This has been a historical year for quarterbacks and quarterback stats. Peyton Manning finally passed Brett Favre for most yards all time, Tom Brady and Drew Brees each threw their 400th touchdown pass, and a number of quarterbacks are on pace to throw for 4,000 yards. It appears as if this is the golden age of quarterbacking in the NFL. Records that have stood for decades are falling, and they’re not even falling to who you would expect. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees may have the three most successful passing seasons in NFL history, but troubled Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford currently holds both the eighth and ninth best passing seasons in NFL history. Statistics indicate that the best quarterbacks in history are playing today.
Fortunately, statistics don’t tell the whole story.
THE EVOLUTION OF QUARTERBACK STATS
In 1995, a top ten quarterback threw the ball an average of 567 times. Last year, the top ten quarterbacks threw an average of 608 times. That seems like a huge improvement, and there’s no doubt that teams are now throwing the ball more. But the really interesting statistic comes when rushing attempts are compared. In 1995, the top ten rushers averaged 301 carries for the season, while last season the top ten rushers averaged only 280 carries. Those stats may indicate that quarterbacks are better today than they’ve ever been, but it is important to remember they also indicate that they throw more than they ever have before. If you throw the ball more, you will complete more passes for more yards and touchdowns.
In 1995, Brett Favre threw the ball 570 times for 4,413 yards, 38 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. In 2014, Andrew Luck threw the ball 616 times for 4,761 yards, 40 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. By adjusting his numbers for inflation and making Favre throw the ball as often as Luck did, the statline looks shockingly familiar. If Favre threw as many passes in 1995 as Luck did last year, the former Green Packers great would have thrown for 4,769 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
It goes further. In 1984, Dan Marino set the record for most passing yards in a season with 5,084 yards. In that season, he threw the ball 564 times. Two years ago, Peyton Manning set the current record for most yards in a season, tossing for 5,477 yards. But Manning threw the ball 659 times, almost 100 more than did Marino. Once again, if Marino had the same number of attempts, he would have added a few hundred yards to his numbers and he would still hold the record with 5,511 passing yards.
THE ATHLETES ARE BETTER
While there are many reasons why, it’s impossible to deny that athletes are getting better. They’re getting bigger, stronger, and faster than ever. Guys like Calvin Johnson, Rob Gronkowski, and J.J. Watt are freak athletes. Whether it’s just the advances in modern science, or PEDs, it’s undeniable that athletes today are the best they’ve ever been. Having taller and faster receivers has absolutely helped the growth of the passing game. Once upon a time, being fast like Cliff Branch was all it took. Even future hall of fame receiver, Randy Moss had a very limited route tree. Now there are dozens of incredible athletes at the position. A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant, and many other receivers are not only tall, but exceptionally fast.
Not only are today’s receivers better athletes, but there’s been a renaissance for mobile quarterbacks. Guys like Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota, Alex Smith, and Cam Newton are in vogue in 2015, and even pocket passers are surprisingly athletic. Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, and even Aaron Rodgers are pocket passers who aren’t afraid to use their legs to extend plays. They’re able to pick up yards on their own and give their receivers even more time to get open downfield. On a long enough play, even the slowest receiver will be open at some point in man coverage, and every zone has its holes.
THE RULES HAVE CHANGED
The most obvious effect on the passing game has been the changing of the rules. It started back in 2003 after the Indianapolis Colts/New England Patriots playoff game. After watching the Colts smaller, quicker receivers get handled by the New England corners, the NFL’s competition committee opted to institute “illegal contact”, a penalty called on any defensive player interfering with a receiver more than five yards from the line of scrimmage. This brought out an expected measure of criticism around the league, as the rule was proposed by then Colts General Manager, Bill Polian, but the rule was put in place. Years later the NFL took a new stance on safety. Injuries to players, specifically concussions, became a hot topic and the NFL was under a lot of fire from the NFLPA and retired players. The rules were changed to protect “defenseless” players and prevent helmet to helmet contact.
It has never been easier to move the ball through the air, and it all starts with the quarterback. The quarterback is usually five to seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, and even when the ball is snapped, it’s unclear how much contact a defender is allowed. Anything above the shoulders or below the knee is a free first down and a fifteen-yard penalty. Frankly, if a hit looks especially aggressive or violent, there’s a good chance that play draws a flag anyway. As previously mentioned, today’s quarterbacks are better athletes than we have ever seen at the position. When the pocket breaks down, there’s a good chance the quarterback will take off and run. After blazing past the offensive line, it isn’t easy for pass rushers to hit a moving target in the approved target zone. Once the quarterback throws the ball, it gets even harder for defenses to stop the offense.
After five yards, a receiver cannot be touched. The only situation in which it is legal for a defensive player to make contact with a receiver before they touch the ball is if they are going for the interception, and even then, it has to be very obvious that catching the ball is the defender’s primary objective. Little things like having an arm behind the receiver or fighting the hands off of the player get called pass interference every single time. Then, even once the receiver has caught the ball, the defender cannot make a helmet to helmet hit or tackle the receiver until they’ve made a football move.
The harsh reality is that defensive backs in the NFL have an impossible job. Even without all of the rule changes defensive backs have no idea what route a receiver will run. NFL receivers have to be in incredible shape and some of them are among the best athletes in the world. Trying to guess which way they’re going to run, keeping up with them, and then breaking up a pass or even making a tackle without breaking the rules is very difficult. Most of the rule changes have been made to make the game safer, but there’s no question that they’ve also made the game easier for offenses. While it may not have been the original intention, the game of football has evolved and offenses have adapted to take advantage.
So while the aerial assaults make Sundays more interesting, it’s unfair to assume that quarterbacks today are the best we’ve ever seen. The game has changed, and it’s only become easier for them to move the ball through the air. As the seasons carry on, the old records will fall, but it’s important to remember that the original records were set in a time when the game was much, much harder.