Leafing Through Pages: Analysis of Sports and Other Topics

01/12/2010

American Football League Offense vs. National Football League Offense

Many fans and media members agree that the American Football League was far more wide open, far more aerial focused, and more exciting in general than the NFL during their head to head period from 1960 through 1969. The question becomes, just how true was it that the AFL was more offensively focused, especially in the passing game, compared to the NFL?

Let’s first take a general look at comparing the average pass and rush attempts of both leagues by year. It’d stand to reason that in general, the AFL should have more pass attempts and the NFL should have more rush attempts given the idea that the NFL was just a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust league.

1960: NFL averaged 26 pass attempts and 33 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 33 pass attempts and 30 rush attempts per game.
1961: NFL averaged 27 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 32 pass attempts and 29 rush attempts per game.
1962: NFL averaged 27 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 31 pass attempts and 29 rush attempts per game.
1963: NFL averaged 28 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 32 pass attempts and 27 rush attempts per game.
1964: NFL averaged 28 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 34 pass attempts and 28 rush attempts per game.
1965: NFL averaged 28 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 33 pass attempts and 29 rush attempts per game.
1966: NFL averaged 29 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 32 pass attempts and 29 rush attempts per game.
1967: NFL averaged 29 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 31 pass attempts and 29 rush attempts per game.
1968: NFL averaged 27 pass attempts and 32 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 29 pass attempts and 32 rush attempts per game.
1969: NFL averaged 28 pass attempts and 31 rush attempts per game. AFL averaged 29 pass attempts and 30 rush attempts per game.

It’s interesting to note that the NFL would consistently run the ball every season, however, the passing attempts steadily climbed to settle down around 28 to 29 pass attempts a game. The AFL was certainly more prone to passing the ball, quite often 32-33 times a game, but by the end of the 1960’s and just before the merger of the 1970 season, they started mirroring the NFL more closely.

Everybody knows that the AFL would have more passing attempts. After all, they had quarterbacks like George Blanda, Len Dawson, and Joe Namath. So a large thought behind the AFL was that they were more prone to throwing the ball downfield vertically. This should be reflected in having a higher yard per completion per season as a 50 yard heave would outdo 5 passes of 10 yards each.

1960: NFL had a 14.4 and AFL had a 13.6
1961: NFL had a 14.3 and AFL had a 14.3
1962: NFL had a 14.7 and AFL had a 14.3
1963: NFL had a 14.6 and AFL had a 14.6
1964: NFL had a 13.9 and AFL had a 14.4
1965: NFL had a 14.5 and AFL had a 14.1
1966: NFL had a 13.4 and AFL had a 14.7
1967: NFL had a 13.6 and AFL had a 14.1
1968: NFL had a 13.6 and AFL had a 14.6
1969: NFL had a 13.3 and AFL had a 14.0

A most curious thing. The NFL actually led or was tying with the AFL in terms of yards per pass completion up until 1966, when the NFL suddenly dropped almost a full yard per completion while the AFL continued to remain above 14 yards. The Atlanta Falcons came into the league in 1966 and had a YPC of just 11.52. The New Orleans Saints came into the league in 1967 and had a YPC of just 10.96 as a team. Certainly both totals would’ve helped bring down the league average.

We know that the NFL and AFL squared off in 4 Super Bowls and would split them 2-2 before merging their leagues together in time for the 1970 NFL season. Let’s take a look at the combined pass attempts of each league in their championship game, and the pass attempts of the two teams in the Super Bowl to see if one league really did air it out more, even in the biggest game of the season. Note that I am including sacks here but did not in the league wide averages.

1960: Philadelphia and Green Bay combined for 56. Houston and Los Angeles Chargers combined for 76.
1961: Green Bay and New York Giants combined for 50. Houston and San Diego combined for 79.
1962: Green Bay and New York Giants combined for 64. Dallas Texans and Houston combined for 66.
1963: Chicago and Green Bay combined for 60. San Diego and Boston combined for 71.
1964: Cleveland and Baltimore combined for 41. Buffalo and San Diego combined for 60.
1965: Green Bay and Cleveland combined for 41. Buffalo and San Diego combined for 52.
1966: Green Bay and Dallas combined for 66. Kansas City and Buffalo combined for 64. SB – Green Bay threw 27, Kansas City threw 38.
1967: Green Bay and Dallas combined for 59. Oakland and Houston combined for 65. SB – Green Bay threw 28, Oakland threw 37.
1968: Baltimore and Cleveland combined for 61. New York Jets and Oakland combined for 100. SB – New York Jets threw 31, Baltimore threw 41.
1969: Minnesota and Cleveland combined for 49. Kansas City and Oakland combined for 67. SB – Kansas City threw 20, Minnesota threw 31.

It’s really interesting to note that the Super Bowls that the AFL won, they were much more restrained passing wise whereas they forced their NFL counterparts to throw to catch up. Much like the Green Bay Packers had forced Kansas City and Oakland to do in their Super Bowl victories. Even in the playoff games though, the AFL was superior in terms of leaning on the aerial game. That combination of 79 pass attempts is mind boggling.

Given the fact that the AFL was largely attempting more passes per game, let’s take a look and compare the average passing yards per game of both leagues.

1960: NFL averaged 171 yards. AFL averaged 198 yards.
1961: NFL averaged 181 yards. AFL averaged 195 yards.
1962: NFL averaged 194 yards. AFL averaged 190 yards.
1963: NFL averaged 186 yards. AFL averaged 199 yards.
1964: NFL averaged 174 yards. AFL averaged 212 yards.
1965: NFL averaged 184 yards. AFL averaged 189 yards.
1966: NFL averaged 178 yards. AFL averaged 197 yards.
1967: NFL averaged 180 yards. AFL averaged 183 yards.
1968: NFL averaged 169 yards. AFL averaged 178 yards.
1969: NFL averaged 178 yards. AFL averaged 180 yards.

Here we see the benefit of throwing the ball more per game on average as the AFL was resoundingly getting more yards per game than the NFL with a peak occurring during the 1963 and 1964 seasons. Worth noting is that average of 212 yards would not be matched by the NFL until 1989 when they averaged 211 yards per game passing. It wasn’t until the rule changes in 1979 and the 1981 season that the NFL began to hit 200 yards a game routinely. The AFL was clearly well ahead of its time emphasizing the passing game and aerial attack as a focal point of the offense. To really put that 212 yard average in perspective, the 2008 season of the NFL averaged 211 yards per game passing.

Through most any measure, the AFL was clearly living up to its label of being a wide open, aerial focused passing league especially in comparison to the NFL. While the NFL wasn’t completely three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, that attitude was a stigma attached to the NFL when looking at the increased pass attempts and more importantly, the increased passing yardage of the AFL.

It would be like seeing the Arena Football League playing outdoors on 100 yard fields mimicking the NFL exactly except they would be throwing the ball 70% of the time in today’s era.

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