Ed. Note: CHFF has produced plenty of epics over the years. A version of this study of the evolution of the passing game originally ran in November 2008, and is updated through the 2012 season. It was named one of the top stories in the nation during the 2009-09 football season; NFL Films is visiting the CHFF world headquarters this week to talk to us about this story for an upcoming episode of its "A Football Life" series.
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Golden Goose
Rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson and second-year newcomer Colin Kaepernick were three of the great stories of the 2012 NFL season.
They were three inexperienced players who quickly came in and dominated NFL defenses with hugely productive and efficient play while leading their teams to the playoffs. Kaepernick nearly won the Super Bowl in just his 10th NFL start.
Wilson was a particular surprise: an under-sized third-round draft pick who looked like a seasoned old pro by about the time he torched the powerhouse Patriots for three TD passes in Seattle’s Week 6 victory.
Griffin, Wilson and Kaepernick are great young talents. But 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.
Griffin and the Redskins topped the NFL in Real Quarterback Rating (99.93), just ahead of legendary Peyton Manning and the Broncos and record-setting Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Wilson and the Seahawks finish a perfectly respectable No. 5 in Offensive Passer Rating and No. 6 in Real Quarterback Rating, comparable numbers in each case to future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and his 557-point Patriots.
Kaepernick, in about a half-season of work, was one of the most efficient passers and dominant two-way threats in the NFL.
The instant statistical and team success is 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.
Hall of Famer Len Dawson is the highest-rated passer of the 1960s. He barely touched the field in five years in the NFL before finally getting a shot in 1962 with the AFL's Dallas Texans (later the Kansas City Chiefs). Hall of Famer Roger Staubach is the highest-rated passer of the 1970s. He was 29 years old, and in his third NFL season, before he got a shot to be a full-time starter.
But today's instant dominance 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 as we get ready for the 2013 season, with the league's more experienced passers poised to rewrite the record books in several different categories.
In the last two years alone, eight passers topped 4,800 yards in a single season; just four passers topped 4,800 yards in the previous history of the NFL. Four of the six 5,000-yard passing seasons in history were produced in 2011 and 2012.
It’s not just the volume that’s up, but also the more important efficiency numbers: passer rating, completions percentage, TD-INT ratio and passing yards per attempt have all spiked in recent years.
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 recent years would not have been possible 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
We also live in an era when many talented teenage quarterbacks are running pro style offenses at the high school, meaning their also more mentally prepared for the NFL by the time they get there.
CHFF contributor Captain Comeback also credits the are unique glut of contemporary quarterbacking talent. And there’s certainly something to be said for that.
But there’s no doubt that the game has changed dramatically over the decades and that it is easier than ever to pass the football.,
It’s been part of a decades-long evolution that has unfolded in distinct and measurable stages. Here then, is 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 two or 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.
The story of that NFL championship game has largely taken on a life of its own, seen as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the passing game.
It was not, actually. The dominant Bears attempted just 10 passes that day, while rushing 53 times for 381 yards and 7 TDs. The Redskins attempted 51 passes – eight of which were intercepted and three returned for touchdowns.
If anything the 1940 NFL championship game might have killed the passing game. But the Bears were committed to the new style of football, and used to it dominate the decade.
But that game did herald an upcoming change in football that quickly unfolded in the 1940s, the most dynamic evolutionary period in the history of football.
In the skillful hands of Bears quarterback Sid Luckman (pictured here), 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 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 wore 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).
Luckman himself averaged 8.42 YPA – still the second highest average per pass attempt in NFL history (Otto Graham, 8.63).
The game of pro football had just witnessed its greatest and most important evolutionary decade as the 1950s unfolded. In 1940, NFL teams averaged just 15.1 PPG. By 1948, NFL teams produced 23.2 PPG, still the highest-scoring single season in NFL history.
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, 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.
Quarterbacks such as Johnny Unitas (pictured here) and Sonny Jurgensen, meanwhile, begin to put up what we might recognize as fairly modern passing statistics.
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.
We call the period from the AFL-NFL merger through 1977 the Dead Ball Era.
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) since the 1940s.
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 and Montana, each of whom retired the highest rated passer in history.
Young, with a career rating of 96.8 is currently second behind only Aaron Rodgers (104.9), while Montana, who last played two decades ago, remains No. 10 (92.3).
Teams around the league quickly adopted the new style of high-efficiency offense, as they did with Chicago's T formation four and five 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). Nine of the 12 highest-rated passers in history were active in 2012, with Young, Montana and Kurt Warner (93.7) the only exceptions.
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 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 have continued to rewrite the record books in recent years, perhaps none as spectacularly as Green Bay’s Rodgers and New Orleans’ Brees,
Rodgers’ career passer rating (104.9) is nearly 10 points higher than No. 2 Young (96.8), No. 3 Brady (96.6) and No. 4 Manning (95.7). Rodgers also boasts the lowest INT rate (1.7%) and best TD-INT ratio (3.7 to 1) in history.
Brees is the closest thing to explosive Babe Ruth-style productivity the NFL has produced since Dan Marino’s great breakout earlier years. He has led the NFL in some combination of passing attempts, completions, completion percentage and yards for seven straight years. In the last six seasons, he’s single handedly produced the two most accurate passing seasons in history (70.6% in 2009; 71.2% in 2011) and three of the six 5,000-yard passing seasons in league history.
Newcomers, meanwhile, such as RGIII, Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and so many others, have bucked tradition by easily performing at high level.
The Post-Modern Age (TBD)
In fact, we may be interesting yet a new phase of modern quarterbacking: the Post-Modern Era, a time when young, athletic, versatile quarterbacks, able to both pass and run at a high level, and schooled in pro-style offenses at a young age, are able to come in and beat you many different ways the moment they enter the NFL.
But keep in mind that today's high-flying newcomers and record-setting veterans aren't necessarily better quarterbacks than players of the past. They just have advantages their predecessors never enjoyed back before the Golden Age of the passing game.