Last season, the leaguewide completion percentage on pass plays run from a read-option was an astounding 78 percent. No player in NFL history has completed more than 72 percent of his passes through a full season. Offensive coaches have created a tactic that made the this era’s average quarterback more accurate than the best quarterbacks in football history.
At training camps over the summer, I asked a lot of people: “Is it easier than ever to play quarterback?” Almost everyone I posed this question to said “yes,” and most of those answers were based on the success of RPOs from the previous year. Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said that an RPO is a play you throw only when it’s going to be a success. “Pfff, yeah,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said, before mentioning that RPOs can require the quarterback to read just one player instead of entire coverage. He continued: “Quarterbacks just aren’t throwing outside the numbers. It’s a philosophy change.”
But then something strange happened: The 2018 season started and everyone stopped talking about RPOs, the plays that helped Nick Foles become a Super Bowl champion. It’s not that teams stopped running them—the record-breaking Kansas City Chiefs run them more than anyone—but now it’s not only RPOs; it’s everything else too. This year, the average quarterbacks look great and the great quarterbacks look like gods. Two quarterback are on pace to break the completion percentage mark this year—Drew Brees and Jared Goff. There are seven quarterbacks in history to complete more than 70 percent of their passes during a full season; there are seven doing it through five weeks of 2018.
Defenses did not conspire to let wide receivers go open more often—even if it looks that way. The deck is simply stacked against them. It’s been stacked by scheme changes, rule changes, and athlete changes. Plenty of teams have finally fully embraced the creativity of college schemes—and I believe that’s the main cause of this current uptick in offense—but that’s still only part of the equation. Individually, any of these factors would cause an uptick in offense. And all of them happening at once creates the eye-popping numbers we’ve seen so far. Nearly every trend—big or small—has gone against the defense, and the natural result is that, yes, it is easier than ever to play quarterback.
For most of football history, though, the currents were pushing in the opposite direction. In 2016 NFL.com called quarterback the sport’s “most difficult position.” In 2015, USA Today called it the the “hardest job in the world.” It is still an intellectually demanding position, but the passes are easier and that makes all the difference for the vast majority of the league. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the number of “wide-open” passes—throws with 3 or more yards of separation—is up to 42 percent this year. It was 39 percent last year and 37 percent before that. The number of tight-window throws (one yard of separation) is at 15.7 percent. It was 17.6 percent last year and 19.3 percent in 2016, according to NFL data analyst Mike Band.
The NFL’s norms are being rewritten. It’s become a cliché to point out that Dan Marino would have more success now than he did in the 1980s and 1990s. But everyone who has ever played would have more success this year.
In seasons past, if you heard that the Rams converted only 16 percent of their third downs in a given game, you would assume they got destroyed. This year, they put up 38 points and beat the Vikings—because they threw for 556 yards. Since 1940, there are 406 instances of a home team scoring 36 points and not committing a single turnover; in 402 of these games, the home team won. Half of those four losses are by the Atlanta Falcons in a two-week stretch in late September 2018.
If you have a near-perfect offense this season, that still isn’t always enough. And if, like Houston, Dallas, Seattle, or the New York Giants, you’ve found a way to be below-average—well, there’s no longer any excuse. After all, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who, uh, is not Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, or probably even Eli Manning, threw for 400 yards in each of the first three games of the year. There are two types of teams in the NFL: the ones that understand what’s happening, and the ones that don’t. The gap has never been wider.
In one of the first interviews I ever did as an NFL reporter six years ago, I spoke with Eliot Allen, who coached Andrew Luck at Stratford High School in Houston. At that point, a handful of native Texan quarterbacks—Luck, Robert Griffin III, Matthew Stafford, and many more—were putting up massive numbers as young players. Allen told me something about the younger generations of quarterbacks that I’ve thought about ever since: The younger they are, the more seven-on-seven football they play. That brand of flag football features young quarterbacks throwing into tight man-to-man coverage, typically on crossing routes. It has become increasingly popular in the last 15 or so years as another place to compete outside of high school. It’s especially popular in warm-weather states like California, Texas, and Florida, where it’s played year-round and thus, quarterbacks can throw year-round. There’s probably a 10,000-hour rule application in there somewhere. Seven-on-seven doesn’t help most players develop actual football skills, but it does allow the quarterbacks to practice the same kind of open-field crossing patterns that have become increasingly popular in the spread-friendly NFL.
For years, this was seen as a negative—because these middle school and high school games were not a “pro-style” of offense. It is true that the older generation of quarterbacks—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, among others—got a much different football education than younger quarterbacks. They all entered the NFL significantly before the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that drastically cut practice time. That agreement eliminated two-a-day training camp practices and limited teams to just 14 padded practices during the entire season. There will never be a better generation of pro-style quarterbacks than the ones who dominated this decade because it is damn near-impossible to develop a “pro-style” quarterback anymore.
So, although none of the post-Brady generation can get a pro-style education, they are throwing the ball a ton before they got to the pros. A few years ago, I asked Andy Reid about the spread offense in college, and he mentioned that even if it’s not perfect, it does require the QBs to throw a lot of passes. And if they’ve done that, you can basically figure the rest out later. In Patrick Mahomes II’s senior year in 2016, he threw the ball 88 times in a game against Oklahoma, and he eclipsed 50 passes in four other instances that season.
All of these young quarterbacks developing accuracy and precision on crossing patterns then dovetailed with another trend: the opening of the middle of the field.
The writer George Plimpton wrote in 1966 that legendary receiver Raymond Berry spoke of crossing the middle of the field in the same way “one might speak of a serious automobile accident.” That did not change for decades afterward. I asked Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn when that finally started to shift, and he said it was about a decade ago, as athletes got faster and defenses had to remove the bulky linebackers who could hit the crap out of players but couldn’t stick with a slot receiver in space. This combined with rule tweaks preventing hits on defenseless receivers—particularly changes in 2008 and 2011—and helped create an era of over-the-middle football. The so-called “helmet rule” of 2018, which prevents players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact, has only helped to amplify the passing boom.
“From a defensive perspective, with the changes of the rules, receivers became a little more comfortable coming across the middle, and I think they are doing a nice job offensively attacking high-low in the middle of the field,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said.
So, for the first time, quarterbacks have the full field to work with, and on top of that they have a string of offensive-minded rule changes, and they have better athletes to throw to than ever before. They’re also getting rid of the ball faster than ever and largely neutralizing the pass rush. No defense is safe.
“You look at the rule changes over the past 15 years, it became a space game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. He said it’s brought about the end of “phone booth football,” which is essentially when a player performs well in short areas and cannot play in space. There are no more short areas. My colleague Danny Kelly has documented how the jet-motion offenses, which involve a player coming across the field in motion before the snap, have stretched the field horizontally. This puts even more pressure on defenses to spread out. The field is wide open, and so are the offenses.
“If you have a really good X receiver [typically the playmaking receiver, furthest from the quarterback], a lot of teams are going to play Cover 2 [coverage with two deep safeties] to it and that opens up the middle of the field,” Martindale said. “If you’re Jared Goff, he’s a very accurate passer, and the easier throw will be inside.”
No team this season is better at throwing short over the middle of the field than the Rams. They average 11.75 yards per play when throwing there (best in the league) and they complete 83 percent of those passes (second-best in the league). This year, Goff throws more between the numbers than on the outside at any distance. In 2016, before the arrival of Sean McVay, he threw deep outside the numbers 15 times and threw deep inside the numbers twice.
When Brees has thrown short over the middle of the field, he is completing a league-best 91.7 percent of his passes, but his 9 yards per play is somehow just the 12th-best mark in the league. Ten years ago, Brees was gaining 6.24 yards on those plays and completing 63 percent of them. He set the record for most passing yards in history Monday night.
“You can still get hit—and get hit pretty hard—it’s just a different type of contact,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of passes over the middle. “You’re maybe a hair slower in triggering [a hit] and that’s when it all happens.” Sutton said that because of the rule changes, quarterbacks are less hesitant to throw passes that “hang a guy out”—a.k.a passes that lead a receiver and will get them clobbered. “There’s less opportunity to get racked,” Sutton said.
When I asked Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly about this trend, he pointed to the changing nature of the tight end position. There’s a reason that the two best players at crossing routes in 2017 were tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Hunter Henry.
It’s not only tight ends, though. This year, five slot receivers have a reception rate above 84 percent—which would have been the highest last season. If Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett keeps his pace he’ll be the first player in the Pro Football Focus database—which goes back 12 seasons—to catch 90 percent of his passes in the slot. The middle of the field is modern football because for the first time, it exists in full for an offense.
On The Ringer NFL Show this week, I brought up the nugget that Tom Brady once told a coach that Aaron Rodgers could get 7,000 yards a year if he played with the Patriots. My colleague Robert Mays and I wondered how feasible a 7,000-yard season would be. A resourceful listener tweeted at us that if a player had identical stats to the top passer every week during the 2017 season, they would have had 6,405 yards. Could that happen one day?
The all time record is 5,477, set by Peyton Manning—a number Goff is on pace to eclipse when measured by yards per game. He’d still be a ways away from 6,000 yards, but the sport is getting closer, especially when you consider that the league is employing a brand of football that allows Fitzpatrick to have more than 1,200 yards through three games.
The passing boom is not an accident; the NFL wanted it to happen. This is the juiced ball era of football, with the only difference being that there’s no real scandal here—just more points and yards. The younger quarterbacks will only get more accurate. The rules will only get more anti-defense. The athletes on offense will get even better. I got my answer; I just didn’t know how clear it would be.