Undisputed NFL Champions Under the Original Title Format

Depending on your perspective, the use of a playoff system to crown a league champion is either a great idea or a terrible idea. If you are of the belief that the title should go to the best team, you may not like the playoffs. After all, the more playoff games a number one seed has to play before the Super Bowl, the lower that team’s chances are of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end.

Alternatively, you may pull for underdogs and love dramatic finishes. You may enjoy the fact that a team can sneak into the playoffs as a wild card team and ride a hot streak to a championship. If so, the playoffs are for you.

I fall somewhere in between. I believe the narrative is what keeps most fans interested in the game, and I know that the possibility of upsets is why games aren’t played on paper. Still, you’ll never convince me the New England Patriots weren’t the best team in the NFL in 2007. And, sure, it’s fun to root for the underdog, but it almost feels unjust when the best team doesn’t win it all.

In the early days of the league, the method for crowning a champion was unsophisticated and probably more appealing to those among us who like to see the best team get the title. From 1920 to 1931, the league awarded the championship to the team with the best record, giving tie breakers to head-to-head winners.1 In 1932, the teams tied for the top record did not play each other, prompting the first legitimate NFL championship game. The NFL restructured in 1933, and playoffs have existed in some form or fashion ever since.

In this post, I’m going to retroactively award the title to the best team (using the NFL’s original assumption that the team with the best record was the best team in the league).2

NFL Champions Under the Original Title Format

The table below represents every year in which a team had sole possession of the NFL’s best record. Read it thus: in 1920, the Akron Pros had a win% of 1.000.3 Their head coach was Elgie Tobin, and their quarterback was Fritz Pollard.4

YearTeamAbbW%CoachQB
1920Akron ProsAKR1.000TobinFritz Pollard
1921Chicago StaleysCHS0.900HalasPard Pearce
1922Canton BulldogsCAN1.000ChamberlainHarry Robb
1923Canton BulldogsCAN1.000ChamberlainLou Smyth
1924Cleveland BulldogsCBD0.875ChamberlainHoge Workman
1925Chicago CardinalsCHC0.846BarryPaddy Driscoll
1926Frankford Yellow JacketsFYJ0.933ChamberlainHap Morgan
1927New York GiantsNYG0.917PotteigerHinkey Haines
1928Providence Steam RollerPSR0.889ConzelmanWildcat Wilson
1929Green Bay PackersGNB1.000LambeauRed Dunn
1930Green Bay PackersGNB0.769LambeauRed Dunn
1931Green Bay PackersGNB0.857LambeauRed Dunn
1932Chicago BearsCHI0.875JonesKeith Molesworth
1933Chicago BearsCHI0.833HalasKeith Molesworth
1934Chicago BearsCHI1.000HalasHarry Newman
1935New York GiantsNYG0.750OwenEd Danowski
1936Green Bay PackersGNB0.909LambeauArnie Herber
1937Chicago BearsCHI0.900HalasBernie Masterson
1938New York GiantsNYG0.800OwenEd Danowski
1939New York GiantsNYG0.900OwenEd Danowski
1940WashingtonWAS0.818FlahertySammy Baugh
1942Chicago BearsCHI1.000Halas/AndersonSid Luckman
1943Chicago BearsCHI0.889AndersonSid Luckman
1944New York GiantsNYG0.889OwenArnie Herber
1945Cleveland RamsCLR0.900WalshBob Waterfield
1946Chicago BearsCHI0.800HalasSid Luckman
1947Chicago CardinalsCHC0.750ConzelmanPaul Christman
1948Chicago CardinalsCHC0.917ConzelmanRay Mallouf
1949Philadelphia EaglesPHI0.917NealeTommy Thompson
1951Cleveland BrownsCLE0.917BrownOtto Graham
1953Cleveland BrownsCLE0.917BrownOtto Graham
1954Detroit LionsDET0.818ParkerBobby Layne
1955Cleveland BrownsCLE0.818BrownOtto Graham
1956Chicago BearsCHI0.818DriscollEd Brown
1957Cleveland BrownsCLE0.818BrownTommy O'Connell
1959New York GiantsNYG0.833HowellCharlie Conerly
1960Philadelphia EaglesPHI0.833ShawNorm Van Brocklin
1961Green Bay PackersGNB0.786LombardiBart Starr
1962Green Bay PackersGNB0.929LombardiBart Starr
1963Chicago BearsCHI0.917HalasBilly Wade
1964Baltimore ColtsBAC0.857ShulaJohnny Unitas
1965Cleveland BrownsCLE0.786CollierFrank Ryan
1966Green Bay PackersGNB0.857LombardiBart Starr
1968Baltimore ColtsBAC0.929ShulaEarl Morrall
1969Minnesota VikingsMIN0.857GrantJoe Kapp
1970Minnesota VikingsMIN0.857GrantGary Cuozzo
1972Miami DolphinsMIA1.000ShulaEarl Morrall
1974Oakland RaidersOAK0.857MaddenKen Stabler
1976Oakland RaidersOAK0.929MaddenKen Stabler
1978Pittsburgh SteelersPIT0.875NollTerry Bradshaw
1981San Francisco 49ersSF0.813WalshJoe Montana
1983WashingtonWAS0.875GibbsJoe Theismann
1984San Francisco 49ersSF0.938WalshJoe Montana
1985Chicago BearsCHI0.938DitkaJim McMahon
1987San Francisco 49ersSF0.867WalshJoe Montana
1989San Francisco 49ersSF0.875SeifertJoe Montana
1990San Francisco 49ersSF0.875SeifertJoe Montana
1991WashingtonWAS0.875GibbsMark Rypien
1992San Francisco 49ersSF0.875SeifertSteve Young
1994San Francisco 49ersSF0.813SeifertSteve Young
1995Kansas City ChiefsKC0.813SchottenheimerSteve Bono
1998Minnesota VikingsMIN0.938GreenRandall Cunningham
1999Jacksonville JaguarsJAX0.875CoughlinMark Brunell
2000Tennessee TitansTEN0.813FisherSteve McNair
2001St. Louis RamsSTL0.875MartzKurt Warner
2003New England PatriotsNE0.875BelicheckTom Brady
2004Pittsburgh SteelersPIT0.938CowherBen Roethlisberger
2005Indianapolis ColtsIND0.875DungyPeyton Manning
2006San Diego ChargersSD0.875SchottenheimerPhilip Rivers
2007New England PatriotsNE1.000BelicheckTom Brady
2008Tennessee TitansTEN0.813FisherKerry Collins
2009Indianapolis ColtsIND0.875CaldwellPeyton Manning
2010New England PatriotsNE0.875BelicheckTom Brady
2011Green Bay PackersGNB0.938McCarthyAaron Rodgers

A few thoughts on the above table

It’s interesting to see how things could have been versus how they actually were. How many legends would we remember differently if the NFL still crowned champions under the original title format?

  • Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr would have led Green Bay to only three titles instead of five.
  • Vikings fans could rejoice at their team’s three championships. Sadly, Fran Tarkenton was not on any of those rosters.
  • Instead of four rings, Joe Montana would have and entire handful. However, George Seifert would now be San Francisco’s most successful coach.
  • No other quarterback would even have four rings. However, Starr, Ed Danowski, Otto Graham, Red Dunn, Sid Luckman, and Tom Brady have three rings apiece.
  • Troy Aikman would have no championships to his name, and the population at large might put him in his rightful place beneath Steve Young.
  • Tom Coughlin would still have a title, but it would be with the Jaguars instead of the Giants.
  • Marty Schottenheimer would own a championship with two separate teams, and Peyton Manning would boast a ring with two separate head coaches.
  • There was never one for John, as John Elway never laid claim to an undisputed NFL title.
  • However, Kerry Collins, Steve Bono, and Gary Cuozzo would all be championship quarterbacks.
  • Eli Manning would probably never get mentioned in Hall of Fame discussions, but Philip Rivers‘ name would come up much more often. Tony Romo is still out in the cold.

I could go on about interesting changes that would shape the way we look at past and present players, but I’d rather hear your opinions. Also, join me later this week when I discuss the disputed champions using the same method.

  1. These early years were rife with controversy, especially in regards to naming league champions. The 1921 championship controversy saw the Chicago Staleys swindle the Buffalo All-Americans out of the title based on  cocktail of confusion and impromptu rule-making. The 1925 title dispute saw the league award the crown in controversial fashion after creating post hoc regulations to punish the Pottsville Maroons. I’m glad the NFL doesn’t make up rules on the fly anymore.
  2. This is obviously a flawed assumption. Is a team that goes 14-2 and has to come from behind in every victory better than a team that goes 13-3, blowing out opponents but suffering losses when the starting quarterback was injured for three weeks? Their records say “Yes,” but history is full of teams that have better records despite having inferior Pythagorean records, SRS scores, DVOA scores, or any other metric you can come up with. However, the point of this post is to see who would be king had the NFL never changed its format.
  3. Prior to 1972, ties were not included in team win%. Since 1972, ties have counted as half of a win.
  4. Note that the distinction of “quarterback” is a bit nebulous in the NFL’s stone age. We don’t have official passing statistics prior to 1932, and even then the most pass-heavy team threw 212 attempts in 14 games.