The NFL's Biggest Surprises of 2008
At the start of every NFL season, there are certain things that are a given.
Terrell Owens will dominate the headlines at some point during the season, Brett Favre will be behind a center when September rolls around, and Peyton Manning will find some way to keep Indianapolis a perennial contender.
But each year, a number of players make the jump from average to outstanding and several rookies take little time to adjust, making their mark from day one.
Whether it's the young backup who finally has the chance to prove himself as a starter or the aging veteran who shakes off critics and proves that he can still perform at a top level, these players stepped up and made their presence felt in 2008 to the surprise of everyone.
Steve Slaton was selected in the third round of this year's NFL Draft with nine other rushers picked before him. But aside from possibly Chris Johnson and Matt Forte, Slaton has made a bigger impact than all of his peers.
Going into the season, Slaton was expected to split carries with fellow running back Ahman Green. But after showing his explosiveness and ability to create out of the backfield, Slaton's role in the offense grew and grew.
Through 15 weeks, Slaton is the seventh-leading rusher in the league, with 1,190 yards and nine touchdowns making him a consistent scoring threat for the Houston Texans. While other running backs such as Darren McFadden and Rashard Mendenhall received hype on draft day, Slaton is now standing out and has the people of Houston very optimistic about their future.
For the past several seasons, the only time we would hear Michael Turner's name was when he would break a long run for the Chargers while LaDainian Tomlinson was taking a breather on the bench. Turner was explosive and a great back but was hidden behind one of the game's top talents.
So when the Atlanta Falcons signed him this offseason, many people wondered if he'd be as effective when given consistent carries. Well, 1,491 yards and 16 touchdowns later, Turner has outperformed Tomlinson and has racked up the second most rush yards and touchdowns in the league behind only Adrian Peterson and DeAngelo Williams.
In his first game with Atlanta, Turner exploded onto the season with 220 yards and two touchdowns. He has also came through when his team has needed him most in divisional games, including a four-touchdown outburst against the Panthers in Week 12 and a 182-total-yard, two-score performance against Tampa Bay.
These clutch performances have helped the Falcons secure a spot in the playoffs just one season after finishing in dead last in the NFC South.
Last year at this time, Antonio Bryant's life was up in the air.
He had always been a talented athlete, and when he stepped onto the football field, he was a playmaker. But problems off the field, including an arrest and failed drug test, led to Bryant not being able to sign with a team and forced him to spend a year away from the game.
After cleaning up his act and signing for the league minimum in Tampa Bay, he is finally living up to his potential both on and off the field. With no problems to report, Bryant could focus on football once again and has been amazing for the Buccaneers. He's seventh in the league in receiving yards with 1,171 and has caught seven touchdowns.
The team will likely re-sign the receiver who dazzled a Monday Night Football audiences two weeks ago when he caught 200 yards worth of passes and two touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers and has proven that he can be a top player in this league with his newfound focus.
One of the most shocking moments of the year came just minutes into the Patriots' first game, as Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury. But New England had a much more pleasant surprise up its sleeve. His name was Matt Cassel.
While he's no Tom Brady, the kid who hadn't started a game since his high school days has made a name for himself and could bolt for a starting job when he becomes a free agent this offseason.
No longer known as Tom Brady's backup, Cassel has shown some flashes of greatness throughout this season and has 3,615 yards and 21 touchdowns (along with two rushing scores) through 15 games.
More importantly, he has kept the Patriots' playoff hopes alive, leading them to a 10-5 record despite injuries and very high expectations.
Not bad for a guy whose name you wouldn't have recognized last July.
After being forced out of New York by arguably the game's best quarterback, Chad Pennington found tremendous success with the Miami Dolphins.
Throwing for a career-high 3,453 yards with one game to spare, he has silenced many of the critics who always had something negative to say about him when he was with the Jets. While in the past the naysayers would question his arm strength or doubt his durability, they have been shut up by Pennington's play this season.
He also has Miami poised for a playoff spot just one season after finishing with a league-worst 1-15 record. And as of Sunday, the Dolphins were in first place in their division and one game up over, you guessed it, Brett Favre and New York.
After trying to establish Reggie Bush as their premier running back for the past several seasons, the New Orleans Saints may have found a new man to carry the workload on the ground in Pierre Thomas.
After going undrafted in the 2007 Draft, Thomas signed with New Orleans and just barely made the roster. One year later, he has 12 touchdowns and is proving he can not only be a dominant back but a great receiver out of the backfield.
It wasn't until Bush, Deuce McAllister, and Aaron Stecker went down with injuries that Thomas was able to prove himself. Now, Thomas has 909 total yards despite sharing the ball with Bush and Co., and is showing the Saints that maybe they should stop beating around the Bush and realize that their star running back has been right beneath their noses this entire time.
While it is very hard for the third overall selection in the draft to be a surprise, who would have thought that Matt Ryan would have made the transition from college to the pros with such speed and ease?
Ryan, who has passed for 3,280 yards through 15 games, has shown that he can lead a team to the playoffs and win games despite playing in Michael Vick's shadow and being surrounded by a cast of receivers that for many years were deemed to be below average.
While Michael Turner has also been a key to Atlanta's success, Ryan has guided this team throughout the course of the season and during some pivotal drives.
Against Chicago early in the season, Ryan marched his team down the field, completing a 26-yard pass to Michael Jenkins on the way to a Jason Elam game-winning field goal. Ryan also drove the Falcons into field-goal range during overtime of Week 14's matchup against the Buccaneers, a game that would be crucial in elevating the Falcons into the playoffs.
Many expected Ryan to be a great quarterback someday, but what he accomplished as a rookie was outstanding and makes him one of the league's best surprises of the year.
The Greatest Show on Turf was in the past and the Arizona Cardinals had a new direction for their team with Matt Leinart under center. But just prior to Week 1, the team decided to give Kurt Warner one last shot, handing him the starting job over the team's quarterback of the future.
And they haven't looked back since.
The 37-year-old may not have many years left in his tank, but for now you'd be hard-pressed to find a quarterback that is playing better football. With 26 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions to go along with his 4,320 passing yards, Warner is a Pro-Bowl starter once again and has refused to let his age slow him down.
He has also led the Cardinals to their first division title since 1975 and has been a pleasure to watch for everyone. Except Mr. Leinart, that is.