The graying of Dan Marino's record
Drew Brees and Tom Brady are to be feted for breaking it, but with reservations
By early 2005, during the denouement of the steroid era, Donald Fehr, then the executive director of baseball's players' union, had grown tired of the emphasis on performance-enhancing drugs as the reason behind the explosion in the game's offensive statistics, home runs in particular. Certainly, anabolic substances (Fehr's preferred term) were a factor in the rising numbers, but they weren't the only factor. At least as important was an issue in the larger sports culture, he said, and not singular to baseball.
"Everybody wants to see more scoring. It is true in every sport," Fehr told me then. "Name a sport where defense begins to dominate and I guarantee you there will be reforms that rebalance the game. Look at hockey. Look at football, especially. They change the rules every year to encourage more offense."
It is with that parallel -- performance-enhancement rules in pro football playing the role of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball -- that the 2011 NFL regular season ends. And after record-breaking passing performances from Drew Brees and Tom Brady, and as Dan Marino's brilliant 1984 season begins its inexorable fade into the sunset, it ends with a paradigm shift that might ignite a conversation about rebalancing the game toward more defense rather than more offense.
Professional football is a sport in which numbers can be about as memorable as fast food, yet Marino's 5,084-yard season in 1984 was one of the Everests of the game. Not only did it provide a signature moment for a signature player, but the year signified both the NFL's commitment to the pass and the final, inevitable end of the ground game as the dominant offensive force in the league. Marino's season coupled with the perfecting of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense by Joe Montana; it was only fitting that the Dolphins and 49ers met in the Super Bowl that year.
The toppling of Marino's record this year, first by Brees in the penultimate game of the season and then on Sunday by Brady, suggests either that football is finally out of balance or that the fathers of the game have gotten exactly what they wanted. Either way, the 5,000-yard passing season, once the equivalent of the 60-home run season, is on its way to becoming another empty statistic.
Between 1928 and 1998, the 60-home run mark was surpassed just once, famously by Roger Maris in 1961. Between 1998 and 2001, it was passed six times, often enough to cost the game the traditional sense of pageantry that once accompanied the chase of a single-season record in baseball. In the NFL, up until 2007, the 5,000-yard passing mark had been topped just once, by Marino in 1984. But over the past four years, it's been bettered four times -- twice by Brees, who did it in 2008 (when he threw for 5,069 yards, missing the Marino record by only 15 yards) and 2011, and now by both Brady and the Lions' Matthew Stafford, who had 5,038 this season. But instead of celebrating these great quarterbacks for posterity, it is likely only a matter of months -- the 2012 season -- before the 5,000-yard mark is passed again.
In 1984, Marino was brilliant. He threw for 48 touchdowns, 26 more than the league average. He threw for almost 1,800 yards more than the league average and more than the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams did combined. His completion percentage was 8 points higher than the league average. He was special because of the cultural shift he represented. Six years earlier in 1978, when the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, seven teams didn't complete even half of their passes. The worst was Tampa Bay, which finished the season at a dismal 41.8 percent completion rate, a number that makes Tim Tebow look like John Elway. Eight years earlier, at the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the Redskins led the league with a 59.4 percent completion rate and the Pittsburgh Steelers were worst at 39.1 percent -- evidence of a lack of emphasis on the precise passing game of today and evidence of rules that undermined the passing attack.
Nowadays, defensive players are less inclined to go hard after a quarterback. Defensive backs once could clutch and grab and face guard; today, sneezing near a wide receiver might draw a critical pass interference call. It was simply harder to throw the ball back then.
Today's football is way out of balance. Brees and Brady were terrific, but the league's average completion percentage was 60.1 percent this season, suggesting that either defenses are much, much worse or that they've been fatally hamstrung by regulation. In 1984, only six teams completed better than 60 percent of their passes. The 2011 Redskins, a team that won all of five games, completed 58.5 percent of their passes, good for 21st in the NFL; in 1984, that rate would've been ninth-best. In 1990, every team completed at least 50 percent of its passes for the first time, and the league has never looked back.
So the game has been moving in this direction for years. In 2009, 10 quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards, the first time that had happened. And although Brees, Brady and Stafford each threw for more yards this year than Denver and Jacksonville combined, the average NFL team passed for 3,675 yards, which in 1990 would have been fourth in the league.
Ostensibly, the last great set of rule changes in football was made in the name of safety. But not only is football no safer than it was previously but those "safety" changes are having the same effect on offenses as stackable drugs and anabolic steroids had on hitters: It makes them stronger. The Tom Brady rule attempts to keep defenders from the knees of quarterbacks. A vicious hit on DeSean Jackson in 2010 and a host of other big-time, concussion-inducing collisions prompted rules to protect defenseless receivers. But safety measures like those merely enhance rule and culture changes in the game that already were pushing the sport toward huge passing totals. It is common knowledge that drugs keep players on the field in football, but the rules affect the record book.
In the end, baseball and football soon will have in common the plight of the lonely legend as a consequence of both. In the summer of 2002, in San Diego, Reggie Jackson, then sixth on the all-time home run list, stood on the field at Qualcomm Stadium lamenting the steroid era's relentless assault on the record book.
"Ten years from now, I'll be 56th on the home run list, all because of the juice," he said.
Nine and half years later, Jackson is 13th, but his point remains valid. In one season, Marino went from first to third on the single-season passing list. A year earlier, he was overtaken by Brett Favre on the career list, and Brees, Brady and Peyton Manning all have good chances to pass him, as well. As the rules relax in the name of offense and, supposedly, safety, he might want to get used to the feeling.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.