A Look at 4 Statistical Trends in the NFL over the Past Decade
The NFL is a rapidly evolving league, and teams that are successful are on the cutting edge of the trends. Teams have to be willing to embrace change and add personnel that fit the new model of doing NFL business. Those that can change on the fly are successful, and those that do not adapt fall behind and struggle to be competitive.
The NFL has instituted new rules that prevent the way defenses can play the quarterback. There have also been changes with how physical defenders can be with wide receivers, and these changes have radically turned the NFL into a pass-first league.
There are always statistics that surprise, but when a trend can be measured over 10 years, a new normal can be found in the way football is played. The NFL is an entirely different league than it was 10 years ago, and these are the principal reasons why.
Quarterback Efficiency Causes the Passing Game to Erupt
Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE
Offenses are throwing the football more than ever. It is an obvious statement, but what is the real trend is how effective passers have become.
In 2001, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna threw the ball 581 times. Five years later in 2006, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre led the league with 613 attempts. In 2011, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford led the NFL with 663 throws.
The number of passing plays rose 5.5 percent from 2001 to 2006, and 8.2 percent from 2006 to 2011. It is not just a rising number of throws; it is how effective teams have become at throwing the football.
To understand just how effective teams are at throwing the ball, we need to look at the yardage totals in comparison.
In 2001, there were only two quarterbacks that threw for more than 4,000 yards. St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner finished with 4,830 yards. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 4,131 yards.
Five years later in 2006, there were five quarterbacks to throw for more than 4,000 yards. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees led the NFL in passing yards with 4,418 yards.
In 2011, there were 10 quarterbacks that threw for more than 4,000 yards, including three that finished with over 5,000 yards.
The trend is certainly for teams to throw the ball more, but it is the effectiveness of the quarterbacks that drive this trend. While passing attempts are up, passing yards are going through the roof.
Teams are building for the future by adding pieces that can help their passing games, and the passing game is here to stay.
The Rise of the Playmaking Tight End
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When Antonio Gates came into the NFL as an unknown basketball player, no one knew how significant his impact would be. It turns out that the ex-basketball player would shake up NFL offenses and change the game.
NFL offensive coordinators have figured out that guys who are enormous and can run like wide receivers are unstoppable, and the red zone numbers for tight ends across the league are proof.
These players are a hybrid, a mix of offensive lineman and wide receiver. The trend is for bigger guys that can run to use their ability on “jump balsl” or to “box out” defenders with their big bodies and long arms.
Tight ends that can run and pluck the ball away from their bodies are lethal, and they are destroying defenses that can’t find a way to stop them.
In 2001, two tight ends led the NFL in receptions for tight ends. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez and Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe each finished with 73 receptions. Gonzalez scored six times and Sharpe scored twice.
In 2006, Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow led the NFL with 89 receptions, but he only scored three touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates was busy destroying NFL defenses, as he scored nine touchdowns and caught 71 passes.
In 2011, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham caught 99 passes and scored 11 touchdowns. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 90 passes and scored 17 times. There were seven tight ends who caught more than 70 passes last year, and there were 11 tight ends to score at least six touchdowns.
The real threat to defenses are the red-zone targets that tight ends are receiving. As John Holler of min.scout.com explains, tight ends are killing NFL defenses in the red zone. He explains that there were only five tight ends to average five or more red-zone touchdowns from 2009-2011.
There were 13 tight ends that caught at least five red-zone touchdowns in 2011. It is a staggering number, and certainly a number that will continue to grow.
The Power Running Game Fizzles
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The NFL has turned away from power football as a primary means of running an offense. Long gone are the days of a running back putting the team on his back by carrying the ball 25 times in a game. Offenses have determined that there is a better approach.
The new approach is to spread out the defense and throw the ball effectively. Many teams are going to a zone blocking approach where an offensive lineman is taught to block a certain area and allow the running back to make the decision where he wants to take the ball.
There are extremely few bell cow running backs in the NFL any longer. They can be counted on one hand, and teams are no longer prioritizing the position. The running game is an afterthought, as evidenced by the success of the offenses of the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Detroit Lions.
The Super Bowl champion New York Giants finished dead last in the NFL in rushing in 2011. The Green Bay Packers were No. 27 and the Detroit Lions were No. 29. These are all teams that finished with great numbers in total offense. The Packers were No. 3 in total offense, and the Lions were No. 5. The Giants finished No. 8 overall in total offense.
In 2001, there were 10 running backs that posted more than 300 carries. Washington Redskins running back Stephen Davis led the NFL in carries with 356.
In 2006, there were also 10 running backs that had more than 300 carries over the course of the season. Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson led the NFL with a whopping 416 carries.
In 2011, there was only one running back to eclipse the 300-carry mark, and that was Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
The days of the running back dominating an NFL offense are dead. Running back is no longer the premium position within an NFL offense, and the position is becoming an afterthought.
Rookies Dominating and Specialty Players Getting Drafted
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There are more players who get drafted because of a specialty skill, and these players are getting drafted higher as every year passes. NFL coordinators and coaches have determined that they need a unique blend of players who are skilled at creating mismatches all over the field.
Players do not have to be able to do it all any longer; they need to be highly skilled in one area of the game. From a running back with so much speed that he creates a serious mismatch for defenses to a rushing linebacker with only the skills to get to the passer.
Detroit Lions rookie wide receiver Ryan Broyles is a perfect example of a player who got drafted to fill a specific role. The Lions do not need him to be their No. 1 receiver, they need him to exploit defenses the way he did in college. If he can continue to beat defenses underneath and move the chains, the Lions will have hit a home run with this pick.
Rookies are making an impact immediately in the NFL these days. In the past, rookies needed to adjust to the size and speed of the NFL and they struggled in their first season. Players are coming into the NFL more prepared than ever, and the numbers that rookies are putting up proves this to be true.
There has never been a class of rookies like the one the NFL saw in 2011. On offense, players like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green performed like steely NFL veterans. Defenses had no answers for these offensive rookies.
Newton broke many NFL records on the way to winning the Rookie of the Year award. He became the first player in NFL history with more than 4,000 passing yards, 500 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season.
Dalton finished his rookie season with 3,398 yards passing and 20 touchdown passes. Green finished with 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns.
On defense, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith terrorized defenses. Miller finished his rookie season with 11.5 sacks. Smith tallied 14 sacks in his rookie season.
NFL teams should expect extraordinary things from their rookies as the trend has them performing remarkably well on Sundays.