How the Rise of the Passing Game in the NFL Has Taken over the League
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Along with the rise of airplanes, jets and rockets, football teams and quarterbacks have found the aerial passing attack to be a much more efficient way to win football games. This year, three quarterbacks— yes, three—reached the 5,000-yard passing mark. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford have reached the mark that was once considered the equivalent to a 60-home run season, a baseball mark only surpassed once in the 20th century.
With the onslaught of strong-armed quarterbacks such as Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and many others in the 21st century, the passing game became the clear dominant force in the NFL. Dan Marino solidified his immortality in football lore in 1984, throwing for 5,084 yards in just his second year as an NFL quarterback. That was a mark that would stand for 17 years, until it was taken down by Brees, and Brady one week later. The record wasn't ever in serious jeopardy, except in 2008, when Brees came within 15 yards of Marino's record, with 5,069 yards. Let's face it: as unfortunate as it may be, smash-mouth football is fading away into obscurity, and soon may be nonexistent in any form of football.
A strong, powerful running game is the tried and true method to winning football games. We always hear stories about mean running backs bowling over defenders, running dive plays up the middle, not sweeps around the edge. Defenders are getting bigger and faster, so runs up the middle are no longer as effective as they used to be. Cold weather used to make football coaches gear their game plans towards smash-mouth. However, new technology is giving players a chance to keep their hands warm, allowing more passes and toss plays. Very few teams still use the run-it-up-the-gut method; only a few come to mind—the 49ers, Ravens, Steelers and Vikings. More teams have taken to the air and utilized their quarterbacks. But it isn't all the quarterback's doing; they get some help from the league.
Rules in the NFL are being geared more and more toward the offense and the passing game. The league has cracked down on hits on a quarterback; signal-callers are no longer afraid of hard hits because defenders are scared of fines and penalties. In addition to that, receivers get a huge lift from the rulebook; any questionable pass interference will be flagged. Hits on defenseless receivers are always flagged, so receivers are not scared of monster hits that used to leave the middle of the field void of WRs. The NFL is clearly going towards a completely quarterback dominated league, if it isn't one yet.
This year, Brady and Brees played like some people had never seen quarterbacks played. But their accomplishments were tainted. Before Brees and Brady broke Dan Marino's record, Marino said that what they were doing was amazing, but it was simply harder to pass back then in '84. Quarterbacks in college are doing the same things as quarterbacks at the pro level. Houston QB Case Keenum and Andrew Luck of Stanford were both record-setting quarterbacks last season. Luck is almost a sure bet to go No. 1 in April's draft and Keenum broke countless records this season. Robert Griffin III was the first Heisman winner for Baylor University this year, and he did it with both his arm and his legs.
Dual-threat QBs are becoming more and more common in college and are starting to catch on in the NFL. Defending the pass is a lot tougher than defending the run. NFL coaches are drawing up playbooks to go over or around defenders, not through them. It is a surprise that Dan Marino's record lasted so long. It is only a matter of when the new passing record will be broken, not if it will be broken. With a talented crop of college quarterbacks, passing the ball isn't going to die down. For better or for worse, the pass game is here to stay.
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