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How Will a 17-Game Season Impact NFL Record Books?

Now that NFL owners have officially voted to expand the season to 17 games, it’s time to look at which single-season records could fall—and which may still be safe—with an extra game on the schedule

Ringer illustration

Did Justin Jefferson break the NFL rookie receiving record last season? Surprisingly, that question doesn’t have a simple answer. Everyone from ESPN to Vikings.com seemed to think so, with both sites declaring him the new rookie receiving champ after he surpassed Anquan Boldin’s mark of 1,377 yards in Week 17. But there is one, much less heralded name that still technically sits above Jefferson: Bill Groman.

You’ve probably never heard of Groman. In the late 1950s, Groman was a 23-year-old eighth-grade science teacher and former college athlete. One day, a conversation with a fellow teacher led Groman to meet with that teacher’s husband, Bob Snyder. Snyder was a former NFL coach, and he knew Lou Rymkus, who had just been hired to coach the AFL’s Houston Oilers. After a game of catch with Groman, Snyder told Rymkus that he thought Groman would be good enough to make the team, and thanks to that unlikely series of events, Groman found himself in a baby-blue-and-red jersey just in time for the AFL’s inaugural season in 1960.

Almost immediately, Groman became a spark plug for one of the best offenses in the AFL. His nimble feet, large hands, and experience as a track athlete helped him record 1,473 receiving yards in 14 games, which not only set a new rookie mark for both the AFL and NFL, it led all receivers in both leagues that season. His unlikely rookie campaign ended with the Oilers winning the first AFL championship.

Perhaps, hearing this absurd story, you don’t consider Groman’s 1,473 receiving yards to be the “real” rookie record. In hindsight, Groman was barely playing the same sport we know as pro football today. In 1960, the AFL was a jerry-rigged league of misfits that wouldn’t join the NFL for another decade. But the NFL itself doesn’t see it that way. When the leagues merged in 1970, the NFL absorbed the AFL teams and all of their statistics. Groman’s record may be unconventional, but it remains the official mark for rookie wideouts.

If Jefferson had been a rookie in 2021, though, he might have taken the crown of official rookie receiving champ. On Tuesday, the NFL announced that the league is moving to a 17-game schedule, the first expansion of the schedule since the 1978 season. It works out to 6.25 percent more football—a small but significant increase that will help rewrite record books in the years to come.

Let’s start with Jefferson’s example. The Vikings rookie put up exactly 1,400 yards in 2020, fourth-most in the league. He was averaging 87.5 yards per game (though that average was closer to 95 over the final 14 games of the year), so if he’d had one more contest, he likely could have gotten the 73 yards he needed to eclipse Groman’s mark.

What other records and statistical benchmarks will fall as a result of the NFL’s decision to expand the schedule for the first time in four decades? Here’s what you should expect in the seasons to come:

The 5,000-yard passing benchmark will lose significance.

Passing statistics are about to explode. Again.

In the past 10 years, seven quarterbacks have combined for 10 5,000-yard passing seasons (Drew Brees is the only player to have done it multiple times, with four such seasons). If the schedule had featured 17 games over that stretch, the number of 5,000-yard passing seasons likely would have jumped to 28:

17-Game Season QBs

Rk Player Year Games Pass Yards 17-Game Pace
Rk Player Year Games Pass Yards 17-Game Pace
1 Peyton Manning 2013 16 5477 5819
2 Drew Brees 2011 16 5476 5818
3 Tom Brady 2011 16 5235 5562
4 Drew Brees 2016 16 5208 5534
5 Drew Brees 2012 16 5177 5501
6 Drew Brees 2013 16 5162 5485
7 Ben Roethlisberger 2018 16 5129 5450
8 Jameis Winston 2019 16 5109 5428
9 Patrick Mahomes 2018 16 5097 5416
10 Matthew Stafford 2011 16 5038 5353
11 Matthew Stafford 2012 16 4967 5277
12 Drew Brees 2014 16 4952 5262
13 Ben Roethlisberger 2014 16 4952 5262
14 Matt Ryan 2016 16 4944 5253
15 Eli Manning 2011 16 4933 5241
16 Matt Ryan 2018 16 4924 5232
17 Kirk Cousins 2016 16 4917 5224
18 Tony Romo 2012 16 4903 5209
19 Dak Prescott 2019 16 4902 5208
20 Drew Brees 2015 15 4870 5195
21 Tom Brady 2012 16 4827 5129
22 Deshaun Watson 2020 16 4823 5124
23 Philip Rivers 2015 16 4792 5092
24 Tom Brady 2015 16 4770 5068
25 Andrew Luck 2014 16 4761 5059
26 Patrick Mahomes 2020 15 4740 5056
27 Peyton Manning 2014 16 4727 5022
28 Matt Ryan 2012 16 4719 5014

That’d be a nearly 200 percent increase. Another way to think about this is that after having an average of one 5,000-yard passer per season for the past decade, the NFL could have something like three 5,000-yard guys per season in the next decade—and maybe more.

The switch to a 17-game season will only continue the inflation of passing statistics. The NFL had just one 5,000-yard passer (Drew Brees, 2008) between 2000 and 2010, and just one more (Dan Marino, 1984) in the entire history of the league before the turn of the century. Passing just keeps growing: NFL teams threw for an average of 240.2 yards per game in 2020, the third-highest mark in history. And all 10 of the league’s highest passing-volume seasons came in the past 10 years.

Eclipsing 5,000 passing yards went from an unheard-of feat to something that will seem downright ordinary in the decades to come. Soon, 6,000 yards will take over as the special benchmark. Take a look at that list above again. The guys at the top of it—Peyton Manning and Brees—likely would have reached 5,800 yards with a 17-game season. If the passing boom continues, 6,000 will be easily within reach. Cue Justin Timberlake voice: Five thousand yards isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Six thousand yards.

The all-time rushing record could be broken soon.

The NFL becomes more of a passing league every season, and that is reflected by how long it has been since the rushing record has changed hands. Even so, a 17-game season could provide the boost needed for a new running back to take the crown.

The single-season record holder for rushing yards is Eric Dickerson, who recorded 2,105 yards in 1984. Adrian Peterson is second on that list, having put up 2,097 yards in 2012. Peterson was just one good run short of Dickerson’s mark, and based on his pace that season, another game would have put him at 2,228 yards.

Peterson isn’t the only back who would have had a crack at the record. Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Derrick Henry, and Chris Johnson all had seasons that were on pace to beat Dickerson’s mark, had they had an extra game in the schedule. Here are the six best rushing seasons since 1984, and what they’d look like had these backs benefitted from an extra game:

17-Game Pace for RBs

Player Year Games Rush Yds 17-Game Pace
Player Year Games Rush Yds 17-Game Pace
Adrian Peterson 2012 16 2097 2228
Jamal Lewis 2003 16 2066 2195
Barry Sanders 1997 16 2053 2181
Derrick Henry 2020 16 2027 2154
Terrell Davis 1998 16 2008 2134
Chris Johnson 2009 16 2006 2131

The schedule expansion may cause some to want to use yards per game as the standard for NFL records. But that’s not a record that Dickerson owns. Three running backs from the 14-game era reign supreme there: O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, and Walter Payton. Simpson recorded the first 2,000-yard season all the way back in 1973, and if he’d had 16 games, he’d have easily topped all of the players mentioned above, even if they’d had 17 games. Adjusting the numbers for these three backs produces some alien-looking results:

17-Game Pace for RBs in the 14-Game Era

Player Year Games Yds 17-Game Pace
Player Year Games Yds 17-Game Pace
O.J. Simpson 1973 14 2003 2432
Jim Brown 1963 14 1863 2262
Walter Payton 1977 14 1852 2249

The expansion of the NFL schedule will likely allow a running back to crack Dickerson’s record sometime soon, but the league’s rushing heyday will always be the 1960s and early ’70s, an era that predates even the 16-game season.

The 2,000-yard rushing season will remain an achievement.

A 17-game season certainly won’t hurt running backs who are looking to hit 2,000 yards. But looking back at the history of elite rushing performances, very few would top that mark even with an extra game to get there. Here are a few players from the 16-game era who fell less than 200 yards short, and what their seasons would look like if they’d had a 17th game:

17-Game 2000-Yard RBs

Player Year Games Yds 17-Game Pace
Player Year Games Yds 17-Game Pace
Earl Campbell 1980 15 1934 2063
Ahman Green 2003 16 1883 2001
Barry Sanders 1994 16 1883 2001
Shaun Alexander 2005 16 1880 1998
Tiki Barber 2005 16 1860 1976
Ricky Williams 2002 16 1853 1969
Jamal Anderson 1998 16 1846 1961
DeMarco Murray 2014 16 1845 1960
Eric Dickerson 1986 16 1821 1935
LaDainian Tomlinson 2006 16 1815 1928
Eric Dickerson 1983 16 1808 1921

In the 16-game era, seven running backs hit the 2,000-yard mark, but just one ended a season stuck between 1,900 and 2,000 yards. Another 10 running backs landed between 1,800 and 1,900 yards. That dearth of 1,900-yard rushers makes it seem like running backs who are close to the 2,000-yard mark tend to make a push to get over the hump. That was certainly true of Henry last season, as the Titans gave him 34 carries in the final game of the season (which he turned into 250 yards) to ultimately vault him 27 yards over the mark.

That also means that few players likely would have hit 2,000 yards with an extra game. Just three would have been on pace to do it: Earl Campbell, Ahman Green, and Barry Sanders.

The receiving record is just barely within reach.

Calvin Johnson holds the single-season record for receiving yards, having accumulated 1,964 yards in 2012. Just a few years later, in 2015, Julio Jones racked up 1,871—which is second all time. If the NFL had switched to a 17-game schedule in between those seasons, Jones would have been on track for 1,988 yards, enough to just eclipse Johnson’s record. That same season, Antonio Brown recorded 1,834 yards. That equates to a 1,949-yard pace over 17 games, meaning that one big performance could have put Brown over the top as well.

There’s only one other player who could have had a chance to pass Johnson’s mark, and it brings us back to the Houston Oilers. In 1961, Charley Hennigan recorded 1,746 yards in 14 games. If the AFL had launched with a gargantuan 17-game schedule, Hennigan would have been on pace for 2,120 yards, a number that even Johnson wouldn’t have surpassed if he’d had 17 games in 2012.

But that’s pretty much it. Jerry Rice is also in the mix here, with 1,848 yards in 1995—he’d have been on pace to hit Johnson’s number almost exactly if he’d been given another game (equivalent to 1,963.5 yards). But considering the steady rise of passing in the league, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone tops Megatron.

Touchdown records won’t change … much.

Touchdown numbers are much more erratic than yardage numbers, so it’s not as easy to project how an additional game could have affected past seasons. That also means those leaderboards may not change much anytime soon, even with the schedule expansion.

LaDainian Tomlinson has held the rushing touchdown record since 2006, when he found the end zone 28 times on the ground. Over a 17-game season, his pace nets out to 29.75 touchdowns. But that’s where the volatility comes in: Who is to say whether Tomlinson would have gotten zero, one, two, or three touchdowns with an additional game?

The next-closest player post-2006 is LeGarrette Blount in 2016. Blount had 18 touchdowns that season, so a 17-game season wouldn’t have gotten him anywhere close. Blount would have needed a 25-game season to approach 28 touchdowns at his 2016 pace.

It’s a similar story for the receiving record. Randy Moss holds that mark with the 23 scores he tallied as a member of the historic 2007 Patriots. He broke the 22-touchdown mark that Jerry Rice had set in 1987—a strike-shortened 12-game season. The fact that Rice’s mark stood for two decades is a testament to how mind-boggling a performance it takes for a touchdown record to fall.

Packers receiver Davante Adams is tied for third on the list, after his 18-touchdown performance this past season. He hit that number in just 14 games, as he missed two due to injury. If he’d been healthy all season and had an extra game on his slate, Adams would have been on pace for 21.9 touchdowns, which is still short of Moss’s mark.

The passing touchdowns stat is the most likely one to fall. That record has been broken three times this century, in 2004, 2007, and 2013. Peyton Manning is the current holder, after throwing 55 touchdowns with the Broncos. The next closest are Tom Brady (from 2007) and Patrick Mahomes (2018), both with 50. It’s that latter name that I’d bet on eclipsing Manning’s mark. Though a 17-game schedule would have put Mahomes on pace for just 53.1 touchdowns in 2018, short of Manning’s record, Mahomes’s preternatural talent could have him well within striking distance sooner rather than later. And if it’s not Mahomes, it’ll be someone else. The NFL’s passing boom is a rising tide that will slowly lift all boats.

The interception record is safe.

I just want to get this one out of the way for due diligence. We all had fun with Jameis Winston’s 30-interception season in 2019, but the single-season QB record is 42 interceptions, set by George Blanda in 1962. That was a 14-game season—Blanda averaged three picks per game. This one won’t be broken anytime soon. Sorry, George.

Some franchises will be dragged into the 21st century.

The Bears and the Jets finished the 16-game era without a 4,000-yard passer. Really, it’s Chicago that deserves your laughter here—at least New York had a 4,000-yard passer in the 14-game era (Joe Namath, 1967).

The NFL’s passing boom was already going to help these franchises catch up with the rest of the league, but the 17-game schedule should help even more. If the 17-game season had been implemented since the league’s founding, the Bears likely would have at least two 4,000-yard passers: Erik Kramer in 1995 and Jay Cutler in 2014. The Jets, meanwhile, likely would have another two players joining Namath: Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015 and Ken O’Brien in 1985.

There have been 198 4,000-yard passing seasons across the league’s history. Hopefully the Bears and Jets can use the 17th game to join the club. It shouldn’t take much longer … right?