Sean Pendergast

10 Surprises From Football Outsiders' "Top 30 NFL Teams of Last 30 Years" Series

Do the stats tell a different story on Brett Favre's value to the 1996 Green Bay Packers?
Do the stats tell a different story on Brett Favre's value to the 1996 Green Bay Packers? Screen grab from YouTube
Subjective, historical arguments are excellent fodder for days when you're sitting at a barstool for five hours, especially when fueled by rounds and rounds of frosty beverages. And while we'll never arrive at a truly right or wrong answer to these debates, eventually, it's cool to get some statistical backup that tells us which answers are MORE right or MORE wrong.

This brings me to the latest Internet concoction that will have me wasting way too much time plummeting down rabbit holes. Football Outsiders' DVOA stats are nothing new. People in my line of work have been using them for years now to try to apply some smart statistical nuance to our football debates. If you're unfamiliar with DVOA, here is a brief snippet from an series that we are about to dig into momentarily:

"What makes a great NFL offense? Is the team with the most points the best offense, or do we look for the offense that most efficiently gains yardage? What if a team scores points because of great special teams, or because it was often given good field position? How much yardage does it take to counter a higher turnover rate? And shouldn't all these questions consider how good the defense is on the other side of the field?

These are the kinds of questions Football Outsiders has been analyzing with our advanced metrics since we launched in 2003. Our DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) metric accounts for all of this, measuring success on each play based on down and distance, then comparing it with an NFL average baseline adjusted for situation and opponent. (You can read more of the details here.) It's built to balance how well a team has played in the past with how well a team will play in the future.

Note: 0 percent DVOA represents the league average, so an offense with a +30 percent mark rated 30 percent better than an average unit. Also, stats other than total offensive DVOA represent the regular season only unless noted.
Until recently, Football Outsiders' footprint of seasons in which the DVOA stats are available was just the seasons since the website's inception. However, they have now done all of us stat dorks the service of going back, retroactive through the 1987 season, to tell us who the best offenses, defenses, special teams, overall teams and individual players were for those seasons.

To that end, recently published a series of articles laying out the best of the best in all of those categories going back to 1987 — Top 30 Offenses, Top 30 Defenses, Top 30 Special Teams, Top 30 Overall Teams and Top Individual Players. I'll let you click on the links above to see the lists in their entirety, but here are ten things that I found surprising and intriguing in going through each of these lists:

1. The list of QB's with more than one appearance in the Top 30 Offenses goes like this...

4 - Peyton Manning (IND '04, '00, '06, DEN '13)
4 - Tom Brady (NE '07, '10, '11, '12)
4 - Steve Young (SF '92, '93, '98, '94)
3 - Troy Aikman (DAL '95, '92, '93)
3 - Trent Green (KC '02, '03, '04)

Okay, there's a lot to unpack here. First of all, it's intriguing, but not totally shocking, that Tom Brady's best four offenses (all of whom finished in the Top 12) didn't win a Super Bowl, including the two teams that lost to the Giants in the big game. Second, these numbers make a fairly compelling argument for Steve Young as one of the more underrated quarterbacks of all time. He became the full-time starter in 1991 and held the spot for eight full seasons. Half of those seasons, his team had a "Top 30 since 1987" offense. He made the Pro Bowl every season and was a first team All-Pro three times.

Finally, um, TRENT GREEN! One of these things is not like the other, and that thing is TRENT FREAKING GREEN. It's not totally surprising that the only two Top 30 Offenses to miss the playoffs were skippered by Trent F. Green.

2. Half of the Top 30 offenses since 1987 employed the league's MVP for the given season
I thought this number would be a little higher. That said, here is the full MVP count on the Top 30 Offenses...

1. 2007 Patriots (BRADY)
2. 2010 Patriots (BRADY)
3. 1998 Broncos (T. DAVIS)
6. 1992 49ers (YOUNG)
8. 2004 Colts (P. MANNING)
10. 1989 49ers (MONTANA)
15. 2011 Packers (RODGERS)
16. 2013 Broncos (P. MANNING)
17. 2005 Seahawks (ALEXANDER
19. 2016 Falcons (RYAN)
24. 1988 Bengals (ESIASON)
26. 2006 Chargers (TOMLINSON)
27. 1993 Cowboys (E. SMITH)
28. 1994 49ers (YOUNG)
29. 2000 Rams (FAULK)

Ten quarterbacks, five running backs, in case you're wondering.

3. Elite offenses ensure postseason appearances, super-elite defenses almost guarantee Super Bowl wins
Here was the part I found the most interesting. In examining what these teams accomplished, what can we learn about the importance of elite offense and defense as pertains to won-loss record and overall postseason achievement? Well, here is what I found out:

* Of the Top 30 Offenses, two missed the playoffs ('02 and '04 Chiefs, with Trent F. Green at QB!). Of the top 30 Defenses, eight missed the playoffs. Those starting quarterbacks: McMahon, Bledsoe, Cutler, Brister, Banks, Simms, Boller, Siemian.

* Here are the average regular season win-loss records for the Top 30 offenses and defenses:

      Top 30 Offenses: 12.47 wins, 3.53 losses
      Top 30 Defenses: 11.18 wins, 4.75 losses

(Minor discrepancies in averaging 16 games per season due to the inclusion of teams from the strike-shortened 1987 season on the defensive list.)

* Using the following key — 0 — Missed playoffs; 1 — Wild card round loss; 2 — Divisional round loss; 3 — Conference title loss; 4 — Super Bowl loss; 5 — Super Bowl win — here is how accomplished the Top 30 offenses and defenses were in the postseason:

        Top 30 Offenses: 3.2 rounds deep into the postseason
        Top 30 Defenses: 2.4 rounds deep into the postseason

So within the Top 30 of each list, offense won more games and made deeper playoff runs. They also won more Super Bowls (8 to 7). However, let's slice the list off at the Top 10 instead of the Top 30 for each. Then what happens?

Top 10 Offenses: 13.10 wins, 2.90 losses     
Top 10 Defenses: 11.50 wins, 4.50 losses

Top 10 Offenses: 2.9 rounds deep into the postseason       
Top 10 Defenses: 3.3 rounds deep into the postseason

Top 10 Offenses: 2-2 in Super Bowls
Top 10 Defenses: 6-0 IN SUPER BOWLS

So at the super-elite (Top 10) level, offenses won more regular season games, but accomplished less in the postseason than offenses 11-30, and super-elite defenses went UNDEFEATED in six Super Bowls. The bottom line is these stats would seem to indicate that elite offense virtually guarantees a playoff appearance (as long as Trent F. Green is not your QB), and a super-elite defense gives you a great shot at winning a Super Bowl.

By the way, the quarterbacks of those six super-elite defensive teams — Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, Peyton Manning (2015 version with no arms), Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Mark Rypien. Hey, speaking of Rypien...

4. Are the 1991 Redskins the greatest team ever?
Well, they are the only team to show up in the Top 30 since 1987 in all three phases of the game, finishing No. 20 on offense, No. 10 on defense and No. 14 on special teams. We forget that they were 14-2 and smoked the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, mostly because...well, it was MARK RYPIEN.

5. In case you're wondering, here are the teams that made the Top 30 in two of the three key areas...

* 1996 Green Bay (21st defense, 27th special teams)
* 2000 Baltimore (3rd defense, 17th special teams)
* 2000 Tennessee (11th defense, 29th special teams)
* 2004 Buffalo (4th defense, 12th special teams)

So the 1996 Packers, Brett Favre's ONLY Super Bowl-winning squad, were actually better known statistically for elite defense and special teams. This makes me want to turn the Steve Young question on its head and ask, "Is Brett Favre the most OVERRATED quarterback of all time?"

6. Seriously...Buffalo in 2004 was that good?
Apparently so, at least on defense and special teams. They finished 9-7, but employed the shell of what was once Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. Speaking of 2004...

7. New England in 2004 accomplished way more than we gave them credit for...
Not only did they manage to win a division that included the retroactively vaunted 2004 Bills, but they defeated the eighth-best offense (Colts) and 30th-best defense (Steelers) of the past 30 years on their way to Tom Brady's third Super Bowl win.

8. St. Louis and Tennessee both placed teams in Top 30s, but the year they did is strange...
The Rams and Titans faced off in the Super Bowl following the 1999 season, but it was their offensive (Rams, 29th) and defensive (Titans, 11th) units that made these Top 30 lists. Weird.

9. Wow, Lovie Smith's special teams were THAT good?
The Bears finished with four of the top 28 special teams units of the past 30 years, thanks in large part to Devin Hester's otherworldly return ability.

10. The Harbaugh bros love them some special teams...
Jim and John Harbaugh are the only head coaching brothers to wind up on these lists (also, they are the only head coaching brothers I can even think of), with Jim's 2011 Niners and John's 2014 and 2015 Ravens securing spots on the Top 30 Special Teams.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast