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.
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• a higher average per attempt every single year• a higher passer rating every single year• a better TD-to-INT ratio almost every single year (8 of 10)• a higher TD percentage almost every single year (9 of 10)• a lower INT percentage almost every single year (9 of 10)
Here's the most shocking discovery:
• NFL passers completed better than 50 percent of their attempts every single year of the 1960s.• AFL passers never completed 50 percent of their passes in the 1960s -- not once in the entire decade.
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.• AFL teams averaged 31 attempts per game.
These trends were fairly consistent, too:
• NFL teams averaged 27 to 29 attempts per game from year to year.• AFL teams averaged 29 to 33 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.
So those who choose to ignore the facts and insist on adhering to conventional wisdom will draw this conclusion from the numbers:
"AFL passers did throw the ball more often and they took more high-risk chances by throwing the ball downfield more often -- that's why they had lower completion percentages and threw more interceptions. The AFL, in other words, did offer a more exciting, more wide-open brand of football."
But those who adhere to this conventional wisdom are, once again, wrong.
We can measure the downfield efforts of each league by looking at Yards Per Completion -- in this area, the findings are relatively inconclusive.
• NFL passers averaged more yards per completion in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1965.• AFL passers averaged more yards per completion in 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969.
So, clearly, the trend went from more YPC for NFL teams early in the decade to more YPC for AFL teams later in the decade. But the numbers differed drastically only in 1966 -- when NFL teams averaged 13.4 YPC and AFL teams averaged 14.7 YPC. So the AFL definitely threw downfield more often in 1966, feeding the myth in one way. But, in most other years, the downfield passing efforts resulted in a statistical dead heat.
But here's the really interesting part: Even as the AFL began completing longer passers, all other factors continued to favor the old league, as NFL passers continued to beat their AFL counterparts in every other category almost every year of the decade. Let's put it this way:
• NFL passers were more accurate and more productive in the years in which AFLers threw more long, high-risk passes, and• NFL passers were more accurate and more productive in the years in which they themselves threw more long, high-risk passes.
Passing short or passing long, NFL quarterbacks passed the ball better year after year.
One year leaps right off the chart on the previous page -- a year in which NFL passers just wiped the floor with their AFL counterparts: 1965.
NFL passers dominated every single passing category that year, including completion percentage (51.2 to 45.3), yards per attempt (7.5 to 6.4), yards per completion (14.6 to 14.0), TD-to-INTs (22-20 to 20-25) and passer rating (73.5 to 58.0)
In other words, in 1965, NFL passers were producing at a rate so prolific that we would not see it again until the 1980s and the dawn of the Live Ball Era, when league-wide passer ratings hovered around the mid-70s. AFL passers in 1965, meanwhile, were producing at a level the NFL had witnessed back in the rough-and-tumble 1950s.
The 1965 season is important for another reason: it's the last year before the Super Bowl Era, which begin with the 1966 season.
No wonder the NFL looked down upon the AFL as an inferior league at the time it accepted the championship-game challenge. The AFL was an inferior league. The fact the NFL even agreed to a championship game can be seen as little more than a charitable effort considering the low quality of offensive football in the "wide open" AFL.
(It should be noted the AFL certainly proved it could compete by the end of the 1969 season, after the Jets and Chiefs humiliated two of the most dominant teams in NFL history, the 1968 Colts and 1969 Vikings, in Super Bowls III and IV, respectively.)
If the AFL has a poster child, it's Joe Namath. He was the brash, new-age, highly hyped gunslinger of a quarterback who, conveniently enough, joined the AFL in that very same watershed 1965 season. He's certainly the most famous player to come out of the AFL.
There is really no better personification of the myth of the AFL, too. As loyal Cold, Hard Football Facts readers know, Namath generated plenty of buzz, but little actual production. He is, in fact, the most overrated quarterback in pro football history.
Namath, like most of his AFL QB counterparts, rarely completed 50 percent of his passes (50.1 for his career). He rarely threw more TDs than INTs (173 career TDs vs. 220 career INTs). And he rarely passed the ball efficiently: As we noted last summer, his career passer rating of 65.5 stood just 133rd among the 150 qualifying quarterbacks in all of NFL history (as of last year's report). No matter how you measure it, Namath was not a particularly good quarterback.
Instead, Namath was just a guy who threw the ball a lot ... and often threw it into the dirt or into the arms of the opposition. In other words, he's the perfect poster child for the AFL.
Like the league, Namath's reputation was never supported by actual production.
AFL teams and quarterbacks like Namath might have thrown the ball more often than the passers in the NFL. And, in certain years, they might have taken more chances downfield.
But the truth is, mostly, they just passed the ball poorly: AFL quarterbacks threw more balls into the dirt, they threw more balls into the hands of the opposition, and they threw with far less accuracy and far less efficiency than NFL passers. To put it more simply: NFL quarterbacks were much better than their AFL counterparts, and better in every imaginable objective indicator.
So, sure, the conventional wisdom crowd will continue to insist the AFL offered a more "wide open" and "exciting" brand of football.
But we know, and now you know, the AFL for what it really offered: just plain bad quarterbacking.