A brief, fact-filled history of the NFL passing game

Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 31, 2010



(Ed. note: This CHFF classic originally ran on Nov. 25, 2008. It was honored by the Pro Football Writers of America before Super Bowl XLIV as one of the top stories of the 2008-09 football season. So it's got that going for it. Otherwise, it's just your run-of-the-mill educational filler here in the depths of the off-season.)
 
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts golden goose
 
Quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Matt Ryan were two of the big surprises of the 2008 season.
 
They're also the poster children for the Golden Age of the Passing Game, guys who have stepped into the role of starting NFL quarterback with no pro experience and played like seasoned old veterans of yore.
 
Cassel had (now famously) not started a game since his high-school finale back in 1999, and threw for just 46 yards that day. Yet he's passed for 400 and 415 yards in his past two NFL games and boasts a 90.5 passer rating this season.
 
Ryan's numbers are gaudy for a 23-year-old kid with 11 pro games under his belt: He's completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,418 yards, 7.8 yards per attempt and an 88.3 passer rating – all on a team that was a miserable 4-12 last year and boasts a first-year NFL head coach.
 
It's a far cry from the traditional coming-of-age story for NFL quarterbacks, who were expected to struggle for years while they adapted to the speed and picked up on the intricacies of the pro game.
 
But it's also no suprise: after all, the game itself has changed dramatically over the decades, and those changes have only accelerated in recent years, making it easier than ever to pass the ball and easier than ever for new quarterbacks to have an immediate impact on their team.
 
In fact, the passing game is flourishing everywhere here in 2008, with the league's more experienced passers poised to rewrite the record books in several different categories.
 
This year alone, not one but two players (Drew Brees and Kurt Warner) might surpass Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 passing yards. Ageless warhorse Brett Favre, meanwhile, has completed 70.61 percent of his passes, which puts him on pace to break the single-season record set by Ken Anderson in 1982 (70.55 percent). Jeff Garcia (69.76) and Warner (69.75) also have a shot to remake the completion percentage record.
 
So what gives?
 
Well, we haven't reached this era of prolific passing overnight. NFL rulemakers, not to mention offensive innovators, have been conspiring for decades to make it possible for quarterbacks to play as well as they do today. Quite frankly, most of the performances we're witnessing here in 2008 would not have been possible 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
 
In fact, if you want to see how much the game has changed over the decades, and how easy it is for quarterbacks today, follow our brief, annotated history of the NFL passing game, from the Stone Age to the Golden Age.
 
The Stone Age (1920-1939)
The NFL's offensive Stone Age was marked by two key traits:
  • One, teams rarely passed.
  • Two, there was no quarterback position as we know it today: that is, there was no player designated as both the primary signal caller and the primary passer.  
Back then, any player in the offensive backfield might have been called upon to pass the ball – and then only rarely. In 1932, the first year for which the NFL has passing stats, Green Bay Hall of Fame back Arnie Herber led the league in almost every passing category: completing 37 of 101 passes for 639 yards and 9 TDs in 14 games – about three games worth of work by today's standards.
 
If you're looking for a game that defined the Stone Age, look at the very first NFL championship game in 1933.
 
The Bears bested the Giants that day, 23-21, behind the heroics of Bronko Nagurski (pictured here). History remembers Nagurski as the all-purpose legend who's in the Hall of Fame for his exploits as a bruising running back, offensive tackle and defensive stud.
 
But on this day, it was his two touchdown passes that carried Chicago to victory. A two-TD day through the air was no small feat in 1933. After all, the Bears attempted just three passes the entire game.
 
The T Revolution (1940-49) 
Offensive football began to take the shape we'd recognize today in 1940, with the advent of the T formation, a brand of football adapted from the college game. The T formation did two things:
  • One, it put one player behind center.
  • Two, it called on that player to handle the team's passing duties.
The T formation exploded onto the scene in the 1940 NFL championship game, when the Bears used it to crush the Redskins, 73-0, in the greatest blowout in NFL history.
 
In the skillful hands of Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, a former college halfback, the advantages of the T formation were apparent, though not everybody adopted it right away. As late as 1946, the NFL still produced all-purpose two-way players like Hall of Famer Bill Dudley, who led the Steelers that year in rushing, passing, punting, kicking, punt returning, kick returning, scoring, interceptions and fumble recoveries. Whew!
 
It even took football terminology a while to catch up with the on-field revolution: Washington's Slingin' Sammy Baugh (pictured here) is remembered as one of the great passers in NFL history and one of the first great quarterbacks. But newspapers of the day often referred to him as a halfback – his traditional position (he even work a halfback's number, 33).
 
Teams during the T Revolution began to pass the ball much more often, and with much greater effect. Baugh completed 70.3 percent of his passes in 1945, a mark surpassed only once since, and toyed with the first 3,000-yard passing season in 1947 (2,938 yards) – more than doubling the greatest output of the 1930s (Philadelphia back Davey O'Brien passed for a then-record 1,324 yards in 1939).
 
The Classical Age (1950-1977)
Three major changes propelled the passing game forward in the 1950s:
  • One, every team by this decade had designated the quarterback as the primary passer and signal caller.
  • Two, the NFL adopted free substitution in 1950, leading to the two-platoon system. Quarterbacks no longer had to play defense, and could therefore concentrate on refining their passing skills. 
  • Three, the NFL in 1950 welcomed into the fold the Cleveland Browns (who previously played in the AAFC), along with the organization's patriarch, Paul Brown (pictured here with Otto Graham), whose offensive mind continues to dominate pro football today, 17 years after his death.
The passing game in this era was defined by a downfield, attacking style used to stretch defenses vertically. Completion percentages and passer ratings were very low. Yards per attempt and interceptions were very high.
 
Cleveland quarterback Otto Graham is probably the definitive player of the era. He led the Browns to six straight NFL championship games from 1950 to 1955 (winning three of them) and his career average of 8.63 yards per pass attempt remains the highest mark in NFL history. But he rarely completed more than 55 percent of his passes in a season, and he often threw more picks than TDs.
 
But as defenses grew bigger, faster and stronger, and the game grew more violent, it became increasingly difficult to get the ball down field. By 1977, passer ratings, and scoring itself, had plummeted to lows not seen in decades.
 
The league-wide passer rating in 1977 was 60.7 – barely better than the 60.0 of 1948. The 1977 season also produced the best defense (Atlanta, 9.2 PPG) and the worst offense (Tampa, 7.4 PPG) of the past 40 years.
 
The passing game was dying, and the NFL and the architects of offensive football were forced to make major changes to save it.
 
The Modern Age (1978-2003)
Two major events launched NFL offenses into the Modern Age:
  • One, the NFL instituted wholesale rule changes to open up offense in 1978. Primarily, defenders could no longer rough up receivers beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, while offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and use their hands in pass blocking. 
  • Two, the tandem of Joe Montana (pictured here) and Bill Walsh, a Paul Brown disciple, found each other in 1979.
The net result of the rule changes was that teams suddenly began passing the ball far more often and far more effectively. Passing attempts, passing yards and passing TDs skyrocketed in the early 1980s. Perhaps most notably, Dan Marino (who played for another Brown disciple, Don Shula) rewrote the record books with his 5,084 passing yards and 48 TDs in 1984.
 
His numbers were Ruthian in their scope, literally unimaginable just seven years earlier: Back in 1977, Buffalo quarterback Joe Ferguson led the NFL with 2,803 passing yards while another Miami Hall of Famer, Bob Griese, topped the league with 22 TD tosses.
 
The Walsh-Montana style of offense, meanwhile, dramatically changed the way teams attacked defenses. Instead of the aggressive, downfield style favored in the Classical Age, Walsh's 49ers began utilizing a high-percentage, low-risk passing attack that most people today know as the West Coast offense. And they did it with great effect, as the 49ers won five Super Bowls in a 14-year period with two different coaches and two different quarterbacks: Steve Young, who's No. 1 all time in passer rating (96.8) and Montana, who's No. 5 all time (92.3).
 
Teams around the league quickly followed suit, as they did with Chicago's T formation four decades earlier. Everybody today (perhaps with the exception of the Raiders) utilizes a short, high-percentage, low-risk passing attack. As a result, yards per attempt have declined from their highs in the 1950s and 1960s, but so have the number of interceptions.
 
Completion percentages and passer ratings have skyrocketed, meanwhile, to the point that every single player in the top 20 all-time in passer rating has joined the league in the Modern Age (since 1979). Fifteen of those 20 are still active here in ...
 
The Golden Age (2004-present) 
As if quarterbacks hadn't been coddled enough by coaches and rulemakers over the past two decades, one profound game, and one very angry team executive, made their lives even easier in 2004.
  • One, New England defenders pushed the bounds of pass interference rules in the 2003 AFC championship game, badly roughing up Indianapolis receivers and shutting down the Colts high-powered offense in a 24-14 Patriots victory.
  • Two, Indy's powerful president, Bill Polian, complained to the league rather loudly in the wake of his team's loss.
As a result, the NFL determined that its officials would "re-emphasize" pass interference rules in 2004 and beyond. Though not officially a rule change, the impact on the passing game was profound.
 
The very next season, Indy quarterback Peyton Manning (pictured here) went out and rewrote the record books, with 49 TD passes and a 121.1 passer rating that was nearly 10 points better than any that had come before it. The league-wide passer rating, meanwhile, jumped from 78.3 in 2003 to a record 82.8 in 2004.
 
The records have remained under assault since then: Tom Brady broke Manning's TD-toss record with 50 in 2007, while posting the second-highest passer rating in history (117.2). With less fanfare, Drew Brees set a record with 440 completions in 2007. And, as noted above, NFL quarterbacks are poised to rewrite the record books in countless categories here in 2008, while newcomers have bucked tradition by easily performing at high level.
 
But today's high-flying newcomers and record-setting veterans aren't better quarterbacks than players of the past. They just have advantages their predecessors never enjoyed back before the Golden Age of the passing game.

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