All year long we've seen and heard consistently that passing is at an all-time high in the NFL.
I made the case myself just a few months back that the NFL is, above all else, a passing league. Looking at the conference title game matchups, it was made even more obvious as the Jets were the only team that didn't boast a top-five passing attack.
But while the NFL loves its high-scoring games, three of the four teams in the title games, playing against high-quality defenses, finished with more than 300 yards passing.
The lone exception? The high-powered New Orleans offense, which seemed to have as much trouble figuring out the Vikings' resurgent defense as the Colts did against the Jets' top unit.
The NFL has pushed toward higher scoring games since, arguably, the AFL merger.
However, it has been this decade, more than any other, that has seen the spread of these high-octane offenses.
Advancements in the development of fast and forgiving artificial surfaces, the proliferation of domed stadiums, the rules penalizing downfield contact, the increased use of the spread offense in the NFL, the rules protecting quarterbacks from being hit low, and the way pass interference is called (is any ball considered uncatchable anymore?) have all made passing the ball the go-to option for offensive coordinators league-wide.
Is this a bad thing? Well, not on its face. The NFL is a young sport; change should be expected, but 30 years of quarterbacking records are being made obsolete by a continued onslaught of rule changes and technological advancements that have swung the advantage toward passing offenses.
To wit: Six of the top 20 single-season yardage marks were set in 2008 or 2009. There have been 50 seasons where quarterbacks passed for more than 4,200 yards (Manning hit exactly that mark in 2002 and is being excluded for the sake of round numbers.) Twenty-eight took place this decade, with 10 from the 1980s and 12 from the 1990s.
Passing offenses have gotten so successful at implementing their gameplans that the league is undergoing a tectonic shift that must force us, as those who watch, cover, and love football, to place this era in a different historical context than that of the era of Marino, Montana, Young, et al.
It's not just records at risk, though. The way the divisions are aligned and the way the playoff schedule is figured out, dome teams are placed at an advantage over their outdoor counterparts because, by beating up on weak divisional opponents as the Vikings and Saints did this year, dome teams can rack up enough wins so that they don't have to brave outdoor conditions until, in all likelihood, the Super Bowl.
This is only compounded by the fact that the league can't be in any rush to hold an outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city.
As I said before, the NFL is a young league and professional football a young sport, but it's a sport that has already developed a deep mythos about what does and doesn't determine success.
Most of it is the usual mish-mash of Americana and Puritanical hooey, but much of it is based on what won games and fans when the NFL was making a name for itself.
Hard running, power football, strong line play, solid organization, being able to brave the elements in the playoffs when the weather turns cold: These are the things that have long been the gospel of the great book How You Win Football Games When It Counts. Not so, anymore.
Teams don't want to expose their best assets to injury, the league doesn't want to see low hits or rough, physical play beyond the line of scrimmage, and it's not much more expensive to build a domed stadium on an artificial surface than it is to build an outdoor bowl on grass.
My question is not how we will perceive the legacies of guys like Marino and Montana in the future. Their legacies are set. We know how we will look at them now. We know how we will look at them for years to come.
My question is how will guys like Brees, Manning, and Brady be looked at in years to come? Will they be seen as some of the best to play the position, or as beneficiaries of an offensive explosion akin to Major League Baseball in the past 20 years?
I believe Manning may be the best quarterback of all time. I don't think he needs to win squat in two weeks. He's got nothing to prove to anyone.
He has a prototypical quarterback build and NFL genes. He could've gotten away with shoddy mechanics, yet he releases the ball at the absolute peak of his throwing motion, standing on his toes like a kid trying to reach the top shelf.
The combination of him and this era is like putting Rambo in the 16th century. He's simply wrecking all-comers. Behind a functional offensive line, he's practically unsackable and, with quarterback rules the way they are, only by purposely hitting him after he releases the ball can a defense even try to rattle him.
Is this fair? It's not just that he's a supernatural talent, because plenty of secondary guys are also performing at a level unseen in history. Manning would be racking up MVPs regardless of when he was born, but does the success of his peers detract from how we relate his body of work to guys like Marino, Montana, Elway, and others?
Today I heard Woody Paige, a man who is paid to have and share opinions about sporting matters, essentially discredit the work of Matt Schaub, the Texans' quarterback.
Matt Schaub, age 28, just passed for 4,770 yards, sixth all-time. He did so passing for 298.1 yards per game, ninth all-time, with a 67.9 completion percentage.
He just completed, numerically speaking, one of the 10 best passing years in the history of the league, and he's being disrespected on national television for his prowess as a quarterback relative to his peers.
If he put up those numbers in 1985, he'd be discussed breathlessly. Defensive coordinators would have to dream up new defenses to stop him. Books would be written. Small Texan boys would be named Matthew.
In 2010, he's barely even in the Pro Bowl.
Business is good, I suppose.