For football lovers around age 40, January 30, 1983 marked one of the cultural milestones of our pathetic lives.
In the Pasadena twilight of Super Bowl XVII, Washington's John Riggins, the last of the great old-school fullbacks
, ripped off one of the signature touchdown runs in NFL history. It was 4th and 1 in the fourth quarter and the Redskins were trailing Miami 17-13. Even cricket fans in the slums of Calcutta who had never heard of American football knew that the ball was going to the Diesel.
Riggins followed Otis Wonsley off left tackle, up the hole created by Joe Jacoby, and crushed Dolphins DB Don McNeal on his way to a Super Bowl-stealing 42-yard score – much like the Cold, Hard Football Facts running over a pigskin "pundit" who still perpetuates the myth of the more "wide open" and "exciting" AFL. (Of course, to his credit, Riggins had much greater breakaway speed than we do, as you see here
Shortly after the game – amid so much hype you would have confused it with ESPN's coverage of a Brett Favre cup of coffee – NBC debuted one of the signature programs of the 1980s: the "A-Team" (this was back when Super Bowls ended in the early evening on the East Coast, not nearing midnight like they do now).
The star of the show was Mr. T, with his signature line, "I pity the fool!"
It's a line that soon echoed around a million schoolyard brawls in the 1980s. It also echoes around the Cold, Hard Football Facts cardboard-box world headquarters today, reminding us of the people and "pundits" out there still foolish enough to believe that the AFL offered a more exciting, wide-open brand of football.
We pity the fools!
The truth, of course, is that the AFL simply offered a sloppier, more mistake-prone form of football than the NFL.
The truth, quite frankly, is that NFL teams moved the ball better – a fact in and of itself which completely destroys the myth of the more explosive offenses of the AFL. NFL teams passed the ball better. They generally ran the ball better. NFL teams won the yards-per-play battle in seven of 10 years. And over the course of the decade:
- AFL teams averaged 4.91 yards per play
- NFL teams averaged 4.95 yards per play
However, it is true that AFL teams scored more points, a fact which AFL proponents mention at every possible turn. In fact, AFL teams consistently scored more points, besting the NFL in scoring in nine of 10 seasons. Over the course of the 1960s:
- AFL teams averaged 22.8 PPG
- NFL teams averaged 21.7 PPG
That's a difference of 1.1 PPG in the AFL's advantage for those of you keeping score at home. It's hardly the difference proponents of the "more exciting AFL" theory would lead you to believe. In fact, an extra 1.1 PPG would have been invisible to the naked eye. But, still, it is more points.
But something doesn't quite add up: NFL teams passed the ball better. NFL teams generally ran the ball better. NFL teams moved the ball better. But AFL teams scored more points.
So what gives?
It all comes back to the sloppy style of play practiced by the AFL. Turnovers, it turns out, were a major, major problem in the AFL. The sloppier play and the lower-quality of quarterbacking meant that a much greater number of passes ended up in the hands of defenders.
AFL teams averaged more interceptions than their NFL counterparts every single year of the 1960s. In some cases, the differences were dramatic. In 1965, for example:
- AFL teams averaged 29.9 INTs
- NFL teams averaged 19.8 INTs
Talk about a pathetic, sloppy performance by AFL quarterbacks. And 1965 wasn't even the worst year for AFL passers. In 1962, AFL teams averaged 30.3 INTs (the NFL peaked with an average of 23.7 INTs in 1961). Over the course of the decade:
- AFL teams averaged 26.4 INTs per season
- NFL teams averaged 21.2 INTs per season
That's not even close, folks. And all those INTs had two huge effects on the game:
ONE – INTs lead to direct defensive scoring that favored the AFL. AFL teams, with all those terrible wounded ducks floating through the air, consistently returned more INTs for touchdowns. AFL teams scored an average of 2 touchdowns via interception each year. NFL teams scored an average of 1.5 touchdowns via interception per year. Over the long run, it adds up. But it's really not a great statistical difference.
TWO – INTs made it easier for AFL offenses to score points. The greater impact of INTs was felt on the offenses that unexpectedly gained possession of the ball. As we all know, teams that intercept the ball usually gain possession in better field position than if they took possession via punt. At the end of the day, AFL offenses typically found themselves in better scoring position than their NFL counterparts.
Better field position allowed AFL teams to score more points, even though NFL teams consistently produced more yards on each offensive play. We know AFL offenses found themselves in better field position more often because of our Scoreability Index
, a Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stat
This indicator tells us how far offenses had to go to score a single point. And year after year, AFL teams faced shorter fields, so they could score points with less effort.
- AFL offenses needed just 13.6 Yards Per Point Scored in the 1960s – or 95.2 yards for every touchdown and extra point
- NFL offenses needed 14.0 Yards Per Point Scored in the 1960s – or 98.0 yards for every touchdown and extra point
In some cases, the differences were dramatic. In the 1961 season, for example:
- AFL teams needed 88.6 yards to score seven points.
- NFL teams needed 101.6 yards to score seven points.
That's a stunning difference. NFL teams in 1961 needed an entire extra first-down-plus just to score the same number of points as their AFL counterparts. NFL teams, in other words, simply had to work harder than the offenses in the AFL, which were given so many short fields and gift touchdowns.
It's this 1961 season that's largely responsible for the myth that the AFL offered a more wide-open, exciting brand of football. It's a myth built largely upon the performance of one single team, too: the AFL's 1961 Oilers set a pro football record with 513 points scored and threw a team record 48 TD passes. Oilers quarterback George Blanda, meanwhile, threw 36 of those TD passes, setting an individual pro football record in 1961. But the Oilers were a great statistical anomaly. Nobody in either league came close to matching the production of the Oilers offense that year ... and few approached it during the entire decade.
But the Oilers offense stopped gushing pretty quickly. AFL defenses soon figured them out, and by 1962 the bubble burst. Blanda, fresh off a record 36 TD tosses in 1961, threw a record 42 INTs in 1962. It's a record that will probably never be broken, not even by Brett Favre. The Houston offense which scored an anomalous 513 points in 1961 scored a rather normal 387 points in 1962. It was good enough for second in the AFL. It would have been a mere fourth in the NFL.
At the end of the day, the myth of the more exciting, wide-open AFL comes down to your definition of the term. If you define sloppy, mistake-filled football as more exciting ... then, hey, the AFL was your game.
But we also know this: if your team is consistently throwing two or three picks every single game, you're not every excited. In fact, you probably pretty pissed off by their sloppy play.