Friday, December 05, 2008

Golden Age of Passing?

There's a great piece by Kerry Byrne running at Sports Illustrated this week, calling this "the Golden Age of Passing." Observing the success of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and first-year starter Matt Cassel (who hadn't started a game since high school), Kerry suggests that this reflects a major shift in pro football.

It's a far cry from the traditional coming-of-age story for NFL quarterbacks, who were expected to struggle for years while they adapted to the speed and picked up the intricacies of the pro game.

But it's also no surprise: after all, the game itself has changed dramatically over the decades, and those changes have only accelerated in recent years, making it easier than ever to pass the ball and easier than ever for new quarterbacks to have an immediate impact on their team.

This echoes something I wrote in the New York Sun in January, noting that our expectations for young quarterbacks had changed, and that we now expect them to be successful right away. Teams used to be more patient, not only allowing them more time to develop but accepting that it would take several years for them to get acclimated to the pro game.

But while Kerry asserts that this shift originates with the stricter enforcement of pass interference rules, I'd argue that it started earlier than that. Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game as a rookie in 2004, and won the Super Bowl a year later. Kurt Warner made his first NFL start in 1999 and ended that season with a Super Bowl victory. Tom Brady did the same thing two years later, and won a total of three Super Bowls in his first four seasons at the Patriots' helm. Eli Manning seems like a slacker by comparison, not winning his first Super Bowl until his fourth season.

That's why I'm hesitant to ascribe the success of this current crop of young quarterbacks to the 2004 rules changes. I think some of it has to do with the fact that college offenses have adopted more pro-style schemes over the past decade, making these young quarterbacks better equipped to make the adjustment to life in the NFL. I also think the mindset has changed and teams are much more likely to thrust a young quarterback into a starting job than they were even ten years ago.

And for what it's worth, I think the golden age for quarterbacks came in the early 1970s. Ten of the 25 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame were active then, along with two more guys (Ken Anderson and Ken Stabler) who are likely to go in eventually. Even with a very optimistic appraisal of the quarterbacks playing today, I don't think we're anywhere near that total.