In 1961 the centerfielder and the right fielder for the New York Yankees were chasing another legendary Yankee right fielder and a hallowed single season record. Of course, that was Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris pursuing George Herman “Babe” Ruth and the single season record for home runs. In 1932 Ruth hit 60 HR, breaking his own record of 47 set the season before. But in the summer of 1961, both Mantle and Maris were in hot pursuit of the record. Only there was a catch. Ruth had slugged his 60 homers in a 154-game season while Mantle and Maris were engaged in playing a 162-game season. Many in the sport opined that the M&M boys would need to do so by the 154th game of the season to break Ruth’s record legitimately. As fate would have it, Mantle was injured late in the season and fell out of the chase, and Maris failed to reach 60 by game 154, accumulating “only” 58 by that marker. In game 159, Maris watched number 60 leave the yard in the third inning at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles. On the last day of the season, Maris smashed number 61 into the stands at home against the Boston Red Sox. For the next thirty-seven years, Maris’ 61 HR would appear in the record books with an asterisk next to it due to the discrepancy in the length of the seasons. The record has long since lost its luster, with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds eclipsing 61 several times under dubious circumstances.
This season the NFL faces a similar quandary to the one MLB faced in 1961. For the first time in NFL history, a game 17 will be played in the regular season. For forty-three years, the NFL has played a 16-game schedule, with the overwhelming majority of its single season records set during that time. While arguably no football record resonates with the American sports psyche as 60/61 HR did, but there are names associated with the records in the NFL that still evoke reverence.
Take, for instance, one Michael Strahan of the New York Giants, who holds the single season sack record (if you count the Brett Favre lay down) with 22.5. At this point, America knows Strahan as much for his television persona as his football prowess, and few could tell you the exact number of sacks he had in 2001 to set the record. Still, the record seems important because it is held by that affable gentleman on TV with the cute gap between his front teeth. But on Sunday, that record is likely to fall to TJ Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently has 21.5 sacks, in what will be game 17.
Scholars of the game will point out that Strahan played all 16 games in 2001 but that thus far, due to injuries, Watt has played in only 14 games, making Sunday his game 15. But if you want to split hairs, Reggie White totaled 21 sacks in 1987 for the Philadelphia Eagles in just 12 games played. There’s a reason the casual fan tends to be turned off by rate stats, whether that be K/9 in baseball or usage rate in basketball. It’s just easier to say the smiley guy on FOX and Good Morning America holds the sack record.
And it’s not like the NFL hasn’t faced this minor dilemma before. Before 1978 the NFL played a 14-game schedule. At that time, 2,000 yards rushing and 4,000 yards passing were considered that pinnacle of achievements. In 1973 OJ Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards in a 14-game season, becoming the first running back in NFL history to eclipse 2,000 yards on the ground. It’s a record that still stands in the 14-game era of the sport. Now in 1984, Eric Dickerson “broke” the record with 2,105 yards rushing, but in a 16-game season. Since Dickerson, the 2,000-yard barrier has been broken six times, most recently by Derrick Henry in 2020.
A similar story played out through the air in the NFL. In 1967, in what at the time was still the AFL, Joe Namath threw for 4,007 yards in a 14-game season. As might be expected, Namath also led the league in passing attempts and in completions. The old AFL was a pass-happy league, but after the merger, passing numbers settled back down. No one would reach 4,000 yards passing again until Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers did it in 1979, the second 16-game season. Dan Marino became the first 5,000-yard passer with the Miami Dolphins in 1984. The 5,000-yard mark has been surpassed seven times since. This weekend in game 17, there are seven quarterbacks within striking distance of 5,000 yards.
Admittedly football has never been as record-conscious as baseball. Football fans tend to look to personalities that hold records they couldn’t actually quantify or to benchmarks of achievement like 2,000 yards on the ground or maybe now 5,000 yards passing. This weekend and over the next several seasons, records will fall under the sheer volume of games, or at least until the NFL gets what it really wants – an 18-game season. For now, fans will have to apply some perspective to the inevitable fall of multiple records.