When it comes to team-building in the long term, football is for the young. Teams drafting well will find success year after year, while teams more interested in spackling their woebegone rosters with overpriced free agents will pay with implosion season after season. That's not exactly news to anyone in the game not named Dan Snyder ... but when looking at the youngest Super Bowl teams of all time, it's amazing how valuable it is to get things right, right from the start.
If you want to start an NFL dynasty, it's generally best to do it young. And in this regard, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks are in remarkably good shape -- they're the second-youngest team ever to reach the Super Bowl. According to data compiled by Chase Stuart of Pro Football Reference and Football Perspective, the Seahawks' roster had an average age of 26.4 years, putting them a few hundredths of an aggregate year younger than the 1971 Miami Dolphins, the youngest Super Bowl team ever. And in looking at all the great dynasties that have spanned the Super Bowl era, youth is the common characteristic. The 1992 Dallas Cowboys, who went on to win three Super Bowls in a four-year stretch, tied for sixth-youngest ever (27 years) with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who made two Super Bowls in three years and featured one of the greatest offenses of all time.
The 2001 New England Patriots, who helped keep that Rams run from becoming more than a one-time thing, and also won three Super Bowls in four seasons, were one exception to the rule with an average age of 28.5 years, and this appears to be Bill Belichick's preference -- the 2011 Pats who lost to the New York Giants also had an average player age of 28.5.
One thing's for sure -- if you want to see your window close quickly, ignore the age rule. The three oldest Super Bowl teams -- the 2002 Oakland Raiders (30.7 average age), 1998 Denver Broncos (30.1 average age) and the 1972 Washington Redskins (29.8 average age) each went through hard times right after their appearances. The Raiders haven't been back (and aren't even close), the Redskins took a decade to get back and the Broncos haven't been back since the 38-year-old John Elway won his second Lombardi Trophy. Until now, of course.
By the way, the Broncos are also set up with youth -- their average age of 27.9 puts them in a bottleneck with six other teams (the 1977 Cowboys; the 2007 Giants; the 1990 Giants; the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles; the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers; the 1979 Rams; and the 1983 Washington Redskins). And that number obviously drops if you remove their 37-year-old starting quarterback. Which, of course, the Broncos would prefer that you didn't.
Here's the entire list of average ages, minus this year's teams. And here's a bit about how the five youngest teams were built.
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1971 Miami Dolphins (Average age: 26.4 years)
Just six seasons away from expansion in the American Football League, the Dolphins topped the AFC with a roster that was stacked with young talent at all the important positions. Quarterback Bob Griese was 26; running backs Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris were all 25 or younger; there was an offensive line with two absolute studs (Larry Little and Bob Kuechenberg) in their mid-20s; and the defense that became the first great one of the 1970s was packed with young, drafted talent.
The Dolphins were splattered by the Cowboys, 24-3 in Super Bowl VI, but everyone involved believed that it wouldn't be long before they were back -- and that was absolutely correct. In 1972, Miami became the first and only team to win every game in a season, including the Super Bowl. The Dolphins extended their streak by one game at the start of the next season, lost in Week 2 to Oakland, and went on to win their second straight Super Bowl at the end of that campaign. We'll never know what might have happened had the World Football League not poached Csonka and other key players, but the Dolphins of the early 1970s were one of the all-time great examples of team-building.
2013 Seattle Seahawks (Average age: 26.4 years)
When Pete Carroll became the Seahawks' head coach in 2010, he inherited a roster so bereft of talent that only four players would survive the subsequent roster purge. Carroll and new general manager John Schneider started hot -- their first four draft picks provided key players at left tackle (Russell Okung), safety (Earl Thomas), receiver (Golden Tate) and cornerback (Walter Thurmond). They also stole safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth round. Another great haul came in 2011, but only in the third day of the draft -- higher picks James Carpenter and John Moffitt have been unimpressive, but any draft in which you can get linebacker K.J. Wright in the fourth round, cornerback Richard Sherman in the fifth, cornerback Byron Maxwell in the sixth and linebacker Malcolm Smith in the seventh? That's a spicy meatball.
Of course, the real steal came with the 75th pick in the 2012 draft, when Schneider talked Carroll into taking Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. That's worked out pretty well so far, despite Wilson's obvious lack of height. Linebacker Bobby Wagner was also taken in the second round. Carroll and Schneider have been hit-and-miss with their trades, but the 2010 trade with the Buffalo Bills for Marshawn Lynch cost them a couple of low picks and defined the franchise as much as anything has done in recent years.
1981 San Francisco 49ers (Average age: 26.5 years)
The 49ers had been a joke for years when head coach Bill Walsh was hired in 1979, and the man I consider to be the greatest football mind in the history of the game changed that with a quickness. In his first draft, Walsh decided that there was a quarterback from Notre Dame worth a third-round pick despite his troubling (to some teams) lack of arm strength. Joe Montana repaid his coach's faith a few times over. Walsh also got receiver Dwight Clark in the 10th round (back when there was one), setting the table for one of the NFL's all-time plays a few years later. The 1980 draft brought linebacker Keena Turner, but it was the 1981 draft in which Walsh and VP John McVay really cleaned up. With three of their first four picks, they got safety Ronnie Lott, safety Carlton Williamson and cornerback Eric Wright. That was three-fourths of the starting secondary in a Super Bowl XVI win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and the 1981 team was the genesis for a franchise that would come to dominate the decade.
1974 Pittsburgh Steelers (Average age: 26.6 years)
The Steelers had been nailing their drafts since Chuck Noll became the team's head coach in 1969 and took a little-known defensive tackle from North Texas named Joe Greene. But it was the 1974 draft -- unquestionably the greatest single-year selection process by any one team ever -- that put the Steelers on the map for a good, long time. In that draft alone, Pittsburgh grabbed four Hall of Famers -- receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster. The Steelers assembled their rosters hand-sewn and homegrown, and they were rewarded with a six-year span in which they won four Super Bowls.
1996 New England Patriots (Average age: 26.7 years)
And here's that Pete Carroll guy again -- but this time, on the wrong side of the curve. The 1996 Patriots lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI, and after Bill Parcells had some serious questions about who was buying the groceries, owner Robert Kraft hired Carroll to replace the Big Tuna. It didn't work out well (the Patriots failed to reach the Super Bowl again under Carroll, who was fired in 1999), which was a shame, because Parcells had a team with a great deal of young and estimable talent -- 23-year-old quarterback Drew Bledsoe, 23-year-old running back Curtis Martin, 25-year-old receiver Troy Brown and a group of defenders in Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi who would be around for the Belichick triumphs of the early 2000s.
Has Carroll learned how to take a young team to a Super Bowl win? We'll find out soon enough.
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