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Sunday Football Notes

Why the passing game is spiraling out of control

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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The rise of passing offenses in the NFL is officially out of control.

And if the soul and roots of this game mean anything anymore - sorry, did we interrupt your fantasy football tabulations or DirecTV viewing? - something should be done about it after the season.

This isn’t football.

“Some would say it’s flag football,’’ said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, now a Fox analyst.

Just take a look at the statistics. They are, in a word, ridiculous.

Average gross passing yards are 518.5 per game this season. Next highest all-time: 472.4, last season (9.8 percent increase).

Average net passing yards: 489.2 (443.1 last season, up 10.4 percent).

The season record for 400-yard passing games is 13, set in 1986 and tied in 2004. There have been 10 already this season, and the pace is for 32.

There are 15 teams on pace to allow more than 4,000 passing yards. There were five teams that did it last season, two in ’09, one in ’08.

There are six teams on pace to break the league record for net passing yards allowed in a season, set by the Falcons in 1999 with 4,541: Bears (4,544), Falcons (4,707), Raiders (4,794), Dolphins (4,912), Patriots (5,226), and Packers (4,797).

And then there’s the coup de grace, yards per attempt, which is the easiest way to evaluate the effectiveness of one quarterback (Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers lead at 9.6) or an entire league.

NFL quarterbacks are averaging 7.41 yards per attempt this season. Not only is that a 5.8 percent increase over last season (7.0), it is also a 3.2 percent increase over the previous record (7.18 in ’83).

Those numbers should smack the NFL right in the face.

“If the numbers continue, we may have to decide, is this the direction we want to go as a league?’’ Billick said.

That’s a somewhat ironic statement considering that Billick, as offensive coordinator of the Vikings, helped start the league toward an offensive emphasis with a unit that broke several league records in 1998.

When presented with the statistics, former NFL coach Tony Dungy was a little taken aback.

“It’s stunning to see,’’ said Dungy, now an analyst on NBC’s “Football Night in America.’’ “It’s a little strange to see the game swing so much towards the passing game.’’

But it was predictable, because of several factors, including more passing on the college level producing better quarterbacks.

Certainly the lockout hasn’t helped, and the cutdown in padded practices under the new collective bargaining agreement may seem minor, but it’s major.

Dungy recalled when his former Steelers defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, went to Kansas City in 1983. John Mackovic, an offensive-minded head coach, wouldn’t let Carson’s guys tackle his receivers in practice. Carson quit during training camp.

“Bud basically said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to be a good defense practicing like this,’ ’’ Dungy said. “That’s what we’ve gotten to today.’’

Probably the biggest reason for the passing explosion has been the rule changes, starting in 1994, to protect the QB and defenseless players. They have been expanded in recent years.

No one should be against rules that protect players in the head area. And, fine, you can take away the deliberate knee shots to quarterbacks.

But doesn’t anybody have a problem with quarterback being treated differently than any other position? You can literally tackle them too hard and draw a penalty and a fine.

We’re not advocating that the NFL go back to the single wing, but coaches no longer have a second’s pause that throwing too much might subject their quarterback to too many hits. That has always been part of the game.

“The element of fear has been taken out of the game as far as offenses go,’’ Billick said. “The willingness to throw repeatedly is there now because you’re doing so not out of desperation, but you choose to, because you can win the game that way.

“That has changed. Your quarterback does have that protection. He’s not going to take the same beating that he did before.’’

Dungy was on the Steelers coaching staff in 1983 when John Elway made his first start for the Broncos. Elway was 1 for 8 for 14 yards and didn’t make it to halftime. That’s just the way it was, and guys like Elway seemed to make out OK.

Now we have Cam Newton throwing for 403 yards in his first start.

“It’s easier to throw the ball now than 10 years ago,’’ said Dungy. “There’s no doubt about it.’’

The NFL is never going to dial back protection for the quarterbacks, because they are the perceived glory boys who are responsible for the league’s popularity (we disagree, but the argument is futile).

The big problem comes when you combine the protection of the quarterback with that of receivers and the prohibition against defensive contact in the passing game.

This year, the NFL expanded the defenseless-player protection for receivers. It used to be that only launching and head shots were prohibited. Now a receiver must have time “to protect himself’’ and be “able to avoid or ward off the impending contact of an opponent.

“So you can’t hit them a certain way,’’ Dungy said. “I do think there are a lot of rules that have made it easier to throw and catch. Some of these have been in the making for the past five or six years, but it’s just recently, I think, where people have said, ‘Let’s take advantage of this and let’s throw, let’s draft ourselves receivers, play three- and four-wideout sets and throw the ball because that’s the easiest way to move it.’ ’’

Of course, Dungy is partly responsible for the dramatic uptick in passing. After the 2003 AFC Championship game, in which the Patriots manhandled his Colts receivers, Dungy and team president Bill Polian were able to get the Competition Committee to issue a point of emphasis on downfield contact in the passing game for the ’04 season.

“To be honest, my goal was just to get them to enforce the rules,’’ said Dungy. “That wasn’t a rule change.

“My only point - and I think Bill’s point was, too - if it’s a rule, let’s call it. If we don’t want it to be a rule, then let’s say it’s not a rule and we all know. But don’t have it in the rule book and not enforce it. Once it did become enforced again, then obviously it helped the offenses.’’

In ’03, the yards per attempt were 6.64 - the lowest since 1976. The number rose 6.2 percent to 7.05 in ’04. That’s the only uptick in yards per attempt that beats this season.

Is all this passing good for the game?

We don’t think it is. What was wrong with the NFL of the late 1980s and 1990s?

Many, including the bean counters at 345 Park Avenue, will point to the television ratings and contracts, and the general popularity of the league in relation to the other professional sports. They say, why fix what’s not broke?

But one thing doesn’t have to do with the other. Changes in viewer habits, shrinking free time, the rise of the Internet for fantasy football and gambling all have conspired to make the NFL a juggernaut - not Andy Dalton throwing for 332 and 298 yards in his second and fourth career starts. The NFL Network just can’t have a top 10 list for that.

If the rise in the passing game goes unchecked, you might as well label this version of football the “Live Ball Era.’’ The game has fundamentally changed.

“It’s a great time to be playing offensive football in the NFL and a really great time to be a receiver,’’ said Hall of Famer Raymond Berry. “The defensive backs can’t powder-puff you too much and that is great for receivers. And the quarterbacks have all that time to throw. It’s a bonanza.’’

On the defensive side, some former players see a game with which they are not familiar.

“My old teammates, defensive players, and they are kind of shaking their heads saying, ‘I don’t know if I could play in this era, the way it is,’ ’’ said Dungy, who was a defensive back.

There’s always a natural evolution of things, but this is way too rapid. The league is losing its soul. Records and comparisons, even back eight years, are pointless.

Do the ’03 Patriots resemble the ’11 version at all?

“Do we have to be careful that we are changing the personality of the game and once you do, you can never go back?’’ Billick said. “I think we do, if this continues.’’

The rules for player safety are a must. The protection rules for the quarterback will never be dialed back, although we think they should be. If the league wants to level the playing field and give defenses a chance, it is going to have to allow more downfield contact before the ball is thrown.

“The Competition Committee will have to look at this, and that’s one area where you might have a chance,’’ Dungy said. “When those rules came into play - and it was very much a product of our team when I was in Pittsburgh - you had smaller receivers, fast guys, and then we had Mel Blount, J.T. Thomas, and these guys were 6-3, 215 pounds and they were big guys that were pounding on little receivers.

“Now, Calvin Johnson is bigger than anybody he’s going to play against. Not only is he bigger and stronger than the defensive backs, but you can’t touch him, and if you are going to hit him, it has to be within 5 yards, and once he gets to 6 yards, he’s totally free.

“It’s not the same game as it was 25 years ago when some of these rules got put into place. I would think that would be the way to do it.’’

Of course, the “stewards of the game’’ who would have to approve it are 24 of 32 owners who are running a business. Good luck.

“They aren’t going to change it,’’ Billick said.

“To get 24 people to say, ‘Nah, [offense isn’t] a good idea . . .,’ I don’t think that’s going to happen,’’ Dungy said.

Until the NFL smartens up, coaches will look to stockpile good flag football players - sorry, football players - who can throw, catch, and run.

“It’s different, and you adapt and you adjust,’’ Dungy said. “That’s what the good teams and coaches have done.

“I think you’re seeing it. You’re seeing Bill Belichick play a different game than he played nine years ago when they were winning those Super Bowls. He’s coaching differently, he’s playing differently. I think the owners kind of like where things are going.’’

Terrific.

Nickel package

1. So let me see if I have this right. Brandon Meriweather, released by the Patriots, gets benched by the Bears. Jarrad Page, who was not re-signed, meets the same fate with the Eagles. Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett have struggled for the Patriots. That’s a lot of Patriots safeties not working out anywhere. Here’s to your health, Patrick Chung.

2. Was there really a debate around here as to whether Dez Bryant should have been drafted by the Patriots? The reports on him coming out of Oklahoma State made Randy Moss look like a saint. I’ll take a pro like Devin McCourty every day of the week and five times on Sunday.

3. He may not have flashy numbers, but Patriots end Andre Carter quietly has done a very nice job, with standout performances against the Dolphins, Raiders, and Jets. Carter was a key against New York’s running game. If he didn’t have a big game, the Jets would have gashed the Patriots.

4. The Chiefs are crediting a locker room game - bean bag toss - with bringing the team together during their two-game win streak. So apparently the Red Sox need physical games in their clubhouse. No word if fried chicken was involved with the Chiefs.

5. Jets receiver Santonio Holmes took a shot at the offensive line, and guard Brandon Moore returned fire. You can smell the meltdown coming.

New England update

The Chargers placed linebacker Stephen Cooper (Wareham/University of Maine) on injured reserve. Cooper tore a biceps in the Aug. 21 preseason game at Dallas and was initially scheduled to be placed on injured reserve but was allowed to keep playing. Cooper, in his ninth season, had started 55 games the previous four seasons but played just 11 snaps this year. He was kept around for his willingness to mentor the team’s young linebackers. “He’s helped me out so much,’’ first-year starter Donald Butler told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I mean, he’s one of the coaches in terms of concepts and just understanding where everybody fits in the scheme of things.’’ . . . The Chargers also are prepping former Dartmouth High and UConn star running back Jordan Todman to be active for the first time after the bye week. Todman, who left with a year of eligibility and was drafted in the sixth round, hasn’t dressed for a game. But Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert had to leave the Broncos game with injuries, and coach Norv Turner said he won’t leave the team short there again. “You have to be ready at any time,’’ he told the paper. “You’re getting yourself prepared to play every day anyway, but when people are down and you feel like you’re getting a step closer, the preparation probably does change a little bit.’’ . . . Ben Bloom (Wellesley/Tufts) is a first-year defensive assistant with the Cowboys. He came over from the Browns with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

By the numbers

0: Rushers who have gone over 100 yards this season for the Giants.

1: Team that has forced the opponent to punt on the opening series in each of the first five games, the Texans.

9-1: Combined record for the Bills and Lions. They were 1-9 at this point last season.

16: Starting quarterbacks for the Dolphins since the start of the 2000 season, most in the NFL (one more than the Browns). Matt Moore will be the ninth to start for them against the Jets since 2000.

701: Days since Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for a touchdown on the road (Nov. 15, 2009).

13-1: Record for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his past 14 games at home (68.2 completion percentage, 33 touchdowns, 9 interceptions).

Short yardage

Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe caught two touchdown passes in last week’s win over the Colts, including a spectacular one-handed grab. But he’s no wordsmith. “My last name is Bowe,’’ he said. “So everything I do, I want it to be un-Bowe-lievable.’’ . . . The Bills received another blow when they lost receiver Donald Jones to a high ankle sprain for 4-6 weeks. The Bills also have lost Roscoe Parrish and Marcus Easley for the year. They’ll miss Jones’s deep speed . . . At 1-4, the Eagles face a must win today against the Redskins. No team ever has won a division title after starting 1-5 . . . Texans receiver Andre Johnson (right hamstring) has resumed running and hopes to return against the Titans Oct. 23. It’s more likely to be the following week, against the Jaguars . . . Saints first-round pick Mark Ingram is the team’s leading rusher, but he hasn’t found a rhythm with all the team’s weapons. “The challenge for me with a player like Mark is just getting him enough touches and enough carries,’’ said coach Sean Payton. “We’re going to see more and more good things from him. Really, it’s just giving him those opportunities, and sometimes I don’t give him enough of them because we’re in another personnel grouping or we’re doing something else by design because we do that pretty well as well.’’ . . . The Jets have used buzzers at practice to help Mark Sanchez get the ball out faster, and the receivers to complete their routes faster . . . Bills linebacker Nick Barnett was in a protective boot most of last week, and then went out and had two interceptions (one for a touchdown) in the win over the Eagles. “What he did for us on Sunday is amazing, not just to me, but anybody watching,’’ said linebacker Shawne Merriman.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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