We are now at a point in the NFL timeline where parity reigns supreme. With the billions of dollars invested hand-over-fist in each pro football town, it is in the very best economic interests of the league for every team to be competitive. No longer can teams spend decades in irrelevance, putting only their best effort on the field in hopes of not losing too badly. A prime example of this pattern is found in how quickly we have forgotten that many of today’s NFL powerhouses were yesterday’s gridiron punch line. The New England Patriots in 2011 are an annual lock for AFC supremacy yet just a decade ago were 5-11 and were uninvited to the postseason after spending most of the 1990s on the losing end of more than their fair share of games. The Detroit Lions have quickly become a dangerous team to play in the NFC North (in many ways), only three years removed from a 0-16 season that capped off a decade of misery. The teams that have made the biggest positive turnaround in recent history are led by the players and coaches that have themselves completed their own professional renaissance. Here are five stars of the National Football League who were once down for the count, but who have returned to the top of their game.
It is not unheard of for an NFL athlete to move from one team to another in order to find success that evaded him in his previous jersey colors. It is also not a complete shock when a team that invests millions upon millions of dollars in a young player who does not perform as expected, dumps said player and his contract off to the first interested bidder. There is though, a line of indecency crossed when the team that has left you on the side of the highway is the Buffalo Bills. Casted off the NFL’s version of the Titanic because they could not figure out an effective way to utilize his skill set, Aaron Maybin was welcomed with open arms by the prized New York Jets defense and their eccentric leader Rex Ryan. The former Nittany Lions star failed to reach the quarterback at any point in the last two seasons with Buffalo but has a team leading six sacks and four forced fumbles in his role as situational pass rusher for Gang Green. Before his emergence as one of the top pass rushers in the AFC, Maybin was criticized for his lack of size and inability to produce as an every down defender. Now interjected at exactly the right moments by a defensive mad scientist, Maybin is given the opportunity to use his tremendous speed off the edge and his incredible lateral agility to get to quarterbacks in passing situations. He finds himself suddenly in the role similar to that of fellow New York superstar Mariano Rivera. All he is asked to do now is end the game, closing out victories for the New York Jets. To think, Maybin has done all of this without starting any game as a Jet, and only playing twenty percent of all defensive snaps.
I would like to officially declare myself the first sports columnist of this 2011 season to write a piece that refers to the Denver Broncos without expending all of my manic typing energy on their knee-bending quarterback. I simply refuse to feed the monster by mentioning his name for many reasons. I do this primarily because the media obsession with #15 completely ignores the overwhelming contribution the Denver rushing attack and defense has given towards their enigmatic success. Running back Willis McGahee is producing an 80.5 yards-per-game average that matches his career best and is on pace for over 1280 total yards this season, also a career high. A strong defense consisting of budding linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil has surprised offenses all season long with their ability to stop the run and rush the passer. Veterans Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins continue to post another solid season defending the pass for the Broncos and the Bronco offensive line continues to trudge down fields with power and efficiency. If there is one thing that is certain in the National Football League, it winning consistently requires a complete team effort, and the Broncos have done so in six of their last seven games. I refuse to join the bandwagon that insists it is simply thanks to the man under center. I shall start the revolution to appreciate the entire team, and not mention his name whenever possible. So there, Tim Tebow. Tebow, Tebow…Tebow!
The man who had become synonymous with the feather-light preseason “Camp Cupcake” philosophy was unceremoniously dumped as Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys midway through the 2010 season, Wade Phillips has been resurrected as the mastermind coordinator behind the resurgent Houston Texan defense. Resurgence is an understatement for these Houston Texans. Coach Phillips has single handedly taken a defense rated dead last in 2010 to a squad that now in 2011, is the best statistical defense in football. The Houston defense is ranked in the top five of every conceivable, measurable defensive statistics and that is no doubt due to the success of Phillips and his swarming approach. As the Texans have incurred one of the most unbelievable strings of bad luck as it pertains to injuries on offense, yet they continue to win solely on the back of their unyielding defense. In this, the modern era of high-powered offenses, it is an absolute wonder that a team can continue to compete in late season games with their defense leading such a short handed charge.
2011 is the year of a new coach, a new team culture, and a new beginning for the on-field leader of the San Francisco 49’ers. With a top 10 offense, a 10-2 record, and a division title all but wrapped up in the first week of December, the 49’ers are the very definition of a righted ship. A discombobulated shambles of a six and ten team in 2010, San Francisco has built one of the most astonishing single season turnarounds in NFL history. At the helm of these rejuvenated Niners is a quarterback who not long ago was counted amongst the worst disappointments in draft history. Alex Smith was destined for complete obscurity as his first five seasons as a pro quarterback slipped away with absolutely no success to show for them. With no playoff appearances since adding his name to the infamous catalog of Post-Young quarterbacks, Smith now finds himself leading his team to their first post-season berth in nine years. The former Utah Utes signal caller is on pace for more pass completions, more attempts, more yardage, more touchdowns, and better passer rating than any of his past four seasons. If there was any question about how much a head coaching change can affect the fortunes of an NFL football team, one will look no further than this 49’ers season for their answer.
You have to appreciate the good fortunes Head Coach Marvin Lewis and his Cincinnati Bengals are experiencing this season. The Bengals have suddenly returned to relevance as they have assembled a talented young squad of overachievers determined to make waves in the ultra-competitive AFC North. They received a gift-wrapped endowment of future draft picks from the Oakland Raiders in a trade for inactive quarterback Carson Palmer that will undoubtedly be cashed in for another influx of talented youth. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has been a very pleasant surprise this season in Cincinnati and will be the face of the Bengal offense for years to come. He has been given the opportunity to thrive in the passing game thanks to a tremendous rushing output from seven-year veteran Cedric Benson. Often lost in the conversations involving the younger Dalton and a vibrant wide receiver corps comprised of A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, Benson has quietly constructed a season on track for a very respectable 1150 yards and seven touchdowns. What may be of greater significance is the value of Benson as a veteran presence in an extremely inexperienced Bengals locker room. A virtual playpen for NFL newborns, Cincinnati is short on marquee veteran experience. As this team evolves and adds the youth that it stands to inherit over the next several seasons, it will be imperative that it maintains some semblance of the maturity. The sort of maturity and productivity that Cedric Benson has delivered in 2011 needs grow with them.