Rise of the Quarterbacks

Remember the good old days when a team needed a bruising defense to win an NFL championship? And how those same teams didn’t necessarily need a superstar quarterback? Think of the 1970s Steelers, 1985 Bears, 1986 Giants, 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers.

Those days are long gone.

In 2011, having a quarterback who can light it up is now a must.

Case in point: a quick look at the passing yardage leaders this season shows that the top three quarterbacks – Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford – all threw for over 5,000 yards. And Eli Manning was just behind them in fourth place, with 4,933 yards. While Brees and Brady both broke Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 yards, which stood since 1984, all of the top five (Aaron Rodgers was #5) quarterbacked teams that made it to the playoffs. And it’s no coincidence that the two teams in Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants and Patriots, have QBs that were 4th and 2nd on this list, respectively.

Why is this?

A number of factors come into play, but rules changes is a primary factor. Since the NFL made it a point to crack down on late hits, and hits to the head and knees against quarterbacks, the passing game has become wide open. Combine with that the increase in pass interference calls against defensive backs in recent years, and the game has become a passer’s dream. “Air Coryell,” anyone?

In addition, there has been an increased focus by teams to draft and develop quarterbacks. Of the ten quarterbacks who threw for the most yards in 2011, seven were first-round picks. If a team is going to devote that much salary cap space to one player, you can rest assured that they won’t be utilizing a run-first offense. And that also requires more cap space to pay for quality receivers to throw to and behemoth offensive lineman to protect a team’s most valuable asset.

As a result of these factors, running backs and the defensive side of the ball have suffered. It’s rare to see a top college tailback selected at or near the top of the draft nowadays. Gone are the days of low scores and trying to eat up the clock.

Yet again, the Super Bowl is a prime example of this. Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are all solid running backs, but they’re not superstars. The Giants’ defense gave up 400 points, 6 more than they scored in the regular season. The much-maligned Patriots defense ranked 31st (next-to-last) in terms of yards allowed this season. The Giants were only a few notches higher at 29. Somewhere, Buddy Ryan is cringing.

Finally, don’t think for a minute that the increased popularity in the game and the new importance of passing aren’t correlated. And it’s only going to continue, with the likes of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and other stand-out college QBs expected to be drafted high in April.

So sit back and continue to enjoy the air shows that are sure to continue into the 2012-13 season. Unless your name is Rex Ryan, of course.

Used with permission of the author.

Chris Lardieri runs the “West Coast View” column for Sports Climax. A veteran to the keyboard, Chris also covers the Los Angeles Dodgers for Examiner.com and has written about Major League Baseball for Inside Edge, a scouting company that provides content to ESPN Insider and Yahoo Sports. Follow Chris on Twitter for more sports observations.

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