If you're looking for the single statistical story to follow in 2010, this is it, folks: the sudden rise in passing effectiveness, as measured by the single most important stat in sports, yards per pass attempt.
It's not the big-name record-setters like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and BrettFavre leading the charge, either. Instead, it's troubled Ben Roethlisberger and surprising young guns like Tony Romo, Matt Schaub and Aaron Rodgers.
If you're blessed enough to know the Cold, Hard Football Facts, you know the story: back in the old days, offenses executed a much more aggressive, higher-risk downfield passing attack than they have here in the low-risk, high-efficiency modern era.
Interceptions were far more common back then, but teams consistently moved the ball down field more aggressively. We know that teams chewed up bigger chunks of yards through the air because averages per attempt were much higher decades ago than they have been in recent years.
The 1965 season, for example, was the second-highest scoring season in NFL history
(23.1 PPG/per team). Offenses averaged a torrid 7.5 yards per pass attempt that season, well above the typical recent average of 6.8 to 6.9 yards per attempt in the 1990s and most of the 2000s.
The top three all-time leaders in individual passing YPA, meanwhile, have not changed in a full half century: Otto Graham, Sid Luckman and Norm Van Brocklin have held the top three spots on the list since Dutch's retirement in 1960.
But passing effectiveness is suddenly on the upswing, and that bedrock list of passing greats is under assault from some surprising places.
Dallas's Romo has led the charge. His incredible career average of 8.10 yards per attempt puts him a meager 6/100th of a yard per attempt behind Van Brocklin – well within reach here in 2010 for the prolific Cowboys stat monster.
But Romo's just the tip of the current iceberg set to challenge these age-old standards of passing effectiveness. Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger has had his reputation battered off the field. But he's been incredibly effective on the field: he's one of just five qualifying passers in history (min. 1,500 career attempts) to average more than 8.0 YPA.
Critics say that Big Ben has been a bit player for the Steelers, with their run-first mentality and consistently tough defense. But the truth is that Pittsburgh's success proves the Cold, Hard Football Facts: you don't win in the NFL without effective, efficient or productive play at quarterback. And the fact of the matter is that the Steelers enjoyed their two recent Super Bowl victories because Roethlisberger is one of the most effective passers in pro football history.
San Diego's Philip Rivers has also been extraordinarily effective passing the ball – the Chargers, not the Saints or Colts, led the NFL in Passing Yards Per Attempt last year
. When you look at Rivers' Johnny Unitas-esque 7.81 career average per attempt, you suddenly understand while San Diego fielded the two winningest teams in franchise history under his command of the offense (14 wins in 2006; 13 wins in 2009).
Another all-time leader in passing effectivemess just retired at the end of the 2009 season: Kurt Warner. When you look at his prolific 7.95 YPA, you understand why two different organizations enjoyed some of the most successful seasons in their respective histories with Warner in charge.
Meanwhile, two up-and-comers are poised to join the list of most effective passers in history in 2010: Houston's Matt Schaub and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.
Both are short of the 1,500 career pass attempts required to enter the NFL record books. But both will reach that milestone this year. They should enter the list of most effective passers in history ahead of record-setting big-game contemporary gunslingers Brady, Manning and BrettFavre.
As we noted last year, Schaub has given the hard-luck Texans a Super Bowl-caliber offense. But maybe we short-changed his effectiveness. He's actually given them a historically effective passing attack. Pair it with a good defense, not even a great defense, and Houston could finally scare some people.
And, as we noted over the weekend
, the production we've seen out of Rodgers in Green Bay gives the organization hopes that it will return to title-town status.
All of it adds up to a bring trend in contemporary offense and a huge statistical story that we'll have our eyes on throughout 2010.
The 16 most effective passers in history (as measured by YPA)
(active players in italics)
1. Otto Graham – 8.62
2. Sid Luckman – 8.42
3. Norm Van Brocklin – 8.16
4. Tony Romo – 8.10
5. Ben Roethlisberger – 8.01
6. Steve Young – 7.98
7. Kurt Warner – 7.95
8. Ed Brown – 7.851
9. Bart Starr – 7.849
10. Matt Schaub – 7.846 (1,413 attempts)*
11. Philip Rivers – 7.81
12. Johnny Unitas – 7.76
13. Aaron Rodgers – 7.75 (1,136 attempts)*
14. Earl Morrall – 7.74
15. Dan Fouts – 7.680
16. Peyton Manning – 7.675
* The NFL requires 1,500 attempts to qualify for official career records.