Led by some of the NFL's current greats, quarterback play is as exciting and efficient as it's ever been

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes on Sunday, including two to wide receiver Wes Welker, in a 59-0 victory against the Titans.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes on Sunday, including two to wide receiver Wes Welker, in a 59-0 victory against the Titans. (Winslow Townson/associated Press)
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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When training camps opened in July, this NFL season appeared to be all about quarterback intrigue. Tom Brady was coming back from knee surgery. Brett Favre was about to unretire again. Michael Vick was readying to return to the league. .

Six weeks into the season, however, the focus has changed. This season still is about the quarterbacks. But so far, it has been about their prolific passing, not their melodrama.

Drew Brees threw nine touchdown passes in the New Orleans Saints' first two games of the season. Peyton Manning has the Indianapolis Colts darting up and down the field as if his longtime coach, Tony Dungy, and longtime favorite receiver, Marvin Harrison, never left. Favre beat the San Francisco 49ers late last month with a final-moment touchdown pass, then provided an encore eight days later with a memorable Monday night performance to outmaneuver his former team, the Green Bay Packers.

Brady threw six touchdown passes Sunday to grab top billing on a day when Brees and Matt Schaub threw for four each, Ben Roethlisberger passed for 417 yards and Joe Flacco was a mere footnote with a 385-yard, two-touchdown outing. NFL passers are compiling eye-catching early-season numbers, and some observers say they rarely have seen so many quarterbacks playing so well at the same time.

"There are a lot of quarterbacks playing at a high level, more than I've seen in a long time," former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said.

If this indeed becomes one of the greatest seasons for quarterbacks, collectively, in league history, the question will be: Why now?

The answer seems to be that it's a combination of having a collection of excellent quarterbacks and a set of circumstances highly favorable to good quarterback play.

Brady and Manning remain the sport's top stars. Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers continue to ensure that the 2004 NFL draft will be remembered for its quarterbacks. Matt Ryan and Flacco excelled last season as rookies and have carried that over into their second pro season. Favre is demonstrating why he always seemed so eager to get to Minnesota, with a familiar offensive system, upon leaving Green Bay. Donovan McNabb and Kurt Warner remain productive.

But it's more than just an assemblage of good quarterbacks. It's also the most passing-friendly era in NFL history. The game has been wide open since the 2004 season, before which the league cracked down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs with a directive from the competition committee to officials to strictly enforce the rule prohibiting defensive contact against receivers more than five yards downfield.

The game changed immediately. That season, Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdown passes, breaking Dan Marino's 20-year-old NFL season record, and had the highest passer rating in league history, at 121.1. Brady threw 50 touchdown passes two seasons ago to set a new record. Last season, Brees had only the second 5,000-yard passing season in NFL history. Add to that the fact that the league has cracked down on hits on quarterbacks by defenders, and stopping the top passers seems to have become next to impossible.

"I think the rules benefit the passing game right now," said Tim Hasselbeck, a former quarterback for five NFL teams, including the Redskins and New York Giants. "You have the way pass interference and the plays down the field are being called. You have quarterbacks being protected by the rules, and I think that obviously plays into it. It helps guys stay healthy and play every week."

Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger are on pace for 5,000-yard passing seasons. Perhaps more strikingly, eight NFL quarterbacks currently have passer ratings above 100. Six more have passer ratings above 90. Compare that to last season, when only the San Diego Chargers' Rivers had a passer rating above 100 at season's end, and eight others topped 90.

The passer rating is a figure designed to assess overall throwing efficiency through a complicated formula that takes many statistical elements into account. The system, which gives a passer a rating between zero and 158.3, has its detractors. But it most often seems to confirm what knowledgeable observers say about which quarterbacks are playing well and which aren't, and this season it affirms that many of the sport's biggest stars are putting on dazzling displays.

"I don't necessarily love the passer rating system as a measure of quarterback play," Hasselbeck said. "If a guy is sacked and fumbled, that doesn't show up in the rating. But there are obviously a number of guys playing well, and that's reflected in the numbers. Peyton clearly is playing well. Drew Brees clearly is playing well. Aaron Rodgers has played really well. Brady hadn't played maybe as well as people expected until Sunday. But there are guys playing well."

Indeed there are. Eli Manning had the Giants unbeaten until last Sunday's lopsided loss at New Orleans, and a season that began with questions about the club's ability to replace Plaxico Burress as its top wide receiver has resulted in Manning amassing 11 touchdown passes while throwing just three interceptions in six games. His passer rating of 102.2 far exceeds his single-season career high of 86.4 set last season.

And yet he barely makes the conversation about this season's superb quarterback play, as the league's seventh-rated passer.

Brees has the Saints undefeated and has thrown 13 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. His passer rating of 118.4, if he maintains it over the entire season, would be the second-highest single-season figure in league history. Peyton Manning has helped the Colts to a 5-0 record and is right on Brees's heels, with a passer rating of 114.1. Favre is the league's third-rated passer and has the Minnesota Vikings unbeaten in his second comeback from retirement, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Roethlisberger is right behind him.

Rodgers, who's proving to be a worthy successor to Favre in Green Bay, also has a passer rating above 100, along with the Houston Texans' Schaub and the Denver Broncos' Kyle Orton. Brady hasn't always looked like the Brady of old in his return from the knee injury that ended his 2008 season in the opening game. But on Sunday, he and his New England Patriots cohorts overwhelmed the Tennessee Titans and began to resemble the dynamic offensive team that rewrote portions of the NFL record book while going 16-0 in the regular season two years ago.

"I think it was good for all of us," Brady said during his postgame news conference Sunday. "I really do. . . . There's no doubt a game like this can really give you a lot of confidence and . . . we've always been a confident team. I think we've been a disappointed team at times this year, not performing the way that we expected to."

Brady hasn't joined those with a passer rating above 100 -- at least not yet. He's at 99, leading the above-90 group that also includes Atlanta's Ryan, Baltimore's Flacco, Philadelphia's McNabb, Arizona's Warner and Rivers.

"There are probably 15 to 17 guys where if you were running a team you'd say, 'I definitely feel comfortable building my franchise around this guy in any system. We can get to the Super Bowl with this guy as our quarterback,' " Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, said by telephone this week. "I do think that's an unusually high number, to think that half the league or over half the league is comfortable with its quarterback situation."

The productive passing seems to be benefiting the teams involved and the league as a whole. The combined record of the clubs with quarterbacks who have passer ratings above 100 is 37-8. The league, meanwhile, has seen its television ratings soar this season; they're up 13 percent over last season and were at a 20-year high five weeks into the season. The sport's rules-makers always have considered a wide-open style of play attractive to fans.

"The ratings have been incredible," Colts owner Jim Irsay said last week at an NFL owners' meeting in Boston. "You really have to understand the sort of numbers we've been able to put up. That's been incredible and it shouldn't be understated."

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