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
The 49ers playing against the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.


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.

New refereeEdit

Cal Lepore, the line judge for Super Bowl III and referee for the Miracle at the Meadowlands, retired prior to the 1980 season. He would later become supervisor of officials in the United States Football League. Tom Dooley, who was assigned Super Bowl XV as line judge at the end of the 1981 season, was promoted to referee to replace Lepore.

Major rule changesEdit

  • 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.
  • Officials began wearing numbers 21 through 25 within their position groups after going no higher than number 20 in 1979 and 1980.


  • July 1, 1981: Linebacker Rusty Chambers, the Miami Dolphins leading tackler in 1978 and 1979, died in an automobile accident. [1]

Regular seasonEdit

Scheduling formulaEdit

AFC East vs NFC East
AFC Central vs NFC West
AFC West vs NFC Central

Final standingsEdit


  • 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).


Jan. 2 – Texas Stadium
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
NFC Championship
5 NY Giants 24
Jan. 24 – Pontiac Silverdome
1 San Francisco 38
Divisional playoffs
Wild Card playoffs N1 San Francisco 26
Jan. 2 – Miami Orange Bowl
A1 Cincinnati 21
Super Bowl XVI
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
AFC Championship
5 Buffalo 21
1 Cincinnati 28

* Indicates overtime victory

Records, milestones, and notable statisticsEdit

Records SetEdit

  • 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 TiedEdit

  • 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 DefenseEdit

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

Statistical leadersEdit


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

Coaching changesEdit

Stadium changesEdit

The home of the San Diego Chargers, San Diego Stadium, was renamed Jack Murphy Stadium in memory of local sportswriter Jack Murphy

Uniform changesEdit

  • The Cincinnati Bengals made significant modifications to their uniforms for the first time since the team's debut in 1968, discontinuing the design similar to the Cleveland Browns' jerseys. Orange and black tiger stripes were added to the jerseys and pants. Black tiger stripes were also added to the orange helmets.
  • The Dallas Cowboys adopted a new blue jersey which was darker than its predecessors and featured silver numbers. The Cowboys wore this blue jersey through 1994.
  • The Houston Oilers resumed wearing blue pants with their white jerseys.
  • The Los Angeles Rams switched from gray to blue face masks

Regular season game not broadcast by Network TVEdit

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


  1. ^ 100 Things Dolphins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Armando Salguero, Triumph Books, Chicago, 2020, ISBN 978-1-62937-722-3, p.185
  • 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)