Brees, Marino and the Passing Onslaught of 2011

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 04, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Air Demon


As we’ve been pointing out this week, the passing numbers were off the charts in 2011. No records were safe, many fell, and many of them went to Drew Brees and the record-setting offense the New Orleans Saints put together this season.
 
Some quarterbacks made the previously lofty benchmarks of 5,000 yards and 40 touchdown passes look like older, mortal numbers such as 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Four of the top six seasons all time in passing yardage belong to 2011, as do three of the top seven seasons in passing touchdowns.
 
The average game in 2011 consisted of:
  • 44.36 points; the highest number since the 1965 season (46.1).
  • 34.0 pass attempts per game per team (2nd highest in NFL history behind 34.8 in 1995).
  • 20.4 completions per game per team (2nd highest in NFL history behind 20.5 in 2010).
  • All-time record-highs were set in gross passing yards per game (244.8) and net passing yards per game (229.7).
  • Only 2.82% of all passes were intercepted (2nd lowest; NFL record is 2.74% in 2008)
  • The league-wide yards per attempt (YPA) was 7.20, which is the highest since 1965.
 
While a lot of those numbers only put 2011 near the top, the season did break several league records in regards to passing.
 
League Passing Records Set in 2011
Record Previous Year 2011 Record
Most 300-yard passing games 104 2009 121
Most 400-yard passing games 13 1986, 2004 18
Most 5,000 yard passers 1 1984, 2008 3
Most 4,500 yard passers 3 2004, 2008, 2010 6
Most QBs w/40+ TD passes 1 5 times 3
Highest league-wide passer rating 84.1 2010 84.3
Most gross passing yards/game 236.3 2010 244.8
Most net passing yards/game 221.6 2010 229.7
League-wide TD:INT ratio 1.470 2010 1.472
 
Then consider some of the individual records that were set this season:
 
2011 PASSING RECORD ONSLAUGHT Old Record New 2011 Record
Record QB Year Value QB Value
Most passing yards, season Dan Marino 1984 5,084 Drew Brees 5,476
Highest passing yards/game, season Dan Fouts 1982 320.3 Drew Brees 342.3
Highest comp. %, season Drew Brees 2009 70.62% Drew Brees 71.23%
Most pass completions, season Peyton Manning 2010 450 Drew Brees 468
Most 300-yard passing games, season Rich Gannon 2002 10 Drew Brees 13
Drew Brees 2008
Most 350-yard passing games, season Tom Brady 2007 6 Drew Brees 8
Most cons. games w/300+ yards passing Steve Young 1998 6 Drew Brees 7
Kurt Warner 2000
Rich Gannon 2002
Most passing first downs, season Peyton Manning 2010 253 Drew Brees 278
Most games w/30+ completions, season Rich Gannon 2002 6 Drew Brees 9
Kurt Warner 2008
Peyton Manning 2010
Most games w/25+ completions, season Drew Brees 2007 13 Drew Brees 14
Peyton Manning 2010
Highest passer rating, season Peyton Manning 2004 121.1 Aaron Rodgers 122.5
Most cons. games w/100+ passer rating Peyton Manning 2004 9 Aaron Rodgers 12
Most touchdown passes, 4th quarter Peyton Manning 2002 14 Eli Manning 15
Johnny Unitas 1959
Most passing yards, rookie season Peyton Manning 1998 3,739 Cam Newton 4,051
Most passing yards, rookie debut Peyton Manning 1998 302 Cam Newton 422
Most passing yards in a game, rookie Matthew Stafford 2009 422 Cam Newton 432
 
That’s not even considering all the franchise records that were set, the individual receiving records (especially at tight end), or any records that were just tied.
 
Peyton Manning had to have the roughest year, as he first had to sit and watch the Colts struggle to a 2-14 finish, and then watched no fewer than nine records in his name get erased without a chance to partake in the passing fest of 2011.
 
The record that got the most attention was of course Drew Brees breaking Dan Marino’s 1984 record of 5,084 yards passing. As you can see from the list that was the oldest, unmatched record outside of Fouts’ per game record in 1982, which is less impressive given it was a 9-game (strike) season. The longevity of Marino’s record, mixed with it being one of the biggest counting stats in football, makes for a deserving amount of attention around it, and definitely deserving of some analysis.
 
Let’s frame two questions to answer.
 
1. Just how impressive is the yardage mark set by Brees in a season where Tom Brady also surpassed Marino’s record (by 151 yards)?
 
2. If most of the league-wide passing records set in 2011 were a notch above records set in 2010, then why does this season feel so much more pass-tronomical? (Pun no good?)
 

Marino vs. Brees: 1984 vs. 2011

George Orwell references aside, let’s start with Brees. When he first broke Marino’s record on Monday Night Football in Week 16, the ESPN crew was quick to flash a graphic about how each quarterback stood compared to the league average for 2011 and 1984.
 
Here is that graphic:
 
 
Based on the numbers at the time, Brees had an edge in being 98.0 yards above average compared to Marino’s 89.6 advantage. Those numbers have changed a little as the season concluded on Sunday.
 
A few things to keep in mind: there are 32 teams now and 28 in 1984. There’s also some difficulty in researching such numbers as they relate to net yards (sacks excluded) versus gross yards (no sacks). The ESPN graphic used gross yards, as have we.
 
Passing Yds 1984 2011
NFL Average 228.2 244.8
Marino/Brees 317.8 342.3
Difference 89.6 97.5
 
Brees still finishes 7.9 yards above average more than Marino did in his season, yet something still doesn’t feel right. Brees finished 241 yards ahead of Tom Brady. Marino was 470 yards ahead of runner-up Neil Lomax, who chipped in a career season. Lomax’s 4,614 yards would rank just 7th in 2011, so how is Brees still outperforming the average more than Marino?
 
We looked at the standard deviation above the average for the season. Noting the difference in teams in the league, a few comparisons were made. First, both 1984 and 2011 seen exactly 37 quarterbacks throw for at least 1,000 yards. Then we also compared the top 30, top 20, and top 10 quarterbacks in each year as ranked by most passing yards.
 
STDEV-AVG Marino Brees Avg. Yds-84 Avg. Yds-11
Top 10 2.15 1.62 3853.8 4643.8
Top 20 2.27 1.95 3219.0 4030.5
Top 30 2.43 1.94 2746.6 3449.7
Top 37 2.47 1.95 2449.9 3071.0
 
Based on the top 10 quarterbacks in passing yardage for 1984 and 2011, Marino’s 5,084 yards were 2.15 standard deviations above average, compared to Brees’ 5,476 yards being only 1.62 standard deviations above average. So the huge seasons at the top in 2011 do have a big factor, as Brees is around 1.95 when looking at the top 20/30/37.
 
You can also see the top 10 quarterbacks averaged nearly 4,650 yards in 2011, compared to just around 3,850 in 1984.
 
Those are numbers based on the individuals, but we know that some quarterbacks play because the starter is injured, or else they wouldn’t enter the sample. Here is the list of exactly who these 37 players are for each season and where they ranked in yards.
 
Top Passers: 2011 vs. 1984
Rk Quarterback Team G GS Att Yds Quarterback Tm G GS Att Yds
1 Drew Brees NO 16 16 657 5,476 Dan Marino MIA 16 16 564 5,084
2 Tom Brady NE 16 16 611 5,235 Neil Lomax CRD 16 16 560 4,614
3 Matthew Stafford DET 16 16 663 5,038 Phil Simms NYG 16 16 533 4,044
4 Eli Manning NYG 16 16 589 4,933 Dan Fouts SD 13 13 507 3,740
5 Aaron Rodgers GB 15 15 502 4,643 Dave Krieg SEA 16 16 480 3,671
6 Philip Rivers SD 16 16 582 4,624 Joe Montana SF 16 15 432 3,630
7 Tony Romo DAL 16 16 522 4,184 Steve DeBerg TB 16 13 509 3,554
8 Matt Ryan ATL 16 16 566 4,177 Paul McDonald CLE 16 16 493 3,472
9 B.Roethlisberger PIT 15 15 513 4,077 J.Theismann WAS 16 16 477 3,391
10 Cam Newton CAR 16 16 517 4,051 Warren Moon HOU 16 16 450 3,338
11 Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF 16 16 569 3,832 Tony Eason NE 16 13 431 3,228
12 Joe Flacco BAL 16 16 542 3,610 Lynn Dickey GB 15 15 401 3,195
13 Josh Freeman TB 15 15 551 3,592 G.Danielson DET 15 14 410 3,076
14 Matt Hasselbeck TEN 16 16 518 3,571 Ron Jaworski PHI 13 13 427 2,754
15 Mark Sanchez NYJ 16 16 543 3,474 John Elway DEN 15 14 380 2,598
16 Andy Dalton CIN 16 16 516 3,398 G.Hogeboom DAL 16 10 367 2,366
17 Michael Vick PHI 13 13 423 3,303 Richard Todd NO 15 14 312 2,178
18 Rex Grossman WAS 13 13 458 3,151 St.Bartkowski ATL 11 11 269 2,158
19 Alex Smith SF 16 16 446 3,150 Marc Wilson RAI 16 10 282 2,151
20 Tarvaris Jackson SEA 15 14 450 3,091 Mark Malone PIT 13 9 272 2,137
21 CarsonPalmer OAK 10 9 328 2,753 Ken Anderson CIN 11 9 275 2,107
22 Colt McCoy CLE 13 13 463 2,733 Bill Kenney KC 9 8 282 2,098
23 Matt Moore MIA 13 12 347 2,497 Jeff Kemp RAM 14 13 284 2,021
24 Matt Schaub HOU 10 10 292 2,479 Joe Ferguson BUF 12 11 344 1,991
25 Jay Cutler CHI 10 10 314 2,319 Pat Ryan NYJ 16 11 285 1,939
26 Blaine Gabbert JAX 15 14 413 2,214 T.Blackledge KC 11 8 294 1,707
27 Sam Bradford RAM 10 10 357 2,164 Tommy Kramer MIN 9 9 236 1,678
28 Kevin Kolb CRD 9 9 253 1,955 Danny White DAL 14 6 233 1,580
29 John Skelton CRD 8 7 275 1,913 Jim Plunkett RAI 8 6 198 1,473
30 Christian Ponder MIN 11 10 291 1,853 Mike Pagel IND 11 9 212 1,426
31 Kyle Orton 2TM 5 5 252 1,758 Ken O'Brien NYJ 10 5 203 1,402
32 Tim Tebow DEN 14 11 271 1,729 David Woodley PIT 7 7 156 1,273
33 Matt Cassel KC 9 9 269 1,713 Mike Moroski ATL 16 5 191 1,207
34 Curtis Painter IND 9 8 243 1,541 Ed Luther SD 15 3 151 1,163
35 Dan Orlovsky IND 8 5 193 1,201 Jim McMahon CHI 9 9 143 1,146
36 Jason Campbell OAK 6 6 165 1,170 Joe Pisarcik PHI 7 3 176 1,036
37 DonovanMcNabb MIN 6 6 156 1,026 Wade Wilson MIN 8 5 195 1,019
 
The 1984 quarterback averaged 13.2 games, 10.9 starts, 335.5 pass attempts, and 2,450 passing yards.
The 2011 quarterback averaged 12.9 games, 12.5 starts, 422.2 pass attempts, and 3,071 passing yards.
 
Teams throw the ball more today, but that difference of more than 1.5 starts in 2011 quarterbacks is also very significant in explaining why they have more attempts and yards.
 
The difference is especially felt when looking at the top 20 for each season.
 
Top 20 GP GS Att Yds 16 GS
1984 15.1 13.8 427.8 3219 7
2011 15.5 15.5 536.9 4030.5 14
 
There were twice as many (14) quarterbacks to start all 16 games this season as there were in 1984 when talking about the top 20 passers. That makes it harder on Brees to stand out statistically, though he did have some statistical advantages of his own to set the record.
 
Brees threw the ball 657 times, which ranked second in the league behind Stafford’s 663. Marino led the league in 1984 with 564 attempts (Lomax had 560).
 
STDEV-AVG Marino Brees Avg. Att-84 Avg. Att-11
Top 10 1.46 1.59 500.5 587.3
Top 20 1.56 1.90 432.8 538.9
Top 30 1.72 1.62 373.5 469.6
Top 37 1.79 1.62 335.5 422.2
 
Despite Marino leading the league in attempts, Brees still threw more passes above the league average when talking about the top 10-20 quarterbacks in the league.
 
Finally, taking the individual out of it and just looking at what all the teams did based on the full season of pass attempts, you get the 1984 Dolphins as being 2.43 standard deviations above the average in passing yards, compared to the 2011 Saints being 2.15 standard deviations above the average.
 
You can argue which crop of quarterbacks was more impressive, but at the end of the day, a lot of the old arguments are going to reign supreme. Marino’s 1984 season is more impressive because it was farther ahead of what the rest of the league was doing at the time, he was only in his second season, he shattered the touchdown record, he averaged more yards per attempt than Brees, and he didn’t lose to teams like the Rams* and Buccaneers.
 
*Sorry Drew, but being on the losing side of the upset of the year is too hard to overlook
 

How 2011 Surpassed 2010

If the new league records for passing just barely eclipsed the records in 2010, then why does this season feel so more pass-happy?
 
There are a few reasons for this. For starters, 2011 was top-heavy.
 
Even though it was a season where Peyton Manning didn’t play a snap, Philip Rivers had an off-year, Josh Freeman regressed badly, Michael Vick got paid, Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler didn’t finish with injuries, the Broncos played “hide the QB” with Tebow, Jacksonville dumped Garrard to go with Blaine Garbage (err, Gabbert), and St. Louis set offensive football back a few decades…we still had several stand-out performances at the top.
 
What’s often a big factor for those seasons? Schedule correlation. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford all played against the NFC South and NFC North this season, which was home to some of the league’s worst defenses (Carolina, Tampa Bay, Minnesota). Rodgers and Stafford also played the AFC West, which was home to more bottom-feeders on the defensive side. Matt Ryan was also in that NFC South.
 
Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Eli Manning played against the AFC East and NFC East, which featured several teams more than willing to give up big yards and many points this season.
 
Not many teams played defense in 2011, period. Those that did, mostly came from the AFC North and NFC West, who (no coincidence) played each other as well.
 
Compared to 2011, there were actually more quarterbacks in 2010 that completed 60% and 65% of their passes, had a passer rating over 80.0 and 90.0, and had at least 25 touchdown passes. There just weren’t as many with the gaudy numbers of 2011.
 
Also consider some of the quarterback headlines from 2010:
  • The Manning brothers and Drew Brees didn’t have their best season in regards to turnovers.
  • Ben Roethlisberger started the season serving a four-game suspension as the Steelers went to “hide the QB” offense.
  • Brett Favre finally fell apart for good.
  • Philip Rivers played the best “Hollow Man” since Kevin Bacon as the Chargers missed the playoffs despite putting up a lot of pretty stats.
  • Tony Romo went to IR early.
 
It was basically the “Michael Vick Contract Year Experience” and seeing how many pass attempts Tom Brady can luckily get away without throwing an interception on.
 
There was also some excitement over the new quarterbacks in 2011, such as rookies Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. Newton of course played much of the same schedule as Brees this season. Then when you consider Stafford finally staying healthy and showing his capabilities, you have some new blood that was prolific and building up the “year of the quarterback.”
 
It’s scary to think how much better the numbers would have been if some of those aforementioned injured quarterbacks were able to play the whole season.
 
It makes you wonder: will these numbers continue getting bigger and why so big this year?
 
Years will pass before we have a concrete answer for this, but based on this past season, there were some unusual circumstances.
 
The lockout without question had a big impact on defenses, as 10 of the 400-yard passing games this season occurred in the first five weeks of the season. Though the passing and scoring frenzy died down, in recent weeks it kicked right back into gear. The season started with the biggest passing shootout in NFL history (New England at Miami), and it ended with a record 1,000 yard shootout between Green Bay’s backup quarterback and Stafford.
 
How about the rule changes? The new kickoff rules certainly did change field position, giving teams longer fields to start with on average, meaning more yardage to conquer. We’re still going to need a few more seasons to analyze this one.
 
The teams that really dominated through the air feature a lot of spread formations with a field full of receivers that create matchup nightmares, especially with their athletic freak of a tight end (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley; the new breed). Linebackers can’t stay with them, and the defensive backs are simply too small to cover them. It’s getting to the point where drafting a nickel back in the first round is going to be a priority for most teams to keep up.
 
Many things in the NFL are cyclical, but right now there’s no denying the passing game is in vogue. Maybe offense in general is completely taking over. After all this passing fancy, we leave you with a stat about rushing.
 
The highest single-season rushing yards per carry average in NFL history is 4.29…set in 2011.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He has found in a study that being a defensive coordinator in today’s game is hazardous to your health. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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