Sunday’s Super Bowl represented much more than just the clobbering of the Denver Broncos and Bruno Mars’ flamboyant halftime performance.
It represents a departure from the offense-heavy, pass-happy spectacle that the NFL has become.
In 2009, the NFL limited the amount of contact defensive backs were allowed to make with wide receivers after the line of scrimmage, which has resulted in a significant increase in the number of pass-interference penalties enforced.
These rule changes have stacked the deck against NFL defensive backs, and made it almost impossible to cover receivers.
Defenders are left with two options: Shove or hold the receiver and be called for a penalty, or try to cover them legally and get embarrassed by some of the greatest athletes in the world.
NFL quarterbacks are taking full advantage of the rule changes.
Before 2009, only one quarterback — the Miami Dolphins’ Dan Marino, in 1984 — had thrown more than 5,000 yards in a single season.
Since 2009, the 5,000-yard mark has been broken eight times, by four different quarterbacks.
One of those quarterbacks, the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning, happened to be on the wrong end of Sunday’s beatdown.
Manning rewrote the record books during the 2013 season, setting NFL records for passing touchdowns in a single season with 51, as well as passing yards in a single season, with 5,477.
He is the primary beneficiary of the league’s rule changes, and is regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks of our generation.
But on Sunday, Seattle’s defense reduced him to nothing more than a punchline.
Manning’s Super Bowl stat line did not appear awful on paper. He completed 34 of 49 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown.
However, it was clear to anybody who watched the game that he struggled.
He committed three turnovers, including one ugly pass that was picked off by Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith.
Seattle pressured Manning throughout the game, and even when he found open receivers, his passes were broken up by the Seahawks’ physical secondary defense.
Let’s talk about that Seattle secondary, the self-described “legion of boom,” which features All-Pro safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, as well as All-Pro Cornerback Richard Sherman.
They spearhead one of the most dominant defenses in recent memory, and have drawn criticism all season for delivering hits that many deem too physical, in a sport that thrives on physicality.
Love them or hate them, they are changing the way football is played, and putting an end to the video game numbers that NFL quarterbacks have been putting up over the past several seasons.
Their dismantling of Manning’s Broncos is a prime example of the way defenses should handle the league’s air-raid offenses.
The average size of an NFL defensive back is 5’11” and 205 pounds. Traditionally, small, quick players such as Champ Bailey, Ed Reed and Charles Woodson have been the prototype of an ideal defensive back.
The Seahawks are flipping that strategy.
Sherman is 6’3″ and 195 pounds with a 78-inch wingspan. Chancellor is 6’3″ and an enormous 232 pounds — bigger than most linebackers — yet still runs the 40-yard dash in a blistering 4.62 seconds.
Instead of trying to out-run receivers, the Seahawks simply bully them.
“Part of what they do is they really dare the referee to throw the flag,” NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk said in a story published by The Seattle Times. “It’s almost guaranteed that if the referee throws the flag, they’re going to hold or grab on the next play because you rarely see two (pass-interference penalties) called back to back.”
The NFL is a league of trends.
The Seahawks have found a formula that works, and it’s only a matter of time until other teams get the hint and start building their teams to match the physical brand of football that Seattle plays.
Soon we will see a return to the smash-mouth football that was so beloved in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There will be fewer eye-popping passing stats, and more runs up the middle. Fewer 5,000-yard passing seasons, and more 2,000-yard rushing seasons.
NFL defenses have been looking for a way keep up with the league’s rule changes for nearly five seasons.
Seattle has finally found the solution.