"The forward pass is a cowardly, immoral play."
-- Jock Sutherland
You'd have had to be a tougher man than me to have told Jock Sutherland he was wrong.
Sutherland truly was old school. He coached the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1946 and '47, back when a full set of teeth and the forward pass were both largely missing from football. I don't know if everyone was tougher then, but football players were. They had to be. Helmets were strictly optional and facemasks weren't an option at all. It was a brutally simple game. With the emphasis on brutal. Back then, running the ball wasn't just a strategy. It was a religion. And toughness was the game's great virtue.
In time, of course, the gear and the game evolved. Pads got better. Helmets not only became mandatory, they even got facemasks. And the passing game? Well, it certainly took flight, but it never lost its stigma. Somehow, teams that ran the ball were considered tougher and it was understood, more worthy. Sutherland may have been gone, but his philosophy was alive and well. Until this year.
This year, three yards and a cloud of dust gave way to the three-step drop. Seven quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards. In fact, this year teams passed for more yards than any season in NFL history. And the best team, the New England Patriots, passed most of all. On their way to an unbeaten regular season, the Patriots threw out convention and the running game. In one game, they ran the ball twice in an entire half.
Not convinced? Look no further than the Minnesota Vikings. This season, they didn't just run the ball well, they ran the ball better than almost any team in history. More than five yards a carry. By far the league's best average. And on defense, they were as stingy as their offense was proficient; the Vikes allowed a miniscule -- and by far league-best -- 74.1 yards per game on the ground. Those numbers aren't just good, they're phenomenal. Yet the Vikings didn't even make the playoffs.
Even a quick glance at this year's statistics makes it pretty clear that the teams that pass best, do best. The top three scoring offenses? The Patriots, Packers and Cowboys. They also happen to be three of the top four passing offenses. It's not a misprint and it's not a coincidence. Running teams just can't keep up. Not even the best of them.
The numbers don't lie, but they don't get to the whole truth either. And the truth is, running and its corollary of stopping the run didn't become a cliché, it became a prejudice. A relic from the game's hardscrabble days. When blood and broken bones weren't just common, they were badges of honor. Today's game is faster, more dynamic, more athletic than it's ever been. Worlds beyond what Sutherland could have ever imagined.
I like to think that if Sutherland saw a good passing game operating in perfect synch -- a quarterback standing tall and taking the big hit, his receiver timing a leap perfectly and then coming down in bounds -- that even old Jock might change his mind. He'd also see that passing the ball isn't taking a pass on courage, and that victory has virtue all its own.