(Ed. note: This article, the first of three on the topic, originally ran in 2009, just before NFL Films produced its 50th anniversary retrospective on the history of the AFL. Our series prompted NFL Films to include the Cold, Hard Football Facts in its collection of AFL anniversary specials.)
By Kerry J. Byrne, Cold, Hard Football Facts Macedonian of Mythbusting
Laying waste to the pigskin Persia known as conventional wisdom is a tradition for the Alexander Great of the Gridiron – the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Consider, for example, the condition of sports in the tumultuous 1960s, the most important decade in the development of pro football. Consider the state of the old American Football League, whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated in the upcoming 2009 season.
Every football historian insists that the upstart AFL built a market for itself in the 1960s with an exciting, wide-open brand of football that stood in sharp contrast to the boring three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style that defined the staid, frumpy old NFL.
It's a story we'll hear time and again during the league's golden anniversary. After all, everybody knows that this story is true ... 'cept for one little problem.
It's not true.
Or, at the very least, the argument has more holes in it than Darius's defenses at the Battle of Issus.
If you define "wide-open" simply as a couple more pass attempts per game then, yes, the AFL offered a more "wide-open" and more "exciting" brand of football.
But if you define "wide-open" as a more prolific passing game – if you define "wide open" as a higher rate of completions, more yards per attempt, more TDs per attempt, fewer INTS and much higher passer ratings, if you define "wide open" as passing productivity which approached that seen in modern pro football, then, no, the AFL most definitely did not offer a more "wide-open" and "exciting" brand of football.
Quite the contrary.
Slicing through the myth
The truth is that the passing game in the AFL was an abomination, a pathetic attempt to match the more effective, more efficient, more accurate, more precise and more productive brand of contemporary offensive football found over in the "boring" NFL.
The AFL's image was never a reality. Instead, its image is merely an example of clever (and quite successful) marketing that ultimately led to what AFL owners wanted all along: a partnership with the NFL. We certainly applaud the AFL for its success.
But we also have an obligation to set the historic record straight.
Thankfully, we have the tutelage of Aristotelian analysis that allows us to contemplate the issue at hand and then slice through this Gordian knot of the gridiron.
That's right: we have the Cold, Hard Football Facts. With the help of the great ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia, we compared the cumulative passing statistics of the AFL to the NFL from 1960 to 1969 – the 10-season period in which the two competed as rival pro football leagues. We found, to the shock and awe of all, that NFL passers boasted:
- a higher completion percentage every single year
- a higher average per attempt every single year
- a higher passer rating every single year
- a better TD-to-INT ratio almost every single year (8 of 10)
- a higher TD percentage almost every single year (9 of 10)
- a lower INT percentage almost every single year (9 of 10)
Here's the most shocking discovery:
- NFL passers completed better than 50 percent of their attempts every single year of the 1960s.
- AFL passers never completed 50 percent of their passes in the 1960s – not once in the entire decade.
Those who deny themselves the sweet, nourishing nectar of the Cold, Hard Football Facts will say: "Hey, NFL offenses had more talent."
They probably did. But the NFL defenses possessed more talent, too. So talent is not the issue. What's at issue is that our perception of the "wide-open" and "exciting" AFL is largely incorrect. Here's a look at how the two leagues stacked up passing the ball each and every year:
NFL vs. AFL passing statistics (averages per team per season)
* NFL teams played 12 games in 1960, while AFL teams played 14. In every other year, both leagues played 14-game seasons.
The myth that the AFL offered a more wide-open brand of football depends solely upon one factor and one factor only: AFL teams threw the ball more often. In fact, AFL teams averaged more pass attempts every single year of the decade. Over the entire decade:
- NFL teams averaged 28 attempts per game.
- AFL teams averaged 31 attempts per game.
These trends were fairly consistent, too:
- NFL teams averaged 27 to 29 attempts per game from year to year.
- AFL teams averaged 29 to 33 attempts per game from year to year.
The differences certainly add up over time. However, these differences would have been barely perceptible to the naked eye within the confines of an individual game. After all, AFL quarterbacks threw the ball, on average, just three more times per game than their NFL counterparts.
The tired argument of the Pigskin Persians
So those who choose to ignore the Cold, Hard Football Facts and insist on adhering to conventional wisdom will draw this conclusion from the numbers:
"AFL passers did throw the ball more often and they took more high-risk chances by throwing the ball downfield more often – that's why they had lower completion percentages and threw more interceptions. The AFL, in other words, did offer a more exciting, more wide-open brand of football."
But those who adhere to this conventional wisdom are, once again, wrong. We can measure the downfield efforts of each league by looking at Yards Per Completion – in this area, the findings are relatively inconclusive.
- NFL passers averaged more yards per completion in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1965.
- AFL passers averaged more yards per completion in 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969.
So, clearly, the trend went from more YPC for NFL teams early in the decade to more YPC for AFL teams later in the decade. But the numbers differed drastically only in 1966 – when NFL teams averaged 13.4 YPC and AFL teams averaged 14.7 YPC. So the AFL definitely threw down field more often in 1966, feeding the myth in one way.
But, in most other years, the downfield passing efforts resulted in a statistical dead heat. But here's the really interesting part: Even as the AFL began completing longer passers, all other factors continued to favor the old league, as NFL passers continued to beat their AFL counterparts in every other category almost every year of the decade. Let's put it this way:
- NFL passers were more accurate and more productive in the years in which AFLers threw more long, high-risk passes, and
- NFL passers were more accurate and more productive in the years in which they themselves threw more long, high-risk passes.
Passing short or passing long, NFL quarterbacks passed the ball better year after year.
A watershed season
One year leaps right off the chart above – a year in which NFL passers just wiped the floor with their AFL counterparts: 1965.
NFL passers dominated every single passing category that year, including completion percentage (51.2% to 45.3%), yards per attempt (7.5 to 6.4), yards per completion (14.6 to 14.0), TD-to-INTs (22-20 to 20-25) and passer rating (73.5 to 58.0)
In other words, in 1965, NFL passers were producing at a rate so prolific that we would not see it again until the 1980s and the dawn of the Live Ball Era, when league-wide passer ratings hovered around the mid-70s. AFL passers in 1965, meanwhile, were producing at a level the NFL had witnessed back in the rough-and-tumble 1950s.
The 1965 season is important for another reason: it's the last year before the Super Bowl Era, which begin with the 1966 season.
No wonder why the NFL looked down upon the AFL as an inferior league at the time it accepted the championship-game challenge. The AFL was an inferior league.
The fact that the NFL even agreed to a championship game can be seen as little more than a charitable effort considering the low quality of offensive football in the "wide open" AFL. (
It should be noted that the AFL certainly proved it could compete by the end of the 1969 season, after the Jets and Chiefs humiliated two of the most dominant teams in NFL history, the 1968 Colts and 1969 Vikings, in Super Bowls III and IV, respectively.)
The poster child of the AFL myth
If the AFL has a poster child, it's Joe Namath. He was the brash, new-age, highly hyped "gunslinger" of a quarterback who, conveniently enough, joined the AFL in that very same watershed 1965 season. He's certainly the most famous player to come out of the AFL.
There is really no better personification of the myth of the AFL, too. As loyal Cold, Hard Football Facts readers know, Namath generated plenty of buzz, but little actual production. He is, in fact, the most overrated quarterback in pro football history.
Namath, like most of his AFL QB counterparts, rarely completed 50 percent of his passes (50.1% for his career). He rarely threw more TDs than INTs (173 career TDs vs. 220 career INTs). And he rarely passed the ball efficiently: As we noted last summer, his career passer rating of 65.5 stood just 133rd among the 150 qualifying quarterbacks in all of NFL history (as of last year's report). No matter how you measure it, Namath was not a particulary good quarterback.
Instead, Namath was just a guy who threw the ball a lot ... and often threw it into the dirt or into the arms of the opposition. In other words, he's the perfect poster child for the AFL.
Like the league's reputation itself, Namath's reputation was never supported by the actual production.
The triumph of the Cold, Hard Football Facts
AFL teams and quarterbacks like Namath might have thrown the ball more often than the passers in the NFL. And, in certain years, they might have taken more chances downfield.
But the truth is that, mostly, they just passed the ball poorly: AFL quarterbacks threw more balls into the dirt, they threw more balls into the hands of the opposition, and they threw with far less accuracy and far less efficiency than NFL passers. To put it more simply: NFL quarterbacks were much better than their AFL counterparts, and better in every imaginable objective indicator.
So, sure, the conventional wisdom crowd will continue to insist that the AFL offered a more "wide open" and "exciting" brand of football.
But we, and now you, know the AFL for what it really offered: just plain old bad quarterbacking.