Defining Factoid of the Era No. 1: Last December, Drew Brees passed Joe Montana for 11th place on the alltime passing yards list. Montana played until he was 38. Brees was 32.
LAST FEBRUARY 4, in Indianapolis, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 44 voters spent 67 minutes debating the qualifications of receivers Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed, each of whom had caught more NFL balls than anyone already in the Hall, save for Jerry Rice. And for the third straight year voters split on the merits of the threesome, who had combined for 3,146 receptions. None got in.
Now try to imagine a similar situation 20 years from now. This time voters spend twice as long debating the worthiness of quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan, each of whom has thrown (hypothetically, but reasonably so) for more yards than any Hall of Famer, save for Brett Favre. For a third straight year voters are split. None get in.
Afterward, two gatekeepers shake their heads.
"Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck are going to be in this room soon," one says.
"What about Matt Barkley?" says the other. "He has three 6,000-yard passing seasons in his career. What do we do?"
Defining Factoid of the Era No. 2: When you think of Dan Marino and numbers, you think of, perhaps, the alltime most explosive passer. After six full seasons as a starter, Marino had 23,856 passing yards. Philip Rivers, thought of as one of the more productive quarterbacks of this age, but certainly not of all time, had 24,137 yards in his first six full seasons as a starter—47 more yards per season than Marino.
IS THIS the new normal? If so—and I can't believe I'm writing this—then a 6,000-yard passing season is conceivably right around the corner.
"Five thousand is the new 4,000," says Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. "There's so much that's so hard to defend. Aaron Rodgers making the quick throw downfield to [a receiver's] back shoulder—you can be in perfect coverage, and you can't defend that."
The thrower he speaks of is dubious. "I doubt we'll get to 6,000," says Rodgers, "though you never know."
Let's start with the facts. Last year we witnessed four of the top six passing-yardage seasons in the NFL's 92-year history. Brees (5,476) and Tom Brady (5,235) shattered Marino's 26-year-old record of 5,084. Matthew Stafford (5,038) and Eli Manning (4,933) were within a combined 197 yards of the mark.
Matthews is right about 5,000 being the new 4,000. In 2005—eons ago, it now seems—two men threw for more than 4,000 yards. Last year three quarterbacks surpassed 5,000.
The genie's out of the bottle, and no defensive coordinator is going to be able to put it back. Here's why, as I see it:
The rise of the no-huddle. When defenses started shifting in the mid-1990s toward the tricky zone blitz, with pressure coming from any direction on any given play, offensive minds went to the laboratory. They figured that the no-huddle, if used quickly to maximize snaps, would prevent opponents from substituting and would make defensive signal-callers default to vanilla schemes. There just wouldn't be enough time to figure out and execute the optimal matchup.
The Packers run the no-huddle better than any other team. In 2011, they used it on 27% of their offensive plays. Coach Mike McCarthy loves the progress that his young skill players made in the scheme last year and he appears ready to ramp it up in '12, as evidenced in Green Bay's second preseason game, against Cleveland, when McCarthy had his first unit in no-huddle on every snap of the three series it played.
And it's catching on. In the Bills' first preseason tune-up, against the Redskins, they went no-huddle and didn't run the ball for the entire first quarter.
Will there ever be a defensive antidote to the no-huddle? Perhaps. But there's just too much risk in 12-men-on-the-field penalties to imagine what that answer would be right now.
Tight ends are getting out of control. Here New England is leading the way. In 2011, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski played more than 1,000 snaps apiece in the same season, an astonishing statistic in any era. Hernandez is all over the map—note his 21 snaps at running back in a playoff win over Denver—making him a matchup nightmare.
For proof of the impact, just watch the trickle-down effect. Eight years ago Scott Pioli, then Bill Belichick's personnel man and draft maven, would never have used a first-round pick on a safety; it wasn't a priority position like cornerback, pass rusher and quarterback. But in 2010, as Chiefs G.M., Pioli drafted safety Eric Berry with the fifth overall pick, and he says now that he would have had a tough choice to make this year had Alabama safety Mark Barron been available when Kansas City picked at No. 11. (Barron went seventh; Pioli settled for Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe.)
That's how big a danger marauding tight ends have become: Pioli would have considered spending a high pick on a safety for the second time in three years. "Tight ends have become matchup problems, and you need physical hitters who can cover," explains Pioli.
One defensive coordinator even told me that his team was considering taking a linebacker off the field on first downs in some situations and replacing him with a physical, mobile safety.
The use of three-wide sets is skyrocketing. In 2009, 40% of offensive snaps in the NFL featured three or more wide receivers, according to the website Pro Football Focus. In '11, that number was up to 49. The increase in three-wide sets and the popularity of the no-huddle add up to more plays, especially more passes.
Meanwhile, defensive players are playing with a mental harness. With the rules tending to favor the offense, and with the commissioner's office cracking down on excessive or borderline violent hits, it makes sense that coordinators these days are more comfortable than ever sending their wideouts over the middle.
Defining Factoid of the Era No. 3: Offenses are not running significantly less. Teams rushed an average of 439 times in 1991; 441 in 2001; and 437 last season. But compared with 1991, teams last year called an average of 48 more pass plays (attempts plus sacks) over the course of the season.
TODAY'S GAME is simply faster than ever before. On a tour of training camps this summer, one thing that stood out to me, after 28 years of observing, was the speed at which some practices were run. New Orleans has a drill for quarterbacks and receivers that mimics game speed. Every seven seconds Brees and the other passers take a snap, drop back at full bore and fire at a receiver, over and over. After each pass the receivers have to run back to the line as if it mattered. The Packers, Dolphins and Falcons all run equally fast in their passing game workouts.
"We don't do sprints," says new Miami coach Joe Philbin, "because we practice with a tempo, and our guys are gassed [from] practicing the way we're going to play."
That's a key to the success of the no-huddle in Green Bay too. (No surprise, Philbin spent the past five years as the Packers' offensive coordinator.) "Punches, punches, punches," says McCarthy. "I believe in attacking. I'm not trying to shorten the game when we run the no-huddle. I'm not trying to win by three, or win by making fewer mistakes. That's not us."
That no-huddle, with Rodgers at the helm, is the reason why Green Bay—which averaged 35 points per game in 2011—could be even better on offense this season. Every key receiver will have at least two years' experience in the offense. (Speedy wideout Randall Cobb, in his second year, is the neophyte.) The veterans can pick up signals in the scheme simply from Rodgers's stare.
When the Super Bowl XLV MVP stands at the line, freezing the defense, he has an array of on-the-fly options. First, he can take the snap whenever he wants, a task that will be made easier with veteran Jeff Saturday at center. Then he can run any of seven plays from three distinct categories. He can call a "three-way play," choosing a strongside run, a run to the backside or a prescribed pass based on that week's scouting report. He can call a "two-way play," with a run or pass, also based on that week's scouting report. Or he can call a "two-way pass play," either a play-action or a regular drop-back pass.
It's dizzying to consider the power Rodgers has at the line of scrimmage. McCarthy says he "never dreamed" he'd be giving his quarterback so much independence. "If I'm ever going to caution Aaron," he says, "it's about playing too fast. The way he's wired, he's so fast and so smart on his feet."
And here's the truly scary part. "I don't think we're that good at it yet," Rodgers says of the system. "I know we can get a lot better."
When the guy running your state-of-the-art offense—the guy who threw 45 touchdown passes last season in 15 games, many from the no-huddle—has the attitude that there's room for improvement, and he really means it, you know you've got a chance to be historically prolific.
Suddenly, 6,000 doesn't seem so unreachable.
The Joy of Six ... Thousand
5K? Passé. Senior writer Peter King says these 10 quarterbacks have the best shot at 6,000 yards
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers He's doubtful he can do it, but I'm not. "That's, what, 375 yards a game?" figures the math wizard. (Precisely.) Rodgers averaged 310 per outing last year, but he was a healthy scratch against the toothless Lions and finished with 4,643. Thinking it over, he concedes, "There are more chances for yards through the no-huddle and [last year's] new kickoff rules (which in 2011 more than doubled the previous record for touchbacks in one season). Let's say you get the ball at the 20-yard line, instead of the 35, two or three more times a game. That's what, at least 480 extra yards a year that you have a chance for?"
Coach Mike McCarthy's pushing the envelope with Rodgers, letting him do more every year. And with a struggling Green Bay running game (27th in the NFL in 2011), Rodgers has the best shot to move the chains enough over 16 weeks to hit our mark.
2. Drew Brees, Saints Based on his 5,476 yards last season, he's only 33 yards-a-game away. That's one nice post route to Lance Moore per week. "But Drew's so efficient now," says Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, a skeptic. "How many plays are left out there for him?"
3. Matthew Stafford, Lions I'm still waiting for one young bookend to Calvin Johnson, but respected football analyst Aaron Schatz of Pro Football Outsiders says that if anyone's going to reach 6,000, it's Stafford. His rationale: Detroit led all teams last year by taking a record 68% of its snaps out of the shotgun. More shotgun, more wide-open offense.
4. Andrew Luck, Colts Have you seen Luck this preseason? There's not a throw that he can't make. The Colts have a couple good rookie tight ends with whom Luck can mature, and it's easy to imagine a two- or three-year revival for receiver Reggie Wayne. G.M. Ryan Grigson will be smart enough to surround Luck with the talent he needs to make a run at 6,000.
5. Cam Newton, Panthers He'd be higher up except that he's such a running threat. Newton the rusher (who scored 14 touchdowns) is taking too many passing chances away from Newton the thrower. If the Panthers get him a young tight end and one more top receiver, he will be tempted to stay in the pocket more often and perhaps have a chance at our mark.
6. Tom Brady, Patriots He wants to play until he's 40, but the sands of the hourglass are pouring out. I'd say that his best shot is in the next two years, with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez paired, slot man extraordinaire Wes Welker still working the middle, and new deep threat Brandon Lloyd stretching defenses. Brady was 765 yards shy of 6K last year, but he threw 122 balls toward Chad Johnson and Deion Branch, producing 978 yards; in this offense, Lloyd could catch 90 balls. And Lloyd averaged 15.4 yards per catch over the last nine years, with (far) lesser quarterbacks than Brady. Do the math. It could be close.
7. Matt Barkley, USC Anyone who routinely got into shootouts with Luck (the two combined for 15 passing touchdowns, and their teams, USC and Stanford, scored 252 total points in three meetings) and who will enter the NFL with the knowledge base that Luck possesses has to have a shot at the mark.
8. Robert Griffin III, Redskins I worry about the beating he's bound to take. And Coach Mike Shanahan loves to run the ball. Eli Manning is absent from this list not because I don't think he could do it, but because he's in the wrong system for it. Griffin could do it too, but he'll need far more weapons and far better protection than he'll get this year.
9. Matt Ryan, Falcons Coach Mike Smith loves to grind it out. But I wonder how much he'll love it if Michael Turner struggles over the next few years and Julio Jones puts up a 1,700-yard season or two. Jones is going to be a monster, Roddy White is a fantastic complement, and Harry Douglas is solid as a third receiver option.
10. Joe Flacco, Ravens A long shot, because he's never thrown for even 3,700 yards in his four-year career. But the Ravens may run no-huddle almost exclusively starting this season, which could push Flacco's numbers way up.
Toying with the Numbers
For decades the passer-rating record inched upward, but today's quarterbacks are putting up Madden-esque stats
*Progression of single-season passer-rating record since World War II
Sid Luckman Bears
Sammy Baugh Redskins
Milt Plum Browns
Joe Montana 49ers
Steve Young 49ers
Peyton Manning Colts
Aaron Rodgers Packers
Get up to speed on the quarterback situation for all 32 teams in Peter King's One-Minute Drill videos at SI.com/NFL
Charts On Fire
As passers go off, the record books are beginning to take on a decidedly 21st-century look—and not just for quarterbacks
* Blue type indicates numbers achieved since 2000
TOP SIX SEASONS: PASSING YARDS
Drew Brees Saints 2011
Tom Brady Patriots 2011
Dan Marino Dolphins 1984
Drew Brees Saints 2008
Matthew Stafford Lions 2011
Eli Manning Giants 2011
TOP 10 SEASONS: LEAGUE PASSER RATING
Photograph by MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IMAGES
GOING THE DISTANCE Aided by rules changes and revolutionary scheming, Drew Brees passed for a record 5,476 yards in 2011, 67 of them on this Week 4 TD drive against the Jaguars.
SEVEN UP In Green Bay's no-huddle, Rodgers chooses from seven attacking options. In 2011 he threw for 4,643 yards—19th all time, but fewer than four other QBs last year.
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (NEWTON)
PASSING FANCY Could Newton be the one to break the six-millennium mark? Perhaps, but not if he runs as often as he did in 2011. His 126 carries (for 706 yards) were the third-most ever for a passer.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY TODD DETWILER
AL TIELEMANS (BRADY)
ILLUSTRATIONS BY TODD DETWILER