Statistical tour de douche: history of the NFL elite

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 13, 2010



By Mark "The King" Wald
Cold, Hard Football Facts trapped miner of the truth
 
What a difference a year makes.
 
A year ago Cold, Hard Football Facts eulogized Parity, who supposedly died in Week 6, 2009. New England's 59-0 demolition of the Titans was the silver stake in the heart of the vampire standing on wobbly legs, the victim of serious but non-lethal wounds inflicted since 2007.
 
It sort of made sense. The average margin of the victory in the NFL in the years 2000-2006 hovered around eleven and a half points. In 2007 it all of a sudden rocketed to twelve and a half. In 2008 it held at a healthy 12.22. Last year the average margin of victory came close to 13 points (12.97).
 
Just when it seemed the afterburners were about to kick in, scoring leveled off. Through five weeks this year the average margin of victory is 11.31, the lowest since 11.11 in 2002.
 
Enter Mark Twain. If he were still around he might remark that the report of parity's demise was greatly exaggerated. Then again, maybe he wouldn't overreact to the tighter games this year the same way CHFF overreacted to blowouts last year.
 
Let's end the nonsense now and end it for good: parity never existed. It doesn't exist today. It didn't exist yesterday. It certainly didn't end last year or in the last decade. Something can't die if it never lived.
 
The truth is that the NFL, decade by decade, has always been ruled by a small group of elite teams that dominate the opposition, dominate the scoreboard, dominate the standings, and dominate the stat sheet. They even dominate our memories.
 
If there's anything in dispute, it's the idea that parity ended last year or that the NFL currently has a competition problem. If it does, then it's always had a competition problem, and it either became the greatest sport in America in spite of it or because of it.
 
For the last 70 years, it's the same story. Only the names have changed.
 
The Iron Grip
If a few AFC teams have held an iron grip over the league for the last decade, then the NFL for the last 70 years is the steel mill where elite powers melt inferior competition in a blast furnace of oblivion. Going back decade by decade the same unyielding steel was produced. The only thing different is the iron ore that produced it.
 
In the 40s and 50s there weren't as many teams so the domination wasn't as one-sided as it is today. Nonetheless, both decades were dominated by three teams who wasted the competition and won the majority of the titles.
 
1940s
Elite teams: Chicago Bears, Philadelphia, Washington
League domination: 7 of 10 league titles, 12 of 20 league title game spots
 
The 1940s was the most revolutionary decade in the history of pro football. But like every decade since, a small handful of great teams set the agenda. Sid Luckman (Chicago) and Sammy Baugh (Washington) squared off in three title games, and at least one member of the three power elite teams played for the NFL championship in nine of the decade's 10 years.
 
1950s
Elite teams: Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit
League domination: 8 of 10 league titles, 13 of 20 league title game spots
 
In the 1950s the Browns played for the league title the first six years of the decade and seven out of the first eight. Of the decade's 10 title games it was either Browns vs. Lions or Browns vs. Rams in seven of them.
 
Talk about domination or lack of competitive balance? That's a monopoly of power Today's Colts, Patriots, or Steelers only wish they had.
 
1960s
Elite teams: Baltimore, Cleveland, Green Bay, N.Y. Giants
League domination: 7 of 10 league titles, 15 of 20 league title game spots
 
The 1960s weren't much different. Four teams appeared in the majority of the championship games. One could even argue the 60s were dominated by a single team, the Packers, who appeared in six title games and won five of the decade's ten championships.
 
1970s
Elite teams: Dallas, Miami, Minnesota, Pittsburgh
Conference domination: 15 of 20 conference titles, 20 of 40 conference title game spots
Super Bowl domination: 8 of 10 Super Bowl titles
 
Domination by elite teams peaked in the 1970s when the Cowboys, Dolphins, Steelers and Vikings ruled the league. Each of the decade's 10 Super Bowls included at least one of these four teams as a participant. In fact, only five other teams managed to sneak past the velvet rope into the exclusive party known as the 1970s Super Bowl.
 
Throw the L.A. Rams and the Oakland Raiders into the 70s mix and the choke-hold on games that matter was even more suffocating. These six teams won 41 out of 60 division titles, filled 31 of 40 conference championship game spots, won 17 out of 20 conference championships, and won nine out of 10 Super Bowls.
 
Today's Colts, Patriots, and Steelers may have held an iron grip over the league the last 10 years, but it was nothing like the 1970s, when the NFL's behemoths waged epic battles every January for the right to heft the mighty Mjolnir for a year. Other teams could only stand and watch from afar, hoping to stay clear of the damage.
 
Despite absolute domination by little more than 20 percent of the leagues team's, the 1970s were arguably the NFL's greatest era, the decade it solidified its status as the most popular sport in America.
 
Since then the upper crust has continued to humiliate the lower caste, to a slightly lesser degree.
 
1980s
Elite teams: Denver, San Francisco, Washington
Conference domination: 10 of 20 conference titles, 12 of 40 conference title game spots
Super Bowl domination: 6 of 10 Super Bowl titles
 
1990s
Elite teams: Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Green Bay
Conference domination: 11 of 20 conference titles, 14 of 40 conference title game spots
Super Bowl domination: 6 of 10 Super Bowl titles
 
2000s
Elite teams: Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh
Conference domination: 8 of 20 conference titles, 12 of 40 conference title game spots
Super Bowl domination: 6 of 10 Super Bowl titles
 
The frightening pace of blowouts ... and, oh my God, the world's melting! It was 101 degrees yesterday! Run!
Week 7 of the 2009 season have offered more televised beatings (six games decided by 28 points or more) than the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but one week does not a season make (or a decade make) any more than the hottest week of the year portends a climate shift. Something has to occur continually and consistently before it can be labeled a trend.
 
With the 2000s now in the books, we know the frequency of blowouts was not substantially different than past decades. In fact, the frequency of 28 point blowouts in the 2000s was only slightly more than the 1990s, on par with the 1970s and 1980s, and didn't come close to matching the frequency of blowouts in the 1940s-1960s.
 
Frequency of 28-Point Blowouts by Decade
Decade Games 28-Pt Blowouts %
1940s 540 71 13.1%
1950s 726 87 12.0%
1960s 1,012 119 11.8%
1970s 1,932 156 8.1%
1980s 2,128 161 7.6%
1990s 2,328 158 6.8%
2000s 2,544 201 7.9%
         
Nor were the severity of the beatings any worse. Last year CHFF said the Patriots' 59-0 victory over Tennessee was the league's most one-sided game in 33 years, which is another way of saying similar blowouts occurred in the past. In fact, most of the top blowouts of the last seven decades are within 5 points of each other.
 
Top NFL Blowouts by Decade                               
Decade  Blowout Date Margin
1940s Chicago 73, Washington 0 12/8/1940 73
1950s Cleveland 62, Washington 3 11/7/1954 59
1960s Chicago 57, Baltimore 0 11/25/1962 57
1970s L.A. Rams 59, Atlanta 0 12/4/1976 59
1980s Chicago 61, Green Bay 7 12/7/1980 54
1980s Cincinnati 61, Houston 7 12/17/1989 54
1990s Jacksonville 62, Miami 7 1/15/2000 55
2000s NE 59, Tennessee 0 10/18/2009 59
 
Only two of these epic blowouts came at the hands of teams that went on to win a championship (1940 Bears, 1954 Browns). New England's thumping of Tennessee last year caused a sky-is-falling reaction from Cold, Hard Football Facts, but Tennessee finished the year 8-8. The Patriots finished 10-6 then got soundly whipped by the Ravens in the playoffs.
 
Looking back in 20-20 hindsight -- and looking at the same two teams through Week 5, 2010 -- it's clear a mediocre New England team simply caught a Titans team in transition on a bad day.
 
Based on percentage of wins by 7 and 3 points or less, NFL games have actually been more competitive the last 30 years than they were the previous 40.
 
NFL – Wins by 7 and 3 Pts or Less by decade                                                       
Decade Games 7 Pt Wins % 3 Pt Wins %
1940s 540 173 32.0% 75 13.9%
1950s 726 263 36.2% 119 16.4%
1960s 1,012 388 38.3% 202 20.0%
1970s 1,932 789 40.8% 381 19.7%
1980s 2,128 973 45.7% 506 23.8%
1990s 2,328 1,080 46.4% 561 24.1%
2000s 2,544 1,162 45.7% 587 23.1%
 
Despite the blowouts last year, 2009 doesn't even make the list of top 10 least competitive years in the NFL since 1940. Based on games decided by 3 points or less, here are the least competitive and most competitive individual seasons in the NFL since 1940.
 
Lowest % Games Decided by 3 Pts or Less (since 1940)
Season Games 3 Pts %
1945 50 3 6%
1942 55 4 7%
1957 72 6 8%
1943 40 4 10%
1959 72 9 13%
1950 78 10 13%
1948 60 8 13%
1940 55 8 15%
1949 60 9 15%
1973 182 28 15%
  
Now here's a look at the most competitive years, based upon games decided by 3 points or less.
 
Highest % Games Decided by 3 Pts or Less (since 1940)
Season Games 3 Pt Gms %
1997 240 67 28%
1988 224 62 28%
1961 98 27 28%
1981 224 60 27%
1994 224 60 27%
1982 126 33 26%
1980 224 58 26%
1984 224 58 26%
1999 248 64 26%
1991 224 57 25%
                
Looking over both lists, one thing stands out: the most competitive years are relatively recent. On the other hand, nine of the 10 least competitive years since 1940 occurred in the 40s and 50s.
 
Based on the evidence, games are more competitive now than they were decades ago.
 
The horrifying divide in the standings...through Week 7, 2009, anyway
Last year for the first time in NFL history there were three undefeated teams after Week 7: Indianapolis, Denver, and New Orleans. Three other teams were winless: Tennessee, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis.
 
At the time, it appeared the NFL might be headed for a 16-0 team and a 0-16 team in the same season. But that's why books are meant to be finished, not read halfway through. By the end of the season the final won-loss standings of the six teams looked like this.
 
2009
Indianapolis – 14-2
New Orleans – 13-3
Denver – 8-8
Tennessee – 8-8
St. Louis – 1-15
 
Big divides in the standings have always existed. Pick the top and bottom teams any year and the standings will look roughly the same. Take the records of a few teams from the 1945, 1951, 1976 and 1984 seasons, for example.
 
1984 1976 1951 1945
San Francisco – 15-1 Oakland – 13-1 Cleveland—11-1  Cleveland – 9-1
Miami – 14-2 New England – 11-3 NY Giants—9-2-1 Chicago – 1-9
Green Bay – 8-8 Minnesota – 11-2-1 Green Bay—3-9  
Houston – 3-13 Buffalo – 2-12 NY Yanks—1-9-2  
Buffalo – 2-14 Tampa Bay – 0-14    
 
Is it fair to list the Buccaneers' 0-14 1976 season here, since they were an expansion team? The Panthers went 7-9 as an expansion club in 1995. You decide.
 
Meanwhile, any attempt to point to the Patriots'  historic 2007 season (16-0) and Lions' historic 2008 season (0-16) as evidence the gap is widening was undone by New England's inability to seal the deal and by the fact that the 1972 Dolphins did seal the deal ... 35 years earlier.
 
Historically great teams prove it. The 1960s Packers and 1980s 49ers, for example, saved their best games for last. A team that goes 16-0 and loses the Super Bowl to a team most perceive to be below their class might as well have gone 10-6 for all it matters. As far as divides go, it might be horrific (if you're a Patriots fan), but it's not historic.
 
The gruesome disparity on the scoreboard ... in the 50s and 60s
Through 7 games last season the Saints were  on track to become the most prolific scoring team in NFL history (39.7 PPG), and the Rams were on a pace that would make them the lowest scoring team of the Live Ball Era (8.6 PPG). 
 
As it turned out, the Saints ended 2009 at 31.9 PPG and the Rams 10.9 PPG. Neither figure is historic, but they are extreme enough to warrant further study.
 
Looking at the average margin of victory in the NFL by decade, teams in the 2000s beat their opponents a little worse than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, but fall far short of the damage teams in the 1940s-1970s inflicted on their opponents.   
 
NFL Average Margin of Victory by Decade           
Decade Avg MOV
1940s 15.24
1950s 13.67
1960s 13.39
1970s 12.37
1980s 11.67
1990s 11.41
2000s 11.80
 
While the average margin of victory did increase in the years 2007-2009 over 2006, (including an average margin of victory of 12.97 last year, the highest single season margin of victory since 13.66 in 1976), it dropped to 11.31 through five games this year.
 
The point is this: season averages ebb and flow. From the standpoint of whether games are competitive or not, they were more competitive the last thirty years than they were the previous forty.
 
In the fact, the trend in the chart above is fairly obvious: NFL games grew increasingly more competitive from the 1940s through the 1990s, before the recent uptick in the 2000s.
 
Turning the focus to the elite teams of the last seven decades covered earlier, the picture is slightly different. Based on average point differential per game (net regular season points / games played), the elite teams of the 2000s were more dominant than the elite teams of the 60s, 80s and 90s and about as dominant as the elite teams of the 40s. Elite teams of the 1970s dominated more than all others.
 
Average Point Differential by Elite Teams of Last 7 Decades
Decade Teams Avg. Point Differential PG
1990s Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Green Bay 3.93
1950s Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit 4.07
1980s Denver, NYG, San Francisco, Washington 4.43
1960s Baltimore, Cleveland, Green Bay, NYG 5.39
2000s Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh 6.53
1940s Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington 6.59
1970s Dallas, Miami, Minnesota, Pittsburgh 7.34
 
It's worth noting that if numbers for the 1990s 49ers (who won 113 games in the 90s but appeared in only one Super Bowl and were more or less handled by the Cowboys and Packers come playoff time) were added to the 90s, the average for the decade would rise from 3.93 to 4.76.
 
If numbers for the 2000s Broncos (who CHFF named as one of the teams having an iron grip on the standings in the last decade, but like the 1990s 49ers were not dominant from a title standpoint) were added to the last decade, the average would decrease from 6.53 to 5.00.  
 
Also, the 1950s average of 4.07 is distorted by Baltimore's relatively poor numbers from 1953-1957. By comparison, the Browns' average point differential for the decade is 9.68.
 
Narrowing the focus further to championship teams only, results generally favor the older decades, although the Super Bowl champions of the 1990s dominated their opponents more than any other group. Championship teams of the 2000s, the era in which parity supposedly died, had the most competitive games.
 
Average Point Differential by NFL Championship Teams
Decade Avg Point Dif Per Game
1940s 13.0
1950s 10.1
1960s 10.7
1970s 10.9
1980s 8.8
1990s 12.2
2000s 7.6
 
Looking at all playoff teams in the last seven decades (including only the numbers from the year a respective team made the playoffs), the results aren't substantially different. Playoff teams of recent history were not as dominant as the playoff teams that came before them.
 
Average Point Differential by NFL Playoff Teams
Decade Avg Point Dif Per Game
1940s 11.2
1950s 9.3
1960s 10.1
1970s 7.0
1980s 5.2
1990s 5.1
2000s 5.9
 
Any way you slice it, two things are clear: elite NFL teams dominate the competition, but they dominate them to a lesser degree than they did in years past.  
 
The bloodbath on the stat sheets ... a trail of forensic evidence so long Sherlock Holmes may have worked on it
Last year Cold, Hard Football Facts contended the big divide on the standings is also evident on the stat sheet.
 
Very true, but is the divide on the stat sheet any greater than it's ever been? No. It's about the same as it's always been.
 
It's tough to compare statistics of different eras, particularly quarterbacks. The passing game has evolved so much over the years that comparing Joe Montana to Johnny Unitas is like comparing apples to oranges.
 
Quarterbacks today throw for more yards, throw more touchdowns, and their passer ratings are higher. But the superior passer ratings of today are a product of today's offenses, not today's quarterbacks. As CHFF demonstrated a few weeks ago, the high octane passing offenses of today haven't produced more points.
 
All that said, it's possible to compare quarterbacks of different eras using the passing statistic that's changed the least over the years: Yards per pass attempt. A good YPA today is about the same as a good YPA yesterday (actually, YPA was a shade higher decades ago) and it has a direct correlation to winning in any era.
 
If stat sheets of the last decade show a historic divide, then we would expect to see a historic difference between the best and worst quarterbacks in terms of YPA.
 
Looking at the single year in each decade in which the gap between the QB with the best YPA and the worst YPA was the largest, it's clear the gap separating the best and worst quarterbacks hasn't changed much over the years.
 
In fact, last year the gap separating the highest rated quarterback (Philip Rivers, 8.8) and the lowest rated quarterback (Brady Quinn, 5.2) was 3.6. That's not even the biggest gap of the decade; that honor (and shame) belongs to Kurt Warner and Akili Smith in 2000.
 
NFL QB Yards Per Attempt – Biggest Single Season Gap by Decade
Decade Year Best YPA Worst YPA Dif
1950s 1953 Otto Graham - 10.6 Jim Finks - 5.1 5.5
1960s 1960 Milt Plum - 9.2 John Brodie - 5.4 3.8
1970s 1976 Ken Stabler - 9.4 Gary Marangi - 4.3 5.1
1980s 1988 Boomer Esiason - 9.2 Rusty Hilger - 5.1 4.1
1990s 1998 Chris Chandler - 9.6 Bobby Hoying - 4.3 5.3
2000s 2000 Kurt Warner - 9.9 Akili Smith - 4.7 5.2
 
Different decades, same bloodbath on the stat sheet.
 
Last-second thrills and chills are hard to find...except on NFL Films
Ah, the memories of youth. 
 
The Autumn Wind blew sweeter then, when week after week one NFL game after another came down to a last-second play that determined the outcome. It's drama that no longer exists.
 
It's drama that didn't occur Week 2 this season when the Texans came back from a 17-point second-half deficit to beat the Redskins on a 35 yard field goal in overtime, or when the defending Super Bowl champion Saints kicked a 37-yard field goal as time expired to beat the 49ers.
 
No drama last weekend, when the Redskins kicked a 33-yard field goal in overtime to drop Dom Capers' note-scribbling Packers to 3-2.
 
And who can forget the Shakespearean tragedy otherwise known as the 2009 NFC title game where the Vikings, a team most people think didn't deserve to be on the field against their opponent, took the eventual Super Bowl champion Saints to overtime as one of the league's greatest players tried to exorcise his demons? Classic game for sure, no matter what side of the fence you were on.
 
NFL Films ranks right up there with pizza and beer as one of the best things ever invented. But it has a downside, and it isn't the fat content. When your childhood memories consist of a steady diet of the Holy Roller, the Immaculate Reception, the Sea of Hands, the Ice Bowl, The Catch and The Drive, today's Lions-Falcons game sounds about as tasty as an Atkins shake.
 
The Lions and Falcons played in the 70s and 80s, too.
 
Nothing to see here...go back to your homes
If the big divide separating the league's have and have-nots is today's standard, it was also yesterday's standard. There is no real evidence to suggest the divide has negatively impacted the game. Quite the opposite.
 
Life's successes and failures are based on disparity. If there were no losers, there would be no winners. If all quarterbacks were the same, there would be no Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana. If all teams were the same, there would be no 60s Packers or 2000s Patriots.
 
Elite teams have shoved the face of their opponent into the dirt since the dawn of the NFL. We might bitch and moan about it, especially when our team is the one being abused, but how interesting would the league be if it wasn't that way?
 
Far from a competition problem, it's the very thing that makes the league interesting. One only has to look at the state of heavyweight boxing today to see what happens to a sport without a clear cut champion.
 
If the league has a problem, it's the over-marketing of its product. The concept of fewer teams, fewer games, and fewer broadcasts worked out pretty well for the NFL over the years. They might want to re-think that.
 
Keep 'em wanting more, as the saying goes.

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