Monday, December 5, 2011

Climbing Mount Marino: Will Drew Brees Set the New NFL Single-Season Passing Yards Record?

At his current pace, Drew Brees would pass
for over 5,100 yards this season.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
"All hands on deck" should be the motto of every NFL team as they head into the final four games of the NFL season, but it should have particular resonance in New Orleans.  The Saints, winners of three straight, have an excellent chance to win the NFC South division crown, but to do it, they will need their offense to keep playing at a high level. And that means catching the football nearly every time it comes out of Drew Brees' right hand.

Much has been made of the assault, led by Brees, on Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record of 5,084. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are also within legitimate striking distance of the mark, but neither one has amassed yards quite so quickly as Brees this season.  Brees surpassed 5,000 yards once before in 2008, falling just an intermediate completion short of the No. 1 spot, but with a seemingly favorable schedule on his side and a very hot offense at the ready, Brees already seems to have been tapped by experts as the player to watch in this race.  However, there is a tortoise-vs.-hare element in the statistics that may prove crucial in determining whether or not Brees will be the one to set the new single-season passing record.

Here are the respective game logs for Drew Brees and Dan Marino in the seasons in which they threw for more than 5,000 yards:

Note that Brees was having a more prolific season individually in '08 than Marino in '84, but his team wasn't playing as well as Marino's Dolphins, nor was Brees being as efficient as Marino. In 12 games, Brees threw more interceptions and fewer touchdowns than Marino, and except for the drubbing of Green Bay and the shootout with San Diego, the '08 Saints defense and/or special teams gave up fewer than three touchdowns in each win and more than three in each loss.  Brees was pressed to make plays, and he took chances through the air: he hucked 11 interceptions in the first 6 losses, and averaged more than 45 attempts in each of those games (against only 33 on average in the first 6 wins). Still, Brees was in position to top Marino if even if he threw for only 304 yards in each of the last four games, and according to his yards-per-attempt pace, that would've required an average of 37 attempts per game to do this.  But that didn't happen. 

Here are the numbers from each player's last four games in their respective 5,000-yard seasons:   

 Again, Brees is shown to throw more often in the losses than the wins, probably because A) that's what the Saints under Brees have an affinity for, and B) they were behind in both games. Here's another befuddling tidbit: the pass defenses that Marino faced were ranked 20th, 4th, 22nd, and 5th respectively at the end of the season; between the four of them (1984 Jets, Raiders, Colts, Cowboys), they gave up an average of 197 yards per game through the air that season, though Marino's average for that four game stretch was a scintillating 351 YPG, including the 35-completion, 470-yard performance in the loss to the Raiders (the 4th-ranked pass defense that year).  

Brees, on the other hand, saw defenses that ranked 21st, 30th, 27th, and 16th against the pass. The per-game average for each of those teams (2008 Falcons, Bears, Lions, Panthers)? 226 YPG.  Brees' average against them in those four showings: 299 YPG.  Pretty ho-hum showing for a talented QB facing some below-average secondary units (which is not to devalue the quarterback position: it's very hard to throw for 300 yards, but Brees has shown he's capable of it on a regular basis, and for some reason, he didn't pull through this time). 

It should be noted that Marino had the benefit of a Miami defense that finished 7th in in the NFL in points allowed, whereas New Orleans would finish the 2008 season as the 26th-best in terms of scoring.  In the long haul, a lousy defense will assuredly hamper a quarterback's ability to perform at the highest possible level, as it inevitably forces the passer's hand to throw more often when the team is behind; additionally, when he does throw, many of the passes will likely be low-percentage tosses that are meant to gain yards in bunches rather than inches.

Here are Brees' current season stats for 2011:

Brees' numbers are up in virtually every category this season, the most important two being wins and attempts. The 2011 Saints defense ranks 19th in scoring allowed, which has undoubtedly helped their record, but the quarterback's average number of attempts per win (39.8) is still considerably less than the average in losses (46).  Brees' YPA stats (8.13) are also lower this year than in the first 12 games of 2008 (8.21) and thus nowhere even close to Marino's YPA of 9.31 for the first 12 games of the 1984 season.  

In the final four games this season, New Orleans is set to play Tennessee, Minnesota, Atlanta and Carolina, who are ranked 18th, 26th, 21st, and 15th, respectively; on average, they've given up 239 YPG, nearly 100 yards below Brees' season average and well below Brees' lowest mark thus far, a 258-yard day in the upset loss to the Rams.  Brees has thrown for over 320 yards in each of his 3 previous games, but to continue that kind of play will not be easy.  If the Saints clinch a playoff berth by winning their next two games, their tactics may change, and Brees may rest (if needed) in preparation for the playoffs. Then again, if they lose, he will have to keep playing and throwing more often than he would like, which will decrease his efficiency, making his run at Marino's record all the more difficult.  It's a trickier hypothetical than it looks, quite frankly. 

Even with the improved defense and the speed with which he compiled 4,000 yards, it's not safe to assume that Brees will finally  supplant Marino at the top of the list. From an efficiency standpoint, he's playing worse than in 2008, and if they're going to win the NFC South, it's in the Saints' best interest to make sure Brees isn't throwing more than 40 times a game.  If he does beat Marino's total, Brees will likely not be alone, nor will he be first in that category at season's end.  For those trying to find out which man is most likely to surpass 5,084 by the largest margin, efficiency statistics point to Aaron Rodgers, and it would be wise to examine his accomplishments in greater detail in order to consider who is the most legitimate threat to set the single-season record, assuming it will be broken. But, as seen with Brees, that's a fairly sizeable assumption to make.

(All stats used come from, or

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