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Column: NFL’s passing fancy has changed the game

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

WASHINGTON — What a time to be a starting NFL quarterback.

It seems like every time Drew Brees, the NFL’s highest rated QB, has taken the field this season, he’s set a new NFL record. On Sunday, his former backup, Philip Rivers, completed his first 25 passes to break a 12-year-old record for consecutive completions to start a game. Marcus Mariota started 19-for-19 on Monday night en route to a 22-for-23 performance. Patrick Mahomes has started only 12 career games, yet possesses a 117.9 passer rating that would have led the league by far just five years ago, but is nearly 10 points worse than Brees’ ridiculous 127.3 rating.

“This is what the league wanted,” San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said to ESPN earlier this season. “They want record passing numbers. You’ve got an average quarterback; the average quarterback’s passer rating is like 92 and that used to be Hall of Fame numbers. And now it’s not Hall of Fame numbers, that’s the average quarterback.”

He’s right. Journeyman backup Ryan Fitzpatrick is among a whopping 12 quarterbacks with a passer rating north of 100, a number only seven passers cleared in 2013.

As pointed out by Peter King, there are currently 22 players with a 90 QB rating or higher; there were three such passers in 1993. When measured in five-year intervals, the number of passers at 90 or higher has gone up only slightly, but is on pace to double from the number (11) from 2013.

To further put this in perspective, Rich Gannon won MVP in 2002 with a 97.3 QB rating and 26 touchdown passes. Today, that would put him in the middle of the pack as the 15th-rated passer — a tad behind Miami’s oft-injured “meh” starter Ryan Tannehill. Five QBs have at least as many TDs as Gannon did with five more games to play.

Completion percentage has also exploded. Back in 2009, Brees’ 70.6 percent mark tied an NFL record. He’s twice broken that record since, and now leads the league with a 76.4 completion percentage that would set yet another record. Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins also have a completion percentage over 71, which would land each of them in the top six all-time in that category.

These video game passing numbers aren’t just unique to quarterbacks — receivers are also enjoying a renaissance. Sunday night, Adam Thielen had his ninth 100-yard performance of the season for the Vikings, breaking Hall of Famer Randy Moss’ franchise record (again, with five games to go). Not bad for an undrafted kid from Mankato.

And while Tyreek Hill has proven to be the most dynamic target for Mahomes in Kansas City, his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame wouldn’t last long under the old NFL rules that allowed safeties to level anyone crazy enough to frolic in the middle of the field.

“You can’t touch [quarterbacks]. You can’t tackle him. You can’t hit him high, can’t hit him low. You can’t knock him down to the ground hard … all that,” Sherman said. “You can’t hit a receiver too high, you can’t hit him low, you can’t push him. You can barely press him. It’s making it really difficult on teams to combat it because every rule in the book is designed to make sure you don’t get them stopped.”

Of course, this was all designed to drive up scoring and ratings, which it has. However, the unintended consequence of the offensive barrage is the shift in teams’ defensive philosophy.

Since QBs are going to get their yards, a defense’s only hope is to force turnovers and keep teams out of the end zone. Look at what happened Sunday in Denver: Pittsburgh racked up 527 yards of offense, yet lost to the Broncos. Why? Four turnovers and multiple missed scoring opportunities (blocked field goal, fumble in the end zone). That’s the only hope against a high octane offense like the Steelers’.

That makes dominant defensive players like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and J.J. Watt even more valuable because they’re harder to find than a QB capable of putting up numbers in a good offensive scheme. It’s no coincidence each of those players is on a first-place team; In the Rams’ historic, 54-51 primetime victory over the Chiefs last week, Donald’s two-sack, two-forced fumble performance was every bit as impactful as that of any offensive player not named Jared Goff.

So while a franchise QB remains the goal for every NFL team, it’s not the requirement for success it once was. If the 2018 season has taught us anything, it’s that a competent passer in a dynamic offensive system backed up by an elite pass rusher in a strong defense is enough to be a contender.


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