Both the old and the new did their best to make a mark on the 2009 NFL season.
Representing the old was Brett Favre, who at age 40 came back to have one of his best years yet. Peyton Manning also had another monster season to lead the Colts back to the Super Bowl, and Tom Brady returned from injury to make the Patriots a top team once again. Furthermore, familiar faces like those of Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll will return to the sideline in 2010.
Then, there's the new. The Saints won their first Super Bowl ever. A first-year head coach and quarterback helped the Jets far surpass expectations. Chris Johnson became the most prolific yardage producer of all time in just his second season. And rookie linebackers stepped in and instantly wreaked havoc.
While ongoing CBA issues continue to cloud the future, they did not stop '09 from being one of the most intriguing seasons ever.
Determined by the votes of the PFW editorial staff, the 10 most significant story lines of the past year are as follows:
1. Saints win first Super Bowl in team history
Winning their first 13 games and looking like the NFC's best team for much of the season, the Saints faltered down the stretch, appearing very vulnerable as they dropped three in a row heading into the playoffs. But Sean Payton got his players refocused for a postseason run, and they proceeded to blow out the Cardinals and squeak by the Vikings to advance to their first-ever Super Bowl. Underdogs against the vaunted Colts, QB Drew Brees picked apart the Indy defense, but it was the Saints' ballhawking "D" that ultimately made the biggest play of the contest, as CB Tracy Porter picked off a fourth-quarter Peyton Manning pass and returned it for a touchdown. Becoming a beacon of hope for the still-recovering city of New Orleans, the Saints sparked "Who Dat Nation" celebrations throughout the French Quarter by winning their first Lombardi Trophy.
2. Colts pass on perfection, come up short of title
Not many teams have a realistic chance at a perfect season, but the Colts had just that opportunity in 2009. Behind another MVP season from QB Peyton Manning, Indianapolis jumped out to a 14-0 start under first-year head coach Jim Caldwell. In a Week 16 meeting with the Jets, however, Caldwell decided to rest his key players in the second half, then watched as the reserves blew a lead and went on to lose. He justified the move by saying that the No. 1 goal was to win the Super Bowl, but Colts fans didn't take too kindly to the decision. After handling the Ravens and Jets in the playoffs, Indy had a chance to redeem itself in Super Bowl XLIV; that game, however, didn't go as planned. The "D" struggled to stop Drew Brees and Co., and a late Manning interception sealed the Colts' fate and resulted in a disappointing finish to an otherwise strong campaign.
3. Little progress made in CBA talks; uncapped year looms
One of the big stories last offseason was the uncertainty surrounding the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is set to enter its final year this March. Fast-forward to today, and not much has changed. With the owners and the NFLPA making little movement in negotiations over a new CBA, all signs point toward 2010 being an uncapped season. That means teams will be able to spend as much — or as little — as they want, potentially taking away some of the competitive balance that has made the league so interesting. Free agents will be limited in their availability to sign elsewhere, as more years of service will be required in '10 to qualify for unrestricted free agency. While these are fairly minor speed bumps in the big picture, a much bigger one will be on the horizon if a deal isn't completed in the next year: a possible 2011 lockout.
4. Favre returns (again) to lead Vikings to glory
Following an up-and-down season with the Jets, QB Brett Favre retired for the second time. But, just as he did the previous year, he returned, only this time with the Vikings. What he did from there was unbelievable enough to one day be made into a Disney movie. At 40 years old, the three-time MVP put together one of his best seasons yet, throwing for 4,202 yards with an eye-popping 33-7 TD-to-interception ratio and 107.2 passer rating. The missing piece on a potent Minnesota offense, he helped the team finish with a 12-4 record and an NFC North title. Despite all his accomplishments, though, people are likely to remember his '09 season for the final play he made: an ill-advised, across-the-body throw that was picked off in the waning moments of the NFC title game, likely costing the Vikings a trip to the Super Bowl.
5. Jets reach AFC title game with rookie coach, QB
With a first-year head coach in Rex Ryan and a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez, expectations for the Jets weren't exactly through the roof in 2009 — just being competitive would have been enough for most fans. But Ryan, a defensive mastermind, quickly backed up his big talk: New York's "D" was tops in the league. Much of the credit belongs to CB Darrelle Revis, who developed into arguably the NFL's premier shutdown corner. Sanchez's season was a mixed bag, but Thomas Jones and the team's No. 1-ranked running game kept the offense in most contests, and the Jets snuck into the playoffs, thanks to their final two opponents basically rolling over. After capturing a road win in Cincinnati, Gang Green shocked league observers by winning at San Diego to advance to the AFC title game, before losing to the Colts.
6. Bengals display toughness amid tragedy
Entering the '09 season, the Bengals looked like no better than the third-place club in a top-heavy AFC North. But then an interesting thing happened: They reinvented themselves as a tough, hard-nosed football team. Clearly, it worked. Cincinnati swept its divisional foes to go 10-6 on the shoulders of RB Cedric Benson, who finished second in the league with 96.2 rushing yards per game, and a "D" that ranked No. 4. It wasn't a campaign without tumult, however. First, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer lost his wife, Vikki, in October. Then, WR Chris Henry was killed in a car accident in December. Through it all, head coach Marvin Lewis held the club together, earning Coach of the Year honors for his efforts on and off the field.
7. Johnson, Young turn Titans' season around
Things couldn't have gotten off to a more dismal start for the defending AFC South champion Titans. Jeff Fisher's troops lost six consecutive games to begin the season due largely to a pass defense that was nonexistent. But following a Week Seven bye in which Vince Young replaced Kerry Collins under center, Tennessee looked like a different team. Young proceeded to lead the Titans to five consecutive victories and eight wins in their final 10 games, salvaging the season and solidifying his starting spot for 2010. The turnaround never would have happened, though, if not for RB Chris Johnson. Running for at least 100 yards in each of the final 11 contests, the explosive second-year back led the league in rushing with 2,006 yards and set an all-time mark for yards from scrimmage in a season (2,509). Not surprisingly, he was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year.
8. Brady return, Belichick call mark Patriots' year
Perhaps no player had more attention on him to start the 2009 season than Patriots QB Tom Brady, who just one year earlier had suffered torn knee ligaments in the season opener and missed the remainder of the campaign. The '07 MVP didn't miss a beat, though, throwing for 378 yards in Week One and going on to help New England get back to the playoffs with another Pro Bowl year. But it wasn't all smiles for the Pats this season. The defense struggled at times, which was one of the main reasons for Bill Belichick's infamous fourth-down call against the Colts in Week 10. Leading 34-28, Belichick opted to go for it on 4th-and-2 from New England's own 28 with 2:08 left in the game. When Brady's completion to Kevin Faulk was marked inches short of the first down, Peyton Manning came out and led Indy to the game-winning TD. The failed, gutsy decision would go on to be scrutinized for weeks.
9. Shanahan, Carroll coming back to the NFL in '10
Jim Zorn needed to make a statement in his second year as coach of the Redskins, but noticeable regression by his club in the early going left him as a lame duck for most of the season. After finishing 4-12, the team wasted little time in dismissing Zorn. Knowing the importance of his next hire, owner Daniel Snyder aimed high by bringing in Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with the Broncos and gives the 'Skins instant credibility. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Jim Mora had a 5-11 mark in his first season at the helm there, but Seahawks brass had bigger things in mind. They let go of Mora and made a shocking splash by luring Pete Carroll away from USC. Carroll will certainly bring enthusiasm and excitement to the Pacific Northwest, but how his coaching style will go over there will be an intriguing development to follow.
10. Rookie linebackers take league by storm
Every rookie class seems to have one position group that stands above the rest, and in 2009, linebackers ruled the roost. A whopping three first-year 'backers made the Pro Bowl, led by Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing of the Texans. The Packers' Clay Matthews and Washington's Brian Orakpo — who played some defensive end, as well — were also Pro Bowlers in Year One, each finishing with double-digit sacks. In addition, the Rams' James Laurinaitis, Cincinnati's Rey Maualuga and the Lions' DeAndre Levy had fine rookie campaigns. It's likely that nobody will be forgetting about this crop of linebackers any time soon.
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