It’s late May of 1984. You are listening to “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” yet again on the radio, waiting for Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” to come on instead. You’re biding your time, waiting for school to end and for the summer to begin so you can go see Ghostbusters as soon as it comes out. The Oakland Raiders had destroyed the defending Super Bowl Champion Redskins in the Super Bowl a few months earlier, and had won 2 of the last 4 Super Bowls. They had a young Marcus Allen and Al Davis and his “Just Win Baby” mentality. Could you have foreseen, through your Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, what the next five years held? Or were the headband and Jordache jeans too tight?
You should have looked past Oakland, who would remain solid but not be among the league’s best. Maybe, you were prescient enough to be on board the Giants, who went only 3-12-1 that previous season in young William Parcells’ first season, and you realized that Lawrence Taylor and company would emerge. Good guess: they had the fifth most wins over the next five years. Maybe you looked to old reliable, the team that had been to consecutive Super Bowls, the Redskins. You may not have foreseen Theismann’s injury and going from Jay Schroeder to an improbable Super Bowl with Doug Williams. The Denver Broncos may have been a reasonable choice, with John Elway entering his 2nd year in the league, and the team coming off a 9-7 season. They would go on to win 53.5 games, and Drive and Fumble their way to two Super Bowl appearances. Perhaps you could see that the Bill Walsh and Joe Montana combo would be celebrating another Super Bowl win in less than a year and emerge as the consistent force of the 1980’s.
Or perhaps you went with the Raiders because they just win, or the Cowboys because that would have been the safest pick in the book–all they did was just win, year in and year out, with 17 playoff appearances in the last 18 years (winning seasons every year). Maybe you were really misguided and thought that Todd Blackledge was due for a breakout, and pegged the Chiefs for a surge.
The best choice, though, would have been the Chicago Bears, and if you were smart enough to see the cultural phenomenon that was the Super Bowl Shuffle, good call. Coming off an 8-8 season under new coach Mike Ditka, the team had a punky quarterback that they hoped would stabilize a position that had been a strain for a decade, and they had a lot of guys who weren’t stars yet on defense but would soon become so.
But every group of years has a different story. I looked back at every five year stretch to 1978 (where each year counts as a new five year period and thus some portion of periods overlap), to see which franchises had the most wins, and what they did before that stretch of success. The Bears were 17th best in wins from 1979-1983, as we will see, a below average result for a team that would join the top 3 over the next five years.
Here is a breakdown of where the Top 3 teams by wins came from, based on where they ranked the previous five seasons. I divided them into five groups, Excellent (the top tier of teams in terms of wins), Above Average, Average, Below Average, and Poor.
|Previous 5 Years||Number||Pct|
As we can see, the most common situation is that a team that was already really good remained as one of the best teams–or as I’d like to paraphrase it, the San Francisco 49ers were really good for a long time. 30% of all Top 3 teams came from this group. But after that, it’s pretty flat until the bottom tier. The least common occurrence is for a truly bad team to turn it around immediately and become the dominant team, though the Greatest Show on Turf, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990’s, and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980’s emerging from the ashes of dreadful runs provide hope to anyone.
As for quarterbacks, the lesson is probably that already having one, particularly one who is not past his prime, already in place at the outset of the five year period is the best recipe for success. I divided the teams up by the type of quarterback they had over the stretch, into five categories–established starter age 30 or younger, established starter over 30, inexperienced starter projected to start in year 1, main QB was not starter at outset, and multiple quarterbacks played roles. The first two are mostly self-explanatory: established means the starter was already in place and had started one full (non-rookie) season before the period in question, and the age is measured as of year 1 of a five year period. The third category is for rookie starters, 2nd year starters, and other players who were taking over as starters (think Troy Aikman in 1990, or Danny White taking over for a retired Roger Staubach in 1980). The fourth is for the Tom Brady scenario. A QB who was not the starter emerges after the period begins. The fifth is for cases, like Washington in the mid to late 80’s or Kansas City in the mid-90’s, where multiple quarterbacks all played during a five year period. Here’s the breakdown:
|existing starter 30 or younger||37|
|existing starter over 30||20|
|new projected starter||10|
|not the starter at outset||9|
|mix of quarterbacks||13|
So, our best guess should be teams that have quarterbacks age 30 or younger, who are already established as that team’s starter. Don’t worry, though, if your quarterback situation looks bleak or is filled with a journeyman. Twenty-five percent of the top teams either did not have the eventual starter established at the start of the period, or relied on a mix of players at the position over a five year period.
So let’s close with the fool’s errand that is trying to actually predict who will have the most wins in the NFL over the next five years. My top four guesses, where I try to mix it up by picking both current favorites and longshots:
Green Bay: The defending Super Bowl champions, and Aaron Rodgers turns 28 in December. Lots of young talent on both sides of the ball besides Rodgers, and just won a Super Bowl in a season they had several key injuries.
San Diego: Yes, they have a reputation as chokers and yes, special teams play really let them down last season, as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005. They also have one of the best quarterbacks who will also be turning 30 next year (and remember, the last two Super Bowl winning QB’s were also derided as stat compilers until their teams magically won despite their statty ways), have overturned the roster, and still have a good core of talent entering this stretch. The window is still open.
Tampa Bay: Their winning percentage has been below average the last five years, but Josh Freeman is only 23 and already really good. I like their recent drafts and think this is the type of team that could emulate the other emerging teams of the past. I was critical of how good they were last year and felt they overachieved, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like their future.
New England: Two words: Bill Belichick. Many of the top teams that carried on had elite coaches. They have traded for the future to build value and I trust them more than the Colts to maintain after Brady and Manning hit the late 30’s.
[photo via Getty]