From: Grant Callaghan (email@example.com)
Date: Wed 11 Dec 2002 - 20:03:14 GMT
December 6, 2002
By David Fleming
ESPN The Magazine
The sky over Arrowhead Stadium was ashtray gray. A constant downpour in
Kansas City had soaked the grass field and bloated it like a sponge. Three
times before the opening kickoff, a blistering wind blew the ball off the
tee. The conditions seemed perfect for a physical ground battle between
division rivals like the Raiders and the Chiefs, the kind of brutal turf war
the game's leathery old-timers claim to love.
Then QB Rich Gannon and the top-ranked Raiders offense took the field and,
seemingly oblivious to the 83 years of pro football tradition they were
about to trample, began chucking the ball all over it. On the first play of
the game, wideout Tim Brown turned around at the line of scrimmage and put
up his hands. Dink. That was followed by a two-yard flare to Brown. Donk.
Next came their standard crossing route, Two Jet Flanker Drive: completed to
Brown again for eight yards. Dank. Then TE Roland Williams ran a crossing
pattern right across the line of scrimmage for another six yards. Dunk.
Eight passes in the first 10 plays. Empty backfields. No fullback. Four wide
receivers, sometimes five. Tight ends split out to the numbers.
The more it rained, the more the Raiders threw. First down? Pass. Short
yardage? Pass. Clock management? Pass. In all, the Raiders took 72 snaps and
let it fly 55 times, completing 35. It was an all-out air raid. It was, to
borrow a vibe from halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI, NFL-evation.
It's not just Oakland. What seemed an anomaly in Week 1, when Pats
quarterback Tom Brady passed 25 times in a row to beat the Steelers, has
become commonplace. In Week 10, two unheralded quarterbacks, Pittsburgh's
Tommy Maddox and the Rams' Marc Bulger, became the first pair of passers to
throw for at least 450 yards on the same Sunday. The next night, Gannon
completed 21 passes in a row and finished 34 for 38 in a 34-for-10 rout of
This season, in a league where change normally occurs at a glacial pace, a
seismic shift is underway. For more than two decades the run-to-pass ratio
has not dipped below 50/50. In 2002, passes have blown past runs to the tune
of 58/42. Three yards and a cloud of dust? Try 13 yards and a vapor trail.
It's common for one or two teams each season to "overemphasize" the pass,
says Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, but now everyone's doing it. The NFL's top
10 offensive teams, all playoff contenders, are passing more than they run,
with Oakland (66%), Buffalo (63%) and New England (62%) leading the way. In
the past decade, only Drew Bledsoe has completed more than 400 passes in a
single season; right now five QBs could reach that mark.
Vermeil knows about the passion for passing. As the Rams coach in the late
'90s, his prolific offenses pushed the bar -- and the ball -- further than ever before. Mike Martz locked up his job as Vermeil's offensive coordinator after one interview question. "What's your thinking about the short pass?" Vermeil asked. Martz answered, "I'm gonna use it like a long handoff."
In the 1970s, Don Coryell tested the limits of the game by passing downfield
no matter what down it was. In the 1980s, Bill Walsh stretched offenses
horizontally by utilizing the space between the numbers on the field and the
sideline. In the 1990s, the run 'n shoot and the k-gun revolutionized
movement behind the line of scrimmage with the no-huddle, the shotgun and
multiple-receiver formations. What you're seeing now is the only logical way
the offensive game can expand.
What started with two wideouts and expanded to four is now maxed out with an
empty backfield, five receivers and mind-dazzling pre-snap shifting. When
Vermeil started with the Eagles 26 years ago, his offense had five
pass-protection packages. Now Vermeil's Chiefs have 25.
What's not surprising is that while pass completions are going up, yards per
catch are going down. The quarterback's first read used to be the wideout 25
yards downfield. Now it's the slot receiver on a five-yard out. The pass is
no longer an occasional weapon to wipe out long-yardage deficits. It's an
option no matter what down or how many yards to go -- and increasingly, the
option preferred over the classic tackle trap.
Drew Bledoe has been airing it out.
There's little question which plays work better. The Bills average 4.3 yards
per rush; they get 7.5 yards per pass attempt. Think about that for a
minute. If you run 70 plays, that's a difference of 2 1/2 football fields --
in a game of inches.
As a result, teams like the Saints have all but deleted antiquated running
plays from their playbook, replacing them with passes. Out: power sweeps.
In: flare passes. Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy explains that
his O needs all 11 men performing perfectly to gain four yards rushing. But
as long as the quarterback and the receiver are in sync, they can get twice
as many yards on a little flare, even if breakdowns occur all over the
Pass or run? It's a no-brainer.
Just like in the NBA, where positions and roles have begun to bleed
together, the evolution of the passing game has created the need for
interchangeable multiskill players. Running backs who catch like wideouts.
Receivers quick enough to run like backs and big enough to block downfield
like tight ends. Tight ends who can do all of the above.
"This is not a revolution that may happen some day, this is going on all
over the league," says Chiefs vice president Lynn Stiles, a 23-year NFL
veteran who began his career on Bill Walsh's staff in San Francisco. "The
passing game has expanded to a point where, I'll tell you what, the NFL has
outgrown its field and we need to look into expanding the dimensions of the
Don't laugh, it could happen.
With NFL-evation, it's all up in the air.
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This article appears in the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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