By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In case you’re not into following publicity pitches from multi-billion dollar corporations, the NFL has spent this season celebrating its 100 years of existence. Sure, the football that was played way back in 1920 was not exactly the same sport that airs every Sunday in 2019, but a celebration is a celebration. And the NFL is celebrating.
As such, they’ve spent the past few months counting down the “100 Greatest” players, moments and teams from the past 100 years. For those who love football, it’s been quite an enjoyable thing. The rankings themselves matter less than the footage and the stories and the highlights, as it’s always a welcome sight to see Barry Sanders leaving a trail of hapless Patriots in his wake on a random Saturday morning.
That being said, this is America, where complaining is king. So, from a New England perspective, one can’t help but look at the “100 Greatest” lists without promptly applying a finger to the top of the head, rubbing that finger back and forth, and letting out a befuddled “… huh?”
On the list of “Greatest Game Changers,” Tom Brady came in at … No. 25? The winningest quarterback of all time was … slightly better than an honorable mention on the list of all-time game changers. Joe Namath, Bill Belichick, who has been a head coach or defensive coordinator for 11 of the 53 Super Bowls that have ever been played (a cool 21 percent), was the 11th-greatest “Game Changer” in NFL history.
Whatever. Brady and Belichick both ranked higher than Jerry Jones, and you know that it’d had to have driven Jones nuts to see that.
Who knows what “Game Changer” really means anyway? It’s up for debate. “Greatest Teams” is a lot simpler. Yet even there, the “greatest” Patriots team ever — who have won six Super Bowls since 2001 — was … the 2007 Patriots. A team that yes, went undefeated in the regular season, but nevertheless lost the game that mattered most.
The 2007 Patriots were rated as the seventh greatest team in NFL history. The Patriots teams that actually won the Super Bowl clocked in as follows:
7. 2007 Patriots
16. 2004 Patriots
21. 2016 Patriots
32. 2003 Patriots
46. 2014 Patriots
51. 2001 Patriots
79. 2018 Patriots
With that, there could be some serious quibbling, most notably with the 2003 Patriots ranking 32nd. That team went 14-2 and kicked off a ridiculous 21-game winning streak that extended into 2004. The ’03 and ’04 Patriots should have been ranked in tandem, and they really ought to be in the top 10. At the very least, they’re both more worthy of that spot than the ’07 team, who were dynamite in the regular season but flamed out in the playoffs and didn’t finish the deal.
Alas. Rankings are rankings. And again, it’s more about the celebration of football than the actual rankings.
And that brings us to the point of this discussion, which centers on the top of the list for “Greatest Teams.” That team was, naturally, the 1972 Dolphins. As you’ve heard 717,614 times in your life, they are the lone team in the Super Bowl era to go undefeated. As such, they remain immortal whenever such lists are made.
I’m not here to try to argue otherwise. I didn’t have DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket package back in 1972, and even if I did subscribe to a yet-to-be-invented technology, I would have been unable to watch, on account of my not being born yet. To sit here and say “Actuallllly, the ’72 Dolphins weren’t all that great” would be a disingenuous argument.
So, what am I here to do? That’s a fair question, and one I seem to be asked everywhere I go these days. Apparently, my likability factor is on the downswing.
Anyways, the point of this discussion is to note that the ’72 Dolphins’ placement as the “GREATEST NFL TEAM EVER” shows that history does not care for details.
The 1972 Dolphins played exactly TWO (2) games in the regular season against teams that finished with a record better than .500.
Yes, just two games — or a little over 14 percent of their schedule — came against teams that finished better than 7-7. Those teams were the 8-6 Kansas City Chiefs and the 8-6 New York Giants. Neither of those teams made the playoffs, which means (quick math here … yup) the mighty, undefeated, all-time great 1972 Miami Dolphins played ZERO (0) playoff teams during the regular season.
Now consider this:
The 1972 Dolphins played exactly NINE (9) games in the regular season against teams that finished with a record worse than .500.
The majority of the Dolphins’ games came against teams that were quite bad. That much is evident in the fact that more than 64 percent of their schedule came against sub-.500 teams.
That may be inaccurate or misleading, you may say, because those teams all lost to Miami! Fair point.
So check this out.
The 1972 Dolphins played exactly SEVEN (7) games in the regular season against teams that finished with a record worse than .300.
This is where things really get interesting. Not only did the Dolphins play sub-.500 teams. They played sub-.300 teams. And a whole lot of ’em, no less.
The ’72 Dolphins schedule included the following games (teams’ final records listed):
vs. Houston (1-13)
vs. San Diego (4-9-1)
vs. Buffalo (4-9-1)
@ Buffalo (4-9-1)
vs. New England (3-11)
vs. St. Louis (4-9-1)
@ New England (3-11)
The ’72 Dolphins also played two games against the 5-9 Baltimore Colts.
You put it all together, and, well, the Miami Dolphins should have gone undefeated in the regular season. They were coming off a Super Bowl loss the year prior, and they would have had no excuse to lose any one of their games in 1972, given what we know about their quality of opponents.
Now, compare all of that to the 1985 Chicago Bears, the team that came in at No. 2 on the NFL’s “100 Greatest Teams” list.
The 1985 Bears played SIX (6) games in the regular season against teams that finished with a record better than .500.
Six of the Bears’ 16 games came against teams that finished better than .500. They played against five playoff teams, going 4-1 in those games. The lone loss came on Monday Night Football against the Dolphins, who finished the year with a 12-4 record. It was Chicago’s lone loss of the year.
The 1985 Bears played EIGHT (8) games in the regular season against teams that finished with a record worse than .500.
As does happen with NFL scheduling, the Bears had some easier games, too. Teams that finished the year with a sub.-500 record accounted for half of their regular-season schedule, in fact.
However, a significant distinction should be made here, as not all sub-.500 teams are created equally.
The 1985 Bears played THREE (3) games in the regular season against teams that finished with a record worse than .300.
The Bears opened the season against the Bucs, who finished the year 2-14. They also won in Tampa a month later, and they beat the 4-12 Falcons. Other than that, the other sub-.500 teams faced by the Bears finished the season like this:
Minnesota (2x), 7-9
Detroit (2x), 7-9
While sub-.500 is still sub-.500, the Vikings and Lions obviously would have been at .500 or better if not for the dominance of the ’85 Bears. The same can’t be said for the ’72 Oilers, Chargers, Bills, Patriots or Cardinals.
So what’s your point, bozo?
I’m glad you asked, though I don’t like your tone.
The point is this: The ’85 Bears had a much more difficult strength of schedule (,473) than the ’72 Dolphins (.357) did. The Dolphins actually had a tougher strength of schedule in the postseason (.762) than the ’85 Bears did (.667), and the Dolphins had to play on the road in the AFC title game (because of a wacky NFL playoff format). But the Bears also outscored their three opponents by 81 points in the playoffs; the ’72 Dolphins outscored opponents by just 17 points.
Long story short: The 1985 Bears had a much tougher path to immortality than the 1972 Dolphins did. But that matters not. What matters most is the bottom line, and that bottom line reads 17-0 vs. 18-1. As we continue to see with these lists, 17-0 wins every time — details be damned.
Do you want to bring that point around to say something about the 2019 Patriots?
Of course I do. What else would I be doing here?
As you may or may not know, I’ve already written about people who shouted “Yahhh wow ya beat up on Luke Falk and Josh Allen and Colt McCoy and Ryan Fitzpatrick, big whoop!” Those people had a point, but they were also willfully ignoring the long list of bum quarterbacks faced by the ’85 Bears and 2000 Ravens — two teams considered to have perhaps the greatest defenses of all time.
With the current matter at hand, it’s worth noting that facing an absolutely dreadfully awful schedule in 1972 has never once stopped the Dolphins from being held up as the pinnacle of the sport. Even though the ’85 Bears were better, even though the ’07 Patriots might have been better (their strength of schedule was .469), even though the ’98 Broncos might have been better, or maybe the ’84 49ers, or perhaps the ’76 Raiders, it doesn’t matter. None of those teams managed to go undefeated, and thus history has been written: 1972 Miami Dolphins, best team ever.
So, with the 2019 Patriots flirting with history from a defensive perspective, it’s worth acknowledging that if they’re able to become the eighth team in history to ever allow fewer than 200 points in a 16-game season, and if they continue to flirt with the 2000 Ravens for the fewest points allowed ever, then you know what? All of those details about the Falks and Allens and Joneses will fade away as footnotes.
What matters most, as always, is what the team manages to accomplish. Everything else is just details.