How the NFL passing game has exploded

Forgive the NFL fan for using the opening weekend’s passing orgy as evidence that today’s quarterbacks leave the Bart Starrs and the Johnny Unitases and the Terry Bradshaws of yesterday in the dust.

After all, how many times did an Otto Graham or a Sammy Baugh begin a media-heralded surefire Hall of Fame career with a 422-yard passing game, as Cam Newton did in his debut? How many times did a Fran Tarkenton-led NFL throw for 7,842 net passing yards in a weekend, as a Tom Brady-led NFL did in its 2011 opening weekend? How many times did Roger Staubach, Dan Fouts & Co. combine for 14 300-yard passing games in one weekend, as Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers & Co. just did?

You know the answers: Never, none, zippo.

And the 2011 QB crop — Undoubtedly the Greatest of All Time, Proof the Golden Age of Quarterbacks Has Arrived, 32 Mini-Montanas Throwing 54 Touchdowns Over One Glorious Weekend — did this without the two greatest quarterbacks of the past decade, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.

Yet, hidden in all this aerial ado lies a bit of historical perspective. That perspective tells us the NFL is playing a much different game than it did in the 1970s, or even a decade ago. Through rule changes and rule emphases, five-wide formations and West Coast offenses, and quarterbacks who’ve played in pass-happy systems since high school, today’s football is simply a completely different sport.

And though no sane person would deny that today’s QB crop is exceptional, so, too, would no sane person deny that the statistical bar for the new guys ought to be a few notches higher than before.

“I think Bart Starr would have figured out a way to win in any era,” said Ken Anderson, the Pro Bowl Bengals quarterback of the 1970s and 1980s who, under then-quarterback coach Bill Walsh, was one of the first NFL quarterbacks to run the precursor to the West Coast offense. “The great ones would have been successful today. The way that Sonny Jurgensen threw the football, he probably would have been pretty good today. Or even go back to what a great athlete Otto Graham was — he’d be successful today. What gets skewed over the eras are the statistics. The game was different. Quarterbacks in the ’60s and ’70s did not have the TDs or the numbers guys put up now because it was a different game back then.”

Whereas baseball’s sabermetricians love to compare across eras — the age-old debate about the best home-run hitters is sullied only by racial segregation and steroid use — that’s a bit more difficult to do in football. Since the NFL was founded in 1920, the game has evolved so drastically that it’s barely recognizable from its former self. The old-time game of wedge formations and 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust bears little resemblance to today’s spread offenses of short, quick passes, impossibly accurate quarterbacks and a running game that’s designed to keep defenses off balance rather than control the game.

So comparing Cam Newton’s ridiculous debut to Joe Namath’s, or even Peyton Manning’s, is an exercise in futility.

“I go back to my scouting days and ignore statistics,” said Charlie Casserly, general manager of the Washington Redskins during their Super Bowl years and later the Houston Texans. “I look at a guy’s physical talent for throwing the football. Guys back then, you put Dan Marino, who came in in ’83, in this system, he’d throw for 6,000 yards. He was the best I ever saw as a passer.”

The NFL’s evolution toward the pass-happy attack — last year’s season set records in points and passing touchdowns — is continuing. Last weekend was the ninth-highest-scoring weekend in NFL history, after a lockout many predicted would leave offenses rusty.

Yet pinpointing a singular moment that moved the NFL toward passing is impossible. A confluence of forces over the past several decades has taken us to the point where we barely bat an eye at four 400-yard passing games in one weekend.


Gil Brandt, one of the chief architects of the great Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1970s, remembers one day in 1977 when his boss — general manager Tex Schramm, then the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee — walked into Brandt’s office. Schramm was quite concerned.

“You see what happened?” Schramm said after nine teams scored one touchdown or fewer in Week One. “We have to do something about it.”

Over the past decade or more, the NFL had become a running game, dominated by featured backs who could carry teams to championships. The result: There were only five 300-yard passing games in 1977, and only 6,623 points scored.

That offseason, the competition committee instituted two big rule changes. One was that defenses couldn’t engage a receiver 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. This opened up the passing game. The second was permitting offensive linemen to use their hands and extend their arms instead of blocking with clenched fists against their chests; this provided more protection for quarterbacks.

The impact was immediate. The next year, NFL teams scored 21 percent more points, and there were 15 300-yard passing games. As offenses further adjusted, the passing game took flight.

Since then, most rule changes have favored offenses: head slaps have been banned, hash marks have moved nearer the center of the field. Rule changes and rule emphases have afforded quarterbacks more protection and more confidence in the pocket. Helmet headsets mean quarterbacks can remain in communication with coaches until just before the snap, making offenses more adaptive at the line of scrimmage. And receivers must now make a “football move” before it’s considered a completion, decreasing the likelihood of a post-catch fumble.

The NFL knows its fans want scoring, and the league sees its magic number as 42 points per game — lower than that and rules are tweaked toward more offense.

The seminal moment that led to the most recent passing explosion came after the New England Patriots bloodied the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game in January 2004. Afterward, Colts players complained that officials didn’t call illegal contact penalties on Patriots’ defensive backs, echoing complaints by other teams.

In the offseason, the competition committee instructed referees to emphasize the 5-yard chuck rule, calling jersey grabs and the like to the letter of the law, whether or not they affect the play.

The next year, penalties for illegal contact more than doubled, from 79 in 2003 to 191 in 2004. Sure enough, scoring rose, from 41.66 points per game in 2003 to 42.97 in 2004.

“It was a big moment,” said Mike Pereira, former vice president of officiating for the NFL. “It was a reaction to the championship game between the Colts and Patriots. It was bumpy coming off the line of scrimmage, riding you a bit. And the committee felt it was too excessive.”


When Brandt looks for the true reason for the spread of pass-happy attacks, he doesn’t look to his former team and Tony Romo’s 4,000-yard seasons. He doesn’t look anywhere in the NFL, in fact. He looks to Texas high school football, and how today’s quarterbacks are trained in spread offenses from a young age.

On the same weekend the NFL smashed so many passing records, Brandt analyzed 242 of the largest Texas high school teams. Only 53 teams scored less than 25 points that weekend, and Brandt credits the scoring spree to a decades-long creep toward more passing. Seven-on-seven football in the summer hones high school quarterbacks’ skills, and those skills are later taken to colleges. Last year 13 Division I teams passed the ball more than 500 times, a record. Rare is today’s college quarterback who lines up under center; it’s all spread offense, shotgun formation.

The West Coast schemes that dominate the NFL used to be on the fringe. Pioneers like Sid Gillman, Don Coryell and Bill Walsh honed these opened-up passing games, then Peyton Manning and Mike Martz refined them and made them mainstream.

Statistically speaking, it makes sense. As quarterbacks have become more accurate, passing has become by far the more efficient way to move down the field. The average yards per run in the NFL has remained steady since World War II: about 4 yards per attempt. But while the average passing play in the 1970s gained only about 4 yards per attempt, now it’s consistently above 6. Last weekend, that number rose to 6.9 yards per attempt.

“When you pass, you move the line of scrimmage up,” said Dick Vermeil, who won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf.” “There’s nothing between you and the receiver but air. A great quarterback can throw the ball, like watching Brady the other day, where it’s easy to be caught, and the receiver becomes a runner right away.”


“I would hate to be a defensive coordinator in this league nowadays,” said Jim Mora, former head coach of the Colts and Saints. “You can slow them down a little bit, but you can’t stop them.”

This argument seems easy to poke holes in. Sure, yesterday’s NFL never saw quarterbacks with the athleticism of a Newton or a Michael Vick. But the other side of the ball has become more athletic, too. The biggest player on Vermeil’s first Super Bowl team in 1980 weighed 275 pounds.

Try finding an NFL lineman today below 300.

But there’s little doubt that, whether spurred on by the better athletes, more sophisticated passing schemes or the desire to please fans, the NFL has forever changed.

“And it probably even has further to go,” said Brian Burke, who runs a football statistics website, “The modern athlete and modern rules is really relegating the run to almost a jab in boxing. It just keeps the defense off-balance to use the real weapon, the pass.”

Last weekend might have been a bit of lightning in a bottle. The September weather, the close games, the creaky post-lockout defenses: It all contributed to an astounding 6.9 yards per passing attempt. Expect that number to come back to earth. But last weekend says a lot about where the NFL has come — and where it’s headed.

So how do you put last weekend in historical perspective?

A generation ago, one of the finest quarterbacks alive was Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw threw for more than 3,000 yards only twice. His career completion percentage was barely above 50 percent. He threw only two more touchdowns than interceptions in his career.

During the recent passing explosion that culminated in last weekend, Jay Cutler threw for more than 3,000 yards his first four full seasons, once tossing for 4,526. Romo has always completed well more than 60 percent of his passes. Matt Schaub has thrown twice as many touchdowns as interceptions the past two seasons. Cam Newton had a debut like no other.

So these guys must all be better than Bradshaw. Right?

Ah, no.

Comparing passing statistics between eras is like comparing prices between 1980 and today. You must account for inflation.

“It’s a different era, and it’s so difficult to compare,” said Carl Peterson, former general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs. “Terry was the type of guy, he willed his team to win. He was a big strong guy for that era, and he could throw the heck out of a football. But more than that, he was a quarterback who led his team. Same with Joe Montana. The bigger the game, the better they played.”

And, as Peterson points out, there’s no statistic that can account for Montana’s feel for the pocket, or Bradshaw’s willing his team to victory.

The things that make a good quarterback great don’t show up on a fantasy football website. The only statistic that comes close? The W.