Nov. 04, 2019
5 Point Stance : Longest Current NFL Championship Droughts
The Washington Nationals won Major League Baseball's World Series for the first time since their inception as the Montreal Expos in 1969, and the first championship in baseball for the nation's capital since 1924. Winning a league title for those in those fortunate organizations, it is a culmination of a special time for all those involved. For the players and coaches it is both the greatest reward for their hard work and the realization of a dream. For executives, it is a vindication for their particular methodology of roster construction. For owners, it's the pride of one's organization reaching the pinnacle of their particular sport, being the envy of their peers until the next season begins. Fans are exhilarated when their team wins it all, and those who have waited for an excruciatingly long time, it is an emotional release that is difficult to articulate.
So which teams in the NFL have not been champions the longest? Upon making this list, there were qualifiers that need to be established. The Super Bowl is the long recognized championship game of the NFL, but many of these droughts pre-date the advent of the Super Bowl. In the interest of defining what constitutes a champion in professional football, there are three parameters in this exercise: Super Bowl champions from 1966 to current time, NFL champions from 1920 to 1965, & AFL champions from 1960 to 1965. While some may only recognize Lombardi Trophys as the mark of an NFL titlist, the purpose of this piece is to recognize the teams furthest departed from championship glory, regardless of the construct of a league at that time.
1. Arizona Cardinals (last championship: 1947) This currently stands as the longest title drought among the four major North American team sports. The Cardinals called Chicago home in '47, This team was led by the Million Dollar Backfield of quarterback Paul Christman and halfbacks Charley Trippi & Marshall Goldberg, going 9-3 in the regular season to the Western Division, then go on to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 to win their lone uncontested league title. The Cards have played in two championship games since then; 1948, which was a rematch from the previous season's title tilt, which the Eagles won 7-0 in blizzard conditions. And 2008, when the Arizona Cardinals faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cards would lose in the waning seconds of the contest by the score of 27-23.
2. Detroit Lions (1957) The Cardinals and Lions are the only two teams in the NFL that only own championships prior to the advent of the modern era. This final title for the Lions would be their third in the decade, as they won consecutive championships in 1952-53. In '57, Detroit would face the Cleveland Browns for the fourth time and avenge being embarrassed in the '54 contest (Browns won 56-10) by shelling Cleveland 59-14. During the 1959 season, Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where legend has it he "cursed" the Lions to lose for 50 years. While there are questions as to the story's validity, the Lions have certainly struggled since Layne's departure. They have yet to play in another NFL Championship Game and have yet to play in a Super Bowl. The closest the Lions have come to that illustrious stage was the 1991 NFC Championship game, where they were emphatically turned away by the eventual Super Bowl XXVI champion Washington Redskins by the score of 41-10.
3. Minnesota Vikings (established 1961) When analyzing teams for this piece, your humble scribe ran into a conundrum. The Vikings, by definition, were NFL champions in 1969. However, they were not the definitive champions of professional football. That title went to the Kansas City Chiefs in vanquishing the Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl. And despite having one of the strongest teams in the NFC during the 1970's, they would have the misfortune of playing against some of the greatest teams of the era, with a few being in the conversation of the greatest teams in NFL history. The Vikings would lose to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII, Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl IX, and the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI. Further, the Vikes have made the NFC Championship game six times since those Super Bowl appearances (1977, 87, 98, 2000, 09, 17), but fell in each of them. To add insult to injury, Minnesota is the most prolific NFL team to not win the Super Bowl, posting a 453-355-8 overall record entering 2019. They are the lone non-Super Bowl titlist to sport a winning record in the same era. Talk about cruelty from the football gods.
3. Tennessee Titans (Houston Oilers) (1961) In the infancy of the American Football League, the Houston Oilers were a power, playing in the upstart league's first three championship games, winning the first two. In 1963, would go 6-8 and establish a frustrating pattern; long stretches of losing with peaks of playing in contention. After those halcyon days, the next time the Oilers were championship contenders was in the late 1970's, losing to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers in 1978 and 1979. The next window would go from 1987 to 1993, as the run and shoot Oilers with Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon and head coach Jerry Glanville would enjoy a string of six straight playoff appearances, but would only reach as far the divisional round. The Houston Oilers would become the Tennessee Titans in 1999, and celebrated the occasion by winning the AFC title and played against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. No other team can claim that they were literally one yard short from a Lombardi Trophy, as wide receiver Kevin Dyson was famously stopped by Rams linebacker Mike Jones as the Titans were driving to tie the game. And beside playing the Oakland Raiders in the 2002 AFC Championship, Tennessee has remained in the wilderness.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (1963) Like the Houston Oilers, the Chargers were a staple at the AFL Championship game in the early 1960’s. The Chargers under head coach and Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Hillman would lead his team to that stage 5 of the AFL's first six years, winning in 1963. Ever since then, the opportunities are few and far in between. The Chargers have played in four AFC Championship games; lost to wild card entrant and eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland in 1980, lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the famed Freezer Bowl in 1981, upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1994 then proceeded to be dismantled by the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX, & lost to the undefeated New England Patriots in 2007. Now, as the Chargers have returned to LA, they find themselves in the sunset of the Philip Rivers era and undertaking the yeoman task of becoming relevant in the Los Angeles entertainment landscape. They could feasibly win a Super Bowl and still remain irrelevant to Los Angelinos.