Passing Age passing defenses by
Booming numbers, electric play by quarterbacks exactly what league has craved
For years the NFL has rigged the rules to provide for more passing, more points, more excitement. Now it is getting exactly what it wants.
Never before have we seen a time in which passing has been as prominent as it is today -- never. We are living in the Passing Age that has passed by defenses.
Just last weekend -- with San Diego's Philip Rivers, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans' Drew Brees each on a bye -- there were 13 individual 300-yard passing games, the most in a single week in NFL history. With 299 passing yards, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez fell 1 yard short of becoming the 14th 300-yard passer of the weekend.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick turned in a historic performance that resembled a video-game character brought to life, running and throwing for six touchdowns as the Eagles scored 59 points against the overmatched Redskins.
And behind the strength of so many 300-yard passers, last weekend's games produced an all-time NFL average high of 774.6 yards per game, topping the previous single-week average high of 739.9 yards per game in the 11th week of the 1987 season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Passing dominance is not about to end any time soon, either. Rivers is on pace to shatter Dan Marino's all-time single-season passing record.
And the April 2011 draft could produce a crop of quarterbacks nearly as good as the one that entered the league in the famed quarterback class of 1983.
There never has been a tougher time to be a defensive player. But there never has been a better time to be a quarterback or wide receiver.
Now, on to this week's 10 Spot.
1. More important than finding themselves in a race, the San Francisco 49ers might have found themselves a quarterback. Troy Smith has risen like his team, he from the bench, the 49ers from the ruins. Smith was buried on the depth chart, the 49ers were buried at the bottom of the NFC West. Now each has risen into relevancy.
Smith is holding down the 49ers' starting quarterback job, and San Francisco is squaring off against Tampa Bay as it tries to win its third straight. As unlikely as it once seemed, Smith has done for San Francisco what he once did when he won a Heisman Trophy at Ohio State. He has moved around in the pocket and moved around the NFC West standings. He has won games and instilled confidence in those around him.
In his four NFL starts -- two with Baltimore, two with San Francisco the past two games -- Smith has thrown at least one touchdown in each start without an interception in his 107 pass attempts. In last Sunday's victory alone, Smith completed 17 of 28 passes for 356 yards and a touchdown.
Smith's rise has coincided with the 49ers'. Smith has made believers in a city where there were very few. One, however, was 49ers owner Jed York. On Oct. 11, when the 49ers were 0-5, York sent a text message declaring, "We're going to win the division." Crazy as it is, York might turn out to be right. But even he could not have imagined that the quarterback leading the 49ers to the spot he predicted would be Troy Smith, not Alex Smith.
2. As good as Falcons wide receiver Roddy White has been this season -- and he has been off-the-charts good -- he is going to have a difficult time winning the Associated Press' NFL Most Valuable Player Award. Not because White doesn't deserve it, but because no wide receiver has ever won it. Even the greatest of all-time, former 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, didn't win it in the strike-shortened 1987 season, when he caught 22 touchdown passes in only 12 games; former Broncos quarterback John Elway was selected as the AP's NFL MVP that year.
This season, White leads the NFL with 70 catches. He also helped win another game by stripping the football from 49ers cornerback Nate Clements, whose pass interception should have clinched the game for San Francisco. Over a full season, White is projected to catch 124 passes for 1,660 yards and 12 touchdowns. White has been as good as any receiver can be and must be in the MVP discussion. But there's a significant distinction between being discussed for the MVP and winning it.
3. It's already easy to see how some teams fared in trades for high-profile wide receivers. Miami traded two second-round picks for Brandon Marshall, Minnesota traded a third-round pick for Randy Moss, and Baltimore traded third- and fourth-round picks for Anquan Boldin and a fifth-round pick.
Yet the one trade that looks as if it worked out best is the one between the New York Jets and Pittsburgh. The Jets surrendered a fifth-round pick to Pittsburgh for Santonio Holmes, who has made the key overtime play in each of his past two games, helping New York become the first team in NFL history to win back-to-back overtime games on the road. Holmes also drew a game-deciding pass interference call in Denver, helping the Jets win another road game. Three Holmes plays directly contributed to three Jets wins. Without him, the Jets would not be where they are. And even though his contract is up after this season, and he is free to leave, Holmes already has been well worth a fifth-round pick.
4. Dallas' Dez Bryant looks like the most polished and physical rookie wide receiver since Boldin stormed the NFL in 2003 with 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns. Bryant looks tougher, stronger and faster than the defensive backs he is matched against. And now, not only will Bryant be battling them, he'll also be battling Tampa Bay's Mike Williams for the distinction of being this year's top rookie wide receiver.
Williams got off to the better start, but Bryant has closed fast. Bryant now has 41 catches; Williams 40. Bryant has 539 receiving yards, Williams 627. Each has scored five touchdowns, while Williams also has three fumbles. (Williams was arrested early Friday and charged with driving under the influence, but is expected to play Sunday.) One NFL coach, after playing Tampa Bay, recently texted, "Their 4th-round WR from Syracuse is the real thing." Williams already looks like a star. Bryant looks like a superstar.
5. For the remainder of this season and beyond, Jaguars wide receiver Mike Thomas will be known as the player who hauled in the catch of the year, a Hail Mary, game-winning 50-yard touchdown to beat Houston last Sunday. But it obscures the fact that Thomas has developed into a reliable receiver. One season after Thomas set the Jacksonville rookie reception record with 48 catches, he is on pace to catch 73 passes for 953 yards. At Jaguars training camp this past summer, Thomas' teammates predicted that he would be the team's breakout player this season. And he has been. It just took one game -- and a season-changing play -- for the football world to notice it.
6. In one year, it's almost as if Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and quarterback Brett Favre have traded places. Last season, Peterson struggled to hold on to the football, fumbling it away seven times; this season, despite 227 touches, Peterson has yet to fumble. Meanwhile, Favre has thrown 16 interceptions and lost five fumbles, accounting for 21 of the Vikings' 23 turnovers. This comes after a 2009 season in which Favre could barely do wrong, turning over the football only nine times in 16 games. The Vikings will try to save their season Sunday against the Packers, and Green Bay knows it as well as anyone: Favre is capable of magic or misery.
7. St. Louis might not hold on to win the NFC West this season, but it is going to be the team to beat in the division in future seasons. The Rams have the best quarterbacking situation of any team in the NFC West -- by far. No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford has not thrown an interception since the fourth quarter of the Rams' Oct. 10 game against Detroit and now has gone 138 consecutive passes without a pick.
Over the past 20 years, the only other rookie who had an interception-less streak longer than Bradford was former Buccaneers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who threw 147 passes without an interception in 2006. But it's not just the lack of mistakes from Bradford. It's the frequency of plays. In his past four games, Bradford has thrown six touchdowns, no interceptions and compiled a 96.4 passer rating. Last offseason, one NFL scout said Bradford was the best quarterback prospect he had seen since Peyton Manning. It's not hard to understand why.
8. For the first time in a long time, this late in the season, the Raiders are in first place. They are more relevant than at any point since 2002, when they went to the Super Bowl. They already are 3-0 in AFC West games, a far cry from the 8-34 record they compiled in division games from 2003 through 2009. A win over the Steelers on Sunday would give the Raiders more wins than they've had in any season since they last went to the Super Bowl.
The wide receiver who made a difference in Oakland's last win was fourth-round pick Jacoby Ford, the fastest player at the 2010 scouting combine. Oakland targeted Ford nine times versus Kansas City. Ford dropped two passes, but he also caught six for 148 yards, in addition to returning a second-half kick 94 yards for a touchdown. If Ford keeps making plays, Oakland could race to a division title.
9. Of all the teams worth watching in the season's second half, none is more dangerous than the Chargers. Coming off their bye, the Chargers rank first in the NFL in total offense and second in total defense. They expect the return of wide receiver Malcom Floyd this week, wide receiver Vincent Jackson in two weeks, and wide receiver Legedu Naanee any week now. Giving quarterback Philip Rivers three more weapons almost seems unfair.
But San Diego already has another advantage. It doesn't lose in December, so better get San Diego now. Under Chargers coach Norv Turner, San Diego has compiled a 13-0 regular-season December record. If the Chargers can overcome their repeated special-teams miscues -- and they have commited more than any team in the league -- they might be the AFC team to watch.
10. Forget about how much this league changes from season to season. It changes from week to week. Two Sundays ago, the Giants blew out the Seahawks in Seattle and were considered the NFC's best team; the next Sunday, the Giants lost at home to the struggling Cowboys. Two Sundays ago, the Patriots got blown out in Cleveland; the next Sunday they went into Pittsburgh and beat the team many considered to be the best in football.
As if that weren't enough of an indication as to how closely teams are matched, consider this: Through nine weeks, this season already has had 13 games go to overtime, as many as it had all of last season. And as ESPN's stats maven Russell Baxter points out, five of those 13 overtime games have ended with the same 23-20 score. As odd as the season.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Colts at Patriots. Marks the eighth straight season since 2003 that these two rivals will meet, the longest streak among nondivision opponents since realignment in 2002.
• Player of the week: Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw: For the Giants to have any chance of upsetting the Eagles, Bradshaw will have to come up big.
• Upset of the week: St. Louis over Atlanta. Atlanta, the team regarded as maybe the NFC's best, is stepping into a difficult place to play.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
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