Finally on Sunday, the NFL stopped Aaron Rodgers at something.
Rodgers passed for 281 yards and two touchdowns before he was pulled late in the third quarter of the Green Bay Packers’ 46-16 dismantling of the Oakland Raiders. Rodgers has thrown for at least two touchdowns in 13 consecutive games, the Packers are 13-0 and Rodgers is a lock for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Just one problem: Rodgers needed 310 yards to remain on a pace to break Dan Marino’s single-season passing record of 5,084 yards, one of the NFL’s most enduring records. He now has to average 320 yards in the Packers’ final three games to pass Marino.
Yet, Marino’s record is far from safe. For just the second time since Marino set it in 1984, someone is on a pace to break the record after 13 games, and for the first time, there are multiple players threatening to do so this late in the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, before this season only two players were on a pace to break the record with four or fewer games to play: Rich Gannon in 2002 (through 12 and 13 games) and Drew Brees in 2008 (through 12 games).
On Sunday, four quarterbacks moved closer to the record, indicative of a game that is enjoying a golden era at the position. The New Orleans Saints’ Brees, who fell 16 yards short of breaking the record in 2008, threw for 337 yards against Tennessee and is well ahead of Marino’s pace, needing to average 239 yards in each of the Saints’ final three games to pass him. That should be routine for Brees — he has thrown for fewer than 239 yards just once this season, in a loss to the St Louis Rams.
The New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, who threw for 357 yards on Sunday — you would never know it from the sideline screaming match he had with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien — must throw for an average of 270 yards to stay on pace. He has had fewer than 270 yards three times this season.
And just behind Rodgers is the newest, perhaps most surprising, entrant: New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. In the Giants’ 37-34 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, Manning threw for 400 yards, giving him a career-high 4,105 yards for the season, just 20 yards behind Rodgers.
Manning has to average 327 yards in each of the Giants’ final three games to break the record, not too far-fetched considering he has averaged 316 yards a game this season.
That Marino’s record has stood for so long given the NFL’s tilt toward the pass — and adoption of rules to protect quarterbacks and wide receivers — is testament to just how extraordinary his season was, especially at a time when offenses were far more balanced between the run and the pass.
The glut of challengers this season says plenty about the NFL, too. Rodney Harrison, the former Patriots safety who is now an analyst on NBC’s Football Night in America, points to the rules changes, like those that protect the quarterback in the pocket and defenseless receivers downfield, that favor the offense.
Harrison said he believed that because teams could not build defenses able to stop offenses with plenty of weapons and the rules to exploit them, they instead opt to spend their money crafting high-powered offenses that can outscore everybody. The most successful of those teams keeps those offenses in place over several years.