Published November 20, 2014
Dan Marino long ago moved to the comfort of the broadcast booth. His passing record of 5,084 yards, set in 1984, has withstood strong-armed challenges for more than a quarter-century.
It looks as if that record is about to fall, and not at the hands of one prolific quarterback but as many as four.
Drew Brees, who came closest to it in 2009, falling 15 yards short, leads the chase at 4,368 yards, followed by Tom Brady with 4,273 and Aaron Rodgers with 4,125. Imagine how Eli Manning feels having 4,105, yet being fourth in this lineup.
Only Marino and Brees have reached 5,000 yards passing in a season, yet all four of these players figure to get there if they remain in the lineup. There's always the chance the Packers will rest Rodgers once they have clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, which could come with a win this weekend at Kansas City. Then again, they do have that undefeated thing going, so maybe he won't be seeing the sideline all that much.
Brady's Patriots and Brees' Saints are in a different situation. Both their teams could need to win the rest of the way to reach as advantageous a postseason position as possible. Neither has clinched its division, although New Orleans owns at least a wild-card spot in the NFC, and one more victory gives New England the AFC East.
Manning, barring injury, won't be sitting out anything with the Giants needing to sweep their final three games to assure making the playoffs.
Manning is playing with an ease and confidence usually associated with, well, Brady and Brees, recently with Rodgers, and with that guy in Indianapolis named Peyton. Plus, he might need to get to 5,000 yards to keep the Giants in the championship mix.
"I don't ever feel pressure when I'm playing football," Manning said. "I know my assignments, I'm reading the defense, I know my plays and I try to make plays and try to get the ball into my receivers' hands and let them do their job. It's exciting, it's fun. I'm competitive and I'm out there doing what I can to get a win."
So, gentlemen, let 'er rip.
"For me, I haven't really thought about the 300-yard games or the necessary (pace) to do that or anything like that. I just think about doing whatever it takes to win," Brees has said. He's already been through this pursuit, so unlike the other three, this is not uncharted territory for Brees.
"It seemed like this is one of those crazy years where teams are throwing it a lot. I think as the year goes on situations changes. Some people stay on pace and others don't."
Four have stayed on pace.
This is the first season with at least three quarterbacks passing for more than 4,000 yards through Week 14. There also have been a league-record 14 400-yard passing games, led by Manning with three; Marino holds the record with four in '84.
The reasons for such prolific passing numbers are many. Start with the lockout, which prevented defenses from putting together and mastering the complex schemes that slow the aerial game. For most of the schedule, offenses have been ahead of defenses, and some of those leaky pass defenses (Packers, Patriots, Saints, Giants) belong to division leaders. It's not just the tailenders who can't cover receivers.
Weather also has helped — rarely have we seen the wind, rain or cold that mess up passing attacks.
"If it snows, it is better. It helps your footing as a receiver compared to the defensive back," says Cris Carter, a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year and fourth on the career receptions list. "The greatest effect is the wind and the temperature. When you get below zero and have the wind, those are the things that hinder the passing game most."
Those things have not occurred through 14 weeks.
The rules also help passing as quarterbacks and receivers get the benefit of the doubt on penalty calls, which makes defenders gun-shy.
Finally, colleges are training quarterbacks in ways that fit the pro style much better than they ever did. A Cam Newton or Andy Dalton can step right in during the 2011 season and have an impact, just as a Ben Roethlisberger or Matt Ryan or Sam Bradford have done in recent years, and pile up the yards.
Unquestionably, the NFL has become a pass-first league. It might not be too long before 5,000-yard seasons are the norm and people are wondering what was the big deal about Marino's record.