Marino’s mark, they argue, is a greater achievement, because current rules in the National Football League make it so much easier to pass the ball and rack up obscene yardage totals than in 1984. In the 2011 season, three quarterbacks (Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford) broke the 5,000 yard barrier; prior to this season, only two quarterbacks in history had accomplished that feat. Even average quarterbacks, they would claim, were having 300 yard passing days. Therefore, Brees’ record should be viewed within the context of today’s game which slants the rules significantly in favor of the offense.
Using their logic, we could never celebrate anyone’s record, because it could always be argued that “the nature of the game” had changed from the era in which the original record holder set the standard. In the end, “records were made to be broken” as the cliché says. Similar arguments are made in other sports as well: purists in major league baseball, for example, are notorious for making specious arguments when comparing the achievements of all-time greats such as Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. It is always a slippery slope when analysts try to make comparisons across eras: how can anyone, for example, ever truly resolve the argument of whether the Green Bay Packers of the 1960’s were superior to – say, the great San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1980’s? Ultimately, Drew Brees – or any other great athlete, must be judged by the competition that he faced in his time, not someone else’s.
Besides the problematic nature of making comparisons across eras, the central assumption of the argument held by Drew Brees’ “haters” – that it was so much harder to pass the ball in Marino’s day than now (consequently, Marino’s achievement should be given more respect than Brees’) – simply is not true.
People like ESPN’s Skip Bayless and Chris Bermann act as if the NFL only recently became a pass-happy league. Actually, the rules governing pass defense were changed in 1978. No longer could defenders bump receivers all the way down the field: the “five yard chuck rule” was instituted. The suggestion by Bayless that defensive backs were still allowed to bump receivers all over the field during Marino’s record breaking season is pure nonsense. The rule changes revolutionized the passing game in pro football. What followed was an offensive explosion. Fans from the late 1970’s and early 80’s will remember “Air Coryell,” the high-flying offense of the San Diego Chargers. San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts, from 1979-1981, set the NFL’s all-time yardage record in three successive seasons. Also, without those rule changes, it is doubtful that the West Coast offense (made famous by Coach Bill Walsh of those great San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1980’s), could have enjoyed the kind of success it has without the liberalization of the rules regarding pass defense in 1978.
It is within this context that Dan Marino entered the league in 1983, and he took things to another level. But Marino’s record setting season in 1984 could not have occurred without the rule changes in 1978. With receivers like Mark Duper and Mark Clayton (the so called “Marks Brothers”), Marino lit up the league. Because of his quick release, he was almost impossible to sack. Combined with his ability to diagnose pass defenses quickly, his great anticipation, and his great accuracy, Marino was simply a nightmare for opposing defenses. He set the standard for a generation of quarterbacks who followed him – including Drew Brees.
In fact, contrary to the opinion of Brees’ “haters,” it could be argued that it was easier to pass in Marino’s day than it is today. NFL defenses in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were still adjusting to the new rules that tilted the scales in favor of the offenses. Under the old rules, teams were lucky if they had quarterbacks who completed more than 50 percent of their passes. The new dispensation placed a greater premium on the abilities of cornerbacks and safeties to cover receivers and make “tackles in space.” Eventually as timing and rhythm became more central to NFL offenses, defenders increasingly tried (and still try) to bump receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage in the hope that they could disrupt the timing of the play enough to give their pass rushers time to get to the quarterback. But defensive coordinators were still adjusting to the new passing offenses when Marino burst onto the scene in 1983.
In addition, NFL defenses did not blitz quarterbacks with the degree of frequency during Marino’s record breaking season that they do today. Buddy Ryan’s great Chicago Bears defenses of the middle to late 1980’s took blitzing to a new level. During their Super Bowl run in 1985, they prided themselves on the number of opposing quarterbacks that they literally knocked out of the game. Their success in generating pressure on quarterbacks has been copied throughout the league. Teams today design and implement more exotic, sophisticated blitz packages that NFL quarterbacks are forced to diagnose than in the past. What separates quarterbacks like Brees (as well as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers) from their peers is how quickly they are able to process information, figure out what the opposing defenses are trying to do, and to take advantage of mismatches that favor their personnel.
In short, it could be argued that pass defenses in the NFL are more sophisticated now than they were when Marino originally set the record, thereby making Drew Brees’ mark even more amazing. Only time will tell how long this record stands. It is conceivable, given the number of capable quarterbacks throughout the NFL these days, that Brees’ accomplishment may be eclipsed a lot sooner than Marino’s. In the past, 4.000 passing seasons were rare; now, they are commonplace and three quarterbacks surpassed 5,000 this season. Thus, we may look back on Brees 2011 season twenty years from now and view his accomplishment much differently than we do today
But that reflection is for another day. There is a reason why Marino’s mark stood for 27 years: what he accomplished is difficult to do. Drew Brees deserves his props, without any reservations or qualifiers. Those who argue otherwise are merely trying to hold on to the past by creating a phony nostalgia for a time that never was. Similar arguments were raised as Roger Maris approached Babe Ruth’s single season home run record and when Hank Aaron closed in on Ruth’s all-time home run mark. For the same reasons that those who could not bear the thought of Babe Ruth being eclipsed in the record books by someone else were wrong, those who today cling to the fiction that Marino’s record should be held with higher esteem than Brees’ accomplishment are also wrong. Drew Brees deserves all of the accolades he has received for his achievement. Simple as that.
Dr. Albert Samuels, Asst. Prof. of Political Science, SUBR