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The 1972 Detroit Lions Offense

There are lots of ways to measure a team’s offensive production.  But if a drive does not end in a punt or a turnover, it’s probably a pretty good drive.  Last year, the Packers had just 64 possessions end in a punt (51) or turnover (6 interceptions, 7 fumbles lost).  The Raiders led the way with 138 Bad Drives — defined as possessions that ended in a punt or turnover — so this metric passes the sniff test.

Here’s some more positive evidence for this statistic: Since 1970, the team with the fewest Bad Drives was the 2007 Patriots at 60.1  That New England team was followed by the ’14 Packers, the ’11 Saints (66), the ’06 Colts (67), the ’10 Patriots (68), the ’72 Lions (68), the ’11 Packers (69), and the ’09 Chargers (69. The Colts from ’04 to ’08 were extremely consistent and extremely strong in this metric, with 71 Bad Drives in ’04, 71 in ’05, ’67 in ’06, 71 in ’07, and 70 in ’08.

Wait, did I really just include the 1972 DETROIT LIONS in there? How on earth did the ’72 Lions sneak in a list populated entirely by very modern teams with HOF quarterbacks?2  That’s what prompted today’s post.

The 1972 Dolphins — maybe you’ve heard of them — had 72 Bad Drives, second fewest in the NFL that year.  And Miami ranked 1st in points, yards, and first downs.  I doubt even Football Perspective readers have spent much time thinking about the ’72 Lions, or could name many of their offense players other than quarterback Greg Landry (if you’re wondering, Charlie Sanders, Steve Owens, Mel Farr, and Ron Jessie were all on this team, too).  Lions great Joe Schmidt was in his final year as head coach; he would resign after the 8-5-1 season.

Landry had a fascinating season, becoming the first player to pass for 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns, and rush for 500 yards and 8 touchdowns, all in the same season.  No other player did that for another 40 years, although now it’s been done five more times. Detroit’s offense was good, but hardly noteworthy, at least on the statistical surface. Detroit ranked 6th in NY/A, 8th in ANY/A, and 10th in passer rating, wile ranking just a hair above average as a rushing team. That’s what makes the team’s lack of Bad Drives so… weird. At least, at first.

So what explains it? Some of the credit for the team’s lack of Bad Drives may be due to pace; and more credit may be due to the Lions having a terrible defense. Detroit’s defense only *forced* 73 Bad Drives. That was the 2nd worst number in the NFL, just 1 behind the Patriots. 3 For there to be just 68 offensive Bad Drives and 73 defensive Bad Drives, the pace of Lions games had to be really slow and/or Detroit’s offense was awesome and its defense was very bad. And considering the fact that the Lions ranked below average in completion percentage and only 14th in rushing attempts, I don’t think they were necessarily milking the clock (although they could have still been operating at a particularly slow pace).4

After doing some more digging, it looks like one of the main reasons why the ’72 Lions didn’t have many Bad Drives is because the team just didn’t have many drives. Calculating drives for old teams is tricky, but there are a couple of ways to do it. One method is to measure the end of drives: sum all the passing touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, interceptions, fumbles lost, field goal attempts, punts, and opponent safeties for each team. In 1972, the Lions had 136 drives by this method; the other 25 teams had an average of 157.

The other method would be to measure the beginning of drives. To do this, we would sum all the passing touchdowns allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, interceptions forced,5 opponent’s fumbles lost, opponent’s field goal attempts, opponent’s punts, safeties recorded by the team, and add in 1 for each game played (since each team gets the ball at the start of each half). By this method, the ’72 Lions had 153 drives, while the other 25 teams averaged 171 drives.

Split the difference, and the other 25 teams averaged about 164 drives in 1972, while Detroit had 144.5. That’s pretty significant — Detroit had only 88% as many drives as the rest of the league. The Dolphins led the way by averaging 2.43 points per estimated drive,6 but Detroit was not far behind at 2.35. My hunch is that, if we had the data, we would see that the Lions were very effective at converting on 3rd downs. This was a really good offense, and the lack of drives hurt the team’s gross statistics. On the other hand, the lack of drives helped Detroit in the Bad Drives category, which is why the team was able to compete with some elite modern offenses.7

The real problem for Detroit in 1972 was a defense that ranked in the bottom 7 in both ANY/A and Yards per Carry, and while the Lions ranked 17th and 19th in points/yards allowed, those numbers are too generous to the team in light of the low number of drives the defense faced.

Let’s close with a look at what may well have been a perfect game by 1972 standards. Take a look at that boxscore: notice anything crazy? Detroit had just one punt, one field goal attempt, and zero turnovers. Does that sound crazy to you? Well, consider: From 1967 to 1977, this was the only game where a team had fewer than 3 combined punts/turnovers/field goal attempts.

  1. And excluding 1982. []
  2. Or HOF-caliber quarterbacks, in the case of the ’09 Chargers. []
  3. And again, here’s the perspective I’m talking about: excluding Detroit, each of the other teams in the bottom five in Bad Drives forced on defense in 1972 all had at least 100 Bad Drives on offense. []
  4. Another option could be that Detroit happened to go for it often on 4th downs; that would not be collected in this data, but would fall under a better definition of Bad Drives. []
  5. If one wants to do the extra legwork, they should back out pick sixes, too. []
  6. Miami had 152 and 165 drives by these two estimates. []
  7. Of course, Detroit was also helped vis-a-vis modern teams by only playing in 16 games, although that didn’t seem to help any other team from the ’70s. []
  • I always remember the names Gary Danielson and Eric Hipple, but I always forget about Greg Landry.

  • Richie

    35 fantasy points for Greg Landry in that game.

    Butkus ran once for 28 yards.

  • Delevie

    Maybe the last game in NFL history with both QBs rushing for over 80 years as Bobby Douglass had 97 and Landry had 87. Both were two of the most mobile QBs ever.

    • JeremyDeShetler

      Poked around PFR and couldn’t find any other game from 1960 to present where both QBs had 80 yards rushing. If you relax the requirement to 50 yards rushing for each QB, you get 8 games from 1960 to present…2 of which were Landry-Douglas in 1972. The 3 more recent ones were…

      M.Vick & Randy Fasani in 2002 for Atl-Car http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/200210200atl.htm
      Don Majkowski & Rodney Peete in 1990 for Det-GB http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199009300det.htm
      R.Cunningham & Steve Pelluer in 1988, Phi-Dal http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/198812180dal.htm

      • Richie

        That’s impressive. I would have figured it was more common, especially in the last 5 years with guys like Wilson, Kaepernick, Newton and Griffin.

        • JeremyDeShetler

          Admittedly, I could be wrong. I wasn’t sure how to query this on PFR in the Player Game Finder without being able to designate position, so I looked for players with >=50 rushing yards and >=2 pass attempts.

          In the last 5 years, QBs have done this 120 times. Newton has 24, Vick 17, Wilson 13, Kaepernick 12, Griffin 11, Tebow 8, Terrelle Pryor 5, Rodgers/Bortles/Locker/Fitzpatrick 3, Alex Smith/Tannehill 2, and 14 more QBs with 1.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Another big name on that ’72 Lions club was future Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, in his final season as a player.

  • Dr__P

    I suspect the percentage of good drives/total drives would be more fruitful for an efficiency point of view. Yet like all stats, no ONE stat would be best and one should look at multiple stats at once.

    Obviously starting position and the length of drives come into play. The longer you have to drive, the more opportunity you have to self-destruct. This, at heart, is the driving force between bend/don’t break defenses.

    Then one might further refine this by looking at number of PLAYS per drive. This could be an explosive offense or just a short distance to travel.

  • Adam

    Chase, it would very interesting to see estimated points per drive calculated back through history. Do you already have this data?

  • sacramento gold miners

    1972 was a very strange year in the NFC Central. Surprising Green Bay rose from the ashes and took the title. They had a big back named John Brockington, who was a force for three seasons, then faded away. The Packers were a one year wonder, not winning the division again until the nineties.

    Minnesota was expected to control the division in ’72, coming off a 11-3 season, and Fran Tarkenton was back at QB. Instead, the Vikings fell all the way to 7-7. But the ’73 draft yielded Chuck Foreman, and Minnesota would return to the postseason immediately.

  • Pingback: Single-Season Leaders in Estimated Points per Estimated Drive (OPPED)()

  • Andy Barall

    Just for your information, by my count the Lions had 155 total possessions in 1972. That includes 11 one or two play drives where their intent was to run out the clock, at the end of the first half or at the end of the game.

    In their week-3 game against the Bears you referenced the Lions’ seven meaningful possessions ended with five touchdowns, one made field goal, and one punt. They were 6/9 on third down conversions.

    In their week-6 game against the Chargers the Lions were 11/16 on third down conversions.

    Against the Bears in week-8 the Lions were 9/15 on third down conversions and 2/2 on fourth down conversions.

    Against the Bills in week-13 the Lions were 8/14 on third down conversions.

    In the 13 games from the 1972 season where the data is available the Lions were 77/148 on third down conversions.

    • Cool. Good stuff, Andy. Where did you get that from?

      • Andy Barall

        The info was compiled from the Lions Gamebooks for the 1972 season. They’re available in the Members section of the PFRA website (I believe you’re a member, no?)

        The availability of Gamebooks from those years is spotty and the info within them isn’t always accurate, but it’s the best evidence we have. For example, I couldn’t determine the Lions third down conversions for their week-7 game against the Cowboys in 1972 because the play-by-play within the Gamebook is indecipherable.

  • mrh

    Anyone with an interest in the 1972 season should read The National Football Lottery by Larry Merchant. One of my favorite football books.