Over the weekend I overheard commentary concerning which NFL team was “America’s Team.” One commentator thought that the Dallas Cowboys were the fan favorite among NFL franchises, and two thought the Pittsburgh Steeler franchise was tops. Green Bay managed to make it into the top-five. I profess not to see the point in making such comparisons, because we’re dealing in different eras and different memories. The only two teams we should be talking about as the greatest franchises in NFL history are the Packers and the Chicago Bears, who have been the two constants since the league began, and are still 1-2 in the number of NFL championships won. Dallas, like the New York Yankees, is a team for the lame bandwagon crowd, for people in markets without teams to latch-on to so they can vicariously be attached to a perceived successful team; nobody wants to be associated with a “loser.” Of course, one loses the emotional highs and lows with a team that isn’t perpetually “relevant.” If you are a Brett Favre fan, you know these emotional swings all too well; last year, the mind-blowing high after his TD pass in the final seconds against San Francisco directly correlates to the primal scream low after his interception in the waning seconds of regulation against New Orleans in the NFC title game. This is what really makes the game special; that is why every year I can't wait for football season to start to put me out of my MLB and NBA snooze.
Since two of the three commentators chose the Steelers as the top NFL franchise, we should examine if that franchise really deserves this status. I think not. People born in the post-baby boom era seem to think so, meaning the merger era. These people seem to be oblivious to the fact that the Steelers were around long before they moved to the AFC. Back in 1933 they were known as the Pittsburgh Pirates before changing their name as not to be confused with the baseball team. For nearly forty years the Steelers were the perennial whipping-boy of the NFL; they did manage to make it to one “playoff” game during that span—losing 21-0 to the Philadelphia Eagles in a 1947 tie-breaker game to determine the eastern conference champion—but the team was better known for its incompetence, such as being the team that cut Johnny Unitas as a rookie in training camp (because he wasn’t “smart enough”). From 1933 to 1971, the Steelers had an overall .384 winning percentage; unlike other teams, it never had an “era” during that period where it won more games than it lost longer than two consecutive seasons. It wasn’t until 2002—70 seasons—before it won more games than it lost over the franchise’s history. And even in the merger era, it had its draught: 26 years passed between Super Bowl wins in 1980 and 2006. Every team has had its “draughts”—especially the Cowboys in the 1980s and 2000s. There is no such thing as a perpetually “dominant” or “relevant” franchise.
Why should the Packers and the Bears be given greater consideration as the most important franchises in NFL history? In the early years, the fledgling NFL had to fight to survive and earn “credibility.” The college game was considered superior to the motley professional game, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the NFL champions achieved a clear advantage in the College All-Star game (discontinued after the weather-shortened 1976 game, won by Pittsburgh 24-0). It was the Packer and Bear franchises which alone survived and maintained continuity while other franchises came and went, or merged because of the lack of players; some teams even tried to illegally field high school players to fill rosters. Although the dramatic 1958 championship game between the Unitas-led Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants is often credited with giving professional football a higher profile, it was the dominance of the Lombardi Packers in the television age which gave the game a focus it hadn’t had before—greatness in the pro football game had been given a definition. Proof that pro football had a hold on the public imagination was further granted by the “Heidi Game,” when thousands of irate fans flooded NBC phone lines complaining of the network’s cutting away from the final minute of a 1968 contest between the “lowly” AFL’s Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets. While the opening credits of “Heidi” were airing, the Raiders were scoring two touchdowns in a nine-second span--after the Jets had “apparently” kicked a game-winning field goal; after the movie broadcast, NBC management felt compelled to issue an on-air apology to football fans.
Now, will Packer players stop their whiny bickering long enough to end this foolish talk about the Steelers being the “best” franchise?