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Is the NFL throwing the ball more, but getting less out of it?

The answer is yes. The NFL passing game now dominates offensive strategy, but the excitement has gone out of the game as the short pass, or as we used to derisively call it back in the seventies, the dump pass, has taken over the game.

A dump pass is a short throw designed for an easy completion and guaranteed to pick up no more than 5 or 6 yards. In the seventies, the recipient was a running back coming out of the backfield. Today, it’s the slot receiver.

It’s a high percentage throw that’s about an exciting as a fullback diving up the middle of the line and it has supplanted much of the running game in the NFL. It’s also taken away a lot of the excitement from the game. No one throws the long bomb anymore. No one takes a chance unless it’s a Hail Mary at the end of a game.

Bart Starr was famous for throwing the bomb on third and one and faking the defense out of its shoes. Though the 1960s Packers threw the ball less than anyone in the NFL, when they did put it up, they got big numbers.

The result of today’s ultra-conservative passing game has resulted in incredibly high completion percentages, ridiculously low interception rates and made the game, all too often, a yawn. Here’s  a chart that demonstrates the decline of the downfield passing game using the number that tells it all, yards per completion. We begin in 1946, the decade the passing game began to emerge in professional football. The number cited is the yards per completion by the top, qualifying quarterback in the NFL every ten years through 2016.

Year       Yards Per Completion
1946       16.6
1956       17.4
1966       15.8 NFL
1966       17.5 AFL
1976       15.1
1986       14.9
1996       13.3
2006       14.7
2016       13.3

And here’s the entire league average for those same years.

Year       Yards Per Completion
1946       15.0
1956       12.8
1966       11.9 NFL
1966       13.5 AFL
1976       11.1
1986       11.5
1996       10.8
2006       10.7
2016       10.7

The decline of .8 yards per completion from 1986 to the present day may not seem like much, but it points out a steady decline that began in the Dead Ball Era of the seventies. Hiding within that current number is the fact that far fewer throws are being made downfield while the safety valve throw to a running back, another name for the dump pass, has also all but disappeared from the NFL. Consider this, in the seventies, quarterbacks on bad teams relied on the dump pass due to the bump and run defense which basically allowed defensive backs to mug wide receivers and racked up miserable numbers in the process, bringing the overall league average down.

On the other hand, teams with receivers able to get open deep like Cliff Branch in Oakland or Isaac Curtis in Cincinnati, gave those teams a more wide open attack which put them head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL. So that 11.1 average from 1976 consists of an inordinate number of 5 and 6 yard throws to running backs balanced by deep throw to wide receivers.

Today’s NFL has virtually eliminated the traditional dump pass, replacing it with 7 and 8 yards crossing patterns to wide receivers, but eschews the deep throw, meaning that today’s average is composed of fewer bombs. It would take a PHD with a Supercomputer to sort it out, but it goes something like this:

1976
Throws to RB average 7 yards
Throws Downfield average 15 yards
League average 11 yards

2016
Throws to Slot WR average 9 yards
Throws Downfield average 13 yards
League average 11 yards

Downfield throws average in the seventies were likely the result of 20 plus yard bombs combined with 10 yard possession catches while in 2016, completions downfield are much rarer and the average is the result of a higher percentage of intermediate throws.

I know, it’s a bit of tortured logic which I can’t back up and I doubt anyone can refute either, but it’s how I remember the game and tapes of contests from the seventies backup what I’m saying.

Examples of the long ball throwers

Joe Namath of the New York Jets had 2,816 yards on 162 completions for a 17.4 average in 1972 including a record setting 496 yards on only 15 completions with 6 touchdowns in a  44-34 shootout against Johnny Unitas in game two of that season. If you exclude the last two, miserable, years of Namath’s career, over his first 11 seasons he averaged an astonishing 15.1 yards a completion picking up 25,967 yards. Namath paid for this with one of the highest interception percentages and a completion average of barely 50%, though neither were terribly bad numbers in the AFL-NFL of the era. Namath took the Jets to the playoffs twice during those years and won Super Bowl III.

Bart Starr’s prime years from 1959 to 67 under Vince Lombardi saw him average 14.2 yards a completion with 20,099 yards while winning 5 NFL Championships. But while Namath was a true gunslinger and interception prone, Starr was also accurate, completing a league high 57.9% of his passes during those same years with the lowest interception rate of quarterbacks with comparable numbers.

By comparison, Tom Brady has averaged 11.7 yards a completion during his career in New England while winning 5 championships and has topped 13 yards a completion only once, in 2011 with 13.1. Drew Brees has averaged 11 yards a completion during his long career, with his best season 12.4 yards.

When you take away the chance of an interception by playing it ultra-safe, some of the adventure goes out of the game. The more high percentage throws you make, the less exciting the passing game becomes.

The NFL in the seventies could be a stifling bore with the dominance of defenses and the running game, but when they did put the ball up, it could be a blast as it was in the 1968 AFL Championship Game between the Jets and Raiders or when Roger Staubach bombed the Vikings in the first round of the 1975 playoffs. In the end, it’s just an observation and nostalgia, but it’s worth remembering.

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1972 – Joe Namath’s Last Great Season

To an entire generation the name Joe Namath conjures up an iconic image from an era of controversial figure among who he stood shoulder to shoulder. Where you loved him or hated him, Joe will be forever emblazoned in our memory as he trotted off the field, one arm raised in victory after guaranteeing and then delivering victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in January of 1969. But when I think of Joe Namath I remember the 1972 season in what proved to be his last the last time in which he would lead a team on a run at the playoffs before the inevitability of age and injury took their permanent toll. Having missed most of two seasons with major injuries in 1970 and 1971 Namath roared back with a year as unlikely as any in his career.

The Jets fortunes had faded considerably during the three years since their Super Bowl win with many members of their championship team having completed or settled into the twilight of their careers. The defense was a ragtag bunch that gave up points nearly as fast as Joe could put them on the board, but in a season that was famous for the Miami Dolphins going 14-0-0 on the strength of a conservative run oriented offense Namath defied the odds by playing the game his own way one last time in much the same fashion that Brett Favre would confound the pundits two decades later. With an arsenal of receivers that included Rich Caster at tight end, Don Maynard and Eddie Bell at wide receiver with Emerson Boozer and John Riggins in the backfield Joe had an offense loaded up to score and was to average an amazing 17.4 yards per completion. Imagine that in today’s game when quarterbacks are averaging 10 and 11 yards a completion.

With his gun slinging style Namath was unafraid to put the ball into the teeth of the era’s zone defenses that were allowed the notorious bump and run that virtually sanctioned the mugging of wide receivers. Still, Namath lit up the scoreboard leading the league in touchdowns and yardages with two four hundred yard passing games. Think about this, Brett Favre topped four hundred yards only once in his entire career in the modern era when defensive backs are limited in their coverage of wide receivers. Namath did it twice in one year, the year most famous for its conservative play calling and tough defenses.

After an easy season opening win against Buffalo the Jets came into Baltimore in week two of the season for a showdown with their division rival Colts. On a sunny afternoon in Memorial Stadium, Namath rocked the once mighty Baltimore secondary for 496 yards and 6 touchdown on only 15 completions in 28 attempts while Johnny Unitas battled back with 376 yards on 26 completions in 45 attempts for 2 touchdowns as the Jets pulled out a 44 to 34 scorcher. Rich Caster reeled in 6 passes for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns while teammate Eddie Bell caught 7 passes for another 197 yards and a touchdown. It was a game for the ages and one that not many people saw outside of New York and Baltimore and a few snippets of highlights on Monday Night Football the following evening. It’s a shame the videotape of that game doesn’t exist.

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