QBs ride big seasons to Hawaii

KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- The Patriots' Tom Brady really didn't have an explanation for the statistical boom. Drew Brees of San Diego and Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper believe some of the success was a product of the maturation process. Whatever the reasons, several quarterbacks around the league produced big numbers that led to records and milestones.

By now, it's no secret that Indianapolis' Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdown passes to break Dan Marino's single-season mark. Or that Brees went from trade bait to comeback player of the year. But in the process, some of the accomplishments of their Pro Bowl teammates or counterparts were overshadowed.

"I went out expecting to have a good year and I was blessed to do it," said Culpepper, who set a franchise mark by completing 69.2 percent of his passes en route to throwing for 4,717 yards. "You train real hard, you prepare and obviously [you get] help [from] the guys around you."

There was a time in the season when Manning wasn't the player being linked to Marino -- it was Culpepper. The Vikings' six-year veteran was on fire early on, throwing 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions over the first five contests. During that stretch, he had three games with five touchdown passes and threw for less than 340 yards just once.

Meanwhile, Donovan McNabb was well on his way to a career year himself. The Eagles signal caller was the first NFL quarterback to throw 30 touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions in a season.

"A lot of us developed into the offense and [offensive coordinator] Brad Childress put us in a great position to be successful," McNabb said. "With the confidence Brad had in all of us and obviously bringing a guy like T.O. [Terrell Owens] over, where we were able to put him in mismatches ... we were able to get a lot of things done."

And as Culpepper and McNabb alluded, some of the success was attributed to new or improved targets. Brees has always had the luxury of having LaDainian Tomlinson running behind him, but with the addition of wide receiver Keenan McCardell and development of tight end Antonio Gates, the veteran quarterback was able to hold off rookie Philip Rivers.

"You just learn certain things over time," said Brees, who had a passer rating of 104.8 while throwing 27 touchdown passes and just seven picks. "You learn how to prepare in a more efficient way. You learn the things for you that work and don't work."

And what a lot of quarterbacks figured out this season was how to exploit weakened or timid secondaries.

After much talk of how some defensive backs abused the rules in last year's conference title games, the league decided to emphasis illegal contact against receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage. Whereas defenders traditionally got away with jamming and bumping receivers throughout routes, officials were supposed to curb the disruptive contact.

However, the opinions vary on whether this gave offenses an advantage.

"I never had a problem with it, so it wasn't something I focused on," said Chad Johnson, who led the AFC with 1,274 receiving yards. "Those who couldn't get off the jam or had trouble with the jam under five yards, get your game right."

And plenty of wideouts were doing just that. Manning, during his record-setting campaign, had three receivers each surpass 1,000 yards receiving and catch at least 10 touchdown passes. Gates and Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez each established NFL marks for tight ends -- Gates with 13 TDs and Gonzalez with 102 catches. And Owens had 1,200 yards and set an Eagles franchise mark with 14 touchdown receptions in 14 games.

And to Johnson's point, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau thinks the prolific outputs are more about the players and not schemes or rules.

"You have some very skilled athletes. You can go down to the high school [level], and they're maybe throwing the ball 40 times. That didn't used to be [the case]," said LeBeau, whose defense was ranked No. 1 this season. "In college, almost every major league now is a throwing league. All these men are very skilled in throwing and catching the ball by the time they get to the professional leagues. And I think you're seeing a reflection of that."

And until more defenses adjust, you may very well see more offensive records fall and milestones achieved.

James C. Black is an NFL Editor for ESPN.com and may be reached at james.black@espn3.com.