Behind quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, NFL enjoys a wealth of offensive output

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 12:20 AM

The full NFL schedule gets underway Sunday with no end in sight to the unprecedented exploits of quarterbacks who last year orchestrated perhaps the most prolific offensive season in league history.

The league had record numbers of quarterbacks top 4,000 passing yards, 25 touchdown passes and a 100 passer rating last season. Offenses overpowered defenses for an average of 670.3 total yards per game, the largest single-season figure ever. Few expect those numbers to decline appreciably this season.

"They can't decline," former NFL player and front-office executive Matt Millen said. "They won't."

With no significant outcry over rules that have created the most quarterback-friendly conditions the league has ever seen, giving offenses a clear-cut advantage over the defenses trying to slow them down, experts say the NFL's fancy passing is no passing fancy. Television ratings are soaring, providing little or no incentive for the sport's decision-makers to make significant changes to an on-field product that consumers enjoy.

"I think you'll see big numbers again," former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said. "I think it will continue. It's just the way the game is played right now."

Before the 2004 season, the NFL's rule-making competition committee reemphasized to game officials that defensive players weren't allowed to make contact with opposing receivers more than five yards down the field. It wasn't a rule change but a reminder to properly enforce an existing rule, and it came on the heels of a 2003 AFC title game in which the New England Patriots defense was accused of using improper clutching-and-grabbing tactics to slow down the Indianapolis Colts offense.

The results were immediate. Dan Marino's 1984 single-season record of 48 touchdown passes for the Miami Dolphins had stood for two decades. It was broken twice in the next four seasons, with the Colts' Peyton Manning throwing 49 touchdown passes in the 2004 season and the Patriots' Tom Brady throwing 50 in the 2007 season.

In recent seasons, the competition committee has enacted rules that restrict hits on quarterbacks and receivers considered to be in defenseless positions. The rules were put in place for safety reasons, but they have also restricted defensive players pursuing the quarterback and covering receivers, and offenses have flourished.

"When I came into the league, they told you never to let a receiver cross your face," said Millen, a linebacker who played a dozen seasons for the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins in the 1980s and early '90s. "And that was by any means necessary. I clothes-lined guys. Now, I wouldn't even be allowed on the field. They'd throw you out. . . . Guys are getting fined all over the place. That's the football of today. It's all geared toward the passing game.

"Twenty years ago, I said we're going back to the future, and we've gone beyond that," said Millen, now an analyst for ESPN and the NFL Network. "We've gone back to the old AFL, with the wide-open passing, and past that. People want to see action. They want to see scoring and they want to see competitive games. If there's a great defensive game, all they say is, 'What a yawn.' People would rather see great offense than great defense."

There was plenty of superb quarterback play to be viewed last season. Ten quarterbacks (Houston's Matt Schaub, Manning, Dallas's Tony Romo, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Brady, New Orleans's Drew Brees, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, San Diego's Philip Rivers, Minnesota's Brett Favre and the New York Giants' Eli Manning) passed for more than 4,000 yards, three more than in any previous season.

A dozen quarterbacks (all of the 4,000-yard passers plus Chicago's Jay Cutler and Arizona's Kurt Warner) threw 25 or more touchdown passes, topping the previous record by two. Five quarterbacks (Brees, Favre, Rivers, Rodgers and Roethlisberger) had passer ratings above 100, one more than the previous mark.

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