For the last 20 years we have seen passing records in the NFL tumble. From the single season marks to career totals, the record books have been re-written almost annually in the 21st century. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers are the headliners of the “era of the quarterback”, picking up nine Super Bowls (and four more Super Bowl appearances) since the turn of the century. They have, in their own ways, revolutionized the position and set a standard that is almost impossible to follow.
For years, teams would fight over the next Peyton Manning at the top of the Draft, would try to find the next Drew Brees in the second round, and sift through the rest for another Tom Brady on Day 3, but to no avail.
And as Father Time starts to age these players out of the league, the void they leave is undeniable. Peyton Manning’s departure has crippled a Broncos offense that is trying to find it’s way without him, not to mention the NFL is yet to find a successor to the star power of Manning. The Saints ARE Drew Brees, and the Patriots, for all the brilliance on the sideline, are run through Tom Brady’s head and arm. We’ve seen what the Packers are without Rodgers and it’s not pretty.
The four pillars of the NFL in the last two decades have cast long shadows over the rest of the league, but more and more teams are finding ways to win without great quarterback play in 2017. Are we starting to see the end of the era of elite passers, in favor of a more “old school”, holistic approach to football?
The elite defense
For as long as football has been around, focusing on defense has been a good way of winning. After all, the saying “defense wins championships” has as long a history as the game itself.
The most recent example of building a brilliant defense and riding it to a championship was the 2015 Broncos. Their secondary and pass rush ruining opposing quarterbacks, including Tom Brady in the AFC championship game, while Manning’s mental edge at the line of scrimmage was enough to drag the offense along for the ride.
In 2017, there is one team putting together an elite defense that maybe you weren’t expecting to be a legitimate contender, and that is the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After years of disappointment and hoping that Blake Bortles could be their elite quarterback, the brain trust of Dave Caldwell and Tom Coughlin decided to invest heavily in defense. Their 2015 and 2016 top picks went on a pass rusher (Dante Fowler Jr) and a corner (Jalen Ramsey) that have both worked out brilliantly so far. A risky second-round pick on injury-hit Myles Jack has paid off and third-rounder Yannick Ngakoue is performing like a star, the free agent investment in Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, AJ Bouye, and Barry Church (A combined $239 million) has given great returns.
Last night the Jaguars had their second ten-sack game of 2017, giving them an incredible 33 on the season so far, along with ten interceptions and a QB rating against of just 62.3.
Their 4-3 record does not do the defense justice, but the fact that they have picked up two wins with Bortles throwing foe fewer than 150 yards demonstrates their incredible performances so far.
Similar to Jacksonville, Denver are trying to win with defense once again. They lead the NFL in yards per game, with just 258.5 given up so far, while Carolina and Minnesota are also using elite defenses to help lift inconsistent offenses.
The ground game
Jacksonville’s latest first round pick was on the monstrous Leonard Fournette, who has been running through souls so far in the NFL. However, his success has not been a solo effort, with the Jags run blocking improving in 2017 and helping the likes of TJ Yeldon and Chris Ivory as well.
In Chicago, they Bears have won back-to-back games for the first time in almost two years thanks to a steady diet of Jordan Howard on the ground and opportunistic defense. Their 17-3 win over Carolina last night came with rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completing just four passes (on seven attempts).
Pittsburgh’s return to form has been on the back of Le’Veon Bell (and their improving defense), while Ezekiel Elliott showed just how important he is to the Cowboys by being their leading rusher AND receiver in a monstrous performance in San Francisco. Kansas’ transcendent start to the season has been fueled by rookie runner Kareem Hunt.
The NFL-ready talent at running back is far out-stripping that at quarterback at the moment, and the likes of Elliott and Fournette, along with the unexpected successes of Howard, Alvin Kamara, and Dalvin Cook, have all provided their teams with an offensive foundation to allow shaky quarterbacks to survive, and good ones to thrive.
Can defense and running really win out?
The modern NFL is built to be passer-friendly. From rules protecting quarterbacks in the pocket to those that severely limit how physical defenders can be in coverage. The fact that nearly every defensive penalty carries with it an automatic first down means that some teams can play a “DPI offense” where they chuck it deep in 50-50 situations and know that the odds are in their favor thanks to a flag for very little giving them a new set of downs and a big chunk of yardage (I’m looking at you Joe Flacco).
In 2017 though, some early struggles to last year’s big passing attacks has very much opened the door to these defense/rushing heavy teams. Kansas City went into Foxborough and trampled on the Patriots. The Jaguars took five picks from Ben Roethlisberger, and the Vikings picked up another win with Case Keenum as their quarterback this week.
Perhaps the best example of the blending of defense and rushing this year has been the Philadelphia Eagles. Who’s defensive front has mauled teams while LeGarrette Blount has ripped off 5.6 yards a carry. That combination has led to good field position and opponents biting hard on play action, giving Carson Wentz favorable looks and reads to throw against. At 5-1, with a game against the Redskins tonight, they are looking like one of the real contenders in the NFC this season.
However, the old forces are gathering.
Tom Brady just slayed the Falcons again. Drew Brees is on a four-game win streak with his own improved defense/running combo. The 40-year-old in New England is on pace for over 5,000 yards this season and has a 66.4% completion rate as well as a massive 8.43 yards per attempt and 15 touchdowns to two interceptions.
Drew Brees has been sacked just five times this season and is completing 69.1% of his passes, while allowing the ground game to take some strain off his arm, keeping him fresh for a playoff run.
2017’s trend so far is that teams are finding ways to win without great quarterback play, but there are still two of the NFL’s great passers in action, and they are still slinging bullets with outrageous accuracy. Can the new breed takedown the old guard? Only time will tell, but as we leave a tumultuous and unpredictable first half of the regular season, it is perhaps the most intriguing narrative going this season.
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