It wasn’t just your typical pro football year, but we’ve got the usual amount of ups and downs that highlighted 2011.
What stories over the last 12 months made your list? Before my top five for ’11 are revealed, here’s a few that deserve honorable mention.
- The Canadian Football League’s Anthony Calvillo became the all-time leading passer in pro football history this year. In the passing friendly CFL, Calvillo racked up another 5,000+ yard campaign and now has 73,412 passing yards in 18 pro seasons. He’ll add to the total as all indications are that Calvillo will return for at least a 19th year, his 15th straight with the Montreal Alouettes.
- Marty Schottenheimer won his first professional football title as a head coach when he led the Virginia Destroyers to the championship in the United Football League. The Destroyers beat the two-time defending UFL champion Las Vegas Locos, coached by Jim Fassel, in the title game that ended a strange season. The third year of the UFL started later than originally planned as the league banked on success from the NFL lockout, but the big hoped for TV deals never came. Then the season was cut short before the championship as the league needed to cut back on expenses. The quality of the UFL for the first three years has been good and here’s to hoping the league can bounce back and build in the right direction.
- Arian Foster turned fantasy football drafts into mayhem as he tweeted an MRI of his injured hamstring in August. Real doctors analyzed the MRI and everyone else became a doctor in trying to determine the extent of the damage. Many came away with the opinion that the hamstring didn’t look good and Foster fell from the top spot in nearly every fantasy draft after that until the season started. The joke ended up being on almost all of those who passed him up. Foster did miss a little time early on, but when it counted he proved he’s likely the #1 player to draft in fantasy in 2012.
- On October 23rd, tight end Tony Gonzalez moved from fourth to second on the all-time receptions list and trails only Jerry Rice in the category. Gonzo is finishing up his third season in Atlanta and remains an extremely effective offensive weapon after 15 years in the NFL, including the first 12 with the Kansas City Chiefs. Gonzalez currently has 1,148 catches and it’ll be years before anyone comes within a sniff of his total. He won’t catch Rice, who retired with 1,549 receptions, but will be a certain first ballot Hall of Famer when he does decide to hang up the cleats.
- Drew Brees etched his name in NFL history as he broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old record for most passing yards in a season. He accomplished the feat in 15 games and set the mark in slightly unusual fashion. With his New Orleans Saints comfortably in front of the Atlanta Falcons in the final minutes on Monday Night Football, the Saints decided to go for the record and let Brees continue to pass. He passed Marino on a 9-yard TD toss to Darren Sproles with only 2:51 to go, putting New Orleans up 45-16 over its NFC South rival. Brees, who heads into the season finale with 5,084 passing yards, is as classy of a superstar you’ll ever come across, but one has to wonder if the Falcons will store in their memory bank what happened to them at the end of the game and do something about it when the franchises meet again, possibly as early as this season’s playoffs. Also not out of the realm of possibility is that New England QB Tom Brady could pass Brees for the passing yardage title and all-time single season record in Week 17. Stay tuned.
- Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers got into the 2010 season’s playoffs as the final seed in the NFC. That didn’t matter. They knocked off everyone along the way to the Super Bowl XLV title and Rodgers, in his then third season as the starter, equaled Brett Favre in Super Bowl victories for the Pack. Rodgers has a legitimate chance to pass the famed #4 this year in Super Bowl titles and he’s had one of the all-time great seasons for a QB. He heads into the final week of the season with 45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Green Bay ran off 13 wins to start to the season and currently stands 14-1. They’ll go into the NFC playoffs this time around with home field advantage throughout. Are they headed back to the big game?
Now on to the selections for the top five of 2011:
#5 Farewell to a legend
Whether you loved him or not, Al Davis had as much to do with the NFL being what it is today as anyone and for that he deserves a sincere thank you. Davis, the long-time maverick owner of the Oakland Raiders passed away during the 2011 season and left behind a football legacy hard to match.
If you don’t know everything he did as a football man, even long before he became the Raiders owner, research it and learn. Every football fan needs to understand Davis’ impact on the game, dating back to the AFL days.
A day after his passing, his beloved Raiders won an emotional game in Houston and not long after that Oakland was involved in the trade of the season as it dealt a first-round pick and either a second-round pick or another first-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for “retired” quarterback Carson Palmer.
It certainly seemed like a lot to give up and only time will tell if the move was worth it, but one has to wonder if that was a deal that would’ve happened under Davis’ watch?
#4 How good was #18?
None of us ever doubted the greatness of Peyton Manning. However, his status as one of the legendary figures in NFL history grew this year without him taking a snap.
Late in the summer it was announced that Manning might not be ready in time for the regular season because he hadn’t recovered from a neck surgery. Then the news worsened as he needed another procedure on his neck – his third in less than 20 months – and he would miss most, if not all, of 2011.
Manning had led the Colts to nine straight playoff appearances and two Super Bowls with one win in the big game (Super Bowl XLI). So the team had to be pretty good even if the great QBs streak of 227 consecutive starts would come to an end, right? Forget it.
Without #18 under center, Indy began the year with 13 straight losses. Manning won’t play this season and a potential controversy could develop if the Colts get the #1 pick in the next NFL Draft. That pick might be used on Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Can Manning and Luck co-exist or has the future first ballot Hall of Fame lock played his last game with the Colts or with anyone else?
Manning’s story will be among the biggest ones to watch following Super Bowl XLVI, which, of course, is being played in Indianapolis.
#3 Drama in Denver
The Denver Broncos got off to an awful start at 1-4 and new coach John Fox knew he needed to make a change. He gave the fans what they were asking for and installed Tim Tebow as the new starter at quarterback, replacing Kyle Orton.
Tebow split his first two starts – a dramatic fourth-quarter rally that helped the Broncos beat the Dolphins in Miami and a painful blowout loss at home to the Detroit Lions. Then magic happened as Denver changed up the offense to suit Tebow’s strengths and ran off six straight improbable heart-stopping wins. All of a sudden the Broncos were 8-5 and in first place in the AFC West.
Along the way, Tebow became the most polarizing figure in the NFL by far and was even parodied in a Saturday Night Live skit.
Denver will close out its regular season at home against Kansas City and a Broncos win guarantees them the division title and its first playoff appearance in six years. Ironically, because sports always works out this way, the Chiefs quarterback on Sunday is none other than Orton, who was claimed off of waivers by KC after he asked for his release. More drama to come.
#2 – The stomp heard round the world
Hardcore football fans know everything about the game at all times. The casual fan doesn’t watch all season, but likely has the TV on the action on a day like Thanksgiving. This year’s turkey games were exciting on paper and it was going to be great to see the upstart Detroit Lions host the undefeated defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Then came the insane stomp – something the league certainly didn’t need on a day it’s trying to promote its product to families everywhere.
Ndamukong Suh has earned a reputation as the game’s dirtiest player and the extremely talented Detroit defensive lineman only enhanced it with his actions at the 9:16 mark of the third quarter on Thanksgiving Day. For reasons only known to him, Suh completely lost his mind following a play and started smashing the head of Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith into the ground. While being pulled off, Suh added to it with an intentional stomp on Dietrich-Smith. At least one official saw it, flagged Suh for unsportsmanlike conduct and tossed him from the game.
When Suh was interviewed about the incident following the contest – hours after the pathetic act – he had some lame excuse about trying to gain his balance instead of simply apologizing. At that point, I’d have suspended him for the rest of the season.
A few days passed before the league announced that Suh was banned for the next two games. He’s since returned and is a big part of Detroit’s upcoming playoff appearance, the first for the franchise in more than a decade. Suh seems like a very nice guy off of the field and only time will tell if he’s a changed person on it. Another act like his Thanksgiving Day nonsense and he shouldn’t see the football field again for at least a calendar year.
#1 – No entry allowed
The gates were closed and players were turned away as the NFL owners locked out the players after Super Bowl XLV and it got ugly for a while during the 132-day lockout. Players argued with owners, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and each other – remember the twitter commentary between Matt Hasselbeck and Antonio Cromartie?
Eventually everything, as expected, was settled, and well in time for no real damage to be done to the season. Only one preseason game, albeit the Hall of Fame Game, was lost and the fear of fans that there wouldn’t be a season became a distant memory.
The new labor deal was for 10 years so we won’t have to go through that nonsense again until 2021 and hopefully this time around, everyone will be smart enough to re-do the deal years in advance.
Share your comments and thoughts on the list and note your own in the facebook commentary section below. Happy New Year everyone and here’s to more football greatness in 2012!