The National Football League doesn’t have a true ending or beginning, but it does have a point where it stops showcasing games that count in the record book. Once the Super Bowl has been completed, the league takes the shortest of breaths before regrouping and going full speed ahead into the draft, free-agency and OTA’s. When that time on the calendar comes up, its good to take a look back at the season that was, and assess what happened, and evaluate things using the KWL strategy – What We Know, What We Want to Know, and What We Learned.
When evaluating what we know, we look at things that happened during the season that stayed true to form based on what prior knowledge we had on the situation. When evaluating what we want to know, we’ll examine things that happened that caused us to question things we previously thought we knew. Finally, when evaluating what we learned, we examine things that happened during the season that answered the questions we had entering before the season. Its probably easier to read than explain, so let’s begin.
What We Know
1.) Defense Wins Championships - “A lot has changed in the NFL in recent years, especially in 2011. Rookie quarterbacks can step into their first NFL game and throw for 400 yards, and proceed to pass for 4,000 yards. Multilple quarterbacks can throw for 5,000 yards. You don’t even need an elite running back, or even show dedication to a running game to win enough to make the playoffs.
But one thing hasn’t changed. Defense, according to recent statistcal evidence, still wins conference championships at the very least…”
I wrote that last paragraph almost a month ago before the NFC/AFC Championship Games, where I picked the 49ers and Ravens to win. Obviously I didn’t get the outcomes of those two games right, but the greater understanding of what it takes to win it all still applies. The 49ers and Ravens both lost the games on fluky offensive and special teams meltdowns, and I can’t be convinced otherwise.
Despite all the rule changes and record book re-writing happening in the modern NFL, this season’s champion New York Giants are proof that the old staple of defense winning championships still holds. A great defense will prove itself greater than a great offense every time out, and with parity limiting the amount of true greatness spreading throughout the league, a very good defense will be better than a very good offense, a good defense will be better than a good offense, an average defense will be better than an average offense, and a bad defense will be better than a bad defense. Always.
2.) Free-agency isn’t the place to look for wide receivers - Can you remember the last time a free-agent wide receiver made a significant impact on a new team. In th epast 10 seasons, the only two that come to mind are Terrell Owens and Wes Welker. Next up on this list is Anquan Boldin in 2010, who has averaged about 850 yards and 5 TDs in his two seasons with Baltimore after signing for 4 years and $20 million.
This season’s free agency wideouts were all busts, headlined by the new England Patriots acquisition of Chad Ochocinco-Johnson. Every team wants to have a reliable weapon at wideout, but this season Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Steve Smith (PHI), Mike Sims-Walker, and Steve Breaston all proved to be more “rule” than “exception”. In the cases of Sims-Walker and Edwards, they couldn’t even survive the entire season with the team they signed with.
3.) Dome teams struggle outdoors/away from home in the playoffs - The Lions lost big in New Orleans, the Saints then struggled for 3 1/2 quarters in San Francisco. Prior to 2007, dome teams were 8-29 in the playoffs. Since then they are 13-14 with one Super Bowl winner (New Orleans in 2009). For all the regular season successes of the dome offenses, it still seems like if you can get them outside in January, there is an advantage.
What We Want to Know
1.) Can accuracy be taught at the pro level? - This question, much like life itself, is all about Tim Tebow. Despite completing only 46.5 percent of his passes, and less than 2,000 yards, he led a team to a division crown, above .500 football, and a playof win. Buuuuuuuuut when Tebow isn’t playing well, he easily looks like the worst quarterback in the NFL. This offseason and early next season will have to be all about improving his accuracy issues, if that can be done. It remains to be seen if there is anything mechanical or otherwise that can happen that will make Tebow’s completion percentage jump ten points to a pretty mediocre 55. Which, ironically, would be just 1.9 percent below John Elway’s career completion percentage.
2.) When, where, and how does Peyton Manning play in 2012? - The “where” part of that question isn’t too much of a mystery; It won’t be Indianapolis. While plenty of teams could use a quarterback of Manning’s stature when he’s at his best, we still don’t know if he will be at his best. We don’t even know if he can throw to the left side of the field. We know he’s entered the Brett Favre-still-wants-to-play-but-should-maybe-probably-retire-phase of his career, but we don’t know just how much he wants to milk it.
3.) Have multiple-running-back offenses forever replaced the traditional feature back offenses? - They should. In this day and age of the NFL, it doesn’t seem to make sense to put a team’s entire rushing package on the shoulders of one back because of the injury factor alone. The Bears had their season’s hopes end not so much on the Jay Cutler injury, but the Matt Forte injury. Even though the Vikings season was dead long before Adrian Peterson went down, the dropoff in production from Peterson to Toby Gerhart wasn’t all that bad (970 yards on 4.7 ypc for Peterson, 531 for on 4.9 ypc Gerhart), even though the talent was. Looking around the NFL, thirteen teams (Jets, Vikings*, Titans, Ravens, Jags, Eagles, Bears*, Falcons, Bucs, and the entire NFC West) still use a traditional feature back offense where the back either got 150 or more carries than the second leading rusher, or the second leading rusher was a quarterback.
(Vikings’ Peterson only played 12 games. Bears’ Forte only had 89 more carries than the second leading rusher, but was also teams leading receiver at time of injury.)
What We Learned
1.) Eli Manning is an elite quarterback - But he is also the Mendoza Line for elite quarterbacks in 2012. Here’s the list, in no particular order: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roesthlisberger, and Eli Manning. If one of these five guys is starting for your team, you have a legitimate shot at winning it all. Eli called his shot at the beginning of the season, and a second Super Bowl MVP award later, he’s having his last laugh. It doesn’t feel right to some because beyond Eli’s aw-shucks demeanor, he has also been turnover prone (twice he’s thrown 20 interceptions, and four times he’s thrown more than 15 interceptions in a season). But he’s also gotten the job done in dramatic fashion on the biggest stage twice against a team led by another elite quarterback (Brady and the Pats). Eli Manning and Ben Roesthlisberger are the two elite quarterbacks who put up deceiving numbers, but can’t be underistmated when it comes to the impact they have in their team’s successes.
2.) 5,000 is the new 4,000 - In terms of passing yards for a quarterback. In 2011, three quarterbacks (Brady, Brees, and Matthew Stafford) threw for over 5,000 yards, and one more (Eli Manning) came within 77 yards of doing the same. Just as recent as 2010, no one came within 300 yards of 5,000. The rule changes deserve all the credit. Defensive players are openly stating that they now think twice before unloading on a wide receiver or tight end in the middle of the field, and without that fear, offenses are exploiting it to greater degrees than ever before. Call it progress, call it an abomination, but it is what it is.
3.) How to “Salsa” - Victor Cruz gave the NFL the most inspired touchdown celebration in a something like forever. Nine times Cruz reached the endzone for the eventual champion Giants, and nine times he gave the fans what they wanted. It was one of those rare occasions when a wideout engaged in some attention-seeking behavior in a good way, and it helped that he set a team record with 1,536 receiving yards along the way.