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NFL quarterbacks are breaking records: what’s behind the passing explosion?

Offensive production is soaring this season, particularly in the passing game. Fearless young players and coaches have much to do with the change

The NFL is the middle of an offensive explosion, and it is the jump in passing production that has been most jarring. Teams have thrown more passing touchdowns in the first four weeks 228 than ever before, shattering the previous record of 205, which was set in 2003. The average yards per attempt has also skyrocketed. In 1977, teams averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt (YPA). In 2001, it was 6.8. That figure has jumped to 7.5 in 2018.

Below well look at the reasons for the astonishing rise (the statistics below do not include Thursday nights game between the Colts and Patriots).

Penalties are helping the passing game

This is the one fans instinctively point to. Rules have changed up and down the field: roughing the passer; hand fighting; pass interference calls; freedom for skill talent to go over the middle of the field without fear their head will be dislodged from their neck. Its tough to be a defender these days.

The effect is undeniable. First, theres the fact that more penalties lead to extended drives, which leads to more opportunities to catapult the ball all over the field. Further, offensive coachesknowthe rules are in their favor and that breeds bravery. Coaches, by their nature, often coach to minimise risks. But this new breed of head honcho seems a little different. They go for it on fourth down. Theyre unafraid to drop their quarterback back 50 times. Why? All the advantages are in their favor.

Throwing the ball deep in the NFL is a gigantic market inefficiency, particularly because pass interference is a spot foul. The reward far outweighs the risk: any semblance of contact and the call is going to the offense. Teamsstillare not going far enough with deep shots.

Think of this as similar to when the NBA discovered the efficiency of the three-point shot. For years, slow, methodical, pound-the-ball-inside offenses dominated basketball. And it was nonsense! There was a more valuable shot a couple of feet away. Sure, youd miss more, but the ones you did make more than made up for that fact.

And the more draconian interpretation of the roughing-the-passer rule has changed things too. Why would quarterbacks be intimated about standing in the pocket in this era? They have every protection imaginable. Defenders have to play a tick slower, wondering whether theyre hitting at the right angle or whether they can keep their body weight from tumbling on the poor, helpless quarterback (sarcasm intended). Its a major psychological edge.

Teams are passing more often

It seems the league as a whole has cottoned on to the idea that passing ismore efficient than running. Teams are slinging the ball on first down traditionally a run down more than ever before.

Thats partly because fossilized coaches have made way for a slew of wunderkinds, and a fresh batch of offensive coordinators has pushed the quarterback-driven league into overdrive, down-and-distance be damned.

It seems that every down is now a passing down. Kirk Cousins is on pace to attempt 756 passes, despite having an exciting, explosive running back accompanying him in the backfield, and the very worst offensive line through four weeks in league history.

Meanwhile, teams such as Miami and Atlanta use the quick passing game as an extension of the run game. They rely on yards after the catch. They use similar run-game principles, get the ball to the perimeter and force the defense to drive downhill and pursue. Only the approach is different to slamming the ball into one guys belly in the backfield. Any eligible player could get the ball, not one. Screen passes continue to steadily rise year on year.

Theres an intangible effect to that, too: quarterbacks juice their efficiency numbers, completing more balls and lowering their interception and sack rates. That breeds confidence.

Quarterbacks are getting better

At this point, you may be wondering whether the league-wide trends are being pumped up by a couple of pass-happy teams. Thats not the case. True, the Chiefs and Rams have been at the forefront of the bombs away movement, but this evolution is taking place everywhere.

If you erase the Rams and Chiefs passing offense, the NFL league average quarterback rating drops from 94.5 to 90.5, according to Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders. Thats still four points higher than the league average quarterback a year ago.

Its not that players throw footballs better or more accurately these days than the likes of Dan Marino or Jim Kelly, its that the leagues middle class is stronger than in the past. The gap between the fifth- and 20th-best quarterback in the league is narrower than you may think.

The new crop of young studs Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield et al are playing a different sport to the veterans. They play with a fearlessness the league has been lacking. Its a cautious aggression, a deadly cocktail brewed up in the college ranks. Finally, its translating to the pro game.

Offensive and defensive schemes are evolving

The NFL can only use the talent that college provides. Thats always been true: the professionals like to the think of themselves as the wise ones. They send down football decrees from on high and the rest of the football universe takes note.

The reverse is actually true. High school coaches innovate. College guys steal and evolve those ideas. And the NFL folks do the same, pinching players and ideas from college, before twisting and contorting them to fit their own needs. Evolution in high school takes weeks. Its a genius born of desperation. Evolution in the NFL, meanwhile, takes decades.

Were finally seeing the fruits of the changes at the high school and college level paying dividends in the NFL if you like high-scoring games, that is.

College style offenses which feature multi-receiver sets, an emphasis on spacing the field, switch releases to attack man-coverage (receivers crisscrossing at the line of scrimmage), spread formations, and all manner of pre-snap deception make the game easier for quarterbacks. Theres no other way to say it. Its how schools routinely chuck out 4,000-yard passers, regardless of the individual players talent.

Past NFL coaching staffs have been hesitant to change. Their way was the best way. They were the pros. They were smarter. Now, pace-and-space principles are rampant across the league. The line between a college and NFL offense is blurring (its still amusing that things such as touch passes, which West Virginia ran 15 years ago, are now seen as new-wave and innovative in the NFL).

This new-look league is here to stay. Scoring may dip slightly as defensive coordinators become familiar with the tendencies of new play-callers and the concepts theyre running. Some quarterbacks, particularly the young pups, may experience a drop in form. But this is the modern NFL. A systematic, philosophical overhaul of the sport has led us slowly but surely to this kind of offensive output. Get used to it. Its going to be fun.

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