"The way the game is today, none of these offensive records will last." Those are the words of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after he broke the NFL’s single-season record for touchdown passes back in Week 16. The five-time league MVP even quipped Tom Brady would “probably break it again next year.”
Funny, but there was a hint of truth to those words. Dan Marino’s previous record of 48 touchdown passes set in 1984 stood for 20 years, but has since been broken three times in the last decade—first by Manning, then Brady, and now Manning again, who this time shattered it with 55.
Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 passing yards survived even longer. It took 27 years, but Drew Brees finally raised the bar in 2011. Of course, Brees’ mark stood for all of two years before Manning one-upped it with 5,477 during his historic 2013 campaign.
Both lists read like a who’s who of the great signal-callers in the present-day NFL. Of the 10 times a player has eclipsed 40 touchdowns in a season, half of those occurred in the last three years. Of the eight times a player exceeded 5,000 yards through the air, all but Marino accomplished the feat in the last three years.
It’s a passing league, as analysts like to say, a point Andy Reid rammed home to Philadelphia Eagles fans for 14 years. As maddening as Reid could be, it was difficult to argue which direction the sport was trending through his tenure as head coach of the Birds. All evidence pointed to the NFL being quarterback-driven.
The truly great, dominant defenses were a thing of the past, left for dead because rule changes made things easier for offenses; because the talent pool has been stretched and diluted by expansion; because wide receivers and tight ends were becoming enormous monsters that are impossible to match up against.
Then the Seattle Seahawks came along and won a Super Bowl the old-fashioned way—on the back of a punishing, hard-nosed defense.
The Seahawks didn’t merely win the game, they absolutely demolished Manning’s Broncos, by a final score of 43-8 in case you tuned out early. Manning, who when it’s all said and done might finish his career as the most prolific passer of all time, was limited to 5.7 yards per attempt and was responsible for committing three of his team’s four turnovers.
Not that the outcome was all Manning’s fault—far from it. Denver’s offensive line was no match for the Seahawks’ pass rush, nor would you have guessed the Broncos had hands down the best receiving corps in the league this season given how easily the Seahawks were able to take away everything but short dinks and dunks over the middle.
The loss wasn’t really on Manning at all. Denver’s offense, the No. 1 offense in the NFL this season by almost any meaningful measure—and by a wide margin at that—was completely overmatched by Seattle’s defense in every aspect of the competition.
Until Sunday, when was the last time a team reached the playoffs and went on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy almost entirely on the strength of its defense? Probably the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. That’s the class of defense the Seahawks have entered, in 2013, when some might’ve believed it impossible.
And it was no fluke. Seattle was ranked No. 1 against the pass in 2013, surrendering a paltry 172.0 yards per game during the regular season—22.1 yards per game better than second place. Only two quarterbacks all year threw for over 300 yards in a contest including playoffs, and only seven of 19 opponents even accumulated 200 yards through the air.
Seattle was eighth with 44 sacks, first in interceptions by five with 28, and posted the best opponents’ passer rating was 63.4, the lowest in the league by a whopping 10.8 points—the lowest of any defense since 2009.
So, like we do every year in the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl, we wonder aloud what the Eagles and the rest of the league can learn from the victors, and it boils down to a very simple line of questioning. Have the Seahawks come up with the solution to defeating the modern-day, pass-happy, quarterback-friendly NFL?
Does defense once again win championships?
If Seattle was the only team in the league getting it done with defense right now, that would give us pause, but one look around the NFC tells that’s not the case. The San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers featured two of the toughest defenses this season, and to a lesser extent, the New Orleans Saints did too. All four franchises advanced to the Divisional Round of the tournament. Their combined record was 54-19.
It’s no secret how these great defenses are being built, either. The emphasis is on size and speed at every level, period.
The Seahawks’ D isn’t full of blue-chip prospects as you might suspect, either. Only linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Earl Thomas were even first-round picks. However, the unit is built to play big and fast. They can run around or through the opponent’s offensive line. They can match up with the offense’s tallest and speediest players. Everybody is physical and they all can tackle.
Although, to suggest any of this changes the Eagles’ blueprints for this coming offseason would be a tad disingenuous. Based on their many of their recent moves, the organization has already started moving toward the Seahawks model.
Head coach Chip Kelly has discussed what he looks for in personnel at certain positions, and those feelings are probably best summed up in one quote: “Big people beat up little people.” And when we dissect what the Birds did in the last two drafts under general manager Howie Roseman, you can see the premium that’s been placed on all-around athleticism.
Since 2012, the Eagles have come away from the draft with Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry, Brandon Boykin, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff. If nothing else, there’s a lot of speed in that group.
Also, just last offseason, the front office signed Connor Barwin, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher to free-agent contracts. The additions provided a boost to the overall size and physicality of a defense that was in abysmal shape before Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis arrived on the scene.
The Eagles need more athletes like the players listed above—a lot more in fact, and in several cases, better. At least it’s a start. In many respects, Philly is ahead of the curve, having won 10 games and earned a playoff berth with major contributions from a young core in what many assumed would be a rebuilding year.
However, it would seem Philadelphia’s 32nd-ranked pass defense still has a long way to before reaching Seattle’s level on defense, or even San Fran, Carolina or New Orleans for that matter. That should be the goal of every team in the league as of today, because those defenses are proving the likes of Peyton Manning and similarly prolific passers in the modern-day NFL can be slowed and in fact shut down.
Apparently, that’s become the way to win again in pro football.