The 2011 NFL season gave us three of the more prolific offenses in the history of the NFL. Green Bay, New Orleans and New England finished first, second and third, respectively, in points scored during the regular season. The Saints were first, the Patriots second and the Packers third in total offense. In addition, it seemed records fell almost every time one of these clubs took the field. Not coincidentally, Green Bay finished with the best record in the NFL at 15-1, and New England and New Orleans tied the 49ers with the second-best records in the league at 13-3.
Certainly those three clubs' quarterbacks played huge roles in their success, as Aaron Rodgers set the all-time record for passing efficiency in a single season at 122.5 and both Drew Brees and Tom Brady broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old record of 5,084 passing yards in a single season. It is impossible to imagine any player outside of those three garnering an MVP vote this year, and Brady and Brees have already punched their tickets to Canton, with Rodgers now on an extremely fast track.
Those are all nearly indisputable facts, but something else happened this past season that may prove to be even more of a defining point when we remember the 2011 season than the play of those three quarterbacks. The one thing the Packers, Saints and Patriots all have in common, as well as all of the other top offenses in the NFL today, are prolific pass-catching tight ends, and 2011 has truly been the year of the tight end.
Take a look at the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (90-for-1,327, the all-time NFL record for single-season receiving yardage by a tight end, and an NFL TE-record 17 TDs) and Aaron Hernandez (79-910, seven TDs), the Saints' Jimmy Graham (99 catches, second-most in the NFC; 1,310 yards, second-most in NFL history for a TE behind Gronkowski; 11 TDs) and the Packers' Jermichael Finley 55-767, eight TDs), and you'll find a new breed of NFL tight ends that is popping up all over the league and a matchup nightmare for every defense they see.
If it were just those four players on those three teams, you could call the sudden proliferation of tight ends in the passing game an anomaly. But this trend runs much deeper than that. Detroit finished fourth in points and fifth in total offense with Brandon Pettigrew as the second choice in its passing game, as he totaled 83-777 and five TDs. San Diego tied Carolina for fifth in points and sixth in total offense with the indomitable Antonio Gates as the Chargers' leading receiver, and the Panthers were seventh in total offense with Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey adding nine TDs from the TE slot between them. The No. 7 scoring team in the league was Atlanta, in large part because another future Hall of Famer, Tony Gonzalez, refuses to slow down.
How are teams being built to compete in the NFL today? Arguably the biggest playoff surprises this year are San Francisco, Detroit, Cincinnati and Denver, with only the Broncos not having invested heavily at the TE position. Vernon Davis was a top-10 pick for the Niners and has been a Pro Bowler, and Pettigrew and the Bengals' Jermaine Gresham were also first-round draft picks. With a great deal of the Texans' passing game going through Owen Daniels and the same being true of Heath Miller in Pittsburgh and Ed Dickson in Baltimore, the only 2011 playoff offenses that don't feature their tight ends are the Giants and Broncos, who are arguably the two longest shots in the tournament.
I was struck by the dominance of this new group of NFL rock stars while working the sidelines for Dial Global/Westwood One Radio at the Lions-Saints game, when I first realized not only how big and athletic Graham is, but what an excellent blocker he is. As guys like Gates, Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, Dallas Clark and a few others became prolific pass catchers, their reputations came with the idea they weren't being asked to block that much and so they weren't true tight ends. But these new kids, including Gronkowski, Davis, Jason Witten, Daniels, Miller and Graham, are all excellent blockers as well as great receivers, allowing them to stay on the field all the time and revolutionize the way offenses are being run.
At the end of the day it will still be the quarterbacks who dominate the MVP voting, but it's all of their new best friends at tight end who are changing the way the game is played and igniting offenses throughout the NFL.