On Pro Football: Most Passing Yards: It’s an N.F.L. Record Made to Be Broken, Again and Again
“It’s a pride that you can point to, but if you point too long, somebody’s going to go right by you,” said the Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, now an analyst for CBS, who threw for more than 4,000 yards in 1979, 1980 and 1981. “I’m sure Tarkenton thought his numbers would stand forever, and Favre and Peyton, and right down the list. Their numbers shouldn’t be discounted, because they’re tremendous accomplishments. But the way the game is headed, they’re probably not going to last.”
Fouts played most of his career for Don Coryell, the pioneering Chargers coach who orchestrated a lethal downfield passing offense by spreading multiple receivers out wide. When he retired in 1987, Fouts ranked second to Fran Tarkenton on the career list, staying there until 1994, when Dan Marino of the Dolphins topped him. Now? Fouts is 16th.
“A dollar in 1963 isn’t worth what a dollar is now,” John Turney, a prominent football historian, said. “Same as in passing yards.”
Turney’s research indicates that fewer plays than ever are resulting in runs, 39.3 percent through Week 4. The balance are back shoulders and fades, crossing routes and screens and throws in the flat — so many short passes, minimizing risk and maximizing completion percentage, from an array of formations and personnel groupings — often to running backs and tight ends who catch like receivers.
When Mike Martz broke into the N.F.L. in 1992 as the Rams’ quarterbacks coach, he said the head coach, Chuck Knox, wanted two running backs and a tight end in the game unless it was third down. “That was the mentality,” said Martz, who coordinated the record-setting offense of the St. Louis Rams, which was known as the Greatest Show on Turf, and now coaches the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football. “Now on first down, you can be in five receivers, who knows. All bets are off. Anything’s a go if you can do it.”
Woodson also entered the league in 1992, before officials called illegal contact with regularity. His coach, Jimmy Johnson, ordered the Cowboys’ defensive backs to be physical with receivers, and Woodson interpreted that edict to the extreme. “I’m getting my hands on him, damn near dragging him,” Woodson said in a telephone interview. “Back then, we grabbed guys all the time 20 yards down the field. And they wouldn’t call it.”
He reflects on those days when chatting at ESPN, where he works as an analyst, with peers like the Hall of Famer Steve Young, who retired because of repeated concussions, some on hits that would be outlawed under today’s rules. Their conversations, Woodson said, meander to what it would be like to play in this era, in which receivers cannot be thumped in the head over the middle or jammed more than 5 yards downfield and in which quarterbacks, who drive television ratings and interest, can hardly be touched.