Where has it all gone so quickly, and how is it possible we all forget so soon? Wasn't it just yesterday that NFL facilities were padlocked, players were forbidden on the premises, and training camps failed to open on time for the first time ever? It seemed Armageddon was at hand and that the NFL, as we knew it, was in jeopardy. Yet, here we are, on the road to Indianapolis, having enjoyed one of the greater NFL regular seasons and playoffs in history. What happened?
First, the owners and players came to their senses, and just at the point where real damage was about to be done, both sides agreed to do what they had to do to avoid killing the golden goose. Based on where the old Collective Bargaining Agreement expired and the new 10-year deal began, it's hard to argue anything other than the owners won and the players gave and then gave some more. The owners will now receive a greater share of total football revenues, all of the restrictions on free agency from the old CBA remain in place, there is now a rookie wage scale that will dramatically limit compensation for players in their first five years in the league, and the players gave up judicial oversight of the CBA in the federal courts, the only place the players have ever had a victory or even a draw with the owners. The players did gain what they hope will be some new protections in player safety — shorter offseason workout programs, less contact in practice, etc. — and new contributions to benefits for retired players, but it's unclear how much of those benefits comes out of the owners' pockets and how much from the players' share of revenues.
The bottom line is that while the owners clearly won the negotiation, this CBA could still turn out to be a very good deal for both sides, depending on how much the total revenues increase over the next 10 years. Most importantly for all of us, after all the threats and scares, only one meaningless preseason game was lost, and the regular season started right on time.
And what a kickoff it was, as the Saints went to Lambeau Field on the second Thursday in September and put on an air show in a 42-34 Green Bay victory previewing exactly what the 2011 season would be all about. Not to be outdone, the Ravens hung 35 on the defending AFC champion Steelers in a beat-down at Baltimore; the Bears knocked off many folks' preseason NFC favorite, the Falcons, scoring 30 in a game that was never close; the Pats smacked the Dolphins 38-24; and in two games that went relatively unnoticed, the 49ers beat Seattle 33-17, and the Texans spanked the Colts 34-7. A season in which offenses would rule and defense would become an afterthought was officially under way.
Rewind for a moment, if you will, to that Texans-Colts game, and we'll find the first huge story of 2011, which is already threatening to be the biggest story of 2012, as well. For the first time since 1997 the Colts began a season with someone other than Peyton Manning at quarterback. After three neck surgeries in the prior 19 months, the third during training camp, Manning would be sidelined for the entire season. Although many assumed that might mean the end of the Colts' NFL-record-tying nine straight playoff appearances, none of us could have imagined it would turn them into a club that would lose its first 13 games, finish 2-14 and cost Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell their jobs. Now, we stay tuned, as no one, including Manning, seems to know if he'll ever play again, whether he'll be the Colts' starter in 2012 or if the Redskins, Dolphins, Jets or Cardinals, among others, will be successful in acquiring him this offseason.
On Oct. 8, just four weeks into the season, Al Davis died. For all of you who measure the history of the game from the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, it is hard to argue that the NFL had a more influential or controversial figure than Davis. As the owner of the Raiders and commissioner of the AFL, it was Davis who conceived and implemented the strategy of forcing bidding wars and outspending the senior circuit for all of the game's top stars or forcing it to overpay for those it kept, forcing the eventual merger. The game is a great deal poorer without him, but perhaps it was fitting that the Sid Gillman protégé who loved the vertical passing game and throwing the football down the field like most of us love breathing should end his long battle with declining health in the NFL's year of the offense.
As we mourned the death of Davis, it was becoming clear early in the season that the Texans, 49ers, Lions and Bengals were through being doormats. And it was just a day after Davis' death that Denver hosted San Diego and, trailing 23-10 at the half, decided to sit starting QB Kyle Orton and give Tim Tebow the keys to the car to start the third quarter. After missing his first five passes, Tebow began a furious rally with his feet halfway through the fourth quarter and put up 14 points, coming up just short in a 29-24 loss. It was enough to earn Tebow a start, and he would go on to set quarterback play in the NFL back 50 years but nonetheless lead the Broncos to seven wins in their next eight games and become the dominant story and conversation piece of 2011.
In spite of the controversy and, in many cases, scorn that Tebow's play generated, this past season would be first, last and foremost about offenses and the quarterbacks that led them, particularly the rookies. Few have entered the league to the mixed reviews Cam Newton did in Carolina, no one could have imagined the impact Andy Dalton would have on the Bengals, and before long, Jake Locker would be seeing action in Tennessee, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder had taken over for the Jaguars and Vikings, respectively, and fifth-round draft choice T.J. Yates was forced to take over the Texans after both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down with the Texans, at 7-3, tied for the best record in the AFC.
It was Newton, though, who would set records that may never be approached, passing for an NFL rookie-record 4,051 yards and rushing for 14 TDs, more than any quarterback of any experience had ever achieved in a single season. He also led a Carolina team that had gone 2-14, earning the right to draft him, to six wins, including four of its last six games, serving notice that a new breed of QB had arrived.
Perhaps the biggest story of the season, however, was that the old breed is doing just fine. By the time the regular season ended, the Saints, Packers and Patriots boasted the league's best three offenses — in fact, three of the best of all time — and also had three of the league's more porous defenses. And they were easily the three odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl, in large part because their signalcallers — Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady — had given us three of the greatest quarterbacking seasons of all time. Both Brees and Brady easily surpassed Dan Marino's single-season passing record of 5,084 yards, and Rodgers set a new single-season record for passer rating at 122.5, throwing 45 TDs and just six interceptions.
So, as the playoffs arrived and just when we thought a new day had dawned in the NFL, what happened? The defenses took over. Certainly the incredible offensive explosion of 2011 will long be remembered and most likely continue to impact the league in the years to come. But after the Saints and Packers went down in the divisional playoffs at the hands of the 49ers and Giants, respectively, Championship Sunday arrived and we were reminded once again that it's defense and special teams that win championships.
Most believed the Ravens arrived in Foxborough for the AFC title game on the strength of their defense and in spite of the offense. Yet, there was Joe Flacco outplaying Tom Brady (in arguably the worst playoff game of his career) and the Patriots' defense playing its best game of the season behind DT Vince Wilfork, sending the Patriots to Indianapolis. It was a classic defensive struggle, only to be outdone by the NFC war to come.
For those of you who have come to believe that the season's opening game between the Packers and the Saints is the way the game is supposed to be played in today's NFL, I'm sure the NFC title game was boring. For those of us who still believe in defense, kill shots and snot-bubblers, there was more of them in the NFC title game than we've seen in a number of years, and I believe it was one of the better conference title games in a very long time.
Certainly where it leaves us is with a Super Bowl to drool over. We now have a rematch of the game four years ago, in which the Giants pulled one of the game's bigger upsets and ended the Patriots' date with destiny on their march to just the NFL's second perfect season and first ever at 19-0. New England and Brady will come in bent on revenge, and the Giants have no chance of sneaking under the radar this time. What the Giants will bring is an offense capable of challenging the Pats' suspect pass "D," as well as the game's best defensive line now playing at its peak.
The Pats are guaranteed to show us at least a few things we've never seen before, and one of the more explosive offenses in history. These two teams will arrive in Indianapolis, with all of us wondering whether the defenses will rule again, or whether it will be bombs-away for Super Bowl rings. The only thing we should bet on is that it will most likely come down to the final gun again.