Colts, Saints show passing is a winner

Quarterbacks Manning and Brees taking the sport to a whole new level through aerial route

MIAMI: In the 1973 SuperBowl, Bob Griese threw a grand total of 11 passes to help the Miami Dolphins complete the NFL's only perfect season.

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The league was more wide open a generation later, when winning quarterback Troy Aikman tossed 23 passes in the 1996 championship game for the Dallas Cowboys. The Baltimore Ravens allowed Trent Dilfer to throw a whopping 25 times when they won the league title in 2001.

Peyton Manning (pictured right) and Drew Brees (pictured left) may surpass those numbers before halftime in Sunday's SuperBowl (Monday morning Beijing time) between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints, because passing wins like never before.

Every 12-year-old fan can recite the NFL's common coaching mantra: Run the ball, control the clock and play good defense. But that longtime model for winning championships may be headed the way of leather helmets.

"The game has changed," former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher says. "It's catered to throwing."

Manning and Brees do it better than anyone else, which is a big reason why their teams are in the title game.

Brees set an NFL record with his completion percentage of 70.6 this season, and Manning ranked second at 68.8.

Brees led the league with 34 touchdown passes, and Manning tied Brett Favre for second at 33. Brees ranked first in passing efficiency and Manning was on pace for an NFL-high 4,800 yards before resting for the playoffs late in the regular season.

Gaudy passing statistics haven't historically translated into winning. Instead, 300-yard games were for losers.

But this year, eight of the league's top 10 teams in passing yardage made the playoffs. Teams reaching the playoffs threw more than the league average.

The Colts will play for the title despite ranking a distant 32nd and last in rushing. The Arizona Cardinals also ranked last a year ago when they reached the SuperBowl. No team had previously achieved that dubious feat, according to STATS LLC.

So what happened to the notion of keeping the ball on the ground to win?

"That day has gone," says NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt, who has worked in the league since the 1960s. "If you get 10 carries as a running back now, that's good. And whatever amount teams passed this year, there will be more passing next year."

There are exceptions to every trend, as the surprising New York Jets reached the AFC Championship game with a rookie quarterback, grinding ground game and stout defense.

"I was pulling for the Jets, because that was old-time football - run the ball and play defense," Cowher says.

"It's not out the window, because the Jets still do it," Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson says. "Old-school football - it's kind of crazy even to call it that. But today's game is made to throw the ball."

Woodson and others say one factor is rule changes that protect quarterbacks and receivers.

"The quarterbacks can't get hit. The receivers can't get hit. The guy running over the middle can't get hit," Cowher says.

In addition, there's more emphasis on throwing and catching in high school and college, which improves the skill level in the NFL, Brandt says.

"People have become so sophisticated in the passing game," he says. "A long time ago, a completion percentage of 52 or 53 was pretty good. Now you've got one guy at 70.6 and one at 68.8. And there has been a drastic reduction in interceptions. They're throwing the ball more and yet there are less interceptions."

Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms finds the numbers misleading and the trend exaggerated. He says short, safe throws boost passing stats, and teams use such plays to control the ball.

"There are some teams in the NFL that will throw 10 to 15 passes a week of 5 yards or less," says Simms, MVP of the 1987 SuperBowl. "It's really just another way of running the ball, instead of dropping back and throwing it like we did in the old days. I could go out there now and throw lefthanded and hit 50 percent, because there are so many easy throws."

Others argue this is an era of uncommon talent at quarterback. Saints coach Sean Payton says passing wins today because of those doing the throwing.

"You're seeing quarterback play that's probably as good as this league has ever had," Payton says. "There are a dozen teams that are getting outstanding play at quarterback and you would go back a long time before you could say that."

Along with Manning, Brees and Favre, there's Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo and newly-retired Kurt Warner. That's a dozen.

Peyton Manning's at the head of the class. He won the NFL MVP award for the fourth time this season and 78 percent of the Colts' yards came through the air.

"Indianapolis is an exception," Cowher says. "I don't think you'll ever find another team that can do what they're doing. I don't think you can use them as a model."

(China Daily)