Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
(Editor’s note: This article is the latest in an ongoing series looking at quarterbacks’ achievements that have aged well over the past 80 NFL seasons.)
In 2011, Tom Brady produced one of the most prolific passing seasons in NFL history.
For the most decorated player in the history of professional football – seven Super Bowl titles, five Super Bowl MVPs, three AP NFL MVPs, two AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year awards and league records for completions (7,753), passing yards (89,214) and touchdown passes (649) – one ringless season in the middle of his Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy career might seem like an afterthought.
Even at the time, Brady’s historic season was overshadowed by NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who set the single-season record for passer rating (122.5), and by NFL Offensive Player of the Year Drew Brees, who set the single-season records for completions (468), completion percentage (71.2%) and passing yards (5,476). At season’s end, it was another quarterback, Eli Manning, who celebrated: he won his second Super Bowl MVP when the Giants beat Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Optics don’t tell the entire story because Brady’s 2011 season could be considered the greatest of his 23-year NFL career. And that’s even considering all of the accomplishments noted above and these facts:
- He completed more passes three times (402 in 2015, 485 in 2021 and 490 in 2022.
- He passed for more yards (5,316 in 2021).
- He passed for more touchdowns three times (40 in 2020, 43 in 2021 and 50 in 2007).
- He produced a higher passer rating three times (111.0 in 2010, 112.2 in 2016 and 117.2 in 2007).
- He hoisted the Lombardi Trophy seven times (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020).
And raw statistics are just that, though those alone are quite remarkable for Brady’s 2011 season: 401-of-611 (65.6%) for 5,235 yards (8.6 YPA), 39 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and a 105.6 passer rating.
A deeper dive inside the numbers sheds further light on just how dominant Brady was in 2011. By both standard statistics and analytics marks, Brady was the king of the AFC by virtually every measure imaginable:
- No. 1 in completions (401)
- No. 1 in completion percentage (65.6%)
- No. 1 in passing yards (5,235)
- No. 1 in yards per attempt (8.6)
- No. 1 in adjusted yards per attempt (9.0)
- No. 1 in adjusted net yards per attempt (8.25)
- No. 1 in touchdown passes (39)
- No. 1 in touchdown percentage (6.4%)
- No. 1 in interception percentage (2.0%)
- No. 1 in passing first downs (262)
- No. 1 in passer rating (105.6)
- No. 1 in Total QBR (73.8)
- No. 1 in DVOA (35.3%)
- No. 1 in VOA (34.4%)
- No. 1 in DYAR (1,994)
- No. 1 in passing YAR (1,956)
- No. 1 in passing effective yards (6,149)
DVOA = defense-adjusted value over average; VOA = value over average; DYAR = defense-adjusted yards above replacement; YAR = yards above replacement. More about these terms can be found here.
Lack of defensive support
What made 2011 different from other great Brady seasons was the team’s lack of defensive support:
- 31st in yards surrendered, last in the AFC (6,577)
- 29th in yards per play surrendered, last in the AFC (6.2)
- 32nd in first downs surrendered, last in the NFL (370)
- 30th in total defensive DVOA, last in the AFC (15.2%)
- 31st in passing defensive DVOA (24.1%)
On the ground, the Patriots’ “running back by committee” was led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis (27th in rushing yards with 667), Stevan Ridley (52nd in rushing yards with 441) and Danny Woodhead (62nd in rushing yards with 351) – all fantastic contributors to the offense’s success. Green-Ellis scored 11 times on the ground.
But the passing offense was the driving force behind moving the chains. Brady’s 39 touchdown passes could have been a lot more had the Patriots not opted to punch it in on the ground 18 times (No. 1 in the AFC).
Despite this, Brady finished the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in touchdown passes on the road (23). At the time, it was the fourth highest mark in history, topped only by Hall of Famer DAN MARINO (twice) and Brady himself in 2007.
Most Touchdown Passes on the Road, Single-Season (through 2011):
- Tom Brady, 29 (2007)
- Dan Marino, 25 (1984)
- Dan Marino, 25 (1986)
- Tom Brady, 23 (2011)
- Daunte Culpepper, 23 (2004)
- Nobody else above 21
Perhaps the most staggering statistic from Brady’s 2011 was his yards per attempt (YPA) average of 8.6.
Despite the rules of the passing game softening during the second half of his career, Brady’s 8.6 YPA in 2011 was his career-high.
It’s even more impressive when you consider how much he passed in 2011. In the history of the NFL, there have been a total of 80 seasons in which a quarterback has attempted 600 or more passes. Of those 80 seasons, Brady’s 2011 ranks No. 1 in YPA by a significant margin.
Highest YPA in a Single-Season, 600+ Attempts (through 2022):
- 1. Tom Brady, 8.6 (2011)
- T-2. PEYTON MANNING, 8.3 (2013)
- T-2. Drew Brees, 8.3 (2011)
How big of a difference is 0.3 yards per attempt?
Put it this way, the distance between No. 1 (Brady, 8.6 in 2011) and No. 2 (Manning, 8.3 in 2013 and Brees, 8.3 in 2011) is just as big as the distance between No. 2 and No. 10 (Brees, 8.0 in 2008) amongst quarterbacks with 600+ attempts. It’s gargantuan.
Brady’s second best single-season YPA mark came in 2007, when he led the NFL at 8.3 with 578 passing attempts.
Detractors point to Brady’s loss in Super Bowl XLVI as evidence of him falling short of expectations. I couldn’t disagree more.
Beyond the obvious – that teams ranked toward the bottom of the league defensively rarely win conference titles and get the opportunity to participate in Super Bowls – Brady actually delivered on the Super Bowl stage against a red-hot Giants defense: 27-of-41 (65.9%) for 276 yards (6.7 YPA) with two touchdowns, an interception and a 91.1 passer rating.
Antother way to look at historic season
ESPN’s Total QBR paints another picture.
Brady finished the game with a significantly higher mark (83.9) than Eli Manning (73.1). In fact, his Super Bowl XLVI rating topped 11 other Super Bowl winners, including himself three times, dating back to 2006 (when Total QBR began).
Was Super Bowl XLVI Brady’s best? No. That distinction goes to Super Bowl LII, where his Total QBR (89.9) topped Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles’ also spectacular 87.1.
Tough to top a 505-yard, three-touchdown, zero-interception, 10.5 YPA performance against the NFL’s fifth-ranked unit in defensive DVOA (-12.2).
Foles got to face the NFL’s 31st-ranked unit in defensive DVOA (12.0%) – so, yes, Brady’s 2011 wasn’t the only time in his career when the better quarterback and better Super Bowl performance resulted in a loss. Team sports are just that.
Excellence on the field isn’t something to take for granted. For a quarterback like Brady, who was dominant for nearly two decades, it’s easy to clump one successful season in with the many others and remember a storied career for the general high points.
Brady’s 2011 season deserves greater attention because the caliber of his play, adjusted for era and relative to the totality of circumstances surrounding it, was arguably the best of his career.
Ryan Michael is statistician, sportswriter and contributor to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You can follow him on Twitter: @theryanmichael .
This article is the latest in an ongoing series highlighting noteworthy quarterback play over the past 80 seasons. Information from Pro-Football-Reference.com’s database, including its “Play Index Tools,” helped make the research possible. Total QBR via ESPN. DVOA, VOA, DYAR, YAR and Passing Effective Yards via Football Outsiders.
More of this series