The NFL’s long-awaited move to a 17-game regular season means a lot of obvious changes: a later Super Bowl, more exposure to injury risks and more games to sell TV ads against. It also means that sooner or later, single-season records set during the 16-game era are doomed to fall.
Eric Dickerson set the current single-season rushing record in 1984, just seven seasons into the 16-game era. If the league had gone to 17 games the following year, and everyone produced at the same per-game rate, Dickerson’s record would have been surpassed seven times by now.
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But it’s more than just records. NFL fans under 50 have spent their entire conscious lives following a league in which wins, losses and statistical totals all fit into a 16-game paradigm. What production levels should be considered good, bad and mediocre will change — and not just in a “the same, plus 6.3 percent” kind of way.
The 1978 season marked a turning point for the NFL. More than a decade removed from the AFL-NFL merger, the league had recently added two expansion clubs to bring its total up to 28 teams. The 16-game season and the wild-card playoff format were adopted, and the league instituted the pro-offense “Mel Blount Rule” to limit defensive contact with wide receivers. Since then, the game’s evolution toward passing has rewritten the record books over and over again. While Dickerson’s 1984 record stands, Dan Marino’s record-setting 1984 season now ranks just 10th all-time. In fact, 22 of the top 25 passing-yardage seasons have come in the past 10 years.
Across the entire 16-game era, quarterbacks have thrown for as many as 5,477 yards (Peyton Manning’s record-setting 2013 season) and as few as 1,514 (Mark Rypien’s 1993 strugglefest). The box-and-whisker chart below shows how the simple act of adding one average game would affect all modern-era passing-yardage performances: shifts the low mark, first quartile, third quartile and upper bound up a little bit. In other words, what qualifies as a “worst possible,” “pretty bad,” “really good,” or “record-setting” performance all just go up by one game’s worth.
But if we take just the last pass-happy decade, we see even bigger across-the-board jumps in passing benchmarks: a 46 percent increase in the lower bound, a 15 percent increase in the first quartile and 12 percent increase in the third quartile. If we assume that passing over the next 10 years will look like the last 10, the new normal of the 17-game era will look much different than the 16-game era: a 32 percent higher floor, a 23 percent increase in the first quartile and a 19 percent increase in the third quartile. In fact, the median passing mark in our 17-game 2010s would have been 4,003 yards — not just above the third quartile of what we’re used to, but a mark that passers for two NFL franchises never reached in the entire 16-game era.
The story is much the same with passing touchdowns: The low-water mark and first quartile rise dramatically, and the median and third quartile get big bumps.
Unsurprisingly, the pendulum swings the other way with running backs. Those who played fantasy football in the 1990s tend to think of 250 carries as a good utilization benchmark for a No. 1 tailback. But in 2020, only three tailbacks ran the ball at least that many times. Derrick Henry did join the 2,000-yard club, so it’s not as though there were no great runners. But the last time a tailback joined that club, in 2012, Adrian Peterson was one of 14 runners with at least 250 carries. In 2020, Alvin Kamara made the Pro Bowl with just 187 rushing attempts.
Surprisingly, though, bell-cow backs hadn’t always been a feature of the league. In the 1970s and early 1980s, teams ran more overall — but it was more common for multiple backs to get a decent workload than one star to rack up massive carries. In 1978, only eight tailbacks hit the 250-carry mark, but 40 runners had at least 150 carries. In 2020, only 24 runners hit 150.
Looking at just the past 10 years’ actual performance, the likes of Peterson and Henry kept the ceiling high — and the floor went up, too, as the days of feeding 472 carries to a back averaging only 2.68 yards per carry are over. But there was a great squeezing in the middle: The first quartile rose slightly, and the third quartile dropped 12 percent. That means half of all primary backs of the last 10 years gained between 857 and 1,161 yards per season:
While 17 games will raise the production floor further for backs who stay healthy all season, and outliers like Henry will have a better shot at Dickerson’s record, multiplying drastically reduced tailback numbers by 17 games doesn’t boost first quartile and median numbers by much — and the third-quartile mark stays exactly the same. A 1,239-yard season will be just as “good” for a contemporary tailback in the new 17-game era as it was in years past.
Receiver utilization is tough to track. There’s no official data for targets prior to 1992, and “starts” are less reliable an indicator of a wideout’s importance to an offense than for first-string quarterbacks and running backs.
So let’s look at the production of receivers with at least 30 catches who appeared in at least 10 games, with one of their average games tacked on:
Here we can see the changing nature of wideout use, too: first-quartile, median and third-quartile receptions are all slightly higher in our 2010s-only 17-game projection than if we project based off the entire 16-game era. Yet in either 17-game projection method, receiving yardage comes out eerily the same — suggesting that today’s wideouts catch more, shorter passes that result in the same ground gained.
Overall, there’s no question: Going to a 17-game season will eventually topple what few pre-2010s offensive records still stand. But it will also highlight huge changes in the game that predate the schedule change: Quarterbacks are producing far more across the board than ever before, running backs are used much less overall, and receivers are more plentiful and more specialized than in prior years.
NFL analysts have been era-adjusting statistics for years; comparing 2013 Manning to 1984 Marino isn’t truly apples-to-apples even though they both played 16 games. Though some may lament the end of this unprecedented run of cross-decade statistical comparison, the record books might have been better served if this change had been made 10 years ago.