The empty backfield, the freakishly athletic tight end, the pinpoint pass: they all add up to the league’s being on pace to smash its season record for touchdown passes. With 16 games to be played Sunday, there have been 714 passing touchdowns this season, almost three per game. That is 18 short of the record, 732, set in 2004. If the average holds up, the record will be broken by 30 touchdowns.
Football has unmistakably tilted toward the passing game for two decades, with rules to protect quarterbacks and downfield receivers generating fast-break points that appeal to the short-attention-span set. But the eruption in passing touchdowns — 714 is four more than were scored in all of 2009, and a whopping 68 more than in 2008 — may signal a sea change in strategy rather than a one-year statistical spike.
The drastic rise in passing touchdowns is not being accompanied by similar jumps in passing attempts or points. Rather, coaches seem to be skipping right over the running plays on their color-coded play cards. There have been 377 rushing touchdowns, putting the league on pace for 402. That would be the second-lowest total since 2002, when the league expanded to its current 32 teams.
“You see teams at first-and-goal from the 2, and they’re in the shotgun,” said the Hall of Fame quarterback , a Fox analyst. “I don’t think I did that one time in my career.”
Aikman retired after the 2000 season, before the spread offense swallowed football. But when Aikman watches youth football games, he said, he notices the one trend that has unmistakably altered the calculus of play-calling all the way up the football ranks. Even in Texas, the birthplace of the run-intensive wishbone formation, junior high school teams use no-huddle, spread-out offenses.
That, inevitably, means quarterbacks throw better because they have been throwing more, for as long as they have played football. By the time elite quarterbacks reach the N.F.L., they are better prepared to play immediately, flattening the learning curve that used to accompany even the most talented college quarterbacks during the transition to the league.
Now, the professional game looks more like the college game and, for the quarterbacks who have entered the league most recently, the high school game. The N.F.L. has been flooded by game-ready throwers — the ’ Sam Bradford, the most recent example. Even for a team with a rookie quarterback, a short draw up the middle from near the goal line is no longer a higher-percentage play than a timing pattern into the end zone.
Howie Long, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman and “Fox NFL Sunday” analyst, said that about 10 years ago, he and some colleagues identified five “quarterbacks on the face of the earth who are really good.” That number, Long said, would be nearly triple now and would include young quarterbacks like Bradford, Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, in addition to stalwarts like , and .
“What you are seeing now is a lot of really good play from the quarterback position,” said Brees, who has 32 touchdown passes this season, second only to Brady’s 34. “You could say that the rules protect the players down the field, and certainly the quarterbacks, from taking unnecessarily rough hits, but you still have to have the time to get back there, make the right decisions and deliver the ball into pretty tight areas, and that’s something that I have noticed throughout the season.”
The command and accuracy are facilitated by intensified off-season programs. Spring workouts have proliferated, although most of them are conducted without pads. There are only a few weeks of the off-season in which no football activity takes place. (Off-season workouts are likely to be limited by a new collective bargaining agreement.) That lends itself to more time spent on the intricate ballet of the passing game than the bruising battles of the run.
“Many teams spend a great deal of time on red-zone passing,” said the former coach , ’s “Football Night in America” analyst. “More creative thinking down there now by offenses.”
The near extinction of the true fullback and big running backs — colleges running spread offenses do not use them, so there are few in the pipeline — means offenses have many more players available for the passing game.
Brady’s season has been a clinic in the short passing game, and two of his primary touchdown targets are the pass-catching tight ends Aaron Hernandez (six touchdowns) and Rob Gronkowski (nine).
The lead the league with 2,512 rushing yards, but have 27 passing touchdowns compared with 12 rushing ones. Indianapolis is an even starker example: Peyton Manning has thrown 31 touchdown passes, and the Colts have run for just 13 scores.