The 2011 season will go down as the Year of the Passing Game, as records were shattered like Bourbon Street revelers after a Saints Super Bowl victory. We highlight 41 eye-popping passing numbers from the season below.
The numbers were so gaudy that they were unthinkable just a decade ago, let alone in the dark ages of NFL offense, back in the era of the Steel Curtain and the Doomsday Defense.
To understand how dramatically the game has changed in recent decades, you must take a step back to the 1970s, a decade in which defenses utterly dominated the NFL. The Cold, Hard Football Facts call it the Dead Ball Era. The dominance of defense peaked in 1977, when all but the greatest offenses had difficulty finding the end zone.
The average team scored just 17.2 points per game in 1977. Tampa Bay's offense, in its second year as an expansion team, totaled just 103 points in the 14-game season -- about 10 quarters of work in the Superdome for the 2011 Saints. Tampa's average of 7.4 PPG is a post-war record for futility and may never be seriously challenged again, though the Rams made an ignoble effort in 2011 (12.1 PPG).
Atlanta's defense surrendered just 129 points in 1977, a post-war record of 9.2 PPG. The average score of a Falcons game that season was a 13-9. Somewhere Bronko Nagurski beamed with pride.
The carnage of the 1977 season made it evident to the pigskin powers-that-be that something had to be done before NFL offenses, and TV ratings, died on the vine. The NFL instituted sweeping changes before the 1978 season to open up the passing game and launch what we refer to as the Live Ball Era.
It didn't take long for teams and quarterbacks to adapt. By the mid-1980s, Bill Walsh and Joe Montana were winning championships with the coldly efficient passing attack now known as the West Coast offense. It took the aggressive, high-risk downfield attack that had long defined the NFL passing game and replaced it with a low-risk, highly efficient ball-control passing attack that's universally utilized in the NFL today.
Dan Marino, meanwhile, was the passing pioneer who showed us what the future of pro football might look like statistically in the wake of the NFL's rule changes. His performance in 1984 (5,084 passing yards, 48 TDs) was nothing less than Ruthian in its scope, making every passing season before it pale in comparison.
Fans and NFL overlords loved what they saw. The league has continued to handcuff defenses while making it easier than ever to pass the football. As a result, the Live Ball Era was never livelier than it was in the 2011 season.
Perhaps what we have today, though, is too much of a good thing. If anything, NFL teams are too efficient passing the football. The rate of interceptions is extraordinarily low, defensive scores and short fields are harder to come by, and scoring in today's game still does not match that in the peak scoring seasons of the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Teams pass more often and better than ever -- but they don't score more often and better than ever.
Just something to think about as you digest 41 Cold, Hard Football Facts from 2011, the Year of the Passing Game.
2 -- 500-yard passing games in the 2011 season: Tom Brady (517) in Week 1 at Miami; Matthew Stafford (520) in Week 17 at Green Bay. NFL quarterbacks topped 500 yards in a game just 10 times from 1920 to 2010.
2 -- Passers who topped 5,000 yards through the air in the NFL's first 91 seasons: Dan Marino (5,084) in 1984 and Drew Brees (5,069) in 2008.
3 -- Passers who topped 5,000 yards through the air in the 2011 season: Brees (5,476), Brady (5,235) and Stafford (5,038). Eli Manning (4,933) fell just 67 yards of the 5,000-yard milestone, giving the 2011 season four of the six most prolific passing performances in NFL history.
3 -- Quarterbacks who topped 40 touchdown passes in 2011: Brees (46), Aaron Rodgers (45) and Stafford (41). Brady fell just one TD shy of joining the list.
4 -- Number of teams that ran the ball more often than they passed it in 2011. Three of those four teams won their divisions: Houston, Denver and San Francisco (the lone exception was Jacksonville). In 1978, every NFL team ran the ball more than they passed it.
5 -- Quarterbacks who topped 40 touchdown passes in an NFL season from 1920 to 2010.
6 -- Touchdown passes thrown by Green Bay backup QB Matt Flynn in the season finale against the Lions, a franchise record -- no small feat for an organization that boasts three Hall of Fame QBs (Arnie Herber, Bart Starr, Brett Favre) and the reigning Super Bowl MVP (Rodgers). Flynn's 480 passing yards are also a franchise record.
6-6 -- Record of teams when their quarterback passes for 500 yards or more, including a 1-1 mark in 2011. Brady's Patriots beat the Dolphins in Week 1; Stafford's Lions lost to the Packers in Week 17.
7 -- League-leading interceptions by New England's Kyle Arrington, Green Bay's Charles Woodson and San Diego's Eric Weddle, tied for the fewest INTs to lead the NFL since the 10-game season of 1940.
17 -- Number of touchdown receptions by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, shattering the record for the position (13 by Vernon Davis and Antonio Gates). Only four wide receivers in history hauled in more TD passes in a season than tight end Gronkowski totaled in 2011.
22.2 -- Points per game scored by the average NFL team in 2011 (teams averaged 34 passes, 27 rushes).
23.1 -- Points per game scored by the average NFL team in 1965 (teams averaged 28 passes, 31 rushes).
23.2 -- Points per game scored by the average NFL team in the leather-helmet season of 1948, a record (teams averaged 26 passes, 38 rushes).
28 -- League-leading touchdowns thrown by Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1978, the first season of the Live Ball Era. Seven quarterbacks equaled or surpassed that mark in 2011.
33.1 -- Pittsburgh's Defensive Passer Rating in the Dead Ball Era season of 1973, the toughest pass defense in the post-World War II NFL. DPR is a Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stat that applies the formula used to rate quarterbacks to pass defense.
36 -- Record for TD passes, shared by Y.A. Tittle of the NFL's Giants (1963), and George Blanda of the AFL's Oilers (1961), when Dan Marino tossed 48 TDs in 1984. Four quarterbacks surpassed 36 TD passes in 2011 alone.
48.4 -- Tampa Bay's Defensive Passer Rating in 2002, the toughest pass defense of the Live Ball Era.
68.8 -- Baltimore's league-best Defensive Passer Rating in 2011. Only one team in history led the league with a Defensive Passer Rating that was worse: the 2007 Chargers (70.0).
71.2 -- Completion percentage by Brees in 2011, breaking his own record for accuracy set in 2009 (70.6 percent).
76.6 -- League-wide passer rating in 2003, the season before the NFL decided to "re-emphasize" the rules restricting contact by defenders against wide receivers.
84.1 -- League-wide passer rating in 2010, an NFL record.
84.3 -- League-wide passer rating in 2011, a new NFL record.
107.6 -- Minnesota's Defensive Passer Rating, worst in the NFL in 2011 and the second-worst pass defense in NFL history.
110.9 -- Worst Defensive Passer Rating in NFL history, set by the 0-16 Lions of 2008.
122 -- Catches by New England receiver Wes Welker in 2011, tops in the NFL, one shy of his career high set in 2009 and fourth-most in NFL history.
122.5 -- Passer rating in 2011 by Green Bay's Rodgers, a single-season record for passing efficiency.
468 -- Completions by Brees in 2011, breaking the record of 450 set by Peyton Manning in 2010.
506 -- Total interceptions in 17,411 pass attempts in 2011 -- an INT rate of 2.9 percent.
562 -- Total interceptions in 9,786 pass attempts in 1977, last year of the Dead Ball Era -- an INT rate of 5.7 percent.
1,310 -- Receiving yards by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, second-most in the history of the position.
1,327 -- Receiving yards by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, most in the history of the position.
1,536 -- Receiving yards by New York Giants wideout Victor Cruz, a franchise record.
1,569 -- Receiving yards by New England's Welker, a franchise record.
1,681 -- NFL-best receiving yards by Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson in 2011, No. 7 on the single-season list, and five shy of the franchise record set by Herman Moore in 1995.
4,402 -- Total passing yards on both sides of the ball in Green Bay's Super Bowl-winning season of 1967 (2,758 - 1,644).
4,751 -- Record for most pass yards allowed in a single season (1995 Falcons) entering the 2011 season.
4,988 -- Record number of pass yards surrendered by the 15-1 Packers in 2011.
6,880 -- Total passing yards on both sides of the ball in Green Bay's Super Bowl-winning season of 1996 (3,938 - 2,942).
7,136 -- Total passing yards on both sides of the ball in New England's Super Bowl-winning season of 2003
10,149 -- Total passing yards on both sides of the ball in Green Bay games in 2011 (5,161 - 4,988), easily the most in franchise history.
10,234 -- Record total passing yards on both sides of the ball in New England games in 2011 (5,257 - 4,977).
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