How Offense Took Over the N.F.L.


The 1,371 touchdowns scored in the 2018 N.F.L. regular season were the most for a single season in the 99-year history of the league. Quarterbacks threw more touchdown passes than ever. For the first time, both teams in a regulation game scored 50 or more points. Dozens of individual and team offensive records fell as players raced up and down the field, apparently to the delight of fans, because the N.F.L.’s television ratings spiked substantially.

Fittingly, and not surprisingly, the four teams that remain in the hunt for a berth in the Super Bowl — the New Orleans Saints, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots — scored the most points this season.

But the recent offensive explosion in the N.F.L. didn’t just happen in the past year, nor did productive, pass-happy, fast-paced offensive schemes materialize in a vacuum. Instead, for roughly four decades (or the life span of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady), a series of innovations, minirevolutions, bold strategies from pioneering coaches and the purposeful rule changes by the N.F.L. led to the unprecedented 2018 season.

And it was on this path that the four starting quarterbacks in Sunday’s conference championships games — two in their 40s and two in their early 20s — were also shaped.

Here is a timeline of how the N.F.L. dragged itself from its low-scoring past to one of its wildest seasons ever.


Aug. 3, 1977

1978 season

The N. F. L. makes it illegal for defenders to make significant contact with a wide receiver once he is more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The league also loosens its restrictions on offensive linemen, allowing blockers to extend their arms and open their hands while protecting the quarterback on pass plays.

Capitalizing on the new rules, Don Coryell, in his first year coaching the San Diego Chargers, installs a downfield-pass-oriented offense that spawns disciples for years to come. The offense, known as Air Coryell and helmed by quarterback Dan Fouts, now a Hall of Famer, leads the N.F.L. in passing from 1978 to 1983.

Jan. 15, 1979

1980 season

The new rules enacted in 1978 have a vast effect. In 1980, teams pass the football 47 percent of the time, compared with just 38 percent in 1977. The number of points scored per game jumps to 41, from 34.4 in 1977.

1981 season

Behind the innovative short-passing scheme of Coach Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers win their first Super Bowl. Walsh’s complex, horizontal offense relies on multiple wideout sets and ever-changing backfield formations. Called the West Coast offense, Walsh’s system is copied leaguewide after the 49ers win the Super Bowl two more times in the 1980s.

1988 season

Cincinnati Coach Sam Wyche institutes a radical no-huddle offense, and his Super Bowl-bound Bengals lead the N.F.L. in points, yards gained, first downs and yards per passing attempt. Before each snap, quarterback Boomer Esiason, the league most valuable player, reads the defense and alters the play call, presaging the elaborate presnap adjustments made by Peyton Manning and Brady years later.

1989 season

The University of Houston brings the run-and-shoot offense into the football mainstream. The pass-first scheme, popularized by Mouse Davis at Portland State in the late 1970s, is predicated on the quarterback and his four receivers reading and reacting to coverages. The Cougars set 26 N.C.A.A. records, and Andre Ware becomes the first black quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy, throwing for 4,699 yards and 44 touchdowns.

Dec. 2, 1990

Buffalo unveils its famed K-Gun offense in a 30-23 victory against Philadelphia. Operating out of the shotgun, quarterback Jim Kelly calls plays without huddling, spreading the ball in three-receiver sets. Behind its electrifying offense, Buffalo advances to its first of four consecutive Super Bowls.

1994 season

The N.F.L. renews its emphasis on prohibiting defensive backs from jamming receivers more than 5 yards downfield, and passing statistics climb.

Oct. 4, 1994

Sept. 17, 1995

April 4, 2000

2000 season

In his senior year, Brees leads Purdue to last-minute upsets over Ohio State and Michigan, helping the Boilermakers clinch their first Big Ten title in more than 30 years. Brees, who threw for 3,668 yards with 36 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions, sets two N.C.A.A. records, 13 Big Ten records and 19 Purdue records. But because he operated a spread offense, his passing statistics are devalued by N.F.L. analysts, who remain uncertain of his pro potential. Brees’s height (6 feet) is also expected to hurt his prospects.

April 21, 2001

Sept. 23, 2001

In the fourth quarter of New England’s 10-3 loss to the Jets, linebacker Mo Lewis levels Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe near the sideline, knocking him out of the game with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Bledsoe plays one more series before being replaced by Brady. Bledsoe never regains his starting job for New England.

Feb. 3, 2002

Five months after replacing Bledsoe, Brady wins his first Super Bowl, 20-17, over the favored St. Louis Rams, whose league-leading offense was called The Greatest Show on Turf.

Jan. 18, 2004

New England advances to the Super Bowl after winning, 24-14, in Indianapolis in a game with leaguewide ramifications. After the Patriots followed Coach Bill Belichick’s orders to hit Colts receivers hard every chance they could, the N.F.L. responds by having officials emphasize defensive holding and illegal-contact calls, forcing defenders to be cautious about touching receivers beyond 5 yards.

2004 season

Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense system, developed by Coach Mike Leach, gains renown when the Red Raiders score 70 points in victories over Nebraska and Texas Christian. Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury becomes the third college quarterback to throw for 10,000 yards. Part of the ingenuity of the Air Raid offense is its simplicity (there are eight basic plays) and its sophistication (there are countless outcomes based on options that stress ball distribution, spacing and tempo).

2006 season

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which forces the Saints to spend the 2005 season on the road, the franchise regroups by hiring Sean Payton as coach and, two months later, signing Brees, a free agent, to a six-year contract. Payton, an aggressive play-caller, and Brees, the most accurate quarterback in N.F.L. history, embark on a fruitful partnership. It produces a Super Bowl title three years later, 118 regular-season victories (second among quarterback-coach combinations to Belichick and Brady in the Super Bowl era) and a template, 11 years later, for a young coach and his quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams to follow.

2007 season

  • The University of Oregon hires as offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who revolutionizes the college game by ramping up the tempo of the spread offense in which quarterbacks have myriad options on a play. Kelly became highly coveted by the N.F.L., eventually landing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. The spread offense, the successor to the West Coast, no-huddle offenses of the 1980s and 1990s, has become so pervasive in college and pro football that is has trickled down to the high school and youth ranks. The spread offense forces defenses to cover the entire field as well as each eligible receiver, and it also helps negate size and speed disadvantages at the line of scrimmage. At the high school and youth level, hundreds of future college quarterbacks and dozens of future N.F.L. quarterbacks receive an early schooling in the intricacies of an offensive system taking over the football world.

Sept. 7, 2008

On the Patriots’ 15th offensive snap of the season, Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard lunges at Brady as he releases a pass, causing the quarterback’s left leg to bend awkwardly. The unpenalized hit leaves Brady with two torn knee ligaments. After the season, the N.F.L. adjusts more rules, accelerating the passing explosion. The league bars defenders on the ground from lunging at a quarterback’s lower legs and agrees to assess a 15-yard penalty for hitting defenseless receivers in the head, a move that further allows them to catch the ball over the middle without fear.

2011 season

Brees sets a season record with 5,476 passing yards, and Brady surpasses 5,000 for the first time. Brady develops a strong on-field rapport with Rob Gronkowski, who in his second season epitomizes the new breed of tight ends, who create unsolvable matchup problems with speed and size. Travis Kelce of the Chiefs is another such tight end.

Jan. 7, 2013

Reid, who had developed a reputation as a quarterback whisperer, is named head coach in Kansas City. He was an offensive assistant in Green Bay in the 1990s, when Brett Favre led the Packers to two Super Bowls and won three league M.V.P. awards. By 1999, Reid was coach in Philadelphia, where he promptly drafted quarterback Donovan McNabb, who led the Eagles to five N.F.C. championship games. Four years after joining the Chiefs, Reid is instrumental in the team’s decision to focus much of their predraft attention on Mahomes.

2013 season

Goff enrolls at California to play for Coach Sonny Dykes, who assisted Leach at Texas Tech, where Dykes coached Welker. Running the Bear Raid — Cal’s version of the Air Raid — Goff, as a true freshman, sets several program passing records.

At Whitehouse High School in Texas, Mahomes passes for 3,587 yards with 41 touchdowns and four interceptions while running the Air Raid offense. Mahomes throws for 597 yards in his final game before heading to Texas Tech to play in the Air Raid system once again.

April 25, 2013

Five months before Manning breaks the season record for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477), the N.F.L. draft indicates where the league is trending. For the first time since 1963, no running back is taken in the first round. It happens again in 2014.

2014 season

In what may have been a response to how Seattle’s defensive backs stifled Manning’s Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, the N.F.L. emphasizes enforcing illegal-contact rules in the secondary for the first time in seven years. As a result, illegal-contact penalties soar, to an average of 3.31 per team from 1.19 in 2013, according to nflpenalties.com. Defensive-holding penalties also increase, to an average of 7.34 per team from 5.66. Offenses capitalize on the new rules, throwing more touchdown passes (804) and completing a greater percentage of passes (62.6) than ever before.

2015 SEASON

  • As a sophomore, Mahomes becomes Texas Tech’s starter, just as Goff is finishing his stellar career at Cal. Texas Tech trails only Washington State, where Leach now coaches, in pass attempts per game, with 47.7. Cal ranks fifth.

  • 25 N.F.L. quarterbacks surpass 3,000 passing yards, 13 surpass 4,000; teams average 243.8 passing yards a game, most in league history.

Jan. 12, 2017

The Rams, seeking to better develop Goff, hire Sean McVay as coach. At 30 years 11 months 19 days, McVay becomes the youngest coach in the N.F.L.’s modern era.

Feb. 5, 2017

Brady wins his fifth Super Bowl, as the Patriots overcome a 25-point deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons. He completes 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception, a performance that earns him Super Bowl M.V.P. honors for the fourth time.

April 27, 2017

Aug. 3, 2017

2017 season

Under McVay’s tutelage, Goff blossoms, completing 62.1 percent of his passes for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns, as the Rams morph from the lowest-scoring team in the N.F.L. to the highest. McVay’s offense, heavy on play-action and screens and condensed alignments for receivers, is built for misdirection. His preferred personnel grouping — three receivers, one running back, one tight end — rarely deviates, but McVay confuses opponents by changing tempos, alignments and motions. Many of the Rams’ passing plays resemble runs, and vice versa.

Feb. 4, 2018

March 27, 2018

The N.F.L.’s latest attempts to regulate safety have an intended consequence of protecting its most valuable assets, its quarterbacks, and serve as prelude to a record-shattering season. The rule changes generate celebration from offensive players and fury from defenders, who are barred from initiating contact with their helmets by lowering their heads. The league emphasizes to officials that defenders cannot use their body weight to land on the quarterback as they are bringing him to the ground — or, well, ever, really. It also clarifies what constitutes a catch, acknowledging that players do not have to control the ball to the ground.

Jan. 15, 2019

January 2019

The aerial explosion enveloping the N.F.L. sends teams scurrying for coaches who can mold desultory offenses into the next Chiefs, Patriots, Rams or Saints. Coaches, in other words, like McVay. Eight jobs open, and of the six hires that have been announced, five have offensive backgrounds, including Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur, who spent the 2017 season as McVay’s offensive coordinator, and Arizona’s Kingsbury, who developed Mahomes at Texas Tech. The Cincinnati Bengals are expected to hire Zac Taylor, Goff’s quarterback coach, after the Rams’ season ends.



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