The 2011 NFL season presented a unique brand of football. It required record keepers to practically throw away the pages related to passing yards.
Dan Marino, spending his retirement days watching bad Dolphins football and seeing most of his records disappear, held the single-season passing yardage record (5,084 yards) since 1984. Drew Brees shattered that last season with 5,476 yards. Brees broke no fewer than 10 passing records in 2011.
Cam Newton (4,051 yards) broke Peyton Manning’s rookie record for yards, and became the first quarterback to ever start his career with back-to-back 400-yard passing games. In total, three quarterbacks passed for over 5,000 yards, and the same number threw at least 40 touchdown passes.
Some think 2012 will be even more offensive. But before the 6,000-yard passers start piling up, you may want to consider what made 2011 so unique, and why this season should offer more resistance from defenses.
Lockouts and kickoffs
Not since the season before the Super Bowl began (1965) had we seen a higher-scoring season — the average 2011 game consisted of 44.36 points — or a league-wide yards per attempt (7.20 YPA) this high in the passing game.
Spikes in offense can often be traced back to NFL rule changes. That was certainly true for 2011. Before we could even see the impact of the new kickoff rule — moving the kickoff five yards to the 35 — there was a long wait for the players to report because of the lockout.
There was no player lockout this year, but the referee lockout could have a significant impact. Should the replacement refs last long (they seem gun-shy to throw flags), it could mean more rough play, which benefits the defense and hurts the safety of the quarterbacks.
Referee dilemma to be decided, one thing is for sure: there will be a lot of touchbacks again. With the new kickoff rule, the league went from a touchback rate of 16.4 percent in 2010 up to 43.5 percent in 2011.
According to ESPN, the average line of scrimmage after a 2011 kickoff was the 22.1. That is a drop of five-to-six yards from the four previous seasons. There were more yards to gain for the offenses in 2011.
Offense has been trending upwards the last few seasons, but the kickoff rule alone can explain why offenses averaged a record 346.8 yards per game in 2011.
Last year’s most prolific quarterbacks were Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning. What do they have in common? They played a lot of the same (bad) defenses.
Rodgers and Stafford both played in the NFC North, meaning they only played two games against different opponents. The NFC North played the NFC South, which means Brees also played a lot of similar opponents. Manning and Brady played 10 of their games against the AFC East and NFC East.
This is similar to 2004 when Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper each played 10 of their games against the downtrodden AFC South and NFC North defenses, or in 2007 when Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo (top three in touchdown passes) played two of the same divisions.
Most of the league’s best defenses in 2011 were in the AFC North and NFC West. How will Rodgers and Stafford fare now that they face the NFC West defenses this season? That's one new challenge.
New Orleans will try to get the job done without offensive wizard Sean Payton coaching the team all season. New England’s offensive line looks shaky, and incorporating Brandon Lloyd downfield means Brady will need better protection. Stafford does not have a track record of consistent success and durability. The New York Giants will be playing, as it stands now, the league's toughest schedule in what should be an improved and ultra-competitive NFC East. Green Bay looks poised for another huge year offensively as long as they don’t delegate offense from Rodgers to an overrated running back like Cedric Benson.
Before making those predictions of 6,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, let’s just see if 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns are even repeatable for last year’s lockout-driven, bad-defense-pummeling, top-ranked offenses.
The 2012 additions
Finally, some new faces should change the NFL landscape.
There will be 10 rookie or sophomore quarterbacks starting in Week 1. With a number that high, there is a good chance at least five will be a nightmare and be replaced by season’s end. That can drive down the league’s offensive production.
The three teams that ranked in the bottom of the league at points allowed per drive (Indianapolis, St. Louis, Tampa Bay) all have a new, defensive-minded head coach.
Yes, the return of Peyton Manning and replacement of Tim Tebow in Denver should by itself increase the league’s offensive production, but have you seen the New York Jets play offense yet this year?
There are enough differences from last year to make an educated prediction that we will not see the offenses continue to dominate the defenses the way they did in 2011.
It will be close, but you can save the 6,000-yard predictions for the 18-game regular season, which should be arriving in … hopefully never.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
CSN: The Super Bowl's golden anniversary will be held in the Golden State. The new stadium, which opens in 2014, in Santa Clara will host Super Bowl L two years later, the NFL announced Tuesday.
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