What if the very thing everyone is celebrating about the NFL this season is also what’s hurting the game?
What if it is literally hurting the players?
Passing yards and offensive output are piling up.
So are the broken bodies.
What if the two are related?
No one has suggested the connection, so maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but it’s worth consideration.
The NFL has stacked the deck in favor of the pass, tweaking rules that are advantageous to quarterbacks and receivers. Personally, I think there is too much passing. It’s simple economics: If you print too much money, it devalues it; if you legislate too much passing, it devalues it. But I realize I am in the minority here, and, besides, there are more important reasons to examine the proliferation of the passing game.
I have no data to support this, but I suspect passing the football is more injurious than running the football for the same reason it’s more dangerous to drive on the freeway than it is on neighborhood streets. Speed kills — or maims ACLs and brains. On pass plays, defensive backs and linebackers get a running start before they hit their target. It’s not a tackle so much as it is a midair collision or a run-and-hit accident.
If passing wasn't more dangerous than running, the game’s overseers wouldn’t have felt compelled to create new rules designed specifically to protect receivers and quarterbacks (although, by extension, defensive backs and linebackers are more at risk on pass plays, as well).
It stands to reason that with the rise in passing attempts you get a rise in injuries.
The past few years have seen a steep spike in the passing game, and it has turned the NFL on its ear. Four-hundred-yard passing games are almost routine. So far that feat has been produced 18 times this season, two short of the NFL record. Until 2008, the record was 12 — only the second time in history that figure had reached double figures. The totals the last four years: 13, 16, 20, 18 (and counting).
Peyton Manning will smash Tom Brady’s record of 50 touchdown passes in a season. He has 47 with two games to go.
Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 passing yards endured from 1984 to 2011. It has been broken three times in the last three seasons, and Drew Brees and Manning will top it again this season. Of the top 20 single-season passing yardage performances,14 are held by active players (by nine different players). Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and the rest of them are going to be left in the dust when it comes to passing stats.
Meanwhile, injuries are spiking, as well. The NFL Players Association reported 3,174 injuries in 2010 — more than double the total from a decade earlier. Then in 2011 it shot up 41.5 percent to 4,493 injuries.
The injuries seem to be more severe and are claiming more marque players. In a story titled “Year of the Injury?” Sports Illustrated reported that 10 quarterbacks were on injured reserve after 13 games, compared to just two at the same time a year ago. Seven Pro Bowl starters were on injured reserve, compared to four a year ago. With 50 ACL injuries through the first 13 weeks of the season, the NFL will set a record for such injuries.
Among the quarterbacks who have missed playing time because of injuries: E.J. Manuel, Thad Lewis, Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Christian Ponder, Terrelle Pryor, Michael Vick, Sam Bradford, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, Seneca Wallace, Brady Quinn.
Among the receivers who have been sidelined by injuries: Percy Harvin, Rob Gronkowski, Randall Cobb, Michael Crabtree, Jermichael Finley, Reggie Wayne, Julio Jones, Dennis Pitta, Jeremy Maclin, Owen Daniels, Dustin Keller, Mario Manningham, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola.
The numbers show that teams are passing more often and for more yards (total and per attempt) than ever. It's true that players and coaches are more prepared and sophisticated in executing the pass game than ever, but the rules also have made passing easier and thus encouraged more passing. They also might have made the game more dangerous.
Receivers have been pampered; the irony is that it might actually be to their detriment. My biggest pet peeve is the no-contact rule that forbids defenders from touching receivers after 5 yards. Although the rule has been around for years, it wasn’t strictly enforced until the 2000s. The rules also prevent linebackers and defensive backs from rerouting receivers, as they once did; now receivers can run across the middle with impunity, and they have acres of grass to reach top speed. Receivers had to be more wary previously, and there might be something to say for that.
The no-contact rule is wrongheaded. It is akin to the NBA’s former rule that banned zone defenses. Think about it: The NFL is telling world-class athletes they can’t handle bump coverage the same way the NBA was telling the world’s greatest all-around athletes they couldn’t handle zone defense. That myth has been disproved since the league did away with the ban.
The NFL needs to do the same thing with the no-contact rule for reasons of fairness (to the defense) and safety. The college and high school games allow it and don't suffer for it. First of all, allowing bump coverage all the way up the field until the ball is in the air is very difficult. It’s not as if defenders will dominate the game if given such freedom. Only the nimblest and quickest cornerbacks can give up the cushion of no-hands coverage when attempting bump coverage and still be able to recover when the receiver breaks down or makes a cut. But it might rein in the pass game enough to produce a more balanced and, possibly, safer game.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: email@example.com