Most football fans would probably tell you that the best team that failed to win a Super Bowl would be the 2007 New England Patriots, who entered the big game that season with an 18-0 record but got spanked by the New York Giants. But those same Patriots had won a Super Bowl only three years before with the same coach, same system, same quarterback and essentially the same cast — nine of the 22 starters in that Super Bowl victory started three years later in the loss to the Giants. If you want to look at true hard-luck teams, here are the five greatest teams that did not win a Super Bowl despite a year or even several years in which they otherwise dominated.
5. San Diego Chargers (1979-1981)
What fun they were to watch on offense, with Air Coryell disciples Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson and Chuck Muncie lighting up the scoreboard. Unfortunately, the Chargers’ defense was dreadful. Case in point: In a 42-24 loss to the Denver Broncos in 1981, 38-year-old Denver QB Craig Morton completed 17 of 18 passes for 308 yards and four TDs. That same year, the team yielded 403 yards and four TDs against Don Strock in a legendary victory over the Dolphins in the playoffs. While the enduring image from that overtime classic is a battered and exhausted Winslow being helped off the field, all too often, it was the Chargers defense that came limping off the field after giving up another score. The Chargers lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship game that year.
4. Miami Dolphins (1981-1985)
Don Shula made coaching history when he guided the Miami Dolphins to a perfect 17-0 season in 1972. But you could make a strong argument that Shula’s finest coaching job came a decade later. Between 1981 and 1985, Shula’s Dolphins went 56-16. And while those early 1970s teams were loaded with all-pro players and future hall of famers, in the early ’80s Shula got the most out of journeymen such as quarterback David Woodley, running backs Tony Nathan and Andra Franklin and wide receivers Jimmy Cefalo and Duriel Harris. Shula led this cast of characters to the Super Bowl following the strike-shortened 1982 season, where the Dolphins lost to the Redskins. A year later, Shula got a huge upgrade in talent with the addition of rookie quarterback Dan Marino. In his second season, Marino tossed a record 48 touchdown passes and led the 14-2 Dolphins to the Super Bowl, with help from the Marks brothers (Clayton and Duper) at wide receiver and a strong defense led by linebackers A.J. Duhe, Bob Baumhower, Bob Brudzinski and the “Bruise Brothers,” Lyle and Glenn Blackwood, anchoring the secondary. The Dolphins lost that game to the San Francisco 49ers. Shula, Marino & Co. had one final shot at greatness the following year, finishing 12-4 and making it to the AFC Championship game before losing to the New England Patriots.
3. Minnesota Vikings (1998)
To put the Minnesota Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998 into perspective, consider this: In the 42 seasons since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, seven teams have finished a full regular season either undefeated, or with just one loss. Six of those teams made the Super Bowl, and five of those teams won the big game (the Patriots, of course, saw their undefeated season go down the drain against New York in Super Bowl XLII). The Vikings were the lone team in that group to not make the Super Bowl, losing to a good, but not great, Atlanta Falcons squad in the NFC title game. The Vikings, with a rejuvenated Randall Cunningham throwing to sensational rookie Randy Moss and perennial star Cris Carter, with speedy Robert Smith in the backfield, set a then-NFL record by averaging 35 points per game. The defense gave up yardage, but thrived on forcing turnovers. In the end, all it earned the Vikings was a footnote in history.
2. Buffalo Bills (1990-1993)
From 1990 through 1993, the Buffalo Bills posted a 49-15 regular season record, won nine playoff games and would be remembered by fans as one of the greatest teams ever … if they’d just won a Super Bowl. No one, except perhaps Bills fans, celebrates the fact that the Bills are the only team to appear in four straight Super Bowls, but everyone remembers they lost all four games, most agonizingly when Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal sailed wide right at the end of the Bills’ first Super Bowl, against the New York Giants. Future hall of famers QB Jim Kelly, RB Thurman Thomas and WR Andre Reed (he’s not in the HOF yet, but will be one day) sparked a wide-open, no-huddle “K-Gun” offense that led either the NFL or AFC in scoring from 1990-92. The Bills lined up plenty of stars on the other side of the ball, led by sack monster and future HOFer Bruce Smith at defensive end and linebackers Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and Shane Conlan. Many fans want to blame Norwood for the one that got away, but Talley isn’t having any of that. Talley told BuffaloBills.com in 2008 that Norwood deserved a spot on the team’s Wall of Fame. “Everybody seems to have forgotten Scott,” Talley said. “If you look back in the early days we won a lot of games with special teams and him kicking field goals. So I think there’s somewhere up there (on the Wall) for Scott to be, but nobody wants to acknowledge him because he missed a kick. … It just irks me that people have forgotten him.”
1. Minnesota Vikings (1969-1976)
It’s just bad luck that a team with this much talent, with this much success for the better part of a decade, never won a Super Bowl, but the Vikings had the misfortune of excelling during the 1970s, the era of dynasties in pro football. In the eight seasons from 1969 through 1976, the Vikings’ average regular season record was 11-3. The best of those Vikings teams was probably the 1969 squad. Anchored by a defensive line that sent all four starters (Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen) to the Pro Bowl, the defense allowed the fewest points and yards in the NFL. But the “Purple People Eaters,” as the defensive line was known, had plenty of help on offense, as quarterback Joe Kapp and all-pro wide receiver Gene Washington helped the team lead the league in scoring. Despite finishing 12-2 in the regular season, the Vikings were upset by the Kansas City Chiefs, 23-7, in the Super Bowl. The Vikings retained many of the key players from that team, and upgraded several positions in the next few years, most notably with QB Fran Tarkenton, RB Chuck Foreman and LBs Matt Blair and Jeff Siemon, and made the Super Bowl after the 1973, 1974 and 1976 seasons, where they ran into three dynasties at or near their peak: the Miami Dolphins, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. And the year in that span when they missed the Super Bowl, after the ’75 season, the Vikings went 12-2 in the regular season but were eliminated by yet another powerhouse team, the Dallas Cowboys, in a playoff game that ended on Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary touchdown pass to Drew Pearson. The final tally: four Super Bowl appearances, but zero wins, in a span of eight seasons. The Vikings have not been back to the Super Bowl since their loss in 1977.
The writer is a former full-time sportswriter.