NFL Regular Season breakdown
Monday, December 29, 2008 | Author: Mad Typist
Wow, what a great final week. I'm back from Hawaii, and while I didn't get a column out every single week like I had hoped, overall, I got some great responses from you readers out there on my NFL Weekly breakdown posts. I hope you enjoyed reading them.

A few final observations on the 2008 regular NFL season.

Year of the Turnaround. Anyone who tells you that they saw the Falcons, Dolphins and Ravens all making the playoffs at the beginning of the year is a liar. Just one franchise's success would have been dubbed a true Cinderella story. To have 3 franchises turn it around so quickly in a single season is remarkable.

What I liked about these teams is that they earned their playoff spots the hard way. The Falcons had a grueling schedule, plus a rookie QB to break in. They had to defeat the Bears, Packers, Panthers, Saints, Bucs and Vikings this season. Looking at what those teams bring to the table, you have to give Atlanta defense props for being able to handle the huge passing game of the Saints, as well as the rushing game of the Panthers and Vikings. You have to give the offense credit for standing tall in the face of the Carolina, Chicago and Tampa Bay defenses.

The Dolphins were a great story not only because of their turnaround as a team, but also because they were helmed by a QB who was writing his own Disney-esque Comeback Kid story. When you hear the phrase "Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy", the "nicer guy" you should think of is Chad Pennington. His leadership and steady play were a big part of why the team was able to win so many close games. He's a seemingly nice guy, with a great work ethic and absolutely no sense of drama or entitlement about him. That was a perfect fit for the kind of team Parcells and Sparano were trying to put together. I watched the Jets-Dolphins game and was struck at what a nice quick release Pennington had, and how gorgeous his 2 TD passes were.

The Ravens defense was great as usual. For all the talk about Ray Lewis's antics off the field (true or not), I still can't help but admire the intensity and leadership he brings on the field. It's nice to see him and Ed Reed getting at least one more shot in their illustrious careers at the post-season (I'm not sure how many more years they've got left in their NFL career at this stage). But the real story here is that the Ravens finally have an offense (headed up by a rookie QB no less!) that's capable up putting up serious numbers. The Ravens have a trio of backs that are capable of pulling off the big run. Joe Flacco is looking more and more comfortable every week, and he's shown that he can put up some gaudy long throws, which should help keep defenses from completely stacking the box and blitzing him too much.

Year of the Epic Fail. As Don Banks astutely observed in his column, this was also a year of unprecedented second half implosions from teams that started hot.
The Bucs were 9-3, but became the first team since the 1993 Dolphins to have that record after 12 games and still miss the playoffs. The Jets were 8-3, won just once more and missed the postseason at 9-7. The Cowboys had their 1-3 December to doom their season, while the Broncos coughed up a historic three-game lead with three weeks remaining.

Buffalo was 5-1 and finished 7-9, and Washington wound up 8-8 after starting 6-2. And then there were the Cardinals, who collapsed but were still forced to make the playoffs out of the mild, mild NFC West.

When they say "Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy", and they mean it in a totally sarcastic way, the "nicer guy" they mean is Jerry Jones and the rest of his merry band of 'boys. My apologies to the Dallas fans out there, but really, I laughed my butt off at the Eagles/Cowboys game. I find it ironic that the only time I really saw the Cowboys acting like a team was when they were managing to fail in such epic fashion. Because if ever there was a definition of team failure, this Sunday was it. The Cowboys were bad on all fronts - offense, defense and special teams. I also enjoyed how the team bonded together to throw offensive coordinator Jason Garrett under the bus, with perennial team player Terrell Owens and the beleaguered Tony Romo both intimating in post-game interviews that the problem wasn't the players, it was the system that failed.

The Cowboys and Jones need to learn that you don't win championships by collecting together individual stars. You win by creating a coherent team. The Dolphins didn't put up gaudy individual stats, but they still made the playoffs by coming together as a team. It doesn't matter if you catch 15 passes for 200+ yards (*cough cough* TO *cough cough*) it matters if you make 1 catch for 3 yards when it matters.

To quote another favorite phrase, "Offense wins games, defense wins championships." If you look at the favored contenders for the Super Bowl - Tennessee, Pittsburgh, New York, Carolina - you'll see that all 4 have defenses that have stepped up in a big way this year (along with Baltimore, of course). If you look at the teams that imploded, like the Broncos, Saints and Bucs, you'll see that the defenses collapsed. If you look at the teams that sucked all year long - the Chiefs, Lions and Rams - you'll again see a consistent pattern of poor defense.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the most epic of all fails, the Detroit Lions going 0-16. There's not much to say here - with the new announcement that the two men who aided Matt Millen in his failure as GM would be staying on in Detroit, it doesn't seem like this team has any hope of a Miami-like turnaround next year. It just looks like more of the same. They have a nice set of draft picks from Dallas via the Roy Williams trade, but will they just waste them all on WRs? They are also saddled with the #1 draft pick, which means they have several college players they can go ahead and overpay to underachieve. Fear not, players entering the draft (or thinking about it, and yes, I mean YOU, Sam Bradford) - Detroit has thus far proved themselves unable to draft wisely, so the better you are, the more unlikely you are to be drafted by the Lions.

Wild Ass Speculation update. In my Week 10 post, I posted the following 5 points of wild speculation:
  • The Atlanta Falcons will make the playoffs as a wild card and win their first playoff game.
  • The Dolphins will win the AFC East
  • The Titans will be the #1 seed in the AFC.
  • Young QB Matt Ryan will be rookie of the year
  • Old QB Kurt Warner will be league MVP
Not too bad, eh? While the second half of my prediction about the Falcons has yet to be proven, the fact that they've drawn the tanking Cardinals definitely puts them in a situation where they can win their first round playoff game. I'm fairly certain that Ryan will be rookie of the year at this point, though you never know what the voters will do in the end. The only prediction I seem to be off the mark on is Warner for MVP - the Cardinals downturn in the past 4 games makes that prediction now seem unlikely.

Here is some more wild speculation about the post-season:
  • Give it up for the wild cards. I predict that at least 3 of the 4 wildcards will win their first game, due to the relative weakness of certain divisions. The Falcons, Colts and Ravens are all in games that they can win for sure, and even the Eagles have to feel like they can compete with a Vikings team that only managed to squeak out a 10-9 victory even with multiple Giants starters on the sideline for most of the game.
  • The #1 and #2 seeds in both conferences should meet for the conference championships. The Giants, Steelers, Panthers and Titans just look too tough to go down to the other playoff teams.
  • Peyton Manning for MVP.
  • Panthers and Titans in the Super Bowl.
  • Tarvaris Jackson will not have a good post-season, and the Vikings will need to think about courting a guy like Matt Cassel.
  • Brett Favre will retire, and stayed retired this time.
As usual, feel free to make your own wild guesses for the post-season in the comments (or to ruthlessly mock my guesses).

Studs of the year. There are so many great players here, I'm going to list them by position.

Quarterback. Though he fell short of Dan Marino's record, you have to admire not only the numbers Drew Brees put up (5069 yds, 34 TD, 65% completion pct), but also the intense competitiveness and leadership he brings to the Saints year after year. Matt Cassel (3693 yds, 21 TD, 60% completion pct) endured unbelievable pressure stepping in for the future hall of famer Tom Brady, and performed like a true champ. He's going to make a lot of money next year, and frankly, he deserves to. Don't overlook the fact that he also showed grit by running for 270 yds this year as well. I think Philip Rivers is sort of a dick, but it's a crime that a guy who passed for 4009 yds and 34 TD (passer rating 105.5) and resurrected his team's playoff chances after a disasterous start didn't make the Pro Bowl while Brett Favre did. He stumbled a bit at the end of the year, but also didn't have much of a running game to help him out, so I still have much love for Kurt Warner (4583 yds, 30 TD, 67.1% completion pct). I've decided that Peyton Manning (4002 yds, 27 TD, 66.8% completion pct) is a robot. Just look at his career stats, and realize that this guy has started EVERY regular season game, and has passed for over 4,000 yards in 9 out of his 11 seasons.

Running Back. Normally, I'd advocate more strongly for Matt Ryan as MVP, but Michael Turner (1699 yds, 17 TD) was an even bigger part of the Falcons' turnaround this season. If he had stayed healthy and the Redskins had played just a little better, Clinton Portis (1487 yds, 9 TD) would have been in the mix for league MVP this year. DeAngelo Williams (1515 yds, 18 TD) overcame a slow start and was a TD machine in the late part of the season. Though his fumbles are troubling, no one is more terrifying once he makes it past the first line of defense than the NFL rushing champ Adrian Peterson (1760 yds, 10 TD). Though the other two Giants backs are also key to the team's success, without Brandon Jacobs (1089 yds, 15 TD) in the game, the Giants just aren't as effective rushing the ball. Steve Slaton (1282 yds, 9 TD) had a stellar rookie year, and it looks like the Texans have finally solved their problems at the RB position. Another player who is in the mix for rookie of the year is the outstanding Chris Johnson (1228 yds, 9 TD).

Wide Receiver. The Texans were out of the playoff picture pretty early, so most of America is still tragically unaware of how spectacular Andre Johnson is at WR (115 rec, 1575 yds, 8 TD). Similarly, the nation was so focused on how bad the Lions were, that many overlooked the amazing season Calvin Johnson had (78 rec, 1331 yds, 12 TD), even with all the turmoil and poor play at the QB position. Larry Fitzgerald (96 rec, 1431 yds, 12 TD) justified the huge raise the Cardinals gave him by improving on his already stellar stats from last season. Now the Cards need to get smart, look at the how tough Anquan Boldin (89 rec, 1038 yds, 11 TD) played (didn't hold out even though he wasn't happy with his pay, gave 110%, and came back early from that savage hit that literally broke his face against the Jets) and give him the raise he earned this season too. At only 5'9", Steve Smith (78 rec, 1421 yds, 6 TD) still has the best hands in the game. When I talked above about making the catch when it truly matters in a game, no one embodies that concept more than Smith. Another little guy who plays like a man twice his size is Wes Welker (111 rec, 1165 yds, 3 TD) who had over 100 catches, many of them on difficult crossing routes where he knew he was going to take the big hit.

Duds of the year. The following players underperformed based on the amount of attention and/or money they demanded from their team: Braylon Edwards dropped a ton of passes (a lot of them crucial), and yet it was poor Derek Anderson who got the boot. Terrell Owens was kind enough to wait until his 3rd year with the Cowboys before returning to his divisive ways. I'm sure a lot of fantasy owners were thrilled when Roy Williams was traded to the Cowboys, but frankly, his stats were better when he was with the Lions. I know Javon Walker is a troubled man, but he was a bust considering the massive salary the Raiders paid him (though I blame Al Davis more than Walker for the way the season played out). Of course, maybe Walker's numbers would have been better if JaMarcus Russell could have been trusted to throw more thatn 368 times for the whole season. Shouldn't the #1 overall pick who's making ten of millions of guaranteed dollars be performing at a higher level by the end of his second season? Not only is Larry Johnson completely burned out as a viable starting RB, he's also apparently not a very nice person.

And of course, I need not explain why Plaxico Burress is the dud of the year.
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