Early last year, the NFL owners and Players’ Association agreed upon a 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that laid the foundation for a variety of minor (and some major) changes to take place in the way the NFL runs its operations through the 2020s.
One of the more significant changes was the agreement to add a 17th regular season game to the schedule beginning with the 2021 season. A small concession was made in terms of sacrificing one of the four pre-season games that had previously existed, but the extra regular season game is sure to have a variety of important impacts, from roster management to salary inflation and beyond.
The issue I intend to address in this piece, however, is how the extra regular season game is likely impact what we think of as the traditional success metrics in the pro football game. Football is not the most metric-driven game in American pro sports - that’s almost certainly baseball - but nevertheless, the thresholds for what constitutes a successful season for quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and others are virtually hard-wired into the psyche of football fans at this point.
In 1978, over 40 years ago, the NFL expanded from a 14-game to a 16-game season, the last time major modifications - other than the addition of a bye week in 1990 - to the schedule.
Many of the benchmarks I’ll discuss here probably haven’t been seriously re-evaluated since even that change, an eon ago. It will be interesting to see if the addition of a 17th game sparks a serious reconsideration.
1,000 Yard Rushers
In 1977, the last year of the 14-game season, there were nine players who rushed for over 1,000 yards, led by Earl Campbell at 1,852. Collecting 1,000 yards over 14 games requires averaging at least 72 yards per game. In 1978, the first 16-game season, eleven men crossed the mark, averaging at least 63 yards per game.
By 2000, nearing the tail end of the “workhorse” running back phase, there were 23 different 1,000 yard rushers. In the intervening couple of decades, the “running back by committee” approach has gained a foothold, and in 2020, there were only nine 1,000 yard rushers, including one QB - Lamar Jackson. The dominance of the run game has waned too, since the original expansion. For instance, in 1977, the Raiders led the league in rushing attempts with 681 in 14 games. In 2020, the Ravens led the league, by a wide margin, on the feet of Jackson, with 555 attempts in 16 games.
In 2021, it will only take averaging 59 yards per game for a back to collect a 1,000 yard season. In 2020, 18 backs crossed that mark.
In order to “inflation adjust” the 1978 “1,000 yard” standard to 2021 terms, a runner would need over 1,220 yards this coming season (or 1,152 in a 16-game season). Only three running backs met that pace last year: Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Jonathan Taylor.
These same conversions (1,000/1,152/1,224) will, of course, apply to receiving statistics as well, and it’s fascinating to look back at how dramatically the game has changed in that respect.
In 1977, there were zero 1,000 yard WRs. In fact, Drew Pearson led the league with 870 yards in 14 games (62 yds/gm). Last year, there were 18 1,000 yard receivers (63 yds/gm), led by Stephon Diggs, who nearly doubled Pearson’s total. With the reduced 17-game standard, we could easily see over 30 players top the 1,000 yard receiving mark as a regular occurrence in coming seasons.
5,000 Yards Passing
Probably more as a function of the way the game has been played than even the expansion from 14 to 16 games, the productivity of the passing game has exploded in the past 40 years. In 1977, Buffalo’s Joe Ferguson led the NFL with 2,803 yards passing (200 yds/game). By contrast, last season, 1⁄3 of the league had quarterbacks who passed for over 4,000 yards (250 yds/game).
As of right now, a quarterback has passed for over 5,000 yards in a season 12 times (313 yds/gm). Five of those times were Drew Brees. With the expansion to 17 games, expect to see that pretty elite company get quite a bit more crowded. Passing for around an average of 294 yds/gm will push QBs over the threshold. Both Desean Watson and Patrick Mahomes would have crossed that mark in 2020, given the chance at 17 games. The prior season, 4 QBs would have (Winston, Stafford, Prescott, and Ryan).
While I fully expect that 5,000 yard passers will still indicate a mark of excellence (and/or playing most games from behind), the 4,000 yard passing threshold is likely to simply become the border between quarterbacks who are at least average and those who can’t even attain that, now, low bar.
Most individual defensives statistics, apart from tackles - and I don’t think most fans have a number in their head of what constitutes an “elite” number of tackles - aren’t sufficiently voluminous to be dramatically changed by the addition of one more game, but I’ll take a glance at one that might be: Sacks.
Looking back over annual sack leading statistics, the most prolific sacker in the league almost always finishes with between 15 and 22 sacks. Even so, a season with at least 10 sacks is considered a very good one - for instance, Ryan Kerrigan only had 4 of these in his 10 years in the league. A season with 15 sacks is considered amazing, and usually only achieved by 1 to 2 players per year.
If we inflation adjust the 15 to 22 range for excellence to a 17-game season, we get a new range of 16 to 23.5 sacks. Similarly, the benchmark for “very good” bumps by a little over half a sack, to 10.6 sacks.
Will we, the “integrity of the game,” and the NFL, survive the shift to a 17-game season? We will, just as surely as everyone survived the increase from a 14-game season to a 16-game season. And, honestly, think how crestfallen we would be to only get 14 weeks of football a year (as well as reduced playoffs). The expansion to 16 games was great for everyone involved, just as the expansion to a 17-game season (and perhaps, eventually to 18 games) almost certainly will be.
By and large, more football means more money for players, more money for owners, and more entertainment for fans. But, as fans, we love engaging in lively discussions about how players compare to one another - and to past players - and it’s important for us to keep in mind the ever-changing lengths of measuring sticks as we do.
Do you think the past measures of player success will continue to have an outsized importance in the future?
Maybe. I’ll answer in the comments.