The Spirit of ’48: a mind-blowing statistical orgasm

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jul 18, 2010



(Pictured: Charley Trippi, the Chicago Cardinals Hall of Famer who was the biggest star on the NFL's highest scoring team during the revolutionary 1948 season.)
 
Some people get their rocks off on drugs or porn or, well, insert your vice of choice here.
 
The Cold, Hard Football Facts get their jollies perusing a pile of numbers that shatters our entire world view, kicks conventional wisdom to the curb and makes us reconsider our worth as Troll Beings.
 
Uh, uh, uh, uh, UHHHH! Splat!
 
We had one of those statistical orgasms this morning, when we completed a long sought-after project and compiled the year-by-year average scoring rates in pro football, a 90-season statistical sojourn from the very beginnings of the NFL in 1920 right through the 2009 season. You can see that year-by-year list of scoring averages here.
 
It's a mind-blowing tour de fact-filled force that will make you reassess everything you thought you knew about pro football in general and the high-flying modern passing game in particular.
 
Almost every single contemporary football fan and pigskin "pundit" on the planet – including the Cold, Hard Football Facts – has assumed that the modern game that produces record passing stats each year also produces record totals on the scoreboard.
 
We all assumed wrong.
 
Turns out the greatest period of offense in NFL history came long before the pass-first mentality that dominates offensive strategy today. 
 
In fact, the most prolific display of offensive virtuosity in NFL history came back when the hand-off was the preferred offensive weapon, back when the helmets were leather, and back when games were played outdoors on the sloppy mud and dust of baseball infields and not inside on the tidy, antiseptic FieldTurf of a majestic gridiron Taj Mahal.
 
Those were the good-old days, Friends of the Facts, for those of you who love points as much as your porn or pot.
 
After all, the single greatest season of offense is not 1984, when Dan Marino thrilled the football world with his 48 TD passes and led the Dolphins to 513 points. It was not 2004, when Peyton Manning wowed us with his record 121.1 passer rating and 49 TD tosses while leading the Colts to 522 points. And it was not 2007, when Tom Brady connected on 50 TD tosses while leading the Patriots to 589 points and a 16-0 record.
 
Nope, the most explosive offensive season in NFL history was – hold on to your nuggets, folks – 1948, when NFL teams averaged 23.2 PPG and three of the league's 10 clubs averaged more than 30 PPG (just one of 32 teams, the Saints, topped 30 PPG in 2009).
 
The explosive 1948 campaign is followed closely by a smattering of seasons from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s before we find a single season from here in the pass-happy modern era on the list of greatest years of offense.
 
15 highest scoring seasons in NFL history
 
Season
PPG per team
1
1948
23.2
2
1965
23.1
3
1950
22.9
4
1958
22.6
5
1949
22.5
6t
1952
22.3
6t
1962
22.3
8t
1947
22.0
8t
1963
22.0
8t
1964
22.0
8t
2008
22.0
12t
1951
21.9
12t
1954
21.9
14t
1967
21.8
14t
1983
21.8
 
Perhaps it's no surpise to see 1950 high on the list. Cold, Hard Football Facts fans are already aware that the greatest season for indivividual team scoring came that year when the L.A. Rams scored 38.8 PPG, well ahead of the No. 2 team in history, the 2007 Patriots (36.8 PPG).
 
But mostly the list is shocking, as it's dominated by pre-modern seasons: just three of the 15 greatest scoring  campaigns have come in the Super Bowl Era (1967, 1983, 2008) and only one has come in the past quarter century.
 
The Spirit of '48
We were stunned to find that 1948 was the high-water mark of offense in NFL history. We assumed, much like you did, that teams struggled to put points on the board back in the leather-helmet days.
 
Certainly, teams in 1948 ran far too often and passed far too little to score at any kind of great clip. At least that's the assumption, and it's partly true: NFL teams did run the ball far more often than they passed it in 1948, averaging 38 rush attempts and just 26 pass attempts per game. Compare those numbers with the 28 rush attempts and 33 pass attempts per game we witnessed in 2009.
 
But in the run-first season of 1948, teams scored at a clip never seen before or since, and the Cardinals, Eagles and Bears all topped 30.0 PPG.
 
Jimmy Conzelman's Chicago Cardinals were the best of the bunch. They led the NFL in scoring that year (32.9 PPG) and they produced what was probably the greatest four-week stretch of offense in pro football history.
 
From October 17 to November 7, the 1948 Cardinals beat the Giants 63-35; the Boston Yanks, 49-27; the L.A. Rams 27-22; and the Lions, 56-20. That's a four-week average of 48.8 PPG for those of you keeping score at home.
 
Yes, turnovers were common in 1948, so maybe that fact made life easier for offense. The Cardinals, for example, picked off 23 passes in 12 games. But they scored just two defensive touchdowns all year, while adding four on special teams. Mostly, they ripped off touchdowns, a remarkable 47 on offense. They kicked a mere eight field goals.
 
Mostly, the offense was virtually unstoppable and it didn't settle often for the cheap, soccer-style field goals that pad offensive team totals today.
 
The Eagles were No. 2 in scoring offense in that landmark 1948 campaign, with 31.3 PPG. Perhaps it's only fitting, in the greatest year of offense in pro football history, that the league's top two attacks met in the NFL title tilt.
 
But history has a way of f*cking with our mind, and the Eagles blanked the Cardinals, 7-0, in a Philadelphia blizzard in that 1948 NFL championship battle, thanks to Hall of Famer's Steve Van Buren's 5-yard TD plunge in the fourth quarter (pictured here).
 
It was the first televised NFL title game (Red Grange was one of the announcers) and it represented a punchless end to the greatest offensive season in league history. Perhaps a cursory look back at the biggest game of the 1948 season might cloud our vision of what football was like back then. Fans might thumb quickly through the books today, look at the 7-0 score, and conclude that it was indicative of the low-scoring football of the era.
 
But the truth is that the 7-0 game was a great statistical outlier in the  most explosive offensive season that the NFL has ever witnessed. 
 
The Golden Age of Offense
Now take a look at the greatest scoring decades in NFL history:
  • 1960s – 21.7 PPG (NFL only)
  • 1950s – 21.5 PPG
  • 2000s – 21.0 PPG
  • 1980s – 20.9 PPG
  • 1990s – 20.2 PPG
  • 1970s – 19.2 PPG
  • 1940s – 19.0 PPG (NFL only)
  • 1930s – 11.4 PPG
  • 1920s – 9.4 PPG
Again, the list flouts conventional wisdom. Despite the rule changes of 1978 that spawned the Live Ball Era and the passing revolution, scoring has never reached the levels that fans witnessed in the offensive glory days of the 1950s and 1960s.
 
Many modern observers insist that the upstart AFL (1960-69) inspired a offensive revolution in the game of pro football. Indeed, AFL scores were often higher than they were in the NFL. The AFL's two most prolific seasons exceeded any the NFL has produced (24.5 PPG in 1961; 24.2 PPG in 1960).
 
But, as we noted last year when we refuted so many myths about the AFL, the scoring revolution in the NFL was already well underway by the time the new league came along in 1960. Sure, the AFL would produce prolific scoring – but the 1960s remain the most prolific era of offense in NFL history, too, to this very day.
 
And, as we noted last year, the greatest individual statistical seasons of the decade all took place in the NFL, not the AFL. With our without the rise and impact of the AFL, the 1960s would go down as the Golden Age of Offense in the NFL.
 
Here are a few more of the findings we can conclude from these lists:
 
The T-formation, not Live Ball Era pass-first tactics, created the league's greatest offensive revolution – The 1940s were a period of upheaval around the globe because of World War II. The world in 1949 looked nothing like the world in 1940.
 
The same can be said of the world on American football fields. NFL teams averaged 15.1 PPG in 1940 – already one of the most prolific season in the league's 21-year history to that point, surpassed only by the 1939 season (15.4 PPG).
 
But it was nothing close too what we'd see by the end of the decade, when NFL teams produced three of the most explosive seasons in history: 1948 (23.2 PPG); 1949 (22.5 PPG) and 1947 (22.0 PPG).
 
Here in the pass-happy Super Bowl Era, only the 2008 campaign (22.0) came close that high-water mark of the 1940s.
 
Even the average football fan knows that the T-formation marked a sea change in college and pro football in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But the true impact of the T formation is stunning when we look at these lists. Certainly, the impact of the T formation exceeded anything we witnessed from the rule changes of 1978 that spawned the Live Ball Era.
 
The seeds of offensive revolution were sown in 1933 – The 1933 season is best remembered as the start of the title-game era in the NFL. Bronko Nagurski threw two second-half touchdown passes, including the game winner, as the Bears bested the Giants, 23-21, in the first NFL title game.
 
But 1933 was more important for our purposes thanks to one major rule change made before the start of the season: the forward pass was legalized from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Previously, a passer had to be 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
 
Teams no longer had to telegraph their few pass plays. Instead, they could disguise a pass play by making it look like a run.
 
It was this rule change, more so than the well-known rule changes of 1978, that inspired the greatest period of offensive growth in pro football history: scoring rose sharply almost every year from 1932 to 1948 (as you can see dramatically from this bar graph here).
 
NFL teams averaged an anemic 8.2 PPG in 1932, the third lowest average in league history, and then a record 23.2 PPG in 1948 – that's a 182 percent increase in scoring in a 16-year period, from a near-record low to a singular record high.
 
Advocates of the ground game can gloat – Teams today pass the ball with far more frequency than they did in the 1950s or 1960s. Yet, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts prove, NFL teams do not score with more frequency than they did in the 1950s or 1960s. (The disparity is even more shocking when you consider that field goal rates have skyrocketed since the 1950s and 1960s; teams should score more points because of this fact alone.)
 
So maybe advocates of the ground game are right: maybe teams need to return to the fundamentals of football and "establish the run" to set up the pass. Maybe a little more dependence upon the ground game, and a little less dependence upon the pass, will produce the kind of explosive offensive production we witnessed in the 1950s and 1960s.
 
The modern passing game has yielded a statistical revolution, but not a scoring revolution – We all marveled wide-eyed and gape-mouthed when Dan Marino passed for 48 touchdowns in 1984 and when Joe Montana produced the greatest passing season in history in 1989.
 
These performances were certainly a breath of fresh air in the wake of the defensive dominance of the Dead Ball Era, which peaked in 1977. NFL teams scored just 17.2 PPG in 1977, the lowest output since 1942. So the rule changes of 1978 were desperately needed. After all, the dramatic popular growth of the sport in the 1950s and 1960s seem to support the notion that football fans like points.
 
Those rule changes of 1978 succeeded in one very important respect: Quarterbacks today pass more often and produce bigger, more spectacular numbers than ever before:
  • The Cold, Hard Football Facts concluded earlier this month that the two greatest passing seasons in history were produced by Montana in 1989 and Steve Young in 1994.
  • The record for pass attempts was set by Drew Bledsoe in 1994 (691).
  • The record for passer rating was set by Peyton Manning in 2004 (121.1).
  • The record for pass touchdowns was set by Tom Brady in 2007 (50).  
  • The record for pass completions was set by Drew Brees in 2007 (440).
  • The record for completion percentage was set by Brees in 2009 (70.62%).
(Yards per attempt remain the one constant through the years: no matter how often a team runs or passes, teams and quarterbacks with a high average per pass attempt win games; defenses with a low average per pass attempt against win games, too.)
 
But the bottom line is this: the revolution in the passing game has not led to a revolution on the scoreboard. The revolution in the passing game has not even produced the prolific scoring rates we witnessed in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
 
Those golden oldie years mark the era when offenses, not just offensive statistics, truly dominated pro football.

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