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The Evolution of Passing in the NFL

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How would this man do if he was playing in today's NFL? (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images for EA Sports)
How would this man do if he was playing in today's NFL? (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images for EA Sports)
Getty Images for EA Sports

This will be the start another series of weekly topics about views on the Dolphins, the AFC East, and the NFL in general. I'm going to start this on a subject that has been talked about for years, especially among Dolphin fans looking for a franchise QB. National media has talked about this as well more recently thanks to Drew Brees setting a new season passing record and two other QBs that topped the 5,000 yards passing mark in a single season. This week I'd like to talk about the evolution of the passing game over the past few decades and ideas to balance the league. More specifically, we'll look at the rule changes that allowed the passing game to open.

The first shift in passing in modern football came about in the 1970s. It started in 1974 when the NFL restricted the amount of contact defenders could have with a WR. Before then, CBs typically mauled WRs not just at the line of scrimmage, but along their routes. The NFL added additional measures in 1977 when they allowed defenders to make contact with a WR only once. The adoption of a 16-game regular season in the same year would also benefit with the increased passing numbers over the course of a season and a career. The rules would be altered once again in 1978 when defenders were able to maintain contact with a WR within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, but were unable to make contact beyond that point. This was the start of the modern illegal contact rule. This rule though was not heavily enforced for many years though. In the same year, the NFL allowed offensive linemen to extend their arms and use open hands in pass protection, allowing them more time to protect the QB. Some violent hits, such as directly striking or swinging for the head, neck, or face were prohibited in 1980 when they were added under "personal foul" penalties. This may not have helped much, but you could argue that healthier WRs equates to a better passing game. Still, there were plenty reasons for WRs to fear the footsteps of a safety.

Since 1995, the NFL has allowed a WR forced out of bounds by a defender to return in bounds and make a play. This helped eliminate the move of "chucking" a WR out of bounds to remove him from a play. In 1996, the NFL announced they'd actually enforce the illegal contact penalty, created in 1978, more stringently than before. The rule was no longer just a recommendation. In 2001, the NFL announced Roughing the QB penalty would be enforced more strictly and specifically targeted late hits. By 2002, they protected the QB even further by barring helmet-to-helmet contact with a QB at any time, even after a change of possession. The NFL again tightened down enforcement of already existing rules for illegal contact, pass interference, and defensive holding in 2004. QBs received even more protection in 2006 when the NFL barred hits to the QBs below their knees unless the defensive player was blocked into the QB. WRs saw additional protection in 2009 when contact to the head of a defenseless receiver was prohibited. The NFL expanded the rules for defenseless receivers to include all players in 2010. They also threatened an additional crackdown on these penalties and threatened players with suspensions.

As you can see from the recap of the rules, it wasn't until the mid-90s when defensive players were called out more for penalties and in the past 5 years, the QBs and receivers have enjoyed much more protection than ever before. Does a WR need to fear the safety's foot steps now that he knows he can't be hit until he gets both feet on the ground? Would players like Steve Atwater and John Lynch still make it in today's NFL?

The shift in passing has been obvious, but I think only so much of it has to do with the evolution of players themselves. I don't believe better talent at QB is necessarily the answer, but I do think the emergence of receiving TEs has played a nice benefit. Still, I think the largest factor to the passing game we see now is attributed to major rule changes in the name of player safety.

While I am all for the protection of player safety, I do fear so much power has been stripped from defenses. I understand that sports is offensive-minded. Just like the NFL, other sports such as the NBA (more fouls for less contact), MLB (allowing steroids teams moving in fences for more HRs), and NHL (widening the nets) have all adjusted their own ways to favor more offense.

Prior to 2008, a QB has only surpassed 5,000 yards passing in a season only a single time. Brees became the second QB to reach that milestone in 2008. In 2011, 3 QBs alone topped 5,000 passing yards. Only 10 years ago, surpassing 7.0 YPA for a QB was considered very good. Only 11 QBs would reach that mark. 10 QBs surpassed that mark in 2003. By 2008, 17 QBs reached that mark. Over the years, we've changed what we have come to expect from QBs. A 60% completion percentage was once considered a milestone for a successful season. In 1983, only 8 QBs completed over 60% of their passes. 20 QBs surpassed that in 2010. Now, that is just the baseline for a QB. In 1983, when the defense still had an even ground, 10 QBs had 5% or more of their passes intercepted, including John Elway and Ken Stabler. Only 4 QBs, including Dan Marino, had less than 3% of their passes intercepted. In 2010, only a single QB had 5% or more of his passes be intercepted. On the flip side, 18 QBs had less than 3% of their passes intercepted. Offensive production has come at the sacrifice of the defense. At some point, there needs to be an even balance between offense and defense. So how would I recommend balancing out the two sides?

I won't try to remove rule changes for player safety because we already know that won't happen. Though I would be more lenient with incidental contact to the helmet, specifically when a defender's hand comes in contact with a QB's helmet or when a defender's shoulder hits a WR in the chest. Instead, I would alter the illegal contact rules. I'd like to see the 5-yard gap given for legal contact between a CB and a WR extended to 10 yards. With all the protection a QB gets, I think the extra 5 yards would help the defense greatly. Top running WRs may see a drop in value due to more contact slowing them down unless they can break free, but the WRs that are more physical, like Brandon Marshall, would be more impactful. It may not seem like much, but the split second longer could be all the time in the world for football. Beyond that, I may also look to tighten down the rules on offensive pass interference. A defender is already fighting an uphill battle when the WR can almost maul him, but the slightest contact a defender makes with a WR will be flagged for pass interference.

That is my idea for balancing out the passing game and giving the defense a little bit more power. What would you do to reverse the trend? Would you reverse the trend at all?