The NFL has done a great job of making the past disappear. It’s accomplished this in two main ways: (1.) by lengthening the season from 11 games in the early ’40s to 16 now; and (2.) by tilting the rules, time after time, in favor of the offense. When you look at statistics from the ’60s and earlier, even the numbers put up by Hall of Famers, the players often seem diminished, not as good as the current crop.
Let’s see if I can disabuse you of that notion. In fact, why don’t I start here:
Only seven quarterbacks have thrown 40 touchdown passes in a season, all since 1984. Would it surprise you to learn that five QBs in the pre-merger days (1920-69) threw 40 TD passes in a 16-game stretch? The Fab Five:
5 PRE-MERGER QUARTERBACKS WHO THREW FOR 40 TDS IN 16 GAMES
|Years (Games)||Quarterback, Team||TD|
|1961 (10)-62 (6)||George Blanda, Oilers (AFL)||47|
|1962 (8)-63 (8)||Y.A. Tittle, Giants||47|
|1943 (11*)-44 (5)||Sid Luckman, Bears||44|
|1959 (13*)-60 (3)||Johnny Unitas, Colts||40|
|1968 (2*)-69 (14)||Daryle Lamonica, Raiders (AFL)||40|
*title game or playoffs included
Tittle’s and Blanda’s totals (47) would put them behind only Peyton Manning (55, 49), Tom Brady (50) and Dan Marino (48) on the single-season list. Nobody ever points this out, though, because the NFL prefers to push the idea – sometimes illusory – that the game, and especially the players, have never been better.
Now let’s look at the best 16-game stretches for some of the running backs and receivers of yesteryear.
BEST 16-GAME STRETCHES FOR PRE-MERGER RUNNING BACKS
|Years (Games)||Running Back, Team||Att||Yds||Avg||TD|
|1962 (1)-63 (14)-64(1)||Jim Brown, Browns||336||2,087||6.2||16|
|1958 (12)-59 (4)||Jim Brown, Browns||362||1,964||5.4||19|
|1961 (3)-62 (13)||Jim Taylor, Packers||309||1,764||5.7||21|
Note: Brown also had a 16-game stretch in 1964 (four games, counting the title game) and ’65 (12) in which he rushed for 1,855 yards, in case you’re wondering how great he really was. (The NFL record for a season, of course, is 2,105 by the Rams’ Eric Dickerson in 1984.)
BEST 16-GAME STRETCHES FOR PRE-MERGER RECEIVERS
|Years (Games)||Receiver, Team||Rec||Yds||Avg||TD|
|1961 (14)-62 (2)||Charley Hennigan, Oilers (AFL)||100||2,093||20.9||16|
|1963 (3)-64 (13)||Art Powell, Raiders (AFL)||95||1,772||18.7||20|
|1966 (1)-67 (14)-68 (1)||Don Maynard, Jets (AFL)||85||1,766||20.8||14|
|1965 (11)-66 (5)||Lance Alworth, Chargers (AFL)||84||1,760||21.0||16|
|1941 (6)-42 (10)||Don Hutson, Packers||109||1,648||15.1||24|
|1960 (12)-61 (4)||Raymond Berry, Colts||98||1,639||16.7||10|
Note: Five of the six yardage totals would be good enough to crack the single-season Top 10, and Hennigan’s (2,093) is well above the record held by the Lions’ Calvin Johnson (1,964 in 2012).
Yes, Charley, Maynard, Powell and Alworth all played in the AFL, which didn’t have the depth of the NFL (at least, not for the first five or six years). And yes, Hutson’s 1942 season was a war year (though the talent wasn’t nearly as depleted as it would be later on). But most of these guys, remember, are Hall of Famers. I just wanted to give you a sense of how much better their numbers would have been if their seasons had been longer — never mind if they’d been able to play under today’s rules.