What Makes An NFL Dynasty?

In terms of gratuitous overuse in the American sports vocabulary, “dynasty” is a word right up there with “Greatest Of All-Time” and “dominant.”

So when Pigskin Dispatch producer Darin Hayes asked for input to more precisely define the term and thus determine, ultimately, which, if any, National Football League team in history can be honestly termed a “dynasty,” yours truly jumped at the chance to run it through the mental meatgrinder.

Here is the full project by Darin on Pigskin Dispatch.

The following 1,500 words are an attempt to answer Darin’s musings.

Dynasty (n.) a word meaning…

Prior to the 20th century, “dynasty” was used almost exclusively by historians as referring to rule over a given people, sometimes for several generations, by familial or political lineage.

In English, the word “dynasty” is approximately 650 years old, coming into the language through Latin; “dynastia” in turn, was a loan word from the Ancient Greek.

In the sports context, the folks at Merriam-Webster tell us that the first connection between sports and “dynasty” appeared in the Washington Post of December 16, 1905, in the “Baseball Notes” roundup column. In one snippet, the snarky uncredited writer notes that

“John T. Brush’s baseball dynasty was shattered before he got it well established. When the National League took the feet from under him it let John T. down with a dull thud.”

However, this usage of “baseball dynasty” has nothing to do with the on-field play of the Brush-owned New York Giants or any competing Major League team. Instead, the passage refers to Brush’s attempted ouster of then-National League president Harry Pulliam over a controversy involving manager John McGraw (imagine that).

Brush’s would-be coup failed with the aforementioned dull thud when club owners by a vote of 7-1 reelected Pulliam NL president.

Merriam-Webster’s second cited reference to “dynasty” in a sports context comes seven years later. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of November 19, 1912, the sports pages’ “Wray’s Column” takes aim at the concept of free agency (!), warning that players “would do well to make haste slowly in advocating changes” because

“if players were free agents at the end of every two years, baseball dynasties such as those built up by the Cubs, Athletics, Detroits (sic) and Giants would not be possible.”

Now here are some useful measuring sticks, at least as to what a sportswriter most reasonably call dynastic in 1912. The merits of the mentioned clubs up to Wray’s time were:

  • Chicago Cubs of 1906-1911: won two World Series, four AL pennants, six seasons over .600.
  • Philadelphia Athletics of 1909-1911: won two World Series, three seasons over .670 (through ’14, these A’s would win three World Series and four AL pennants in the six-year span).
  • Detroit Tigers of 1907-1909: won three AL pennants.
  • New York Giants of 1911-1913: won three NL pennants.

Mr. Wray’s bar seems a bit low: If his informal definition of “dynasty” means three seasons of excellence which include either two Super Bowl/league championship wins or three championship appearances, some 24 teams would qualify – clearly too many.  

In a football context, the first two apparent in-print mentions of “football dynasty” are interesting, if not necessarily very helpful for our purposes.

In 1921, an exuberant uncredited sportswriter on the Arizona Daily Star editorial page, proclaimed that “the collegiate football dynasties of the East will do well to look to their crowns” after Cal drubbed Ohio State in that year’s Rose Bowl game.

The writer is clearly referring to the legendary Ivy League teams of the late 19th/early 20th century, but also shows a bit of short-term memory loss, as Western teams beat the Ivies in the 1916 and ’17 Rose Bowl games.

Canada got into the word game the following year, using the newfangled phrase to describe that year’s Interprovincial Rugby Football Union championship game, essentially the Grey Cup semifinal game: “Queen’s are the new kings of Canadian rugby.

They defeated Argos Saturday, and overthrew the Toronto football dynasty which for years has dominated the game.”

The writer was likely referring not to the Argonauts specifically – they’d appeared in five of the nine Grey Cup championship games played from 1909 to ’21, winning two – but to the city of Toronto, whose clubs represented 13 of the 18 sides in those first nine ’Cup games. Modern North American sports leagues make this scenario impossible.

For All the Dynasty in China

For Western historians, the team “dynasty” seems to be most frequently (and appropriately) applied to Chinese history. Prior to the 1911 Revolution and subsequent establishment of the republic of China, 68 dynasties had ruled whatever the given age acknowledged as “China” for 4,000 years – an average turnover of one new dynasty every 59 years.

Also of note:

  • Just 16 of these dynasties lasted more than 90 years;
  • these longer-lasting (“more dominant”?) dynasties averaged 275 years’ worth of rule; and
  • the first four Chinese dynasties combined to rule for over 1,800 years.

This is no mere tangent – we’re getting back to football soon – but rather a suggestion. If we are using the term “dynasty” correctly, even with the only “sustained success” as a measuring stick, we might reasonably expect to see the number of NFL dynasties appear in similar ratios. The Chinese statistics suggest there might be…

  • about four long-term dynasties in the 101-year history of the NFL/AFL/AAFC;
  • the length of the dynasty should be measured over a 7-year span; and
  • we can reasonably assume a maximum of 14 nominees in total.

A final comparison of the NFL and ruling China: Both are difficult. In step with Chinese dynasties, we might expect the longer dynastic runs in the NFL bookending history. Why? In the beginning, the NFL/recognized China were smaller; toward the modern day, technology and increasingly scientific methods of coaching/rule foster dominance by the elite class.

Some Formulas to Success

When the proposition of defining “dynasty” in NFL football first came to me, the Occam’s Razor of an equation came to me:

Dominance Level = (Championship wins + (championship losses x 0.5)) ÷ years

If the “Dominance Level” is greater than 0.5, the team might be fairly called a dynasty. This equation is nearly the mathematical expression of the definition of “baseball dynasty” put forth in Post-Dispatch, but the qualifier “greater than 0.5” would rightfully eliminate from contention as a true dynasty three of Wray’s four teams – and rightfully so. True dynasties should be rare.

Working from this equation, we’ll also establish four as a minimum timespan: Mr. Wray’s gushing over three-year spans seems too short, while anything over five years is a challenge in nearly any North American sports league, nevermind the NFL.

(Heck, since the CFL’s modern era began in 1957, just two teams have appeared in four or more consecutive Grey Cups and none have achieved the feat since 1982 – and this is a league that usually fields eight or nine teams!)

We’d also add the qualifier that no dynasty should run concurrently with another; the term is “dynasty,” a ruling over, after all.

So with the simple formula, we get the following professional football teams qualifying for the title of “dynasty”:

  • 1921-24 Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs, 0.750 Domination Level
  • 1927-32 Green Bay Packers, 0.666 DL
  • 1936-39 Green Bay Packers, 0.625 DL
  • 1940-46 Chicago Bears, 0.642 DL
  • 1951-57 Cleveland Browns, 0.642 DL
  • 1964-67 Green Bay Packers, 0.750 DL
  • 1971-74 Miami Dolphins, 0.625 DL
  • 1974-1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, 0.666 DL
  • 1993-1996 Dallas Cowboys, 0.750 DL
  • 2000-2003 New England Patriots, 0.750 DL
  • 2014-2018 New England Patriots, 0.700 DL
  • 2019-2022 Kansas City Chiefs, 0.625 DL

Lo and behold, 12 teams after the Chinese history theory had us looking for 12. One may note the exclusion of one potential dynasty, the 1980s San Francisco 49ers; specifically speaking, the 1982 to ’90 Niners who won four Super Bowls helmed by Bill Walsh and powered by the battery of Montana/Young-to-Rice.

One simple way in which the formula can be tweaked – and not coincidentally also account for ever-expanded playoff brackets – would be to add points for playoff appearances. If we assess an additional ¼-point for each playoff appearance not including wildcard-round losses, the formula now looks like so:

Dominance Level = (Championship wins + (championship losses x 0.5) + (playoff appearances* x 0.25)) 

÷ years

This modification feels like a fair balance between the pre-1960s NFL champions, who played maybe one game before the championship and the post-2000s with wildly expanded playoffs often admitting teams with losing records that are in now way due consideration as proper dynasties.

With this new formula, the dynastic teams list may now include those 49ers and pumps up the DL of a few teams

  • 1921-24 Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs, 0.750 Domination Level
  • 1927-32 Green Bay Packers, 0.666 DL
  • 1936-39 Green Bay Packers, 0.916 DL
  • 1940-46 Chicago Bears, 0.964 DL
  • 1951-57 Cleveland Browns, 0.786 DL
  • 1964-67 Green Bay Packers, 0.937 DL
  • 1971-74 Miami Dolphins, 0.875 DL
  • 1974-1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, 0.916 DL
  • 1982-1990 San Francisco 49ers, 0.638 DL
  • 1993-1996 Dallas Cowboys, 1.000 DL
  • 2000-2003 New England Patriots, 0.937 DL
  • 2014-2018 New England Patriots, 0.950 DL
  • 2019-2022 Kansas City Chiefs, 0.875 DL

The adjusted formula additionally allows us to include one other team, a team without an actual NFL title, but still showing domination over at least their side of the table:

  • 1990-93 Buffalo Bills: 0.750 DL

Through these 14 teams, we can describe the entire history of professional football, and this is a function of dynasties in actual history, i.e. defining an era and demonstrating the changes taking place over that time through the leadership.

And through these 14 teams, we can choose the way we wish to define the greatness of these teams relative to one another. For example, you want the most formidable of the dynasties (all short because the candle that burns twice as bright, etc.) are:

  • 1940-46 Chicago Bears, 0.964 DL
  • 1964-67 Green Bay Packers, 0.937 DL
  • 1993-96 Dallas Cowboys, 1.000 DL
  • 2000-03 New England Patriots, 0.937 DL
  • 2014-18 New England Patriots, 0.950 DL

It could be argued, though, that the longer runs of dominance make for the more impressive feat. The longer-lasting dynasties in NFL history include:

  • 1940-46 Chicago Bears, 0.964 DL
  • 1951-57 Cleveland Browns, 0.786 DL
  • 1960-67 Green Bay Packers, 0.875 DL
  • 1982-90 San Francisco 49ers, 0.638 DL
  • 2000-18 New England Patriots, 0.600 DL

The outliers here are of course the Browns, who, despite winning the NFL East Division some six times, won only two championships in the days of a 12-team league.

Conclusion: Making the Question Clearer

As with all philosophical questions – and for the sports historian “What is an NFL dynasty?” *is* a philosophical question – the endgame isn’t necessarily about providing a simple answer, but instead is often about making the original question a bit clearer.

The truth is that in the NFL, as in world history, some dynasties are long, some are short. Each dynasty, from the early hold on the APFA by the Canton/Cleveland Bulldogs through two decades of New England lordship, influences the sport forward, and serves as a measuring stick for its era.

This is the meaning of “NFL Dynasty.”

Help Us Define A Dynasty

Author - Os Davis

This article was written by Os Davis, host of Truly the GOATs podcast, and producer/content creator of many of our other ventures here on the Sports History Network. 

You should also check out Orville Mulligan: Sports Writer.  This is an

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