QB trio has Marino's mark in sight
Brady, Brees and Rodgers all on pace to break yardage record; who will get there first?
What the NFL's best quarterbacks are doing this season is the equivalent of what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did in 1998 -- minus performance-enhancing drugs.
Three quarterbacks are on pace to set the NFL single-season passing record and shatter the mark former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino set in 1984 with 5,084 yards.
With 4,031 passing yards, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is on pace to throw for 5,374 yards.
With 3,916 passing yards, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is on pace to throw for 5,221 yards.
And with 3,844 passing yards, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on pace to throw for 5,125 yards.
The last quarter of this season is shaping up to be intriguing on so many levels. There's the question of whether the Packers will lose a game and whether the Indianapolis Colts will win one. There are big divisional battles still to be decided. But no race for a record is any more compelling than the three top players in the game chasing a mark that now seems destined to fall.
Football doesn't have many numbers as magical as 56 or .400 in baseball. The 5,084 is about as close as it gets, especially with Chris Johnson, Jamal Lewis, Terrell Davis and Barry Sanders each rushing for more than 2,000 yards in a season since Marino set his passing record. But in a passing era, quarterbacks now are taking aim at his mark.
Of the three quarterbacks vying for the record, Brees faces the defenses that allow the most passing yards per game. Brees' opponents -- the Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers -- allow an average of 239.3 passing yards per game.
Brady's opponents -- the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, Dolphins and Buffalo Bills -- allow an average of 234.3 passing yards per game.
And Rodgers' opponents -- the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions -- allow an average of 230 passing yards per game.
But just as baseball had 1998, football has 2011. The count, and the watch, is now on. Brees, Brady and Rodgers are now chasing Marino and history with their arms.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. TE class for the ages: Every now and then, one position produces a group of players who write football history. The quarterback draft class of 1983 did it. And now, the tight end draft class of 2010 is doing the same.
Check out the tight end collection that entered the league last season, changed the game this season, and rolled off draft boards in this order:
Round 1, pick 21, Cincinnati drafts Jermaine Gresham.
Round 2, pick 42, New England drafts Rob Gronkowski.
Round 3, pick 70, Baltimore drafts Ed Dickson.
Round 3, pick 93, Kansas City drafts Tony Moeaki.
Round 3, pick 95, New Orleans drafts Jimmy Graham.
Round 4, pick 113, New England drafts Aaron Hernandez.
Round 4, pick 114, Baltimore drafts Dennis Pitta.
It's hard to imagine another class of tight ends making this type of impact in the NFL, especially this early in their careers. What this group of tight ends has done, most notably in New England and New Orleans, is revolutionize their teams' offenses and redefine the game.
With Moeaki on injured reserve, the other top six tight ends from the Class of 2010 this season have combined for a preposterous 308 receptions for 3,632 yards and 35 touchdowns. Over two seasons, excluding Moeaki, the tight end group has combined for 490 catches for 5,721 yards and 61 touchdowns -- 36 of which have come from Gronkowski and Graham.
Defenses don't know how to address them. But history does.
With one quarter of the season remaining, Gronkowski already has tied Vernon Davis in 2009 and Antonio Gates in 2004 for the most touchdowns a tight end has caught in one season (13). Over two seasons, Gronkowski has 23 touchdowns catches; only Randy Moss, with 28 touchdown catches during his first two NFL seasons, had more.
For a while, it appeared as though tight ends were being phased out of the game. But with the emergence of a new breed and generation of tight ends, look for teams to re-emphasize the position in coming drafts.
Teams copy other teams' success. And this class of tight ends is beginning to copy the quarterback class of 1983.
2. NFC East losing luster: There might not be a more popular or respected division than the NFC East, which has accounted for nine Super Bowl titles. Yet this season, NFC East teams, and their head coaches, are getting thrown for losses. No other division has endured more criticism and questions than the NFC East. Each of its head coaches has come under fire, if not from the owner of the team (as was the case in Dallas with Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett), then with fans unhappy with their teams' performances.
The Cowboys and Giants still play twice more this season -- Sunday night in Dallas, then on Jan. 1 in New York -- in two games that will decide the NFC East winner. And the team that doesn't win it will come under more criticism from its fans and maybe even people high up in the organization. Earlier this season, one NFL source who closely tracks the comings and goings of head coaches predicted that two of the four NFC East head coaches -- Garrett, Tom Coughlin, Mike Shanahan, Andy Reid -- would be dismissed after this season. The thought seemed far fetched at the time, and even today it still seems excessive and hard to imagine.
But at least two, and quite possibly three, of the NFC East teams are going to have disappointing seasons that will result in changes. How big those changes are, and how extensive they turn out to be, will be one of football's biggest storylines in the weeks ahead. But a division known for toughness is going through some tough times.
3. Packers' perfection not quite registering: What's most striking about Green Bay's perfect season, and its 18-game winning streak that dates to Week 16 of last season, is the lack of attention it is getting. In a day and age when major sports stories get more attention than ever, the Packers are proving how to remain under the radar, if such a thing were possible.
Part of it might be the fact that the Packers don't play in a major media market, though that's odd because Green Bay is at the center of football history. A bigger part might be the personalities of the franchise's faces, Packers coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Each is steady, detailed, organized, consistent and never seems to ride any type of emotional wave. They go out and do their job, every week. They have done it from last season through this season, at the highest level possible. And yet for as perfect as the Packers have been, there still is more conversation about teams such as the Eagles and quarterbacks such as Tim Tebow. Soon enough it should -- and will -- change.
4. Indy still Peyton's place? When Colts quarterback Peyton Manning spoke to CBS on Sunday, he said a lot by saying very little. CBS' James Brown asked Manning if he was OK with the Colts picking Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, as they inevitably will, and Manning said: "Questions will answer themselves in the spring. I haven't had the chance to think about 2012. In December of 2011, we're trying to get a win."
Wait -- Manning hasn't had time to think about 2012? Of course he has. He's had all the time he needs to think about 2012. Gracefully sidestepping the question was Manning's way of avoiding a question that does not need to be answered right now. But inevitably Manning is going to have to let his feelings be known for the Colts, and the sense around the league is there will not be room for both quarterbacks, Manning and Luck, in Indianapolis.
Manning has a $28 million option bonus that must be exercised by March 8, though he and the Colts could agree to push back the deadline past the start of the league year on March 12. But after this season, as March begins to creep closer, it's worth remembering that Eli Manning once navigated his way out of San Diego. And it will not be a surprise if Peyton Manning does the same with Indianapolis.
5. Well-groomed Yates: No quarterback has been better trained to succeed Matt Schaub than T.J. Yates. When Yates was at North Carolina, his offensive coordinator, John Shoop, ran an offense similar to the Texans'. When Yates studied NFL quarterbacks, he paid particularly close attention to Schaub. Then, about one week after the Texans drafted Yates in the fifth round, he flew to Houston and spent the next three months working out at Rice University with Schaub personally teaching him the Texans' offense.
"I was in Atlanta when we drafted Schaub, and when I interviewed [Yates] for the first time, I thought he was similar to Schaub in demeanor -- not too high, not too low," said Greg Knapp, the former Falcons assistant coach and current Texans offensive coordinator. "He's not some raw rookie in a system he doesn't know anything about."
The evidence came in Yates' first NFL start on Sunday against Atlanta. Falcons coach Mike Smith had faced eight other NFL rookie quarterbacks and won all eight of those games. Yates ended that streak by helping lead Houston to a 17-10 victory. Now Yates, the Schaub-in-training quarterback, is close to becoming the first quarterback to lead the Texans into the playoffs.
6. Newton the new Vick: Eagles running back LeSean McCoy has rushed for 12 touchdowns this season, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson 11, and Ravens running back Ray Rice and Cardinals running back Beanie Wells nine each. But as surprising as it seems, no player has rushed for more touchdowns this season than Cam Newton, who has 13 rushing touchdowns and 13 passing touchdowns.
Newton has turned into a veritable touchdown machine -- what the Eagles thought and hoped Michael Vick would be this season in Philadelphia. During his rookie season, Newton has infused Carolina with hope and his fantasy football owners with potency. And even with strong performances from Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, it's fair to already gift wrap the 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award for Newton, who has supplanted Vick as the league's most dangerous dual threat. 7. Give Gore a break: Good thing San Francisco already has clinched the NFC West title. It looks as though 49ers running back Frank Gore needs some time to rest his banged-up knees and ankles for the postseason.
Gore has not had 100 rushing yards in his past four games after doing it for five straight games earlier in the season. He has not averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry in any of the past four games; his lowest yards-per-carry average during his five-game streak of 100-yard games was 4.32. Gore also has gone five straight games without a rushing touchdown, whereas he had rushed for a touchdown for four straight games in October.
Gore's numbers across the board are down, disconcertingly so, and it could be that Gore is wearing down. But if the 49ers plan to run deep into January, they need Gore refreshed and rested.
8. Reunions on hold: Former Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth went to training camp with the Patriots, former Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb went with the Vikings, and it seemed as though each player would get his chance to prove his former team wrong this season. New England was traveling to Washington on Dec. 11, and Minnesota's trip there would come 13 days later, the day before Christmas.
But New England released Haynesworth in October, Minnesota released McNabb last week, and now Redskins coach Mike Shanahan will not have either of the reunions that would have added some spice. Not that the Redskins are all that worried about whom they will get to play. They're now more concerned about getting through this season and making due without starting left tackle Trent Williams and starting tight end Fred Davis, each of whom had his season ended with a four-game suspension.
9. Browns end unlucky streak: If Cleveland Browns fans are struggling to make heads and tails of this season, there's a reason why. Until Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns had lost 11 straight opening coin tosses. The chances of losing 11 straight coin tosses to open the season are 1-in-2,048.
But finally against Baltimore, the Browns broke through and ended their coin-toss drought. And Cleveland isn't the only team that has struggled with something as simple as heads and tails. New Orleans lost its first 10 opening coin tosses of the season before finally winning one on "Monday Night Football" against the New York Giants. But Cleveland has had it rough. Its season can be gauged by the success -- or lack thereof -- that the Browns have enjoyed on opening coin tosses.
10. Great defenders: Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater is used to seeing his son Matthew play wide receiver and special teams for the Patriots. Yet when the senior Slater attended New England's game versus Indianapolis on Sunday, he noticed Matthew starting at safety? Just like the Patriots once used Troy Brown as a slot cover cornerback, just as they played wide receiver Julian Edelman earlier this season at safety, New England turned to its newest safety experiment, Slater.
By now, New England is used to it. This season the Patriots have used 36 different players on defense, including 24 different starters. Injuries, and lack of talent, have turned Bill Belichick into a defensive scientist, trying to concoct the right combination. So far there have been mixed results. The Patriots rank last in the league in yards allowed but 13th in points allowed. Slater lined up and stood out at safety last week. It wouldn't surprise anyobody if Belichick had more secondary surprises as the season unfolded.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Giants at Cowboys. These teams get two games in four weeks to decide the NFC East champion.
• Player of the week: Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew. Drew gets to continue his quest to win the NFL's rushing title against an awful run defense (Tampa Bay).
• Upset of the week: Titans over Saints. Could be New Orleans' last cold weather game until it gets to Green Bay in the playoffs.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
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