Tim Benz: The NFL loves its imbalance. And Big Ben is a big part of it
When it comes to passing stats, the National Football League is experiencing what Major League Baseball did in the steroid era.
Except this isn’t a commentary on which quarterbacks and wide receivers are juicing their bodies. It’s a commentary on how they are juicing the record books.
Similar to what home run numbers were in baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s, passing stats are inflated to the point that they are no longer tangible.
Back then in baseball, average middle infielders could have 25- to 30-homer seasons. Nowadays in the NFL, a guy like C.J. Beathered can throw for 350 yards in a game.
Dozens of single-season passing records may be replaced by numbers put up this season.
Hopefully, Drew Brees enjoys that career passing yardage record he picked up Monday. He probably won’t keep it very long after he retires.
Absorb some of these statistics from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Close your eyes, defensive coaches and players…Since the 1970 merger, this year has through five weeks the…– highest Comp Pct (65.0%)– most Pass TD (275)– highest TD Pct (4.8%)– highest TD-Int ratio (1.95)– highest pass attempts per team per game (36.6)
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 11, 2018
That’s just the start.
• ESPN.com recently posted a story stating that — entering Week 5 competition — 10 franchises were en route to rewriting their single-season passing yardage records.
The Steelers are one of those teams. Based on projections at the quarter-pole this season, Ben Roethlisberger — who leads the AFC in passing — was on a path toward a 5,656-yard season. That would shatter his previous Steelers record of 4,952 set in 2014. His 250-yard effort against the Falcons on Sunday slowed down that pace to “just” 5,324.
• In many cases, those numbers were bolstered as 15 passers eclipsed the 300-yard mark in Week 5. So, with Chicago and Tampa on their bye week, half of the league’s starting quarterbacks surpassed a single-game mark that used to be a measure of alleged statistical accomplishment.
• According to footballdb.com, we’ve seen 300-yard games cashed in by QBs 57 times. That’s 20 more than at this point last year. It’s only 40 off the entire season’s total in 2017.
It’s not just the quarterbacks. It’s the guys catching their passes, too. There have been 83 100-yard receiving games so far in 2018. Through all 17 weeks of 2017, there were only 150.
• The passing yards themselves don’t necessarily seem to be translating into wins, though. The 15 signal callers who topped 300 yards passing only went 8-7 for the week. In fact, of the top eight passers in the league right now, only two — Jared Goff and Drew Brees — are on teams that have records better than .500.
A lot of those quarterback numbers last year cooled as the season went along. There are reasons to believe a similar trend will happen this year. Weather will get worse, and quarterbacks will get hurt.
The Steelers certainly saw evidence of that last year when they had a stretch of games against backup quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, and Andrew Luck were all hurt when their teams played the Black and Gold.
But this year, with quarterback protection and illegal contact rules being tightened, the risk of injury for skill position players has been minimized.
“(The league) doesn’t want the quarterbacks to get hit because the quarterbacks sell tickets,” Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree said Thursday. “You are going to make your money by having high-powered offenses. That’s what they are seeing, more money generated by more playmakers.
“They are making the defenses look kinda soft.”
“Kinda?” I think Bud was diplomatic there. The league is making defenses play as soft as possible.
Beyond restrictive rules, what’s the biggest reason for the spike in passing yards? More highly skilled passers? Or receivers that are just bigger, faster, and stronger?
“It goes hand in hand,” Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton said. “You need a good quarterback who can get the ball in tight spots. And you need receivers who can take a 10-yard hitch and go 40 yards.”
Coaching comes into play, too. Offensive game plans have become so advanced and pass-reliant, running backs who aren’t integral in the receiving game are becoming obsolete.
“Teams know, ‘If we have three good wide receivers, why only have two on the field?'” Steelers linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “Get all three of them out there. These skill position players coming into the league, that’s what is changing the game.”
And for those of us who appreciate defenses that can make the passing game difficult, it’s not being changed in the right way.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.