2011 is an exciting year for the NFL. Fans witnessed the rise of unexpected players and falls of former glorious teams. Unfortunate injuries doomed several franchises and some inspiring stories struck the fans' hearts.
As the season winds to an end, each team can take something away from the past 16 weeks. Good or bad, each team can find something to cheer for and something to improve on.
The Cardinals sacrificed a lot to lure Kevin Kolb to the desert. Expectations were high at the beginning of the season for Kolb. He was expected to be the quarterback who can elevate the Arizona's passing game, something that has been lost since the retirement of Kurt Warner.
Although hopes were high, so were the doubts. Kolb was an unproven quarterback who was never given an important role in Philly. Needless to say, Kolb underachieved. His numbers weren't all that bad, but he failed to win games and was injured half the time.
The Cards gave up way too much for Kevin Kolb. Signing him was like buying a stock that's only been on the market for three days. With little to no prior trend to even vaguely predict its future direction, the transaction was more of a gamble than a calculated investment.
Kolb better step up and prove himself next season, otherwise he will lose his job and Larry Fitzgerald.
The Falcons had quite a bit of success in 2011. They finished the season with a 10-6 record and made the playoffs again. The key to their success is their balanced offensive attack.
The Falcons had three players with more than 800 receiving yards, led by Roddy White's 1,296. Julio Jones was a very solid addition, catching for 959 yards and eight TDs in just his first year in the league.
Even at Tony Gonzalez's advanced age of 35, he still managed to accumulate 875 yards and seven touchdowns. Atlanta's ground game was led by thunder-thigh Michael Turner, who was the third-leading rusher in the league.
The best news for the Falcons, though, is that beside Tony Gonzalez, their offensive core is still young. Right now, they need to keep developing young players and figure out a way to not suck in the postseason.
Ray is still one of the better linebackers in this league. But it's clear that he is less dominant than before and injuries are starting to bother him. At 36 years of age and with 16 NFL seasons under his belt, it's time for Lewis to hang it up.
Although he is still in competitive form, his performance can only go downhill from here. It's always difficult to quit at the peak, but that's how you leave a perfect legacy.
He will become a Hall of Famer, and chances are that the number 52 will never be worn again by a Raven.
We have all seen cartoons where someone hangs a carrot in front of a donkey to have him chase it and go forward. In this metaphor, Ryan Fitzpatrick is the donkey and his new contract is the carrot.
After a 4-2 start, Fitzpatrick signed a six-year, $59 million extension with the Bills. It was a gamble for Buffalo, and it didn't seem to pay off. The Bills went on to a 2-8 record for the last 10 games of the season.
Though it wasn't completely Fitzpatrick's fault, his inconsistencies raised questions about whether he deserves that huge contract extension.
Money is a tool to keep some people motivated. The Bills should have dangled that contract in front of Fitzpatrick but not actually given it to him.
Would you still work hard if you are guaranteed $4 million a year? I know I wouldn't.
If you add a passing game to Tim Tebow, you get Cam Newton. Newton's pre-draft hype was well deserved and the Panthers didn't hesitate a second to select Newton as their first overall pick.
Newton's first season showed a lot of promise, but he still needs a couple years to develop. He threw 17 interceptions this year, a result of the NFL's faster pace. A college quarterback may have eight seconds in the pocket where an NFL quarterback may only have four, but the defensive pressure allowed Newton to show that he can also make plays with his feet, as he rushed for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Many people compare him to Michael Vick, but Cam can be better. He is younger, bigger and steaming with potential. With Cam Newton and some smart moves, the Panthers will be in the playoffs again soon.
They went out when you needed them the most. You had strong stretches, but at the end, you went out with a whimper.
Don't blame the Packers. Don't blame the Lions. Don't blame yourself. It was nobody's fault. You just had bad luck.
p.s. Please pay Matt Forte.
If you ever watched a Bengals game or saw their highlights, chances are you heard commentators say Andy Dalton and AJ Green make one of the best rookie quarterback-receiver tandems in history.
And they are very right.
Dalton and Green connected for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. Those two together brought the Bengals to a wild-card game.
This combination will only get better as they go into their second season in the NFL. Those two already have great chemistry, now they just need more experience. With a little more help, the Bengals can make consistent playoffs appearances for years to come.
Maybe it's really the Madden Curse. Or maybe Peyton Hillis just isn't that good.
Hillis had a surprising breakout season last year, but one good year isn't enough to prove that he deserves a big payday. And this season he was so concerned about his contract that he let his greed get the better of him.
His version of passive-aggressive resistance was to sit on the sideline and watch while the Browns' 28th-ranked rushing offense struggled.
GMs and coaches have made it clear that selfish players are nearly unemployable in this league. Just look at TO and Randy Moss. Hillis needs to learn his lesson and start producing again if he ever wants another contract.
Some people are just not built to withstand the pressure in late-game situations. Tony Romo is one of those people. With all due respect to Romo, who is a good quarterback and a tough athlete, his mental game is just not there yet.
When the game is on the line, palms get sweaty and hands start to shake. Romo is usually pretty consistent, but he seemed to tense up in the fourth quarter and makes bad decisions. He had a great season number-wise with a 102.5 QB rating, but the Cowboys only managed an 8-8 season.
Mental stability comes with experience. Eventually Romo will overcome his late-game inconsistencies. And maybe then he can finally shake his reputation as the Choke Artist.
The Denver Broncos turned their season around by starting Tim Tebow. Although it's evident that Tebow doesn't have the skills to be an elite quarterback, he has the intangibles that many players lack.
Specifically, he has passion for the game. Like him or not, Tebow gathered a group of men who may or may not have believed in him and led them to a respectable 8-8 record.
Chances are you are not a Tebow fan, perhaps due to his media-catalyzed collegiate fame or his overly vocal religious views. But set aside your biases and reflect on the Broncos games you watched this season. Every time Tebow rushed, he gave his all to gain even just inches.
Win or lose, every player on the Broncos team pats Tebow on the back after the game. During every interview, he gave credit to his teammates while honestly reflecting on his mistakes. These are signs of a leader.
Coaches always say that they'd take a passionate player over a skilled athlete. Perhaps that's why John Fox chose Tim Tebow over Kyle Orton.
Ndamukong Suh got into quite a bit of trouble this season. Things like mocking Matt Ryan's injury, stomping a Packer and lying to the police about his car accident are not helping his reputation.
But big stars have big tempers. TO has a huge mouth, Randy Moss is hard to work with and Deion Sanders had quite a personality. But their inappropriate behaviors, as long as they are not over the top or illegal, won't affect their reputation as great football players.
True, Suh needs to learn to control his anger, but that anger and fire is what's fueling his incredible defensive game. He will keep giving the Lions' coaching staff headaches, but he is definitely worth keeping around.
The Packers are the best team in the NFL. That's partly because Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league, but it also has to do with the Packers' willingness to put a complete team around Rodgers on offense. And defensively, they did just enough to get by.
Whatever the Packers are doing is working. They need a better passing defense, but that's about the only thing the Packers need to improve upon.
If they just keep doing what they have been doing, and they will be in championship contention year after year.
After a breakout season in 2010, people wondered whether Arian Foster was just a one-hit wonder. This season, however, he proved that he will be an elite running back in this league for a long time.
Minor injuries slowed him down a little at the start, but he came back more focused than ever. He managed to rush for over 1,200 yards for 10 touchdowns in only 13 regular-season games.
If there is anyone who can challenge Adrian Peterson as the NFL's best running back, it will be Foster. Or maybe he already is the best after Peterson's torn ACL.
Add in Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams and the Texans are a serious threat.
What are the Indianapolis Colts without Peyton Manning? Nothing.
Football fans everywhere mourned, as they had to be without Manning's perfect passes and wise audibles for an entire season. Manning's neck injury kept him off the field for longer than expected. As a result, the Colts simply sucked.
The past season should give Colts management plenty to think about. The Indianapolis Colts team is so shallow that once Manning is out, the team has nothing else to offer. With no serviceable backup QB and a well-below-average rushing attack, the Colts are in the bottom five in scoring.
The defense also suffered without Manning, ranking 25th in total defense.
The situation in Indianapolis is the perfect explanation for why quarterbacks are so heavily protected by NFL rules. A once-prominent Colts team is now the laughingstock of the league, because of only one man.
Blaine Gabbert had a forgettable rookie season with Jacksonville. In all fairness, it's not entirely his fault.
Quarterbacks need receivers. Their productions are directly related to each other. Peyton Manning needed Marvin Harrison, Tom Brady needed Randy Moss and now Blaine Gabbert needs someone to throw the ball to. He has been throwing to receivers like Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis, who can't be trusted to produce every game.
His only help now is Maurice Jones-Drew, who forces the opposing defense to respect his ground game and creates some time for passes.
Gabbert has potential. Let's just hope the Jaguars don't waste his potential by putting absolutely no one around him.
The Chiefs thought they saw Matt Cassel's potential and signed him to a big contract. As it turns out, the Chiefs might have overestimated Cassel's game.
In three years with the Chiefs, Cassel's QB ratings are 69.9, 93.0 and 76.6. Except for his second year as a Chief, his performance was disappointing for the money he was making. He is now considered one of the most overpaid players and one of the worst starting QBs in the league.
Being the former backup to the league's best quarterback doesn't necessarily make Cassel a starter-quality player. Some players actually thrive as a backup but can't handle the pressure as a starter. Give him a little more time.
But if he starts cold next season, the Chiefs might as well cut him off.
As soon as the Saints drafted rookie Mark Ingram, Reggie Bush's days in New Orleans were numbered. But the feel-good story is, Reggie took full advantage of this trade and managed to revitalize his career.
The Dolphins' QB situation opened opportunities for Bush in the rushing game. As a Dolphin, Bush rushed for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns while catching 43 passes for 296 yards and one TD. At only 26 years old, he can still grow into a consistent starter for an NFL team.
Reggie was junk to the Saints because the Saints rely on the passing game. But Reggie is treasure to the Dolphins because the Dolphins can only count on the rushing game.
The lesson here is, don't prematurely mark a player as a bust; maybe he was just playing in the wrong system.
This is not something the Vikings learned over the season, but it's something they should know and consider.
Peterson tore his ACL with four games left in the season. He underwent surgery and will likely miss a lot of time. The ligaments in the knees are very delicate, and recoveries are usually slow. Chances are he won't play until some time over the halfway point of next season, or maybe even later.
As doomed as the Vikings may be, they need to be patient with Peterson's recovery. Don't even encourage him to try to train and work out before he's 100 percent.
Too many athletes were destroyed by knee injuries. Even after surgeries, they were never the same. Nobody wants to see a great young talent and Hall of Fame-potential player in Peterson finish his career on this injury.
And don't write him off yet, he will be back.
We as human beings like the feel-good stories. We like to see people who defy all odds to accomplish the extraordinary. We respect those who come back from injuries or fight off pressure from critics. We look up to people like Grant Hill, Michael Vick or Lance Armstrong, who embody positive qualities like passion, devotion and dedication.
Albert Haynesworth does not belong in any of the above sentences.
There really isn't any player who can't be saved by Bill Belichick (i.e. Randy Moss), but Haynesworth proved otherwise. He was so out of shape prior to joining the Pats, but that wasn't the problem. The real problem was his lazy and unmotivated attitude.
So after six games and three tackles, the Patriots let Fat Albert go.
Haynesworth was given lots of chances to prove himself, but he never seized any of them. It was a waste of time and resources for the Patriots to sign him. But given that New England is generally pretty good at assessing talents accurately, signings like this won't happen again.
Eli has always been known as Peyton Manning's little brother, but without Peyton stealing the media's attention this season, Eli showed that he is an elite quarterback in his own right.
People usually consider Eli Manning as a "B+" quarterback, but his performance this year proved that he belongs in the "A" category. With the help of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Eli passed for almost 5,000 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Combined with a solid ground game, Eli led the Giants to a 9-7 record and clinched NFC East.
Eli is no Peyton, but he needs to get the credit he deserves from the media and fans.
The Jets need to ask themselves: Is Mark Sanchez the quarterback of their future? Based on his performance so far, the answer is probably a no.
Not to take anything away from Sanchez, who is capable at times, but he is just an average QB. One might think that he will have very good numbers with Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes at the receiving end of his passes, but he didn't.
18 interceptions, 56 percent completion rate and a 78.2 QB rating is not something you desire from your starting quarterback.
Prior to the draft, critics said that Sanchez would become a solid quarterback. They also said that he is not franchise-star material.
I would love to see Sanchez prove them all wrong, but for now, the critics are right.
The passing of Al Davis sent a shock wave through the football world. You might not like him because, let's face it, he was a little scary. He might have made some questionable decisions, but he was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and influential figures in professional football.
However, all is not lost in Oakland. The Raiders made some smart moves last season, especially with the signing of Carson Palmer. His performance wasn't great, only because he had so little time to get acquainted with the offense.
But along with a speedy and athletic receiving core that Al Davis left behind, Palmer has the opportunity to revive his career while bringing the Raiders back to relevance.
Al Davis can rest in peace; his Raiders will soon be competent again.
The Philadelphia Eagles were under scrutiny all season long. No one really liked them outside of Philly, just like no one really likes the Miami Heat outside of Miami. The Eagles severely underachieved, and their subpar performance only gave us haters more to laugh at.
Despite their disappointing season, the Eagles still have very talented players at almost every position. The main cause of the Eagles failure was the coaching staff's inability to develop chemistry among the talents.
And because of that, there are sufficient reasons to believe that Andy Reid won't be back next year.
It's never easy to put stars together and have them all get along with each other, but all the Eagles need is time.
In no more than two seasons, the Eagles will become one of the most dominant teams in the NFL.
Hines Ward is 35 years old; that's equivalent to 50 in NFL receiver years.
After 14 fantastic years as one of the top WRs in the NFL, it's time for Ward to hang it up. His numbers dropped significantly in 2011, grabbing only 46 passes for 381 yards and two TDs. He was mainly used as a blocker, not a pass-catcher.
Even with Ward gone, the Steelers still have young and talented receivers in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. So Pittsburgh's future is good hands (no pun intended).
Ward had a great career, but all things must come to an end. With all due respect to the man, his days in the NFL are numbered. He can either wait and be waived, or retire and pursue a career in dancing.
Either way, he won't be in this league for much longer.
The San Diego Chargers didn't live up to expectations last season. They came into the season with much hype, but ended up not making the playoffs. And if there is anyone to blame, it's Philip Rivers.
Rivers had an off year by his standards. He threw 20 interceptions and fumbled seven times. As a result, the Chargers only managed a 8-8 record in the relatively weak AFC West Division.
However, don't write Rivers off based on one bad year. He is a skilled, tough and proud athlete. His failures this past season will only motivate him to work harder next season. His QB rating will rise again, and he will bring the Chargers back to the playoffs in no time.
Alex Smith will probably never live up to his draft position as the number one pick, but he is turning out to be a quite solid NFL quarterback.
Smith had a breakout season in 2011. He threw 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Along with a solid ground game and an intimidating defense, he led a surprising San Francisco team to a 13-3 regular-season record and a playoff berth.
The league must give props to the 49ers for sticking to their choice. They never gave up on Smith through his awful years and continued his development.
Although this is probably as good as Alex Smith will ever get, at least the 49ers now have a quarterback who can carry a team and win games.
What were the Seahawks thinking when they signed Tarvaris Jackson? No one knows, but their front office needs to make sure they are sober next time they sign someone.
Unsurprisingly, Jackson did not do well. He is probably the worst starting QB in the league right now. And unfortunately for Seattle, they don't have a backup plan at quarterback. Their only solution right now is to draft a QB in next year's draft.
Next year's draft is filled with talent. All Seattle needs to do is not mess up.
Sam Bradford had another bad season. He was hit hard by injuries and missed six regular-season games. And when he was playing, he struggled. He finished the season with a 70.5 QB rating.
But before you call Bradford a bust, go check out the Rams roster. Bradford had absolutely no one to throw to. The Rams have a collection of average receivers who are unable to get open and have a tendency to drop passes. And the trade for Brandon Lloyd didn't really help.
It's really not surprising to see the Rams at 30th in passing offense.
The Rams need to get some weapons to surround their quarterback with. Bradford is still young and he won't suck forever.
Josh Freeman had a very solid season in 2010, but he dropped off significantly in 2011, scoring a lowly QB rating of 74.6.
Freeman's performance fluctuated during his three-year career. One year he was awful, then he was good, a year later he was bad again. But that doesn't mean he can't become a solid NFL player. He is still very young and has all the talent in the world to help him succeed.
He needs a little more time and experience, and the Bucs need to help him develop his game and his confidence.
Freeman belongs to a new breed of quarterbacks who can make plays with their strength and speed. Though he might never be Cam Newton or Michael Vick, he still has potential to become a consistent Pro Bowl selection.
Matt Hasselbeck did a respectable job in 2011 as the quarterback for the Tennessee Titans. Although he didn't miss any games, he was showing signs of age. It's easy to forget that he is 36 years old, since he played so well last year.
Despite his performance, he is surely not part of the Titans future.
Honestly though, the Titans don't seem to have any player they can commit to build around. The former future of the team, Chris Johnson had his focus teleported to another dimension. Kenny Britt had a devastating injury at the beginning of the season. So now the Titans are left with shattered hope.
Hopefully the Titans can make a splash in free agency and in the draft. They have few options.
The Redskins have two quarterbacks on the roster for now:
Rex Grossman: 16 TD, 20 INT, 72.4 QB Rating
John Beck: 2 TD, 4 INT, 72.1 QB Rating
I still don't understand how the Redskins ranked 14th in passing offense with these two guys running the show.