Top 10 NFL Franchises That Almost Built a Dynasty

We all know about dynasties such as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ under head coach Chuck Noll, the Packers under Vince Lombardi, Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys and Joe Montana’s 49ers, to name a few. But what about those almost-dynasties that were thrust aside to let other headliners take their place in the spotlight? What might have happened to the mid-1990 Packers if head coach Mike Holmgren stayed with the team? Would the Patriots have been able to build a second dynasty in the late 2000s if their defense stood tall during the season's most important moments?

This list tells the tales of 10 franchises that were on the verge of history, but fell just short of supplanting their name in the record books. Every team listed here failed for similar, but also very different reasons. For example, one franchise’s head coach departed for the west coast, while another franchise was marred by a head coach unwilling to change his strategy on the NFL’s grandest stage, the Super Bowl.

Before we continue, let’s define a dynasty and an almost-dynasty. While their definitions are subjective, we might at least agree that we often define a team’s dynastic status by a set of criteria. Some dynasties hold all of the criteria, while others don’t. First, in my view, a dynasty must continuously win championships. NFL dynasties win multiple Championships or Super Bowls in a short-time span, such as three out of four years or four out of six years. Second, a dynasty usually does not lose more Championships or Super Bowls than they win in a given time period. Third, a dynasty is continuously brought up in conversation.

Brought up in conversation? Now, this is truly subjective. Is it fair to qualify a dynasty based on another person’s biased opinions? Absolutely! And that is why this debate is so great. The almost-dynasties listed here are rarely brought up in conversation for a number of reasons. The most important reason might be because they fell just short of their critics' expectations.

What do you think? Do the following teams qualify as almost-dynasties or have other franchise been snubbed?  

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10 Denver Broncos (1986-1989)

Since the mid-1970s, the Broncos have continued to be one of the league’s most consistent teams. However, because they failed so many times in the post season, until their two Super Bowl wins in the late 1990s, few might place them in such a positive light. From 1981 to 1992, head coach Dan Reeves paced the Broncos' side line, while leading Denver to a number of deep play-off runs. So, yes, the Broncos have shown consistency.

On the other hand, while the Broncos have posted solid regular season numbers, they have also consistently lost in the post season. Reeves brought the Broncos to six playoff appearances and three Super Bowls, but they lost each Super Bowl in crushing fashion. First they lost to the Giants 39-20, then to the Redskins 42-10 and finally to Montana’s 49ers 55-10. Denver could have been so much more. Many still consider the Broncos to be one of the most dominating AFC teams in the 1980s, led by now Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway. Elway’s fashion for the dramatics helped lead the Broncos past the Conference Championship round and into multiple Super Bowls in a short time frame.

9 Green Bay Packers (1995-1997)

In the early 1990s, the Packers began to form a team that would eventually make it to the Super Bowl twice in back to back years in the late 90s. They would win one against the Patriots and lose the other to the Denver Broncos.

General manager Ron Wolf helped orchestrate the entire almost-dynasty of the Packers. He hired coach Mike Holmgren, a former offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, traded a first-round selection to the Atlanta Falcons for Brett Favre and signed one of the biggest free agents at the time to become the cornerstone of their defense, Reggie White.

Some reports indicate that the main reason Green Bay collapsed was Holmgren’s desire to be head coach and general manager. When the Packers denied his request, he hightailed it to the Seahawks who were willing to make his greatest wish come true at the expense of $8 million a year. The Packers were shocked at his move. Said Bob Harlan, Packers’ president from 1989 to 2007, “We were very surprised when Holmgren made that move. I didn’t see that coming and don’t think Ron Wolf saw it coming. But to lose Holmgren was a big factor. That was a separation in the organization that we didn’t need.”

8 St. Louis Rams (1999-2001)

The Rams rolled into the 2001 season with an unstoppable offense led by a veteran quarterback and crew of skill-position players. Just two years removed from a Super Bowl win over the Tennessee Titans and one year removed from a close loss to the Saints in the wild-card round, the Rams entered 2001 primed and ready to make it back to the big game. They did make it back to that game in 2001; however, they were unprepared for a franchise that would eventually become the most dominant force in football over the next decade.

After new QB Trent Green wen down with an injury in 1999, instead of folding, new offensive coordinator Mike Martz inserted unproven quarterback Kurt Warner into the starting role. The move proved brilliant. By seasons’ end, Warner threw 41 touchdowns and for over 4,000 yards. As we all know, the Rams beat the Titans in the Super Bowl that season.

Two years later, the Rams still proved to be a powerhouse until their shocking Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in 2001. In the seasons following their defeat, the team still had the potential to succeed, but constantly stumbled and failed. Kurt Warner slowly succumbed to unheralded Mark Bulger and Marshall Faulk began to underperform. Although the Rams made the divisional round in both 2003 and 2004, their potential reign whimpered to a halt. It was soon over, and presently, the Rams are in the midst of seven straight losing seasons.

7 The New England Patriots 2011-2013

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images

Since 2011, the Patriots own a 37-11 record and since 2011, they’ve been to one Super Bowl and two AFC Conference Championships; however, unlike their incredible run in the early 2000s, they ended all three seasons without a Super Bowl ring.

Their old regime formed by players like Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and others were long gone by the time New England began a run at a second dynasty. Coming off a down year in 2010, by the Patriots' standards, which ended in a quick wild-card exit by Baltimore, Belichick was already forming a new foundation. Enter Rob Grownkowski and Aaron Hernandez to complement an already existing core of Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork.

Prior to Hernandez’ ultimate arrest and downfall for his alleged murder of semi-football player Odin Lloyd, the Patriots had chances to capture their fourth Super Bowl ring in the Belichick and Brady era. However, their poor defenses, questionable play calling and untimely drops in the post season ended their hope to build a second dynasty.  

6 Dallas Cowboys (1969-1985)

Dressed in his traditional suit and fedora and armed with a potent team led by the “Doomsday Defense” and Roger Staubach, head coach Tom Landry and his Cowboys went to the post season 10 out of 11 years between 1969 and 1979. During that time period, they also won two and lost three Super Bowls. However, they could have had many more rings.

During that 10-year span, the Cowboys grew into a powerful franchise whose influence spread nationwide. They first appeared regularly on Thanksgiving in the 1960s and became the first NFL team to use computers to scout players. While the Steelers won more Super Bowls during the 1970s, Dallas grew to become “America’s Team.”

After faltering in Super Bowl 10 against the Steelers, 21-17, the Cowboys rebounded two years later to beat Denver in Super Bowl 12 behind their “Doomsday Defense.” After the contest, Cowboys’ defensive lineman Randy White and Harvey Martin were named co-Super Bowl MVPs. 

For six more years, the Cowboys would be in and out of the playoffs, including three consecutive AFC Championship losses from 1980-1982 and a Super Bowl loss in 1978. So, unlike other teams, the Cowboys made the NFC Conference Championship and Super Bowl their home away from home. Their reign lasted for years, but at the end of Landry’s illustrious career, his Cowboys only held high two Vince Lombardi Trophies.

5 The Philadelphia Eagles (2000-2004)

From 2001-2009, the Eagles went to three NFC Conference Championships and one Super Bowl, but lost each contest. During that time, no other football team or city went through such heartache. Immediately after their Super Bowl loss, the Eagles collapsed and finished their 2005 season with a 6-10 record. However, they had many chances to build a dynasty.

In all three NFC Conference Championship games, the Eagles confronted formidable foes in the St. Louis Rams who had the “Greatest Show on Turf,” and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, who put forth tough defenses. While it still may have proven difficult for the Eagles to build their own dynasty in the midst of New England’s budding reign of terror over the NFL, you never know what might have been if Philadelphia had crept their way into and won a couple of those Super Bowls.

4 Minnesota Vikings (1969-1977)

From the late 1960s to the late 1970s, the Minnesota Vikings trotted out one of the league’s most formidable front four units called the "Purple People Eaters." Collectively, these four, Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen, went to 19 Pro Bowls. In 1969 all four members even made it to the Pro Bowl together. While the NFL did not officially record sacks until 1982, the Vikings reportedly credit the line with over 400 quarterback take downs throughout their careers.

However, in spite of their sheer dominance and love to “meet at the quarterback,” the unit failed to win a Super Bowl. They made it to the big dance four times and whiffed each time. They were a team and franchise, which for over a decade, tore through opponents, but could never quite get over the hump. They were an almost-dynasty that never saw out its full potential.  

3 The Buffalo Bills (1990-1993)

What would the Bills have become if Scott Norwood nailed that field goal in Super Bowl XXV and the Bills, rather than the Giants, walked away Super Bowl champs? Might Buffalo have rode that momentum into their next three consecutive Super Bowls, which they also happened to lose?

The Bills are the only team on this list to play in four consecutive Super Bowls and lose each one. Behind a team coached by Marv Levy and led by offensive stars such as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed and defensive playmakers Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley, the Bills were still unable to take a Vince Lombardi Trophy back to Buffalo.

The Bills owned the early 1990s. However, those early years weighed heavily on the shoulders of a talented team that failed to finish the race. Eventually, the Bills collapsed under the pressure of their own inability to live up to continued media and fan scrutiny.

2 Cleveland Browns (1950-1958)

Some will consider Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns a dynasty, while others will not. Although the franchise won four consecutive Championships while part of the All-American Football Conference from 1946-1949, they were only 3-4 in Championships when the AAFC merged with the NFL. They also went to and lost three consecutive Championship games from 1951-1953.

Paul Brown orchestrated the Browns’ successful run and almost built himself one of the NFL’s greatest dynasties. Brown, who coached Cleveland for 16 years, was an innovator. He became the first coach to use a variety of intelligence tests to analyze a player’s ability to learn. He also set up film clip statistical studies, which he also used to analyze and grade his own team. 

1 Oakland Raiders (1969-1977)

Under head coach John Madden, the Raiders made it to six AFC Conference Championship games and, in 1976, won one Super Bowl. That would be the only Super Bowl the Raiders would win under Madden, who finished his coaching career with a .763 regular season winning percentage, the highest among head coaches with at least 100 career victories.

Like every team on this list, the Raiders could have and should have won more titles. However, unlike the other teams listed, one thing stands out about this Raiders’ team—the sheer amount of consecutive AFC Championships they played in and lost. Even before Madden coached the Black and Silver, the Raiders made it to one Super Bowl and AFC Conference Championship, but lost both.

Like the Browns under Paul Brown, Madden's Raiders were always in the mix to win a championship. However, when “Monday morning quarterbacks” sit around the water cooler and talk about the NFL’s greatest dynasties, why do few ever bring up John Madden’s Raiders? The reason is simple: NFL dynasties aren’t teams that almost made it. Dynasties are teams that continuously won Championships and Super Bowls over many years. They also won more of them than they lost. The Raiders, through all their glory and hard play, just barely came short of being, maybe, the greatest dynasty of all time.

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