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
Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. is born.
Hands off! Hands on!
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
Drew Christopher Brees is born.
Teams begin to air it out.
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.
The West Coast offense is born.
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.
The no-huddle offense is born.
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.
The run-and-shoot becomes the rage.
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
The Bills unveil the K-Gun offense.
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.
Defensive backs receive more bad news.
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
Jared Thomas Goff is born.
Sept. 17, 1995
Patrick Lavon Mahomes II is born.
April 4, 2000
The Patriots draft Brady in the sixth round, No. 199 over all.
Brees puts up gaudy numbers in college.
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
The Chargers draft Brees in the second round, No. 32 over all.
Sept. 23, 2001
Drew Bledsoe makes his last start for the Patriots.
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
Brady beats the Greatest Show on Turf.
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
The Patriots provoke an officiating crackdown.
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.
Remember the term Air Raid.
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).
Brees joins forces with Sean Payton.
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.
The spread offense and the slot receiver are in vogue.
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.
The Patriots go 16-0 in the regular season, demolishing the N.F.L. with an offense as innovative as it is potent, continuing the trend to spread out defenses. Brady becomes the first quarterback to throw 50 touchdown passes as New England scores 589 points, the most in league history at the time. Under Belichick, the slot receiver, who aligns inside, transforms into a productive, critical position that torments defenses and destroys the mold of a prototypical receiver. The Patriots’ Wes Welker is a natural at the position, having played for Leach at Texas Tech. New England becomes the first team to run a majority of plays from the shotgun, the precursor to the short-passing boom infiltrating the N.F.L. Around the league, the average completion percentage surpasses 60 percent for the first time — to 61.2 — and it has not dipped below it since.
Sept. 7, 2008
Brady’s knee injury alters the rule book.
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.
A new breed of tight end emerges.
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
The Chiefs hire Andy Reid.
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.
Goff and Mahomes excel in the Air Raid offense.
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
N.F.L. teams pass on running backs.
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.
The N.F.L. cracks down on illegal contact in the secondary.
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.
As N.F.L. offenses boom, Mahomes and Goff wait in the wings.
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.
April 28, 2016
The Rams, having traded up for the No. 1 pick, draft Goff.
As Goff struggles, Mahomes soars.
Oct. 22: Mahomes completes 52 of 88 passes for 734 yards and five touchdowns in Texas Tech’s 66-59 loss to Oklahoma, breaking an N.C.A.A. record for total offense in a game, with 819 yards.
Nov. 20: Goff makes his first start for the Rams, completing 17 of 31 passes for 134 yards in a 14-10 loss to Miami that portends the remainder of a lackluster rookie season under Coach Jeff Fisher. Goff lost all seven of his starts.
Jan. 12, 2017
The Sean McVay era begins.
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 gets his fifth championship ring.
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
The Chiefs trade up 17 spots to draft Mahomes at No. 10.
Aug. 3, 2017
Brady turns 40.
McVay + Goff = Magic
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
The Eagles win a high-flying Super Bowl.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ 41-33 Super Bowl victory over New England is an inflection point in the offensive revolution. It features the most combined yards in an N.F.L. game (1,151), and Brady throws for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards. The signature moment — a trick play called Philly Special — reinforces the appreciation of coaches’ ingenuity at the lower levels. The Eagles plucked the play from the 2016 Chicago Bears, but, according to The MMQB, it originated at a South Carolina high school in 2011 and had also been run by, among others, Clemson and Westlake High School in Austin, Tex. — the alma mater of Drew Brees and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles.
March 27, 2018
Do not, under any circumstances, fall on the quarterback.
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.
Mahomes leads an aerial assault on the record books.
Sept. 16: In a victory at Pittsburgh, Mahomes throws six touchdown passes, running his season total to 10. No one has ever thrown that many through the first two weeks. The next day, he turns 23. Across his first two starts, Mahomes dismisses the perception that being a product of an Air Raid offense is a hindrance in the N.F.L. His quick release and quicker reads power a Chiefs offense loaded with empty sets and run-pass options. His preternatural arm strength makes impossible passes probable. His improvisational genius — throwing on the run, or across his body, or with his opposite hand, or from crazy angles, with absurd velocity and accuracy — echoes his ad-libbing in high school and at Texas Tech.
Oct. 8: Brees smashesManning’s career passing yardage record of 71,940 with a 62-yard touchdown to Tre’Quan Smith in the Saints’ 43-19 win against Washington. Brees ends the season at 74,437.
Nov. 19: The N.F.L. of 2018 — young quarterbacks, bushels of points, heaps of passing yards — unfolds over four mesmerizing hours at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Rams defeat the Chiefs, 54-51, in the first game in which both teams score at least 50 points. Mahomes completes 33 of 46 passes for 478 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. Goff completes 31 of 49 passes for 413 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. No one will mind if they play each other again, in Super Bowl LIII.
Dec. 30: With an 89-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson in the final regular-season game, Mahomes becomes the second quarterback, after Manning in 2013, to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in the same season.
Teams combine to score 1,371 touchdowns, the most in an N.F.L. season, while scoring 11,952 points (46.7 per game), the second-most in league history. They also combine to set season marks for passer rating (92.9), completion percentage (64.9 percent) and touchdown passes (847). For the first time since 2011, and only the fourth time over all, three teams average at least 30 points: the Chiefs, the Rams and the Saints. According to Mike Clay of ESPN, offenses use a personnel package of three receivers, one running back and one tight end on a league-record 72 percent of pass plays, exceeding the previous high of 69 percent set last season.
Jan. 15, 2019
Drew Brees turns 40.
Coaching hires reflect the emphasis on offense.
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.
Ben Shpigel is a sports reporter and has covered the N.F.L. and the New York Jets since 2011. He has also covered the New York Yankees and, before that, the Mets. He previously worked for The Dallas Morning News. @benshpigel
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