Last week, Paul Kuharsky asked over at ESPN AFC South Blog which the best Oilers/Titans team was, listing among his possibilities the 1960 and ’61 AFL champions, the 1979 team that lost close to the Steelers in the AFC Championship game, the 1999 Super Bowl team, and the 2000 team whose playoff loss caused me to kick apart a cardboard box. (Yes, it was empty, and I was going to throw it away. Yes, it felt good, dangit.)
I’d started some mucking around in this direction, poking around with different ways to evaluate the “best” team in franchise history. I tend to value regular season success more than postseason success, and particularly regular season dominance, as you’ll see. I also didn’t take into account in my analysis league-wide honors for players on that team, like Pro Bowls and All-Pro and Hall of Fame members. I especially don’t particularly like relying on Pro Bowls, which tend to be the same players over and over mixed in with a smattering of guys who have good conventional stats. This tends to focus too much attention on particular big names (let’s be honest, Bruce Matthews didn’t really deserve to make it to the Pro Bowl every year he did), and also overrates stars-and-scrubs systems. In the analysis, I refer to teams’ DVOA, the base statistic we use at Football Outsiders (available 1993-present), and also Pythagorean wins (PythWins), which tells you many games a team “should” win based on their points scored and points allowed.
So, what’s my take on the best teams in franchise history?
I think there are three contenders, one from each “era,” such as they were:
1. In the Houston AFL era, the 1961 AFL champions. After a mediocre start, Lou Rymkus was fired and Wally Lemm hired him. They won their last 9 regular season games, all by at least 12 points, and then beat the Chargers again in the championship game. For the year, they scored more than twice as many points as they gave up, which is very impressive. The 1960 team was good, too, but wasn’t nearly as dominant.
2. In the Houston NFL era, Paul nominated the 1979 team, but the Earl Campbell/Bum Phillips teams weren’t actually that great. That team, for example, only had 8.8 Pythagorean wins and greatly overachieved by going 11-5. They didn’t have a great defense and didn’t have much of a passing offense. While they didn’t have playoff success, the best Houston-era NFL team was probably the 1993 squad, which went 12-4 and won their last 11 games. That team had 11.8 Pythagorean wins and was the best team in the NFL the second half of the year (see Weighted DVOA in the second table here
3. In Tennessee, I’d rate the 2000 team more highly than the 1999 team, even though that latter squad made the Super Bowl. The numbers certainly agree: 12.9 v. 9.8 Pythagorean wins, and a much better DVOA (33.2% v. 16.7%). The roster was virtually the same, but Randall Godfrey was a big upgrade at linebacker and Derrick Mason emerged to give the team a big receiving threat it lacked in 1999, plus Steve McNair got better. Most people would rate the 1999 team more highly because of their postseason success, but it actually wasn’t a very impressive run. They needed the Music City Miracle to beat Buffalo, ground out a win in Indianapolis, did have a good win in the AFC Championship Game in Jacksonville, but then the Rams outplayed them pretty badly in the Super Bowl. Yes, the game ended up close, but the Rams really were that dominant. Check out the play-by-play
if you need a reminder: the Rams’ first six drives all reached the red zone, and the Titans were very fortunate to only be down 16-0 at that point. With a normal red zone performance for both teams (the Rams were very good and the Titans rather mediocre there in the regular season), it could have been 34-0 and there is no comeback.
As to which of the three it should be, the easiest for me is to say which it isn’t and that’s the 1961 team. While they dominated the AFL for most of the season, in the early 1960’s, the AFL wasn’t nearly as good as the NFL. For more on how the AFL compared to the NFL, see P-F-R blog’s series
on that topic. I don’t know what Paul asked the question, but that the Oilers weren’t the best pro football team in 1961 for me kills their chances.
Between 1993 and 2000, it’s a more difficult call. 1993 was probably the better team at the end of the year, but they really had a poor start, capped by a 35-7 blowout loss on Monday Night Football against Buffalo. The 2000 team was in every game-they lost their 3 games by a combined 7 points, and with a large but not unreasonable amount of luck could have gone 16-0. To me, that makes the 2000 Titans the best team in franchise history.