NFL Offseason – Great coaches can suffer heartbreak too. Our heartbreak dynasty countdown continues with our penultimate ten, filled to the brim with Hall of Famers and near-misses. Marty Schottenheimer is here, of course, but so are George Allen, Bill Belichick, Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, and Steve Owen. Even Vince Lombardi makes a brief cameo as today’s 10 teams boast a coaching pedigree nearly beyond reproach.
Also, Jeff Fisher is here.
To have heartbreak, you also need to be legitimately good, if perhaps with some sort of Achilles heel. By the time we’re up in this stratosphere, every team listed would have been a worthy champion at least once or twice. We’re done with teams who were lucky to be in situations where they got their heart broken. Every last one of these eras has at least one team that would be talked about in the upper half of NFL champions, if it weren’t for the pesky fact that none of them ever actually lifted the trophy.
None of these runs, however, are without their faults. Some teams are missing that Super Bowl loss that would put them over the top. Others don’t have a long enough reign to really rack up the heartbreak points. Some won championships immediately before or after, putting a damper on their potential heartbreak score. There’s a flaw in each of these gems that means we’re talking about them this week rather than next, when we really delve into the most pain-ridden teams out there. As bad as these fan bases felt, it could always be worse.
Links to the full series:
No. 20: 1939-1946 New York Giants
Total Heartbreak Points: 644.7
Playoff Points: 396.6
Win-Loss Points: 147.6
DVOA Points: 100.5
Championship Penalty: 330.1
Record: 52-26-7 (.653)
Playoff Record: 0-5 (four Championship Game losses; one divisional loss)
Average DVOA: 8.9%
Head Coach: Steve Owen
Key Players: WB Ward Cuff, BB Nello Falaschi, E Jim Poole, E Jim Lee Howell, E Neal Adams, T Frank Cope, G Len Younce, C Mel Hein
Steve Owen is a very important figure in the history of the NFL. He’s responsible for multiple innovations, new formations, new play designs, basic fundamentals of strategy we take for granted today. He is one of the giants of the early years of football as we know it.
He also has a rather unfortunate record. He’s the only coach to lose six championship games in his career.
This Giants run comes off the back of their 1938 NFL Championship, won with the A-formation, a scheme designed to spread defenses of the time. Nowadays, when we say “spread the defense,” we’re talking about going with five wideouts and stretching the opponent from sideline to sideline. Football was a little different in the 1930s. The A-formation uses an unbalanced line—four linemen to the right of the center, with just a tackle and an end on the left. The backs then unbalanced to the other side, with the center being able to snap to the fullback, quarterback, or blocking back. This takes away some potential for power rushing in exchange for greater flexibility—both the quarterback and fullback can throw the ball, and the opportunity for fakes and deception kind of balloons. Opposing defenses won’t be able to tell right away where the ball had been snapped to, or which play to cover. Add in all the pre-snap shifting Owen would call, with the Giants shifting from single-wing to double-wing to A-formation at will, and opposing defenses were just utterly unprepared.
No one else ran the dang thing. This was in part because the Giants had Mel Hein at center—the only lineman ever to win an MVP award—and you need that level of player to handle all the different ways and directions the ball can be snapped in the formation. The other reason is that the T-formation was beginning to run roughshod over the league, and that’s the fundamental flaw with this era of Giants team: the T-formation was simply superior to the A-formation. It was simpler to run, it opened up the passing game far more than the A-formation did, and was being run to perfection by George Halas and the Bears. The new formation took the league by storm, and it and its descendants dominated football for the next 70 years.
Owen fought back. He took the Giants to 5-3-3 defense full-time, away from the six- and seven-man lines that were the norm of the era. He even experimented with the bold strategy of having four defensive backs in his so-called “umbrella” defense. Owen’s defense was filled with novelties that have since become standard—stunting linemen, blitzes from the linebackers and safety, players moving around to match up with motion in the backfield. Unlike the A-formation, this was widely copied, but the Giants did it better than anyone. In 1944, they allowed their opponents to score just 7.5 points per game, still the NFL record. And it’s not just because of old-timey football being offensively challenged. That’s still an NFL-record 2.56 times better than the rest of the league’s average of 19.2 points allowed.
Owen also instituted a platoon system. Not dedicated offensive and defensive players, because free substitution didn’t come into place until 1943. Instead, Owen would bring in 10 new players at the start of the second half, replacing everyone but Hein to keep his team fresh.
None of it was enough to take the Giants over the top. Halas and his Bears thrashed the Giants in the 1941 and 1946 championships, running wild over Owen’s Giants by a combined score of 61-23. The Giants gave Curly Lambeau’s Packers and their Notre Dame Box a closer run, losing the 1939 and 1944 championship games 27-0 and 14-7. It’s safe to say that by now, there aren’t too many Giants fans still bemoaning WWII-era losses. But being the third-best team in a two-team league, running the second-best offense to perfection, is an incredibly frustrating position to find yourself in.
Owen continued tinkering, but waved the white flag in 1948, installing the T-formation as a second option for his Giants. But he kept using the A-formation as his primary offense, to less and less success, until he was finally fired after the 1953 season. Somewhere out there, there’s an alternate universe where they never legalized passing close to the line of scrimmage, or they never invented the hand-to-hand snap, or they never made the ball smaller and easier to throw, where the A-formation became dominant, and its descendants were the ones that ended up conquering the NFL. And then it’s the Giants, not the Bears or the Packers, that are known as the most successful franchise from the primordial days of the league.
Today, the Hall of Fame wants to remember the legacy of the late Steve Owen (Class of 1966), who passed away #OTD in 1964.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 18, 2022
No. 19: 2005-2013 New England Patriots
Total Heartbreak Points: 646.0
Playoff Points: 261.4
Win-Loss Points: 178.5
DVOA Points: 206.1
Championship Penalty: 963.6
Record: 110-34 (.764)
Playoff Record: 9-8 (two Super Bowl losses, three AFCCG losses, two divisional losses, one wild-card loss)
Average DVOA: 27.5%
Head Coach: Bill Belichick
Key Players: QB Tom Brady, WR Wes Welker, WR Randy Moss, TE Rob Gronkowski, OT Matt Light, G Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, DE Richard Seymour, DT Vince Wilfork, LB Jerod Mayo, S Brandon Meriweather
When we did the dynasty project, one of the big final questions we had to answer was how to consider the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era in New England. Is it one massive dynasty, stretching two decades throughout the 21st century as an unending reign of terror? Or was it two smaller dynasties, each sharing the same coach and quarterback but with substantially different supporting casts? In the end, we connected them into one extended run, but this entry is the counterexample. For nearly a decade, the Patriots found themselves perennial bridesmaids. They were a great team that simply could not get over the final hump.
If we didn’t dock heartbreak points for championships, these Patriots would be in first place by a substantial margin. Five losses in the last two games of the season over nine years is an exceptionally dense period of close calls and near misses, with none of them being flukes. The 2003, 2004, 2014, and 2016 Super Bowl wins do take a lot of the sting out of this, admittedly, but there’s a lot of sting to take out! The five years sandwiched between Super Bowl losses to the Giants are far enough removed from duck boat parades to qualify for heartbreak, even considering all of the surrounding context.
Surely, the 2007 Patriots would be the undisputed best team of all time had they completed the 19-0 season, yes? Undefeated, with the best offense and second-highest DVOA in history, setting records for most points and highest point differential ever seen to that point. Tom Brady was given the best receiving corps of his career and responded with the greatest quarterback season in modern history. His record of 50 passing touchdowns may have since been broken, but his 2,674 passing DYAR remains the most in a single season and his 54.1% passing DVOA is second behind only 2004 Peyton Manning. It was the beginning of Brady as a GOAT candidate, the first of eight seasons (and counting) where he would break 1,500 DYAR as he continued his slow transition from a good quarterback on a stacked roster to the best quarterback of the 2010s. Giving him Randy Moss and Wes Welker was patently unfair.
And it all came crashing down because David Tyree pinned the ball to his helmet.
With a score of 390 heartbreak points, the 2007 season is the most painful single year in NFL history by this metric. Even when you knock off some points from its proximity to the 2003 and 2004 wins, it still clocks in at 240 heartbreak points all on its own. Seeing perfection slip away is crushing no matter the circumstances. And that was just one of multiple Patriots playoff daggers suffered during this interregnum decade.
2007 may be the Patriots’ most painful season, but losing to the Giants again in 2011 is a strong second place. In that one, the miracle catch was a Mario Manningham grab down the sideline in something that was at least more of a traditional football play. Being unable to top Eli Manning twice in five years is a black mark, for sure, and basically the entirety of Manning’s Hall of Fame case. This era also features multiple AFC Championship Game losses to Manning the Elder as 2006 Peyton led the Colts to an 18-point comeback to finally knock off Brady and the Pats, while 2013 Peyton’s Broncos put up 507 yards of offense the next time New England had to go on the road in the postseason.
But it wasn’t just the Mannings that could stop the Patriots. This stretch also saw the 2010 loss to Mark Sanchez and the Jets, in the brief period when it looked like New York might be ready to take the throne of best team in the AFC East from New England. Hey, it made sense at the time. You also have the 2012 AFC Championship Game loss to Joe Flacco and the Ravens, with the Patriots turning the ball over on every one of their fourth-quarter drives. And that’s not even mentioning 2008, when the Patriots missed the playoffs despite going 11-5 with Matt Cassel spelling the injured Brady.
That’s a ton of pain in a very short period of time. Even the most jaded Patriots hater has to find some shred of sympathy after all that, no matter how crowded the Patriots’ trophy case has gotten.
Really? No? Alright, then. We’ll just move on.
11 years ago today, David Tyree made one of the most iconic plays in NFL history to help the Giants dethrone the undefeated Patriots
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 3, 2019
No. 18: 2011-2014 San Francisco 49ers
Total Heartbreak Points: 648.6
Playoff Points: 364.2
Win-Loss Points: 148.1
DVOA Points: 136.3
Record: 44-19-1 (.695)
Playoff Record: 5-3 (one Super Bowl loss, two NFCCG losses)
Average DVOA: 17.9%
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh
Key Players: RB Frank Gore, OT Joe Staley, G Mike Iupati, DE Justin Smith, LB NaVorro Bowman, LB Patrick Willis, S Dashon Goldson
The 2011 lockout was supposed to hurt teams bringing in new coaches and systems. Yes, Jim Harbaugh brought expectations and excitement to San Francisco after a successful tenure at Stanford, but without a normal offseason to get his team up to speed, it surely would take a while for his 49ers to turn things around. After all, if Harbaugh, Greg Roman, and Vic Fangio could just roll up and turn the 49ers into a competitive team from Day 1, why, that would imply that Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary had no idea what they were doing.
So anyway, the 49ers won double-digit games in Harbaugh’s first season, the first time they had done so since 2002. Alex Smith was rescued from the first-round bust dumpster fire, giving San Francisco their first top-20 offense since 2003. And then he was upgraded to Colin Kaepernick in Year 2 as Kaepernick’s mobility gave the 49ers an exciting new dimension. There has been some retroactive reassessment of Kaepernick by some as a limited player who didn’t deserve a starting job to begin with, but we disagree. With Kaepernick running out of the pistol and using his strong arm to freeze defenders, the 49ers had a top-10 offense again for the first time in a decade. Long live the zone read, surely the future of all offensive football.
Kaepernick did eventually come back to earth some, but that’s OK. It was Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Justin and Aldon Smith who were the real focus of the team in this era, with the 49ers’ first top-10 defense since the mid-1990s. With Fangio’s unit harassing quarterbacks and Kaepernick’s legs leaving opposing defenders littered around the field, the 49ers became championship contenders basically overnight.
And then the 49ers lost three consecutive playoff games in agonizing fashion.
In 2011, Kyle Williams wormed his way into 49ers infamy. In the NFC Championship Game against the Giants, Williams fumbled an end-around and fumbled punts in both the fourth quarter (muffed) and overtime (fumbled afer a 5-yard return) . Ten of New York’s final 12 drives ended in punts, but Williams’ fumbles led directly to 10 points in the Giants’ 20-17 overtime win. That was OK, though—just growing pains on the way to the Super Bowl the next season, with Jim and John Harbaugh going head-to-head. With Kaepernick taking over from Smith at quarterback, the 49ers were now fully operational, so things should go just fine.
The Ravens had a 28-6 lead early in the third quarter when the power went out at the Superdome, stopping play for a half-hour. The delay seemed to put a spark back in San Francisco as Kaepernick and company clawed their way back to a 34-29 deficit. They had the ball on the Baltimore 7-yard line with 2:39 left to play, but three straight incomplete passes from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree (and not, say, a run from Frank Gore, who had a 100-yard day going?) ended the 49ers’ hopes there. Their next season ended in the end zone as well, this time in the NFC Championship Game against the Legion of Boom Seahawks. This time it was Richard Sherman tipping the pass away from Crabtree in the corner of the end zone in the closing seconds of a one-score game, moments before cutting a WWE-style promo on the field which doesn’t add any heartbreak points but feels like it should be worth something.
Three straight years, three one-score losses in major playoff games. You would think, at least, that the 49ers were set up well going for the future, but Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke were engaged in, at first, a quiet, behind-the-scenes feud and then, secondly, a loud in-front-of-the-scenes feud. 49ers owner Jed York had to take sides between them and picked Baalke, sending Harbaugh packing after 2014. That, uh. That didn’t work. That wasn’t good. The 49ers may well have collapsed anyway—Willis and Justin Smith retired; Aldon Smith’s legal troubles started; Kaepernick was hurt, regressed, and started a cultural firestorm which hasn’t died down to this day. But in hindsight, their odds of competing were much higher with Harbaugh than with Baalke. Pity the NFL franchise that trusts Trent Baalke to turn things around.
“When you try me with a sorry receiver like (Michael) Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get.”
Richard Sherman. GOAT trash talker.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) July 22, 2020
No. 17: 1996-2003 Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans
Total Heartbreak Points: 649.1
Playoff Points: 290.9
Win-Loss Points: 198.8
DVOA Points: 159.4
Record: 80-48 (.625)
Playoff Record: 5-4 (one Super Bowl loss, one AFCCG loss, two divisional losses)
Average DVOA: 10.2%
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher
Key Players: QB Steve McNair, RB Eddie George, WR Derrick Mason, TE Frank Wycheck, OT Brad Hopkins, C Bruce Matthews, DE Jevon Kearse, CB Samari Rolle, S Blaine Bishop
Jeff Fisher is the butt of a lot of jokes for his 7-9 bullshit, but he got the leeway for all of those mediocre seasons thanks to a real run of success in Tennessee. Fisher’s first 7-9 and 8-8 teams were tremendous coaching jobs, taking over a Houston team that had been gutted by ownership and playing in front of hostile crowds angry that they were losing the team to Tennessee. They were playing in front of empty stadiums preempted on radio for Houston Rockets preseason games. Winning seven or eight games in the face of that bullshit is a cause for celebration, and a reminder that you don’t get into a position to tie the record for losses as a head coach without some serious accolades in your pocket.
But this team isn’t on the list because of their last year in Houston. Nor are they here for their time as the vagabond Tennessee Oilers, a franchise identity that just feels wrong and incomplete to talk about. The Tennessee Oilers were based in Nashville but commuted to Memphis for games, essentially giving them 16 road games a year as they hadn’t set down roots yet. They didn’t even draw as many fans as the USFL’s Memphis Showboats had a decade earlier. Again, getting those teams to 8-8 represents a good coaching job by Fisher.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they found success when they finally settled in Nashville and changed their identity to match the area in which they actually played. Young stars such as Steve McNair, Eddie George, and Derrick Mason had been working through the franchise’s growing pains, blossoming in their own right when the team settled down, and they were soon joined by a defense featuring Jevon Kearse and Samari Rolle. Four of the first five seasons for the Titans ended up with double-digit wins; the Oilers had never had a stretch that successful.
The Oilers, however, had won AFL titles. The Titans didn’t.
The Music City Miracle propelled the newly named Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV. That game often gets shrunk down in memory to just the final play, with Mike Jones wrapped around Kevin Dyson’s legs, dragging him down inches short of what would have been the game-tying touchdown. That’s fair as any time you end up inches from winning a Super Bowl you’re going to score very highly on countdowns like these. But the game as a whole was one of the better ones, with Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt’s passing attack being matched point-for-point by McNair and George on the ground. Tennessee had rallied back from a 16-0 second-half deficit to tie the game with just 2:12 left, setting up Bruce’s long touchdown on the very next play and, in turn, allowing The Tackle to be made. It would have been remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history had the Titans pulled it off. Shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf for the last quarter as they fought back for the win? The stuff of legends. If Jones was a fraction of a second later on his tackle, we’d have … well, we would have had overtime. It was a game-tying touchdown that got stopped, not a game-winning touchdown, which is why 1999 doesn’t rank quite as highly on the heartbreak rankings as, say, 28-3 or Wide Right or some of the other named Super Bowl losses. It’s up there, obviously, and it’s why the Titans have hit the top 20. But if it had been for the win, Tennessee would have had a stronger argument to slip into the bottom of the top 10.
It also would have helped if Tennessee could have gotten to another Super Bowl after losing to the Rams. They still had success, mind you, but never got another bite at the apple. They lost to the Ravens in the 2000 divisional round thanks to two non-offensive fourth-quarter scores—Anthony Mitchell’s 90-yard blocked field goal touchdown and Ray Lewis’ 50-yard pick-six. In 2002, they fell in the AFC Championship Game to Rich Gannon and the Raiders, who picked their pass defense apart all day long. And in 2003, shivering through 4-degree temperatures in the divisional round in Foxborough, they became one of a long list of victims of Adam Vinatieri game-winning field goals, losing 17-14 when their final attempt to move the ball slipped through Drew Bennett’s hands.
And that was it for the Titans. Their young talent got expensive and many had to be moved in 2004 to fit in under the salary cap—goodbye Mason, Rolle, and Kevin Carter. That triggered a mini-rebuild and severed this run from the Vince Young-led run in the late 2000s. Neither Fisher nor the Titans have seen the Super Bowl since.
“Mike Jones made the tackle!”
19 years ago today, the Rams LB stopped Kevin Dyson on the last play of Super Bowl XXXIV.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 30, 2019
No. 16: 2004-2010 San Diego Chargers
Total Heartbreak Points: 656.1
Playoff Points: 207.6
Win-Loss Points: 227.5
DVOA Points: 221.0
Record: 76-36 (.679)
Playoff Record: 2-5 (one AFCCG loss, three divisional losses, one wild-card loss)
Average DVOA: 18.3%
Head Coaches: Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner
Key Players: QB Philip Rivers, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, TE Antonio Gates, OT Marcus McNeill, G Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, DT Jamal Williams, LB Shawne Merriman
Hey, we covered these guys back in the dynasty list! They hit No. 45 back then as we called this the best run ever to have never won the conference. That doesn’t quite hold up here as there are a few more teams left to come who never reached the Super Bowl. But those teams remaining built up their heartbreak points over a generation, with an average of 15 seasons to rack up points. The Chargers got here in only seven years, without a Super Bowl loss to pad their stats. They are the first team to hit 200 heartbreak points in all three categories. They are, at the very least, the best concentrated heartbreak by a team to never even reach a Super Bowl, with the most non-Super Bowl pain you can squeeze into a short time frame. Sprinters, not marathoners.
We do get a visit from our old friend Marty Schottenheimer here, but we’re going to ask him to sit and wait for a few minutes as we’ll get back to him soon enough. He and Drew Brees are responsible for a little bit of this run, right at the very beginning—a 2004 overtime wild-card loss to the Jets being San Diego’s first postseason appearance in nine seasons. That’s all well and good, but this run really belongs to Norv Turner and his offensive triplets of Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Antonio Gates.
The Chargers finished in the top 10 in offensive DVOA in six of these seven seasons. Rivers was good, but not quite the player he’d eventually mature into being. These were LdT’s years to shine. Tomlinson’s 581 DYAR in 2006—the year he set the record with 28 rushing touchdowns—remains the Chargers franchise record, and he nearly beat it the year after. San Diego’s 27.2% rushing DVOA in 2006 is the 10th-highest on record, and only falls to 15th when you include estimated DVOA from 1950 to 1980. They really didn’t have a defense to go with it, but who needs one? Only the Patriots scored more than the Chargers did over this timeframe—not Peyton Manning’s Colts, nor Brees’ Saints, nor the Favre/Rodgers Packers. Offensive success like that deserves reward.
Ah, but the Patriots were the rub there. In a decade without a dynasty, the Chargers may well have made a Super Bowl or three, but the Patriots always seemed to stand in the way. The Chargers went 14-2 in Schottenheimer’s last year in 2006, with league MVP Tomlinson running over anyone and everyone in his path. No worries, said the Patriots—we’ll just force four turnovers in the divisional round to knock you out. The Chargers lost 24-21 in agonizing fashion. With a 21-13 lead halfway through the fourth quarter, Marlon McCree intercepted Tom Brady to end the scoring threat … but Troy Brown stripped McCree on the return, giving the ball back to New England and allowing them to tie and later win the game.
That was it for Schottenheimer, becoming the first coach ever to be fired after 14 wins, but Turner didn’t do much better. The Chargers got to face the Patriots again in the 2007 AFC Championship Game, but couldn’t find the end zone, losing 21-12. In 2008 and 2009, they didn’t even get a chance to knock off the Pats, with the Steelers and Jets eliminating listless Chargers teams.
All those seasons score higher than 2010, but you can’t talk about heartbreak without discussing the 2010 Chargers. With a 14.7% DVOA and the best offense and defense in the league in terms of yards allowed, you would expect the 2010 Chargers to be at the top of the league, or at least a very clear playoff team. Instead, the fifth-worst special teams in DVOA history cost the Chargers game after game, helping them stumble to a 9-7 finish and miss the playoffs entirely. They allowed a 94-yard punt return touchdown to Dexter McCluster and the Chiefs in a game they lost by seven. They allowed a 101-yard kickoff return to Leon Washington and the Seahawks in a game they lost by seven. The Raiders blocked a pair of punts. Kris Brown missed a game-tying field goal against the Patriots. The list goes on and on—no good team in the history of the league has been more let down by their special teams than the 2010 Chargers. That doesn’t earn them any extra points on the heartbreak rankings, so if you want to subjectively bump them all to handle all the various Chargerness of the situation, be my guest.
With Tomlinson gone, the Chargers’ feud with the city of San Diego increasing, and the investment in cracked mirrors and black cats not paying off for the franchise, the Chargers failed to win double-digit games again until 2018.
January 14, 2007
Makes one of the best plays in Pats playoff history, stripping and forcing a fumble from Marlon McCree after he intercepted Brady with 6:16 left in the 4th Qtr
Pats would get a TD and 2-pt conv. to beat the Chargers (24-21)pic.twitter.com/XvAVgxSbbt
— Boston Sports Info (@bostonsportsinf) January 14, 2022
No. 15: 1990-2005 Miami Dolphins
Total Heartbreak Points: 659.6
Playoff Points: 184.6
Win-Loss Points: 242.5
DVOA Points: 232.6
Record: 149-107 (.582)
Playoff Record: 6-9 (one AFCCG loss, five divisional losses, three wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 7.9%
Head Coaches: Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Jim Bates, Nick Saban
Key Players: QB Dan Marino, QB Jay Fiedler, WR O.J. McDuffie, WR Chris Chambers, WR Irving Fryar, OT Richmond Webb, G Keith Sims, C Tim Ruddy, DE Jason Taylor, DE Jeff Cross, DT Tim Bowens, LB Zach Thomas, LB Bryan Cox, CB Sam Madison, CB Patrick Surtain, S Brock Marion, S Louis Oliver
Can you smell compiler? I sure can!
This is our first generationally heartbreaking team on the countdown—not just one team with one group of players, but a franchise that just seems to be unable to get out of its own way. It’s one thing for a team to be really good for five years, only to never cap things off with a title. It’s another thing entirely to be good for year after year, decade after decade, never quite able to scale the mountain at the end.
The system gradually gives diminishing returns as you add more and more seasons to your list in an attempt to avoid a team qualifying just because they lost a bunch of wild-card games. You won’t find Marvin Lewis’ Bengals anywhere near the countdown, for instance. But these Dolphins kept dancing around, doing just enough to earn points without ever having a truly devastating season. Eleven of their 16 seasons here earn fewer than 100 heartbreak points and nine earn fewer than 50. It was certainly no fun being a Dolphins fan during this era, but it’s not like the 1980s teams which were going to and losing Super Bowls. The 1990s Dan Marino Dolphins could be counted on for eight to 11 wins a year, usually a playoff berth, and a quick trip home. That, plus a few vestigial successful years with Jay Fiedler and Dave Wannstedt, gets you a spot in the top 15. It’s not the sharp, agonizing heartbreak of being a fan of the Chargers or Titans, nor is it the long-suffering agony that comes with being a fan of the Bills or Vikings. Being a Dolphins fan in this era was a lingering heart condition, one that’s always idle in the background making things generally uncomfortable, but only occasionally causing pains bad enough to consult your physician.
These Dolphins apparently made it their mission to collect some of the worst playoff performances in NFL history, especially once Jimmy Johnson took over from Don Shula in 1996. The playoff point scale here gradually declines as games become larger and larger blowouts, under the assumption that losing a game on the last play hurts more than being blown out of the water entirely. Three of the Dolphins’ nine playoff losses in this decade and half get the very bare minimum of possible points: the 38-3 divisional loss to the Broncos in 1998, the 62-7 divisional loss to the Jaguars in 1999, and the 27-0 divisional loss to the Raiders in 2000. These games were never close or competitive; they were over by the time you got comfortable in your seat. Add in wild-card defeats by scores of 37-22 (1995 Bills), 17-3 (1997 Patriots), and 20-3 (2001 Ravens), and you’re creating a long legacy of super-depressing January football.
You do have to give the Dolphins credit for always getting to the playoffs. There have been plenty of teams who would have loved the opportunity to get crushed in January. But it is such subpar performance in the games that mattered the most that keeps the Dolphins from cracking the top 10, and makes it questionable whether they should be this high at all.
20 years ago today, the 14-2 Jacksonville Jaguars destroyed the Miami Dolphins 62-7 in Dan Marino and Jimmy Johnson’s last game. They dont talk about this one much, do they? pic.twitter.com/RzUxyjnPIO
— Moving The Chains Podcast 🎙 (@_MTCPodcast) January 15, 2020
Shula’s early 1990s teams, however, do deserve more than just a cursory dismissal as one-and-done January experts. While late-career Marino was still very good, early-1990s Marino was still on the tail end of his prime, topping 1,200 DYAR in each of his four healthy seasons in the first half of the decade. The Dolphins had bad injury luck in odd-numbered years—Marino and backup Scott Mitchell were both hurt in 1993, and defensive injuries held them back in 1991. But when enough of the roster was healthy, Marino alone was enough to put the Dolphins into the championship conversation.
In 1990 and 1992, the Buffalo Bills put an end to that—first in a shootout in the 1990 divisional round, and then by a crushing defensive performance forcing five turnovers in the 1992 AFC Championship Game. And in 1994, when the Dolphins built a 21-6 lead at halftime in the divisional round, only for the Chargers to score 16 unanswered points in the second half, one for every play Miami managed to run in the third and fourth quarters. Those are more the kinds of results we’re looking for when we’re talking about heartbreak teams, so thank you to the early-1990s Dolphins for providing it.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) December 27, 2021
No. 14: 1969-1981 Washington Redskins
Total Heartbreak Points: 693.8
Playoff Points: 184.6
Win-Loss Points: 242.5
DVOA Points: 232.6
Championship Penalty: 69.8
Record: 112-75-3 (.597)
Playoff Record: 2-5 (one Super Bowl loss, four divisional losses)
Average DVOA: 7.7%
Head Coaches: Vince Lombardi, Bill Austin, George Allen, Jack Pardee, Joe Gibbs
Key Players: QB Billy Kilmer, QB Joe Theismann, RB Larry Brown, WR Charley Taylor, C Len Hauss, DE Ron McDole, DT Diron Talbert, LB Chris Hanburger, LB Harold McLinton, LB Brad Dusek, CB Pat Fischer, CB Mike Bass, CB Joe Lavender, CB Lemar Parrish, S Ken Houston
Say hello to the Over the Hill Gang, quite possibly the oldest teams to have ever taken the field in the modern era. We only have snap-weighted age going back into the mid-2000s, but no team ever topped 28.7 years in our database. The average Washington starter in 1971 was 31 years old, and they only got older from there—that being how time works and everything.
When George Allen took over Washington in 1971, he decided he didn’t want to bother with a bunch of young rookies. He wanted experienced players who he didn’t have to whip into shape. Players who knew how to play at an NFL level right from the off. And so when it came to the draft, Allen … well, he just didn’t. He didn’t draft anyone.
Washington used just one of their first five picks in the 1971 draft. Instead, they Allen dealt for—deep breath here—Diron Talbert, Billy Kilmer, John Wilbur, Jack Pardee, Myron Pottios, Tom Roussel, Boyd Dowler, Mike Taylor, Maxie Baughan, Tom Brown, and Jeff Jordan. Those men went on to start 318 combined games for Washington over the next decade, making up the core of Allen’s defense as well as starting quarterback Kilmer. Washington made just two picks in the top 100 of any draft in Allen’s tenure, repeatedly sending picks away to bring in veterans. I’m sure Les Snead has a framed portrait of Allen somewhere in the Rams’ draft room.
And speaking of the Rams, that was Allen’s prior gig before taking over Washington, and a lot of his early trades involved importing as many players as he could from Los Angeles. The entire starting linebacker corps of Baughan, Pottios, and Pardee all were with Allen with the Rams, with plenty more dotted around the roster. The Rams had ranked in the top five in estimated defensive DVOA from 1966 to 1970, so why not just bring them all with him to Washington? It worked, too. Estimated DVOA has Washington with a top-five defense in four of Allen’s six seasons in charge. The passing offense was also strong, with three top-five finishes under Allen. Billy Kilmer-to-Charley Taylor was one of the better passing combinations of the early 1970s. Taylor’s 215 receptions from 1972 to 1975 are more than 20 more than the nearest competitor, and when he retired in 1977, he was the league’s all-time leading receiver and the most prolific pass-catcher before the 1978 rules changes.
The 1970s were when giants roamed the earth in the NFL, with dynasties and mini-dynasties creating the most unbalanced league in modern times. The Over the Hill Gang crashed into a few of them. We have already met the early 1970s 49ers, and they came back from a 10-3 halftime deficit to beat Washington in the 1971 divisional round. We will meet the 1970s Rams, who defeated Washington in a brutal defensive battle in the 1974 divisional round, one in which the teams combined for only 444 total yards and the decisive score came on a fourth-quarter Isiah Robertson pick-six. And of course we’ll get to meet the 1970s Vikings soon enough; they knocked Washington out of the playoffs in both 1973 and 1976. Those are a lot of other heartbreak legends taking out their frustrations on Washington. It was a scrap fight just to get the opportunity to play, say, the Cowboys, Steelers, or Raiders in a crucial game.
— VikeFans (@VikeFans) October 23, 2019
Or the Dolphins, for that matter. Washington did break through the gauntlet in 1972 to reach Super Bowl VII. Running back Larry Brown was named league MVP. Kilmer led the league in touchdown passes. Washington’s defense hadn’t allowed a touchdown all postseason. They were favored in the Super Bowl over a Dolphins team that had a quarterback controversy; a Dolphins team that had survived on a soft regular season schedule; a Dolphins team that had barely squeaked through the postseason.
And a Dolphins team that was 16-0 at the time, did we forget to mention that? That seems kind of important in retrospect. Manny Fernandez and the rest of the No Name Defense blew up the older Washington offensive line, holding Brown to just 3.3 yards per carry. They picked Kilmer off three times and kept the offense off the board entirely. The only Washington points came on Garo Yepremian’s attempt to pass a blocked field goal. The 14-7 final score doesn’t come close to showing Miami’s domination.
Allen was fired when Washington missed the playoffs in 1977. That also happens to be the last time in this run that Washington recorded any heartbreak points, even though it technically continues for four years afterwards. The Jack Pardee era was underwhelming enough that Washington doesn’t score there, while any pain that Joe Gibbs brought to the table was cleared out when Washington got revenge on Miami in Super Bowl XVII. But by then, the Over the Hill Gang was far away.
Super Bowl VII, OTD in 1973
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 14, 2022
No. 13: 1997-2011 New York Jets
Total Heartbreak Points: 709.4
Playoff Points: 278.6
Win-Loss Points: 185.6
DVOA Points: 245.2
Record: 128-112 (.533)
Playoff Record: 7-7 (three AFCCG losses, two divisional losses, two wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 7.2%
Head Coaches: Bill Parcells, Al Groh, Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan
Key Players: QB Chad Pennington, RB Curtis Martin, WR Laveraneus Coles, WR Wayne Chrebet, WR Keyshawn Johnson, OT Jason Fabini, OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, G Brandon Moore, G Alan Faneca, C Kevin Mawae, C Nick Mangold, DE Shaun Ellis, DE John Abraham, LB Mo Lewis, LB Bryan Thomas, LB David Harris, LB Marvin Jones, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Aaron Glenn
Like the Patriots entry from last time out, we’re kind of welding together two different eras here. Unlike that entry, however, it’s not a single snowplow that’s bringing things together this time, and at least one of the halves is strong enough that it would qualify for the rankings all on its lonesome.
The stronger of the two halves is the half that was shopping for its own groceries and playing to win the game. The Jets had bounced between mediocre and embarrassing basically since the Super Bowl III win. They had some minor success in the 1980s with the Sack Exchange, but it didn’t really end up building to anything. That’s why owner Leon Hess was desperate to pry Bill Parcells out of his deal with the Patriots. After several failed attempts to end-around Parcells’ contract with New England, including briefly hiring defensive assistant Bill Belichick to be coach with Parcells as “consultant,” they eventually ponied up their first-round draft pick to land the Big Tuna.
Parcells immediately paid dividends, turning a 1-15 team into a 9-7 playoff contender overnight without much in the way of a roster overhaul. They missed the playoffs on the last day of the season in a bizarre game against the Lions, in which starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, backup quarterback Ray Lucas, and running back Leon Johnson all threw interceptions in between Barry Sanders highlight-reel runs. Parcells didn’t have skill position players he could trust, so in 1998 he signed Vinny Testaverde as a free agent and shipped more draft picks to the Patriots to pry Curtis Martin free. The result was the best Jets team in DVOA history, second in overall DVOA and top-five on both sides of the ball. New York rode it all the way to the AFC Championship Game, where they ran into the Denver Broncos and MVP Terrell Davis. Davis ran all over the Jets’ defense while the offense was busy turning the ball over six times. It is the only time Parcells ever lost a conference championship game.
Jan. 17, 1999 (1998 AFC Championship Game) — In @johnelway‘s final home game at Mile High Stadium, the Denver Broncos repeated as AFC Champions by defeating the N.Y. Jets 23–10! DEN forced 6 TOs! @Terrell_Davis rushed for 167 yds. & 1 TD; @HowardGriffith had a TD rec. from Elway. pic.twitter.com/af4UWSEHpQ
— Mile High Moments (@MileHighMoments) January 17, 2022
But 1999 was going to be better. The Jets had jumped from one win to nine to 12 and a championship game, so there was nowhere to go but up! Or immediately down as the case may be, as Testaverde ruptured his Achilles tendon in the home opener. Parcells did a herculean job leading the injured team to 8-8, but it drained him entirely. He retired for the second time, vowing he would never coach again. That left Belichick in charge of the team … for one day, before he resigned to take the Patriots job. Yes, there’s a world where Jets coach Bill Belichick was united with 1997 first overall draft pick Peyton Manning if you want to feel really bad about things.
Instead, after a one-year Al Groh false start, we segue into the Herm Edwards era, which is probably better than you remembered. In the four seasons when Edwards had either Testaverde or Chad Pennington available, Edwards’ Jets averaged a 13.9% DVOA and made the playoffs three times.
They lost in a shootout in Oakland in 2001, in part because Edwards opted not to try an onside kick trailing by seven with 1:57 left in regulation. The Raiders knocked them out again in 2002, forcing turnovers on four consecutive second-half drives to turn a 10-10 halftime score into a 30-10 rout. And then, after an injury to Pennington derailed the 2003 season, they lost in the 2004 divisional round when Doug Brien missed two separate game-winning field goal attempts, both under 50 yards, in the final two minutes of regulation against the Steelers.
But the relationship between Edwards and management deteriorated over the next year, and the Jets ended up trading him to the Chiefs after the 2005 season. For those keeping track, that’s now three separate coaches going to or from New York with draft-pick compensation involved. There have only been four such trades since 1960, Jon Gruden to the Bucs being the other one. What a strange footnote to end this run on.
And it would have been the end had Eric Mangini not taken the 2006 Jets to the wild-card round in what we can all agree, in retrospect, was a major fluke. Between 2002 and 2008, the Jets alternate between years that score and years that don’t, in large part because Pennington was injured in 2003. And 2005. And for much of 2007, too, though that was more being constantly banged up than outright knocked out of the season. But because Pennington kept coming back and playing well, the Jets never put up the two terrible seasons in a row that would have ended the run, meaning we crash headlong through the Brett Favre year into the start of Rex Ryan’s tenure.
You remember Rex’s time with the Jets, right? Back-to-back AFC Championship Games under budding superstar quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Ryan era certainly wasn’t boring, for sure, and Ryan had fans on their feet for his first two seasons—something I’m sure he particularly appreciated. The two conference title losses are not enough, by themselves, to let the Ryan era qualify for this list, but tacking two more big-game appearances to the Parcells/Edwards years propels the Jets nearly into the top 10.
And, of course, the Jets haven’t seen the playoffs since. Sanchez’s career tanked to the point where he was in a legitimate quarterback controversy with Tim Tebow. He wasn’t the answer at quarterback. Nor was Ryan Fitzpatrick, nor Josh McCown nor Sam Darnold nor Geno Smith nor Christian Hackenberg. And Ryan ended up fired, and yet still had a better record with the team than any of his three replacements since. There’s some optimism for the future with Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson, but when you’re on a league-worst streak of 11 seasons without the playoffs, optimism tends to curdle.
— Will Chiarucci (@WillChiarucci) May 6, 2020
No. 12: 1989-1999 Kansas City Chiefs
Total Heartbreak Points: 715.6
Playoff Points: 186.8
Win-Loss Points: 252.8
DVOA Points: 276.0
Record: 110-65-1 (.628)
Playoff Record: 3-7 (one AFCCG loss, three divisional losses, three wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 14.4%
Head Coaches: Marty Schottenheimer, Gunter Cunningham
Key Players: QB Joe Montana, OT John Alt, G Dave Szott, G Will Shields, C Tim Grunhard, DE Neil Smith, NT Dan Saleaumua, LB Derrick Thomas, LB Tracy Simien, CB Dale Carter, CB James Hasty, CB Albert Lewis, S Kevin Ross
The third and final of Marty Schottenheimer’s teams just fails to make the top 10. Fitting for Marty, I suppose—even here, he can’t quite seem to make it to the end.
It’s interesting to compare Schottenheimer’s tenures in Cleveland and Kansas City, acknowledging that his San Diego legacy is at least half Norv Turner. In terms of playoff failure, the Chiefs don’t come close to matching the Browns’ legacy of The Drive and The Fumble. Cleveland earns 295.2 heartbreak points just from playoff losses, while these Chiefs don’t even pass the 200-point barrier. They only reached one AFC Championship Game and didn’t lose it in a fashion that earned a nickname.
But Schottenheimer’s Browns weren’t all that good in the regular season, at least comparatively—they won less than 60% of their games. Scottenheimer’s Chiefs were regular-season dynamos, with their 102 wins in the 1990s being third behind only the 49ers and Bills. Their average DVOA of 15.2%? Also third-best in the league behind the 49ers and Cowboys. At least as far as our statistics show, it was the Chiefs, not the Bills, who were the team of the 1990s in the AFC.
Of course, Buffalo went to four Super Bowls and have not yet been featured on this list. The Chiefs went to zero. Martyball strikes once again.
When I think of the 1990s Chiefs, I think of a swarming defense. Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas combining to terrorize quarterbacks, combining for 212.5 sacks in their time together in Kansas City. I think of a bruising offensive line, the law firm of Grunhard, Szott, and Shields paving way for Christian Okoye or Marcus Allen. That’s the Martyball way: stifle your opponents defensively, control the ball on the ground, win games.
I also think of the San Francisco 49ers, because the strange pipeline from SFO to MCI was in full force in this era. Schottenheimer inherited ex-49ers quarterback Steve DeBerg when he took for the job and, after one season messing around with ex-Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg, proceeded to trade for Joe Montana and Steve Bono and picked up Elvis Grbac in free agency, 49ers all. I suppose ex-49ers quarterback coach Paul Hackett needed someone to run his offense, but this was taking things to an extreme. The Chiefs didn’t get a single start from a quarterback they drafted between Doug Hudson in 1987 and Brodie Croyle in 2006, and Schottenheimer was the real start of that. Don’t knock it if it works, mind you—the 1990s Chiefs finished in the top 10 in passing DVOA in six out of 10 seasons, even if they preferred to use it as a changeup to the rushing attack.
That’s all well and good in the regular season. It never worked quite so hot in the playoffs. Under DeBerg, the Chiefs were beaten 17-16 by a late Dan Marino drive and a painful offensive holding call in the 1990 wild-card round, then destroyed in a 37-14 stomping against the Bills in 1991. With Krieg under center, the Chiefs were blanked 17-0 by the Chargers in the 1992 wild-card round, never moving the ball beyond the Chargers’ 34-yard line.
Montana brought with him more success—Joe Montana being better than Steve DeBerg and Dave Krieg is another one of those deep insights you’ve come to expect from Football Outsiders. In 1993, we were a game short of what would have been arguably the biggest Super Bowl of all time, with Montana battling his former 49ers in Super Bowl XXVIII. Neither team lived up to their end of the deal, however. Montana was knocked out of the AFC Championship Game with a concussion as Thurman Thomas and the Bills ran all over Kansas City. The next year, Montana ended up losing a shootout against Dan Marino and the Dolphins in the wild-card round in what would turn out to be his last game as a professional.
The last time the Bills played in the AFC Championship was 1994 against… The Chiefs ⏮
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 19, 2021
And that was as close as the Chiefs got. They were the No. 1 seed in both 1995 and 1997, only to lose in the divisional round both times. 1997 was especially painful and comes out as the highest-scoring year of this run. They were 13-3 with a 29.4% DVOA, second highest in the league. Against the Broncos, they had more yards, more first downs, more time of possession, and a higher single-game DVOA. And yet they lost, 14-10, destroyed by missed opportunities—a holding call wiping out a Pete Stoyanovich field goal, Tony Gonzalez failing to stay in bounds for a potential touchdown, a fake field goal attempt that fooled nobody. A little better luck and maybe the Chiefs come out on top of this one—but then, they probably would have just lost to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. That’s Martyball for you.
This Chiefs team is missing that signature heartbreaking playoff loss that would have pushed them into the top 10—something agonizing and painstaking that can play over and over on highlight reels and in your mind when you’re trying to sleep at night. Give these guys a Fumble or a Drive, and they’re right up there with the very best of the best. But once again, Schottenheimer comes up just short.
the dramatic ending of the 1997 Broncos @ Chiefs playoff game! pic.twitter.com/ZbvSltU94Q
— Kali Mahomes (@ClayWendler) January 13, 2017
No. 11: 2003-2021 Dallas Cowboys
Total Heartbreak Points: 782.6
Playoff Points: 202.4
Win-Loss Points: 293.1
DVOA Points: 287.1
Record: 171-134 (.561)
Playoff Record: 3-8 (five divisional losses, three wild-card losses)
Average DVOA: 6.7%
Head Coaches: Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett, Mike McCarthy
Key Players: QB Tony Romo, QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliott, RB DeMarco Murray, WR Dez Bryant, WR Miles Austin, WR Amari Cooper, TE Jason Witten, OT Tyron Smith, OT Flozell Adams, OT Doug Free, G Zack Martin, G Andre Gurode, G Leonard Davis, G Larry Allen, C Travis Frederick, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DT Jay Ratliff, DT La’Roi Glover, LB DeMarcus Ware, LB Sean Lee, LB Bradie James, CB Terence Newman, S Roy Williams
Our final team today is also our final active heartbreak dynasty. And it has been active for quite some time. There are a handful of current painful runs that date back to the early to mid-2010s—the Ravens and Seahawks just after their Super Bowl wins, or the recent success of the Steelers or Bills. But the Cowboys struggles go back almost all the way to the 2002 realignment. We’re approaching two decades of quality Cowboys football with nothing to show for it.
It’s not just that Dallas hasn’t won a Super Bowl, though that hurts for a franchise with such a long tradition of success. It’s not even just that Dallas hasn’t gotten to a Super Bowl. The Cowboys, despite having won 176 games since realignment, haven’t even reached the NFC Championship Game. Forget titles, they haven’t even been a game away from a championship opportunity since the mid-1990s. Every team that has won more games than the Cowboys since realignment has won a Super Bowl. Every other team in the top 20 in wins since realignment has reached the conference championships. The Cowboys join the Texans, Dolphins, Browns, Lions, and Commanders as the only teams in the past two decades not to reach the conference finals. Those are teams for the Anti-Dynasty list, terrible teams that can’t string two seasons together. The Cowboys are slumming with franchises far below their pedigree.
This is a double-edged sword for the heartbreak rankings. Because they never advance too far into the postseason, the Cowboys do not get the opportunity for massive playoff points from Super Bowl losses and the like. That’s what keeps them out of the top 10. But because they have never gotten to the end of the year, they have also never been in danger of having their run ended by victory. Get into a Super Bowl and there’s always a chance you might win it. The Cowboys have cunningly avoided the threat of their heartbreak dynasty coming to an end by just making sure they bow out early. We commend them for their commitment to pain.
Like the Jets before them, this run starts with Bill Parcells as his vow to never coach in the NFL again lasted just four years. And just like he did in New York, Parcells immediately flipped his new team back to playoff contention, taking a roster that had gone 5-11 in three straight years and immediately making the playoffs, although they fell to Carolina in the wild-card round . Unlike New York, Parcells’ Cowboys teams did not then step to Super Bowl contender as injuries and the growing pains of switching to Parcells’ 4-3 defense caused a little bit of bumbling around. Dallas also didn’t have a quarterback, with Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, and Drew Bledsoe not really being answers of any kind. Dallas decided to roll the dice with an undrafted backup named Tony Romo.
Romo rewrote the Cowboys record books, becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns—and when your franchise leaderboard includes Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, that’s impressive regardless of era adjustments. He was in the top 10 in DVOA in all but one qualified season. Romo was also, dare we use the word, one of the more clutch quarterbacks in the league when playing. He had a quarterback rating of 100.2 in the fourth quarter or overtime, higher than any quarterback in his era with at least 500 such pass attempts.
And yet, for a significant portion of Cowboys fans, Romo’s career will be remembered for the lowlights. His fumble troubles in 2006, leading up to the botched field goal snap in the wild-card loss against the Seahawks, for instance, in the last game of Parcells’ career. Or his interception to R.W. McQuarters against the Giants in the waning seconds of the 2007 divisional-round game, clinching New York’s upset of the top-ranked Cowboys. Or his six sacks, three fumbles, and interception in the blowout loss to the Vikings in the 2009 divisional round. This would never have happened with a real quarterback like Staubach or Aikman, the grumbling said. They wouldn’t be hanging out in Mexico with Jessica Simpson.
15 years ago today, Tony Romo drops the snap on a potential game-winning field goal in the Wild Card Round.
Cowboys opened +3, closed +1.
At least most Dallas bettors won. pic.twitter.com/MbUmPsmULY
— John Ewing 🦁 (@johnewing) January 6, 2022
It’s a repeat of the treatment Danny White got during the 1980s, only Romo was a much better quarterback than White was. The Cowboys don’t get a reputation for coming up short if Romo isn’t around to keep them in contention to begin with. And things didn’t get better after three straight 8-8 seasons in Jason Garrett’s first years as head coach, seasons when the Cowboys still had a top-10 passing offense and enough total DVOA to connect the Wade Phillips to the more recent run of success. They were eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the season in 2011, 2012, and 2013, a December Curse in full effect.
Is missing the playoffs over and over again more or less painful than feeling robbed of playoff success? Cowboys fans are in a great position to answer that, because they finally rebounded to make the playoffs in 2014, getting a divisional matchup against the Packers in Green Bay. Trailing late in the game, Romo hit Dez Bryant on a deep shot on fourth-and-3 that brought Dallas within inches of the end zone … but upon review, it was ruled incomplete as Bryant did not maintain control as he went to the ground. Did Dez catch it? I’d say so, though I think you have to at least admit it’s unclear … unless you’re a Cowboys fan, in which case it’s the greatest injustice of the past decade.
And that’s become sort of the experience of being a Cowboys fan in 21st century, even as Romo has begat Dak Prescott and Garrett had begat Mike McCarthy and Zeke and Dez replaced Murray and Owens. They’re just Ship of Theseusing themselves without ever climbing out of early-round purgatory. No longer are the Cowboys near-missing the postseason entirely; they’re getting bounced in awkward ways in January. It’s Mason Crosby hitting two 50-plus-yard field goals in less than two minutes in 2016. It’s C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley each running for 100 yards in 2018. It’s the clock running to zeroes against the 49ers in 2021 after a bizarre call of a quarterback draw with no timeouts remaining.
The Cowboys have really stepped up their production of heartbreak-worthy moments in the past few years, perhaps seeing that the top 10 on this list in in sight. We’ll keep monitoring it as they find new and exciting ways to blow it in the McCarthy era.
We’re still not over the ending to the Cowboys vs 49ers game! pic.twitter.com/N6rDdWBmYS
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 17, 2022
The Rankings So Far
The Cowboys are not only at the top of active heartbreak dynasties, but they also hold the top position so far, with the final 10 teams yet to be revealed. They’re also atop two of our three subcategories, due in large part to such a long reign of early exits. They have both the most win-loss points and DVOA points of any team outside of the top 10 as they are the current gold standard for regular season success and playoff disappointment.
But because Dallas hasn’t even reached a conference title game, there are a number of teams who can boast more playoff pain than the Cowboys can. The leader in the clubhouse is technically Steve Owen’s 1939-1946 Giants, because we are treating old-time NFL Championship Games the same as Super Bowls. If you agree with that, there’s very little question the Giants should be No. 1; any team that loses four Super Bowls in a decade is going to rank very highly. But it’s also fair to note that the Giants were losing championships in a league with 10 teams, in an era when the war limited the NFL’s access to talented players. If you don’t think pre-free-substitution football should be put on the same pedestal as the modern league, then the Harbaugh 49ers end up with the most playoff pain so far. A Super Bowl loss and two conference title losses, all very close together, is a heck of a lot for any one team to suffer through.
Yes, the Patriots suffered more in the moment, but they’re approaching a 1,000-point penalty for general dynasticness. They lose more points in penalties than all but the top six teams earn in total. Even here, Bill Belichick needs to find a way to show off, I guess.