The 1980s was an exciting time to be a fan of offensive football. The Dark Ages had passed, and Kings from the West led offenses out of the fog and into a new era of enlightenment. Bolstered by rules changes from the previous decade, the passing game became a more favorable option than ever. The defense-dominated seventies were over; a decade of offensive decadence was upon us.
TAY = Yds + 20*TD + 9*(1d – TD) – 45*Int – 25*Fmb1
Incorporating first downs into the equation helps modern offenses look better because of their focus on functioning as a consistent machine rather than looking fora bunch of runs up the gut to set up a prayer of a deep pass. This change in approach to offensive schemes is visible in the statistics in the form of far larger numbers than existed for previous decades.2 Let’s have a look at the numbers.
1980s NFL Offenses
The table below displays offensive information for the 280 team seasons from the 1980s. Read it thus: The 1984 Miami Dolphins played 16 games, scoring 513 points and gaining 6936 yards on 1070 plays. They lost 28 turnovers and picked up 387 first downs. This resulted in 9876 total adjusted yards at 9.23 per play. Their TAY/P was 2.82 better than average, resulting in 3022 marginal adjusted yards. on a per game basis, they gained 617 TAY.
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with football history that the San Francisco 49ers boasted by far the best offense over the course of the 1980s. Led by innovative offensive coach – and underrated team builder – Bill Walsh, the Niners experienced an unprecedented stretch of success (both as an offense and as a whole team). In 1979, Walsh took over a team that had posted the worst offensive performance of any squad in the decade just the previous year. After taking a few years for his schematic and management contributions to take hold, San Francisco became a perennial contender. Beginning in 1981, Joe Montana‘s first full season as a starter, the team posted a record 23 consecutive seasons with positive marginal adjusted yards. They also ranked in the top ten in points scored from 1981 till 1998, as well as total yardage from 1982 till 1996.3
Even as Montana gave way to Steve Young and Jeff Garcia, and as Walsh gave way to George Seifert and Steve Mariucci, the 49ers’ offensive engine kept running smoothly. This had much to do with the fact that Walsh did not simply install an innovative and influential offensive scheme (although he certainly did), but rather he created a culture of winning – through coaching, drafting, and managing players – that lived on long after his retirement. Many great players helped San Fran thrive; when the NFL Network ran its 100 Greatest Players of All Time special, the 1980s 49ers boasted the top quarterback (Montana), receiver (Jerry Rice), and defensive back (Ronnie Lott). However, no player meant close to as much to the organization as did the coach who resented – but deserved – the nickname The Genius.
Over the course of the decade, the Niners scored more points and gained more yards than any other team, while suffering the fewest turnovers as well. Throw in the third most first downs, and they finished the 1980s with by far the most total adjusted yards at the highest rate per play. They also lapped the field in marginal adjusted yards, with 12829, or 84 per game. Their consistently great offense (paired with a consistently great defense) helped them win four Super Bowls in the decade and always be in the playoff hunt.
Montana’s postseason performances are the stuff of legend, but he was also one of the top regular season passers ever to play. However, after 1983 he never played a full 16 game season, on account of various injuries. Fortunately, Walsh smartly traded for an arguably more gifted quarterback to back up his legendary starter. When Montana inevitably went down with an injury, Young filled in an often played even better in limited action.
The first half of the decade saw the team win two championships with only Montana as its only offensive star. Wideout Dwight Clark, and later dual threat running back Roger Craig, provided the offense with talented receiving options, but the acquisition of Jerry Rice in 1985 gave both Montana and Young the opportunity to throw to the greatest receiver of all time. By his second season, Rice led the NFL in yards, and in his third season he caught a then-record 22 touchdown passes in just twelve games. From his rookie season till the end of the decade, Gary Clark was the only other receiver within 1000 yards of Rice; no one was withing twenty receiving touchdowns of his 66.
Of course, with all that talk of Hall of Fame players at skill positions, it is easy to overlook the big guys making it happen up front. Coach Walsh often said that the best way to get a defense to bite on play action is to pull a guard. For the bulk of the decade, Randy Cross was that guard. He, right tackle Keith Fahnhorst, and center Fred Quillan each earned Pro Bowl nods for their performance during San Francisco’s incredible 1984 season, which rates as the team’s best offensive output of the decade. That year also saw the 49ers win their second title after finishing the regular season just a play away from going undefeated.
The 49ers may have had the top offense of the decade, but the top single season offense belongs to the Miami Dolphins. In 1984, the Dolphins produced 3022 marginal adjusted yards, the highest mark up to that point and still the third highest in NFL history. Yes, the team did lose to a more complete squad in the Super Bowl, but don’t let that take away from just how incredible the Dolphins’ offense was that year. The catalyst for the Miami fireworks was the unbelievable play of second year quarterback Dan Marino.
Most fans know Marino for his record shattering sophomore season, in which he surpassed the previous single season passing yards total by nearly 300 yards and the passing touchdowns record by an astonishing twelve scores.4 However, Marino’s lightning quick release is also legendary. On the stat sheet, that showed up (or rather didn’t show up) in the form of avoided sacks. He is by far the greatest quarterback of all time when it comes to avoiding sacks, a characteristic that saved the Dolphins valuable yards and downs.
For the first five years of his career, Marino had the privilege of taking snaps from possibly the most gifted center ever to play in the NFL. Dwight Stephenson started just 87 games of professional football, but his dominance was so evident that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. By all accounts, he is the offensive line version of Gale Sayers – a blindingly brilliant flame that was unfortunately extinguished too soon.
No one would argue that Marino had the supporting cast Montana enjoyed, but he did have two speedy receivers capable of stretching defenses. Mark Clayton and Mark Duper (the “Marks Brothers”) were undersized wideouts who used their quickness and speed to get behind defenses and catch bombs from their legendary passer.
The Dolphins never fielded a below average offensive unit once Marino became the team’s starter. However, the team produced enough negative value from 1980-1982 to bring them down to third place in the cumulative decade rankings. Nonetheless, Miami’s 8473 marginal adjusted yards at 0.87 per play represent an astounding achievement.
The Cincinnati Bengals fielded five offense in the top twenty of the decade, and their 9698 marginal adjusted yards put them in second place in cumulative offensive output. Their stellar offenses helped them reach two title games, which they nearly won against the vaunted 49ers. However, their lack of rings, coupled with the fact that their success came under two quarterbacks, resulted in them being overlooked for all of their offensive achievements.
In the early part of the decade, the Bengals used an efficient short passing offense with accurate quarterback (and former Bill Walsh disciple) Ken Anderson. Their best season with Anderson at the helm came during his 1981 MVP campaign. The team boasted the second best offense in the league on their way to the best record in the AFC and a Super Bowl appearance. 1981 also marked the first Pro Bowl and All Pro nods for arguably the greatest offensive lineman of all time, Anthony Munoz.5
By 1984, Anderson was old and not well-suited for new coach Sam Wyche‘s up tempo offense. Wyche was a former Bengals quarterback under the tutelage of Bill Walsh before becoming Walsh’s assistant coach in San Francisco. While he picked up many of the schematic innovations from his mentor, he added an element of speed that was generally only reserved for two minute drills. Wyche’s implementation of the no huddle led to the greatest offensive success the Bengals franchise has ever experienced. Smart, cannon-armed quarterback Boomer Esiason was the perfect field general for the high speed assault.6
In 1988, Esiason took home the league’s MVP award while commanding Cincinnati’s best offense of the decade. The team finished the regular season 12-4 and were a Joe Montana comeback drive from taking home the only championship in franchise history. Running backs Ickey Woods and James Brooks each gained over 1200 yards from scrimmage, and guard Max Montoya joined Munoz to form a dominant offensive line that was essential to keeping the trains running on time.
Cumulatively, the San Diego Chargers had the fourth most productive offense of the decade. The team is hurt from the rather arbitrary year cutoffs, as they thrived in the late 1970s once offensive mastermind Don Coryell took the reins. Coryell, another protege of Sid Gillman, turned the San Diego offense into a fireworks display. Coryell followed in the footsteps of his mentor and expanded the role of the forward pass in professional football. Although he is inexplicably not in the Hall of Fame, his fingerprints cover the pages of modern NFL playbooks.7
Coryell’s “Air Coryell” offense succeeded by stretching defenses both vertically and horizontally, thereby negating much of the effect of zone coverages. Additionally, the offense took full advantage of the late 1970s rules changes, which limited contact with receivers, by sending receivers in motion and making them nearly impossible to press at the line. By putting eligible receivers in motion, Coryell was able to force defenses to reveal whether they were playing zone or man coverage.8When talented running back Chuck Muncie joined the team in 1980, Coryell began featuring a single back offense as his primary attack.9
The Coryell offense also featured the father of modern tight ends. Coryell had the massive, athletic Kellen Winslow run wide receiver routes in a way not previously seen on offenses. Winslow is the archetype from which modern greats like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates derived. Described as a wide receiver in an offensive lineman’s body,10 Winslow presented mismatches from almost anywhere on the field. His presence on the field also created easier matchups for receivers Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler
In order for Air Coryell to work optimally, a talented pocket passer was a necessity. Dan Fouts played the role to perfection. He was one of the most talented pure passers in history, and the universal respect of his teammates made him an ideal extension of the coaching staff on the field. Fouts broke – and rebroke – the single season passing yardage record three years in a row. Then, in 1982, he was on pace to be the first player ever to pass for more than 5000 yards in a season. Unfortunately, a players strike reduced the season to just nine games and cost him a shot at football immortality.
The strike shortened season didn’t just hurt Fouts; it hurt the whole team. If you take another look at the table above, you’ll see that their 1982 offense ranks 11th among all teams in the decade, despite only playing nine games. If they would have maintained their pace over a full season (there’s no guarantee that would have happened, of course), they would have produced 3252 marginal adjusted yards – good for number one of all time. Their 203 MAY/G ranks behind only the 1941 Bears and 1951 Rams. Unfortunately, owner Gene Klein showed little interest in extending the contracts of the team’s defensive stars, and the dynamic Coryell offense was never enough on its own to bring a title to San Diego.
The number five total offense of the eighties is an interesting one because it is the only one not to feature a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback. During the decade, Joe Gibbs‘s Washington squad started four primary quarterbacks11 and still managed to bring home two Super Bowl victories. Perhaps just as impressive is the fact that those titles both came in strike-shortened seasons. Despite the turmoil surrounding the league, he was able to lead his men to the promised land. Coach Gibbs was pupil of Coryell, having been his offensive line coach at San Diego State University and his offensive coordinator for the Chargers. Gibbs took over a pedestrian offense in 1981 and quickly turned things around; by 1983, Washington had scored more points in a season than any other team in history to that point.12
While Gibbs helped craft a dynamic aerial attack in San Diego, his offenses in Washington relied heavily on dominant offensive line play and a power running game. Coming out of college, many of Washington’s linemen were unheralded, but Gibbs used their unique talents to mold them into “The Hogs” – one of the great lines in NFL history.13 The Hogs used their athleticism to pave the way for the aging John Riggins on the counter trey, the Lombardi Sweep of the 1980s.
Of course, Washington blockers were also adept at protecting passers. In order to counter human hand grenade Lawrence Taylor, Gibbs used a dropping guard to cut off the pass rusher in the backfield. He also developed the H-back position, a hybrid fullback-tight end who could block from the backfield or at the line of scrimmage. If that didn’t do the trick, he would use two- and three-tight end sets to provide maximum protection.14 Gibbs would combine the blocking schemes with Coryell-inspired motioning receivers and his own novel trips formation to create confusion and mismatches for opposing defenses. The primary receiver to benefit from Gibbs’s genius was Hall of famer Art Monk.15 He was a big-bodied receiver who could block like a tight end or consistently keep the offense on schedule as a possession receiver. By the time he retired, Monk had caught more passes than any other player in NFL history.16
The Bad and the Ugly
The worst offensive season of the decade belonged to the 1988 Detroit Lions. They ranked last in the league in points, yards, plays, first downs, and yards per play. Their 4.34 TAY/P was 2.09 below average, and it resulted in them finishing the season with -1920 marginal adjusted yards.
Cumulatively, the Lions had the second worst offense of the decade, with -4785 adjusted yards below average. Over forty percent of their negative value came from the disastrous 1988 season. However, there was one highlight: their terrible performance set them up with the third pick in the 1989 draft, in which they drafted one of the all time great runners – Barry Sanders. Sanders earned the 1989 rookie of the year award and only got better in the nineties.
The second worst offense of the eighties was that of the 1984 Buffalo Bills. This version of the team did not have Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed, on the roster. Nor was Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy part of the program. With a regrettable mix of poor ball movement and abundant turnovers, the Bills produced -1803 MAY.
By 1988, the four Hall of Famers (plus standout lineman Kent Hull) were on the team. However, it wasn’t until the nineties that the famed K-Gun Offense helped the team reach four consecutive Super Bowls. After losing to the Bengals in the 1988 AFC Championship Game, Levy began implementing Wyche’s hurry-up principles on his own offense.
In 1981, Walter Payton had his normal fantastic year. However, he was the only offensive player in Chicago who could make that claim. Payton was responsible for over one third of the team’s offensive yards, which ranked third from the bottom that season. The Bears ranked that low despite running the second most plays of any team; unsurprisingly, they ranked last in yards per play.
The following year, Chicago hired Mike Ditka at head coach and drafted the oft-underrated Jim McMahon to play quarterback. The year after that, they drafted Jimbo Covert to play tackle and promoted Jay Hilgenberg to starting center. Payton, McMahon, Covert, and Hilgenberg formed the core of a respectable Chicago offense that helped guide the team to a Super Bowl win in 1985.17
From their inception in 1976 till the present day, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been generally forgettable on offense. After fielding some of the worst offenses of the 1970s, the Bucs produced the worst cumulative output of any franchise during the 1980s. They didn’t have any standout terrible seasons, but they also had only one above average performance (1981). This resulted in -5169 marginal adjusted yards during the decade.
Even during seasons of ineptitude, Tampa still had individual players worth mentioning. Quarterbacks Doug Williams and Steve Young both played poorly for the Bucs before going to stronger franchises and winning Super Bowls. James Wilder was a hulking workhorse running back who set a still-standing record of 492 touches in 1984 (407 carries and 85 receptions).
The New York Giants picked up arguably the greatest defensive player of all time when they drafted Lawrence Taylor in 1982. However, New York’s offense was so bad in the early eighties that they couldn’t fully take advantage of Taylor’s contributions. From 1980-82, the last years of coach Ray Perkins, to 1983, the first year of Bill Parcells, the team ranged from mediocre to terrible on offense.18 The Giants eventually turned it around starting in 1984, but they accumulated so much negative value at the beginning of the decade that they finished as the third worst total offense of the 1980s. Their -4688 MAY rates closer to the last place Bucs than the fourth place Steelers.
The Giants never fielded a great offense under Parcells, but they did become good enough to help win their first title since 1956. Phil Simms was an adequate passer who made himself a household name with perhaps the greatest passing performance in Super Bowl history. His primary target was Mark Bavaro, an incredibly gifted tight end with a modern skill set.19
Other Notable Figures
Few players in history have embodied the moniker “One Man Gang” quite like Denver quarterback John Elway. Despite having relatively little surrounding talent on offense, Elway earned three Pro Bowl nods and a league MVP award during the eighties.20 Often described as the most naturally gifted quarterback in NFL history, his stats rarely matched his ability, and his career remains misunderstood by those who never had the privilege of watching him play.
A harsh workload, paired with a violent running style, made short work of Earl Campbell‘s stellar career. After averaging over 110 yards per game during his first three years in the league (including an absurd 128.9 in 1980), he quickly fell off pace and never played a full 16-game season after 1981. After the most dominant runner since Jim Brown saw his Hall of Fame career fade away, the Houston Oilers became a pass-heavy team behind newly acquired CFL star Warren Moon.
Due to institutional prejudice against black quarterbacks, Moon was unable to start in the NFL until he was 28 years old. He immediately broke the franchise record for passing yards in a season, but he and the team saw little other immediate success. However, by 1987 Moon would lead the Oilers to the first of seven straight postseason appearances.21
Moon didn’t have the privilege of throwing to great receivers or handing off to great backs, but he did have the good fortune to play behind Hall of Fame guards Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews. Munchak (9 Pro Bowls, 2 AP1s) and Matthews (14 Pro Bowls, 7 AP1s) prevented inside penetration and allowed their gifted quarterback to pas from a clean pocket.
Among the greatest pure runners in history, Eric Dickerson was Secretariat in football pads. He ran with tremendous power, speed, and acceleration. In 1984, he ran for 2105 yards – a record that still stands. He also happened to boast two other seasons with 1800+ rushing yards and one more with 1659 yards. He surpassed 2000 yards from scrimmage in three of his first four seasons and then did it again after he was traded from the Rams to the Colts.
Paving the way for Dickerson was right tackle Jackie Slater. The Hall of Famer was a punishing mauler who also helped Wendell Tyler, Charles White, and Greg Bell pick up thousand yard seasons. Among offensive linemen never to earn a first team All Pro nod, only Ruben Brown and Winston Hill earned more trips to the Pro Bowl.
Former Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen joined the Raiders in 1982 and earned league wide respect right away22 Despite relatively few touches, Allen eclipsed 1000 yards from scrimmage in each of his first seven seasons. By the time he retired, he ranked second all time in career touchdowns scored.
Allen’s teammate, Todd Christensen, took the mantle of great Raiders tight ends and carried it into the eighties.23 In a time when gaudy receiving stats was rare for the position, Chistensen twice led the NFL in receptions and thrice surpassed 1000 receiving yards.
Steve Largent wasn’t a once in a generation athlete, and his teams didn’t have much success, so he is often overlooked in the discussion of the game’s great receivers throughout history. However, Largent clearly belongs on the short list; at the time of his retirement, he ranked first all time in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. He was incredibly consistent, boasting eight consecutive non-strike seasons with more than 1000 receiving yards.
Largent’s teammate, Curt Warner, had a brilliant career diminished by injuries. He gained nearly 1800 YFS as a rookie and subsequently tore his ACL. He came back in year three to post four straight seasons with more than 1100 scrimmage yards.
Randall Cunningham, also known as “the Ultimate Weapon,” was a more athletic, but less refined, version of Elway. Playing for coaches who seemed to care very little about offensive success, Cunningham was forced to become one-man offense. Running for his life behind porous lines, he took more sacks than any passer in the league for three straight seasons (including a then record 72 in 1986). To offset the sacks, he also ran for nearly twice as many yards as any contemporary 1980s quarterback. An All-American punter in college, he was also able to provide help on special teams when needed.
The Falcons haven’t had much to brag about in franchise history, but from 1979 to 1983, they boasted arguably the most physical running back ever to play. William Andrews was a human wrecking ball who Ronnie Lott once called the hardest hitter he ever faced. An injury limited Andrews to just five seasons as the starting running back. However, despite starting just five seasons – one of which was the nine-game strike year – Andrews still ranks second all time in scrimmage yards among Falcons players. Behemoth All Pro tackle Mike Kenn helped Andrews pile on the yards. He would later be joined by All Pro guard Bill Fralic to form a formidable wall up front for eight seasons.
Before Barry Sanders donned number 20 in Detroit, first overall pick Billy Sims filled the role. He started off his career with a bang, becoming the first player ever to score three touchdowns in his first NFL game. Injuries and a shortened 1982 season limited Sims to just 60 games in his career, but he was still able to pick up an impressive 7178 yards from scrimmage and 47 touchdowns.
Lynn Dickey won’t go down as an all time great, but his 1983 season was one for the ages. He led the league in yards (throwing for the third highest total ever, to at the time), touchdowns, YPA, and yards per completion. His primary receiver was Hall of Fame wideout James Lofton, who retired as the career leader in receiving yards. From 1980 to 1985, Lofton averaged over 1200 yards per 16-game season, including seasons of 22.4 and 22.0 yards per catch.
Casual fans likely don’t remember Brian Sipe, but he was named second team All Pro in 1979 and took home the MVP trophy in 1980. Sipe led the league in game winning drives both seasons and in passer rating during his MVP bout. Sipe was ultimately succeeded in Cleveland by Bernie Kosar.24 Kosar helped lead the Browns to three AFC Championship games and was a fan favorite in northern Ohio. He also had one of the best pro career of any college champion quarterback.
Sipe, and to a lesser extent Kosar, had the luxury of throwing to one of the premier tight ends in history, Ozzie Newsome. Before he made a living exploiting inefficiencies in the NFL draft market, he gave defenses nightmares as a matchup problem for secondaries.
Patriots guard John Hannah continued his run of dominance from the seventies and into the eighties. He made the Pro Bowl every year he played in the decade, and he threw in four first team All Pro nods for good measure. His dominant play is one of the reasons that, with limited preparation during the 1982 strike season, the Patriots ran on 63.4% of their plays (the highest mark of the decade).
New England receiver Stanley Morgan isn’t a household name, but he was a thrilling deep threat who took the top off defenses with his rare speed. From 1977 to 1982, Morgan topped 21 yards per reception each season; he led the league in the category from 1979 to 1981. During that time, he twice surpassed 1000 yards despite catching fewer than 50 passes.
Before winning a Super Bowl with John Elway and the Broncos, Hall of Fame tackle Gary Zimmerman blocked for a revolving door of middling quarterbacks and running backs in Minnesota. Zimmerman was one of many players who went on to have great NFL careers after playing in the failed USFL. He would pair with fellow Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel to form one of the better left sides in NFL history.
Another USFL success story was college legend Herschel Walker. After taking a beating averaging 424 touches per season for three years with the New Jersey Generals, Walker joined the Cowboys and posted three straight seasons with more than 1500 yards from scrimmage.25 Thinking they were just a player away from a championship, the Vikings traded a king’s ransom to the Cowboys to acquire Walker.
Walker was never able to live up to the impossible expectations created by the trade, but the draft picks Dallas gained in the trade were used to build the great Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s. New coach Jimmy Johnson turned those eight draft picks into Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, multiple All Pro safety Darren Woodson, and solid defensive tackle Russell Maryland. Thus, despite having a respectable career, Walker could never shake the results of a trade over which he had no control.
Walker wasn’t the only standout Dallas running back of the decade. Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett used his blazing speed and uncommon elusiveness to help him start the decade with five straight seasons over 1600 yards from scrimmage.26 Having played with both Roger Staubach and Michael Irvin, Dorsett was the lone Cowboys star to bridge two dynasties.
Naturally, the onset of a new era means the death of an earlier one. As new, high-flying offenses became the norm and younger, faster players became the faces of the new NFL, aging legends faded away.
The greatest dynasty of the previous era, the Pittsburgh Steelers, saw its brightest stars dim before extinguishing altogether. In consecutive years (1982-1984), Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, and Franco Harris left the game. Their best years were behind them, and they served as mere vestiges of a bygone age.
John Stallworth had a few solid years and was able to play until 1987, but Mike Webster was the only member of the dynasty who truly thrived during the decade. He earned seven Pro Bowl and three All Pro nods in the eighties before finishing his career in obscurity with the Chiefs.
The players weren’t the only lions in winter. A legendary quartet of coaches saw their success diminish significantly in the eighties.
Bud Grant built a dominant defensive dynasty in Minnesota, but his teams had become inconsistent and ineffective by 1980. Arguably the most successful head coach never to win a championship, he retired in 1985 at the relatively young age of 58.
Chuck Noll built the Steel Curtain from scratch and led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles in six years during the 1970s. His 1980s teams lacked the talent of his dynasty squads, and they fluctuated between bad and above average. He retired after 23 years as the only man to coach the Steelers in the post-merger era.
With 347 victories, Don Shula has more head coaching wins to his name than any other coach in NFL history.27 However, by the 1980s, he was clearly past his coaching prime and relied heavily on his talented quarterback to lead the Dolphins to victory.
1980s NFL Offenses on Average
This table should give you some more context for the table above, as well as help you see the general offensive trends during the decade. Read it thus: In 1980, the NFL played a 16 game schedule. The average NFL team scored 327.8 points and gained 5175.8 yards on 1040.0 plays. They lost 37.1 turnovers and gained 304.6 first downs. This resulted in 6538 total adjusted yards at 6.29 per play and 409 per game.
One of the most notable things about the table is that, during the 1982 nine-game strike season, offensive output slipped considerably on both a per play and per game basis. However, this did not happen during the fifteen-game 1987 strike season. Despite teams fielding replacement players for three games, there is no noticeable statistical difference between 1987 and the surrounding years.
As you can see from the above graphic, the NFL’s overhaul of the rules during the 1970s successfully opened up offensive production in the following decade. Offensive output increased steadily until 1984 before reaching a plateau. This isn’t out of the ordinary; after offensive innovations spread permeate the league and result in a widespread uptick in efficiency, defenses usually find innovative methods of countering those tactics. Thus, the window of opportunity most innovative offenses have to maintain a competitive advantage is often quite small. If a coach cannot continue to adapt his offense (and, by extension, his defense), he is unlikely to find consistent success. Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs were masters of innovation and adaptation, and their six championships in the decade are a byproduct of that genius.28
While the regulatory changes in the seventies focused significantly on stimulating fan interest by opening up scoring, rules changes in the eighties focused primarily on fairness and player safety. This sometimes meant making it harder on offenses, as you will see below.
- In 1980, the NFL outlawed chop blocks by tight ends on passing plays. This was an effort to save the knees of pass rushers.
- In 1981, the league outlawed the use of foreign substances on the hands, body, or uniform to gain a competitive advantage. This most notably impacted receivers and defensive backs who used Stickum. However, it also affected defensive linemen and linebackers who coated their jerseys in cooking spray in order to keep blockers from grabbing their jerseys.
- Also in 1981, the NFL made illegal chop blocks from interior linemen during pass plays on which the offensive player attempts to pass block. The dangerous practice of double teaming a player who is already being blocked below the knee was also outlawed. This improved player safety, but it required coaches to invent new ways to make the same blocks.
- In 1982, the league made it illegal for a defender to use the crown of his helmet to strike a defenseless player. This didn’t necessarily make it easier to play offense, but it did give offenses opportunities to continue drives because of first downs from penalties.
- In 1983, the NFL threw a bone to defenses by changing pass interference rules to exclude incidental contact. The Shield also expanded chop block protections from the knee and lower to the thigh and lower.
- In 1985, the league mandated that a quarterback kneel will result in the end of a play. Previously, quarterbacks in typical kneel situations would have to fall to the ground and risk injury in order for the play to be called dead. This player safety rule was also extended to include any runner who gives himself up by sliding feet first.
- Also in 1985, goaltending was made illegal. In football, the practice of goaltending involved having a tall or high-jumping player stand beneath the goal posts in an effort to swat away low flying field goal attempts. This is known as the Morris Stroud Rule, after the 6’10” Chiefs tight end who excelled at the practice a decade earlier.
- In 1987, quarterback spikes became an officially recognized, legal clock management tactic. Previously, the play resulted in an intentional grounding call. If the quarterback doesn’t perform the spike or thowaway immediately after taking the snap, it is still an intentional grounding penalty.29
- Also in 1987, it became illegal for an offensive player to chop block any defender already engaged with another blocker during pass plays.
- In 1989, the NFL attempted to kill off home field advantage by penalizing teams whose fans were too loud for opposing offenses to hear their play calls.
- In a change that would lay the groundwork for many modern offenses, it became illegal for defenses to try to slow down hurry-up or no huddle offenses by faking injuries.
- Given the rules changes and offensive innovations designed to exploit pass defenses, 1989 became the first season in NFL history to see teams pass on more than half of their plays from scrimmage.
It is clear that statutory changes in the 1980s had little to do with increasing offensive production. Instead, late 1970s changes, in concert with innovative coaches who were able to exploit the new rules, were responsible for the early eighties offensive renaissance. The West Coast Offense of Bill Walsh, Air Coryell offense of Don Coryell, hurry-up offense of Sam Wyche, and amorphous offense of Joe Gibbs were major contributors in the NFL’s biggest offensive explosion since the late 1940s. Eventually, innovative defensive coordinators like Buddy Ryan and Bill Belichick would find ways to stifle the attacks, but that is a discussion for a later series. Instead, let’s look at the ramifications of the unprecedented labor turmoil that occurred during the decade.
In both 1982 and 1987, NFL players went on strike. These strikes actually resulted in the only widespread cancellation of games the league experienced since the 1943-1945 war-decimated seasons. The first strike saw the players miss action for 57 days and resulted in the NFL reducing the schedule to just nine regular season games. The crux of the strike was a demand from the NFL Players Association that the league implement a wage scale based on 55% of gross revenues. Ultimately, the strike was unsuccessful in achieving its goal, but it did result in a new five year deal that included severance packages to retired players, higher salaries, and special minimum salaries based on number of years in the league.
When the five-year deal expired, the players once again went on strike. This strike saw the cancellation of one scheduled game, in addition to three games played largely with replacement players. Because many players showed a willingness to cross picket lines and play anyway, the strike was ineffective initially. It did, however, lay the groundwork for a successful antitrust lawsuit from Freeman McNeil, as well as a threatened class action lawsuit from Reggie White. These lawsuits paved the way for the institution of a salary cap (and, importantly, a salary floor) and the adoption of unrestricted free agency.
While neither strike resulted in players getting exactly what they asked for, both strikes laid the foundations for players to receive more money and have more freedom in choosing their teams as veterans (free agency, of course, also gives players the opportunity to earn even more money on the open market). This made professional football a more lucrative career option than ever before and, anecdotally, increased the likelihood that a gifted athlete would chose football over baseball or basketball. Effectively, this means that the NFL increased the size of its talent pool, resulting in a better league from top to bottom (especially at the bottom).
Free agency and the salary cap also made it much more difficult for teams to hoard talented players on their rosters. The Packers of the sixties and Steelers of the seventies were powerhouses, akin to the Bill Russell Celtics, who fielded stars at nearly every position and even had backups who were better than some teams’ starters. This gave them ample opportunity to contend for championships every year. Once the nineties came around, however, this method of building a winning team became obsolete. Instead of focusing on creating super teams, championship caliber franchises competed with superior ownership, management, and coaching. This transition became the norm in the NFL and remains true today.
- If you’re wondering why I use these coefficients, check out the explanation in the glossary. ↩
- Increasing the schedule from 12 to 14 to 16 games also had a huge impact on the numbers, as you may imagine. So did all those rules we discussed in the last article. ↩
- The team also happened to rank in the top ten in points allowed in all but one season (1993) from 1983 till 1997. Walsh did not just build a great offense; he built a juggernaut from top to bottom. ↩
- That’s a 33 percent increase from the previous record. Picture a quarterback coming out and throwing for 5800 yards and 73 touchdowns. That’s effectively what Marino did as a 22 year old. ↩
- Munoz would go on to make ten more Pro Bowls and earn eight more first team All Pro selections. He’s one of the very few linemen from that era who could physically match up with today’s front sevens. ↩
- The famous Buffalo Bills K-Gun Offense borrowed Wyche’s concepts with great success, but they never reached the same heights on offense that the Bengals did. They had more team success, but that is because they were more complete teams. ↩
- Yes, I know he didn’t win a championship or even have much teamwide success. However, when you are one of a very small group of coaches who helped build the empire, you deserve a bronze bust in a small Ohio town. ↩
- Moreover, by incorporating the receiving route tree into the playcall, he was able to streamline offensive communication. Instead of complicated and arduous WCO style verbiage, the quarterback could simply say “869,” for example, to indicate that receivers would run post, dig, and go routes. ↩
- He is thus known as the father of modern single back offenses. His disciples include Norv Turner, Mike Martz, Tom Moore, and Al Saunders. Turner had immense success as the offensive coordinator for the dynasty Cowboys, and he fielded terrific offenses as the head coach of the Chargers. Martz was the architect of the Greatest Show on Turf. Moore worked with Peyton Manning to build one of the greatest sustained offenses in football history. Saunders most notably directed the offense of the 2002-2005 Chiefs, which is arguably the best offensive dynasty in modern history. ↩
- By coach Saunders. ↩
- Joe Theismann 1980-85; Jay Schroeder 1986-87; Doug Williams 1988; and Mark Rypien 1989. ↩
- Their record was not broken until 1998, and it has since been surpassed by five more teams. ↩
- The most successful members of The Hogs were guard Russ Grimm (a Hall of Famer), tackle Joe Jacoby (a Hall of Fame semifinalist), tackle Mark May (a Pro Bowler), and center Jeff Bostic (also a Pro Bowler). Jacoby and Bostic were undrafted free agents, while Grimm was a third round pick. Only May was drafted in the first round. George Starke, known as the “Head Hog,” was drafted in the eleventh round in 1971 and was already an eleven year veteran by the time Gibbs took over as head coach. ↩
- Of course, as well all now know, you could only hope to slow down LT some of the time. Theismann learned this the hard way. ↩
- Think of Hines Ward‘s reputation, and then make him a better blocker. ↩
- This had much to do with the fact that he was one of the first good receivers to play his entire career in the 16-game schedule era. However, a record’s a record, and you have to be pretty good to earn one. ↩
- Yes, the 1985 Bears defense is on the Rushmore of defenses, but the offense has subsequently been demoted by history. This was not the 2000 Ravens; this was a legitimately good offense. ↩
- This is somewhat ironic, given that Perkins, along with Ron Erhardt, crafted the Erhardt-Perkins offensive system. This is one of the three primary offensive systems in modern football (along with Walsh’s West Coast and Coryell’s Air Coryell offense). The most significant aspect of the offense is the economy of communication it introduced to playcalling. Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly have used this efficient system to field some of the most productive offenses the NFL and NCAA have ever seen. ↩
- It’s not unreasonable to believe that Bavaro would have likely become a Hall of Famer if he played for a more open offense. ↩
- You could argue that he only won the MVP award in 1987 because Joe Montana and Jerry Rice split the 49ers vote, and you would have a point. However, Ifs and Buts are not candy and nuts, and Elway won the award. ↩
- He greatest individual success came in the 1990s, so I’ll leave the discussion of the run and shoot offense for that article. ↩
- Except, famously, from team owner Al Davis who sabotaged Allen’s career by forcing coaches to significantly limit his playing time. ↩
- In fact, teams representing today’s AFC West boast a who’s who of all time great tight ends. Christensen is joined by fellow Raiders Dave Casper and Raymond Chester. Denver greats Shannon Sharpe and Riley Odoms join in. Tony Gonzalez and Fred Arbanas represent the Chiefs, while Antonio Gates and Kellen Winslow represent the Chargers. ↩
- With a brief interruption from Paul McDonald. ↩
- Essentially, after being run into the ground in the USFL, Walker came to the NFL and effectively replicated Roger Craig’s career production. ↩
- When you prorate his stats from 1982, when he was on pace for 1643 YFS. ↩
- For reference, Bill Belichick has more wins than any active coach (233) and isn’t within a hundred of Shula. ↩
- Here, I am attributing Seifert’s 1989 title, in part, to Walsh. He did build the team from scratch, after all. ↩
- See this game between the Bears and Raiders that ended on a ten second runoff following a Caleb Hanie spike debacle. ↩