History NFL

A Century of Change in an Ever-Changing League, Pt. 1

First and foremost, congratulations to the NFL on celebrating its centennial (100 year anniversary) this season. It’s been 100 years of football, of tailgates, of passion, of euphoria, and of legends. One hundred years is a very long time, and with this long-standing tenure of the league has come many seismic shifts in the structure of the sport. In this article, we’ll be evaluating how the league has changed over its one hundred years and the shifts in play style, player safety, and positional value. Without further ado, let’s dive right into it.

Passing on the Run Game

One very prevalent and blatant change in the league over the last one hundred years has been its shift to a passing league. This fact is often referred to but never given any evidence or support. The NFL we know today with was created in 1970 when the NFL and AFL merged, creating two conferences now known as the NFC and AFC. In the first eight seasons of the modern NFL, the average league passing leader averaged 3,398.75 passing yards per game (this takes into account it was a fourteen game season and extrapolates their passing yards per game over sixteen games). Now, that would be just 66% of last season’s league leader in passing yards. However, there were players who put up monumental passing yard numbers and broke the 5k yard mark passing back in the 80s (Fouts and Marino come to mind). Looking at passing attempts may be a much better indicator of how the play-call frequency of passing plays has changed over time. Over the decade of football that was the 80s, it only three times did a quarterback had 600+ pass attempts in a season. In the 1990s, there were seven times when a quarterback threw for 600+ pass attempts in a season, in the 2000s there were nine such instances, and in the 2010s there have been a whopping 41 times a quarterback threw 600+ pass attempts in a season, more times combined than in all of 1980-2009.

On the other side of things, is the decrease in frequency in the running game. From 1980 to 1989, there were over 40 instances of a running back receiving 300+ carries in a single season. Meanwhile, in the 90s, there were over 40 such instances as well. However, dating back to the 2010 season, there have been just 22 such instances, about half as many in this decade as in the 80s and 90s. Additionally, in 2003 only three teams in the league called 60% or more of their plays as passing plays. In 2008, seven teams league-wide called 60%+ passing plays. Five years later in 2013, there were eleven such teams, while last season in 2018 (five years later again), there were fourteen such teams.

Throughout the league’s duration, the league has indubitably shifted away from the run game and become more pass-heavy. With a shift in philosophy on a gargantuan scale, positional value has shifted in the NFL as running backs are treated as replaceable and wide receivers are treated as key pieces to winning championships (just take a look at the hype OBJ brought with him to Cleveland). This also begs the question, how has the perception of positional value shifted in the NFL over its entirety? Well, let’s take a look.

Positional Perception

With the all too apparent trend of the league’s shift in play philosophy (running league to a passing league) over time, positional value has shifted in the NFL as well. Just three years ago, the Dallas Cowboys selected running back Ezekiel Elliott with the number four overall pick in the draft. At the time, many questioned the judgement, citing concerns over taking a running back so early in the draft in the midst of a passing league. Additionally, this concern arose due to the perceived replaceable nature of the position, with star running backs Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, James Conner, and DeVonta Freeman all drafted in the third and fourth rounds of their respective NFL Drafts. However, once upon a time, running backs were seen as focal points of teams and actually had heavy capital invested in them. Additionally, defensive players likewise held much more perceived value than now given. Let’s take a glance at some data to underline shifts in perceived positional value over the duration of the NFL.

First and foremost: the value of the NFL running back. As previously stated, running backs in the modern-day NFL are seen as replaceable and therefore, not invested in as much with high draft picks and lucrative contracts. But, believe it or not, there was once a time when star NFL running backs were paid as much as star NFL quarterbacks. Furthermore, there was once a time when the top-five picks were routinely invested in runners. From 1980-1989, there were a total of ten top-five draft selections used on running backs (essentially, one each draft). From 1990-1999, there were seven top five picks used on the position, from 2000-2009 there were seven again, but from the 2010-2019 NFL Drafts, there were only four running backs selected top five (Trent Richardson, Zeke Elliott, Leonard Fournette, and Saquon Barkley).

Looking at the contractual side of things as well, top-shelf running backs once were paid similar to quarterbacks, something that is unfathomable in today’s NFL. In 1993, Cowboys franchise quarterback Troy Aikman became the NFL’s highest-paid player with an 8 year, $50 million contract. However, Emmitt Smith just three years later found himself the highest-paid player (not possible for running backs in today’s league) with an 8 year, $63 million contract. For comparison, in today’s NFL, the highest-paid quarterback is Russel Wilson with a contract of 4 years, $140 million, whereas the highest-paid running back is Todd Gurley with a contract worth 4 years, $57.5 million. Without a doubt, the separation between running back and quarterback value has been increasing over time. All of this data points to the realization that positional value has indisputably changed due to the alteration in NFL play-style. However, are running backs still as valuable of assets as they were decades ago? Or are they simply not being utilized as they should due to less balanced offensive attacks and thus, given less perceived value due to biased play-style philosophies? Data would suggest dominant running backs and a more balanced offensive attack is still more important than ever, however, that analysis is for another time in another article.

Conclusion

As the NFL reaches a century of football, entertainment, and as a true American culture, it calls for recollecting how the league has developed and changed over time. In today’s article, we highlighted the change in play-style of the league into a pass-heavy, airborne league while also illuminating that development’s effects on positional value over the decades. In our next “Century of Change” article, we’ll be critiquing the validity of decreased running back value over time, while also evaluating the evolution of player safety and concussion precautions. Let us know in the comments down below what you think about this week’s article, we love to hear your feedback! Thank you for taking the time to join us today at The Sports Wave!

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