Are the Chicago Bears the best team in DVOA history? It depends on how you define the “best team.”
Today, we introduce for the first time the full 1985 DVOA ratings for all 28 teams. We’ve been giving hints at these throughout the season. When it looked as if the 2019 New England Patriots or San Francisco 49ers might end up among the greatest defenses of all-time, I rushed to finish running all the 1985 ratings so that we could compare those teams to the 1985 Chicago Bears, often hailed as the best defense and the best overall team in NFL history.
So, are the Chicago Bears the best team in history, at least according to DVOA? Maybe yes, but probably no. It all depends on how much you value the postseason. As good as the Bears were in going 15-1 in the regular season, they were even better in the postseason, obliterating the teams ranked fourth, fifth, and seventh in DVOA by a combined score of 91-10.
Let’s start with the regular season, which is normally how we rank teams when we look at historical bests and worsts. In the regular season, the Bears were the No. 3 best team in DVOA history. They still trail the 1991 Redskins and, just barely, the 2007 Patriots.
|BEST TOTAL DVOA, 1985-2019|
|*only 12 games due to strike|
What happens if we include the playoffs? Chicago had an astonishing 98.9% DVOA for the three postseason games, including -73.1% DVOA on defense. But the 1991 Washinton Redskins had a pretty good ride through the playoffs as well. Their opponents were not ranked as strongly — Atlanta was only 11th in 1991, and Detroit only 17th — but Washington won its playoff games by a combined total of 102-41. Washington had 83.9% DVOA for the playoffs, which means that both teams see their ratings go up in the postseason, but the 1991 Redskins stay ahead of the 1985 Bears. Lower down on this list, Super Bowl champions such as the 1989 49ers and 1992 Cowboys climb the rankings once the postseason is included.
|BEST TOTAL DVOA
INCLUDING PLAYOFFS, 1985-2019
|*only 13 games due to strike|
OK, but some people might argue that it’s not enough to just count the playoffs. The playoffs should count more than the regular season, because those are the most important games of the year. And it turns out that if you decide to count the playoffs with twice the weight of the regular season, you get a list of best teams in DVOA history that’s all Super Bowl champions except for the 2007 Patriots, and that puts the 1985 Chicago Bears just an itty bit ahead of the 1991 Washington Redskins.
|BEST TOTAL DVOA
The Bears join the 1991 Redskins as the only two teams in history to achieve a perfect 16.0 “estimated wins” based on specific DVOA splits. The Bears were the best offense and the best defense in the league when games were close (within one touchdown) in the second half, and they were one of the league’s most consistent teams in 1985 (eighth in variance.)
What about defense only? The Bears are known as the most dangerous defense in NFL history, but by our numbers they still come in far behind the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. Essentially, the 1985 Chicago Bears are tied for second with themselves … the 1986 Chicago Bears. (The 1986 team is better by a tiny 0.03%, which works out to about 3 yards on a random play.) The 1985 Bears allowed 4.38 yards per play, compared to 4.12 yards per play for the 1986 Bears and 3.92 yards per play for the 1991 Eagles. Where the 1985 Bears catch up is on turnovers. The 1985 Bears had takeaways on 5.7% of defensive plays, compared to 4.7% for the 1986 Bears and 5.3% for the 1991 Eagles.
However, fumble recovery rates were one reason the Bears defense looked better than it was. Chicago’s defense recovered 18 of 26 fumbles during the regular season, then recovered another seven out of 10 in the playoffs. (In addition, three of the Bears’ league-leading 34 interceptions were Hail Mary plays to end a half.)
|BEST DEFENSIVE DVOA, 1985-2019|
Adding the playoffs improves the rating for the 1985 Bears team. The 1986 team flopped with a 27-13 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs, while the 1991 Eagles didn’t even make the playoffs, so they don’t have any plays to add to their rating. Still, if we only count each postseason game with the same strength as each regular-season game, the Bears again come in second to the 1991 Eagles.
|BEST DEFENSIVE DVOA
INCLUDING PLAYOFFS, 1985-2019
As great as this defense was, the difference between the 1985 Bears and the other Bears teams of the Mike Ditka era was the offense. We don’t have DVOA yet for the 1984 season, but the Bears were 16th in points scored. The 1986 team was 20th in offensive DVOA and 13th in points scored. But the 1985 team was fourth in offensive DVOA and second in points scored. The Bears were also No. 5 on special teams, making them just the sixth team in DVOA history to accomplish the feat of ranking in the top five for all three phases of the game. (The other teams: 1991 Redskins, 1992 Eagles, 1996 Packers, 2012 Seahawks, and 2015 Seahawks.)
Before we talk about the rest of the league in the 1985 season, let’s run all the numbers for you.
- ESTIMATED WINS uses a statistic known as “Forest Index” that emphasizes consistency as well as DVOA in the most important specific situations: red zone defense, first quarter offense, and performance in the second half when the score is close. It then projects a number of wins adjusted to a league-average schedule and a league-average rate of recovering fumbles.
- WEIGHTED DVOA is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. It better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season.
- 1985 SCHEDULE lists average DVOA of opponents played this season, ranked from hardest schedule (#1, most positive) to easiest schedule (#28, most negative).
- PYTHAGOREAN WINS represent a projection of the team’s expected wins based solely on points scored and allowed.
- VARIANCE measures the statistical variance of the team’s weekly DVOA performance. Teams are ranked from most consistent (#1, lowest variance) to least consistent (#28, highest variance).
DVOA for 1985 is now listed in the stats pages:
The first thing to understand about going all the way back to 1985 is just how different the game was back then. There are more passes and many more completed passes now, but those completions are shorter. There were also many more negative plays back then: sacks, interceptions, and fumbles. Here are some averages for 1985 and 2019 by team for comparison purposes:
|Per Team Stats, 1985 vs. 2019|
This is the first year we’ve done DVOA that was seriously impacted by the USFL, which played its final season in the spring of 1985. A number of players participated in both spring and fall seasons that year. Steve Young, Joe Cribbs, Reggie White, and Anthony Carter were among them. Other stars, including Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker, didn’t enter the NFL until the 1986 season.
The NFL in 1985 was all about the big cities. Five of the top six teams in DVOA represented the three largest metro areas in the United States, with both New York teams and both Los Angeles teams making the playoffs. The No. 2 team in DVOA was the New York Jets, led by quarterback Ken O’Brien and the New York Sack Exchange defense. No. 3 was San Francisco, which finished only 10-6 thanks to a 1-5 record in one-score games. The New England Patriots finished seventh, but upset the No. 2 Jets, No. 6 Raiders, and No. 9 Dolphins in that order to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, where they famously got crushed.
The Bears were not the only team from 1985 to rank among the all-time best. The 1985 Los Angeles Rams come out with the second-best special teams unit in DVOA history. This actually might be a bit of an underperformance. When Andreas Shepard did his historical DVOA estimates back in 2014, he came out with the 1985 Rams as the best special teams unit ever; now that we have the actual play-by-play breakdown, they come in behind the 2002 New Orleans Saints.
|Best Special Teams DVOA, 1985-2019|
|2002||NO||12.2%||8.8||18.4||14.7||9.8||9.2||K J.Carney, RET M.Lewis|
|1985||LARM||11.5%||6.7||4.6||20.6||20.5||5.3||RET R.Brown, P D.Hatcher|
|2007||CHI||11.2%||6.5||7.1||13.8||10.6||18.0||K R.Gould, RET D.Hester|
|1994||CLE1||10.1%||10.8||12.3||11.9||11.7||3.9||RET E.Metcalf, K M.Stover|
|1986||NYJ||9.9%||10.4||-2.7||9.9||30.7||1.2||P D.Jennings, K P.Leahy|
|1996||CAR||9.8%||7.1||14.0||13.6||8.1||6.1||RET M.Bates, K J.Kasay|
|2009||CLE||9.7%||4.8||10.3||21.0||0.9||11.2||RET J.Cribbs, K P.Dawson|
|1986||NO||9.3%||13.0||9.7||13.2||16.5||-6.2||K M.Andersen, P B.Hansen|
|2017||BAL||9.2%||19.0||6.6||12.3||4.1||3.9||P S.Koch, K J.Tucker|
|1998||DAL||9.2%||5.2||22.5||2.3||4.1||11.6||K R.Cunningham, RET D.Sanders|
|2012||BAL||9.0%||9.4||12.4||13.3||7.4||2.5||RET J.Jones, K J.Tucker|
|2001||PHI||8.9%||7.7||14.3||6.5||12.1||4.1||K D.Akers, P S.Landeta|
The 1985 Rams were above average in all five phases of special teams that we measure, but the biggest star was Olympic sprinter Ron Brown. Brown didn’t return kickoffs until Week 7, but he averaged 32.8 yards per return with three touchdowns, including two in a Week 12 victory over Green Bay. Brown was worth an estimated 24.3 points of field position above average; the other Rams returners, mainly running back Charles White, were negative on kick returns. The other star was punter Dale Hatcher. Hatcher was third in the league in gross punt average (43.2 yards) but led the league in gross punt value based on the situations where he punted, and also led the league in net punt average: 38.6 yards, more than 2 yards better than any other punter.
To demonstrate the year-to-year inconsistency of special teams, the Rams ranked only 19th the following year.
The Rams had one of the more peculiar NFL one-year wonders at quarterback in 1985: Dieter Brock. Brock had gone undrafted out of Jacksonville State in 1974 and had an 11-year career in the Canadian Football League. He won back-to-back CFL MVP awards (called “Most Outstanding Player”) for Winnipeg in 1980 and 1981. Unsatisfied with Jeff Kemp as their starting quarterback, the Rams reached up north and signed Brock in 1985. He was officially an NFL rookie at the age of 34. Brock’s 59.7% completion rate set a new Rams record at the time — no, seriously, that’s how low completion rates were in the ’70s and ’80s — but he also had a knee injury in the 1986 preseason and chronic back problems that knocked him out for the rest of the year. The Rams cut him when they traded for the rights to Jim Everett and that was the end of Brock’s football career. He has one year in the NFL at the age of 34 and that’s it.
Perhaps the strangest team of 1985 was the Washington Redskins. Look at the first table above, and nothing looks too weird about Washington. The Redskins went 10-6 but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. They ranked eighth in DVOA, which is about where you would expect to find a 10-6 team. It only gets strange when you look at the second table and notice that Washington is 17th with just 7.5 Pythagorean wins. Washington finished eighth in DVOA despite getting outscored by opponents. Washington now comes out with the best DVOA ever for a team that was outscored by its opponents during the regular season.
|Best DVOA by Team
Outscored by Opponents, 1985-2019
It’s fairly easy to explain how Washington went 10-6 despite being outscored by its opponents. Washington was 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less but 2-3 in games decided by three or more touchdowns. The bigger question is how Washington made it up to eighth in DVOA. The Redskins weren’t only outscored, but also outgained on average, 4.76 yards to 4.70 yards. Some of this surely has to do with Washington not putting its plays together to make up efficient drives, but there are other reasons. Washington recovered a league-low 35% of fumbles in 1985, including just seven of 24 fumbles on offense. Washington was also second in field goal value against, with opponents hitting 79% of attempts compared to a league average of 72%. And for an overall above-average defense, Washington gave up a lot of very long plays: 17 plays of 40 or more yards, second in the league behind Atlanta.
Washington was 5-5 going into a Week 11 game against the New York Giants. That’s the famous game where Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Theismann’s leg. Theismann was replaced by Jay Schroeder, a second-year quarterback Washington had selected in the third round of the 1984 draft as Theismann’s heir apparent. Schroeder led the Redskins to a close comeback victory in that game with the Giants, and then four wins in their next five games to finish the year 10-6. Although Schroeder only completed 53.6% of his passes, he was more efficient than Theismann by attacking more downfield. He averaged 13.0 yards per completion, compared to 10.6 for Theismann. You can see the change in offensive style through Art Monk’s in-season transformation, although in fairness Monk’s usage changed a couple of weeks before Theismann’s injury. In Weeks 1-8, Monk averaged just 8.5 yards per reception (-14.8% receiving DVOA), and didn’t have a single game above 75 receiving yards. In Weeks 9-16, Monk averaged 16.5 yards per reception (9.3% receiving DVOA) and topped 100 yards in six of eight games.
So, were the Redskins a much better team without Theismann? Not really, despite going 5-1 in the final six games. The passing game was much better with Schroeder, but the running game declined, in part because John Riggins was struggling with back issues. He was done for the year (and his career) after Week 13. The Washington defense got a little better in the final six games, but it wasn’t a big difference. But four of those six one-score wins that Washington had in 1985 came with Schroeder at quarterback.
|Washington DVOA by Week, 1985|
|Weeks||Pass DVOA||Rk||Run DVOA||Rk||Offense DVOA||Rk||Defense DVOA||Rk|
Another interesting team from 1985 was the Denver Broncos. The Broncos were the first team to ever finish 11-5 but miss the playoffs. They were in a three-way tie, but the Jets had the best conference record while the Patriots had a better record against common opponents. According to DVOA, however, the Broncos deserved to stay at home. Denver was only 15th in DVOA, ranking far below the Patriots and Jets and slightly below the Cleveland Browns, who were the first 8-8 playoff team ever as AFC Central champions. The Broncos played a season of close contests, going 6-4 in games decided by less than a touchdown including four overtime contests. Normally, we would expect an 11-5 team with an average DVOA to regress the next season, but that’s not what happened here. The Broncos improved on offense and special teams in 1986 and went 11-5 again, this time ranking fourth overall in DVOA and making it to the Super Bowl.
Cincinnati was the opposite of Denver, with the highest DVOA for a team with a losing record. The Bengals would climb up to fifth with a 10-6 record in 1986.
No team from 1985 is historically bad in any particular way. The Houston Oilers are a bit of a surprise as the worst team by DVOA, since they went 5-11 (4.6 Pythagorean wins) with a top-ten schedule but end up with a lower DVOA rating than two teams that finished at 2-14: Tampa Bay (25) and Buffalo (27).
Now let’s take a look at the best and worst players by position.
Quarterbacks: Another year, another Football Outsiders passing crown for Dan Marino, who led the league with 1,517 passing DYAR. Marino also finished No. 1 in 1986, 1988, and 1997. When we get back to 1984, he will assuredly be No. 1 that year as well. However, Marino did not have the best passing performance per play in 1985. The No. 1 spot in passing DVOA belongs to Dan Fouts, who had 8.5 yards per pass attempt compared to just 7.3 for Marino. Fouts doesn’t finish No. 1 in DYAR because knee injuries kept him to 12 starts. His backup, Mark Herrmann, wasn’t half bad; he had enough pass attempts to qualify for our rankings and finishes in the DVOA top ten.
Joe Montana finishes the year third in both DVOA and DYAR. Third-year quarterback Ken O’Brien from the Jets and second-year quarterback Boomer Esiason from the Bengals round out the top five. Danny White of the Cowboys was a surprising sixth in DYAR. And from the department of strong arms: John Elway, seventh in DYAR, gained 292 yards on Defensive Pass Interference penalties while no other quarterback in the league had more than 160.
The league’s worst qualifying quarterback was Buffalo backup Bruce Mathison, forced into the lineup by an injury to starter Vince Ferragamo. Ferragamo wasn’t great either, ranking 30th out of 33 quarterbacks in DVOA. Things got a lot better when Jim Kelly finally came over from the USFL a year later. Also near the bottom of the league: Atlanta’s David Archer, New Orleans’ Dave Wilson, and a surprise, Houston’s Warren Moon. Check out Moon’s historical record and you can see he certainly took a while to get used to the NFL game.
Buffalo was just one example of a general trend in 1985: lots of quarterback jobs split between two players. Not including DPIs, more quarterbacks fell between 125 and 200 pass plays (10) than over 500 pass plays (nine). So there are some interesting names on our second table of non-qualifiers. New England’s Steve Grogan would have been fifth in DVOA if he had qualified, while USFL refugee Steve Young had a dismal -37.7% passing DVOA in Tampa Bay.
A good example of how the game has changed since the 1980s: Only three quarterbacks in 1985 had at least 40 carries, led by Archer with 65. This past season, 13 different quarterbacks had at least 40 carries, and four quarterbacks (Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, and Deshaun Watson) had more than Archer did in 1985.
Running Backs: A number of running backs set or challenged NFL records in 1985. Gerald Riggs was not one of them. However, Riggs was our league leader with 457 rushing DYAR, over 100 DYAR past the rest of the league. That’s what happens when you combine a top-ten DVOA rating with 397 carries. Second behind Riggs was the Giants’ Joe Morris, whose 21 rushing touchdowns were second all-time as of 1985. Then comes the first of our record-breakers. Marcus Allen of the Raiders won the AP MVP award and set an NFL record with 2,314 yards from scrimmage, a record that stood for 12 years until Barry Sanders broke it in 1997. (Chris Johnson now holds the record with 2,509 yards in 2009.) An easier than average schedule was one reason Allen finished only third in rushing DYAR despite leading the league in yardage, slightly ahead of Riggs. And Allen was only 20th in receiving DYAR among running backs, with a DVOA slightly below zero.
The No. 1 running back in receiving DYAR was San Francisco’s Roger Craig, who in 1985 became the first player to ever combine 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. (Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey have done it since.) Craig was eighth in rushing DYAR, one of two running backs from San Francisco in the top ten, with his running mate Wendell Tyler ranking fifth in DYAR and first in rushing DVOA. Craig wasn’t the only receiving back to put up over 1,000 receiving yards, though. San Diego’s Lionel “Little Train” James outgained Craig in receiving by 12 yards and finished second in receiving DYAR.
Last place in rushing DYAR belonged to Joe Cribbs, who may have been tired out by playing both the USFL and NFL seasons in the same year. He had just 3.27 yards per carry for the Bills on 122 runs. Indianapolis’ Randy McMillan was last in receiving DYAR; I have no idea how it is possible to catch just 44% of passes as a running back who averages 5.2 yards per reception.
Wide Receivers: No wide receivers blew away the league in 1985 the way Stanley Morgan did in 1986 or Jerry Rice did in 1987. San Diego’s Wes Chandler and Pittsburgh’s Louis Lipps were one-two on top of the league in DYAR, though Lipps may deserve extra commendation for putting together a big year for the No. 15 pass offense in the league while Chandler was playing with the No. 3 pass offense. Chandler’s teammate Charlie Joiner was a remarkable third in DYAR at the age of 38, and right behind him was Miami’s 34-year-old Nat Moore, who finished fourth in DYAR and first in receiving DVOA. Steve Largent, who led the league in receiving yards, ended up fifth in DYAR. As a rookie, Rice was 18th in DYAR, a bit behind Rookie of the Year Eddie Brown from Cincinnati who was 12th.
Stephone Paige of Kansas City finished eighth in both DVOA and DYAR, and no discussion of 1985 is complete without talking about Paige’s Week 16 performance against the San Diego Chargers. Paige had 309 receiving yards on only eight catches (10 targets). Flipper Anderson broke the record with 336 yards in 1989 but 40 of those yards came in overtime; Calvin Johnson finally broke the record for yards in a regulation game with 329 against the Cowboys in 2013. Paige had 128 DYAR in this game, which means more than half his DYAR on the season came in one week. That total ranks ninth among wide receiver games all-time thanks to opponent adjustments for playing San Diego’s No. 20 pass defense. In YAR, without opponent adjustments, Paige is second behind Anderson’s 1989 game.
|Top 10 Wide Receiver Games by DYAR, 1985-2019|
Paige didn’t exactly set this record with an All-Pro at quarterback. In fact, Kansas City played two quarterbacks in that game, just as they did all season. Paige caught a 56-yard touchdown and then passes of 51 and 30 yards from Todd Blackledge. Then he caught passes of 12, 17, 20, 39, and 84 (touchdown) from Bill Kenney.
Atlanta’s Stacey Bailey was the worst receiver of the year by DYAR. He was coming off a 1,000-yard season in 1984 but in 1985 had only 364 yards with 12.1 yards per reception, no touchdowns, and a 45% catch rate. New Orleans rookie Eric Martin was also near the bottom of the league but he would go on to have much better years including 1992 when he ranked third overall in receiving value.
Tight Ends: Mickey Shuler of the Jets led the league with 226 receiving DYAR, 70 ahead of the Cowboys’ Doug Cosbie. The Raiders’ Todd Christensen led all tight ends in receiving yards and was chosen first-team All-Pro but finished only third in DYAR. Jamie Williams of Houston, with just a 53% catch rate, was last in DYAR among tight ends.
A few other 1985 notes:
- Holdouts played a big role in the early part of the 1985 season. The Jets lost 31-0 to the Raiders in Week 1, in part because left tackle Reggie McElroy, right tackle Marvin Powell, and first-round rookie Al Toon were all holding out. The Raiders had 10 sacks against New York’s backup tackles. Dan Marino held out for the entire preseason and the Dolphins lost to the Oilers (eventually the worst team of the year by DVOA) by a 26-23 score in Week 1. After his second interception of the game, with the Oilers up 19-16 in the fourth quarter, Marino was actually benched for Don Strock. (You can find this entire game on YouTube.) The other big holdout was in Los Angeles, where Eric Dickerson missed the first two Rams games. His absence didn’t stop the Rams from winning both games, over Denver and Philadelphia.
- In Week 10, Ron Jaworski and the Eagles beat the Falcons with a 99-yard touchdown pass to Mike Quick in overtime. It’s the longest play in overtime history. (Video here.)
- In Week 11, Houston cornerback Patrick Allen was called offside twice in one half against Pittsburgh. You don’t often see a cornerback called offside once, let alone twice.
- To quote from the Week 12 Chicago-Atlanta broadcast: ‘”Cry for Dave Archer, Atlanta’s quarterback. In front of Archer today when the Falcons oppose the Bears will be two rookies [RT Bill Fralic and RG Jeff Kiewel], a 39-year-old center [Jeff Van Note], a five-year veteran whose main job has been as a long snapper [LT Eric Sanders], and a left guard, Joe Pellegrini, who two years ago was a defensive lineman.”
- In Week 4, Washington was ahead of Chicago 10-0 in the second quarter when punter/kickoff man Jeff Hayes got hurt on a 99-yard Willie Gault kick return touchdown. On the next Washington drive, the Redskins put Joe Theismann out to punt on fourth-and-16. Theismann managed to move the ball a whole yard. That’s right: punt from the Washington 13, out of bounds at the Washington 14. “The guys said kick it right, and I did,” said Theismann after the game. “Dead right.” Chicago scored on the next play to take a 14-10 lead. Jay Schroeder punted the rest of the game and managed to average 33 gross yards per punt. The Redskins lost 45-10.
- This wasn’t even the worst punt of 1985. In the divisional round of the playoffs, Giants punter Sean Landeta completely whiffed on a punt from the 12-yard line. His foot just missed the ball completely. The Bears didn’t even block it, they just picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. Techincally it was a -7-yard punt with a 5-yard touchdown return.
- I haven’t even started to get into some of the strangest stuff from the 1985 season. Jeremy Snyder, who transcribed most of this 1985 play-by-play for us, also put together a Year in Quotes for 1985 that any fan of NFL history will enjoy.
- We’ve now got everything from 1983 and 1984, so that’s going to be a project for the next few months, and hopefully we’ll be able to unveil those ratings by next offseason.