The NFL hadn't seen anything quite like it — two quarterbacks lighting up the skies with rocket balls, one coming after another. The 1967 season had pitted the AFL's Joe Namath against the NFL's Sonny Jurgensen, a couple of lady-friendly gunslingers. History has forgotten Jurgensen's season because his 3,747 yards weren't quite as alluring as Namath's 4,007 — the first time anyone had eclipsed the mark.
More than a dozen years later, here it was again, another passing battle for the ages.
Thanks to the Mel Blount rule and a longer regular season, the passing game had exploded in 1978. In the five seasons prior, only three passers eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark; five hit that total in 1978, and then 11 the following year. So, by the 1980 NFL season, offensive coordinators and quarterbacks had discovered every pass coverage flaw imaginable, and suddenly the floodgates opened.
No two quarterbacks that year put quite as much zip on the football as San Diego's Dan Fouts and Cleveland's Brian Sipe, whose battle in 1979 had resembled the Namath-and-Jurgensen clash of 1967. Because Fouts broke Namath's record, with 4,082 yards, Sipe's 3,793 yards (third most all-time) were largely overshadowed.
In 1980, the two men raised the stakes.
Big passing totals hadn't come for Fouts until his fourth year in the league. He lost 20-of-26 starts in his first three seasons, but was born a new man in 1976. That season his completion percentage jumped by three points from the year prior and he passed for 2,535 yards in 13 starts. Think it's a coincidence that it was also Bill Walsh's lone year as San Diego's offensive coordinator?
Sipe's journey to passing greatness was just as bumpy. The 13th-round pick first paid his dues as Mike Phipps' backup. Then, in 1976, Sipe showed promise. The following year, as is typical for starting quarterbacks, he regressed, throwing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (nine). But in 1978 and '79, under the guidance of head coach Sam Rutigliano, Sipe was among the AFC's best, and by 1980 Browns fans believed he was capable of delivering a Super Bowl berth.
During September, Fouts and his Chargers were 4-0. The bushy-bearded Charger had more than 1,000 yards under his belt, but had thrown eight interceptions (all coming in a two-game span). Sipe's September left Cleveland at 2-2 and put him 70 yards behind Fouts in the passing race. It became apparent after October that Fouts would be tough to catch: he had 388 and 371 yards in trips to Oakland and Dallas, respectively, and had 444 yards at home in a win over the Giants. Midway through the season Fouts was on pace for almost 4,900 yards - the NFL had never seen anything like it.
Sipe's hot streak hit mid-month. His 391 yards and pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns helped the Browns to beat Green Bay by five points on Oct. 19. The next week, he had two more fourth-quarter scores and 349 yards to guide Cleveland to a one-point victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. Sipe opened November with a total of 510 passing yards in games against Chicago and Baltimore to help Cleveland extend its winning streak to five.
Wrote Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, "Sipe is not imposing-looking as NFL specimens go: a shade over sixd feet, slim build, almost frail-looking. Quiet, thoughtful, but with inner fires that have made him the league's ultimate come-from-behind quarterback."
Sipe had a 340-yard effort in another nail-biting win over the Jets, then closed out his season with 308 yards in a win over Cincinnati that clinched the AFC Central title. His 30 touchdown passes matched Fouts and the Rams' Vince Ferragamo for second place behind Atlanta's Steve Bartkowski.
In terms of every other significant passing category, no one would catch Fouts.
November was just as brilliant as the two months to come before it, and Fouts' efforts in Weeks 15 and 16 helped San Diego win the AFC West. He finished with NFL single-season records for completions (348), attempts (589) and yards (4,715). Sipe's 4,132 yards in 1980 left him in second place on the all-time list, but his knack for last-minute heroics earned him league Most Valuable Player honors. Fouts would surpass his yardage record the following year; both remain among the top 10 single-season totals of all-time.
In the playoffs that year, both passing gurus fell to the wild-card Raiders. Sipe's three interceptions and 13-for-40 passing day in frigid weather conditions — the last pick is dubbed "Red Right 88" — cost the Browns in the divisional playoffs, 14-12; Fouts and San Diego lost in the AFC championship game, 34-27.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).