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1980 DVOA: Eagles Can’t Climb the Summit

NFL DVOA
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The Philadelphia Eagles top the ratings as the best team of 1980, narrowly surpassing the surprising Atlanta Falcons. This makes two straight years on top for the Eagles, as they also rank No. 1 for the 1981 season. The Oakland Raiders, who became the first wild-card team since the merger to win the Super Bowl by upsetting the Eagles, finished the season ninth in DVOA.

Dick Vermeil’s Philadelphia Eagles ranked sixth in the NFL in points scored and led the league in points allowed. By DVOA, they finished fifth on offense and third on defense. The offense was led by Pro Bowl quarterback Ron Jaworski and wide receiver Harold Carmichael. The defense had just one Pro Bowler (and first-team All-Pro), nose tackle Charlie Johnson. The Eagles started very strong, winning their first three games by a combined score of 104-16. They were also a good example of how you don’t need to finish the regular season strong to do well in the playoffs, as they lost three of their final four games — all to other teams that finished in the DVOA top five — but then won both NFC playoff games pretty easily before falling to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV. The Eagles were No. 1 in DVOA but not really a dominant team. In the 45 years of DVOA, the three lowest-rated teams to finish No. 1 were the 1981 Eagles, the 1988 49ers, and the 1980 Eagles.

The Falcons won the first division title in franchise history in 1980 under head coach Leeman Bennett. They had gone 6-10 and finished 24th in DVOA the year before, but then finished fifth in both points scored and allowed in 1980. By DVOA, they were top 10 in all three phases: second on offense (behind only San Diego) and ninth on defense, plus eighth on special teams. The Falcons improved with mostly the same roster that they fielded in 1979, including quarterback Steve Bartkowski, but they did get help from four rookie starters. Tight end Junior Miller was the seventh overall pick in the draft and made the Pro Bowl in his first season. Two Falcons defenders tied for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award: second-round inside linebacker Buddy Curry and eighth-round outside linebacker Al Richardson. We don’t have 1979 tackle numbers for Curry but we know that Richardson had seven interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and three sacks. The other rookie starter was fifth-round cornerback Kenny Johnson, who also had four interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Despite all these takeaways by rookies, the Falcons did not lead the league in takeaways. They finished seventh with 42 defensive turnovers, but they were first on offense with only 26 turnovers.

The Falcons started 3-3 but then won nine straight games before falling to the Rams in overtime in Week 16. However, they lost at home to Dallas in the Divisional Round, blowing a 24-10 lead and getting outscored 21-3 in the fourth quarter. Cowboys quarterback Danny White found Drew Pearson twice in the final four minutes, with the go-ahead touchdown coming with just 42 seconds left in the game. The Cowboys went on to lose to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game while the Falcons fell to 7-9 and 15th in DVOA in 1981.

Although the Raiders were the first team that needed four wins to win a Super Bowl title, I will point out that they had the same number of wins as the division winners in the AFC. All five of the AFC playoff teams had the same record, 11-5. The Raiders were only average on offense but ranked fifth in defensive DVOA. Both outside linebacker Ted Hendricks and cornerback Lester Hayes were first-team All-Pros. The Raiders handled the Houston Oilers easily in the Wild-Card Game, 27-7. Then they beat Cleveland 14-12 in the “Red Right 88” game, where Browns quarterback Brian Sipe threw an interception with the Browns in position for a field goal that would win the game 15-14. The Raiders built a 28-7 lead over San Diego in the AFC Championship Game before fighting off a big Chargers comeback to win 34-27, and finally they easily took out the Eagles 27-10 in Super Bowl XV.

A reminder, here’s the complete schedule for introducing 1979 and 1980 DVOA this week:

Now, here’s a big issue with the 1980 ratings: This is the first year where we just plain could not find a game. The Week 9 game between the Chargers and the Bengals, a 31-14 San Diego victory, is (almost) completely gone. This highlight video exists on YouTube but we can’t find a gamebook or a complete video of the entire game. We raised money with a GoFundMe and bought broadcast footage from NFL Films to fill holes in the 1979 and 1980 seasons, but NFL Films does not have video of this game. As far as we can tell, there’s no complete record of the play-by-play of this game in existence. We’ll keep looking. In the meantime, all the numbers below do not include this game. The schedule and variance ratings for 1980 will leave out this game as well.

(In case you’re wondering, we have money left over from the GoFundMe because of games that NFL Films didn’t have, and we’ll be using that money to fill holes in our collection of 1978 play-by-play, and anything left over after that will go to charity.)

Here’s the big table featuring all the teams from 1980:

RK TEAM DVOA LAST
YEAR
W-L OFF RK DEF RK ST RK SCHED RK
1 PHI 24.6% 3 12-4 10.8% 5 -12.7% 3 1.1% 12 0.7% 12
2 ATL 23.8% 24 12-4 14.7% 2 -6.8% 9 2.3% 8 0.3% 15
3 NE 20.4% 7 10-6 8.4% 6 -6.7% 10 5.2% 4 -2.0% 21
4 DAL 19.7% 6 12-4 7.9% 7 -4.9% 11 6.9% 2 -0.8% 18
5 SD 18.4% 2 11-5 16.9% 1 -7.7% 7 -6.2% 26 1.3% 11
6 LARM 18.0% 16 11-5 11.1% 4 -13.4% 2 -6.5% 27 -3.5% 25
7 BUF 13.6% 19 11-5 1.6% 9 -14.5% 1 -2.5% 22 -0.5% 17
8 CLE1 10.4% 13 11-5 14.6% 3 6.1% 21 1.9% 9 -4.4% 27
9 OAK 9.6% 11 11-5 -1.0% 16 -9.8% 5 0.9% 14 1.5% 9
10 HOIL 5.9% 8 11-5 0.5% 12 -7.4% 8 -2.0% 19 -3.8% 26
11 WAS 4.3% 4 6-10 -8.8% 23 -9.5% 6 3.6% 5 3.2% 5
12 DEN 2.9% 14 8-8 -1.9% 17 1.5% 17 6.3% 3 4.0% 4
13 PIT 2.5% 1 9-7 1.5% 10 1.6% 18 2.5% 7 -1.0% 19
14 DET 2.3% 28 9-7 -5.7% 20 -10.5% 4 -2.5% 21 -5.5% 28
RK TEAM DVOA LAST W-L OFF RK DEF RK ST RK SCHED RK
15 CHI 0.1% 10 7-9 -6.0% 21 -4.8% 12 1.2% 11 -2.3% 23
16 MIN -1.6% 23 9-7 1.4% 11 4.1% 20 1.1% 13 -2.1% 22
17 STLC -2.1% 22 5-11 -3.0% 18 -1.6% 15 -0.8% 16 2.7% 6
18 KC -4.5% 15 8-8 -10.8% 26 1.9% 19 8.2% 1 1.4% 10
19 MIA -10.1% 5 8-8 -9.8% 25 -1.3% 16 -1.6% 18 2.5% 8
20 BALC -10.2% 20 7-9 5.0% 8 14.0% 26 -1.2% 17 0.7% 13
21 SF -12.1% 25 6-10 0.3% 13 13.2% 24 0.8% 15 0.3% 14
22 SEA -12.4% 12 4-12 -13.8% 27 -4.0% 13 -2.6% 23 5.9% 1
23 CIN -13.4% 21 6-10 -7.8% 22 -2.9% 14 -8.5% 28 -0.2% 16
24 TB -15.7% 17 5-10-1 0.1% 14 9.9% 22 -5.9% 25 -2.3% 24
25 NYJ -16.9% 18 4-12 -4.7% 19 14.7% 27 2.5% 6 2.7% 7
26 NO -21.0% 9 1-15 -0.4% 15 16.4% 28 -4.2% 24 5.9% 2
27 GB -21.7% 26 5-10-1 -9.4% 24 10.3% 23 -2.1% 20 -1.6% 20
28 NYG -26.2% 27 4-12 -14.1% 28 13.6% 25 1.5% 10 5.0% 3

How about those New England Patriots? It wasn’t all a nightmare before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick showed up. 1980 is now the top Patriots regular season prior to the arrival of Brady and Belichick, according to DVOA. The Patriots missed the playoffs at 10-6 because they went 1-4 in one-score games. (That’s pretty incredible, compared to the current NFL, that the Patriots had only five one-score games all year!) Like the Falcons, the Patriots ranked in the top 10 for all three phases. Everything collapsed the following season as they went 2-14 in 1981 despite ranking 21st in DVOA that year.

The Washington Redskins also stand out in the 1980 season as they went 6-10 despite ranking 11th in DVOA. Part of the issue was a difficult schedule, fifth in the league. Washington also went 2-4 in one-score games, and they were outscored on the season despite outgaining opponents in yardage while winning the turnover margin +9. The 1980 season really stands out for Washington as it was the only year the Redskins had a losing record between 1971 and 1987. Between 1979 and 1992, Washington only ranked outside the top 10 in DVOA twice: 11th here in 1980 and 16th in 1988.

Elsewhere in the NFC East, the St. Louis Cardinals ranked 17th despite a 5-11 record, and they did that partly because of a single game. In Week 5 of 1980, the Cardinals went into New Orleans and beat the Saints 40-7. The Saints got their only touchdown on a blocked punt return, which doesn’t count in DVOA (it’s a “nonpredictive” play). Overall, the Cardinals outgained the Saints 433 yards to 80. The Cardinals did this despite not sacking the Saints a single time! Archie Manning started for the Saints and passed for 49 yards. In the second half, he was pulled for Guy Benjamin, who went 5-of-13 for 16 yards. That’s one 17-yard completion and then completions for 0, 2, 3, and -6 yards. Four Saints running backs carried nine times for only 15 rushing yards against a very average Cardinals run defense. The Cardinals ran 62 times for 330 yards and four touchdowns.

This game sets all kinds of DVOA records. The Saints had the worst overall DVOA game in history, along with the worst run offense DVOA game and the worst total offense DVOA game. The Cardinals had the best run defense DVOA game and the best total defense DVOA game ever. You can find highlights of the game here.

Worst Single Games by DVOA, 1979-2023
YEAR WEEK TEAM PF OPP PA H/A DVOA OPP RK
1980 5 NO 7 STLC 40 H -163.0% 17
2000 14 CLE 0 JAX 48 A -151.4% 16
2014 2 JAX 10 WAS 41 A -148.8% 29
2002 13 ARI 0 KC 49 A -145.0% 5
2007 14 KC 7 DEN 41 A -143.5% 18
2005 7 SF 17 WAS 52 A -136.4% 8
1984 4 HOIL 10 ATL 42 A -134.1% 25
2014 3 TB 14 ATL 56 A -133.9% 21
1999 1 CLE 0 PIT 43 H -132.4% 21
2014 14 WAS 0 STL 24 H -130.7% 19
1989 1 PIT 0 CLE1 51 H -127.4% 4
2009 6 TEN 0 NE 59 A -126.8% 1

Take out this game, and the Cardinals drop more than 4% of DVOA while the Saints add almost 5%.

Still in the NFC East, the New York Giants ranked last in overall DVOA with a 4-12 record, but just like the 1979 Detroit Lions, they weren’t a historically horrible team. The three best teams by DVOA to ever finish in last place were, in order, the 2001 Panthers, the 1979 Lions, and the 1980 Giants. The 1980 Packers had the best rating ever for the team to finish next-to-last.

This theme of “the best and worst weren’t really that good or bad” continues when we look at the best offense of 1980, which belonged to the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers had 16.9% offensive DVOA, the second-lowest figure ever for the top offense ahead of only the 1979 Cowboys. The Chargers had the league’s best passing game but only ranked 14th running the ball. Their numbers were hurt a little bit because they played the No. 3 hardest schedule of opposing defenses.

In fact, it was hard to find a team that was very good both passing and running the ball in 1980. The Eagles and Browns ranked second and third in passing DVOA and both teams had below-average running games. The highest team that was good in both areas was Atlanta, which ranked fourth passing and third rushing. The Houston Oilers had the best running game in the league, led by Earl Campbell, but finished dead last in passing DVOA after trading 31-year-old Dan Pastorini to the Raiders for 35-year-old Ken Stabler. The Oilers are the only team to ever lead the league in run DVOA but finish dead last in passing, although their passing DVOA was better than it was when they finished 25th in 1979. (No team has ever finished first in passing and last in rushing, although the 2003 Titans came close at first and 31st.)

One other fun offensive stat: the 1-15 New Orleans Saints in 1980 had the highest offensive variance ever for a full non-strike season. The Saints had two games below 100 net yards, including the Cardinals game discussed above, but they also had four games with at least 390 net yards including a 519-yard overtime loss to the 49ers in Week 14.

On the defensive side of the ball, our No. 1 team for 1980 was the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills. Tom Catlin, who later spent a long time in Seattle, was the defensive coordinator. The Bills were No. 1 in defense despite not having a single All-Pro and only one Pro Bowler: the pride of Waltham, nose tackle Fred Smerlas. The Rams and Eagles were next in defensive DVOA. The Browns had the league’s best run defense but finished 21st in defense overall because they were only 25th against the pass. Washington had the best pass defense but was only 21st against the run.

One of the big stories of the 1980 season was the sudden aging of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. The Steel Curtain dropped to 18th in defensive DVOA and the Steelers didn’t make the playoffs for the first time since 1971. For the most part, the Steelers were fielding the same stars as they had throughout the dynasty, but everyone just sort of got old all at once. Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell were still named first-team All-Pro, perhaps coasting on past credit although Shell did have seven interceptions. Most of these stars came back in 1981 as well but that would be the final year for L.C. Greenwood and Mean Joe Greene, while Steve Furness went to Detroit in 1981.

The New Orleans Saints finished last on defense, including against the run, while the San Francisco 49ers were last against the pass.

The Kansas City Chiefs fielded the top special teams unit of the 1980 season, highlighted by another strong year for kicker Nick Lowery and two punt return touchdowns by J.T. Smith. The Cincinnati Bengals were last on special teams.

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