There are some who say a lot of Steelers fans act as if the NFL didn’t officially become a league until the early-70s, when the team transformed from a longtime doormat into one of the greatest dynasties of all-time by winning a then record four Super Bowl titles.
Those who think that surely have a point. As a 44-year old man who began following the Steelers in 1980 at the age of 7, I can state that I have a hard time wrapping my head around the pre-Super Bowl days.
Again, like a lot of fans who drape themselves in black and gold, I often go around boasting of the now record six Super Bowl titles that are displayed in the team’s headquarters on the South Side. Of course, since I am a Steelers fan, I conveniently forget that the Packers are the team that actually holds the record for most NFL Championship–four Super Bowl titles and nine NFL championships won in the pre-Super Bowl days.
But while Steelers fans might have fuzzy memories with regards to the pre-Super Bowl championships, they aren’t alone.
The Lions are one of a few franchises that have never even played in a Super Bowl. However, the organization does own four NFL championships (1935, 1952, 1953 and 1957).
The Browns (or at least the incarnation currently representing the City of Cleveland) are another team that has never played in a Super Bowl. But even before the old Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996, their many league titles were probably a distant-memory, as they came up short of the Super Bowl time and time again in the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s a shame, too, because the Browns had one heck of a run, under legendary head coach Paul Brown.
The Cleveland franchise started out as a member of the AAFC (All-American Football Conference) and won four straight league titles in the mid-to-late ’40s before becoming a member of the NFL in 1950. The Browns immediately won the NFL title in 1950 and two more by 1955.
Cleveland won its fourth NFL championship in 1964.
So a full decade before the Steelers’ claimed their first Super Bowl (and league) title, the Browns already had eight championships displayed in their trophy case.
Do most NFL fans (even the ones in Cleveland) recognize those titles or validate them?
The educated guess by this writer is “no” because the Browns seem to be known more as the team with no Super Bowl appearances, rather than the one with four NFL titles and eight league titles, overall.
I can go on with examples.
The Bears only have one Super Bowl title in their 97-year history, but they also won eight other league championships between 1921 and 1963.
The Giants have crept to within arm’s reach of the Steelers record number of Super Bowl titles in recent years and now own four, after victories over New England in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Overall, though, the football Giants own eight league championships, thanks to also claiming titles in 1927, 1934, 1938 and 1956.
If you’re alive and a member of the Bears’ 1963 championship team, you might be offended if nobody cherishes your title other than you and your remaining teammates.
However, it’s hard to blame folks for this. After all, for years, the NFL postseason consisted of one game, and that was the actual championship match.
The winner of the old Eastern Conference played the winner of the old Western Conference, and the survivor was declared NFL Champion.
Things began to change after the AFL/NFL merger in 1966, when the winner of each league agreed to meet in what would ultimately be called the Super Bowl. After that, each league’s champion lost its luster.
And in 1970, when the merger officially took hold, nobody really cared about anything other than the Super Bowl champion (at least that’s how we think of things today).
Starting in ’70, the league’s playoff field consisted of eight teams (four in the AFC and four in the NFC). There were three division winners in each conference and two wild card entrants (one from each conference). But even if you were a wild card entrant, you only needed to win two games to reach the Super Bowl (even if they were on the road), which the Cowboys did in 1975, when they won two games and advanced to Super Bowl X to face Pittsburgh.
In 1978, the NFL expanded to 10 playoff teams–including four wildcard entrants–which meant that any non-division winner would have to advance through three rounds in-order to reach the Super Bowl.
In 1990, the league expanded to 12 playoff teams, with the top two division-winners in each conference earning byes, while the division winner with the third-best record hosted the sixth seed; seeds four and five were pure wild card entrants and faced one another.
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This format held firm until 2002 when the league realigned yet again and added a fourth division in each conference. This didn’t change much, as the division winner with the fourth best record hosted the top wildcard in Round 1 of the playoffs, while the third best division champion took on the final seed.
Since 2005, seven Super Bowl participants have begun their playoff-journey in the wildcard round, and six have gone on to win the league championship.
Does this mean the NFL crowns the best team in this era? Not necessarily.
You can make a case for the pre-Super Bowl NFL champions being more representative of the league’s best teams than the ones from today. Back then, it was about the best team marching through a regular season and winning one postseason game in-order to claim the title. Today, health and momentum play huge roles once the postseason kicks off, as teams often have to navigate through three postseason rounds just to reach the Super Bowl.
The hottest and healthiest teams are usually the ones hoisting the Lombardi in February and not necessarily the best.
With that in mind, does this mean that NFL titles from years ago were more prestigious than the ones from this era?
Maybe, but the ones from this era sure are harder to obtain.
Let’s be real:”Super Bowl ” was perhaps the best term used to describe a league championship game since “World Series” was coined in 1903 to help define the “best of” series between the winner of the National League and American League that determined the championship of baseball.
Today, does anyone know the winner of the last baseball title prior to the first World Series between Pittsburgh and Boston, some 113 years ago?
Probably not. Some 50 years from now, when the Super Bowl reaches triple-digits, people that were born in the ’90s or ’00s might have a hard time answering the question: “Which team won the last NFL title prior to Super Bowl I?”
The pre-Super Bowl NFL titles might have been important years ago, but this doesn’t mean they’ll be relevant years from now.