1981 NFL season

The 1981 NFL season was the 62nd regular season of the National Football League. The season ended with Super Bowl XVI when the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26–21 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan.

1981 National Football League season
Regular season
DurationSeptember 6 – December 21, 1981
Start dateDecember 27, 1981
AFC ChampionsCincinnati Bengals
NFC ChampionsSan Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl XVI
DateJanuary 24, 1982
SitePontiac Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan
ChampionsSan Francisco 49ers
Pro Bowl
DateJanuary 31, 1982
SiteAloha Stadium
1986 Jeno's Pizza - 27 - Dan Bunz (cropped)
The 49ers playing against the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

Major rule changes

  • It is illegal for any player to put adhesive or slippery substances such as the product “stickum” on his body, equipment or uniform. This rule is known as both the “Lester Hayes Rule” and the “Fred Biletnikoff Rule” since both players were notorious for using sticky substances to make it easier for them to intercept/catch passes.
  • An offensive player who comes into the game wearing an illegal number for the position he takes must report to the referee before the start of the next play.
  • The penalty for an ineligible receiver who touches a forward pass is a loss of down.
  • The penalty for illegal use of hands, arms, or body (including holding) is reduced from 15 yards to 10 yards.
  • The penalty for intentional grounding is modified: loss of down and 10 yards penalty from the previous spot, or if the foul occurs more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, loss of down at the spot of the foul.

Regular Season games not broadcast by Network TV

Date Time Teams Local TV Announcers
September 5, 1981 8:00 PM EDT Minnesota @ Tampa Bay KSTP-TV (Minnesota)
WTOG-TV (Tampa Bay)

Final standings

W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, PCT = Winning Percentage, PF= Points For, PA = Points Against

AFC East
Miami Dolphins(2) 11 4 1 .719 5–2–1 8–3–1 345 275 W4
New York Jets(4) 10 5 1 .656 6–1–1 8–5–1 355 287 W2
Buffalo Bills(5) 10 6 0 .625 6–2 9–3 311 276 L1
Baltimore Colts 2 14 0 .125 2–6 2–10 259 533 W1
New England Patriots 2 14 0 .125 0–8 2–10 322 370 L9
AFC Central
Cincinnati Bengals(1) 12 4 0 .750 4–2 10–2 421 304 W2
Pittsburgh Steelers 8 8 0 .500 3–3 5–7 356 297 L3
Houston Oilers 7 9 0 .438 4–2 6–6 281 355 W1
Cleveland Browns 5 11 0 .313 1–5 2–10 276 375 L5
AFC West
San Diego Chargers(3) 10 6 0 .625 6–2 8–4 478 390 W2
Denver Broncos 10 6 0 .625 5–3 7–5 321 289 L1
Kansas City Chiefs 9 7 0 .563 5–3 7–5 343 290 W1
Oakland Raiders 7 9 0 .438 2–6 5–7 273 343 L2
Seattle Seahawks 6 10 0 .375 2–6 6–8 322 388 W1
NFC East
Dallas Cowboys(2) 12 4 0 .750 6–2 8–4 367 277 L1
Philadelphia Eagles(4) 10 6 0 .625 4–4 7–5 368 221 W1
New York Giants(5) 9 7 0 .563 5–3 8–6 295 257 W3
Washington Redskins 8 8 0 .500 3–5 6–6 347 349 W3
St. Louis Cardinals 7 9 0 .438 2–6 4–8 315 408 L2
NFC Central
Tampa Bay Buccaneers(3) 9 7 0 .563 6–2 9–3 315 268 W1
Detroit Lions 8 8 0 .500 4–4 6–6 397 322 L1
Green Bay Packers 8 8 0 .500 4–4 7–7 324 361 L1
Minnesota Vikings 7 9 0 .438 4–4 6–6 325 369 L5
Chicago Bears 6 10 0 .375 2–6 2–10 253 324 W3
NFC West
San Francisco 49ers(1) 13 3 0 .813 5–1 10–2 357 250 W5
Atlanta Falcons 7 9 0 .438 3–3 6–6 426 355 L3
Los Angeles Rams 6 10 0 .375 2–4 5–7 303 351 L1
New Orleans Saints 4 12 0 .250 2–4 2–10 207 378 L4


  • Baltimore finished ahead of New England in the AFC East based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
  • San Diego finished ahead of Denver in the AFC West based on better division record (6–2 to Broncos’ 5–3).
  • Buffalo was the second AFC Wild Card based on head-to-head victory over Denver (1–0).
  • Detroit finished ahead of Green Bay in the NFC Central based on better record against common opponents (4–4 to Packers’ 3–5).


Divisional Playoffs
    Jan. 2 – Texas Stadium        
NFC Wild Card Game NFC Championship
 3  Tampa Bay  0
Dec. 27 – Veterans Stadium     Jan. 10 – Candlestick Park
 2  Dallas  38  
 5  NY Giants  27  2  Dallas  27
Jan. 3 – Candlestick Park
 4  Philadelphia  21      1  San Francisco  28   Super Bowl XVI
 5  NY Giants  24
    Jan. 24 – Pontiac Silverdome
 1  San Francisco  38  
 N1  San Francisco  26
Jan. 2 – Miami Orange Bowl
AFC Wild Card Game AFC Championship    A1  Cincinnati  21
 3  San Diego  41*
Dec. 27 – Shea Stadium     Jan. 10 – Riverfront Stadium
 2  Miami  38  
 5  Buffalo  31  3  San Diego  7
Jan. 3 – Riverfront Stadium
 4  NY Jets  27      1  Cincinnati  27  
 5  Buffalo  21
 1  Cincinnati  28  
* Indicates overtime victory

Statistical leaders


Points scored San Diego Chargers (478)
Total yards gained San Diego Chargers (6,744)
Yards rushing Detroit Lions (2,795)
Yards passing San Diego Chargers (4,739)
Fewest points allowed Philadelphia Eagles (221)
Fewest total yards allowed Philadelphia Eagles (4,447)
Fewest rushing yards allowed Detroit Lions (1,623)
Fewest passing yards allowed Philadelphia Eagles (2,696)


Most Valuable Player Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Coach of the Year Bill Walsh, San Francisco
Offensive Player of the Year Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Defensive Player of the Year Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants
Offensive Rookie of the Year George Rogers, Running back, New Orleans
Defensive Rookie of the Year Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants
Man of the Year Lynn Swann, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh
Comeback Player of the Year Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati
Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Joe Montana, Quarterback, San Francisco

Records Set

  • Most Passes Attempted, Season, 709
Minnesota Vikings
  • Most Punts, Season, 114
Chicago Bears
  • Most Yards, Punt Returns, Both Teams, Game, 282
Los Angeles Rams (219) vs Atlanta Falcons (63), Oct 11, 1981

Records Tied

  • Most Touchdowns, Passing, Single Team, Game, 7
San Diego Chargers (vs Oakland Raiders) Nov 22, 1981
  • Most Touchdowns, Punt Returns, Single Team, Game, 2
Los Angeles Rams (vs Atlanta Falcons) Oct 11, 1981

Baltimore Colts Defense

The 1981 Baltimore Colts were one of the worst defenses in NFL history; they set five dubious defensive records:

  • Most Points Allowed, Season, 533
  • Most Touchdowns Allowed, Season, 68
  • Most First Downs Allowed Season, 406
  • Most Yards Allowed, Season, 6,793
  • Fewest Punt Returns, Season, 12


The 1981 NFL Draft was held from April 28 to 29, 1981 at New York City’s Sheraton Hotel. With the first pick, the New Orleans Saints selected running back George Rogers from the University of South Carolina.


American Football Conference

National Football Conference


  • NFL Record and Fact Book (ISBN 1-932994-36-X)
  • NFL History 1981–1990 (Last accessed December 4, 2005)
  • Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (ISBN 0-06-270174-6)
1981 San Francisco 49ers season

The 1981 San Francisco 49ers season was their 32nd season in the National Football League. Under third-year head coach Bill Walsh, the team finished the regular season with a 13–3 record. The season would be one of the franchise's most successful seasons to that point and would be "the birth of a dynasty", when the 49ers began their decade of dominance. The 49ers drew an average home attendance of 54,398 in the 1981 NFL season.

The 49ers won Super Bowl XVI by defeating the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals. It was the first of five Super Bowl victories in franchise history, all within the next 13 seasons.

Quarterback Joe Montana began the 1981 season as San Francisco's starting quarterback. Montana produced two fourth-quarter comeback victories. Montana's signature game of the season was the NFC Championship Game, which culminated in "The Catch", a last-minute touchdown pass from Montana to Dwight Clark, propelling the 49ers to victory over Dallas, and a berth in their first Super Bowl.

1981 Seattle Seahawks season

The 1981 Seattle Seahawks season was the team's sixth season with the National Football League. The Seahawks get off to a terrible start losing six of their first seven games, on the way to a 6-10 season. Steve Largent would have a stellar season with 1,224 receiving yards. Seattle opened their season at Cincinnati, and held a 21-0 lead before the Bengals rallied for an improbable 27-21 win. This loss proved to be the beginning of the end for the Seahawks in 1981, as they would struggle as the season progressed.

CBS Sports Spectacular

CBS Sports Spectacular is a sports anthology television program that is produced by CBS Sports, the sports division of the CBS television network in the United States. The series began on January 3, 1960, as The CBS Sports Spectacular, and has been known under many different names, including CBS Sports Saturday, CBS Sports Sunday, Eye on Sports and The CBS Sports Show.

The program continues to air on an irregular basis on weekend afternoons, especially during the late spring and summer months. Normally it airs pre-recorded "time-buy" sports events produced by outside companies, such as supercross or skiing competitions, or sponsored documentaries.

David Petway

David Petway is a former defensive back in the National Football League. He played with the Green Bay Packers during the 1981 NFL season.

Ed Hughes

Edward D. Hughes (October 23, 1927 – June 23, 2000) was an American football player and coach whose career spanned more than three decades. His most prominent coaching position came in 1971 when he served as head coach of the National Football League's Houston Oilers.

Harlan Huckleby

Harlan Charles Huckleby (born December 30, 1957) is a former professional American football running back and kick returner who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League (NFL). Over the course of his NFL career he accumulated nearly 2500 all-purpose yards, with over half of that being return yards. He had played for three Michigan Wolverines football Big Ten Conference Champions. He also was a member of the Michigan Wolverines track team for one season where he became a Big Ten Champion and All-American as a member of the 4x400m relay race team. He had also been a four-time Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) state champion in track and field. He played high school football at Cass Technical High School, graduating in 1975.

Hosea Taylor

Hosea Taylor (born December 3, 1958) is a former American football defensive end for the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League (NFL). He played 16 games in the 1981 NFL season and four games in the 1983 NFL season. Taylor played college football at the University of Houston and was a 1979 All-America and 1980 All-America selection.

Taylor graduated from Longview High School in Longview, Texas in the late 1970s. His nephew, Curtis Brown, is currently a cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League.

Jimmy Hargrove

Jimmy Hargrove is a former running back in the National Football League.

Jimmy Webb (American football)

James "Jimmy" Rogers Webb (born April 13, 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi) is a former American football defensive lineman who played seven seasons in the National Football League.

Joe Delaney

Joe Alton Delaney (; October 30, 1958 – June 29, 1983) was an American football running back who played two seasons in the National Football League (NFL). In his two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Delaney set four franchise records that would stand for more than twenty years.

He was a two-time All-American athlete for the Northwestern State Demons football team, as well as a track and field star. Delaney played two seasons with the Chiefs and was chosen as the AFC Rookie of the Year in 1981 by United Press International.Delaney died on June 29, 1983 while attempting to rescue three children from drowning in a pond in Monroe in northeastern Louisiana. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizen's Medal from U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan. While not officially retired, his jersey number while playing for the Chiefs, No. 37, has not been worn since his death.

Leon Gray

Leon Gray (November 15, 1951 – November 11, 2001) was an American football tackle in the National Football League for the New England Patriots, Houston Oilers, and the New Orleans Saints. Gray played college football at Jackson State University.

List of Monday Night Football results (1970–89)

Beginning in the 1970 NFL season, the National Football League began scheduling a weekly regular season game on Monday night before a national television audience. From 1970 to 2005, the ABC television network carried these games, with the ESPN cable television network taking over beginning in September 2006. Listed below are games played from 1970 to 1989.

Mark Merrill

Mark Merrill (born May 5, 1955 in Saint Paul, Minnesota-April 12, 2018) was a linebacker in the National Football League. His parents are Verna Anderson Merrill and Walter Leo Kelly Merrill.

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins are a professional American football team based in the Miami metropolitan area. The Dolphins compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the league's American Football Conference (AFC) East division. The Dolphins play their home games at Hard Rock Stadium in the northern suburb of Miami Gardens, Florida, and are headquartered in Davie, Florida. The Dolphins are Florida's oldest professional sports team. Of the four AFC East teams, they are the only team in the division that was not a charter member of the American Football League (AFL).

The Dolphins were founded by attorney-politician Joe Robbie and actor-comedian Danny Thomas. They began play in the AFL in 1966. The region had not had a professional football team since the days of the Miami Seahawks, who played in the All-America Football Conference in 1946, before becoming the first incarnation of the Baltimore Colts. For the first few years, the Dolphins' full-time training camp and practice facilities were at Saint Andrew's School, a private boys boarding prep school in Boca Raton. In the 1970 AFL–NFL merger, the Dolphins joined the NFL.

The team made its first Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl VI, losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 24–3. The following year, the Dolphins completed the NFL's only perfect season, culminating in a Super Bowl win, winning all 14 of their regular season games, and all three of their playoff games, including Super Bowl VII. They were the third NFL team to accomplish a perfect regular season. The next year, the Dolphins won Super Bowl VIII, becoming the first team to appear in three consecutive Super Bowls, and the second team (the first AFL/AFC team) to win back-to-back championships. Miami also appeared in Super Bowl XVII and Super Bowl XIX, losing both games.

For most of their early history, the Dolphins were coached by Don Shula, the most successful head coach in professional football history in terms of total games won. Under Shula, the Dolphins posted losing records in only two of his 26 seasons as the head coach. During the period spanning 1983 to the end of 1999, quarterback Dan Marino became one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, breaking numerous league passing records. Marino led the Dolphins to five division titles, 10 playoff appearances and Super Bowl XIX before retiring following the 1999 season.

In 2008, the Dolphins became the first team in NFL history to win their division and make a playoff appearance following a league-worst 1–15 season. That same season, the Dolphins upset the 16–0 New England Patriots on the road during Week 3, handing the Patriots' their first regular season loss since December 10, 2006, in which coincidentally, they were also beaten by the Dolphins.

Ralph Clayton

Ralph Darrell Clayton (born September 29, 1958) is a former professional American football player. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Clayton played college football as a "wingback" for the University of Michigan from 1976 to 1979 and was the leading receiver for the Michigan Wolverines football team in both 1977 and 1978. After being selected by the New York Jets in the second round of the 1980 NFL Draft, Clayton missed the 1980 NFL season due to injury. He later signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and appeared in seven games for the Cardinals during the 1981 NFL season.

Ron Simpkins

Ronald Bernard "Ron" Simpkins (born April 2, 1958) is a former American football player. He played college football at the University of Michigan as an inside linebacker from 1976 to 1979. He became Michigan's all-time career tackle leader in 1979 and was a consensus first-team selection for the 1979 College Football All-America Team. He later played professional football in the National Football League (NFL) for the Cincinnati Bengals (1980, 1982-1986) and Green Bay Packers (1988).

Steve Atkins

Steve Atkins is a former running back in the National Football League.

The Catch (American football)

The Catch was the winning touchdown reception in the 1981 NFC Championship Game played between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on January 10, 1982, as part of the 1981–82 NFL playoffs following the 1981 NFL season. With 58 seconds left in the game and the 49ers facing 3rd-and-3, San Francisco tight end Dwight Clark made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone to complete a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Montana, enabling the 49ers to defeat the Cowboys, 28–27. The Catch is widely regarded as one of the most memorable events in National Football League (NFL) history. It came at the end of a 14-play, 83-yard drive engineered by Montana. The game represented the end of the Cowboys' domination in the NFC since the conference's inception in 1970, and the beginning of the 49ers' rise as an NFL dynasty in the 1980s.

Tom Dooley (American football)

Robert Thomas "Tom" Dooley Jr. (September 15, 1934 – May 9, 2018) was an American football official for 32 years with 14 of those years in the National Football League (NFL) from 1978 to 1992 as a line judge and referee. Dooley was assigned Super Bowl XV in 1981 as a line judge. In the NFL, he wore the uniform numbers 103 and 6.

1981 NFL season
Early era
Modern era

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