The NFL's Biggest Surprises in 2008
For football fans, 2008 has been a wild year.
After the Giants knocked off the mighty New England Patriots in Super Bowl XVII, many fans thought that the weirdness was over. That we, as a nation, would go back to the same league landscape we had seen for years.
Boy, were they wrong.
This has been a bizarre season. For proof, one only has to look at the emerging playoff picture. One of the best teams in the entire league, the Carolina Panthers, didn't make the playoffs last season. The Tennessee Titans went one-and-done last year.
The Falcons? They didn't even have a proper head coach this time last season.
Then there is the shift in power. For years, the Patriots, Colts and Chargers were near locks to make the postseason. Now the Colts, Super Bowl champs only two short years ago, didn't even win their division.
And the Pats and Chargers? Both are struggling simply to make the playoffs.
Then again, some things never change. Like the Lions. In an ever-changing league filled with salary caps and free agency, the Lions have been a model of consistency. Too bad they're consistently awful.
The year had its ups and downs. Take the Bills and Redskins, for example. Both teams started hot, but are now missing in action. Redskins' rookie head coach recently called himself "the worst coach in the league," and Bills coach Dick Jauron is likely going to be out of a job soon.
But in a season full of surprises, some things happened that none of us saw coming. From injured superstars and new coaches to impact rookies and surprise trades, this season has had arguably more intrigue than any in recent memory.
As we count the days until the New Year, now is the perfect time to reflect on what made this year in the National Football League so memorable.
10. Ryan Grant
True, the rise of Green Bay's running back happened during 2007. But in the playoffs, Grant proved he was no slouch.
In the Packers' 42-12 whipping of the Seahawks, Grant put up a franchise-best 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Grant, who was once a member of the Giants practice squad, earned a new contract with the Packers during the offseason. He continued his impressive career in 2008, and to date is ninth in the league in rushing with 1,036 yards and four touchdowns.
Ryan Grant makes this list because his emergence as a go-to running back came at a critical time for the Pack.
After losing Ahman Green to the Texans, the Packers had no identity in the run game. After injuries to the team's other running backs, Grant was given a chance and never let up.
Getting banged up is par for the course in the world that is professional football. When it happens to superstars, it can change the landscape of entire league.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the New England Patriots' All-Universe quarterback Tom Brady. After falling in last year's Super Bowl to some team from New York, many expected the Patriots to compete again this season. Those hopes were quickly dashed when Brady went down in Week 1 against the Chiefs.
Since then, career backup Matt Cassel has played admirably, but can hardly match the 50 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards put up by Brady last season.
On the other side of the country, no team has suffered from the injury bug quite like the Seattle Seahawks. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had only missed six games in the previous six seasons, has only played in seven this season.
These teams are not alone. Eleven clubs have ten or more players on injured reserve this season.
For a game where strength and speed mean everything, injuries have an ugly way of changing the landscape of the NFL.
8. The 2008 Rookie Wide Receiver Class
Prior to the 2008 NFL Draft, the rookie crop of receivers was said to be graced with some of the best talent in recent memory. Early mock drafts had many wideouts going as early as in the top ten overall.
Despite fine showings at the Combine, teams were unsure which receivers, if any, were worthy of a first-round selection. The teams decided to play it safe, and no receivers were picked in the first round for the first time in the modern era.
On the field, the rookie class has been one of the more productive in recent memory. Denver's Eddie Royal and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson are closing in on 1,000 yards receiving, and ten receivers have at least two scores.
With many rookies' teams still fighting for playoff spots, these young men are proving that they are better than some gave them credit for.
7. The Detroit Lions
Let's be honest—we knew the Lions were going to stink this year. What we didn't know was just how bad they were going to stink.
This year's Detroit Lions team could be the worst team in NFL history. Now that's saying something.
To illustrate just how bad the 0-15 Lions are, consider this: Detroit is ranked 29th overall in offense, averaging just over 17 points a game. Their defense is 31st in the league, giving up nearly 32 per game.
This team is so bad that they brought Daunte Culpepper out of retirement.
Without a franchise quarterback or stable front office, the Lions are simply never going to have a winner. If things don't improve, they may just beat out the Buccaneers of the '70s as the worst football team ever.
6. The Arizona Cardinals
Give the Cardinals some credit for making it work.
With 500-year-old Kurt Warner at the helm, the Arizona Cardinals have won the NFC West for the first time, and are doing it in style.
Warner is in serious consideration for his third career MVP award. He is second in the league in passing yards, having thrown for 4,290 yards with two games remaining.
For this, Warner and his top two receiving targets, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, were voted to the Pro Bowl.
The defense is considered the weaker link of the team, and is still ranked a respectable 13th overall. (Fun fact: the Arizona defense ranks fifth in fumble recoveries.)
The Cardinals have taken advantage of a weak division and a faltering Seahawks team to earn a playoff spot and a home game in the playoffs. Not bad for a team that hasn't seen the postseason since 1998 with Jake Plummer at quarterback.
5. Rookie Head Coaches
When Tony Sparano, John Harbaugh, and Mike Smith were brought in to their new cities, each inherited a team facing adversity.
For Sparano, he was taking over the Miami Dolphins, a perennial bottom-dweller in the AFC East.
For Smith, his task was to keep the Atlanta Falcons from falling into obscurity.
Harbaugh had to re-energize a Baltimore Ravens club that had not had a coaching chance in the better part of a decade.
For the three coaches, the formula was simple: New quarterbacks and a new energy.
Now all three teams are thick in the playoff hunt. Sparano and Smith are the consensus favorites to win Coach of the Year.
Not all rookie coaching jobs have been a success. Redskins head coach Jim Zorn had his team starting out hot, but have lost five of their last six en route to a 7-7 record and less-than-slim playoff hopes.
Still, each coach brings hope to their teams that they can rise from the ashes and compete for years to come.
4. The San Diego Chargers
Has there been a more disappointing team in 2008 than the Chargers?
The Bolts hardly look like the team that nearly won the AFC Championship Game last season. With two games to go, the Chargers sport a dismal 6-8 record.
All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman was put on Injured Reserve before the season began, and the defense never recovered.
Lady Luck hasn't exactly been kind, either. Six games have been decided by three or less points. The Chargers are 2-4 in those games.
Amazingly, they can still win the AFC West, but their chances aren't great. But the Chargers are a resilient team--don't expect them to quit until the end of the season.
3. Brett Favre
For those of you who were living under a rock this summer, let me fill you in: Brett Favre caused some drama during the offseason.
After abruptly retiring at the end of the 2007 season, Favre came out of retirement and said that he wanted to play for the Packers again.
Unfortunately, Green Bay's management wasn't so keen on the idea.
When the dust settled, Favre was traded to the New York Jets. The Jets are now 9-5 and fighting for the division lead while the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers are out of the playoff hunt.
Favre coming in at No. 3 is signifigant, because he surprised us three times in 2008: He came out of retirement, he was traded to the Jets, and he is leading his team to a potential home playoff game.
2. The Atlanta Falcons
Quick—when was the last time the Falcons made the playoffs?
That's right. It was the 2004 season when they were knocked off in the NFC Championship Game by the Philadelphia Eagles.
A bit has changed since then. Franchise quarterback Michael Vick is in prison, and former head coach Jim Mora is next in line to take over in Seattle.
Last season was a trying one for the Falcons. Vick was gone for the year, and the team limped to a 4-12 record. Head coach Bobby Petrino (remember him?) quit midseason to go back to the college ranks. Things were looking bleak for the Dirty Birds.
The came head coach Mike Smith.
Smith was the former defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team known for its stinging defense. In the draft, the Falcons selected Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick.
Since then, the Falcons have undergone a complete resurgence. The team is flying high at 9-5 and has a real chance to earn a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, Matt Ryan seems to be a lock for Rookie of the Year, and is even in the conversation for league MVP.
There is once again reason for optimism in Atlanta. Time will tell if the team can make the playoffs, but many fans are simply thankful knowing that their team won't turn into the Lions of the south.
1. The 2007 Giants' Post-Season Run
Like it would be anything else.
What the Giants did in the playoffs is nothing short of miraculous. The team won 10 road games in a row, en route to Super Bowl XLII against arguably the best football team of all-time in the New England Patriots.
Eli Manning started the 2007 season shaky, but found his groove at just the right time. He led all postseason quarterbacks with 854 yards, 6 touchdowns and only one interception.
The Giants running game was excellent as well. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combined for over 400 yards rushing in the playoffs.
And of course, no story of the 2007/2008 Giants is complete without their upset of the century over the Patriots. Eli Manning's game-winning drive is the stuff of legends, and he was rewarded with the title of Super Bowl MVP.
This season, the Giants have proven that their playoff run was no fluke. At 10-3, they are arguably the best team in the NFL. Regardless of what happens this year, the Giants of 2007 have earned an esteemed place in NFL history.