Last week, I looked at 1930s NFL offenses, highlighting the top performing teams and noting the offensive contributions of league champions. Today, I’m going to discuss 1940s NFL offenses before moving on to the AAFC later in the week. The NFL does not recognize the statistics, records, or achievements from the AAFC, so I am not going to either (in this post).
The NFL offenses of the 1940s have a unique place in the league’s history. In the early part of the decade, rosters were depleted because of America’s involvement in World War II. This caused such a shortage of talent that the Cleveland Rams suspended operations in 1943, and some rival teams were forced to temporarily merge in order to avoid folding altogether. In 1943, the Steelers and Eagles merged to become the Steagles, and they actually split their home games between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The following year, the Steelers merged with the Cardinals to become the Card-Pitt in order to give the NFL a 10 team league.
As some players returned from doing something actually important and settled back in to playing a game for money, the NFL experienced another significant challenge from the upstart AAFC. Armed with deep pockets and vast media connections, the smaller league vultured talent from the NFL for four years before forcing a merger.1 For these reasons, stats from this era of American football should be viewed suspiciously and understood in their proper context.2
As before, I will use Total Adjusted Yards as the basic measurement for offensive success. In case you forgot, the formula is:
TAY = Yds + 20*TD + 9*(1d – TD) – 45*Int – 25*Fmb
Unlike the sporadic record keeping from the thirties, the stat sheets from the forties are more complete and reliable. There are some missing individual statistics for AAFC players, but all of the requisite team stats are available at PFR. Let’s take a look at those stats now.
1940s NFL Offenses
The table below displays the offensive measurements of the 98 NFL teams from the 1940s. It is initially ordered by MAY, but you can sort by any column. Read it thus: The 1941 Chicago Bears played 11 games, scoring 396 points and gaining 4158 yards on 691 plays. They suffered 30 turnovers and gained 181 first downs. In all, they gained 4960 TAY at 7.18 per play. This was 3.39 TAY above league average, giving them 2345 marginal adjusted yards. On a per game basis, they picked up 451 TAY.
Sid Luckman‘s Bears were the class of NFL offenses in the decade. They occupy the top two spots and five of the top ten. The 1941-1943 team may be the most dominant three-year stretch any team has ever had in the NFL. While the 1942 squad was more complete and earned an undefeated regular season, the surrounding year teams had the truly transcendent offenses. With George McAfee and Luckman leading the way, the 1941 Bears scored more points than any other team in the decade. The 1943 team, on the other hand, found success on Luckman’s incredible arm. That year, he threw 28 touchdowns on just 202 passes, and he finished the year with an impressive-today 107.5 passer rating.3
With Cecil Isbell and Tony Canadeo throwing to Don Hutson, the early forties Packers were the next most dominant offense of the decade. They never soared quite as high as their Chicago rivals, and they never had the defensive support to win a title, so they are often forgotten in the discussions of great historical offenses. Their offense declined in 1944, but their defensive improvements (and a down year from the Bears) helped them win their only title of the decade.
The Chicago Cardinals had a solid, if unspectacular offense for most of the latter part of the decade. However, their 1948 team fired on all cylinders on their way to the second highest scoring season of the decade. Their 6288 TAY and 7.71 TAY/P are the highest marks of any team from the forties, and both by large margins. Their 42 TAY per game advantage over the second place Eagles is greater than the entire offensive output of the 1941 Steelers. Unfortunately, they ran into a powerful, balanced, and vengeful Philadelphia in the championship game and laid an egg when it mattered most.4
No discussion of 1940s NFL offenses is complete without the obligatory Sammy Baugh apotheosis. While Luckman was the most efficient passer of the era, Slingin’ Sammy was the man who took the position to the next level. He broke Arnie Herber‘s career passing touchdown mark in 1943 and didn’t lose his crown until 1962.5 When he retired in 1952, no other quarterback was within a thousand attempts of matching his workload. Baugh reinvented the position and picked up two championships in the process. One of those championships was in 1942, when he led Washington to an upset victory over a Bears squad that may have been the most dominant team in NFL history. The 1945 and 1947 seasons saw Washington’s most successful offenses, and Baugh was the primary reason for that. He completed 70.3% of his passes in 1945, and he passed for nearly 3000 yards in 1947, while putting up modern day passer ratings in each bout.6 He’s probably one of the two most overrated punters of all time, but he undoubtedly deserves his place in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks.
Led by rookie quarterback Bob Waterfield, the 1945 Cleveland Rams bid their city adieu with a controversial farewell championship victory over Washington.7 The Rams fielded a solid offense, but it wasn’t until the fifties that they reached the pinnacle of their offensive performance.
Hall of Famers Steve Van Buren and Pete Pihos, with help from peak-career Tommy Thompson, fielded championship winning offenses in 1948 and 1949.8 Virtually the same roster lost the 1947 title game to the Cardinals. The 1947 championship victory marks the last time the Cardinals franchise has reigned as king of the NFL.
The Bad and the Ugly
We shouldn’t talk about the good without at least briefly discussing the bad. We’ll start with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Brooklyn Tigers, and Boston Yanks, who have a rather convoluted history.
In 1930, Bill Dwyer and Jack Depler purchased the Dayton Triangles and moved them to Brooklyn, changing the team name to the Dodgers in order to capitalize on the name value of the baseball team. Despite fielding a roster made from the Triangles and the Newark Tornadoes, the team never achieved consistent success. Despite rebranding as the Tigers for the 1944 season, Brooklyn was unable to overcome setbacks caused by WW2. They merged with the Boston Yanks in 1945 and didn’t maintain an official team name.
The merger was unsuccessful, so the team’s new owner, Dan Topping, agreed to transfer to the AAFC for the league’s inaugural season. In response to this news, the NFL brass revoked his franchise rights and awarded all players to the Yanks.9 Yanks owner Ted Collins never wanted to stay in Boston in the first place, and he convinced the NFL to allow him to move the team to New York City. Instead of simply relocating, Collins had the league agree to fold his team and start fresh as the expansion New York Bulldogs.10
Regardless of the name the Dodgers or Yanks decided to call themselves, one thing in their intricate web was constant: they were bad at football. The two teams combined to play a total of 10 NFL seasons in the decade, and only the 1940-1941 Dodgers were able to field an above average offense.11
Whether in Cleveland or Los Angeles, the Rams had tremendous success after a return to normalcy post-war. However, the antebellum version of the team fielded consistently poor offenses. The Lions and Steelers were also pedestrian on offense, with both teams producing only one above average season apiece.
Although they were able to carry their success from the thirties over into the early forties, the Packers produced a steady stream of terrible offenses by the end of the decade. The Giants, another perennial contender from the 1930s, was unable to approach either the offensive prowess or teamwide success they experienced in the younger league.
1940s NFL Offenses On Average
All of the number above may not be meaningful to you without the context of actually knowing what the league averages were in a given season. The table below indicates those averages.
One thing you may notice is that offensive numbers demonstrate a gradual upward trend until 1946. From 1946 to 1947, however, the jump is bigger than the jump between any two years before or since. In 1947, the NFL expanded the schedule from 11 to 12 games, which accounts for a significant chunk of the volume increase. However, both per play and per game stats also increased drastically. Teams averaged more points, plays, yards, and first downs than ever, but also saw dramatic upticks in TAY/P and TAY/G.
The biggest reason for this shift is the proliferation of the passing game. New rules changes penalized defenders who used their hands to block the vision of a receiver. This incentivized passing, and teams took the bait. Teams averaged over three more passes per game in 1947 than in the previous year. They also decreased their rush attempts. By increasing their pass to run ratio, teams increased the per play averages of all their plays.12 They also had more success on the passes they threw, with completion rates never again dropping below their 1946 mark and interception rates never going above their 1946 measurements. Since the NFL’s passing explosion, average AY/A and passer rating numbers have never sunk to pre-1947 levels – even in the depths of the 1970s Dead Ball Era, where defenses reigned supreme.
- Take the word “merger” with a grain of salt. The NFL absorbed the Browns, 49ers, and Colts, while the rest of the AAFC dissolved and had its players dispersed among the new NFL. The Browns and 49ers had initial success, but the Colts folded after just a year in the NFL. ↩
- Really, stats from any era should be viewed in proper context. ↩
- Luckman’s passing touchdown percentage of 13.9 is the highest mark in history and by a substantial margin. ↩
- The 2013 Broncos, 2007 Patriots, 2004 Colts, 2001 Rams, and 1983 Washington team are far from the only dominant offenses to hit a brick wall in the postseason. ↩
- Aside from Fran Tarkenton, no passer has held the record longer than Baugh’s 19 years. ↩
- His mark of 70.3% completion rate has only been topped thrice in league history. Ken Anderson did it in 1982, and Drew Brees did it in 2009 and 2011. ↩
- The Rams won the title on a safety when Sammy Baugh’s pass hit his own crossbars and bounced out of the back of the end zone. The Cleveland Browns took control of the city in 1946, winning four consecutive AAFC titles and a title their first year in the NFL. That’s six titles in six years for the people of Cleveland. The Rams, just six years removed from northern Ohio, happened to win the 1951 championship. If any Cleveland fans still had a place in their hearts for the Rams, that seven-year stretch must have been sports fan heaven for them. ↩
- Hall of Fame snub Al Wistert played on both teams, and the legendary Chuck Bednarik joined as a rookie in 1949. ↩
- To top it all off, the AAFC opened another team in NYC and called them the Brooklyn Dodgers. The two Dodgers teams ↩
- The team was only called the Bulldogs for one year. They changed their name to the Yanks the following year before folding after their third year. The rest of the story is even crazier, as, through a series of purchases and moves, the Yanks became the Dallas Texans, Baltimore Colts, and Indianapolis Colts. Check out a full story about it here. ↩
- The New York Yankees of the AAFC were a good team, but we’ll talk about them in the AAFC post. ↩
- Since passing yields higher per attempt numbers than rushing, passing more often skews the numbers. Read up on Simpson’s Paradox for clarity. ↩