Ebb and flow over the course of a sports career is only natural. It's almost impossible for an athlete to maintain a place on a 'best of' list like this year-after-year. Maybe a rising star finally breaks through and meets lofty expectations; or someone comes out of nowhere with a game-changing play or performance.
Championships, All-Star honors, huge new contracts, coming back from a devastating injury—these are all factors that come into play when evaluating who deserves to be on this list.
The accolodes and accomplishments, as well as the headlines, needed to stand out are more than most can handle. Each year, some athletes sink to the bottom, while others rise to the top.
Here are the 25 athletes who had the best year ever.
It's safe to say that the Colts don't have any buyer's remorse when it comes to releasing their franchise quarterback of over a decade, definitive Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning, in favor of Stanford standout and first overall pick Andrew Luck. Without Manning, who was sidelined by a neck injury all season, the Colts went an abysmal 2-14 in 2011.
Expectations were relatively low for Luck in 2012, especially when head coach Chuck Pagano announced he would miss most of the season after being diagnosed with leukemia. But Luck's expectations for himself and his team were never low, and the 10-5 Colts are playoff bound.
Cam Newton's single season passing record for a rookie stood exactly one season before Luck broke it and it looks like he'll finish as the No. 7 ranked quarterback in the NFL—one spot behind Peyton Manning.
He may have come in second in Heisman voting two years running, but life is good for Andrew Luck.
By late 2011, many were asking if tennis great Serena Williams was all washed up. She had a rough year, hampered by a number of injuries, which kept her sidelined for its majority.
And when she did make it back on the court, Williams made headlines for yet again verbally assaulting an umpire at the U.S. Open, rather than a victory. The year didn't start out great for Williams, who admitted in January 2012 that she didn't "love" tennis anymore, but that she wasn't going anywhere because she can't "live without it."
She took some flack for her comments, but at least she decided to play like she loved the game in 2012.
Williams won her first Singles gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London and captured her second gold in Doubles. Prior to the Olympics she won at Wimbledon and post-Olympics she won at the U.S. Open. Williams defeated Maria Sharapova for the WTA Tour Title in late October and was named the WTA Player of the Year a month later.
When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, Barry Zito didn't even make the playoff roster for San Francisco. Zito was signed from the A's as a free agent after the 2006 season in what would become known as one of the worst contracts, in terms of his production, of the last decade.
In fact, a Comcast Sports writer named it the No. 5 worst contract in American sports history in 2011. A dubious distinction, indeed. Well, Zito may have taken his sweet time, but he finally earned some of that seven year, $126 million deal in 2012.
First he saved the Giants season by throwing a shutout for just shy of eight innings in an elimination game against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Then he outgunned Tigers' ace Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series; allowing just one run in six innings. Zito even drove in a Giants run in the fourth by hitting a single off Verlander.
The Giants went on to sweep the Tigers in four games; winning their second World Series in three years. And Zito, who was battling just to earn a place on the post-season roster in September, was just pleased to be a part of the "surreal" experience.
With the lockout showing no signs of being settled and New Year's Day being just a week away, 2012 hasn't been a good year overall for hockey. The concussion issue looms large on the horizon for the future, but unlike the NFL, the NHL doesn't have billions to throw at the problem.
That bleak picture aside, Penguins superstar forward Evgeni Malkin still managed to have a standout year, despite Pittsburgh's first round ouster by the Flyers in the playoffs. Malkin shined in concussed Sidney Crosby's absence and won the league scoring title by 18 points over second place finisher Steven Stamkos.
In November he was named the most eligible bachelor in Russia by OK! magazine Russia—not bad just one year after being dubbed the "ugliest" guy in the league by Flyers' grating ginger Scott Hartnell. Pot. Kettle. Hello?
And if you're wondering if Malkin is sulkin' about the current state of the NHL, don't worry, because he isn't. A reporter for Russia Today recently asked him if he missed the NHL and Malkin quickly replied "No." Ouch, Geno.
Even though the Thunder were taken down by the mighty Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, their superstar forward Kevin Durant still had one hell of a year. For the third consecutive year in 2012, Durant both won the NBA scoring title and was named to the All-Star team.
On the way to the finals, the tenacious Thunder trounced the NBA's reigning Championship Mavericks in four games, licked the Lakers in five, and smacked down the Spurs in six.
Durant was named to the U.S. men's basketball team and set a record for the most total points scored during an Olympic tournament at the 2012 Olympics in London; on the way to another gold medal.
Durant and his Thunder are off to an exceptional start for the 2012-13 season, having a 21-6 record after their Christmas Day defeat by the Heat. He just needs to figure out how to slay the mighty LeBron James in 2013 if he wants next year to be the year of Durant.
This may be a hard sell to all you Yankee haters out there, but Derek Jeter definitely had one of the best years ever in 2012. Yes, things ended very badly for the Yankees in the playoffs. And yes, Jeter's season ended early in a game against the Tigers with a broken ankle so severe that he may miss the start of the 2013 season.
But Jeter, who The Onion called a "Popular Mascot" after the Yanks decided to resign him in 2010, surprised everyone in 2012 by coming through with one of the best seasons of his career at age 38.
The Jeet's .316 batting average was his best since 2009 and he hit his 250th career home run against their hated divisional foe Red Sox in August. Just six weeks later, Jeter reached 212 hits and broke Ty Cobb's record "for the most hits in a season by a player who entered the year with 3,000 or more career hits."
He went on to finish with 216 for the regular season. Jeter went into the playoffs on, what the NY Daily News said was, the top of the world and the top of his game. Unfortunately the postseason didn't go to plan for Jeter, but 2012 was his return to relevancy.
From mascot to the man who just might reach Pete Rose's career hits number. Not bad. Not bad at all.
This could have been the year of American simmer Michael Phelps, again, as it was in 2008 when he broke the 36-year-old record held by Mark Spitz, winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. However, despite breaking another record with his 18th gold (and 22nd overall) medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, Phelps didn't seem to care.
Prior to the Games, he had already announced his plan to retire after London, stating that he was just, "ready to be done." He trained little in the two years following his historic performance in Beijing and was outperformed decidedly by teammate Ryan Lochte at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
Then he was outperformed by Lochte at the Olympics; Lochte took the gold in the 400m individual medley, while Phelps failed to even earn a place on the podium with his fourth place finish.
That being said, Phelps still had a pretty badass year. He was one of the most buzzed about athletes in the world going into the Games and that continued when he and his girlfriend, a beautiful blonde model named Megan Rossee, went public in London; hitting the town together after swimming events had concluded.
And even though he didn't live up to the standard he set for himself in Beijing, only eight countries won as many golds in London as Phelps has in his career.
The Texans are looking to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win against the Colts in week 17 of the season. Houston is in that position thanks, in no small part, to the standout play of defensive end J.J. Watt this year.
The Texans took Watt No. 11 overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, impressed by the freakish athletic ability he displayed in college—including a 55-inch vertical leap.
Prior to week 17, Watt was just two sacks short of tying the record (22.5) set by Michael Strahan in 2001. He has already combined for the most sacks and passes defensed in a single season and set an NFL record of 15 passes defensed by a defensive lineman in a single season.
In December 2012, Watt was voted the Texans' Most Valuable Player by his teammates, after setting a number of franchise records and leading the team in tackles, tackles for a loss and quarterback hits.
If the Texans continue their success in the playoffs, expect to see Watt on this list again in 2013.
This year didn't start off that well for Scotland's Andy Murray, who hired a new coach on New Year's Eve 2011, after years of coming up just short in Grand Slams. He was defeated by Novack Djokovic in an epic five-hour match during the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January.
Murray battled a back injury during the French Open and was defeated in the quarterfinals. And at Wimbledon in July, he lost a heartbreaker to Roger Federer in the finals. A weepy Murray was devastated, but saw no shame in losing to "one of the greatest athletes of all time."
He bounced back a month later, defeating an unenthusiastic Federer at the Olympics in London, taking gold by winning straight-sets. Just a month after winning in London, Murray finally shook the Grand Slam monkey off his back by winning at the U.S. Open.
Finally answering the critics that said he couldn't win the big one, Murray credited the help of his new coach for his recent run of success and said he no longer feels "pressure" to win. He plans to play more relaxed in 2013 and hopes to repeat his Grand Slam win in the new year.
RG3's coup over Luck rocketed him further into the national spotlight; leading the Redskins to select him No. 2 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. With one game to go in the regular season, it's safe to say that Griffin didn't disappoint in D.C. during his rookie season with the Skins.
He missed just one game to injury and will finish the season with over 3,100 passing yards, upwards of 800 rushing yards, 26+ touchdowns and a passer rating of over 100.
Griffin has led the Redskins to a very unfamiliar place: A division title on the line in week 17 in which they control their own destiny.
If the Skins defeat the Cowboys, they will win their first division title in 13 years. But regardless of how things finish for Washington, the future is bright for their Pro Bowl rookie quarterback, RG3.
Missy Franklin swam into history in 2012. The 17-year-old broke a number of world records over the course of the year and after a dominating performance at the Olympic trials, went on to win five medals at the London Games.
Franklin's only bronze came on the first day of the swimming competition as a member of the 4x100m freestyle relay. She won gold in all of her individual events and set the world record in the 200m backstroke and the 4x100m individual medley in London.
Franklin's outstanding performance earned her a place among the best swimmers in the world, almost a full year before she will be old enough to vote.
In September, Franklin was named the USA Swimming Swimmer of the Year—beating out 2011 winner Ryan Lochte.
After winning his first two Majors in 2011, Irish golfer Rory McIlroy was quickly dubbed "The Next Tiger Woods" by many in the sports media. That kind of lofty talk may have gotten to a golfer with less confidence, but McIlroy has been steadfastly cool in the face of tremendous pressure.
McIlroy went toe-to-toe with Tiger on a number of occasions in the last year, and usually gotten the better of him. While Tiger hasn't won a Major in three years, McIlroy won his third in two at the PGA Championship in 2012.
McIlroy was also a part of the European Ryder Cup team that famously upended the U.S. in 2012.
He has since been named the PGA Player of the Year, the PGA Tour Player of the Year and was voted the European Tour Golfer of the Year—to name just a few of his many honors in 2012. At just 23-years-old, McIlroy's star is still on the rise.
In late 2011 (then) Hornets superstar point guard Chris Paul made it clear he wanted out of New Orleans, and was ultimately traded to the Clippers. CP3's presence in Los Angeles helped lead the Clippers to a playoff berth; their first since 2006.
Paul's performance in the early part of the season earned him a place on the 2011-12 All-NBA First Team, which made him the first Clipper to make the first team since they relocated to Los Angeles from Buffalo.
The Clippers didn't do much in the playoffs, but Paul kept busy over the summer as a member of the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team that won gold in London.
CP3 and the Clippers are off to a hot start in 2012-13, but this could be their last opportunity for success, since Paul chose not to sign an extension before the season.
Remember when Giants quarterback Eli Manning raised eyebrows after calling himself "elite" during an interview in August 2011?
Well…well…well…what a difference a year makes, right? With big brother Peyton missing the entire 2011 season due to a neck injury, Eli stepped up and proved he actually was elite, by leading the Giants to a second improbable Super Bowl victory against the Patriots.
After the unlikely run to the Super Bowl came an even more unlikely conversation about who was the better Manning. Who would have ever thought that was even possible in 2011? From one-hit-wonder to two-time Super Bowl champion and potential Hall of Fame quarterback—in the span of a few months.
Manning also scored points during the Tebow off-season fiasco, when he (aptly) described himself as the third most talked about quarterback in New York.
After playing second fiddle for years, American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte gleefully stepped into the sizable spotlight that Michael Phelps seemed desperate to flee in 2012. While he won't come close to matching the overall success Phelps has had in the pool, Lochte is certainly willing to try to surpass the hype.
After besting his rival in the 400m individual medley at the 2012 Olympics in London (Lochte won gold, Phelps placed fourth), Lochte made global headlines by defying the IOC's instruction not to wear his American flag grill on the podium. He went on to win four more medals—one gold, two silver and a bronze.
In the months following the Olympics, Lochte moved to trademark his ridiculously ripped off catch phrase "Jeah." He made cameo appearances on 30 Rock and 90210 and appeared as himself, naturally, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Lochte also got the superstar treatment on Saturday Night Live, when he was parodied by Seth MacFarland.
Things didn't end well for Miguel Cabrera's Tigers in the World Series—they were swept by the Giants in four games—but that doesn't dampen what he accomplished in the regular season.
Cabrera was moved back to third base after the Tigers signed high profile free agent Prince Fielder during the offseason. Instead of wilting in the shadow of Detroit's newly acquired superstar, Cabrera rose to the occasion with the best season of his career to date.
In August he became the first player in Tigers history to hit 30 or more home runs in five consecutive seasons, surpassing Hank Greenberg and Cecil Fielder, each of whom had four consecutive seasons with the club. Cabrera would go on to win the Triple Crown, the first player to win it since Carl Yastrzemski did in 1967.
Not too bad—right?
Despite excelling in two sports (football and baseball) and putting together four solid seasons behind center for NC State, and later Wisconsin, sub-6-foot quarterback Russell Wilson wasn't given much of a shot to start in the NFL.
Every team in the league passed on Wilson at least once, most twice, until crazy-like-a-fox Seahawks coach Pete Carroll decided to take a chance on him in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
The No. 75 pick of the draft competed with Seahawks veteran Tarvaris Jackson and newly signed free agent Matt Flynn for the starting position and, to the shock of many, beat them both out for the job.
Wilson led the Seahawks to the playoffs in his rookie year and, as of week 16, they were still in contention for a first round bye and a division title. Regardless of what happens in week 17 and in the playoffs, Wilson's standout rookie season has most of his critics sitting in stony silence.
American women's gymnast Gabby Douglas wasn't expected to do poorly in London, but going into the Olympics, she was certainly not the favorite to win the all-around gold. Far from it, actually.
Douglas' teammate Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion—who had only lost two all-around competitions in the last four years—was the heavy favorite to score all-around gold for the U.S. But in a stunner, Wieber failed to qualify for the all-around, leaving Douglas with one heck of an opportunity—and she made the most of it.
Douglas led the team to an all-around gold medal and then stepped in, and stepped up, in Wieber's absence during the individual competition. The "Flying Squirrel" didn't medal in any of the individual competitions, but still performed well enough on all of them to capture the all-around gold.
Douglas' performance earned her the cover of Kellogg's special-edition boxes of Corn Flakes in the weeks following the London Games. Since then she has appeared all over the country for various causes and campaigned for President Obama re-election.
In August, USC seemed to be the team that would finally vanquish the SEC’s BCS title dominance. The chief architect behind the Trojans’ march toward a national championship would be quarterback Matt Barkley—the Heisman favorite who had just forgone a Top Five NFL draft selection to chase greater NCAA glory and honor.
A relatively unknown redshirt freshman quarterback at Texas A&M affectionately called “Johnny Football” exploded onto the national college football scene, putting up eye-popping numbers in the air and on the ground—like Robert Griffin III the year before.
Johnny Manziel not only vaulted into front-runner status for the Heisman Trophy to eventually become the first freshman to ever win it, he also helped lead the Aggies—and first-year coach Kevin Sumlin—to an inaugural SEC season that far exceeded expectations.
Ultimately, Manziel can claim the mantel of SEC “dragon-slayer” by making one amazing play after another in the stunning upset of the seemingly unstoppable Alabama Crimson Tide in early November.
Much like Michael Phelps, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt set an almost impossible standard at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
After amassing countless medals in international competition in the years leading up to the Games, Bolt took the title as the fastest man in the world in 2008, after winning gold in the 100m sprint, 200m sprint and the 4x100m relay.
But, unlike Michael Phelps, Bolt managed to match his own impossible standard at the 2012 Olympics in London, after a disappointing showing at trials weeks earlier. Bolt dominated the competition and re-captured each of the three gold medals he won in Beijing four years earlier—and in world record fashion to boot.
Bolt became the first athlete in Olympic history to repeat at both the 100m and the 200m champion in consecutive games.
Which means he can officially call himself the Fastest Man in the World for another four-year term.
MMA fighter Ronda Rousey got her start in judo and began competing internationally as a teenager. After medalling six times (three of which were gold) since 2004, Rousey represented the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and won the bronze in the 70kg weight division.
She soon refocused her attention on MMA and made her amateur debut in August 2010. Rousey defeated her first opponent by submission in just 23 seconds and 2.5 years later she has yet to lose.
Past success aside, 2012 has truly been a breakout year for Rousey. In March she challenged Miesha Tate for her Strikeforce title and defeated her by submission in the first round; dislocating Tate's arm in the process.
In November, Dana White announced that Rousey had become the first female fighter to sign with the UFC. White followed that up a month later with the announcement that Rousey, as the defending champ, would be headlining UFC 157 in February.
Ms. Rousey is starting off 2013 with a feature in Esquire magazine, continuing what seems like an unending media blitz. She may not be named the official "Fighter of the Year" for 2012, but Rousey has accomplished plenty to land a spot in the top five of this list.
Running back Adrian Peterson may have been the only bright spot in an otherwise bleak season for the Vikings in 2011. A.D. started off the season on a tear, reaching 6,000 yards rushing in September, and then scoring three touchdowns in the first quarter, setting a new franchise record, during a game against the Cardinals in October.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill for Peterson after that.
He suffered a high ankle sprain in week 10 against the Raiders and then rushed back for a meaningless late-season game against the Redskins, only to go down with a torn MCL and ACL in his left knee. Peterson's injury required major surgery, leading many to wonder if his best days were already behind him.
Determined to prove the doubters wrong, Peterson rehabbed his injury in record time and stunned many by returning as a starter in Week 1. Since then has been a dominating force in purple; poised to carry the Vikings into the playoffs on his shoulders.
Peterson has also made an epic run, but will likely come up just short, at Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.
He and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning have been battling it out all season as the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year for 2012. People seem split down the middle on who should take that specific honor, but Peterson and Manning both have their sights set on 2013 and the playoffs.
The Giants portly third baseman Pablo Sandoval has been on the receiving end of barbs about his ever fluctuating waistline for the last several years. The Kung Fu Panda may have won a World Series with San Francisco in 2010, but it wasn't until 2012 that he finally won some major league respect.
Sandoval started off the season with a bang with a hitting streak of 19 consecutive games, which broke Johnny Rucker's longstanding record of 18 games that was set in 1945. Then he was named to his second consecutive All-Star game in July.
In October Sandoval joined the ranks of Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols, by becoming just the fourth player in MLB history to hit three home runs during a single World Series game. During Game 1 against the Tigers, Sandoval homered in his first three appearances at the plate.
The Giants went on to sweep the Tigers and Sandoval went on to be named MVP.
Then, to add awesome to amazingness, the "Kung Fu Panda" was asked to be one of the celebrity judges at the Miss Universe pageant in December.
The year didn't start off well for Peyton Manning, who watched his Colts go 2-14 last season, after a neck injury landed him on injured reserve.
Then Peyton found himself uncomfortably in the spotlight during Super Bowl XLV in Indianapolis, when his potential departure from the Colts continued to make headlines, despite the fact that it was his brother Eli who was actually playing in the game.
Peyton was released from the Colts in early March and signed with the Broncos two weeks later. Throughout the offseason, Manning was mind-numbingly quiet about, what must have been a very jarring change of scenery after over a decade in a dome.
Many speculated about what Manning's return would really look like in a Broncos uniform, especially after reports out of Indy early in the year that his arm was essentially a "noodle." But Peyton stayed above the fray and continued to do what he does best in Denver: Win games.
The Broncos locked up their weak division several weeks prior to the end of the 2012 season and Manning is in a dead-heat with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year race.
Whatever happens with the Broncos in the playoffs, and whether or not he is named the comeback player of the year, there's no denying the epic achievements of Peyton Manning in 2012.
This must have been one bad year for the throngs of LeBron James haters out there, because 2012 was truly the year of LeBron.
After coming up short against the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, the LeBron-led Heat just would not be denied in the 2012 Finals. Miami's "Big Three" took down the Thunder's own trio of superstars in just five games; winning the first of eight championships promised by King James.
James was named the MVP of the NBA Finals and also landed in some elite company when he was named the league MVP for the third time in his career; joining the ranks of Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—to name just a few.
LeBron was named to his second consecutive U.S. men's Olympic team and came home from London with his second gold medal. And in December, LeBron was named Sports Illustrated's 2012 Sportsman of the Year, much to the dismay of (at least one) sportswriter in Cleveland.
Like it or not folks, LeBron James definitely had the best year ever.