Big Tease: 2012 New England Patriots And NFL's History Of Offensive Failures

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 19, 2013



(Ed note: a substantially similar version of this story ran in the spring of 2012.)

By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts pent-up prom king

The 2012 New England Patriots are the latest in a long history of sexy NFL offenses that teased football fans with visions of getting lucky but then failed to put out at the big dance.

The Patriots scored 34.8 PPG in 2012, the No. 3 offense in the Super Bowl Era and the No. 7 offense in the entire history of pro football. 

They fizzled out when it mattered most, in a 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game.

Hell, the Patriots won’t even let their friends smell their finger after that dismal failure to score.

This reality SHOULD impact the way New England handles the off-season, even if the team has blatantly ignored the historic warning signs  over the past several years.

For example, fans in New England almost universally insist that the team should dish out big bucks to keep prolific pass catcher Wes Welker. 

The reality is that, no, they should not dish out big bucks to keep Welker. There's never beenn a receiver who's led a team to a championship. And a slot guy who averages 11 yards per catch is not going to change that reality. The money is clearly better spent strengthening other areas.

As you will soon see, doubling down on offense is no way to get lucky.

Playoff failure no surprise

Football fans should not be surprised when big-time offenses fail to show up in the playoffs. This is how it works, year after year, decade after decade, in the NFL: teams that put their faith in sexy offenses almost always go home disappointed because they failed to score.

In fact, over the past 60+ years of NFL history, one of the surest bets in sports is that teams buiit around elite offenses will go down in flames when it matters most.

In other words, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it has ALWAYS been a tragic mistake to build teams around high-powered offenses.

The Patriots, these masters of statistical history, should have known better when they decided to go down this road after the 2006 season.

This once dynastic team all but perfected smart, efficient football that was strong in all phases of the game. They rode that strategy go three Super Bowl victories in four years. To put it in terms of physical training, the Super Bowl-winning Patriots had a strong core. The more recent Patriots are merely built for show: big biceps, but weak inside.

Since 2007 the organization has followed the same failed strategy for six years that have largely yielded the same result: the offense fails when it matters most.

It’s like Gridiron Groundhog Day. Score 500-plus points and set offensive records in the regular season; fail to come through in the postseason.

It’s easy to trace the beginning of the end of the New England dynasty. It all fell apart in the 2006 AFC title game, courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning’s Finest Hour.

The Patriots blew a big first-half lead, before falling 38-34, in what was for Peyton Manning and the Colts the greatest comeback in conference title game history.

The Patriots made a fateful – and erroneous – strategic decision in the wake of the game: they vowed internally never to lose a shootout again; to always have the firepower to outgun the opposition.

In reality, they should have double-downed on defense. The offense that day proved it could put up points, even with in offense largely devoid of big names outside Tom Brady. It was the defense that failed them that day.

The Patriots are hardly alone in NFL history. Not by a long shot. In fact, the football world is helpless in the face of such seductive offensive beauty.

Whether it’s Hollywood Bob Waterfield and the 1950 Rams (38.8 PPG) way back in the day or Tom Brady and the 2012 Patriots (34.8 PPG) just last season, the most potent offensive teams in history win scoring titles, MVP awards, the hand of busty starlets or Brazilian supermodels and the lusty ardor of the pigskin pundits.
 
Yet they almost always tank in the big game. They rarely win championships.
 
Three of these offensive smoke shows tanked in 2011: the Packers, Patriots and Saints all finished in the top 20 all time in scoring in 2011 (based upon average points per game). See the first table below. All three suffered upset playoff losses – though, to be fair, the New Orleans offense did put up a statistical fight against a great defense on the road in San Francisco.

In 2012, the Patriots were joined by one other offensive failure: the 2012 Broncos, also led by a Hall of Fame quarterback, were No. 2 in scoring offense (30.1 PPG), joining New England on the historic short list of teams that scored 30+ PPG.

The Broncos failed to win even one playoff game, despite producing two non-offensive scores against Baltimore in the divisional playoffs.
 
It turns out historically elite offenses are no different than your junior prom date: a sexy little vixen dolled up for the big dance and busting out all over – but with no intent of fulfilling your teenage fantasies.
 
The goal of football is to score more than the other team. It stands to reason that the teams proven the best at scoring would dominate the roster of NFL champions. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Sexy offenses, it turns out, are just a Big Tease.

The Big 55

Fifty-five teams pro football history scored 30+ points per game: 48 of those teams played in the NFL. Three came from the short-lived AAFC and four from the AFL. Heretofore they’re called the Big 55.
 
Here’s a look at the Big 55 – the most prolific scoring offenses in the history of pro football. You'll note a whole lot of losses and missed opportunities in the far right column.

The 55 Pro Football Teams to Score 30.0+ PPG
 TeamYearRecordPointsPPGOutcome
1Los Angeles Rams19509-346638.8Lost NFL title, 30-28
2New England Patriots200716-058936.8Lost SB XLII, 17-14
3Houston Oilers196110-3-151336.6Won AFL title, 10-3
4Chicago Bears194110-139636.0Won NFL title, 37-9
5San Francisco 49ers194812-249535.4Missed AAFC postseason
6Green Bay Packers201115-156035.0Lost div. round, 37-20
7New England Patriots201212-455734.8Lost AFC title, 28-13
8Minnesota Vikings199815-155634.8Lost NFC title, 30-27
9San Francisco 49ers19499-341634.7Lost AAFC title, 21-7
10New Orleans Saints201113-354734.19Lost div. round, 36-32
11Chicago Bears194211-037634.18Lost NFL title, 14-6
12Washington Redskins198314-254133.81Lost SB XVIII, 38-9
13St. Louis Rams200010-654033.75Lost NFC wc round, 31-28
14Oakland Raiders196713-146833.4Lost SB II, 33-14
15Chicago Cardinals194811-139532.92Lost NFL title, 7-0
16St. Louis Rams199913-352632.88Won SB XXXIV, 23-16
17Los Angeles Rams19518-439232.7Won NFL title, 24-17
18Indianapolis Colts200412-452232.6Lost div. round, 20-3
19New England Patriots201014-251832.38Lost div. round, 28-21
20Oakland Raiders196812-245332.36Lost AFL title, 27-23
21tMiami Dolphins198414-251332.1Lost SB XIX, 38-16
21tNew England Patriots201113-351332.1Lost SB XLVI, 21-17
23tNew York Giants196311-344832.0Lost NFL title, 14-10
23tKansas City Chiefs196611-2-144832.0Lost SB I, 35-10
25New Orleans Saints200913-351031.9Won SB XLIV, 31-17
26Dallas Cowboys196610-3-144531.79Lost NFL title, 34-27
27Baltimore Colts19589-338131.75Won NFL title, 23-17
28San Francisco 49ers199413-350531.6Won SB XXIX, 49-26
29St. Louis Rams200114-250331.4Lost SB XXXVI, 20-17
30Philadelphia Eagles19489-2-137631.33Won NFL title, 7-0
31Denver Broncos199814-250131.31Won SB XXXIII, 34-19
32Chicago Bears194810-237531.25Missed NFL playoffs
33Baltimore Colts19599-337431.2Won NFL title, 31-16
34San Francisco 49ers19539-337231Missed NFL playoffs
35Dallas Cowboys196812-243130.79Lost div. round, 31-20
36San Diego Chargers200614-249230.75Lost div. round, 24-21
37San Francisco 49ers198713-245930.6Lost div. round, 36-24
38Baltimore Colts196412-242830.57Lost NFL title, 27-0
39N.Y. Yanks19507-536630.5Missed NFL playoffs
40LA Rams19538-3-136630.5Missed NFL playoffs
41Philadelphia Eagles194911-136430.33Won NFL title, 14-0
42tWashington Redskins199114-248530.31Won SB XXVI, 37-24 
42tDenver Broncos200011-548530.31Lost WC round, 21-3
44Chicago Bears19438-1-130330.3Won NFL title, 41-21
45tChicago Bears19478-436330.25Missed NFL postseason
45tChicago Bears19569-2-136330.25Lost NFL title, 47-7
45tKansas City Chiefs200313-348430.25Lost div. round, 38-31
48Cleveland Browns194612-242330.21Won AAFC title 14-9
49Kansas City Chiefs20047-948330.19Missed NFL playoffs
50Cleveland Browns19608-3-136230.17Missed NFL postseason
51San Francisco 49ers19657-6-142130.07Missed NFL postseason
52Denver Broncos201213-348130.06Lost div. round, 38-35
53tLA Rams19498-2-236030Lost NFL title, 14-0
53tChicago Cardinals19496-5-136030Missed NFL postseason
53tBuffalo Bills19758-642030Missed NFL postseason


The results, like all our prom dates, were disappointing to say the least:

  • Just 14 of these 55 teams won titles (12 NFL, 1 AFL, 1 AAFC).
  • Nearly as many, 11, didn’t even make the postseason (10 of the 11 from the NFL).
  • The 2004 Chiefs were the last team to top 30.0 PPG and miss the playoffs; the 2009 Saints are the only team in the pass-happy days since 2000 to top 30.0 PPG and win it all. 
  • 33 members of the Big 55 have played in the last 50 years. Only five won championships or Super Bowls, and four came in a rapid-fire cluster in the 1990s: the 1991 Redskins (30.3 PPG); 1994 49ers (31.6); 1998 Broncos (31.3); 1999 Rams (32.9) and 2009 Saints (31.9).

Put another way, 41 of the 55 greatest offenses in the history of pro football fell short of the ultimate goal. Those results are not too much of a shocker. Hell, flip it around and you can argue that 25 percent of the greatest offenses did win it all.
 
But what is consistently shocking is the regularity at which the greatest offenses come up empty when it matters most, including the 2012 Patriots and 2012 Broncos. Hell, even in victory, the great offenses often win because they slug it out.

In fact, the smart money tells us these gorgeous offenses will melt down like the prom princess in the girls’ room after catching her date dancing with the head cheerleader.

The long, ugly history of big-game offensive meltdowns

It’s not just that the Big 55 typically fell short of the ultimate prize. Hey, being great in any one area is no guarantee of success.

What’s fascinating, though, is the ugly, punchless and even predictable way that these great offenses come up limp in the moment of truth. Year after year, decade after decade, the greatest offenses – the same teams that wow everybody all season – simply fail to produce in the biggest dance of the year.

The 2012 Patriots averaged an incredible 34.8 PPG, one of the great offenses in the history of football. They scored just 13 in their AFC title game loss to the Ravens. It was New England's lowest offensive output since losing to the Jets 16-9 in Week 2 2009.

The 2012 Broncos appeared to put up an offensive fight, falling to the Ravens 38-35 in the AFC divisional playoffs. But in reality, Denver benefitted from two special teams touchdowns and the offense produced one of its worst efforts of the year when it mattered most.
 
Hell, the two most dominant teams in NFL history went undefeated in the regular season behind Hall of Fame quarterbacks and two of the most prolific offenses in history: the 1942 Bears (34.2 PPG) and 2007 Patriots (36.6 PPG).

They combined to score 20 points in their championship-game losses.
 
In fact, the 1942 Bears offense was blanked: Hall of Fame QB Sid Luckman and his undefeated team’s only points in a 14-6 loss to the Redskins in the NFL title game came from a defensive score. The team fell four TDs shy of its regular-season output.

The Patriots and future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady lost Super Bowl XLII to the Giants, 17-14, after scoring an NFL record 589 points in 16 regular-season games. They fell more than three TDs shy in the Super Bowl of their average regular-season output.
 
The 1948 Cardinals went 11-1 and scored 32.9 PPG behind the effort of Hall of Fame back Charlie Trippi. They were shutout in the NFL title game
 
The 1949 Rams went 8-2-2 and scored 30.0 PPG behind TWO Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin). They were shutout in the NFL title game.
 
The 1963 Giants set a then-NFL record with 39 TD passes and scored 32.0 PPG behind Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle. They suffered six turnovers and reached the end zone just once in the first quarter in a 14-10 loss to the Bears in the NFL title game.
 
The 1964 Colts went 12-2 and scored 30.6 PPG behind Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. They were shutout in the NFL title game.
 
The 1983 Redskins averaged 33.8 PPG and set a record for total points at the time (541). They produced just one FG, one TD and a missed XP in an embarrassing 38-9 loss to the L.A. Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII.
 
The 2004 Colts scored 32.6 PPG behind future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning. They mounted a single field goal in a 20-3 postseason loss at New England – that’s right, nearly 30 points below their regular-season scoring average.

The 2012 Patriots scored 34.8 PPG behind future Hall of Fame QB Brady. They scored a single second-quarter touchdown and were completely blanked in the second half.
 
The same case of disappearing offenses has afflicted other pro leagues, too, as you'll see in the table below, from the 1946 Browns of the AAFC to the Oilers and Raiders of the 1960s AFL.
 
The 2012 Patriots are among the 15 of these 55 teams to fall 21 points or more short of their regular-season scoring average.
 
Those are just some of the lowlights. Here’s a look at the 44 members of the Big 55 that reached the posteason. Teams are sorted, worst to first, by the difference between their regular-season scoring average and their output in the last game of the season. (Remember, these are not the worst offensive meltdowns in history, just the worst among the Big 55.) The greatest offenses in history are defined by one meltdown after another.
 

The Big 55 Rarely Put Out in the Playoffs
TeamYearPPGOutcomeDifference
Chicago Cardinals194832.92Lost NFL title, 7-0-32.92
Baltimore Colts196430.57Lost NFL title, 27-0-30.57
Los Angeles Rams194930.0Lost NFL title, 14-0-30.0
Indianapolis Colts200432.6Lost div. round, 20-3-29.6
Chicago Bears194234.18Lost NFL title, 14-6-28.18
San Francisco 49ers194934.7Lost AAFC title, 21-7-27.7
Denver Broncos200030.31Lost WC round, 21-3-27.31
Houston Oilers196136.6Won AFL title, 10-3-26.6
Washington Redskins198333.81Lost SB XVIII, 38-9-24.81
Philadelphia Eagles194831.33Won NFL title, 7-0-24.33
Chicago Bears195630.25Lost NFL title, 47-7-23.25
New England Patriots200736.8Lost SB XLII, 17-14-22.8
Kansas City Chiefs196632.0Lost SB I, 35-10-22.0
New York Giants196332.0Lost NFL title, 14-10-22.0
New England Patriots201234.8Lost AFC titel, 28-13-21.8
Oakland Raiders196733.4Lost SB II, 33-14-19.4
Philadelphia Eagles194930.33Won NFL title, 14-0-16.33
Cleveland Browns194630.21Won AAFC title 14-9-16.21
Miami Dolphins198432.1Lost SB XIX, 38-16-16.1
New England Patriots201132.1Lost SB XLVI, 21-17-15.1
Green Bay Packers201135.0Lost div. round, 37-20-15.0
St. Louis Rams200131.4Lost SB XXXVI, 20-17-14.4
New England Patriots201032.38Lost div. round, 28-21-11.38
Los Angeles Rams195038.8Lost NFL title, 30-28-10.8
Dallas Cowboys196830.79Lost div. round, 31-20-10.79
St. Louis Rams199932.88Won SB XXXIV, 23-16-9.88
San Diego Chargers200630.75Lost div. round, 24-21-9.75
Oakland Raiders196832.36Lost AFL title, 27-23-9.36
Baltimore Colts195831.75Won NFL title, 23-17-8.75
Los Angeles Rams195132.7Won NFL title, 24-17-8.7
Minnesota Vikings199834.8Lost NFC title, 30-27-7.8
San Francisco 49ers198730.6Lost div. round, 36-24-6.6
St. Louis Rams200033.75Lost NFC wc round, 31-28-5.75
Dallas Cowboys196631.79Lost NFL title, 34-27-4.79
New Orleans Saints201134.19Lost div. round, 36-32-2.19
New Orleans Saints200931.9Won SB XLIV, 31-17-0.9
Baltimore Colts195931.2Won NFL title, 31-16-0.2
Kansas City Chiefs200330.25Lost div. round, 38-310.75
Chicago Bears194136.0Won NFL title, 37-9+1.0
Denver Broncos199831.31Won SB XXXIII, 34-19+2.69
Denver Broncos201230.1Lost div. round, 38-35+4.9
Washington Redskins199130.31Won SB XXVI, 37-24+6.69
Chicago Bears194330.3Won NFL title, 41-21+10.7
San Francisco 49ers199431.6Won SB XXIX, 49-26+17.4

 
Wow! Only six of these teams matched or surpassed their scoring output in the final game of the season, including the 2012 Broncos, who benefitted from those two non-offensive scores.
 
Obviously, these offenses largely faced great defenses in the postseason, in many cases among the league’s best. You can’t expect these teams to consistently match their scoring average against such tough competition. We understand that.
 
But it’s certainly reasonable to expect more than just a couple of the greatest offenses in history to down with a tougher fight.

The biggest busts in pro football history

It’s certainly shocking the sheer size of the offensive collapses we've seen throughout history:

  • 10 members of the Big 55 were held 24+ points below their regular-season average
  • 25 members of the Big 55 were held 10+ points below their regular-season average
  • 36 of 42 teams failed to match their regular-season average in the biggest game of the year
  • The greatest offenses in history averaged 32.5 PPG in the regular-season and just 19.3 in their postseason finale (-13.2 PPG). Remember, that includes the WINNERS, too.
  • Among the failures, they averaged 32.6 PPG in the regular season then scored just 15.5 PPG in their humiliating season-ending losses (-17.1). That’s right: the game's greatest offenses produced less than half their regular-season output in playoff defeat.

The 2003 Chiefs hold one proud distinction among this disappointing cast of characters. They are the only team on our list that was nobly carried off the field on the shield of its offense in playoff defeat and can point a finger at the defense.

The 2003 Chiefs scored 30.3 PPG in the regular season and topped that total against Peyton Manning and the Colts in a 38-31 divisional playoff loss.

It all leads us to one big conclusion: sexy offenses tend to build their portfolio by beating up bad defenses.

When when the season gets late, when they've consumed a little too much success and suddenly have to negotiate a speed trap of great defenses, these offenses suddenly look like your prom date after she disappeared with the guys from the hockey team for an hour: weathered, glassy eyed and not so hot.

For evidence of this phenomenon, look no further than the great 1950 Rams, the greatest scoring machine in the history of football. But a closer look L.A.'s schedule that year reveals that the sexy, star-studded Rams offense made itself look a hell of a lot, ahem, bustier thanks to a big boost from a soft, padded schedule.

(Speaking of busts, the Rams offense was not the only huge bust in L.A. that year. Take a good long look at Mrs. Bob Waterfield, a.k.a, Jane Russell.)

The 1950 Rams played three games -- one-quarter of their 12-game schedule -- against the New York Yanks and Baltimore Colts, two short-lived franchises that couldn't play defense. The Rams scored 158 of their 466 points in three games against those two teams (45 and 43 vs. NY, 70 vs. Baltimore). The Colts, a transplant from the AAFC, were so bad in the NFL they folded at the end of the 1950 season (re-emerging under new ownership in 1953); the Yanks folded never to return after the 1951 season.

 

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