Over the past 100 years of the NFL, the game has changed immensely. Before the pass was a huge part of offenses, football was all about hard nosed running, tough plays, and playing the possession game. Picking up first downs and keeping the other team away from the football were all parts of why running the football was so popular.
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That's why when you think of the greats before the pass era of football, you’ll think of Hall of Fame running backs or quarterbacks like Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Franco Harris, Fran Tarkenton, and Roger Staubach. Plus, even the quarterbacks like Tarkenton and Staubauch were good scramblers.
To show just how much the NFL has changed, look at how many yards the NFL’s leading passers have had over the years. In 1972 the NFL’s leading passer was Joe Namath who threw for 2800 yards. In 1990 it was Warren Moon with 4700 yards, and in second place it was Jim Everett with 3900 yards. In 2019, first place was Jameis Winston with 5100 yards, and in second it was Dak Prescott with 4900 yards. Those numbers show just how much quarterbacks throw the ball these days compared to fifty years ago.
Sid Gillman, a Hall of Fame coach said that, “The big play comes from the pass. God bless those runners because they get you the first down, give you ball control, and keep your defense off the field. But if you want to ring the cash register, you have to pass.” In fact, Gillman was one of the first offensive minds that really led the charge in establishing the pass as a staple of the NFL game.
In 1978 the NFL changed a lot of rules that allowed for teams to be more efficient throwing the football. In 1977 the average number of points scored in a game was 34.4, and by 1980 it was up to 41 points per game. Some of these rules allowed for offensive lineman to be able to block further downfield, and they prohibited defenders from having excessive contact with receivers past the line of scrimmage.
Innovators like Don Coryell really took advantage of these rules and made fundamental changes to the NFL offense. Coryell, as the Chargers coach from 1978-1986, is often thought of as one of the offensive minds that has his fingerprints all over the modern NFL offense. He was one of the first coaches that saw how the pass could be utilized to exploit defenses and put up a ton of points. During his time with the Chargers, he helped coach one of the best offenses ever led by Dan Fouts at quarterback. Those offenses under Coryell and Fouts consistently ranked as the best in the league, so it’s no wonder that Coryell’s ideas were quickly adopted into the modern game.
As more and more success appeared from different offenses that were built off the pass, new systems spread around football and made it a pass heavy game. Look at schemes like the West Coast offense, the Air Raid offense, or even spread offenses built to stretch out defenses.
In today’s NFL, offenses throw the ball on average 60 percent of the time. When we talk about run heavy offensive schemes like what we see in Tennessee or Minnesota, they’re really balanced offensive schemes. Teams understand that throwing the football leads to more points, more efficiency, and better offensive results. Therefore, thanks to innovators like Sid Gillman and Don Coryell, plus new rule changes that allowed for throwing the football to become more effective, the modern NFL game has evolved around the passing game.