The Three Wise Men: In a League of Their Own
“It’s a passing league.”
You hear it every broadcast. I’m not being hyperbolic either, you hear it literally every single broadcast. If Cris Collinsworth says it one more time my head is going to explode. Some cite new ‘rules’ that apparently make it easier for wide receivers to make plays as a reason why, but I’m not one that really buys into that. Defensive backs are still making vicious plays over the middle of the field and being physical with receivers (Richard Sherman says what up).
No, the rules aren't the sole reason passing yards are increasing on a yearly basis. Tom Brady ,Drew Brees , and Peyton Manning - the three wise men, as I like to call them - are. While we want to dub this a passing league throughout, there's a chance we're doing so because we're seeing greatness from these three passers. Just take a look at the numbers to see why.
Passing in the NFL Since 2002
Let’s start in 2002, the year Tom Brady became “The Greatest Living American” and Drew Brees made people from Purdue proud in his first year as a starter. Below is a chart showing the league passing and touchdown totals since that season.
As you can see, the NFL started to show some consistent growth in the passing game starting in 2008, and since then it's increased every single year. In 2008, the league passing yards per game average was 211. That number increased to 218.5 in 2009, 221.6 in 2010, 229.7 in 2011, 231.3 last year. And it's at an all-time high of 245.4 yards per game this season. It's undeniable that the league is more passing oriented, and the numbers back that up. But interestingly enough, despite the new quarterback talent around the NFL, the league is still dependent on the old guys for production.
Below is a chart showing the percentage of total league passing numbers that Brady, Brees, and Manning account for.
|Year||Yardage %||Touchdown %|
You'll notice that 2008 and 2011 are slight outliers here. Remember that Peyton wasn’t in football in 2011 and Brady was hurt in nearly all of 2008. Removing those seasons leaves us with a fairly consistent growth pattern in the percentage of yards and touchdowns stemming from the three wise men. While the NFL has increased in passing yardage and scores, Manning, Brady and Brees have actually increased their own impact on league totals. Passing league? More like the quarterback clinic show starring Brady, Brees, and Manning.
To prove their dominance even further, I took a look at one of the metrics here at numberFire: passing net expected points per (PNEP). I wanted to see how their numbers compared to other passers in the league in terms of efficiency. This statistic shows us how many points a particular player is adding for his team above or below expectation through the air. Below is a table displaying the top-25 PNEP seasons since 2000. You'll notice some reoccurring names.
The greatness of Tom Brady is fresh on everyone's minds following his epic come from behind win against the Saints. The former sixth-round pick has led the league in passing twice and has been the touchdown leader three times since he he became a starter in 2002. He's never finished a season with a completion percentage below 60 percent, and he's never thrown more than 14 interceptions in a season. Brady's record as a starter is 141-40 - a mind-numbing 101 games over .500.
His PNEP numbers do nothing but agree with Tom's greatness. 2007 is our top-ranked PNEP season with 259.40, and Brady owns three of the top 25 greatest PNEP seasons since 2000.
Brees owns more 5,000-yard seasons than anyone in the history of the game. He has led the league in passing four times, completion percentage three times, completions three times and touchdowns four times. When he and Sean Peyton teamed up in New Orleans, it was a magical thing - he has never thrown for less than 4,388 yards for the Saints. The seven-time Pro Bowler owns the second-best PNEP season since 2002 with a 235.48 total. His 2008, 2009, and 2011 season rank 12th, 13th, and 22nd on our list respectively.
I don't really know what to say about Peyton Manning other than his consistency is bananas. He should be in the argument for greatest all-time at the quarterback position. Peyton owns the 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 14th, 15th, 20th, 23rd, and 25th best PNEP seasons since 2000. You read that right - out of 12 seasons analyzed, he has nine of the best PNEP seasons we've seen. That's not even considering the fact that he sat out in 2011. Unbelievable stuff from Archie's middle child.
Enjoy The Show
Brady, Brees, and Manning are all in the latter parts of their respective career, and we will slowly see them retire from the game over the next five years or so. Without them anchoring the quarterback fraternity, are we going to see the same prolific passing numbers? It's doubtful. They are too reliable, and while I love the young signal-calling talent around the league, I’m not sure how one could say the league wouldn't take a hit from a passing perspective when we lose three historically incredible passers.
To sum it up: they are irreplaceable.
Some look at the new rules, where flags are being thrown whenever a quarterback or wide receiver is barely touched as a reason for our “passing league.” Others look at the new fast-pace offenses that are getting more plays in a game than we've ever seen. Some will tell you that we have the best young quarterback talent the league has ever seen. All those things might be true, but the numbers don’t lie: this league has been lead by a three-headed monster and they will be impossible to replace.
Is it a "passing league"? Absolutely. But it's a passing league because Manny, Brady, and Brees made it that way. As long as they are suiting up every Sunday, there is no reason to believe that will change.