Grades and rankings for the past 10 Super Bowl champions

Robert Hamilton takes a look at the season rankings of the past 10 Super Bowl champions in an effort to identify common trends.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Grades and rankings for the past 10 Super Bowl champions

It’s been over six months since the Denver Broncos were crowned Super Bowl 50 champions while boasting the highest-graded defense of the Pro Football Focus era (since 2006).

That means that the NFL offseason has nearly come to an end, and all 32 teams head into the regular season with the same exact goal: to win Super Bowl LI.

Below are the rankings (in terms of PFF grades) for the past 10 Super Bowl winners, starting with the Peyton Manning-led Colts in 2006.

Super Bowl champion grades

*Regular-season grade ranking shown for each team.

After aggregating PFF’s data from the past decade of Super Bowl champions, there are a few things we can take away and apply to this upcoming season.

There isn’t one way to build a champion

There have been both offensively-led teams and defensively-led teams go the distance. One thing most do have in common, though, is that they do one thing better than anyone else. Five of the last 10 Super Bowl champs have owned PFF’s No. 1-ranked offense or defense during the regular season. However, none of these five had a matching unit on the other side of the field ranked higher than No. 13. The 2011 Giants are the anomaly, as the only team without a top-10 offense or defense; despite this, New York was able to ride a wave of dominant stretches by a vaunted pass rush and QB Eli Manning. In fact, Manning produced levels of play when facing pressure over an extended period that we haven’t seen before or since by a quarterback.

With the strict salary cap—and resulting parity—in the modern NFL, no roster is going to be invulnerable. There are only a total of three teams in the past 10 years to have a top-five ranked offense or defense to go with a No. 1-ranked unit on the other side: the 2007 Patriots, 2012 49ers, and 2015 Panthers. The bottom line is that a franchise needs to establish an identity and have a dominant unit to carry them to the big one.

Most consistent attribute: Above-average passing

Over the past 10 seasons, the average Super Bowl winner earned the seventh-best passing grade. It’s no surprise that elite QB play is the most consistent factor among champs.

On the flip side, the average Super Bowl champion had just the 18th-ranked pass-blocking grade. This mark was solidified by the 2014 Patriots and 2011 Giants, who were able to scheme their way to effective passing games while compensating for the league’s poorest pass-blocking units.

The best team doesn’t always win

Surprisingly, PFF’s highest-graded team each regular season has yet to win a Super Bowl. Chalk this up to the randomness of a single-elimination tournament such as the NFL playoffs. Injuries, turnover margin, and specific matchups that can be exploited in head-to-head meetings are factors that have paved the way for previously top-ranked teams—such as the 2014 Ravens, 2011 49ers, and 2007 Patriots—to fall to lower-graded teams at the time. The Baltimore Ravens have been PFF’s top-graded team in the regular season four out of the past 10 years, but their lone Super Bowl victory was won by their 2012 squad that earned just the seventh-highest grade in the league that season.

  • osoviejo

    That’s it?

    • Adam LeClair

      Seriously. This should have been a great article

      • Jack

        I find the seemingly apparent progression of offensive based to defensive based super bowl champs interesting

        • eYeDEF

          I’m not seeing much of a “progression”. It appears more random than anything.

  • anon76returns

    Weren’t the Broncos the highest graded team in 2013 and 2014?
    Maybe it just takes a year or so for team performance to catch up with the grades!

    • Rob

      first in ’13 and second in ’14 but good observation

  • TichoB

    People who pay attention to this nonsense are being fleeced.

  • YouBarkIBite

    “The best team doesn’t always win”
    — While I agree with this statement, in this case it seems to be making the large assumption that having the best PFF Overall Grade Rank is equivalent to being the best team, which I don’t agree with at all. I’m not disputing the grades, only the WEIGHTING of their grades both at the positional level and at the team unit level, which has been a criticism I’ve always had about PFF (along with not making any adjustments for quality of opposition).

    At the player level, I don’t think anyone would argue that certain positions are more impactful than others. Having a highly graded QB trumps every other position by a long shot, and this holds on down the line although the exact weighting for each position is debatable. In addition, certain positions generate much higher raw grades than others in PFF’s legacy +/- grading system (lineman generate MANY more grade-able plays than receivers and defensive secondary players, but I don’t think anyone would argue a great CB or S is worth only half of what a great o-lineman is worth — in fact, some might argue the opposite).

    PFF then takes these cumulative player grades and adds them together at the unit level, and gives each unit equal weight, which is another misnomer. Not all units are equal. Having great special teams is undoubtedly of lesser value than having a great offense or defense, which are also not of equal value. Again, the exact weighting is debatable but there’s been excellent statistical analysis on thsi subject by analytic sites like Football Outsiders.

    I appreciate the depth and breadth of PFF’s game charting (and to some extent their grading), but what they do with those numbers leaves a lot to be desired.

    • Flash_Cyborg2

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. PFF is a site dedicated to showing how good each player is at their jobs. That’s fine, but as you alluded to not all roles are created equal. Marshall Yonda may be a more dominant guard than tom Brady is at qb, but you’re high if you draft yonda before Brady on your team. Even at the same position this isn’t accurate; a wide receiver who is good at run blocking like Brandon Marshall is usually going to grade very high on this site, perhaps even higher than a guy like prime randy moss, but I think a prime moss is the more impactful player. It’s fine if this site is purely focused on who is the best at their ROLES, I just wish PFF would be up front with that instead of trying to convince us that their grading system objectively determines who the best players are.

  • Jason Williams

    The 2011 Giants were really hard to understand. They looked absolutely terrible for large stretches of games but when it mattered most, they were the best of the best.