When it comes to age, they say 50 is the new 40. When it comes to fashion, gray is the new black. And when it comes to passing yardage, 400 is the new 300.
It used to be that if a quarterback threw for 300-plus yards, it was something special statistically, but a pretty good indicator that his team probably lost. Those types of games were reserved for playing from behind and putting it up 40-50 times was necessary to get back in the game. That's not the case anymore.
In Week 5, four teams had more than 300 passing yards, with three winning. The two 400-yard passers, Eli Manning and Matt Schaub, both lost. There now have been 10 400-yard passing performances this season, but only three were in victories. The league record for 400-yard games in one season is 13; the NFL is on a pace for 32 in 2011.
Obviously the rules have progressively pushed the game towards more passing. The limitation on defensive backs in terms of contact down the field; the liberalization of holding calls on offensive linemen; and the added protection given to quarterbacks have created a perfect storm for passing productivity. Because of this trend, more and more teams have committed to the idea of adopting a pass-first system and all that goes with that.
The NFL also is deeper at good quarterback play than at any time in the history of the league. It only stands to reason that there will be more 300-yard passing games when you have more quarterbacks who are capable of doing so and have the weapons around them to do it. In 2006, there were three teams that threw for more than 4,000 yards, which breaks down to 250 yards per game. At the current rate, there will be 12 teams that eclipse that mark this year (in 2009 there were also 12 teams that threw for better than 4,000 yards, while the number dropped back to seven in 2010).
Teams are so committed to the passing game that receiving ability almost supersedes all other talents at both tight end and running back. The Saints are a perfect example of this new phenomenon with tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles. Both players are among the NFL's top 10 in receptions after the first games. Additionally, running back Matt Forte is not only the Bears' leading rusher, but also the leading receiver and is ranked seventh in the NFL in receptions. Even in the big-play offense of the Chargers, which features two 6-foot-5 deep-threat receivers, it is fullback Mike Tolbert who leads the team in receptions with 28, five more than the next highest total on the team.
As the weather gets worse and playing conditions become sloppier, we will see a decline in the amount of 400-yard passing games. Still, the record of 13 will be demolished and the evolution of the passing game will continue.