Maybe the playoffs will finally be the antidote for the year of the passer.
At a time when quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford have helped push NFL passing numbers to another stratosphere – Brees and Brady surpassing Dan Marino's previous record for most passing yards in a single season in addition to a ton of other marks – the question is whether defenses will catch up during a period when tradition says they are supposed to dominate.
"I think this year has thrown some of us for a loop because you wonder if it's ever going to make sense," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Early on, we all thought the big passing numbers had something to do with the lockout, but that's not really the case now. At least you'd like to think it isn't. Now, is it the way the officials are calling the helmet-to-helmet hits? Is it the tight ends are so good? Is it that the defenses are that bad? … Seriously, I'm fascinated to see what happens in the playoffs because it's going to shape some ideas on how you build your team."
Traditionally, defense takes over in the playoffs because officiating tends to loosen up, particularly in areas like pass interference and defensive holding on receivers. The New England Patriots took advantage of that to slow down the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and the Indianapolis Colts in later AFC playoff games, bumping and grinding receivers at the line.
"The officials don't call stuff like that as tight because you don't want to turn it into a ticky-tack game in the playoffs," current TV analyst and former New England safety Rodney Harrison said.
Or as former Patriots cornerback Terrell Buckley said: "The refs don't want to be in the spotlight that much. It's supposed to be a tough game; you don't need some little touch call affecting the game."
The problem is that the NFL has made it increasingly tough for defenders to do their job instinctively. The emphasis on helmet-to-helmet hits, particularly by safeties against wide receivers and tight ends in the middle of the field, has changed the way the game is played. The question now is whether that will continue.
"The problem with the call is sometimes it's absolutely right – the safety ducks his head and hits the receiver in the head and nobody wants to see that," former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos safety John Lynch said. "Nobody wants that, it's not healthy. But half the time it seems like, you watch a replay and you see that the defender was really doing it right, leading with the shoulder, not the helmet, but he still gets a 15-yard penalty. I think you have a lot of confusion back there and you have a lot of guys who aren't really sure how to handle it now."
That has led to what many players and coaches believe is the ability of receivers to run into the middle of the field with more freedom than ever before. On top of that, an influx of talented tight ends such as New England's Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints has given their respective quarterbacks another top-line receiver to target.
In two seasons, Gronkowski has scored 28 touchdowns (one rushing) in 32 games. That includes a record 17 by a tight end this season. Gronkowski and Graham both broke the record for receiving yards at the position in a season – Gronkowski finishing with 1,327 and Graham with 1,310 (to go with 11 touchdowns). That pair led a revolution at the position that went hand-in-hand with the increase in passing yardage.
A total of 14 tight ends had at least 750 yards receiving this season, including the Washington Redskins' Fred Davis, who missed four games because of suspension, Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and Gronkowski's teammate Aaron Hernandez, who had 910 yards (that's 2,237 yards thrown to tight ends on one team).
It should be no surprise that the three quarterbacks who topped 5,000 yards this season (New Orleans' Brees, New England's Brady and Detroit's Stafford) each had at least one of those tight ends. Rodgers had Finley, a guy who has the physical skill to put up numbers like Gronkowski and Graham.
Over the previous three seasons combined, only 20 tight ends reached 750 yards.
"I think you're definitely seeing more use of that position, an understanding of how to throw it into the middle and how to use body angles," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "It used to be that if you were throwing down the seam and the defender was in a certain position, that was considered good coverage. We've found out that's not really the case anymore."
As Brees said: "You've always had the really athletic guys, whether they're former basketball players like Antonio [Gates] and Tony Gonzalez or just great athletes, period. I just think you're seeing more of them because of how important it is to attack the middle."
Attacking the middle of the field has a huge impact on how other players are defended, as well. If safeties have to pay more attention to the middle of the field, it's harder to give help on the outside when wide receivers run deep or other aggressive patterns.
The question remains about how the postseason could change all of that if the officials change the way they make certain calls.
"I think they will call it the same way," Payton said, succinctly. Of course, any coach with a passing game as good as New Orleans is going to say that.
For Dimitroff, the question is much more of a lingering issue.
"Are we back to normal or are we seeing an evolution?" Dimitroff said. "I don't know yet and the answer is really important."
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