NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Offenses in NFL History
You are about to meet a handful of champions and lots of football history's most memorable failures.
Something about fielding an all-time great offense doomed many of the teams on this countdown to an epic playoff defeat. Maybe defense really does win championships. More likely, balance wins championships, and the gaudy stats rung up by these high-octane offenses were overcompensation for some fatal flaw.
Whatever the case, teams made this list of all-time great offenses based on:
- Basic stats, such as points scored, yards gained and passing efficiency, adjusted for era of course.
- Advanced stats, like Football Outsiders' all-time DVOA ratings, which take into account myriad factors that can be overlooked by traditional stats.
- Impact: legendary players, innovative coaches and influential schemes take precedence over getting hot for a year and scoring a lot of points, all other things being equal.
As with the all-time great teams countdown a few weeks ago, there's a "shadow" rule in effect, with each entrant representing the teams that preceded or followed it by two years. Otherwise, this might be a list of 1980s and '90s 49ers squads and modern Patriots teams.
This countdown will put a lot of points on the board.
But it might come up a little short at the end.
25. 1990 Houston Oilers
The run 'n' shoot, like acid-washed jeans and heavy metal bands who used more cosmetics than beauty pageant contestants, resides in the far corner of our collective consciousness: part embarrassing memory, part fever dream and more integral to the development of who we are today than anyone cares to admit.
Warren Moon threw for 4,689 yards and 33 touchdowns in 1990. He did it with the help of a quartet of fun-sized receivers—Curtis Duncan, Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires and Drew Hill—as well as a star-studded offensive line anchored by Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews. Fullbacks and tight ends were forbidden, running backs (including collegiate superstars Lorenzo White, Mike Rozier and Allen Pinkett) underused.
At its best, Moon's run 'n' shoot put up 58 points against the Browns and 48 against the Bengals. At its worst, like when Moon was injured for a playoff loss to the Bengals, it went flat like old soda. But in 1990, the good well outweighed the bad.
Moon and the Oilers offense remained great for years. But the run 'n' shoot left the teams running it with no plan B, and opponents caught on. Eagles coach Buddy Ryan figured out that blitzing the house and lighting up a few diminutive "Smurf" receivers could stop the run 'n' shoot in its tracks. The Bills discovered in the playoffs that a team without a power game couldn't effectively run out the clock, leading to one of history's most legendary comebacks. Before long, executing the "chuck 'n' duck" could get a coach cold-cocked on the sidelines.
But by commanding the run 'n' shoot, Moon paved the way for African Americans to shed the "athlete playing quarterback" label. And every time a team such as the Patriots opens the game with a bunch of Julian Edelman types in a wide-open formation, it's paying silent tribute to the influence of the wild, woolly days of the run 'n' shoot.
24. 2016 Atlanta Falcons
This countdown is full of teams that were destined to be remembered as all-time legends before they stumbled in the playoffs. Or the Super Bowl.
Without giving away too many spoilers: The 2011 Packers and 1998 Vikings are coming soon, as is a certain Patriots team. But none of these great offenses flew closer to the sun than last year's Falcons, or melted away so quickly and utterly.
To begin at the end: Matt Ryan to Tevin Coleman for an easy touchdown that made Bill Belichick's defense look outmatched and downright unprepared. The score was 28-3 with 8:31 to play in third quarter of the Super Bowl. Then fate played its hand, Belichick his, and one of the greatest offenses of the new millennium dissolved into a puddle of sacks and penalties while the Patriots played catch-up.
Now, to pull back the camera: The Falcons scored 35-plus points in eight regular-season games and in both NFC playoff games. Matt Ryan earned an MVP award, Kyle Shanahan a head coaching job and Next Big Thing status. Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tyler Gabriel, Coleman, Mohamed Sanu: The 2016 Falcons could stretch a defense in all directions and beat it a dozen different ways.
Pull back further. The Falcons offense has been good for years. Ryan and Jones led the team to the brink of the Super Bowl in 2012. The supporting cast changed, but the Falcons spent years slowly building a juggernaut. It just collapsed about 20 minutes short of the finish line.
Maybe the Falcons will finish the job this year. Some of the offenses to come on our countdown did so. But others demonstrated time and again that the Falcons face an uphill battle.
23. 1988 Cincinnati Bengals
Twenty-five years before Chip Kelly tried to make the huddle obsolete, Sam Wyche revolutionized the hurry-up offense as an anytime tactic.
Boomer Esiason completed passes, then raced to the new line of scrimmage twirling his fingers in the air to signal that the Bengals were not going to huddle. The defense suddenly found itself in an unexpected two-minute drill. Years before Kelly used the no-huddle to disguise a rather simple option-running scheme, Wyche realized his teams could run the ball against tired, discombobulated defenders. James Brooks and Ickey Woods combined to rush for 1,997 yards and 23 touchdowns, with Woods inventing an iconic end-zone celebration to boot.
Esiason, meanwhile, spread 3,572 passing yards and 28 touchdowns among Eddie Brown, Brooks, tight end Rodney Holman, an aging Cris Collinsworth and others. The Bengals beat the up-and-coming Bills in the playoffs, with Marv Levy taking note of what hurry-up tactics can do to an opponent.
Esiason and the Bengals led the 49ers 16-13 with 3:20 to play in the Super Bowl—two all-time great offenses unable to get into high gear when it mattered most—but fate is often unkind to offensive innovators. Though the Bengals lost, Wyche's tactics were years ahead of their time. Other coaches stretched opponents vertically or horizontally. He was the first to explore the fourth dimension.
22. 1961 Houston Oilers
The early AFL was more like a playground pickup league than a true rival to the NFL. The league was populated by a handful of college superstars, but also lots of NFL has-beens and Canadian Football League expatriates. Most AFL offenses adopted a let-'er-rip philosophy to make their game more exciting than the run-oriented NFL, and the combination of nonstop passing and large talent disparities resulted in some absolutely bananas statistical totals.
George Blanda, a 34-year old journeyman who retired in frustration in 1958 after years as a Bears backup, threw for 3,330 yards and 36 touchdowns in 14 games for the 1961 Oilers. Billy Cannon (shown), a Heisman Trophy winner who signed with the AFL under the goal posts moments after the 1960 Sugar Bowl (denying the NFL the right to sign him and sparking an interleague war), led the AFL with 948 rushing yards and scored 15 rushing and receiving touchdowns.
Charlie Hennigan, a former LSU track star who was teaching high school biology before the AFL arrived, caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 touchdowns. Bill Groman, another science teacher and who played for tiny Heidelberg College in Ohio, caught 50 passes for 1,175 yards and 17 touchdowns.
By now, you must be wondering about the caliber of competition. Yes, Blanda is a legend (albeit as a backup quarterback, kicker and Oakland folk hero), and a Heisman running back is a Heisman running back. But a pair of science teachers putting up Odell Beckham Jr. numbers?
Many of those early AFL teams just weren't competitive. The 1961 Oilers beat the lowly Broncos by a combined score of 100-28 in two games. The Raiders, beaten by the 1961 Oilers by a two-game combined 102-16 score, were so bad that the AFL eventually dispatched an ambitious Chargers assistant to take over football operations and keep the team viable. That fella's name was Al Davis, but you figured that out.
So maybe the 1961 Oilers weren't really a match for the modern Patriots. But they won an AFL Championship and captured the imagination of fans with their go-for-broke offense. Their success helped keep the AFL financially solvent and capable of attracting college stars such as Joe Namath.
The 1961 Oilers pointed the way to the future of pro football. Not bad for a couple of science teachers, a college star who followed the money and a quarterback the Bears didn't know what to do with.
21. 1984 San Francisco 49ers
Strange fact: The only Bill Walsh-coached team to lead the NFL in points scored or yards gained was the 1987 squad, which got a statistical boost when Joe Montana and others crossed the picket lines during the replacement games. All of Walsh's other teams peaked at second in yards and/or points.
Perhaps that's not so strange. Walsh wouldn't be the first master teacher to be surpassed by his students. Just as Socrates had Plato and Aristotle to extend his legacy, Walsh taught Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan to coach 49ers offenses even more dynamic than his revolutionary version of the West Coast offense, then spread the system to the world.
Also, Walsh's best teams were great on defense as well as offense, and balance can sometimes suppress statistics. When a team goes 15-1, it often squats on the ball in the fourth quarter, lowering its statistical profile.
The 1984 49ers found Montana at his most efficient, as he completed 64.6 percent of his passes (an outstanding figure for the era) and threw just 10 interceptions. Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon were the wide receivers, but the real stars were the newcomers in the backfield. Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig combined for over 2,800 rushing and receiving yards, with Tyler's big-play ability making up for his fumbling woes and Craig establishing himself as the perfect all-purpose weapon for Walsh's scheme.
These 49ers won an endless stream of 41-7, 35-3, 33-0 and 23-0 blowouts. If the offense had to work harder, it might have set records. But it didn't have to put up league-leading numbers to win the Super Bowl and inspire a league full of copycats.
20. 1964 Cleveland Browns
Jim Brown never had a good season, only excellent seasons and historic ones.
The 1964 campaign was an excellent one for Brown: He led the league in rushing with 1,446 yards (in 14 games) and scored nine touchdowns from scrimmage. But 1964 is sandwiched between a pair of historic seasons: Brown's 1,863-yard 1963 season (the NFL's rushing record for decades) and his 1,544-yard, 17-touchdown curtain call before retiring at the top of his game in 1965.
So why is the 1964 season on this list, not one of Brown's more legendary years? Well, the Browns won the NFL championship, for starters. Then there's the matter of Paul Warfield, a 22-year old rookie split end and future Hall of Famer. Warfield caught 52 passes for 920 yards and nine touchdowns in 1964: big numbers for a rookie in any era; uncanny totals for an NFL rookie in the mid-1960s.
Brown, Warfield and quarterback Frank Ryan had an impressive supporting cast. Flanker Gary Collins would go on to some Pro Bowl seasons after injuries ruined Warfield's sophomore encore. Rookie fullback Leroy Kelly would go on to replace Brown and become a Hall of Famer in his own right. Tackle Dick Schafrath was a perennial Pro Bowler throughout the 1960s. The Browns averaged 29.6 points per game in an era when defenses had the upper hand.
Many of the pre-Super Bowl teams on our NFL Nostalgia countdowns come with "yeah, but" caveats about their eras: the 1940s Bears were great, but do we really think they would put up a fight against the 2016 Patriots?
The 1964 Browns need no caveats or asterisks. Put Brown in the backfield, split Warfield wide and let the cerebral Ryan read the defenses, and these guys would still put up a ton of points against modern opponents.
19. 1976 Oakland Raiders
Let's talk about 1976 for a moment: disco, station wagons with wood paneling, bell bottoms and an NFL utterly devoid of offense.
Teams averaged 152.0 passing yards per game in 1976; they average 241.5 yards per game now. Bert Jones led the NFL with 3,104 passing yards, a total Drew Brees usually passes before Thanksgiving. The league completion rate was 52.2, and quarterbacks typically threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
At the height of this offensive ice age, Ken Stabler completed 66.7 percent of his passes and threw 27 touchdowns. You better believe Stabler was not dinking and dunking for that high completion rate, not with Al Davis looking over John Madden's shoulder and Cliff Branch (shown above) averaging 22.4 yards per catch and scoring 12 touchdowns.
Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff and All-Pro tight end Dave Casper rounded out the receiving corps, while fullback Mark Van Eeghen rushed for 1,012 yards and halfback Clarence Davis added 516 behind Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and one of the greatest offensive lines in history.
We could have chosen many Raiders teams for this countdown, from the AFL champs of the 1960s to Bill Callahan's doomed 2002 Super Bowl team. Similarly, there are dozens of modern offenses to chose from that put up gaudier numbers than the 1976 Raiders. But this was a great offense during a dead-ball era.
It won a Super Bowl and spawned Hall of Famers. If Stabler, Branch, Biletnikoff and company took the field today (and someone made sure they made the occasional team curfew), they could give the Packers or Patriots a worthy shootout.
18. 1991 Buffalo Bills
Most teams would be demoralized after losing the Super Bowl on a missed last-second field goal. It's a credit to the unsinkable early-1990s Bills that they came back from their first Super Bowl loss better than ever.
The 1991 Bills scored more points and gained more yards than their 1990 counterparts, who came up short against the Giants in the Super Bowl. Jim Kelly threw for 3,844 yards and 33 touchdowns. Thurman Thomas gained 2,038 rushing and receiving yards. Andre Reed went 81-1,113-10, which was a clockwork season for him. James Lofton, the 35-year old future Hall of Famer who served as the fourth option and designated deep threat in this star-studded offense, averaged 18.8 yards per catch. The uptempo K-gun offense was still one step ahead of the rest of the NFL. From September through mid-January, anyway.
The 1991 Bills led the NFL in total yards, rushing yards, first downs and passing touchdowns and finished among the top five in just about everything else that mattered. When they pounced on the Chiefs for a 37-14 win in the playoffs, it looked like the season would end differently for the Bills.
But it ended the same way. And so did 1992 and 1993.
Still, the core of this great offense just kept coming back.
17. 1983 Washington Redskins
In the early 1980s, the Redskins replaced the fullback in their offense with a roving second tight end who could go in motion to reveal defensive plans, position himself to block the Lawrence Taylors of the world or run short receiving routes. That H-back then gave way to a third wide receiver on passing downs.
By 1983, "passing downs" became more frequent for Joe Gibbs' team. Opponents faced what would later be called The Fun Bunch—Art Monk, Charlie Brown, Alvin Garrett and others—in three-receiver sets on early downs almost as often as they grappled with John Riggins and a pair of tight ends. And of course, the original Hogs kept everything humming on the offensive line, as the Redskins led the NFL in both points and catchy nicknames.
So the Redskins could accelerate into high-speed passing mode to build a lead, then downshift into four-on-the-floor Riggo mode to preserve it. The results were lethal for opponents. Joe Theismann threw for 3,714 yards and 29 touchdowns. Riggins rushed for 1,347 yards and 24 touchdowns. Copycats around the league took note of how Brown, Garrett and other "Smurfs" were successful despite weighing in at around 5'8" and 180 pounds, and the seeds were sewn for everything from the run 'n' shoot offense to the modern slot specialist.
The Redskins were so balanced and consistent that they never scored fewer than 23 points in a game in 1983. But the Super Bowl was played in 1984, of course, and the Raiders crushed them with the help of a pick-six and some Marcus Allen magic. It was a case of a perennial powerhouse's best offensive season's coming in a year that ended with frustration and disappointment. More examples of that are coming.
16. 1996 Green Bay Packers
Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren and the Packers of the early 1990s broke many of the rules of traditional offense. They won despite (often because of) Favre's freewheeling, improvised style. They threw the ball in the fourth quarter with the lead at a time when late-game ultra-conservatism was still the standard tactic. In an era of superstar workhorse running backs, the Packers relied on committees of journeymen.
For years, the unconventional tactics resulted in losses to the more-traditional Cowboys in the playoffs. Then everything clicked in 1996. Upgrades on defense and special teams had a lot to do with it. But the 1996 Packers also fielded the quintessential Favre-Holmgren offense.
Favre threw for 3,899 yards, 39 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. The receiving corps roll call is long and impressive: Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks, Don Beebe, Andre Rison, Desmond Howard, tight ends Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura. A three-headed backfield of Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens and fullback William Henderson diversified the offense with power running and reliable receiving.
The Packers scored 28-plus points 13 times in 1996, including two playoff games and the Super Bowl (again, with some help from Howard's kick return prowess). When you see a team throw with a two-touchdown fourth-quarter lead or shrug at the absence of an Emmitt Smith-like bell-cow rusher, you are seeing part of the influence of the 1996 Packers.
15. 2011 New England Patriots
The modern Patriots are a series of great teams built upon the exploitation of market inefficiences.
When veteran defensive role players were undervalued in the early 2000s, Bill Belichick grabbed a bunch of them to help build a champion. When pesky slot receivers and not-with-the-program superstar wide receivers were readily available in 2007, Belichick gobbled them up and built an offense we will meet in a few slides.
In 2011, the Patriots cornered the market on super-athletic tight ends, versatile all-purpose backs and their usual allotment of slot receivers. From these relatively easy-to-find accessories, they built an offense that could almost rival their 2007 onslaught.
Instead of Randy Moss, the 2011 Patriots featured Rob Gronkowski, a different type of mismatch nightmare who went 90-1,327-17. Instead of a third receiver like Donte Stallworth, they used second tight end Aaron Hernandez, who sometimes befuddled opponents by lining up in the backfield and taking handoffs. Instead of Wes Welker...well, Wes Welker was still there, catching 122 passes.
But Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman were also there to work their slot-and-backfield magic, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis did what running backs usually do for great Patriots offenses: scored some goal-line touchdowns (11 rushing TDs), soaked up some late-game carries and didn't expect a lot of opportunities or recognition.
Like the 2007 Patriots, the 2011 team lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Maybe their offenses got a little too good. Yep, that sounds like the kind of problem that only plagues someone like Tom Brady.
14. 1953 Cleveland Browns
Paul Brown's teams of the AAFC and NFL in the early 1940s and 1950s invented the modern NFL offense. Cleveland had the first offensive line to create a pocket for a quarterback—in this case Otto Graham—to throw from instead of just slamming into defenders and hoping for the best. It was the first team to use scripted combinations of pass routes to beat defenses. It invented the draw play. And so on.
It's hard to pick which of the great Browns teams had the best offense. They ranked first in the AAFC in everything, but it's only a slight exaggeration to say they only faced NFL-caliber competition on their own practice field before joining the NFL. The 1950 team put up great numbers but had the element of surprise in its favor. Later teams won championships, but the league had caught up to the point where Browns statistics no longer looked like they belonged in some other era.
The 1953 offense was selected because Graham completed 64.7 percent of his passes. The NFL completion percentage was 47.3. Graham and the Browns threw nine interceptions in a season when every other team threw at least 19. Come to think of it, Browns stats still looked like they belonged in some other era.
With Hall of Fame running back Marion Motley fading, the Browns attack diversified. Dante Lavelli (shown) caught 45 passes for 783 yards and six touchdowns. Lest you think Graham was dinking and dunking, end Pete Brewster averaged 19.8 yards per catch. Six backs combined to rush for 1,577 yards in 12 games, including Motley, Ray Renfro and Dub Jones, the Danny Woodhead of the 1950s.
The 1953 Browns lost the NFL championship to the archrival Lions, but not before producing a 62-14 win over the Giants, scoring 27-plus points nine times and reaching a level of passing efficiency that the rest of the league would not approach for decades.
13. 2003 Kansas City Chiefs
The power train of the early-2000s Chiefs offense was its offensive line. Hall of Famers Willie Roaf and Will Shields anchored left tackle and right guard with six-time Pro Bowler Brian Waters at left guard, Casey Wiegmann at center and John Tait at right tackle.
The star-studded line opened holes for Priest Holmes, who gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 27 touchdowns. They created a clean pocket for Trent Green, who triggered a hyper-efficient updated version of Al Saunders' Air Coryell offense.
Green spread 4,039 yards among Eddie Kennison (the primary deep threat), Johnny Morton (the smooth possession veteran), Holmes, Dante Hall (screens, slants and punt returns) and Tony Gonzalez (the greatest tight end in history).
The Chiefs offense had the rhythm of a great NBA offense, with Green as the point guard who simply had to get the ball to his playmakers in space. The Chiefs led the league in scoring and put up 30-plus points seven times in the regular season.
The 2003 Chiefs lost in the playoffs, because their defense was porous, and because the Chiefs always lose in the playoffs. But the offense remained excellent for years, thanks to Gonzalez, Green, Holmes, great coaching and one of the best offensive lines ever assembled.
12. 2004 Indianapolis Colts
Based on consistency and longevity, the Peyton Manning-led Colts would rank among the top three offenses on our countdown. The Colts finished among the top five in the NFL in points scored 10 times between 1999 and 2010. Head coaches, supporting casts and even division alignments changed, but Manning kept orchestrating a typically Manning-like offense.
But this is a countdown of creme-de-la-creme seasons, and Manning's Colts were notorious bridesmaids.
Manning set an NFL record with 49 passing touchdowns in 2004. Three different receivers (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley) gained over 1,000 receiving yards. Edgerrin James gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. The Colts dropped 30-plus points 11 times in the regular season and playoffs.
Then they lost 20-3 to the Patriots in the divisional round, making it hard to keep the song and story lively.
Yes, Colts fans, we could have put one or two other Manning teams on this countdown as well, kicking the poor 1961 Oilers or somebody off the back of the list. But the refrain would get familiar, making this countdown as much torture as celebration. The consistent, persistent, efficient and often phenomenal Colts offense fits a little too squarely among our flawed juggernauts. Let's end their saga here and tell some other tales instead.
11. 2001 St. Louis Rams
The 1999 Greatest Show on Turf won the Super Bowl. The 2001 Rams put on a better show. They scored more points, gained more yards, averaged more yards per play and generally punished more opponents than the champions of two years earlier.
Kurt Warner, no longer the Cinderella champion from the heartland but a wizened veteran starter, threw for 4,830 yards and 36 touchdowns. Marshall Faulk gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 21 touchdowns, an above-average year for him. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce each gained over 1,000 receiving yards.
Let's keep going. Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl shared slot duties and combined for eight touchdown catches. Tight end Ernie Conwell caught 38 passes when everyone else needed a breather. Backup running back Trung Canidate ran for 441 yards and six touchdowns. Left tackle Orlando Pace earned All Pro recognition. Second-year head coach Mike Martz proved he was the architect of the scheme that propelled the Rams to a championship two season earlier.
Like so many great offenses on this countdown, the 2001 Rams slammed into a more balanced team at the end of the season. Overall, the sequel was not quite as good as the 1999 original. But like many sequels, it was jam-packed with even more spectacle.
10. 1951 Los Angeles Rams
You don't have to know much about pro football history to guess that it was a lot of fun to watch The Flying Dutchman throw passes to Crazy Legs. The nicknames paint a picture.
The Flying Dutchman was Norm Van Brocklin. Crazy Legs was Elroy Hirsch (shown). Van Brocklin shared quarterback duties with Bob Waterfield, who was married to Jane Russell, who was more glamorous than Gisele in her day. Hirsch shared receiving chores with Tom Fears, a Guadalajara-born UCLA All-American. The duo formed the fastest pair of pass-catchers of the era.
Hirsch caught 66 passes for 1,495 yards and 17 touchdowns. Fears, having set reception records in previous years, took a back seat with 32-528-3. The quarterbacks combined for 26 touchdown passes. The wide-open style of play was perfect for Hollywood in the 1950s. Rams players started appearing in movies and on television. Waterfield and Russell were boffo tabloid fodder. NFL football took deeper root on the West Coast and in the American consciousness.
The 1951 Rams scored more than 40 points five times. The 1999 Greatest Show on Turf Rams only did so four times, in more games, in a dome, in an era with much more scoring. You don't have to know much about pro football history to realize that they had one heck of an offense.
9. 2011 New Orleans Saints
The Saints have fielded many outstanding offenses in the last decade, including the 2009 Super Bowl champions. Yet it was easy to pick the 2011 team as the best of the bunch.
This was the year Jimmy Graham graduated from basketball curiosity to superstar tight end, going 99-1,310-11 and emerging as one of the NFL's deadliest goal-line weapons. It was the year Darren Sproles arrived from San Diego to replace Reggie Bush and upgrade the nifty-shifty element of the underneath game. It was the year Mark Ingram arrived to join Sproles and Pierre Thomas in a three-headed monster of the backfield.
The new arrivals partnered with incumbents Drew Brees, possession-receiver extraordinaire Marques Colston, deep threat Devery Henderson and role players Lance Moore and Robert Meachem to average 467 scrimmage yards per game. This was an offense so deep that Chris Ivory was the fourth-string running back and fullback Jed Collins scored four touchdowns.
The 2011 Saints dropped 45 points on the Lions in the playoffs, then lost a seesaw battle with the 49ers in the second round. After that, the Bountygate scandal hit. Since then, Saints defenses have not been good enough to elevate the team into the Super Bowl picture. The offenses, while still excellent, have never quite reached the heights of 2011.
8. 1998 Denver Broncos
The 1997-98 Broncos may have had the most balanced great offense in NFL history:
- Terrell Davis, a 2,000-yard rusher in 1998.
- Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, each 1,000-yard receivers 1998.
- Shannon Sharpe, Hall of Fame tight end, 1,000-yard receiver in 1996 and 1997 who went "only" 64-768-10 in 1998.
- An offensive line littered with once and future Pro Bowlers such as Tom Nalen, Dan Neil, Mark Schlereth and Tony Jones.
- Oh yeah, and John Elway, a nearly perfect quarterback in the latter stages of his career.
With such balance comes incredible consistency. The Broncos only scored fewer than 21 points once in the 1998 regular and postseason: in a December road game against the Giants after they had already clinched the playoffs.
The Broncos of this era lacked the pyrotechnics of the Kurt Warner Rams or the great Tom Brady offenses. But their line punished defenders with cut blocks, Davis finished every run for an extra two yards, and Elway and his receivers could dictate what they wanted to do in the passing game.
Opponents never beat this team. Elway just ran out of time.
7. 1998 Minnesota Vikings
The cast of characters:
- Randall Cunningham, one of the greatest all-around athletes in NFL history, sidetracked on the path to Michael Jordan-level stardom by injuries and the fact that the road to stardom is full of sidetracks.
- Randy Moss, possibly the most talented receiver ever, then a mercurial 21-year-old who was impossible to cover when dialed-in.
- Cris Carter, former troubled megatalent-turned-aging master craftsman and touchdown factory.
- Robert Smith, one of the fastest running backs and most cerebral football players of all time, finally healthy after a half-decade of injuries.
- Dennis Green, Bill Walsh disciple turned offensive mad bomber.
- Gary Anderson, all-time great kicker and tragic figure.
Cunningham is magically reborn as a pocket passer at age 35, two years after briefly retiring to the broadcast booth. Moss catches 17 touchdown passes due to pure talent; Carter a dozen more with pure technique. Smith averages 4.8 yards per rush. Role players Jake Reed and Leroy Hoard provide slot receptions and short touchdowns. The Vikings average nearly 35 points per game, drop 41 points on the Cardinals in a playoff game, drive down to the 21-yard line late in the fourth quarter leading 27-20, ready to put the game away for good. And then Anderson...
Let's fade to black there and remember the 1998 Vikings squad for the strange, magnificent, unlikely thing that it was.
6. 1984 Miami Dolphins
Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards in a season when only two other teams threw for more than 4,000 yards. He threw 48 touchdown passes in a season when no other quarterback threw more than 32. Mark Duper and Mark Clayton (shown) combined for 26 touchdowns while gaining over 1,300 yards apiece.
We did not call these "video game numbers" back then, because video games were not yet sophisticated enough to generate realistic-looking statistics (or football, for that matter). Back then, future football analytics geeks played dice board games like Strat-o-Matic or APBA: call a play, roll the dice, look at the cards and charts, and determine whether the play result was a touchdown or a two-yard gain.
Marino broke those 1984 board games the way Michael Vick broke Madden in 2004 or Steph Curry glitches modern versions of NBA2K. The 1970s structure of those games was no match for a quarterback averaging 9.0 yards per pass and throwing a touchdown on 8.5 percent of his attempts, just as leftover 1970s defensive tactics were no match for the real Marino. All a gamer had to do was call long pass after long pass, and Marino's card served up enough big plays to rout any opponent.
Marino '84 was, as video gamers would now say, overpowered.
Marino, the Marks brothers and the 1984 Dolphins won without a featured 1970s workhorse running back. They used three- and four-receiver sets on early downs. They broke every single old-school rule about establishing the run, even though coach Don Shula was as old-school as they come. Defenses were forced to adapt, just as game designers had to change their charts and algorithms to account for the new style of play.
The 1984 Dolphins didn't just score points. They changed paradigms.
5. 2013 Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning set the record with 55 touchdown passes. Four different receivers had double-digit touchdown totals. Knowshon Moreno—remember him?—rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns while catching 60 passes. And Manning's pre-snap gibberish became a national sensation.
It was only four years ago, but life comes at you fast. Manning, Moreno and Wes Welker are retired. Eric Decker and Julius Thomas scattered to bad franchises. Manning got suddenly old, and the Broncos became a defense-first champion propping him up. Even the coaches associated with this offense are now all over the league: coordinator Adam Gase coaching the Dolphins, assistant Jim Bob Cooter rising through the ranks with the Lions, head coach John Fox trying to recapture magic in Chicago.
The 2013 Broncos scored more than 33 points in each of their first eight games. Even the Patriots couldn't handle them in the playoffs. With the help of Demaryius Thomas and the others listed above, Manning achieved heights even beyond his greatest successes with the Colts.
Had they won the Super Bowl, the 2013 Broncos might be in our top three. But the Seahawks tore them to shreds, and it was the beginning of the end of an all-too-brief era of offensive excellence.
4. 2011 Green Bay Packers
During one three-week stretch of the 2011 season, Aaron Rodgers threw 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and just 18 incomplete passes in 86 attempts.
Four of the incomplete passes were drops, and one was a spike to stop the clock. So really, Rodgers went almost a month in which he was as likely to throw a touchdown pass as he was to throw an even slightly off-target pass.
Rodgers still has stretches like that, so his 2011 hot streak shouldn't surprise anyone. But 2011 was peak Rodgers, peak Mike McCarthy and peak Packers offense. It was the year Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley were all together. No one complained about McCarthy's system's predictability back then, because it wasn't predictable, and no team could stop that receiving corps even if it was.
Rodgers threw for 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He set the NFL record for passer rating at 122.5. The Packers went 15-1 before doing what all-time great offenses so often do in the playoffs: losing to an ordinary-looking Giants team.
Few quarterbacks in history have been as close to perfect as Rodgers was in the middle of the 2011 season. But the Packers are finally assembling a supporting cast in 2017 that's talented and deep enough to be compared to that 2011 team. If Rodgers has an encore in him, we'll be updating this countdown next year.
3. 1994 San Francisco 49ers
When comparing historic offenses, playoff performance must be a factor, especially since so many of the teams on this countdown laid an egg at some point in the postseason.
The 1994 49ers scored 44 and 38 points in the playoffs, then 49 in the Super Bowl. They did it against the Bears, Cowboys and Bobby Ross Chargers, three opponents whose defenses weren't exactly chopped liver.
By 1994, the 49ers were a perennial powerhouse who had never won a Super Bowl with Steve Young at quarterback. Jerry Rice had one foot in Canton, John Taylor and Brent Jones were aging but still effective, and young Ricky Watters had replaced Roger Craig as the all-purpose running back.
But this was Young's show. He completed 70.3 percent of his passes, threw 35 touchdowns and rushed for seven more in a last-ditch effort to escape Joe Montana's shadow.
The 49ers offense got better as the season went on. It scored 50, 38 and 42 points in a trio of December games (a Deion Sanders pick-six is among those point totals, but that's quibbling) before going supersonic in the playoffs and Super Saiyan in the Super Bowl, scoring 14 points before most fans could finish our first beers.
That Super Bowl performance and the presence of Young and Rice give the 1994 49ers a legit claim to be history's No. 1 offense. But there are two that are greater because of long-range impact and regular-season dominance.
2. 1981 San Diego Chargers
Don Coryell's 1981 Chargers scored 52 more points than any other team in the NFL. They gained 776 more yards than any other team. It was like they played 19 regular-season games when everyone else played 16, or got 10 extra minutes per week to run their offense.
Dan Fouts threw for 4,802 yards and 33 touchdowns in an era when 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown seasons were still historic. Kellen Winslow caught 88 passes and helped Coryell revolutionize the tight end position, lining up all over the formation and attacking everywhere from the short flats to the far corners of the end zone.
Wes Chandler and Charlie Joiner averaged over 16 yards per reception on 122 catches. Chuck Muncie rushed for 19 touchdowns. Rookie changeup back James Brooks, a future 1,000-yard featured back for the Bengals, mopped up over 800 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns from the leftover touches. Ed White, Doug Wilkerson and Doug Macek anchored a line that kept the rugged defenses of the era at bay.
Air Coryell was grounded by Arctic conditions in Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game. But the NFL's copycat coaches took notice of just how unstoppable the Chargers offense was. Soon, teams were attacking downfield on "running" downs and sliding Winslow-like tight ends into strange new formations.
It didn't take long for the rest of the league to catch up to the Chargers. But a 4,800-yard passing season is still something to take note of, 36 years and several offensive advancements later. Modern quarterbacks get to have them because Fouts showed that they were not only just possible, but also incredibly effective.
1. 2007 New England Patriots
Trivia question: What do the following scores represent: 42-7, 35-7, 28-0, 24-0, 24-0 and 20-0.
No, those aren't final scores from 2007 Patriots games. Those are halftime scores from 2007 Patriots games.
This was a team that stomped on the accelerator at the opening coin toss, built up routine three-touchdown halftime leads, then spent many fourth quarters rubbing salt in the wounds of a defeated opponent. In the unlikely event that a team such as the Steelers kept things close at halftime (17-13), these Patriots just reloaded in the second half for a 34-13 win.
You know the cast of characters: Tom Brady, just entering a new phase of evolution; Randy Moss, reinvigorated by Brady and "The Patriots Way" after a series of subpar years; Wes Welker, acquired from a Dolphins team that didn't know what it possessed; a three-headed backfield of Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk; Donte Stallworth, a former go-to Saints and Eagles receiver playing the slot; Benjamin Watson, now still an NFL starter a decade later; Mike Vrabel, because when a team throws 50 touchdown passes, a linebacker might as well catch two of them.
They were simply overwhelming. They were so dominating that it was a little unpleasant. They made Patriots games non-competitive. When the Giants finally found their Achilles heel in the Super Bowl (a vulnerable interior offensive line), it was comforting to realize the 2007 Patriots offense wasn't perfect.
But that comfort came too late for all of the opponents who barely even made it to halftime.