Drew Brees' record-setting season is extremely impressive, and yet another indication that he belongs in Canton when all is said and done. But it's unrealistic to think his new record will hold up for long.
Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards stood for 27 years, with Brees putting together the only other 5,000-yard season, when he fell just 15 yards shy of Marino's mark in 2008. In an increasingly passing-centric league, Brees' record might not last 27 months.
That's not to take anything away from Brees, whose record is in some ways football's equivalent of baseball's home-run record. But just as longballs started taking over Major League Baseball during the late '90s and early 2000s, wide-open offenses are becoming the norm in today's NFL — legally, in this instance, of course.
This season, the NFL has seen seven 4,000-yard passers so far, including five who've eclipsed the 4,500-yard mark. That represents nearly a quarter of the total passers who had accomplished that feat heading into this season — 22 quarterbacks had thrown for 4,500 yards or more in a single season before this year.
Eight of the 13 highest single-season passing totals have been recorded since 2004, and five of the top eight have happened since 2007.
When it comes to the 2011 season, there's still the potential that Tony Romo (3,895 yards), rookie Cam Newton (3,893 yards) and Ben Roethlisberger (3,856 yards) could reach the 4,000-yard mark during next week's slate of games, bringing the total number of 4,000-yard passers this season to 10 (or nearly a third of the league's starting quarterbacks).
Last season, there were five 4,000-yard passers. One was Peyton Manning, who's missed the entire season, and another was Matt Schaub, who has also been sidelined. Carson Palmer just missed the 4,000-yard mark in 2010, chucking for 3,970 yards. If he's able to turn things around in his first full season in Oakland next year, who's to say he can't make another run at it? A healthy Sam Bradford could do the same.
Rivers' 4,710 yards that led the way in 2010 could realistically be behind five or six 2011 totals after next week, and appear even less impressive in 2012 and beyond.
This season, in many ways, has been a continuum of a trend that was already in motion, rather than something that's completely new. But with more teams throwing the ball with increasing regularity, and the apparent disappearance of shutdown defenses, it'd be almost more surprising to see numbers that aren't so inflated going forward.
Five teams let up more than 200 passing yards per game in 2010, two in 2009, one in 2008, two in 2007 and zero in 2006. The most passing yards allowed per game in 2006 was 238.6. In 2011, nine teams have higher totals, with New England giving up the most at 294.7 per game.
It's quite obvious that teams have placed less of an emphasis on the ground game, as we're left with the realistic possibility that just two teams may end this season with 500 carries or more (Houston and Denver). That's a far cry from as recently as 2008, when seven teams reached that total.
One other possible explanation for this season's league-wide air assault is the offseason's lockout, which trimmed down the preparation time for defenses. But it also cut down the preparation time for offenses, and clearly there hasn't been much of an adverse effect on those units.
Instead, the overall reality is that more teams are not only throwing, but more teams are willing to give up yards as long as they're able to come up with a couple of key defensive stands over the course of a game. In other words, while it was once common (and wise) to rely upon a good defense to be the backbone of a team, we're suddenly seeing a dramatic shift in which a defense is simply expected to be "good enough."
The aforementioned numbers show that, as does the flawless eyeball test. And with that mind-set by many NFL teams, as well as the continuing influx of physically imposing offensive threats to complement quarterbacks (think Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham), we should see Brees' new record get broken sooner rather than later.
It might even be Brees himself. Or perhaps Brady, who enters the season finale less than 200 yards behind Brees. Longshot, maybe, but in New England's offense and today's NFL, it could happen.