Throwing the ball in the NFL has never been more integral than in the era we're watching right now.
Last year, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees passed for more than 5,000 yards. The year before that, Brees along with New England Patriots QB Tom Brady and Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford all exceeded the 5,000 mark.
In NFL history, there have been only six seasons when quarterbacks have reached that hallowed mark, and we've seen four in the last two years. In the words of noted (fictional) newsman Ron Burgundy, "That escalated quickly."
When one really thinks about it, it gets even more absurd. Stafford hit 5,000 yards in 2011 and nearly hit it again in 2012, but there is also a legitimate conversation to be had about his sloppy mechanics and the fact that the Lions offense only seems to really run through wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Brees hit that 5,000 mark for his third time on a team that was a disappointment.
The question then becomes: Which leads to which? Are we living in some golden age of quarterbacking, or are these quarterbacks living in an era that is a golden age for quarterbacking? That is: Are elite passers driving this statistical train, or are they just along for the ride?
Fellow Bleacher Report lead writer Mike Freeman talked to former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi about the phenomenon:
To begin with, of course the jury is still out on the young guys currently playing.
But, if you take Brady, the two Mannings, Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Freeman, Rivers, Schaub, Romo, Flacco, Vick, Rodgers to the young guys, RG III, Newton. Manuel, Luck, the guys in San Francisco, Detroit, St. Louis, this group could be the all-time cast if the young players progress.
The talent level is enormous, and the young players get the opportunity to express themselves more than ever because of the multi-receiver sets and spread offenses.
One thing is certain: If an NFL team can't pass, it is not getting very far in today's game.
The Look of Football Is Changing
Two receivers, a tight end; two backs split in the backfield behind a quarterback under center—the Pro Set. Just look at it; it's a thing of beauty, like a precious relic from a far-gone era.
The fact that it's called the "Pro Set" is based upon its once-ubiquitous use in the NFL and eventually all levels of football. The formation is an evolution from the backfield-heavy sets of the run-heavy era, and this formation allows a lot more variability in both running and passing plays.
Now, most high school football programs teach their junior varsity teams this formation as a precursor to the "real" formation that the varsity team uses. It's gone from a "Pro Set" to one that is mostly for amateurs.
What does football look like today?
If anything can be called the pro set today, it is this—shotgun formation, three receivers, a tight end and a single back. Even this formation is less and less en vogue as teams eschew the back or end (based on personnel) for a fourth receiver.
The switch from traditional "T-formations" to the Pro Set was made alongside a desire to balance run-pass ratios. Now, the shift to more shotgun and multiple receiver sets is occurring with a mindset toward leaving the run behind altogether.
Teams no longer pass to set up the run or even run to set up the pass. They pass to set up new passes. Coaches run "package" passing plays and option routes where the QB is given the reins to the entire offense from his position on the field—allowed, even empowered, to call his own number over and over again.
Ironically, through one week in the 2013 NFL season, the team featured above—the Philadelphia Eagles—are one of only two teams with over 40 rushing attempts. In head coach Chip Kelly's new tempo-based offense, the Eagles will run (and pass) a lot.
More Snaps Equals More Yards
The Eagles' new offense is incredibly enjoyable to watch (well, not if you're a fan of the team they're facing), but they're not the only team that is stepping on the gas pedal these days.
The Patriots, Packers and Broncos, along with many other teams, are all running lots of no-huddle sets these days. More importantly for our purposes, they're also passing out of them more. Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders did a study on this no-huddle trend and found that teams passed out of a no-huddle situation 1,465 times in 2012 compared to 220 in 2003.
Yet, McCown also asks the same question, which we asked to start this conversation:
How much of our numbers are colored by the fact that [Peyton Manning and Tom Brady] were the quarterbacks of a plurality of no-huddle snaps throughout the league over the past 10 years? They're only two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, after all.
He also notes that running out of the no-huddle (which has also increased dramatically) has been statistically more effective, as teams throw the curveball of running in situations where the defense expects a pass.
Football is already a fast-paced game, but critics have long pointed out that it's punctuated moments of violence followed by a lot of sitting around in between plays. At one time, that's where coaches made their money as they hemmed, hawed and strategized in between plays to gain an edge—almost like a high-stakes chess match with the play clock replacing the chess clock.
Now—especially for teams running primarily no-huddle—those moves are made on the fly for offenses and defenses to have to react.
Look back at that chart above. In 2003, the Patriots led the league with 66.4 plays per game. In Week 1, 16 teams ran 66 or more plays per game. The Jacksonville Jaguars ran 70 plays! Everyone is moving faster. That means more snaps. More snaps means more yardage for just about everyone—especially the top quarterbacks in the league.
Let the Yardage Come to You
It might be easy to assume that the increased passing yardage is part and parcel with more vertically based offenses. However, that assumption would be incorrect based on the realities of what NFL passing has become.
Here, we see over the past 10 years that the leader in yards per completion has stayed roughly the same while the total completions have gone up. Note, that's total completions, not completion percentage. That number has gone up too, although less dramatically.
Teams are passing more, and they're hitting those intermediate routes with both ease and the assumption that receivers will extend plays. This puts less pressure on the offensive line. It protects the quarterback. It gets the tight ends and running backs integrated into the passing game. It makes defenses defend high-percentage passes in space rather than hope and pray for errant throws down the field.
In his book, "The Essential Smart Football," Chris Brown took a look at the New York Giants adaptation of the fabled Run and Shoot offense. On the history of the offensive philosophy, he wrote:
Indeed, what killed the run-and-shoot wasn't the playoff failures or the perceived lack of physicality, but rather the zone blitz, which was designed to defuse the kind of six-man protection schemes that run-and-shoot teams used on every down.
Later, on the Giants specifically:
In football, the narrative is never as simple as it seems. Do the Giants run the run-and-shoot? No, of course not. But they use pieces of it, just as every other NFL team does.
This is football's passing evolution in a nutshell. We've seen big passing numbers before, but in schemes that were figured out and were eventually going to get the quarterbacks killed—thanks especially to guys like Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Now, we're seeing similar big pass numbers in sets that almost look familiar, but are really just echoes from a bygone era retrofitted for today's NFL. Even more exciting for guys like me is the hybridization of the zone-read/option/pistol attacks that will increase running numbers (and the proliferation of running quarterbacks—at least momentarily) while also making intermediate and longer passes as wide open as their shorter counterparts.
Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats tracks yards in the air of NFL passers, and it's no surprise that the top two guys in that regard are mobile passers Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. This is another trend to watch, as many of the top 2014 NFL draft QB prospects are mobile guys as well.
It's simple to see that bare yardage is starting to get watered down in today's NFL. Matthew Stafford's name doesn't belong aside Hall of Famers like Dan Marino, but that 5,000-yard mark isn't going to be as hallowed for much longer.
Yet, we look around the league and see the pressure that quarterbacks are put under—not only to throw the ball, but to manage an offense—and it suddenly becomes apparent that we've also exited the era of having only three or four premier passers around the league. We're not going to start an "elite" discussion here, but there are at least a dozen passers in the league who can do amazing things with their arms, heads and even legs.
So, then, the original question of whether top-notch passers are leading or following the trend becomes not an either/or, but a both/and. We are witnessing an age of NFL football where passing has become the go-to strategy, and nothing seems ready to stem that tide. Meanwhile, the quality of quarterbacks coming from the college ranks (who were ahead of the game on many of these concepts) is better than ever.
We can't have any idea where the NFL will go next, but we know for certain that it will get there through the air.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.