ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Take it from Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, there’s no sense steering a kid to play linebacker if he can throw the ball like his son Luke can.
The senior at Valor Christian High School in suburban Denver is a Division I passing prospect who has committed to Oklahoma State with Oregon State and Alabama trying to change his mind.
“It’s a good time to be a quarterback,” Del Rio said with a hardy laugh.
That’s true whether it’s in the preps or the pros.
Through last week, passing-fueled offenses in the NFL are better than ever, and more than half of the league’s QBs are on pace to throw for 4,000 yards. That would shatter the record of 10 set in 2009 and tied last year.
It’s another banner year for offenses, particularly in the passing game. Consider these stats:
• Games are averaging 705.5 total net yards per game, on pace to surpass last year’s record (693.7).
• Explosive passing offenses have fueled that trend, with an average of 476.7 net passing yards per game, also on pace for an all-time high (459.4 last season).
• Scoring averages 45.7 points per game, on pace to be the highest average since 1965 (46.1), five years before the AFL-NFL merger, which is considered the beginning of the modern game.
• Passers are on pace to set records with a combined 86.8 passer rating (84.3 in 2011) and 61.9 completion percentage (61.2 in 2007).
Teams are throwing more than ever to keep up, too. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, the league’s leading rusher, has more yards (957) on the ground than 21 teams.
“Everybody’s throwing the ball more, we’re seeing more open offense,” Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “They’re open-it-up, college-type, everybody out wide and throw it. Now, we’ll see if that works or not. That’s not necessarily a formula to win. You have to be good at doing that.”
That’s just it: lots of teams are very good at it.
“I really don’t care about stats. I just care about scoring more points than the other team,” said New England coach Bill Belichick, whose Patriots (5-3) are averaging a league-best 33 points a game and have topped 350 yards of total offense in a record 17 straight games, one more than the St. Louis Rams had during their “Greatest Show on Earth” era.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady might as well have been speaking for every other NFL offense when he explained the streak this way: “If you’re not going backward and killing yourself with penalties and turnovers and really not beating yourself, you can usually put yourself in a good position to win.”
With rules tilting more toward offense and players getting training at a younger age, that’s pretty much the mantra of NFL offenses now: just don’t stub your toe and you’ll pile up the points.
It’s not just the teams with Manning, Brady or Brees stitched across their leaders’ backs who are putting up big numbers.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who scored 30 points just four times in the last three seasons, have even gotten into the act. They’ve scored 38, 28, 36 and 42 in their last four games, winning three of them. It’s the first time in their history that they’ve scored 28 or more in four straight games.
“Well, that’s the exciting part, right?” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “That’s what people come to see, the long runs, the scoring. You have a scoreboard for a reason, right? It’s not a yardage board. People like to see scores. I like to see it, too.”
Isn’t Schiano a defensive guy, one who cut his coaching chops on tackles and takeaways?
“I’m a winning guy,” Schiano retorted. “That’s what I want to do.”
The rules and regulations that govern pro football have long tilted toward offense, resulting in an aerial fireworks show that’s good for ratings — of both the television and quarterback variety.
Add to that an eruption this season of spread offenses and the no-huddle and you get panting pass-rushers and mismatches with smaller defenders trapped on the field to face towering tight ends and taller receivers who no longer think twice about going over the middle, certain they’ll get the ball or the call.
Delivering those pinpoint passes are ever sharper quarterbacks.
“The rules are part of it,” said 12-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez of the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons. “Defensive players can’t do what they were allowed to do before, which is good. It’s keeping the players safe. I think it’s given us a fair advantage where if you get a 5-yard check and that’s it, you can’t hold me all the way down the field. That shouldn’t be allowed.
“But then also you look at the lower ranks of football, at least from what I’ve seen. I have an 11-year-old son, and he’s already doing passing camps,” Gonzalez said. “When I was in high school, I think we played in one passing camp tournament, and that was like the big thing during the summer, but now these guys are doing it week in and week out. You’re growing up in that environment where you’re throwing the ball, it’s spread offenses, and you’re seeing it carry over the NFL now. Guys are coming in and putting up huge numbers.”
Four rookies, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (four), Washington’s Robert Griffin III (two), Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden (two) and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (one) have combined for nine 300-yard passing games, already the most by rookie QBs in any NFL season.
In addition to the offensive-friendly rule book that leads to more touchdown celebrations than sack dances, the athletes coming out of college are better, QBs are readier, offensive linemen are sharper.
“The game has definitely evolved,” Detroit defensive end Erik Coleman said. “Fans want to see more touchdowns.”
After all, it helps their fantasy teams.
There have been 395 touchdown passes and 73 300-yard passing games, both of which are the most ever through Week 9. And the league-wide pass touchdown-interception ratio of 1.626 to 1 is well ahead of last season’s record pace (1.472:1).
Peyton Manning leads a record six QBs on pace to finish with a 100-plus passer rating, along with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger and Brady.
Rodgers has 25 TD passes in Green Bay’s first nine games, the first player in NFL history to reach that mark that fast in two different seasons, and Stafford is on pace to throw 692 passes, which would best Drew Bledsoe’s 1994 mark by one.
The only stat that tilts toward the defense is this: there’s been 34 pick-6s, the most interceptions returned for touchdowns at this point of the season since 1970.
This, however, is largely a byproduct of having so many balls buzzing through the air.
“Adapt or perish,” Del Rio said. “You have to understand where things are going and devise new ways to slow it down, and that’s what we’re all working hard to do. But clearly, rules are in place to allow more of what we’re seeing: more offensive production and balls in the air and yards and points.”
That’s one reason why he didn’t steer his kid toward the position he played when he was in high school, at USC and then with the Saints, Chiefs, Cowboys and Vikings.
“Most coaches looked at him and said, ‘Your dad’s a linebacker. Play linebacker or D-end.’ And so he did at first, and then he said, ‘Hey, look, I want to play quarterback,’” Del Rio said.
“It’s been fun to watch,” he added, for once not cringing at the thought of a big-armed QB leading a high-octane offense down the field.