Trends that came to light in the first nine weeks of play in the 2009 NFL season could set the tone for the second half of the schedule.
The most dominating trend of the season has been the prolific passing attacks that are changing the infrastructure of the NFL game. Head coaches are no longer giving lip service to the concept that you set up the pass with the run.
Last season, there were 76 300-yard passing performances in 256 games. At the halfway point of this season, there have already been 52 300-yard passing games. If this keeps up, there could be as many as 100 300-yard passing games this season.
'If you don't have a big-armed guy, you lose'
Right now, there are 13 quarterbacks with more than 250 pass attempts through eight games played (15 quarterbacks if you count Matt Schaub and Eli Manning, who have played nine games each). That means many of those quarterbacks will make more than 500 pass attempts. Last year, only 10 quarterbacks attempted 500 or more passes. When you look at quarterbacks on pace for more than 600 pass attempts, the numbers are a quite a bit more telling. There are five passers looking at attaining the 600 pass attempt threshold. Only two quarterbacks reached that number in 2008, and only one did it in 2007. As one former head coach said to me the other day, "It's all pass now and if you don't have a big-armed guy, you lose."
Right now, there are only three teams in the league that run more often than pass. That number could soon be down to one team. The Jets -- in an attempt to take pressure off of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez -- have run the ball 65 more times than they've thrown it. The Dolphins -- due to their Wildcat formation -- have four more runs than pass attempts, but increasingly appear to be looking for ways to throw out of the Wildcat package. The third team to run more than throw is the Panthers, who have just two more running plays than passing plays. The NFL average for yards gained on running plays is slightly over four yards; the NFL average for passing plays is just over six yards.
There's little doubt that it is more effective to score points through the air than on the ground. NFL teams average seven rushing touchdowns, and 11 passing touchdowns. How about those teams that don't score by the pass? The five teams that score more touchdowns via the run -- Carolina, Jacksonville, Miami, Oakland and Tennessee -- have a combined record of 14-26.
Backs catching on
Which players are getting more touches as a result of teams not running the ball as much as they did in the past? Well, running backs are still involved in the action, just more so via the forward pass. There are at least 20 running backs on pace for more than 40 receptions, and five of those backs could crack the 70-reception mark. Ray Rice of the Ravens has 46 receptions in eight games, which could mean a whopping 90 catches this season for the second-year back.
Just how valuable is it to a team to have a running back capable of catching the ball out of the backfield? The top nine teams in terms of completions to running backs -- Arizona, Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Minnesota, New England, New Orleans and San Diego -- average eight completions per game to their running backs. Those nine teams have a combined record of 52-21 and five of those nine teams currently lead their divisions.
Out in the cold?
It's the middle of November and cold weather is on the way. Could that slow down the incredible pace passers are on this season? If last season is any indication, the cold weather will not curtail a team's desire or willingness to throw. For example, Jay Cutler threw more passes in the month of December than he did in October for the Broncos last year. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre (then with the Jets) and Aaron Rodgers are just a few of the quarterbacks in cold-weather cities who had no drop off in pass attempts in games played in October as compared to December.
In 2008, there were 19 games played when the temperature was below 32 degrees. In those games, there were 1,086 runs and 1,255 pass plays (53.6 percent pass). This year, I get the feeling that the percentage of passing plays in games played in temperatures below 32 degrees could be closer to 58 percent.
Late last season and into the postseason, when the weather was at its most adverse, Roethlisberger called 124 pass plays in three games. In a Week 16 loss to the Titans, with the temperature at 29 degrees and a wind-chill factor at 19 degrees, Roethlisberger called 44 pass plays. While a few coaches say that severe wind conditions might curtail the passing game, for the most part teams do not attempt fewer passes during the cold-weather games.
Pass first, run second
Two areas that can provide clues about a team's desire to throw more than run are the down-and-distance situation and field position. Teams love balance on first-down play calls, and right now teams still run the ball slighty more on first down than they throw it. However, there are 11 teams that opt to throw more on first down rather than run. Of those 11 teams, only three have losing records, which seems to indicate that the first-down pass play is used more to win than to play catch-up.
Take a look at the success Cincinnati is experiencing when passing the ball on first downs. While defenses are focused on stopping Cedric Benson in the backfield, Chad Ochocinco has produced 21 first-down receptions for 357 yards (that's 17 yards per catch).
The red zone (inside the opponents' 20-yard line) is an area of interest when looking at the passing game in terms of field position. Last year, there were 400 rushing touchdowns and 441 passing scores. At the half-way mark this season, there have been 180 rushing touchdowns and 225 passing touchdowns. That projects to 360 touchdowns by run and 450 through the air.
All indications are that the passing game will continue to be a major factor in the season's second half.