Ranking the Top 10 Offenses in NFL History
In the 21st-century NFL, offense is king.
While 4,000 passing yards used to be the exception, that's now considered an average year. A young quarterback threw for 50 touchdowns and 5,000-plus yards this past season, and he wasn't the first to accomplish that feat.
Therein lies the difficulty of trying to rank the greatest offenses in NFL history.
By almost any objective measure, the vast majority of the league's best offenses are from the last 20 years or so. That's reflected in these rankings—half of the top 10 is comprised of teams from the past decade.
However, judging offensive prowess based solely on stats like total yards and points scored didn't seem entirely fair. There are other considerations, such as the players on that offense, the scheme involved and the impact it had on the offenses that came after it.
Even then, this is an objectively subjective exercise. Ask 10 people for a list of the top 10 NFL offenses of all time and you'll get 10 different lists and 10 migraines.
After crunching the numbers, taking trips down memory lane, sprinkling in some honorable mentions and taking a bunch of Advil, here's one writer's take on the 10 best offenses in NFL history.
It was almost impossible to whittle down all the great offenses in NFL history to only 10. Fans and pundits will say plenty of offenses deserved inclusion here but didn't make the cut.
In no particular order, the following offenses barely missed out.
1998 Denver Broncos
Despite not having quarterback John Elway for a quarter of the season, the 1998 Broncos were third in the NFL in total offense, seventh in passing, second in rushing and led the AFC with 31.3 points per game. They were all about the hard-charging running of tailback Terrell Davis, who paced the league with 2,008 rushing yards and helped lead Denver to a second straight Super Bowl win in Elway's final season.
1967 Oakland Raiders
If your quarterback's nickname is "The Mad Bomber," your team likely had a prolific offense. In 1967, Daryle Lamonica topped 3,200 passing yards with 30 scores. While the Raiders' skill-position players didn't have gaudy individual numbers, Oakland ranked inside the top five in total offense, passing and rushing and led all teams in scoring by a wide margin. The Raiders were still in the AFL at this point, but they remain 11th in points per game all-time, and they outscored their opponents by a 2-1 margin until the Packers flattened them in Super Bowl II.
2018 Los Angeles Rams
This won't be the last time you'll see the Rams featured here (Greatest Show on What?). Although Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs overshadowed last year's Rams, they were still formidable in their own right. Overflowing with offensive talent and run by head coach Sean McVay, one of the league's brightest offensive minds, the Rams were a top-five offense in every major statistical category and scored 32.9 points per game, good for 12th-best all-time.
2012 New England Patriots
This also won't be the last time that Tom Terrific and the Beantown Bombers make an appearance here. The 2012 Patriots didn't make it to the Super Bowl, but they put on quite the offensive show. They averaged almost 428 yards of offense per game, posted top-seven rankings in both passing and rushing and scored 34.8 points per game, tied for fifth-most in NFL history.
1994 San Francisco 49ers
The 1994 49ers were one of the few powerhouse offenses that managed to bring home a championship. Led by an MVP quarterback in Steve Young and the best wide receiver in league history in Jerry Rice, the 49ers went 13-3 and ranked sixth in rushing, fourth in passing, second in total offense and first in scoring by nearly a touchdown per game.
1984 Miami Dolphins
The '84 Dolphins weren't a great running team, averaging just under 120 yards a game and slotting 16th in the NFL. But they didn't need to be. Led by the first 5,000-yard quarterback in league history in Dan Marino, the 'Fins led the league in passing, total offense and scoring on the way to a berth in Super Bowl XIX. No other NFL team that year averaged 400 total yards, 300 passing yards or 30 points per game. Damn you, Joe Montana.
10. 1990 Buffalo Bills
Total Yards Per Game: 329.8 (6th)
Passing Yards Per Game: 199.8 (10th)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 130.0 (7th)
Points Per Game: 26.8 (1st)
These rankings start with a team that wasn't nearly as prolific as the others featured here, at least from a yardage perspective. The 1990 Bills didn't rank in the top five in total yards, passing yards or rushing yards.
So, what makes them one of the top 10 offenses in NFL history?
The 1990 Bills kicked off a four-year run of both dominance and heartbreak unlike any the league has seen before or since. They made the first of four straight trips to the Super Bowl, all of which ended in losses.
Most of the credit for that run goes to Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and the "K-Gun."
The "K-Gun" isn't hard to describe: You just take the concept of huddling in between plays and toss it in a dumpster. The Bills weren't the first team to implement no-huddle concepts—in the NFL, most credit Sam Wyche and the Cincinnati Bengals for that. And they weren't the last, as plenty of NFL teams use tempo and the "sugar huddle" even now to prevent defenses from subbing personnel and catching their breath.
But the Bills were the first team to go no-huddle every play of every game. It was revolutionary. Its impact is still being felt in the league almost 30 years later.
While it didn't get the Bills a championship, it was still effective, although having Hall of Famers like Kelly, Thomas, Reed and James Lofton running it certainly helped.
9. 1983 Washington Redskins
Total Yards Per Game: 383.7 (3rd)
Passing Yards Per Game: 219.6 (7th)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 164.1 (3rd)
Points Per Game: 33.8 (1st)
The NFL's rules continue to slant toward helping offenses chew up yardage and score points. As such, these rankings are dominated by teams from the past two decades.
But one team from the way-back machine still ranks among the 10 highest-scoring offenses in NFL history.
Like so many of the teams featured here, the 1983 Redskins came up short of their ultimate goal. The Oakland Raiders smoked them in Super Bowl XVIII, 38-9.
But while the season ended in disappointing fashion, it was quite the ride.
In an age where 3,000 passing yards was considered an impressive season, Joe Theismann threw for 3,714, the fifth-most in the NFL. Theismann's 29 touchdown passes trailed only Lynn Dickey of the Green Bay Packers, and he was named MVP.
The Redskins could pound away on the ground as well. Bruiser John Riggins averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, but thanks to an eye-popping 375 carries, Riggins ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards and led the league with 24 rushing touchdowns.
Add in Charlie Brown's 1,225 receiving yards and eight scores, and you have the eighth-highest-scoring team in league history.
8. 2011 New Orleans Saints
Total Yards Per Game: 467.1 (1st)
Passing Yards Per Game: 334.2 (1st)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 132.9 (6th)
Points Per Game: 34.2 (2nd)
You know it was a good year for offenses when you score over 34 points per game and don't even lead your own conference.
That was the case for the New Orleans Saints in 2011, who came up short of the Green Bay Packers. However, when it came to chewing up yardage, the 13-3 Saints didn't take a back seat to anyone.
In fact, they still don't. The 7,474 yards the 2011 Saints gained still stands as the NFL's best-ever mark.
Given that gaudy number, it's no surprise that Drew Brees had a monster year in 2011. Brees set the (then) league record for passing yardage in 2011 with 5,476, adding career bests in touchdown passes (46) and passer rating (110.6).
New Orleans didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher, but four backs—Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory—carried the ball at least 75 times. Sproles also caught over 80 passes and topped 1,300 yards from scrimmage.
Young wideout Marques Colston also caught 80 passes, topped 1,100 yards and scored eight touchdowns. Tight end Jimmy Graham added 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 scores, which is one of the best-ever stat lines for a player at his position.
The Saints have long been known for their offense, but this iteration was the best of the lot.
7. 2016 Atlanta Falcons
Total Yards Per Game: 415.8 (2nd)
Passing Yards Per Game: 295.3 (3rd)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 120.5 (5th)
Points Per Game: 33.8 (1st)
The 2016 Atlanta Falcons will forever be known for blowing a 28-3 lead against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
But what got those Falcons to the Super Bowl was one of the most potent and well-rounded offenses in league history.
The conductor for that offense was offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who ran an aggressive scheme that both exploited opponents' weaknesses and kept defenses guessing. But a coordinator is only as good as the quarterback running his scheme, and Shanahan had an elite one at his disposal in 2016.
Matt Ryan set career-best marks across the board that year, throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns against only seven interceptions, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt and posting a passer rating of 117.1.
Ryan had an embarrassment of skill-position talent at his disposal, Tailback Devonta Freeman topped 1,500 total yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Reserve tailback Tevin Coleman pitched in almost 950 combined yards of his own. Veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu gave the Falcons the complementary wideout they had lacked in previous years. And superstar wideout Julio Jones was his usual unstoppable self, finishing with 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns.
As NFL.com's Gil Brandt noted, the Falcons ran 78 fewer plays in 2016 than they did the year before but scored 201 more points. Their 33.8 points per game are tied for the eighth-most in NFL history.
6. 1998 Minnesota Vikings
Total Yards Per Game: 391.5 (2nd)
Passing Yards Per Game: 270.5 (1st)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 121.0 (11th)
Points Per Game: 34.8 (1st)
For many Vikings fans, the 1998 season is most remembered for how it ended: a devastating overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game.
But the '98 Vikings also fielded a star-studded offense that set an NFL record with 556 total points and still ranks sixth all-time in that regard.
The Vikings had a 1,000-yard tailback in Robert Smith who is one of the most underappreciated runners of his generation, largely because he retired after only eight seasons.
Quarterback Randall Cunningham turned back the clock to produce one of the best seasons of his career, finishing with 3,704 passing yards, 34 scores and only 10 interceptions.
And then there was Minnesota's one-two punch at wide receiver.
Veteran Cris Carter had long been one of the better wideouts in the game. His 1,011 receiving yards in 1998 gave him six straight seasons in which he topped the 1,000-yard mark.
Carter was flanked by a brash, young rookie from Marshall who proved to be all but uncoverable. In his first NFL season, Randy Moss caught 17 touchdown passes, topped 1,300 yards and averaged a career-best 19.0 yards per reception.
It was the first of six straight 1,000-yard campaigns for Moss, who is also enshrined in Canton.
5. 2011 Green Bay Packers
Total Yards Per Game: 405.1 (3rd)
Passing Yards Per Game: 307.8 (3rd)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 97.4 (27th)
Points Per Game: 35.0 (1st)
Every team featured here has one thing in common: They had a quarterback at the apex of his game.
That's the case with the 2011 Packers, who set a franchise scoring record with 560 points, the fourth-highest mark in league history. They lost only one game during the regular season—a Week 15 defeat in Kansas City—despite having a run game that ranked toward the bottom of the NFL.
They can thank Aaron Rodgers for keeping them afloat.
Rodgers didn't set a record for passing yards or touchdowns, but he did throw for 4,643 yards and a career-high 45 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Add all of that together and you get a mind-blowing passer rating of 122.5, the highest in NFL history.
Led by Jordy Nelson's 68 receptions for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, the Packers had four pass-catchers in 2011 with at least 600 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Opponents knew the Packers were going to throw the ball, and there was nothing they could do about it.
But as great as that Green Bay offense was, the season would end in bitter disappointment: a 37-20 loss at Lambeau Field to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the divisional round.
4. 2018 Kansas City Chiefs
Total Yards Per Game: 425.6 (1st)
Passing Yards Per Game: 309.7 (3rd)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 115.9 (16th)
Points Per Game: 35.3 (1st)
Recency bias may be at work here. While we haven't seen most of these offenses for some time, we just watched the 2018 Kansas City Chiefs carve up the National Football League like a Christmas ham.
Still, there are two main reasons why the Chiefs deserve a spot among the top five offenses of all time.
The first is quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Helped by a passing game that included one of the league's most dangerous downfield threats in Tyreek Hill and arguably the NFL's best tight end in Travis Kelce, Mahomes had a year for the ages. In just his second season, Mahomes did what only one other quarterback has even done in the NFL: throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in the same season on the way to being named MVP.
The Chiefs' trade up for him in the 2017 draft is suddenly looking prescient.
On the season, the 2018 Chiefs scored 565 points. Only the 2007 Patriots and 2013 Broncos have ever scored more.
The 2018 Chiefs eventually came up short of the Super Bowl, but that had more to do with their abysmal defense than anything Mahomes and the offense did.
3. 2007 New England Patriots
Total Yards Per Game: 411.2 (1st)
Passing Yards Per Game: 295.7 (1st)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 115.6 (13th)
Points Per Game: 36.8 (1st)
The 2007 Patriots are best known for two things: They were the second team in the Super Bowl era to run the table in the regular season, and they came up just short against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
They were also an offensive buzzsaw.
The '07 Pats weren't a great running team. Their leading rusher was Laurence Maroney, who piled up a so-so 835 yards on the ground, albeit at a respectable 4.5 yards per carry.
But the passing game—my oh my, the passing game.
The Patriots acquired wide receiver Randy Moss before the season, and he went on to have perhaps the best receiving campaign in NFL history. He caught 98 passes, flirted with 1,500 yards, averaged over 15 yards per catch and scored a jaw-dropping 23 touchdowns.
Then there's No. 12.
Tom Brady torched defenses all over the NFL during that 16-0 rampage, passing for 4,806 yards and a then-record 50 touchdowns with only eight interceptions en route to winning NFL MVP.
As with many of the offenses featured here, the Patriots were the league's No. 1 unit by a massive margin. The Dallas Cowboys were second in scoring in 2007, and they averaged roughly 8.2 fewer points than the Pats did.
2. 1999 St. Louis Rams
Total Yards Per Game: 400.8 (1st)
Passing Yards Per Game: 272.1 (1st)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 128.7 (5th)
Points Per Game: 32.9 (1st)
The 1999 St. Louis Rams aren't the most statistically prolific team featured here. In fact, this wasn't even the most prolific Rams offense of the era, as both the 2000 and 2001 teams chewed up more yardage.
But the '99 Rams did something that those other Rams teams did not: They downed the Tennessee Titans to win Super Bowl XXXIV.
The '99 Rams were also the first team to unleash "The Greatest Show on Turf," an offense the likes of which the NFL had never seen.
The Rams were stacked with skill-position talent. Tailback Marshall Faulk joined the 1,000/1,000 club, gaining 1,381 yards on the ground (at 5.5 yards per carry) and catching 87 passes for 1,048 yards.
Faulk wasn't the team's only 1,000-yard receiver. Isaac Bruce hauled in 77 passes for 1,165 yards and 11 scores, averaging over 15 yards per catch. Wideout Torry Holt also averaged over 15 yards per reception on his 52 grabs. Holt and No. 3 wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim combined for 14 touchdowns.
Then there was the maestro of the attack—a little-known former Arena League player and grocery bagger pressed into action when Trent Green was injured in the preseason. Kurt Warner went on to top 4,300 passing yards, throw 41 touchdowns and win league MVP honors.
The 1999 Rams were constant barrage of controlled aggression. And while they Rams didn't put up the raw stats of some of the other teams featured here, they finished the job and won the Lombardi Trophy.
In fact, they are the only all-time top-10 offense that did.
1. 2013 Denver Broncos
Total Yards Per Game: 457.3 (1st)
Passing Yards Per Game: 340.2 (1st)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 117.1 (15th)
Points Per Game: 37.9 (1st)
The 2013 Denver Broncos came up short in their pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy, as the Seattle Seahawks blasted them 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII.
But that doesn't take anything away from an offense that rewrote the NFL record books.
The Broncos scored a staggering 606 points during the regular season, the most in league history. They averaged 10.1 points per game more than the Chicago Bears, who ranked second that year. Denver's 457.3 yards per game wasn't a record, but it was 40.1 more yards per game than the next-closest team.
The engine for this offensive juggernaut? Quarterback Peyton Manning.
With a pair of 1,200-yard wide receivers at his disposal in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas and two more pass-catchers in Wes Welker and Julius Thomas who each tallied 10-plus touchdowns, Manning laid waste to the single-season records at his position.
Drew Brees' record of 5,476 passing yards? Manning bested it by a single yard.
Tom Brady's record of 50 touchdown passes? Buh-bye—Manning threw 55.
Oh, and Manning won MVP honors, because of course he did.
This Denver offense might not have had the balance of the 1999 Rams, but it did have a 1,000-yard rusher in Knowshon Moreno.
In an age when the rules lean heavily in the favor of offenses, the 2013 Broncos fielded a unit that was head and shoulders above any other in the league.
As such, it gets the nod here as the best offense in NFL history.