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Bengals CB Dre Kirkpatrick explains why the NFL interception record may never be broken

Kirkpatrick helps break down why today’s defensive backs aren’t grinding out interceptions at the same rate as NFL players in the 20th century.

Cincinnati Bengals v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Records are made to be broken.

Except when they aren’t.

If you take a look at the NFL’s all-time interception leaders, you’ll see names like Paul Krause, Rod Woodson, Ken Riley, Emlen Tunnell, Richard ‘Night Train’ Lane, and Dick LeBeau in the top 10. You know what you won’t find? Active players. There’s not an active NFL player on the list until you scroll all the way down to the guy ranked in a tie for 67th. That’s Terence Newman, who has 42 interceptions in his 15th year and counting NFL career.

Newman started out in Dallas where he racked up 32 interceptions in nine seasons before moving onto the Bengals and Vikings, with whom he’s had five interceptions each. Newman is playing in 2018 on a one-year contract with the Vikings, and at 39 years old, he may not have time to sniff even the top 50 of the interception record list.

There are five guys tied for the 47th most interceptions in NFL history, coincidentally all having 47 interceptions in their NFL careers. After nabbing just one interception in each of the last two years, Newman would need to significantly improve upon his last two seasons to inch toward the top 50 of the record list.

After Newman, the next active player on the list is Reggie Nelson, tied for 116th in all-time interceptions for his 36 takeaways. Newman started his career in Jacksonville where he had seven interceptions in three seasons. He then moved onto the Bengals where he accumulated 23 interceptions in six years and, most recently, he joined the Raiders where he’s nabbed six interceptions in two years. Nelson is now 34 and is signed to a one-year contract with the Raiders this season. Like Newman, his chances of meaningfully climbing up the list are not great.

Why are current NFL players not racking up interceptions like they used to? Charles Woodson (65 career interceptions) and Ed Reed (64 career interceptions) both retired in the last five years, but they may remain the youngest players to rank among the top 10 for the foreseeable future. The nearly 40-year-old Newman would need 28 more interceptions to catch up to Reed.

It’s frequently said that the NFL is shifting to a more pass-happy game and it’s true. So why aren’t there active players climbing the career interceptions list?

We spoke with Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who was teammates with both Newman and Nelson, to find out.

“This game is definitely turned to a passing league, but quarterbacks don’t really take their big shots unless receivers are wide open,” Kirkpatrick said. “Everything is coming into the crossing route game where guys are going under and over and it frees up the passing route because the quarterback is actually throwing away from the defender. Everybody used to go after the big play, the big touch, the big catch. But you don’t see that as often.”

Take for example Tom Brady. Brady threw 581 passes in 2017, 385 of which were completions for a 63.9 percent completion rating. He threw 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season, a year in which he was arguably the best quarterback in the NFL.

Compare that to Peyton Manning in 2007, 10 seasons prior. His stats that season were quite similar: 515 passing attempts, 337 of which were completions for a 65.4 completion percentage. He threw 31 touchdowns and 14 interceptions that year.

You could also compare Brady 10 years prior in 2007, but that was the Patriots’ 16-0 season and his stats that year are an anomaly. That year, Brady had a 68.9 percent completion percentage, 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He threw three more passes in 2017 than in 2007 and had the same number of interceptions.

Both Manning and Brady’s teams had the same 13-3 record in those two season they were both top quarterbacks in those respective seasons, but the interceptions were lower for Brady in 2017. Was that due to safer quarterback play or better quarterback play?

How about the guys who aren’t top quarterbacks? In 2017, NFL quarterbacks with at least 1,000 yards on the year averaged a 62 percent completion percentage and 9.78 interceptions. In 2007, those numbers across the league were a 61.3 percent completion percentage and 11.1 interceptions. Overall, completion percentages were slightly lower but interception rates were significantly higher. Let’s go back even further to 1997 to see if the numbers become more clear.

Quarterbacks in 1997 were averaging a 56.43 percent completion percentage and 9.9 interceptions.

Now, let’s go back considerably further to 1967, which was the prime of Paul Krause’s — the NFL’s all-time interception leader — career.

The average quarterback completion percentage was 50.1 percent and the average quarterback threw 18 interceptions in a season. In 2017, you won’t find any starting quarterback with a completion percentage that low or with that many interceptions. The only quarterback to throw more than 18 interceptions in 2018 was none other than DeShone Kizer, then of the Browns and now of the Packers.

Guys who had a completion rating below 50 percent were all backups who recorded fewer than 160 passing attempts on the year, like AJ McCarron, Scott Tolzien, Drew Stanton, Bryce Petty, Nathan Peterman, and T.J. Yates. Though, two of those guys are on the Bills right now (McCarron and Peterman) and one is likely to start for Buffalo this season. Good luck, Bills fans!

One thing that’s clear is that completion records are going up with time, which points to quarterbacks playing safer. That goes to another point Kirkpatrick makes.

“Another thing is you always see long play drives because quarterbacks now are taught to dump it off,” Kirkpatrick said. “If you don’t see nobody, then don’t force it. Just dump it off.”

The NFL is changing. We see it in the way the game is played, in new rules on-the-field and in records being cemented.

“Nowadays, quarterbacks don’t want to throw interceptions,” Kirkpatrick added. “They’d rather throw it away or take a sack rather than take the risk of throwing an interception. Turnovers are huge in the NFL. Will it get back to what it was? I don’t know. But it’s a scare tactic when it comes to throwing interceptions for quarterbacks.”

How much of this is luck?

Were defensive backs luckier in the 20th century when the large majority of the guys among the top 50 on the all-time interception record list were playing? Krause retired in 1979 with 81 interceptions to his name and Tunnell retired in 1961 with 79 interceptions. The guy on the list tied for fifth is Charles Woodson with 65 interceptions, and he’s someone who is the exception to the rule, a modern interception machine.

“For the most part, today, interceptions are a matter of luck and a little bit of technique,” Kirkpatrick said. “As far as situations where you have to get your head around, you practice that all day, everyday. So there are things like that, but for the most part you have to be born with hands.”

Regardless, interceptions are a motivating force for today’s players.

“I still have my goals set. Six is my goal to have in a year,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’ve had three twice, so you know, they’re kind of hard to get. But I’m still striving for it.”