ESPN’s “The Last Dance” has captivated sports-starved audiences and been a ratings bonanza for the network. Part of that is due to the lack of live games, but the program’s depth and quality is the real draw. The behind-the-scenes look at Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls has brought to light feuds, squabbling and some stories so preposterous they hardly seem real. All of it makes for riveting theater, as the personalities involved show that on-court rivalries gave way to off-court bitterness and that some bad blood will never go away.
While the NBA is a star-driven league, and smaller rosters mean that compelling personalities stand out more, football is king in the United States. There are plenty of fascinating NFL teams whose stories have not been told with the kind of detail that “The Last Dance” is bringing to the 1997-98 Bulls. With that in mind, here are the teams from throughout NFL history that would be most compelling subjects for an all-access documentary.
1968 New York Jets
Compelling character: Joe Namath
With all due respect to Namath’s teammates, they don’t matter in this particular situation. Namath commanded the spotlight and was the toast of New York, becoming a fixture on the social scene and backing up his partying and public lifestyle with solid, often spectacular quarterbacking. Namath’s exploits on and off the field would make for compelling television as would everything surrounding his famous guarantee of victory in Super Bowl III. What’s more is that there would be plenty of time for interesting retrospectives on the nature of the AFL and the historical relevance of the Jets’ championship win. As a bonus, viewers would also get to see Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard and a (relatively) young Buddy Ryan.
Compelling characters: Don Shula, Mercury Morris, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese
The 17-0 1972 Dolphins were coming off a Super Bowl VI loss to Dallas, and they set about getting revenge right from the start. We know all about how members of the team pop champagne every time the last undefeated team loses. But watching them actually go week to week in an effort to accomplish the unthinkable would be compelling in its own right and far less annoying than the bottle-popping tradition has become. Additionally, I would pay money for a “Last Dance”-level deep dive into Garo Yepremian’s botched field goal attempt in Miami's 14-7 Super Bowl VII win over Washington.
1976 Oakland Raiders
Compelling characters: Al Davis, Ken Stabler, John Madden, Jack Tatum, George Atkinson
The 1976 Raiders are on the short list of greatest teams of all time, and their story is interesting for many reasons — the first of which is that they are the Raiders, period. Oakland’s reputation as an outlaw outfit was at its zenith in 1976; the Raiders featured Tatum and Atkinson, the latter of whom would be referred to by Steelers head coach Chuck Noll the following season as a “criminal element who should be kicked out of the league.” Davis was in his prime as a maverick owner, deliberately antagonizing the league every chance he got, and Stabler was a swaggering quarterback with a magnetic, rebellious personality. Madden was the glue that made it all work. The story of how the Raiders finally overcame the Steelers to reach and win the Super Bowl would make for a fascinating anchor storyline, and Oakland’s deep roster of edgy personalities would promise a dramatic, unpredictable atmosphere.
1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Compelling characters: John McKay, Steve Spurrier
Question: “What did you think of your team’s execution, coach?” Answer: “I’m in favor of it.”
Whether Buccaneers head coach John McKay actually uttered that immortal line is a matter of some debate, but he certainly had grounds to feel that way. The expansion Bucs went 0-14 in their inaugural season, were shut out five times and made it to 20 points just once all year. Tampa Bay averaged 8.9 points per game and gave up 29.4. Even when compared to other infamous winless teams, the Buccaneers came up lacking — the 2017 Cleveland Browns were outscored by an average of 11 points per game, and the 2008 Detroit Lions by 15.5 points per game.
McKay was known for being quotable, and it would have been intriguing — if somewhat uncomfortable — to watch morale evaporate as the losses piled up. And as a special bonus, there would be an end-of-the-line Steve Spurrier at quarterback, finishing out his career in ignominious fashion.
1985 Chicago Bears
Compelling characters: William “Refrigerator” Perry, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, Buddy Ryan
It’s an endlessly debated topic, but many football historians feel that the 1985 Bears are the greatest team in league history. They shut out two of their three playoff opponents, outscored the opposition by an average of 16 points per game and would have had a perfect season but for a "Monday Night Football" loss to Dan Marino and the Dolphins. Ditka’s intense, imperious presence drove the team, but Ryan’s vaunted "46" defense was what made them great. What’s more, by all accounts the two couldn’t stand each other. Add in to that dynamic the greatness of Payton, the bombastic unpredictability of McMahon and the larger-than-life dominance of Perry, and you have an extremely intriguing subject. Oh, and there’s the small matter of Payton not scoring in the Super Bowl win over New England too.
1993 Dallas Cowboys
Compelling characters: Michael Irvin, Nate Newton, Charles Haley, Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson
Just about any Cowboys team from the early-to-mid-'90s would be worthy of the all-access documentary treatment, but the 1993 version was particularly fascinating for several reasons. There was Dallas’ quest to win back-to-back Super Bowls, the simmering tension between Johnson and Jones that ultimately resulted in the former’s departure after the season and the “White House” scandal. Few teams partied harder, won bigger or had more swagger than those Cowboys, and any stories involving Irvin and Haley, in particular, need to be told. One potential issue: A true all-access look at the 1993 Cowboys might have to be put on pay-per-view.
1995 Cleveland Browns
Compelling characters: Art Modell, Bill Belichick
The Browns’ move to Baltimore after the 1995 season was one of the most bitter separations in NFL history. Fan resentment toward Modell was at a fever pitch, as your then-10-year-old author can attest, having attended one of the final home games and borne witness to numerous T-shirts with profane slogans directed at the owner. The move was negotiated under a veil of secrecy and announced on Nov. 6, 1995. Belichick, coming off an 11-5 campaign in 1994, was fired after the season despite many in the football world taking notice of his ability as a head coach. Put all these elements together, against the backdrop of an incredibly hostile dynamic between city and owner, and you have the makings of a surreal viewing experience.
1998 Minnesota Vikings
Compelling characters: Randy Moss, Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, Dennis Green
Moss’ draft story and explosive NFL debut would be documentary-worthy in and of itself, but his pairing with Carter, Cunningham’s incredible renaissance season in relief of injured starter Brad Johnson and the Vikings’ volcanic offensive performances were incredibly dynamic storylines. The real story of the 1998 Vikings, however, is one of heartbreak. Their loss to Atlanta in the NFC championship game was a shocking upset and forever doomed them to “what could have been” status. This 15-1 squad is routinely mentioned as one of the best teams never to win a championship, and no team in the history of the 16-game schedule has ever had a better point differential (plus-260) and not managed to at least make it to the Super Bowl.
1999 St. Louis Rams
Compelling characters: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Dick Vermeil, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce
When starter Trent Green suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, any optimism about St. Louis’ season faded. Former grocery store clerk Warner, who had just 11 pass attempts in the NFL prior to the season, took over and promptly turned the Rams into the Greatest Show on Turf. St. Louis was unstoppable, averaging a league-best 32.9 points per game and giving up just 15.1, fourth in the league. The Rams established a record for highest single-season point differential in the history of the 16-game schedule and rolled all the way to a Super Bowl title despite close calls against Tampa Bay and Tennessee. Warner’s story is still an all-timer, and Vermeil was the emotional center of it all. Want “The Last Dance” but with the happiness cranked up to an 11? The 1999 Rams are for you.
2007 New England Patriots
Compelling characters: Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, Wes Welker, Randy Moss
Sixty minutes from immortality. The 2007 Patriots were that close to a perfect 19-0 season, and while their unfathomable dominance on the field was incredible to behold, the in-progress Spygate investigation that dogged them throughout the season would make what happened off the field and behind closed doors incredible theater. I would pay large sums of money to hear what was being said about Jets head coach Eric Mangini and Roger Goodell. Combine the pressure associated with pursuing perfection, the season-long scandal and the crushing, unexpected ending, and all the ingredients are present for riveting television.
2007 Green Bay Packers
Compelling characters: Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson
From the moment Green Bay drafted Rodgers in 2005, there was tension between him and Favre. Favre resented Rodgers, Rodgers didn’t take kindly to the way the star quarterback shunned him and McCarthy was the man trying to keep it all together. Of particular interest would be the way Favre, coming off consecutive poor seasons, managed to dig deep and deliver his best performance since 2004 in what would be his Packers swan song. Green Bay went 13-3 and lost to the Giants in the NFC championship game, but the drama on the field pales in comparison to what may have been going on off it. Thompson, the team’s general manager, would also be a fascinating figure, as it was his decision to draft Rodgers that set in motion what was to come. Two passive-aggressive quarterbacks and a proud head coach? Sign me up.
2019 New England Patriots
Compelling characters: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft
No team in sports history more closely matches the 1997-98 Bulls, in terms of championship pedigree, underlying tension and fraying interpersonal relationships, like the 2019 Patriots. Getting a window into what it was like in Foxborough during a tense, ultimately doomed season would be tremendous theater. The other appeal of a “Last Dance”-style expose would be finally getting to see what Belichick is like when he’s actually doing his job. Brady puts himself out there enough that the public has a window into his personality, even if it is carefully managed, but Belichick is still a cipher. The interpersonal dynamics would be fascinating, and there is satisfying irony in the thought of a team twice connected to illegal videotaping scandals having its inner workings laid bare.
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