|Roger Maris / Icon SMI|
Yesterday, NFL quarterback Tom Brady surpassed Dan Marino's record passing yardage total set in the 1984 season. Amazingly, though, fellow QB Drew Brees broke Marino's record last week, so Brady has only the second-highest total of all time.
This really reminds me of the home run chase of 1998. At the time, I felt the pursuit of the mark of 61 homers was quite diluted by the fact that two players were on pace, and the new record was spoiled by two players passing Maris.
The situation this year with the NFL exemplifies the problem. The NFL has changed their rules repeatedly and markedly to reduce the amount of hitting in the sport. It's become increasingly easy to garner a roughing-the-passer penalty for a hit on the quarterback, and many hits on wide receivers draw penalties or fines if the defender uses his helmet or tackles a defenseless player. The stated intent is to protect players from concussions and other injuries. The by-product (or perhaps true intended consequence) is that forward progress through passing has become much easier in the NFL due to difficulties in defending the pass. Suddenly, several quarterbacks were able to challenge Marino's 27-year-old record and two ended up breaking it in the same season.
In 1998, both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa challenged Maris' 37-year-old record and ended up surpassing his home run total. At the time, there wasn't a lot of talk of performance-enhancing substances, save the adrostenedione displayed in McGwire's locker. Everybody had noticed the dramatic increase in offense over the few preceding years, but there was little more than chatter about suspicions of steroid use.
Years later, most accepted as fact that the 1998 power surge was due not only to the talent of those two players but also to their (alleged but assumed) use of steroids as well as some smaller ballparks. The changes to the game and its players made a once-untouchable record suddenly vulnerable.
I don't have a problem with games changing over time. Baseball has gone through various periods of being pitching-dominated or hitting-dominated, and the hitting-dominated eras have varied between small ball and long ball. Sometimes records fall when the style of the game changes and that's fine.
My point is that, just like with the NFL passing record, the breaking of the record is far less impressive when it happens in part due to changes in the game that make it easier for multiple players to pass the mark.