NFL passing emphasis, rushing decline: by the numbers

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It’s happening. The day has finally come where the play calling in the NFL resembles my own play calling from back when I first started playing Madden.

First and 10? Streak to the endzone. Second and four? Streak to the endzone. Third and short? Streak to the endzone.

Okay, it might not be that drastic. But if it hasn’t been apparent in the past decade or so leading up to this season, it should be clear to everyone now that the NFL is a passing league.

There’s no two ways around it. Even with the recent influx of dual threat quarterbacks and the college-style option offense making a cameo at the NFL level, teams live and die by the arms of their quarterbacks.

Through two weeks of games, we’ve already seen 23 instances of a quarterback throwing for over 300 yards. The 400 yard mark has already been eclipsed six times, a feat that took nine weeks to accomplish last season. In 2005, there were only two 400 yard games in the entire season.

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For the Bears, Jay Cutler has finally started to shows signs of the elite quarterback he can be if he’s given time in the pocket. The three interceptions he has thrown have basically been a byproduct of taking to the air so many more times.

Cutler has already completed 49 passes on 72 attempts, which are numbers that took him three weeks to compile last season. The five touchdowns he has are actually two weeks ahead of the pace he set last year.

And we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t give him most of the credit for the back-to-back game winning drives he was able to put together to push the Bears to a 2-0 record.

Patience is a virtue for a reason: it’s so hard to wait through but so rewarding when things finally come to fruition. Cutler is by no means a finished product like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, and still has a lot to learn in Marc Trestman’s offense, but the Bears are in the position they are in because of Cutler’s right arm.

“But what about Matt Forte?” you may say. “He plays a huge role.”

That he does, and he’s a perfect compliment to the passing game by the way he can gain tough yards when need be and also be a viable option in the passing game. But Forte has only racked up 140 yards on the season while posting a near career-low 3.7 yard per attempt.

He’s a piece to the puzzle, but no longer the focal point of the offense as he was at the tail end of the Lovie Smith era. And the Bears seem to be doing just fine with that change so far.

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Just take a look at the league wide production from running backs in week one. There were only two running backs to eclipse the 100 yard mark.

Daniel Thomas gained 14 yards for the Dolphins; Frank Gore gained 44 for the 9ers; Bilal Powell rushed for a whopping 29 yards.

The common thread between those performances? Their teams all collected wins. And the list doesn’t stop there, that was just a sampling.

Doug Martin led all running backs in week two by picking up 144 yards on the ground for the Bucs. They lost.

The Bucs are rife with problems early on, so I can’t be critical on Martin. He did what he could to put his team in position to win, but even a great day from him couldn’t propel his team over the top while his quarterback Josh Freeman was barely throwing for more than 100 yards.

It’s pretty clear at this point that you can survive an ‘off’ week from your running back if you have a powerful passing attack. As Colin Kaepernick displayed last weekend, a team can’t really survive an ‘off’ week from a quarterback.

When he threw for 127 yards and three picks against the Seahawks, it made pretty much every other factor of the game obsolete. It made their vaunted offense one dimensional in a hurry. The Seahawks defense is good enough as it is, and when they only have to focus on one thing, you end up with a 16-yard day from Frank Gore.

A running game has essentially become a luxury in this league. It’s nice to have, and can make life so much sweeter. A properly executed run game can enhance a passing offense, turning those 20 point victories into 40 point laughers.

But it’s no longer a necessity for success in this league. Think about it. Name the teams around the league who are dependent on their running game to establish their offense. That list would include the Vikings (Adrian Peterson), Chiefs (Jamaal Charles), Jaguars (Maurice Jones-Drew), and the Titans (Chris Johnson).

Take a quick look at your playoff predictions and let me know how many of you have any of those teams making it to the postseason. I think I’ve made my point.

Even if AP can literally drag the Vikings into the playoffs once again, he’ll be out of gas come playoff time. The smash-mouth, grind-it-out style offense just isn’t a feasible option for success anymore, making running backs more or less expendable.

The Rams let their franchise cornerstone Steven Jackson walk away without a second thought, and the Browns just traded Trent Richardson, the number three overall pick from the 2012 draft, to the Colts for a future draft pick.

Why? They can easily have their production replaced by a back costing a fraction of the price. Simple economics.

As the title implies, this may be obvious to some of you. But there’s just such a divide between the passing game and running game in the league today, and it’s likely to stay that way.

Peyton Manning tied an NFL record by throwing seven touchdowns in a game in week one. Expect the record book to be in the crosshairs on a weekly basis from here on out.

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