Top Guns: A brief history of NFL air superiority

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 17, 2011



(Ed. note: this story first ran on January 6, 2011. It's been updated to include the 2010 Packers, another team that won a championship by dominating the passing wars. One of our off-season projects is to produce the Passer Rating Differential of every team since 1940 and find out how many teams that topped Passer Rating Differential won a title. We're fairly certain you'll be amazed by the number.)
 
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts World War II ace of analysis
 
What did you do over the holidays?
 
You probably hung out with family. Saw old friends. Sang a couple Christmas carols. Shared gifts with loved ones. Enjoyed a bountiful dinner. Watched old Bing Crosby movies by the fireplace. Reveled in the wide-eyed joy of an innocent child. Drank a little too much egg nog with good ol' Uncle Hal Christmas Eve.
 
Sounds quaint. We're sure you had fun.
 
Our holidays went a little bit differently – well, except for the too much egg nog part.
 
We spent the holidays in the true Cold, Hard Football Facts tradition, gathered around the Christmas can of Spam, the trash can fireplace and the jug of moonshine and calculated the offensive passer rating, Defensive Passer Rating and Passer Rating Differential of every NFL champion since the dawn of the T formation (that'd be since 1940, for those of you keeping score at home).
 
Our research provided an incredible treasure trove of data that slowly begins to make up for the Christmas presents and parental love that we never received as children.
 
You know our theory: winning in the NFL is all about winning the war of passing efficiency.
 
To make a comparison with our other obsession, World War II, you don't invade France without first establishing air superiority. In the NFL, you don't invade Dallas, or any Super Bowl location, without doing the same.
 
Teams that dominate the skies dominate on the scoreboard.
 
To prove this point, we introduced last year what we call Passer Rating Differential – subtracting a team's Defensive Passer Rating from its offensive passer rating and ranking teams by the difference.
 
It's been a homerun. New Orleans dominated the indicator almost from wire to wire and ultimately dominated the Colts on the way to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Then came Green Bay in 2010. The Packers also dominated Passer Rating Differential. And, lo and behold, they won a Super Bowl, too.
 
Turns out thes are hardly an isolated incidents.  
 
Here's a look at the Passer Rating Differential of every single NFL champion since 1940.
 
Passer Rating Differential NFL champions since 1940
(bold led NFL, italic led conference)
Team OPR DPR Differential
1940 Bears 52.3 48.1 +4.2
1941 Bears 95.2 30.2 +65.0
1942 Redskins 65.6 25.5 +40.1
1943 Bears 95.4 22.0 +73.4
1944 Packers 41.1 32.4 +8.7
1945 Cle Rams 67.8 31.1 +36.7
1946 Bears 67.8 41.8 +26.0
1947 Chi Cards 59.9 53.9 +6.0
1948 Eagles 84.9 45.9 +39.0
1949 Eagles 77.6 30 +47.6
1950 Browns 64.0 28.7 +35.3
1951 Rams 79.8 51.9 +27.9
1952 Lions 60.0 46.4 +13.6
1953 Lions 53.9 37.6 +16.3
1954 Browns 72.1 46.6 +25.5
1955 Browns 98.3 40.7 +57.6
1956 Giants 66.0 60.0 +6.0
1957 Lions 55.9 60.4 -4.5
1958 Colts 85.4 35.1 +50.3
1959 Colts 92.1 45.1 +47.0
1960 Eagles 87.9 49.1 +38.8
1961 Packers 82.2 53.7 +28.5
1962 Packers 84.9 43.4 +41.5
1963 Bears 75.6 34.8 +40.8
1964 Browns 80.8 75.6 +5.2
1965 Packers 83.1 48.2 +34.9
1966 Packers 102.1 46.1 +56.0
1967 Packers 63.7 41.5 +22.2
1968 Jets 74.8 52.4 +22.4
1969 Chiefs 71.4 42.1 +29.3
1970 Colts 73.3 60.3 +13.0
1971 Cowboys 88.8 55.9 +32.9
1972 Dolphins 86.9 47.4 +39.5
1973 Dolphins 75.2 39.9 +35.3
1974 Steelers 48.9 44.3 +4.6
1975 Steelers 86.7 42.8 +43.9
1976 Raiders 102.2 68.8 +33.4
1977 Cowboys 85.3 48.2 +37.1
1978 Steelers 81.5 51.8 +29.7
1979 Steelers 76.6 56.4 +20.2
1980 Raiders 70.0 61.8 +8.2
1981 49ers 87.7 60.2 +27.5
1982 Redskins 91.8 67.7 +24.1
1983 Raiders 84.8 71.8 +13.0
1984 49ers 101.9 65.6 +36.3
1985 Bears 77.3 51.2 +26.1
1986 Giants 75.0 68.6 +6.4
1987 Redskins 80.7 69.3 +11.4
1988 49ers 83.5 72.2 +11.3
1989 49ers 114.8 68.5 +46.3
1990 Giants 90.6 62.2 +28.4
1991 Redskins 98.0 58.8 +39.2
1992 Cowboys 88.8 69.9 +18.9
1993 Cowboys 96.8 75.3 +21.5
1994 49ers 111.4 68.1 +43.3
1995 Cowboys 91.7 72.3 +19.4
1996 Packers 95.7 55.4 +40.3
1997 Broncos 87.4 71.5 +15.9
1998 Broncos 93.5 80.5 +13.0
1999 Rams 106.6 64.1 +42.5
2000 Ravens 72.7 62.5 +10.2
2001 Patriots 85.3 68.6 +16.7
2002 Buccaneers 86.3 48.4 +37.9
2003 Patriots 84.3 56.2 +28.1
2004 Patriots 92.5 73.3 +19.2
2005 Steelers 89.4 74.0 +15.4
2006 Colts 101 80.4 +20.6
2007 Giants 73.0 83.4 -10.4
2008 Steelers 81.9 63.4 +18.5
2009 Saints 106.0 68.6 +37.4
2010 Packers
98.9
67.2
+31.7
Average
82.3 54.9 +27.4
 
 
Our holiday research confirmed what we long suspected: teams that dominate through the air dominate on the scoreboard. Consider that the NFL has crowned 71 champions since 1940.
  • An incredible 69 of them registered on the plus side of Passer Rating Differential.  
  • 56 were +10 or better in Passer Rating Differential.
  • 46 were +20 or better in Passer Rating Differential.
  • The average NFL champion over the long haul of 71 years was +27.4 in Passer Rating Differential.
Only two teams won NFL titles after seasons in which they were upside down in Passer Rating Differential, the 1957 Lions and the 2007 Giants.
 
But in both cases, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Both teams produced incredible postseason turnarounds that saw each of them dominate the skies on their way to an NFL title.
 
The 1957 Lions
Tobin Rote replaced Hall of Famer Bobby Layne as Detroit's quarterback late in the 1957 season. He played the game of his life in the 1957 title game, a shocking 59-14 win over the favored Browns. He completed 12 of 19 for 280 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT and a 146.4 passer rating (he also ran for a  score).
 
Cleveland quarterbacks Milt Plum and Tommy O'Connell were dreadful that day. They combined to complete 9 of 20 for 112 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT. Running back Chet Hanaluk added another pick on his one pass attempt. That's a 20.4 passer rating.
 
In other words, the Lions dominated the Browns that day because they dominated the air.
 
The 2007 Giants
We've long insisted that New York's win over New England in Super Bowl XLII was the greatest statistical upset in NFL history.
 
Our look at Passer Rating Differential proves it. The 2007 Giants boasted both the worst Defensive Passer Rating (83.4) and worst Passer Rating Differential (-10.4) of any champion in NFL history.
 
The 2007 Patriots boasted the second best single-season offensive passer rating in NFL history (116.0) were +37.9 in Passer Rating Differential.
 
But the Giants produced the most improbable postseason run in NFL history because they improbably dominated the skies in the playoffs.
 
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, in fact, produced what might have been the greatest four-game stretch of his career in those playoffs.
 
He completed 72 of 119 for 854 yards, 6 TD, 1 INT and a great 95.71 passer rating.
 
Meanwhile, he cranked out that effort during a four-game stretch in which the Giants defense clamped down a murderer's row of quarterbacks: highly efficient Pro Bowl passer Jeff Garcia, prolific stat machine Tony Romo, all-time leader in everything BrettFavre and the tremendous Tom Brady.
 
These four passers combined to complete 89 of 158 for 910 yards, 5 TD, 5 INT and a 70.39 passer rating.
 
In other words, the Giants posted a Passer Rating Differential of +25.3 during their unexpected playoff run, about the historic norm in the regular season of all NFL champions. The Giants won the Super Bowl because they suddenly found a way to dominate the war of passing efficiency.
 
By the way, take a look at the last 71 NFL champions, ranked by Passer Rating Differential. The 2010 Packers come in at No. 30, so slightly above average.
 
NFL Champions Since 1940, ranked by Passer Rating Differential
(bold led NFL, italic led conference)
 
Team
OPR
DPR
Differential
1
1943 Bears
95.4
22.0
+73.4
2
1941 Bears
95.2
30.2
+65.0
3
1955 Browns
98.3
40.7
+57.6
4
1966 Packers
102.1
46.1
+56.0
5
1958 Colts
85.4
35.1
+50.3
6
1949 Eagles
77.6
30.0
+47.6
7
1959 Colts
92.1
45.1
+47.0
8
1989 49ers
114.8
68.5
+46.3
9
1975 Steelers
86.7
42.8
+43.9
10
1994 49ers
111.4
68.1
+43.3
11
1999 Rams
106.6
64.1
+42.5
12
1962 Packers
84.9
43.4
+41.5
13
1963 Bears
75.6
34.8
+40.8
14
1996 Packers
95.7
55.4
+40.3
15
1942 Redskins
65.6
25.5
+40.1
16
1972 Dolphins
86.9
47.4
+39.5
17
1991 Redskins
98.0
58.8
+39.2
18
1948 Eagles
84.9
45.9
+39.0
19
1960 Eagles
87.9
49.1
+38.8
20
2002 Buccaneers
86.3
48.4
+37.9
21
2009 Saints
106.0
68.6
+37.4
22
1977 Cowboys
85.3
48.2
+37.1
23
1945 Cle Rams
67.8
31.1
+36.7
24
1984 49ers
101.9
65.6
+36.3
25t
1973 Dolphins
75.2
39.9
+35.3
25t
1950 Browns
64.0
28.7
+35.3
27
1965 Packers
83.1
48.2
+34.9
28
1976 Raiders
102.2
68.8
+33.4
29
1971 Cowboys
88.8
55.9
+32.9
30
2010 Packers
98.9
67.2
+31.7
31
1978 Steelers
81.5
51.8
+29.7
32
1969 Chiefs
71.4
42.1
+29.3
33
1961 Packers
82.2
53.7
+28.5
34
1990 Giants
90.6
62.2
+28.4
35
2003 Patriots
84.3
56.2
+28.1
36
1951 Rams
79.8
51.9
+27.9
37
1981 49ers
87.7
60.2
+27.5
38
1985 Bears
77.3
51.2
+26.1
39
1946 Bears
67.8
41.8
+26.0
40
1954 Browns
72.1
46.6
+25.5
41
1982 Redskins
91.8
67.7
+24.1
42
1968 Jets
74.8
52.4
+22.4
43
1967 Packers
63.7
41.5
+22.2
44
1993 Cowboys
96.8
75.3
+21.5
45
2006 Colts
101.0
80.4
+20.6
46
1979 Steelers
76.6
56.4
+20.2
47
1995 Cowboys
91.7
72.3
+19.4
48
2004 Patriots
92.5
73.3
+19.2
49
1992 Cowboys
88.8
69.9
+18.9
50
2008 Steelers
81.9
63.4
+18.5
51
2001 Patriots
85.3
68.6
+16.7
52
1953 Lions
53.9
37.6
+16.3
53
1997 Broncos
87.4
71.5
+15.9
54
2005 Steelers
89.4
74.0
+15.4
55
1952 Lions
60.0
46.4
+13.6
56t
1970 Colts
73.3
60.3
+13.0
56t
1983 Raiders
84.8
71.8
+13.0
56t
1998 Broncos
93.5
80.5
+13.0
59
1987 Redskins
80.7
69.3
+11.4
60
1988 49ers
83.5
72.2
+11.3
61
2000 Ravens
72.7
62.5
+10.2
62
1944 Packers
41.1
32.4
+8.7
63
1980 Raiders
70.0
61.8
+8.2
64
1986 Giants
75.0
68.6
+6.4
65t
1947 Chi Cards
59.9
53.9
+6.0
65t
1956 Giants
66.0
60.0
+6.0
67
1964 Browns
80.8
75.6
+5.2
68
1974 Steelers
48.9
44.3
+4.6
69
1940 Bears
52.3
48.1
+4.2
70
1957 Lions
55.9
60.4
-4.5
71
2007 Giants
73.0
83.4
-10.4
 
A whole bunch of conclusions jump out at us when looking at these numbers. Here are just a few:
 
Chicago unleashed shock & awe on the NFL with the T-formation – The Bears, led by quarterback Sid Luckman (pictured) adopted the T-formation from the college game in the early 1940s. They used it most notably to beat the Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 NFL title game. It's still the biggest blowout in NFL history.
 
The charts here reveal that the formation was like unleashing shock & awe from the skies upon the rest of the NFL. The 1943 (+73.4) and 1941 Bears (+65.0) easily top our list of NFL champions in Passer Rating Differential.
 
And this list doesn't even include the great dominant Bears of 1942, who were +60.0 in Passer Rating Differential (81.4 to 21.4). They were the most dominant team in NFL history (11-0; 376 PF, 84 PA) before getting upset by Sammy Baugh and the 10-1 Redskins in the 1942 title game.
 
The dearth of talent during the World War II seasons (1942-44) certainly enhanced the divide between the revolutionary Bears and the rest of the league. But looking at this list, we now know in no uncertain terms why the T-formation was such a dramatic development in the history of football – one that also inspired a revolution on the scoreboard (as we discussed over the summer).
 
The rest of the NFL soon caught up and the gap in Passer Rating Differential has narrowed, never matching the numbers the Bears produced in the 1940s.
 
Even the greatest quarterbacks had a lot of help – Johnny Unitas makes the short list of almost everybody's "greatest quarterbacks ever." He certainly makes our list, too. Unitas is best remembered for leading the Colts to victory over the Giants in the 1958 NFL title game, "The Best Game Ever." Unitas and the Colts beat the Giants again the next year in the 1959 NFL championship game.
 
But those Colts weren't just great on offense. They dominated on defense, too. They topped the NFL in both Offensive Passer Rating and Defensive Passer Rating in both seasons. We believe they're the only team in history to accomplish this feat in consecutive years. Both teams rank among the seven best champs in Passer Rating Differential.
 
Bart Starr and Joe Montana are also on the very short list of best quarterbacks ever. But both these Hall of Famers were aided in their quests for multiple championships by shutdown pass defenses.
 
The gap in Passer Rating Differential has narrowed in the Live Ball Era – The rule changes of 1978 that ushered in modern offense and what we call the Live Ball Era certainly led to an upswing in passing stats. Offensive and Defensive Passer Rating are both higher over the past 33 years. But the gap in Passer Rating Differential has actually narrowed a bit compared to the historic norm.
 
NFL champions since 1978 have posted an average offensive passer rating of 89.6 and a Defensive Passer Rating of 66.3, an average Passer Rating Differential of +23.3.

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