NFL milestones just ain't what they used to be

Why 1,000 or 3,000 yards shouldn't remain the measuring stick of greatness
01/21/2014 8:12 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Victor Cruz was 25th in the NFL in receiving with 998 yards.(AP)
For as long as I can remember, the NFL has had three major season-long offensive milestones for various skill players, with 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing or receiving yards being baseline for a strong season.

The 2013 season proved, however, that there is a point where a proverbial mountain becomes a molehill – and with 16 games on the schedule and a heavier emphasis on passing these days, perhaps it’s time to re-visit those numbers as the baseline for greatness.

Yes, this year there was one big anomaly, that being Peyton Manning having the single-best statistical season of any quarterback ever. His 5,477 yards were one more than Drew Brees’ previous record and his 55 touchdown passes shattered Tom Brady’s previous mark of 50 – and to make it even more glorious, Manning broke the latter record in Week 16 and set the former with still more than a half to go in the finale, meaning he could’ve pushed both even further.

But let’s start with that milestone, specifically 3,000 yards passing. At one time, even in a 14-game schedule, this was quite a feat, but today, it means a quarterback simply must average about 188 yards per game; 21 of the 63 quarterbacks who attempted a pass (or a full one-third) did just that, with the four other guys who eclipsed 2,500, two were Pro Bowl-caliber starters who missed at least five games each due to injury and the two others replaced incumbents midway through the season.

So then, how is that special exactly? Knowing that the four guys mentioned above are Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Nick Foles and Mike Glennon, that leaves seven teams without even 2,500-yard passers – and all seven teams (Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland, Buffalo, Oakland, Minnesota and St. Louis) all either started at least three different quarterbacks, or had their nominal starter either benched or succumb to a season-ending injury late enough into the season to cause a near-even split between he and his replacement.

Add in the fact that there were two guys who eclipsed 5,000 and nine that eclipsed 4,000, and maybe the latter should be the new milestone; given that 12 of the 15 all-time instances of a passer eclipsing 4,800 yards have happened since 2007 (with Drew Brees having four of those 12), it’s not like it’s far-fetched.

That discussion leads to receiving yards, where one season after Calvin Johnson broke the single-season mark, he joined 23 others in the 1,000-yard club for 2013, with Victor Cruz (who missed two games because of injury) coming up just short at 998. Denver of course had two of those 24 and Chicago did too, so if we assume Cruz would’ve had at least one more catch if he weren’t injured, that gives 23 teams a player in that “elite” category – and surely, you wouldn’t be shocked if we told you that of the seven teams mentioned above without 2,500-yard passers, four of them didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver but two others had one of the league’s top seven pass-catchers?

Probably not, because that feast or famine phenomenon no longer means that teams are pass deficient; only four of the nine teams that didn’t have a 998-yard receiver also didn’t have one in the Top 50 in the league, and only two of those (Buffalo and St. Louis) were in that rotating quarterback category – with a tight end (aka a non-“true” wideout) leading them in yards.

All that considered, adding in the fact that now three of the Top 10 single-season receiving totals in NFL history have come in the last three years (two for Megatron and one for this year’s leader, Josh Gordon), maybe credit should be given for being more than just your team’s leading target.

Rushing is a little better these days as the NFL becomes more of a passing-dominated, back-by-committee league, but still, there’s proof that 1,000 yards isn’t as much of a milestone as it once was, especially given that usually-dominant backs Ray Rice (660 yards), Arian Foster (542) and Doug Martin (456) had their seasons shortened or curtailed due to injuries.

However, of the 18 rushers other than Rice who recorded between 600 and 999 yards, 10 represented a split-back scenario on five different teams, but three – Le’Veon Bell (860 yards), DeAngelo Williams (843), and Maurice Jones-Drew (803) – were starters who missed games due to injury, Zac Stacy fell just 23 short despite not taking over at St. Louis’ starter until October, Joique Bell was a backup to a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Bush, and two others (Ben Tate and Rashad Jennings) were backups or timeshare backs who took over as the lead back after a backfield mate went down due to injury.

Oh, and did we mention that if you went by straight up averages of yards per game, a total of 18 backs averaged at least 62.5, the number needed to hit 1,000 on the dot?

All things considered, in a “perfect” world, you can project that roughly 20 to 25 teams could’ve had 1,000-yard rushers in a healthy, lead back-dominant scenario, so it’s still not that great of a milestone; regardless, congratulations should be in order for all those who did hit those milestones this year, but special congratulations are at least in order for Manning, Gordon, and LeSean McCoy – the trio that hit the once-per-season milestone, no matter how well the collective did, of leading the league in their respective yardage categories.

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