From a period of 2006 to 2011, the NFL reached a status that those who lived through it will never forget. From one of the greatest upsets in sports history, to the first teams in history to ever have a zero as a part of their record, the league’s popularity and the amount of impactful legacy moments skyrocketed.
This was a time in football that had the perfect balance of the eras that preceded it: the hard-hitting aggression of the ‘60s, the establishment of the ‘70s, the popularity of the ‘80s and the flashiness of the ‘90s matching with the new developments in the media of the 2000s. This formula created the greatest stretch in NFL history.
Each position through those years never lacked talent or greatness. For example, the entire decade of the 1980s saw a quarterback throw for 4,000 yards ten different times. During the 2009 campaign, ten different quarterbacks had 4,000-yard seasons.
Some of the greatest and most recognizable names in sports emerged during the golden age of ‘06 – ‘11. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton and Eli Manning, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and a multitude of others changed the game.
We saw the Manning brothers win back to back Super Bowl MVPs.
Both had to take down the best to ever do it, Tom Brady, who led the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl twice between ’06 and ’11. Super Bowl 42 saw one of the greatest upsets in sports history when the Patriots’ undefeated record for the season came to a crushing end.
How in the world did the wild card Giants beat an undefeated team that featured a multitude of hall of famers and a quarterback wide receiver combination setting records for touchdown passes and catches in a season? They proved once again the old adage; defense wins championships.
While Brady didn’t win the Super Bowl in this six-year stretch, other quarterbacks staked their place in championship lore. Drew Brees did the unthinkable leading the New Orleans Saints to the promised land for the first time in franchise history in 2010.
It was a game that witnessed an onside kick to start the second half and a hall of fame quarterback throwing a game sealing pick six to bring hope and a trophy back to a devastated region. According to CBS Sports, this was the first onside kick to be attempted outside of the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl.
Just as the Saints were on top of the football world, the Green Bay Packers decided to bring the Vince Lombardi trophy back home the next year. The game featured the champions from just two years earlier, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once again, another battle of hall of fame quarterbacks took place between Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Skill positions dominated the record books. Chargers’ hall of fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson set and still holds his record for the most rushing touchdowns in a season in ’06. A rookie Adrian Peterson the next season for the Vikings set the league record for the most rushing yards in a game.
Receivers may have been the deepest and most colorful group of the late 2000s, each one having their own style of swagger and football.
From the powerhouses of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Terrell Owens to the vertical threats of Randy Moss and Desean Jackson, to the route runners with golden hands like Larry Fitzgerald and Marcus Colston, defensive backs had their hands full. Luckily, it takes 11 to play defense against this much fire power.
While offenses flourished, don’t get it mistaken for a lack of defense. Current and future NFL hall of fame defenders made their cases for a yellow jacket in that stretch. Defensive linemen like Julius Peppers, Demarcus Ware and Terrell Suggs made quarterbacks think hard about getting rid of the ball quicker.
Behind the line were linebackers whose abilities and toughness would allow them to be an all-pro in any era. First ballot hall of famers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher made life a living hell for receivers coming across the field for a route. It was either an incomplete pass or a trip to the hospital, receiver’s choice.
If the receiver was good enough to get around them, the secondary of the late 2000s may very well be the deepest positions of the whole league in this stretch. Safeties that set the tone for a generation of hard hitters.
Names like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and the late Sean Taylor put the fear of god in receivers’ eyes. B/R Gridiron tracked well over 100 turnovers, 15 pro bowls, along with three super bowl rings to add to the resumes of these defensive backs. These safeties made it a struggle to throw the ball deep effectively.
The corners who lined up straight across the line featured hall of famers Ty Law, Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey. These corners headed the top of the all-pro list for over a decade winning multiple defensive players of the year awards and championships.
When the offense and defense struggled, players in the league like Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, and Adam Vinatieri proved the importance and x-factor moments special teams create.
Hester became the first player in super bowl history to return the opening kickoff in Super Bowl 41. Hester and Cribbs changed how coaches approached kicking off and punting in fear that these players could shift momentum of the game permanently.
All Vinatieri did was continue his stretch of clutch game winners from New England to Indianapolis. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, special teams coach Tom McMahon, who coached Vinatieri said, “They’re the best in the league, not just in terms of what they do, but in terms of men, they’re great leaders, too, and they lead by production, so that gives them that voice (in the locker room).”
From kickoffs to triple zeros, the league had plenty of moments that will live forever in history. Legendary bouts between the greatest generation of quarterbacks, NFL records galore and super bowls that came down to the final play. A time that we, as fans, will never forget.