Just how pass-happy has the NFL been in the first half of 2011? Consider:
• In 2010 no team averaged more than 288.1 yards through the air. Through Sunday of Week 8 the top three passing teams are stratospherically higher: The Saints were throwing for 326.8 per game, the Patriots for 324.7 and the Packers for 323.4.
• Never have teams collectively thrown more than 56% of the time over the course of a season. After Sunday's games the passing frequency was 56.5%
• There were 10 individual 400-yard passing games through Sunday. That's already the fourth most ever. The record is 13.
• In Peyton Manning's first eight starts, as a rookie in 1998, he passed for 1,873 yards. Panthers rookie Cam Newton has passed for 2,393 in his first eight this year.
• Teams are scoring more points per game (44.6 through Sunday) than in any season since the NFL-AFL merger, in 1970.
So why the air raid? There have been some interesting theories advanced. For one, the weather around the country on Sundays has been mostly conducive to passing, clear and not too cold. It's not unusual for offensive production to slacken once the snow and wind hit. Some also argue that defenses didn't have an off-season to work on ways to counter the new wrinkles of high-powered attacks. That's a tougher sell: Rookies Cam Newton of the Panthers and Andy Dalton of the Bengals walked in with only seven weeks of organized NFL practice time and played above-average quarterback immediately. Why would it be harder for defenses to be ready at the start of the season.
To analyze these theories and get to the heart of the offensive explosion in the NFL, SI assembled its own football think tank last Thursday. Our panel of experts:
• Dalton, an instant starter in Cincinnati after running variations of a spread offense at TCU for four years.
• Saints coach Sean Payton, a cutting-edge passing-game expert.
• Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, a longtime secondary coach and four-time Pro Bowl defensive back for the Rams in the 1980s.
• Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who at 33 is one of the league's shrewdest defenders
• Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach who is highly regarded in NFL circles for his imaginative offensive mind.
• Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, a spread-offense guru who coached Newton last season and helped him become the first pick in the 2011 draft.
• Brian Burke, the former Navy fighter pilot who founded the forward-thinking analytics website Advanced NFL Stats.
One factor became overwhelmingly clear during the discourse: the maturity of quarterbacks who have entered the league in the last two or three years. They've been polished by experience gained from college programs playing the same game the pros play—and by a certain craze going all the way down to middle school that makes football nearly a year-round sport.
"Seven-on-seven summer passing leagues," Dalton said. "When I was in high school I was in a power-I formation. We were handing it off a lot. But in the summer with these passing leagues, it definitely helped quarterbacks out because we were getting five wide receivers every snap. It gave us confidence that we could get in the gun and throw it around successfully."
It makes tremendous sense. Dalton not only had 50 college games and 1,317 college passes on his résumé when the NFL took a close look at him before the draft last spring; he also had several summers of throwing the ball in multiple formations, reading coverages and learning to trust his arm and his head. Earlier this fall Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told SI one of the things most impressive about Dalton was that "there's not much he hasn't seen." That helps explain why his passer rating through Sunday was higher than that of Philip Rivers, Matt Cassel and Matt Ryan—and why the surprising Bengals (5--2) are in contention in the strong AFC North.
Provoking more thoughts from the think tank:
SI: Why has football become such an aerial game in 2011? Why are there three guys on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing record?
PAYTON: Our league has always paid close attention to who wins the Super Bowl. Ownership, coaches, front offices, G.M.'s always study what just won. We just watched Green Bay go through a lot of injuries, a lot of different running backs, line up in shotgun and in spread sets and win a Super Bowl. That's like Brooklyn Decker walking down a runway—people are going to buy the dress she's wearing. When the Super Bowl champs threw the ball a lot more than they ran it, played good defense and broke the formula of what wins, that'd be a starting point in terms of 2011's passing spike.
LEACH: I think it started way before that—the league has been doing it longer than it cares to admit. It started with the 49ers [in the 1980s]. Back then the West Coast offense was more open, but that offense evolved in the most conservative fashion. The teams that have been on top over the past couple of years—New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Indianapolis—get the ball in everyone's hands and attack the open field.
GRAY: I see a lot more offensive linemen coming out of college who are ready for the NFL passing game. They can do that very well. When I played, there was a premium on running backs. There was Eric Dickerson, and everyone was trying to get 1,000-yard rushers. That's really not the case anymore. The teams that are winning utilize space and throw it to a 6'4" receiver—he can make one guy miss and he's in the end zone.
BAILEY: What I want to know is, Did college and pro coaches have some sort of secret meeting or something? I'm looking at what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech, with all the shotgun, and now I see it trickling into the NFL more and more. Seems like there's not the prejudice against the shotgun there used to be. Basically, what I see when I line up now is no more smashmouth football.
BURKE: I see a confluence of things—and really healthy, topflight quarterbacks. I think all of the top passers have been healthy, and the receivers as well. And good weather, really favorable conditions.
SI: Being pro-ready is different today than it was even a few years ago. When Aaron Rodgers came in, he sat for three years. Now we've got four rookies starting—Newton, Dalton, Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville and Christian Ponder in Minnesota.
MALZAHN: The one thing I'm sure that surprises people about Cam is they saw how much he ran here at Auburn last year and figured he's just an athlete playing quarterback. Cam was phenomenal here about reading defenses and doing what the play called for. Sometimes he'd take off instead of hitting his hot receiver, and I'd ask him why and he'd say [the throw] wasn't there. I'd go back and look at the tape, and it was exactly the way he said. I trusted the way he went through his progressions.
DALTON: Obviously it depends on the situation. I came into a great one in Cincinnati. I feel like I had a lot of experience at TCU. I really haven't known anything else beside coming in and starting right away. I couldn't say what it was like 10 or 15 years ago, but now it seems like a lot of the rookies are being perceived as ready to go early on.
PAYTON: Twenty years ago it used to be, 'What draft pick is going to beat out what veteran player?' The roster was going to be 85 percent intact. Now you get 30, 35 percent turnover every year. Periodically you have what you saw with Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre, but we're much further along in the high school game, the college game and the pro game in taking a snap and throwing it to someone. Protections, hot receivers—I think back to when I was a quarterback in high school [at Naperville Central in Illinois]. We threw the ball a lot when no one else did. My coach said, "The biggest thing you've got to overcome first is your fear of throwing it," like we're really living out there in the left lane. A lot has changed philosophically.
SI: In the last three years Matthew Stafford, Kevin Kolb, Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy and Christian Ponder, all from high schools in Texas, have won starting jobs.
GRAY: It's really changed. Growing up in Texas, everybody wanted a premier running back on their team. Now we're talking about guys who have indoor facilities in their schools and they're throwing it and throwing it and throwing it. They're throwing the ball for 4,000 and 5,000 yards a year—in high school. So they get to our game, and they're so used it. When I was playing, it was run on first down, run on second down and throw on third down. It was easier to defend that. With the influx of kids who understand the passing game and aren't afraid to throw it, they hit the ground running.
SI: The NFL used to draft quarterbacks and mold them into pro-style NFL passers. Now it seems there isn't a lot of retraining. NFL coaches like what Andy's doing, what Cam Newton's doing.
GRAY: To me, teams have molded their game around the guys they draft, as opposed to, You come in and you learn my system—and if you don't know it, I'm going to put you on the shelf for a year or two until you learn the system. You take a Number 1 draft pick and set him on the shelf, there's a lot of dollars with that guy sitting on the bench, and you may not get a chance to coach that kid.
LEACH: I think it started in California, where they had these [seven-on-seven] passing leagues go pretty much year round. In Texas, I'd be on the road recruiting and talking to coaches and they'd say, 'Well, these guys were throwing so well over the summer that we added a couple of plays to let them do that.' These passing leagues catching on, that was critical.
MALZAHN: As a coach, week in and week out in [the SEC], you're seeing the same schemes you'll see on the next level. The comment about the seven-on-seven passing work that quarterbacks do in the off-season is right on target. I remember first seeing those back in about 1996, and by 2000 these young quarterbacks who wanted to be great realized they had to [take part]. When those quarterbacks got to college they were so much more ready—and the elite college defenses are so much more advanced too, which helps the development of the quarterback.
BAILEY: And those guys who played all that seven-on-seven football, they're all in the league now.
DALTON: Those passing leagues helped out with my transition from high school to college, and at TCU we ran a lot of the same concepts, a lot of the same stuff that we're doing here in Cincinnati. That whole transition has been good for me. That was the thing coming in—once we got into training camp I was taking most of the reps. When I was out there in that first game, it just felt like I was playing football.
BAILEY: We played the Bengals the second week of the season [a 24--22 Denver win], and when we're looking at the tape that week, I keep hearing, 'Oh, he's a rookie quarterback.' Like, he's going to make rookie mistakes. Not from what I saw. [Dalton was 27 of 41 for 332 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.] I kept telling everyone he wasn't playing like a rookie. The reads he was making, his confidence—I'm telling you, the young guys are coming into this league so much more ready to play our game.
PAYTON: You've got more people in high school and college who know what they're doing coaching the passing game. Andy at TCU was in the shotgun, seeing single safety, man and zone, he's seeing two-deep, zone pressure, quarters coverage. There was a time when that quarterback saw Sky and Cloud coverage and then came into the NFL and all of sudden was like, What's this Thief and Robber? People have gotten over their fear of feeling like we're living on the edge with the forward pass. That used to be unconventional thinking, and it wasn't very smart.
SI: The fact that yards after the catch was up through the early part of the season suggests that teams are trying to get the ball in space to their playmakers.
BAILEY: Or that there's a lot of bad tackling.
BURKE: When I see the yards after the catch increase, typically that means more screen passes or a lot of check downs. To my amateur eyes it looks like a lot more wide receiver screens and rub routes—the kind of routes where you're really setting a pick. Picks are technically illegal, but if it's right off the line and part of the route, then it's fine. We're seeing that more often—that's what's driving some of those yards. Just get your best player the ball, let him get into open space and make somebody miss. I think there are a lot more plays like that being run this year.
LEACH: Can I get a copy of your homework? I want a copy of his homework.
SI: Seems like the concept of 'space players' is at a premium—the guys who can make people miss and find the open field. You've seen running backs Matt Forte of the Bears and Arian Foster of the Texans take short passes a long way.
LEACH: Whoever is your favorite running back, think about him with five yards of space in every direction around him and then tell me how good he is.
PAYTON: Bill Parcells said he's learned not to hold a certain criteria for height and weight. He wanted [running backs] to be built powerfully in the lower body. Darren Sproles is built that way. You have to have some guys who can solve problems, and Sproles [the 5'6" former Chargers back whom the Saints signed this year as a free agent] is a quick thinker. You can teach a choice route to 15 different backs and spend six months on it, and after they begin to master some of the techniques, pretty soon the smart guy always seems to be open. Our tight end, Jimmy Graham—you can stretch him out like a split end, and now before the ball ever hits the quarterback's hands, he knows whether it's man or zone or if there's potential pressure. [Former 49ers coach] Bill Walsh would have the tight end kind of post up over the center and when the quarterback felt the squeeze of the linebackers, he'd just throw it opposite the squeeze, like he was inbounding a ball in a basketball game. Those are guys that allow your quarterback to be more efficient.
LEACH (to DALTON): I've got something for Andy. TCU has always kind of been viewed as a run-first team, use the clock. But contrary to popular belief TCU in the last couple of years did it with all kinds of spread sets. My question is, How much adjustment was there to the passing game in the NFL?
DALTON: The last two years [at TCU] we spread it out a little more. The Number 1 thing we tried to do was get in and out of formations. Five-wide one play, two tight ends and two backs the next. That was really good for me, because I had the knowledge of all the different sets that we were getting into. TCU was very similar to how we're calling plays here in Cincinnati, the way we're adjusting routes and signaling things and setting protections. It's all new terminology, but it's the same style we did at TCU. Everything I was able to do at TCU has helped me out tremendously and made this whole transition a whole lot easier.
PAYTON (to LEACH): Mike, here's one for you. I've seen a ton of your tape at Tech. We'd agree that there's different ways to call the same play, but what does vary is route adjustment within a certain pattern. In the run-and-shoot there were a lot of variables depending on what a receiver did to the coverage. How much of that existed with your system?
LEACH: People can term themselves to death—all the terms that quarterbacks have to keep track of that I don't know the definition of. The one thing that's never changed in football in my opinion is leveraging numbers in space. If they overload players, you're at a disadvantage. If you can find or create space, attack it. We gave our guys a lot of latitude, say, on crossing routes. If our receiver was going across the middle and had space, he had the freedom to settle, because we didn't feel that affected the integrity of the route or the rest of the play. We constantly talked about attacking space.
BURKE: There's a new generation of coaches. They don't really remember those days in the early '70s when nobody passed the ball and it was all running. That's part of the cycle you're seeing. There's only so many things you can do with the football. It's about having more numbers and getting the ball into space. And whatever is different is going to be confusing to a defense. You want to speed up their brains to slow down their legs—keep them thinking and keep them guessing.
SI: So, when the bad weather comes, will the game continue to be on this record pace?
PAYTON: I think the passing game travels more in inclement weather than it ever has. I worry more about the wind than precipitation or the cold. But there are things we want to do with play-action ... just attempting to pass doesn't cut it. In other words, are you good at it or are you not? We had one of our better rushing nights the other night [236 yards on the ground in the 62--7 win over the Colts in Week 7], and as we get closer to potentially being in the playoffs, that's something that can be important for us—and for our defense.
ASSAULT ON HISTORY
The offensive explosion is immediately evident in the passing numbers of the game's top quarterbacks. Through eight weeks no less than three QBs—Drew Brees, Tom Brady(left) and Aaron Rodgers—are on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 passing yards. Just as remarkable, rookie Cam Newton has more yards through his first eight games (2,393) than Marino had over the same span (2,390) in 1984. If the Panthers' rookie matches Marino's hot second half (336.8 yards per game), he too would break the 27-year-old mark. At his current average of 299.1 yards, Newton would smash Peyton Manning's rookie record of 3,739 from 1998.
PROJ Projected season total for 2011; Strahan's numbers are for full season
Photograph by MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IMAGES
MEGATRONIC Detroit's Calvin Johnson is one of four players on pace for 1,600 receiving yards, a figure that's been reached only 13 times in league history.
DAVID BUTLER II/US PRESSWIRE (BRADY)
HANS DERYK/AP (MARINO)
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES (GRAHAM)
MANNY MILLAN (WINSLOW)
CARLOS GONZALEZ/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (ALLEN)
LARRY FRENCH/NFL PHOTOS (STRAHAN)