Numbers mean less in 16-game seasons

The NFL expanded from 14 games to 16 games 25 years ago and it changed the impact of some statistics.

Originally Published: December 17, 2003
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

NFL headquarters delights when offensive numbers are high. After all, in all sports offense sells.

The 2003 season hasn't been any different. Thanks in part to defenses using more Cover Two zones, running backs have had exceptional years, gashing defenders waiting to react to the pass. There have been 133 100-yard rushing game, 10 shy of the 1998 record of 143. The NFL record of four 1,500-yard runners is already tied, and three more backs -- Stephen Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Priest Holmes are within reach, each having more than 1,300 yards with two games left.

The high rushing numbers prompted an interesting discussion around the ESPN.com office the other day. Does a 1,000-yard eason mean anything in today's NFL?

Twenty-five years ago, the NFL expanded the schedule from 14 to 16 games, a natural progression because of expansion through the 1970 and a demand for more game for a sports that was on fire for popularity.

Twenty five years may not seem like an eternity because the Baby Boomer generation -- myself included -- watched this transformation. It was a time of great rivalries, great defense and simplistic football. The Steelers ruled the decade, but the Raiders, Dolphins and Houston Oilers challenged. Quarterbacks called their own plays. The West Coast offense was only in the mind of Bill Walsh. Complex nickel packages and zone blitzes weren't on the defensive agenda.

If this season were put back in the time machine and sent back 25 years, the season would be over. The Dolphins and Broncos wouldn't have the chance to battle for the AFC's final wild-card spot. The Packers and Vikings wouldn't have the uneasiness of wondering who wins the NFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati fans wouldn't enjoy the final two weeks of thrills of their potential playoff seasons in the AFC North.

Final Two Weeks
How important is the final two weeks of the regular season? A look at Week 15 and Week 16 since the league expanded its schedule 25 years ago shows that Super Bowl teams have won their final two games 14 times:
Yr. Teams/Rec.* Last 2 Champ
'78 Pittsburgh (12-2)
Dallas (10-4)
2-0
2-0
Pitt. 35-31
'79 Pittsburgh (11-3)
L.A. Rams (8-6)
1-1
1-1
Pitt. 31-19
'80 Oakland (9-5)
Philadelphia (11-3)
2-0
1-1
Oak. 27-10
'81 Cincinnati (10-4)
San Francisco (11-3)
2-0
2-0
S.F. 26-21
'82 Strike season
'83 L.A. Raiders (11-3)
Washington (12-2)
1-1
2-0
L.A. 38-9
'84 Miami (12-2)
San Francisco (13-1)
2-0
2-0
S.F. 38-16
'85 New England (10-4)
Chicago (13-1)
1-1
2-0
Chi. 46-10
'86 Denver (10-4)
N.Y. Giants (12-2)
1-1
2-0
N.Y. 39-20
'87 Denver (8-4-1)
Washington (10-3)
2-0
1-1
Wash. 42-20
'88 Cincinnati (11-3)
San Francisco (9-5)
1-1
1-1
S.F. 20-16
'89 Denver (10-4)
San Francisco (12-2)
1-1
2-0
S.F. 55-10
'90 Buffalo (12-2)
N.Y. Giants (11-3)
2-0
2-0
N.Y. 20-19
'91 Buffalo (12-2)
Washington (13-1)
1-1
1-1
Wash. 37-24
'92 Buffalo (10-4)
Dallas (11-3)
1-1
2-0
Dal. 52-17
'93 Buffalo (10-4)
Dallas (10-4)
2-0
2-0
Dal. 30-13
'94 San Diego (9-5)
San Francisco (12-2)
2-0
1-1
S.F. 49-26
'95 Pittsburgh (10-4)
Dallas (10-4)
1-1
2-0
Dal. 27-17
'96 New England (10-4)
Green Bay (11-3)
1-1
2-0
G.B. 35-21
'97 Denver (11-3)
Green Bay (11-3)
1-1
2-0
Den. 31-24
'98 Denver (13-1)
Atlanta (12-2)
1-1
2-0
Den. 34-19
'99 Tennessee (11-3)
St. Louis (12-2)
2-0
1-1
StL 23-16
'00 Baltimore (10-4)
N.Y. Giants (10-4)
2-0
2-0
Balt. 34-7
'01 New England (9-5)
St. Louis (12-2)
2-0
2-0
N.E. 20-17
'02 Oakland (9-5)
Tampa Bay (11-3)
2-0
1-1
T.B. 38-21

Worse, there would no wild-card weekend or bye weeks. Three division winners in each conference would be preparing for the playoffs. Only one wild-card would be earned per conference. In the two weeks it takes to conclude the 2003 regular season, the old NFL would be producing two Super Bowl teams. Not enough.

Where the NFL is fortunate is that it's unprecedented growth into being America's most popular sport has been a natural progression. The merger of the AFL and NFL in 1970 ended a turbulent 1960s of feuding between the two leagues. Great teams emerged in the new AFC in the early 1970s to make the transition seem right.

The beauty of expanding to 16 games in 1978 seemed to be brilliant for a different reason. In 1978, the NFL changed the rules to open up offensive production. Cornerbacks were no longer able to mug receivers downfield. A seventh official was added. Instant replay was being studied. The NFL was growing up.

But the downside to increasing the schedule by 12.5 percent is the stats. Excellence in the 1970s and before became harder to compare with two more games on the schedule. This has to be remembered in future discussions to shorten the preseason and expand the regular season to 18 games.

Go through the NFL record book and the only time you are going to see top offensive players from 1977 and before is for records of continuity. Receivers such as Don Hutson of the Packers and Lionel Taylor of the Broncos register for leading their leagues for consecutive years. Those were different times. A 70-catch season seemed to stretch the limits of imagination. Marvin Harrison more than doubled that last season with 143 for the Colts.

What was great before 1978 seems common today. In 1977, the year before the transition to 16 games, no receiver had a 1,000-yard year. There were only three in 1976 and one in 1975. This year there are already 12 1,000-yard receivers and the next 19-yard catch for Isaac Bruce will give the Rams two of them (Torry Holt and Bruce).

Look how the quarterback position has changed. Going from 14 to 16 games increased the number of 4,000-yard throwers. There were four last year. Before 1978, Joe Namath was the only quarterback to throw for 4,000 and he didn't do it in the NFL. He did it in the AFC in 1967 for the New York Jets.

The increase to 16 games clearly affected the running back position. The 1,000-yard season no longer seems impressive. You are talking only 62.5 yards per game. And that's supposed to be a great year for running backs? Fourteen have already crossed the 1,000-yard plateau. Stop there, and this year would match up better than some of the great running years of the pre-1978 seasons.

In 1976, 12 running backs had 1,000-yard seasons, led by O.J. Simpson with 1,503 for the Bills. That would put him fifth this year behind Jamal Lewis, Clinton Portis, Deuce McAllister and Ahman Green. There were 10 1,000-yard runners in 1972.

While it might be better to consider 1,150 yards as a standard for a running back to have a good season, everyone is still going to look at 1,000 as a barometer because crossing that number is a threshold.

And therein lies the problem of going to 18 games. The increase from 14 to 16 boosted the statistics of generations of Hall of Fame performers, and it's done it literally before our eyes. Everyone looks at Jerry Rice's total of 1,507 career catches as insurmountable.

But let's use Harrison as a barometer. Assuming he catches 14 passes over the final two games to get him to 100, he will have 765 in eight seasons (96 per season). He's 31. Assuming he plays eight more season, at his current pace he'd catch 768 more passes and finish with 1,533, just passing Jerry Rice. But add in two extra games per season, and Harrison gets 96 more catches, moving well past Rice's record.

Randy Moss is on pace for 111 catches, which would give him 525 in six seasons. He's 26. At his current pace, he should reach 1,500 in 11 years, at age 37. Add two years to his schedule and he'd make it by 35.

Stats won't be the main reason the NFL will resist going to 16 games.

For statisticians, though, you would be minimizing the accomplishments of the great players putting up great numbers before your eyes. On the 25th anniversary of the expansion from 14 to 16 games, the great players of 1977 and beyond are memories hidden in the record books.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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