The 2011 regular season is no more, but it will live on in the history books as we saw a season where records were broken all across the league. Dan Marino and Kellen Winslow’s single-season yardage marks were both shattered this season as a pair of records fell that had stood for a combined 58 years. All four of the players to top those marks feature in our Offensive Player of the Year list, but none of them finished at the top, giving you some idea of the quality of play we saw this season.
With an offseason truncated through protracted CBA negotiations and a lengthy lockout, many speculated that defenses would be ahead all season, but if anything the reverse was true, with offensive players starting off fast and never looking back. Here we’re going to run through 10 of the best seasons from the offensive side of the ball.
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers didn’t break Dan Marino’s single-season yardage mark, and he didn’t break the single-season touchdown record either, but he was the best offensive player in football this year and broke more than his fair share of records. He shattered the single-season QB rating record, finishing the season with a ridiculous mark of 122.7–opening the season with 12 games over 110.0, the only time that has ever happened in league history. He also tied an NFL record with 13 consecutive games with two or more touchdown passes and finished the season with 45 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. Rodgers was the inspired leader of the Packers as they ran out to a 13-0 start (the best start the storied franchise has ever had), and at that point, he was the only player in the discussion for this award. The hiccup of a lone defeat to Kansas City and the fact that Rodgers was rested along with several other starters in the final week doesn’t diminish the greatness of his 2011.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
In any other season Drew Brees would be the unquestioned MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, and probably worshipped as some minor form of deity, but in this season he falls just short of the standard set by Aaron Rodgers. It is a testament to the season Brees put together that he makes the top spot a discussion at all, let alone a neck-and-neck debate amongst the PFF staff. Brees not only broke, but shattered Marino’s single-season yardage record, but also broke his own record for completion percentage in a single season, topped Peyton Manning’s mark for completions, inched closer to the unbreakable consecutive touchdown streak of Johnny Unitas, and set at least a dozen other marks. While Rodgers came out of the blocks like a sprinter, Brees was a little slower to hit the dizzy heights, and his team stumbled to a couple of losses early. Brees has finished the season on a blistering pace and may be the hottest player in football heading into the playoffs.
3. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
There might not be a player more crucial to his team’s success than Calvin Johnson. The Lions have made the playoffs off the back of his 17 touchdown catches and ability to physically dominate any kind of coverage he encounters. It took them several years, but the Lions finally realized what Georgia Tech knew when they had Calvin Johnson, that if you fire him enough passes he will make special things happen and all will work out. Johnson has seen 151 targets this season, bettered by just two other receivers, and has hauled in a league-leading 1,685 yards and 17 touchdowns. What’s more, he has allowed just four of the passes thrown towards him to be intercepted, providing not just an appealing target for Matthew Stafford, but a safe one. Johnson has the speed, size and physical tools to dominate any coverage, and this is the first time he has unleashed his full potential in a season, to truly devastating effect.
4. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
No other player better illustrates the level of play this season than Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots’ tight end broke the single-season marks for receiving yards and touchdowns for a tight end in the same year, and yet can’t make this list higher than fourth. Gronkowski is arguably the top weapon in the New England offense–an offense that makes do without any kind of viable deep threat because they have weapons as dominant as Gronkowski terrorizing teams across the middle and on intermediate routes. Gronkowski averaged 14.7 yards per carry, but also forced more missed tackles than any other tight end outside of his teammate Aaron Hernandez (Gronkowski notched 13, Hernandez 23). Gronkowski’s 90 receptions were more than any tight end other than Jimmy Graham (who was rarely asked to block in line as Gronkowski was) and he caught 74.4% of all targets sent his way. Purely as a receiving tight end, Gronkowski had a record-breaking season for the ages, but he was PFF’s top-graded run-blocking tight end as well.
5. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald may have achieved more, while working with less, than anybody else on this list. To record 1,411 yards and eight touchdowns on his 80 receptions with the quarterback duo of Kevin Kolb and John Skelton throwing at him is truly remarkable. Fitzgerald amassed more yardage and touchdowns than the rest of the Arizona wide receivers put together and did it on 34 fewer receptions than they combined for. The fact that Arizona finished the season at .500 owes a huge debt to Fitzgerald’s consistent quality, and his season is being largely overlooked because Arizona’s 1-6 start rendered them done from an early stage. Fitzgerald has every trait you look for in the perfect receiver, and remains an All-Pro caliber player year-in, year-out.
6. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Tom Brady finished the season with 5,239 yards. That blew away the single-season yardage mark that had stood since 1984, but his season will always remain overshadowed and forgotten by history because Drew Brees got there first, and set the new record even higher. In any other season, Brady’s year would be receiving a lot more press, and would be a legitimate contender for the top of this list. His +35.6 PFF grade may be only the third-best mark this season, but is the sixth best season grade we’ve ever given for a quarterback in four full seasons of grading. It would have been the best in the NFL in 2010, and right on the heels of the leaders in ’09 and ’08. Brady led his team to a 13-3 record with an offense unlike any other in the NFL, and an ability to spread the ball around underneath and keep the chains and the scoreboard moving.
7. Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
The first offensive lineman on the list checks in at No. 7. That’s ahead of the league’s leading rusher and a player that broke the single-season receiving yardage mark for a tight end (only to have that record broken again at the death by Rob Gronkowski). Jason Peters has been comfortably the best tackle in football in 2011. In something of a down year for offensive tackle play, Peters’ +27.6 grade is almost double the next-best player. Despite blocking for Michael Vick–who has a tendency to run away from his protection at the best of times–Peters has surrendered just 20 total pressures (sacks, knockdowns, and hurries) on the season and has allowed Vick to hit the deck just four times.
8. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Jimmy Graham is one of the most dynamic mismatches in the NFL. A former basketball player who came to football late at the University of Miami, Graham has been transformed into a tight end that teams aren’t equipped to cover. He is too big and strong for defensive backs to deal with (standing six inches taller than most corners and safeties), but is too fast and slick a route runner for linebackers to stay with. That translates to a season of 99 receptions, 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns for Graham as one of the most vital components of an offense as destructive as the Saints’.
9. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
If any player can make Larry Fitzgerald happy with his supporting cast, it’s Maurice Jones-Drew, who was left to carry the load for the Jacksonville Jaguars near single-handedly for most of the season. MJD led the league by 242 yards despite zero threat of a passing game as the Jaguars struggled with a rookie quarterback in over his head and replacements that were no better. Despite being the sole focus of the offense, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry, notched 952 of his yards after contact, forced 58 missed tackles and chipped in with another 48 receptions out of the backfield. The Jaguars may not have had much on offense, but everything they did have was because of Jones-Drew.
10. Evan Mathis, OG, Philadelphia Eagles
If you’ve been with us here at PFF for a while, you are probably well aware of Evan Mathis. If you’re not, you may still not have any idea who he is. Mathis was the best guard in football this past season. Lining up at guard next to Jason Peters, he helped form the best left side of an offensive line in the NFL for the Eagles–and he did it all being thrust into the lineup late in camp as the Eagles shuffled positions. Mathis played 1,024 snaps this season and did not allow a single sack. He allowed just 15 total pressures on the season (less than one per game for the mathematically inclined) and his +20.4 run blocking grade was almost three times better than the next best mark of +6.9 posted by All-Pro Carl Nicks.