Commentary

Like it or not, passing offenses all the rage

What do the top seeds in this year's playoffs have in common? An elite passing attack, which is becoming a prerequisite for success, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: January 4, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Lovers of defensive and power football should pay extra attention to the wild-card playoffs. A storm of change is coming that might be upsetting.

In the NFL, teams must change with the trends or die. The storm of change involves the passing offenses. The world watched New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick throw caution to those winds, acquiring Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth. The Patriots became a passing offense at the expense of running-game traditionalists.

The Green Bay Packers have done the same, so the top four seeds in the playoffs -- New England, the Indianapolis Colts, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay -- boast four of the top six passing offenses in the league.

With officials being judicious in calling holding penalties, coaches aren't held to the axioms of the past. Forever in this league, the fastest path to success was putting together a great defense and running the football. Defense used to win championships. Not anymore. A passing offense has to be a big part of the equation.

Flintstones football has given way to the Jetsons.

This weekend is for old-school football. Seven of the eight playoff teams participating in this weekend's games rank near the top in percentage of run plays. New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay aren't in that group, but it clearly hasn't hurt them. In fact, the eight playoff teams on the field this weekend were only 4-13 against the elite four with two of those wins -- the Tennessee Titans over the Colts and Washington Redskins over Dallas -- coming in Week 17, when the Colts and Cowboys rested starters.

In case you're wondering, the Seattle Seahawks are the only team playing this weekend that didn't rank in the top 11 in rushing percentage. An injured, aging Shaun Alexander forced Seattle to adopt a pass-heavy offense at midseason, and many consider the Seahawks a dangerous team largely because they are playing that style of football.

So traditionalists, enjoy this weekend. Enjoy the power running of LenDale White of the Titans, Najeh Davenport of the Steelers and Brandon Jacobs of the Giants. Enjoy teams such as the Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Redskins, those built to run the ball and play physical defense.

The NFL's elite four -- the teams that have a first-round bye -- represent the future of the league. Fans love offense and scoring, and the NFL recognizes that. If scoring drops in any year, the competition committee will study ways to adjust rules. Football doesn't have to be like a video game, but if highlights spark video game images, so be it.

Among playoff teams, the pass-to-run ratio fluctuated between 51.1 percent passing to 52.8 percent passing from 2002 to 2005. It increased to 53.3 percent passing in 2006 and 54 percent passing in 2007.

Peyton Manning and Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore changed the game by implementing a no-huddle offense that not only scored points, but offered maximum ball control. It was the best of all worlds. Manning would run 10 offensive possessions. He'd get three or four touchdown drives and a field goal drive or two. That strategy stressed out opposing coaches, whose offenses usually weren't nearly as efficient.

After losing to the Colts the past few seasons, Belichick made the bold move to spread the field with receivers, and he acquired a stable of greatness. The Moss trade was the newsmaker on the second day of the draft, but it was pivotal in making the Patriots the first regular-season 16-0 team in NFL history. Tom Brady set the single-season touchdown pass record and Moss broke Jerry Rice's touchdown pass reception mark.

Traditionalists might not like these winds of change, but I like them. They make for a more fun game. They allow coaches to adapt their schemes to the talents of their team instead of having what to do set in stone. Mike McCarthy of the Packers didn't know Ryan Grant was going to emerge as a 5-yard-a-carry runner early in the season, so he turned Brett Favre loose in a smart, controlled passing offense. It resulted in a 13-win season and earned McCarthy 15 votes for AP coach of the year.

He deserved more.

Mike Holmgren had no trouble junking the run portion of his offense when Alexander broke his wrist and struggled with a knee injury. The NFL is a quarterback-oriented league. The better the quarterback, the better the team. Hasselbeck is clearly one of the NFC's best and he stepped up when needed to take the Seahawks to their fourth consecutive division championship.

One of the most interesting games this weekend comes in Pittsburgh. The Steelers lost to the Jaguars, 29-22, three weeks ago. They've lost their last three meetings with the Jaguars and are underdogs at home. Gone are halfback Willie Parker and their top two left tackles, Marvel Smith and Max Starks.

All season long, offensive coordinator Bruce Ariens has tried to satisfy Ben Roethlisberger's desire for Pittsburgh to become more of a passing offense instead of just being a play-action passing team. With Parker gone, the threat of the play-action run play is minimized.

"I'd like to think people will still respect our play-action especially after watching Najeh Davenport run in the past couple of weeks," Steelers Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca said. "Najeh is a little more of a downhill runner than Willie Parker. Willie reads a hole so well and has the ability to bounce plays to the outside, but I still think we can still use the play-action."

Linemen like Faneca love old-school football. Pass-protecting is more reactionary than attacking. Linemen await the moves of the defenders instead of firing out and knocking them to the ground. The days of pounding the ball on the ground won't die, but the emphasis is changing.

"I'm an old-style guy," Faneca said. "I don't know if I like the finesse part of it. Our guys on defense call it flag football. As a lineman, you don't get a good feel for the game when it's more passing. That's why I like to run the ball a little more."

It's still possible to do that this weekend. This is a Flintstones weekend. Fred and Barney can pound those rocks. Next week, the space age begins, so get ready to meet George Jetson.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer