A passing league? No, thanks

October 13, 2010

NFL-CHARGERS/I keep hearing the same phrase over and over again when it comes to the NFL. From pundits both paid and voluntary, the same mantra is repeated: “The NFL is a passing league”. In other words, the key to success in the league is having an elite quarterback and a top quality receiver corps, who can rack up the yardage. “Establishing the run” still gets trotted out on a Sunday morning as a key tactic but week after week, the numbers show record-breaking pass yardage.

And those numbers are pretty persuasive. Those diligent chaps at the NFL stat department provided a few after Week five’s action and it is pretty clear we are on course for a record breaking season:

• Through the first five weeks of the 2010 season, passing yardage is at an all-time high. Net passing yards for the first five weeks is 33,452, the most ever at this point in a season.

• This season, there have already been seven individual 400-yard passing games, including two by San Diego’s Philip Rivers

• The seven individual 400-yard passing games are the most in NFL history for the first five weeks of a season. 2010 is well on course for the most such performances in a single season.

• For the first time in league history, there are three quarterbacks – San Diego’s Rivers (1,759), Denver’s Kyle Orton (1,733) and Indianapolis’s Peyton Manning (1,609) – with at least 1,600 passing yards through their teams’ first five games.

But let’s put against that some other numbers, specifically from week five games: which show very clearly that running up impressive yardage stats doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to win:

Phillip Rivers—431 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions—Lost
Kyle Orton—314 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions—Lost
Tony Romo—406 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions—Lost
Alex Smith—309 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions—Lost
Aaron Rogers—293 yards, one touchdown and one interception—Lost

So perhaps when people say that the NFL is become a passing league, they don’t necessarily mean that lots of yards means lots of wins. What might be more accurate to say is that while passing yards are increasing and the running game drops in importance, it is careful game management and limited turnovers combined with smart passing on key plays, that brings results.

Why is the passing game dominating? I’ve heard and read a number of theories – that the increased size of linemen makes it harder for running backs to find space, that the rule changes to (over?) protect the quarterback and receivers have encouraged the use of the pass and that it is a response to more “complex and innovative defenses”. I would suspect a combination of those factors is at play.

But while you can run numbers to prove various points over what are the most effective strategies in the NFL – and I will leave that task to those far more qualified in that area – what interests me is whether the domination of the passing game makes for good entertainment.

And here is the problem I have with the ‘quarterback’s league’ as a product: I like watching the running game.

I’m not talking about the ‘ground and pound’ constant battering for short yardage that Jets coach Rex Ryan was so proud of last year. I am talking about the great sights of the NFL — watching Adrian Peterson, one of the sport’s true athletes, sprint through those overweight linebackers, Reggie Bush hurdling tackles and Maurice Jones-Drew in full flow.

Arguably the highlight performance of this season so far came in week one with Arian Foster’s unexpected but glorious running for 231 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Colts (Peyton Manning completed 40 of 57 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns in that game and lost by the way…).

I’ve been watching some of the wonderful old material from NFL Films and while the quarterbacks have always been the ‘heroes’ in the game, some of the most memorable scenes from the past come from running backs – the relentless power of Jim Brown, the elegant, light-footed and generally astonishing Gale Sayers ‘The Kansas Comet’, the explosive pace of OJ Simpson and the record-breaking resilience of Emmitt Smith.

I like watching quarterbacks who can run with the ball too – although unfortunately they are few and far between in the NFL. It is a pity because the extraordinary display on national television last week of University of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez – who produced touchdown runs of 80, 41, 35 and 13 yards and rushed for 241 yards in the game against Kansas State – was something to behold. Yet the pessimism from experts over the prospects of Denver Bronco’s rookie Tim Tebow, another college quarterback who could mix in yardage gained on the ground, shows the conservatism of many NFL coaches when it comes to unorthodox quarterbacks.

All sports need a good variety of tactics to keep themselves interesting and unpredictable. The passing game may dominate the NFL playbook at the moment and provides its own spectacle but it would be a shame if the more athletic running game is totally eclipsed. But is a change likely any time soon?

Unnecessary Roughness is a weekly blog looking at the NFL from British-born, Miami-based sports reporter Simon Evans.

PHOTO: San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) passes against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first half during their NFL football game in San Diego, California September 19, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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