Sunday, December 16, 2007
The NFL’s Best Offense Ever
As I write this, the 2007 New England Patriots are 13-0 and fresh off a 34-13 pounding of the NFL's top-ranked defense. The three-touchdown victory was hardly unusual, though: of New England's 13 games this season — all wins — only four have been decided by fewer than 21 points (vs. Cleveland, at Indianapolis, vs. Philadelphia, and at Baltimore). The Patriots certainly have a fine defense — they rank fourth in the league — but first and foremost, they are winning with offense.
Through Week 14, New England is averaging 425 yards per game, the best mark since the 2000 Rams (442.2). The Pats are scoring 38.7 points per game, the second-best mark in NFL history. They currently lead the league in both total offense and points scored, while quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss are likely to break prominent single-season individual records (TD passes, passer rating, TD receptions). In short, this year's Patriots have a real shot at going down as the best offense the game has ever seen. As dominant as New England has been, however, they'll be up against some tough competition for the title of "best ever."
To find the best offenses in the history of professional football, I conducted preliminary research that led me to a list of 75 great single-season offenses (out of a possible 1,454 in the Modern Era of professional football), then analyzed each team, taking into account how many points they scored that season, how many rushing yards they gained, how many passing yards they gained, their total offensive yardage, the team's collective average yards per carry, the team's passer rating, the team's record that season, whether or not they won a championship, and where each of those statistics ranked in the league. Take this example, one of the 65 teams that didn't make my final list, the 1994 San Francisco 49ers:
505 points (31.6 per game, best in the NFL), 6,060 total yards (378.8 per game, second in the NFL), 1,897 rushing yards (118.6 per game, sixth), 3.9 yards per carry (seventh), 4,163 passing yards (260.2 per game, fourth), 111.4 passer rating (first), 13-3, Super Bowl champions.
I could do that 74 more times, but I'll spare you. A lot of research went into this project, and trimming this list to just 10 offenses was extremely difficult. If your favorite team didn't make the list, rest assured that I didn't "forget" them — there are some great offenses that you won't read about in this column.
I do want to address the most glaring absence, though: nowhere in my list of the 10 best offenses in history will you read the words "San Diego Chargers". Ten Charger teams made my initial list of 75 (1960, '61, '63, '79-'83, '85, 2006), more than any other club (the 49ers and Rams were the only others with more than six). After all, former Charger coaches Sid Gillman and Don Coryell were two of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, and the Chargers have an impressive history of great offensive players, including (but certainly not limited to) Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, and LaDainian Tomlinson. But as I narrowed the list — first from 75 to 45, then gradually down to 10 — San Diego kept dropping off the list. The only season that even came close was the 1982 Air Coryell team that averaged an astonishing 449.8 yards per game in the strike-shortened season. Ultimately, though, even that exceptional offense missed the list.
One final note before we get to the list itself: I restricted this exercise to the modern era, so you won't find any seasons before 1946, but the 1941 Chicago Bears certainly would have made the cut. That team led the NFL in points, total yards, rushing yards, rushing average, passing yards, and passer rating — every category I tracked — and followed its 10-1 regular season with a 37-9 victory in the NFL Championship Game. Those Bears averaged almost two more touchdowns per game than the second-highest scoring team, and their 36.0 average remains the third-highest in history.
With those apologies to the Bears and Chargers out of the way, here are the 10 best offenses in league history.
10. Miami Dolphins, 1972
359.7 yards per game (first in NFL), 27.5 points per game (first in NFL)
We don't normally think of the 1972 Dolphins as a great offensive team. They're known for the only undefeated season in NFL history — pending this year's Patriots, anyway — but not much else. This was a great, great offensive team. It featured five Hall of Famers in their primes: QB Bob Griese, FB Larry Csonka, WR Paul Warfield, and offensive linemen Jim Langer and Larry Little, plus Bob Kuechenberg, who has advanced to the semi-finals of this year's Hall of Fame selection process. Half of the offensive starters — Csonka, Warfield, Little, RB Mercury Morris, and OT Norm Evans — made the Pro Bowl, and backup QB Earl Morrall (who led the league with a 91.0 passer rating) was recognized as the best quarterback in the league by the Associated Press.
Despite such a wealth of talent and accolades, the 1972 Miami offense is underrated because it played smart and didn't always put up big stats. In addition to boasting the league's top-ranked offense, the '72 Fins also had the NFL's best defense (first in both yards allowed and points allowed), and while the Dolphin offense led the NFL in rushing (211.4 ypg), it ranked 16th in passing (148.3 ypg) despite Morrall's efficiency. Miami ran the ball not because it couldn't pass, but rather because it didn't have to pass. With a terrific defense and a pair of Pro Bowl running backs, the Dolphins were able to win their games without throwing much at all. And when they did pass, they did so more efficiently than any other team in the league.
9. Baltimore Colts, 1958
378.3 yards per game (first in NFL), 31.8 points per game (first in NFL)
Probably the most famous pre-Super Bowl team, this was the group that won The Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 NFL Championship Game. The Colts had plenty of established talent on offense, including Hall of Famers Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, and Jim Parker, but the real star to emerge from Baltimore's 1958 championship season was a young quarterback named Johnny Unitas, who directed the game-winning drive in overtime and eventually went on to break almost every career passing record on the books.
The '58 Colts had a balanced offensive attack. Their running game, led by Alan Ameche (791 yards, 4.6 average) and Moore (598 yards, 7.3 average), ranked second in the NFL. The passing game was equally strong, ranking sixth in yardage and first in efficiency. Unitas had more TD passes and fewer interceptions than any other starting quarterback in the league. Berry led the league in both receptions and receiving touchdowns. Ameche gained more rushing yards than anyone except Cleveland's Jim Brown. Moore had more touchdowns and yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving) than anyone but Brown. And Unitas, Moore, Berry, and Parker were all first-team all-pros, with Ameche and guard Art Spinney joining them on the second team.
8. San Francisco 49ers, 1998
425.0 yards per game (first in NFL), 29.9 points per game (third in NFL)
This team did not finish first or even second in the NFL in scoring, finishing behind both the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings (34.8 ppg) and the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (31.3 ppg), but leading the league in yardage with that kind of competition still merits recognition here. To put 425 yards per game in context, that is the third-highest mark ever in a 16-game season, and is equal to this year's Patriots, who are already being hailed by some as the best ever. The star of San Francisco's show was quarterback Steve Young, who led the NFL in touchdown passes (36) and posted a 101.1 passer rating. He was joined by RB Garrison Hearst, who ran for over 1,500 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry, as well as WRs Jerry Rice (1,157 yards, 9 TD) and Terrell Owens (1,097 yards, 14 TD).
The Niners led the league in both rushing yards and average, as Young's 454 yards on the ground, combined with a career year from Hearst, powered them past Terrell Davis and the Broncos. San Francisco finished second in passing yardage and passer rating, trailing only Randall Cunningham and the Vikings. Young, Hearst, Rice, and offensive lineman Kevin Gogan all made the Pro Bowl.
7. Minnesota Vikings, 1998
391.5 yards per game (second in NFL), 34.8 points per game (first in NFL)
I'll save you the suspense: the '98 Broncos didn't make the top 10. A terrific offense? Undoubtedly. But not quite terrific enough to be counted among the Top 10. The '98 Vikings are another story. Besides a renaissance season from Randall Cunningham, who led the NFL with a 106.0 passer rating, the Minnesota offense boasted Pro Bowlers Robert Smith, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel, and Todd Steussie. Seven of the 11 offensive starters made the Pro Bowl, and they deserved it. Cunningham, Moss, McDaniel, Christy, and Steussie were all named to the AP all-pro team.
This was not a great running team. It ranked 11th in rushing yards and fifth in yards per carry, which is nothing to sneeze at, but hardly historic. Where this team did make history was through the air. Minnesota led the league in both passing yards and passer rating, and Moss shattered the rookie record for receiving touchdowns (17). Moss and Carter finished first and fourth, respectively, in receiving touchdowns, and it's all the scoring that really set this Viking team apart. 34.8 points per game — think about that for a minute — represents the most ever in a 16-game season. This year's Patriots, however, need only 54 points in their last three games to break Minnesota's single-season record for points scored (556).
6. Washington Redskins, 1983
383.7 yards per game (third in NFL), 33.8 points per game (first in NFL)
This is the only team on the list not to finish first or second in yards per game. It made up for that by setting an NFL scoring record that stood for 15 years, finally falling in 1998. Unlike the '98 Vikings, though, this was not a flashy passing team. In fact, in 1983 Washington ran more than any other team in the league. This was a tough-and-dirty offense, led by its offensive line, the Hogs. Center Jeff Bostic, guard Russ Grimm, and tackle Joe Jacoby all made the Pro Bowl. The other two spots were manned by George Starke and Mark May. The power running was provided by John Riggins (1,347 yards), who broke the single-season touchdown mark held by O.J. Simpson.
Washington ranked third in rushing yards, with Riggins' power game complemented by speedy Joe Washington (772 yards, 5.3 average). The passing offense ranked seventh in yards, but first in efficiency. This team didn't pass a lot — they were 19th in attempts — but they were awfully good at it. Quarterback Joe Theismann was named NFL MVP, Joe Washington added 454 yards and 6 TDs as a receiver, wideout Charlie Brown made the Pro Bowl, and a talented young player named Art Monk tallied 746 receiving yards. Additionally, this team went 14-2, with both losses coming by a single point, before an upset loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XXVIII.
5. Miami Dolphins, 1984
433.5 yards per game (first in NFL), 32.1 points per game (first in NFL)
Balanced offenses tend to be the best, and in compiling this list I looked for teams that could run and pass effectively. But it's also impossible not to be impressed by a team so good at passing that it could more or less ignore the run. The 1984 Dolphins were such a team. They averaged 313.6 passing yards per game, the second-highest mark ever in a 16-game season. Dan Marino led the league in passing attempts (564), completions (362), yards (5084), touchdowns (48), and passer rating (108.9). The running game, in contrast, was neither prolific (120 ypg, 16th in the NFL) nor efficient (4.0 average, also 16th). The Dolphins lived and died with the pass, and more often than not, they lived, going 14-2 en route to a Super Bowl appearance.
The team was represented in the Pro Bowl by Marino, two of his offensive linemen (including Hall of Famer Dwight Stephenson), and both starting wide receivers, Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. Without a great defense or an impressive running game, the Dolphins advanced to the Super Bowl almost exclusively on Marino's right arm. In the AFC Championship Game, Marino threw for 421 yards and 4 TDs in a 45-28 victory. Even this year's Patriots probably won't put up 45 in the AFC Championship Game.
4. Los Angeles Rams, 1951
450.8 yards per game (first in NFL), 32.7 points per game (first in NFL)
In the 1950s, the Browns and Rams redefined offensive football in the NFL. The Rams' habit of rotating quarterbacks never really caught on, but that might be because few other teams have had two Hall of Fame QBs on the roster simultaneously. In 1951, Ram QB Bob Waterfield led the NFL in passer rating, while Ram QB Norm Van Brocklin finished second in the same category. The '51 Rams were a terrific passing team, leading the league in both yards and rating, but they were not exclusively about throwing the ball. The team also featured the Bull Elephant backfield: Deacon Dan Towler (854 rushing yards, 6.8 average), Dick Hoerner (569 yards, 6.1 average), and Tank Younger (223 yards, 6.2 average). The three fullbacks were often on the field together, and the Rams would send two of the 225-pound runners to block for the third. Defenses couldn't figure out how to stop them.
As if all those weapons weren't enough — two Hall of Fame QBs and three runners averaging over six yards per carry — the team also had two Hall of Fame receivers, Tom Fears and Crazylegs Hirsch. In '51, Hirsch led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, yards per reception, longest reception, and scoring. Waterfield, Van Brocklin, Towler, Younger, and Hirsch all made the Pro Bowl. The Rams ranked third in rushing yards and first in passing yards, setting a record for yards per game that has stood for over 50 years and might never be broken. They finished their historic season by winning the NFL Championship.
3. Houston Oilers, 1961
449.1 yards per game (first in AFL), 36.6 points per game (first in AFL)
The American Football League had a reputation as an all-offense, no-defense league in which passing statistics needed to be taken not just with a grain of salt, but a whole shaker. Whether you believe that or not — and personally, I feel it's been exaggerated — the 1961 Houston Oilers deserve to be recognized for their amazing accomplishments on offense. That team led both major professional football leagues (the NFL and AFL) in points, yards, passing yards, and passer rating. In fact, these Oilers rank third all-time in yards per game and second all-time in points per game. No other team in history is top-three all-time in both categories, and these all-time statistics are coming from a pool of almost 1,500 teams. Top-three is about 1/5 of a percent. The '61 Oilers are in the 99.8% percentile in both of the most important offensive statistics.
The '61 Oilers won their last ten games, the tenth being the AFL Championship Game. They won with a decent running game (135.4 ypg, eighth-best in pro football) led by all-AFL RB Billy Cannon, who led the league in both rushing yards (948) and average (4.7), adding 586 yards and 9 TDs as a receiver. Cannon's success on the ground notwithstanding, it was in the passing game that Houston really made its mark. Quarterback George Blanda, who was named AFL MVP, led the AFL in passing yards (3,330) and set a single-season record for passing TDs (36) that wasn't broken until 1984 (by Dan Marino's Dolphins, summarized above). As if Blanda leading the league in passing and Cannon leading in rushing weren't enough, wide receiver Charley Hennigan led the pros in receiving yardage (1,746), setting a record for receiving yards per game (124.7) that still stands almost 50 years later.
Were these amazing accomplishments possible only because the AFL was loaded with offensive talent while all the good defensive players were in the rival NFL? Surely it played a role. But I examined 11 AFL teams for this project, and the '61 Oilers were the only one that I even considered for this Top 10 list. This team holds the AFL's all-time records for points per game, yards per game, and passing yards per game. The 1961 Houston Oilers were clearly and indisputably the best offensive team in AFL history, and even if the AFL was geared toward offense, that earns a top-three ranking here.
2. St. Louis Rams, 1999-2001
1999: 400.8 yards per game (first in NFL), 32.9 points per game (first in NFL)
2000: 442.2 yards per game (first in NFL), 33.8 points per game (first in NFL)
2001: 418.1 yards per game (first in NFL), 31.4 points per game (first in NFL)
Is it unfair to group these three seasons together? Maybe, but these three Ram teams were essentially the same, and they all belong on this list, but it would be awfully boring to read three separate summaries about them. In all three seasons, the Rams topped the league in both yards and points. Only 12 teams in history have averaged over 400 yards and 30 points per game (though this year's Patriots will almost certainly be the 13th) and fully 1/4 of that list is in this group. All three seasons, the Rams led the NFL in both passing yards and passer rating, and in all three seasons, they ranked either first or second in yards per carry. These Rams weren't just prolific, they were deadly efficient.
The star of the show was RB Marshall Faulk, who averaged — again, this is a three-year average — 1374 rushing yards, an incredible 5.4 yards per carry, 84 catches, 881 receiving yards, 2255 yards from scrimmage, and 20 TDs. The only player with a better three-year rushing average (min. 500 att.) is Jim Brown (1958-60 and 1963-65). The only RB with more receptions in a three-year period is Larry Centers (1994-96 and 1995-97). No RB has ever averaged more receiving yards. No player at any position has ever averaged more combined rushing and receiving yards. And Faulk's 20 TDs per year ranked second in history at the time (Emmitt Smith, 1994-96).
Faulk was first-team all-pro in each of these three seasons, and he was named NFL MVP in 2000. In 1999 and 2001, the league MVP was his quarterback, Kurt Warner. In addition to Faulk, Warner's receivers included Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. A fine offensive line was led by left tackle Orlando Pace, and mad scientist Mike Martz designed the whole operation. St. Louis reached the Super Bowl in both '99 and '01, winning in 1999.
1. Los Angeles Rams, 1950
436.7 yards per game (first in NFL), 38.8 points per game (first in NFL)
Their average of 436.7 yards per game is the fifth-best all-time. Their 38.8 points per game is a record that has stood for 56 years. If the 2007 New England Patriots do go down as the best offense ever, this is the team whose spot they will take. We've already discussed the '51 Rams, and this team's personnel was effectively the same: Waterfield and Van Brocklin at quarterback; the Bull Elephant backfield complemented by Mr. Outside, Glenn Davis; Fears and Hirsch playing end. Waterfield, Van Brocklin, Hoerner, Davis, and Fears all made the Pro Bowl. Especially impressive was Fears, who set single-game and single-season records for receptions and posted the second-most receiving yards in league history. His single-game receptions record (18) stood for almost 50 years, and his 84 catches led the league by 62% (the next-best total was 52).
So prolific was the 1950 Rams' passing game — their record for passing yards per game (294.1) stood for more than 30 years — that Fears, Hirsch, and Davis all ranked among the NFL's top 10 in both receptions and receiving yards. Van Brocklin led the NFL in passer rating and Waterfield was recognized as an all-pro, as were both offensive tackles. This was not the dominant running team that the 1951 Rams would become, but it was perhaps the best passing offense ever, and with by far the most points per game of any NFL team in the modern era (the '98 Vikings are next at 34.8), they currently stand as the best offense in the history of professional football.
They say that defense wins championships. The 10 (well, okay, 12 because of the 1999-2001 Rams) teams I listed here had a regular-season winning percentage of .806 (which comes out to 13-3 in a 16-game season). Nine of them reached the Super Bowl (or equivalent league championship game before 1966), and five of them won their league's championship. As this year's Patriots continue to prove, offense may win some championships, too.