1930s NFL Offenses

I am of the belief that we as fans don’t think about, talk about, learn about, or even hear about the earliest years of the NFL. Sure, we’ll see some grainy footage of Johnny Unitas throwing a bomb to John Mackey or Bart Starr sealing the deal with a QB sneak, but most pre-Joe Namath events are out of sight out of mind.1

The NFL's most dominant WR
Before Jerry Rice and Randy Moss, there was Don Hutson

Today, I’m going to go back to the decade in which Unitas and Starr were born and look at the offensive performances of the teams from that decade. We only have fumble and first down data starting from 1935, and we only have other offensive stats dating back to 1932. For this reason, I have split the data into a 1932-1934 table and a 1935-1939 table.2

My primary method for measuring offensive performance is Total Adjusted Yards, which gives bonuses for touchdowns and first downs and gives penalties for turnovers. In case you forgot, here is the formula:

TAY = Yds + 20*TD + 9*(1d – TD) – 45*Int – 25*Fmb

Where fumbles and first downs are unavailable, they are omitted from the calculation. Because schedules weren’t standardized until 1936 (with teams prior to that playing as many as 20 or as few as 1 game in a season), I have included TAY per game for your convenience.

1930s NFL Offenses: 1932-1934

The table below is sorted by TAY per game, but you can sort and search to your heart’s content. Read it thus: The 1934 Chicago Bears played in 13 games. They scored 286 points and gained 3802 yards on 759 plays. They gained 5.0 yards per play and had 24 turnovers. This gives them 3442 TAY at 4.53 per play. Their TAY/P is 1.56 over the league average, giving them (1.56 * 759 =) 1186 marginal adjusted yards. They gained 265 TAY per game.

YrTmGPFYdsPlyY/PTOTAYTAY/PMAY/PMAYTAY/G
1934Chicago Bears1328638027595.02434424.531.561186265
1934Detroit Lions1323834877744.51534124.411.441111262
1933Portsmouth Spartans1112826796264.31821893.501.06666199
1933New York Giants1424429726544.51927174.151.721126194
1932Chicago Bears1416026026613.9727074.100.97643193
1934New York Giants1314727317163.81723063.220.25178177
1933Green Bay Packers1317026996963.91822693.260.83576175
1934Philadelphia Eagles1112724526233.92317772.85-0.12-75162
1933Boston1210327745734.82518893.300.86495157
1932New York Giants129322605873.91418703.190.0637156
1932Chicago Cardinals107215454363.5415253.500.37163153
1933Brooklyn Dodgers109322415264.32115162.880.45236152
1932Staten Island Stapletons127722986213.71617982.90-0.23-141150
1933Chicago Bears1313329637084.22919382.740.30216149
1934Green Bay Packers1315623486533.61918532.84-0.13-88143
1932Portsmouth Spartans1211618534863.81216133.320.2095134
1934Pittsburgh Pirates125124796044.12315642.59-0.38-231130
1932Green Bay Packers1415221315683.81418213.210.0847130
1934Boston1210721275533.82214172.56-0.41-227118
1934St. Louis Gunners3276791624.2102891.78-1.19-19396
1932Brooklyn Dodgers126316955273.21611552.19-0.93-49196
1934Chicago Cardinals118014434483.21310182.27-0.70-31493
1932Boston Braves105514653963.7158902.25-0.88-34789
1933Cincinnati Reds103811524222.7155171.23-1.21-51052
1933Philadelphia Eagles97717605033.5344300.85-1.58-79448
1934Cincinnati Reds8109792853.4143691.29-1.68-47846
1934Brooklyn Dodgers116115574703.3265071.08-1.89-89046
1933Pittsburgh Pirates116719435343.6402830.53-1.90-101626
1933Chicago Cardinals115214875072.9302370.47-1.97-99622

In 1932, the Bears and Packers scored by far the most points. However, they played two more games than any other team, so those numbers can be deceptive (for one of those teams, at least). Despite the standout season from the legendary Arnie Herber, Green Bay ranked behind five other teams in total offensive output per game. They also ranked fourth on a per play basis. The Bears, on the other hand, led the league is both per play efficiency and per game volume. They also happened to pick up an NFL championship.

Don't call him Bronislau
Don’t call him Bronislau

In 1933, it was the Portsmouth Spartans3 who had the most productive offense each game (and the number two per play). However, an implosion in the latter part of the season earned them three straight losses and a 6-5 record, eliminating them from any title talk. The offense that boasted the best mix of volume and efficiency was the New York Giants, losers of the NFL title game. The champion Bears had an offense in the middle of the pack, but they managed to win a bunch of close games behind the play of legendary Bronko Nagurski.

During their undefeated march through the 1934 regular season, the Bears scored by far the most points per game of any team in the NFL. However, their proclivity for turnovers decreased the gap between them and the second-ranked Lions. The Bear still ranked first in TAY, TAY per play, and TAY per game. Unfortunately for them, their offense could only muster 13 points in a championship game loss to Ed Danowski‘s Giants.

It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, of course. The Cincinnati Reds’ offenses were more than one adjusted yard worse than average in both 1933 and 1934.  The 1933 Cardinals and Pirates, as well as the 1934 Dodgers, were nearly two adjusted yards below average. In fact, the Cardinals could only muster 22 TAY per game!4

1930s NFL Offenses: 1935-1939

Like the table above, this one is sorted by TAY/G but can be sorted and searched as is your wont. Read it thus: Read it like you read the first one.

YrTmGPFYdsPlyY/PTO1DTAYTAY/PMAY/PMAYTAY/G
1939Chicago Bears1129840086606.11914842116.382.391579383
1939Green Bay Packers1123334457484.61514941345.531.541151376
1936Detroit Lions1223537037375.02317040605.512.111555338
1939Washington1124234886115.71812534705.681.691033315
1938Green Bay Packers1122330376644.62013433925.111.511005308
1936Green Bay Packers1224832937454.41914836564.911.511124305
1937Green Bay Packers1122031846994.62614032544.661.22852296
1936Chicago Bears1222233057224.62114535174.871.471063293
1935Chicago Bears1219233177604.42114031354.131.651252261
1937Chicago Bears1120126266264.21311428124.491.06661256
1938Detroit Lions1111926406204.31612928124.540.94584256
1937New York Giants1112825436793.71112728104.140.70476255
1938New York Giants1119426926524.11913227824.270.67439253
1937Detroit Lions1118027056044.51812027624.571.14686251
1937Washington1119529206724.32014927524.100.66443250
1939Detroit Lions1114528446334.52013327164.290.30191247
1939Cleveland Rams1119526756404.22113126034.070.0850237
1935Detroit Lions1219126936744.02012127024.011.531032225
1939New York Giants1116822526253.61110924723.96-0.03-21225
1936New York Giants1211527246963.91714625923.720.33226216
1938Chicago Bears1119429086584.41814123283.54-0.06-37212
1935Green Bay Packers1218130116784.42712524933.681.20813208
1938Brooklyn Dodgers1113122045524.099622824.130.54298207
1938Washington1114829606364.72814721883.44-0.15-98199
1935New York Giants1218024006513.71911223523.611.14739196
1939Brooklyn Dodgers1110823515834.01611320303.48-0.51-295185
1938Philadelphia Eagles1115419285373.6198618443.43-0.16-86168
1937Chicago Cardinals1113523925744.2219918253.18-0.26-148166
1936Chicago Cardinals127426327423.52613819692.65-0.75-553164
1936Boston1214925566493.92311319513.01-0.39-255163
1938Chicago Cardinals1111124896224.02612117372.79-0.80-499158
1938Pittsburgh Pirates117923306513.63210316222.49-1.10-718147
1937Pittsburgh Pirates1112223376573.62710515272.32-1.11-731139
1939Philadelphia Eagles1110521475963.6229715252.56-1.43-852139
1935Chicago Cardinals129921336743.22310714922.21-0.26-178124
1939Pittsburgh Pirates1111422226493.43411313212.04-1.95-1268120
1938Cleveland Rams1113121615813.73410112002.07-1.53-888109
1936Pittsburgh Pirates129821786703.32811712651.89-1.51-1012105
1936Brooklyn Dodgers129219215053.8239012102.40-1.00-507101
1937Brooklyn Dodgers118219775363.7258810792.01-1.42-76398
1937Cleveland Rams117517695383.3218810421.94-1.50-80795
1937Philadelphia Eagles118617334923.5246810222.08-1.36-66993
1935Brooklyn Dodgers129018265453.423909921.82-0.66-35883
1935Philadelphia Eagles116018775803.230827071.22-1.26-73064
1939Chicago Cardinals118420055683.5331016981.23-2.76-156863
1935Boston116520326233.335956771.09-1.39-86762
1936Philadelphia Eagles125120186433.136995460.85-2.55-164046
1935Pittsburgh Pirates1210015045612.74064-326-0.58-3.06-1716-27

In 1935, the Bears boasted the top offense in the land. Unfortunately, they played in the brutal West division and finished the season with a 6-4-2 record. Led by Hall of Famer Dutch Clark, the Lions owned the second best offense and used it to win the West and eventually throttle the Giants in the title game. That same year, the Pirates set a new mark for futility, gaining 3.06 TAY/P below average and actually ending the season as the only team in recorded history to end the season with negative total output.

In 1936, the West was a veritable murderer’s row of offenses, with the top three (and four of the top five) all in the division. On both a total and a per play basis, the Lions came out on top of the ratings. They also had the top scoring differential in the league. It was the rival Packers, however, who went on to win the division and represent the West in the championship game. Despite winning the East, Boston had a below average offense. It showed in the title game when Green Bay won 21-6.

sammy-baugh
The Elvis Presley of quarterbacks.

1937 was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh‘s first year in the league. He capped off one of the great rookie seasons any quarterback has ever had with an upset championship win over the Chicago Bears. Despite Baugh’s personal success, Washington’s offense was little more than above average. It was the Arnie Herber to Don Hutson connection of the Packers that just surpassed the Bears as the most efficient offense. With a less than stellar defense, Green Bay was unable to keep pace with their well-rounded rivals from the Second City.

In 1938, the New York Giants won the title, and center Mel Hein took home the league MVP award5 But it was the Packers, not the Giants, who fielded the best offense in the NFL. This time, it was the oft-overlooked Cecil Isbell chucking the ball to Hutson. However, after falling behind early in the championship game, Green Bay (with Hutson out of the lineup) never caught up to the Giants.

At the close of the decade, the Bears had the most efficient and effective offense in the NFL. However, a a few inconsistent performances kept them from winning the West division. Green Bay fielded the second best offense, and their more consistent play led them to the West crown. Washington had the number three offense in the league, based in large part on their games against bad defenses. They performed poorly against good teams and lost enough games to cede the East title to the New York Giants. The Giants’ offense was middling, but their defense only allowed 10 or more points three times. That defense didn’t hold in the championship game, where the Packers put up 27 points in a shutout victory.

1930s NFL Offenses in a Nutshell

The table below illustrates league average offensive performance throughout the decade. The headings all mean what they meant in the first table.

YrPFYdsPlyTAYTAY/PTAY/G
193298.51981.1535.31671.63.12139.4
1933110.52267.0574.91398.52.43122.7
1934117.32189.5549.71634.02.97149.6
1935128.72310.3638.41581.72.48132.9
1936142.72703.3678.82307.33.40192.3
1937142.42418.6607.72088.53.44189.9
1938148.42534.9617.32218.73.59201.7
1939169.22743.7631.32518.03.99228.9

Offenses of the thirties were far removed from “three yards and a cloud of dust,” but they were nowhere near the Sid Gillman passing revolution. Unsophisticated offenses were often at the mercy of relentless defenses. The rules of the era prohibited offensive lineman from using their open hands to block pass rushers, and they also permitted defenders to effectively assault receivers downfield. Protecting the quarterback was an afterthought, and the in-game treatment of the signal callers would make even Charles Martin wince. The ball itself was not nearly as manageable as the one modern players use. It became elongated as the passing game gained prominence, but the white ball used in the 1930s was slippery and disadvantageous to offenses.

The evolution of the football.
The evolution of the football.

Also of note is the fact that football was simply not a popular sport at this time in its history. If a man wanted to make a living as an athlete, he played baseball. If he couldn’t play baseball, he got a real job that paid much better money. The league was also segregated, which kept a large pool of talent off the fields and out of the stands. Both of these issues had an effect on offense and defense, of course, but they’re important to understand in order to have a complete picture of the league at the time.

The Packers, Bears, and Giants all won multiple titles in the thirties, and they also happened to put the most consistently good offenses on the field. Each team fielded only one below average offense from 1932-1939. The Portsmouth Spartans/Detroit Lions won only one championship during the decade, but they are the only team not to produce a sub par offense.

A far cry from their offensive successes under Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, the Eagles of the 1930s were consistently disappointing when the ball was in their hands. The Cardinals were even worse, hitting rock bottom before turning it around in the 40s.6

As you can see from the tables, the overall offensive performance of the league as a whole rapidly increased throughout the decade. Over the course of the next several articles, I’ll explain how it eventually took a giant leap from 1946 to 1947, increased slowly until about 1962, and took a turn for the worse until rules changes in 1978 opened up the passing game. We’ll also look at the Bill Walsh and Sam Wyche explosion in the early 80s, the stagnation of the 90s and early 2000s, and the sharp incline since 2005.

  1. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to most fans. It’s only natural for us to care about the players we see play, but I think it’s important to know about the players/teams/events that paved the way for the league we now know.
  2. Don’t worry, I will do a pre-stat (1920-1931) study at the consummation of this decade-by-decade series.
  3. They became the Detroit Lions the following season.
  4. With Ryan Lindley at the helm, their 2014 counterparts weren’t much better.
  5. Yes, they actually gave the award to an offensive lineman. No, if it didn’t happen in 2005 it will never happen again.
  6. And then not being very good again until they finally stopped toying around with Kurt Warner.