What will be the dominant team of the post-lockout decade?
It's the NFL's honor roll of champions, the teams that not only won championships but also dominated a decade.
There are the Chicago Bears of the '40s, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions in the '50s, the Green Bay Packers in the '60s, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s, the San Francisco 49ers">49ers in the '80s, the Dallas Cowboys in the '90s and the New England Patriots in the 2000s.
Who is next to reach the summit? Which team will become the NFL's power of the 2010s in the post-lockout world?
Will it be the current Super Bowl champion Packers, who won their 13th NFL title last season despite losing six Opening Day starters to injury? How about an upstart franchise, a team that hasn't won in decades, such as the Lions, New York Jets or Kansas City Chiefs? Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or St. Louis Rams recapture the winning formula of a decade ago?
It's doubtful any coach will tempt the football fates the way Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram did after winning Super Bowl IV in January 1970. The talkative Stram proclaimed the Chiefs would revolutionize football with "The Offense of the '70s." Kansas City didn't win another playoff game for 24 years.
Green Bay certainly seems capable of winning multiple championships. Although Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers notes "it's a little early" to forecast a decade of dominance, he likes his team's chances.
"Teams seem to have a four- to five-year window [for winning championships]," he said. "We have enough guys coming back from injured reserved and have a good enough young team that I think we can make a run for the next four or five seasons."
CBS analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms agrees.
"The Green Bay Packers have a lot of dynamic players," he said. "The atmosphere that the team plays in in Green Bay always keeps the energy high for the Packers. They are at the cutting edge of so many things, like drafting players, and [I like] their offense because of their quarterback. The defense is unique as long as [defensive coordinator] Dom Capers is up there. They are always going to take the next step and won't get caught in a rut."
Simms adds that any talk about a possible Packers dynasty begins with the man behind center.
"Aaron Rodgers is, arguably, the best player physically in the NFL," Simms said. "He is not a guy who is just going to stand there and get rocked. He has quick feet and a quick release. [He has] not just a good arm, it's a great arm. When Green Bay won the Super Bowl he made three or four unbelievable throws."
Hub Arkush, editor and publisher of
But to go beyond the Packers' obvious strengths and attempt to discern another team that could be on the cusp of greatness requires the skills of Merlin and Gandalf and an appreciation of NFL history.
Dominant NFL teams have made a habit of coming out of nowhere. The '60s Packers didn't win a thing in the '50s and were 1-10-1 in 1958. The '70s Steelers had won not so much as a division title entering the decade. The '80s 49ers were void of championships and had finished 2-14 in both 1978 and '79. The '90s Cowboys did have a Super Bowl tradition from the '70s but had ended the '80s with a horrid 1-15 season. The Patriots entered the 21st Century without a Super Bowl crown.
Arkush notices a common theme with all these franchises. "These teams had either the dominant general manager or coach of that era and they all had Hall of Fame quarterbacks and started with relatively young talent," he said.
Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr in Green Bay; GM Dan Rooney, coach Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh; Bill Walsh and Joe Montana in San Francisco; Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman in Dallas and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in New England. It does add up.
But teams change in the NFL and personnel moves happen a lot faster in the free-agent era, requiring a team's front office to be as quick on its toes as its players and coaches.
"To be the dominant team of the decade you need to be able to turn your team over," Arkush said. "The 49ers had fairly significant turnover (Jerry Rice didn't play for the Niners' first two Super Bowl champs). The Patriots and Belichick have turned over the roster.
"Looking at the way the Packers were built, [Green Bay GM] Ted Thompson may be one of the dominant general managers over the next decade. The Packers won that [Super Bowl] with six Opening Day starters on injured reserve and three of the players who replaced them were on the IR, so that's nine on the IR."
The GM/coach/QB combination provides Arkush an opportunity to speculate on what teams have a chance to be the NFL's next superpower.
Arkush said he also likes what general manager Scott Pioli has done in Kansas City and believes quarterback Matt Cassel is young enough to win a few championships. He tips his cap to the Atlanta Falcons triumvirate of GM Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan.
Arkush believes the Lions will have "the dominant defensive line of the decade" but need quarterback Matt Stafford to stay healthy. "Until Stafford can play 14 to 15 games each season, people are going to ask questions," Arkush said.
Simms was impressed how the Jets performed at the end of the 2010 season with consecutive road playoff upsets of the Colts and Patriots. "They have some stars," he said. "Their receivers can win games, they have a dynamic quarterback [Mark Sanchez] and then you have Darrelle Revis on defense."
Neither Simms nor Arkush is ready to close the curtain on New England, especially with Brady saying he wants to play another four or five seasons. "How do you not pick the Patriots?" Simms said.
History shows, however, that NFL dynasties are not portable from decade to decade. Since the championship game era began in 1933, no NFL team has won multiple titles in consecutive decades.
Certainly, the Patriots, the Colts or the Steelers could win another Super Bowl in the 2010s, but a multi-championship run seems unlikely. Yet as Arkush noted, "The Steeler way still works. Ben Roethlisberger is only 29 and I like Mike Tomlin. Kevin Colbert is an outstanding GM."
Even the best NFL quarterbacks come with a shelf life. The barrier has been 14 playoff wins with one team. Brady, Bradshaw, Montana and John Elway all won 14 postseason games as starting quarterbacks, although Montana did win two more playoff games with the Chiefs. Fourteen playoff wins for QBs seems to be like the speed of light for physicists. It may not be possible to go beyond that number. Brady has had three attempts to get that elusive 15th playoff win but has come up short -- most notably in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants, but also against the New York Jets last season.
Dynastic quarterbacks win early. Montana, Aikman and Brady all won Super Bowls in their first trip to the playoffs as starting QBs. Starr won a championship in his second trip (as did Rodgers), Bradshaw in his third.
The dynasty train already may have left the station for title-less talents such as Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Michael Vick (three playoff appearances each). Peyton Manning didn't win a Super Bowl until his seventh postseason.
For those who believe in jinxes, teams in the Super Bowl-era that have won a championship in a season ending in zero have done little the rest of the decade.
After 1960, the Philadelphia Eagles have yet to win another NFL title. The Baltimore Colts were champs in 1970 but won only one more playoff game in Baltimore before moving to Indianapolis in 1984. After 1980, the Oakland Raiders did win another Super Bowl as the Los Angeles Raiders in the '83 season, but that was their last playoff win of the decade.
For the 1990 Giants, there would not be another Super Bowl appearance for another 10 years. The 2000 Giants were then clobbered by the Baltimore Ravens, but those '00 Ravens only reached one more AFC title game in the decade of the 2000s.
Simms warns against assuming that talent trumps all. He notes that the 1988-90 Philadelphia Eagles with Jerome Brown, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham and coach Buddy Ryan didn't win a single playoff game. The Pro Bowl-laden roster of the Houston Oilers had similar postseason troubles in the early '90s.
Many football fans thought the Bears of the 1980s had the talent to win more than one Super Bowl. Arkush notes, however, that the lack of that Hall of Fame coach (Ditka reached Canton as a tight end), a Hall of Fame quarterback and a front office dynamo once Jim Finks left the team prevented Chicago from dominating the decade.
Simms says general managers and coaches have to be patient but also need to know when to take risks. Led by defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the Tampa Bay Bucs were 2002 champions but didn't win another title because "they didn't live on the edge enough," Simms said. "They wanted to win too many games 17-13.
"Most coaches get it now. You can't be afraid of losing."
In a league that is far more competitive than when he played in the '80s and early '90s, Simms says never discount luck.
Once the playoffs started, Simms said the Packers needed a last-minute interception to beat the Eagles, Jay Cutler getting hurt and an unlikely Rodgers tackle of Brian Urlacher on an interception to beat the Bears, and Roethlisberger missing several "uncovered guys" to beat the Steelers.
Luck has had a hand in all the dynasties since the 1960s.
The Patriots' dynasty began in the 2001 playoffs vs. Oakland when Brady, a sixth-round draft choice, was saved from almost certain defeat by the "tuck rule." Brady would go on to win three Super Bowls.
After the '88 season, the Browns had first shot at signing Jimmy Johnson off the Miami campus. Instead, they picked Bud Carson, and owner Jerry Jones pounced on Johnson a few months later when he bought the Cowboys.
In the 1990 draft, the Cowboys liked linebacker James Francis of Baylor. When he went with the 12th pick to Cincinnati, Dallas had to "settle" for Emmitt Smith at No. 17.
Instead of naming offensive coordinator Bill Walsh to succeed him in Cincinnati in 1976, Paul Brown selected Bill "Tiger" Johnson. He lasted less than three seasons with the Bengals.
Walsh, meanwhile, took his talents to the Bay Area, first to Stanford and then the 49ers. He selected a skinny quarterback out of Notre Dame in the third round of the '79 draft and, with Joe Montana, went on to build a dynasty in San Francisco. The Bengals have never won a Super Bowl.
A Giants assistant was available to coach the Packers because the Mara family foolishly preferred to stick with Jim Lee Howell rather than promote Vince Lombardi. Another Giants assistant left a year later to coach the expansion Dallas franchise. The Giants went 30 years between NFL championships while Lombardi and Tom Landry combined to win seven.
So blend an outstanding front office and head coach with a Hall of Fame quarterback, then mix in some moxie, a willingness to gamble and a little luck, and we're looking at the newest NFL dynasty.
Speaking of good fortune, perhaps the NFL's next team of the decade will be the one that picks a certain All-America quarterback out of Stanford in the 2012 draft, a guy by the name of Andrew Luck.