The 2021 NFL season recap is now available on RetroSeasons. Congrats to Matt Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams for winning Super Bowl LVI, on their home field at SoFi Stadium no less! The 2021 NFL season was full of ups and downs, including the passing of Hall of Fame Coach and Broadcaster John Madden.
Early round QB picks dominate the 2021 NFL Draft
The 2021 NFL Draft was held in Cleveland from April 29 to May 1. Jacksonville, with the worst record in 2020, held the first overall selection and selected QB Trevor Lawrence out of Clemson. Four other quarterbacks were selected in the first round — Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones. This was the second-highest number of first-round quarterback selections after the six selected in 1983. The draft also marked the third time the top three picks were quarterbacks, following the 1971 and 1999 drafts. A total of eight quarterbacks were selected in the first three rounds, the most in NFL Draft history. Conversely, only two quarterbacks were taken in the remaining rounds.
Scouts considered the draft to be lacking desirable prospects due to the COVID-19 pandemic shortening the 2020 college football season. The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for athletes because of the shortened season. This resulted in many prospects returning to school instead of declaring for the draft.
Rules and Officiating Changes
The NFL hired Maia Chaka as its second female official (joining Sarah Thomas) and first African-American female official.
On August 30, the league and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) agreed to COVID testing protocols. Fully vaccinated players were tested at least once per week and could opt for additional testing. Like in 2020, unvaccinated players were tested every day during the regular season and postseason except on game days.
Other significant rule changes include:
- The receiving team may have no more than nine players between 10 and 25 yards from the kickoff spot
- Overtime in preseason games was eliminated. This was the first season since 1973 in which overtime was not used in the preseason.
The league modified the jersey numbering system:
- Running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers can wear 1–49 and 80–89
- Defensive backs can wear 1–49
- Linebackers can wear 1–59 and 90–99
- The following remain unchanged
- Offensive linemen (50–79)
- Defensive linemen (50–79, 90–99)
- Quarterbacks, punters, and kickers (1–19)
Notable Retirements and Deaths in 2021
Notable retirements of perennial Pro Bowl players and Superbowl Champions included: QB Drew Brees, DT Jurrell Casey, LB Thomas Davis, WR Julian Edelman, LB Tamba Hali, G Mike Iupati, RB LeSean McCoy, C Maurkice Pouncey, C Mike Pouncey, QB Philip Rivers, WR Demaryius Thomas, K Adam Vinatieri, and TE Jason Witten.
Training camps were held from late July through August with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game being played on August 5, as Pittsburgh defeated Dallas. The two teams were previously scheduled to play the 2020 game before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Corresponding with the expansion of the regular season to 17 games, the preseason was reduced to three games per team. NFC teams each hosted two preseason games and AFC teams each hosted one. There was a league-wide bye week the weekend of September 4–5, after the final preseason game.
The 2021 NFL Regular Season just got Bigger
The 2021 NFL Season recap begins with the regular season. The season was the first to feature a 17-game regular-season schedule as the league expanded the season from 16 games. The season was played over an 18-week schedule beginning on September 9, with each of the league’s 32 teams playing 17 games, with one bye week for each team. The regular season concluded on January 9, 2022; all games during the final weekend were intra-division games, as it has been since 2010.
The 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expanded the regular season from 16 to 17 games. On March 30, 2021, owners approved the expanded schedule. The extra game was added to the existing scheduling formula. Each team continues to play the other three teams in its own division twice. Additionally, each team will play one game against each of the four teams from a division in its own conference. Each team will also play a game against each of the four teams from a division in the other conference.
The added game is a fifth interconference matchup between divisions that had played each other two years earlier, based on the position in their respective divisions the previous season (e.g. the team that finished fourth in its division plays a club that finished fourth in a division of the other conference). AFC teams host the extra game in odd-numbered years, including 2021, with NFC teams getting the extra home game in even-numbered years.
Postseason NFL 2021 Season Recap
This was the first time that the league featured a 17-game regular-season schedule. Consequently, the start of the playoffs was pushed a week later to January 15, 2022. The postseason concluded with Super Bowl LVI on February 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The NFC’s fourth seed, the Los Angeles Rams, defeated the AFC’s fourth seed, the Cincinnati Bengals.
This was the first postseason since 2010–11 where neither of the first-seeded teams made it to their respective championships and was also the first postseason since 2009–10 in which neither Aaron Rodgers nor Tom Brady reached a conference championship game. This was also the first postseason since 2012–13 to have a Super Bowl not feature Brady, Peyton Manning, or Patrick Mahomes. For the first time in history, both teams competing in the Super Bowl finished below the second seed.
Of the final seven games of the playoffs, six were decided by three points. Five of those six were decided with game-winning field goals. The only game that was not decided by three points was the divisional round game between the Chiefs and Bills, which was decided with a game-winning touchdown in overtime.
NFL 2021 Awards
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was awarded the NFL’s MVP for the second year in a row and the fourth time in his career. Rodgers led the Packers to the NFC’s number one seed, throwing for 4,115 yards and 37 touchdowns with just four interceptions in 16 games this season.
Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Kupp claimed the triple crown during the 2021 season, leading the league in receptions (145), yards (1,947), and touchdowns (16). He also played a vital role in the Rams’ road to the Super Bowl, making 11 catches for 142 yards and two TDs in the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt was crowned with the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt recorded 22.5 sacks in 2021 and tied the NFL record set by Michael Strahan with the New York Giants in 2001.
Changes to Broadcast Media for the NFL 2021 Season and Beyond
This is the eighth year under the current nine-year broadcast contracts with CBS, Fox, and NBC; and the eighth and final year under the current contract with ESPN. This includes “cross-flexing” (switching) Sunday afternoon games between CBS and Fox before or during the season, regardless of the conference of the visiting team. NBC airs Sunday Night Football, the Kickoff Game, and one Thanksgiving game. ESPN’s rights to Monday Night Football were modified this season, allowing ABC to simulcast select games (Weeks 1, 14, and 15), as well as a new Saturday doubleheader in Week 18. Thursday Night Football aired on NFL Network, with Fox, Twitch, and Prime Video, which simulcasted 11 games (weeks 5–15, excluding Thanksgiving, plus a Week 16 Saturday 4:30 pm Christmas game). This was the final season of the TNF contract with Fox and NFL Network.
NBC televised Super Bowl LVI. CBS was originally scheduled to broadcast the game under the current rotation. However, CBS traded the game to NBC in exchange for Super Bowl LV. Super Bowl LVI falls during the 2022 Winter Olympics, the first to be scheduled during an ongoing Olympic Games. NBC also holds the U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics. Due to NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Summer Olympics, the network sold its broadcast rights to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game to Fox.
Future Deals and Even More Manning
On March 18, the NFL announced its future television deals for 2023–2033, which will see CBS, Fox, and NBC maintain their existing Sunday packages with expanded digital rights for their streaming services. Thursday Night Football will move exclusively to Amazon and Twitch. ESPN also entered into a new agreement for Monday Night Football for 2022, adding the aforementioned Week 18 Saturday doubleheader beginning this season. Fox and NFL Network in May that it opted out of its final season of Thursday Night Football. As a result, Amazon will take over TNF starting next season.
On July 19, ESPN announced an agreement with Omaha Productions, the production company of Peyton Manning, to produce Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli, a supplemental telecast of Monday Night Football with Manning, his brother Eli, and guest celebrities for ten games each season on ESPN2 and ESPN+, from 2021 to 2023.
For the second consecutive season, Nickelodeon will simulcast a wild-card playoff game with CBS. The youth-friendly broadcast modifications debuted in 2020. Nickelodeon will also air a weekly NFL magazine program, NFL Slimetime, throughout the season.