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PAYTON: Our league has always paid close attention to who wins the Super Bowl. Ownership, coaches, front offices, G.M.'s always study what just won. We just watched Green Bay go through a lot of injuries, a lot of different running backs, line up in shotgun and in spread sets and win a Super Bowl. That's like Brooklyn Decker walking down a runway—people are going to buy the dress she's wearing. When the Super Bowl champs threw the ball a lot more than they ran it, played good defense and broke the formula of what wins, that'd be a starting point in terms of 2011's passing spike.
LEACH: I think it started way before that—the league has been doing it longer than it cares to admit. It started with the 49ers [in the 1980s]. Back then the West Coast offense was more open, but that offense evolved in the most conservative fashion. The teams that have been on top over the past couple of years—New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Indianapolis—get the ball in everyone's hands and attack the open field.
GRAY: I see a lot more offensive linemen coming out of college who are ready for the NFL passing game. They can do that very well. When I played, there was a premium on running backs. There was Eric Dickerson, and everyone was trying to get 1,000-yard rushers. That's really not the case anymore. The teams that are winning utilize space and throw it to a 6'4" receiver—he can make one guy miss and he's in the end zone.
BAILEY: What I want to know is, Did college and pro coaches have some sort of secret meeting or something? I'm looking at what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech, with all the shotgun, and now I see it trickling into the NFL more and more. Seems like there's not the prejudice against the shotgun there used to be. Basically, what I see when I line up now is no more smashmouth football.
BURKE: I see a confluence of things—and really healthy, topflight quarterbacks. I think all of the top passers have been healthy, and the receivers as well. And good weather, really favorable conditions.
SI: Being pro-ready is different today than it was even a few years ago. When Aaron Rodgers came in, he sat for three years. Now we've got four rookies starting—Newton, Dalton, Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville and Christian Ponder in Minnesota.
MALZAHN: The one thing I'm sure that surprises people about Cam is they saw how much he ran here at Auburn last year and figured he's just an athlete playing quarterback. Cam was phenomenal here about reading defenses and doing what the play called for. Sometimes he'd take off instead of hitting his hot receiver, and I'd ask him why and he'd say [the throw] wasn't there. I'd go back and look at the tape, and it was exactly the way he said. I trusted the way he went through his progressions.
DALTON: Obviously it depends on the situation. I came into a great one in Cincinnati. I feel like I had a lot of experience at TCU. I really haven't known anything else beside coming in and starting right away. I couldn't say what it was like 10 or 15 years ago, but now it seems like a lot of the rookies are being perceived as ready to go early on.
PAYTON: Twenty years ago it used to be, 'What draft pick is going to beat out what veteran player?' The roster was going to be 85 percent intact. Now you get 30, 35 percent turnover every year. Periodically you have what you saw with Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre, but we're much further along in the high school game, the college game and the pro game in taking a snap and throwing it to someone. Protections, hot receivers—I think back to when I was a quarterback in high school [at Naperville Central in Illinois]. We threw the ball a lot when no one else did. My coach said, "The biggest thing you've got to overcome first is your fear of throwing it," like we're really living out there in the left lane. A lot has changed philosophically.
SI: In the last three years Matthew Stafford, Kevin Kolb, Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy and Christian Ponder, all from high schools in Texas, have won starting jobs.