1990s NFL Offenses

If you’ve been following along in this series on the history of NFL offenses, you’ve probably noticed that, although the overall trend in productivity has been positive, there is much ebb and flow within that upward trend.1 After a league-wide offensive explosion in the eighties, innovative defensive coaches began devising successful strategies to slow down the opposition. After peaking in 1985, offensive output began to slow down; in 1992, the league reached its lowest mark since 1978.2

As usual, the base metric for offensive performance is total adjusted yards, which gives bonuses for touchdowns and first downs and penalizes turnovers:

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

While the number of plays per game teams run hasn’t actually changed much since the 1940s, the timbre of those plays has changed. With increased focus on ball control, offenses have steadily increased output without getting much better at moving the ball down the field. Yards and touchdowns per play have remained basically the same, while first downs and turnovers have improved dramatically. When you compare the table below to the tables from previous decades, this will be clear.

1990s NFL Offenses

The table below lists the 291 teams seasons in the 1990s and is sorted by marginal adjusted yards. Read it thus: The 1992 San Francisco 49ers scored 431 points and gained 6195 yards on 994 plays. They lost 22 turnovers and gained 344 first downs. They had 8830 total adjusted yards at 8.88 per play. This was 2.57 above average, for 2550 marginal adjusted yards. On a per game basis, they gained 552 TAY.

YrTmPFYdsPlyTO1stDTAYTAY/PMAY/PMAYTAY/G
1992SF43161959942234488308.882.572550552
1998SF479680011003038197728.882.272501611
1998MIN556626410082033590739.002.392410567
1999STL52664129943133587518.802.332316547
1993SF473643510223037288508.662.242286553
1994SF505606010372436289218.602.042114558
1990HOO405622210063637686798.632.022028542
1998DEN501609210412034788528.501.891971553
1991BUF458625210563535987528.291.791889547
1995DET436611310242534987738.571.781826548
1991SF39358589863133680638.181.681655504
1995DAL435582410072336484778.421.631645530
1990BUF42852769312130276928.261.651537481
1991WAS48557419962330280018.031.531528500
1992DAL409560610142432479297.821.501523496
1999CAR42156869823430778377.981.511479490
1999WAS443596510312533880697.831.351394504
1992HOO35256559583533974327.761.441380465
1997DEN472587210682134082807.751.261350518
1997JAX39454249982030878247.841.351348489
1993DAL37656159942232277287.771.351343483
1999IND42357269792832776227.791.311284476
1995SF457608710922835586917.961.171283543
1996BAL371572310243333878827.701.221251493
1995GNB404575010362133982757.991.201247517
1991HOO386598710224035378887.721.221246493
1994MIA389607810783234482927.691.131215518
1997GNB422561410083232577397.681.191198484
1995CHI392567310302634081717.931.151183511
1999MIN39957939954032476237.661.191181476
1998DAL38154509921530877227.781.171164483
1995ATL36255799832131778317.971.181162489
1995DEN388604010603034483507.881.091159522
1998NYJ416571510572433881017.661.051114506
1999OAK390569310572932679457.521.041102497
1996WAS36452299601830772667.571.091049454
1996GNB456553510532433878397.440.971020490
1991MIA34352419702831273087.531.041004457
1998ATL44254879932431975447.600.99980472
1998BUF400554110332031978087.560.95979488
1999JAX396558610851833179717.350.87946498
1996SF398550610462431577177.380.90944482
1990SF353589510743032480397.490.87938502
1997CIN355528210022231074007.390.90898463
1999TEN392529610112229474397.360.88894465
1992MIA34055009983431671947.210.89889450
1992BUF381589310873835077567.140.82889485
1997DET379579810282830475467.340.85876472
1993MIA349581210303430974807.260.84864468
1996DEN391579110923233679177.250.77846495
1995MIA398571610343234578597.600.82844491
1994DET35750028912428066567.470.91807416
1993DEN373546110602832775977.170.74788475
1994DAL414532110182432274717.340.77788467
1992ATL32749039102927365207.160.85771408
1997SEA365575910493233175727.220.73765473
1990LARD33747168612425864537.490.88761403
1997OAK32451029472426369027.290.80757431
1990PHI396570010692832578237.320.71755489
1998JAX39252149892028772897.370.76751456
1997MIN354535410222229373657.210.72734460
1991KC322532110212232273667.210.72731460
1990KC36952159751928071347.320.71688446
1991DAL34251019712430469917.200.70681437
1993NYG288514510241730072467.080.65669453
1990DET37349778703627864177.380.76665401
1997PIT372554210583332675107.100.61645469
1994KC319569210982632278417.140.58633490
1996JAX325576010383032573407.070.60618459
1997SF37551129992029471007.110.62618444
1991MIN30150849692630069047.120.63607432
1994NOR34851829663230869127.160.59571432
1997NE36950149602226767967.080.59567425
1990WAS381556210732832776287.110.50534477
1996PHI363562710763231975006.970.49532469
1995NOR31951789842529472077.320.54531450
1990LARM345543010133131172277.130.52530452
1996NE418536910852733975556.960.49529472
1994GNB382531610592231474797.060.50527467
1995MIN412593811152934280897.250.47525506
1998TNO330526110161930872397.130.51523452
1990NYG33548059681427368977.130.51497431
1999BUF320533310592731373506.940.47494459
1992PHI354498010092829268636.800.48489429
1994PIT316514410481730773687.030.47488461
1993KC32848359702830067056.910.49475419
1992NOR33048068952926761246.840.52470383
1997MIA339513510282031171376.940.45467446
1997KC375506410542031572826.910.42443455
1994SD381522010332331172056.970.41424450
1991CLE29346649341826564816.940.44411405
1996HOO34550489723028766986.890.42404419
1999DAL352517810242329570316.870.39401439
1991ATL36151139403625865106.930.43401407
1993SD322496710501931371456.800.38401447
1996MIA339516510002429468746.870.40398430
1991NYG28149089512328065716.910.41391411
1998DET30650859752527868337.010.40388427
1998GNB408563610613432973906.970.35376462
1996CIN372522510882533274206.820.34375464
1992LARM31348779143727861326.710.39358383
1996DET30250139762631766736.840.36353417
1999KC390532110492428271386.800.33346446
1993LARD30650149782529266266.780.35344414
1993PHO326521310073129568106.760.34342426
1991NYJ314531610592533172216.820.32339451
1990MIA33650479752730367656.940.33319423
1995KC358524210592129574347.020.24250465
1995IND33149199612228167667.040.26246423
1992MIN37448999953228865166.550.23230407
1992SD335522110183330266556.540.22224416
1994DEN347548711123134675236.770.20223470
1991DET33947889383028063036.720.22207394
1992WAS30048909912427664616.520.20200404
1993MIN277482410082428366706.620.19195417
1990NYJ29548869672429565866.810.20193412
1993PIT308523510792730771226.600.18191445
1992CLE27244928832824257686.530.21190361
1995CIN34951929753228868046.980.19189425
1999DET32249319782226965186.660.19186407
1999GNB357541910273631468346.650.18185427
1996PIT344514010023329666646.650.18176417
1990CIN36050639433527764016.790.18166400
1999SF295538010123230067006.620.15148419
1992PIT29949069893228463776.450.13129399
1991CHI299506910253331767896.620.12128424
1993HOO368565810664533069706.540.12123436
1994ATL31753619963630266536.680.12115416
1998IND31051169823329866066.730.12115413
1996KC297489910452431268806.580.11113430
1995OAK348550510423431771826.890.11113449
1993LARM22148049533027862336.540.12112390
1992CHI29549419513428261136.430.11105382
1998NE33751409992428167026.710.1098419
1995PIT407576911103434476216.870.0891476
1997PHI317559011163232673286.570.0887458
1992NYG30644229362327159986.410.0985375
1993NYJ270521210312830467076.510.0885419
1994TB25147549512327662896.610.0546393
1993BUF329526010783531669696.460.0445436
1994MIN356584811233432573926.580.0220462
1996OAK340525210343130667146.490.0218420
1994PHI308512510462629368736.570.016430
1997TNO33349199932628864406.490.00-3403
1998WAS319501010272929567806.60-0.01-9424
1996DAL28647639812928663396.46-0.01-14396
1990DEN331521310353232368266.60-0.02-17427
1996SEA31750249742926862846.45-0.02-23393
1992TB26747719942928162536.29-0.03-27391
1991SD274499510102828565326.47-0.03-32408
1991DEN304501210122528465366.46-0.04-41409
1991NOR341496810083026765086.46-0.04-43407
1990CHI348498010242629567216.56-0.05-49420
1996ATL30951169714129262316.42-0.06-57389
1996IND317474410002428864176.42-0.06-59401
1996MIN298520410303228466056.41-0.06-65413
1997BAL326529110433329266986.42-0.07-70419
1998CIN26848249792227163966.53-0.08-76400
1997ATL32047169802428162836.41-0.08-76393
1993PHI293492210543430366666.32-0.10-104417
1993NOR31747079353426459006.31-0.11-106369
1994LARD30347799663026762316.45-0.11-110389
1992DET27344408433624152086.18-0.14-118326
1996CAR367481210252529265086.35-0.13-129407
1991LARD29844258933124856646.34-0.16-139354
1993CLE30447409483626459456.27-0.15-144372
1995SEA363527010333231168636.64-0.14-145429
1997WAS327499810332930065576.35-0.14-146410
1990PHO26847459343227060236.45-0.16-152376
1990SD31549409763227262856.44-0.17-168393
1996ARI300519010503530866246.31-0.17-175414
1993ATL316511010084229262986.25-0.18-177394
1999ATL28545429313527358496.28-0.19-179366
1999CIN283527710393229365466.30-0.17-181409
1994LARM28647479443127460006.36-0.21-197375
1992KC34843249072124655276.09-0.22-203345
1995CLE28950769853129364746.57-0.21-208405
1997DAL304477810152327963776.28-0.21-209399
1999NYJ30847529992226862496.26-0.22-219391
1999SEA33848059713327660616.24-0.23-226379
1997NYJ348472710432229165426.27-0.22-226409
1999DEN314528310532830865866.25-0.22-231412
1997IND313486910352830164796.26-0.23-237405
1994BUF340524410663431967556.34-0.23-243422
1992GNB27647859903629160106.07-0.25-244376
1995BUF350511710592630069006.52-0.27-284431
1997TB29943769152324956446.17-0.32-293353
1994IND30744138993125256046.23-0.33-298350
1996CHI283490510462730064696.18-0.29-304404
1995WAS326518410263029766356.47-0.32-326415
1995SD321521310513031467846.45-0.33-346424
1999PIT317487410672529565536.14-0.33-355410
1991PIT29245819153025455846.10-0.40-362349
1990PIT29245258973226355586.20-0.42-372347
1990MIN351503410013728862446.24-0.37-374390
1993DET29846589373224856376.02-0.41-382352
1999NE299506210213328062256.10-0.38-385389
1999CHI272552311183730268426.12-0.35-396428
1998MIA321493010282826963966.22-0.39-400400
1998CHI27647669793426460626.19-0.42-410379
1991LARM23446959364027056716.06-0.44-412354
1994CLE34048329703527359386.12-0.44-430371
1998TB314475410003126261716.17-0.44-439386
1999NYG299512710753230865196.06-0.41-441407
1994NE351577611993834874276.19-0.37-444464
1994CHI271467910142627462016.12-0.45-455388
1994SEA287465210182828562216.11-0.45-462389
1998ARI325510910523631564906.17-0.44-464406
1990SEA30645839453628457756.11-0.50-473361
1992PHO24345779484227755095.81-0.51-480344
1998SEA37246269403426757316.10-0.51-483358
1995JAX27544959622828360106.25-0.54-516376
1990ATL34850559943927360546.09-0.52-518378
1994NYJ26447039832826559276.03-0.54-526370
1991CIN26349699934228659275.97-0.53-526370
1993GNB340475010063428259305.89-0.53-532371
1997STL299476110133027160205.94-0.55-553376
1994WAS32047939744026958135.97-0.60-581363
1993SEA280466910193127959595.85-0.58-586372
1990IND28141558743124551815.93-0.68-597324
1999MIA326493810713428763275.91-0.57-607395
1998CAR33647809663526157675.97-0.64-619360
1995STL309523610673929266056.19-0.59-634413
1998BAL26944989263024354795.92-0.69-642342
1996NYJ279520810774631963265.87-0.60-648395
1997NYG307451310271927360055.85-0.64-659375
1993IND18947059883526956835.75-0.67-663355
1996BUF319511910943729464215.87-0.61-663401
1992LARD24943849533825953435.61-0.71-678334
1994CIN27647929904126758155.87-0.69-684363
1991SEA27645349244325352865.72-0.78-719330
1990GNB27146759534327655555.83-0.78-746347
1998KC327480810123228959365.87-0.74-754371
1993NE238506510913431562395.72-0.70-769390
1999BAL324477810333125959125.72-0.75-776370
1998NYG287445510162426359225.83-0.78-794370
1995NYG290448310032828859975.98-0.81-807375
1990NOR27444769313925353305.73-0.89-825333
1995NE294545711873633572106.07-0.71-843451
1995TB23845429613428356665.90-0.89-854354
1996SD310467010223227257445.62-0.86-874359
1995HOO348490510463829561615.89-0.89-935385
1998NOR30544639663325854425.63-0.98-944340
1998PIT263458610143226857535.67-0.94-950360
1999CLE21737628653122046235.34-1.13-977289
1992IND21643689693726751425.31-1.01-980321
1992NYJ22044319583925250585.28-1.04-994316
1994NYG27943169762526354095.54-1.02-998338
1996NOR22942069233723249695.38-1.09-1008311
1999TB27042549913524554075.46-1.02-1009338
1997CAR265461510193928455955.49-1.00-1017350
1993WAS23042739693125551845.35-1.07-1040324
1991GNB27343329403625950665.39-1.11-1043317
1992DEN26244309284323448125.19-1.13-1051301
1997ARI283471310754229559125.50-0.99-1063370
1992CIN27439199342724848295.17-1.15-1072302
1995PHI318480710503629060455.76-1.03-1078378
1994ARI235460710522928758105.52-1.04-1096363
1998STL28544729983328154945.51-1.11-1103343
1990TB26444759114323849075.39-1.22-1116307
1999NOR260498310553928857065.41-1.07-1124357
1993CIN18740529862023952085.28-1.14-1125326
1991NE21144739774225951845.31-1.19-1165324
1997CHI263499011284130561475.45-1.04-1172384
1993TB23743119493624149215.19-1.24-1175308
1996TB22143169963426052225.24-1.23-1228326
1990DAL24440819113325047165.18-1.43-1307295
1990CLE22843679604625949465.15-1.46-1401309
1998OAK288481510354327354315.25-1.36-1411339
1995ARI275486610024328553755.36-1.42-1423336
1997BUF255465710144226851475.08-1.41-1433322
1999SD269458910393526252945.10-1.38-1433331
1993CHI23437179133022644214.84-1.58-1443276
1994HOO226448110364227853315.15-1.42-1470333
1997SD266450510253525151755.05-1.44-1476323
1996STL30343729864425548634.93-1.54-1522304
1991IND14337489233123644484.82-1.68-1550278
1998PHI161418810172625951715.08-1.53-1552323
1990NE18141639553623947514.97-1.64-1563297
1991TB19940019224724943394.71-1.79-1653271
1995CAR289461910294125053035.15-1.63-1678331
1999PHI27238309473921844014.65-1.83-1730275
1991PHO19639629263923742724.61-1.89-1746267
1996NYG242394210003424846894.69-1.79-1787293
1991PHI285430210044324947174.70-1.80-1808295
1992NE20535849284521537894.08-2.23-2074237
1997NOR23740459255522939144.23-2.26-2088245
1999ARI24540109994025442914.30-2.18-2177268
1995NYJ233406710014225445924.59-2.20-2199287
1998SD241459210635127247474.47-2.14-2280297
1992SEA14033749454120833573.55-2.77-2613210

The Good

The 1990s was an interesting decade for the San Francisco 49ers. Statistically, Steve Young and George Seifert produced consistently better offenses than Joe Montana and Bill Walsh ever produced. However, their paucity of championships has left fans forgetting how truly remarkable those teams actually were. The 49ers’ 1992 seasons ranks first, but they also have seasons that rank second, fifth, sixth, and eleventh in the decade. Overall, San Francisco produced 15036 marginal adjusted yards of offense during the nineties – the second highest single-decade mark in history.

steve young
The best 1990s QB.

After toiling away in Tampa for two years, Young had the good fortune of being traded to San Francisco and learning from Walsh as Montana’s understudy. When age and injuries finally made his predecessor expendable, Young finally got the call to start. He responded with arguably the greatest statistical peak of any quarterback in NFL history.3 He earned two MVP awards and broke Montana’s Super Bowl record with six passing touchdowns in a blowout victory over the Chargers. When his career was cut short from concussions, he was the all time leader in passer rating; currently he ranks fourth in history.4

Young had help stepping out of the large shadow of Montana. Guy McIntyre, Jesse Sapolu, and Harris Barton provided plenty of help up front, while Brent Jones and Ricky Watters were more than capable of bailing him out on dump off passes. By the time they were gone, talented runner Garrison Hearst and future Hall of Famer Terrell Owens stepped up to the plate. However, despite all of the other talent in the Bay Area, no one helped Young step into the light quite as much as the seemingly ageless Jerry Rice.

From 1990-1996, Rice averaged 101 catches for 1430 yards and 13 touchdowns5 He earned a Pro Bowl nod each year and a first team All Pro selection in six of those years. Despite an injury limiting him to just 78 yards in 1997, Rice still gained over 12000 yards in the decade, which was over 1200 yards more than any other player.6 Famous for his training regimen, Rice was able to bounce back from his age 35 injury and play for another seven seasons (averaging 70/920/6).7 The career leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, he has earned the nickname The GOAT.

When fans think of the 90s, they generally think of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty, which celebrated three Super Bowl wins between 1992 and 1995. Those fans might be surprised to learn that the Cowboys never had a remarkable offensive season. Their best season, 1995, ranks twelfth in marginal adjusted yards and thirteenth in MAY/P. Despite fielding four Hall of Famers and several all stars, Dallas’s offense was almost always second to San Fran’s. However, their consistent productivity led to them ranking second in the decade in cumulative MAY (with 6017).

Head coach Jimmy Johnson took over in 1989 and was still building the team in the early part of the nineties. By 1992, he had drafted Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, ultimately known as the Triplets. Aikman didn’t post gaudy stats during his career, but he was incredibly accurate and generally avoided turnovers. When Dallas needed him to make plays in the postseason, he usually did so, and he earned his reputation as a playoff performer.8

michael irvin
The Playmaker.

Many modern fans look at Irvin’s 65 career touchdowns (tied for 50th all time) and write him off. However, his role in the Cowboys offense was to move the ball as far downfield as possible; sometimes it resulted in a touchdown for him, but it often resulted in a touchdown for Emmitt. Irvin was a powerful receiver who initiated contact with defenders and manhandled them on his way to winning routes and making contested catches. Dubbed the Playmaker, he earned the moniker by producing big games; his 53 games with over 100 receiving yards still ranks fifth all time.

Smith was arguably the most important piece of the puzzle for Dallas. He remains the NFL’s all time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns, and he accomplished those feats through a combination of superb balance, uncommon toughness, and perhaps the greatest vision of any back in history. Critics point out that he benefited from running behind one of the great lines in history. However, none of his backups came close to matching his production behind the same lines. It’s fair to say he made them look just as good as they made him look.

That dominant line, known as the Great Wall of Dallas, comprised undrafted or late-round players who embodied the tough and mean spirit coach Johnson desired. Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, and Mark Stepnoski made up a stout left side of the line, but right tackle Erik Williams was undeniably the star of the group. His power and ferocity were unparalleled, and he is one of the few men in history who can honestly claim to have shut down the great Reggie White. The Cowboys would later pick up Larry Allen, arguably the top interior lineman of the last quarter century. Allen mauled defenders and earned the title of strongest man in the NFL. The Great Wall, in concert with blocking fullback Daryl Johnston and All Pro tight end Jay Novacek, made Dallas a force to be reckoned with up front.

The 1998 Minnesota Vikings are remembered for being the highest scoring team in history up to that point. Randall Cunningham led the way with a career year. Having transformed into a pocket passer in his old age, Cunningham use his powerful arm to put rookie Randy Moss‘s incredible speed to full use. Moss, for his part, produced arguably the greatest rookie season from any receiver since Bob Hayes, with 17 touchdowns, 1317 yards, and more highlights than some players make in their careers. The ’98 season also saw great performances from Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter and habitually underrated running back Robert Smith. That season alone was enough to push the Vikings into the number three spot in cumulative MAY during the decade. While the team was consistently average to good for the majority of the nineties, they took a big step forward in 1997; their three-year MAY of 4325 is responsible for nearly 80% of their total decade output (5462).

In addition to their big-armed quarterback, superstar receivers, and multidimensional halfback, Minnesota also boasted a solid offensive line. The leader of the line was seven time first team All Pro guard Randall McDaniel. The Hall of Fame guard set the tone while center Jeff Christy kept pace.9 The line also featured promising right tackle Korey Stringer. He tragically pass away just after turning 27, but he left a legacy unrivaled by many who played full careers.[10 Stringer’s unexpected death from heat stroke, and the impact it had on NFL, college, and high school policy, is detailed in the linked article.]

After seemingly carrying the offense on his back during the 80s and early 90s, John Elway finally got some much needed help. West Coast Offense and zone-blocking expert Mike Shanahan took over as head coach in 1995 and immediately turned around Denver’s fortunes.10 The Denver offense was good-to-great every year Elway and Shanahan were together. They were so successful that, despite poor output in the beginning of the decade, the Broncos finished with the fourth ranked total offense of the nineties.

terrell davis
Snubbed.

Their most productive season came in 1998, their second title year. Elway had one of the most efficient bouts of his storied career, and Hall of Fame caliber running back Terrell Davis eclipsed 2000 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing.11 Alex Gibbs’s stellar offensive line helped Davis become the most productive runner in a league that featured five HOF contemporaries. Tony Jones (who had taken over for HOF tackle Gary Zimmerman) teamed with Mark Schlereth and Tom Nalen to form an imposing left side, and Davis used his remarkable vision and burst to take full advantage of the zone scheme.

When Elway dropped back to pass, he had the privilege of throwing to the often underrated and ultra competitive Rod Smith12 and the unfairly gifted receiving tight end Shannon Sharpe. Sharpe played the position like a wide receiver in a linebacker’s body, and he carried Ozzie Newsome‘s torch of hyper-athletic tight ends into the 21st century and, ultimately, into the Hall of Fame.

It may come as a surprise to see the 1999 Rams with such a relatively low ranking (ninth in TAY and fourth in MAY), but there is a good reason for the demotion from the lofty heights the Greatest Show on Turf occupies in our collective memory. While they scored the second most points of any team in the decade, 79 of those points came from defense or special teams.13 Of course, 447 points is still great and would rank eleventh in the decade, but it doesn’t put the 1999 Rams in the pantheon of historic offensive seasons.

All that being said, St. Louis was still a force to be reckoned with. Unknown rookie Kurt Warner stepped in for an injured Trent Green and went on to become just the second quarterback ever to throw more than 40 touchdowns in a season. Warner thrived in Don Coryell disciple Mike Martz‘s offensive system, which emphasized intermediate and deep passes and a versatile running back. Future Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace made it possible for Warner to complete seven step drops and allow deeper routes to develop, while talented receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt forced secondaries to pick their poison in coverage.

marshall faulk
Engine of the GSOT.

In an offense full of all stars, the true engine that drove the GSOT train was Marshall Faulk. After leading the NFL in scrimmage yards for a forgettable Colts team, Faulk joined the Rams and broke the season record for YFS. He would ultimately extend his streak of 2000+ YFS seasons to four.14 He was a fluid and shifty runner who held onto the ball better than almost any back in history. He also possessed an incredible ability to read and respond to coverages as a receiver out of the backfield or from the slot.15

In 1990, coach Jack Pardee became the head coach of the Houston Oilers and brought his run and shoot offense with him. The offense eschewed the use of fullbacks and tight ends, opting instead to spread the field with four wide receivers and a single tailback. Pardee found the perfect trigger man in Hall of Famer Warren Moon. In their first two years together, Moon led the league in completions and yards, as the Oilers became the first team in history to pass on more than 66% of their plays.

warren moon
Justice prevails.

Moon exploited the lack of depth in opposing secondaries by spreading the ball effectively between talented wideouts Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires, and Drew Hill.16 Because four receiver sets, by their very nature, keep extra blockers off the field, there was added pressure on the offensive line to generate movement on running plays. Star linemen Bruce Matthews and Mike Munchak shored up the interior, while the stocky Lorenzo White used his own mass to help negate the lack of added blockers.17

Unfortunately, the offensive design was too reliant on the pass and was sometimes unable to run out the clock late in games. This led to solid regular seasons followed by playoff letdowns. Moon was traded to the Vikings after 1993, and Pardee was fired midway through 1994. New coach Jeff Fisher subsequently redefined the team to win with defense and rushing, relying heavily on college stars Eddie George and Steve McNair to lead the offensive charge.18

The following year, using an uptempo offensive of its own, Marv Levy‘s Buffalo Bills paced the league offensively. Borrowing heavily from Sam Wyche‘s no huddle attack, Levy used his arsenal of all star players to outscore opponents into submission. The Bills rode this explosive offense to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances; although they came up short each time, this remains an astonishing feat. Their offense was called the K-Gun, after versatile tight end Keith McKeller. McKeller’s ability to block and catch allowed the team to run a no huddle offense without substituting specialized players.19 All Pro center Kent Hull also contributed significantly, as he was adept at pass and run blocking.

Quarterback Jim Kelly found great success calling his own plays on the field. Depending on the look of the defense, he could pass to Hall of Fame receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton, or he could hand the ball off to Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas. Regardless of what defenses did, the Bills had a Hall of Famer to attack the weakness. Although Kelly called the plays, Thomas was arguably the key to success in Buffalo. He was a great runner and receiver, topping 1700 YFS every year from 1989 to 1993. In 1991, he produced his first of two seasons over 2000 scrimmage yards and was named the NFL MVP.

The Bad and the Ugly

The Seattle Seahawks are on the verge of becoming the NFL’s next great dynasty, but in 1992 they were abysmal. They scored just 140 points and gained only 3374 yards and 208 first downs, both of which are lows for the decade. With -2.77 MAY/P, they were easily the worst offense on a per play basis. Ultimately, their -2613 marginal adjusted yards are at the deepest bottom of the barrel.

Chris Warren was the only ray of light, producing the first of six straight seasons with more than 1000 yards per season. However, the rest of the team was dismal. Seattle’s leading receiver was a fullback, an their number one receiver gained only 369 yards.

While the 1992 Seahawks had the worst single season offense, the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals had the worst overall offense of the nineties. The only year their production was above average (and only slightly so) was 1993. Those nine below average seasons add up to -8434 marginal adjusted yards at a decade-worst -0.84 MAY/P. On top of that, the team had no real stars to speak of.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fielded the second worst cumulative offense of the decade. When Tony Dungy arrived in 1996, he reformed the Tampa defense, but he couldn’t help the moribund offense.  With only one positive season in the 90s, the Bucs ended the decade with -7747 marginal adjusted yards. Interestingly, from 1997 to 2001, the team rostered arguably both the most underrated and overrated rushers in the NFL.20

The New England Patriots started the nineties in shambles and didn’t get much better as the decade progressed. The arrival of Bill Parcells in 1993 and Drew Bledsoe in 1994 helped turn the offense into a slightly above average production, and Ray Perkins‘s scheme allowed All Pro tight end Ben Coates to thrive. However, the team didn’t find any consistent offensive success until the following decade, when a genius head coach and an unheralded quarterback fro Michigan would lead the team to unprecedented heights.

Other Notable Figures

Quarterbacks

Legendary quarterbacks Dan Marino and Joe Montana saw their illustrious career some to an end during the 90s.

Montana was unceremoniously traded to the Chiefs before the 1993 season. Although his physical skills were diminished, he maintained some of the magic that endeared him to San Francisco fans. He led Kansas City to an upset victory over his former team – and eventual Super Bowl champion – in 1994. The previous year, he led them to the AFC Championship game as a wild card team. The two playoff victories in 1993 are the last two in franchise history.

Marino played until 1999, retiring as the all time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. He experienced limited individual and team success after turning 30, although he still possessed one of the quickest releases in the league. In his final season, at the age of 38, Marino led the league in sack rate for the tenth time in his Hall of Fame career.

brett favre
Having fun out there.

Brett Favre began his career as an afterthought on the Atlanta Falcons. However, after being traded to the Packers, he quickly became one of the best and most exciting players in the NFL. From 1995 to 1997, he led the league in touchdown passes and picked up a then-record three MVP awards. Favre also helped bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown, defeating the Patriots in Super Bowl 31. He would go on to start a record 321 consecutive games and take the throne from Marino as the career leader in yards and touchdowns.

Running Backs

Undeniably the most thrilling runner of his generation Barry Sanders, embarrassed defenses for a decade before abruptly retiring at the age of 30. Despite being the only serious threat on his offense and, consequently, facing defenses designed to stop him, he led the league in rushing yards four times and was the runner-up thrice. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and 1527 yards per season, highlighted by his incredible 2053 yard, 6.1 YPC outing in 1997. He was the second ranked rusher in history at the time of his retirement.21

Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis are arguably the two least exciting modern running backs to make the Hall of Fame.

Martin was a dependable runner whose best characteristics were probably vision and ball control. His 0.72% fumble rate is among the greatest of all time. Only Emmitt Smith has more thousand yard rushing seasons, and no one has more 1400 YFS seasons. Martin produced equally well for the Patriots and the Jets and led the league in rushing as a 31 year old. He currently ranks fourth on the all time rushing list.

Before Bettis was a plodding bruiser who moved the chains in short yardage situations or scored touchdowns in goal line packages, he was a premier NFL running back. He began his career with two consecutive thousand yard seasons for the Rams before a coaching change saw him thrust into a role for which he was ill-suited. He was traded to Pittsburgh, where his tough running style meshed with the gritty persona of the team and city itself, and immediately endeared himself to fans. He posted six straight thousand yard seasons and retired as the sixth leading rusher in history.

Receivers

Tim Brown is an interesting case. An undeniable talent and Heisman Trophy winner in college, he was hamstrung with poor quarterback play and curious personnel management for a good part of his career. During his first half decade in the NFL, he was the best receiver on the Raiders but was relegated primarily to special teams and third down packages. Once put in a full time role, he posted 80 or more catches and 1000 or more yards in nine of the next ten years. His 100 career receiving touchdowns are tied with Steve Largent for seventh all time.

Sterling Sharpe is one of the biggest “what-ifs” in modern NFL history. After producing at a high level with mediocre quarterback play, his output exploded once Favre became his quarterback. He led the NFL in receptions or touchdowns in two of the three years he spent with Favre before suffering a career ending injury in his prime. One could argue, without hyperbole, that Sharpe was briefly the top receiver in a league that also contained Rice, Irvin, Carter, and Brown.

barry sanders
Herman thanks you.

Perhaps no Detroit player benefited more from sharing the field with Barry Sanders than did Herman Moore.  With defenses geared to stop the run, Moore posted three consecutive seasons with at least 100 receptions, leading the league twice. His run of statistical superiority was short-lived, but it was nearly unparalleled in sheer volume of catches.

After being dumped by Dallas, Jimmy Smith, got a fresh start under Tom Coughlin and the expansion Jaguars. Once Mark Brunell became the full time starting quarterback in 1996, Smith produced seven straight thousand yard campaigns (he also had two more after Brunell’s departure). His career numbers are even more impressive when you consider how rarely his teams actually passed the ball.

After toiling in obscurity in San Francisco and New Orelans, Wesley Walls landed on a young Carolina team at the age of 30. He then made the Pro Bowl in five or the next six seasons. Over that span, he ranked first among all tight ends, with 40 receiving touchdowns. He also ranked fourth at his position in both receptions and yards. Not bad for a guy who didn’t find a home until the twilight of his career.

Linemen

Between 1993 and 1997, four of the premier tackles in history joined the league. Willie Roaf (1993), Tony Boselli (1995), Jonathan Ogden (1996), and Walter Jones (1997) were once-a-decade linemen who happened to enter the NFL on a wave of talent infusion.

Roaf earned seven Pro Bowl nods and two first team All Pro selections with the Saints before finishing his career in Kansas City. With the Chiefs, he made the Pro Bowl all four years and helped anchor one of the most dominant offensive lines in NFL history.

Boselli was arguably the best of the bunch – a mean mauler who played with uncommon power and drive – but had his Canton-worthy career abbreviated by lingering injuries. During his six years as a starter, he made five Pro Bowls and earned three AP1 selections. He protected Brunell’s left side and paved the way for a young Fred Taylor.

At 6’9″  and 340 pounds, Ogden is the largest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As the first ever draft pick of the Ravens, he made his presence known right away, anchoring a strong offensive line that help Jamal Lewis rush for the third most yards ever in a single season.

Jones may have been the most technically skilled of any tackle ever to play. Coach Mike Holmgren said he was the greatest player he ever coached. Holmgren, of course, also coached Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Brett Farve. That’s high praise.

Richmond Webb and Lomas Brown are a pair of left tackles who made seven Pro Bowls apiece while playing for generally forgettable teams. Webb made his mark protecting Marino’s blind side, while Brown protected a revolving door of nondescript passers in Detroit and Arizona.22

Will Shields played his entire 14 year career in Kansas City, earning twelve Pro Bowl selections and a pair of first team All Pro nods. Shields started the second game of his rookie season and didn’t miss another start in his final 223 games. Early in his career, he blocked for Joe Montana; and by the end of his career, he joined forces with Roaf, Brian Waters, and Casey Wiegman to compose a formidable front.

Steve Wisniewski was a talented guard who made it to eight Pro Bowls and two All Pro first teams, despite spending his career playing for a middling Raiders franchise. A member of the 1990s All Decade Team, Wisniewski would likely have a bust in Canton if he played on the other side of San Francisco Bay.

Ruben Brown has the distinction of having been named to the most Pro Bowls (9) of any player never to earn a first team All Pro selection. Entering the league with Buffalo on the wrong side of the K-Gun revolution, Brown only got to spend two seasons blocking for Kelly and Thomas. The talented blocker is yet another example of “wrong place, wrong time.”

dermontti dawson
An athletic marvel.

Dermontti Dawson remains the last great center the NFL has seen. He had big shoes to fill, taking over for the legendary Mike Webster, and he filled them comfortably. At just 6’2″ he possessed great leverage and was able to use that to generate tremendous functional strength. Dawson also had rare quickness for his size, and has been described as the best athlete ever to play the position.23

1990s NFL Offenses on Average

This table should give you some context for the first table, as well as for the graphic below. Read it thus: In 1990, the average NFL team scored 322.0 points and gained 4937.9 yards on 965.2 plays. They had 31.8 turnovers and picked up 284.2 first downs. These numbers combined to 6381 total adjusted yards at 6.61 per play and 399 per game.

YrPFYdsPlyTO1stDTAYTAY/PTAY/G
1990322.04937.9965.231.8284.263816.61399
1991303.84908.6972.232.2284.163186.50395
1992299.74770.5958.532.7276.760556.32378
1993299.24970.31005.530.4290.264596.42404
1994324.15085.91019.429.7297.666926.56418
1995343.85262.11032.530.6309.570056.78438
1996326.85062.41022.230.6298.666196.48414
1997331.95037.81020.728.6292.366236.49414
1998340.55082.61008.828.7291.366696.61417
1999333.05100.31018.030.7290.065916.47412

As you can see in the chart below, the offensive explosion of the 80s began to level off around 1986 before declining steadily from 1989-92. After an outlier season in 1995, offensive production once again stabilized for roughly a decade (you can’t see past 2000 here, but the numbers don’t begin an upward trend until 2005).

offenses up to 1999

Unlike in previous decades, there weren’t many rules created to open up offenses. In fact, most major rule changes were aimed at promoting player safety and making the game more watchable for television viewers.

  • In 1991, the league voted to adopt the unabated to the quarterback rule, which declared a play dead if any offside defender had a clear path to the quarterback. This helped preserve the welfare of the most important players on the field.
  • In 1992, in order to increase player safety, offensive players lined up in the backfield at the beginning of a play were prohibited from chop blocking a defender already engaged with another blocker. This primarily kept defensive linemen from receiving career-threatening leg injuries.
  • In 1992, owners voted to eschew instant replay. They would reintroduce it in 1999, under a revamped system similar to the one implemented by the defunct USFL.24
  • In 1993,  in an effort to speed up the game, the play clock was reduced from 45 to 40 seconds. This had a negligible impact, as the average plays per game remained in line with the historical trend.
  • In 1993 intentional grounding rules were modified to allow quarterbacks to throw away a pass so long as they are outside the pocket and the ball reaches the original line of scrimmage. This change prevented quarterbacks from forcing unsafe passes and provided an outlet for self-preservation that didn’t result in a penalty.
  • Also in 1993, the league agreed that spiking the ball was now permitted for anyone taking the snap from the center, so long as the spike occurred immediately upon receiving the snap. If the spike is not immediate, it is intentional grounding. This rule was implemented to increase excitement associated with comebacks.
  • In 1994, 24 years after merging with the progressive AFL, the NFL finally adopted the two point conversion. Now, 21 years later, teams still don’t use it enough.
  • In 1994, the NFL moved kickoffs back to the 30 yard line to encourage more return plays and, thus, further increase excitement.
  • Also in, 1994 the league mandated that missed field goals would be spotted at the spot of the kick rather than the previous line of scrimmage. This, in effect, penalized teams about 7 yards for a missed kick. The rule also stipulated that, if the result of the possession is inside the 20,  the ball would be spotted on the 20 yard line. This could result in a “penalty” of up to 13 yards for the kicking team.
  • The final piece in the 1994 offensive improvement policy bundle was the roughing the passer rule, which penalized defenders for late hits on the quarterback.
  • The following year, league brass determined quarterbacks were permitted to receive radio communications from the sidelines, enabling offenses to have a strategic advantage over defenses.
  • In 1998, it became illegal for defensive players to flinch or otherwise move in a manner aimed at tricking offensive linemen to false start. This had modest results, but it did remove a cheap strategic element from the defensive repertoire.

Two important, non-regulatory events took place in the nineties: the creation of the World League of American Football (later named NFL Europe) and the collective bargaining agreement of 1993.

While NFL Europe wasn’t a success from a pure business standpoint, it did give the NFL an avenue to try out new ideas before implementing them.25 Moreover, the new league allowed the NFL to expand its reach further into international markets, thereby increasing its overseas appeal and augmenting future television viewership.

In 1993, in response to Freeman McNeil‘s successful lawsuit (and the subsequent NFLPA class action lawsuit in Reggie White‘s name), the league and players signed a seven-year collective bargaining agreement. The agreement was the first one ratified since the 1982 CBA expired in 1987. The new CBA was the most comprehensive in the history of American sports and guaranteed over $1 billion in benefits for active and former players. The agreement also guaranteed players with four years experience in the NFL the right to unrestricted free agency (with the notable exception of the oft-abused franchise tag).

The NFLPA also agreed to terms that players would be paid based on a percentage of league revenues. Given the rapidly increasing popularity of the league, in concert with large television network contracts, the deal paid immediate dividends for players. Playing in the NFL was already a lucrative option for elite athletes, but the 1993 CBA made it even more attractive, as salaries increased nearly 40 percent. This once again increased the likelihood of talented athletes aspiring to a future in the NFL rather than the NBA or MLB.

  1. If you haven’t been following along, you can read articles on the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, as well as the AAFC and AFL.
  2. League-wide offensive production would never come close to this afterwards. Offensive output sprung rose rapidly until 1995 before leveling off again and remaining stable until 2004.
  3. From 1991-1998, Young led the NFL in completion rate five times, touchdowns four times, interception rate twice, yards per attempts five times, passer rating six times, and ANY/A four times.
  4. If you include only his time with the 49ers, he jumps to number two. Of course, it is important to note that Young spent several years learning to be a good passer before finally starting, and his career ended early enough to prevent him from experiencing a likely decline.
  5. This includes a 100/1502/13 line with Montana in 1990.
  6. This ranks second only to Torry Holt‘s 12594 yards from 2000-2009.
  7. Incredibly, if you only count his production from his age 30 season on, Rice ranks 7th all time in receptions, 10th in receiving yards, and 6th in receiving touchdowns.
  8. His stats back this up: Aikman’s cmp%, Y/A, TD%, passer rating, ANY/A, and TAY/P all increased in the postseason.  The only area of decline was interception rate, which is to be expected when quarterbacks focus more on making big plays.
  9. Interestingly, when McDaniel left for Tampa in 2000, Christy followed him; they both made the Pro Bowl together with their new team.
  10. Shanahan is an interesting figure: he has received derision based on his recent coaching stint with Washington, but he has also received undue praise as an offensive innovator. He was a great coach who got the best out of quarterbacks and running backs, but he wouldn’t have achieved such success without the help of zone-blocking guru Alex Gibbs. Gibbs, for his part, is often given too much credit for being the “godfather” of a blocking scheme detailed in a posthumous book by Vince Lombardi.
  11. And he did so while only fumbling twice, which is remarkable.
  12. Smith once lamented the fact that they track wins for quarterbacks and not for wide receivers
  13. That’s 7 interception touchdowns, 1 fumble return, 2 kickoff returns, 1 punt return, and a safety.
  14. In addition to Faulk, only Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson have hit the mark four times.
  15. Many of posited that Faulk could have made the Hall of Fame as a wide receiver had he decided to play that position.
  16. Curtis Duncan was the other starting receiver, but he wasn’t on the level of the other three.
  17. It was fairly common for run and shoot backs to be heavy, with the thought being that they could act as their own fullbacks, as it were. This was not universal, of course. Just the following year, Houston’s leading rusher was the 190 pound Allen Pinkett.
  18. Results were mixed. The team moved to Tennessee and rebranded as the Titans, and they came within one play of possibly forcing the first ever overtime in a Super Bowl. However, they were inconsistent and experienced little postseason success outside of their loss in the 1999 title game.
  19. In this way, McKeller is a schematic ancestor to players like Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, and Vernon Davis.
  20. That’s Warrick Dunn, a versatile receiving back, and Mike Alstott, a fullback who couldn’t block, for those interested.
  21. If he would have produced one more season at his average of 1527 yards, he would have retired as the all time leader in rushing yards (he would have ultimately been passed by Emmitt, however).
  22. Webb earned two first team All Pro nods in Miami, while Brown picked up one with the Lions.
  23. Granted, this was from Bill Cowher, his former coach. However, Cowher isn’t prone to hyperbole, and simply watching footage will convince the skeptical.
  24. The NFL is always on the cutting edge.
  25. For instance, the two point conversion and quarterback helmet radios were used in NFL Europe prior to adoption by the NFL proper. The experimental league’s overtime rules were also remarkably similar to the ones the NFL adopted in 2010.