1970s NFL Offenses

If you’ve been following along, you know that I am exploring NFL offenses by the decade. Yes, a decade is an arbitrary constraint to set on something like this, but when put together as a whole, this series weaves a rich tapestry that highlights the evolution of offensive football at the major professional level.

We’ve seen how offensive output rapidly increased in the thirties and forties before experiencing a more gradual increase in the fifties and sixties. We’ve also examined the ways in which the AAFC and AFL have impacted the NFL proper (always for the better). Today, we’re going to dive into the depths of the Dead Ball Era – the 1970s.

Seventies football represents, for many, the apex of professional football. People of a certain age loudly lament how far today’s game has strayed from the violent and defense-dominated days of the Steel Curtain and Purple People Eaters, the savage collisions of Jack Tatum, and the barely restrained fury of Mean Joe Greene.

For those who love offense, however, it was a decade of doldrums with little relief from defensive oppression. Offensive production stagnated so much that the league had to introduce wholesale changes to the rule book in order to break the malaise. Today, we’ll explore the offensive funk and the statistical effects of the NFL’s regulatory revisions. As usual, the base measurement for offensive output is Total Adjusted Yards:

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

A quick glance at the leaders in this metric shows that offenses with a good coach-quarterback combo consistently led the league. Despite the notion that the decade was one of rushing dominance, few (but notable) teams  actually fared well without efficient QB play. Let’s have a look.

1970s NFL Offenses

The table below shows all 268 team seasons and is sorted by marginal adjusted yards of offense. Read it thus: The 1976 Baltimore Colts scored 417 points and gained 5236 yards on 956 plays. They had 28 turnovers and 301 first downs. That amounts to 7420 total adjusted yards at 7.76 per play. This is 2.14 TAY/P better than average, giving the Colts 2050 marginal adjusted yards. Because the NFL added two games to the schedule in 1978, the last column is useful for determining output on a per game basis.

YrTmPFYdsPlyTO1stDTAYTAY/PMAY/PMAYTAY/G
1976BAC41752369562830174207.762.142050530
1975BUF42054679643431875047.782.122039536
1976OAK35051909462930372167.632.011902515
1971DAL40650359053528868817.602.101899492
1973LARM38849069472029470267.421.961853502
1972MIA38550368932829169457.781.971762496
1978DAL384595911073534278537.091.521687491
1973DAL38247519062828165077.181.721558465
1977DAL34548129692427265896.801.571518471
1977MIA31343278662726760356.971.741503431
1971MIA31544128042323258687.301.791442419
1974OAK35547189202828464597.021.481359461
1979DAL371596811223433981317.251.201352508
1974CIN28344898353126059577.131.591329426
1975BAC39544989281826665817.091.421320470
1975CIN34050609663429567927.031.361316485
1978NE358596510854632273496.771.201306459
1979NOR37056279963631573207.351.311302458
1974MIN31046119072226463036.951.411275450
1975PIT37348879493228866256.981.311245473
1970SF35245038622523759956.951.431233428
1970OAK30048299083027062106.841.311194444
1973CIN28645128712625259386.821.361181424
1974DAL29749839743129565396.711.171140467
1976MIA26343868742326760496.921.301139432
1972NYJ36747878253125058977.151.341109421
1973MIA34341037762821553476.891.431108382
1970WAS29741298152424956086.881.361106401
1974STC28543148731724759446.811.271105425
1974DEN30244858613025858676.811.271094419
1975DAL35050259863528866686.761.091078476
1978MIA37248359543027063896.701.131075399
1972OAK36547459153229763786.971.171067456
1979PIT416625810805233775887.030.981062474
1975MIN377495510312631468956.691.021050493
1976DAL29648849582926964246.711.091042459
1977BAC29545889872626961986.281.051033443
1975MIA35745098962626661066.811.151026436
1978SEA345551110724134569836.510.941012436
1976STC30951369893730765366.610.99980467
1974WAS32042459082024960086.621.07975429
1975STC35649559183927661706.721.05966441
1973OAK29247739453428861246.481.02962437
1973MIN29642318682624656996.571.10958407
1976LARM35148699603626563486.610.99955453
1971DET34145778623326956926.601.10947407
1979SEA378555710463631572646.940.90944454
1973DEN35444738922925358066.511.05934415
1977LARM30245919852827060846.180.94929435
1973PHI31047899302826759886.440.98908428
1976MIN305485810132929465966.510.89905471
1977OAK351473610304030562756.090.86885448
1970NYG30144339052625758656.480.96865419
1974MIA32742758843127257436.500.95843410
1979SD411558310533533071926.830.79829450
1972DET33941558042524054736.811.00806391
1971KC30241908592624055276.430.93798395
1979CLE359577210924435073946.770.73796462
1970STC32544718453322654606.460.94792390
1972WAS33642758082623554766.780.97786391
1976NE37646949193626059236.450.83760423
1971CIN28442668672323655166.360.86743394
1977STC27245418883724753896.070.84742385
1978NOR281499610283129564606.280.71734404
1970DAL29944498582822954666.370.85726390
1971LARM31342338562923454076.320.81695386
1972NYG33144838782926557806.580.78684413
1971SD31147388594326454066.290.79677386
1970DET34739848442724353306.320.79667381
1976KC29048029593327560306.290.67643431
1977CHI25546559303524754785.890.66611391
1976PIT34246379573127159736.240.62597427
1974LARM26343329252726557146.180.63587408
1978PIT356499610463931664056.120.55579400
1971OAK34442588453925852096.160.66557372
1970LARM32542718793022454006.140.62544386
1975LARM31245669492527359156.230.56535423
1974NE34844749003825555246.140.59535395
1972DEN32544728313423753506.440.63527382
1975OAK375496410194831562996.180.51522450
1979SF308557310993933671306.490.45490446
1977PIT28346459494926654495.740.51483389
1970CIN31239278312321050716.100.58480362
1976SD24844569073125655716.140.52476398
1978DEN282482910403429462636.020.45470391
1978HOO28348149933827659896.030.46458374
1978NYJ35948579933727759896.030.46458374
1971SF30047069004225754086.010.50453386
1979PHI339503110112929265516.480.44442409
1972PIT34342318532622853886.320.51437385
1974SD21244158803324553006.020.48422379
1977NE27843109223624752455.690.46420375
1979WAS348490410442529867216.440.40413420
1972CIN29943178992925556046.230.43386400
1970SD28239538392523150205.980.46385359
1978BUF30246309743427458055.960.39380363
1977DEN27439068862722350145.660.43377358
1978CLE334534710365029361465.930.36376384
1978SD355547110995131564755.890.32354405
1973BUF25940858492721949885.880.41351356
1976CIN33543008783523852766.010.39344377
1975WAS32546699194627255466.030.37336396
1979OAK365517410403832166096.350.31325413
1970MIA29740398273022848925.920.39323349
1977SEA28242928694625148575.590.36309347
1979NYJ337524410353829965536.330.29299410
1970BAC32141348603624250405.860.34289360
1979NE411547011283931871056.300.26289444
1974DET25636538092521147645.890.35280340
1976DET26243539393325955495.910.29274396
1978STC248512510843528163035.810.24265394
1973DET27140468503323749025.770.31259350
1972DAL31944668973825654596.090.28253390
1972MIN30142638833223553776.090.29252384
1972LARM29143558593123852016.050.25215372
1972SF35343518473723451266.050.25210366
1979MIA341495010063729762886.250.21209393
1973STC28640548372923847805.710.25208341
1974NYJ27940618323223447985.770.22186343
1973ATL31840388793324049835.670.21182356
1977CIN23841949043224848975.420.18166350
1970CLE28641618703823949645.710.18158355
1976CLE26745429253726053405.770.16144381
1971GNB27439147724420843655.650.15115312
1971BAC31340718833224249725.630.13111355
1978KC243482010543428759715.670.10100373
1972BAC23541878683425151215.900.1083366
1971WAS27640308283521246045.560.0646329
1979CIN337463910492928963786.080.0440399
1978OAK311491310494330958815.610.0438368
1977SD22240058813123546365.260.0326331
1973WAS32537978623223247295.490.0221338
1977MIN23141899334624549025.250.0219350
1978PHI270465310293827157495.590.0218359
1977NOR23235978513222344655.250.0112319
1977CLE26943759115327147515.22-0.02-16339
1979DEN289514210444030662716.01-0.04-37392
1970MIN33538158813122548125.46-0.06-55344
1976DEN31541369013423950055.55-0.06-56358
1971NE23835567853219042545.42-0.09-68304
1975DET24540649353024152325.60-0.07-69374
1978DET290446510013326955065.50-0.07-69344
1978LARM316518211094430160935.49-0.08-84381
1972GNB30435397981919545405.69-0.11-92324
1979ATL300492910334330361485.95-0.09-94384
1979BUF26848379823425258335.94-0.10-101365
1971ATL27439598103622143545.38-0.13-105311
1970NYJ25539608843323047795.41-0.12-105341
1974PIT30543759504025151605.43-0.11-106369
1972KC28739538943224550505.65-0.16-139361
1977BUF16043919444424647905.07-0.16-150342
1977HOO29938648793822844415.05-0.18-159317
1975KC28242079353426151335.49-0.18-168367
1970KC27235777753118341095.30-0.22-172294
1972CLE26837098172821545595.58-0.22-183326
1979CHI306463710312926260415.86-0.18-189378
1972ATL26940118373423146485.55-0.25-210332
1978WAS273464710213726154745.36-0.21-213342
1977SF22035948772521943734.99-0.25-217312
1971NOR26636668892524246485.23-0.28-246332
1974BUF26435868292922043395.23-0.31-256310
1970PHI24139908833922946095.22-0.30-269329
1979HOO362482710343226859525.76-0.29-296372
1975HOO29339379003423448055.34-0.33-297343
1976SF27040859163324248425.29-0.33-304346
1976BUF24544049644325050885.28-0.34-327363
1976CHI25338438802820146065.23-0.38-338329
1973SF26242249153925146605.09-0.37-338333
1973NYJ24039208633922243635.06-0.41-351312
1973NYG22640398963923945315.06-0.41-363324
1971NYG22841758964523645605.09-0.42-373326
1971CLE28538578594523143505.06-0.44-379311
1979TB273504910554126759735.66-0.38-402373
1971PHI22135718233520141285.02-0.49-403295
1976WAS29140969564325549305.16-0.46-440352
1970HOO21740629223823246535.05-0.48-441332
1971STC23140018214621240794.97-0.54-441291
1977KC22539368784722841494.73-0.51-446296
1975NYJ25842309194126647635.18-0.49-447340
1971NYJ21232677862620238674.92-0.59-460276
1971DEN20341588923921744404.98-0.53-471317
1976NOR25337598853222644925.08-0.54-480321
1978NYG264444910003924650855.09-0.48-485318
1977WAS19636159373022744164.71-0.52-488315
1977PHI22035788803821141104.67-0.56-495294
1979GNB24645429744427953675.51-0.53-518335
1975SF25541589054424046065.09-0.58-525329
1978CIN252487210344927152265.05-0.52-533327
1979STC307518410974530560875.55-0.49-541380
1977NYJ19136208324019538074.58-0.66-547272
1975DEN25445349644826849175.10-0.57-548351
1973KC23135368633120841634.82-0.64-551297
1973PIT34740708944021743324.85-0.62-551309
1973NE25838438714223741994.82-0.64-558300
1978CHI253445910203626251135.01-0.56-568320
1978GNB24941079444222646724.95-0.62-586292
1970ATL20634318263819939644.80-0.73-599283
1975PHI22541429493523747575.01-0.66-623340
1972SD26442999044826246225.11-0.69-625330
1973BAC22635068683821841104.74-0.73-631294
1974SF22639888734222742084.82-0.72-631301
1976SEA22940658824823943234.90-0.72-632309
1972NOR21536648293722641635.02-0.78-649297
1974PHI24235979182924444354.83-0.71-653317
1972CHI22534687733519038304.95-0.85-657274
1974HOO23633388173320038604.72-0.82-669276
1970BUF20438958225220338674.70-0.82-674276
1979MIN259490310904131159025.41-0.63-684369
1979LARM323513310874929958825.41-0.63-686368
1971PIT24638828674222640784.70-0.80-695291
1975NE25842839125025344654.90-0.77-705319
1970DEN25338278834121741634.71-0.81-715297
1970NOR17236738144018337754.64-0.89-722270
1973GNB20232568092918736964.57-0.89-723264
1971MIN24533508463019839054.62-0.89-752279
1974BAC19038439243724443574.72-0.83-765311
1978MIN294477911275130855114.89-0.68-766344
1974NYG19536898543621539534.63-0.91-781282
1976HOO22235708783319941254.70-0.92-807295
1974NOR16637449293323343204.65-0.89-829309
1975SD18934118212919838234.66-1.01-831273
1974KC23338289013822441534.61-0.93-841297
1979BAC271484611174029158785.26-0.78-871367
1972NE19236598423823640004.75-1.05-887286
1974GNB21036078843721440024.53-1.02-898286
1972BUF25737338773922141874.77-1.03-903299
1973NOR16335018723420738534.42-1.04-910275
1977DET18332249173021838884.24-0.99-911278
1978TB24138019623823844404.62-0.95-918278
1975GNB22636198673821139924.60-1.06-923285
1977GNB13432128283019533904.09-1.14-943242
1974CLE25136518763922338794.43-1.11-977277
1975CLE21838079153724741984.59-1.08-989300
1970CHI25632658083517934344.25-1.27-1030245
1975ATL24038618854822539684.48-1.19-1049283
1976NYG17036969003621639974.44-1.18-1059286
1977ATL17932469192519837234.05-1.18-1086266
1970PIT21037528444820635744.23-1.29-1089255
1973CLE23433418593720035974.19-1.27-1095257
1976PHI16535729173222040454.41-1.21-1106289
1975NYG21637299103722940264.42-1.24-1133288
1978BAC23941079644724942174.37-1.20-1152264
1979KC23839769723624146464.78-1.26-1227290
1972PHI14534638263820335524.30-1.50-1242254
1975CHI19134928294019034404.15-1.52-1260246
1977NYG18132849053420134623.83-1.41-1274247
1971HOO25135158155120132113.94-1.57-1276229
1970GNB19634098474119433984.01-1.51-1281243
1976GNB21834528834521036394.12-1.50-1321260
1972STC19332677543918130063.99-1.82-1370215
1973CHI19531298484219332563.84-1.62-1376233
1973SD18836228315119831553.80-1.67-1384225
1971BUF18433267704818528433.69-1.81-1396203
1978ATL240406210384125343724.21-1.36-1410273
1971CHI18533368574618932483.79-1.72-1470232
1979DET21940139444622742184.47-1.57-1486264
1974CHI15232008663720332973.81-1.74-1503236
1972HOO16431918173318331953.91-1.89-1547228
1973HOO19933078405219329743.54-1.92-1614212
1970BOS14926267684118426263.42-2.11-1617188
1979NYG23737749584022341034.28-1.76-1685256
1976NYJ16935308765322031933.64-1.97-1728228
1976ATL17231038684119131223.60-2.02-1754223
1976TB12530068593719130673.57-2.05-1759219
1975NOR16531879084021532603.59-2.08-1888233
1974ATL11128008065517422182.75-2.79-2250158
1977TB10326938344616820742.49-2.75-2291148
1978SF219404710626325733683.17-2.40-2547211

The Good

When taking the entire decade into account, the Cowboys, Dolphins, and Raiders are far and away the most consistently great offensive teams. However, the top two spots belong to a couple of surprise candidates: the 1976 Colts and the 1975 Bills.

bert jones
The Ruston Rifle.

The ’76 Colts, led by MVP quarterback Bert Jones, led the NFL in both points and yards. They also posted the top score of the decade in the important marginal adjusted yards metric. The primary reason was their incredibly efficient passing game; Baltimore had the second best passer rating and best ANY/A in the league. Jones was able to depend on receiving production from every level of the offense. Wideout Roger Carr was a large downfield target on the outside, and tight end Raymond Chester was a Hall of Fame caliber receiver who punished would-be tacklers. If they were covered, halfback Lydell Mitchell was a reliable dual threat in the mold of Lenny Moore before him or Marshall Faulk after.

While the Colts fielded a balanced offense that could hurt opponents in various ways, the previous year’s Bills team were essentially the O.J. Simpson show. Many of today’s football fans know of Simpson as footnote in American pop culture, but the Juice was quite easily the best running back of his era. Although he became the first runner to eclipse the mythic 2000 yard mark in a single season in 1973, his 1975 performance was arguable his best season. He gained 2243 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns1 en route to leading the number two offense of the decade. Unfortunately, Simpson got little help outside of Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, and one of history’s greatest seasons ended without a playoff appearance.

ken stabler
The Snake.

In 1976, Ken Stabler lost the MVP vote to Jones,2 but the Snake had the last laugh when he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end. Stabler led Oakland to the league’s best record while leading all quarterbacks in passer rating, Y/A, TD%, completion rate. Only his below average interception totals kept him from taking home the MVP award.3 Stabler wasn’t alone, of course. He had Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff and arguably superior receiver Cliff Branch on the outsides, and he had matchup nightmare Dave Casper in the middle of the field. When his arm got tired, he could hand off to fullback Mark van Eeghen and let him run behind Art Shell and Gene Upshaw.

Oakland’s offensive prowess wasn’t limited to 1976; in fact, John Madden’s crew produced the third most value of any team of the decade and never posted a below average season. Overall, the Raiders produced 8812 marginal adjusted yards of value at a rate of 61 per game. If we look at total output rather than marginal output, they boast the number two offense of the decade with 435 adjusted yards per game.

Roger-Staubach
Captain America.

The 1971 Cowboys are the only other team to gain over 2 adjusted yards per play above average. It was a strange season for MVP voting, as Alan Page became the first defensive player to earn the award from the Associated Press, while Roger Staubach and Bob Griese took home the less-famous MVP trophies. Staubach posted one of the most efficient passing seasons in history and likely missed out on the award due to his low volume of attempts (just 211) and coach Tom Landry‘s QBBC approach. Behind Roger Dodger, Dallas lapped the field in points and yards, and they also led in yards per play and first downs. Staubach was the catalyst, efficiently spreading the ball between three aging Hall of Famers (deep threats Lance Alworth and Bob Hayes, as well as legendary tight end Mike Ditka). Hall of Fame tackle Rayfield Wright and All Pro guard John Niland provided the beef up front for the offensive attack.

With Staubach under center and Tom Landry patrolling the sidelines, Dallas didn’t never fielded a below average offense.4 Their cumulative decade score of 12253 marginal adjusted yards (85 per game) easily outpaces any other team, as does their total output of 462 TAY/G. As Alworth and Hayes eventually became Drew Pearson and Bill Joe DuPree, Staubach never ran out of talented pass catchers. As he became an old man by NFL standards, he was able to rely on the gifted Tony Dorsett to alleviate some of the pressure of carrying the offense. The whole time, the Dallas train kept a rollin’.

In 1973, the Rams led the NFL in points and yards while managing to suffer by far the fewest turnovers in the land. While former quarterback Roman Gabriel was perhaps the best in league history at avoiding interceptions, his successor, AFL legend John Hadl, took great care of the ball (just 11 interceptions and one fumble).5 He combined ball security with the league’s highest touchdown rate, which meant a highly efficient passing attack. His primary target was Harold Jackson, the decade’s leading receiver. Running backs Lawrence McCutcheon and Jim Bertelsen ranked second and fourth for the team in receiving yards, and each eclipsed a thousand yards from scrimmage.

Hadl was out of Los Angeles before the end of the following season, and McCutcheon became the focal point of the offense for the better part of the decade (picking up big yards behind Hall of Fame guard Tom Mack).  Even as the team cycled through James Harris and Pat Haden at the quarterback spot, they didn’t suffer a serious drop in output until 1978, when Ray Malavasi replaced Chuck Knox as head coach.  In fact, the Rams’ score of 5543 marginal adjusted yards for the decade jumps to 6313 if you exclude Malavasi’s two seasons. Despite fielding inferior teams, Malavasi led the Rams to a Super Bowl in 1979, something Knox was unable to do.6

shula
347 wins.

The 1972 Dolphins are known for going undefeated on the strength of their ground game and No Name Defense (and, at the time, helping coach Don Shula shed the choker label he picked up with the Colts). However, they happened to be a highly efficient offensive machine whether they chose to pass or to run. Like the previous teams mentioned, Miami led the NFL in both points and yards. They were also second in yards per play and first downs. Their rushing attack was legendary, and for good reason. Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris each went over a thousand yards, and Jim Kiick chipped in an additional 521 yards of his own. The ground and pound game opened up deep passes to Hall of Famer and generally underrated wideout Paul Warfield. When starter Bob Griese went down, those passes came from Earl Morrall (who actually outperformed Griese that season).7

That year, and for most of the decade, it didn’t much matter the play type because the Miami offensive line was built to dominate either way. Hall of Fame center Jim Langer set the tone, and guards Larry Little (a fellow HOFer) and Bob Kuechenberg (a HOF finalist) joined in to form one of the most consistently dominant interior lines in football history. With a dominant line, terrifying deep threat, thunder and lightning rushing attack, and efficient passers, coach Shula’s Dolphins produced the second best offensive output of the decade (10432 MAY at 72 per game). Even their worst season was still 209 adjusted yards better than average.

From 1973 to 1975, the Cincinnati Bengals posted three straight seasons that ranked in the top 25 of the decade. After rookie phenom Greg Cook lost his career to a rotator cuff injury, offensive coordinator Bill Walsh built the Cincy offense around the cerebral but physically limited quarterback Virgil Carter. However, Walsh’s first truly great quick-strike quarterback was Ken Anderson, who came into the league in 1971. By 1973, Anderson was in his second season as a primary starter and had finally grown comfortable with Walsh’s Ohio River Offense. During this time, Anderson was nearly two standard deviations better than average in both passer rating and ANY/A.

Boobie Clark and Essex Johnson played the familiar role of receiving backs for Walsh, while blazing fast Isaac Curtis was so productive that he has a rule change named after him (we’ll get into that later). However, a disgruntled Walsh left the team after the 1975 season, and the offense quickly descended into mediocrity. From 1970 to 1975, Cincinnati never had a below average offense, and they averaged 906 MAY per season. After Walsh’s departure, the Bengals produced their only negative season of the decade and averaged a paltry 4 MAY for the rest of the decade. This means that of the 5450 marginal adjusted yards of value the Bengals produced, only 16 of that came without Walsh calling the offense.

The Bad and the Ugly

After Walsh left Cincinnati for San Diego and, later, Stanford, he finally got a head coaching gig in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers in 1979. Despite the protestations of Walsh’s former mentor, Paul Brown, owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. felt he had to put his trust in the innovative Walsh. The primary reason for this is that the Niners had just posted six consecutive seasons with a below average offense, culminating in 1978 with the worst offensive performance by any team during the entire decade. With two ineffectual head coaches, a broken down O.J. Simpson, a young and erratic Steve DeBerg, and a general lack of receiving talent, the ’78 Niners couldn’t beat defenses through the air or on the ground.

Walsh took over in 1979 and immediately began rebuilding the team in his image. He helped DeBerg realize a level of consistency,8 and he drew increased production from receiver Freddie Solomon and back Paul Hofer. The initial turnaround was small, and it was hardly on par with the team’s 1970 offense led by John Brodie and Gene Washington, but it was the harbinger of a new era of offensive football. It was the foundation upon which the greatest sustained offense in NFL history was built.

The 1976-1977 Buccaneers have no such legacy. They were just bad teams. So bad, in fact, that when asked how he felt about his team’s execution, head coach John McKay famously retorted “I’m in favor of it.” Yea, that’s pretty bad. The ’76 squad scored just 125 points and gained just 3006 yards on their way to a winless record. The worst part might be the fact that 1976 wasn’t even their worst offensive season. In 1977, the Bucs closed out the year with victories over bad Saints and Cardinals teams, but their performance on offense was significantly worse than it was in their inaugural season. This time around, they scored a mere 103 points and gained a laughable 2693 yards. They averaged 3.2 yards per play and lost 46 turnovers. From a total volume standpoint, their 148 TAY/G is the worst of the decade.

Between 1974 and 1978, the Atlanta Falcons never posted a season with greater than -1049 marginal adjusted yards of offense. They were so bad on offense that their 1977 squad allowed 9.2 points per game (129 total) and they still couldn’t muster a winning record. The nadir came in ’74, when the Falcons posted the third worst output of the decade. They ranked last in points, yards, yards per play, and turnovers. Their unholy quarterback triumvirate combined for 4 touchdown passes against 31 interceptions. They failed to score more than 17 points in any game, a dubious distinction that has only been matched once in the forty years since. When your only standout offensive player is a guard (8 time Pro Bowler George Kunz), these things tend to happen.

archie-manning
The third best Manning.

Perhaps no quarterback embodied the lovable loser archetype more than Archie Manning as the leader of the seventies Saints. While he and the Aints managed to play half-decent football toward the end of the decade, they are best-remembered for their many seasons of futility. 1975, in particular, was a terrible year for the New Orleans offense. They ranked last in points, yards, and yards per play (a phrase you should be familiar with by now), and their TAY/P was 2.08 below league average. They were neither efficient nor effective, and they mark the low point of a forgettable decade in the Big Easy.

In 1976, Joe Namath was on his last (already injury-ravaged) legs. The once brilliant aerial assault artist was a broken legend who could only lead the Jets to one of their three wins that year. John Riggins left for Washington after posting his first thousand yard season, and standout tight end Rich Caster experienced a noticeable dropoff in production. The team that helped build the empire was now nothing more than an faint echo of former glory.

Other Notable Figures

With the increased number of teams after the merger, there is not enough space to discuss every team’s offense. However, it is still important to give credit to some of the individuals who made us cheer or became the heroes of our fathers.

ron yary
This is Ron Yary.

The Minnesota Vikings famously lost four Super Bowls in an eight year span, and their dominant defense is rightly credited with dragging them there 1969. However, the Vikings added offensive firepower when they promoted Ron Yary in 1970, brought back Fran Tarkenton in ’72, and then drafted Chuck Foreman in ’73. Tarkenton passed for more yards and touchdowns than anyone else in the decade. Foreman had six dominant seasons as a dual threat back.9 Tingelhoff’s advanced age limited his physical skill, but he compensated with the kind of savvy only experience brings. Yary, for his part, was named first team All Pro each year from 1971 to 1976 and didn’t miss a game over that time.10

franco harris
The Italian Stallion.

The Steelers dynasty, effectively brought about by Chuck Noll‘s incredible ability to find talent and build a team with few weak links, took its place in football’s Olympus when the team won four Super Bowls during the seventies. Although the famous Steel Curtain defense deserves the credit they get for helping guide Pittsburgh to the promised land, it is interesting to note that the dynasty Steelers actually featured more Hall of Fame players on offense than on defense. Their leader was big-armed goofball (and cold-blooded assassin in January) Terry Bradshaw. His career is often misunderstood by modern fans used to looking at inflated passing stats, but Chase Stuart’s detailed look at his career provided important context. I encourage you to read it. If you go from a pure performance based perspective, Franco Harris and Mike Webster may be the only sure-fire Hall of Fame players from the dynasty. Harris was second only to O.J. Simpson in rushing and scrimmage yards during the decade, and no one came close to his 72 rushing touchdowns. Webster was named the best center in the NFL five times (two in the seventies) and played a large part in Bradshaw’s 1978 MVP campaign.

On paper, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann don’t look like Hall of Fame receivers. Even when you adjust for their passing environment, they ranked as the 32nd and 79th most productive receivers at the end of the 2012 season. At the time of his retirement, Swann had the 59th most receiving yards of all time. Stallworth ranked 13th (behind four guys not in the HOF). They have busts in Canton because they performed very well in the playoffs and have four rings apiece.

John Jefferson
Briefly brilliant.

Like Bill Walsh, offensive guru Don Coryell was a disciple from the Sid Gillman tree of knowledge. Although his greatest achievements in offensive innovation and production occurred in the eighties, it is still important to recognize the foundations of Air Coryell. After helping Jim Hart reach career highs for the Cardinals, Coryell became the coach of the San Diego Chargers. He helped turned Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow into Hall of Famers. Had John Jefferson remained with the team, he may donned a yellow jacket too. By Coryell’s second season in San Diego (1979), Fouts became the first quarterback to throw for over 4000 yards in an NFL season.11 Because his team had limited playoff success, Coryell has had no luck garnering support from Hall of Fame voter. However, his impact on offensive football – and, as a result, defensive football – is indelible.12

From 1970 to 1973, AFL legend Floyd Little averaged nearly 1300 yards from scrimmage per season for the Broncos. When age caught up with him, speedy Otis Armstrong took over and gained over 1800 scrimmage yards in 1974. He was limited to four games the following year, but he bounced back in 1976 with 1465 scrimmage yards. In addition to the pair of talented running backs, the Denver also fielded All Pro tight end Riley Odoms. Despite mediocre quarterback play, Odoms gained the fourth most receiving yards of any TE during the decade.

Before he became one of television’s worst gameday announcers, Dan Dierdorf was a dominant force capable of playing any position on the offensive line. His primary position was right tackle, where he was named first team All Pro thrice.

Jack Rudnay was perhaps the third best center of the decade, but he had the unfortunate fate of playing in the same division as Jim Langer and Mike Webster for most of his career. Nonetheless, he made four Pro Bowls in the middle of the decade.

Long before Joe Gibbs and the Hogs led Washington to a Super Bowl title, the team played a forgettable title game against the Dolphins. Their loss is only significant because it allowed the Dolphins to become the first undefeated and untied champion in NFL history. However, the men who got Washington to the big show deserve mention. Larry Brown was named the league’s MVP in the wake of a stellar season both rushing and receiving. Hall of Fame gadget receiver Charley Taylor provided Washington with a versatile weapon on the outside, while standout center Len Hauss made the last of his five career Pro Bowls.

Charlie Sanders and Bob Tucker were two of the top tight ends of their era. Sanders earned three first team All Pro selections and eventually got the call to Canton. Tucker never made a Pro Bowl or an All Pro first team nod13 despite the fact that he had more receptions and yards than any other tight end during the seventies.

Harold Carmichael was a physically imposing figure who looked more like he belonged in the NBA than in the NFL. At 6’8″ and 225 pounds, he was a mismatch for any defensive back.14 He ranked fourth in yards and second in both catches and touchdowns among all receivers during the decade.

Houston Oilers receiver Ken Burrough is a forgotten gem from the Dead Ball Era. He led the NFL in yards in 1975, and he was the second leading receiver of the entire decade, despite generally awful QB play.

Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent is best known for his production in the eighties, but he did make two Pro Bowls in the seventies and lead the league in yards in 1979. Despite inconsistency at every other offensive position, Largent produced at a high level for the Seahawks.

earl campbell
A common scene.

Earl Campbell only played two seasons in the seventies, but those two seasons included an MVP award, two rushing titles, and a scoring title. Through sheer tyranny of will, the Tyler Rose battered hapless defenders. His running style was a perfect mix of grace and chaos. He was the engine that kept the Luv Ya Blue train running.

Walter Payton arguably received the least offensive line help of any great back in history. Nonetheless, he managed ten straight seasons of at least 1500 yards from scrimmage.15  He was a willing and capable blocker, and he could even sub at quarterback if need be. His career was marked by the same traits as his life: toughness, desire, courage, and grace. There have been thousands of players on rosters throughout the 95 year history of the NFL. Only one has a “Man of the Year” trophy named after him.

john-hannah
The GOAT?

Once called the best offensive lineman of all time by Sports Illustrated, John Hannah was a force of nature for the Patriots. He earned three AP1 selection in the seventies and another four in the eighties. He wasn’t particularly large, even for his era, but he had an incredibly powerful lower body and a low center of gravity that gave him remarkable balance for a man of his stature. When added to his expert technical ability to generate leverage, the sum was a functional strength much greater than that of men much larger than he. Hannah also possessed underrated athleticism, which allowed him to pull and make blocks on the second level that many guards couldn’t make effectively.

I’m not going to do an entire series on special teams, so this is a good a place as any to mention that there are only two full time special teams players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They both happened to play the majority of their careers during the seventies (and for AFC West rivals, no less). Jan Stenerud was not the first kicker in professional football to utilize the soccer style approach. However, since most football innovations are met with skepticism, it was his success with the technique helped revolutionize the kicking game. He led the league in field goal percentage four times and was named to six Pro Bowls. Ray Guy, for his part, is remembered as the greatest punter of all time and the reason we now count hang time. He led the NFL in yards per punt16 and was named first team All Pro three times.

1970s NFL Offenses on Average

This table should be used to add context to the first table and to note trends in NFL offensive production. Read it thus: In 1970, the average offense scored 269.6 points and gained 3944.8 yards on 850.0 plays. They lose 34.0 turnovers and picked up 221.1 first downs. Overall, they gained 4696 total adjusted yards at 5.52 per play. On a per game basis, they gained 335 TAY.

YrPFYdsPlyTO1stDTAYTAY/PTAY/G
1970269.63944.8850.034.0221.146965.52335
1971271.14001.9844.536.5226.646495.51332
1972283.54080.0847.232.8234.649175.80351
1973272.33994.3870.834.1232.047565.46340
1974254.54011.6882.132.7238.948905.54349
1975288.34316.0926.136.5257.252505.67375
1976268.14237.9919.535.2247.351655.62369
1977240.54000.7906.835.6236.447465.23339
1978293.34810.61033.040.6282.457545.57360
1979321.05055.11043.538.3295.463056.04394

As you can see in the chart below, professional offenses rapidly increased their productivity during the forties. Afterwards, they experienced a gradual increase until peaking in 1962. After a brief plateau, the bottom fell out after the merger, and the league rarely reached pre-merger levels. However, several regulatory changes were put into place in order to augment offensive output. The most dramatic of these occurred in 1978, and the graphic indicates that the league’s efforts were successful.

1970s NFL offenses

As offenses stagnated in the Dead Ball Era, there were several noteworthy changes that increased offensive production and, consequently, the NFL’s popularity. These are some of the more significant changes:

  • In 1970, the NFL and AFL merged into a single league, divided into two conferences. This necessitated standardizing the rules of the two separate leagues. The league opted to quit using the 2-point conversion, which made a negligible dent in league wide scoring. More importantly, the new NFL adopted the AFL’s use of the game clock on the scoreboard. This took the clock out of the hands of busy referees and put it in a location participants and spectators could easily view. By 1976, the clock was posted on both ends of the field.
  • In 1972, the NFL moved the hashmarks closer to the middle of the field (from 40 feet apart to just 18.5 feet apart). This led to an immediate increase in field goal rates, which, in turn, led to increased scoring throughout the league.
  • The following year, the NFL made it even easier for kickers when they outlawed the use of leverage to block kicks. This is just football speak for “no jumping or standing on teammates in order to help block a kick.”
  • After the league made scoring field goals easier than ever, they realized the increase in field goal attempts was detracting from the game’s excitement. To encourage teams to go for touchdowns instead of field goals, the NFL moved the goal posts from the goal line back to their 1932 position in the back of the end zone. The plan worked, as teams were less successful on field goals (and PATS) and, ultimately, went for more touchdowns. However, it wasn’t until soccer style kickers became the norm that final scores noticeably increased.17
  • 1974 also saw the introduction of sudden death overtime to the league. While overtime didn’t increase efficiency or effectiveness, it replaced ties with additional points. Thus, while offenses didn’t get any better, the increased opportunity to put points on the board naturally resulted in a higher scoring environment.
  • Also in 1974, the league moved kickoffs back from the 40 yard line to the 35 yards line, in an effort to encourage more returns. The change didn’t increase the number of returns as much as it maintained the level of returns. With better kickers creating touchbacks seemingly at will, the league’s rule change mostly just increased the value of a kicker with elite leg strength.
  • The most important rule of 1974 was the Isaac Curtis Rule. Named after the Bengals’ speedy wideout, it limited the amount of contact defensive backs could initiate with receivers. Specifically, the rule stated that a receiver could only be chucked one time after he had made it three yards downfield. This rule was a precursor to a more famous rule four years later.
  • In 1976, the NFL outlawed grasping the facemask of an opponent. This didn’t have a palpable statistical impact, but it anecdotally reduced injury risk and made players harder to tackle.
  • The league also passed the Ben Davidson Rule in 1976. This rule prohibited defenders from tackling ballcarriers who have gone to the ground and made no attempt to advance. The rule is named for the Raiders defensive end who hurt Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson during a de facto playoff game in 1970.
  • According to research by John Turney, Deacon Jones had seasons of 26, 24, and 22 sacks. To throw offensive linemen a bone, the league outlawed his famous head slap maneuver in 1977. This is sometimes referred to as the Deacon Jones Rule.
  • Also in 1977, the NFL provided additional aid to wide receivers by making it illegal to contact a receiver more than once during a play.
  • The following year, the league made it even tougher on cornerbacks. After Steelers legend Mel Blount smothered receivers all over the field, league brass decided to ditch the “chuck” stipulation from the Isaac Curtis Rule altogether. Now, defenders were allowed only to contact receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage.18
  • Another 1978 rule change that was arguably as important as the Mel Blount Rule, but receives far less attention, came when executives decided offensive linemen should probably be allowed to extend their arms and use open hands while blocking. After this change, league wide sack rates sack a noticeable decline.
  • Of course, the addition of two games to the league schedule also increased offensive output. The extended schedule, in concert with more offensive oriented rules, created an environment where passing records seemingly fell every year (it even allowed people like Charlie Joiner to make it into the Hall of Fame).

All of the above changes (as well as some minor ones I didn’t mention) helped pull NFL offenses out of their statistical imbroglio and set them on a path to new heights in the decade to come. When you see the progression of offensive output from the 1940s to the 1980s, you’ll see that the Dead Ball Era from the late 1960s till 1978 was actually a statistical aberration in an otherwise smooth upward trend. Indeed, this era is not the standard bearer for NFL gameplay; it is an anachronistic outcast in football history.

  1. Prorated for a 16 game schedule, that’s over 2500 YFS and 26 touchdowns.
  2. Although he did win the Bert Bell Player of the Year Award, for what it’s worth.
  3. High interception rates are par for course when you’re an aggressive passer, which Stabler was. His ability to produce positive value at a higher rate than nearly any other quarterback, despite those interceptions, is a testament to that.
  4. Their worst offensive output came in Staubach’s injury year of 1972, when the team still managed 253 marginal adjusted yards.
  5. Interestingly, this came just one year after he led the league with 26 interceptions as the QB of the Chargers. It’s almost a if chance plays a large part in turnovers.
  6. It didn’t help that Knox happened to coach during the prime years of the Cowboys and Vikings dynasties, whereas Malavasi’s squads didn’t see such powerful competition.
  7. Credit coach Don Shula for bringing in a known commodity from his time in Baltimore.
  8. However, he also picked his own quarterback of the future, an undersized college star named Joe Montana
  9. Foreman actually led the league in receptions in 1975. In 1974 and 1976, he led the league in total touchdowns.
  10. Because the Hall of Fame evidently hates linemen, Yary wasn’t enshrined in Canton until 19 years after his retirement.
  11. Fouts set a record with 4082 yards. He broke his own record the following year, and then he broke that record the year after that. If not for the strike limiting the 1982 season to nine games, he very well could have been the first quarterback to pass the 5000 yard mark.
  12. Coryell directly tutored John Madden and Joe Gibbs, two of the most successful offensive coaches in history. Mike Martz, architect of the Greatest Show on Turf Rams squads, is also in Coryell’s coaching tree.
  13. In 1972, he was named AP2 from the Associated Press and UPI, while Sporting News and Pro Football Writers named him first team.
  14. Although the battles between him and 5’9″ Pat Fischer are legendary.
  15. This is not counting the 1982 strike season. However, in those nine games he eclipsed 900 YFS and was on pace for 1612.
  16. A useless, albeit popular, statistic.
  17. It is important to note, however, that moving the goal posts did result in a decrease in player injuries on red zone plays. That, alone, was worth the change.
  18. Blount responded with three more Pro Bowls and another first team All Pro nod.