GRAY: It's really changed. Growing up in Texas, everybody wanted a premier running back on their team. Now we're talking about guys who have indoor facilities in their schools and they're throwing it and throwing it and throwing it. They're throwing the ball for 4,000 and 5,000 yards a year—in high school. So they get to our game, and they're so used it. When I was playing, it was run on first down, run on second down and throw on third down. It was easier to defend that. With the influx of kids who understand the passing game and aren't afraid to throw it, they hit the ground running.
SI: The NFL used to draft quarterbacks and mold them into pro-style NFL passers. Now it seems there isn't a lot of retraining. NFL coaches like what Andy's doing, what Cam Newton's doing.
GRAY: To me, teams have molded their game around the guys they draft, as opposed to, You come in and you learn my system—and if you don't know it, I'm going to put you on the shelf for a year or two until you learn the system. You take a Number 1 draft pick and set him on the shelf, there's a lot of dollars with that guy sitting on the bench, and you may not get a chance to coach that kid.
LEACH: I think it started in California, where they had these [seven-on-seven] passing leagues go pretty much year round. In Texas, I'd be on the road recruiting and talking to coaches and they'd say, 'Well, these guys were throwing so well over the summer that we added a couple of plays to let them do that.' These passing leagues catching on, that was critical.
MALZAHN: As a coach, week in and week out in [the SEC], you're seeing the same schemes you'll see on the next level. The comment about the seven-on-seven passing work that quarterbacks do in the off-season is right on target. I remember first seeing those back in about 1996, and by 2000 these young quarterbacks who wanted to be great realized they had to [take part]. When those quarterbacks got to college they were so much more ready—and the elite college defenses are so much more advanced too, which helps the development of the quarterback.
BAILEY: And those guys who played all that seven-on-seven football, they're all in the league now.
DALTON: Those passing leagues helped out with my transition from high school to college, and at TCU we ran a lot of the same concepts, a lot of the same stuff that we're doing here in Cincinnati. That whole transition has been good for me. That was the thing coming in—once we got into training camp I was taking most of the reps. When I was out there in that first game, it just felt like I was playing football.
BAILEY: We played the Bengals the second week of the season [a 24--22 Denver win], and when we're looking at the tape that week, I keep hearing, 'Oh, he's a rookie quarterback.' Like, he's going to make rookie mistakes. Not from what I saw. [Dalton was 27 of 41 for 332 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.] I kept telling everyone he wasn't playing like a rookie. The reads he was making, his confidence—I'm telling you, the young guys are coming into this league so much more ready to play our game.
PAYTON: You've got more people in high school and college who know what they're doing coaching the passing game. Andy at TCU was in the shotgun, seeing single safety, man and zone, he's seeing two-deep, zone pressure, quarters coverage. There was a time when that quarterback saw Sky and Cloud coverage and then came into the NFL and all of sudden was like, What's this Thief and Robber? People have gotten over their fear of feeling like we're living on the edge with the forward pass. That used to be unconventional thinking, and it wasn't very smart.
SI: The fact that yards after the catch was up through the early part of the season suggests that teams are trying to get the ball in space to their playmakers.