They're also the poster children for the Golden Age of the Passing Game, guys who have stepped into the role of starting NFL quarterback with no pro experience and played (with some exceptions) like seasoned old veterans of yore.
Cassel had not started a game since his high-school finale back in 1999, and threw for just 46 yards that day. Yet he passed for 400-plus yards in consecutive games last month and has a Patriots team decimated by injuries in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
Ryan's numbers are gaudy for a 23-year-old kid with 12 pro games under his belt: He's completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,625 yards, 13 TDs, just 6 INTs, an awesome 7.9 yards per attempt and a 91.2 passer rating -- all on a team that was a miserable 4-12 last year and boasts a first-year NFL head coach.
It's a far cry from the traditional coming-of-age story for NFL quarterbacks, who were expected to struggle for years while they adapted to the speed and picked up the intricacies of the pro game.
But it's also no surprise: after all, the game itself has changed dramatically over the decades, and those changes have only accelerated in recent years, making it easier than ever to pass the ball and easier than ever for new quarterbacks to have an immediate impact on their team.
In fact, the passing game is flourishing everywhere here in 2008, with the league's more experienced passers poised to rewrite the record books in several categories.
This year alone, not one but two players (
So what gives?
Well, we haven't reached this era of prolific passing overnight. NFL rulemakers, not to mention offensive innovators, have been conspiring for decades to make it possible for quarterbacks to play as well as they do today. Quite frankly, most of the performances we're witnessing here in 2008 would not have been possible 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
In fact, if you want to see how much the game has changed over the decades, and how easy it is for quarterbacks today, follow our brief, annotated history of the NFL passing game, from the Stone Age to the Golden Age.
The NFL's offensive Stone Age was marked by two key traits:
• One, teams rarely passed.
• Two, there was no quarterback position as we know it today: that is, there was no player designated as both the primary signal caller and the primary passer.
Back then, any player in the offensive backfield might have been called upon to pass the ball -- and then only rarely. In 1932, the first year for which the NFL has passing stats, Green Bay Hall of Fame back
If you're looking for a game that defined the Stone Age, look at the very first NFL championship game in 1933.
The Bears bested the Giants that day, 23-21, behind the heroics of
But on this day, it was his two touchdown passes that carried Chicago to victory. A two-TD day through the air was no small feat in 1933. After all, the Bears attempted just three passes the entire game.
Offensive football began to take the shape we'd recognize today in 1940, with the advent of the T formation, a brand of football adapted from the college game. The T formation did two things:
• One, it put one player behind center.
• Two, it called on that player to handle the team's passing duties.
In the skillful hands of Bears quarterback
It even took football terminology a while to catch up with the on-field revolution: Washington's Slingin'
Teams during the T Revolution began to pass the ball much more often, and with much greater effect. Baugh completed 70.3 percent of his passes in 1945, a mark surpassed only once since, and toyed with the first 3,000-yard passing season in 1947 (2,938 yards) -- more than doubling the greatest output of the 1930s (Philadelphia back
Three major changes propelled the passing game forward in the 1950s:
• One, every team by this decade had designated the quarterback as the primary passer and signal caller.
• Two, the NFL adopted free substitution in 1950, leading to the two-platoon system. Quarterbacks no longer had to play defense, and could therefore concentrate on refining their passing skills.
• Three, the NFL in 1950 welcomed into the fold the Cleveland Browns (who previously played in the AAFC), along with the organization's patriarch,
The passing game in this era was defined by a downfield, attacking style used to stretch defenses vertically. Completion percentages and passer ratings were very low. Yards per attempt and interceptions were very high.
But as defenders grew bigger, faster and stronger, and the game grew more violent, it became increasingly difficult to get the ball down field. By 1977, passer ratings, and scoring itself, had plummeted to lows not seen in decades.
The league-wide passer rating in 1977 was 60.7 -- barely better than the 60.0 of 1948. The 1977 season also produced the best defense (Atlanta, 9.2 PPG) and the worst offense (Tampa, 7.4 PPG) of the past 40 years.
The passing game was dying, and the NFL and the architects of offensive football were forced to make major changes to save it.
Two major events launched NFL offenses into the Modern Age:
• One, the NFL instituted wholesale rule changes to open up offense in 1978. Primarily, defenders could no longer rough up receivers beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, while offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and use their hands in pass blocking.
• Two, the tandem of
The net result of the rule changes was that teams suddenly began passing the ball far more often and far more effectively. Passing attempts, passing yards and passing TDs skyrocketed in the early 1980s. Perhaps most notably,
His numbers were Ruthian in their scope, literally unimaginable just seven years earlier: Back in 1977, Buffalo quarterback
The Walsh-Montana style of offense, meanwhile, dramatically changed the way teams attacked defenses. Instead of the aggressive, downfield style favored in the Classical Age, Walsh's 49ers">49ers began utilizing a high-percentage, low-risk passing attack that most people today know as the West Coast offense. And they did it with great effect, as the 49ers won five Super Bowls in a 14-year period with two different coaches and two different quarterbacks:
Teams around the league quickly followed suit, as they had with Chicago's T formation four decades earlier. Everybody today (perhaps with the exception of the Raiders) utilizes a short, high-percentage, low-risk passing attack. As a result, yards per attempt have declined from their highs in the 1950s and 1960s, but so have the number of interceptions.
Completion percentages and passer ratings have skyrocketed, meanwhile, to the point that every single player in the top 20 all-time in passer rating has joined the league in the Modern Age (since 1979). Fifteen of those 20 are still active here in ...
As if quarterbacks hadn't been coddled enough by coaches and rulemakers over the past two decades, one profound game, and one very angry team executive, made their lives even easier in 2004.
• One, New England defenders pushed the bounds of pass interference rules in the 2003 AFC championship game, badly roughing up Indianapolis receivers and shutting down the Colts high-powered offense in a 24-14 Patriots victory.
• Two, Indy's powerful president,
As a result, the NFL determined its officials would "re-emphasize" pass interference rules in 2004 and beyond. Though not officially a rule change, the impact on the passing game was profound.
The very next season, Indy quarterback
The records have remained under assault since then:
But today's high-flying newcomers and record-setting veterans aren't better quarterbacks than players of the past. They just have advantages their predecessors never enjoyed back before the Golden Age of the passing game.