One of the NFL's big ones might fall, and it's too bad.
Dan Marino's single-season record of 5,084 passing yards -- set 26 years ago -- is in serious jeopardy. Well, sort of. No one is currently on pace to break it, but there are four quarterbacks currently within shouting distance.
Kyle Orton is at the top of the list, which should tell you all you need to know about Marino's record falling in this era of pro football. The other three names are far bigger than Orton, but their yardage totals are just as bloated -- at least when compared to when Marino set the mark.
There are several factors cheapening the 300-yard game as a barometer of good quarterback play:
» All the ticky-tack penalties called on defensive backs limit aggressive play, as well as interceptions.
» Short pass plays have replaced the running game. Many teams execute quick slants in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle, i.e. the 80-yard catch-and-run.
» The lack of offensive holding calls combined with more stringent rules on how a pass rusher can hit the quarterback.
Marino was aided by none of these conditions. If his center (Dwight Stephenson) grabbed the outside of a defensive lineman's shoulder pads, you can bet he'd be called for holding. Offensive linemen in 2010 get away with that technique all the time, and have to be even more blatant to get flagged.
Cornerbacks were given every right to challenge for the ball in 1984. If they beat Mark Clayton or Mark Duper to the spot in which their pass route was designed to arrive... too bad. These days a corner can know his opponent's tendencies, recognize the pass play, beat the receiver to the spot, but if there is any contact, you can bet your mom's On Golden Pond VHS tape who's gonna get the penalty.
The game has changed, and while offensive tackles still get called for holding, and defensive backs get the occasional pick, there can be no doubt that the modern passing game is thriving with the rule tweaks and modern interpretation of illegal contact, offensive holding and roughing the passer. But one future Hall of Fame quarterback feels the changes make what Manning, Rivers, Orton, and Brees are doing more difficult.
"The game is so much more complex now," Kurt Warner said. "The complexity of the schemes and the zone coverage makes it tougher. And then you have adjustments in coverage (pre-snap). Not to take away from what Dan did -- everyone knows he was a great player -- but he got a lot more man coverage, 'My guy is better than your guy' big plays."
Marino averaged 317.8 yards per game in '84 and did most of it with vertical passing. He also did it with two very good, but smallish wide receivers in Duper and Clayton. In fact, Marino threw 48 touchdowns, none of them with the aid of the modern big-on-little fade route, where a Calvin Johnson wins as many battles as he loses in the end zone -- providing he doesn't set the ball down.
"I never thought the 48 touchdowns record would ever be broken," Warner said. "But even though he may not have had big receivers, neither did I. But we both had receivers that, if the defender was even with them, they would soon be behind them by three yards."
Marino set the mark throwing the ball down the field, which Warner feels is impressive in its own right, and evens the score on what he did vs. the quarterbacks challenging his record. Warner also points out that Rivers is an exception, playing in an offense designed to go vertical often, similar to Marino. Rivers leads the league with 35 completions of 25-plus yards.
In fairness, they've all had outstanding seasons. Manning's campaign is just another on a surefire Hall of Fame career. If Brees retired today, I'd put him in Canton tomorrow. And then there's Orton.
Who would've thought that the guy the Bears were afraid to let throw the ball would be tearing it up? He wasn't given much of a vote of confidence when coach Josh McDaniels dealt for Brady Quinn and drafted Tim Tebow in the offseason. But here he is, averaging 306.4 yards per game and in prime position to break the record. Why? Because his team stinks.
But once again, the Broncos' futility comes into play. Even if they have a lead, running out the clock poses its own problem. McDaniels' ground "attack" averages 3.5 yards per carry, tied for last in the league. They're 30th in fourth-quarter rushing yards. Each of those figures is lower than the Chargers, Colts and Saints. Statisticians don't care if a good chunk of Orton's yards came while chasing 14-point deficits against prevent defenses. Thus, he's got the best shot to eclipse 5,084 yards.
Who knows how many yards Marino would have thrown for if the Dolphins struggled in '84. Miami started 11-0, finished 14-2, and were so far ahead in some games that coach Don Shula tapped the brakes in the fourth quarter.
The perfect example of this was the AFC Championship Game, when the defensive-minded Steelers got their butts handed to them all day by Marino, Clayton, Duper, and Nat Moore. Marino finished with 421 yards passing on only 21 completions. No dinking and dunking. Marino just killed them, one vertical pass at a time. Fly-routes, posts, deep-ins ... it didn't matter.
I still have the tape. Trust me, Marino could have put up a 550-burger. I had to endure listening to Pete Axthelm's pregame postulations as well as a 14-year-old Bob Costas, but it's worth watching. It's one thing to see the numbers; it's an entirely different deal taking in vintage Marino on game tape.
Considering he was only in his second year, it makes his 1984 marks nothing short of incredible. Manning broke the touchdown mark in his seventh season. Brees came close to the yardage mark in 2008 during his eighth season in the biggest pass-happy offense in the NFL.
The Dolphins went from the 19th-ranked passing offense in Marino's rookie season, to first in '84. To Shula's credit, he recognized what a talent he had and rode it. But it was far from the complex passing symphony that Saints coach Sean Payton is conducting. It was a straight-up push-the-ball-down-the-field attack with smurf receivers and a quarterback who had one of the quickest releases the game has ever known.
So let's take a cue from Shula, and gently tap the brake on the enthusiasm for the high-yardage totals. Yes, it is a fantasy football world we live in, but some numbers are a hair better than others. Dan truly was The Man.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.