"The NFL is a passing league."
This has become one of the most oft-repeated phrases around. It's replaced "defense wins championships" as fans' favorite catchphrase. And honestly, it's easy to see why this is the case.
Over the last decade football has changed. Defensive players are no longer allowed to touch receivers after five yards, or when "helpless," or when on a football field at all (or something). Quarterbacks are a couple of years away from having armed guards in suits with earpieces protecting them. The league overall has moved away from "violence" and towards "finesse." WR's and TE's are getting taller every day (seriously, Jimmy Graham, you're not fair. You're what happened when I created a freak/monster on Madden as a 15-year-old. It's like Brees pressed left-left-right-up-A-B-B and you appeared out of thin air).
All of these changes have made passing stats rise to unprecedented levels. 27 quarterbacks threw for over 5,000 yards last year (give or take). Looking at the teams who've won the Super Bowl as of late, you can see franchise QB's dotting the landscape.
With all this happening, it's no longer possible for a team to compete with a good running game and tough defense, right? Well... Maybe not.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not here to argue that franchise QB's aren't the most important position in sports. I think they are, edging out pitchers and goalies (pitchers play once every 4 games and goalies play hockey. So both are out. Sorry Canada).
However, the nature of the argument has changed over the last year or so. It's gone from this...
"A franchise quarterback is the best way to consistently compete in this league"
"Without an elite passing attack you can't compete for the Super Bowl"
Notice the difference. I'm not taking issue with the former statement. It's a truth in my opinion. But the latter? Nah...
Whether or not a team without an elite passing offense can compete for the Super Bowl is a question that directly affects us Chiefs fan. I don't know about you, but I'm not expecting Matt Cassel to lead an elite passing offense. Would that be great? Well... yeah. But I'm not gonna bet the farm or hold my breath or stop shaving until it happens. So do we even have a SHOT without an elite passing attack? Can a team with a good defense and solid running came compete if they have an OK, average, or even mediocre passing offense? Let's find out...
We're going to look at NFL regular season stats from 2002-2011. Then we'll look at the SB winners and losers, the top 5 passing teams, and teams that made the Conference Championships. Let's see what we find. Do only elite passing teams compete for Super Bowls or not? I figure ten years is a decent sample size, so let's do it!
(for the record, I'm not sure where this will end up. I may well disprove my own theory. But hey, might as well know for sure, right? And remember, the Super Bowl Champion of a season will technically be the next year's SB champion. For example, for the 2003 season, the Pats won it all but are listed as the 2004 Champions. Just reminding you guys to avoid confusion).
-2002-Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We start of the the #15 passing team in the NFL winning it all, beating the #1 passing team in the league (the Raiders). So far, I like it!
The other top 5 passing teams that year were the Rams, Seahawks, Colts, and Bills. So how did they fare? The Rams, Seahawks, and Bills missed the playoffs entirely. The Colts were DESTROYED in the first round (by the #17 in passing Jets, for the record). Three top five passing teams don't even make the dance, and a forth gets killed in the first round.
2003- New England Patriots
This year, the #9 passing team wins it all, beating the #18 Carolina Panthers. Does #9 qualify as "elite?" Eh... depends, I guess, on which side of the argument you're on (let's face it, we all like to skew stats to favor us. Including me). #18 certainly doesn't, though.
The top 5 passing teams? Colts, Chiefs (sigh... memories), Rams, Vikings, and Titans. Four of the five make the playoffs. One of them (the Colts) makes it to the Conference Championships.
The last four teams standing this year? The #9, #1 (Colts), #18, and #20 (Eagles) passing teams. Again, we get only one top 5 passing team that makes it close to the Super Bowl (whole two below average teams are there). I like where this is going.
2004- New England Patriots
I hate NE and their success. They win it again, this time with the #11 passing attack. They beat the Eagles, who sported the #7 passing game in the league. Note this is the first time both Super Bowl teams are "above average" at passing the ball statistically, and neither was THAT close to the top of the league.
The top 5? Colts, Vikings, Packers, Chiefs (I'm honestly depressing myself here), Rams. 4 of 5 make the playoffs (guess who missed out? Ugh). But funny story... NONE of those four make it to the Conference Championships!
The teams that made it? #7, #11, #28 (Steelers), and #30 (Falcons). That's right, NO top 5 passing teams make it, but two of the league's worst do. Go figure.
2005- Pittsburgh Steelers
I'm getting more and more glad I decided to look into this. This year, the #24 passing attack wins it all, beating the #13 passing team (Seahawks) in the process!
The top 5 passing teams were the Cardinals, Patriots, Colts, Rams, and Bengals. Two don't make the playoffs. The three that do fail to make it to the Conference Championship. Let's take a special note of the Patriots here. they went from the #11 passing to #2... and went from Super Bowl Champions to bounced in the 2nd round. Huh.
The teams that made it to that level? #24, #13, #18 (Denver), and #17 (Carolina). Again, no top 5 passing teams, but three "below average" passing attacks. Yay for not proving myself wrong yet!
2006- Indianapolis Colts
Our first top 5 Super Bowl winner! Crap. The Colts were ranked #2 in passing. Is my argument completely shot to hell? Nope. Because the team they beat (the Bears) was #14 in the league. Phew. Thanks Chicago. I always liked you.
The remaining top 5 passing teams were the Saints, Eagles, Rams, and Cowboys. Only the Rams missed the playoffs, and the Saints made it all the way to the Conference Championships... where they got bounced by the much-worse-at-passing-but-somehow-still-better Bears. I feel slightly better. Took a tough shot there but managed to counter a little. I'm woozy on my feet, though.
The final four teams that year ended up being ranked #2, #14, #1, and #12 (Patriots). Moreore top heavy than it's been, for sure. But to counter that point, notice that the Pats went from #2 to #12 in passing, but got themselves back in the Conference Championships. Hmm... I'm gonna call this one the hardest shot our Chiefs have taken so far (with regards to their chances).
2007- New York Giants
And we're back in the game! The #21 passing attack wins it all! Of course, they had to beat the #1 passing team in the league to do it, but c'mon... we're arguing about whether you "must" be an elite passing team to compete. #21 knocking off #1? BOOM!
The other top 5 passing teams were the Packers, Saints, Cowboys, and Cardinals. Of the four, only the Pack and the 'Boys make it in. The Cowyboys get bounced in the second round by that darn mediocre passing team, the Giants.
In the Conference Championships we've got #21, #1, #26, and #2 (Packers). Note that the Giants beat the Pack to get into the Super Bowl. Yee-haw for not needing an elite passing team! #21 took down THREE top 5 passing teams on their way to glory. Pass rushers FTW, apparently.
2008- Pittsburgh Steelers
I'm loving it! #17 passing team gets it done! Two years in a row of statistically below average passing teams winning it all! Let's do this average passing teams! Again on the losing side is a top passing team, this time the #2 ranked Cardinals.
The other top 5 teams were the Saints, Broncos, Texans, and Colts. Only the Colts made it to the playoffs, and they lose in the first round. Seriously, this year loves it some "non-elite" passing teams.
The Conference Championship teams? #17, #2, #6 (Eagles) and #28. The Eagles try to ruin it for me, but those gentlemen from Baltimore keep hope alive.
2009- New Orleans Saints
Hope for us is punched in the stomach by the Saints. They were the #4 passing team and won it all. The team they beat delivers another shot, this one to the ribs by the Colts at #2. Crap.
The other top 5 teams that year were the Texans, Patriots, and Chargers. The Texans were the only team that failed to make the playoffs. Yeah, this does not bode well for our chances at competing without a top passing game.
But wait... a glimmer of hope emerges even in this pass-happy season. The four teams to make the Conference Championships were #2, #4, #8 (Vikings)... and #31 (Jets). So even in a year that everything else points to me being dead wrong, a TERRIBLE passing team comes forth to keep hope alive. I've always said Mark Sanchez is awesome...
2010- Green Bay Packers
The #5 team takes the title home. Yikes. Of course, they beat the #14 Steelers to do it, so I'm not in complete despair here.
The remaining top 5 passing teams were the Colts, Chargers, Saints, and Texans. Two of the four fail to make the playoffs (mildly encouraging for a Chiefs fan). The two that do both get bounced out in the first round by teams that ranked #19 and #22 in passing (more than mildly encouraging for Chiefs fans).
The last four standing were the #5, #14, #28 (Bears), and #22(Jets) teams. So this year we see a return to sub-average and average passing teams being the majority in the Conference Championships. I'm breathing easier at this point.
2011- New York Giants
Again, the #5 passing team wins it all. The team they beat (the Patriots) are even higher up, at #2. Not cool, man!
The other top 5 passing teams were the Saints, Packers, and Lions. All 5 made the playoffs, but none of them were able to advance to the Conference Championships (to be fair, the Pack lost to the Giants and the Lions lost to the Saints... so they were beaten by great passing teams).
The Conference Championships continue to provide hope, though. The #5, #2 teams made it, sure. But so did #19 (Baltimore) and #29 (The Niners). So yet again, we see sub-average passing teams going farther than multiple top 5 passing teams.
Conclusions (or something resembling conclusions)
I'm very, very, VERY glad I did this. Here's the thing... top passing attacks DO in fact compete for the Super Bowl... but it's not even close to exclusive to them. The average passing rank of teams that made the Conference Championships (the standard I use for "competing for the Super Bowl that year") was... 12.425. That's a tad better than "average" statistically.
Am I saying that a franchise QB isn't the best way to compete for the Super Bowl? Absolutely not. Am I saying that a deadly air attack won't be a huge help in a team competing for a Super Bowl? Not even close. What I AM saying is that it's clearly not the ONLY way to compete in today's NFL.
The NFL has changed. There's no denying it. But it hasn't change so much that a good defense coupled with a good running game and competent passing attack won't get you in contention for a Super Bowl. A great passing offense is a great way to get there... but it's no guarantee. Just like a great running offense or a great defense. You need a good overall TEAM to compete for that top spot (and frankly, some good pass rushers. Looking at you Justin Houston. time to take the next step).
Hopefully, that's what we field this year. Although if Cassel decides to chuck for 5,000 yards and 40 TDs, I won't complain. Here's to hope!