1981 DVOA: 49ers Finally Win It All, but Eagles Rule DVOA
NFL Offseason - Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers went 13-3 and won their first Super Bowl title in 1981. Our DVOA ratings are unimpressed. The 49ers only finished the 1981 season 12th in overall DVOA, one of the worst ranks ever for a Super Bowl champion. Instead, the regular-season DVOA title belongs to the defending NFC champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. But the Eagles were one of the least impressive No. 1 teams in DVOA history and squandered a strong start to the season with a four-game losing streak and a wild-card loss to the rival New York Giants.
It's time to go back in time once again as we add another historic NFL season to our DVOA database. Today we're going to talk about 1981. It's the year of The Catch, the year Ken Anderson won the MVP award, and the year that "stickum" was banned for receivers and defensive backs. It's the year Lawrence Taylor won both Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, a feat nearly matched by Micah Parsons last season.
How surprising is it that the San Francisco 49ers finished so low in DVOA despite having the best win-loss record in the league and eventually winning Super Bowl XVI? On one hand, the 49ers do fine in other advanced metrics. Both Pythagorean Wins and Pro Football Reference's Simple Rating System had them second that year behind the Eagles. On the other hand, you may remember the Estimated DVOA ratings we ran a couple of years ago. San Francisco was only at 13.3% in those estimates, which put them 57th out of 70 NFL champions from 1950 to 2019. The 49ers were only 6-10 the year before their first Super Bowl championship, and only 3-6 the year after during the strike-shortened 1982 season.
The 1981 49ers were 7-2 in one-score games during the regular season (and 2-0 in the postseason). They played an easy schedule, 24th in the league by average DVOA of opponent. San Francisco ranked fifth on offense and eighth on defense, although their offense was a lot lower than what usually ranks fifth. The average No. 5 offense since 1981 had a DVOA of 14.2%. San Francisco had offensive DVOA of 8.7%. DVOA was very different from just looking at yards per play, as the 49ers ranked third in yards per play allowed on defense but only 19th on yards per play on offense. They were very good in turnovers on both sides of the ball, finishing with a plus-23 turnover margin.
The 49ers were dragged down by special teams, which ranked 27th out of 28 teams in 1981. San Francisco tried nine different kick returners that season, although their kick return value wasn't even bad. No, the biggest problem was kick and punt coverage. Only the Rams and Browns allowed more value on kick returns and only the Buccaneers (the one squad behind San Francisco in total special teams) allowed more value on punt returns. The timing of these bad returns just didn't seem to hurt them. For example, the 49ers allowed a 58-yard punt return touchdown and a 55-yard kickoff return to Washington's Mike Nelms in Week 5 but won the game 30-17 thanks in part to two return touchdowns of their own, an 80-yard fumble return and a 32-yard interception return. (In total, San Francisco had five defensive touchdowns in 1981.)
|Worst Regular-Season DVOA
for Super Bowl Champion, 1981-2021
The 49ers move up to sixth in DVOA when you include the playoffs as well as the regular season. DVOA is impressed by their postseason wins even though the NFC Championship and Super Bowl were both one-score games. The 49ers end up with single-game ratings of 57%, 36%, and 39% for the three playoff victories.
What about the team that actually led the league in DVOA? The Eagles' 25.8% DVOA was the third lowest ever for a team that finished the regular season on top. Only the 1993 Cowboys (24.7%) and 2016 Patriots (25.1%) were on top of the league with lower ratings. The 1981 Cowboys finished second behind the Eagles and their 18.2% DVOA was easily the lowest ever for a No. 2 team. In fact, 1981 is the only year in DVOA history where at least three teams didn't get to at least 20% DVOA. No. 3 San Diego was also the lowest No. 3 team ever.
There was plenty of parity in the 1981 DVOA ratings, except for one very, very bad defense. Very, very, very bad. We'll get to them in a little bit.
Let's take a look at all the numbers for all 28 teams in 1981:
DVOA for 1981 is now listed in the stats pages:
- TEAM, including stats not listed above such as schedule strength and weighted DVOA
- SPECIAL TEAMS
- RUNNING BACKS
- WIDE RECEIVERS
- TIGHT ENDS
A reminder: These pages are not behind a paywall! It's a registration wall. You simply need to register for the site and make sure you are logged in to see these historical DVOA pages.
Before we go further in exploring the 1981 season, we have to report that we've reached an unfortunate milestone. This is the first season where we could not find all of the play-by-play. There have been other years in the '80s where we had to guess at a couple of plays because of unreadable gamebooks, but for the most part we've collected every play from every game from 1982 through 2021. In 1981, we are missing the entire fourth quarter of the Week 1 game between the Bills and the Jets. The gamebook we have is missing that quarter and we can't find videotape of the game to complete the play-by-play. At least our one missing quarter is pretty inconsequential; the Bills had a 31-0 lead after three quarters and there was no scoring in the fourth quarter.
Let's return to the top team of 1981, the Philadelphia Eagles. Defensive coordinator Marion Campbell led the top defense in the league featuring All-Pro nose tackle Charlie Johnson and three other All-Pros: inside linebacker Frank LeMaster, outside linebacker Jerry Robinson, and cornerback Roynell Young. You also might remember the other starting cornerback, some guy named Herm Edwards. The Eagles led the NFL with just 4.9 net yards allowed per pass attempt. The offense was not as good, but still finished in the DVOA top 10. So did the special teams.
The Eagles began the season 6-0 and were 9-2 after blowing out the Cardinals and Colts in consecutive weeks. Then they lost four straight games in Weeks 12-15, although two of those losses were close. The Eagles rebounded to destroy the Cardinals 38-0 in the final game of the regular season but there was still a sense that the team was in freefall. There's definitely the possibility that recreational drug use was involved. When I first sent out the 1981 ratings to the FO staff, Mike Tanier responded that everything from the early 1980s needs a cocaine asterisk. To quote Mike, "I remember as a kid wondering what the heck I was watching in the second half of that season. There was no injury to explain the collapse. One of the stories at the time was that Dick Vermeil was pushing the team too hard. My gut tells me that he had no idea what was going on (or equated 'partying' with 'drinking') and started pressing too hard, which did wear out some of the sober players, especially in 1982, and wore Vermeil out too."
The Eagles hosted the rival Giants in the wild-card game. The Giants were in the playoffs for the first time since 1963. They had only finished 16th in DVOA and were missing starting quarterback Phil Simms and outside linebacker Brad Van Pelt, but they built a 27-7 lead at halftime. Philadelphia got two Wilbert Montgomery rushing touchdowns in the second half but couldn't fight all the way back and lost 27-21. A couple of Eagles players later told the press that the Eagles played badly in part because some of them had attended a drug party the night before.
After the Eagles, there's very little separating one team from the next in 1981 until you get down to a gap of about four percentage points between the 49ers and the No. 13 Dolphins. The Dallas Cowboys finished second in DVOA with a balanced team that ranked 11th or higher in all three phases. The San Diego Chargers finished third with, what else, the No. 1 offense in the league and a bad defense. (It was not quite as bad as it would be for the next four years.) The Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals were effectively tied in fourth place. The Lions may be a bit of a surprise at 8-8, but they outscored their opponents 397-322 over the course of the 1981 season with a 3-6 record in one-score games. The Lions finished 1-7 on the road but 7-1 at home. Unfortunately, that only home loss came in the final week of the season when the Lions and No. 6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers both entered the game with 8-7 records and the Buccaneers took out the Lions in front of a Pontiac Silverdome crowd of over 80,000 fans. The Buccaneers were ahead 13-10 early in the fourth quarter when Lee Roy Selmon hit Eric Hipple from behind and knocked out the ball. Nose tackle David Logan picked it up on one hop and ran 21 yards for a touchdown. Hipple then threw a red zone pick on the next drive. The Lions did score a touchdown with 1:26 left on an 8-yard pass from Hipple to Leonard Thompson but couldn't gather up the onside kick and that was their season.
Tampa Bay finished in the top five for both offense and defense but dead last in special teams. The defensive rating makes sense when you look at standard stats, as the Bucs were fourth in points per game and seventh in takeaways. The offensive rating may be more curious because the Bucs were just 18th in points per game, but they ranked sixth in yards per play and third in fewest turnovers. The Cowboys absolutely destroyed the Bucs in the divisional round with a 38-0 victory. Doug Williams was 10-of-29 with four picks and four sacks, and the Cowboys ended up with 139% DVOA for that game. That's one of the 20 best individual DVOA games ever.
The whole 1981 season was known for some legendary playoff games, from the Epic in Miami to San Francisco's close victory in Super Bowl XVI. Here are the DVOA ratings for the biggest playoff games of 1981:
|Debacle in Dallas||TB||-129%||-84%||33%||-12%|
|DAL 38, TB 0||DAL||139%||42%||-86%||11%|
|Epic in Miami||SD||21%||33%||15%||4%|
|SD 41, MIA 38 (OT)||MIA||-26%||10%||15%||-21%|
|CIN 27, SD 7||CIN||67%||23%||-35%||9%|
|SF 28, DAL 27||SF||36%||16%||-15%||6%|
|Super Bowl XVI||CIN||1%||8%||1%||-7%|
|SF 26, CIN 21||SF||39%||7%||-18%||15%|
The strangest division of 1981 was the AFC East, where three teams made the playoffs and the other two teams went 2-14. The Bills, who finished third in the division, had the highest DVOA rank at No. 8. The Miami Dolphins, much like the champion 49ers, were unimpressive in DVOA despite a strong 11-4-1 record. Miami ranked fifth in the league in points allowed yet DVOA ranks their defense just 21st. This was in the midst of a streak where it seemed like the Dolphins had a strong defense every year. They ranked second in defensive DVOA the next year when they made it to the Super Bowl, with the best pass defense DVOA has ever measured. But the 1981 Dolphins were 18th in yards allowed per play and tied for 23rd in takeaways. Their rank in points allowed was a mirage caused in part by strong field position from finishing first in special teams DVOA.
The Patriots ranked 20th in DVOA despite being 2-14. They easily had the best DVOA rating ever for a 2-14 team, surpassing the 2001 Lions. The Patriots were 0-8 in one-score games, including two losses to the Baltimore Colts by a grand total of three points. Those were Baltimore's only two wins.
And oh boy, do we have to talk about the Baltimore Colts. Remember above when I said that 1981 was a year for parity except for one bad defense? The 1981 Baltimore Colts still hold the record for the most points allowed in the regular season: 533 points, or 33.3 points per game. That record has stood up throughout this entire century as the offensive levels around the NFL have exploded. The 2020 Lions came the closest, giving up 519 points. Last year, the Jets gave up 504 points thanks to the extra regular-season game, and that now ranks fourth. But nobody has caught the Colts.
The Colts also hold the record for the most touchdowns allowed (68) and rank second in net yardage allowed (6,793). That latter record was finally broken in 2012 when the New Orleans Saints became the only NFL team to ever allow over 7,000 yards in one season.
As bad as the Colts were in DVOA in 1981, it's not as bad as they were in standard stats because they played the toughest defensive schedule of the season. The other four AFC East teams all ranked in the top 12 for offense, even the 2-14 Patriots, plus the Colts had to play the top three offenses in the league: San Diego, Cincinnati, and Washington. They lost to those three teams by the combined score of 122-47.
Our table of the worst defensive DVOAs features three different teams from strike-shortened seasons, but the 1981 Colts (and 1986 Buccaneers) beat them all over a full season.
|Worst Defensive DVOA, 1981-2021|
|*1987 does not include strikebreaker games|
The Colts look even worse if you only look at their pass defense. Baltimore had a pass defense DVOA of 51.0% in 1981; no other defense has ever put up worse than 45% over a full season. (The 1999 49ers had the second-worst pass defense at 44.8%, followed by a team that will surprise you, the 1996 Baltimore Ravens at 44.6%.) The Colts allowed 8.4 net yards per pass, which is the highest figure since the AFL-NFL merger. They allowed a league-high 61.3% completion rate when New Orleans was the only other defense to allow anything over 59% that year. They allowed 37 passing touchdowns (Atlanta was second with 30) and sacked the quarterback only 13 times (New England was next to last with 20).
Back in the early days of Football Outsiders, Mike Tanier wrote a whole feature on just how insanely bad the 1981 Baltimore Colts defense was. You can read it here.
Now let's take a look at the best and worst players by position in 1981.
Quarterbacks: Ken Anderson may have won his only MVP award in 1981 but Football Outsiders stats are pretty adamant that Dan Fouts was the best quarterback in the NFL. Fouts had 37.9% passing DVOA compared to 31.0% for Anderson, and Fouts beat Anderson easily in DYAR thanks to throwing over 100 more passes. Anderson led the league in touchdown rate and interception rate, but Fouts topped him in net yards per attempt, 7.43 to 7.17. Fouts also had a lower sack rate and played a harder schedule of opposing defenses. I already wrote that Dan Fouts should have easily been MVP of the 1982 season, and I think he should have been MVP of the 1981 season as well.
Joe Montana ranked third in passing DYAR in his first full season as the 49ers' starting quarterback. He also led the league in completion rate. Tampa Bay's Doug Williams ranked fourth in DYAR but was slightly ahead of Montana in DVOA despite barely completing 50% of his passes, because he was second in the league with 15.0 yards per completion. Eric Hipple of the Lions, who led the league with 16.8 yards per completion, ended up only 20th in passing DYAR because he had 11 fumbles and 15 interceptions in only 10 games started.
Buffalo's Joe Ferguson was fifth in DYAR. Terry Bradshaw was fifth in passing DVOA but lower in DYAR because he had less than 400 pass plays. He also played an easy schedule, which knocks him down a little bit.
Chicago's Vince Evans finished last in passing DYAR among qualifying quarterbacks, those with at least 200 pass plays. Evans had 20 interceptions and 12 fumbles while completing just 45% of his passes. But he didn't actually have the lowest DYAR of the year. That belonged to Dan Pastorini, playing his only season with the Los Angeles Rams after a career in Houston plus one year in Oakland. Pastorini started five games and threw 14 interceptions with just 2 touchdowns. He had 3.43 net yards per attempt. That worked out to -74.4% DVOA on 169 pass plays, or -651 DYAR. Only three players ever put up a lower passing DVOA with at least 150 passes: Alex Smith in 2005, Craig Krenzel in 2004, and Jared Goff in 2016.
Running Backs: George Rogers of the Saints may have won the rushing title (and Offensive Rookie of the Year) with 378 carries for 1,672 yards, but it was Billy Sims of the Lions who was No. 1 by rushing DYAR. The second-year back rushed for 1,437 yards in just 14 games with 4.9 yards per carry and 13 rushing touchdowns. Chuck Muncie of the Chargers finished second in rushing DYAR. His season was notable for 19 rushing touchdowns, tying the record then held by Jim Taylor (1962) and Earl Campbell (1979). Wilbert Montgomery of the Eagles was third, William Andrews of the Falcons fourth, and Mike Pruitt of the Browns fifth. Rogers finished sixth in rushing DYAR while Tony Dorsett, who was second in rushing yardage, finished 10th in rushing DYAR.
Down at the bottom of our rushing table you'll find Harlan Huckleby of the Green Bay Packers, who averaged a miserable 2.7 yards per carry that season. He finished last among qualifying running backs in both DYAR and DVOA. However, just as with quarterbacks, the actual lowest running back of the year was someone who didn't have 100 carries to qualify for our main table. In fact, three different running backs were below Huckleby in DYAR in 1981.
- Sidney Thornton of the Steelers had 6 fumbles on just 56 carries, averaging 3.6 yards per carry for -62 DYAR.
- Clarence Williams of the Chargers was worse than that on just 21 carries, because he gained just 32 yards. That's barely 1.5 yards per carry for -63 DYAR. (PFR lists Williams with 20 carries for 26 yards, so there's an error either in the gamebook or the official league totals.)
- Tony Reed carried the ball 68 times for 156 yards with no touchdowns for the Broncos. That's 2.3 yards per carry and -71 DYAR.
Terry Metcalf of Washington led all running backs in receiving DYAR, but he wasn't much of a runner in his return to the NFL after three seasons in the Canadian Football League. Metcalf had just 18 carries in 1981 (and fumbled three of those) but caught 48 passes on 71 targets for 595 yards (although no touchdowns). That was worth a league-leading 183 receiving DYAR. The receiving leader among more typical running backs was Randy McMillan of the Colts. A number of the top rushers also had a lot of receiving value, including both Sims and Montgomery. Earl Campbell was dead last in receiving value, gaining just 4.3 yards per reception.
One more interesting split year belonged to Joe Cribbs of the Bills. He had a 1,000-yard season and made the Pro Bowl on 4.3 yards per carry, but between 12 fumbles and a very easy schedule of opposing run defenses, he ended up next to last in rushing DYAR. However, Cribbs was fourth in receiving DYAR thanks to 40 catches for 603 yards and 7 receiving touchdowns.
Wide Receivers: At this point we've gone so far back in history that I'm just seven years old and growing up in a family where nobody followed sports. Some kids down the street had me following the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series and that's how my whole sports thing got started. So I'm not embarassed to say I had never noticed Steve Watson before I put together the 1981 numbers. Signed by Denver as a UDFA out of Temple in 1979, Watson became a regular starter for the first time in 1981 and exploded with 60 catches for 1,244 yards and a league-leading 13 receiving touchdowns. His 20.7 yards per reception that season is the Broncos franchise record and Watson had a 63% catch rate in a year where wide receivers caught only 49% of intended passes. (There's a little bit of an asterisk there, because official scorers in the 1980s were not always vigilant about marking down intended receivers. Denver's official scorer led the league with 57 passes listed without an intended receiver, so there's a good chance there were a couple of Watson incompletes that we aren't giving him credit for.)
Watson led the league in both receiving DYAR (450) and receiving DVOA (52.1%) and his season is one of the best ever by DVOA:
|Best Receiving DVOA, 1981-2021
(min. 50 passes)
Watson had two more 1,000-yard seasons before his career wound down in 1987. Add in the strike-shortened 1982 and he ranked in the top eight of receiving DYAR for four straight years from 1981-1984. He never had a season with a negative receiving DVOA.
Another Steve finished second in receiving DYAR, but this is a guy you probably have heard about, Steve Largent of the Seahawks. Alfred Jenkins of the Falcons led the NFL in both receiving yards (1,362) and receiving touchdowns (13, tied with Watson) but finished third in receiving DYAR. Frank Lewis of the Bills and Dwight Clark of the 49ers round out the top five. Clark had an astonishing 70% catch rate when no other qualifying receiver was above 63%, and there's no asterisk on this one because the 49ers (unlike the Broncos) weren't particularly high in passes listed with no intended receiver.
Wes Chandler, who would go on to dominate the league in 1982, finished seventh in receiving DYAR in a split season where he was traded from the Saints to the Chargers after four games. Chandler ended up with 71.3 yards per game for the Saints and 71.4 yards per game for the Chargers, almost the exactly the same. James Lofton of the Packers finished second in the NFL with 1,294 receiving yards but led the NFL with 146 targets and only had a 49% catch rate, so he ends up eighth in receiving DYAR.
Last place in both receiving DYAR and DVOA belongs to Wallace Francis of the Falcons. In his final NFL season, Francis caught just 30 out of 80 passes for 441 yards and 4 touchdowns. It's hard to believe he was in the same offense with Alfred Jenkins. Also low in receiving DYAR in 1981 were another longtime veteran in his final season, Ken Burrough of the Oilers, and a third-round rookie, Ken Margerum of the Bears. Also disappointing in 1981 was Hall of Famer Cliff Branch, whose 635 receiving yards in 16 games were barely more than the 575 receiving yards he had the next season in a strike-shortened year.
Drew Hill of the Rams was notable for catching just 30% of intended passes but he caught those for 22.2 yards per reception with 3 touchdowns which put him 55th out of 64 receivers in DYAR.
Tight Ends: By standard stats, Kellen Winslow was the man in 1981. He led the league with 88 receptions and had 1,075 yards with 10 touchdowns, earning first-team All-Pro honors and even some MVP votes (back when the MVP voting panel had more people than the 50 that are on it now). He did this against an above-average schedule of opposing pass defenses. So it's pretty stunning that Winslow did not lead the league in receiving DYAR. Instead, he finished second behind Jimmie Giles of the Buccaneers, whose 17.5 yards per reception was far higher than Winslow's 12.2. Overall, Giles caught 45 passes for 786 yards and 6 touchdowns. Dave Casper of the Oilers was third among tight ends in DYAR and led them in DVOA, scoring 8 touchdowns with 573 receiving yards on just 60 targets. Don Hasselbeck of the Patriots was fourth in by far his best season, gaining 808 receiving yards when he had never managed 200 yards in a season before and never would again. Two other tight ends besides Winslow also managed 1,000-yard seasons and were also a little lower than you would expect by DYAR: Ozzie Newsome of the Browns seventh and Joe Senser of the Vikings eighth.
Ronnie Lee of the Dolphins was last among tight ends in receiving DYAR, catching 14 passes on 25 targets for just 64 yards and a touchdown. After 1982, Lee switched positions and ended up starting for a few years for Miami at both right guard and right tackle.
As always, thank you to Jeremy Snyder who did a ton of work to collect this play-by-play as well as video from games where we could not find actual printed gamebooks. Jeremy also put together an excellent review of the 1981 season in The Year in Quotes. Click on that link to revisit a lot of history.
The next stop is 1980. I don't know if we're going to be able to get the whole season to add it to our data, but we're going to sure try. There are currently 33 missing games from the 1980 season. Here are the teams where we are missing gamebooks and therefore we are looking for video of games from these teams, especially 1980 games between two of these teams:
Please contact us at Football Outsiders if you are a video collector or know a video collector who might have some of our missing games.