Passing league: Explaining the NFL's aerial evolution

Associated Press
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (left) and Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson represent a new era in the NFL.


 

The NFL is a passing league. The stats prove it. The money paid to quarterbacks, receivers, pass rushers and cornerbacks prove it.

What has led to the change in the overall philosophy of a game that used to be based on running backs and the middle linebackers who tackled them? The reasons are many, and they are fascinating. They also go far beyond rule changes in recent years that protect quarterbacks and wide receivers.

In conversations with coordinators on both sides of the ball, several reasons were provided as to why the passing game has exploded. One element resoundingly mentioned by players and analysts -- the heightened enforcement of penalties for hitting defenseless receivers in the middle of the field -- was mentioned but minimized by offensive and defensive coordinators alike.

Quarterbacks

Over the past few seasons, quarterbacks have come into the NFL with a much better understanding of the passing game. This was a universal opinion. Though finding the right quarterback isn't easy and NFL-caliber execution isn't guaranteed, those coming out of college are better versed -- and in greater numbers -- on the intricacies of the passing game.

The coordinators said with so many high schools and college teams using spread offenses, the concepts of how to read the field and defensive-player placement before the snap have increased quarterbacks' awareness. Not long ago, quarterbacks were reading defensive ends and tackles to decide whether to hand the ball off to a running back or keep it and run.

Now they're reading safeties and linebackers to exploit the part of the field the defense leaves open in the passing game.

One offensive coordinator added that the growth and increased level of competition in 7-on-7 passing leagues for high schoolers has enhanced the awareness of passing-game concepts for quarterbacks and receivers, as well.

New Orleans' Jimmy Graham is part of the new wave of athletic, dynamic tight ends.
New Orleans' Jimmy Graham is part of the new wave of athletic, dynamic tight ends. (Tom Hauck/Associated Press)

The NFL is adapting to the skills and knowledge of the talent entering its league, instead of forcing players into an old standard.

Personnel

Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said the talent and size of receivers have allowed offenses to dictate matchups. For the foreseeable future, the offense has the advantage.

"The athletes on that side of the ball, you're seeing bigger guys, faster guys," Zimmer said. "The talent level of the receivers has really increased. You don't see fullbacks or blocking tight ends anymore. Teams put three receivers on the field, use shotgun on first and second downs, and with that third receiver, they find the better matchups."

Flex tight ends such as Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and even veteran Antonio Gates have advantages over slower safeties, smaller nickel backs or linebackers who also have to key against the run in play action.

Compounding things, when defenses find somewhat of a proper fit against those players, teams like the New Orleans Saints counter with a smaller scatback like Darren Sproles (or Baltimore's Ray Rice or Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew) to exploit other matchups.

Schemes

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More teams are using shotgun sets, especially on earlier downs, to combat hyper-athletic pass rushers. The ability of great pass rushers to win battles against highly paid offensive tackles and force offenses to use an extra blocker triggered a lot of what we're seeing in the passing game, multiple coordinators said.

By using the shotgun formation, quarterbacks can survey the field before the snap, figure out the matchup advantage, take the snap and get rid of the ball quickly. By not having to take a five- or seven-stop drop from under center and get rid of the ball quickly, quarterbacks can reduce high-risk plays as well as pass pressure. That helps accuracy and gets the ball in the hands of playmakers.

"We've done things to give us as coaches and the players more choices," Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said.

Mentality

Coaches have changed more than players. Play calling has become more aggressive in the passing game on first and second down and early in games. Taking a lead and forcing the opponent to play catch-up is even more the thinking in today's game, one coordinator said. Just a few years ago some of the strategy was to play things close and let the defense put the team in position to pull the game out late.

Now, offensive coaches and play callers are more willing to take risks because of schematic and personnel advantages.

"More coordinators and play callers, once they feel comfortable in what they have, are willing to cut it loose," one coordinator said.

This puts pressure on defensive coaches to try and play to their strengths, whether it is using nickel or sub packages as the primary defense or hoping players are athletic and disciplined enough in the base sets to handle what offenses are calling.

Rules

The no-contact rule on receivers beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage has been around for years. What's changed has been the enforcement of contact against receivers running across the middle of the field, whether they have the ball or not.

In years past, treading between the numbers was a danger zone for receivers, who expected to be re-routed if they tried to run a crossing pattern or to take a potentially concussive hit once they caught the ball. With officials being more cognizant of penalizing helmet-to-helmet hits, players have backed off, making the middle of the field a far safer place to play.

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For proof, look at the New England Patriots. Wes Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez work the middle of the field like an Etch A Sketch. They exploit matchups, talent and rules arguably better than any team in the league -- especially with a pinpoint passer in Tom Brady.

Former Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins recently said that one of the reasons why he retired is that players are now in a gray area, meaning there are times a player has to think or pause instead of react. He said he found himself pulling up on bang-bang plays instead of leveling offensive players like he did much of his career.

That reluctance to intimidate has made offenses far more brazen and quarterbacks far more comfortable throwing the ball. Passing the ball to the middle of the field is much easier than trying to stick a 15-yard out pattern on the sideline. With athletes like Graham and Gronkowski and smarter quarterbacks who can decipher defensive weakness, throwing the ball is simply easier.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89