National Football League
How the NFL became a passing league
National Football League

How the NFL became a passing league

Published Sep. 12, 2013 1:00 a.m. ET

It’s a passing league, but balance still wins.

Gone are the days of the hard-nosed, old-school head coaches and offensive play-callers who preached toughness and 3 yards and a cloud of dust. If you don’t believe it, just look at the numbers in Week 1 of the NFL regular season.

This past weekend, NFL teams threw for a combined 8,143 passing yards, the highest total in NFL history. Not Week 1 history. League history.

Also recorded were the highest number of receiving touchdowns. Again, the most in league history.


Look at any number of things to explain this phenomenon:

1. Rules limiting downfield contact and "re-routes" past 5 yards certainly make it easier for receivers to stretch the field and get in and out of their breaks untouched.

2. Because of the emphasis on protecting defenseless players, quarterbacks are now more protected than ever. This makes them more comfortable in the pocket. Also, some QBs are more willing to sit tight and take a pass-rusher’s best shot, knowing there’s an increased likelihood of a flag being thrown.

3. Offensive linemen — and this is obviously a biased former defensive player talking here — are holding more than ever, which, of course, gives the QB more time in the pocket. In fact, there are many offensive line coaches who actively encourage their players to hold for extended periods of time. It’s all risk vs. reward, as they see it. There’s offensive holding on virtually every play, but do you think the officials will throw a flag every play? Of course not. A lot of coaches hedge their bets on that. They know a call might get made four or five times in a game, but the other 55 or 60 times? Give the QB all the time he needs to sit comfortably and find a target, knowing that the odds are always on your side for a no-call.

4. There’s been a significant rise in ridiculously athletic tight ends in recent years. Every linebacker and safety can thank Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates — experiments gone extremely well — for that. This gives pass-happy coordinators and QBs a big body to throw to in more risk-free passing zones, such as the middle of the field or deep in the back of the end zone. Plus, it seems like there’s another crop of former basketball players or track stars lining up and abusing guys like me every year (I don’t even know for certain if any of them are actual track stars, but it sure seems that way). Tight ends like this are practically career-enders for linebackers of a certain age and body type. Trust me.

5. One thing that doesn’t get mentioned enough is how the deep dig area has virtually become a free-completion zone in recent years. Why? Because safeties’ hands are tied. I’m not making an argument for or against rules protecting defenseless receivers here; I’m just making an observation. There was a time when one of the primary responsibilities of the safety was to prevent the ball from being completed at 15-20 yards over the middle of the field. The way he did that was by separating the intended receiver from the ball. How did he do that, if he couldn’t get there before the ball arrived? By delivering a crushing blow as the ball arrived. As we all know, it’s become a lot harder for him to do that without losing a significant amount of money. Naturally, offensive play-callers and QBs know this. So why wouldn’t they put the ball up high, 20 yards down the middle of the field? That’s an easy throw and catch to make, and it’s a huge chunk of yardage that keeps the chains moving.

6. Teams can’t effectively work on the run game in practice and in training camp like they used to because of the limitations on in-practice contact. That might make coaches a bit more reluctant to run the ball on Sundays.

A combination of all these factors, among others, have led to the NFL becoming predominantly a passing league.

But if I’m an offensive coordinator, I’m going all in on the run. For the same reason offensive coaches are reluctant to run the ball due to a lack of efficient run game reps in practice, they need to recognize that run defenses are at an even greater disadvantage for that same reason. Linebackers and defensive linemen almost never get good, full-speed run fits like we did in the old days (and "old days" now stretches back only a few years). Without those reps, it’s become way more difficult defensively to fit the run in games.

So in the same way that the numbers this past weekend show record-breaking pass tendencies around the NFL, the numbers also suggest that a run/pass balance wins. Losing teams last weekend ran the ball on 37 percent of their offensive snaps, while winning teams ran the ball 45 percent of the time. But before you simply dismiss those numbers by saying that the losing teams had to pass with more frequency to stay in the game, recognize that 12 of those games were decided by seven points or less, which is tied for the most in any week in NFL history. Parity is at an all-time high, and the team that can still effectively run the ball, or is at least willing to commit to the run, has a huge advantage. There’s nothing more demoralizing to a defense than an offense that can beat you both ways.

I know this is a passing league, but ultimately, balance still wins.


Look higher than Suh

Blame the Detroit Lions coaches for the on-field antics of Ndamukong Suh. After hearing Suh’s statement regarding his questionable block against the Vikings, I was left thinking one thing: He sounds like Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, almost verbatim. I don’t know Suh personally, but I’ve actually heard he’s a pretty solid, likeable guy. But everyone is just working with what they’ve seen on film, and there’s obviously a certain pattern of behavior here. It’s one that’s accepted in that organization. The coaching staff should have gotten this handled a long time ago. This is a team that has had 116 personal foul penalties called against them since Jim Schwartz was hired in 2009, most in the NFL. Player health and safety aside, common sense would dictate that you wouldn’t want to hurt your own team by getting penalized at such a high rate. But unfortunately, sense doesn’t seem too common in Detroit. Which is a shame, because guys like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush are exciting players to watch, and they do things the right way. But a cavalier approach to discipline from the top will continue to hold this team back.

Looking nice in KC

I have a feeling something good is brewing in Kansas City, and it’s not just beer and barbecue in the Arrowhead parking lot — which I loved as a Chief, by the way. I’ve felt for quite some time that Andy Reid and Alex Smith are a perfect match. We’re going to see efficient, productive numbers from Smith as this team progresses. He won’t need to post Peyton Manning or Drew Brees numbers. Just be efficient. Reid knows that things got a little too pass-happy in Philadelphia, so we’ll see his offense in Kansas City be a lot more balanced. That means a heavy dose of Jamaal Charles. Which is scary. Planning my trip to KC now for a rack of pregame baby backs, and maybe a beer or two (or three).

Little love for Johnny?

A few weeks ago I wanted someone to smack Johnny Manziel. I was turned off by his perceived sense of entitlement and a pattern of what appeared to be selfish behavior. I questioned whether teams at the next level would want to waste their time with this kid, because an entitled attitude never fares well in an NFL locker room. But there’s something about this guy that intrigues me. He’s a gamer, and he has a thing called moxie. Despite every negative headline about him in recent months and the attention he’s been getting for all the wrong reasons, he seems unshakable. That’s something that can’t be coached. That’s why, despite all the perceived baggage, I’m kind of a fan. And I can’t believe I’m saying that.


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