Hall of Famer Charley Trippi powered the Chicago Cardinals to a league-best 32.9 PPG in 1948, one of three teams in a 10-team league that season to top 30.0 PPG. The 1948 campaign enjoyed a 65-year run as the highest-scoring season in NFL history, until it was surpassed in 2013. As you'll see below, pro football in the leather-helmet post-World War II Era was a dynamic, high-scoring sport filled with explosive plays in all phases of the game.
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Leather-Helmet Champion (@footballfacts)
The average NFL game produced 46.82 points in 2013, breaking an enduring and largely unknown 65-year-old record for scoring productivity.
The previous standard was set, surprisingly to most folks, back in 1948, when the average NFL game produced 46.48 points.
The new scoring record comes only after a quarter century of legislative engineering by the NFL to genetically modify offense at the expense of neutered and now nearly hapless defenses.
Still, the NFL is only just recently matching the furious scoring pace of pro football's leather-helmeted post-World War II Era: three of the NFL’s 10 teams in 1948 averaged more than 30.0 PPG.
Just one of 32 teams in 2013 averaged more than 30.0 PPG: the record-setting Denver Broncos.
Peyton Manning's Broncos scored a record 606 points in 2013, essentially lapping the scoring field: they scored 161 points more than the No. 2 Bears (445 points scored). Denver averaged 10.1 PPG more than football's No. 2 scoring team.
In fact, if we remove the singular Broncos from the equation, the average NFL game produced just 44.26 points – not even a Top 10 scoring season.
Five NFL teams did not score even half as many points as the Broncos. More on the disparity between the modern NFL’s Haves and Have-Nots below.
Still, after all these years of NFL legislative efforts, we are in the midst of a scoring boomlet. The 2012 season, for example, comes in at No. 5 on the all-time scoring list. Of course, that put the scoring pace last season behind 1948, 1965 and 1950, and just ahead of 1958 and 1949.
The NFL needed to make rule changes in the 1970s, the decade we call the Dead Ball Era that bottomed out in 1977. For a variety of reasons that are still hard to explain, scoring dropped off the face of the earth in the 1970s. In 1977, it fell to 34.4 PPG, the lowest scoring pace since before World War II.
Still, the results are fairly bizarre: for all the rule changes made since 1978 to emphasize offense and eliminate defense, NFL teams scored just as many points back in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Top Scoring Seasons, NFL History
Put another way: scoring in the NFL in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was much higher than anybody realizes.
Blame the AFL for our misconceived notions: thanks to some marketing genius perpetuated by lap-dog media in AFL towns, the upstart league in the 1960s successfully painted the NFL as a boring, run-first brand of footballl dominated by defense.
The statistical reality, as we proved several years ago (here, here, and here), was that the NFL was a fast-paced, high-scoring game in the 1960s, with vastly superior play at quarterback than in the AFL. As you can see above, NFL teams scored just as frequently in the 1960s as they do today.
The 2013 Broncos (37.88 PPG), meanwhile, still fell shy of the per-game scoring record set by the L.A. Rams (38.83 PPG) in 1950, which was the No. 4 league-wide scoring season in NFL history.
This empirical reality of pro football past conflicts with our image of the game and with the modern zeitgeist of football. It therefore begets a pair of questions:
ONE – Why did it take the NFL 65 years, including 25 years of dickering with the rule book, to finally match the scoring pace of the late 1940s?
TWO – Why does our image of old-time pro football from the 1940s and 1950s, which is that of a Neanderthalic three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust brand of ball, conflict so sharply with the high-flying, exciting reality reflected on the scoreboard?
Cold, Hard Football Facts editor and St. Louis sports radio host Pat Imig asked those very questions on Tuesday, as we prepared to discuss the trend on his show Friday.
There are several reasons, all of which point to a game in the 1940s and 1950s that was more exciting than fans today realize, and certainly more entertaining than the robotic brand of pro football the No Fun League has force-fed fans today.
ONE – Teams passed the ball much more often in the 1940s than you realize
The average NFL team attempted 26 passes per game in 1948 – the same pace as the playoff-bound 2013 San Francisco 49ers, and just one-quarter attempt per game behind the average of the dominant 2013 Seattle Seahawks, No. 1 in our 2013 Quality Stats Power Rankings.
The L.A. Rams led the NFL in 1948 with 33 attempts per game, passing the ball more often than nine NFL teams here in the pass-happy 2013 season. The 1948 Rams passed the ball more often than the top two seeds in 2013 NFC playoffs, Seattle (26.25 attempts per game) and Carolina (29.6).
Sure, the average number of attempts in 1948 was well short of the record average 35.4 attempts per game we witnessed in 2013. But the difference is not nearly as dramatic as folks realize, and certainly stands in sharp contrast to the image we have of teams in the 1940s plodding forward with hand-offs every down and passing only in desperation.
TWO – Teams passed the ball much more aggressively in the 1940s than they do today
The passing game in the 1940s, and right through the 1960s, was a high-risk, high-pressure downfield attack that provided big payoff (high completion average, high TD percentage) or big disaster (low completion percentage, high INT rates).
In fact, the five top seasons in NFL history in average per completion were 1947 (15.4), 1933 (15.4), 1935 (15.3), 1946 (15.0) and 1945 (15.0). (Source: profootballreference.com)
NFL teams here in 2013 averaged just 11.6 YPC, among the lowest in NFL history. The modern passing game, as we’ve discussed a number of times, is a low-risk, high-efficiency attack.
Mal Kutner of the Chicago Cardinals (pictured here) led the NFL with 943 receiving yards and 14 TD receptions in just 12 games in 1948. He averaged an incredible 23.0 yards per catch.
Modern All-World stud Calvin Johnson averaged 17.8 YPC in 2013, and caught only 12 TDs in 16 games.
Of course, it's a different, less exciting downfield sport these days: NFL teams have averaged less than 12.0 YPC in 20 different seasons, all of them in the 22 years since 1992.
That sea-change from downfield attack to low-risk horizontal passing attack is the result of the success of the West Coast offense, which dramatically changed the way NFL teams think about the passing game.
The modern passing game is certainly more efficient. It’s given us higher completion percentages, higher passer ratings and lower INT rates.
But it hasn’t put more points on the board, and it’s certainly taken much of the risk and excitement of the downfield passing attack, and the contributions of defense, out of the sport.
It’s even taken pressure off of defenses at a time when quarterbacks, who hold all the cards on the modern NFL’s poker table of pigskin, should be MORE aggressive.
THREE – Defenses had a fighting chance back in the day and helped create MORE scoring
Modern defenses have been legislatively neutered by the NFL. They no longer really have a fighting chance in a league that would just as soon have 11 guys on offense move the ball against a collection of tackling dummies on defense.
But back in the day, defenses had more opportunity to make game-changing plays and, as odd as it may sound, these better defenses meant more points: they produced more turnovers, more defensive scores, and more short fields giving offenses more scoring opportunities.
NFL defenses forced far more turnovers in 1948 than they did in 2013. In fact, 7.4 percent of all pass attempts in 1948 were picked off; compared with just 2.8 percent of passes intercepted in 2013.
Redskins rookie Dan Sandifer led the NFL with 13 INTs in 1948 – especially impressive as the Washington defense faced just 289 pass attempts that season.
Hell, Sandifer picked off 4.5 percent of all the passes attempted against his team that season!
Seattle’s Richard Sherman led the NFL with 8 interceptions in 2013; it’s been 32 years since any NFL defender picked off more than 10 passes (Everson Walls of Dallas with 11 in 1981).
Sherman’s Sehawks this year faced 524 pass attempts (1.5% INT rate for Sherman).
Sandifer would have picked off 24 passes if he his Redskins had faced so many attempts! (He also led the NFL in kick returns, and kick return yardage, including one TD, and hauled in an 86-yard TD reception on offense. Not a bad rookie season.)
All these defensive plays helped inspire more non-offensive scores:
- 2013: NFL games averaged 0.45 non-offensive scores
- 1948: NFL games averaged 0.70 non-offensive scores
By the way, NFL teams in 1948 were still more likely to score via pass then via run: they produced 151 rushing touchdowns and 196 passing touchdowns that season. (In 2013, teams produced nearly twice as many TDs through the air, 804, as they did on the ground, 410.)
Kick returners were also more productive in 1948 than they are today, as the NFL in recent years has taken steps to reduce opportunities in the return game by moving the kickoff line forward.
- 2013: 7 kick-return TDs and 13 punt-return TDs in 256 games, an average of one return score every 12.8 games.
- 1948: 4 kick-return TDs and 6 punt-return TDs in 60 games, an average of one return score every 6.0 games.
We don’t have drive data from 1948 to show that scoring drives were generally shorter back then than they are today. But it’s a safe assumption based on turnover data.
It’s also an assumption supported by the data we do have, namely the Scoreability Index, one of our Quality Stats, which measures how efficiently teams score points relative to their offensive production.
- 2013: NFL teams needed 14.89 Yards Per Point Scored
- 1948: NFL teams needed 14.00 Yards Per Point Scored
- 2013: NFL teams needed 104.2 yards for the equivalent of every TD and XP
- 1948: NFL teams needed 98.0 yards for the equivalent of every TD and XP
Bottom line: teams needed fewer yards to score more points 65 years ago. Teams actually scored MORE efficiently in 1948 than they did in 2013, thanks largely to the impact of defensive and return-game scores.
FOUR – Offenses in 1948 were more creative and NFL quarterbacks were more skilled ball handlers than they are today
Announcers gush needlessly every time we see Peyton Manning or Tom Brady deftly execute a play-action pass, as if they just re-invented the position with their fancy trickeration.
If anything, though, ball handling skills in the NFL have diminished dramatically over the past 65 years. Today, quarterbacks all play the same game: Step 1-2-3, Throw. Quick decision makers thrive. Poor decision makers die.
Quarterbacks in the 1940s were ball handlers first, passers second. They were certainly far more effective with their ball-handling and misdirection skills than quarterbacks are today. They were EXPECTED to attempt to mislead defenses on every single play, whether a run or a pass. They weren’t robots programmed to go Step 1-2-3, Throw.
NFL Films this year sent us a copy of the famed 1940 NFL championship game – the Chicago Bears’ 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins widely credited with popularizing the T-formation that changed the game dramatically in the 1940s. (Scoring nearly doubled from 1940 to 1948.)
But that 1940 title game itself did NOT usher in modern-style passing. In fact, the Bears attempted just 10 passes that day; and only four of them by quarterback Sid Luckman. Three other backs also attempted passes.
Chicago won that day by running the ball at the Redskins with impunity, constantly faking and misdirecting one way, and deftly sending the ball off to a back another way. It was beautiful to watch.
The Bears ripped off 381 yards and 7 TDs on 53 rush attempts. It was a misdirection masterpiece of ball-handling magic. In fact, 73 years later, Chicago’s 381 yards that day remain No. 8 on the single-game rushing list (source: profootballreference.com).
If anything, Chicago’s record-setting victory might have ruined the passing game for years to come: Washington attempted 51 passes that day, eight of which were intercepted, and three of which were returned for Chicago touchdowns.
The brilliance of the T-formation long term was that it created the modern QB position that we know today. But, in its original function, it was an offense that relied on the quarterback’s ball-handling brilliance and a misdirection offense to gain the edge on a confused defense.
NFL offenses and their robotic quarterbacks have all but lost those skills today.
FIVE – Gutless modern coaches have a luxurious safety net in field-goal kickers, and rely on them too heavily
No performers in pro football have advanced more dramatically over the last several decades than the place-kicking specialists. In the past, they were positional players (like Pat Summerall pictured here) who utilized a straight-ahead kicking style, which was still seen in the NFL as recently as the 1980s.
Today, kickers are big-legged, highly proficient, soccer-style specialists. They do nothing but eat, kick and make baby kickers.
Field-goal kickers today hit more attempts at a higher percentage and from longer distances than ever before. The difference in recent years has been fairly profound.
Kickers today are so good that coaches habitually settle for field goals; back in the day, coaches did not have this safety net and were forced to go for touchdowns more often.
- 2013: Kickers converted 86.5 percent of attempts (863 of 998), an average of nearly four attempts per game. This effort included 67.1 percent from 50+ yards,
- 1948: Kickers converted 40.9 percent of attempts (45 of 110), an average of less than one attempt per game. We have no distance data.
Back in 1948, field goals were a high-risk affair. A 40-yard field goal on 4th and 2 was a pretty big chance in 1948, even with the goal posts on the front of the end zone, and it was too short to punt. Teams went for touchdowns.
Unable to rely so often on the kicking game, NFL offenses actually scored TDs far more often in 1948 than they did in 2013.
- 2013: average 4.74 offensive TDs per game (1,214 TDs, 256 games)
- 1948: average 5.78 offensive TDs per game (347 TDs, 60 games)
Basically, the the modern NFL has become TOO dependent on the kicking specialist, who fans and critics often argue are not even real football players.
- 2013: 21.6% of all scoring came from field goals (2,589 of 11,985 total points)
- 1948: 4.8% of all scoring came from field goals (135 of 2,789 total points)
Coaches in 1948 could not and did not simply settle for a risky shot at 3 when they could instead take a shot at 7.
As a result, teams, and offenses specifically, put the ball in the end zone far more often in 1948 than they did in 2013.
SIX – The rising statistical tide of the modern NFL has not lifted all boats
Modern NFL football is a zero-sum game that offers only one path to victory: via the quarterback.
As we noted above, Peyton Manning's Broncos lapped the field in 2013; and even Tom Brady's Patriots, stripped off all its weapons of 2012, still ended this season No. 3 in scoring, just 1 point behind the No. 2 Bears -- and after dominating the NFL scoring wars in record-setting fashion since 2007.
Modern rule changes have richly rewarded teams with great quarterbacks. It’s punished those teams with bad quarterbacks and made it virtually impossible for them to compete.
Quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Case Keenum of the 2-14 Texans combined for a 74.0 passer rating in 2013, an incredible 45.2 points worse than the NFL's top-rated passer, Philly's Nick Foles (119.2), who inspired a dramatic turnaround in his team's fortunes this year.
Even last season, the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl not because they ran the ball well or were particularly stout on defense. They won the Super Bowl because, for a four-game stretch in the postseason, Joe Flacco was the best, most effective quarterback in football.
Passing efficiency in the NFL has always been paramount, as the history of Passer Rating Differential proves.
But the NFL once offered a number of different paths to victory: you could win with a punishing defense that produced points, or with a creative ground game that complemented your quarterback and helped make him more effective.
That’s how the Packers won the 1960s and the Steelers won in the 1970s and even how the 49ers won in the 1980s. It’s how teams like the Bears dominated the NFL championship game in 1963 and 1985.
Daring coaches, meanwhile, took more chances, throwing the ball farther down field and eschewing a shot at 3 to take a shot at 7 at a much higher rate. The high-risk game gave second-rate quarterbacks a fighting chance.
These days, that creative ground game is non-existent. The return game, as we saw above, has been stripped of its explosive scoring power. Defenses have been so badly hamstrung by the NFL that it’s actually HURT scoring, reducing the ability of teams to generate points by means other than offense, and specifically by long, sustained offensive drives. Risk has been practically removed from the game.
That leaves us with the state of the modern NFL that is overly reliant on one player: the quarterback.
If you have a great, highly efficient QB, you’ll compete year after year. If you have a lousy, inefficient QB, you’re not going to win games. Simple as that.
In many ways, contemporary offenses are too efficient ... so there aren't as many cheap points being handed out in the modern game like there was back in the leather-helmet days and up through the high-risk passing wars of the 1960s.
The modern NFL is instead a robotic, monotone brand of football that offers us fewer ways to win and fewer game-breaking plays in all phases of the sport: offense, defense and special teams.
Good news for certain QBs and the coaches lucky enough to have them; bad news for everybody else, including football fans.