The moment we’ve all been waiting for has happened. Drew Brees has surpassed Dan Marino to become the new single-season passing yards leader.
What’s that? You weren’t waiting for that moment? Come to think of it, neither was I. ESPN did a damn good job of making it feel special, though, so I suppose I got caught up in the pageantry surrounding the moment in which Brees hit Darren Sproles for a late touchdown to leap past Marino’s mark of 5,084.
But when you really think about it, the moment was far from special. Here’s why:
1. It was inevitable on a micro scale. Brees had an entire game left over. It was obvious he was probably going to break the record weeks ago. While this doesn’t make it meaningless, it certainly voided us of the drama usually associated with the breaking of a record. It’ll be interesting to see how many yards Brees winds up with. We won’t remember 5,087, because he’s about to pile on against the Panthers in Week 17. (I will give the moment credit for happening in prime time — that certainly bolsters the “where were you when” element of it.)
2. It was inevitable on a macro scale. It was only a matter of time before someone broke the record. Brees himself came only 15 yards short of the mark in 2008, and prior to this year, 29 of the top 50 single-season passing yardage totals had been achieved in the last decade.
3. There’s a chance another player breaks Marino’s mark in five days. With 4,897 yards through 15 games, Tom Brady has already had the fourth most prolific passing season in NFL history. Brady needs just 188 yards in the season finale against Buffalo to hit 5,085. Considering how bad the Bills are and that the Patriots still aren’t playing for nothing, it’s probably safe to predict he’ll do that. Brady, who’s averaged 317 yards over his last eight games, is now only 190 yards back of Brees. After all of the celebration that occurred Monday night when Brees broke the record, imagine how awkward it would be if Brady were to have a huge game and pass Brees to set the new record?
4. The game has changed too dramatically. It’s simply amazing that Marino held the record for 27 years, because the game has become significantly more pass-oriented and point-oriented in recent years.
When Marino passed for 5,084 yards in 1984, he accounted for 3.0 percent of the passing yards in the league that year*. Brees, by comparison, has accounted for 3.1 percent of the passing yards in the league this season. ESPN used a number similar to that one during Monday night’s broadcast to give Brees’ feat more gravity.
But prior to 1985, passers were only able to hit the 4,000-yard mark on a total of 10 occasions. There’s a very good chance that 10 reach that mark this season (seven have already done so, and three are well on pace).
So while even after taking an increase in overall passing yardage into consideration Brees is technically accounting for more yardage than Marino was, it seems as though changes to the game have allowed groups of elite quarterbacks to pull away from the pack. The emphasis on passing has also given us starters like Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Tim Tebow, Curtis Painter and Colt McCoy, all of whom bring down those league-wide yardage numbers. In ’84, those guys might not have been starters and their teams might have simply focused on the run instead of forcing it.
In 1973, Roman Gabriel led the league in passing with just 3,219 yards. But what’s amazing is that Gabriel was head and shoulders up on his fellow “elite” passers. That year, he had 33 percent more passing yards than the average total of the pivots who ranked second through fifth in the league in said category.
When Marino broke Dan Fouts’ mark in ’84, he had 22 percent more passing yards than the guys ranked second through fifth.
And as of this morning, Brees’ 5,087-yard total is only nine percent up on the quarterbacks in the two, three, four and five spots (Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford).
In fact, if you’re using that metric to assess how dominant a quarterback has been in comparison to his superstar peers in the yardage category, Brees fared much better in 2008, when he recorded 5,069 yards. That year, he had 18 percent more yards than the average of those next four signal callers on the list. That’s not far off of Marino’s edge from ’84.
The top years based on that criteria:
1. Roman Gabriel (33 percent in 1973)
2. Dan Fouts (25 percent in 1981)
3. Dan Fouts (25 percent in 1980)
4. Warren Moon (25 percent in 1991)
5. Warren Moon (25 percent in 1990)
6. Kurt Warner (23 percent in 2001)
7. Darn Marino (22 percent in 1986)
8. Dan Marino (22 percent in 1984)
You’ll notice that none took place in the last 10 seasons, and only one in the last 20.
* Prorated to account for the addition of four franchises since that year.
5. Passing yards are overrated. This isn’t always the case, but quarterbacks usually accumulate big yardage totals when they play in one-dimensional offenses or with weak defenses. In both cases, they’re throwing a lot to stay in games. If you’re a capable quarterback on a bad team, you’re likely to compile a lot of yards while playing catchup.
Now, not all of that applies to Brees. But some of it does. The Saints are good, and they’ve led a lot this year. That said, they’ve still surrendered 22 points a game and they have just 14 takeaways this season, which ranks near the bottom of the league. Brees picked up a lot of his yardage early, when the Saints were struggling to put away teams like Green Bay, Houston, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. The same applies to Brady, who’s had to throw a lot to compensate for a mediocre running game and a terrible defense.
Brees has completed 70.7 percent of his passes, which is 0.1 percent higher than his NFL record of 70.6, set in 2009. I’d argue that that record carries more weight than this one.