Dirty Statistical Secret: Leather-Helmet NFL Produced More Points, Thrills

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 24, 2015

(Pictured: Chicago Cardinals end Mal Kutner led the NFL in receiving yards and receiving TDs in 1948, with explosive downfield numbers that put to shame the numbers by "Megatron" Calvin Johnson in today's game. The 1948 campaign stood as the highest-scoring season in NFL history for 65 years.) 

The NFL in the 1940s was offered a primitive brand of mud-and-spittle, run-first football that produced few points and even less excitement.

At least that's the popular image.

But here's the thing: It's an image with no basis in reality. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Football in the post-World War II NFL quickly evolved into an exciting, wild, wide-open and unpredictable game that produced plenty of excitement. And plenty of points.

It bore little resemblance to the slow, plodding image perpetuated by fans, analysts, even the NFL itself. And it was certainly more exciting than the boring, monochromatic, overly efficient and robotic NFL we have today – a sport today dominated by a single position.

The average NFL game produced 46.82 points in 2013, breaking an enduring and largely unknown standard for offensive output.

The previous standard for scoring in pro football was set, surprisingly to almost everyone, way back in the leather-helmet days of 1948, when the average NFL game produced 46.48 points. That NFL record for scoring productivity stood for an incredible 65 years, withstanding great changes to the sport of football and to the men who play it.

The new scoring record in 2013 did not happen organically, though. It came only after 35 years of legislative engineering by the NFL to genetically modify offenses and rob defenses of their manhood. The new scoring record came only after a quarter century of efforts by the NFL to coddle quarterbacks and artificially inflate passing statistics.

Still, despite all this effort by the NFL to manufacture points, despite the fact it's easier than ever to pass the ball and harder than ever to pass defense, the league is only just recently matching the furious scoring pace of pro football's grainy post-World War II Era. And scoring was far more equitable back then: three of the NFL’s 10 teams in 1948 averaged more than 30.0 PPG.

Just one of 32 teams in 2013 averaged more than 30.0 PPG: the record-setting Denver Broncos.

Peyton Manning's Broncos scored a record 606 points in 2013, essentially lapping the field: they scored 161 points more than the No. 2 Bears (445 points scored). Denver averaged 10.1 PPG more than football's No. 2 scoring team.

In fact, if we remove the singular Broncos from the equation, the average NFL game in 2013 produced just 44.26 points – not even a Top 10 scoring season. The Broncos single-handedly bent the curve to make the 2013 the top-scoring year in history.

Five NFL teams did not score even half as many points as the Broncos. There was actually MORE scoreboard parity in 1948 then there is today. More on the disparity between the modern NFL’s Haves and Have-Nots below.

With all that said, it is true: after all these years of NFL legislative efforts, we are in the midst of a scoring boomlet. The 2012 season, for example, comes in at No. 5 on the all-time scoring list and 2014 lands at No. 7. Of course, that put the scoring pace in these two recent genetically modified seasons behind 1948, 1965 and 1950, and about on pace with 1958, 1949 and 1962.

The NFL needed to make rule changes in the 1970s, the decade we call the Dead Ball Era that bottomed out in 1977. For a variety of reasons that are still hard to explain, scoring dropped off the face of the earth in the 1970s. In 1977, it fell to 34.4 PPG, the lowest scoring pace since before World War II. 

Still, the results are fairly bizarre: for all the rule changes made since 1978 to emphasize offense and eliminate defense, NFL teams scored just as many points back in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.


Top Scoring Seasons, NFL History

































































To summarize this table: scoring in the NFL in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was much higher than anybody realizes, about the same that we see today in the pass-happy NFL.

Blame the AFL for our misconceived notions: thanks to some marketing genius perpetuated by lap-dog media in AFL towns, the upstart league in the 1960s successfully painted the NFL as a boring, run-first brand of football dominated by defense.

The statistical reality, as we proved several years ago (see page X), here, and here), was that the NFL was a fast-paced, high-scoring game in the 1960s, with vastly superior play at quarterback than in the AFL. As you can see above, NFL teams scored just as frequently in the 1960s as they do today. And almost every major individual offensive record of the 1960s – rushing, receiving, passing, scoring – were set in the NFL, not the AFL.

The 2013 Broncos (37.88 PPG), meanwhile, still fell shy of the per-game scoring record set by the L.A. Rams (38.83 PPG) in 1950, which was the No. 4 league-wide scoring season in NFL history.

That's right: the leather-helmet Rams of 1950 scored more points than the statistically enhanced Broncos of 2013.

This empirical reality of pro football past conflicts with our image of the game and with the modern zeitgeist of football. It therefore begets a pair of questions:

A – Why did it take the NFL 65 years, including 25 years of dickering with the rule book, to finally match the scoring pace of the late 1940s?

B – Why does our image of old-time pro football from the 1940s and 1950s, which is that of a Neanderthalic three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust brand of ball, conflict so sharply with the high-flying, exciting reality reflected on the scoreboard?

There are six reasons, all of which point to a game in the 1940s and 1950s that was more exciting than fans today realize, and certainly more entertaining than the robotic brand of pro football the No Fun League has force-fed fans today.


ONE – Teams passed the ball much more often in the 1940s than you realize

The average NFL team attempted 26 passes per game in 1948 – just one-quarter attempt per game behind the average of the Super Bowl champion 2013 Seattle Seahawks.

The L.A. Rams led the NFL in 1948 with 33 attempts per game, passing the ball more often than 11 NFL teams in the pass-happy 2014 season. In fact, the 1948 Rams passed the ball about as often as the 2014 Green Bay Packers (33.5 attempts per game), a team led by Aaron Rodgers, the top-rated passer in the history of football. The 1948 Rams passed the ball more often than the 2014 NFC East champion Cowboys (29.8 attempts per game) and 2014 NFC champion Seahawks (28.4).

Sure, the league-wide average number of attempts in 1948 was well short of the record average 35.4 attempts per game we witnessed in 2013. But the difference is not nearly as dramatic as folks realize, and certainly stands in sharp contrast to the image we have of teams in the 1940s plodding forward with hand-offs every down and passing only in desperation.


TWO – Teams passed the ball much more aggressively in the 1940s than they do today

The passing game in the 1940s, and right through the 1960s, was a high-risk, high-pressure downfield attack that provided big payoff (high completion average, high TD percentage) or big disaster (low completion percentage, high INT rates).

In fact, the five top seasons in NFL history in average per completion were 1947 (15.4), 1933 (15.4), 1935 (15.3), 1946 (15.0) and 1945 (15.0). (Source: profootballreference.com)

NFL teams here in 2013 averaged just 11.6 YPC, among the lowest in NFL history. In fact, the 10 worst seasons in average yards per completion have come in the 21st century. The modern passing game, as we’ve discussed a number of times, is a low-risk, high-efficiency attack.

It was much more aggressive and more exciting sport with plenty of fireworks back in the late 1940s.

Consider the case of Mal Kutner of the Chicago Cardinals, who led the NFL with 943 receiving yards and 14 TD receptions in just 12 games in 1948. He averaged an incredible 23.0 yards per catch.

Modern All-World stud Calvin Johnson, the unstoppable “Megatron,” averaged just 17.8 YPC in 2013 – the best downfield number of his career – and caught only 12 TDs in 16 games.

ESPN has already enshrined Johnson in its Hype Hall of Fame. Imagine if he had produced in 2013 the way Kutner produced so explosively in 1948.

It's just a different, less exciting downfield sport these days: NFL teams have averaged less than 12.0 YPC in 21 different seasons, all of them in the 23 years since 1992.

That sea-change from downfield attack to low-risk horizontal passing attack is the result of the success of the West Coast offense, which dramatically changed the way NFL teams think about the passing game.

The modern passing game is certainly more efficient. It’s given us higher completion percentages, higher passer ratings and lower INT rates.

But it HAS NOT PUT MORE POINTS ON THE SCOREBOARD. And it’s certainly taken much of the risk and excitement of the downfield passing attack, and the contributions of defense, out of the sport.

It’s even taken pressure off of defenses at a time when quarterbacks, who hold all the cards on the modern NFL’s poker table of pigskin, should be MORE aggressive.


THREE – Defenses had a fighting chance back in the day and that helped create MORE scoring

Modern defenses have been legislatively neutered by the NFL. They no longer really have a fighting chance in a league that would just as soon have 11 guys on offense move the ball against a collection of tackling dummies on defense.

But back in the day, defenses had more opportunity to make game-changing plays and, as odd as it may sound, more defense meant more points: defenses back in the day produced more turnovers, more defensive scores, and more short fields giving offenses more scoring opportunities.

NFL defenses forced far more turnovers in 1948 than they did in 2013. In fact, 7.4 percent of all pass attempts in 1948 were picked off; compared with just 2.8 percent of passes intercepted in 2013.

Redskins rookie Dan Sandifer led the NFL with 13 INTs in 1948 – especially impressive as the Washington defense faced just 289 pass attempts that season.

Hell, Sandifer picked off 4.5 percent of all the passes attempted against his team that season!

Seattle’s Richard Sherman led the NFL with 8 interceptions in 2013; it’s been more than 30 years since any NFL defender picked off more than 10 passes (Everson Walls of Dallas with 11 in 1981).

Sherman’s Super Bowl-champion Seahawks in 2013 faced 524 pass attempts (1.5% INT rate for Sherman).

Sandifer would have picked off 24 passes if he and his Redskins had faced so many attempts! He also led the NFL in kick returns, and kick return yardage, including one TD, and hauled in an 86-yard TD reception on offense. A pretty explosive rookie season for a guy you never heard of.

All these defensive plays helped inspire more non-offensive scores:

2013: NFL games averaged 0.45 non-offensive scores

1948: NFL games averaged 0.70 non-offensive scores

By the way, the average fan probably thinks passing touchdowns were hard to come by in the 1940s. Harder than today, sure. But not as hard as you may think. NFL teams in 1948 were more likely to score via pass then via run: they produced 151 rushing touchdowns and 196 passing touchdowns that season. In 2013, teams produced nearly twice as many TDs through the air (804) as they did on the ground (410).

In fact, the percentage of passes that ended in touchdowns was higher in 1948 than it was in 2013:

Kick returners were also more productive in 1948 than they are today, as the NFL in recent years has taken steps to reduce opportunities in the return game by moving the kickoff line forward.

2013: 7 kick-return TDs and 13 punt-return TDs in 256 games, an average of 1 return score every 12.8 games.

1948: 4 kick-return TDs and 6 punt-return TDs in 60 games, an average of 1 return score every 6.0 games.

We don’t have drive data from 1948 to show that scoring drives were generally shorter back then than they are today. But it’s a safe assumption based on turnover and scoring data.

It’s also an assumption supported by the data we do have, namely the Scoreability Index, one of our Quality Stats, which measures how efficiently teams score points relative to their offensive production.

2013: NFL teams needed 14.89 Yards Per Point Scored

1948: NFL teams needed 14.00 Yards Per Point Scored

2013: NFL teams needed 104.2 yards for the equivalent of every TD and XP

1948: NFL teams needed 98.0 yards for the equivalent of every TD and XP

Bottom line: teams needed fewer yards to score more points 65 years ago. Teams actually scored MORE efficiently in 1948 than they did in 2013, thanks largely to the impact of defense and special teams.


FOUR – Offenses in 1948 were more creative and NFL quarterbacks were more skilled ball handlers than they are today

Announcers gush needlessly every time we see Peyton Manning or Tom Brady deftly execute a play-action pass, as if they just re-invented the position with their fancy trickeration.

If anything, though, ball handling skills in the NFL have diminished dramatically over the past 65 years. Today, all quarterbacks, at least the successful ones, play the same game: Step 1-2-3 Throw. Step 1-2-3 Throw. Quick decision makers thrive. Poor decision makers die. Brady displayed his mastery of Step 1-2-3 Throw football in New England's dramatic 28-24 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX.

Quarterbacks in the 1940s were ball handlers first, passers second. They were certainly far more effective with their ball-handling and misdirection skills than quarterbacks are today. They were EXPECTED to attempt to mislead defenses on every single play, whether a run or a pass. They weren’t robots programmed to go Step 1-2-3, Throw.

NFL Films recently sent us a copy of the famed 1940 NFL championship game – the Chicago Bears’ 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins widely credited with popularizing the T-formation that changed the game dramatically in the 1940s. (Scoring nearly doubled from 1940 to 1948.)

But that 1940 title game itself did NOT usher in modern-style passing. In fact, the Bears attempted just 10 passes that day; and only four of them by quarterback Sid Luckman. Three other backs also attempted passes.

Chicago won that day by running the ball at the Redskins with impunity, constantly faking and misdirecting one way, and deftly sending the ball off to a back another way. It was beautiful to watch.

The Bears ripped off 381 yards and 7 TDs on 53 rush attempts. It was a misdirection masterpiece of ball-handling magic. In fact, more than 70 years later, Chicago’s 381 yards that day remain No. 8 on the single-game rushing list (source: profootballreference.com).

If anything, Chicago’s record-setting victory might have ruined the passing game for years to come: Washington attempted 51 passes that day, eight of which were intercepted, and three of which were returned for Chicago touchdowns.

The brilliance of the T-formation long term was that it created the modern QB position that we know today. But, in its original function, it was an offense that relied on ball-handling brilliance and a misdirection offense to gain the edge on a confused defense.

NFL offenses and their robotic quarterbacks have all but lost those skills today.


FIVE – Gutless modern coaches have a luxurious safety net in field-goal kickers, and rely on them too heavily

No performers in pro football have advanced more dramatically over the last several decades than the place-kicking specialists. In the past, they were positional players (like Pat Summerall or Lou Groza) who utilized a straight-ahead kicking style, which was still seen in the NFL as recently as the 1980s.

Today, kickers are big-legged, highly proficient, soccer-style specialists. They do nothing but eat, kick and make baby kickers.

Field-goal kickers today hit more attempts at a higher percentage and from longer distances than ever before. The difference in recent years has been fairly profound. Kickers today are so good that coaches habitually settle for field goals; back in the day, coaches did not have this safety net and were forced to go for touchdowns more often.

2013: Kickers converted 86.5 percent of attempts (863 of 998), an average of nearly four attempts per game. This effort included 67.1 percent from 50+ yards,

1948: Kickers converted 40.9 percent of attempts (45 of 110), an average of less than one attempt per game. We have no distance data.

Back in 1948, field goals were a high-risk affair. A 40-yard field goal on 4th and 2 was a pretty big chance in 1948, even with the goal posts on the front of the end zone, and it was too short to punt. Teams went for touchdowns.

NFL offenses actually scored TDs far more often in 1948 than they did in 2013 because they were unable to rely on the field-goal kicker.

2013: average 4.74 offensive TDs per game (1,214 TDs, 256 games)

1948: average 5.78 offensive TDs per game (347 TDs, 60 games)

Basically, the the modern NFL has become TOO dependent on the kicking specialist, who fans and critics often argue are not even real football players.

2013: 21.6% of all scoring came from field goals (2,589 of 11,985 total points)

1948: 4.8% of all scoring came from field goals (135 of 2,789 total points)

Coaches in 1948 could not and did not simply settle for a risky shot at 3 when they could instead take a shot at 7.

As a result, teams, and offenses specifically, put the ball in the end zone far more often in 1948 than they did in 2013.

SIX – The rising statistical tide of the modern NFL has not lifted all boats

Modern NFL football is a zero-sum game that offers only one path to victory: via the quarterback.

As we noted above, Peyton Manning's Broncos lapped the field in 2013; and even Tom Brady's 2013 Patriots, stripped off all its weapons of 2012, still ended this season No. 3 in scoring, just 1 point behind the No. 2 Bears -- and after dominating the NFL scoring wars in record-setting fashion since 2007.

Thanks to Brady's brilliance, the Patriots have scored 500+ points a record four different times in recent years. Only 10 other franchises have reached that milestone even once.

Modern rule changes have richly rewarded teams with great quarterbacks. But it’s punished those teams with bad quarterbacks and made it virtually impossible for them to compete.

Quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Case Keenum of the 2-14 Texans combined for a 74.0 passer rating in 2013, an incredible 45.2 points worse than the NFL's top-rated passer, Philly's Nick Foles (119.2), who inspired a dramatic turnaround in his team's fortunes this year.

Even in 2012, the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl not because they ran the ball well or were particularly stout on defense. They won the Super Bowl because, for a four-game stretch in the postseason, Joe Flacco was the best, most effective quarterback in football. Seattle's Russell Wilson was the most efficient quarterback in football in the 2013 postseason and the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Brady was the best quarterback in football in the 2014 postseason and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. It's a pretty simple game these days.

Passing efficiency in the NFL has always been paramount, as the history of Passer Rating Differential proves (see page X).

But the NFL once offered a number of different paths to victory: you could win with a punishing defense that produced points, or with a creative ground game that complemented your quarterback and helped make him more effective.

That’s how the Packers won the 1960s and the Steelers won in the 1970s and even how the 49ers won in the 1980s. It’s how teams like the Bears dominated the NFL championship game in 1963 and 1985.

Daring coaches, meanwhile, took more chances, throwing the ball farther down field and eschewing a shot at 3 to take a shot at 7 at a much higher rate. The high-risk game gave second-rate quarterbacks or teams armed only with a good defense a fighting chance.

These days, that creative ground game is non-existent. The return game, as we saw above, has been stripped of its explosive scoring power. Defenses have been so badly hamstrung by the NFL that it’s actually HURT scoring, reducing the ability of teams to generate points by means other than offense, and specifically by long, sustained offensive drives. Risk – another word for excitement and the unexpected – has been practically removed from the game.

That leaves us with the state of the modern NFL that is overly reliant on one player: the quarterback.

If you have a great, highly efficient QB, you’ll compete year after year. If you have a lousy, inefficient QB, you’re not going to win games. Simple as that.

In many ways, contemporary offenses are too efficient ... so there aren't as many cheap points being handed out in the modern game like there was back in the leather-helmet days and up through the high-risk passing wars of the 1960s.

The modern NFL is instead a robotic, monochromatic, boring brand of football that offers us fewer ways to win and fewer game-breaking plays in all phases of the sport: offense, defense and special teams.

Good news for certain QBs and the coaches lucky enough to have them; bad news for everybody else, including football fans.

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