1981 NFL season

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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 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.

Major rule changes[edit]

  • 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.

New referee[edit]

Cal Lepore retired prior to the 1981 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 of end of 1981 season, was promoted to referee to replace Lepore.

Regular Season games not broadcast by Network TV[edit]

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[edit]

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


  • 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[edit]


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[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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[edit]

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.

Coaching changes[edit]


  • 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)