What We Learned from the NFL's 2013 Regular Season

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IDecember 30, 2013

What We Learned from the NFL's 2013 Regular Season

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    The 2013 NFL regular season is officially in the books, and what an entertaining ride it was.

    From Peyton Manning's record-setting campaign to the greatest regular-season Sunday in league history (Week 14), there was rarely a moment to sit back and catch your breath.

    In this column, we'll discover what truths were unearthed over the past four months. That means that past realizations—officiating issues, for one— aren't up for discussion.

    With the calendar set to move to 2014 and the playoffs about to begin, it's time to find out what we learned during the 2013 regular season.

Rex Ryan Is a Damn Good Football Coach

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    Last offseason, many (including yours truly) were critical of the New York Jets' decision to bring back coach Rex Ryan after firing general manager Mike Tannenbaum. Many (including yours truly) were appalled by Ryan's decision to insert quarterback Mark Sanchez into the fourth quarter of a meaningless preseason game, leading to Sanchez sustaining a shoulder injury that would keep him out for the entire season.

    Many (including yours truly) looked at the 53-man roster and assumed that Ryan could lead Gang Green to no more than three or four wins and eventually lose his job at season's end.

    Well, we were all wrong. And that includes yours truly.

    The job that Ryan did in piloting this atrocious Jets team to an 8-8 record was nothing short of miraculous. Go ahead and check out the team's depth chart. Their dearth of talent is nothing short of stunning. And yet Ryan got this ragtag group to overachieve beyond many of our wildest dreams.

    Ryan deserved the criticism levied at his doorstep for missing the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. His braggadocious ways worked when the team was winning in 2009 and 2010 but got old very quickly once the losing started. But he also now deserves a ton of credit for largely keeping his mouth shut this season (by his standards) and letting his team do the talking for him.

    It's incredible that just months after the angry mob wielded their proverbial pitchforks outside the team's facility in Florham Park, Ryan's approval rating with Jets fans now rivals Kate Upton's.

    After the Jets upset the favored Dolphins in Week 17, owner Woody Johnson announced that Ryan would be retained, via the Associated Press (h/t USA Today). It's the right move. Now the onus is on general manager John Idzik to add talent at the skill positions.

    Regardless of what happens next season, Ryan proved many of us wrong. He's a damn good football coach and earned the opportunity to return in 2014.

The Cleveland Browns Have No Clue

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    We knew that the Cleveland Browns organization has had no clue since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999, but we were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt with a new owner, coach and power structure in place.

    But once again, chaos has enveloped this clueless organization. The great fans of Cleveland deserve so much better than this.

    Late Sunday night after the team completed a 4-12 season, first-year coach Rob Chudzinski was relieved of his duties, according to USA Today's Nate Davis. The front office stated a "lack of progress" as the reason for Chudzinski's dismissal, following the team's seven-game losing streak to close the campaign. 

    Owner Jimmy Haslam, president/CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi embarrassed themselves with this decision—period, end of story.

    For the sake of fairness, the hiring of Chudzinski this past January wasn't exactly an inspiring one. The Browns clearly wanted Chip Kelly, and when Kelly chose Philadelphia, Chudzinski came out of nowhere to get the job.

    But he ended up putting together a fantastic coaching staff that included offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and he did a phenomenal job in leading the Browns to a 4-5 record heading into the bye week, despite not having a proven quarterback and his front office trading starting running back Trent Richardson.

    There's no doubt that the wheels came off and the Browns finished poorly, but what did Haslam, Banner and Lombardi expect?

    When Brian Hoyer is unquestionably your best option at quarterback, how is it possible to win football games? When Willis McGahee's exhumed corpse is your primary ball-carrier, how is it possible to contend with the likes of Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC North? 

    Seriously. The Browns expected Chudzinski to win with Brandon Weeden as his quarterback. Right. That's a feat that not even Vince Lombardi could have pulled off.

    Look, maybe Chudzinski wasn't the man for the job. Maybe the Browns would have languished in 2014 and beyond. That doesn't change the fact that this organization hired him and made a commitment to him so that he could learn and grow as the head coach. Firing him after one season points to the dysfunction that's permeated the Browns since they returned to the league.

    All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas had this to say even before hearing the news of Chudzinski's firing, per the Akron Beacon Journal's Nate Ulrich: "You look at the great franchises. They don’t fire your coach after the first season. You can’t do it."

    That says it all.

    The Browns have once again alienated their players and their fans, slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping, bleeding wound. Yet another rebuilding project awaits a star-crossed franchise and its jaded fanbase.

    The great city of Cleveland deserves so much better than this clueless bunch running its most beloved team. 

Mike Glennon Should Have Been Tampa Bay's Week 1 Starter at QB

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    This past offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went for broke, lavishing major cash in free agency and working a trade to acquire All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. The directive seemed clear: to win and make the playoffs in 2013.

    There was just one, tiny, 6'6", 248-pound problem: incumbent starting quarterback Josh Freeman. The decision by coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik to hand the Week 1 reins to Freeman was what ultimately doomed their season.

    In the third round of April's draft, the Bucs selected North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon, and in retrospect, it's easy to see that Glennon should have been the starter for all 16 games.

    Freeman disappointed as both a player and a leader. He regressed, authoring an extremely disappointing opening chapter of the season, and his well-publicized rift with Schiano didn't help matters. Whether it was oversleeping for the team photo or completing well under 50 percent of his passes, Freeman was the albatross slung around the Buccaneers' collective neck and ultimately sunk their chances of competing for a playoff berth.

    The team rightly cut ties with Freeman after only four games, and he later went on to play one of the worst games in NFL history for the Vikings in a Monday night slop-fest against the Giants.

    Once Glennon was inserted into the lineup, the team clearly stepped up its game. While Glennon went just 4-8 as the starter, he was very impressive for a neophyte, tossing 19 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. He's earned the opportunity to start in 2014.

    If Schiano and Dominik had made the right move and started Glennon in Week 1, things could have gone very differently for the Buccaneers in 2013.

Chip Kelly Can Coach in the NFL

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    Admit it. You were skeptical of the Philadelphia Eagles' hire of coach Chip Kelly.

    After all, Kelly was a college coach who ran an offensive system that was right at home in the Pac-12 but completely foreign to the NFC East. 

    You wondered aloud if Kelly's uptempo, high-octane offense could work in the NFL. You pondered if its breakneck nature would allow his star players to make it through a 16-game schedule unscathed. You questioned his unorthodox methods and doubted his ability to succeed.

    And, in the end, you were wrong. Almost all of us were dead wrong.

    Kelly is an outstanding NFL coach, and he proved it this season by guiding the Eagles to the NFC East title.

    Check out this phenomenal piece by B/R's Mike Freeman for more on Kelly. Freeman is absolutely right. Kelly killed it in year one.

    His offense was mostly breathtaking. Running back LeSean McCoy finished as the league's leading rusher. Quarterback Nick Foles finished the season with 27 touchdown passes against only two interceptions. And most importantly, the Eagles are hosting a home playoff game next weekend against the Saints.

    Kelly sparkled in his first year on the job, and you have to imagine that he'll only grow better and savvier as time goes on.

    He proved he can coach and succeed at the NFL level and laid the skepticism to bed.

The NFC West Is the Best Division in Football

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    It was just a few short years ago (2010) that the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a record of 7-9, prompting pundits to (correctly) call it the worst division in the history of football. 

    Fast-forward just three years later, and there is no doubt that the NFC West is the best division in football. It's been a stunning turnaround.

    How did it happen?

    First, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have done an exemplary job of roster-building in the salary-cap era. The depth on their roster is unprecedented, and the unearthing of diamond-in-the-rough quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft was nothing short of a franchise-altering event. Seattle went 13-3 this season and claimed home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

    Second, the San Francisco 49ers hired coach Jim Harbaugh, who immediately fashioned the team into a Super Bowl contender. They reached the NFC Title game in 2011 and the Super Bowl in 2012 on the strength of an outstanding roster. They went 12-4 this season.

    Third, the Arizona Cardinals made the right hires at coach and general manager with Bruce Arians and Steve Keim. The team rode an excellent defense to a 10-6 record and very nearly qualified for the postseason.

    And lastly, coach Jeff Fisher did a fantastic job in rallying the St. Louis Rams in the wake of quarterback Sam Bradford's season-ending injury. The Rams finished 7-9, and could have been a playoff team if they played in an easier division. Plus, the team is loaded with young talent, and has another two first-round draft picks this season.

    In all, the division accumulated a ridiculous 42 wins between its four teams, five more than the closest competition (the AFC West, with 37), and clearly staked its claim as the best in the NFL.

Parity in the NFL Has Never Been Stronger

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    The NFL likes to trumpet its parity—that it's possible for (almost) any team to compete for a Super Bowl title in any given year.

    In 2013, that mantra has once again proven to be true. The parity of the league has never been stronger than it is at this current moment.

    Two teams widely expected to contend for the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, finished a combined 6-26, with Houston claiming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

    The team that finished with the worst record in 2012, the Kansas City Chiefs, went 11-5 this season and qualified for the playoffs under the new leadership of head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith.

    Five different teams made this year's postseason that didn't qualify in 2012: the Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints. None of those teams finished above .500 a season ago.

    This season, the NFL once again showed that it's ridiculously unpredictable. Its parity is unquestioned.

The Year of the Backup QB

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    Perhaps more than any season in recent memory, the 2013 season showcased just how vital the position of backup quarterback is for NFL teams.

    In Philadelphia, Nick Foles replaced an injured Michael Vick and threw 27 touchdown passes, leading the Eagles to an NFC East title.

    In Chicago, Josh McCown played superb football in relief of an injured Jay Cutler, keeping the Bears in the NFC North race.

    In Green Bay, Matt Flynn was able to rescue the Packers in the wake of Aaron Rodgers' injury. He performed significantly better than fellow signal-callers Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien and ultimately allowed Rodgers to return and win the division in Week 17.

    In Tampa Bay, rookie Mike Glennon came off the bench and played very well after the team cut Josh Freeman.

    There are many more examples: Ryan Fitzpatrick in Tennessee, Kellen Clemens in St. Louis, Chad Henne in Jacksonville, Case Keenum in Houston and heck, even Kyle Orton in Dallas for one game.

    In all, it emphasized once again how important it is to have a contingency plan at the game's most important position.

    2013 will definitely go down as the year of the backup quarterback.

The Dolphins Aren't Ready for Prime Time

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    It seems like eons ago that the Miami Dolphins were 8-6 and coming off back-to-back wins over the Steelers and Patriots. At that time, the Dophins controlled their own playoff destiny, needing to close out the season with victories over the inferior Bills and Jets to qualify for their first postseason berth since 2008.

    But coach Joe Philbin's team laid gigantic eggs in both contests, and the Dolphins finished 8-8 and out of the postseason. Heck, they finished third in the AFC East behind a Jets team with significantly less talent. 

    While Philbin did a wonderful job keeping the team together in the wake of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, his team ultimately didn't get the job done.

    The Dolphins started the season 3-0 and then lost four in a row. Then, they couldn't close out the season after clawing their way to 8-6. Getting shut out in Buffalo in Week 16 was one thing, but getting embarrassed at home by the Jets in Week 17 with a playoff berth on the line was another type of disgrace entirely.

    It showed that the Dolphins aren't yet ready for prime time, and it raises the question if they ever will be under the stewardship of Philbin and embattled general manager Jeff Ireland.

Super Bowl Titles Earn QBs a Long Leash

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    Fact: The last two Super Bowl MVP's are New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

    Fact: Manning and Flacco threw a combined 49 interceptions this season.

    That shows the kind of capital that winning the Super Bowl can earn you.

    Let's start with Manning. While Flacco wasn't great this season, Manning made him look like the second coming of Johnny Unitas. Manning was awful, atrocious, hideous, grotesque and any other negative adjective you'd like to throw out there. 27 interceptions? It seems almost impossible to comprehend.

    Before the season, one could have constructed an argument that Manning deserved inclusion in the same rarefied air as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and big brother Peyton. The argument would have been flawed, but it certainly could have been made. After all, Manning had two Super Bowl titles under his belt and had cemented his reputation as one of the great clutch quarterbacks of all time.

    But after this dumpster fire of a season, there's no way that Manning can ever be mentioned in the same breath as those players again. 

    Yes, the Giants were terrible this year, and it's not all on Manning. But he didn't do his part. Twenty-seven interceptions says it all.

    As for Flacco, he was put squarely behind the eight ball this season when his new security blanket, tight end Dennis Pitta, was injured in training camp. The Ravens had expected Pitta to step up and make a major impact in the absence of receiver Anquan Boldin, but the best-laid plans of mice and men, and so on and so forth.

    The offense never truly recovered, and with limited weapons to work with, Flacco struggled. Twenty-two interceptions says it all.

    Both men own contracts in excess of $100 million, and you know what? Despite their putrid seasons, they're both still worth it. And both are still elite, regardless of their performance in 2013.

    That's the kind of capital that winning a Super Bowl earns you as a quarterback. 

Ron Rivera and Cam Newton Are Winners After All

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    Following back-to-back years outside of the postseason, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton entered 2013 with something to prove.

    When the team started 1-3, the familiar refrains broke out: Rivera and Newton aren't winners. Rivera will never win as an NFL head coach. Newton doesn't get it. 

    It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Rivera's hot seat would burst into flames and the coach would lose his job.

    But what's happened since that 1-3 start has been nothing short of breathtaking. Like the proverbial phoenix, the Panthers rose from the ashes in dramatic fashion, winning 11 of their final 12 games to finish 12-4, claiming both the NFC South title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

    Rivera used to coach games wound as tight as a drum, often playing conservative football. That all changed after the 1-3 start. Knowing his job and the season were on the line, Rivera let it all hang out, earning the fantastic nickname "Riverboat Ron" for his penchant for going for it on fourth down. Rivera chose his spots wisely, and the Panthers converted 10 of 13 fourth-down attempts.

    And Newton played exceptional football. He stopped forcing the ball down the field and played within the offense. His natural talents rose to the forefront, and he finally started to win the fifth quarter, a term used by former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon to describe the quarterback's role with the media. Newton's bizarre press conferences and on-field histrionics became a thing of the past. He led the Panthers on and off the field with aplomb.

    Of course, giving up the second-fewest points in the league didn't hurt, either.

    Rivera and Newton finally flipped the narrative and got the Panthers to the postseason, proving that they are winners after all.

The Washington Redskins Totally Botched RG3's Return

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    2013 was not a good calendar year for the Washington Redskins.

    This past January, the team not only lost its wild-card playoff game to the Seahawks, but quarterback Robert Griffin III suffered a torn ACL in that same contest. Coach Mike Shanahan did an atrocious job leaving a clearly hobbled Griffin in that game to absorb more punishment. Everyone and their mother could see that Griffin was hurt, yet Shanahan left him in because Griffin said he was fine. The stupidity of the entire situation is mind-boggling.

    But at that time, the future was still bright for the Redskins. They were coming off their first division title since 1999, and Griffin had breathed life into the previously moribund franchise. All the team needed to do was handle Griffin's injury properly and the opportunity for success in 2013 would be there for the taking.

    That isn't how things played out.

    It's vital for a young quarterback to go through the motions of an entire offseason in order to get better and further learn the nuances of the offense. Because of his torn ACL, Griffin didn't get that opportunity. He didn't get to truly practice at minicamp, at OTAs, at training camp or play in the preseason.

    But despite those facts, the Redskins chose to start Griffin in Week 1's tilt against the Eagles, and once again, everyone and their mother could see that Griffin wasn't ready to play.

    It's worth noting that Griffin has opened himself up for criticism. He didn't exactly handle the situation well, seemingly giving interviews to anyone with a microphone and working set of ears. But he's a 23-year old kid, and needed to be shielded by his superiors. The Redskins failed him.

    Backup Kirk Cousins should have started the first month of the season while Griffin continued to heal. Instead, Griffin was subjected to more punishment, and the Redskins floundered, leading to his outrageous deactivation by Shanahan with three games to go in the season. 

    The Redskins degenerated into a total circus in 2013, with Shanahan and owner Dan Snyder taking turns playing the role of ringmaster.

    Unfortunately for Griffin, he was made to be a sideshow clown in the proceedings.

The NFL Is King, and That Won't Change Anytime Soon

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    In all, it was an epic 2013 season that featured endless hours of drama and entertainment. To paraphrase the great English author T.H. White, the NFL is most certainly the once and future king of sports in this country.

    Denver Broncos signal-caller Peyton Manning dazzled, compiling the best statistical season by a quarterback in NFL history. He threw an astounding 55 touchdown passes, a feat once thought to be possible only in Tecmo Bowl and Madden.

    Division races and playoff berths came down to the wire, creating the most compelling Week 17 in recent memory.

    And how could we ever forget the greatest Sunday in NFL regular-season history: Week 14, which featured unbelievable finish after unbelievable finish and winter wonderlands across the East Coast.

    This author might be biased, but if you're a sports fan, the NFL is masterpiece theater. It's the greatest unscripted reality television we could ever hope to watch, and 2013 lived up to the billing and then some.

    And the best part is yet to come: the playoffs and the Super Bowl.