For Pete's Sake

By: Pete Fierle

Pete Fierle, Manager - Digital Media/Communications
Pete's familiarity with the game's history is a result of spending two decades surrounded by the world's largest collection of pro football information. His many duties include overseeing the Hall's website as well as the day-to-day operation of the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center.

What would 18 games do to the record book?

Mar 10, 2011
A new "For Pete's Sake" blog appears each Thursday.

On March 29, 1977, the National Football League owners voted to change from a six-game preseason to four games and increase the number of regular season games from 14 to 16 starting in 1978. Unlike the current situation and the debate that surrounds the potential change to 18 regular season games, there was virtually no argument when the vote came at the 1977 owners meeting.  By the time the league owners met at a resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. for the league meeting, the players had already agreed to the change. | HISTORY:  Regular season games played>>>

However, it’s a bit hard to grasp exactly how popular the change was among the owners. That’s because the proposal of a 16-game season was packaged together with a new scheduling format. So, the overall vote according to then Commissioner Pete Rozelle was “about 21-7,” which was the minimum voted needed to pass. My take on the matter is that most were hesitant of a new scheduling format rather than expressing any real resistance to an expanded regular season and reduced preseason.

I understand both sides of the argument regarding an 18-game regular season. For the record, I remain undecided on the issue. But, that’s mostly because as a football historian, I have mixed emotions about what an 18-game schedule would do to the NFL’s record book.

Granted, most single-season marks would fall with the addition of two more games. That thought led me to review what records have withstood the test of time and the increase in games. Most records as they relate to an entire season of play have been established since 1978 when the NFL went to a 16-game season.

But, there are a couple of really significant marks that were established back in the days of 12-game seasons that still stand. One that jumps to front of mind is the 1952 season recorded by Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane. He intercepted 14 passes during his rookie year with the Los Angeles Rams to set the NFL record. Interestingly, the second most interceptions in a season (13) is shared by three players, two of whom accomplished the feat  during the 12-game era -- Dan Sandifer of the Washington Redskins (1948) and Spec Sanders of the New York Yanks (1950). The Oakland Raiders Lester Hayes added his name in 1980 when he matched that total of 13 interceptions.

Two other more noteworthy marks from the 12-game schedules is the record by Don Doll who had 301 yards on interceptions for the Detroit Lions in 1949. It remains a single-season record for a rookie. Another Lions player, Hall of Famer Jack Christansen’s rookie record of returning four punts for touchdowns also remains intact.

The American Football League instituted a 14-game season in its inaugural year of 1960, one year before the NFL went to 14 games. A record set during that first season of the AFL was Bill Groman’s rookie record of 1,473 yards receiving for the Houston Oilers. Although challenged most recently by Anquan Boldin for the Arizona Cardinals in 2003, that yardage total by a rookie has not yet been eclipsed.

A 16-game season has not resulted in any other rookie scoring more than the 22 touchdowns that Gale Sayers (see photo below) tallied in 14 games for the Chicago Bears in 1965. The same goes for the record of four kickoff returns for scores in a season shared by Travis Williams (Packers, 1967) and Cecil Turner (Bears, 1970).

The 18-game season will most assuredly result in most of the coveted records falling but it’ll be interesting to see if the aforementioned marks will last.

No asterisks needed

Of course, when some of the NFL’s most notable records fall, there’ll be an outcry for asterisks. In the spirit of progress, that can’t happen. But, it won’t stop us from making some comparisons. Here’s a look at the one single-season record that will probably come under the most scrutiny – rushing yards in a season.

2,105 – Eric Dickerson (16 games) = 131.6 yards per game – BREAKDOWN BY GAME
2,003 – O.J. Simpson (14 games) = 143.1 yards per game -- BREAKDOWN BY GAME

Now, it's your turn

Don't be shy. Add a comment to this blog and let me know what NFL records you think will last if the NFL expands to an 18-game regular season.