Dirty Bird Secret: the greatest season nobody remembers

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 19, 2012



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts touchdown dance choreographer


Narratives often entrench themselves deeply in the collective psyche of sports fans. Singular moments in time are burned in our memories, yet do not always reflect the statistical reality of a situation.

This phenomenon is especially true in football, where so much of what fans and analysts believe is based upon memorable anecdotes, and not  based upon Cold, Hard Football Fact.

We've spent years deliciously carving up those situations in which anecdotes conflict with statistical reality, skewering these myths like so many statistical shish-kabobs along the way.
 
The 1998 Atlanta Falcons are a perfect example of a team, and a season, defined by memorable anecdotes, to the point that these anecdotes diverted the gaze of Football Nation away from the incredible statistical story that unfolded on the field each and every week, all the way through Super Bowl XXXIII.
 
In fact, these anecdotes miscast who the Falcons were, and how they captured the franchise's first and only NFC championship.
 
The 1998 Falcons remain the “Dirty Birds” in NFL lore, a team defined by running back Jamal Anderson, and his rather awkward and rhythm-less, but certainly memorable touchdown dance
 

The most effective passing season in 42 years

The 1998 Falcons should be remembered for the stunningly historic (and stunningly forgotten) performance by quarterback Chris Chandler, who quietly pieced together one of the most effective passing seasons the NFL has ever seen, even while Anderson generated all the headlines and SportsCenter replays doing his jaunty little jig after each touchdown.
 
Now, Anderson was a true stud in 1998:
  • 410 carries, 1,846 yards, 4.50 YPA, 14 TD
Those 1,846 rushing yards are No. 15 on the list of single-season performances. Anderson also added 27 catches, 319 yards and 2 TD through the air.  So it was a great season.
 
But Chandler produced an utterly eye-popping and historic season, averaging in incredible 9.65 yards every time he attempted a pass. It was the highest average by any quarterback in 42 years (min. 150 attempts). Chandler’s mark has been surpassed only once since, by Kurt Warner in 2000 (9.88 YPA).
 
How does 9.65 YPA stack up to other great seasons? Well, consider these two historic notables:
  • Hall of Famer Dan Marino averaged 9.01 YPA in his record-shattering signature 1984 season
  • Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning averaged 9.17 YPA in his record-shattering signature 2004 season.
Put another way: for one season, in 1998, Chandler got the ball down field as well as any quarterback in the history of football – at a level very few of even the game’s elite quarterbacks have ever matched.
 
Here’s a look at the 10 most effective passing seasons in NFL history.
 
10 Most Effective Seasons, NFL History (Pass YPA)
Player Year Att Yds Y/A Record Result
Sid Luckman 1943 Bears 202 2194 10.86 8-1-1 won NFL title
Otto Graham 1953 Browns 258 2722 10.55 11-1 lost NFL title
Norm Van Brocklin 1954 Rams 260 2637 10.14 6-5-1 no postseason
Ed Brown 1956 Bears 168 1667 9.92 9-2-1 lost NFL title
Kurt Warner 2000 Rams 347 3429 9.88 10-6 lost wildcard
Chris Chandler 1998 Falcons 327 3154 9.65 14-2 lost Super Bowl
Bart Starr 1968 Packers 171 1617 9.46 6-7 -1 no postseason
Len Dawson 1968 Chiefs 224 2109 9.42 12-2 lost division
Greg Cook 1969 Bengals 197 1854 9.41 4-9-1 no postseason
Ken Stabler 1976 Raiders 291 2737 9.41 13-1 Won Super Bowl
 
 
It's a pretty impressive list: Five of those teams reached the NFL championship game or Super Bowl. Five of those quarterbacks are in the Hall of Fame. Kurt Warner probably will be in Canton some day. Ken Stabler has his share of HOF advocates.

The list is important, as intelligent devotees of the Cold, Hard Football Facts know, because passing YPA is the single easiest measure of passing success and, therefore, of team success. It's much easier to understand and to explain than passer rating. More than just easy, YPA is also a very effective measure of passing success and of team success.
 
Teams with a higher average per pass attempt win about 75 percent of all NFL games. And nobody in 1998 passed the ball nearly as well as Chandler passed the ball. Certainly, nobody in Falcons history passed the ball that well, either.
 
We’ve shown time and again that winning football is built around an effective and efficient passing game, regardless of how well or how poorly a team runs the football – though it certainly doesn’t hurt to do both well.

Atanta's greatest passing season = Atlanta's greatest team

But it’s no coincidence that Atlanta's greatest passing season coincided directly with the team’s greatest season, period. Some of the highlights of the 1998 Falcons:
  • Best record in franchise history (14-2)
  • Most wins in franchise history (14)
  • Most points scored in franchise history (442)
  • Most points per game in franchise history (27.6)
  • Greatest scoring differential in franchise history (+153)
  • Only conference championship in franchise history

The Anderson and Chandler tandem provides us the perfect opportunity to highlight why the passing game is so much more important than the running game and why the passing game correlates so much more highly to wins and losses.
 
Anderson did pound out 1,846 yards – but he averaged just 4.50 YPA. It's a very strong season, for sure. But hardly historic in terms of effectiveness, either. Hundreds of running backs have produced 4.5 YPA over the course of a season. Anderson, statistically speaking, was nothing particularly special on a per-carry basis.
 
Meanwhile, the Falcons ripped off nearly 10 yards – a frighteningly good number – every time Chandler whipped the ball down the field.
 
It’s virtually impossible to beat a quarterback when he's torching you for 10 yards every time he unleashes the ball. And it was virtually impossible to beat the Falcons in 1998.
 
The difference in the impact of Anderson and Chandler was evident in the epic 1998 NFC championship game, when the Falcons went into the Metrodome and shocked the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings.
 
Chandler was the best player on the field during what proved another in a long line of heartbreaking days for Vikings fans.
 
Atlanta that day ran the ball 29 times for 110 yards, 3.79 YPA and 0 TD. Anderson led the way with 23 carries for 67 yards and a lowly 2.91 YPA. He scored the game’s first TD on a short pass from Chandler – and then did the Dirty Bird in the end zone. But it was a largely ordinary, non-descript day on the ground for the Falcons.

It was, however, a dangerously effective performance through the air by Chandler:

  • 27 of 43, 62.8%, 340 yards, 7.91 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 110.6 rating

In fact, he was far more effective than Minnesota QB Randall Cunningham:

  • 29 of 48, 60.4%, 266 yards, 5.54 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT, 89.41 rating

In a sport in which passing efficiency is almost always the deciding factor, Chandler’s clutch effort – and a fine effort by the Atlanta defense to mitigate Minnesota’s passing attack – was the singular deciding factor in the 1998 NFC title tilt (the turnover battle was even, by the way, at 2 each).
 
Of course, Chandler returned to being the pigskin pumpkin most fans remember him as in the 34-19 loss to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.  He produced just 219 yards on 35 attempts (6.26 YPA), while compounding the ineffectiveness with three INTs.
 
Three picks and 6.26 YPA are losing numbers almost every time, especially in a Super Bowl. It was an anomalously bad end to an anomalously brilliant season by Chandler.
 
In the meantime, we’re not trying to put Chandler in the Hall of Fame, folks. Not trying to overstate his case. He spent an impressive 17 seasons in the NFL, but most of them largely forgettable, while playing for seven different teams (including both the L.A. and St. Louis Rams).
 
But the reality is, for one season, Chandler was as good a quarterback, as effective at getting the ball downfield, as the game had ever seen.
 
And the reality is that Chandler, not Jamal Anderson or the memorable Dirty Bird jig, was the biggest single reason why the 1998 Falcons were NFC champs and fielded the greatest team in franchise history.


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