10 Things We Learned About the NFL in 2012
The story lines during the 2012 campaign centered around the success of the rookie quarterbacks, the newly-integrated spread option, and the final ride of one of the game’s all-time greatest linebackers.
Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson turned in historic returns from potential career-ending injuries. J.J. Watt revolutionized the 3-4 defensive end position. And the Harbaugh brothers squaring off in a Super Bowl was a first in sports history, capping off a truly illustrious year.
This year taught football fans a whole lot about the game they love, namely the following 10 things.
Offense Wins Championships
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One of the oldest adages in the books says that defense wins championships.
The Baltimore Ravens may have needed a terrific defensive stop to win the Super Bowl. But it was the offense (and a Jacoby Jones kick-return score) that led to 34 points. The Ravens averaged 31 points per contest in the playoffs, getting outstanding performances from Joe Flacco game after game.
Last year, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl despite allowing 400 points in the regular season. That’s the most ever by a league champion. The 2010 Green Bay Packers and 2009 New Orleans Saints had two of the most prolific offenses in the game, led by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
And even the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers with their vaunted defense, needed a late touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to win the Super Bowl.
That’s not to say defense should be ignored. The San Francisco 49ers had arguably the NFL’s stingiest, and they nearly won it all. But they also had an offense that scored nearly 400 points in the regular season. They beat the Packers in the NFC Divisional Round in a shootout and the Atlanta Falcons with a huge second-half comeback. And they would have needed 35 points to have won this game.
Regular Season Records Are Irrelevant Come Playoff Time
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For the first 30 years or so of the Super Bowl era, the best team normally won the Super Bowl. The 14-0 Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl. The 15-1 Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers were far and above the best teams in the ‘90s, and as expected, they won Super Bowls.
Times have changed though. The Baltimore Ravens were probably the fourth-best team in the AFC when this year’s playoffs began. The New York Giants were just 9-7 with a negative point differential last season.
Getting hot at the right time is the new "in" thing in the NFL. And there’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue.
Running Quarterbacks Can Win Games
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No true running quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl (although a case could be made for Steve Young as a runner).
But that’s likely to change. Colin Kaepernick and the new pistol offense reached the NFL title game. Likewise, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson led offenses predicated on the spread offense. These offenses are nearly impossible to stop when executed correctly.
Credit the three coaches (Jim Harbaugh, Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll) for inventing the offenses that they did this year. They did what the Atlanta Falcons were never able to do with Michael Vick.
This should bode well for running quarterbacks in the future. No longer will these players need to switch to different positions to play in this league.
No Lead in a Game Is Ever Safe
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The NFL’s single-game record for largest comeback is still intact at 32 points. But it’s viable to change sometime soon.
This was never as evident than in the playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons held 17 and 20-point leads in consecutive weeks, blowing both. The Baltimore Ravens nearly let a 22-point lead slip out of their grasp in the Super Bowl. And who can forget the epic New England Patriots-San Francisco 49ers game when the Niners nearly blew a 31-3 lead?
The quality of quarterbacks in this league is at an all-time high. Offenses can score faster than ever before, and that makes double-digit leads not what they used to be.
The Days of Sitting a First-Round QB for Several Years Are over
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When the Green Bay Packers sat Aaron Rodgers for three years behind Brett Favre, it seemed as if they set a new trend around the league.
This year though, five teams started rookie quarterbacks from day one.
Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson were Pro Bowlers. Each one showed the poise of a veteran, leading their team to the playoffs. Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden had their struggles but they also showed promise. And the Carolina Panthers reaped the benefits from Cam Newton back in 2011, as he turned in a historic rookie campaign.
The success these rookie quarterbacks have had will likely influence other teams to start their rookies from day one. The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles are each rumored to pick a new signal-caller, and if they do, expect the QB to start from Week 1.
Injuries Can Be Rehabbed Faster Than Ever
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From a medical standpoint, 2012 was one of the most impressive in NFL history. What players like Adrian Peterson, Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis did was amazing.
The whole world knows about AP’s miraculous comeback from a horrific knee injury. Credit the advancements in today’s medicine or a freakish work ethic from Peterson, but he made history by returning so quickly.
Suggs and Lewis each suffered severe injuries of their own that would have sidelined most players for the rest of the season. Instead, each returned to play a key role with the champion Baltimore Ravens.
And don’t overlook a player like David DeCastro. DeCastro, the first-round rookie guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers, tore his MCL and was back on the field three months later.
Player Safety Will Always Be an Issue
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Concussions have been a growing problem in the NFL over the last several seasons. Solving this issue is not going to be an easy task for commissioner Roger Goodell.
He already reduced the distance of kickoffs in an attempt to alleviate the number of injuries. The current rules all but disallow opposing players from hitting the quarterback.
But formations like the new spread option won’t help the concussion rate. Former NFL player Hines Ward has advocated that players should wear leather helmets like the old days. Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard has said the National Football League may cease to exist in 30 years. Even President Obama weighed in on the issues around the league, saying if he had a son, he wouldn’t allow him to play football.
No one really knows what will happen with the future of this league. But it will likely continue to be a problem for as long as the game exists.
The Cornerstone Left Tackle Isn’t What It Used to Be
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Left tackle has been the second-highest paid position on the offense for the last several years, trailing just the quarterback.
Teams will pay big money for a stud like Joe Thomas or Jake Long to anchor their line. And it’s extremely important that quarterbacks are protected.
But elite left tackles don’t translate to playoff success like one would expect. The three best tackles in the NFL over the past five or so years have been Thomas, Long and Jason Peters. The trio has 15 combined Pro Bowl selections without a single playoff win.
The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl this year without a stable left tackle (Bryant McKinnie came off the bench to turn in a fine postseason but the position was less-than-stellar all year). Last year, David Diehl of the New York Giants turned in the single worst season of any offensive lineman, per Pro Football Focus. Chad Clifton was merely average for the 2010 Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. And Jermon Bushrod really struggled in 2009 for the New Orleans Saints, especially in the playoffs.
This doesn’t mean offensive linemen aren’t important. Paying a left tackle a lot of money is a fine strategy if he’s worth paying. But a team can survive—and even win—with an average blindside blocker.
Quarterback Is Far and Above the Most Important Position
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This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The magnitude of the quarterback position is at an all-time high.
Teams simply cannot win without star quarterbacks. Even some of the game’s better quarterbacks could be on the hot seat.
Matt Schaub led the Houston Texans to a 12-4 record and his contract puts his future with the team in question. Tony Romo is coming off a Pro Bowl caliber season and the Dallas Cowboys could very well be looking to move on from him after next year.
Teams can’t skate by anymore with middle-tier quarterbacks like Jake Delhomme or David Garrard in their prime. The pressure to win and to win now is higher than ever.
Wide Receiver May Be the Second-Most Important Position in the NFL
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Let’s review the trade the Atlanta Falcons pulled off in the 2011 NFL draft. The Falcons sent a pair of first-round picks, a pair of fourth-round picks and a second-round pick to the Cleveland Browns to trade up to the sixth overall selection. The Falcons drafted Julio Jones and haven’t looked back.
The performance Jones put up in this year’s playoffs was epic. He vaulted himself into a discussion of the game’s best all-around receiver. A target like that for a quarterback is almost priceless.
Calvin Johnson did wonders for the Detroit Lions’ passing game this year. And it’s no coincidence that the New York Giants’ Super Bowl title in 2011 came with the emergence of Victor Cruz as a bona fide superstar.