How a 17-Game NFL Season Affects All-Time Recordsby Ryan Potts March 29, 2021 0 comments
With the 17-game regular season upon us, a natural question arises. What about the 16-game regular season records?
The NFL last expanded the season in 1978, going from 14 games to 16. The only holdover from the 14-game era tends to be O.J. Simpson’s otherworldly 143.1 rushing yards per game average in 1973. Simpson racked up 2,000 yards in 14 games, and he would have paced for 2,289 yards in a 16-game format or 2,432 yards in a 17-game format.
When seasons expand, records inevitably fall. In baseball, long-standing records such as Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs and George Sisler’s 257 hits did. In football, the passing and receiving records have been rewritten while a handful of terrific running backs have broken Simpson’s mark of 2,003 rushing yards.
How does the 17-game season affect modern NFL records?
Passing Yards – Peyton Manning (5,477: 342.3 Per Game)
5,478 Yards in 17 Games: 322.2 Yards Per Game
16-Game Extrapolation: 5,155 Yards
The general assumption is that Patrick Mahomes will set this record, but the additional game makes it that much easier for the 2018 MVP. Eight quarterback seasons have eclipsed 322.2 yards per game, with Drew Brees accounting for five of them. Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady have also hit the magic number in a full season.
This record should fall in short order under an expanded season.
Passing Touchdowns – Peyton Manning (55: 3.44 Per Game)
56 Touchdowns in 17 Games: 3.29 Touchdowns Per Game
16-Game Extrapolation: 52.6 Touchdowns
Other than Manning’s magical 2013 season, no quarterback has hit the 3.29 touchdowns-per-game plateau. An average of even three per game is exceedingly rare as Brady, Mahomes, and 2004 Manning have broken the 3.00/game barrier.
However, many of the seasons that challenge for this record end up falling short as the quarterback rests for the playoffs. When Mahomes got to 50 touchdowns in 2018, he sat out much of the fourth quarter in Week 17. In a 17-game season, he would have five quarters to throw five extra touchdowns to tie the record.
Rushing Yards – Eric Dickerson (2,105: 131.6 Per Game)
2,106 Yards in 17 Games: 123.9 Yards Per Game
16-Game Extrapolation: 1,982 Yards
There have been 13 seasons in which a running back eclipsed 123.9 yards per game. Jim Brown and Simpson both did it twice in 12- and 14-game seasons, respectively. Walter Payton eclipsed Dickerson’s mark of 131.6, but he only played in a 14-game season. Since 1978, every member of the 2,000-yard club has naturally broken this mark.
With an extra game, Derrick Henry almost certainly cruises by Dickerson’s record. Maintaining his 2020 average, he would have achieved 2,153 yards in a 17-game season. However, he had a significant 250-yard push in Week 17 to secure 2,000, so he may have a similar push to get to 2,200 yards if the opportunity were to arise.
Henry will challenge this mark in 2021.
Rushing Touchdowns – LaDainian Tomlinson (28: 1.75 Per Game)
29 Touchdowns in 17 Games: 1.71 Touchdowns Per Game
16-Game Extrapolation: 27.4 Touchdowns
Not only is there a slim difference between Tomlinson’s pace and the pace needed to beat Tomlinson over a 17-game season, but there are also few teams that have 28 rushing touchdowns in a season. Since Tomlinson’s Chargers had 32 rushing touchdowns in 2006, only three teams have hit 28 in a season: 2008 Panthers, 2016 Bills, and the 2020 Saints. Alvin Kamara may feel like the obvious answer to the new record-breaker, but remember that he entered Week 16 with just 10 rushing touchdowns.
Henry is probably the most likely candidate for this record. Although Ryan Tannehill has vultured 11 scores in the last two seasons, and even Henry’s most dominant 17-game stretch only contained 21 trips to paydirt on the ground.
Receptions – Michael Thomas (149: 9.3 Per Game)
150 Receptions in 17 Games: 8.8 Receptions Per Game
16-Game Extrapolation: 141.2 Receptions
Thomas broke the 17-year-old record in 2019, and it appears to be safe for the moment. Only Marvin Harrison before him had exceeded 8.5 catches per game.
However, if a record is close, a player may receive extra targets to turn into extra catches. During Week 17 of the 2020 season, players such as David Moore, Mike Evans, and Emmanuel Sanders hauled in many passes in succession to reach milestones.
Stefon Diggs posted the sixth-most catches in a season with 127 in 2020. He seems to be the most likely challenger moving forward. While Thomas holds two of the top seven seasons, New Orleans may tone back their passing offense with the retirement of Brees.
Receiving Yards – Calvin Johnson (1,964: 122.8 Per Game)
1,965 Receiving Yards in 17 Games: 115.6 Yards Per Game
16-Game Extrapolation: 1,849 Yards
Similar to Dickerson’s rushing yards record, Johnson does not hold the yards per game record. Wes Chandler (eight games), Charley Hennigan (14 games), and Elroy Hirsch (12 games) exceeded Johnson’s average mark but fell short of his total.
With the continued reliance on passing, the NFL’s first 2,000-yard receiver is likely playing now. The aforementioned Diggs has a shot. Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams are interesting choices, but perhaps the favorite would be Justin Jefferson. Jefferson averaged 95 yards a game in his last 14 games, finishing fourth in the NFL with 1,400 total yards.
Receiving Touchdowns – Randy Moss (23: 1.44 Per Game)
24 Receiving Touchdowns in 17 Games: 1.4 Receiving Touchdowns Per Game
16-Game Extrapolation: 22.6 Receiving Touchdowns
The extra game does not help much here. A receiver/tight end would have to have several multi-touchdown games and minimize zero-score games. Jerry Rice is the gold standard for touchdowns per game as he had 22 receiving touchdowns in 12 games in 1987. Otherwise, no player has sniffed the efficiency needed to challenge the record.
Among active players, Antonio Brown has the most games with a receiving touchdown in a season, scoring in 12 different games in 2018. Davante Adams has had 11 games with a touchdown in two of the last three seasons, and he racked up a sizable 18 receiving touchdowns in 2020.
Rob Gronkowski found the end zone twice in seven different games in 2011 en route to 17 receiving touchdowns. Adams’ name again appears here, spotting five multi-touchdown games in 2020.
Adams and Tyler Lockett are the only active players to have a pair of three-touchdown games in a season.
If it was not clear, Adams is the main challenger, but he would have to improve on a record-setting 2020 season just to have an opportunity to break the record.