I am of the belief that we as fans don’t think about, talk about, learn about, or even hear about the earliest years of the NFL. Sure, we’ll see some grainy footage of Johnny Unitas throwing a bomb to John Mackey or Bart Starr sealing the deal with a QB sneak, but most pre-Joe Namath events are out of sight out of mind.1
Today, I’m going to go back to the decade in which Unitas and Starr were born and look at the offensive performances of the teams from that decade. We only have fumble and first down data starting from 1935, and we only have other offensive stats dating back to 1932. For this reason, I have split the data into a 1932-1934 table and a 1935-1939 table.2
My primary method for measuring offensive performance is Total Adjusted Yards, which gives bonuses for touchdowns and first downs and gives penalties for turnovers. In case you forgot, here is the formula:
TAY = Yds + 20*TD + 9*(1d – TD) – 45*Int – 25*Fmb
Where fumbles and first downs are unavailable, they are omitted from the calculation. Because schedules weren’t standardized until 1936 (with teams prior to that playing as many as 20 or as few as 1 game in a season), I have included TAY per game for your convenience.
1930s NFL Offenses: 1932-1934
The table below is sorted by TAY per game, but you can sort and search to your heart’s content. Read it thus: The 1934 Chicago Bears played in 13 games. They scored 286 points and gained 3802 yards on 759 plays. They gained 5.0 yards per play and had 24 turnovers. This gives them 3442 TAY at 4.53 per play. Their TAY/P is 1.56 over the league average, giving them (1.56 * 759 =) 1186 marginal adjusted yards. They gained 265 TAY per game.
|1933||New York Giants||14||244||2972||654||4.5||19||2717||4.15||1.72||1126||194|
|1934||New York Giants||13||147||2731||716||3.8||17||2306||3.22||0.25||178||177|
|1933||Green Bay Packers||13||170||2699||696||3.9||18||2269||3.26||0.83||576||175|
|1932||New York Giants||12||93||2260||587||3.9||14||1870||3.19||0.06||37||156|
|1932||Staten Island Stapletons||12||77||2298||621||3.7||16||1798||2.90||-0.23||-141||150|
|1934||Green Bay Packers||13||156||2348||653||3.6||19||1853||2.84||-0.13||-88||143|
|1932||Green Bay Packers||14||152||2131||568||3.8||14||1821||3.21||0.08||47||130|
|1934||St. Louis Gunners||3||27||679||162||4.2||10||289||1.78||-1.19||-193||96|
In 1932, the Bears and Packers scored by far the most points. However, they played two more games than any other team, so those numbers can be deceptive (for one of those teams, at least). Despite the standout season from the legendary Arnie Herber, Green Bay ranked behind five other teams in total offensive output per game. They also ranked fourth on a per play basis. The Bears, on the other hand, led the league is both per play efficiency and per game volume. They also happened to pick up an NFL championship.
In 1933, it was the Portsmouth Spartans3 who had the most productive offense each game (and the number two per play). However, an implosion in the latter part of the season earned them three straight losses and a 6-5 record, eliminating them from any title talk. The offense that boasted the best mix of volume and efficiency was the New York Giants, losers of the NFL title game. The champion Bears had an offense in the middle of the pack, but they managed to win a bunch of close games behind the play of legendary Bronko Nagurski.
During their undefeated march through the 1934 regular season, the Bears scored by far the most points per game of any team in the NFL. However, their proclivity for turnovers decreased the gap between them and the second-ranked Lions. The Bear still ranked first in TAY, TAY per play, and TAY per game. Unfortunately for them, their offense could only muster 13 points in a championship game loss to Ed Danowski‘s Giants.
It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, of course. The Cincinnati Reds’ offenses were more than one adjusted yard worse than average in both 1933 and 1934. The 1933 Cardinals and Pirates, as well as the 1934 Dodgers, were nearly two adjusted yards below average. In fact, the Cardinals could only muster 22 TAY per game!4
1930s NFL Offenses: 1935-1939
Like the table above, this one is sorted by TAY/G but can be sorted and searched as is your wont. Read it thus: Read it like you read the first one.
|1939||Green Bay Packers||11||233||3445||748||4.6||15||149||4134||5.53||1.54||1151||376|
|1938||Green Bay Packers||11||223||3037||664||4.6||20||134||3392||5.11||1.51||1005||308|
|1936||Green Bay Packers||12||248||3293||745||4.4||19||148||3656||4.91||1.51||1124||305|
|1937||Green Bay Packers||11||220||3184||699||4.6||26||140||3254||4.66||1.22||852||296|
|1937||New York Giants||11||128||2543||679||3.7||11||127||2810||4.14||0.70||476||255|
|1938||New York Giants||11||194||2692||652||4.1||19||132||2782||4.27||0.67||439||253|
|1939||New York Giants||11||168||2252||625||3.6||11||109||2472||3.96||-0.03||-21||225|
|1936||New York Giants||12||115||2724||696||3.9||17||146||2592||3.72||0.33||226||216|
|1935||Green Bay Packers||12||181||3011||678||4.4||27||125||2493||3.68||1.20||813||208|
|1935||New York Giants||12||180||2400||651||3.7||19||112||2352||3.61||1.14||739||196|
In 1935, the Bears boasted the top offense in the land. Unfortunately, they played in the brutal West division and finished the season with a 6-4-2 record. Led by Hall of Famer Dutch Clark, the Lions owned the second best offense and used it to win the West and eventually throttle the Giants in the title game. That same year, the Pirates set a new mark for futility, gaining 3.06 TAY/P below average and actually ending the season as the only team in recorded history to end the season with negative total output.
In 1936, the West was a veritable murderer’s row of offenses, with the top three (and four of the top five) all in the division. On both a total and a per play basis, the Lions came out on top of the ratings. They also had the top scoring differential in the league. It was the rival Packers, however, who went on to win the division and represent the West in the championship game. Despite winning the East, Boston had a below average offense. It showed in the title game when Green Bay won 21-6.
1937 was Slingin’ Sammy Baugh‘s first year in the league. He capped off one of the great rookie seasons any quarterback has ever had with an upset championship win over the Chicago Bears. Despite Baugh’s personal success, Washington’s offense was little more than above average. It was the Arnie Herber to Don Hutson connection of the Packers that just surpassed the Bears as the most efficient offense. With a less than stellar defense, Green Bay was unable to keep pace with their well-rounded rivals from the Second City.
In 1938, the New York Giants won the title, and center Mel Hein took home the league MVP award5 But it was the Packers, not the Giants, who fielded the best offense in the NFL. This time, it was the oft-overlooked Cecil Isbell chucking the ball to Hutson. However, after falling behind early in the championship game, Green Bay (with Hutson out of the lineup) never caught up to the Giants.
At the close of the decade, the Bears had the most efficient and effective offense in the NFL. However, a a few inconsistent performances kept them from winning the West division. Green Bay fielded the second best offense, and their more consistent play led them to the West crown. Washington had the number three offense in the league, based in large part on their games against bad defenses. They performed poorly against good teams and lost enough games to cede the East title to the New York Giants. The Giants’ offense was middling, but their defense only allowed 10 or more points three times. That defense didn’t hold in the championship game, where the Packers put up 27 points in a shutout victory.
1930s NFL Offenses in a Nutshell
The table below illustrates league average offensive performance throughout the decade. The headings all mean what they meant in the first table.
Offenses of the thirties were far removed from “three yards and a cloud of dust,” but they were nowhere near the Sid Gillman passing revolution. Unsophisticated offenses were often at the mercy of relentless defenses. The rules of the era prohibited offensive lineman from using their open hands to block pass rushers, and they also permitted defenders to effectively assault receivers downfield. Protecting the quarterback was an afterthought, and the in-game treatment of the signal callers would make even Charles Martin wince. The ball itself was not nearly as manageable as the one modern players use. It became elongated as the passing game gained prominence, but the white ball used in the 1930s was slippery and disadvantageous to offenses.
Also of note is the fact that football was simply not a popular sport at this time in its history. If a man wanted to make a living as an athlete, he played baseball. If he couldn’t play baseball, he got a real job that paid much better money. The league was also segregated, which kept a large pool of talent off the fields and out of the stands. Both of these issues had an effect on offense and defense, of course, but they’re important to understand in order to have a complete picture of the league at the time.
The Packers, Bears, and Giants all won multiple titles in the thirties, and they also happened to put the most consistently good offenses on the field. Each team fielded only one below average offense from 1932-1939. The Portsmouth Spartans/Detroit Lions won only one championship during the decade, but they are the only team not to produce a sub par offense.
A far cry from their offensive successes under Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, the Eagles of the 1930s were consistently disappointing when the ball was in their hands. The Cardinals were even worse, hitting rock bottom before turning it around in the 40s.6
As you can see from the tables, the overall offensive performance of the league as a whole rapidly increased throughout the decade. Over the course of the next several articles, I’ll explain how it eventually took a giant leap from 1946 to 1947, increased slowly until about 1962, and took a turn for the worse until rules changes in 1978 opened up the passing game. We’ll also look at the Bill Walsh and Sam Wyche explosion in the early 80s, the stagnation of the 90s and early 2000s, and the sharp incline since 2005.
- Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to most fans. It’s only natural for us to care about the players we see play, but I think it’s important to know about the players/teams/events that paved the way for the league we now know. ↩
- Don’t worry, I will do a pre-stat (1920-1931) study at the consummation of this decade-by-decade series. ↩
- They became the Detroit Lions the following season. ↩
- With Ryan Lindley at the helm, their 2014 counterparts weren’t much better. ↩
- Yes, they actually gave the award to an offensive lineman. No, if it didn’t happen in 2005 it will never happen again. ↩
- And then not being very good again until they finally stopped toying around with Kurt Warner. ↩