The object of pro football is simple: Score more points than your opponent.
Well, if it's that cut and dried, then the 2013 Denver Broncos certainly have their bases covered. After all, they set an NFL record for points scored in a single season (606). But does that make them the greatest ever?
Sure, they passed up teams of recent vintage -- like the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams of 1999 or the 16-0 New England Patriots of 2007 -- in that category. But what about other criteria, like yards, first downs or, perhaps most importantly, points per game?
The top offense I've seen came courtesy of Dan Marino and the 1984 Miami Dolphins. That season, Marino threw 48 touchdown passes despite working in an era that made it pretty tough to accomplish something like that, and the Dolphins seemed to be a mismatch for almost every defense they played. That said, as with any historical comparison, you have to eschew personal opinion and begin with raw data. And if you're talking about how to rate offenses, you should probably begin with how the league rates offenses: according to yards per game.
So let's start there:
» Most Yards per Game, Single Season
1) 2011 New Orleans Saints: 467.1
2) 2013 Denver Broncos: 457.3
3) 1951 Los Angeles Rams: 450.8
4) 1982 San Diego Chargers: 449.8
5) 1961 Houston Oilers: 449.1
6) 1950 Los Angeles Rams: 443.3
As you can see, the Broncos bested everyone but the Saints of a few seasons ago. There is, however, a key difference between those two teams: New Orleans played 11 games indoors in 2011, whereas Denver played just one inside in 2013. Playing indoors certainly favors the offense -- and scoring altogether -- as quarterbacks don't have to deal with wet footballs and kickers have no slippery tracks.
By the way, note that the 1950 and '51 Rams are on this list despite playing in a defensively dominant era -- which makes them elite competition for the 2013 Broncos, as is further illustrated by the following category:
» Most Points per Game, Single Season
1) 1950 Los Angeles Rams: 38.8
2) 2013 Denver Broncos: 37.9
3) 2007 New England Patriots: 36.8
4) 1961 Houston Oilers: 36.6
5) 1941 Chicago Bears: 36.0
6) 2011 Green Bay Packers: 35.0
What those Rams teams accomplished was no fluke. They had not one but two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, two Hall of Fame receivers in Tom Fears and Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, and a running back in Glenn Davis who, in 1950, gained an average of nearly 8 yards per touch and compiled 1,000 yards from scrimmage in just 12 games. He also threw two touchdown passes.
In the 63 years since the Rams set the points-per-game record, the 2013 Broncos have been one of the few teams to come close to matching their impressive ability to fill up an NFL scoreboard. Of course, Denver surely would like to avoid following the same trajectory as that Los Angeles club, which lost the 1950 NFL Championship Game on a last-minute field goal.
But scoring isn't the end all, be all ...
» Most First Downs, Single Season
1) 2012 New England Patriots: 444
2) 2013 Denver Broncos: 435
3) 2011 New Orleans Saints: 416
4) 2011 New England Patriots: 399
5) 2004 Kansas City Chiefs: 398
6) 2007 New England Patriots: 393
Only one other team in history kept the chains moving more efficiently than Peyton Manning and Co. did this season. While not as sexy as gobbling up fantasy points, racking up first downs often equates to getting into a rhythm, giving your own defense a blow and shutting up crowds on the road -- and all of that usually translates to victories. While the Patriots of last season bested the Broncos of this season, New England wasn't nearly as effective at scoring touchdowns in the red zone as Denver, which posted an astounding 76.1 percent success rate -- a stat that has a lot to do with our next category:
» Most Individual Touchdowns Passes, Single Season
1) Peyton Manning, Broncos, 2013: 55
2) Tom Brady, Patriots, 2007: 50
3) Peyton Manning, Colts, 2004: 49
4) Dan Marino, Dolphins, 1984: 48
5) Drew Brees, Saints, 2011: 46
6) Aaron Rodgers, Packers, 2011: 45
The presence of Brady behind Manning explains why the Patriots -- including the undefeated group from 2007 -- make several appearances on the lists in this piece. But there's something that truly distinguishes Manning from Brady and all the other stellar quarterbacks of this year and yesteryear: how well Manning played as he got deeper in the opponent's territory. Manning tossed 45 touchdown passes and zero picks inside his opponents' 30-yard line, compiling a passer rating of 123.0 -- the highest figure since 1991, when that stat was first kept.
Think about that: The closer Manning and the offense got to the other team's goal line, the better they got. That's the hallmark of an effective offensive unit.
As for a shining beacon of an effective offensive unit ...
Denver became the first team in 44 years to post 50-plus points on three separate occasions, doing it against the Eagles, Cowboys and Titans -- and that, as much as anything, could underline this offense's case for the title of greatest ever. Posting a 50-burger thrice in one campaign is like taking an already solid U2 album and highlighting it with "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With or Without You" (of course, that actually happened).
If we're looking at a clash of the historic offensive titans, we must note that no other modern team has pulled off such frequent outbursts. Consider it a milestone of unstoppability in an era when defensive adjustments and situational substitutions are supposed to limit such occurrences. And how about the fact that Denver -- which also dropped 49 on Baltimore -- tapped the brakes in several blowouts this year?
No matter what, no offense can be considered transcendent if it doesn't finish first in the major categories -- and the Broncos clearly accomplished that in 2013 ...
» Stats in Which the Broncos Led the NFL This Season
Points per game: 37.9
Yards per game: 457.3
Plays of 10-plus yards: 275
Passing yards per game: 340.3
Times sacked: 20
First downs per game: 27.2
Red-zone TD percentage: 76.1
Perhaps the most impressive number is the 20 sacks allowed -- as Manning and backup quarterback Brock Osweiler combined to drop back more than 700 times. Sure, much of that reflects the decision-making ability and quick release of Manning, but that's also some serious offensive-line play, babe.
Whether looking at the production of that unit, that quarterback or the five Broncos -- Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Knowshon Moreno -- who scored 10 or more touchdowns this season (no team in NFL history has ever had more than three players do that), it becomes quite difficult to not think of this group as the best offense in recent memory. Denver outscored every team in modern history and outgained all but one, all while playing mostly outdoors in an AFC West that featured not one but three playoff teams.
As far as Denver being the greatest of all time, though, the thought here would be notsofast. While many are quick to pooh-pooh the vintage teams of the past -- whether it's because they competed when there were just 12 teams in the league, because the athletes playing then weren't as impressive as those playing now, or because people irreverently equate black-and-white footage to irrelevant lineage -- those early Rams offenses sure are tough to ignore. Considering all the rules currently in place that are geared to favor the offense -- receivers could practically be pelted by a battle-axe in 1950 -- the fact that Van Brocklin and Waterfield led a squad that posted 38.8 points per game is unreal. One wonders how much those guys called "Omaha" at the line or pushed pizza on the side.
What we can stop wondering about is which offense is the premier attack of the Super Bowl era -- because the numbers surely speak for themselves.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.