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The Changing Face of the League (Part 1)

"We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself." -- Lloyd Alexander.

     I've been hearing the following three statements a lot lately: (1)Defense wins championships.  (2)The NFL is becoming a passing league.  (3)You have to have a passer who can average 300 yards a game if you want to win.  I recently heard all three of these (with slightly different wording) from a long-time friend as we were talking about football.  At one point he proudly said: "Well, Brian, you know as Bear Bryant once said, 'Offense wins games, defense wins championships."  My response?  "Really?  Bear Bryant said that?"  I had my doubts about that, as well as some questions about the other three common statements.

Some reflections after the jump

     I want to start by reassuring all of you that this post will not (hopefully) take on the encyclopedic nature of my two most recent posts (so, please breath a sigh of relief and don't be afraid to read on).  I'm going to take a very brief look at two of the statements mentioned above, and then spend the rest of our time together on the first of a series of posts about the third.

       One of the most often misquoted statements about football is "Offense wins games, defense wins championships."  This quote is usually attributed to Bear Bryant of Alabama.  In fact, the quote originated with Dave Thorson, the head basketball coach for DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, MN, who said, "No doubt -- offense sells the tickets, but defense wins the championships."  In a later post in this series, we'll take a look at the claim that defenses win championships.

     Another quote I often hear is that a team must have a quarterback who can average 300 yards a game in order to win and be competitive.  Back in 2005, when Jake Plummer was Denver's starting quarterback, Greg Garber -- an ESPN staff writer -- wrote an article on 5 great myths of football.  One of them was "A 300 yard passer usually wins."  His response was basically "Bull" (though he said it much nicer than that).  He pointed out that passers who passed for more than 300 yards won only 46% of the time.  He pointed out four quarterbacks who -- in the same weekend in 2005 all threw for over 300 yards, completed 59% of their passes, yet only mustered 6 touchdowns between the four of them, and all lost.  By contrast he pointed out that Jake Plummer had only one 300 yard game on the way to leading Denver to a 13-3 record.

     The thing I'd really like to focus upon in this, and a couple of follow up posts is the notion that the NFL is becoming a "passing" league.  I think there is some merit to that claim, but I'm not sure if that is the entire story.  So, what I'd like to do with this post is look at the team passing yardage since the beginning of the Super Bowl Era in 1966. This gives us 43 seasons of data to examine. 

     I'm not going to present team-by-team data, but rather look at the overall league data.  The data will be presented in the form of how many teams amassed passing yards in set categories.  Those categories are: <1499, 1500-1999, 2000-2499, 2500-2999, 3000-3499, 3500-3999, 4000-4499, 4500-4999, and 5000+.

The 1960s

The first Super Bowl was held after the 1966 season, for this reason, our data in this decade runs from 1966-1969.  It is interesting to note that the Miami Dolphins were created in 1966, the New Orleans Saints in 1967, and the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968.  How many of you realized that Cincinnati was in the AFL West with Denver in 1968 & 1969?


We can see some fluctuation in these four years, but by and large the majority of the teams fell in the 2000-2999 yard range for each season.  It was interesting to note that the largest single group at the start of the period was the 2500-2999 range, then passing production dropped off slightly before resurging in 1969.

THE 1970s

The 1970s saw the merger of the AFL and the NFL.  They also saw the creation of the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.  How many of you realized that Tampa Bay was in the AFC West with the Broncos in 1976, then switched with the Seahawks in 1977?


The overwhelming majority of teams in this decade produced between 2000 and 2499 yards each season.  This represents something of a downward shift from the 1960s.  Towards the end of the decade, however, we can see the beginnings of an upward trend as more teams began to fall into the 2500-2999 and 3000-3499 ranges.

THE 1980's

The 1980s was a strange decade.  It was a period marred by two strikes.  In 1982, a 57-day player strike shortened the season to 9 games.  In 1987, a 24-day player hold-out caused the cancellation of all of the week 3 games, and the games in weeks 4-6 were played by replacement players with 85% of the veterans refusing to cross the picket lines.  This decade also saw the Baltimore Colts franchise move to Indianapolis (1984).


In looking at this data, it is important to remember that 1982 was a strike shortened, 9-game season.  It would be safe to disregard 1982 from the pattern.  1987's data should also be taken with some caution, since it was only 15 games and 1/5 of those were played by replacement players.  Nevertheless, it can be see that in the 1980s, passing production continue to rise slightly, with the majority of the teams falling in the 3000-3499 range. We also saw the first instances of teams surpassing 4000-4499 yards in a season (1981(2 teams), 1983-86(1-2 teams), and 1988-89 (1 & 5 teams)), 4500 yards in a season (1980, 1983-86, and 1988 (1 team in each season)), and the first instance of a team passing 5000 yards passing in a single season (1984).

THE 1990's

The 1990s were another decade of change.  The league added the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995.  The Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 to become the Baltimore Ravens.  The following year, the Houston Oilers moved to Nashville to become the Tennessee Titans.  The Cleveland Browns were then recreated as a franchise in 1999.


We can see that the 1990s were largely a repeat of the 1980s with the majority of teams falling in the 3000-3499 range throughout most of the decade.  There was a slight surge in the middle of the decade as a large number of teams crested the 3500 yard mark.  A very few made it into the 4000+ ranges.

THE 2000's

The most notable thing about the 2000s was the reestablishment of a franchise in Houston in 2002. 


We again see a repeat of the previous decade with the majority of the teams falling in the 3000-3499 yard range.  A few broke into the 3500-3999 range, and fewer still made it into the 4000+ ranges.  In 2000, we saw only the second season in which a team crested the 5000 yard mark.  The one exception to this trend was 2009 wherein we saw 15 teams amass more than 3500 yards in the season.  Of those 13, 10 fell in the 4000-4499 range, and 2 made it into the 4500-4999 range.

What Does This Suggest?

     We can clearly see that there has been a slow, but fairly regular and steady rise in the passing yards produced by NFL teams since the start of the Super Bowl Era.  We saw that the 1960s started and ended with the majority of the teams in the 2500-2999 range.  Production fell off early on in the 1970s with most of the teams falling in the 2000-2499 range, but surged in the final two years with the majority being in the 2500-2999 range.  The 1980s -- even with 2 strike years -- saw a slight rise with the majority of the teams falling in the 3000-3499 range.  A small group made it into the 3500-3999 range while a very few managed the 4000-4499 and 4500-4999 ranges.  1 team crested the 5000 yard mark.  The 1990s and the 2000s pretty much repeated the 1980s. 

     The one notable exception in the 2000s was 2009 where we saw 23 teams throw for 3000 or more yards.  Of those 23, 15 threw for 3500 or more yards.  Of those 15, 12 threw for 4000+, and of those 2 threw for more than 4500 yards.  It remains to be seen if this is the beginning of a new upward trend, or simply an aberration in the slow rise.  One last question remains:

Is this slow but steady rise an indication that the teams are shift away from running the ball to a more pass oriented offense, or could it be that there is simply a greater emphasis on offense overall?

In part 2 of this series, we will look at the team rushing production during the same time period to see if we can find an answer to this question.