They saw it in the motion, the way the running backs moved before the football was snapped. They saw it in the formations, the multiple sets with receivers spread from sideline to sideline. Mostly, they saw it in the way the quarterbacks were used, how they were allowed to run. The way San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran the Green Bay Packers right out of the NFC playoffs.
For those who coach and manage in the CFL, that playoff game – in fact, the entire 2012 NFL season – produced a common refrain: the four-down game is looking more and more like the three-down version when it comes to offensive scheming and quarterbacking. It’s been that way the past few years, but this past season was a full-on convergence, a melding of philosophies. And it wasn’t just the Super Bowl-bound Kaepernick who highlighted that point. It was Robert Griffin, RGIII, doing a Warren Moon for the Washington Redskins. It was Russell Wilson resembling Doug Flutie for the Seattle Seahawks. They threw the ball with precision and they ran defences ragged with their head coach’s blessing.
It spoke to what the CFL learned a long time ago: if you want more excitement, more points scored, find an athlete who plays quarterback and work to his strengths.
“You have to look at where the NFL game is now: the things that have made our game exciting have now moved into their world,” said B.C. Lions’ general manager Wally Buono, who had Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Dave Dickenson as his CFL quarterbacks along with Mike McCoy, the new head coach of the San Diego Chargers. “What’s changed in the NFL is they don’t just want a quarterback standing behind a wall of humanity trying to throw it downfield; they want someone who can run. The description no longer is, ‘He’s a running quarterback.’ It’s, ‘He’s a quarterback who can run.’
“If it wasn’t Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl,” Buono said, “it would be Russell Wilson.”
Remember when the NFL used to be hailed – praised, even – as “three yards and a cloud of dust?” That was from an era when teams played on grass and dirt and ran the ball because the prevailing sentiment was, “Three things happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad.”
That attitude has gone the way of single-bar facemasks and coaches wearing suits on the sidelines. While it’s still important to have a useful running game, teams can win without a dominant one if they have the right quarterback operating the right offensive system. As Dickenson, the Calgary Stampeders’ offensive co-ordinator and a former San Diego Charger, remarked: “When I was down there, it was just manage the game and don’t turn the ball over. Now they’re asking quarterbacks to win games and be more dynamic, what we’ve been doing for a while.”
In terms of offence, here’s how the NFL has been trending in CFL-like fashion:
-The NFL points-per-game average for 2012 was 45.5, the highest total in 43 years. The next highest average was 44.4 set in 2011, just ahead of the previous record of 44.0 set in 2010;
-NFL teams averaged an all-time high of 34.79 passes a game in 1995, the first year quarterbacks were allowed to have a radio communication device in their helmet. That average has risen and fallen since but this past season it was up to 34.74. (Compare that to the Toronto Argonauts who averaged 35.3 passes a game in 2012 in a three-down offence.);
-In 2001, two quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning) threw for more than 4,000 yards. Five years later, there were five passers who did it. This past season, that number climbed to 11 and included Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck. (Note: eight of the NFL’s top-10 single season passing yardage leaders have come from the last five seasons.)
-Five quarterbacks threw for more than 30 touchdowns this past season. Only two did it in 1990.
“It’s been there before with the West Coast offence, from Joe Montana to Steve Young, but it’s been taken to another level now,” said Montreal Alouettes’ GM Jim Popp, who last month lost his head coach, Marc Trestman, to the Chicago Bears. “Look at the Pistol [offence], where the back lines up behind the quarterback and you can put [the ball] in [to the back’s hands] or pull it out. You can throw from there. There are a lot of choices. It’s the evolution of the game.”