I have been on the offensive side of the ball for virtually my entire football career. I love the passing game and the artistry it represents. Heading into Week 4, NFL quarterbacks have thrown for better than 300 yards 34 times, obliterating the previous all-time high of 21 games after three weeks. That is more than significant and I think there are three reasons why it's happening.
1. The league has never before had the depth of quality quarterbacks that it currently boasts. Even though I typically find QB rating a useless stat, it's hard to ignore that there are currently eight quarterbacks who maintain a rating of 100 or better, and nine who are averaging 300 or more yards per game. I attribute this level of play to the year-round focus and personal training, the evolution of the college game, and the creativity of offensive coordinators.
2. There have been rule changes that naturally favor the offensive side of the ball. Whether it's illegal contact, defensive holding, pass interference, personal fouls or the like, all are automatic first downs that give the offense free yardage and a new possession. With the increased awareness on player safety, there have been more illegal hits and more 15-yard penalties. That kills the momentum of the defense and gives the offense new life.
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3. Teams are committed to win through the air. It used to be said that in order to be competitive in the NFL, you had to be able to run the ball and stop the run. That's not the correct formula anymore. Take the 2011 NFL draft as an example. The best running back available, 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, wasn't selected until the 28th overall pick. This also was a draft that saw the Falcons make a blockbuster trade to move up and select impact receiver, Julio Jones, at No. 6. And Jones wasn't even the first wide receiver taken -- A.J. Green was selected by the Bengals two picks earlier. This shows just how important it is to have an explosive offense and be able to keep up with teams in a shootout.
Having said all that, I fear we may be losing the essence of what makes this game special. Both the college game and the NFL have evolved to this at the price of losing some of the physicality that distinguishes it from other sports. I am not sure what the league can do to dial it back. You can't go back and take the protections off the quarterback. The reason for that change, safety, still applies. But perhaps we need to go back to giving defensive backs the ability to play more aggressively down the field. I am afraid the train has already left the station, but I think it at least needs to be discussed.
The great unknown
I stand at the front of a long line of people who did not fully understand the process of what the review of end zone plays meant with regard to the winding of the clock. When the league decided -- wisely I might add -- to take the review of scoring plays out of the hands of the coaches and put it into the replay booth, there was a subtle part of the process I am convinced most coaches were unaware of, as evidenced by three games last week (New England-Buffalo, Jacksonville-Carolina and Atlanta-Tampa Bay).
When a scoring play is reviewed and it is determined that the play was not a touchdown, the ball is spotted and the referee starts the clock. This puts a great deal of pressure on coaches to have the unit on the field they need to run the next play, in a very short period of time. The competition committee concluded that to spot the ball and not start the clock would have given an unfair advantage to the offensive team. If the play would have been ruled correctly, the ball would have been spotted and play would have resumed naturally. At that point, the offensive team would have to make whatever natural adjustments it would have normally made with a non-scoring play with the clock continuing to run.
This makes sense, but it puts undue pressure on the teams for what is ostensibly a mistake by the officials. I hesitate to call it a mistake because on many of these calls it is very hard to make the correct call, and the replay system allows a much better chance of getting it right. However, it was apparent to me that Patriots coach Bill Belichik, who is the best rules and situational coach I have ever seen, was unaware of the way it was handled in his game. He was being criticized for calling a timeout after the ball was spotted, because it basically gave the game to Buffalo, who simply had to take a knee and kick a field goal. He had no choice. If he had not called timeout, Buffalo would have simply let the clock run down even further. Some suggested he should have let the Bills score, thus giving Brady a chance to drive the length of the field and at least tie the game. Chan Gailey would not have let that happen. As the old saying goes, "Sometimes you don't lose, you just run out of time."
Who is the NCAA kidding?
I can't let a recent article in USA Today about NCAA President Mark Emmert's comments to the assembled NCAA athletic directors go by without comment. Referring to the perception of what the mass movement to super conferences means, Emmert said, "The world is convinced that's all we do, that's all the NCAA cares about, that's all presidents care about, that's all you care about."
The inference is that this is the perception and not the reality. Who is Emmert kidding? That is exactly what the NCAA is about. If the presidents, the athletic directors and the NCAA can't control it, who exactly is responsible?
I love college football and I fear for the law-of-unintended-consequences when we are finally done re-arranging the landscape of college football. It will cost programs, it will cost scholarships at smaller programs and will cost coaches their jobs. The college presidents, athletic directors and the NCAA better not mind becoming a second-tier, minor-league NFL because I don't know who is going to prevent it from happening.