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.