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Air Spectacle? Why the next decade could see many new passing records

TORONTO — The next 10 years could see plenty of new passing records in the Canadian Football League.

While the new decade leaves behind a handful of trend-setters in the three-down game — like Ricky Ray, Henry Burris, and Anthony Calvillo — there’s no shortage of quarterbacks who have taken the baton as the league’s next great passers.

Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly, and Trevor Harris have already flashed greatness, while Cody Fajardo, Vernon Adams Jr., Dane Evans, and Nick Arbuckle could enjoy many fruitful years ahead of them.

Veteran quarterbacks Matt Nichols, Zach Collaros, and Jeremiah Masoli have also put together impressive careers despite injuries.

Statistically, the quarterback position has never seen so much success league wide, though not in the form of 6,000-plus passing yard seasons we were accustomed to in the 1990s. Long gone are the days of the quarterback ‘gunslinger’.

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In 2013, Ray set a record for single season pass completion percentage at 77.2 per cent (Peter Power/CFL.ca)

Today’s best quarterbacks are consistent, efficient, and situationally aware. They complete a high volume of passes, keep the offence on the field as long as possible, and rarely turn over the football. They are facilitators, putting the ball in the hands of their best playmakers while avoiding the types of mistakes that usually result in losing.

While scoring was down over the last decade, virtually every statistical passing indicator showed growth from 2010 through 2019, including completion percentage, touchdown to interception ratio, quarterback rating, yards, and first downs.

Passing percentage might be the biggest factor. The previous decade saw the overall completion percentage surpass 60% for the first time in CFL history, at 64.7% from 2010-2019. The last 10 years featured two of the most statistically accurate quarterbacks in CFL history in the aforementioned Harris (70.6%) and Ray (68.2%) over their careers. Drew Willy (67%) and Reilly (66.8%) are also in the top five, while Arbuckle, Evans, and Fajardo – who do not yet qualify based on their number of attempts – could easily threaten the 70 per cent mark throughout their careers.

In 2013, Ray set a record for single season pass completion percentage at 77.2 per cent. He also holds the second all-time leading mark with a 74.5 per cent completion rate in 2016. Ray’s dink-and-dunk methods frustrated some Edmonton fans in the early 2000s, but in reality he was setting a new trend in the CFL long before his trade to Toronto, where he led the Argos to two Grey Cups.

Many up and coming quarterbacks have modeled their approach after Ray, including a former understudy in Harris. During a game in 2013, Harris set a single game accuracy mark (with a minimum of 30 passing attempts) by completing 90.3 per cent of his passes (Ray holds the single game record in 20-plus attempt games, completing 19 of 20 attempts (95%) in a 2013 game vs. Winnipeg, breaking his own record of 92% with Edmonton back in 2008).

Harris set another accuracy record his first season with Edmonton, completing 92.3 per cent of his passes in the Eastern Semi-Final vs. Montreal, breaking his own playoff record of 90.6% previously set in 2018.

Finally, in 2016, Masoli set a record for consecutive completions with 23 in a row vs. Edmonton, breaking Jason Maas’ record of 22 back in 2008.

These trends point to a fundamental change in the game, particularly how offences operate. Today’s game is geared towards short, high-percentage passing attempts, with an emphasis on yards after the catch for big plays. The point is to sustain drives, avoid sacks, and eliminate costly turnovers.

One could also point to higher quarterback ratings across the league, a byproduct of higher completion rates and fewer interceptions. The decade spanning from 2010 to 2019 was the first above 90.0 efficiency, with a league-wide quarterback rating of 91.7.

The 1.48 touchdown to interception ratio was also a new high. Since the 1980s, quarterbacks have increased touchdowns and decreased interceptions every decade:

TD to INT ratio by decade

1970-1979: 0.75
1980-1989: 0.90
1990-1999: 1.15
2000-2009: 1.33
2010-2019: 1.48

It’s hard to argue that quarterbacks are getting better without adjusting for era. It’s obvious, though, that the standard has changed. These days, a quarterback rating over 100 is nothing out of the ordinary, while anything between 90 and 100 is just average. A quarterback rating below 90 would most likely lead to a benching.

In 2019, six regular starters had a quarterback rating of 100.0 or better, while McLeod Bethel-Thompson (99.3) and Masoli (99.6) were on the cusp.

Dave Dickenson retired after the 2008 season with the highest career pass efficiency rating in CFL history (110.2) with a minimum of 1,000 attempts. However, Dickenson was the exception for his era. The former Stampeders and Lions starter set a single season record in 2005 with BC with a 118.8 rating, breaking Ken Ploen’s record of 118.2 which had stood since 1962.

In 2013, Dickenson’s record was broken by Ray, whose historic campaign included 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions in an injury-shortened 10-game season.

Quarterback ratings have trended upwards throughout the league’s history, but the most rapid ascent happened in the early 1990s. Since then, the league wide quarterback rating has increased a minimum of six points every decade:

QB rating by decade

1970-1979: 67.8
1980-1989: 73.1
1990-1999: 79.2
2000-2009: 85.7
2010-2019: 91.7

Another noticeable spike occurred in the second half of the latest decade. Looking annually, since 2015, the league wide quarterback rating has not dipped below 90, the first such five-year stretch in CFL history. In 2016, a 98.3 league wide quarterback rating marked the highest in CFL history, thanks in part to Harris (116.0), Mitchell (107.9), and Ray (106.1).

While quarterbacks are more efficient than ever, scoring has decreased along with total yardage. First downs, meanwhile, mirror those of the high-scoring ’90s, marking a growing trend of longer scoring drives taking time off the clock. Today’s game emphasizes ball control, ball security, and field position more than ever before.

Pass Yards Per Game by Decade

1970-1979: 404.2
1980-1989: 529.1
1990-1999: 554.0
2000-2009: 535.9
2010-2019: 542.8

Points Per Game by Decade

1970-1979: 40.1
1980-1989: 50.0
1990-1999: 55.3
2000-2009: 52.0
2010-2019: 50.8

First Downs Per Game by Decade

1970-1979: 35.0
1980-1989: 39.3
1990-1999: 41.4
2000-2009: 40.5
2010-2019: 41.0

In a world of football copycats, new trends will always emerge and the game will change over time. Still, in the coming decade, it’s fair to expect a continued decrease in interceptions, a higher rate of completions, and higher quarterback ratings across the board.

That means plenty of new passing records on the way.

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