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
|1920||Akron Pros||AKR||1.000||Tobin||Fritz Pollard|
|1921||Chicago Staleys||CHS||0.900||Halas||Pard Pearce|
|1922||Canton Bulldogs||CAN||1.000||Chamberlain||Harry Robb|
|1923||Canton Bulldogs||CAN||1.000||Chamberlain||Lou Smyth|
|1924||Cleveland Bulldogs||CBD||0.875||Chamberlain||Hoge Workman|
|1925||Chicago Cardinals||CHC||0.846||Barry||Paddy Driscoll|
|1926||Frankford Yellow Jackets||FYJ||0.933||Chamberlain||Hap Morgan|
|1927||New York Giants||NYG||0.917||Potteiger||Hinkey Haines|
|1928||Providence Steam Roller||PSR||0.889||Conzelman||Wildcat Wilson|
|1929||Green Bay Packers||GNB||1.000||Lambeau||Red Dunn|
|1930||Green Bay Packers||GNB||0.769||Lambeau||Red Dunn|
|1931||Green Bay Packers||GNB||0.857||Lambeau||Red Dunn|
|1932||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.875||Jones||Keith Molesworth|
|1933||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.833||Halas||Keith Molesworth|
|1934||Chicago Bears||CHI||1.000||Halas||Harry Newman|
|1935||New York Giants||NYG||0.750||Owen||Ed Danowski|
|1936||Green Bay Packers||GNB||0.909||Lambeau||Arnie Herber|
|1937||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.900||Halas||Bernie Masterson|
|1938||New York Giants||NYG||0.800||Owen||Ed Danowski|
|1939||New York Giants||NYG||0.900||Owen||Ed Danowski|
|1942||Chicago Bears||CHI||1.000||Halas/Anderson||Sid Luckman|
|1943||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.889||Anderson||Sid Luckman|
|1944||New York Giants||NYG||0.889||Owen||Arnie Herber|
|1945||Cleveland Rams||CLR||0.900||Walsh||Bob Waterfield|
|1946||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.800||Halas||Sid Luckman|
|1947||Chicago Cardinals||CHC||0.750||Conzelman||Paul Christman|
|1948||Chicago Cardinals||CHC||0.917||Conzelman||Ray Mallouf|
|1949||Philadelphia Eagles||PHI||0.917||Neale||Tommy Thompson|
|1951||Cleveland Browns||CLE||0.917||Brown||Otto Graham|
|1953||Cleveland Browns||CLE||0.917||Brown||Otto Graham|
|1954||Detroit Lions||DET||0.818||Parker||Bobby Layne|
|1955||Cleveland Browns||CLE||0.818||Brown||Otto Graham|
|1956||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.818||Driscoll||Ed Brown|
|1957||Cleveland Browns||CLE||0.818||Brown||Tommy O'Connell|
|1959||New York Giants||NYG||0.833||Howell||Charlie Conerly|
|1960||Philadelphia Eagles||PHI||0.833||Shaw||Norm Van Brocklin|
|1961||Green Bay Packers||GNB||0.786||Lombardi||Bart Starr|
|1962||Green Bay Packers||GNB||0.929||Lombardi||Bart Starr|
|1963||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.917||Halas||Billy Wade|
|1964||Baltimore Colts||BAC||0.857||Shula||Johnny Unitas|
|1965||Cleveland Browns||CLE||0.786||Collier||Frank Ryan|
|1966||Green Bay Packers||GNB||0.857||Lombardi||Bart Starr|
|1968||Baltimore Colts||BAC||0.929||Shula||Earl Morrall|
|1969||Minnesota Vikings||MIN||0.857||Grant||Joe Kapp|
|1970||Minnesota Vikings||MIN||0.857||Grant||Gary Cuozzo|
|1972||Miami Dolphins||MIA||1.000||Shula||Earl Morrall|
|1974||Oakland Raiders||OAK||0.857||Madden||Ken Stabler|
|1976||Oakland Raiders||OAK||0.929||Madden||Ken Stabler|
|1978||Pittsburgh Steelers||PIT||0.875||Noll||Terry Bradshaw|
|1981||San Francisco 49ers||SF||0.813||Walsh||Joe Montana|
|1984||San Francisco 49ers||SF||0.938||Walsh||Joe Montana|
|1985||Chicago Bears||CHI||0.938||Ditka||Jim McMahon|
|1987||San Francisco 49ers||SF||0.867||Walsh||Joe Montana|
|1989||San Francisco 49ers||SF||0.875||Seifert||Joe Montana|
|1990||San Francisco 49ers||SF||0.875||Seifert||Joe Montana|
|1992||San Francisco 49ers||SF||0.875||Seifert||Steve Young|
|1994||San Francisco 49ers||SF||0.813||Seifert||Steve Young|
|1995||Kansas City Chiefs||KC||0.813||Schottenheimer||Steve Bono|
|1998||Minnesota Vikings||MIN||0.938||Green||Randall Cunningham|
|1999||Jacksonville Jaguars||JAX||0.875||Coughlin||Mark Brunell|
|2000||Tennessee Titans||TEN||0.813||Fisher||Steve McNair|
|2001||St. Louis Rams||STL||0.875||Martz||Kurt Warner|
|2003||New England Patriots||NE||0.875||Belicheck||Tom Brady|
|2004||Pittsburgh Steelers||PIT||0.938||Cowher||Ben Roethlisberger|
|2005||Indianapolis Colts||IND||0.875||Dungy||Peyton Manning|
|2006||San Diego Chargers||SD||0.875||Schottenheimer||Philip Rivers|
|2007||New England Patriots||NE||1.000||Belicheck||Tom Brady|
|2008||Tennessee Titans||TEN||0.813||Fisher||Kerry Collins|
|2009||Indianapolis Colts||IND||0.875||Caldwell||Peyton Manning|
|2010||New England Patriots||NE||0.875||Belicheck||Tom Brady|
|2011||Green Bay Packers||GNB||0.938||McCarthy||Aaron 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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Prior to 1972, ties were not included in team win%. Since 1972, ties have counted as half of a win. ↩
- 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. ↩