This weekend, Drew Brees completed his 6,301st career pass, moving by Brett Favre‘s record for the most all time. Before the year is done, it’s very likely that Brees will break Peyton Manning‘s yardage record as well. As of this writing, six active quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Brees, are in the top ten for career touchdown passes all time. So are the best passers of all time playing right now or is there more to the story than meets the eye?
The Devaluation of Quarterback Stats
Ultimately, the best quarterbacks of all time are playing today, or have played in the last ten years. But that’s not necessarily because they’re better than quarterbacks of yesteryear could’ve been. The league as is prioritizes quarterbacks and the passing game, and it shows. A few things have happened that have changed the league and facilitated the evolution of the passing game, as teams have exploited them. What happened? It’s simple.
Moving The Goalposts
Over the last twenty years, the rules have changed dramatically, and they’ve done so in favor of the offense. Illegal contact and pass interference penalties have been introduced so that wide receivers are basically illegal to touch after five yards. Beyond that, if a hit looks especially vicious, or is anywhere in the vicinity of a receiver’s neck or head, it’s another penalty.
So just to be clear, here’s what a cornerback is dealing with on any given passing play. He lines up against someone who is typically one of the best athletes in the world. In their mind, they already know the play. They know the route, the reads, and what the gameplan is. You do not. You have five yards to tussle with him, but too physical, and it’ll be a holding penalty or, even worse, they’ll get behind you.
You have to try and predict the route, keep up with them, and then make sure the pass doesn’t get completed, all without running into or touching the receiver. Then, once he has the ball, you have to bring him to the ground without hitting him above the shoulders or too roughly.
Sound frustrating? It gets even worse. Because as bad as that is, by far, the most frustrating penalty for defenses has been anything related to touching the quarterback.A series of rules that has only gotten more and more complicated over time.
Roughing The Passer
Roughing the passer penalties are becoming increasingly more common for less and less contact. In 2018, here are a few ways that hitting the quarterback could result in a free first down and fifteen yards.
- Hitting the quarterback’s helmet.
- Hitting the quarterback below the knee.
- Putting all of your body weight on a quarterback after he’s been hit or sacked.
- Hitting the quarterback after he’s thrown the football.
So just like before, try imagining yourself as a pass rusher. Let’s say it’s third and five. You’re pretty sure it’s going to be a pass, so you have the green light to get after the quarterback. You’re set, tense, on the line of scrimmage, watching the quarterback, waiting for him to snap the ball. He does, and you break towards him.
In your way is at least one massive human being, dead set on making sure you don’t get anywhere near the quarterback. In your head, you know that the quarterback rarely waits as long as three seconds to pass the ball, so you have even less than that to get to him. In this instance, you manage to get around the offensive lineman, and you’re one on one with the quarterback.
In a league where athletic quarterbacks are more and more common, you have to track him down, at least disrupting the pass, at best, bringing him to the ground before you can throw it. If you hit him too high, it’s a fifteen yard penalty and you’ve given up a first down. If you hit him too low? It’s a fifteen yard penalty and you’ve given up a first down. If you do manage to hit him in the chest and bring him to the ground, and you happen to land on top of him? That’s a fifteen yard penalty and you’ve given up a first down.
So a pass rusher had three seconds to get past the blocking, into the backfield, and then hit a moving target directly within the numbers, somehow changing momentum between contact and hitting the field.
In summation, quarterbacks are harder to hit as is, even without the insane protection provided by the rules, and they’re throwing to world class athletes who corners aren’t allowed to touch. And since the owners and Roger Goodell have realized that high scoring offense equals better ratings? Don’t expect that to change any time soon.
More likely than not, this is because of the new rules, but teams are passing the ball more than ever, and it shows. To prove it, we’ll look at stats from twenty years ago, ten years ago, and then last season.
In 1997, the top ten passing seasons averaged together looked like this. The average top ten quarterback (per attempt) threw the ball 508 times, completing 292 passes, for 3,589 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s 6.79 yards per attempt, a 1.7 touchdown to interception ratio. Those numbers are pretty similar to what Blake Bortles did last season, and nobody’s making the mistake of calling him a top ten quarterback.
In 1997, nobody threw for over 4,000 yards, Brett Favre was the only quarterback to throw more than 30 touchdowns, and only eight quarterbacks attempted 500 passes or more.
Fast-forward to 2007, and things changed quite a bit. The average top ten quarterback (per yardage) threw the ball 549 times, completing 354 passes, for 4,108 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. That’s 7.48 yards per attempt, a 1.5 touchdown to interception ratio, and it’s worth noting that this was the year that Tom Brady and Randy Moss re-wrote the record book.
However, there’s obviously a massive increase in attempts, with the top ten quarterbacks averaging nearly 40 more passes. Considering the 1997 quarterback only averaged about 31 attempts per bout, the 2007 quarterback basically gained a full game in passing attempts, resulting in an increase of 519 yards, six touchdowns, and six interceptions.
In 2007, seven quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards, four quarterbacks had at least 30 touchdowns (one had 50), and ten quarterbacks had over 500 attempts, with Drew Brees having over 600.
And then there was last year, where the numbers really start to prove my point. The average top ten quarterback (per yardage) threw the ball 542 times, completing 353 passes, for 4,214 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. That’s 7.7 yards per attempt, a 2.7 touchdown to interception ratio, and this is where you really start to see the penalties make an impact.
Because even though top ten quarterbacks threw fewer passes in 2017 than in 2007, they averaged more yards per game and attempt, throwing significantly fewer interceptions. They didn’t throw as many touchdowns, but you have to remember that the 2007 number was bloated by Brady’s then-record 50 passing touchdowns.
In 2017, eight quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards, three quarterbacks had at least 30 touchdowns, and 13 quarterbacks had at least 500 attempts.
Field General Evolution
Of the top ten passing seasons in NFL history, nine have happened since 2008. The only quarterback in the top ten who threw over 4,967 yards in a season from before then? Was Dan Marino back in 1984. Matthew Stafford threw for 4,967 yards in 2012 and 5,038 yards in 2012. Drew Brees shows up five times in the top ten, throwing for 5,069, 5,084, 5,162, 5,177, 5,208, and 5,476 yards between 2008 and 2016. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the only other two quarterbacks to go over 5,000 yards in a season.
Now, obviously Brady, Manning, and Brees are among the best quarterbacks of all time. But Matthew Stafford? Stafford is fine, he was a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2014 and has obviously enjoyed some success. But is he really better than any quarterback not named above? Would you take Stafford over the likes of Brett Favre, Joe Montana, Kurt Warner, or Dan Fouts?
It’s not just the top ten either. If you look the top twenty-five passing seasons in history, only three took place before 2008, and one of those was Tom Brady’s monster 2007 campaign. If you thought Matthew Stafford’s name was underwhelming, what about Kirk Cousins? Matt Schaub? How about Eli Manning? Because all of those guys show up before you see the likes of Favre or Montana.
So as much as we do love the evolution of the passing game, giving us more highlights than ever, they are a bit inflated. Many of the best quarterbacks in NFL history played in a league more concerned with ugly hits than quarterback-related TV ratings. Mel Blount is an all-time great, but he’d be completely useless in today’s NFL thanks to the new rules.
Nobody should take anything away from Drew Brees, as he’ll likely retire as the NFL’s all time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. But when comparing him to the likes of Brett Favre, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, or other greats, you might have to pump the brakes a little.