Reader, long-suffering Lions fan, and friend of your faithful columnist Geoff Fink submits the following question: “As a long-time football expert, and now apparent pundit, would you say this is an average NFL year, or is my perception of this being a truly mediocre year just way off?”
This, like most great questions, has pushed me down a postulatory road further than one would think possible upon first glance.
With the NFL season only now closing in on the quarter pole, I don’t think we can truly assess the quality of play league-wide yet. That said, I fully expect it to maintain or slightly improve, as it usually does from year to year. The perception of play quality around the league may well be blemished by the fact that, through three weeks, our preconceived notions of the hierarchy of power within the NFL, at least based on the last half-decade or so, are essentially useless. There are those perennial league truths, such as the Lions suck (sorry, Geoff, but I know you know that), the Al Davis Raiders are as clinically-insane as a corporate entity can be (look no further than San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Tim Kawakami’s recent interaction with team executives for proof of that and more), the NFC East is one of the most brutal divisions in the league, the Texans are disappointingly bad, et cetera, et cetera, ipso facto, ab initio, de novo. Beyond those things which are heavily entrenched, there is little that the conventional wisdom can truly tell us about the 2008 season to this point.
That said, the prima facie (last pointless Latin reference for this column, I promise) state of play throughout the league would appear to be pretty pedestrian, but this brings to mind a piece on the quality of quarterback play I read in the last year. Quarterbacking is arguably the largest driving force to quality team play, so let’s consider this question from that perspective.
The quality of quarterback play has, statistically speaking, increased steadily over time, especially as the passing game has grown in prominence. However, longtime observers of the NFL remember, perhaps nostalgically, the 60s and 70s big name quarterbacks (no doubt aided in their established recognition by the lack of free agency) that seemed to litter the league in those days. These were tough, well-known guys who, while they made some pretty bad mistakes on a regular basis, also made some great plays. At the risk of conjuring the disembodied soul of John Madden, that, more than anything is what makes Brett Favre such a throwback, even more than the toughness, longevity, and narcotics addiction—he makes great plays, but is just as prone to &$#*ing up in spectacular, game-changing fashion on a pretty regular basis, much like many of the quarterbacks of the 60s and 70s. (Look no further than his ownership of both the career touchdown and interception records for proof of that. Paging George Blanda.)
The quarterback as focus of a precision offense really didn’t come into style until the 1983 NFL draft class, with Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and John Elway. The league was beginning a move away from smash mouth, 4 to 1 run/pass split football, but it took both the physical gifts and the mental acuity of these kinds of quarterbacks to really propel the newer, more pass-heavy styles of offense forward. As professional football players truly became professionals, they got bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter, and schemes evolved right along with them. No longer was it enough to line up and run it straight at them 80 percent of the time, or simply send out a couple of receivers on uncomplicated routes when a pass was called for—quality offensive football now required sharpened focus and superb decision-making.
I’ve already partially covered in a previous column the evolutionary step in quarterback play that Peyton Manning’s career has been, but he was another stride, albeit a large one, in this developmental process. He was the first real on-field offensive coordinator of the complex offense era, and now every quality quarterback is at least partially expected to have or develop that ability during their career. Prior to the rise of the intricate, multifaceted offensive game plan, it was more than enough to be physically gifted at the quarterback position, because you weren’t often going to be called upon to win games solely with your arm. From that standpoint, and stay with me now, it wouldn’t seem too far from the realm of possibility for a quarterback like Jon Kitna to be a hall-of-famer were he playing 40 years ago on a good team. He has the toughness, the arm strength, and the productivity. He just doesn’t have the benefit of the relaxed margin for error enjoyed by pre-modern era quarterbacks.
When it comes down to it, what this all means is that modern quarterback and offensive play has led to increased expectations for scoring and precision. This makes for more exciting play in general, but also magnifies the mediocre play of those who do not play up to the highest level. The 10-6 mistake-filled slugfest that today might be seen as an interesting, although slightly boring game by many, would arguably have been seen as a valiant defensive war 35 years ago, although admittedly, at my age, I can’t possibly say for certain. What I can say for certain is this—Brian Griese threw 11 passes in the final two minutes of regulation for the Buccaneers last Sunday. His father Bob threw 11 passes in the entirety of Super Bowl VII, which cemented the Dolphins’ perfect season. There is undeniably more reliance on, more pressure on, and thus more opportunity for error from, the quarterback position in today’s NFL.
And yet, play at the quarterback position, and by extension NFL play in general, gets better, and more entertaining, all the time. I love this game.