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There is no greatest team ever

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 7, 2008

Back in May '06, I told Doug about this wacky theory I've got, and he responded by saying it would be a good post on his newly formed blog. I kept putting it on my to-do list because the idea was never timely enough to motivate me to spell it all out. Until now.

As most of our readers know, I'm a Patriots hater. However, after watching the 2007 New England Patriots play five games, I was already proclaiming them arguably the best team in NFL history.

Does that prediction, in retrospect, look smart or stupid? I'm not sure. But Patriots hate aside, I'm thrilled that no one will call this Patriots the best team in history. And do you know why? Because David Tyree made one of the greatest catches you'll ever see, after Eli Manning made one of the sweetest escapes you'll ever see. And because Brandon Jacobs converted a 4th and 1 by a foot. And because Brady's bomb to Moss in the final 30 seconds bounced off his fingertips, and didn't fall into his hands. And because the Patriots didn't run the ball on 1st down at the goal line with under three minutes to go. And because Steve Smith got a great pick from his teammate, and converted a crucial third and 11 in the final minute. And because Plaxico Burress made one great move on Ellis Hobbs. And, finally, because Asante Samuel jumped an inch too low to intercept a Manning pass on the game winning drive.

The point?

About fifteen plays could have gone the other way, and the Patriots would have won that game. And had New England won, everyone would proclaim them the greatest team of all time. And that would have bothered the heck out of me, not because I hate New England, but because the team that took the field on Super Bowl Sunday was far from the greatest team of all time.

Had New England won, my post would have sounded like sour grapes. 19-0. Biggest margin of victory of all time. Highest scoring team of all time. Highest SRS rating of all time. The Pats played a much harder schedule than the '72 Dolphins. What more can you ask for in the greatest team of all time than to win every game, and to win by more than every other team has ever won by, against a far from easy schedule?

Here's the problem. There were two New England Patriots teams this year. New England outscored its opponents 411-157 in their first ten games of the season. The Patriots had a 25.4 margin of victory through the first ten games. How insane is that? Those 411 points were the most ever through ten games. Only the '42 Bears (+278) had a better points differential after ten games. In the modern era, the '62 Packers at +235 were the previous record-holder; since the merger, the '84 Dolphins were the leader in MOV through ten games, at 195 points. I suspect that New England's +254 through ten games won't be soon challenged in today's NFL, and is an incredible accomplishment.

Take a look at the quarterback. Brady was 250/338 (74%) for 3,059 yards (9.1 Y/A) with 38 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and two more rushing scores. 40 TDs against 4 INTs! Incredible.

But then there were the Pats of the last nine games. Let's assume that Samuel makes that interception, and New England wins 14-10 in the Super Bowl. The Pats would have outscored opponents 244-159, for an average margin of victory of 9.4 points per game. That's 16.0 fewer points per game than their average margin of victory through ten games. The difference between the Patriots of the first ten games and the Patriots of the last nine games would be LARGER than the difference between the Patriots of the last nine games and the 2007 New York Jets.

Brady? After having a QB rating of 133.1 after ten games, he completed 225 of 349 passes (64%) for 2,484 yards (7.1 Y/A) with 18 TDs and 7 interceptions, and no rushing scores. That's a QB rating of "just" 94.3. The difference between Brady of the first ten games and Brady of the last nine games was 38.8; take 38.8 off of Brady's rating in the last nine games and you land somewhere in between Rick Mirer and Ryan Leaf on the career rankings list.

My point? Which team was the 2007 Patriots? I don't think either team was. I don't think the 2007 Patriots really existed. Not to get too philosophical in a football blog post, but the 2007 Patriots aren't really a team; they're a collection of 19 teams. Each game the Patriots played featured a different Patriots squad. Was Richard Seymour on the 2008 Patriots? Well if you ask the Cincinnati Bengals they might say no, since he was out for that game. Was Rosevelt Colvin on the team? He played in the first eleven games, but not the last eight. The Patriots team that played the Redskins was not the same team that struggled with the Jets late in the season. Even a casual observer could tell that.

I've seen it written that this Giants team beat maybe the greatest team of all time. Hogwash! They didn't beat the Patriots of weeks 1-11; they beat a Patriots team that struggled to win at home against a 11-5 team playing without the best running back in the league, the best tight end in the league, and with a QB on one leg. The Chargers allowed 18 PPG this year; in New England -- the greatest offense ever -- San Diego allowed 21 points. Does that sound like the greatest team in league history to you? Because it doesn't to me. When that Chargers team was fully healthy, San Diego got destroyed by the Patriots in week two. Why? Because the week two New England team may very well have been the greatest team of all time. The playoffs version wasn't very close to the greatest team of all time. The week before the Pats made David Garrard look like Steve Young, and the wildcard Jags stood toe-to-toe with the Pats in that game. A win is a win, of course, but when we're discussing the greatest team of all time, wouldn't you expect something a bit more dominant?

It sounds impressive to write that the Giants knocked off an 18-0 team, a previously unbeaten team, arguably the greatest team of all time. It sounds less impressive, but no less accurate, to write that the Giants beat a team that limped into the Super Bowl, one that was a shell of its former self. They beat a team that made the Super Bowl following a pair of home wins by a combined 20 points, against one-dimensional teams.

And had New England won against the Giants, what would that have told us? That they beat New York barely, instead of losing to New York barely, like the Packers and Cowboys did. Are the 2007 Packers or 2007 Cowboys going to be on anyone's top 50 list of the greatest football teams of all time? Of course not. The Giants may have stopped New England from earning the label "best team ever", but the Giants did *not* beat the best team ever. They beat a very good team, and that's that.

So who is the greatest team of all time? I don't think it really exists. Want to say the '85 Bears? Who was the QB of that team? Before you say Jim McMahon, you should know that he only started eleven games for them. Like the '72 Dolphins? Well who was the QB of that team? Because the guy who quarterbacked the team in the Super Bowl wasn't the guy who won AFC player of the year.

Am I splitting hairs here? Is this pointless? Probably. But part of the problem is "greatest team of all time discussions" is a lack of criteria. What are we supposed to base our decision on? Presumably, the focus is more predictive than retrodictive, since every team won the Super Bowl. The question, I think, is which SB champion would have the highest winning percentage if all 42 SB Champs played each other. Or at least, that's what I think it is. Maybe others view the question differently.

How much should backup QBs factor in? For example, the '89 49ers got three games out of Steve Young, and he played incredibly well. Do the 49ers get bonus points for having a great backup QB when compared to the '04 Patriots, who didn't need a backup, but didn't have a good one (Rohan Davey)? Should injuries not matter at all if they didn't actually happen? I can see arguments on both sides.

Is Bob Sanders on the '05 Colts? He only played four regular season games that year. If you want to say yes, what about Phil Simms and the '90 Giants? Does he "count"? How much? Should "flukiness" matter? Do the '91 Redskins get downgraded because Mark Rypien was the QB? Would they be upgraded if Marino was the QB even if he put up exactly the same stats? How much, then, should the results matter of the team/player in the years before and after?

It's easy to say that the 2007 Patriots were better than the 2002 Patriots. But when you get to close calls -- the '85 Bears against the '72 Dolphins -- what do we have to go on to decide? How much should regular season success count? How much should playoff success matter? Who the heck QBs the '72 Dolphins, anyway? How do we rate inconsistency. Let's say a hypothetical team could have a rating of 100 in 70% of their games, but a rating of 80 in the other 30% of the games. Assume that no other team has ever achieved a rating of 100 in any game ever, but several teams have had a rating of 95 for 100% of the games. Are those teams better than our inconsistent team?

Can we say that the '78 Steelers were the best team of all time when they lost to the Los Angeles Rams? Was that Rams team better that game...or just lucky? When we say "the '78 Steelers", do we mean the team that lost to the Rams or the one that won the AFC Championship game 34-5? Are they the same team?

Without a formula, or a guideline, or some criteria, I don't know how we can have a greatest team ever. I think the 2007 Patriots I saw, from weeks 1-11, were one of the greatest teams I ever saw. I also think the 2004 Steelers, when they beat the eventual Super Bowl competitors in consecutive weeks by 38 points, were one of the greatest teams I ever saw. How exactly would I compare those teams? Is a two game sample too short? A ten game sample? There aren't any rules on this, as far as I know. If every game, every team, truly is different, then maybe December 8th, 1940 saw the greatest team in football history play, when the Bears beat the Redskins 73-0.

In the end, the whole conversation of ranking teams frustrates me in a way similar to the BCS does. It's even worse than Hall of Fame discussions, which can be infuriating, too. Maybe we should just establish a new rule that we can't have any debate until we clearly set out what we're trying to decipher? Or maybe I should just stop posting my insane ideas.