You don't need to be in the NFL to win a pro football championship. Teams from across the US have lifted trophies in various leagues, but the chances are they don't exist any more. Be it a failing league, or an unprofitable franchise, external factors have caused even high achieving teams to circle the toilet.
And no, the XFL's LA Xtreme are not in the list. And yes, the XFL was that bad.
And no, the XFL's LA Xtreme are not in the list. And yes, the XFL was that bad.
#6 Sacramento Surge
Awful logo, awful name, decent team. In 1992 at least. The team played in the original incarnation of the WLAF, playing in a different stadium (both tiny) each year, and stumbled to a 3-7 record in the opening season. As the London Monarchs went from good to bad in year two, the Surge went the other way, posting an 8-2 record ahead of a play-off win against Barcelona and beating Orlando in Montreal to claim World Bowl II (oh, it was all so cosmopolitan).
The fact that the team's star player in 1992 was journeyman QB Dave Archer (best known for a three-year stint at the Atlanta Falcons), may say everything that needs to be said about the quality of the WLAF. The most famous member of the team turned out to be former Georgia Bulldogs DT Bill Goldberg – he went on to be a wrestler of some repute.
When the league folded, the Surge kinda became the Sacramento Gold Miners in the CFL, when the team's owner was awarded a franchise in the CFL's ill-advised American '90s expansion, becoming the first Yank team to ever play in the Canadian set-up. Archer stayed in Sac-town but during the Gold Miners' two-year stay in the CFL, the team was simply not very good. Quelle surprise, as they say in some bits of Canada.
#5 Michigan Panthers
As the inaugural season of the USFL drew near, the Michigan Panthers made headlines by drafting local Michigan Wolverines hero AnTony Carter (a future NFL star with the Vikings) and more importantly Bobby Hebert (who would later become a New Orleans Saints legend).
But things didn't go well at first. With Mark Miller as QB, the Panthers won the season opener, only to find themselves with a 1-4 record a month later and playing in front of tiny crowds at the Pontiac Silverdome. However, the team turned things around and by the time the Panthers (now with Hebert at QB) played the Oakland Invaders in the semi final, more than 60,000 home fans were in attendance.
They faced the impressive Philadelphia Stars (who owned the league's best record and beat preseason favourites, Chicago Blitz in an overtime classic the week before) in the championship game, played in Denver, and were very much the underdogs. The Hebert-to-Carter combination proved crucial with the pair linking up for the winning score in an exciting 24-22 upset.
The wheels came off for the Motor City team the next season, thanks in part to Carter breaking his arm. The Panthers were 6-0 before the injury but limped into the play-offs with a 10-8 record. The team's epic (93 mins, 33 secs) overtime defeat at the LA Express would prove to be their final game. The team merged with the Oakland Invaders when the USFL decided to move from the spring and directly compete with the NFL in September-January.
#3 Baltimore Stallions
Or the Colts. Or the CFLers. For a team with very little history, the CFL's Baltimore franchise sure did have an identity crisis. But at least it had a good team.
The CFL's exapnsion into the US from 1993-95 was an abject failure - attendances were poor and the teams lost. Except for the team in Baltimore. The franchise owners wanted the team to be called the Colts, after the once-beloved team that skipped town in the night a decade earlier. But the Indianapolis Colts and the NFL put their foot down and Baltimore eventually settled on the Stallions. Memorial Stadium drew healthy crowds (35,000) as the citizens of Baltimore displayed their hunger for pro football. Baltimore posted a 12-6 record in 1994, a record for a CFL expansion team, and made it all the way to the Grey Cup. That trip ended in defeat by way of a last-second field goal, but better was to come from the Stallions. Their regular season record improved to 15-3, but most importantly they won the Grey Cup, beating the Calgary Stampeders 37-20 in chilly Saskatchewan. The Stallions had the look of a dynasty but fate was to deal the team a cruel blow. The CFL's US franchises were dying, and Art Modell announced he was moving his Cleveland Browns east to Baltimore. Faced with competing against an NFL franchise and the CFL's antipathy toward the American experiment, the Stallions moved north to Montreal to become the Alouettes. Grey Cups kept on coming, with the Montreal franchise winning in 2002, 2009 and 2010.
#3 Birmingham Americans/Vulcans
The World Football League (not to be confused with the World League of American Football) was chaotic and didn't even finish its second season. But both years were dominated by the Birmingham franchise. Using the name 'Americans', Birmingham won their first ten games en route to a 15-5 finish and a bye into the semis. After sneaking past the Hawaiians (just think, this game was Americans v Hawaiians – classy), they beat the Florida Blazers in 1974's World Bowl I by a score of 22-21, after leading 22-0. But the scare the Americans were given was nothing compared with what happened immediately after the game: everything the team owned, including uniforms, was seized because the owners owed so much money. Until this debacle, the Americans had been on the verge of signing Ken Stabler from the NFL's Raiders, but the Snake wisely opted to stay in Oakland.
Birmingham re-emerged as the Vulcans the following season, and again won a championship. Kinda. The WFL folded during the regular season but records show Birmingham earned a second title by virtue of having the league's best record when it was suspended. But there would be no trophy to show for it. But considering most of the Americans players had to wait until 2010(!) to get their championship rings for the 1974 season, it's perhaps not surprising.
#2 Detroit Drive
How dominant were the Detroit Drive in the early years of the Arena Football League? They existed for just six seasons and reached the Arena Bowl six times, taking home the trophy four times. Despite not existing since 1992, only one team in AFL history has won more Arena Bowls (Tampa Bay Storm have five).
If you're an alien visiting Earth and the first thing you did was seek out this website (cool choice, bro) then you're probably thinking, 'Wow, pro teams in Detroit are pretty kick-ass, the Lions must've won a boatload of Super Bowls'.
#1 Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars
It can never be proved, but many USFL fans believe that at the very least, the Stars would've held their own in the NFL. The way they dominated what was a talent-packed league, backs up that theory.
Coached by Jim Mora, the Stars reached every championship game in the USFL's three-year history (winning the second two), and posting the league's best record in the USFL's first two seasons (as an aside, the best record in year three was from the Birmingham Stallions, which feels like a mash-up of two teams on this list). Despite Mora's midas touch in the USFL postseason, he failed to win a playoff game as an NFL head coach. The plan to move the schedule from the spring prompted the Stars to relocate to a city without an NFL team, but even in Baltimore the locals' response was lukewarm: the average crowd was below 15,000. It was all academic. The USFL closed after the Stars won a second consecutive championship.
With the exception of Sam Mills, the roster wasn't packed withe future NFL marquee players. Kelvin Bryant, who would later be a starter for the Redskins, was the Stars' workhorse back and biggest name on offense. Bart Oates and Sean Landeta also had stints with the Stars. But their legacy lives on. After all, when did the Philadelphia Eagles last win a championship?
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