Sometimes I feel like the NFL is turning into the Arena Football League, or perhaps one of those low-end NCAA Division I conferences out west that treat us to regular 49-38 shootouts that grace our cable channels late on Saturday evenings. The season just opened with a Thursday night (???) contest between the Ravens, a team long known for staunch defense and a methodical offense, and Broncos combining for 800 passing yards and 9 touchdown passes. Despite the presence on the field of possibly the best all-around runner in the game, Ray Rice, both teams put up only the mildest pretense of running the ball. This game illustrates why passing (and receiving) statistics from the past 15 years have become meaningless. For the first 75 years of NFL history, one QB threw for 5000 yards in a season (Dan Marino, 1984). Since 2008 it has happened five times, thrice in one season (2011).

Like Major League Baseball was guilty of manipulating the game to produce more scoring at several times during its history, this offensive explosion in football is rooted in rule changes made specifically to light up the scoreboard. Hall of Fame defensive backs from years past would step onto the field today to learn that they can't so much as lay a finger on receivers without drawing a penalty, and offensive lines are given vast leeway to protect quarterbacks – in addition to the many rules in place to prevent QBs from getting injured. This is simple self interest from the league's perspective. The NFL is well aware that the "watchability" of its product depends heavily on having a decent or better QB on every team, and there aren't enough QBs to go around (let alone enough to give any team a second decent one as a backup). If you want to see some truly awful football, watch two teams with crappy QBs go head to head, or notice the sharp drop-off that occurs when a good QB leaves a game due to injury.

I understand the desire to protect the game's most important assets; the other rules, particularly the new emphasis on throwing penalty flags for any contact between defenders and receivers, are less beneficial to the game. Many of the TEs and WRs in the league today border on uncoverable if defenders are not allowed to get physical. Larry Fitzgerald? Jimmy Graham? Antonio Gates? How in the hell is anyone supposed to cover guys like that? Graham is my favorite example; at 6'7", 280 with arms like a 747 and the ability to run like a deer, the defenders might as well not be on the field if they can't make contact with the guy until after the catch.

The downside to all of these rules designed to boost offense was made clear this evening. I don't feel like that was a football game; that was Tecmo Bowl, or some Arena League game where one QB throws 15 TD passes. Everyone loves watching a good shootout now and then, but the NFL has turned the game one-dimensional. It went from a run-first league to pass-first to the pass-only game we're starting to see in the last few years. If we're going to continue down this path, just take the 12-15 teams with good QBs, put them in the playoffs, and forget about the regular season. I appreciate this game, brutal as it is, on a lot of different levels. I enjoy watching a good passing attack, but it's not the only thing I enjoy watching.

31 thoughts on “NPF: BOMBS AWAY”

  • It all begins with sound blocking and ends with sound tackling, water's still wet, sun still rises in the east.

    It wasn't so long ago that one dimensional teams got knocked out of the playoffs by 3d teams. Just last season, as a matter of fact, the niners ran past the Packers and Baltimore stuffed the Broncos and Pats, respectively, to reach the Super Bowl. You're just huffing old man fumes with this post.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Yup, we've come a long way since the Dolphins won Super Bowl VII with QB Bob Griese throwing a total of 8 complete passes out of 11 attempts, for 88 yards and 1 TD, and his team won the game.

    I'm with Ed on this one, folks. The game has gotten too pass-happy.

    Somewhere in the middle, is what I'd like to see.

    Having said that – GO ELI, AND THE NY GIANTS!!!!!

    Eli can look terrible for 3 Quarters and ten minutes, and then light-it-up for 3 or more TD's in the last 5.

  • I hope the game was played on your lawn so you could yell directly at those kids.

    Also, you might want to mention the 37 new starters on the Baltimore defense.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Yeah, I forgot that SB VIII was Csonka's and the D's show, and that Griese threw even less than the SB before it.

    Still, for his time, he was a pretty damn good thrower!

  • Look, it's very simple: the higher the score of any given game, the further that game diverges from soccer. And that, I think we can all agree, is a good, good thing. Because if we, as Americans, start caring about anything that resembles soccer, do you know what we become? JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE WHO IS NOT AMERICAN WHOO THESE COLORS DON'T RUN FROM MY COLD DEAD HAND HELL YEAH I WANT FRIES WITH THAT.

    So, you know, let's look at the larger picture, is all I'm saying.

  • God damnit Ed, I don't care about the rule changes, the preferential treatments, or any of that shit. I get 3 hours of mindlessness for a mere 17 Sundays a year (and maybe a couple more). Please let me just have that with fully ignorant bliss.

  • Having grown up in Chicago and following the Bears my whole life I have perhaps a slightly higher than average appreciation for good defense, but still, I don't understand the league's desire to make the game as offense-friendly as possible. It is every bit as enjoyable to watch good defense as it is to watch the ball being thrown for a completion on almost every snap.
    And that's what I've never understood – most football fans like good defense, so why is the league office so desperate to neuter defenses?

  • Three points (field goal!)

    1. @Bob: I think most people only like to watch a good defense when it's theirs, not so much when it's anyone else's.

    2. Ed, I'm with you on the rule changes being designed to boost offense, particularly in how defensive pass interference is called, and how offensive pass interference is typically only called when the receiver runs the defender over with a truck, or maybe stabs him to death. And yet the receiver in those rare cases still acts like he's been sentenced to death for jaywalking.

    3. Where we diverge is in the notion that winning teams have to have great quarterbacks. Usually, sure, but there's been some remarkable success building a passing game around a great line, great receivers and, yes, a running game that forces the D closer to the line. If not for a last-minute drive by Tom Brady, Jake fucking Delhomme would have won the Super Bowl. Joe Flacco (miles better than Delhomme for sure, but probably about the 17th best starting QB in the NFL) just did. Tim Tebow went something like 8-1 as a starter in Denver. Tim Tebow!

    It's all a big damn shame, because true hardcore football fans can never know how much to credit the greatness of someone like Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers when so much of their success might not really be theirs… and yet we can't deny that they're spectacular. Or can we???

  • A lot of this is because of the potential atom bomb of concussion injuries and its potentially crippling (pun somewhat intended) results coming down the pike. The game has changed…check out some 1970's highlights on youtube…guys were being nearly killed coming across the middle…no flag.

  • Those two defenses are also a long way from the shape they were in last year, owing to Ravens retirements and Broncos injuries. Hot day in Denver, Flacco and Manning… maybe wait until you have more than one data point to determine how much is owed to the rules changes. They're significant, I don't disagree, but I'm unsure about the magnitude.

  • @Bob

    No, I think Ed's right, that more people will tune in to watch Aaron Rodgers throw for 430 yards, even if they don't care about the Pack one way or the other, than they will to watch the Niners defense if they don't care about the Niners.

    And considering the big stars that running backs can be, I don't think people really can be made to watch them in large numbers either.

    When you separate out team loyalty and look at the objective fan, I think fans as a whole really are wowed by the long ball, just as we are in baseball.

  • This post reminded me of when my sister-in-law used to talk to me about ballroom dancing. She clearly knew what she was talking about, but dang if I could follow it. I think watching pro sports is something you have to grow up with, or you'll never really get it. My dad only watched football when the Raiders were playing, so he could cheer whoever they were playing against – he was a native Oaklander, and loathed that team until the end of his life.

  • I don't like the new offensive-leaning rule changes. I prefer defensive slugfests. I don't care if they are low scoring. Sacks and big hits WERE my favorite part of the game. And I don't like the decline of the RB. LT scored 28 TDs just a few years ago. AP had a lot of yards but not many TDs last year (he was only good when Jerome Felton was in at FB. Otherwise he was below average). At least Megatron is awesome. And JJ Watt, but he has to play in Texas (gross!).

  • This might be a case of "common sense" not matching reality. Loathe as I am to cite Gregg Easterbrook, in a 2009 column, he makes these points and backs them up with real numbers rather than impressions:

    "• NFL scoring is at or slightly below an average that has been remarkably consistent for 60 years.

    • Many games of the 1950s, when family cars had column-mounted stick shifts, featured about the same disparity of passing versus rushing as do NFL games today.

    • Half a century ago, NFL touchdowns were slightly more likely to come through the air than they are now."

    He goes on:

    "Since the late 1940s….NFL scoring has hovered between 21 and 22 points per team per game. Last season, the average was 22 points; in 2007, it was 21.7 points; in 1987, it was 21.6 points; in 1967, it was 21.8 points; in 1947, it was 22 points."


    "In their first two games of [the 2009] season, using a four-receiver shotgun spread, the Saints scored an amazing 93 points. Doesn't this mean scoring is up? The record for most points in the first two weeks was set in 1968, when the Oakland Raiders put up 95. That Raiders team used the old "pro set" of two wide receivers, a tight end and two backs in a divide."


    "[In the 2008] season, NFL teams averaged 1.3 receiving touchdowns per game; in 1958….the average was 1.5 receiving touchdowns per game. Like overall scoring, the share of scoring that comes via passing has changed surprisingly little for half a century."

    And one more thing. The seven touchdown passes in a game that Manning threw last night that tied the record? Here are the others that managed it: Sid Luckman in 1943, Adrian Burk in 1954, George Blanda in 1961, Y.A. Tittle in 1962 and Joe Kapp in 1969.

  • And then there's the fallout from the also rans. The Vikings Ponder is not up to most team's back up QB and they are going to be down at the half by a bunch. If Adrian Peterson doesn't get hurt, he could break the rushing record this season for the perverse reason that he'll be playing the second half against those abominable prevent defenses. Meantime the commentariat will be rehashing the tired cliché that he wore the defenses down. Baseball has a better way of handling the stat, "defensive indifference."

  • I hear ya Ed, but I kinda completely disagree.

    First off, the reason we've got a pass-happy game now is in direct response to how good the defenses have gotten, both in terms of crazy-ass strategy and complete studs who weight 300 pounds but are fast as hell. So unlike baseball, I think the pass-happiness is an organic thing, not at all comparable to passing a blind eye to steroid use or juicing the ball.

    Second, the _threat_ of a decent running game is still necessary for Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers to go to town.

    Third, I guess I'm pretty much an NFL fanboi. It's the best professional sporting league in the world because there's actual parity. Going into this season there are at least ten teams with valid Superbowl chances. So if it's gone pass-happy, that's fine by me. I also like soccer, but it's a bit of a joke to wonder whether Man U., Man City, or Chelsea (fuck Arsenal) is going to win it all. Baseball has gotten better about this, but the NBA is still terrible at it.

  • It embarrasses me to say this, but I don't get football. I mean, I get the basics the same way I get the chess basics-the different pieces and how they move. But strategy? No idea.

    Growing up, even in elementary school, it was always assumed by my father, uncle, and other eight year olds that you just magically understood football by virtue of having a Y chromosome. But not me somehow.

    So I always wanted to get into sports, but I never knew how. I was too ashamed to admit I didn't get a sport, and the later it got the worse I felt. I'd love to learn to appreciate football, but I honestly have no idea where to begin. Where do you guys learn all this stuff about football strategy and whatnot?

  • "Look, it's very simple: the higher the score of any given game, the further that game diverges from soccer. And that, I think we can all agree, is a good, good thing." – J. Dryden

    Does that mean that cricket is the best sport in the entire world?

    "Because if we, as Americans, start caring about anything that resembles soccer, do you know what we become? JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE WHO IS NOT AMERICAN" – J. Dryden

    I did not know that the countries of the Indian subcontinent were heavily into soccer. I thought that they were more into cricket. Thank you for enlightening me.

  • As someone who has followed Canadian Football since the early 1980s, it's nice to know the NFL is finally catching up to our type of game.

    Does that mean that cricket is the best sport in the entire world?

    The T20 version is pretty adaptable to people with some background in baseball. The rest is rubbish.

  • @Z: I don't necessarily disagree – I kinda get your point. But at the same time the NFL itself through NFL Films, as well as ESPN and all channels that cover sports have traditionally spent an inordinate amount of time showing big defensive hits – clearly the average fan appreciates that – otherwise why all the time devoted to showing it?
    Football fans do appreciate good defensive play. That the league and its corporate partners are today trying to distance themselves from an emphasis on big hits is due to bottom line issues: with an increasingly litigious ex-players lobby the NFL needs desperately to remake its image. Thus we see fewer big defensive stops getting publicity today. But that doesn’t mean the average fan doesn’t care about defense.

  • The League needs to do three or four things to keep the game surviving. First, lose the pads and helmets. Yes, get rid of them. Eye protection, ear protection, and something to keep your teeth in. But that's it. It seems counter-intuitive, but the way tackling and hitting is done these days is to knock the opponent down. Penalize that somehow, either by making tackling count so forward progress is where the opponent's feet are (I hate that a touchdown is putting the ball over, why not the ball and one foot? That's what a game of inches and yards should reward!) Or something of that sort. Next, make all the teams have more quarterbacks. That's the most valuable position? That's the most skilled? Increase the rosters, but five have to be quarterbacks. They'll still be targets, but if they are on the team for longer times the injuries they'll inevitably get won't affect the play as much. Then, don't stop the clock as much. Incomplete pass? That's like a run of zero yards. That will lead to a shorter field and fewer attempts at long bombs, since they'll often lead to five yard penalties if the offense can't get back in time for the next play. I think that will make a game that's still watchable, still looks like football, and those pretty boys will get their noses twisted a bit more but they won't get as much helmet to helmet contact as defenses try to just knock offensive players down. Make tackling important again. It could work.

  • The Pale Scot says:

    Amen Brother:

    Was watching the Bucs-Jets game and the Bucs safety gets called called for hitting a "defenseless" receiver running a deep post route, he had the choice of making the hit to dislodge the ball or pull up and let the guy go by. The receiver had a choice, he could protect himself or go for the ball. How about a penalty for not protecting yourself?

  • The T20 version of cricket is as contrived, boring and soulless as baseball – a game which makes the intelligent viewer bless God for torrential rain, hurricanes and earthquakes.

  • jon: What you propose would fundamentally alter the game so much that you might as well invent an offshoot sport. You actually proposed reducing long bombs as if that's a good thing. That sounds like the professor some time back who said that baseball should eliminate home runs.

    And maybe I'm missing it, but what in the world would making every team carry five quarterbacks accomplish? The current problem isn't that they can't carry enough QBs, it's that there aren't enough quality QBs to supply 32 teams. Hell, you could argue that there's not enough for 20 teams. So every team carries another two or three guys who weren't good enough to make the league in its current state? Watch some of the bad starters in the league today and realize that most of the backups are worse, and then that your added QBs would be worse still.

    What I'd do (in particular to combat head trauma):

    *Continue with the tackling education that begins at the junior level. That should trickle upward eventually.

    *Reduce the amount of full contact allowed during practices.

    *The most radical proposal is to make all linemen pick up their down hand. By putting the hand down, they gain a good deal of power at the snap of the ball.

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