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Passed history

Current NFL air attacks threaten to leave Marino in the distance

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 29, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - What could 5,000 passing yards do for you in 1984?

For Dan Marino, it made him a legend, even though he had been in the NFL only two seasons.

People were measuring his “fast-twitch fibers’’ and his “magnetism.’’ Because at that time, the 5,084 yards that Marino piled up were unheard of. Only five other NFL quarterbacks had even cracked 4,000 in a year. The number was untouchable.

The record he set that year made Marino the most recognizable face in the league, and his face sold everything from suits to real estate.

That’s what 5,000 yards got you in 1984.

Now it’s 2011, and it seems that almost everyone is a couple of air attacks away from cracking 5,000 yards.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees wiped Marino from the record books Monday night when he threw for 307 yards against the Falcons, raising his season total to 5,087 yards - with a game to go. It was the second time in his career that Brees had thrown for 5,000 yards - the second time in four years, in fact. He hasn’t thrown for less than 4,000 since 2005.

But Marino, from his post as an analyst on CBS’s “NFL Today’’ crew, had been kissing his record goodbye for weeks.

If Brees didn’t do it, maybe Aaron Rodgers would. If Rodgers didn’t, Tom Brady would.

Brady, who reportedly had X-rays yesterday to check for a left shoulder injury, is sitting on 4,897 yards going into Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Bills. He is averaging 326.5 yards a game.

So what does 5,000 yards get you in 2011? It might not even get you an MVP trophy.

Rodgers, the Packers star, is at 4,643 yards; he could flirt with 5,000 but will likely fall short. But combine his 45 touchdown passes and 122.5 passer rating with Green Bay’s 14-1 record, and he is the leading MVP candidate.

Over the past three decades, the passing game in the NFL has definitely morphed. Receivers are bigger and faster (see: Calvin Johnson, 6 feet 5 inches, 236 pounds, 4.35 40-yard dash). Tight ends are more like wide receivers (see newly minted Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski and his 15 touchdowns). Fullbacks are all but extinct. Backfields more often than not are empty.

Those are a few of the things Bills coach Chan Gailey has observed. At the same time, defenders have pumped up, and what’s happened is that the field has shrunk. Running the ball is harder because defenders can prowl from sideline to sideline.

“So how do offenses move the football?’’ said Gailey. “You spread them out and create more lanes. The best way to do that is with spread offenses and throwing the football.

“I think it’s just an evolution of where we’ve come because of the defensive players and because of the defensive schemes that have come into place over the last 10-15 years.’’

It’s something Marino noticed.

“I’d never take anything away from what these guys are doing, which is incredible,’’ Marino told USA Today last week. “But it’s easier to throw the football than it was.’’

For Brady, the yards are just a byproduct.

“You don’t think about it much,’’ he said. “You don’t think about touchdowns or yards. What I like to think about is our offensive production and if we’re getting the ball in the end zone, if we’re winning games, if we’re building on our performance week to week, if we’re getting better over the course of the season.

“Personal records and anything like that, really in a team sport to me, there’s just not any emphasis on those. We’re trying to win team awards.’’

When Marino piled his yards up, he was peerless. After he rang up his record season, only two quarterbacks came close to it over the next 17 years: Warren Moon, who threw for 4,689 in 1990 and 4,690 in 1991, and Marino himself, who threw for 4,746 in 1986.

Brees, Brady, and Rodgers are occupying the same elite air at the same moment, and Brady said it’s hard not to watch what the others are doing.

“Not necessarily for yards or anything like that,’’ Brady said. “Just more the way they handle the game, they manage the game, they make their reads, they make their throws, their technique.

“You’re always trying to learn. I don’t care if it’s your 20th year or your first year, you’re trying to grow as a player and become better each week as a player. You never want to see yourself regress, so you’re always trying to learn and pick up new things.

“Certainly watching Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning - guys that I’ve watched year after year play at a very consistent level - you try to take some things from their game and use them in yours.’’

But there are some things, Brady conceded, that Rodgers and Brees can do that he’ll never be able to.

“You accept those things and you try to still use what you have and your ability or your mental ability to be able to get your team in the end zone, because ultimately that’s what it’s about,’’ he said. “It’s not about your 40 speed or how far you can throw the football.

“It’s about how well you can command the offense to move the ball down the field on a consistent basis to score more points than the other team. There are a lot of ways to do that.’’

Looking at the three quarterbacks, and the nearly 15,000 yards among them, makes Marino’s milestone of 27 years ago feel like even more of a distant memory.

Granted, he is focused on the game against the Bills, but even Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged, “The last time I watched Marino throw, I don’t know when that was.’’

Meanwhile, Brady is a few throws from pushing a once-untouchable number further down the list.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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