Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino set a single season landmark of passing yardage that many thought unthinkable during the 1984 season. Marino passed for 5.084 yards, (along with 48 touchdowns) during the '84 campaign, besting the previous mark of 4,802 set in 1981 by Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers. The 5,000 yard plateau was one that no one thought possible, and many believed that it may never occur again. Marino himself, for all of his passing achievements, would only come as close as 254 yards away in 1986, his second most prolific season. More than two decades would go by after Marino's record breaking season, and only 10 quarterbacks had seasons of over 4,500 yards passing during that period, with no one breaking the hallowed 5,000-yd. mark. It would be 24 years before another quarterback, another all-time great, would eclipse this elusive barrier.
Drew Brees joined the New Orleans Saints as a free agent in 2006 after a solid five year career with the Chargers. Brees would have immediate success with the Saints, throwing for 26 touchdowns and a league high 4,418 yards in '06 while leading his new team to the NFC Championship game. The Saints were not as successful in the win column during 2007 and '08, but continued to put up prolific passing numbers. After throwing for over 4,400 yards again in 2007, Brees became just the second player to throw for over 5,000 yards in 2008, falling just short of Marino's record with 5.069 yards. New Orleans would rebound from two subpar seasons in 2009, rolling to a Super Bowl championship as Brees would again throw for well over 4,000 yards both that season and again during a 2010 playoff push.
Twenty seven years after Marino's landmark passing season, the 2011 New Orleans Saints would have one of the most lethal offenses in NFL history. The Saints would average 34 points (2nd) and 467 yards (1st) per game in 2011, and had the league's 6th best rushing attack to go along with their top ranked passing game. New Orleans would set an NFL record for most yards gained in a season, among many other marks they'd shatter. Jimmy Graham (1,310 yards) and Marques Colston (1,143) paced the team in receiving yards with 99 and 80 catches respectively, while running back Darren Sproles added 86 receptions and an NFL-record 2,696 all-purpose yards. Brees was masterful all season, ultimately laying waste to numerous single season records. Seven New Orleans players would wind up with at least 30 receptions and 500 receiving yards on the year, and Brees was rapidly approaching Marino's yardage record as the 2011 season wound down. The Saints were 11-3 and on the verge of another NFC South title entering the 15th game of the year. Brees entered the next to last game of the year with 4,780 yards passing with two home contests remaining to set a new mark. The first of these games would be a Monday night affair, in front of a national audience on the day after Christmas, against none other than the Saints most bitter rival--the Atlanta Falcons.
Monday December 26, 2011
Mercedes Benz Superdome
The Falcons, who entered the game with a 9-5 record after winning the division in 2010, would draw first blood over their rival. Atlanta took the opening kickoff 64 yards for a Matt Bryant field goal to take a 3-0 lead. New Orleans would answer immediately though. Brees would hit receiver Lance Moore with a 38-yd. strike on their first play that would key an eight play 65 yd. drive ending with a Pierre Thomas touchdown run and a 7-3 lead. The Falcons retake the lead right away with a touchdown drive of their own, ending with a 21-yd. scoring pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. The Saints again answered quickly, driving 81 yards in ten plays and scoring on an 8-yd. touchdown pass from Brees to Colston early in the second quarter. Brees was intercepted deep in Atlanta territory a short time later to thwart another New Orleans drive, but a 41-yd. completion to Robert Meachem set up the Saints deep in Falcons territory again late in the first half. The home team would cash in with 30 seconds remaining in the half, when Brees hit Graham for a 9-yd. touchdown to give the Saints a 21-10 halftime lead.
Brees' second interception of the game stalled momentum a bit on the second half's opening drive, but the New Orleans defense would stop a fourth straight Falcons drive. The Saints would take complete control of the contest with a six play, 86-yd. drive that took only three minutes, ending with another Brees touchdown pass, this time to Meachem from 24 yards out for a 28-10 lead. The two teams would exchange field goals to end the third quarter, and Atlanta added another 3-pointer early in the 4th before the New Orleans defense would put this game away. Saints linebacker Scott Shanle forced Falcons receiver Julio Jones to fumble, which safety Malcolm Jenkins scooped and returned for a 30-yd. touchdown and a 38-16 lead with 11:20 to go in the game.
A bit later in the final quarter, the Saints offense would take over on the Atlanta 33-yd. line after a failed Falcons fourth down attempt and 5:08 remaining.
THE HISTORIC MOMENT
Completions to Marques Colston and Devery Henderson brought New Orleans to the Atlanta nine yard line with 2:56 to go in the game. Brees had 298 yards passing on the night up to that point, leaving him at 5,078 yards on the season, just 6 yards shy of Dan Marino's single season record. On second and goal, New Orleans lined up in the shotgun with two sidecars on either side of their quarterback in the backfield. Brees took the snap as the back to his left, Darren Sproles, sprinted into his pattern. Sproles gave a left shoulder fake to the Atlanta linebackers and cut sharply to his right, where he broke open at the goal line. With a precise flick of his wrist, Drew Brees passed Dan Marino as the single season all-time passing yards record holder with a touchdown pass that would give New Orleans a 45-15 victory.
Brees would punctuate the 2011 regular season with a 389-yd., five touchdown performance against the Carolina Panthers in the year's finale. He would finish the '11 season with 5,476 yards and 46 touchdown passes, which at the time was the 4th most in NFL history. In addition to the single season yardage mark, Brees would also set new records for most 300 yard passing games in a season (13), most games of over 350 yards (8), most completions (468), highest competition percentage (71.2%--since broken by Brees himself), among an incredible 30 records to his credit that season.
Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos would officially surpass Brees' yardage total with an incredible year of his own in 2013.
*(Manning would reach his total of 5,477 yards only upon NFL insistence that the league review the Broncos' final regular season contest, ultimately rewarding Manning an additional 3 yards to move him past Brees after the fact)*
The San Francisco 49ers would end the New Orleans dream of a second Super Bowl title three weeks after this game with a thrilling divisional playoff win, but the 2011 Saints season is one of the most memorable in franchise history. There has now been eleven 5,000+ passing seasons in NFL history, with Drew Brees possessing five such years; the only quarterback to have had more than one. Brees has proven to be one of the finest players in NFL history with his sustained production, but his magnificent 2011 remains one of the most impressive single season outputs of all time.