Commentary

Lost in America: the NFL's pass defense

Sadly, all those stratospheric Week 1 passing stats are the way of the world now

Originally Published: September 16, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

NFL DefensesDrew Litton for ESPN.comBased on the way quarterbacks played in Week 1, it's as if the NFL's defenses all ran away from home.

Just suppose for a second that one week after throwing for 517 yards -- the fifth-highest amount in NFL history -- Tom Brady does it again this Sunday.

He couldn't, you say?

Of course he could.

In the wake of the Week 1 passing assault, it should be increasingly obvious that a perfect storm of offensive innovation, Brady's own wizardry and what amounts to the NFL's ban on defense as we once knew it -- particularly when it comes to hitting the quarterback -- have made it so that he could pile up 400-yard games routinely this season. And not just Brady. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and others could do it, too.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesThe scary thing about Tom Brady's 517 passing yards last week? He might just be warming up.

Herm Edwards, the former NFL defensive back and longtime coach-turned-ESPN analyst, admits to getting angry at times when he watches pro football's defenses handcuffed now by a growing list of restrictive rules and at the mercy of the quarterback.

"You pay that quarterback $15 million, you're not paying him to hand it off," Edwards says. "You want him to throw it. So you've got to protect him. Clubs, when they make him the highest-paid player on the team by a lot, are saying, 'Once they kick this thing off, you are the CEO of the team.' When that happens, guess what? That guy's got to be standing. If he gets hurt, you're in a ton of trouble. Ask the Indianapolis Colts right now. Peyton Manning is getting, what, $26 million? You can't have that. The quarterback has to be protected. And that helps provide an advantage. Tom Brady, if he has a view of the field and he can step up, he's got you. Take the snap, pat it twice, step up, it's all over."

So, the question is put to Edwards: Can Brady throw for 500 yards again this week?

"He might," Edwards says. "He's got a damn good chance."

This isn't a case of one man wandering out on a limb to sell some hype. I had the same conversation with Darren Woodson, the former Cowboys All-Pro safety and now an ESPN analyst as well.

"Would it surprise me if Brady throws for 500 yards again this week?" Woodson says. "No, not at all."

My discussions with Edwards and Woodson were much, much less about Brady -- or any specific NFL quarterback -- than they were about the passing frenzy that overtook the NFL in Week 1. It does not look like any kind of … well, passing fancy, not to anybody who has played and studied defense for years and years the way Edwards and Woodson have.

[+] EnlargeHerm Edwards
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesHerm Edwards had a hard time believing the numbers he was seeing even when he was coaching a few years ago.

It isn't just that Brady and Miami's Chad Henne, in that one game, passed for more than 900 yards (906 to be exact, an NFL single-game record). It isn't that quarterbacks threw for more yards in Week 1 (7,842) than in any other week in NFL history. It's that on top of those firsts, there were more quarterbacks who passed for 300 yards or more (14) than in any week in history, and there were more games (five) with two 300-yard passers than ever.

We're talking about a product that no longer resembles the game that was played in 1977, when there were just five 300-yard passing games the entire season, before new rules were adopted in 1978 to create more offense. The NFL has long been interested in creating more offense, but nothing has been quite this extreme.

And at the crux of the passing craze, whether league folks want to admit it publicly or not, is this new fear of head injuries. Until, oh, two years ago, when the NFL got religion as it concerns concussions, "Kill the Quarterback" quite simply was the basic tenant of defensive football, particularly pro football, from the advent of the game in the 1920s. Not so any longer.

"I'm completely sensitive to the desire to reduce head injuries and protect players as much as possible," Woodson says. "But from 8 years old, you're taught when you play defense to 'separate the player from the ball.' So, it's innate. You 'put your hat on the ball,' which [the quarterback] often holds high. Remember, the rule used to be you never touched a guy's knees; those were his livelihood. Now, you cannot hit him high. And every time you see a big hit, you're going to see a flag. It's pretty simple: You can't hit the quarterback. And as a result, they sit back there all day long.

"When I played, we knew we were going after the quarterback. Now? They feel comfortable. I don't care who the quarterback is, he'll kill you if he can just sit back there with no fear of being hit hard. And in the case of guys like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers … they instantly know how to spread you out and what they're going to do."

Edwards raises another point: "You can't hit a defenseless receiver? What's a defenseless receiver? He's defenseless whenever he's catching the ball? Or off his feet? When do you hit him, after he's given you permission?"

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerOne reason for the big passing numbers: Aaron Rodgers and other QBs today don't get hit like they used to.

So, you can't hit the quarterback and you can't hit the receiver hard enough to punish or discourage, or even jar the ball loose without fear of a 15-yard penalty.

Don't get me wrong; it isn't like Woodson and Edwards are whining like a couple of broken-down defenders resentful of offense in general and quarterbacks specifically. In fact, both are in awe of the way offense has -- and continues to -- evolve. They talk more than anything else, and in great detail, about the way offenses now spread the defenses to create and exploit one-on-one matchups, like in a basketball game. Both men talk about teams using empty backfields, going to three-wide-receiver sets on first or second down instead of waiting to use it on third-and-long as was the case, say, 10 years ago. They talk about tired defensive linemen chasing quarterbacks to no avail in the shotgun formation, then having to turn and run downfield to chase backs and receivers, then coming back to the line of scrimmage to do it all over again without substitution or rest because the offense is running no-huddle to keep them on the field.

They talk about linebackers trying to cover receivers, about having to play zone so the defenders can see the ball come out of the quarterback's hand because so few people play man-to-man well anymore with their backs to the quarterback. They talk about quarterbacks going after nickelbacks who are out of their comfort zones, having to play in the middle of the field like old strong safeties, who've been made all but extinct by the new rules.

But even that is easily tied to the new legislation that limits hitting. Woodson says, "I watch games at all three levels -- high school, college and pro -- and you cannot have a big hit. Well, that's what the old strong safeties did. Think of the last wave of guys like Roy Williams and John Lynch. The days of those guys banging receivers, that's over. Bill Parcells told me in '04, 'The day of the strong safety is gone,' and I didn't see it. But Bill was saying the strong safety is a liability because he wasn't usually fast enough to run with receivers and he was going to draw penalties for hitting somebody too hard. And Bill was right. You essentially have to have four cornerbacks out there, and you hope the two guys in the middle of the field can be like Eric Berry or Ed Reed. But they can't just be hitters."

Both Edwards and Woodson also talk about entirely new defensive philosophies that are gaining traction. When Edwards played (1977-1986), coaches wanted defenses to give up not just as few points as possible, but as few yards.

[+] EnlargeDarren Woodson
AP Photo/DavidPhillipWhen Darren Woodson played defensive back for the Cowboys (1992-2003), the idea was to separate the quarterback from the ball.

"Now you tell your defense, 'Don't worry about the yards' because Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees -- you can't stop them from getting yards," Edwards says. "You gotta stop 'em inside the 20, where they can't spread you out as much, and make them kick field goals. The question isn't whether you can prevent yards; it's whether you can keep points off the board. You know what that also means? Your defenders have to catch the ball. Knock it down? No, you gotta catch it. You drop it, you just gave Brady or Manning two more downs. Catch the ball."

At the very least, there will be more chances for sacks (though gentle ones) and interceptions. At the turn of the century, coaches were still talking about offensive balance and having a 1-to-1 ratio of pass-to-run. In the now-infamous Patriots-Dolphins game on Monday night, it might make sense that the Dolphins ran only 20 times while Henne passed it 49 times -- they trailed most of the game. But what about the Patriots, who ran it just 22 times while throwing 48?

What's the defense for that?

"You have to have a quarterback yourself who can keep your offense on the field and limit Brady to maybe nine possessions instead of 11 or 12," Edwards says.

Defense, then, has become something you pick your spots to play effectively, like on second-and-20, after the offense has been hit with a penalty, or in the red zone, when the field shrinks and the spread-advantage is negated. The highly entertaining Jets-Cowboys game Sunday night was decided not with sustained defense, but with defensive plays, and any check of the offensive yardage will tell you there's a difference. There are points in the game where defense can determine the outcome, but the day of dominant defenses going Cliff Lee on offenses appears to be over, short of some radical swing back toward more defense -- which ain't happening.

Phil Sheridan, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday, cleverly penned an obituary to defense in pro football, concluding that defense, while it produced such characters as Dick Butkus, Reggie White and Lawrence Taylor, and units such as the Steel Curtain and the Cowboys' Doomsday Defense, died officially on Sunday. "It is survived," Sheridan wrote, "by Chuck Bednarik and Mike Singletary."

As a native Chicagoan, where the notion of prolific passing is as foreign as spring in May, I hate a game with 900 passing yards. I readily acknowledge I'm in the teeny-tiny minority with Woodson and Edwards. I grew up on Butkus and came of age with Singletary. Woodson says of my favorite all-time team, "The '85 Bears? They were way too physical for today's game. The Ravens today aren't as physical as they were the year they won the Super Bowl [2000 season], not even close. That 2000 Ravens team might be the last dominant, big-hitting defensive team we'll ever see."

[+] EnlargeMike Singletary
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesIs it possible that Mike Singletary's physical play might not flourish today the way it did in the '80s?

It's a little scary, really, considering that the glory of football, the allure and therefore the popularity of the sport, was built on the struggle between offense and defense, on quarterbacks not being given time by the rules but rather by their ability to avoid a mean-intentioned rush themselves -- the way Fran Tarkenton or John Elway did it. Or by their ability to take a shot and get up firing like Terry Bradshaw, caked in mud and sometimes his own blood.

Now, the quarterback, knowing he'll be gently pushed to the turf instead of being planted there, stands in, fully aware there's no supreme punishment for waiting on that receiver to clear.

So no, Woodson and Edwards won't be shocked if Brady goes for 500 yards against the Chargers this week, and neither will I. In fact, I'm looking for at least two 400-yard games. I'll be pleasantly surprised, perhaps relieved, if Week 2 yields an 0-fer.

Then again, I'm reminded about the research on head injuries. We know so much more about them now than we did five years ago, and we'll know, I suspect, frighteningly more in five years than we do now. If all this throwing the ball around the yard is indicative of a less barbaric game, we'll live with the results, and thankfully.

When I ask him if all this passing is good for the game, Edwards, who's old enough at 57 to have seen the great migration from running to passing, says, "If you've got a great quarterback, it's great. But I wonder if it's bad in some ways. It has become a game with some softness. Remember, when you run the ball, there's more violence. When Jim Brown carried it, there were 11 guys trying to tackle him. When Jerry Rice caught it, there were very often just four guys, the guys in the secondary, who had a shot at him."

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon