The history of the NFL is a history of increased offensive innovation and expansion of scoring over time. But it’s not a smooth and steady history, just as progress is not a straight line. Still, for much of the last 20 years, as offensive numbers have continued to increase, they’ve done so more gradually, a 0.1 increase in net yards per attempt here, a 0.5 point per game more scored there. A casual observer might be like the frog in the pot of water, not realizing that it’s starting to boil.
After a one-year dip in 2017 against that general trend, 2018 is throwing us straight into the boiling cauldron. It’s hard to understate just how massive the passing numbers and scoring numbers have changed even compared to recent history. As Chase Stuart has been documenting at Football Perspective, we’ve now seen the three best statistical passing weeks in NFL history, consecutively. Eight of the league’s passers have a passer rating better than what Aaron Rodgers, the career leader in the category, has done for his career. (And coincidentally, none of them are named Aaron Rodgers).
I went back through the NFL history to 1941, when we have reliable stats for passing and scoring. Using a weighted previous three-year average to compare seasons, here were the times when the league experienced the biggest surge combined in points, net yards passing, and passing touchdowns thrown.
#1 – 1947-1948: The reasons now are obvious. The league was impacted greatly by World War II, as there were far more pressing things going on than playing football and most football-aged men were elsewhere. Further, the All-American Conference came into being and took talented players, spreading them around. The passing game revolution had just begun with Sid Luckman and the Bears, and with the Packers throwing to Don Hutson. That continued when the young men returned from war. Teams averaged 129 passing yards per game from 1942 to 1945. By 1947, it jumped to 193 yards per game and only one team was below the previous average.
It’s somewhat fitting that Mitchell Trubisky just threw 6 touchdown passes, the most since 1947 Heisman winner and 1948 Bears rookie phenom Johnny Lujack.
The post-war offensive explosion regressed and slowed by 1950, when AAFC went away with three teams merging with the NFL, and with the massive rule change away from two-way players by allowing unlimited substitution, allowing for teams to put defensive-specific players on the field.
#2 – 2018: That’s right, this year would currently rank 2nd behind only the post-World War II era in massive offensive spikes. I guess we can blame this one on the War on Football.
And while you might think that offense will regress with the weather changes, there are just as many factors that could cause it to remain high, including defensive injuries. Every loss of an Earl Thomas-type player has a more profound impact than one offensive player (non-QB category) in terms of scoring, because defenses are like chains and teams can exploit weaknesses. Thirty-four of the 60 games where a team hit 45 points in the last five years occurred in November and December.
In all seriousness, though, the penalties are a small factor in this spike. But when we look back, I think we’ll see it is as mainly because of a sea change in offensive philosophies and creativity. Teams are embracing spread concepts and other creative options from colleges and high schools like never before, as Kevin Clark noted in his recent piece. You see more jet sweeps, more plays stretching the defense in all directions, more touchdown passes that come off touch passes to sprinting runners, or quick, creative passes behind the line. These are stressing defenses beyond their breaking point in many cases.
What makes 2018 so remarkable is that this is happening without expansion and other larger factors that normally drive these spikes.
#3 1979-1980: The offensive surge in 1979 and 1980 was three years after expansion (adding Tampa Bay and Seattle) immediately followed the changes in 1978 where the league expanded to 16 games and dramatically altered the pass blocking rules and pass defending rules to open up the game from the slugfest that was the 1970’s. It took one season but by 1979 teams were starting to open it up more than they ever had, and offenses like Air Coryell took over.
#4 1958: After offensive numbers dropped back some following the post-World War II surge, and the introduction of unlimited substitution, they increased again. 1958 was the watershed year, as that was the same season as the notable Baltimore-Giants overtime title game. But the offensive increase had already begun that year, led by Johnny Unitas and others at quarterback, and with a generational talent like Jim Brown coming into the league a year earlier.
#5 1995: Another expansion year with the league adding Carolina and Jacksonville. The passing numbers spiked in 1995, and we had four different receivers reach 1,600 receiving yards in the same season: Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Herman Moore, and Michael Irvin. They’ve become a little more common recently, but prior to 1995, there were zero all-time in the NFL (and the last one in professional football was Lance Alworth in 1965 in the AFL).
#6 1965 and #7 1962: Speaking of 1965, the NFL and AFL also saw big offensive spikes in the early 1960’s. The causes are obvious in retrospect. The AFL was created. While in the early years, it was mostly cast-offs and the AFL did not attract veteran NFL stars, the AFL was signing young talent and competing on younger players. By 1962, the NFL had added teams in Minnesota and Dallas in response, and the attrition due to younger star players also going to the AFL started to emerge. The NFL was an aging league. I detail a lot of this in my series from almost a decade ago (man, how time flies) that took a detailed look at how the AFL and NFL compared over time.
The offensive increases of the early 1960’s can be directly traced to the expansion and competition from the AFL, the dilution of talent, and these trends wouldn’t reverse until the Baby Boomers started hitting the league and increasing the talent pool later in the decade.