It's that time of the year again: the NFL purgatory between the previous season and the beginning of free agency.
Instead of sulking around in a state of combined hibernation and depression I’ve labeled “hibernession," I have decided that it would be more compelling to end this season the way I began it: analyzing the thing that I already miss.
Before the 2012 NFL season, I wrote an article in which I ranked the NFC passing attacks. After a full season in which we saw quarterback changes, wide receiver progressions and the emergence of several rookies, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the list to see where teams ended up compared to their outlook before the season.
In this slideshow, teams are ranked according to their passing attacks alone, taking into account how the quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends and running backs performed in their respective passing attacks over the course of the 2012 regular season.
This will only be an examination of each teams performance in this area over this past season as opposed to a look at how they should fare next season.
To accomplish this, the stat lines of each team’s quarterback, top two receivers and tight end will be stated and analyzed. Also, in the interest of accountability, the difference between how teams currently rank versus my preseason prediction will be listed beside the team’s name.
*All stats compiled from NFL.com and ESPN.com
John Skelton—Rating: 55.4 Yards: 1,132 TD/INT: 2/9 Cmp%: 54.2
Larry Fitzgerald—Rec: 71 Yards: 798 TD: 4 Avg: 11.2
Andre Roberts—Rec: 64 Yards: 759 TD: 5 Avg: 11.9
Rob Housler—Rec: 45 Yards: 417 TD: 0 Avg: 9.3
With a 5-11 record, it is easy to forget that the Arizona Cardinals carried a great deal of promise early in their 2012 campaign.
They had just come off a season in which a struggling and injured Kevin Kolb was replaced by John Skelton—who led them to winning six of their final eight games. This caused a bit of quarterback controversy leading into the season.
The Cardinals won their first four games, two of which came against the Seahawks and the Patriots. This led to the question we all know and love: whether or not the Cardinals were “for real”.
To a certain extent, this question would not get answered since Kolb’s success (eight touchdowns to three interceptions) would be cut short due to injury.
Skelton would come in for Kolb and would be unable to match his success from the previous season.
The Cardinals also gave Ryan Lindley a few starts, but they never saw consistent production from any of their backup quarterbacks, leaving the Arizona passing attack as the worst in the NFC.
One would have to imagine this lack of success was especially tough on Larry Fitzgerald, who can the top receiver in the league when he's at his best. He finished the season with only four touchdowns and just under 800 yards.
For a loyal Arizona fan, or any football fan, it is difficult to watch someone so supremely gifted not have the opportunity to flourish.
There seems to be the perception with guys like Larry Fitzgerald that a quarterback can throw a pass anywhere near him and he is big and gifted enough to come down with the ball.
This kind of a season shows that a great receiver is still dependent upon a good quarterback to get him the ball and strong pieces around him to divert defensive attention.
Time will tell if Kevin Kolb can stay healthy for this team and make this passing attack more intimidating, but in 2012 they find themselves as the worst unit in the conference.
Michael Vick—Rating: 78.1 Yards: 2,362 TD/INT: 12/10 CMP%: 58.1
Jeremy Maclin—Rec: 69 Yards: 857 TD: 7 Avg: 12.4
DeSean Jackson—Rec: 45 Yards: 700 TD: 2 Avg: 15.6
Brent Celek—Rec: 57 Yards: 684 TD: 1 Avg: 12
Often, analysts make predictions without being held accountable for the times they are wrong and or try to get out of the situation by making excuses.
I am man enough to say that I was absolutely wrong about the Philadelphia Eagles’ passing attack.
Before the season, I rhapsodized about how exciting the Eagles offense was to watch. They have been a team predicated on speed and the combination of Vick, Maclin, Jackson and McCoy should have been must-see viewing.
But it wasn’t.
At least not for any reason that Philly fans would gloat about.
The main reason cited for their offensive struggles was the ineptitude of their offensive line. However, even had I known they would have been so awful, I would have still thought the legs of Michael Vick and the threat of LeSean McCoy would have made up for their offensive line to a certain extent.
Ultimately, Vick and Foles threw for nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns and did little to utilize their talented receivers.
Everyone has ideas as to how this offense can be improved upon, but a solid case can be made for more utilization of McCoy to give time to Vick and his receivers. McCoy should have been a more prominent star of the Philly offense and shown that he can be effective in the passing game as well as the running game.
The Eagles have parted ways with Andy Reid, who is known for being a very pass-oriented coach. So, one has to wonder what will happen to Vick and if McCoy will become more of a centerpiece for this offense.
A talent as explosive as his could serve to open things up for their passing attack moving forward.
Christian Ponder—Rating: 81.2 Yards: 2,935 TD/INT: 18/12 CMP%: 62.1
Percy Harvin—Rec: 62 Yards: 677 TD: 3 Avg: 10.9
Michael Jenkins—Rec: 40 Yards: 449 TD: 2 Avg: 11.2
Kyle Rudolph—Rec: 53 Yards: 493 TD: 9 Avg: 9.3
Had I told you before the season that the Minnesota Vikings would make the playoffs, you would have likely accused me of being a Viking fan, crazy or may have assumed that Christian Ponder would make a significant improvement on his rookie campaign.
In all fairness, Ponder did improve this year; however, we all know that the Viking's success this season had less to do with Ponder and more to do with their MVP running back.
Minnesota lands one spot higher than the Eagles mainly due to the fact that they were willing to utilize their running back which opened up opportunities in the passing game.
The fact that Adrian Peterson lines up behind Ponder seems to have aided his development.
With a few years left in Peterson’s prime, one would expect this trend to continue.
To be honest, I was surprised when I read Ponder’s stat line—it was much better than I had expected. Defenses focusing on Peterson certainly contributed to these stats, but a quarterback still needs to be able to read coverages, make the right decisions and deliver the ball in a timely and accurate manner.
For the most part, Ponder was able to accomplish this.
If Minnesota is to climb this list, they will have to focus more on their passing game—which makes little sense considering who they have in the backfield.
Still, this is a pass-first league and if the Vikings want to improve their chances in the playoffs, it would be in their best interest to seek out other capable receivers and make a more complete offense.
Sam Bradford—Rating: 82.6 Yards: 3,702 TD/INT: 21/13 CMP%: 59.5
Danny Amendola—Rec: 63 Yards: 666 TD: 3 Avg: 10.6
Chris Givens—Rec: 42 Yards: 698 TD: 3 Avg: 16.6
Lance Kendricks—Rec: 42 Yards: 519 TD: 4 Avg: 12.4
Sam Bradford likely wanted to do whatever he could to forget his injury and mediocrity-ridden 2011 season.
He proved this by returning to his rookie season form, throwing for the same completion percentage, more touchdowns, less interceptions and a higher quarterback rating both by ESPN and the rest of the world’s standards.
In looking at the stats for the Rams, I am reminded of the recent approach to the passing game that the Green Bay Packers have taken. Danny Amendola is considered the team’s top receiver, but was limited due to injury. The parallel to Green Bay comes with how many players are incorporated in the passing game—four players caught for over 500 yards, including their tight end, Lance Kendricks.
The passing attack of the Rams has not become as prolific as that of the Packers or the teams at the top of the list, but that is due in large part to their focus remaining on Steven Jackson leading them on the ground.
This strategy makes sense given Jackson’s abilities, but in a division whose defenses are only getting stronger, it would be better to build around Bradford.
The Rams need to give him more weapons to counter those potent defenses.
While it is significant that Bradford is able to utilize multiple receivers, the lack of a true No. 1 receiver held them back this past season.
Recently, the St. Louis Rams picked up and dropped troubled former Detroit Lions wide receiver Titus Young. With the impending free agency of Amendola, the release of Young leaves a lot of questions at the position.
Will the Rams hold on to Amendola?
If so, will he prove that he can be an elite receiver?
Will Brandon Gibson or Brian Quick take the next step forward?
With a strong quarterback, an aging (but effective) running back and questions at the receiver position, the 2013 offseason will have a large impact on how this passing attack develops.
Jay Cutler—Rating: 81.3 Yards: 3,033 TD/INT: 19/14 CMP%: 58.8
Brandon Marshall—Rec: 118 Yards: 1,508 TD: 11 Avg: 12.8
Earl Bennett—Rec: 29 Yards: 375 TD: 2 Avg: 12.9
Kellen Davis—Rec: 19 Yards: 229 TD: 2 Avg: 12.1
While this list is based on statistics and history, it is not completely without controversy.
I could not justify putting Chicago any higher than the 12th position. I expect people to disagree with this, especially with a receiver that went for over 100 receptions, over 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The best way to defend this ranking would be to pose the following question: What did opposing teams fear most when going up against the Bears?
You could argue that the passing game was third behind defense and rushing attack. You could even make the argument that opposing defenses were more eager to defend the pass than going against any other aspect of the Chicago team.
However, in the preseason it seemed like every NFL fan had the same revelation when the Bears faced the Giants: this offensive line cannot protect Jay Cutler.
And they couldn’t.
The offensive line struggled and therefore the overall passing attack struggled.
To be fair to the Chicago Bears, the Cutler/Marshall combination was absolutely lethal throughout the season. Marshall caught for over 1,500 yards and it was obvious that Cutler was thrilled to finally have a reliable, explosive No. 1 receiver.
Ultimately, the Bears dropped on this list mainly because other teams with young and improving quarterbacks are trending upward. It is true that the Bears have improved in the passing game, but they went from having a good quarterback and no strong receivers to having a good quarterback and one amazing receiver.
The Bears won a lot of games this season, but it was due to their defense and strong rushing game.
Perhaps next season they will rely more on the arm of Cutler.
But if that is the case, Chicago fans have to hope for an improvement in offensive line play and the emergence of Alshon Jeffery as a strong secondary option across from the prolific Brandon Marshall.
Robert Griffin III—Rating: 102.4 Yards: 3,200 TD/INT: 20/5 CMP%: 65.6
Josh Morgan—Rec: 48 Yards 510 TD: 2 Avg: 10.6
Pierre Garcon—Rec: 44 Yards: 633 TD: 4 Avg: 14.4
Logan Paulsen—Rec: 25 Yards: 308 TD: 1 Avg: 12.3
In Robert Griffin III, the Redskins have their franchise quarterback of the future—barring any lingering or future injury concerns.
The most impressive aspect of Griffin’s passing was the efficiency with which he threw the ball. He threw for 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions with a completion percentage of 65.6 (tied with Tony Romo and only lower than Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers in the NFC).
The reasons that the Skins only jumped two spots in my rankings were the lack of a strong, consistent No. 1 receiver and the fact that they were more reliant upon their rushing attack than their passing game.
And, to be honest, with the rushing abilities of Griffin and the brilliant Alfred Morris, nobody can truly blame them for focusing on this attack.
In fact, much of this can be attributed to the efficacy of the passing game. When people are worried about Morris and Griffin running the ball, Griffin likely sees more passing lanes in the secondary.
I do believe that Griffin had the best rookie campaign this season, but Garcon missing six games, Santana Moss getting older and the lack of consistent play at the tight end position has forced me to hold them back in this spot.
That is not to say that I see them remaining this low.
After this season, if Garcon can remain healthy, I do believe that he and Griffin can build that chemistry and accomplish great things.
The one thing that I do know for sure is that I dread the meetings that my favorite teams will have against the Skins moving forward and that is not a statement I would have made in recent seasons.
RGIII is a remarkable talent.
Here’s hoping he can get healthy and stay that way.
Colin Kaepernick—Rating: 98.3 Yards: 1,814 TD/INT: 10/3 CMP%: 62.4
Michael Crabtree—Rec: 85 Yards: 1,105 TD: 9 Avg: 13.0
Randy Moss—Rec: 28 Yards: 434 TD: 3 Avg: 15.5
Vernon Davis—Rec: 41 Yards: 548 TD: 5 Avg: 13.4
Due to the midseason quarterback change, it was tough to determine where to place the 49ers in these rankings.
They find themselves in the 10th position because both quarterbacks put up some pretty strong numbers despite the midseason switch. Between the two, there were over 3,500 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
Had Kaepernick played the entire season, the 49ers would likely be higher on this list, but the switch keeps them at 10.
We all know what a monster Vernon Davis can be, but 49ers fans have to be thrilled at the explosion of Michael Crabtree this season. From his rookie campaign in 2009 to 2011, Crabtree had been progressing at a steady pace, but this past season was the epitome of a breakout season.
I’m sure fans hoped for more production out of Randy Moss, but this passing attack has the potential to be absolutely lethal—especially if they find another weapon to put across from Crabtree.
All I have heard about the 49ers since they lost in the Super Bowl is that they are the most complete team in the NFL, and the passing game is a significant part of that assertion. Kaepernick still needs to develop and he would be helped by another strong weapon, but it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the 49ers move up this list next season.
Ultimately, I put them in this position because of the mid-season quarterback change as well as the fact that Kaepernick rarely utilized the exceptional talent of Vernon Davis (only averaging one completion per game to Davis over the final six games of their season).
On paper, the San Fransisco arsenal is stronger than the next team’s, but it comes down to how you use it. San Francisco fans likely are not too upset by this as their team made it to the Super Bowl due to the effectiveness on both sides of the ball.
If their passing game strengthens further, the results could be terrifying for the rest of the conference
Russell Wilson—Rating: 100 Yards: 3,118 TD/INT: 26/10 CMP%: 64.1
Sidney Rice—Rec: 50 Yards: 748 TD: 7 Avg: 15
Golden Tate—Rec: 45 Yards 688 TD: 7 Avg: 15.3
Zach Miller—Rec: 38 Yards: 396 TD: 3 Avg: 10.4
Once again, I find myself having to own up to a mistake made in last season’s rankings.
Unlike my assessment of the Philadelphia Eagles, where I looked at certain talent and overestimated their success, I looked at the Seattle Seahawks before the season and didn’t see much promise.
There was a battle at quarterback between Matt Flynn, a former backup QB who had shown promise in his few in-game appearances, and Russell Wilson, a draft pick who many thought had too many short-comings to be effective.
For the time being, these critics have been proven wrong.
Russell Wilson made a late-season push for Rookie of the Year honors with his effective play both through the air and with his legs. It seemed that he got better as the year went on, throwing for an impressive 64 percent completion rate and only throwing two interceptions in their last eight games.
The efficiency of the Seahawks’ passing attack is why they find themselves ahead of other teams with young quarterbacks.
The Seahawks did not have any receivers go over 1,000 yards, but both Sidney Rice and Golden Tate proved to be reliable targets for Wilson and showed that the youth movement in this passing attack gives the Seattle fans something to be excited about moving forward.
On a side note, I wrote before the season about Seattle’s brief acquisition of Terrell Owens. I suggested that the move would be a bad fit for both teams. As if trying to prove my point, Seattle parted ways with T.O. shortly after the signing.
Little was revealed about the reasoning behind his release, but looking back at the season, I do have to wonder how he would have impacted the team. My contention, after all, was not that he would create a divisive locker room, but rather that he would not be able to exist and thrive on a sub-par team.
Since the Seahawks were far better than “sub-par,” I have to reevaluate my position and I wonder if he would have been an asset late in the season.
Regardless, Seattle fans have to be excited for the future with Russell Wilson at the helm.
Cam Newton—Rating: 86.2 Yards 3,869 TD/INT: 19/12 CMP%: 57.7
Steve Smith—Rec: 73 Yards: 1,174 TD: 4 Avg: 16.1
Brandon LaFell—Rec: 44 Yards: 677 TD: 4 Avg: 15.4
Greg Olsen—Rec: 69 Yards: 843 TD: 5 Avg: 12.2
Before the season, after I had published my preseason rankings, I felt that I may have ignored the lack of a strong second option in the passing game and ranked the Carolina Panthers too high because of the connection between Cam Newton and Steve Smith.
The passing attack remains middle of the pack in the NFC due to the fact that some aspects of their game took a step forward while others remained stagnant.
This is no more evident than with the Panther quarterback, Cam Newton.
Newton is a spectacular talent. Being from North Carolina, I have had a lot of opportunities to see Cam in action and there are few talents in the NFL as exciting to watch.
The concept of the “sophomore slump” was tossed around Cam’s season relentlessly, but the reality is that after Carolina’s seventh game, Cam threw for at least one touchdown in all but the final game of the season and five straight games without an interception.
The way Cam finished out the season shows the potential he has as a franchise quarterback. The drop in interceptions shows that Cam appears to be calmer in the pocket and making better decisions regardless of game situation.
Of course, it helps when you have a receiver like Steve Smith out there to catch your passes.
For the seventh time in his career, Steve Smith eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards and reminded people why you want a guy like him on your side. The only negative for Smith’s year was in the category of touchdowns—scoring only four times.
This is more understandable when you consider how often Carolina runs into the end zone with Newton, Williams, Stewart and Tolbert. Newton also has Olsen as an option and Smith’s size doesn’t really give him the Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald capability of just going to the corner and out-leaping multiple defenders.
Despite this, it was an electric season for Smith and fans hope he can keep this chemistry going with Cam for a few more years.
Last season, a major concern for Carolina was the lack of a true No. 2 receiver. Brandon LaFell began to step up his game this year, improving his yardage, touchdowns and first downs despite playing two less games than the previous season.
The development of LaFell, Smith’s continued excellence, Olsen’s reliability and Newton’s second-half lifted the Panthers up this season. I battled the urge to move them up to the next spot, but the team in front of them was far more focused on the pass and got to the end zone more through the air.
So the Panthers remain here.
This could change next season if Cam continues to develop and Carolina starts throwing the ball more.
Josh Freeman—Rating: 81.6 yards: 4,065 TD/INT: 27/17 CMP%: 54.8
Vincent Jackson—Rec: 72 Yards: 1,384 TD: 8 Avg: 19.2
Mike Williams—Rec: 63 Yards: 996 TD: 9 Avg: 15.8
Dallas Clark—Rec: 47 Yards: 435 TD: 4 Avg: 9.3
When building these rankings, I began by making a preliminary rankings list based on where I thought each team would roughly fit based solely on my own memory and perception before conducting my research. I reveal that to say this: I did not have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers anywhere near this high in my preliminary rankings.
I knew that Vincent Jackson was having a good season, that Josh Freeman was putting up pretty good numbers and that Mike Williams had great potential.
My perception was clouded by the emergence of their explosive rookie running back, Doug Martin. I had just assumed he was carrying the team and allowing the passing game get a few open lanes.
I was wrong.
Freeman threw for over a thousand yards and had two great receivers, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
Had Williams caught four more yards, the Bucs would have had two receivers go over 1,000 yards last season—Jackson passing that mark by nearly 400 yards. The most impressive aspect of Jackson’s season was the 19.2 yard average per reception.
Even home run hitters like Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson didn’t come close to this average.
Vincent Jackson picked up where he left off in San Diego, receiving for over 1,000 yards over four of his most recent five seasons.
After a lull in 2011, Mike Williams appeared to enjoy the presence of Vincent Jackson, returning to the impressive production seen in his rookie campaign—and in some ways surpassing it.
This offense, with rookie sensation Doug Williams, certainly rivals for one of the most complete in the conference.
If there is a weakness with the Tampa passing attack, it lies with the inconsistency of Josh Freeman. A completion percentage of 54.8 is pretty weak and makes you wonder what he could accomplish if he were more consistent.
When Freeman is on his game, he is one of the better young quarterbacks in this league, but he will certainly look to improve this number and reduce interceptions moving forward.
Matthew Stafford—Rating: 79.8 Yards: 4,967 TD/INT: 20/17 CMP%: 59.8
Calvin Johnson—Rec: 122 Yards: 1,964 TD: 5 Avg: 16.1
Titus Young—Rec: 33 Yards: 383 TD: 4 Avg: 11.6
Brandon Pettigrew—Rec: 59 Yards: 567 TD: 3 Avg: 9.6
There were two teams that I bet low on in my preseason rankings: one has yet to be revealed and the other was the Detroit Lions.
In a pass-oriented league, it is no small feat to land 6th on a conference passing attack ranking.
However, when you consider that they threw the ball more than any other team and had arguably the best wide receiver in the league, finishing in this position is definitely a disappointment.
Matthew Stafford threw for almost as many yards as he did the year before, but the rest of his stat line raises questions about why he regressed. His completion percentage dropped by four, he had one more interception than he did in 2011 and less than half of 2011’s touchdowns.
He had a lot of passing yards and success through the air, but after a prolific 2011 season, there are a lot of questions as to why the passing attack took such a significant step back.
Calvin is arguably the best in the game, but with defenses being well aware of that, doubling him and even going so far as to line two defenders against him before the snap, Stafford’s job of delivering the ball was far from simple.
The reasons for Detroit’s struggles in the passing attack boil down to two elements: lack of a strong rushing attack and issues with the play of the No. 2 receiver.
The issue of the lack of a running game is one that the Lions need to address soon.
I remember watching the Lions playing and hearing, with little celebration, that Stafford had broken records for passing attempts. This record reveals more of a problem than anything else.
Detroit is going to pass the ball.
Defenses know this.
No fan base was more nervous this season when their offense was in the red zone than that of Detroit. When teams dare you to run the ball in the red zone, and you can’t, your ability to score through the air is greatly reduced.
The other highly publicized issue was that of the remaining receiving options.
Detroit started the season with Nate Burleson as the No. 2. What is ironic about the events that transpired is that Burleson relishes this role and has been more than willing to play second fiddle to Calvin. Unfortunately for Detroit, Burleson only played five full games due to injury.
This gave Titus Young an opportunity to prove himself as a No. 2. Apparently, this was not good enough for Titus as he would go on to cause significant problem due to his lack of targets.
There were games where Titus stepped up, making key plays in the Tennessee game and catching all nine passes thrown in his direction against the elite Seattle secondary. But his issues, the uncharacteristic drops from tight ends, Ryan Broyle’s youth and Burleson’s injuries plagued this team.
The name of the game for Detroit’s offense this offseason is giving Stafford and the coaching staff options. This includes the option to run the ball and the development of other options in the passing game to free up Calvin Johnson.
If this happens, this passing attack could quickly jump up this list.
Eli Manning—Rating: 87.2 Yards: 3,948 TD/INT: 26/15 CMP%: 59.9
Victor Cruz—Rec: 86 Yards: 1,092 TD: 10 Avg: 12.7
Hakeem Nicks—Rec: 53 Yards: 692 TD: 3 Avg: 13.1
Martellus Bennett—Rec: 55 Yards: 626 TD: 5 Avg: 11.4
Before the 2012 season, a few fans of the Giants disregarded my rankings as misguided based mostly on my ranking the Cowboys higher than the Giants.
This argument was understandable, as the previous year had seen Eli lift the Lombardi trophy as well as Romo missing the playoffs again.
However, Eli's inconsistency always worries me in a way that Romo does not. This may seem like a ridiculous assertion due to the perception of Romo as a wild card, but I find myself trusting him more than I do Eli in regular game situations.
Victor Cruz is a spectacular talent and one of the best receivers in the league, notching his second straight 1,000 yard season. The most notable difference between this past season and his rookie campaign was the drop in average yardage per reception from 18.7 to 12.7.
To look at this number from a different perspective, despite four more receptions, Cruz had 444 less yards.
Cruz can be one of the best receivers in the league and has been prolific in his first two seasons. This drop in average yardage per reception could be more indicative of his changing role to an all-around No. 1 receiver as opposed to just a deep ball threat.
He remains the Giants most dangerous offensive weapon.
Apart from Cruz, the Giants have some very nice pieces in the passing game.
For the first time in three seasons, Hakeem Nicks did not reach 1,000 yards, but this was more due to injury and the emergence of Victor Cruz than lack of production. Martellus Bennett and Domenik Hixon are also valuable parts of this passing attack with rookie Rueben Randle showing he could develop into a key contributor for this offense.
When Eli Manning steps back in the pocket, some amazing things can happen—especially with Victor Cruz at receiver—which is why they find themselves in the 5th position on this list.
They cannot be ranked higher because of their inconsistency.
Eli threw for nearly 4,000 yards on only 536 attempts and 321 completions. Obviously, when the New York passing game is clicking, it can be lethal.
The problem is that they are not always clicking.
Eli played four games in which he did not throw a touchdown and three of these happened in succession. If players continue to develop and chemistry develops between Eli and his young receivers, this team should see more efficiency and move even further up this list.
Tony Romo—Rating: 90.5 Yards: 4,903 TD/INT: 28/19 CMP%: 65.6
Dez Bryant—Rec: 92 Yards: 1,382 TD: 12 Avg: 15.0
Miles Austin—Rec: 66 Yards: 943 TD: 6 Avg: 14.3
Jason Witten—Rec: 110 Yards: 1,039 TD: 3 Avg: 9.4
People love to hate Tony Romo.
Fans of other teams are typically quick to focus on the negative aspects of rival players, so it is no surprise that fans of the Skins, Giants and Eagles typically enjoy diminishing Romo’s successes and celebrating his failures.
On the other side of the spectrum, many Dallas fans are understandably frustrated by Romo’s inability to come through in big moments, leaving many to question if Jerry Jones should put someone else behind center.
As a fan with no connection to the NFC East, I am a Romo defender and feel like his high- profile, clutch-moment failings distract from how good he really can be.
For the fourth time in his career, Romo threw for over 4,000 yards and fell 97 yards short of reaching 5,000. Romo’s 19 interceptions cannot be ignored as averaging over one interception per game is far from acceptable for any quarterback.
However, it should not cause us to completely ignore his 65.6 percent completion rate, high yardage and impressive touchdown tally.
Even as a Romo defender, I have to acknowledge that this passing attack would not be anywhere if not for the talent of those charged with catching the ball.
The best aspect of this offense for the receivers is the fact that they are all potent weapons.
Despite his early-career character concerns, Dez Bryant proved this year that he was worth the risk, emerging as Dallas’ No. 1 option with over 1,300 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Bryant is building rapport with Romo and could be one of the elite receivers in the NFL if he continues to build on this production.
Miles Austin fell 57 yards shy of the 1,000 yard mark and would be a No. 1 receiver on a lot of teams, but Dez has taken that post and made Austin one of the stronger No. 2 receivers in the game.
The combination of these two spreads the defense out and has allowed players like Kevin Ogletree to have hugely productive games and send fantasy owners into a waiver wire frenzy.
Of course, an analysis of the Dallas passing attack would be incomplete without a mention of the most reliable component: tight end Jason Witten.
Over Witten’s 10 year career, he has had only one game in which he did not play (which was in his rookie campaign). In 2012, Witten reached career highs in both receptions and yardage, which is even more impressive when you consider the tandem that is Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
It is an asset when you have a wide receiver who is capable of producing over 1,000 yards and even more of an asset when your No. 2 flirts with the mark, but when you have a tight end capable of achieving 1,000, you have a terrifying arsenal with which to work.
As mentioned in the beginning, I am a Romo Defender.
Does that mean that I want to see him behind center of my favorite team?
On the other hand, do I relish the times that my team’s defense goes up against Romo?
Not when he is clicking and has these weapons at his disposal.
Some may disagree with this placement, but it is undeniable that the Cowboys had one of the most dangerous passing attacks in 2012.
Drew Brees—Rating: 96.3 Yards: 5,177 TD/INT: 43/19 CMP%: 63.0
Marques Colston—Rec: 83 Yards: 1,154 TD: 10 Avg: 13.9
Lance Moore—Rec: 65 Yards: 1,041 TD: 6 Avg: 16.0
Jimmy Graham—Rec: 85 Yards: 982 TD: 9 Avg: 11.6
Our top three passing attacks begin with a unit that accomplished a great deal without their head coach all season.
I looked at the stat line for Drew Brees within the context of a team that missed the playoffs and went through such turmoil this season. It is obvious that he did everything in his power to lift this team on his shoulders and will them to victory.
From a full-team perspective, it was not enough to get them to the Promised Land, but from the perspective of these rankings, the Saints were a team that tested secondaries and challenged opposing offenses to keep the pace.
It is odd to say that a quarterback who threw for nearly 5,200 yards “took a step back” this season, but it would have been near impossible for him to match his 2011 production, especially without his head coach at the helm.
One of the more impressive aspects of the team’s 5,177 yards passing is the fact that this is a team that does like to run the ball.
The Saints’ two main running backs combined for over 1,000 yards on the ground and certainly did their part to keep teams honest—which is indicative of this offense’s all-around potential.
It is also evidenced by how many players did well receiving the ball.
Of course, this comes as no surprise with a quarterback throwing over 5,000 yards, but you have to have reliable receivers to make that happen.
I do not claim to remember everything that every player did throughout the season; therefore the research portion can occasionally yield some surprises.
I was not shocked to read the stat line of Marques Colston.
He is a favorite target for Brees and is almost expected to get 1,000 yards in a season, a mark he only missed once in his seven year career due to injury, but I was a little surprised that Lance Moore had also eclipsed this mark.
This was the first time he has eclipsed 1,000 in his seven years, but he may have emerged as a dangerous No. 2 option for Brees.
While any team would be thrilled to have two 1,000 yard receivers on their team, having Jimmy Graham at tight end almost seems to be an embarrassment of riches.
Graham was not able to match his prolific stats of a year ago, but only falling 18 yards shy of 1,000 and catching nine touchdowns is nothing to ignore.
Brees likes to get everyone involved and the fact that two wide receivers achieved 1,000 and a tight end was one or two passes away from this mark is certainly impressive.
Add to this the fact that two of the Saints running backs combined for over 1,000 yards and you have, perhaps, the most well-rounded passing attacks in the NFL.
That being the case, one thing holds this team back from the top two spots and it is something that has plagued Drew Brees throughout his career: interceptions.
In 2004, when Brees was with the Chargers, he only threw seven interceptions. Other than that, he has had nine seasons wherein he threw more than 13. In 2012, we saw the second most interceptions he’s ever thrown at 19.
This can partially be blamed on the absence of their head coach, but it has to worry New Orleans fans that this number continues to be high.
My loyalties lie with a team in the NFC North. Therefore, I know what it means to watch Aaron Rodgers line up behind center. Ten yards begins to look like ten feet, your corners and safeties appear incompetent and you find yourself starting to assume that every drive is going to result in a touchdown. The hyperbole around Rodgers can get tiresome, but there is no denying that he is a great player, capable of remarkable efficiency in the Green Bay offense. He has truly made the Packer passing attack one of the most dangerous and effective in the NFC.
One of the cornerstones of this efficiency is the lack of interceptions thrown. He increased his 2011 interception total by 33%. This may seem like a massive jump…unless you know that he only threw six interceptions in 2011. It is a testament to Rodgers’ decision-making that he has only thrown 14 picks over two years, especially when you consider that some of those were caused by receivers mishandling passes. One of the major problems for the passing attack of the Detroit Lions last season was that defenses knew that the pass was coming due to the lack of a running game, therefore they were able to take away a lot of the potential explosiveness of Stafford and his receivers. Similarly, the Green Bay Packers lack a strong presence in the backfield, but are still able to be extremely efficient in the passing game with Rodgers completing over 67% of his passes. This can mainly be attributed to Rodgers’ decision-making, the offensive system and the chemistry between Rodgers and his various receivers.
What is most frustrating when watching Rodgers go against your defense is how easy it looks. Rodgers does have the ability to fit the ball into tight windows, but more often than not it appears that his receivers are wide open. None of the Green Bay receivers caught for over 1,000 yards but three receivers caught for over 700 and a tight end had 667 receiving yards. Ultimately, it is tough for any of Green Bay’s receivers to emerge as clear cut No. 1 options when so many of them are incorporated into the game plan.
Before the season began, I had Green Bay in the pole position in these rankings, and while they did slide down a position, they did not disappoint in the passing game. I often bemoan the hyperbole around Aaron Rodgers, but the fact of the matter is that he is clearly one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and leads the second best passing attack in the NFC.
Aaron Rodgers – Rating: 108 Yards: 4,295 TD/INT: 39/8 CMP%: 67.2
Randall Cobb - Rec: 80 Yards: 954 TD: 8 Avg: 11.9
James Jones – Rec: 64 Yards: 784 TD: 14 Avg: 12.3
Jermichael Finley – Rec: 61 Yards: 667 TD: 2 Avg: 10.9
Matt Ryan—Rating: 99.1 Yards: 4,719 TD/INT: 32/14 CMP%: 68.6
Roddy White—Rec: 92 Yards: 1,351 TD: 7 Avg: 14.7
Julio Jones—Rec: 79 Yards: 1,198 TD: 10 Avg: 15.2
Tony Gonzalez—Rec: 93 Yards: 930 TD: 8 Avg 10.0
One has to wonder how defensive meetings went this past season for teams game planning against the Atlanta Falcons.
Do you focus on stopping Julio Jones or Roddy White?
Whichever receiver defenses chose to shut down, the answer always seemed wrong.
With Roddy White having more receptions and yardage, there is an argument to be made that he is the No. 1 receiver for the Falcons. With Julio scoring more touchdowns and having a higher average per reception, one could argue that he is Atlanta’s No. 1 option.
In actuality, neither had more receptions than tight end Tony Gonzalez so an argument can even be made that he is the most effective player when it comes to receiving Matt Ryan’s passes.
Regardless of which receiver you believe to be the most effective, it is a unit that Jones, White, Gonzalez and Ryan were all thrilled to be a part of in 2012.
Not to be overlooked is how much of a step forward Matt Ryan took this season.
Matt Ryan set career highs in completions, completion percentage, yardage, touchdowns and quarterback rating (for whatever that is worth). It is true that his 14 interceptions were too high, but when you consider what he and his receivers were able to accomplish this season, it is enough to look past that flaw to a certain extent.
Before the season began, I bet low on the Falcons because I worried about receiver depth. Anyone who watched in 2011 knew that Julio and Roddy could be explosive together, but I had concerns that if one of them went down due to injury, this passing attack could be exposed.
They solved this by not going down to injury (knock on wood for Falcon fans).
The strength of this unit is accentuated by Matt Ryan’s decision making.
It is true that he threw five interceptions against the Cardinals and three against the Raiders; however, if we allow young quarterbacks a few hiccups, it is interesting to note that he only had six other games in which he threw any interceptions—and never did he throw more than one other than in those two instances.
The Roddy-Julio tandem may be the absolute best in the NFL and no fan would be honest to say that they would not relish the opportunity to have these two in their receiving corps. Add the maturing Matt Ryan and the ever-reliable Tony Gonzalez, and you have the best passing attack in the NFC in 2012.
Projecting ahead, it is tough to envision this unit keeping up this production if Tony Gonzalez does retire.
Atlanta’s GM currently has the odds of their star tight end returning at 50/50, and his decision will have a great impact on whether or not this unit can maintain this stellar level of play.
The 2012 NFC passing attacks all had their strengths and weaknesses.
The worst passing unit has one of the NFL’s most elite receivers and the best unit has a significant lack of depth.
It does show that accumulating talent is not all that it takes to build a strong passing game, the coaching staff and quarterback need to be skilled and knowledgeable enough to utilize their weapons.
As the 2013 free agency period fast approaches, it will be interesting to see what steps teams take in enhancing what some believe to be the most impactful unit on any given team.