Top 10 Storylines From the 2012 NFL Season
What an incredible NFL season it has been so far. I believe you could apply that statement to any year, and the 2012 season is no exception. Let's think about some of the incredible things we've witnessed as fans of the greatest sport in the world.
Start with the most important position in the world of professional sports: quarterback. You've got quarterback play at an all-time high, with veterans Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees nearing what should be the end of their careers, but not slowing down at all. You've got Aaron Rodgers putting up guady numbers and he's still probably got another decade before he hangs up his cleats as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. And you've got some young, new talent, particularly two of the most-talked about players in the league in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
Through nine weeks and eight or nine games for most teams, there's only one undefeated team and no team without a victory. The first overall draft pick could go to a handful of teams, and there's no player currently on track to break any of the prominent single-season records, unlike last season, when Brees threw for 5476 yards and shattered the single-season record of 5084 passing yards.
But you don't need records or an 0-8 team to have some pretty exciting storylines in the NFL, and this year has had no shortage of them. The following 10 slides will highlight, in reverse order, the 10 most interesting storylines of the season.
10. No Tim Tebow in New York
How could I possibly write a top 10 storylines slideshow and not mention Tim Tebow? True, the New York Jets' backup quarterback hasn't been playing much this season. In fact, he's thrown just three passes, despite high expectations from a majority of NFL fans and experts that he would take the starting job from struggling veteran Mark Sanchez within the first five or six games of the year.
Sanchez is still the Jets' quarterback, despite eight interceptions and seven fumbles in just eight games. He ranks 32nd among 34 qualifying quarterbacks in QBR and I would be surprised if he finishes the season as the starting quarterback, contrary to Rex Ryan's comments supporting him.
Don't expect Tebow Time to rival 2011 though. He's not going to lead six fourth quarter comebacks or win a playoff game. Then again, nobody expected that in 2011 so we'll have to see what happens.
9. Saints struggling after Bountygate
I don't think anybody expected the loss of Sean Payton this season to affect the New Orleans Saints as much as it has. They're just 3-5, and their defense is on track to allow the most total yards in a season in the history of the National Football League. They've surrendered more than 400 yards in all seven games. That's laughably bad.
Their offense is still efficient, thanks to veteran MVP-caliber quarterback Drew Brees, but it's hard to deny that this is a lost year for the organization. Their main focus now should be re-signing Payton for the 2013 season (and beyond).
8. Atlanta Falcons undefeated
There's just one undefeated team in the NFL this season, and it's your Atlanta Falcons. They're 8-0, with quarterback Matt Ryan playing like an MVP candidate. Michael Turner is having a much better season than most have expected, and Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez are as unstoppable as any group of receivers and tight end in the game.
But I'm still not sold on the Falcons as a Super Bowl team. Not even close. They've beaten just one team that will reach the playoffs this season and they're not winning a lot of blowouts, which is the mark of a dominant football team. Until they win a postseason game (or a couple), Ryan and the Falcons will be remembered for their postseason failures.
7. Replacement refs
Oh, yeah. The replacement refs were this year. A lot of fans have already forgot about that, but for the first couple weeks of the season, ESPN's coverage was dominated by bad calls from the replacement refs.
The most memorable was the Monday Night Football game in Seattle when quarterback Russell Wilson threw a walkoff Hail Mary to defeat the Green Bay Packers on the final play of the game. The play, of course, should have been ruled an interception by Packers' defensive back MD Jennings, but the refs ruled that Golden Tate had come down with the touchdown. Of course, here's my theory on why they called it a touchdown.
6. End of the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia
Following 14 seasons in Philadelphia, the Andy Reid era is finally coming to a close. It's all but official. Owner Jeffrey Lurie stated before the start of the season that another 8-8 record would be unacceptable and the team would need to show substantial improvement for Reid to keep his job. Let's just say that hasn't happened yet.
The Eagles started the season with a 3-1 record, all dramatic fourth quarter comeback victories, but they have since faltered, losing four in a row for just the fourth time in the Andy Reid era. Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo during the bye week, but new coordinator Todd Bowles hasn't improved the defense at all in his two-game stint with the Eagles.
The only way Reid could stay is if he somehow led the Eagles to a postseason record and multiple victories, but I don't see any chance of that happening, especially with the struggles by Michael Vick and the injuries to the offensive line.
5. Comeback Players of the Year
The race for Comeback Player of the Year is going to be a pretty close one. The way I see it, there are three strong candidates: Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, and Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles.
Manning is the odds-on favorite. He's probably been the best player in the league this season, with a QBR that would rank as the second best in history (since ESPN started tracking it in 2008). He has the Broncos en route to an easy division title and I wouldn't be surprised at all if he took home his fifth MVP award. He looks nothing like a player who had four neck surgeries in 2011.
Adrian Peterson has enhanced his reputation as the best running back in the game, rushing for 957 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.7 yards per carry. He's on track to take home his second rushing title, and he's doing it despite tearing his ACL last December.
Oh, and there's Jamaal Charles, who has 634 rushing yards (4.8 yards per rush) and two touchdowns, made even more impressive because he's the only offensive weapon on the Chiefs. He too tore his ACL last season and has had absolutely no ill effects this season.
4. High-scoring offenses
The 2012 season is the highest scoring season since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, with teams averaging 22.9 points per game. Only the 1948 season (23.2 points per team per game) and 1965 (23.1) were higher scoring seasons. By comparison, the 2009 season featured 21.0 points per team per game, which is a significant decline from this season.
The biggest reason why? Quarterbacks. They're as dominant as ever, with players like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees just completely re-writing the record books. Expect Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III to join them in a few years (or now).
3. Rookie quarterbacks thriving
There were a record five starting quarterbacks in week one this season. Two of them are completely dominating, but they're performing so well that I'm going to address them in one of the two remaining slides. Two of the other three (Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill) are playing above expectations, and Brandon Weeden is playing at expectations, but improving each week.
Don't look now, but Luck has already tied the record for wins in his first season by a number one overall pick. RGIII should be a top ten MVP candidate. Wilson has the Seahawks right in the playoff picture, and he's shown tremendous clutch ability. Tannehill has the Dolphins exceeding all expectations. And Weeden is at least keeping the Browns in a lot of games, despite their weak offense.
Never have rookie quarterbacks come into the league and dominated this quickly. The 2004 draft is one that will go down as one of the greatest in history, as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger were all selected in the first 11 picks. But Eli was terrible in nine starts as a rookie and Rivers didn't start a game. Only Roethlisberger played well, leading the Steelers to the AFC championship game.
2. Wide-open Super Bowl race
Usually, one or two NFL teams separate themselves from the rest of the competition by the midpoint of the season. That hasn't happened this year.
I believe you could make a case that the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, and Houston Texans are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and the six could literally be ranked in any order. I'd put the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Denver Broncos just a step below.
Then there's a huge drop off. Who's your next best team? The Seattle Seahawks? Detroit Lions? Indianapolis Colts?
It's unbelievable. You've got your top 10 teams, but then you can group the next 10 to 15 teams together. I don't expect the divisional races to be exciting in the final weeks. But I think the postseason is going to be extremely entertaining because you're going to have some pretty legitimate teams getting eliminated in the wild card round.
1. Andrew Luck vs RGIII
This is the baseball version of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. RGIII is like Mike Trout. He's the sexy player with the big numbers, the dynamic plays, and the unexpected immediate domination. But Luck is Harper. They're both among the biggest prospects in their sport's history. They're five-tool players with virtually no weaknesses. They're intelligent, team leaders, and they have the potential to rank among the greatest in history. RGIII may be a little bit better in 2012 (like Trout), but Luck is the player you want for the next 15 seasons (like Harper).
The two of them have absolutely captivated the NFL world this season. Luck has the Colts at 6-3 and in the driver's seat for a playoff spot, while RGIII has been singlehandedly keeping the Redskins in almost every game despite limited offensive weapons.
I expect both to be among the game's ten best quarterbacks by the end of the season and I really wouldn't be surprised to see Luck, and possibly RGIII, among the greatest in history.