In the future, when the 2011 season is brought up, the first thing people will remember is offense.
Before this season, only two quarterbacks had thrown for more than 5,000 yards in a season in league history. In 2011 alone, three quarterbacks — Drew Brees of the Saints, Tom Brady of the Patriots and Matthew Stafford of the Lions — eclipsed that mark. Yet, to show how impressive the offenses were, none of those passers made the Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America All-NFL roster. That was saved for Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who set an NFL record for passer rating in a season by eclipsing Peyton Manning's old benchmark.
Quarterbacks weren't the only offensive players to dominate during the season. A pair of second-year tight ends changed the way the position is played, as both Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the Saints proved to be unstoppable. The same could be said about Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who became the second player in league history to catch two touchdowns in four consecutive games. A host of running backs had spectacular seasons, as well, led by the league's leading rusher, 5-foot-7 bowling ball Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars.
There were stars on defense, too. Despite playing for a struggling team that didn't have many other defensive stars, Vikings DE Jared Allen fell half a sack short of tying the NFL's single-season sack record. Ravens DT Haloti Ngata showed he might be the toughest defender in the league to block, though his teammate, OLB Terrell Suggs, and Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware might have an argument in that discussion, as well.
Even special teams shined brightly in 2011. A pair of 49ers kickers were key to the league's surprise team, and Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson etched his name in the league's record books because of his exceptional return ability.
The headliners on the PFW/PFWA All-NFL team might hail from the offensive side of the ball. But as 2011 showed, there is elite and record-setting talent at every position on the field, all of whom are worthy of being recognized for their magnificent seasons.
QB Aaron Rodgers / Packers: After winning his final six games of the 2010-11 season en route to a Super Bowl title, Rodgers picked up where he left off this season. In 15 starts, Rodgers set the NFL's single-season record for passer rating with 122.5 and had no games with multiple interceptions, compared to 14 with two or more touchdown passes. He also spread the wealth, with nine different receivers catching touchdown passes from Rodgers during his dominant run, leading the Packers to the NFL's best regular-season record.
RB Maurice Jones-Drew / Jaguars: The league's leading rusher was as close as there is to a one-man offense in the NFL. Jones-Drew ran for 1,606 yards, the highest of his career, despite working in the league's worst passing offense and generally facing defenses that would have nine or 10 players in the box to stop him. MJD also was durable, getting a career-high 343 attempts just months after having offseason knee surgery.
RB LeSean McCoy / Eagles: No player in the league found paydirt more often than McCoy, who, in his third season, has emerged as a game-changing performer. The Eagles kept finding new ways to use him, and it worked, as he scored 20 touchdowns (17 rushing, three receiving) in 15 games. He also gained 1,309 rushing yards at 4.8 yards per carry.
WR Calvin Johnson / Lions: Week after week, opponents came up with game plans to slow down Johnson. And week after week, those plans were tossed into the trash bin after being unsuccessful. Johnson cemented his place as the NFL's top big-play wideout in 2011, gaining 17.5 yards per reception and adding 16 TD catches, helping the Lions reach the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. When he wasn't making plays, Johnson's presence was opening up room for his teammates.
WR Wes Welker / Patriots: Nobody in the entire league jumped out of the gate quicker than Welker, who had 45 receptions for 740 yards after five games. Though his pace slowed as the season went along, the Patriots' master route runner was always a threat to break a big play. He ended up with a league-high 122 receptions, joining Cris Carter as only the second player in NFL history with two seasons of 120-plus catches.
TE Rob Gronkowski/Patriots: A Mack truck in the open field, Gronkowski has become the best all-around tight end in the NFL. He's impossible to contain in the red zone, as shown by his league-high 17 receiving touchdowns in 2011, which set the NFL record for most TD receptions in a season by a tight end. He's also a terrific run blocker, making him a nightmare matchup for opponents on all downs.
C Maurkice Pouncey / Steelers: Injuries impacted nearly every important Steeler in 2011, and Pouncey was no exception, as he missed two late-season games along with the team's only postseason contest. When he was playing, Pouncey remained at the elite level he showed a season ago as a rookie.
OG Jahri Evans / Saints: Over the course of the season, the Saints made changes at right tackle and center, leaving Evans to work alongside two new players. His play never suffered, however, as his strength and quickness allowed the Saints' offense to dominate both in the run and passing games.
OG Carl Nicks / Saints: Like Evans, Nicks has great strength and the ability to fight off defenders — important attributes in the Saints' quick-trigger offense. He pushes opposing linemen onto their heels, allowing Drew Brees time to throw and Darren Sproles room to run.
OT Jason Peters / Eagles: Playing on an offensive line that was in shambles all season long, Peters thrived, putting together his best season as a pro and solidifying himself as the glue of the unit. Week after week, elite pass rushers tested him, looking to bring down Michael Vick. Yet, according to Stats LLC, Peters allowed only 2½ sacks and was called for zero holding penalties.
OT Joe Thomas / Browns: Since entering the league in 2007, Thomas has never missed a snap, anchoring the Browns' line from Day One. He had another dominant season in '11 despite the rest of the Browns' offense struggling. Thomas is as solid as they come at one of the more important positions on the field in both the run game and pass protection.
DE Jared Allen / Vikings: Recording 22 sacks is impressive, even without context, but what Allen did is even more remarkable. With the Vikings rarely playing with the lead and opponents often using the ground game to run clock, Allen was left with fewer pass-rushing opportunities. He was also double- and triple-teamed on nearly every snap. Despite those facts, he finished half a sack short of tying Michael Strahan's all-time record.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul / Giants: Even though he lined up all over the place for the Giants, Pierre-Paul was at his best at defensive end. He was also at his best when his team needed him most. Between Weeks 14-17, when the Giants were fighting for a playoff berth, Pierre-Paul had a combined 34 tackles and six sacks, as New York went 3-1. The second-year pro finished the season with 86 tackles (including 23 behind the line of scrimmage) and 16½ sacks.
DT Haloti Ngata / Ravens: A force to be reckoned with every week, Ngata played his best in big games. Against the Steelers in Week One, he had four tackles, a pass defensed and a forced fumble. Against the Texans in Week Six, he had eight tackles and a sack. And in the Harbaugh Bowl vs. the 49ers in Week 12, Ngata finished with four tackles and two sacks. Not surprisingly, the Ravens won all three games.
DT Justin Smith/49ers: Starting all 16 games for the 10th consecutive season, Smith was the key cog on the line for a Niners defense that was one of the league's premier units. His forced fumble on Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin, where he chased the wideout 15 yards downfield to knock the ball out and ice a win for the 49ers, was maybe the defining play of the season for the NFC West champs.
OLB DeMarcus Ware / Cowboys: It wasn't Ware's finest season, as he struggled at times in run support and pass coverage. That didn't mean he wasn't a standout player, however, as the Cowboys' star still showed he is one of the game's premier pass rushers. He registered 19½ sacks playing in Rob Ryan's defense and also forced a pair of fumbles.
ILB Patrick Willis / 49ers: Teaming with NaVorro Bowman, Willis helped form one of the NFL's top linebacking units. His production as a sure tackler has never dipped, as he made 97 tackles despite missing three games. Willis made major strides as a pass defender, too. His 12 passes defensed were a career high, and he also added four forced fumbles, also a career-high mark.
OLB Terrell Suggs / Ravens: Nobody runs down offensive players — while at the same time running his mouth — better than Suggs. The talkative and highly entertaining Ravens linebacker was an all-around beast in 2011, recording 70 tackles, 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and a pair of interceptions. Also, like several other Baltimore defenders, Suggs seemed to take his play to the next level in big games for the AFC North champs.
CB Darrelle Revis / Jets: If there was any doubt, Revis proved once again in 2011 that he is the best cornerback in the league. Opposing quarterbacks rarely threw his way, and when they did, it generally didn't end well for the offense. Revis had four interceptions — including a Week One pick of Tony Romo in the final minute of the fourth quarter to set up a Jets win and a 100-yard pick-six in a Week Six win over the Dolphins.
CB Johnathan Joseph / Texans: It's unfair to say that Joseph was the sole reason the Texans improved from the 32nd-ranked pass defense in 2010 to third in '11, but that's not too far from the truth. The former Bengal came to Houston via free agency and immediately improved the unit, shutting down the opponent's top receiver and leading the team to its first-ever playoff appearance.
S Troy Polamalu / Steelers: Though listed as a safety, opponents are as likely to find Polamalu in their own backfield as they are in the Steelers' defensive backfield. Perhaps the NFL's most instinctive defender, Polamalu played all over the place in 2011, finishing with 91 tackles, 14 passes defensed and two interceptions.
S Eric Weddle / Chargers: After being paid like a big-time player in the offseason, Weddle played like a big-time player for an otherwise disappointing Chargers defense. He tied for the league lead with seven interceptions and helped stabilize a secondary that dealt with injuries and benchings throughout the season. Weddle also made an impact as a run defender, adding 88 tackles to go along with his solid pass coverage (12 passes defensed).
P Andy Lee / 49ers: One of the NFL's best directional punters had a career year for the 49ers. Lee led the NFL in net average at 44.0 yards and often put the San Francisco defense in great position to shut down opponents, including 28 punts inside the 20.
PK David Akers / 49ers: Even at age 37, Akers showed he still has the leg to be one of the NFL's elite kickers. He attempted a league-high 52 field goals in 2011, connecting on an NFL-record 44 of them. Most impressive for a kicker of Akers' age are the seven field goals (in nine attempts) from 50 yards or longer, especially given that his previous career high from that range was two.
PR Patrick Peterson / Cardinals: The only rookie on the team, Peterson showed he is a fearless playmaker on punt returns. He returned four punts for touchdowns, and all were 80 yards or longer, the first player in NFL history to do that in one season. Peterson did damage even when he wasn't taking punts back to the house, as his 699 return yards led the NFL.
KR Joe McKnight / Jets: After they lost Brad Smith in free agency to the Bills, there was some concern surrounding the Jets that they wouldn't have an elite special-teams unit. McKnight quieted those worries in a major way. Using elite speed and agility, the second-year player gained 31.6 yards per kickoff return and had a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Week Four against the Ravens. McKnight also blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a Week One comeback victory over Dallas.
ST Matthew Slater / Patriots: Though he also saw time at both defensive back and receiver, Slater's biggest contribution to the Patriots was on special teams. The speedster had 10 tackles on kickoff and punt coverage.