Even many hard-core Pittsburgh Steelers fans missed this news item after the team’s 27-12 victory over the Washington Redskins on Oct. 28: With the win, the Steelers became the first team to reach 400 regular season victories since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger created the modern NFL. That immediately raises an obvious question: Which team has the second-most victories in that span? What about third, fourth, etc? And at the other end of the spectrum, which team has the worst record during that time frame? We checked data from ProFootballReference.com and compiled a list of the five winningest teams since 1970. Win totals are through the 2011 season, and include both regular and postseason victories.
5. Denver Broncos (385 victories)
Two coaches, Dan Reeves (1981-92) and Mike Shanahan (1995-2008) combined for the majority of these victories. There have been mostly lean times elsewhere, with apologies to the “Orange Crush” team that lost the Super Bowl to Dallas following the 1977 season. But the Broncos have been remarkably consistent through the years. The team has had 17 seasons of 10 or more wins since 1970, nine of those with John Elway at quarterback.
4. San Francisco 49ers (391 victories)
Not to dismiss the achievements of some other 49ers teams, such as the early 1970s squads that won three straight NFC West titles under coach Dick Nolan and quarterbacks John Brodie and Steve Spurrier (yes, that Steve Spurrier), but the 49ers are on this list for one reason: coach Bill Walsh. The man nicknamed “The Genius” developed a revolutionary new concept in the NFL, the West Coast Offense. The basic philosophy was simple yet brilliant — a passing attack featuring short, high-percentage passes controls the ball, keeps the defense guessing and sets the stage for big plays downfield. Walsh found the perfect quarterback to run this offense, drafting Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana with the final pick in the third round of the 1979 draft. Montana would lead the team to 116 regular season wins between 1980 and 1990, and another 14 postseason victories, including four Super Bowl titles. And Walsh’s offensive system, along with many of the players he acquired through the draft or trades (Jerry Rice, Steve Young, etc.) laid the foundation for another Super Bowl title following the 1994 season, and seasons of 10 or more wins every year from 1983 through 1998, an astounding run of success.
3. Miami Dolphins (405 victories)
Everyone knows about the perfect 17-0 season in 1972, and under coach Don Shula from 1970 through 1995, the Dolphins enjoyed 16 seasons with 10 or more wins. Quarterback Dan Marino played in 155 of these victories between 1983 and 1999. But the good times ended around the turn of the century; Miami has made the playoffs only once since 2001. What keeps the Dolphins relatively high on this list is the fact that, when they haven’t been great, they haven’t been absolutely terrible, either (with the notable exception of that brutal 1-15 2007 season). In fact, the Dolphins had only two losing seasons from 1970 through 2003, a great run of consistency. The only consistency Miami has shown in recent years is a tendency to change coaches; the Dolphins have had eight head coaches since 1995.
2. Dallas Cowboys (413 victories)
How good were those Dallas Cowboys dynasty teams of the 1970s? So good that they have kept the Cowboys at No. 2 on this list, despite the general mediocrity of this franchise the past 15 years. It seems hard to believe, but the Cowboys have had only one playoff win (in 2010) since 1996. Oh, for those glorious years in the 1970s, when every other year ended with a Super Bowl trip, and every player in the starting lineup seemed to be a past or future all-star or hall of famer. Maybe we tend to romanticize such things in hindsight; was Roger Staubach really that elusive and effective as a scrambling QB? Was the Cowboys’ 1970s defensive line that featured the likes of Ed Jones, Randy White and Harvey Martin really that good? In a word, yes. The Dallas superstars from that era earned their accolades. Coach Tom Landry led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl titles and playoff appearances in 14 of 16 seasons from 1970 through 1985.
Dallas fell on hard times in the late 1980s, leading to Landry’s dismissal. Several players, notably Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, keyed the Cowboys’ revival in the early 1990s, but the team owes a special thanks to Minnesota Vikings GM Mike Lynn. In arguably the most lopsided trade in pro sports history, Lynn traded a package of multiple players and draft picks to the Cowboys in October 1989 for star running back Herschel Walker. Dallas parlayed those draft picks into all-stars Smith, Darren Woodson, Russell Maryland and Kevin Smith, who keyed three Dallas Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (429 victories)
Even today, a generation later, images endure of those great Steelers teams from the 1970s. Terry Bradshaw connecting with receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. The Steel Curtain of Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood holding the high-powered Minnesota Vikings offense to 119 total yards in Super Bowl IX. Franco Harris making the “Immaculate Reception.” All those legendary players, plus more recent stars such as Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, deserve credit for the Steelers’ record six Super Bowl championships and spot atop this list, but so does the Rooney family, for creating one of the NFL’s model franchises. The best sign of that leadership is stability in the coaching ranks — the Steelers have had only three coaches, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, since 1970.
As promised, here are the teams that have fared the worst since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. So that expansion teams could get “credit” for their awfulness, this list rates the five worst teams by winning percentage (through 2011):
1. Houston Texans, .362
2. Detroit Lions, .400
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, .403
4. Arizona Cardinals, .411
5. New Orleans Saints, .436
The author is a former professional sportswriter who has interviewed numerous sports legends and attended some of the biggest events in sports both as a fan and a sportswriter.