The 80s could go down as one of the more controversial decades in the sport. Twice during the 80s the NFL players went on strike. Once in 1982, shortening the season to just nine games, and resulting in an NHL/NBA style playoff seeding that sent the top eight teams in each conference, rather than basing it on division record. It also resulted in a place kicker being named the league MVP. In 1987, the players went on strike again prior to week 3. Week 3 was cancelled, and replacement players were brought in to play until the union gave in after week 6. Some players however crossed picket lines and played during the three week replacement era.
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Despite angry fans, lambasting the strikes and replacement players, the NFL surpassed major league baseball as the top revenue generating sport in the 80s. It wasn’t without competition from the USFL, who had attracted some of the college games best players like Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, and Steve Young in its short history.
After two work stoppages in the decade, Commissioner Pete Rozelle retired in 1989 and was replaced by Paul Tagliabue.
It was a grand decade for the west coast as the Raiders and 49ers accounted for six of the 10 Super Bowls in the 80s. Speaking of west coast, the west coast offense was brought in to the league by legendary coach, Bill Walsh. Thanks to Walsh, offensive numbers started reaching new highs, and as you’ll see here shortly, the 49ers players churned out some of the best individual seasons ever. Like the Steelers of the 70s, the 49ers are hands down the team of the 80s.
In addition to Joe Montana and Jerry Rice taking the passing game to new heights, Dan Fouts, John Elway, and Dan Marino also revolutionized the passing game in their own rights.
Even with the passing game becoming more and more exotic, Eric Dickerson still ran for a record 2,105 yards in 1984. Walter Payton would retire from the game owning all of the important rushing records including career yards, single game yards, and seasons with 1,000+ yards.
The Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles, the St. Louis Cardinals moves to Phoenix, and on one of the saddest days in our fair cities history, the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis.
The Baltimore Colts went 16-40-1 in their four seasons in the 80s before going to Indy. Thus, no one from Baltimore made the NFLs All-Decade team in the 1980s
Those are the best of the best from the 1980s. But does Z-Score with our sRBZ metric agree? Z-Score is a measure of how far above or below the average something is. For a full explanation on Z-Score, refer to this article. Of the #1 ranked most above average players in a season according to our ranks, the AP agreed with us just once in picking their MVP. However, a score over 1.96 puts said player in the top 5%, or elite status by some definition. Sure, Dan Marino was runner up in our metric by a mere three one-hundredths of a point in his historic and MVP season of 1984. But no one is going to argue that he shouldn’t have been MVP. (It was his receiving cohort Mark Clayton that topped him at 2.7876). Considering that anyone who posts a score or 1.96 or better should be considered for the MVP, our metric was only baffled three times in the 80s. Not including the strike seasons that made a mockery of the voting. Anyone who voted for a kicker for MVP should have had voting privileges revoked. Coming up, you’ll see one of the biggest MVP snubs since O.J. Simpson in 75’, when we look at who the writers passed over in lieu of John Elway in 87’.
So far, the AP has selected the number one overall player by our sRBZ metric seven times out of 35 times through the 1989 season (20%). They have agreed that a player in the top 5% of players by this metric should be the MVP 18 out of 35 times (51.4%).
We usually take a look at the top 10 seasons from each decade, but here, we’re going to look at the top 15. Why 15? There are five seasons out of the top 15 that came from strike shortened seasons. Maybe a nine game season can skew the numbers a bit since it’s a smaller sample size for a per game basis. Maybe a season where some guys crossed picket lines and played more games than most against some replacement talent can skew the numbers as well. I’m not going to put asterisks, but you are the judge if you want to accept them (especially after the number one season comes as quite a shock). I’ll list the top 15, and in the list is the top ten excluding the 82’ and 87’ seasons.
15 best seasons of the 1980s according to sRBZ
15. Marcus Allen, RB, Los Angeles Raiders, 1984, sRBZ: 2.3977 – The former rookie of the year makes his first of three appearances on this list. Often forgotten about due to Eric Dickerson breaking the rushing record in 84’, Allen led the league with 18 TDs, and his 1,926 total yards was fourth best on the season.
14. Herschel Walker, RB, Dallas Cowbows, 1987, sRBZ: 2.4149 – Walker was a stud in college, a stud in the USFL, and he would continue the trend in the NFL. In 87’ he averaged a league best 133.8 yards per game and was near the top of the league with eight TDs. He played 12 games, the most a player who didn’t cross picket lines could have played in 87’.
13. William Andrews, RB, Atlanta Falcons, 1982, sRBZ: 2.4205 – In a strike shortened season of only nine games, Andrews and Rookie of the Year, Marcus Allen, were the only two RBs to crack 1,000+ scrimmage yards. He scored seven TDs on the short season while only putting the ball on the turf once.
12. Marcus Allen, RB, Los Angeles Raiders, 1985, sRBZ: 2.4417 – Appearance number two for Allen on this list. Eric Dickerson broke the season scrimmage yards record held for nine years by O.J. Simpson. It only took the next year for Marcus Allen to erase Dickerson’s name and insert his with 2,314 yards in 85’. Despite the record setting season, it wasn’t the best season by our metric, as another west coast RB posted some insane numbers as well. But Allen was named the MVP in 85’.
11. Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers, 1989, sRBZ: 2.4559 – I mean, you didn’t think a “best of” list would not have Jerry Rice on it, did you. You would be naïve to think this is his only appearance on said list as well. 82 catches, league best 1,483 yards, league best by a lot 17 TDs. Ho hum.
10. Marcus Allen, RB, Los Angeles Raiders, 1982, sRBZ: 2.6502 – Sound like a broken record yet? Marcus Allen’s rookie season was actually his best in the 80s by this metric. Allen was the other back (William Andrews) to total more than 1,000 yards in the nine game 82’ season. He also racked up 14 TDs…in nine games. Someone is going to have to explain to me how Redskins kicker…say again…kicker, Mark Moseley…won the MVP in 1982 (Even though he missed three extra points in nine games).
9. Earl Campbell, RB, Houston Oilers, 1980, sRBZ: 2.6591 – Campbell was a workhorse in 1980, leading the league with 384 touches. 132 yards per game was league best, and his 13 TDs were second only to Billy Simms who notched 16 in his campaign for rookie of the year. Campbell also only fumbled four times; impressive considering that four guys, some of whom with significantly less carries, had double digits in fumbles.
8. Roger Craig, RB, San Francisco 49ers, 1985, sRBZ: 2.6602 – What was special about this season for Craig is that he became the first back to rush for 1,000 yards, and receive for 1,000 yards. Only Marshal Faulk in 1999 has repeated the feat. His 92 catches was also a RB record, and even led all of the receivers (Art Monk led the receivers at 91). Craig posted 6.75 yards per touch, 129.1 yards per game, and was second best in scoring with 15 TDs.
7. Dan Marino, QB, Miami Dolphins, 1984, sRBZ: 2.7577 – Of course this season would find it’s way on here as Dan Mario set records for yardage and TDs that wouldn’t be broken for over 20 years. He was near the top, along with Joe Mantana with a 64.2 completion rate, 9 Y/A is insane. 5,084 yards and 48 TDs was also a record. Clearly the best season for a QB in 84’, but a few too many turnovers kept him from being higher on this list. He had 23 total, 17 INTs, the guy that he’ll always be compared to in this era, Joe Montana, had just 14 turnovers, 10 INTs.
6. John Jefferson, WR, San Diego Chargers, 1980, sRBZ: 2.7685 – They we’re definitely the San Diego “Super Chargers” in the early 80s, as Jefferson was part of a trio that occupied three of the top four spots on the receiving charts. (Receptions: Kellen Winslow(SD) – 89, Dwight Clark(SF) – 82, John Jefferson(SD) – 82, Charlie Joiner (SD) – 71). Jefferson would go on to lead the league in yards (1,340) and TDs (13)
5. Mark Clayton, WR, Miami Dolphins, 1984, sRBZ: 2.7876 – The beneficiary of Dan Marino’s record setting season in 84’. Clayton didn’t put up a big amount of catches as 73 was eighth best. But it’s what he did with the ball when he got it. 19 yards per catch, 92.6 yards per game was second best to the Cardinals Roy Green. Clayton was money in the red zone as he hauled in a receiving record 18 TDs, a record set by Don Hutson of the Green Bay Packers with 17 in 1942. It was tied twice by Elroy Hirsch in 51’ and Bill Groman in 61’.
4. Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers, 1986, sRBZ: 2.799 – Jerry Rice makes his second appearance on this list. For once he didn’t lead the league in catches…ok he was second with 86. He did of course lead with 1,570 yards, 98.1 per game, and 15 TDs.
3. Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco 49ers, 1989, sRBZ: 3.2509 – You’re going to start seeing a trend here. The 49ers offense was something incredible in the 80s, One of those main reasons was Joe Montana. In 89’, he became just the second QB ever to record a completion percentage over 70 at 70.2% (Ken Anderson, 70.6% in 1982). He also put up a stellar 9.1 Y/A. Montana was three shy of the TD league best, but he also missed three games in this season. On a per game basis, Montana has a league best 2.23 TD/G. Also a league low eight INTs. To this point on our list, this is the best overall season by a QB yet according to sRBZ.
2. Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers, 1987, sRBZ: 3.2832 – Yet another Jerry Rice season on our list. He has had so many, but this one measures out as the best, even though he didn’t cross picket lines in 87’ and played 12 games, unlike the Cardinals J.T. Smith who did cross over and played in 15 games, racking up 91 catches. Rice had 65 but was also one of four guys to go over 1,000 yards in the short season. The most staggering number for this season is his 22 TD catches. Had this been a regular 16 game season, he would have challenged 30 TDs in a season. Randy Moss did best Rice by one in 2007 with 23. Despite the most scores for a receiver ever, it was John Elway who was given the MVP in 1987. Elway was beat out by four other QBs on our metric, and his 0.9146 is nowhere near elite/MVP status. Elway had a 54.9% CMP% (average was 56.1%), fourth in yards, seventh in TDs, although his 14 turnovers were one of the leagues lower numbers.
1. Wes Chandler, WR, San Diego Chargers, 1982, sRBZ: 3.8905 – Bet you didn’t see this one coming. I sure didn’t. Hence the reason why we let you chose if you want to count the short seasons of 82’ and 87’. Chandler actually played in eight of nine games. Over 6 catches per game and the only receiver to reach 1,000 yards and his 21.1 yards per catch was quite impressive. In fact, teammate Kellen Winslow was third in the league in receiving yards, but had over 300 yards less than Chandler. He also managed to score a league best 9 TDs. In fact, if you want to count this short season performance, Chandler has the best sRBZ up to this point (1989). If not, then that honor still belongs to O.J. Simpson’s 1975 campaign at 3.8589.
“Timeout! You mean to tell me that Eric Dickerson’s record breaking season when he rushed for a still record 2,105 yards is NOT one of the top 15 seasons of the decade?” – Yes. Is it a great accomplishment? Of course it is. But consider that this metric encompasses as much as we can realistically gather and quantify. He posted 2,244 total scrimmage yards, which was also a record by one yard. But two other players also cracked the 2,000 yard barrier and Marcus Allen was close at 1,926. James Wilder or the Buccaneers finished just 15 yards behind him. For whatever reason, yards appeared easy to come by in 84’. Dickerson was tied for second in TDs with 14, Allen had 18. He also coughed the ball up 14 times. The two men that had more touches than Dickerson combined for just 15 fumbles between the two of them.
Quickly, the 10 worst seasons of the 1980s10. Lorenzo Hamilton, RB, Miami Dolphins, 1985, sRBZ: – 2.1246 9. David Hill, TE, Detroit Lions, 1980, sRBZ: – 2.1282 8. Joe Cribbs, RB, Buffalo Bills, 1985, sRBZ: – 2.1666 7. Vince Evans, QB, Chicago Bears, 1981, sRBZ: – 2.2141 6. John Sawyer, TE, Seattle Seahawks, 1980, sRBZ: – 2.2530 5. Gerry Ellis, RB, Green Bay Packers, 1982, sRBZ: – 2.2606 4. Mark Malone, QB, Pittsburgh, Steelers, 1987, sRBZ: – 2.3013 3. Mel Carver, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1983, sRBZ: – 2.3552 2. Lionel James, WR, San Diego Chargers, 1988, sRBZ: – 2.3567 1. Rusty Hilger, QB, Detroit Lions, 1988, sRBZ: – 2.3946
What does the worst season of the decade look like for Hilger? 11 games, 41.2% completion %, 1,558 passing yards, 5.1 Y/A, seven TDs, 19 turnovers
The most average season of the 1980s:
Duriel Harris, WR, Miami Dolphins, 1981, sRBZ: – 0.0006, 15 games, 53 catches, 911 yards, 17.2 Y/R, 2 TDs.
In the rookie of the year debate, we start in 1981. George Rogers was the runner up to Bengals wideout Cris Collinsworth (0.7218) by our ranking.Rogers – RB - 1,800 yards, 4.5 Y/T, 112.5 Y/G, 13 TDs, 13 fumbles Collinsworth – WR – 67 receptions, 1,009 yards, 63.1 Y/G, 8 TDs
I will admit here, while our score for Collinsworth isn’t too much higher than Rogers, you can’t argue with 1,800 yards and 13 TDs.
Moving on to 1986 where Rueben Mays is the second Saints RB of the decade to earn ROY honors, and the second Saints RB we don’t quite agree with. We had Colts WR Bill Brooks (1.0276) ranked a little higher. Let’s see.Mays – RB – 1,449 Yards, 4.8 Y/T, 90.5 Y/G, 8 TDs, 4 fumbles Brooks – WR – 65 receptions, 1,131 yards, 70.7 Y/G, 8 TDs
Mays 4.8 Y/T was just a hair over the average that year. Same with the TDs as the average RB scored nearly seven. Brooks on the other hand scored three more TDs than the average receiver. Mays Y/G was 17 yards more than average. Brooks Y/G was 17 more as well.
In 88’, three other players we’re worthy candidates for ROY over John Stephens who was as average as you could be. The worthy players are Bengals RB Ickey Woods (0.9374), Eagles TE Keith Jackson (0.2268), and Seahawks WR Brian Blades (0.0137).Woods – RB – 1,265 yards, 5.6 Y/T, 79 Y/G, 15 TDs, 8 fumbles Jackson – TE – 81 receptions, 869 yards, 54.3 Y/G, 6 TDs Blades – WR – 40 receptions, 682 yards, 42.6 Y/G, 8 TDs Stephens – RB – 1,266 yards, 4.0 Y/T, 79.1 Y/G, 4 TDs, 3 fumbles
Woods had about the same production, and 9 more TDs from 224 touches, versus Stephens’ 311 touches. Not really sure what the AP saw in Stephens, but Woods or Keith Jackson would have clearly been better choices.
Joe Montana becomes the first QB since Otto Graham in 1955 to win sRBZ P.O.Y honors. As passing becomes more prominent in the 90’s and today, this will change.
John Jefferson and Jerry Rice become the sixth and seventh repeat winners in our rankings, joining O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Raymond Berry, and Lenny Moore who is still the only three time winner.
The old guys are making a comeback as James Brooks and Joe Montana join only Otto Graham, Pete Pihos, and Joe Morrison as guys who were over age 30 when they won sRBZ P.O.Y.
Up next, its the 1990s.