Any fan of the NFL knows by now that Drew Brees threw for 5476 yards in the 2011 NFL season. That totally shattered Dan Marino’s record of 5084 yards passing, an NFL single season record that stood for 27 years. In a year where it seemed like defenses were behind, Tom Brady also broke Marino’s record with 5235 yards passing and Matthew Stafford came very close with 5038. We’ve all heard it said that the NFL has become a passing league which it obviously has. There are many rule changes over the years that have helped the passing game flourish, which in turn has made the game more exciting. But the new kickoff rule of 2011, put in place for safety reasons, has made the single biggest impact in yards thrown we’ve ever seen. Kicking off from the 35 yard line is the major reason that 5000 yard passing seasons will become the norm in the NFL.
First let’s do a review of NFL rule changes that have had a major influence on single season passing yardage. The biggest year of change happened between the 1977 and 1978 seasons. In that year the league made a rule change that stated a receiver could no longer be contacted by a defensive back after 5 yards and that offensive linemen were allowed to block the way they do today. Before, offensive linemen had to block with closed fists and forearms. In addition to rule changes, the NFL season became 2 games longer from 14 to 16 games. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Dan Fouts broke the single season record for passing yardage in 1979 (4082 yards), 1980 (4715 yards), and 1981 (4802 yards). Dan Marino then added another 282 yards in 1984 which stood until last year when Brees surpassed Marino by a whopping 392 yards!
Before we get into why Brees destroyed Marino’s record, let’s look at a few more changes that have affected the passing game over the years. There was a more recent focus by referees to police the 5 yard rule after the 2003 Patriots/Colts playoff game. Then, there was the rule to make sure Tom Brady doesn’t get hurt. I’m joking a little, but most NFL fans remember a day when the QB was open game. And then there is the fact that most young players are now brought up in high school and college systems that tutor players in today’s NFL type spread offenses. Combinations of these influences on the passing game are the major reasons why single season passing records have fallen lately. A good example being the single season touchdown record set by Peyton Manning in 2004 at 49 and again by Tom Brady in 2007 at 50.
So why did the yardage record get obliterated this year whereas other records in the passing game did not? I believe it is due in fact to one single rule change, the kickoff rule. By moving the kickoff forward 5 yards from the 30 to 35, more drives started on the 20 yard line instead of further up the field due to touchbacks. According to an article written by Paul Carr on ESPN, the rule change moved the average starting line of scrimmage (LOS) back 4.7 yards in 2011 (LOS 22.1) from 2010 (LOS 26.8). With the average team receiving around 80 kickoffs a season, that translates into an additional 376 yards of field to cover assuming the teams still score as many points. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and therefore, you can’t simply take the percentage of passing out of 376 additional yards and then state this is why Brees, Brady, and Stafford all passed for 5000 plus yards.
To prove my point, we need to look a little deeper. More specifically, let’s take a closer look at the New Orleans Saints in 2011. The stats I’m going to focus on are a couple of nifty drive stats provided by Football Outsiders. One basically states a team’s average yardage per drive and the second stat tells where on average that team started its drives from. The second stat is also different from the average LOS after a kickoff because it includes where all drives start from. IE punts, kickoffs, turnovers, and turnover on downs.
In 2011 the Saints had an average drive of 42.44 yards. They had 174 drives that started on the 28.24 yard line. The first number is significant because it is by far the highest average over the last 10 or 12 years. To give you an idea of the difference, the Houston Texans were the best in 2010 with an average drive of 36.16. The second number is significant because the kickoff rule affected where the average drive started from for every team in the NFL. According to Keith Goldner of Advanced NFL Stats, the average starting LOS went from around the 31 yard line back to the 28.4 yard line. 2.6 yards doesn’t seem like a lot but when you factor in 189 drives on average, the total difference in yardage for a 16 game season is 491 yards. Therefore, once you add that 2.6 yards back into the Saints average LOS, their average drive becomes 39.84. With 174 drives in 2011, the Saints would have had 452 fewer yards gained. Drew Brees accounted for right around 75 percent of the offensive total and thus would have had 336 fewer yards, or a total of 5140.
As you can see, even with the above adjustment, Drew Brees still breaks Dan Marino’s record and it goes to show how special his year really was. But the point now turns to the other two in the 5000 yard club. Applying the same formula to Brady and Stafford, Brady ends up with 4887 yards and Stafford ends up with 4629 yards. Now this math is by no means super accurate. Nor am I absolutely stating these calculations would be correct had the NFL not changed the kickoff rule. But it is obvious to me that the rule did have a significant affect on passing totals. Therefore, with the number of elite quarterbacks in the NFL today, we will be seeing 5000 yard passing seasons become the norm.
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