With the kickoff of this NFL season, it will, in many ways, look the same as it always has. Fans will be back. Football will be football. Tom Brady will be great. Sure, some jersey numbers will have changed, but the sport and many of its protagonists won’t have.
Decades from now, however, 2021 will be the start of a line of demarcation in NFL record books.
Cowboys-Bucs on Thursday night was the first game of the first 18-week, 17-game regular season. The byproducts of the extra game will be plentiful. They’ll be financial, physical, and much more. They will, eventually, also be historical. Records that were set over 16 games will be surpassed by seasons that were not necessarily greater, just longer.
And the football world will have to decide how to reckon with that.
How will we react when, sometime over the coming years, Patrick Mahomes throws for 5,500 yards and narrowly surpasses Peyton Manning’s best-ever mark?
What about when Derrick Henry, or the next great bruising back, speeds past Eric Dickerson to the single-season rushing crown?
There is no easy answer. But there needs to be a better one than there was the last time the NFL extended its season. That was in 1978, and virtually every record set over 14 games has since been forgotten. O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards in 1973. Eleven years later, Eric Dickerson rushed for 11 fewer yards per game, and yet Dickerson’s 2,105 yards in 1984 is ubiquitously cited as the record. It’s the number Adrian Peterson fell just short of in 2012. It’s the number Derrick Henry chased last season. (There are, of course, other reasons to ignore Simpson’s on-field greatness, but this trend applies beyond him.)
Four decades later, the dilemma has reappeared. Manning’s and Dickerson’s records might not fall immediately. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, they likely will. In 2018 and 2019 alone, if they’d had a 17th game and played it like they did the other 16 on average, Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston all would have come within 65 yards of Manning’s mark. Henry would’ve toppled Dickerson’s last year.
This year, Mahomes’ passing yardage over/under is 5025.5 at BetMGM. Dak Prescott’s is 4775.5. Tom Brady’s is 4725.5. But those are, essentially, the projections for those players’ 50th-percentile seasons. Some players inevitably exceed expectations, and someday, one will exceed 2013 Manning as well.
Other records that appear vulnerable to the 17th game are:
Manning’s 55 touchdowns (2013)
Drew Brees’ 471 completions (2016)
Chris Johnson’s 2,509 scrimmage yards (2009)
Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 receiving yards (2012)
Michael Thomas’ 149 receptions (2019)
Michael Strahan’s 22.5 sacks (2001)
David Akers’ 166 kicker points (2011)
Andrew Luck’s 4,374 rookie passing yards (2012)
So what can we do to ensure they are eclipsed only by individual seasons that are greater, not simply longer?
Well, what if we preemptively recalibrated them?
The simple solution would be to convert each to a per-game number, but that would make the chase confusing. No fan wants to see that Mahomes is 3.7 yards per game behind Manning in Week 16, and then have to calculate what exactly Mahomes must do over his final three games to break the record.
What we can do, instead, is one simple calculation long before we reach that point.
Re-write the record book
We can project every record out over a hypothetical 17-game season. We can adjust:
Manning’s 5,477 yards to 5,819
Manning’s 55 touchdowns to 58
Brees’ 471 completions to 500
Dickerson’s 2,105 yards to 2,236
Chris Johnson’s 2,509 scrimmage yards to 2,665
Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 receiving yards to 2,086
Thomas’ 149 receptions to 158
Strahan’s 22.5 sacks to 24
Akers’ 166 points to 176
Luck’s 4,374 yards to 4,647
Those should be the numbers to chase — or at least most of them should be. We could also retroactively correct the leaderboards to acknowledge that the real single-season rushing champ is Simpson (2,289 yards), and the real receiving crown is held by Charley Hennigan, who accumulated 1,746 yards in 14 games for the Houston Oilers in 1961. (Wes Chandler’s strike-shortened eight-game season in 1982 is too small a sample size.)
And while this seems a bit complex, you can do any of the math yourself. Take any 16-game record and multiply it by 1.0625. Take any 14-game record and multiply it by 1.214. Those are the true totals to beat.
The NFL, of course, will never fully rewrite its 100-year, 900-page record book in this way. And there are legitimate arguments that perhaps it shouldn’t. Sustaining greatness is an inescapable part of greatness. Sustaining a certain statistical pace over 17 games is harder than sustaining it over 16. The simple math fails to appreciate that. (Which is why, in the calculations above, we always rounded down.)
But even if the solution is to add a game’s worth of league-average yardage to a player’s total — to adjust Manning’s record to 5,712 rather than 5,819 — and even if the adjusted leaderboards are merely shown alongside the raw leaderboards, there must be some acknowledgement, some effort to statistically preserve the memory of 16-game excellence.
Adjust every season for inflation?
We could also go much further. We could, first of all, use similar 17th-game adjustments to prepare career leaderboards for future onslaughts. We could set Brees’ all-time passing mark at 85,380, rather than 80,358. We could give Mahomes 15,036 and two decades to surpass it.
NFL players aren’t just playing more games in 2021; they’re playing a different game than their predecessors did. One that, as Joe Namath told Yahoo Sports last year, “has evolved.” That’s why we created the football equivalent of a Consumer Price Index, to account for rule changes, scientific advancements and schematic innovations — and, yes, season expansions — when comparing stats across eras.
We found, for example, that 1 passing yard in 2004 was worth 1.16 yards in 2019; that 100 passing yards in 1973 is the equivalent of roughly 175 yards today; and that the most prolific season on record, relatively, was not Manning’s 2013 campaign, but rather Namath’s 1967 one. Namath’s 4,007 yards over 14 games in football’s “dead-ball era” were worth 5,952 yards in 2019. (Brees’ 2011 season was second on that inflation-adjusted leaderboard.)
A similar system could be devised for every counting stat. It would put Adrian Peterson ahead of Dickerson on the single-season leaderboards, because teams ran the ball significantly more in the 1980s than they did in the 2010s. It would allow us to compare players not directly to their successors or predecessors, but rather indirectly via comparisons to their contemporaries. It would give more historical meaning to stats we know and love to cite. You can read more about the concept here.
But it’s admittedly complicated. For now, making the simple adjustment for the 17th game would be sufficient — and necessary.