The Return of Neanderthal Football

Thirty-one touchdown passes.  That was all, just 31.

With one game left in the 2018 Championship Season, seven different quarterbacks (led by Patrick Mahomes’ 48) have thrown at least 31 touchdown passes.  With good games on Sunday, Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff could swell that number to 9.

In 1922 – the first official year of the National Football League – 31 was the number of touchdown passes.  For the entire 15-team league for the entire season.  No team had more than the 4 touchdown passes managed by the Akron Pros in their ten games.  Mahomes, of course, has had seven different individual games this season in which he has tossed at least 4 touchdown passes.

During that same inaugural season, 123 rushing touchdowns were scored – again, divided among 15 teams.  In support of the “points come out of the passing game” doctrine, the league average points per game was a modest 9.1, with the Rock Island Independents averaging an astonishing 22 points over the 7 games that they played.

As individual statistics were generally unrecorded in those primordial days of the NFL, the names of the heroes who threw and caught those touchdown passes have been lost to history.

Names don’t really emerge until the 1932 season.  That year, a tail-back for the Green Bay Packers named Arnie Herber set the NFL’s very first record for passes attempted in an NFL season.  In 14 games, Arnie threw the ball an amazing 101 times – just over 7 passes a game.

Perhaps even more unbelievable, an end for the New York Giants named Ray Flaherty managed to catch 21 passes in a single season.

It wasn’t until 1924 that any team managed as many as 10 touchdown passes in a single season.  The cutting edge Buffalo Bisons managed that feat in just 11 games – almost a touchdown pass per game, imagine!

It wasn’t until 1930 that the scoring average of the teams in the NFL reached double-figures.  That year, the league average team scored 10.6 points per game.  The 11-team NFL accounted for 77 touchdown passes.

By the time the first semi-detailed statistics were kept (during that 1932 season) passing was up to an average of 10.9 attempted passes and 55.2 passing yards per team per game.  During that same year, NFL teams averaged 33.7 running plays and 109.9 running yards per game.  If the modern passer rating system had been applied to the NFL that year, the league average passer would score a 27.2 rate.

It took only 5 more years (til 1937) for passing touchdowns (90) to eclipse rushing touchdowns (67) for the first time.  Bernie Masterson of the Chicago Bears topped the list with 9 touchdown passes thrown.  The incomparable Don Hutson of Green Bay caught 41 passes that year – more than anyone had ever caught before.  A rookie for the Chicago Cardinals named Gaynell Tinsley caught just 36 passes, but made them good for an unheard of 675 yards – more passing yards than any receiver in the history of the NFL – to that point.

Two years later, league passing yardage (128.8 per team per game) eclipsed team rushing yardage (120.6 per team per game) for the first time.

Even though the forward pass quickly became an established NFL tactic, it still wasn’t until the 1980 season – 41 years later – that NFL quarterbacks averaged 30 attempted passes per game, and not until 1982 that the NFL attempted more forward passes (7,933) than running plays (7,763) for the very first time.  By this time, the league scoring average was up to 20.2 points per game, and touchdowns passes were outnumbering rushing touchdowns 320-231

So far in 2018, the average NFL team throws 34.6 passes per game, while running the ball just 25.9 times per game.  The yardage differential is 239.6 yards per game per team through the air, as opposed to just 114.4 over the ground.  With one week left, the touchdowns sit 795 through the air, against 413 on the ground.

(As a side note, in 1922 there were 7 pass interceptions returned for touchdowns – an average of 4.4 touchdown passes to every pick six.  This year so far, 40 pass interceptions have been returned for touchdowns – one for every 19.9 touchdown passes.  Today’s average quarterback rating is 93.2 after being in the high 70’s to low 80’s for most of the rating system’s existence.)

That earlier era – especially before 1950 – I will call the Neanderthal era.  Back in the earliest days, the football more resembled a rugby ball than it does the modern football.  It was quite a bit fatter, and therefore harder to throw deeply or accurately and harder to catch.

Just as important, the rules of the earlier era did the passing game no favors.  Back then, defenders could hang onto receivers all the way down the field until the pass was actually thrown.  A receiver in a normal route might actually be hit by three or four defenders on his way down field.  Also, most of the rules that protect the quarterbacks and defenseless receivers now were unimaginable then.

But of all the rule changes, perhaps none were more important than the rules allowing offensive linemen to use their hands in pass protection.  Frankly, before the changes in the early 80s that gave offensive linemen a fighting chance against the pass rush, any offensive identity that emphasized the pass over the run would only succeed in putting your quarterback in the hospital for most of the year.

So, pre-1980 – and especially pre-1950 – are legitimately understood as pro football’s Neanderthal era.

Neanderthal football was all about imposing one’s will on the opposition.  It was an era of the flying wedge – two or more backfield members barreling at full speed into the defensive front to open up enough daylight for the ball carrier to hurtle through.  Neanderthal football was far less scientific and quite a bit more savage that the almost artistic game we see today.  Neanderthal football reduced the majesty and mystery of pro football to its essential manhood.  Neanderthal football was as close as a modern society can get to the gladiatorial era of Rome.  It was a baseline litmus test of one’s essential courage.

Neanderthal football has, of course, long since passed into history.  1983 was, in fact, the very last season that the NFL ran the ball more than it passed – with the disparity between runs and passes growing consistently larger, and the individual teams who run more than they throw becoming increasingly fewer and farther between.

The absolute death-knell of the Neanderthals seemed to have rung on the evening of November 19, 2018.  There – in an offensive orgy the likes of which the NFL had never seen before – the Los Angeles Rams barely eclipsed the Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 in a game that featured only 174 combined rushing yards against 827 combined passing yards (that game is discussed a bit here).  It was a game now viewed as a glimpse at the future of the NFL – a high-tech, pinball-like NFL about as far removed from its Neanderthal roots as can be imagined.

How curious, and how compelling that in the midst of the most pass-happy season the NFL has ever known, three teams – all very much alive in the playoff hunt – are bringing about a NFL Neanderthal renaissance.  In fact, Week 16 saw the two top records in the AFC both run afoul of Neanderthal football.

The Tennessee Titans – Neanderthal Lite

Mike Vrabel started 140 games over his 14 year career as a linebacker – 8 of them in New England, where he was part of three world championships.  Now eight years past his last season as an active player, Mike begins a new journey as head coach in Tennessee.

As the season began, Tennessee figured to be one of those teams that would run the ball more than most others.  Not only do they possess a hammer back in the physically imposing Derrick Henry, they also boast a dangerous and elusive runner in quarterback Marcus Mariota.  Balance was certainly going to be the by-word in Nashville.

The plan was turned upside down almost immediately, as Mariota went down in the season’s first game with an elbow injury that would plague him off-and-on throughout the whole season.  When his back-up, Blaine Gabbert, when down in the early moments of Week Three, Vrabel was caught in a bind.

His answer was to turn to his compromised number one guy – Mariota.  With that decision came a simplified offensive approach.  Run the football.

While Tennessee has not embraced Neanderthalism to the extent of some others, the approach has served them generally well.  The Titans have bullied their way to fifth in the league in rushing, averaging 128.7 yards per game, and 4.4 yards a carry, on their way to a 9-6 record and a one-game, winner take all showdown with Indianapolis this Sunday evening with the final AFC playoff spot on the line.  Tennessee enters the contest with a few more running plays (438) than passes (408).

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Baltimore

The story in Baltimore is fairly similar.  They are – in a sense – an upgraded version of the Titans.

The problems with the Ravens’ conventional down-field passing attack began with the increasing difficulty that starting quarterback Joe Flacco was experiencing with his hip.  When it became apparent that Flacco could not finish the season, Baltimore used their Week Ten bye to re-invent themselves.  At that point of the season, the Ravens were averaging 23.7 points a game, 273.9 passing yards a game, and just 92.7 rushing yards a game.

The problem, of course, was that behind the experienced Flacco, all Baltimore had was rookie Lamar Jackson.  Jackson’s running abilities were comparable to Mariota’s, but his ability to manage an NFL passing attack was rudimentary.  With few other options, coach John Harbaugh and his staff embraced Neanderthal football to the point that even after Flacco’s hip had healed, Harbaugh kept Jackson under center.

It seems that once you have gone Neanderthal, you never go back.

Winners of only four of the nine games started by Flacco, Baltimore has gone 5-1 since.  Along the way, they may have discovered a feature back as well.  An undrafted rookie, Gus Edwards got his first prolonged look in the Week 11 game against Cincinnati.  He ran for 115 yards on just 17 carries.  He has started every game since, and now has 642 rushing yards for the season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

From the 92.7 rushing yards a game through their first 9 weeks, the Ravens have shot up to second in the league, averaging 143.0 yards per game.  The formula in Baltimore, now, is an aggressive, fearless defense that blitzes more than most and lives or dies with man coverage, supported by a pounding running game with just enough throwing from Jackson to force opponents to defend the possibility of a pass.  As game plans go, this doesn’t necessarily sound like much, but this is just how they de-railed the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16.

Playing at home, with a chance to lay claim to the top seed in the AFC, a very good Charger team was overwhelmed by Baltimore.  By the time the 22-10 beating was in the books, Charger quarterback Philip Rivers had been hounded into 4 sacks and 2 interceptions, while only getting 51 yards from his running game.  The Ravens, on the other hand, ran the ball 35 times for 159 yards (getting 92 from Edwards).

The Chargers had come in as one of football’s hottest teams.  They had won 10 of their previous 11.  But they left the stadium that night no closer to decoding Baltimore’s Neanderthal attack than they were at the beginning.

Baltimore needs only to beat Cleveland in Week 17 to claim a wildcard spot.

Barbarians in the Midst

In the mystical Northwest kingdom of Seattle, high-tech is a cultural imperative.  In the land of Starbucks and Microsoft, the entire community seems to strive with one mind to see the world in ways never imagined before.

How compelling, then, to find the most savage of the NFL’s renegade Neanderthal teams nested in its midst.

Unlike the Titans and Ravens, the Seattle Seahawks chose Neanderthalism, rather than having it thrust upon them.  With elite quarterback Russell Wilson and two of the NFL’s best deep threats in Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks could have chosen to fill the air with passes like the Rams and Chiefs, and they would probably have done quite well.

This makes them the most surprising of the Neanderthal teams.  It also makes them the best.

While Wilson currently sits third in the league in passer rating (his 112.7 trails only Drew Brees and Mahomes), his running attack has bludgeoned its way to first in the league.  After an indifferent start that saw them lose both of their first two games this season, running for only 138 total yards in those two games, Seattle re-committed to its running game. They have subsequently won 9 of their last 13.  During their last 12 games, they have piled up 150 or more rushing yards in all but one of them.  In an NFL that has become increasingly pass happy, Seattle has run the ball significantly more than they have passed (500 rushes to 406 passes).

Their most recent victims were those same high-flying Chiefs, who mostly learned the same lesson that the Chargers did.  Yes, Kansas City scored their points – 31 of them to be exact.  But it wasn’t enough.

With all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, Seattle pounded the center of the Chief defensive line.  New battering ram Chris Carson – evoking memories of Marshawn Lynch – piled up 116 rushing yards and two touchdowns.  Seattle finished the night with 43 rushes and 210 rushing yards, controlling the clock for 35:02.

The difference in Seattle is that the pounding of the running game opens up the passing attack in ways that the Titans and Ravens cannot yet duplicate.  Wilson only threw the ball 29 times last Sunday night, but he completed 18 of those throws for 271 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading his team to 38 points and the win.

With the win, Seattle punched its playoff ticket.  They, as well as the other potential Neanderthal teams that might force their way into the tournament, will have to go the wildcard route and win games on the road.

But Neanderthal football will present all of its opponents a unique challenge.  Any of these teams that make it in will bear close watching.

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