Keep it in the air: Colts, Saints rep­re­sent the new model for winning the NFL

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY STEVENWINE

rea­son their teams are in the ti­tle game.

Brees set an NFL record with his com­ple­tion per­cent­age of 70.6, and Man­ning ranked sec­ond at 68.8.

Brees led the league with 34 touch­down passes, and Man­ning tied Brett Favre for sec­ond at 33. Brees ranked first in pass­ing ef­fi­ciency, and Man­ning was on pace for an NFL-high 4,800 yards be­fore rest­ing for the play­offs late in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Gaudy pass­ing statis­tics haven’t his­tor­i­cally trans­lated into winning. In­stead, 300-yard games were for losers.

But this year, eight of the league’s top 10 teams in pass­ing yardage made the play­offs. Teams reach­ing the post-sea­son threw more than the league av­er­age.

The Colts will play for the ti­tle de­spite rank­ing a dis­tant 32nd and last in rush­ing. The Ari­zona Car­di­nals also ranked last a year ago when they reached the Su­per Bowl. No team had pre­vi­ously achieved that du­bi­ous feat, ac­cord­ing to STATS LLC.

So what hap­pened to the no­tion of keep­ing the ball on the ground to win?

“ That day has gone,” says NFL draft con­sul­tant Gil Brandt, who has worked in the league since the 1960s. “If you get 10 car­ries as a run­ning back now, that’s good.

“And what­ever amount teams passed this year, there will be more pass­ing next year.”

There are ex­cep­tions to ev­ery trend, and the sur­pris­ing New York Jets reached the AFC cham­pi­onship game this sea­son with a rookie quar­ter­back, grind­ing ground game and stout de­fence.

“I was pulling for the Jets, be­cause that was old-time foot­ball — run the ball and play de­fence,” Cowher says.

“It’s not out the win­dow, be­cause the Jets still do it,” Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame de­fen­sive back Rod Wood­son says. “Old­school foot­ball — it’s kind of crazy even to call it that. But to­day’s game is made to throw the ball.”

Wood­son and oth­ers say one fac­tor is rule changes that pro­tect quar­ter­backs and re­ceivers.

“ The quar­ter­backs can’t get hit. The re­ceivers can’t get hit. The guy run­ning over the mid­dle can’t get hit,” Cowher says.

In ad­di­tion, there’s more em­pha­sis on throw­ing and catch­ing in high school and col­lege, which im­proves the skill level in the NFL, Brandt says.

“Peo­ple have be­come so so­phis­ti­cated in the pass­ing game,” he says. “A long time ago, a com­ple­tion per­cent­age of 52 or 53 was pretty good.

“Now you’ve got one guy at 70.6 and one at 68.8. And there has been a dras­tic re­duc­tion in in­ter­cep­tions. They’re throw­ing the ball more, and yet there are less in­ter­cep­tions.”

Phil Simms finds the num­bers mis­lead­ing and the trend ex­ag­ger­ated. He says short, safe throws pad pass­ing stats, and teams use such plays to con­trol the ball.

“ There are some teams in the NFL that will throw 10-to-15 passes a week of five yards or less,” says Simms, MVP of the 1987 Su­per Bowl. “It’s re­ally just an­other way of run­ning the ball, in­stead of drop­ping back and throw­ing it like we did in the old days.

“I could go out there now and throw left-handed and hit 50 per cent, be­cause there are so many easy throws.”

Oth­ers ar­gue this is an era of un­com­mon tal­ent at quar­ter­back. Saints coach Sean Pay­ton says pass­ing wins to­day be­cause of those do­ing the throw­ing.

“ You’re see­ing quar­ter­back play that’s prob­a­bly as good as this league has ever had,” Pay­ton says. “ There are a dozen teams that are get­ting out­stand­ing play at quar­ter­back, and you would go back a long time be­fore you could say that.”

Along with Man­ning, Brees and Favre, there’s Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roeth­lis­berger, Eli Man­ning, Dono­van McNabb, Tony Romo and newly re­tired Kurt Warner. That’s a dozen.

Pey­ton Man­ning’s at the head of the class. He won the NFL MVP award for the fourth time this sea­son, and 78 per cent of the Colts’ yards came through the air.

“Indianapolis is an ex­cep­tion,” Cowher says. “I don’t think you’ll ever find an­other team that can do what they’re do­ing. I don’t think you can use them as a model.”

The Saints are more bal­anced, with 67 per cent of their yards via the pass, and they ranked sixth in rush­ing.

Per­haps that gives them an edge in the Su­per Bowl. Deion San­ders, for one, be­lieves the path to a cham­pi­onship re­mains on the ground.

“Both of th­ese teams are go­ing to have to re­sort to the old model to win this game,” San­ders says. “ They’re go­ing to run the ball. It’s got to be a lit­tle more bal­anced.

“If you see a team with 45 passes and 15 runs, that means that team is los­ing.”

How times change: Prime Time is now old school.

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