The numbers are self-evident: Win or lose Sunday night, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have put together one of the best runs in NFL history. Since 2001, the team has made seven Super Bowl appearances, with four wins (and another possible this week), and it has achieved a level of sustained success unheard of in the modern NFL. Exactly where does this stretch rank among football dynasties, though? Well, it depends on how you define dynasty.
Do two titles in three years qualify as a dynasty? What about three in five? The end points for runs of dominance have always been up for debate. So rather than pick one definition and stick to it, we went looking for the best team over any number of years.1 The table below shows the top teams over a given period — from the best one-year teams, to the best team over a quarter-century, based on FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings:
|# OF YEARS||TEAM||AVG. ELO||TEAM||AVG. ELO||TEAM||AVG. ELO|
That the 2007 Pats (undefeated until a loss against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl) are the top one-year team of all time, despite not winning the title, isn’t all that surprising. But the Patriots’ dynasties being at the top of the longer-term ranges is. Consider that the Pats claimed the top spot for the 25-year stretch despite a dreadful 2-14 1992 season, when they were coached by Dick MacPherson, as well as a couple painful years during Bill Parcells’ brief tenure, which also included a Super Bowl appearance following the 1996 season.
In the in-between lengths, New England owns many but not all of the top spots. It never had as dominant a three- or four-year run as the Cowboys in the 1990s, but at the five-year mark, New England begins a run of taking a top-two spot in most ranges, trading off occasionally with the 49ers. But by the time we get into the 20-year windows, with Walsh and Montana having given way to Mooch and Garcia, even San Francisco begins to fade.
And we haven’t even accounted for the NFL’s modern era of parity yet, although things begin to look a little unfair once we do. If we look at the post-Cowboys-era NFL, beginning in 1997,2 the Patriots take the top spot in every dynasty range, from one year to 20 years, except for the three-year range, which Seattle locked down from 2013 to 2015.
|ALL-TIME BEST DYNASTIES||BEST DYNASTIES SINCE 1997|
|# OF YEARS||TEAM||AVG. ELO||TEAM||AVG. ELO|
How we qualify success is a big part of how we define a dynasty, so a quick note on the method we’re using here: Elo ratings are a favorite around FiveThirtyEight because they are relatively simple to calculate and don’t require many points of input, making it possible to apply them to time periods when data collection wasn’t very good. Want to know if the Cleveland Spiders of the 1890s were the sorriest team in baseball history? Elo can do that.
The price of that simplicity is, well, a fairly simplistic stat, without the benefit of modern advancements like player tracking data in the NBA or PITCHf/x in MLB. Elo doesn’t know about star players coming or going or fortuitous bounces or egregious penalty calls — it just knows who won, who lost, and by how much, and trusts that the specifics will even themselves out over time.
While this can complicate things when trying to use Elo to make predictions (as with the 2016 Raiders), the stat is much stronger when it looks backward because it struggles to immediately pick up a team’s rises and declines.
Public perception tends to lag when a traditionally bad team gets good, or a traditionally good team goes all to hell. And football is less dependent on individual players than basketball, where LeBron James can leave town and send the Cavaliers to the lottery for nearly half a decade. So when we see the Patriots maintaining these high ratings across different eras and team compositions, what we’re seeing isn’t just sustained performance, but sustained relevance.