NFL training camps are set to open in three weeks, but before we set our sights on the upcoming season, let’s take a look back at 2011. Although the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to capture Super Bowl XLVI, the 2011 NFL season may as well go down in the history books simply as the Year of the Quarterback.
Consider this, an NFL-record 11,356 points were scored last season, while games averaged an all-time high of 693.7 total net yards per game. Much of this offense was due to the increasing dependence on the pass as there were an average of 459.4 net passing yards per game.
To put it another way, more than 66 percent of the yards accumulated last season came via the pass. What’s more, the league-wide passer rating for quarterbacks was 84.3 last season, while the touchdown-interception ratio was 1.472:1, both of which are all-time highs.
The increase in offensive production is nothing new necessarily as the passing-related records that were set last season were previously broken in 2010. However, a closer look at last season’s quarterback production reveals that the men pulling the trigger put together some truly historic performances.
For starters, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees set the single-season record for passing yards with 5,476, breaking Dan Marino’s previous mark of 5,084 in 1984. He also set new single-season records for completions (468), completion percentage (71.2 percent), 300-yard passing games (13) and consecutive 300-yard passing games (seven).
Brees also became the first quarterback in NFL history to for throw for at least 350 yards in four consecutive games and finished the season with eight such contests. He has the opportunity to make even more history in the fall as he will enter this coming season having thrown at least one touchdown pass in 43 consecutive games. This is the second longest streak in NFL history, trailing only Johnny Unitas’ run of 47 games.
If not for Brees, Marino’s single-season passing mark would belong to New England’s Tom Brady. Brady passed for 5,235 yards last season, the second-highest single-season total in NFL history. Brady got off to a hot start last season, becoming the first quarterback in history to throw more than 900 yards in the first two games and more than 1,300 in the first three.
Brady also threw 39 touchdown passes in 2011, giving him 300 for his career. He became just the sixth quarterback in NFL history with 300 touchdown passes, joining Brett Favre (508), Marino (420), Peyton Manning (399), Fran Tarkenton (342) and John Elway (300).
Brees and Brady weren’t the only ones to break the 5,000-yard mark in 2011, however, as Detroit’s Matthew Stafford passed for 5,038. Entering 2011, only two quarterbacks in NFL history had ever thrown for at least 5,000 yards in a season — Marino (1984) and Brees (5,069 in 2008). In fact, six of the top 20 single-season passing totals in NFL history are from last season, and a total of 11 of them have happened in the past five seasons overall.
Stafford also connected on 41 touchdown passes in 2011, as he, Brees (46) and Aaron Rodgers (45) all threw for 40 or more scores. Until last season, no other season in NFL history had more than one quarterback with 40 or more touchdown passes.
What’s even more impressive about Rodgers’ performance is that the Green Bay quarterback threw those 45 touchdown passes in just 15 games. Rodgers sat out the Packers’ regular-season finale, which not only cost him a shot at 50 touchdown passes, the current single-season record set by Brady in 2007, but also the opportunity to join the 5,000-yard club.
Rodgers entered the final week of the regular season with 4,643 yards or 300.9 yards per game. Even though he still needed 357 yards for 5,000 on the season and five more touchdown passes for 50 remember this – his replacement, Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn torched the Lions for 480 yards and six scores in Week 17.
Although he didn’t get 5,000 yards or 50 touchdown passes, Rodgers did earn a spot in the NFL record books in two other places. He established a new single-season mark for passer rating (122.5), topping the previous record of 121.1 set by Manning in 2004, and he also took home league MVP honors after leading the Packers to a near-perfect 15-1 record in the regular season.
Collectively, there were 121 individual 300-yard passing games in 2011, the most of any season in NFL history. The previous mark was 104 such games in 2009. There also were 18 individual 400-yard passing performances, which broke the previous record of 13, set in both 1986 and 2004.
One of the quarterbacks who helped contribute to both of these record-setting totals was Cam Newton. The Carolina signal caller made history of his own when he passed for 422 yards in his NFL debut in Week 1 against Arizona. He followed that up with a 432-yard game against Green Bay in Week 2. Before 2011, no rookie quarterback had ever passed for more than 350 yards in his first NFL game, let alone more than 400 in his first two.
The NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year finished his inaugural season with a record 4,051 yards passing and 14 rushing touchdowns. The 14 rushing touchdowns were not only the second-most in the NFL in 2011, it was the most ever by a quarterback. And Newton wasn’t the only quarterback who showcased his dual-threat ability in 2011 either.
Former Denver quarterback Tim Tebow finished last season with 660 yards rushing, second only to Newton’s 706 among quarterbacks. However, Tebow did all of his ground work in just 14 games, 11 of those as the Broncos’ starter, compared to Newton’s 16.
Tebow also was second to Newton in rushing touchdowns with six. But Tebow accomplished something with one of those rushing scores that neither Newton nor any other quarterback in NFL history had done before.
In Week 11 against the Jets, Tebow had a 20-yard touchdown run with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter to propel the Broncos to a 17-13 win. It was the first game-winning touchdown run of at least 20 yards by a quarterback in NFL history and it came against the Jets, who Tebow was later traded to in the offseason.
Fittingly enough, Tebow also made his own contribution to the Year of the Quarterback with his arm even though his regular-season passing numbers (1,730 yards, 12 touchdowns) were pedestrian at best. However, in the wild card round of the AFC playoffs against Pittsburgh, Tebow became the first quarterback to average 30 yards per completion (minimum five) in a postseason game.
Against the Steelers, Tebow completed 10 of 21 pass attempts for 316 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His second touchdown pass, an 80-yarder to Demaryius Thomas on the first play from scrimmage in overtime, not only gave the Broncos an improbable 29-23 victory over the Steelers, it also represented both the longest touchdown pass and the quickest (11 seconds) score in overtime history.
So between the exploits of gunslingers like Brees and Brady and the dual-threat playmaking ability of the likes of Newton and Tebow, 2011 was clearly the Year of the Quarterback. This coming season will no doubt feature its fair share of impressive aerial performances, especially with promising rookies Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III scheduled to make their debuts, but the bar has already been set pretty high for the 2012 season to top what happened in 2011.
No doubt NFL fans can’t wait to see what happens when the 2012 NFL season kicks off this fall. September 5 can’t came soon enough.
Note: Research assistance provided by Elias Sports Bureau and Athlon Sports contributing writer Bruce Herman
— By Mark Ross, published on July 3, 2012
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