If you’ve been following along, you know I’m in the middle of a series on NFL offense in each decade.1 Generally, offenses that gain a lot of yards and score a lot of points are held in the highest regard in our collective memory. Winning titles and fielding a few Hall of Famers doesn’t hurt either. My approach, however, is to focus more on teams who were efficient over a large volume of plays. As usual, I am using Total Adjusted Yards as my primary measurement:
TAY = Yds + 20*TD + 9*(1d – TD) – 45*Int – 25*Fmb
More often than not, the teams we remember as being great end up rating highly here, so it passes the eye test. However, my methodology does produce a few surprises, which are always fun to see.
Because the schedule increased from twelve to fourteen games in 1961, volume stats can be misleading and unfairly penalize earlier teams. To account for that, be sure to look at team performance on a per game basis.
1960s NFL Offenses
The table below lists every NFL team season in the sixties and is sorted by marginal adjusted yards. Read it thus: The 1966 Cleveland Browns played 14 games, scoring 403 points and gaining 5071 yards on 846 plays. They had 25 turnovers and picked up 278 first downs. They gained 7160 total adjusted yards at 8.46 per play. This gave them 2.72 TAY/P above average for a total of 2303 marginal adjusted yards. They gained 511 TAY per game.
Using total adjusted yards over average as the chief criterion for determining offensive success, the Cleveland Browns were far and away the top offense of the 1960s. After a significant dropoff, the Packers and Colts rate second and third. Following another huge dropoff, the Cowboys and Giants round out the top five offenses of the decade.
Of the 146 qualifying team seasons in the decade, Cleveland produced three top 10 seasons and two more top 15 seasons. That’s five seasons in the top ten percent of all offenses in the sixties. The Browns did not have a single negative season, which is remarkable. They had an output of 59,929 total adjusted yards in the decade, at a rate of 7.39 TAY/P. Over the course of the sixties, the Browns ran 8105 plays at 1.40 TAY/P average, giving them 11,309 marginal adjusted yards on the decade. When you see the output of the second ranked Packers, you’ll understand how amazing that number is.
Cleveland’s top ranked season came in 1966, when they barely edged out the Cowboys for the NFL’s most prolific offense. Dallas scored more points and gained more yards than did the Browns, but Cleveland’s lack of fumbles evened things out. When you account for the fact that Cleveland accomplished this in 80 fewer plays, the Browns come out on top. Oddly enough, their best season came after Jim Brown‘s surprising retirement. By taking the burden off one man, the team was able to produce offense more efficiently. Frank Ryan had an incredibly efficient passing season, while running backs Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green both surpassed a thousand yards from scrimmage (while combing for just three fumbles). Stud receivers Paul Warfield and Gary Collins helped spread defenses and open up the field for the elusive Kelly. The offensive line was great too, led by Hall of Fame guard Gene Hickerson. No matter who lined up in the backfield, the offense gained yards.
The 1960 Browns weren’t that much different. While Jim Brown accounted for over 34 percent of the team’s yards, halfback Bobby Mitchell produced over 26 percent of Cleveland’s yards and had as many offensive touchdowns as Brown. In addition to the two Hall of Fame running backs, the Browns relied on a season for the ages from quarterback Milt Plum. Bolstered by low interception totals, Plum’s 110.4 passer rating set a new league record.2 As Cleveland increasingly relied on Brown to carry the offense, the team’s efficiency numbers slipped. Still, the team’s 1963-64 seasons rank in the top fifteen, despite Brown gaining forty percent of all offensive yards in that span.
Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay in 1959 and immediately began to turn things around. The team never had a losing record on his watch, and the Packers were consistently above average to great on offense during the decade. Even after he left, the offense he built produced quality numbers. Over the course of the decade, Green Bay produced 7,502 marginal adjusted yards of offense at 0.92 TAY/P above average. Both marks rank second among all NFL teams.
The ultra efficient Bart Starr led the team with almost modern looking rate stats. Starr didn’t have superstar receivers, but he spread the ball around to a talented and deep stable of pass-catchers. Once the Packers built a comfortable lead with their dominant defense and effective passing game, they could easily end games with their powerful rushing attack.3 You’ve undoubtedly seen or heard of Lombardi’s power sweep, and the play was all but unstoppable with Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo, and Jerry Kramer blocking for Jim Taylor.4
1961 was Green Bay’s best offensive season. The team led the league in points and ranked fourth in yards despite ranking second to last in total plays ran.5 The Packers fielded arguably the greatest right side of any line in history, with two HOFers and one inexplicable snub. The combination of Gregg, Kramer, and Ringo running “do-dad” blocks was too much for most defenses to overcome. The “do-dad” block was Lombardi’s name for, essentially, what is now known as zone blocking. Although his zone blocking schemes didn’t match the sophistication (or nomenclature) of those seen today, his utilization and refinement of the concepts6 had an indelible impact on subsequent offensive football.
While Starr was efficient operating in the structures of Lombardi’s system, it was Johnny Unitas who carried on Sammy Baugh‘s legacy of redefining the quarterback position. The original Johnny Football ranked in the top five for pass attempts and touchdowns nine times in his career and passing yards eleven times. By the end of his stint with the Colts, he was the career leader in attempts, yards, and touchdowns by a considerable margin. His favorite receiver, Raymond Berry, also happened to retire as the NFL’s receiving yardage leader. On top of that, dual threat Lenny Moore retired with the second most touchdowns of any NFL player. Throw in Jim Parker at left tackle and John Mackey at tight end, and you have five of the greatest players of all time at their respective positions all playing for the same offense.7
The Colts under Weeb Ewbank saw a decline in performance in the early part of the decade, and Ewbank was fired before the 1963 season. The 33 year old Don Shula took over and immediately transformed the team into a powerhouse. After Shula’s arrival, Baltimore didn’t suffer a single below average season in the decade.8 The Colts produced 6,982 marginal adjusted yards of offense at 0.80 TAY/P better than average. Both of those marks rate only behind Cleveland and Green Bay, and they rate far higher than the fourth ranked Cowboys. However, despite their dominance, the Colts didn’t win a single title in the sixties and wouldn’t win one until 1970 – the year Shula left for Miami.
From 1960 to 1969, the only other teams to post cumulative above average offenses were the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, and 49ers. Dallas and New York make up the next tier of offenses and posted very similar numbers: the Cowboys posted 0.27 MAY/P and 2,355 MAY, while the Giants posted 0.25 MAY/P and 2,140 MAY. Philadelphia and San Francisco compose the lowest tier of good offenses. The Eagles boast a 0.12 MAY/P and 999 MAY stat line, while the 49ers come in at 0.09 and 784.
The 1966 and 1968 Cowboys were the best bunch, led by the dangerous Don Meredith to Bob Hayes aerial assault. Although Dallas has fielded some all time great quarterbacks in Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, and Tony Romo, some of their best offenses came with Meredith at the helm.
The 1967 Giants fared especially well in this study, riding the arm of Fran Tarkenton.9 The Giants also fielded strong offenses with Y.A. Tittle and Hall of Fame snub Del Shofner, but Tark took them to the next level.10
The Eagles has the privilege of transitioning from one Hall of Fame quarterback to another. Norm Van Brocklin led them to a title in 1960, and Sonny Jurgensen commanded their most successful offense of the decade the following year. Philadelphia’s supporting talent dwindled, and Jurgensen was injured and traded to Washington. He then led the Skins to their best offense of the decade.11
San Francisco saw their greatest offensive success under John Brodie, who seemed to thrive with a revolving cast of receivers and backs. Brodie’s ability to avoid sacks and produce yardage and touchdowns kept the 49ers from falling into obscurity.
Of all the team offensive seasons in the decade, the only other season that can be described as good belongs to the 1965 Chicago Bears. The Bears didn’t have a lot going for them, but they did have a rookie named Gale Sayers who gained nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage and scored 20 offensive touchdowns.12 The Kansas Comet was just about the only reason to watch the Chicago offense.
The Bad and the Ugly
The offensive cellar dwellers in the sixties were the Lions and the Steelers. Detroit was great the prior decade, but the departure of Bobby Layne and subsequent infusion of aging and ineffective players made the team a shell of its former self. The Lions didn’t have the worst seasons of any team, but they are one of just two squads that failed to post an above average performance in the decade.13 Their consistently poor play led them to a -0.74 MAY/P and -6,286 MAY line for the decade.
Speaking of Layne, he went to Pittsburgh to turn around the team’s fortunes. It appeared he would after his 1960 season, but the aging star became unproductive. Joining Layne in the move from Detroit to Pittsburgh was Hall of Fame fullback John Henry Johnson. Johnson took his first snap for the Steelers at the age of 31 and, despite his advanced football age, posted his best seasons thereafter. In 1962, he became one of just three backs ever to outrush Jim Brown in a season. Johnson’s presence wasn’t enough to keep the Steelers out of the basement; they finished the sixties with -0.92 MAY/P and -7995 MAY.
Atlanta didn’t gain a franchise until 1966, and the results were ugly from the start. Although they only played four seasons in the decade, the Falcons posted the third most negative value of any team (-4066 MAY). Their rating of -1.29 TAY/P relative to average is far and away the worst of the decade.
Between 1960 and 1961, Washington won two games and averaged just 13.5 points per game. The team continued to wallow in wretched play until an aging Jurgensen and Bobby Mitchell, along with up and coming Charley Taylor, led them to an offensive renaissance to close out the decade.
1960s NFL Offenses On Average
This table should put the above numbers into context. Read it thus: In 1960, the average NFL team scored 258.7 points and gained 3645.0 yards. They ran 738.2 plays, suffering 34.3 turnovers and gaining 201.4 first downs. The average squad produced 4240 TAY at 5.74 per play and 353 per game.
As you can see in the table above and the chart below, offensive production skyrocketed from the forties to the sixties. After reaching its apex in 1962, offensive output (as measure by TAY/G) regressed and stagnated. In fact, offensives wouldn’t see a turnaround until 1979.14
There weren’t as many wholescale changes to the rule book in the sixties as there were in the fifties, but there were still some changes that had an effect on offensive success:
- In 1962, the NFL made it illegal to grab the facemask of any player. Offensive production spiked in the wake of this change before leveling out afterwards. One theory is that it took defenses a season to get used to the change, but this is mere speculation.
- In 1965, the NFL added the line judge to the officiating crew. The common explanation for this addition is that officials were having too much trouble determining whether or not Fran Tarkenton was behind the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball after running around like a madman. Thus, this is unofficially known as the “Fran Tarkenton Rule.”
- In 1966, NFL goalposts were standardized. Prior to this, there was no rule mandating goalpost uniformity across the league. The Packers, for instance, had low goalposts in their stadium. This allowed Green Bay kicker Don Chandler to make a dubious field goal that ultimately led to a Packer playoff victory over the Colts.15
- In 1967, the NFL adopted the slingshot goalpost, which replaced the existing two-post structure. Now, the end zone only contained one dangerous column instead of two. It wouldn’t be until 1974, however, that the NFL came to its senses and moved the goalposts to the endlines.
The rules changes above doubtlessly impacted both offenses and defenses in the NFL, but the most notable effects came from the inception of the rival American Football League in 1960. The AFL featured what many consider a more exciting style of play, based largely on the deep ball principles of Sid Gillman and disciple Al Davis. The pass-heavy offenses, while not as efficient as NFL offenses, produced points and thrilled fans. The NFL had to adapt or get left behind.
Much like the AAFC before it, the younger league was also more open to racial integration. This forced the NFL to increase its integration efforts, lest it lose too many talented players to its rival.
The most important occurrence of all took place in 1966, when NFL and AFL executive began holding private meetings to negotiate the eventual 1970 league merger. We’ll talk about that in due time.
- You can read about the thirties, forties, and fifties NFL offenses, as well as those of the AAFC. ↩
- This came in the middle of a three year span that saw him lead the league in completion rate thrice and post passer ratings of 87.2, 110.4, and 90.3. Plum’s three year run of efficiency rivals that of nearly any QB in NFL history. ↩
- There is a common misconception that the Packers were a run heavy team that beat opponents into submission. On the contrary, Green Bay would often run more pass plays than rushing plays in the first halves of games before running out the clock in the second halves. ↩
- Trivia bonus: Taylor is the only runner ever to beat out Jim Brown for the rushing title during Brown’s career. ↩
- The Packers were also ranked first in turnovers and tied for second in first downs. ↩
- Which are detailed in his posthumous book. ↩
- Berry and Unitas perfected timing routes together. There are tales of them practicing in the dark and rarely missing on a pass connection. Moore, for his part, was an all pro at both running back and receiver. Parker was a mountain of a man John Mackey is one of the greatest deep threats of any tight end in history, and he could break tackles as well as any running back. ↩
- When he went to Miami in 1970, the Dolphins went the entire decade without a below average offense as well. ↩
- Tarkenton was acquired in a trade after he had already spent six seasons in Minnesota. Fran is actually one of only four quarterbacks in NFL history to meet the NFL’s rating threshold for pass attempts at the age of 21. ↩
- Tittle was a legend, but Tarkenton retired as the all time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, as well as in QB rushing yards. ↩
- The point, in case you missed it, is that Jurgensen thrived for different teams and with a low caliber of support. He may be the most underrated Hall of Fame quarterback, if it’s possible for a HOFer to be underrated. ↩
- He also happened to average 15 yards per punt return and 31.4 yards per kick return, as well as gain a touchdown on each. ↩
- The expansion Atlanta Falcons are the other. ↩
- Of course, that’s a story for another day. ↩
- The kick sailed high over the uprights, and many in attendance swore it was no good. The controversy led to the rule change being dubbed the “Don Chandler Rule.” The Packers beat the Browns in the championship game the following week. ↩