MIAMI – In the 1973 Super Bowl, Bob Griese threw a grand total of 11 passes to help the Miami Dolphins complete the NFL’s only perfect season.
The sport was more wide open a generation later, when winning quarterback Troy Aikman tossed 23 passes in the 1996 championship game for the Dallas Cowboys. The Baltimore Ravens allowed Trent Dilfer to throw a whopping 25 times when they won the league title in 2001.
Peyton Manning and Drew Brees may surpass those numbers before halftime in Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints, because passing wins like never before.
Every 12-year-old fan can recite the NFL’s common coaching mantra: Run the ball, control the clock and play good defense. But that longtime model for winning championships may be headed the way of leather helmets.
“The game has changed,” former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher says. “It’s catered to throwing.”
Manning and Brees do it better than anyone else, which is a big reason their teams are in the title game.
Brees set an NFL record with his completion percentage of 70.6, and Manning ranked second at 68.8.
Brees led the league with 34 touchdown passes, and Manning tied Brett Favre for second at 33. Brees ranked first in passing efficiency, and Manning was on pace for an NFL-high 4,800 yards before resting for the playoffs late in the regular season.
Gaudy passing statistics haven’t historically translated into winning. Instead, 300-yard games were for losers.
But this year, eight of the league’s top 10 teams in passing yardage made the playoffs. Teams reaching the postseason threw more than the league average.
The Colts will play for the title despite ranking a distant 32nd and last in rushing. The Arizona Cardinals also ranked last a year ago when they reached the Super Bowl. No team had previously achieved that dubious feat, according to STATS LLC.
So what happened to the notion of keeping the ball on the ground to win?
“That day has gone,” said NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt, who has worked in the league since the 1960s. “If you get 10 carries as a running back now, that’s good. And whatever amount teams passed this year, there will be more passing next year.”
There are exceptions to every trend, and the surprising New York Jets reached the AFC championship game this season with a rookie quarterback, grinding ground game and stout defense.
“It’s not out the window, because the Jets still do it,” Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said. “Old-school football – it’s kind of crazy even to call it that. But today’s game is made to throw the ball.”