting quarterback in 1994 and was among the best teams in the NFL until 1998. However, the truly dynastic dominance was no longer there, especially because another NFC team ranked as a top-10 dynasty by NFL Network was more successful during that time: the '90s Dallas Cowboys.

Add it all up and we can define the following timeframes for the four dynasties in question:

Green Bay Packers (1959-1967)
Pittsburgh Steelers (1969-1982)
San Francisco 49ers (1979-1990)
New England Patriots (2000-)

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How will the dynasties be analyzed? By using the following comparatives within the timeframes defined:

Title Game Performance
Playoff Performance
Regular Season Performance
Roster Turnover
Longevity

Of course, this method is far from perfect, but when it comes to comparing the four dynasties, it is at least a start. The categories are relatively self-explanatory. Roster turnover is measured by looking how many players from a team's first championship roster have also been on its last (looking at it from the "first dynasty year-to-last dynasty year"-perspective would be fruitless, since only the Packers, due to their relatively short dynasty, would be an outlier).

The so-called "percentage" is performance compared with longevity. The Patriots, for example, have won four World Championships during their 15-year dynasty run: they have won a Super Bowl in roughly 26.7 percent of seasons they participated in during those 15 years.

But enough of the talk, let's take a look at the what the numbers tell us.

Title Game Performance

Green Bay Packers Pittsburgh Steelers San Francisco 49ers New England Patriots

Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking
Titles Won 5 1 4 t-2 4 t-2 4 t-2
Titles Percentage .556 1 .286 3 .333 2 .267 4
Title Game Appearances 6 t-1 4 t-3 4 t-3 6 t-1
Title Game Appearance Percentage .667 1 .286 4 .333 3 .400 2

When looking solely at title game performance, we find out that the Patriots are tied for second place with the Steelers and 49ers in terms of volume but behind the two teams in terms of percentage. In short: the Patriots needed more seasons to win the same number of titles. When it comes to title game appearences, though, the Patriots jump ahead of both teams and are tied with the '60s Packers in number of games reached and behind them in terms of appearance percentage.

Playoff Performance

Green Bay Packers Pittsburgh Steelers San Francisco 49ers New England Patriots

Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking
Playoff Berths 6 4 9 t-2 9 t-2 12 1
Playoff Berth Percentage .667 3 .643 4 .750 2 .800 1
Playoff Winning Percentage .900 1 .0737 t-2 .0737 t-2 .724 4

During their dynasty run, the Patriots have reached the playoffs an incredible 80% of the time. However, they are last when it comes to playoff winning percentage, which see: salary cap probably has to be expected given the emphasis the league placed on creating parity. Still, to illustrate how closely the Steelers, 49ers and Patriots are together in winning percentage: if the Patriots win two more playoff games this season than they lose, they jump ahead of both teams and into second place (the '60s Packers are near impossible to reach).

Regular Season Performance, Roster Turnover & Longevity

Green Bay Packers Pittsburgh Steelers San Francisco 49ers New England Patriots

Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking Numbers Ranking
Regular Season Winning Percentage .746 1 .0621 4 .0655 3 .733 2
Roster Turnover 14 3 22 4 6 2 1 1
Longevity 9 yrs. 4 14 yrs. 2 12 yrs. 3 15 yrs. 1

Once again, the Packers lead the way in terms of winning percentage. However, the Patriots have a) had a longer dynastic run and thus b) more roster turnover as only one player Tom Brady has been part of all four championship teams.

It has to be pointed out that, if the Steve Young-era were included, the 49ers would overtake the Patriots in the final two categories. However, given the fact that as stated above another NFC team overtook San Francisco during the early 1990s, Mr. Young and the teams he played on are left out.

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Recap

As said above, this is far from a perfect method to compare dynastic teams. After all, there is no way of definitely saying "this is the staring point of a dynasty, and this is its end". Be assured, though, I have tried my best to give the chosen dates as much thought as possible.

Despite the possible inaccuracies, we can still draw a few conclusions by looking at the numbers, especially regarding the Patriots and their ranking on the NFL Network's "Top 10". While the team is ranked behind the Packers, Steelers and 49ers on NFL Network, a look at the numbers shows us that an argument can definitely be made to place the Patriots higher. After all, the cumulative average ranking is the best among the four teams (1.9) in the salary cap era no less.

In the end, all four dynasties have been great, have dominated their respective eras and have changed the game of football as well as its perception forever. They are, in a way, like the Beatles: everybody prefers another one but, in all honesty, you can't go wrong with either one (not even Ringo).