The NFL was in a funk in 1978.
The 1977 season ending Super Bowl was exceedingly boring, the Denver Broncos losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-10. It was the first and only time two defensive players were the MVP’s.
It was also the first time the Super Bowl was played in prime time, and it bombed.
The Broncos especially stunk out the Superdome with quarterback Craig Morton completing only seven passes for just 61 yards before being benched in the second half by a journeyman quarterback named Norton Weese, after throwing his 5th interception.
:30 second commercials cost $125,000 and viewership had plateaued at just under 80 million.
Retrospective reviews have dubbed it the worst Super Bowl ever.
It was only four years earlier that Joe Namath had rallied the New York Jets to beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III that football fans everywhere loved because it brought parity to pro football with the AFL win and truly made all NFL teams competitive. Fans demanded faster action.
NFL suits knew something had to be done. The answer: more passing, less running.
In spectator sports, movement has always been what sparked attention. A tennis ball during volleys and serves, a streaking puck in a hockey game, a long home run in baseball, a three-point shot in basketball, a near-goal soccer kick, thoroughbreds racing each other down the home stretch. That is what spectators want.
Nobody ever cared what the eight gigantic Mammut mastodons facing each other on the line of scrimmage ever did, except maybe their mothers. The decades old gospel of the running game opening up the passing game was turned upside down in 1978 and fans quickly came to embrace more passing and less running.
Two major rule changes took place in 1978, both resulting in increased offensive production. For the first time, offensive linemen were permitted to extend their arms forward to pass protect for the quarterback, giving the quarterback much more time to read the defense and throw accordingly. In addition, whereas defensive backs always had been able to make contact with receivers all over the field, they were now restricted to that contact taking place only from the line of scrimmage to five yards downfield.
It has been a nightmare for defensive backs ever since.
The NFL’s four top teams in 1977 had quarterbacks who collectively threw 61 touchdown passes and 51 interceptions for the entire season. That would now be a non-acceptable one-to-one ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions.
By 2016, those numbers had climbed to 137 touchdown passes and 29 interceptions, or a better than four-to-one ratio.
So touchdown passes went up exponentially as interceptions plummeted downward. Fans embraced the change.
Because of the perfecting of angles of pursuit by defenders, broken field running became a lost art in the NFL. Conversely, yards after the catch became the measurement of note. In 1977, only three receivers had more than 1,000 yards gained. By 2016, that number had soared to 22.
As productivity increased, so too did accuracy. The 1977 quarterbacks threw at a 56% completion rate while their 2016 counterparts raised that number to 67.5%.
And while there were 111 sacks of the four best quarterbacks in 1977, better pass protection in 2016 allowed only 94 sacks even though there were two more weeks of games played.
How did all these numbers effect the bottom line for the NFL?
Let’s look at the cost per :30 second commercial over the years for the Super Bowl.
2017 $5,000,000 (40 times 1977)
Viewership of Super Bowl 2017 is expected to top 189,000,000 people, nearly triple what it was in 1977.
The NFL never would’ve gotten this far continuing to play “three yards and a cloud of dust” football.
Hut one, Hut two.