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The New Age of Offense in the NFL

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Damien Woody talks about why passing numbers have exploded in recent seasons and especially last year.

The New Age of Offense in the NFL

Last season, Drew Brees and Tom Brady broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record - a record that had stood since 1984 - with ease.  A third, Matt Stafford, was fewer than 50 yards shy.  Two more quarterbacks, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers, fell just shy of the 5,000-yard mark.  Prior to last year, the only quarterbacks to ever eclipse 5,000 yards in a single season were Marino in 1984 and Brees in 2008, and three quarterbacks eclipsed it in the same season.

Five quarterbacks (Brees, Brady, Stafford, Manning and Rodgers) averaged over 300 yards passing per game last season.  Prior to that, the feat had only been accomplished 11 times, and only six of those 11 averages were attained with full (or 15-game) seasons.  Basically, history was matched in one season.  League-wide, average passing yards (229.7) and QB ratine (82.5%) were at all-time highs last year.

The NFL is in the midst of the greatest passing era of its history, and last season's explosion signaled in a paradigm shift for the league. Passing is king now (even when team rushing yards per game increased) and teams are now employing wide open offenses with an emphasis on throwing the ball.  What led to this sudden boon in passing?  CHARGED.fm talked to ESPN NFL analyst and former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Damien Woody to try and figure this out, and he says this has been building for a while now.

“Well you’ve got to go back a little bit to the Patriots – Colts rivalry," Woody said.  During the 2000s, they adapted the rules changing how you could defend in the passing game.   The Colts were complaining about how physical New England was in the secondary.  So the NFL basically changed the guidelines to not allow that type of contact on the back end down the field.  It’s made it a lot harder for defenders to cover these receivers."

Looking at the statistics based on when those complaints were made by the Colts, there is definite truth to that claim.  Passing yardage increased from 200.4 to 210.5 yards per game from '03 to '04, and although they dropped back down in the '05 and '06 seasons, those figures have been steadily rising ever since.  Kerry Byrne wrote about other rule changes over the years that led to the increases in passing back in 2008 at Cold Hard Football Facts, and this was the final blow to defenses.  But rule changes weren't the only things helping out quarterbacks. 

“And then on top of that, quarterbacks are coming in better and more prepared to the National Football League with how everything has trickled down to high school and college like spread offenses.  Receivers are coming in bigger, faster and stronger.  So you combine all those things and that’s why you’re seeing the astronomical numbers in the passing game.”

Another contributor to last season could have been the lockout, which set all the players back slightly last year.  But Woody acknowledged that defenses were probably impacted more than offenses.

“Yeah, I definitely think the lockout had an impact in the passing numbers.  With the lockout, especially defensively, everything had to be simplified.   Going into the season, coaches just didn’t really have the time to install the full packages, so you had an abbreviated package defensively.  At the start it really took a while for defenses to get their legs up underneath them, but even still, this is an offensive-driven league because of the rules that the competition committee has set forth.  It really makes it a lot easier for an offense to win against a defense.”

So could that have led to a slight exacerbation in the passing numbers, a peak in this cyclical rise created by these culminating factors that would result in a falling off point of sorts moving forward?  In the decades past, we've seen rises like this drop off drastically when it seemed that they would never stop.  Woody doesn't think so.

“I definitely don’t think that’s a falling off point. We’re going to see more of this.  The NFL wants this to happen.  You’ve got to understand, if you have these big offensive numbers, that’s money in the bank for the NFL.  People pay to see that type of offense.  If anything, the offensive yardage in the passing game is going to be more explosive, so expect to see this trend going up.”

If last year was just the start, I can't even begin to imagine the kind of aerial assault that will be unleashed this season.  Woody played from 1999-2010, so he was in the league as this evolution was taking place.  One thing stood out to him as offenses made this shift, and that was the emergence of the spread.

“I think it’s really how the spread offense at the college game has really affected the game on the pro level," Woody said.  That’s really the biggest thing that we’ve seen from the point when I came into the league until this point now.  These [rookie and young] quarterbacks are coming in so prepared because they are running the same type of systems from college to the pros.

“You’re seeing multiple tight end sets, wide receivers spread out open instead of a more traditional tight end, fullback, run the ball. That’s just not the case anymore; it’s more wide open, spread the field. It’s all about matchups and exploiting any mismatches that you can get.”

Much has been written recently (at Grantland by Smart Football's Chris Brown and at SI.com by Chris Burke) on the evolution of these spread offenses and even the evolution within specific sets.  Receivers and quarterbacks now have even more options, plays within plays, that can be changed on a dime based on what the defense gives you.  Different adjustments to traditional sets and new wrinkles are also catching defenses off-guard.  Woody doesn't really think that this is anything new around the league, but that more consistent employment of these offenses is leading this charge.

“Well everybody pretty much runs the same type of plays, but like I said, with the spread you’re seeing a lot of different types of things like bubble screens, and just a more wide open attack.  It’s not the traditional tight end, two backs, two wide receivers look.  It’s not what you’re seeing now.  Now you’re seeing multiple tight ends, multiple wide receivers, and it’s basically a new NFL.  It’s a wide open NFL, and head coaches are basically putting the ball in the quarterback’s hand and saying, ‘Go sling it, go win this football game.’”

While this is great for offenses, defenses and coordinators are left scrambling, trying to find an answer to this.  We've seen more of an emphasis on rushing the passer, as the New York Giants have won two Super Bowls on the backs of their dominant defensive front.  Woody has seen other changes and anticipates more.

“Well I think what you’re seeing now, a few years ago a lot of teams were switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense.  Now you’re starting to see a lot of teams switch from the 3-4 for the 4-3 because a lot of the time, these linebackers can’t match up in the passing game.  So a lot of teams are switching back, getting linebackers in there that can actually cover in the secondary. 

"The safety position has also become even more valuable because you have these athletic tight ends that can not only play in line, but also can flex out and act as another wide receiver.  So that’s what you’re seeing now, switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and getting guys that can cover in the passing game.”

It appears that passing will continue to reign supreme as we move deeper into this age of explosive pass offenses.  But as a result, the constant battles between offenses and defenses will almost be even more fun to watch.  Even with all their seeming advantages, offenses are still looking for new ways to improve.  At the same time, defenses have to scheme and adjust even more to try and keep up.  One thing's for sure: it will all be entertaining to watch unfold as the new season begins.

Let CHARGED.fm get you tickets to see the Dallas Cowboys take on the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in tomorrow night's season opener.

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