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The Number of Young Superstars and the Maturation of the NFL

How would the players from yesteryear have done against today’s players? It’s not an easy question to answer, and there probably is no real answer. It depends on what we mean, because not only have the players changed over time, but the game and the rules have been altered as well. Do we mean how would Jim Brown do if transported forward in a time machine from 1960 to today? Or do we mean how would a 250 pound lineman in 1965 do if given the same nutrition, workout regimen, and knowledge of the sport that today’s athletes are afforded? Or perhaps none of those things.

While I can’t answer those hypotheticals, I do think that I’ve thought of a way to view how the league changed over time and where it experienced talent influxes that improved the game toward what we know now. I come from a Biology and Genetics background, so I tend to think of these things in terms of how something evolves. In a football context, I don’t think that 27 year olds suddenly become better and evolve. We may be able to point to specific counter-examples, and we may be able to point to statistical cases where a player put up better “numbers” at an older age, due to better teammates or situation. But most players are generally who they are by then, subject to the effects of aging and injury.

Who then is able to demonstrate when a league advances? The new generation, the young players who come in. If we see the number of young stars spike, it is likely they were better than the generation that came before them. It is also a sign of maturity or leveling for a league when the veterans can hold off the young talent. We see this over time in the NFL, as young players occupied a higher percentage of awards in the early days, when the sport was moving from amateur to professional, when it was a hobby or where the players had other jobs in the offseason, to today.

Here are the percentage of first team all pro selections in a given decade that were age 26 or under during the season in question:

Decade 26 or under Total Percentage
2001-2010 97 271 0.358
1991-2000 101 263 0.384
1981-1990 116 264 0.439
1971-1980 99 240 0.413
1961-1970 84 249 0.337
1951-1960 89 219 0.406
1941-1950 44 91 0.484
1931-1940 59 111 0.532
1921-1930 66 104 0.635

Going through the years to find stretches where there was a jump, here are the stepping stone points during history where I think the quality of the NFL improved, as evidenced by the amount of new talent that was seen as the best in the league.

CONTRACTION AND IMPROVED PROFESSIONALISM (1926-1929). During this stretch, over 60% of the All Pros were age 26 or under for every season. This was also the period in which the league went from an unwieldy 22 teams with various skill levels, financial support, and differing schedules in 1926, to 11 teams the following season, four of whom are around today (Cardinals, Bears, Packers, Giants). This was probably the first stretch where the quality of play improved with an influx of younger talent.

PRE-WAR YEARS (1939-1942). In 1941, the average all pro age was 25, and 9 of the 11 on the first team were 26 or under (only Pug Manders and Don Hutson were older, at 28). Of course, World War II would soon change those dynamics, as the league became an older league as young men went off to war, and then the advent of competition in the form of the All-American Football Conference would continue it. From 1943-1949, only 38% of the all pros were 26 or younger, suggesting that the league stagnated during this period.

UNLIMITED SUBSTITUTION AND THE END OF TWO-WAY PLAY (1950-1952). After the years of competition with the AAFC, the league added the Browns, 49ers, and Colts, and Cleveland immediately emerged as a power. In addition, the league ended the two-way player and went to unlimited substitution, which marginalized older players who were more valuable for their versatility. As a result, the league saw a dramatic increase in young stars who garnered all-pro honors, as half of the all-pros were 26 or under during this stretch.

LATE FIFTIES STARS (1956-1958). During these three years, here are the Hall of Famers who were drafted: Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, Willie Davis, Sam Huff, Jim Brown, Henry Jordan, Jim Parker, Len Dawson, Sonny Jurgensen, Gene Hickerson, Ray Nitschke, Jim Taylor, and Bobby Mitchell. Add in guys like Chuck Howley and Alex Karras, and the influx of talent resulted in 43% of the all pros being 26 or under. It was a good thing for the NFL, too, because the sudden expansion of the AFL left the league relying on these stars for the next decade. From 1961-1964, only 26% of all pros were 26 or under, the lowest percentage for a four year stretch in league history.

SIGNING WARS AND HISTORIC BLACK COLLEGES (1964-1966). It’s not shown so much in the young all-pro numbers in the NFL, though they did rebound in the mid-60′s after the historic lows following the AFL expansion. However, both leagues had expanded rapidly (from 12 teams to 26 teams between 1960 and 1966) and, as I detailed in a previous discussion, the available source to bridge that talent gap caused by rapid expansion was the Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Players from the South today would probably be playing in the SEC or ACC, but back then, they were powering programs like Grambling and Southern. In 1960, the first year of the AFL, only 2 players were selected in the first 100 picks from HBCU’s. In 1963, Buck Buchanan was selected first overall by Kansas City out of Grambling, and by 1965 and 1966, those numbers had jumped to 14 and 16 players from HBCU’s being selected in the top 100.

THE MERGER AND THE BABY BOOMERS (1970-1972). The AFL and NFL merged in 1970, and it came at just the right time, as the Baby Boomer generation born right after World War II began to hit professional football in the drafts of the late 60′s, plus football had surpassed baseball as the most popular spectator sport. From 1970-1972, exactly half of all the all-pros were 26 or under, after the previous decade where those numbers were under 33%. This influx of a large talent base set the league up for its surge in popularity in the 1970′s.

THE EIGHTIES (1983-1986). The league saw another surge in young talent in the mid-80′s, following most notably the draft class of 1983. For three straight years from 1984 to 1986, the median all pro age was 26. To show how strong those young players were in the middle of the eighties in improving the league, the last time that 3 straight seasons had more than half the all-pros at age 26 or under was from 1940-1942.  If you want to know when the league largely became the “modern” game that it is today, my guess would be around this time period, with this first generation of players who would have grown up with the AFL and NFL, seen the Super Bowls begin, and hit professional football in the early 80′s.

[photo via Getty]

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