In 1905 college football in America was on the verge of being abolished. That season, 18 players had been killed and 159 seriously injured. President Theodore Roosevelt demanded that the rules of the game be reformed to make the game safer. More than 60 schools participated in the process. The single biggest change was the introduction of the forward pass, and with it commenced the transformation of American football into the modern game.
The forward pass freed the game from the scourge of mass formations that often caused serious injury, it opened up the game and augmented the necessity for brute strength and the force of weight with speed and athleticism.
With it came a dramatic shift in game strategy, tactics and playing personnel. The quarterback position became the most important role on the field and the game was thereafter burdened with a plethora of performance statistics.
The next seismic shift in American football, was attributed to a young Texas millionaire, by the name of Lamar Hunt. In 1960, Hunt was the principal organiser of “The Foolish Club,” a group of eight investors who took on the storied NFL by forming their own football league (the American Football League). By 1966 the rival leagues had established an end of year NFL-AFL championship game, the fore-runner to the Superbowl and officially merged in 1970, thereby establishing the national competition it is today.
Naturally any attempt to assess the most successfully NFL franchises commences with the formation of the national competition and the title of Superbowl champion.
In the five decades since the introduction of the Superbowl, five different teams have dominated successive decades, and have rightly been labelled as NFL football dynasties.
Even a cursory glance at their individual achievements makes compelling reading. The 1960s Green Bay Packers won three NFL Championships (in the pre-Superbowl era) and proceeded to win consecutive Superbowls in 1966 and 1967.
In the 1970’s the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Superbowls over a span of six years. In the 1980’s the San Francisco 49ers emulated the Pittsburgh Steelers by winning four themselves. The 1990’s unearthed the Dallas Cowboys who won three Superbowls in four years and most likely would have won more if their head coach hadn’t left, after a dispute with the owner.
The New England Patriots have enjoyed the longest sustained period of success in the new millennium. Since 2001, they have participated in six Superbowls winning four of them. With the ageless quarterback Tom Brady at the helm it would be hard to argue that their reign is truly at an end.
Why were these teams so successful? Each team had the obvious ingredients of great players and coaches, successfully adjusted to rule changes and in the case of the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots the introduction of free agency and salary caps.
In the 1960s football experienced an incredible growth spurt, due to the expansion franchises and television. Scheduling the games on Sunday afternoon gave most Americans the opportunity to watch their favourite team from the comfort of their living room. However as the civil rights movement was still in its infancy only 11% of African Americans were represented in the NFL compared to 68% today.
The arrival of Vince Lombardi in 1959, had an immediate impact, leading the Packers to their first winning season in eleven years in his first year as coach. From that auspicious start, Lombardi’s Packers had nine winning seasons and claimed five NFL championships in the 1960s, including the first two Superbowls.
The Packers had a more diverse playing group in terms of race, this was mainly due to Lombardi’s view of playing the best available players and the prejudice he encountered in his earlier years. Of the 11 Hall of Fame players, four are African American they include: Willie Davis, Dave Robinson, Herb Adderley and Willie Wood.
Lombardi was a meticulous coach and enjoyed a tremendous rapport with his players. He focused on meticulous execution and peak physical fitness. He developed the ‘Power Sweep’, a running play that exploited gaps in the defensive wall of their opposition.
Football in the 70s was notorious for head-high tackles, bruising collisions and low scoring. The Pittsburgh Steelers had the most formidable defense in NFL history and with the support of great running backs and wide receivers on offense, achieved unprecedented success winning four Superbowls in only six years.
Coach Bill Walsh designed the ‘West Coast Offense’ the most successful offensive strategy deployed in the NFL and still used extensively in offensive schemes 40 years later. The system is predicated on precise timing routes and quarterback intelligence. Joe Montana the 49ers quarterback was a great foil for Walsh’s system, leading the offense with the precision of an orchestral conductor. Montana won four Superbowls for the 49ers and famously never threw an interception in the most important game of the year.
The Dallas Cowboys hired college coach Jimmy Johnson in 1989. They won three Superbowls in four years on the back of the most successful trade deal in NFL history. By trading their best player to the Minnesota Vikings, Johnson yielded six high draft picks, subsequently burnishing his team with talented players from the draft, through savvy trade deals and free agency signings.
The outcome from those draft picks was the selection of high profile players such as Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, wide receiver Alvin Harper and safety Darren Woodson.
The Cowboys established a formidable running and passing game. On the back of their offensive line which was later coined ‘The Great Wall of Dallas’, running back Emmitt Smith was able to produce many prolific running seasons.
Bill Belichick created a dynasty with the New England Patriots during the most difficult period in NFL history. The introduction of salary caps and free agency make it difficult for teams to retain talented players on their roster.
Belichick has successfully drafted and traded players for more than a decade according to the needs of his team. Armed with considerable football intelligence, progressive defensive strategies and the ageless quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots have dominated football for longer than any other football franchise, playing in six Superbowls over a span of 14 years and in the process winning four of them.