The 6 Best Young Teams in NFL History
One of the most compelling pieces of NFL data isn’t immediately apparent from the box score or a cursory look at a team’s vitals. That’s the average age of the squad, which may be able to tell us more about the likelihood of future success than most people would expect, especially in regards to the ‘dynasty’ word that sports fans of every stripe love to throw out whenever the confetti is falling. The difference is put into stark, visual contrast in this image, a graph from FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine, showing how likely a team that has already won a Super Bowl is to win another one, with the odds on the Y-axis and their average age at the time of the win on the X.
The results are the kind that seem obvious in retrospect, but this hindsight bias is exactly that, which is to say, just because anyone can see that graph and say “of course a younger team has better odds to be a repeat Super Bowl winner than an older team,” it does not mean that the point is so apparent that it is never discussed. Which is why we’re discussing it. Q.E.D.
The folks over at Football Perspective, or more specifically, Andrew Healy over at Football Perspective, decided to do some data mining of their own around age and the best NFL teams. To narrow his research enough that it would mean something, Healy took the five youngest teams (sorted by AV-adjusted age, which is basically the average age of the guys on the team that contribute the most to any given play, but you can read the in depth analysis here) from 1966 until last season, and then filtered that through a Pythagorean score which had to be greater than 12. Which means that these teams weren’t bad and could’ve feasibly been Super Bowl Contenders, even if they didn’t win.
6. The 2001 Chicago Bears, average weighted age: 26.5 years
The first time the Bears made the playoffs since 1994, their core were collectively just over 26 years old, and posting their first season with over ten wins (they finished 13-3) since 1991. While the Bears had lingering questions standing alongside some skin-of-their-teeth victories — a fake field goal to touchdown pass against Washington and the fact that the Bears’s sole victory against a team that would finish over .500 was against the 39ers — which doubled down as the squad, mostly unchanged, would go 4-12 in 2002, but even as relative outliers (you could easily argue they’re the worst team on this list) Chicago makes the cut.
5. The 2006 San Diego Chargers, average weighted age: 26.5 years
In 2001, Chicago Bear Anthony Thomas beat out LaDainian Tomlinson to win Rookie of the Year. This is, probably, a bit of trivia that you will never, ever, need to utilize, but it’s interesting to examine given the proximity that the ’01 Bears and the ’06 Chargers, who featured LT delivering a once-in-a-lifetime season — he rushed for 19 touchdowns in six games, scoring 14 of those in the first four — and San Diego was able to deliver the best season in the entire league, finishing with 14 wins and two losses. Then they lost to the Patriots 24-21. So it goes.
To finish the comparison, and to illustrate why the Chargers got the nod over the Bears in the rankings, the Football Perspectives people had the ’01 Bears pegged at a 12.4 wins via Pythagenpat, while San Diego finished with a 12.6. The formula’s a little tricky, and you can read about it in depth here, but the idea is not — it compares the points a team scored against the points a team gave up over the course of a season to give a predicted estimate of how many games the team should have won. In both cases, Chicago and San Diego did better than the numbers would suggest, but the Chargers exceeded expectations to a greater degree.
4. The 1992 Dallas Cowboys, average weighted age: 26.4 years
The first team on this list to actually lay claim to the ‘dynasty’ that being a great, youthful team elicits, the ’92 Dallas Cowboys absolutely eviscerated the Buffalo Bills in a 52-17 rout, a Super Bowl victory that the squad would repeat twice more before 1996. While they didn’t make the cut for this list, the ’93 Cowboys would have finished eighth, behind the 1999 St. Louis Rams, with average weighted ages of 26.7 and 26.6 years, respectively.
Behind the legs of Emmett Smith, the arm of Troy Aikman, and the Doomsday defense, the Cowboys were able to capitalize on their youth movement to create one of the more memorable NFL dynasties of the 1990s. The ghost of their success, nearly two decades ago, continues to haunt fans as they watch the team wind up at .500 today.
3. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks, average weighted age: 26 years
More on the Seahawks in a minute, but the 2014 Super Bowl champions were able to build on their successes with their extraordinarily young core, matching their Pythagenpat expectation of 13.1 victories almost exactly with 13 wins, and using their youth and athleticism on defense to muster a decisive victory for their third youngest team (that hit 12 expected wins) over the Denver Broncos.
2. The 2012 Seattle Seahawks, average weighted age: 25.8 years
And perhaps everyone should have seen their Super Bowl victory coming, after Seattle notched a great 2012 with the youngest team in the NFL to measure out as a competitive squad. By running it back the next year (and literally, too, given their reliance on Marshawn Lynch and the ground game), the Seahawks were able to turn their promising squad into a championship winning team, while still being young enough that the ‘dynasty’ tag could reasonably be applied. They are, after all, younger than the Cowboys teams of Texas legend.
1. The 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers, average weighted age: 25.6 years
While the ’72 Steelers were only the fifth-youngest NFL team that season — and still a few seasons away from their dominant run to close out the decade — they actually underperformed their Pythagenpat predictions, too, finishing with only 11 wins, rather than the predicted 13.5. That said, in the retrospective lens of history, the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers were undoubtedly the seeds for a decade of dominance, as they would go on to win four Super Bowls before 1980 hit. For more info, and some really cool interactive charts, check out the full post on age and the NFL over at Football Perspective.