Just in the past month, two seemingly prestigious quarterback records have been shattered. The first occurred on November 12th, when Matt Ryan became the youngest quarterback to reach 40,000 passing yards. The second came on Thanksgiving afternoon, when Matthew Stafford broke Peyton Manning’s record of most passing yards by a player under the age of 30.
Why is nobody talking about either record? Well, it’s about time that we stopped caring about quarterback records. The league has been trending so far in favor of the quarterback that we should only bat our eyes at the most impressive of records, and even then, they’re still not as impressive as they ought to be.
Here’s a line graph showing the number of passing attempts for the league’s leading passer every 10 years from 1936-2016:
There’s a spike around 1986 because of Dan Marino, but he was a relative outlier.
The NFL isn’t the ground and pound game that it was in the middle of the 20th century, nor is it a league where a select few teams have the capability to throw the ball. In 2016, 20 quarterbacks attempted more passes than Kurt Warner did during the Rams’ 1999 “Greatest Show on Turf” season. Teams are throwing the ball more frequently and more efficiently.
Otto Graham, the league’s premier passer in the 40s and 50s, had a career completion percentage of 55.8%, which would rank 30th out of 32 teams, ahead of only the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, who have a combined record of 1-19 as of this writing.
That’s because teams have adopted systems of early-down quick passing that operates the way runs used to. So that halfback that used to get 35 carries a game now only sees 20 carries, with those other 15 plays going to quick slants, screens, and flats. This system totally upends the old way of doing things, which usually consisted of a run on the first two downs with passing relegated to just a third down play.
Whereas team used to simply utilize the passing game, teams are now reliant on it. Think of the current Jacksonville Jaguars as a model team of the past. They have an excellent defense, and play possession on offense, trying to maintain the ball for as long as they can by pounding it on the ground. The only time they let Blake Bortles sling it is when it’s absolutely necessary.
This increased passing isn’t just because of a change in individual teams’ mindsets, but of the league’s mindset in general. The league wants more passing. Back in the mid-90s, the NFL was losing popularity. Touchdowns were lacking. All the while, Michael Jordan and the high-flying Bulls had the NBA gaining popularity. In response, the NFL instituted a number of pro-passing initiatives, including a stricter roughing the passer rule, allowing offensive linemen to get in position with one foot behind the other, and allowing coaches to communicate directly to their quarterbacks through a transmitter in the QBs’ helmet.
We’re bound to see more milestones later in the season. Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers are both slated to pass John Elway on the all-time passing list, who currently sits at #6. While impressive, it’s not nearly as impressive as such a feat once was. Don’t overreact when the inevitable happens.