Leafing Through Pages: Analysis of Sports and Other Topics


The First Passing Game in the National Football League

Filed under: Pro Football — David Hunter @ 6:21 PM
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Many people when they think of origins of the passing game in the NFL will point to the Baltimore Colts and strong armed Johnny Unitas in the late 1950’s or the 1970’s air attack of the Super Bowl winning Pittsburgh Steelers. They may still point even later and mention the offensive explosion coming out of San Diego in the early 1980’s or San Francisco’s offense under Bill Walsh in the mid 1980’s. What’s really interesting is that the NFL was experiencing a revolution of the forward pass as early as the 1930’s and specifically, the mid to late 1930’s. The brains behind this revolution? Not Don Coryell. Not Bill Walsh. Curly Lambeau, former star running back, kicker, and quarterback for the Green Bay Packers who served as head coach for the team.

The 1936 Green Bay Packers may not look that impressive on paper. They threw 17 TD and 19 INT and barely completed passes for 1,629 yards. The important key is that despite running the ball 490 times, they threw the ball a whopping 255 times for that era. That comes out to an average of 21 passes per game, which were 3 more than the second team and 4 more than the third place team. Their slinger was Arnie Herber who teamed up with both Bob Monnett and Joe Laws who combined for 301 receiving yards and 2 touchdown catches.

Sounds impressive but it was a very small league back then with only 9 teams in existance. Nevermind that Green Bay completed a whopping 108 passes, while the second best team only completed 81. Let’s continue up the ladder towards recent history, shall we?

The forward pass was still a gimmicky tool of fancy play that was nice to use here and there but didn’t really make a team go. After all, the point was to run the ball and supplement it with the pass. If you were really risky, you’d throw the ball maybe 22 times a game, if that. Enter the 1940 Philadelphia Eagles who completely turned such a concept on its ear while probably forcing the old school fans to scream bloody murder. They didn’t have any success, finishing the year out with a 1-10 record but they averaged 33 pass attempts a game with well known former college star Davey O’Brien coming from TCU. There’s a reason they named the QB of the Year award after him at the NCAA level and here he threw for 1290 yards while completing an incredible 45% of his passes. Unfortunately he’d only throw 5 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions. But he’d help make a star out of Don Looney who would catch 58 passes for 707 yards and score 4 touchdowns. In 1940!

Well, neither of those teams were having that much success but that would all change in 1942 when the Green Bay Packers would not only average 30 pass attempts a game but have unprecented success through the air, en route to Don Hutson winning the Joe F. Carr MVP Trophy. Green Bay would not only throw for 2407 yards, an average of 219 per game, but also throw 28 touchdowns against only 18 interceptions. Their best performance would come against the Chicago Cardinals where they would throw for 423 yards and 6 TD on only 27 attempts. Hutson and Andy Uram caught all 6 TD on just 9 catches between them. Green Bay proved behind the arm of the extremely underrated Cecil Isbell that the forward pass could not only be a staple of an NFL offense but that it could vertically stretch the field and be extremely deadly in the right hands.

The 1947 season is where the first truly prolific passing offense came about thanks to the Washington Redskins and 33 year old quarterback Sammy Baugh who would throw 354 times for 2938 yards and 25 touchdowns against 15 interceptions himself. The team in total averaged a mind blowing 278 yards per game through the air with 4 games surpassing 340 yards during the season. Unfortunately, success was fleeting as the team finished with a 4-8 record despite the player’s success.

The next time somebody asks when the passing game took off in the NFL, now you can answer with Curly Lambeau, the 1940 Philadelphia Eagles and Davey O’Brien, the early Packers with the Cecil Isbell/Don Hutson combination, or Slingin’ Sammy Baugh in 1947.


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