Cold Hard Football Facts: AFL did not offer exciting brand of football
Contrary to popular belief, AFL's offenses weren't more exciting than NFL's
In fact, it could be argued AFL featured worse quarterbacking than the NFL
Joe Namath was the poster child for reputation not living up to production
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.
It's a story we'll hear time and again during the league's 50th anniversary, which will be celebrated by the NFL in the 2009 season. There's just one little problem.
It's not true.
If you define "wide-open" simply as a couple more pass attempts per game, then, yes, the AFL offered a more "exciting" brand of football.
But if you define "wide-open" as a more prolific passing game with a higher rate of completions, more yards per attempt, more TDs per attempt, fewer interceptions and much higher passer ratings, or if you define "wide open" as passing productivity like we have in modern pro football, then, no, the AFL most definitely did not offer a more "wide-open" and "exciting" brand of football.
Slicing through the myth
The truth is the passing game in the AFL was an abomination, a pathetic attempt to match the more effective, more efficient, more accurate, more precise and more productive brand of contemporary offensive football found over in the "boring" NFL. The AFL's image was never a reality. Instead, its image is merely an example of clever (and quite successful) marketing that ultimately led to what AFL owners wanted all along: a partnership with the NFL. We certainly applaud the AFL for its success.
But we also have an obligation to set the historic record straight.
With the help of the ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia, we compared the cumulative passing statistics of the AFL to the NFL from 1960 to 1969 -- the 10-season period in which the two competed as rival pro football leagues. We found, to the shock and awe of all, that NFL passers boasted:
a higher completion percentage every single year
Here's the most shocking discovery:
NFL passers completed better than 50 percent of their attempts every single year of the 1960s.
Doubters might say: "Hey, NFL offenses had more talent." They probably did. But the NFL defenses possessed more talent, too. So talent is not the issue. What's at issue is that our perception of the "wide-open" and "exciting" AFL is largely incorrect.
Here's a look at how the two leagues stacked up passing the ball each and every year:
The myth that the AFL offered a more wide-open brand of football depends solely upon one factor and one factor only: AFL teams threw the ball more often.
In fact, AFL teams averaged more pass attempts every single year of the decade. Over the entire decade:
NFL teams averaged 28 attempts per game.
These trends were fairly consistent, too:
NFL teams averaged 27 to 29 attempts per game from year to year.
The differences certainly add up over time. However, these differences would have been barely perceptible to the naked eye within the confines of an individual game.
After all, AFL quarterbacks threw the ball, on average, just three more times per game than their NFL counterparts.
Two players illustrate the difference in passing quality incredibly well: Sonny Jurgensen of the NFL's Redskins and Joe Namath of the AFL's Jets. They led their respective leagues in passing yards in both 1966 and 1967. Namath was the AFL's highest-paid, most famous and most prolific player, while Jurgensen rated in the eyes of most football observers no better than the third best quarterback in the NFL, behind Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr.
Yet Jurgensen statistically massacred the sloppy, mistake-prone Namath over those two seasons at the height of the AFL-NFL flame war.
Namath actually won the yard-per-attempt battle (7.7 to 7.4). But Jurgensen was far more accurate (57.4 to 50.9) and boasted a much higher passer rating (86.0 to 68.3). Jurgensen was also far more likely to throw a scoring strike -- tossing 59 TD passes to just 45 for Namath -- and was far less likely to throw picks (35 to 55). And over the course of two seasons, Namath in the "wide-open" AFL threw just 18 more passes than Jurgensen in the boring NFL (962 to 944) -- a difference of less than 1 attempt per game.
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