The NFL’s Passing Evolution Reaches New Heights

After Week One’s eye-popping passing statistics, we discussed the evolution of the passing game in the NFL and pro football’s shift from a run-oriented game to a pass-oriented game.  The NFL has seen an incredible growth in nearly every statistical category throwing the football over the last few decades.  After Week One, we asked if there was a limit to this rise in passing numbers in light of the Monday Night game between New England and Miami setting a record for combined passing yards.  As the season has progressed, we’re receiving a firm answer to that question… no.

Granted, we’re only through three weeks of the season, but so far what we’re seeing is another seismic shift in the direction of spread offenses and throwing the ball all over the field.  Here’s the current yearly records for a few league-wide passing statistics…

Passing yards per game: 221.6 (2010)
Passing attempts per game: 34.8 (1995)
Passing yards per attempt: 6.60 (2004)
300 yard passing games in a season: 104 (2009)
4000 yard quarterbacks: 10 (2009)

Here’s the 2011 numbers, all of which are on pace to set NFL records…

Passing yards per game: 261.3
Passing attempts per game: 35.1
Passing yards per attempt: 7.90
Projected 300 yard passing games: 176
Projected 4000 yard quarterbacks: 18

The explosion in passing yards per game is stunning – an increase in 39.7 yards per game, just from last year!  That’s even bigger than the jump from 1978-1979 when the Mel Blount Rule was introduced, which was a landmark change in pro football.  That’s not all though.  We’re on pace for 176 300 yard passing games this season.  That’s more than there were in the entire decade of the 1970s (145)!!  It’s nearly TRIPLE the 300 yard passing games that there were just six years ago in 2005 (64).  It smashes the record for 300 yard games in a season, a mere 104 in 2009.  All of these league records are not just going to be broken, they’ll be obliterated.  

Perhaps the most amazing statistic in the early days of the 2011 season is this – five quarterbacks are on pace to break Dan Marino’s single season passing record of 5,084 yards – Tom Brady (on pace for 7,077 yards), Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, and Matthew Stafford.  

Wrap your minds around this nugget – Saints quarterback Drew Brees is on pace for 5,648 yards.  That would shatter Dan Marino’s 1984 record by 564 yards.  Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is ONE THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY NINE YARDS AHEAD OF BREES!!!  Statistically, that’s off the map!  Let me explain…  

The average passing season for a team since the NFL went to a 16 game schedule in 1978 is 3,262 yards by my calculation.  If I can go into turbo stat geek mode, Brady’s projected season of 7,077 yards would be 20 standard deviations above the average passing season.  Probabilistically, one reaches what amounts to zero probability around 6-7 standard deviations from the mean.  Brady’s projected 2011 season is at 20.  Statistically, the probabliity of seeing a season like Tom Brady 2011 is somehow seemingly less than zero (not really, but it sounds more impressive).  As in, it shouldn’t be happening.

Nine quarterbacks are averaging over 300 yards per game through almost a quarter of the season.  In NFL history, only eight quarterbacks have played in at least eight games in a season while breaking the 300 ypg barrier.  Only five quarterbacks have played all 16 games while averaging over 300 – Dan Marino (1984), Drew Brees (2008), Kurt Warner (2001), Tom Brady (2007), Dan Fouts (1981).  

Without a major rule change, it’s difficult to pinpoint the reasoning behind these 2011 numbers.  Perhaps the lockout is a major factor… but that doesn’t really make sense seeing as how a rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, is firmly in the midst of projected record breakers.  Wouldn’t Newton and Andy Dalton (who’s also had a 300 yard game already) be the most afflicted by the lack of preseason preparation?  Is the ball juiced to preserve fan excitement after the lockout?  Possibly… although I’m not sure how one juices a football.  Scoring isn’t up dramatically, only up a half point per game by team to a league average of 22.5 PPG.  Instead, it’s these passing numbers that have seen the increase.

Perhaps as we said a couple weeks ago, it’s all the great quarterbacks in the NFL and the continual rule changes in place to protect offensive players.  Perhaps it’s the fact that the league is trying to emulate the success seen in New England, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Green Bay.  The last two Super Bowl Champions have relied on pass heavy offenses and we saw them combine for 692 passing yards on opening night.  Little did we know then it was only a sign of things to come in 2011.

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About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.