Keep in mind before reading this article that this argument only applies to the NFL.
Records are a great thing. I always thought the best records are the records that have stood the test of time. The numbers tend to diminish in value if they get broken every couple of years. There are some that physically be broken, only tied (99-yard plays from scrimmage, 109-yard returns, perfect quarterback ratings, perfect seasons, etcetera), and there are others that have stood for so long that they seem impossible to break. There is only one mathematically breakable record in the books that I am one hundred percent sure will never be broken, and that is Sammy Baugh leading the NFL in three statistical categories (Passing, Punting, and Interceptions) in one season. With today’s specialization of roles, that just won’t happen unless the rules committee eliminates unlimited free substitution (the ability to substitute any player into a game at any time) which they never will.
One record that is able to be broken, but hasn’t for sixty years is Norm Van Brocklin’s 554 passing yards in a single game in 1951. Think about that for a second. The NFL has taken repeated measures since that point (and before it too) to open up the game and create more offense. The players and offensive schemes have gotten exponentially better since 1951. Domed stadiums have negated weather conditions and their impact on the game. Player safety rules (especially governing hits to receivers and quarterbacks) all have gone in favor of the offense.
If the offense has been dealt all the right cards, why hasn’t the record been broken in the last sixty years?
Let’s look at the record itself. Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams broke the previous record (468 yards, broken two years earlier) held by Johnny Lujack. The Rams were eventual Western Conference (and eventual NFL) Champions in 1951, and playing the league doormat, the New York Yanks (finishing the season 1-9-2), on opening day. The Yanks shouldn’t have even been playing in the NFL. The franchise would be moved to Dallas and renamed the Texans the next year, sold back to the league (or the franchise was revoked by the league), and folded. The remnants of the team would become the Baltimore Colts in 1953, but there is no official affiliation between the two franchises. Not exactly NFL pedigree. Van Brocklin gained most of the yards while running up the score against one of the worst teams in league history. The Rams had a 600-yard advantage for the game (722 to 111). Those are videogame-like numbers. Since the previous record was 468 yards, Van Brocklin didn’t just break it, he shattered it by 86 yards. Also, this was a time when modern pass defense techniques and schemes hadn’t been invented yet (the “Nickel” defense was still unheard of). At that point in time, passing was still a novelty, and the Rams exploited that novelty against the league also-rans.
This isn’t to say that the record is invalid or diminished. Van Brocklin still had to throw the ball accurately (repeatedly), his offensive line still had to protect him (repeatedly), and his receivers still had to get open and catch the ball (repeatedly). Every event has circumstances that surround it, and those were the circumstances.
Since that game, eleven quarterbacks have thrown for more than 500 yards in a game, and never twice:
1990 Warren Moon, 527 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 Int’s (W 27-10 @ Kansas City)
1996 Boomer Esiason, 522 yards, 3 Td’s, 4 Int’s (W 37-34 OT vs. Washington)
1988 Dan Marino, 521 yards, 3 TD’s, 5 Int’s (L 44-30 vs. New York Jets)
2011 Matt Stafford, 520 yards, 5 TD’s, 2 Int’s (L 45-41 @ Green Bay)
2011 Tom Brady, 517 yards, 4 TD’s, 1 Int (W 38-24 @ Miami)
1985 Phil Simms, 513 yards, 1 TD’s, 2 Int’s (L 35-30 @ Cincinnati)
2006 Drew Brees, 510 yards, 2 TD’s, 3 Int’s (L 31-16 vs. Cincinnati)
1982 Vince Ferragamo, 509 yards, 3 TD’s, 2 Int’s (L 34-26 vs. Chicago)
1962 YA Tittle, 505 yards, 7 TD’s, 0 int’s (W 49-34 vs. Washington Redskins)
2000 Elvis Grbac, 504 yards, 2 TD’s, 2 Int’s (L 49-31 @ Oakland)
2009 Ben Roethlisberger, 503 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 Int’s (W 37-36 vs. Green Bay)
So since the record was set in 1951, quarterbacks throwing for at least 500 yards in one game are only 5-6 in those games. You would think that putting up videogame-like numbers would ensure victory, but the numbers don’t point that way. Four of those eleven performances came after the 2004 rule-changes, and only two of those resulted in victories.
You would think that this would be an easy record to break. Just put the league’s best team with the best quarterback (say, the Patriots) against the league’s worst team with a defense with more holes than the Titanic. There’s one reason that wouldn’t work. Teams that good, with that good of a quarterback, would get a nice four to five touchdown lead, then bench the quarterback (or at the very least, have him hand-off the rest of the game). Great quarterbacks are a valuable commodity, and no coach is going to sacrifice their franchise quarterback to break a record, especially when there is a chance they could sustain a hit that could trash their season or career.
Also, there is no reason to give any opponent more film to study, especially when it’s in garbage time. With teams wanting to limit distractions in this era of the internet and social media, there is no way that a coach and quarterback would want to intentionally take the amount of heat that running up the score in order to break a record, would attract. If this sixty-year-old record is going to be broken, multiple, specific circumstances have to present themselves:
The team going for the record has to be playing from behind.
Teams pass the most when they are desperate. Coaches don’t like to go into games planning to throw fifty passes. Teams throw that many passes out of necessity, not desire. Have you ever noticed how often that teams that lose by a couple of touchdowns also have quarterbacks that have passed for three hundred yards? That’s because teams play softer defense when ahead to trade yardage for time off the clock. The result is that the stats have been padded.
The team that breaks the record will have a big advantage in time of possession.
It is my opinion that no NFL defense, no matter how bad, will allow 555 yards passing in one game without a minimum of thirty-five completions. If the team in question is playing from behind, that will mean that most of the completions will be to the middle of the field, and of intermediate distance (8-14 yards past the line of scrimmage, with some yards after the catch). If the defense is going to be playing while ahead, they will cut off the deep pass to prevent the quick touchdown. Sixteen yards a completion times thirty-five completions equals five hundred and sixty yards. Even at a hurry-up pace, time will be eaten off the clock because the majority of those completions will have to be to the center of the field, or just away from the sidelines.
The team going for the record will play badly on Defense and Special Teams.
Since we know that the team that is behind (and breaking the record) will win the time of possession battle, what are the ways of scoring touchdowns to gain a lead without having the ball in (the team not breaking the record’s) possession for long periods? That leaves long runs and passes (the coast-to-coast variety), punt or kickoff returns either setting up or resulting in touchdowns, pick-sixes (interception returns for touchdowns), or blocked field goals or punts resulting in touchdowns. All of those methods of scoring are very quick, and require major screw-ups on account of the defense and special teams (with the exception of pick-sixes). This doesn’t just apply to the coverage units, their return teams will also play a bad game. Any team passing for that many yards has to start with bad field position multiple times throughout a game. Yardage cannot be accumulated if there is no yardage to gain.
The team breaking the record will have multiple turnovers (including failed 4th down conversions)
The eleven quarterbacks and their teams that have thrown for more than 500 yards in a game (since Norm Van Brocklin) have averaged scoring 32.3 points in those games. The high number of points scored is forty-nine, the low is sixteen, and the median is thirty-one. Look at the median number, thirty-one. Four touchdowns and a field goal is the most common way of scoring thirty-one points. Five scoring drives of eighty yards apiece, with every other drive in the game garnering at least a first down equals around 450 total yards, and that is if every yard gained is through the air. Teams don’t go an entire game without any rushing yards very often. So, where would the remaining yards come from? The answer is: failed drives into the opponent’s territory, and missed opportunities. Only three of the eleven quarterbacks with a 500-yard game didn’t throw an interception in that game. The other eight averaged two and a half interceptions per game. Some of that yardage adding up to at least 555 is going to be wasted. Even if you take the high number, forty-nine points, that is seven touchdowns and at least two more possessions. Offenses may go an entire game without punting, but no team ever scores on every possession of a game at the professional level. Points are going to be left on the field, and kept off the scoreboard for whoever breaks that record.
I would love to see this record broken. I think it will be broken relatively soon. Dan Marino held the standard for passing yards in a season (5084) since 1984. That record was broken by two different quarterbacks last year alone, and another came within forty-six yards. Three-hundred yard games were somewhat uncommon thirty years ago, and now there are a few every week, and not always by the best quarterbacks in the league. It took eleven years for a quarterback to reach five hundred yards in a game after Van Brocklin, and then it didn’t happen for another twenty years (ironically, by the Rams again). There were two five-hundred yard games last year alone, and four in the last five years. The record’s days are numbered.
My prediction is that it will be broken by Matt Stafford, Drew Brees, or even Kevin Kolb or Brady Quinn. Stafford has an amazing offense in Detroit, with the best receiver in the league in Calvin Johnson, and a defense that makes mistakes that can put them in bad spots. Brees has an offense catered to his strengths, and not the best defense on earth. With the possible suspensions coming up regarding BountyGate (sounds like trouble with paper towels, doesn’t it?), the Saints are going to be playing from behind a lot this year.
Whoever breaks the record, it will be a monumental occurrence worth celebrating. A name will be etched into the record book in a spot that has remained untouched for sixty years.