The 5,000 yard club

From the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 until 2008, there had only been one athlete to ever pass for over 5,000 yards in a regular season while donning a NFL uniform — a 23-year-old quarterback from Pittsburgh, Pa. in his second year with the Miami Dolphins named Dan Marino.

How times have changes.
In the 2011 NFL regular season alone, three quarterbacks achieved 5,000 yard campaigns, while two others were certainly within reach of the milestone. Leading the barrage on the record books was Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In 2008 Brees became the only other player to eclipse the 5,000 yard mark since Marino’s 1984 season, falling just 16 yards short of Marino’s 27-year-old record. Three short years later, Brees had a Super Bowl ring and would spend his 2011 season shattering the preconceptions of what anyone thought was possible in a 16 game regular season. Brees passed for an NFL record 5,476 yards, clearing Marino’s mark by nearly 400 yards.

To put that in perspective — the leading passer in the CFL this year (Montreal Alouettes QB Anthony Calvillo) passed for only 5,251 yards in an 18 game season playing on a larger field.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t quite reach Brees’s mark this season, but managed to quietly pass Marino’s single season record with room to spare. Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford, playing in his first full season with the Lions, fell just 53 yards shy of passing Marino’s record. That would have bumped Marino’s historic 1984 season into a less relevant fourth place in regular season passing yards. There is no doubt Brees’s season may be less historic if it doesn’t end with a Super Bowl berth. But more importantly, how long can Brees’s 2011 record setting season stand? The NFL is breeding success from the evolving monster that is the passing game, seven of the top 10 quarterbacks in passing yards this season have taken their respective teams to playoff berths. With quarterbacks like Cam Newton coming into the league — breaking rookie records and passing for 4,000 yards — Brees’s record may not last a year if this pass happy trend continues.
Whether it’s been the league catering to a younger fan base who may have been introduced to the sport through the arcade-style of Madden and other football video games, or the new rules that allow quarterbacks and receivers to be contacted less violently, the NFL has evolved into a passing league in which a team’s success tilts on the possession of an elite quarterback.

“Throwback” teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens are finding success with great defence and an effective running game, giving hope for those fans who still love watching a low-scoring defensive battle on Sunday afternoons.

But, how long can teams clinging to that vintage playing style tread water in the new age NFL? We should know by the end of this year’s post-season.