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Feb 10

NFL Franchise Rankings: Intro

Most of this website was, is and will continue to be dedicated to looking beyond simple rankings and lists, as we look to delve into the deepest and truest forms of analysis. However, with the history and aura of the National Football League sweeping its way through the sports scene with the completion of Super Bowl XLVIII, we’re going to add a taste of TABMathletics to the evaluation of the league as a whole. There’s simply too temptation at this time. Therefore, we will spend this week revealing a list that ranks each NFL franchise. Of course, in the spirit of TABMathletics, the rankings will relate in no way to any subjective opinions. Instead, this list will try to objectively quantify the success of each franchise. We will use multiple factors, and assign point values to each factor, to determine where each of the 32 current NFL franchise place on this all-time list.

For these rankings, I hope to fairly allocate value for teams based on the results of each year. I will allocate values to factors that people will remember the most. That includes championships of every level. Furthermore, there needs to be an allocation of values for some of the basic components, like winning and losing seasons. It’s not going to be perfect, but hopefully it properly rewards the franchises that consistently perform well and properly punishes the franchises that struggle to compete with the rest of the league.

The point values assigned to each team will occur in a year-to-year fashion. With the dynamics of the league changing through the years, via mergers and expansions, the points system is created for eight different time periods. Note that each franchise entire history is accounted for in these rankings, which means the American Football League (AFL) and All-America Football Conference (AAFC) outcomes count in this study. These two leagues had a major impact on professional football, so they are a worthy inclusion. Plus, with only 14 years between the two leagues, this inclusion won’t have a major impact.

With all of the periods and years put together, let’s get to the points system in itself. More factors are accounted for as the years pass. The league got bigger, as well as the playoff system. Below we have each of the eight respective sub-systems for each time period.

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The Pre-Championship Game Era (1920-32)
Upon the formation of a little football league called the American Professional Football Association (APFA), a vote determined which team became the champion. Once the league changed its name to the National Football League, that vote continued. This brought its fair share of controversy, including the 1925 decision to not choose the Pottsville Maroons as the league champions. It wasn’t until the league split its teams into two divisions that the NFL left made the championship crowning to be determined on the field.

  • Championship = eight points
  • Winning record = five points
  • .500 record = zero points
  • Losing record = negative-five points

Because of the instability of franchises in the NFL at this time, I created a set value for being named an NFL champion. In general, there were at least eight teams competing for the title, although not all teams played the same amount of games in a given season. Meanwhile, the only other points award were based simply on record.

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The 10-Team Era (1933-45)
When the NFL introduced its championship game in 1933, it was because the league expanded to 10 teams. This included eight original franchises. The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles all were in their current forms. The Arizona (Chicago) Cardinals, Detroit Lions (Portsmouth Spartans), Pittsburgh Steelers (Pirates) and Washington (Boston) Redskins all held a different namesake. The Eagles and Steelers were the two newcomers, while the St. Louis Rams became a franchise when starting out in Cleveland in 1937. Multiple franchises in some way or another hung around as the 10th franchise.

  • Championship = one point per team in the league (e.g.: 1933 Bears get 10 points — 10-team NFL)
  • Runner-up = one point per team in the division (e.g.: 1933 Giants get five points — five-team Eastern Division)
  • Playoff victory = two points each
  • Winning record = five points
  • .500 record = zero points
  • Losing record = negative-five points
  • Sub-.250 record = negative-three points (added to losing season)

With more stability to NFL franchises, we can go with the route of giving value to champions based on the size of the league. With more teams, the more points a champion will receive. The only exceptions (in terms of size) to this era are from 1934-36 (nine teams in 1934; 11 teams in 1935 and 1936). Meanwhile, the stability of the league also allows the addition for the “sub-.250” role. The “sub-.250” indication includes teams with a 25.0 winning percentage or below. In an era where most of the franchises built a stable financial profile, there is a legitimate expectation for each team to compete. Therefore, we can properly penalize the teams that fail to do so. Thus, we’ll take away three points from teams that finished with a winning percentage of .250 or worse.

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The Nation’s Second League (1946-49)
The AAFC began play in 1946 with eight new franchises to battle for football relevancy. The league lasted only four years, but it did send the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers to the NFL. Those two franchises were the most successful in the AAFC by far. The Browns won the league championship all four years. The 49ers finished with the second-best winning percentage and an appearance in the final championship game. (A third franchise, the Baltimore Colts, was part of the merger to the NFL. That franchise folded, but the current Colts franchise held the namesake when joining the NFL in 1953.)

  • Championship (NFL only) = one point per team in the league
  • Championship (AAFC only) = eight points
  • Runner-up (NFL only) = one point per team in the division
  • Runner-up (AAFC only) = four points
  • Playoff victory (NFL and AAFC) = two points each
  • Winning record (NFL and AAFC) = five points
  • .500 record (NFL and AAFC) = zero points
  • Losing record (NFL and AAFC) = negative-five points
  • Sub-.250 record (NFL and AAFC) = negative-three points (added to losing season)

The AAFC didn’t have as much depth as the NFL, so the championships and runner-up finishes received set values. Quite simply, the Browns didn’t face the same challenges that the NFL champions did from 1946 to 1949.

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The Post-Merger Aftermath (1950-59)
After the NFL merged with the AAFC to receive the Browns and 49ers, the league remained rather stagnant in the 1950s. The Baltimore Colts joined in its current incarnation in 1953, putting the league in a 12-team position for the rest of the decade. In terms of the impact from the AAFC, the Cleveland Browns played the largest role. They won the NFL Championship in 1951, showing that the AAFC was not as inferior as most made it out to be. However, the biggest impact from a non-NFL league will come soon.

  • Championship = one point per team in the league
  • Runner-up = one point per team in the conference
  • Playoff victory = two points each
  • Winning record = five points
  • .500 record = zero points
  • Losing record = negative-five points
  • Sub-.250 record = negative-three points (added to losing season)

We return back to the same points system from the 10-team days. The only difference is now that the divisions became conferences in 1950. The values are very similar for the runners-up in these early eras of the NFL, wither it was from the division or conference.

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The Beginning of the World’s Greatest Football Battle (1960-65)
In 1960, the American Football League (AFL) began its play. From the get-go, the league proved to be a legitimate contender for top-dog status. Six of the top 10 draft picks from the 1960 NFL Draft signed with AFL teams. That was perhaps the opening salvo to a decade-long battle between the NFL and AFL. This would change the landscape of professional American football. Such a battle between two entities wasn’t seen again in sports or entertainment until wrestling entertainment’s Monday Night Wars between WWF(E) and WCW. Both battles ended with the absorption of one entity (AFL, WCW) into another entity (NFL, WWE). However, unlike the famed wrestling battle, this football battle didn’t see one truly triumph over another. The NFL and AFL merged in 1970, more or less as equals.

  • League championship (NFL and AFL) = one point per team in the league
  • League runner-up (NFL and AFL) = one point per team in the conference
  • Playoff victory (NFL and AFL) = two points each
  • Winning record (NFL and AFL) = five points
  • .500 record (NFL and AFL) = zero points
  • Losing record (NFL and AFL) = negative-five points
  • Sub-.250 record (NFL and AFL) = negative-three points (added to losing season)

For the six-year period, the format remained pretty much the same as before. The difference in this era is that two leagues awarded championships. Unlike the AAFC, the AFL proved to be a legitimate equal, so the value of the AFL Championship is similar to that of the NFL Championship. In the end, the NFL Championship held more value because more teams played in the NFL (13 in 1961 and 14 from 1961-65) than the AFL (eight from 1960-65). However, the two leagues would eventually have an opportunity at a championship of equal (and super) value. This made the points system grow vastly.

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The AFL-NFL World Championship Game Era (1966-69)
The opportunity arrived in 1966, when the two leagues agreed to have their respective champions battle in one big game. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was the first call it the Super Bowl, and the name eventually stuck. Before that, though, the leagues agreed to call it the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.” What most don’t know is that this agreement was part of the AFL-NFL merger. Most don’t think of it as part of the merger because a single league wasn’t formed for another four seasons. On June 8, 1966, the merger was announced. It created this game and a common draft. For the ensuing four seasons, the two leagues locked horns in the big game to see which league was superior. Fittingly, each league won two Super Bowls.

  • Super Bowl championship = one point per team in both leagues combined (e.g.: 1966 Packers get 24 points — 16-team NFL and eight-team AFL)
  • League championship (NFL and AFL) = one point per team in the league (excludes Super Bowl champions)
  • League runner-up (NFL only) = eight points
  • League runner-up (AFL only) = five points
  • Playoff victory (NFL and AFL) = two points each
  • Winning record (NFL and AFL) = five points
  • .500 record (NFL and AFL) = zero points
  • Losing record (NFL and AFL) = negative-five points
  • Sub-.250 record (NFL and AFL) = negative-three points (added to losing season)

This era was the pre-cursor for the NFL’s modern era. Many fans honestly see the league’s history through the prism of the Super Bowl. This study doesn’t intend to paint the picture that only the Super Bowl matters. The Super Bowl championship will be included with the NFL / AFL / AAFC Championship all in one category when the study’s results are revealed. However, in the application of the overall system, the Super Bowl championship holds a higher value than the old-school NFL championship. This simply has to do with the size of the league vastly growing with the merger. The odds to win a championship decrease with more teams in the league. Meanwhile, the NFL runners-up received more points than the AFL runners-up because the former league had more teams (18 to 10 advantage by the 1969 season). We kept the value set as a precedent for the future conference championships that followed after the merger.

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The Modern Era, Part 1 (1970-89)
The NFL continues to enjoy great stability since the merger. The only major structural changes to the league in this time stem from expansion. The league saw six expansion teams join over the past four-plus decades. It also saw the playoff system expand over the years, as well as the length of the season increase. For part one in the modern era, the league either had eight or 10 playoff teams. When the league expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990, that led to the second part of the Modern Era.

  • Super Bowl championship = one point per team in the league (e.g.: 1970 Colts get 26 points — 26-team NFL)
  • Conference championship = one point per team in the conference (e.g.: 1970 Cowboys get 13 points — 13-team NFC)
  • Conference runner-up = five points
  • Playoff victory = two points each
  • Division championship = three points
  • Winning record = five points
  • .500 record = zero points
  • Losing record = negative-five points
  • Sub-.250 record = negative-three points (added to losing season)

Note: Division championships from 1982 do not count for points, as the NFL ignored division standings in its seeding for the playoffs. Therefore, no advantage was created by winning the division.

The current standard for the points system was used here, save for one part added in after the playoffs expanded to 12 teams. The points for the conference championship follows the points (in spirit) for the league championship before the merger. However, the conference championship replaces the function of the league runner-up. It will be considered as such when the study’s results are revealed. Meanwhile, the conference runner-up follows the points (in spirit) for the league runners-up before the merger. The completely new element during this era involves the division championship. With six divisions and 26 teams at the time, earning a division championship held some considerable importance. Therefore, giving some points seems very appropriate.

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The Modern Era, Part 2 (since 1990)
As the league expanded to a 12-team playoff system in 1990, this established the “first-round bye.” A considerable advantage followed, as home teams own a 70-26 record in the Divisional Round. That’s good for a 72.9 winning percentage, which is considerably better than the overall 67.4 winning percentage. However, the round became much more dramatic over the years, especially since realignment in 2002. With balance and depth of the league nowadays, many teams are gunning for those top spots.

  • Super Bowl championship = one point per team in the league
  • Conference championship = one point per team in the conference
  • Conference runner-up = five points
  • First-round bye = two points
  • Playoff victory = two points each
  • Division championship = three points
  • Winning record = five points
  • .500 record = zero points
  • Losing record = negative-five points
  • Sub-.250 record = negative-three points (added to losing season)

This treats the first-round bye as an equivalent to a playoff victory. After all, all the first-round bye is give you one opponent-less week. Just like the winners in the first weekend, the teams with the first-round bye advance to the Divisional Round. This becomes important points of those top seeds that go one-and-done. It’s happened a lot more over the past decade, with a 25-15 record for the home teams in that round. That means 15 teams would go empty-handed in the playoffs if not for the two extra points.

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COMING TOMORROW: The countdown begins as we look at spots 32 through 25 in the rankings!

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