2011 NFL Season: Tim Tebow and the 10 Biggest Shocks of the Year

Phil PompeiContributor IIIJanuary 9, 2012

2011 NFL Season: Tim Tebow and the 10 Biggest Shocks of the Year

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    The best part of the NFL is that it is completely unpredictable from season to season.

    Teams come off the scrap heap to make the playoffs, no-name players come out of the woodwork and have Pro Bowl seasons, and teams that look great on paper totally flop when the games are played.

    As the expression goes, "That's why they play the games."

    Let's take a look at what I think were the 10 biggest stories we didn't see coming this year. I look forward to hearing your comments and whether you agree or disagree. But for now, sit back and enjoy the ride. It should be a good one.

10. Tebow Time

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    Back on October 9, the Broncos lost to the Chargers, 29-24. With that game, the Chargers rose to 4-1 and the then-hapless Broncos fell to 1-4. That night, it may have looked like San Diego was headed for a first-round bye in the playoffs while Denver was headed back to the bottom of the barrel.

    Then John Fox did it. He pulled his opening day starter, Kyle Orton, in favor of the controversial Tim Tebow.

    The Tebow era did not start out swimmingly. Although he won his first start of 2011 against the Dolphins, they got absolutely manhandled the next week by Detroit, and they looked to be a team going nowhere at 2-5.

    Then Tebow just started winning. And winning. And winning.

    A six-game winning streak rocketed the Broncos to the top of the AFC West and although they hit a skid at the end, they managed to finagle a playoff spot. However, they would be matched up with the defending AFC champion Steelers and the most proficient playoff quarterback in the game today. Every football pundit in the world said that Tebow would lose.

    But he won.

9. Three Quarterbacks to Throw for 5,000 Yards

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    The NFL is a passing league. Nobody can deny that. However, nobody anticipated such explosive numbers from quarterbacks this season.

    Philip Rivers was the 2010 passing yardage leader with 4,710. Peyton Manning sat behind him with 4,700. Number three was Drew Brees with 4,620.

    This year, Brees led the way with 5,476, Tom Brady was second with 5,235, and Matthew Stafford was third with 5,038. While Dan Marino held the all-time single season record for passing yards since 1984, it was broken twice this season.

    Are quarterbacks better now than they ever were, or is there a more cynical explanation? Are the rules of the league getting more and more friendly to the passing game? Was 2011 just a season of unusually weak defenses, perhaps because of the lockout?

    Whatever the case was, it sure made football a lot more entertaining to watch and I doubt we will see anything like this again in the near future.

8. Three Quarterbacks to Throw More Than 40 Touchdowns

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    Not only were quarterbacks throwing for boatloads of yardage this season, but they were scoring at will.

    Drew Brees led the way with 46 bullets, Aaron Rodgers was next with 45, and Matthew Stafford checked in with 41. This is one heck of an upshot from 2010, when Tom Brady was number one with 36 passing scores, and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were tied for second with 33 each.

7. Revival of Alex Smith's Career

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    The entire talk of San Francisco’s offseason was the quarterback situation.

    Alex Smith, the first overall pick of the 2005 draft, was considered a bust by all parties involved after six years of nothing in San Francisco. They drafted Colin Kaepernick early in the second round of the 2011 draft and he was thought to be Smith’s replacement.

    The only question was when to start playing him. Should he start opening day? Should they start Smith at first, let him take the punches, and then put the kid in when the season is dead? Should they just forget about Kaepernick, tank the 2011 season, and enter the Andrew Luck sweepstakes?

    Then the 49ers’ season happened. Alex Smith shocked the world by leading his team to a 13-3 record and a first-round bye in the playoffs. He did this by way of posting a career-best 90.7 passer rating, and with a league-low percentage of passing attempts intercepted.

6. Success of the Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals were a dysfunctional disaster of a team in 2010.

    The “T-Ocho” experiment totally blew up in the team’s face and Carson Palmer became fed up with the Bengals organization. A team that was talked about in Super Bowl terms before the season started ended up with a dismal 4-12 record and the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft.

    After their miserable season, they took the “start-from-scratch” approach. Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco would not be back and Carson Palmer had made it known he’d never play another down for Cincinnati. With that known, the Bengals would take wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round of the draft and quarterback Andy Dalton in the second.

    While many predicted that the young Bengals would struggle with their two biggest offensive weapons being rookies, they shocked us with a 9-7 season and a playoff berth. Dalton had a respectable rookie season with 3,398 yards, 20 touchdown passes, and an 80.4 rating, while Green hauled in 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns.

    The Bengals started and finished rebuilding in one offseason, and now look like they could be a force in the NFL this decade.

5. Cam Newton's Incredible Season

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    At the time of the 2011 NFL draft, Cam Newton seemed to me to be cut from the same cloth as JaMarcus Russell. That is, a cocky kid with raw talent, a huge ego and who had more of a mouth than an arm. I just didn’t think things would pan out for Newton in Carolina.

    Boy, was I wrong.

    Cam Newton put up an electrifying season in 2011. Not only did he throw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, but he also scrambled for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns. He broke rookie records for passing yards and all-purpose touchdowns and broke a quarterback record for rushing touchdowns.

    None of the great running quarterbacks in the history of the NFL…not Fran Tarkenton, not Randall Cunningham, not Michael Vick…own the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Cam Newton does. And he did it in his rookie year.

    Cam was the first overall pick in the NFL draft in 2011. I am wagering that he will be the first overall pick in fantasy drafts for years to come.

4. Total, Complete Failure of Blaine Gabbert

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    Blaine Gabbert was a Top 10 projected pick in the 2011 draft. A lot of pundits believed he was the most NFL-ready prospect in the draft and that he could be a franchise quarterback immediately, a la Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco. Many projected him to go to Washington or Arizona and start on day one.

    It came as somewhat of a surprise when he fell to the 10th pick in the draft, and it was even more surprising when the Jaguars traded up to get him. The Jags, after all, had a good quarterback in David Garrard who was coming off a season in which he posted a 90.8 rating.

    Well, Garrard was cut just before the season started, and after two weeks of floundering with Luke McCown, Gabbert was given the keys to the 1-1 Jaguars offense.

    The rest, as they say, was a disaster.

    Blaine would go 4-10 in starts. The projected franchise quarterback would finish dead last in the 2011 passing race, with a putrid rating of 65.4. He averaged a measly 5.4 yards per attempt, and his completion percentage was a very pedestrian 50.8.

    While it is tough to label somebody a bust after their rookie year, Gabbert was truly awful this season and he showed no signs of promise or raw talent to inspire anyone.

3. Josh Freeman and the Bucs' Miserable Fall from Grace

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    2010 was a season of promise for the Buccaneers. Although they did not make the playoffs, they finished with a 10-6 record, and their young quarterback, Josh Freeman, looked to be a rising star in the league. He threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions that season, earning himself a pristine 95.9 passer rating.

    When 2011 started, Tampa was thought to be a legit Super Bowl contender if Freeman kept playing the way he did. Early on in the season, this looked plausible. The Bucs came out with a 4-2 start and were on top of the NFC South in mid-October after a gutsy victory against New Orleans.

    After this, however, something went horribly wrong with this team.

    Tampa Bay would end their season with a 10-game losing streak, ending up with a disgusting 4-12 record after finishing 10-6 a year ago. Josh Freeman totally and completely regressed, throwing 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. His 2011 rating was a full 21 points below his 2010 rating and his reputation as an up-and-coming star changed into that of a one-year wonder. Raheem Morris, one of the more popular young head coaches in the league, took the fall for the rough season when he was fired the day after it ended.

    This may be the saddest story of 2011, as a team that had so much promise now looks to be a rudderless ship.

2. Terrible Team in Indy

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    When it was announced that Peyton Manning would be out indefinitely due to a neck injury, everybody knew the Colts took a big step back and that the Texans would be the AFC South favorites.

    However, I don’t think anybody expected the level of stench that would come out of Indianapolis in 2011.

    After all, the Colts did come into 2011 as the two-time defending AFC South champions and they were only a season removed from the Super Bowl. Peyton was hurt, but you’d think having Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Dwight Freeney, and Robert Mathis all on your team would win a few football games, even by accident.

    As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. The Colts were the worst team in football in 2011, finishing with a 2-14 record. While they will end up with an opportunity to get the coveted Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft, the scary lack of depth this team showcased this season may be a good case for Indy to trade the pick down and some secondary pieces to make the team better.

1. Dream Team Turning into a Nightmare

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    Yes, I am an Eagles fan. But I can still objectively say that the Eagles not making the playoffs was the biggest shock and surprise of the 2011 NFL season.

    Ironically, if I was making this list a year ago, I may have put that the biggest surprise was that they DID make the playoffs.

    Indeed, 2010 was supposed to be the year they missed the playoffs. Prior to that season, they traded their franchise quarterback away, said goodbye to their workhorse running back, and they were going to work with three rookies starting on defense. On paper, it looked like a 6- or 7-win transition season and nobody would’ve been that angry about it.

    But that didn’t happen. Michael Vick came in and had an MVP-caliber season, LeSean McCoy made everybody forget Brian Westbrook, and the Eagles went 10-6 and won an NFC East title. So when the defending NFC East champions went on a spending spree the following offseason and picked up Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, and Jason Babin, most people believed that this would catapult the Eagles from a 10-6 playoff sneak-in to an elite team in the NFC.

    Everybody knows what happened next. The Birds started off 1-4 and never really recovered. While the record will show that 2011 was an average 8-8 season for the Eagles, it had the feel of a listless, depressing malaise for most of its duration.

    The fact that the Eagles made so much improvement to their team and came up so short makes this the biggest shock of the 2011 NFL season.