The NFL Arms Race: Why It's Good That Tony Romo Is a Cowboy

This is not your father’s NFL anymore. In your father’s NFL, the run game was the key to winning. Run the ball well, stop the run, run to set up the pass - that may have been the blueprint to winning not so long ago.

With the exception of the Ravens and the Jets, all playoff participants last year finished in the top twelve in passing yards. The primary method of moving the ball for these teams: the pass.

Last season the Colts and Chargers in particular both showed that contrary to some dearly held NFL beliefs, a team's ability to run the ball has no correlation with its ability to win. The Colts finished the regular season with a 14-2 record despite ranking dead last in the league in rushing yards. The Chargers ranked 31st out of 32 teams in rushing yards and still compiled a 13-3 record.

Another popular tenet, the 'three yards and a cloud of dust' approach has also gone the way of the horse-cart, Betamax and the former Soviet Union.

Yup. Time to face some hard truths. Today’s high powered offenses live and die by the arms of their quarterbacks.

Goodbye smashmouth

The Steelers, one of the teams most closely associated with the smash-mouth brand of football are now, and have been for quite some time, a passing team. The 2009 Steelers set a franchise record with 4,328 passing yards. In fact, Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing yards per attempt rank No. 5 on the all time NFL leader’s list. Here are the top four: Otto Graham: 8.98, Sid Luckman: 8.42, Norm Van Brocklin: 8.16 and Tony Romo: 8.10.

Even Betamax-aficionado Bill Cowher grudgingly acknowledged these changes:

The game has changed, the rules have changed. I think right now, I hate to say this, but the running game is a complement. It's not the foundation that it once was. You look at the last three AFC teams that were in the Super Bowl, that's Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis. They're all passing teams. The running game is a complement.

Helloooo passing league

There were a record 104 games with 300+ yards passers last season. The previous record was 76, set in the 2008 season. Tony Romo had his highest career season total with eight 300+ games, one more than in the 2007 season. Over the course of the last three seasons, Romo is ranked second in 300+ games with 21, just one behind Drew Brees and five ahead of third ranked Peyton Manning.

Below is a table with the top ten QB by passing yards in 2009. The combined W-L record of theses QBs in games in which they passed for 300+ yards is 50-14, or .781.

300+ yards games Matt Schaub Peyton Manning Tony Romo Tom Brady Drew Brees
 Brett Favre Ben Roethlis-berger Philip Rivers Aaron Rodgers Eli Manning
2009 9 9 8 7
7 6
5 5 5 3

Traditionally the 300+ passer was a 50/50 proposition in the NFL. In your father's NFL it was believed that teams that passed for 300 and more yards were doing so because they were trailing. More often than not, once you're trailing, you also lose. Accordingly, 300+ yard passing became a benchmark number that was associated with losing. But that has changed recently. 300+ passing teams are winning at an unprecedented rate:

300+ passing yards games per NFL regular season, Super Bowl era, min. 26 teams

70-77 78-93 94-01 02-07 2008 2009
300+ passing games/season 7.5 51.4 62.6 71.7 76 104
No. of teams/season
26 -28 28 30-31 32 32 32
Win percentage .500 .482 .531 .509 .618 .644

Of career highs and franchise records

Of the top ten QB last year by passing yards, six achieved career highs in passing yards, 3 of them setting franchise records along the way. Here's how the 2009 season ranks in terms personal bests (PB) and franchise records (FR):

Matt Schaub Peyton Manning Tony Romo Aaron Rogers Tom Brady Drew Brees Ben Roethlis-berger Philip Rivers Brett Favre Eli Manning
Yards 4,770 4,500 4,483 4,434 4,398 4,388 4,328 4,254 4,202 4,021
Career Rank
PB 2nd PB PB 2nd 4th PB PB 3rd PB
Franchise Rank
FR 2nd FR 2nd 3rd 4th FR 3rd 4th 3rd

Run-first offenses: an endangered species?

All of the above doesn’t mean that teams are going to abandon the run anytime soon. Running the ball is still important to winning games. Clock management, wearing down the opposition, maintaining a lead at the end of the game, short yardage situations - all of this still requires a solid running game. 

Almost all of last season’s playoff teams ran the ball successfully when needed, but they are all pass first teams that spread the field with the pass and use the run to keep defenses off balance.

And just because a team can't or doesn't throw the ball doesn't mean they can't be successful. Your father will be quick to point out that teams like the Jets and the Ravens did pretty well with run dominated attacks. But you, wise to the ways of the modern NFL, would quickly counter that their defenses probably had a bigger role in their success than their running game. After all, the Jets had the number one ranked defense, the Ravens the third ranked defense.

This season, prepare yourself for more passing, more points, and more highlight-reel plays. This is one arms race we can all get behind, especially with Tony Romo piloting the Dallas Cowboys offense with a multiplicity of weapons.

[Note: In my next post I'll look at why QBs are breaking records left and right: More talent than ever before? Rule changes? The West Coast Offense? Stay tuned.]

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