The Big Tease: why elite offenses never put out

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 12, 2012



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


Sexy, high-powered offenses make fans, TV networks and headline writers all hot and bothered. They gush like teenage boys overloaded on testosterone, Spanish fly and youthful fantasies every time one of these curvy offenses walks down the hallway of another NFL season.
 
“Hey Tommy, check that out, man. Look at the big guns on that team!”
 
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 MVP Aaron Rodgers and the 2011 Packers (35.0 PPG) just last season, the most potent offensive teams in history win scoring titles, MVP awards, the hand of busty starlets 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 last season alone: 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.
 
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. Go ahead: pluck down your money on a Vegas big board or on a tux and a limo. In either case, the odds say you’ll be disappointed at the end of the evening.
 
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 53

Fifty-three teams pro football history scored 30+ points per game: 46 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 53.
 
Here’s a look at the Big 53 – 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 53 Pro Football Teams to Score 30.0+ PPG
  Team Year Record Points PPG Outcome
1 Los Angeles Rams 1950 9-3 466 38.8 Lost NFL title, 30-28
2 New England Patriots 2007 16-0 589 36.8 Lost SB XLII, 17-14
3 Houston Oilers 1961 10-3-1 513 36.6 Won AFL title, 10-3
4 Chicago Bears 1941 10-1 396 36.0 Won NFL title, 37-9
5 San Francisco 49ers 1948 12-2 495 35.4 Missed AAFC postseason
6 Green Bay Packers 2011 15-1 560 35.0 Lost div. round, 37-20
7 Minnesota Vikings 1998 15-1 556 34.8 Lost NFC title, 30-27
8 San Francisco 49ers 1949 9-3 416 34.7 Lost AAFC title, 21-7
9 New Orleans Saints 2011 13-3 547 34.19 Lost div. round, 36-32
10 Chicago Bears 1942 11-0 376 34.18 Lost NFL title, 14-6
11 Washington Redskins 1983 14-2 541 33.81 Lost SB XVIII, 38-9
12 St. Louis Rams 2000 10-6 540 33.75 Lost NFC wc round, 31-28
13 Oakland Raiders 1967 13-1 468 33.4 Lost SB II, 33-14
14 Chicago Cardinals 1948 11-1 395 32.92 Lost NFL title, 7-0
15 St. Louis Rams 1999 13-3 526 32.88 Won SB XXXIV, 23-16
16 Los Angeles Rams 1951 8-4 392 32.7 Won NFL title, 24-17
17 Indianapolis Colts 2004 12-4 522 32.6 Lost div. round, 20-3
18 New England Patriots 2010 14-2 518 32.38 Lost div. round, 28-21
19 Oakland Raiders 1968 12-2 453 32.36 Lost AFL title, 27-23
20t Miami Dolphins 1984 14-2 513 32.1 Lost SB XIX, 38-16
20t New England Patriots 2011 13-3 513 32.1 Lost SB XLVI, 21-17
22t New York Giants 1963 11-3 448 32.0 Lost NFL title, 14-10
22t Kansas City Chiefs 1966 11-2-1 448 32.0 Lost SB I, 35-10
24 New Orleans Saints 2009 13-3 510 31.9 Won SB XLIV, 31-17
25 Dallas Cowboys 1966 10-3-1 445 31.79 Lost NFL title, 34-27
26 Baltimore Colts 1958 9-3 381 31.75 Won NFL title, 23-17
27 San Francisco 49ers 1994 13-3 505 31.6 Won SB XXIX, 49-26
28 St. Louis Rams 2001 14-2 503 31.4 Lost SB XXXVI, 20-17
29 Philadelphia Eagles 1948 9-2-1 376 31.33 Won NFL title, 7-0
30 Denver Broncos 1998 14-2 501 31.31 Won SB XXXIII, 34-19
31 Chicago Bears 1948 10-2 375 31.25 Missed NFL playoffs
32 Baltimore Colts 1959 9-3 374 31.2 Won NFL title, 31-16
33 San Francisco 49ers 1953 9-3 372 31 Missed NFL playoffs
34 Dallas Cowboys 1968 12-2 431 30.79 Lost div. round, 31-20
35 San Diego Chargers 2006 14-2 492 30.75 Lost div. round, 24-21
36 San Francisco 49ers 1987 13-2 459 30.6 Lost div. round, 36-24
37 Baltimore Colts 1964 12-2 428 30.57 Lost NFL title, 27-0
38 N.Y. Yanks 1950 7-5 366 30.5 Missed NFL playoffs
38 LA Rams 1953 8-3-1 366 30.5 Missed NFL playoffs
40 Philadelphia Eagles 1949 11-1 364 30.33 Won NFL title, 14-0
41t Washington Redskins 1991 14-2 485 30.31 Won SB XXVI, 37-24 
41t Denver Broncos 2000 11-5 485 30.31 Lost WC round, 21-3
43 Chicago Bears 1943 8-1-1 303 30.3 Won NFL title, 41-21
44t Chicago Bears 1947 8-4 363 30.25 Missed NFL postseason
44t Chicago Bears 1956 9-2-1 363 30.25 Lost NFL title, 47-7
44t Kansas City Chiefs 2003 13-3 484 30.25 Lost div. round, 38-31
47 Cleveland Browns 1946 12-2 423 30.21 Won AAFC title 14-9
48 Kansas City Chiefs 2004 7-9 483 30.19 Missed NFL playoffs
49 Cleveland Browns 1960 8-3-1 362 30.17 Missed NFL postseason
50 San Francisco 49ers 1965 7-6-1 421 30.1 Missed NFL postseason
51t LA Rams 1949 8-2-2 360 30 Lost NFL title, 14-0
51t Chicago Cardinals 1949 6-5-1 360 30 Missed NFL postseason
51t Buffalo Bills 1975 8-6 420 30 Missed NFL postseason

The results, like all our prom dates, were disappointing to say the least:
  • Just 14 of these 53 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. 
  • 31 members of the Big 53 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, 39 of the 53 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 26 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, even in victory. 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 53 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.
 
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 same case of disappearing offenses has afflicted other pro leagues, too.
 
The 1946 Browns dominated the AAFC, scoring 30.2 PPG behind Hall of Fame QB Otto Graham. They hung on for a 14-9 win over the N.Y. Yankees in the league championship game.
 
The AAFC scoring record was set three years later by the 1949 49ers (34.7). That offense tanked in a 21-7 loss to the Browns in the title game.
 
The 1961 Oilers, with Hall of Fame QB George Blanda, were pro football’s first 500-point team and dominated the upstart AFL with 36.6 PPG and an incredible 48 TD passes, a mark surpassed only four times in the half century since. They eked out a 10-3 win over the Chargers in an unexpected defensive struggle in the AFL title tilt.
 
Returning to the NFL, 1948 was the greatest scoring season in NFL history and the title game offered a potential offensive showdown for the ages between the Chicago Cardinals (32.9 PPG) and the Philadelphia Eagles (31.3). The Eagles hung on for a 7-0 win in a blizzard.  
 
Those are just some of the lowlights. Here’s a look at the 42 members of the Big 53 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 53.) The greatest offenses in history are defined by one meltdown after another.
 
The Big 53 Rarely Put Out in the Playoffs
Team Year PPG Outcome Difference
Chicago Cardinals 1948 32.92 Lost NFL title, 7-0 -32.92
Baltimore Colts 1964 30.57 Lost NFL title, 27-0 -30.57
Los Angeles Rams 1949 30.0 Lost NFL title, 14-0 -30.0
Indianapolis Colts 2004 32.6 Lost div. round, 20-3 -29.6
Chicago Bears 1942 34.18 Lost NFL title, 14-6 -28.18
San Francisco 49ers 1949 34.7 Lost AAFC title, 21-7 -27.7
Denver Broncos 2000 30.31 Lost WC round, 21-3 -27.31
Houston Oilers 1961 36.6 Won AFL title, 10-3 -26.6
Washington Redskins 1983 33.81 Lost SB XVIII, 38-9 -24.81
Philadelphia Eagles 1948 31.33 Won NFL title, 7-0 -24.33
Chicago Bears 1956 30.25 Lost NFL title, 47-7 -23.25
New England Patriots 2007 36.8 Lost SB XLII, 17-14 -22.8
Kansas City Chiefs 1966 32.0 Lost SB I, 35-10 -22.0
New York Giants 1963 32.0 Lost NFL title, 14-10 -22.0
Oakland Raiders 1967 33.4 Lost SB II, 33-14 -19.4
Philadelphia Eagles 1949 30.33 Won NFL title, 14-0 -16.33
Cleveland Browns 1946 30.21 Won AAFC title 14-9 -16.21
Miami Dolphins 1984 32.1 Lost SB XIX, 38-16 -16.1
New England Patriots 2011 32.1 Lost SB XLVI, 21-17 -15.1
Green Bay Packers 2011 35.0 Lost div. round, 37-20 -15.0
St. Louis Rams 2001 31.4 Lost SB XXXVI, 20-17 -14.4
New England Patriots 2010 32.38 Lost div. round, 28-21 -11.38
Los Angeles Rams 1950 38.8 Lost NFL title, 30-28 -10.8
Dallas Cowboys 1968 30.79 Lost div. round, 31-20 -10.79
St. Louis Rams 1999 32.88 Won SB XXXIV, 23-16 -9.88
San Diego Chargers 2006 30.75 Lost div. round, 24-21 -9.75
Oakland Raiders 1968 32.36 Lost AFL title, 27-23 -9.36
Baltimore Colts 1958 31.75 Won NFL title, 23-17 -8.75
Los Angeles Rams 1951 32.7 Won NFL title, 24-17 -8.7
Minnesota Vikings 1998 34.8 Lost NFC title, 30-27 -7.8
San Francisco 49ers 1987 30.6 Lost div. round, 36-24 -6.6
St. Louis Rams 2000 33.75 Lost NFC wc round, 31-28 -5.75
Dallas Cowboys 1966 31.79 Lost NFL title, 34-27 -4.79
New Orleans Saints 2011 34.19 Lost div. round, 36-32 -2.19
New Orleans Saints 2009 31.9 Won SB XLIV, 31-17 -0.9
Baltimore Colts 1959 31.2 Won NFL title, 31-16 -0.2
Kansas City Chiefs 2003 30.25 Lost div. round, 38-31 0.75
Chicago Bears 1941 36.0 Won NFL title, 37-9 +1.0
Denver Broncos 1998 31.31 Won SB XXXIII, 34-19 +2.69
Washington Redskins 1991 30.31 Won SB XXVI, 37-24 +6.69
Chicago Bears 1943 30.3 Won NFL title, 41-21 +10.7
San Francisco 49ers 1994 31.6 Won 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.
 
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 14 percent 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 53 were held 24+ points below their regular-season average
  • 24 members of the Big 53 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.
 

The not-so- typical case of 2011

The 2011 season was merely the latest in the long, long history of elite offenses shooting blanks in the biggest games of the year. But the season was offensively historic in its own right.
 
Three teams in 2011 scored more 30.0+ points per game: the Packers, Saints and Patriots. It was pretty unusual. But not unprecedented. In fact, it’s happened twice before, back in the NFL’s high-scoring, leather-helmeted glory days of 1948 and 1949 (1948 remains the highest-scoring season in NFL history).
 
Yet one thing has remained consistent through the years: great offenses in the regular season simply do not produce at nearly the same level in the postseason.
 
All three historic offenses in 2011 fell short in the biggest game of the year. The Saints, as noted above, at least put up a good fight, scoring 32 points on a very stout San Francisco defense. The Packers lost after scoring just 20 against the Giants in the divisional playoffs. The Patriots mustered only 17 points in their Super Bowl loss to those same Giants.

Football in 2011 is a hell of a lot different than it was in the late 1940s. But in both eras, you could count on the fact that historically great offenses would disappear in the biggest games of the year.


So what’s the deal?

The old cliché says that “defense wins championships.” There’s certainly some truth to the saying. NFL champions are generally a bit bettter defensively than they are offensively. And great defenses are less likely to fall apart than great offenses.

But it’s actually simplistic to say that "defense wins championships." A more accurate saying is that “balance wins championships.”
 
Teams that are competitive in all areas, even if they’re not dominant in any, tend to perform better in the postseason than teams that are dominant in one area but have weaknesses in others.
 
The 2011 Giants were a perfect example. The Super Bowl champs did not dominate in any one area. Their offense was downright impotent compared to the three juggeranuts from Green Bay, New England and New Orleans. But the Giants were one of three NFL teams that ranked in the top 21 in every single one of our Quality Stats. the Packers, Patriots and Saints each had critical weaknesses that we had discussed all year. Those weaknesses for each one-sided offensive-led contender snapped like a jealous boyfriend in the biggest games of the year.

History here once against supports the notion that high-powered offenses can't do it alone. As noted above, just 14 members of the Big 53 won a league championship, whether in the AAFC, AFL or NFL. You'll find two clusters of them, too: back in the 1940s and early 1950s, and again in the 1990s.

Almost all 14 Big 53 champions shared something in common: they paired a historically prolific offenses with a solid and sometimes great defenses. Here's a look at how those 14 Big 53 champions stacked up defensively (scoring defense, total defense and Defensive Passer Rating, a historically critical measure of team success).

The Big 53 Offense Champs' Performance on Defense
Team Season Record PPG Outcome Scoring D Total D DPR
Chicago Bears 1941 10-1 36.0 Won NFL title, 37-9 4 4 1
Chicago Bears 1943 8-11 30.3 Won NFL title, 41-21 2 2 1
Cleveland Browns 1946 12-2 30.21 Won AAFC title 14-9 1 2 1
Philadelphia Eagles 1948 9-2-1 31.33 Won NFL title, 7-0 2 2 2
Philadelphia Eagles 1949 11-1 30.33 Won NFL title, 14-0 1 1 1
Los Angeles Rams 1951 8-4 32.7 Won NFL title, 24-17 6 8 5
Baltimore Colts 1958 9-3 31.75 Won NFL title, 23-17 2 2 1
Baltimore Colts 1959 9-3 31.2 Won NFL title, 31-16 7 8 1
Houston Oilers 1961 10-3-1 36.6 Won AFL title, 10-3 2 2 2
Washington Redskins 1991 14-2 30.31 Won SB XXVI, 37-24  2 3 3
San Francisco 49ers 1994 13-3 31.6 Won SB XXIX, 49-26 6 8 5
Denver Broncos 1998 14-2 31.31 Won SB XXXIII, 34-19 8 11 21
St. Louis Rams 1999 13-3 32.88 Won SB XXXIV, 23-16 4 6 2
New Orleans Saints 2009 13-3 31.9 Won SB XLIV, 31-17 20 25 3

Pretty telling numbers. The early and dominant Bears, Browns and Eagles won because they paired prolific offenses with the best defenses in football.

The 1959 and 1959 Colts are remembered for the revolutionary passing performances of  Hall of Fame QB Johnny Unitas. But his defenses twice topped the NFL in Defensive Passer Rating, picking off an incredible 75 passes in just 24 games in those two seasons, leading the league each year in INT (40 and 35). Unitas and Raymond Berry helped change offensive football. But they wouldn't have been champs without defenses that repeatedly handed them the ball in good situations.

The Bill Walsh-bred San Francisco 49ers are remembered for their revolutionary West Coast offense. But as disciples of the Cold, Hard Football Facts know, Walsh's genius was not the West Coast offense. His genius was pairing the West Coast offense with the longest-lasting defensive dynasty in the history of football. The 49ers went 17 straight seasons (1981-1997), under three different head coaches, without surrendering 300 points in a season.

The St. Louis Rams fielded the "Greatest Show on Turf" in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first team to top 500 points threee straight years. But only one of those teams are called champs. Those 1999 Rams ranked No. 4 in scoring D, No. 6 in total D and No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating.

You can argue that only two elite offenses, and maybe three, got it done on the strength of that offense alone.

The 1951 Rams finished in the middle of the pack in all three defensive indicators in a 12-team league. It took all their offensive firepower to finally win it all, too: the game-winning points came on a 73-yard TD pass from Hall of Fame QB Van Brocklin to Hall of Fame receiver Tom Fears. Oh, Hall of Fame QB Waterfield booted the XP. That's a whole lot of Hall of Fame firepower, folks, just to eke out a single championship.

But even then, the Rams' suspect defense came up huge in the title game, holding Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns to just 17 points, more than 10 points below Cleveland's average, and denying Paul Brown's team its sixth straight pro football championship.

The 2009 Saints, another offense blessed with a future Hall of Fame QB, ranked just 20th in scoring D and 25th in total D. But that unit got a huge boost from a pass defense that was among the best in football (No. 3 in DPR) and among the best at creating INTs. In fact, the game-sealing points in their Super Bowl win over the Colts came courtesy of a pick-six.

The 1998 Broncos are an interesting and perhaps unique case: they produced a Big 53 offense behind Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway (31.3 PPG) and paired it with a good, but hardly great defense (No. 8 in scoring, No. 21 in DPR). However, both units came through in a big way in Super Bowl XXXIII: the offense exceeded its regular-season average by scoring 34 points and the defense, which surrendered an average fo 19.3 PPG, held the prolific Atlanta offense to 19 points.

Cleary, it's better to have a great offense than to have a bad offense. Scoring a lot of points is never a bad thing in and of itself. But the history of the league is pretty clear: building a prolific offense at the expense of your defene, and still hoping to score a ring, is much like your chances of scoring big after the prom. It's a delusional fantasy, men. Those offenses are just a Big Tease.

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