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How the 2011 Season Ushered in the NFL’s Offensive Explosion

The story of the NFL’s passing boom can be explained by an uncommonly gifted generation of passers being given an uncommonly advantageous set of circumstances. And it all began 10 years ago.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2011 season precipitated so many of the changes that have become familiar in the NFL today. This week, The Ringer goes back in time to trace the lineage of the league’s offensive boom.

If, and only if, you have a lot of time to hear the answer, here’s a good question to ask NFL lifers: What happened in 2011? Because the answer is, well, everything. It was the start of an unprecedented scoring boom that has rarely let up since. It is the year zero of modern football, when many current football schemes, practice limitations, rule changes, and technology began. It was the year when Drew Brees rewrote record books and Tim Tebow won a playoff game. A four-month work stoppage interrupted the offseason, so teams weren’t themselves early in the season. It was all deeply weird and it was a beautiful mess that somehow changed everything.

This week, The Ringer is revisiting the 2011 season, so I spent part of my training camp tour asking NFL people one question: What the hell happened?

The numbers that season were astounding: Three quarterbacks passed for 5,000 yards, more than the combined number who did that in the first 91 years of pro football, and Eli Manning was 67 yards from being the fourth. The 2011 season accounted for three of the eight all-time 40-touchdown seasons from a quarterback at the time. The Green Bay Packers went 15-1 despite giving up the most passing yards of all time. The sport changed in front of tens of millions of eyes, and looked far closer to the way it would be played in 2021 than it was in 2010.

There is no simple answer to my question because so many different things happened, no defining moment because the season meant different things to different people. So many of the names that ushered in the changes were familiar; Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Tony Romo threw the most touchdown passes that season. But new quarterbacks like rookies Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick entered the league that year and began to move the game to a different place schematically.

So, let’s start simply: Why did scoring start to go up in 2011 and basically never stop?

“I think illegal contact?” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski began when I asked him at a recent practice. He meant the rule crackdowns the league instituted limiting what a defensive player can do to a receiver past 5 yards downfield. There were a combined 362 penalties for defensive pass interference, defensive holding, and illegal contact penalties in 2010. There were 399 in 2011 and 455 in 2012. Last season there were 543. This decade-long rise outflanks the increase in attempted passes. “It’s really hard on DBs. The hardest thing in sports is to cover a receiver,” Stefanski said. “He knows where he’s going; you don’t. You’re on an island. These guys are incredible athletes on both sides. When you take away the ability to jockey and jostle for position, that’s gotta have some part of it. Then, the uptick in passing would be the next thing.”

This explains part of the passing boom: It was easier for Brees, Brady, and Rodgers to work their magic when defensive backs were at a disadvantage. There were also increased penalties for hits on receivers in the middle of the field, opening new passing territory for quarterbacks in the ensuing decade. Easier completions were almost gimmes. Completion percentage skyrocketed. This was an uncommonly gifted generation of passers given an uncommonly advantageous set of circumstances. But this, Stefanski said, doesn’t cover all of it.

In 2013, I sat with Andy Reid in an office at Chiefs training camp and he basically sketched out the next five years of the NFL. He said that the league is always five years behind the college game and that in five years, ubiquitous college concepts would become commonplace at the pro level. Five years later, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told me he watched the Super Bowl and saw a Big 12 game. Everything was right on time. This month, I was joking with an NFL coach about how often Reid saw the future and the coach wondered whether Reid got Biff Tannen’s almanac from Back to the Future. But the movement prophesied by Reid actually started in 2011. It was the first year that a handful of franchises became comfortable building around offenses that originated in college. This was a stunning development in a league that for too long had decided the only good ideas originated from within.

There were certainly teams influenced by the college game before 2011. Plenty of teams have trotted out the option at the goal line throughout NFL history. The 2007 Patriots were helped along by meeting with the Florida Gators’ offensive staff two years prior. The 2008 Dolphins borrowed liberally from college when running their wildcat package. In 2014, Mike Shula, then the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, explained that most of his knowledge of no-huddle offenses first came from Newton, who was familiar with those concepts from his time at Auburn. The Niners drafted Kaepernick in the second round and would eventually use the read option to unlock his many talents, a rarity among NFL offenses at the time. The read option started in the NFL in 2011 and never really went away—it just kept changing. There is an important quote that John Fox, then the coach of the Broncos, told in November of Tebowmania 2011. “If we were trying to run a regular offense, he’d be screwed,” Fox explained of Tebow’s chances at succeeding in the NFL. Just a few years later there was no such thing as a “regular offense.”

Quarterbacks changed in two important ways in 2011. The first was how they were paid: In 2010, Sam Bradford, the first pick, was given a deal worth $78 million by the Rams. After the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, Newton, the first pick, received $22 million over four years. The new rookie contract structure changed team-building, since the extra money could be spent on veterans. The other result of the 2011 CBA (and the other way that QBs changed) was significantly decreased practice time, which, anecdotally, led to worse defensive performances earlier in the year. The new CBA and adoption of college offenses led to a generation of young quarterbacks who had less time to prepare but were more pro-ready than ever. They’d grown up with seven-on-seven football leagues and had thrown more as kids than any other generation in football history. It was the “10,000-hour rule” implemented at the NFL level. And its beneficiaries had arrived.

Passing norms have changed in recent years. “We talk about balance,” Stefanski explained. “We just don’t talk about it in terms of 50-50. We talk about it in terms of the defense has to defend the run and the pass.” We also talked about how the beginning of the decade led to a real sea change in how teams developed quarterbacks, especially in 2012, when Washington implemented huge chunks of the Baylor playbook for Robert Griffin III. “That’s a really great example because I always cite that as an amazing job by Coach Shanahan—Mike and Kyle—to fit your offense to your players.” If, Stefanski said, Washington had attempted to pull off such a feat in prior eras “they’d have to have gone and clinic’d with Baylor for two weeks. Instead you have all the video at your disposal, you can watch every play that he’s run and that system has run,” Stefanski said. “You’re probably still going to [visit] them, but the information and the data and the video being at your fingertips is unbelievable. It’s almost daily. A thought will come to me and I will pull up a touchdown from 2013 in seconds. Should that contribute more to the scoring than, say stopping the scores? That I’m not smart enough to figure out, I just know that information being so readily available, and lots of it, is unique.”

In late 2011, NFL teams started shifting en masse to iPad playbooks. This played a massive role in speeding up the evolution of the sport. It allowed teams to send video of concepts to players who were far away from the team facility. Teams could pivot quickly toward something new and players could study it from anywhere in the world.

In 2011, Mike Vrabel was a linebackers coach at Ohio State when Buckeyes freshman quarterback Braxton Miller showed him a sign of how offenses would change, and defenses along with them. Vrabel pointed to two changes: “The ability to have to account for the quarterback running the football, and then the rules.”

“We would blitz Braxton Miller and they’d have five and we had six [pass rushers]. The best play they had on offense was for him to look at the free rusher, pump the ball, and take off and run around them. It was hard to defend. It wasn’t even a play. It was just a joke that Braxton’s got the sixth guy.”

A decade later, Vrabel, now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans, is still seeing this phenomenon. “It’s much like Lamar Jackson when teams blitz him—his patience, his trust in his athletic ability. And I know we’re playing Kyler Murray and so many players like that this year—just the confidence and watching those elite players and athletes not panic when there’s a guy there and they just know that they can shake him and probably make something happen.” He explains that pass rushers used to be able to go “all out and not have any regard for where the quarterback may scramble. Now so many of these guys are able to get into the defense and break it down by scrambling. It adds an extra element in what you’re doing and how sound you are.”

There is an incredible document from the 2011 season, a November roundtable assembled by Peter King that details why some of the sport’s best minds thought this offensive boom was happening. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey wondered why a Mike Leach–style shotgun attack popped up seemingly overnight. Saints coach Sean Payton said that the lower levels of football had developed so quickly that, combined with the roster turnover brought on by the draft and free agency, teams were comfortable letting their younger players cook.

Ten years on, most of the people still in the NFL still see this season as a combination of things that led to an explosion of offense. There is no one theory because it was not just one thing happening. But one explanation includes younger coaches who were more comfortable stealing from other levels of football. “That is a fun, fun trip down memory lane,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said when I asked him about 2011. “That was the beginning.”

The beginning, he explained, of an era when every level of football embraced the evolutions happening in the sport, using a mixture of the shotgun offense, the zone read and, in a few years, run-pass options. “It was the front end of this generation of quarterbacks who were the best players on the team, and teams said, ‘He’s by far the best athlete; how do we get him to touch the ball on each play?’”

Callahan was an offensive assistant with the Broncos in 2011 when Tebow became the team’s starter. “We pulled back into some old option stuff. The quarterback run game and all these things that were starting to make headway in college football but hadn’t quite made it to our level because people assumed that you couldn’t do it and these quarterbacks aren’t that athletic.” Conventional wisdom when it came to the athletic quarterback was quickly proved wrong. Callahan said that the ideas at that time were so new he had to lean on his high school coaching days when he ran the triple-option used by Navy.

So how did defenses have to change?

“Defenses had to be more athletic, especially at the linebacker and safety position,” Vikings co–defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said, adding that if a prospect can’t cover sideline to sideline quickly, he stops watching their tape because he won’t be interested.

“The biggest thing is instead of going downhill with runs, they are getting lateral using all these rocket sweeps and stuff and trying to mess with the defense’s eyes,” Zimmer explained. “They are really running the same plays. They are just running a guy across the formation just to try to fool them. Every team does it now; you have to have answers to it. We’ve had to catch up with it as well, because we say, ‘You’ve got to change with the game,’ because for so long we’re trying to run the same stuff. We’ve gotta evolve just like the offense evolved.”

Zimmer said he was watching TV recently and came across Super Bowl XXX between the Cowboys and Steelers, which his father, Mike, won as a Dallas assistant coach. He laughed watching the I-formation, two-running-back, two-receiver set running play-action on third down. “You wouldn’t see any of that now.” That was a regular offense. A team would be screwed running it now.