Posted by Chase Stuart on January 21, 2009
Yesterday we took a look at some of the statistics of the 43 teams to ever lose a Super Bowl, and I began the complicated task of ranking the top Super Bowl losers. Four great offenses -- the '90 Bills, '84 Dolphins, '83 Redskins and '69 Raiders -- made the cut but fell outside the top five. Today we'll take an in depth look at one man's view on the five greatest Super Bowl losers of all time.
5. 1978 Cowboys. Don't let the 12-4 record deceive you. The Cowboys ranked 1st in points scored and 3rd in points allowed. Dallas had five Hall of Famers on their team, including Tom Landry. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a team with nine HOFers and Lynn Swann, and lost one of the closest Super Bowls of all time. And if not for Jackie Smith, they might not even be on this list.
What makes this team special?
The Cowboys were the defending SB champs which earns them bonus points in my book. Roger Staubach had another brilliant season and ranked as the top QB in the league. Tony Dorsett ranked second in the league in yards from scrimmage, behind only Walter Payton. Tony Hill had only two receptions for the '77 champs but led Dallas in receiving yards in '78. With both Pearsons returning and TE Billy Joe DuPree making his third straight Pro Bowl, this was an offense that had stars at every level.
Too Tall Jones was in the prime of his career, as were Pro Bowl DL Randy White and Harvey Martin. Both safeties also made the Pro Bowl. If this sounds like a flawless team, you're not imagining things. Dallas ranked in the top five in passing yards, passing yards allowed, rushing yards and rushing yards allowed. The Cowboys also ranked in the top five in adjusted net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt allowed, yards per carry and yards per carry allowed.
The Cowboys avenged one of their regular season losses by blowing the Rams out in Los Angeles, 28-0. That great performance, combined with going head to head with the Steelers, makes them worthy of being called one of the five greatest SB runner ups ever. And like the next team on this list, they ranked in the top five in both SRS rating and in playoff margin of victory.
4. 2001 Rams. It's not easy to find fault with this team that went 16-2 before falling to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Rams lost by three to the Saints (and avenged that with a 13 point win later in the year) and by a touchdown to the rival Bucs. For the third straight season, the Rams cleared 500 points scored. Kurt Warner was in his prime and was the top QB in the league. Marshall Faulk chipped in a typical season of 2100 total yards and 21 total TDs. Torry Holt was now a superstar WR whereas he was just a part of the '99 machine. With Holt, Isaac Bruce and Az-Zahir Hakim, the Greatest Show on Turf was almost impossible to even slow down. St. Louis scored 30 or more points in 11 of their 16 games, put up 45 in their playoff opener and then had a workmanlike 29 points in an NFC Championship win over the Eagles.
The Rams ranked 4th in adjusted net yards per pass allowed and boasted an above average rush defense. The Rams defense stole the show in the playoff game against the Packers, with six interceptions of Brett Favre. For the season, Leonard Little and Grant Wistrom combined for 23.5 sacks, London Fletcher had his typical big year in the middle and cornerbacks Aeneas Williams, Dexter McCleon and Dre' Bly combined for 14 interceptions, six fumble recoveries and five defensive touchdowns.
This team often looked invincible and unbeatable. The prior year, with a terrible defense, the Rams set the record for passing yards in a season and scored the third most points in league history. This team could have put up just as gaudy offensive numbers but did not have the need because of the strong pass defense. In the Super Bowl, the Rams defense didn't let the team down, allowing only one touchdown. But on that day, the '01 Patriots found a way to win.
3. Minnesota 1969. I recently wrote about the greatest defenses of all time, and the '69 Vikings were one of only four teams (now five, thanks to the '07 Steelers) since 1960 to lead the league in points allowed, offensive touchdowns allowed, adjusted net yards per attempt allowed and adjusted yards per carry allowed. That's the combined AFL-NFL league, not just the sixteen team NFL. I argued that the Purple People Eaters were maybe the greatest defense of all time:
Post-season failures by the team enabled this dynastic defense to fade into oblivion. The ‘69 Vikings went 1-1-1-1 in our four categories; the ‘70 version went 1-1-1-3 and the ‘71 team went 1-1-2-2. The Vikings had a three year stretch that was never matched.... The ‘69 Vikings allowed 133 points, 0.9 OTA/G, 0.96 ANYAA and 3.47 AYPCA. NFL averages were 301, 2.3, 4.70 and 4.62.
Many have waxed poetic about the 2007 Giants defensive line -- well the '69 Vikings sent all four lineman to the Pro Bowl. You know your line is stacked when Jim Marshall is your third best player. That Vikings DL was the last quartet to all make the Pro Bowl, although Marshall's three teammates all earned invitations again in '70. The Vikings allowed only 44% as many points as the league average team, the lowest ratio of any team since 1960.
The Cleveland Browns, third in the league in scoring, got obliterated 51-3 by the Vikings in the regular season. When the teams met again to decide the NFC Championship, you know the Browns -- with a Pro Bowl QB, RB and WR -- were anxious for revenge. Instead, they were held out of the end zone until the game's final minutes, scoring a meaningless touchdown in a 27-7 defeat.
I don't think there's ever been a better defense than this team; the '85/'86 Bears, '00 Ravens, '02 Bucs and '07 Steelers may have matched them but no one can ever lay claim to being stingier, tougher or more talented than this group.
What about the offense? Quarterback Joe Kapp took over after Minnesota dropped their first game of the season, and he went 14-1 before dropping that Super Bowl to the Chiefs. That said, Kapp ranked as just an average QB in my quarterback rating system, and he's the glaring weakness on this team. It's easy to think of Vikings as one team because of the SB appearances in '69, '73, '74 and '76, but the '69 team had arguably the greatest defense of all time and an average offense while the Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman teams had merely run of the mill very good defenses. The lone star of this offense was wideout Gene Washington, who wasn't even the best wide receiver named Gene Washington of his era.
That said, while the offense may have lacked star power, they still led the league in points scored. The Vikings have the best Pythagorean record of any Super Bowl runner up, and are worthy of their third place finish on this list.
That leaves just two teams. The 1968 Baltimore Colts (15-2) and the 2007 New England Patriots (18-1). I don't think any of us forgot what the '07 Pats did, so let's start with some background on the Colts. I have no doubt that had Baltimore won, those Colts would be in the small discussion for greatest team of all time. For starters, they were 18 point favorites in the Super Bowl despite the Packers being "just" 14 and 13.5 point favorites in their Super Bowls -- people viewed them as unbeatable. These Colts allowed just 10.3 PPG in the regular season, the same the Baltimore Ravens would allow in 2000. This was an all time great defense that happened to have the league MVP at quarterback. Very few times do you have a star QB and a star defense on the same team, but this was one of those teams.
We've got an all time great defense and an excellent offense against the best offense of all time and a very good defense. How do we decide? Prior to the Super Bowl, the Patriots had outscored their opponents 35.6 to 17.0, a margin of 18.6 PPG; not to be outdone, the Colts outscored their opponents 28.8 to 9.9, a margin of 18.9 PPG. One-third of the Patriots 18 games were decided by ten points or less, and they of course went 6-0; only one-fourth of the Colts' 16 games were decided by 10 points or less, and they went 3-1.
Let's go unit by unit:
Pass offense: Tom Brady had one of the three greatest seasons any quarterback has ever had. Earl Morrall was a worthy NFL MVP, as he ranked as the top QB in the NFL that season according to my QB rating system. That said, over in the AFL, Len Dawson and Daryle Lamonica had seasons that were just as good. While Morrall season's was great, there's not much comparison here. As for Johnny Unitas, he only completed 11 passes that season. Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth vs. Jimmy Orr, Willie Richardson and John Mackey. Randy Moss had one of the greatest WR seasons ever, Wes Welker had an incredible 112 catches and Donte Stallworth was a strong third receiver. For the Colts, Jimmy Orr averaged an absurd 25.6 yards per reception, Willie Richardson ranked in the top ten in receiving touchdowns and John Mackey ranked in the top ten in receptions. Both teams led their leagues in passing touchdowns, but passing offense is a big edge for the '07 Pats.
Pass defense: The Colts allowed just 1.9 adjusted net yards per attempt while the rest of the league averaged 4.5 ANY/A; New England allowed 4.6 ANY/A while the other 31 teams allowed 5.5 ANY/A. The Colts had an outstanding pass defense led by Bubba Smith and Bobby Boyd, and ranked 1st in yards per pass allowed, 1st in passing TDs allowed, 2nd in interceptions and 3rd in sacks. New England ranked 6th, 15th, 6th and 2nd in those categories. The Pats pass defense was good but not great; the Colts pass defense was excellent.
Rush offense:If both of these all time great teams had a weakness, this was it. Tom Matte was a better all time player than any Patriots running back, but while he earned a Pro Bowl berth, 1968 wasn't his best season. Matte was terrific in the playoffs, though, with 28 carries for 204 yards and three rushing scores. Terry Cole and Jerry Hill made this one of the most physical trios in the league. Laurence Maroney had an injury plagued season, but was very good when he played and also had a terrific postseason (61-280-3). Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk provided nice complements to Maroney and filled in for him when he went down. New England ranked 9th in attempts, 13th in yards, 5th in TDs and 14th in YPC. Baltimore ranked 6th, 8th, 5th and 9th in those cateogires but out of a 16 team NFL. I'm having a hard time calling this one for either group.
Rush defense: The Colts ranked 5th in adjusted yards per carry allowed in the combined AFL-NFL, and in their own league ranked 2nd in attempts and touchdowns allowed and third in yards and yards per carry allowed. The Pats ranked 1st in carries allowed (most teams didn't have time to run the ball against New England), 10th in yards allowed, 3rd in TDs and 26th in yards per carry allowed. That last number is misleading as New England certainly allowed a bunch meaningless long runs at the ends of games. That said, I have a hard time making the argument for the Pats rush D over the Colts rush D.
Both teams had a historic coach, of course, so no edge there. Lou Michaels and Stephen Gostkowski both ranked as league average place kickers, in my yet to be released and surely not anticipated kicker rating system. Preston Pearson and Ellis Hobbs were both very good return men.
In the end, this one's very, very close. Baltimore's clearly got the stronger defense while New England just as clearly had the stronger offense. New England beat the one opponent that beat them; Baltimore avenged their only loss (before the Super Bowl) in spectacular fashion. Bill Nelson threw 3 TD and 0 INT against the Colts, who allowed just 9 passing TD and forced 29 INT on the season; in the post-season rematch, the Colts picked off Nelson twice in a 34-0 shutout. In the end, I'm going to give the nod to the '68 Colts as the greatest Super Bowl loser of all time. The Patriots outscored their opponents by 25.4 PPG through ten games but averaged just a 8.7 PPG margin of victory for the last eight games. That Patriots team was the greatest team anyone's ever seen through Thanksgiving, but they were not the same team the rest of the way. Whether or not they folded under unbelievable expectations, got figured out by the league, or if their old roster just ran out of steam, by the end of the season, New England was not an all time great team. Baltimore was terrific from start to finish, blew out almost every opponent, and had a high powered offense with a historically great defense. These two teams are the greatest Super Bowl losers ever, and have other thing in common: they both fell at the hands of a New York team.