Exciting Passing Game and the AFL

SI.com and one of its partner sites recently ran a piece titled, "AFL did not offer exciting brand of football," whose premise was that the AFL's passing game was overrated, and specifically that the NFL, not its upstart competitor, offered excitement in the passing game. I'm going to link to the article at the end of this sentence, but I would really encourage you not to click through and give it any hits, because it was lazily-researched, misleading trash.

For those unfamiliar with the AFL, it did business from 1960-69, and was the original home of the Bengals, Bills, Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots, Raiders, and Titans (Oilers), merging with the NFL in 1970. The AFL helped grow the popularity of professional football enormously. Among the AFL's contributions were the 14-game schedule, the modern vertical passing game, increased visibility for the sport, and most of the AFC. Player salaries also sky-rocketed, because the two leagues tried to outbid each other for rookies. This is a good thing. Prior to 1960, a lot of NFL players still had other jobs in the offseason, since a football salary was nothing special in those days. With higher salaries, players could afford to spend the offseason practicing and working out, and the result was a higher level of play.

But I'm not here to defend the AFL's contributions to modern-day pro football; I'm defending it from a specific charge that the AFL's passing game was unexciting. The heart of "AFL did not offer exciting brand of football" can be summarized in the following statistics it cited:

NFL passers boasted:

• a higher completion percentage every single year
• a higher average per attempt every single year
• a higher passer rating every single year
• a better TD-to-INT ratio almost every single year (8 of 10)
• a higher TD percentage almost every single year (9 of 10)
• a lower INT percentage almost every single year (9 of 10)

Here's the most shocking discovery:

• NFL passers completed better than 50 percent of their attempts every single year of the 1960s.
• AFL passers never completed 50 percent of their passes in the 1960s — not once in the entire decade.

There are several problems here. Let's take them one at a time.

1. The author seems to believe that higher completion percentage equates with excitement. Many football fans would disagree. The career record for completion percentage belongs to Chad Pennington, whom I would posit is one of the most boring good quarterbacks of the last 20 years. Pennington has a notoriously weak arm, so instead of throwing downfield, he throws short slants and screens. Long passes are harder to complete, but they're a lot more exciting. Excitement is not an objective statistic I can prove, but I am extremely confident that there is a negative correlation between completion percentage and excitement. Risky, low-percentage plays are more exciting than safe, high-percentage plays. That's true almost by definition.

2. More generally, the author is confusing good passing with excitement. I have my own QB excitement figure: touchdowns plus interceptions. It's a simple statistical formula, but I think it passes the "common sense" test. Here are last year's top 5: Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Jay Cutler. Those are all pretty exciting players. Last year's bottom 5, minimum 300 pass attempts: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jeff Garcia, Jason Campbell, Kerry Collins, Trent Edwards. Again, I think this makes sense. No one remembers anything Fitzpatrick or Edwards did last year, Garcia and Campbell are known for being conservative, and Collins ran a ball-control offense. Collins and Favre had almost identical passer ratings last season (80.2 and 81.0, respectively), but Favre was a lot more interesting to watch. Campbell's rating (84.2) was almost as good as Cutler's (86.0), but Campbell is a frustrating bore and Cutler is a fireball.

All of which leads me to this: the current incarnation of the "West Coast Offense" is incredibly dull. A WCO emphasizes high-percentage horizontal passing with a minimum of down-the-field vertical passing. High completion percentage and low interception percentage are good statistics. There's nothing positive about incompletions or interceptions. But those are both play-it-safe statistics. Go ahead, throw the screen pass to a running back. We know no one's going to intercept that, and you'll probably pick up 5 yards. Yawn. This kind of offense deliberately discourages the most exciting play on offense: the long pass attempt. It's a risky play. Long passes are usually incomplete. They get intercepted much more often than short passes. And they're a lot of fun.

3. Most of all, the author of the AFL hit piece is confusing good quarterbacks with excitement. Which is more fun, watching Ben Roethlisberger throw to Hines Ward, or Jake Delhomme passing to Steve Smith? Was it more exciting to watch Tom Brady playing with Troy Brown and Deion Branch, or Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss? This isn't all about the quarterbacks. And the one position where the AFL may have been stronger than the NFL, possibly even a lot stronger, was wide receiver.

Great AFL receivers included Hall of Famers Lance Alworth, Don Maynard, and Fred Biletnikoff, as well as fellow standouts Otis Taylor, Lionel Taylor, Art Powell, and Charley Hennigan. During the AFL's existence, the NFL's best receiver was probably Tommy McDonald. He was a good receiver, a Hall of Famer. But he wasn't as good as Maynard, and he wasn't even in the same league as Alworth. In the 1960s, McDonald had 410 receptions for 6,733 yards and 62 touchdowns. Maynard had 546 receptions for 10,289 yards and 84 TDs. I heard someone on an NFL Films special, I forget who, say they thought the AFL's reputation as a passing league was due solely to Lance Alworth.

The NFL had great passers in the 1960s. In fact, it was a golden age for quarterbacks. But the AFL had great receivers, and specifically, the AFL had great deep threats. Other than Bob Hayes and Homer Jones towards the end of the decade, the NFL's best pass-catchers were possession receivers. It's time to look at some stats. Let's start with yards per completion. That's a good "excitement" stat because it's basically measuring long passes, and one 50-yard completion is more exciting than 10 five-yard completions. In fact, I think one 50-yard incompletion is probably more exciting than 10 five-yard completions. From 1960-69, the AFL averaged 12.83 yards per completion, the NFL 12.51. That's not a huge difference, but it's not a tiny one either. 1/3 of a yard is a lot when you add it up over 45,000 catches. And the AFL averaged eight more passes per game.

What about my excitement stats, touchdowns and interceptions? The AFL averaged 3.13 passing TDs per game, the NFL 2.90. The AFL averaged 3.78 interceptions per game, the NFL 3.07. The AFL averaged an extra passing TD or INT per game compared to the NFL. The AFL averaged 30 more passing yards per game.

The author's problem is not understanding the argument. The AFL averaged more yards per completion and more pass attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and interceptions per game than the NFL. Clearly, obviously, and indisputably, it was the more pass-oriented and more wide-open of the two leagues. Almost as clearly, it was more exciting. The author admits that "every football historian insists the old American Football League built a market for itself in the 1960s with an exciting, wide-open brand of football that stood in sharp contrast to the boring three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust style that defined the staid, frumpy NFL." The stats corroborate this. Let me repeat: the stats don't disprove this, as the author asserts; rather, they back it up.

What the author is really arguing is that NFL quarterbacks were better than AFL quarterbacks. That is certainly true. I have no doubt that NFL quarterbacks in the 1960s, as a group, were better than AFL quarterbacks. But better passers doesn't mean more excitement. If quarterbacks were perfect, with no interceptions, not even any incompletions, the game would be incredibly boring.

The article's premise is a PR stunt. Stating that NFL QBs were better than their AFL counterparts is obvious, a waste of time. Stating that the NFL was more exciting than the AFL, though — that's controversial. It's also absurd. It's just as ridiculous to suggest that the NFL was the more exciting league as it would be to suggest that the AFL's passers were better than the NFL's. The AFL featured more passes, more big plays — more touchdowns, more turnovers — and more excitement.

Comments and Conversation

April 7, 2009


Great points, Brad. I had almost the exact same reaction as you.

Also, check out the Fun QB Index: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=351

The NFL had better QBs, as you mentioned. It had Starr, Tarkenton, Unitas, Snead, Jurgenson, Brodie, Gabriel, Charley Johnson, Don Meredith, Frank Ryan, Milt Plum and Billy Wade start for half the decade, accounting for 61% of all QB seasons. Morrall and Tittle played four seasons as starters. The AFL had Dawson, Kemp, Blanda, Hadl, Parilli, Flores and Namath. Bob Griese and Lamonica only started three seasons.

But, as you noted, the AFL may have had the better WRs. The AFL had Alworth and Maynard, Hennigan, Groman, Lionel Taylor, Art Powell and Otis Taylor. The NFL’s top guys were Berry and McDonald in the early part of the decade, Bobby Mitchell, Bob Hayes, Charley Taylor, Tommy McDonald and Dave Parks.

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