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AFL versus NFL: 1960-1963 Trends

Posted by Jason Lisk on June 1, 2009

Last time, I put the draft classes from 1960 to 1963 under the microscope to evaluate how both leagues did. Now, I'm going to go in depth on some of the age and experience trends from this period, and also look at positional and team trends. I'm going to have lots of data and charts in this post anyway, so to start with, I'll just link to the already existing pages at the website that summarize the yearly league numbers. The NFL season by season totals are here, and the AFL season by season totals are here.

We all know of the AFL's well-deserved reputation as a wide-open and wild passing league. The NFL in the early 1960's was changing its passing stripes as a result of the AFL expansion as well. In the late 1950's, the average completion percentage hovered around 50%. The completion percentage steadily climbed throughout this four year period. The expansion from 12 to 22 teams diluted the talent pool, and had an impact on defenses. A passer averaged 8.5 or more yards per attempt in a single season seventy-six times in the history of the NFL. Fifteen of those seasons (11 in the NFL, 4 in the AFL) came in this four year period-roughly 20%. Another 8 NFL passers reached the 8.0+ yards per attempt mark between 1960 and 1963, which means that over a third of all starting quarterbacks in the NFL in this time period averaged at least 8.0 yards per pass. The yards per attempt spiked at a league-wide average of 7.1 in 1962, a mark that hasn't come close to being touched since (2004 was the highest since the merger, at 6.6). Interception rates dropped during this time, and pass attempts climbed slightly from the 1950's. Overall scoring was up slightly (about 0.8 points per team per game), with a larger standard deviation, which makes sense given the poorer quality of some expansion type teams, along with the good offenses that were able to take advantage.

The AFL's yards per attempt numbers during this period were lower than both the NFL of the post-expansion period and the NFL of the 1950's. Nevertheless, the scoring was actually higher in the AFL during this period. Why? Part of the reason is they threw more, if not more efficiently. This increased offensive scoring, but also lead to some of the other things that increased scoring. The AFL had far more of those crazy, random, exciting plays that drive up scoring, such as interception returns. An interception was returned for touchdown slightly more than once every four games in the AFL, compared to once every six in the NFL. Kickoffs and punt returns were rare, but more prevalent in the AFL. Fourteen times an AFL team scored on a blocked kick or missed field goal, compared to eight times for the NFL in four seasons. (Consider that the AFL played 224 games during this period; The NFL played 372). The AFL scoring went down a full point in 1962 and 1963, compared to the first two seasons, but was still higher than the NFL. The average number of rushing and passing touchdowns was basically even by 1963, though, with the NFL increasing over this period, and the AFL decreasing as the talent pool improved.

ROOKIE AND SECOND-YEAR STARTING RATE TRENDS

What's the ideal rookie starting rate? It ain't zero. If it's too high, it means you are relying on young players who are being forced to play before they are ready, based on need. If it's too low, it means you aren't getting enough stars who enter the league at a young age and improve the raw athletic ability on the field.

When I first started looking at this project, Chase Stuart suggested I look at rookie starting rates to see when/if the AFL rookie starting rates were equal to the NFL, as this could be valuable information. I agree that it is an underappreciated and powerful piece of evidence. I don't think it would necessarily signal when the leagues were even, but it could signal when the replacement level starters and average starters are equal, as the rookies would generally be replacing these types of players in the starting lineup. I'm also going to expound on that by also looking at starting rates of second year players as well, so that we will compare starting rates of the two leagues for players who are rookies or have one prior year of AFL/NFL experience.

For contrast, the rookie starting rate from 1956-1959 in the NFL was 12.8%. I actually used that cutoff, rather than including 1955, because an astonishing 18.2% of starters in the NFL in 1955 were rookies. The starting rate for 2nd year players from 1956-1959 was 14.7%. So, over one-fourth (27.5%) of the starters in the NFL in the era immediately preceding the start of the AFL were either rookies or had one year of football experience.

Let's see what impact the arrival of the AFL had on the percentage of young starters in the NFL:

		rookies	2nd year	combined
================================================
1960		0.105	0.101		0.206
1961		0.114	0.133		0.247
1962		0.071	0.146		0.218
1963		0.094	0.107		0.201
================================================

The rookie starting rate and second year starting rate for every year of this period was below the average for the preceding era.

Here are the AFL young starter rates for this period:

		rookies	2nd year	combined
================================================
1960		0.688*	0.034		0.722
1961		0.159	0.580		0.739
1962		0.159	0.176		0.335
1963		0.119	0.165		0.284
================================================

I put an asterisk on 1960 because those rookies include any player with no prior NFL experience, including guys who may have played in the Canadian Football League or been out of college but never made an NFL roster. So it doesn't necessarily include just guys we would normally consider rookies.

To quickly put those 1963 rookie numbers in some hard number context, the AFL had about 4 more rookies starting on the 8 teams combined that year, compared to the NFL rookie starting rate. I'll reserve any lengthy commentary on these numbers and would be interested in hearing input.

ALL-PRO AGING TRENDS

It sure seemed to me in glancing through the teams that there were alot of NFL guys who magically found the fountain of youth during this period. Measuring that using counting stats is difficult, though, given sample sizes and the influence of teammates. Did Y.A. Tittle, for example, just get better with age, was he surrounded by much better teammates, or did he benefit from the expansion effects late in his career?

When we look at the all-pro numbers from pre-AFL and post-AFL, though, and then compare it to the AFL figures, the contrasts couldn't be more stark. The fine print here is that the "all-pro" summaries include any player that was selected first or second team all-pro by any of the selecting organizations, which is why the year to year totals are inconsistent.

ALL-PRO AGES, NFL (1956-1963)

Age		1956	1957	1958	1959	1960	1961	1962	1963
21		0	2	0	0	0	0	0	0
22		2	1	1	0	0	1	0	0
23		5	3	5	4	4	2	2	1
24		5	5	3	8	7	6	3	6
25		8	5	6	7	10	5	5	4
26		14	8	5	10	6	7	5	8
27		3	12	8	7	9	10	13	11
28		11	6	9	6	8	8	9	11
29		14	6	4	12	9	5	4	7
30		3	11	3	6	6	8	6	6
31		7	3	12	4	5	6	8	4
32		1	7	3	4	1	4	6	5
33		2	2	6	1	5	3	2	4
34		0	0	0	2	1	2	3	2
35		1	0	0	1	5	1	3	1
36		0	1	0	0	1	3	1	2
37		0	0	0	0	0	1	1	1
38		0	0	0	1	0	0	1	0

Total		76	72	65	73	77	72	72	73
Avg Age         27.3	27.8	28.1	27.8	28.2	28.6	29.1	28.6

ALL-PRO AGES, AFL (1960-1963)

Age		1960	1961	1962	1963
21		2	1	0	0
22		8	7	4	1
23		12	13	7	7
24		8	14	13	9
25		6	9	11	14
26		5	5	3	10
27		5	5	5	5
28		4	2	0	6
29		2	3	2	2
30		1	2	1	1
31		2	0	1	0
32		2	0	0	1
33		2	1	0	0
34		0	1	1	0
35		0	0	1	2
36		0	0	0	1
37		0	0	0	0
38		0	0	0	0

Total		59	63	49	59
Avg Age		25.3	24.9	25.2	26.1

Now, let's summarize that into some groupings based on age, and look at the year to year changes from 1960 to 1963, with both leagues side by side. For comparison, the 1956-1959 NFL numbers break down like this: 24 or under- 15.4%, 25 to 30 years old - 64.3%, 31 years or older - 20.3%.

		24 and under		25 to 30		31 and older	
		AFL	NFL		AFL	NFL		AFL	NFL
==========================================================================
1960		0.508	0.143		0.390	0.623		0.102	0.234
1961		0.556	0.125		0.413	0.597		0.032	0.278
1962		0.490	0.069		0.449	0.583		0.061	0.347
1963		0.288	0.096		0.644	0.644		0.068	0.260
==========================================================================

POSITIONAL TRENDS

In this section, I'm going to go back to the draft classes and examine the position by position breakdown for each league. All the players that appeared in my best player summary should appear in this summary. To find the qualifying players, I used the following formula. First, for AFL players, I subtracted one all-pro, one pro bowl, and one starting season from their totals (no adjustment for the NFL guys). Then, I multiplied the all-pro total by 5, the pro bowl total by 3, and added that to the starting season total. All players with a score of "8" or higher made the cut.

For the AFL guys, I then subtracted 8 from the total, multiplied by 75% for the remainder, then added the 8 points back in. This was necessary to equalize the two leagues on quality, as otherwise the top AFL guys, who had less competition for awards, would appear substantially better than the NFL . This method resulted in 54 AFL guys and 94 NFL guys, roughly a 36% split of AFL to NFL guys, close to the previous totals. I then took those players and broke them down by positions and teams.

The "avg" number represents the average score (using that method above) of the players in each league at each position. The higher the average, the better the average player in that group. The total number represents the overall score of all players at that position combined. The list is sorted by position groupings, and by the percentage of value accumulated by the AFL, from highest to lowest, during these drafts. Receivers include tight ends. Again, I'll reserve my comments for later in the series.

		        AFL	avg     total          NFL	avg   total		plyr pct	value pct
===================================================================================================================	
Offensive Line		16	19.7	315		20	16.4	327		0.44		0.49
Running Backs		7	10.8	76		8	12.8	102		0.47		0.43
Linebackers		7	22.0	154		11	18.4	202		0.39		0.43
Defensive Line		14	14.4	201		14	23.1	324		0.50		0.38
Defensive Backs		6	22.3	134		20	19.2	383		0.23		0.26
Quarterbacks		2	17.0	34		6	19.8	119		0.25		0.22
Receivers		2	23.8	48		15	14.2	213		0.12		0.18
===================================================================================================================	

TEAM BY TEAM

Using the same method as in the positional analysis, I sorted players by team. On some of these guys, I had to make some decisions, since they didn't play exclusively with one team. In such cases, I tried to assign players to the team where they had their best seasons.

AFL

team	players	avg.	total
========================================
kan	14	19.8	277
sdg	9	19.2	173
oak	8	19.3	154
buf	9	16.2	146
bos	5	16.7	84
hou	5	12.2	61
nyj	3	19.0	57
den	1	15.5	16
========================================

The Raiders probably deserve an asterisk. Several of the players who appear in their list were not actually on the team yet as 1963 came to a close, but that value does explain why they became good later in the decade. Most of the other teams are a pretty accurate reflection of the talent acquired during this period. Setting aside the Raiders, the other three teams who got the most talent during these drafts made 8 of the 10 appearances in the AFL championship game from 1962-1966, and won every AFL title during that period.

NFL

========================================
stl	13	18.5	241
min	11	19.7	217
dal	8	24.0	192
ram	7	25.9	181
gnb	8	19.9	159
bal	8	17.6	141
sfo	8	14.1	113
pit	7	13.0	91
chi	6	12.8	77
was	6	12.0	72
cle	5	13.4	67
phi	3	18.7	56
det	2	20.5	41
nyg	2	11.0	22
========================================

How many of you would have guessed the Cardinals got the most talent during this period among NFL teams? The top teams, in terms of new talent, include the two expansion teams, two other teams that were really struggling and only slightly better than expansion teams as the decade began, and two powerful teams that got alot of talent in the mid to late 1950's, and then continued to add solid talent to that core as the 1960's began, which allowed them to continue their dominance.

I've got an AFL team, the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, as the team that got the most quality players and overall value from these four drafts. Lamar Hunt was probably better able to put together a team outside the confines of the NFL, where he could bid and sign away top NFL picks, than if he had competed within it. The top 3 AFL teams from 1962-1966-the Bills, Chargers, and Chiefs-all rate favorably with the top 6 teams from the NFL in terms of new talent. We should probably kick out the Colts and Packers because they had so many good players from before 1960. So I'll close with question. What do you think about considering the Cardinals, Vikings, Cowboys, and Rams as comparables for where the best AFL teams were after the first couple of seasons?

This entry was posted on Monday, June 1st, 2009 at 9:18 am and is filed under AFL versus NFL. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.