Due to a labor dispute between league owners and players, a lockout began on March 11 and ended on July 25, lasting 130 days. Although it initially threatened to postpone or cancel the season, the only game that was canceled was the August 7 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.
The 2011 season saw an unprecedented amount of passing offense: Three of the nine highest passing yardage totals of all time were established: No. 2 Drew Brees (5,476), No. 3 Tom Brady (5,235), and No. 9 Matthew Stafford (5,038); Eli Manning threw for 4,933 yards, which places him 14th all time. It also saw Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers establish the all-time single-season best quarterback rating of 122.5. Further cementing the modern NFL's reputation as a "passing league" was the fact that, for the second consecutive year, the league overall set a record for most average passing yards per team per game, with 229.7, breaking 2010's record by more than eight yards per game. (For comparison, the league-wide average rushing yards total finished the 2011 season at 57th all-time.)
A subplot of the 2011 season was determining who would have the worst record, and therefore "earn" the right to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Stanford senior quarterback Andrew Luck was seen as the best quarterback prospect in years. Fans of some teams that started the season with numerous losses (notably the Indianapolis Colts) were openly rooting for their teams to "Suck for Luck."
In May 2008 the owners decided to opt out of the 1993 arrangement and play the 2010 season without an agreement in place. Some of the major points of contention included openness of owners' financial books, the rookie pay scale, a proposed 18 percent reduction in the players' share of revenues, forfeiture on bonus payments for players who fail to perform, players' health and retirement benefits, details of free agency, the cost and benefit of new stadiums, players' salaries, extending the regular season to 18 games, and the revenue-sharing structure. By March 2011, the NFLPA and the NFL had not yet come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, thus failing to resolve the labor dispute. Accordingly, the NFLPA informed the league and the clubs that the players had voted to have the NFLPA renounce its bargaining rights. After the renunciation of collective bargaining rights, quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees joined seven other NFL players and filed an antitrust suit to enjoin the lockout.
Following the settlement of the Brady et al. v. NFL antitrust suit on July 25, 2011, a majority of players signed union authorization cards approving the NFL Players Association to act as their exclusive collective bargaining representative. The NFL officially recognized the NFLPA’s status as the players’ collective bargaining representative on July 30. The NFL and NFLPA proceeded to negotiate terms for a new collective bargaining agreement, and the agreement became effective after ratification by the players on August 4. The new collective bargaining agreement ran through 2021.
October 12: Seattle traded LB Aaron Curry to Oakland in exchange for a seventh-round pick in 2012 and a conditional pick in 2013.
October 17: Denver traded WR Brandon Lloyd to St. Louis in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2012.
October 18: Cincinnati traded QB Carson Palmer to Oakland in exchange for a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-round pick in 2013.
The following are rule changes that were passed at the league's annual owners meeting in March. All changes went into effect once the labor dispute was resolved.
Changes were made regarding kickoffs to limit injuries. First, kickoffs will be moved from the 30 to the 35-yard line, repealing a 1994 rule change. In addition, players on the kickoff coverage team cannot line up more than 5 yards behind the kickoff line, minimizing running starts and thus reducing the speed of collisions. Other changes were also proposed, but a number of players and coaches expressed concern they would actually significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the number of kickoff returns. Proposals that would have brought touchbacks out to the 25 instead of the 20, and eliminated all wedge blocks were not adopted. Despite this rule, the Bears kicked off from the 30-yard line twice in their preseason game against the Bills.
All replay reviews of scoring plays during the entire game can now be initiated by the replay booth official. Coaches will no longer have to use one of their challenges if a scoring play occurs outside of the two-minute warning. Because the play is now "unchallengeable" by coaches, attempting to do so will result in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which several coaches were flagged for during the season.
Nicknamed the "Boise State Rule", all playing fields must remain green, and not be in another color like the blue turf at Boise State's Bronco Stadium, unless approval is granted by the league. This was passed in response to a few sponsors who requested to change the colors in a few stadiums.
The following rule changes were adopted at the NFL Owners' Meeting on May 24, 2011:
Hits to the head of a passer-by an opponent’s hands, arms or other parts of the body will not be fouls unless they are forcible blows, modifying the existing rule that any contact to a passer's head, regardless of the reason, is penalized as a personal foul (15 yards).
Players will be prohibited from "launching" (leaving both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent or using any part of the helmet to initiate forcible contact against any part of the opponent’s body) to level a defenseless player, as well as "forcibly hitting the neck or head area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him.", and lowering the head and make forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/"hairline" parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body. Offenders will be penalised 15 yards for unnecessary roughness plus risking immediate disqualification if the contact is deemed flagrant.
A "defenseless player" is defined as a:
Player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.
Receiver attempting to catch a pass or one who has not completed a catch and hasn’t had time to protect himself or hasn’t clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player.
Runner whose forward progress has been stopped and is already in the grasp of a tackler.
Kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air.
Player on the ground at the end of a play.
Kicker/punter during the kick or return.
Quarterback any time after a change of possession (i.e. turnover).
Player who receives a "blindside" block when the blocker is moving toward his own end-line and approaches the opponent from behind or the side.
The league has instructed game officials to "err on the side of caution" when calling such personal foul penalties, and that they will not be downgraded if they make a mistake so that they will not hesitate on making these kinds of calls.
Game-day testing for performance-enhancing drugs. The NFL is adding game-day testing for performance-enhancing substances but not recreational drugs this season under the new collective bargaining agreement.
The preseason schedule was released April 12, 2011. The Hall of Fame Game, had it been played, would have featured the Chicago Bears against the St. Louis Rams in only the second time since 1971 that the game would have featured two teams from the same conference. Instead, the preseason began with the San Diego Chargers hosting the Seattle Seahawks on August 11; the remainder of the preseason and all other games was played as originally scheduled (with the exception of the preseason Jets-Giants game, which was postponed two days due to Hurricane Irene).
When the league was arranging the schedule in spring 2011, it added some cushion in case the labor dispute lasted into September and the planned start of the regular season. For example, every contest in Week 3 had teams which shared the same bye week later in the season, which would have allowed these games to be made up on what were originally the teams' byes. Weeks 2 and 4 were set up so that there were neither any divisional rivalry games nor teams on bye in those weeks, and every team with a home game in Week 2 was on the road in Week 4 and vice versa. This would have kept the season as fair as possible if those games had to be canceled. These scheduling changes, along with eliminating the week off before the Super Bowl and moving the Super Bowl back a week, would have allowed the NFL to play a 14-game schedule beginning in mid-October while still having the Super Bowl in mid-February.
The Detroit Lions hosted their first Monday Night Football game since 2001, when they faced the Bears on Columbus Day/Canadian Thanksgiving (the Detroit-Windsor market straddles the U.S.–Canada border). Detroit defeated Chicago 24–13 for the team's fifth straight win, the most Lions wins to start a season since the team's glory years in the 1950s, continuing a streak that has been seen as a pleasant surprise for Lions fans, after over a decade of mediocrity.
Christmas Day fell on Sunday. The TV contracts state that the majority of afternoon games are played on Christmas Eve (Saturday) and only one game is held over for Sunday night. The Packers defeated the Bears, 35–21, on Christmas evening on NBC.
New Year's Day 2012 consequently also fell on a Sunday, and the NFL played its entire Week 17 schedule that day. The major college bowl games usually played on New Year's Day, as well as the NHL Winter Classic, were instead played on Monday, January 2. For the second straight year, Week 17 only featured divisional match-ups.
The New York Giants visited the Washington Redskins on September 11, 2011, the first Sunday of the regular season, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in which Washington, D.C. and New York City were both targeted, as well as the first such anniversary since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. Due to the proximity of Baltimore with Washington as well as the proximity of Pittsburgh with the site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed, the Pittsburgh Steelers visited the archrival Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. It marked the first time the two teams played in a season-opening game since 2003, as their heated rivalry usually prompts their games to be scheduled later in the season. There had been some speculation that the Giants and their same-city rival, the New York Jets, could have played each other that day since the two were scheduled to play each other in 2011; the Jets were the designated home team at MetLife Stadium in the matchup which had been predetermined due to the NFL's scheduling formula. However, the Jets instead hosted the Dallas Cowboys.
The following regular-season games were moved by way of flexible scheduling, severe weather, or for other reasons:
Week 13: The Colts–Patriots game was moved from the 8:20 pm EST time slot on NBC Sunday Night Football to 1:00 pm EST on CBS. The Lions–Saints game, originally scheduled at 1:00 pm EST on Fox, was flexed into the 8:20 pm slot on NBC, in place of the originally-scheduled Colts–Patriots game. The Ravens–Browns game was changed from 1:00 pm EST to 4:05 pm EST. The Broncos–Vikings game was changed from 4:05 pm EST to 1:00 pm EST, and aired on Fox instead of CBS because Fox had only two games in the early time slot. This was the first time that the league moved an interconference telecast to the home team's Sunday afternoon regional broadcaster.
Week 17: By way of flexible scheduling, the following games were moved due to playoff implications during the final week of the regular season: The Cowboys–Giants game, originally scheduled at 1:00 pm EST on Fox, was selected as the final NBC Sunday Night Football game, which decided the NFC East division champion. The Buccaneers–Falcons, Ravens–Bengals and Steelers–Browns games were all moved from 1:00 pm EST to 4:15 pm EST.
Tom Brady, New England (5,235) and Matthew Stafford, Detroit (5,038) also passed for more than 5,000 yards marking the 4th and 5th times an individual has reached that milestone in NFL history, and the first time more than one person has done it in a single season.
Fewest turnovers in a season (tied): 10, San Francisco
The 2011 Saints broke many offensive records on January 1, 2012:
Most net yardage of offense in a season: 7,474
Most net yards passing: 5,347
Most completions: 472
Highest completion percentage (team) for the season: 71.3
Fewest fumbles in a season: 6
Most first downs for the season: 416
Most passing first downs in a season: 280
Most kick-offs resulting in a touchback, season: 62
The uncertain labor issues and the possibility of a lockout were speculated to have a minimizing effect on coaching changes prior to the 2011 season, with owners predicted to be more hesitant than usual to hire a high-price, high-profile head coach. Nevertheless, eight coaches were fired either during or immediately after the 2010 NFL season, compared to three in the year prior; only one of the new hires (John Fox) had ever been a head coach in the NFL prior to their hirings or promotions. However, Leslie Frazier, and Jason Garrett did get some experience as interim coaches during the 2010 season, with Garrett being successful in his debut season, going 5–3 in his tenure, improving the 1–7 Cowboys to a 6–10 season.
Phillips, son of former NFL head coach Bum Phillips, was fired on November 8, 2010, following a 45–7 Week 9 loss against the Green Bay Packers, leaving Dallas with a 35–24 (.593) record. Phillips was later hired as defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans. On January 5, 2011, Jason Garrett, the team's offensive coordinator and presumptive head coach in waiting, was named the Head coach for the 2011 season.
Childress was fired on November 22, 2010, following a Week 11 loss against the Green Bay Packers, 31–3. The Vikings entered week 12 with a 3–7 record, second-to-last in the NFC North after a 12–4 season a year ago. Childress also faced controversy by releasing Randy Moss without the approval of owner Zygi Wilf and lost control over the locker room. Childress amassed a record of 40–37 (.519) record during his time in Minnesota. Frazier, the Vikings' defensive coordinator since 2007, was named head coach following the end of the 2010 season.
McDaniels was fired on December 5, 2010, following a 10–6 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13. After a 6–0 start in the 2009 season, the Broncos lost 17 of their next 22 games, and became subject to a videotaping scandal. McDaniels's record was 11–17 (.393) as coach of the Broncos. McDaniels was later hired by the St. Louis Rams to be their offensive coordinator.
Singletary compiled a record of 18–22 (.462) during his 2½ years as head coach of the 49ers and was criticized for his lack of focus on the team's offense. Singletary is now the Linebackers coach for the Minnesota Vikings.
Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, came from the Stanford Cardinal football team, where he led the Cardinal to a 12–1 record in 2010 behind the arm of top quarterback prospect Andrew Luck, culminating in a victory in the Orange Bowl. (Luck was expected to declare for the 2011 NFL Draft if Harbaugh left, but decided to stay at Stanford.)
The Panthers announced on December 31, 2010, two days before the final game of the 2010 season, that his contract will not be renewed for 2011. Fox spent nine seasons with Carolina, including an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and leaves Carolina with a total record of 78–76 (.506).
Rivera had spent the previous three seasons as defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers.
The Browns announced on Monday January 3, 2011, the day after the end of the 2010 regular season that Eric Mangini will not be returning to coach the Browns. Mangini led the Browns to back to back 5–11 seasons and an overall record of 10–22 (.313), the second-worst in Browns history. Mangini is currently an analyst for ESPN. On January 13, the Browns announced that they hired Pat Shurmur, a career assistant coach who spent the last two seasons on the staff of the St. Louis Rams and from 1999–2008 on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Raiders announced on Tuesday January 4, 2011, that they will not exercise the option on Tom Cable's contract. He finishes with a 17–27 (.386) record, which included an 8–8 record in 2010, while going undefeated against division rivals, being the first team to go 6–0 against division opponents and miss the playoffs. On January 17, the Raiders announced that Hue Jackson, their previous offensive coordinator will replace Cable, who was later hired as the Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Line Coach for the Seattle Seahawks.
On January 27, it was formally announced by the Tennessee Titans that Jeff Fisher would not return to coach the team in 2011, following a dispute with quarterback Vince Young. Fisher, whose time with the team dated back to when it was still the Houston Oilers, had the longest tenure as head coach with one team among active head coaches in the league at the time of his dismissal. In 17 years with the Oilers and Titans, Fisher compiled a record of 147–126 (.538) and led the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV. Mike Munchak, who joined the Oilers in 1982 and has remained with the team as a player or coach every year since (serving most recently as offensive line coach), was promoted to the head coach position as Fisher's replacement.
The following head coaches were replaced in-season:
Del Rio was fired after compiling a 69–73 (.486) record (including postseason games) in 8¾ seasons as head coach; the team has not made the playoffs since 2007. Del Rio was fired at the same time that Wayne Weaver, the owner of the Jaguars, announced his intentions to sell the team to Pakistani-American automotive parts builder Shahid Khan.
Haley compiled a 19–27 (.413) record, including one postseason loss, in nearly 3 seasons with the Chiefs. Team ownership cited inconsistent play and a lack of progress in their decision; Haley was also cited for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in what turned out to be his final game. Crennel had previously served as head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 2005 to 2008. Crennel won his first game as the interim head coach of the Chiefs on December 18, 2011 against the then undefeated Green Bay Packers 19-14, which was significant as Crennel snapped the Packers' 19-game winning streak ended their hopes for a perfect season. Crennel finished his stint as interim head coach with a 2-1 record. On January 9, 2012 Crennel was named the team's permanent head coach.
Sparano compiled a 29–33 (.468) record, including one postseason loss, in nearly 4 seasons with the Dolphins. Ongoing speculation regarding Sparano's future in Miami prompted Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to dismiss Sparano prior to the end of the season instead of letting the speculation become a further distraction. The Dolphins intend on hiring someone from outside the organization in the 2012 offseason.
April 27: The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, home of the Oakland Raiders, was renamed Overstock.com Coliseum, and later shortened to O.co Coliseum. The Raiders' home field has undergone several name changes in its history, including Network Associates Coliseum (1998–2004) and McAfee Coliseum (2004–2008).
The first Sunday of the season fell on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. To commemorate that event players, coaches, game officials and sideline personnel all wore a special stars and stripes ribbon bearing the dates "9/11/01" and "9/11/11" as a patch or pin. Players were also allowed to wear special red, white and blue gloves and shoes.
The Buffalo Bills introduced redesigned uniforms on June 24, 2011. Early rumors fueled by a Madden NFL 12 trailer featuring a Bills throwback uniform had indicated the team would be adopting the uniforms the team wore between 1975 and 1983; the final product indeed resembled those uniforms, with some minor adjustments. The new uniforms (which marked the first redesign since 2002) were unveiled at a fan appreciation event at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills wore their white "away" uniforms in their week nine home game against the New York Jets as part of a whiteout promotion; the last time the team had worn their white uniforms at home was in 1986.
The New England Patriots' uniforms bore a patch bearing the initials "MHK" in honor of team owner Robert Kraft's wife Myra Kraft who died of cancer in July. The Patriots wore their red throwback uniforms in their week five game against the New York Jets. They wore their white jerseys at home against the Dallas Cowboys in week six, thus forcing the Cowboys to use their navy jerseys for the only time all season and the first time since 2009. As per tradition, the Cowboys wore their throwbacks on Thanksgiving Day (November 24) at home against the Miami Dolphins.
The St. Louis Rams wore their throwback uniforms in week 8 against the New Orleans Saints; the date was determined by fan voting.
The Baltimore Ravens wore their black alternative jerseys twice in 2011: with black pants against the Jets and with white pants against the 49ers.
This season was the last in which the Denver Broncos wore their navy blue jerseys as their primary jersey, as the team has designated their orange jerseys—the team's alternate home jersey since 2002—as their new primary home jersey color, beginning with the 2012 season. The move was made due to overwhelming fan support to return to using orange as the team's primary home jersey color, which harkens back to the days of the Orange Crush Defense, as well as John Elway's return to the organization as the team's executive vice president of football operations. The team had considered making the switch for the 2011 season, but were too late to notify the NFL of the changes. The team's navy blue jerseys, which had been their primary home jersey since they were first introduced in 1997, will become the alternate jerseys which will be worn in one or two home games each year.
This season was the last in which the Seattle Seahawks wore their pacific blue (or "Seahawks blue") jerseys as the team's home jersey, as the team changed their home jersey color to dark navy for the 2012 season.
End of the Reebok Era
This was the last season that Reebok exclusively supplied uniforms and sideline caps along with performance and fan apparel for all 32 teams in the league, as Nike and New Era now have the 40-year rights to manufacture on-field uniforms and fan apparel, with Nike handling uniforms and performance apparel, and New Era with on-field caps. For Reebok, this ends a 10-year exclusivity association that began in 2001.
This was the sixth season under the current television contracts with the league's television partners: CBS (all AFC afternoon away games), Fox (all NFC afternoon away games), NBC (17 Sunday Night Football games and the kickoff game), ESPN (17 Monday Night Football games over sixteen weeks), NFL Network (eight late-season games on Thursday night and Saturday nights), and DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package. These contracts run through at least 2013. ESPN extended its contract for Monday Night Football on September 8, during the opening week of the season. The new contract extended the rights for eight seasons, giving the network rights until 2021. The new deal, valued between $14.2 billion and $15.2 billion, also gave them rights to expanded highlights, international and digital rights, the Pro Bowl beginning with the 2015 installment, and possibly a Wildcard playoff game. Also, the league announced a nine-year extension with CBS, Fox and NBC on their current contracts starting with the 2014 season.
The 2011 NFL season version of "musical chairs" brought some changes. At CBS, Dick Enberg officially retired (he broadcast San Diego Padres games for Fox Sports San Diego and its predecessor, 4SD until he retired in 2016; he died in 2017), and Marv Albert replaced him, coming over from Westwood One radio. Gus Johnson has also departed CBS and will begin calling play-by-play for Fox, mostly college games as well on FX. ESPN lost both of their sideline reporters from 2010: Michele Tafoya to NBC, where she replaced the departing Andrea Kremer, and Suzy Kolber reduced the number of games she covers to work on ESPN2's new NFL32 show, which she is hosting. ESPN, who had reduced the roles of its sideline reporters in recent years in response to NFL rule changes, used only one sideline reporter for each game of the 2011 season; among the rotating reporters include Kolber, Wendi Nix, Ed Werder, Sal Paolantonio, and Rachel Nichols.
On December 22, 2010, the league announced that its national radio contract with Westwood One, which was acquired by Dial Global in the 2011 offseason, had been extended through 2014. The league also extended its contract with Sirius XM Radio through 2015. In addition to these contracts, and in a first for an NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys signed a deal to allow for nationwide broadcasts of all of its home and away games broadcast on Compass Media Networks, in addition to its existing local radio network. Compass also acquired exclusive national broadcast rights to both the International Series and Toronto Series contests.
The league did not announce plans to compensate their media partners had the season been shortened or canceled as a result of the work stoppage. NBC had ordered several low-cost reality television shows for the 2011–12 TV season in the event that Sunday Night Football could not be played, but other networks had not made public any contingency plans in the event NFL games could not be televised (in the case of CBS and Fox, the Sunday afternoon time slots could have been left unfilled and turned over to the affiliates, likely to be used for time buys by minor and extreme sports organizations, or locally programmed infomercials or movies as they are during the offseason). A work stoppage could have potentially cost these networks billions of dollars in ad revenue and other entertainment platforms that depend on the games being played. (Under the NFL's television contracts, the networks must still pay the league a rights fee regardless of whether or not the league plays any games; a March 2 ruling states that this money must be put into escrow and not be spent.) Meanwhile, the United Football League had set aside a portion of their television contract for their 2011 UFL season, as a potential package of replacement programs for the networks; while CBS and Fox briefly negotiated with the UFL regarding the package, neither network committed to carrying the games, forcing the UFL to postpone its season by a month.