As 2013 comes to a close, it's time to review the most remarkable stories (for better or worse) of this NFL season to date. Little surprise, then, which story starts and finishes the year ... and we're not yet done with this one.
Dec. 11 -- Mike Shanahan benches Robert Griffin III
Griffin struggled through his second NFL season for a number of reasons -- defenses had arrayed in different ways to stop him, he wasn't able to read defenses at the level required because of the lack of an off-season program, and injuries and ineffectiveness plagued his receivers and offensive line. Griffin had thrown just five interceptions in 15 games in 2012, and that total blew up to 12 in just 13 games in 2013. Griffin was not as efficient as a passer or runner, and there were all kinds of things going on behind the scenes. Depending on which report you were reading or inclined to believe, Griffin had ingratiated himself with Redskins owner Dan Snyder, Griffin and Shanahan were not communicating, Griffin's father had become a divisive presence, Griffin had become a prima donna, Shanahan was practically begging to be fired .... and on and on and on.
Finally, Shanahan put a cap on the year-long soap opera by first refusing to commit to Griffin as the starter for Washington's Dec. 15 game against the Atlanta Falcons, and then announcing that Griffin would be benched indefinitely for his own safety. Indefinitely became the rest of the season, which became an emergency plan if backup Kirk Cousins struggled, which became a plan to play Cousins enough to perhaps extract a first-round pick for him in trade ... yeah, it got messy. Kyle Shanahan, the team's offensive coordinator and coach's son, disagreed with his father's decision and did so on the record. At the same time, a report came out that Shanahan had cleaned out his desk after the wild-card loss to the Seahawks.
And now, the Redskins are so bad, the 2014 first-round pick given to the St. Louis Rams as part of the haul to move up and select Griffin with the second pick in the 2014 draft might be the first overall pick. It's hard to think of an NFL story in recent memory that went from triumph to disaster so quickly.
Dec. 11 -- Jeff Triplette personifies a season that all NFL officials would like to forget
Triplette, who has been an NFL official since 1996 and a referee since 1999, is perhaps the most bumptious individual in a fraternity of officiating crews that had NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino going on the NFL Network literally every week to explain yet another hideous call. In early December, Triplette's Arbiter Sports (a Utah-based company that deals in the organization of officiating crews, the assignments of officials and the payment of those officials for multiple sports at the high school and collegiate levels) suffered a website collapse that forced the company to send out an apologetic e-mail to the people it was supposed to represent.
At the same time, Triplette was undergoing his usual level of league scrutiny for his usual number of boneheaded calls. One week after he botched the game clock in a Dec. 1 game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, Triplette mangled what appeared to be a non-scoring play by Cincinnati Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in a game against the Indianapolis Colts. The original call was that Green-Ellis had not scored from the Indianapolis one-yard line, but Triplette turned that into his own crazy fiction by spending about 10 minutes reviewing the play, and deciding that Green-Ellis had indeed scored, based on one small aspect of the play. Blandino later said that Triplette could have reviewed the entire play, which appeared to leave Triplette confused.
Triplette is just the most egregious example of the league's current officiating nightmare. Many will say that the volume and complexity of the game's rules leave officials in impossible situations, but these guys certainly don't help matters with their preening, needlessly wordy penalty explanations (yes, we're talking to you, Ed Hochuli), outright mistakes that rookie crews would be expected to get right, and general disorganization. The league's Competition Committee had better do something about this.
Dec. 8 -- Matt Prater's 64-yard field goal tops a crazy Week 14
The NFL's Week 14 featured:
- A 29-26 win by the Baltimore Ravens over the Minnesota Vikings, in which the lead changed a league-record six times with six touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
- A 27-26 win by the New England Patriots over the Cleveland Browns in which the Pats scored two touchdowns in the final 1:01 of the game.
- A 34-28 win by the Miami Dolphins over the Pittsburgh Steelers in which the Steelers almost came back to win in the game's final seconds with the desperation drill that almost never works. After Pittsburgh's entire offense seemed to pass the ball around as the clock's seconds were ticking away, receiver Antonio Brown came oh-so-close to a miracle touchdown ... except that he was seen to barely step out of bounds at the Miami 13-yard line.
- And a snowglobe frenzy of a game in which the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Detroit Lions, 34-20. It was the first NFL game since 1957 with no points scored on kicks -- the field was so snowed out and the weather so fierce, the two teams tried two-point conversions on all but one of their touchdowns.
Whew. And yet, the most historically notable play of the day came in Denver's 51-28 win over the Tennessee Titans, when Denver kicker Matt Prater booted a 64-yard field goal, breaking a record that had stood since 1970 and had been tied several times. Next time you're bemoaning a relatively boring NFL week, remember Week 14 for a minute, and consider that your team is never really out of it ... unless they're the Lions in the snow, or a team playing a Peyton Manning offense on a roll.
Nov. 17 -- Chiefs' nine-game win streak ends
Speaking of the Broncos, they ended the Kansas City Chiefs' nine-game winning streak to start the 2013 season, and the Chiefs' status as the league's last undefeated team in the campaign. This was remarkable because the Chiefs had finished 2-14 the year before. But with new masterminds on both sides of the ball -- head coach Andy Reid on offense, and Bob Sutton as the defensive coordinator -- the Chiefs did their best to author one of the NFL's most compelling worst-to-first stories in recent years. Now the Chiefs are guaranteed a playoff spot, and they have a narrow shot at the AFC's #1 seed ... quite the miracle for a team most believed would take years to turn around.
Nov. 3 -- Nick Foles matches Manning's big game, takes control for Eagles
Peyton Manning's seven-touchdown performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL's 2013 season opener wasn't that much of a surprise -- after all, Manning had thrown 37 touchdown passes in his first year with the Broncos, and there were question marks about the fitness of Baltimore's secondary. However, what Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles did to the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 3 was far less expected -- he also matched the seven-touchdown NFL record, and did it in the first three quarters of Philly's 49-20 victory before head coach Chip Kelly replaced him with backup Matt Barkley. The game effectively marked the end of the Michael Vick era -- at least for the Eagles -- and started Foles on a historical month. His 152.8 quarterback rating for November was the single greatest for any quarterback in NFL history over a similar period of time. Foles, a third-round pick in 2012 out of Arizona, didn't throw his first interception of the season until the aforementioned win over the Lions, marking a streak of 237 straight passes without an interception, a franchise best.
Oct. 31 -- Jonathan Martin leaves Dolphins; Richie Incognito bulling story breaks
The news came out on Halloween that Miami Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin lad left the team after an undisclosed incident with teammates. The incident became disclosed soon enough when it was reported that Richie Incognito, Miami's left guard, had left a number of offensive texts and voicemails on Martin's phone. Incognito was suspended indefinitely on Nov. 3, Reports later came out that some of Miami's coaches had directed Incognito to toughen Martin up. Neither Martin nor Incognito are with the team now -- Martin was placed on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list on Nov. 30, and Incognito was placed on the Reserve/Suspended list on Dec. 16. Both players will receive their full 2013 salaries, and the NFL's investigation of the situation is ongoing.
After Martin left, the Dolphins lost their next game to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, went 2-2 in their next four games, but rebounded to win three straight games and stay in the playoff hunt after that. Head coach Joe Philbin, originally seen as a bit of a substitute teacher when the bullying scandal broke, has received praise for the ways in which he's helped the team's turnaround in recent weeks.
Oct. 3 -- Buccaneers release Josh Freeman
Of course, the Dolphins weren't the only NFL team in Florida with behind-the-scenes issues that affected on-field performance. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released quarterback Josh Freeman in mid-October, it was the most recent in a series of strange happenings for the Bucs and head coach Greg Schiano. Freeman, selected in the first round of the 2009 draft under a previous administration, wound up on Schiano's bad side pretty quickly. Schiano declared that rookie quarterback Mike Glennon would get a high number of snaps in the preseason, and he benched Freeman in late September in favor of Glennon. From there, a trade seemed inevitable, but Freeman's value plummeted not only because of his performance, but because it had been leaked that Freeman was in Stage 1 of the NFL's substance-abuse program. As it turned out, Freeman had taken Adderall by prescription to treat ADHD, and speculation ran rampant that Schiano -- or someone in Tampa Bay's front office -- had put the information out there.
In any case, it was a mess, and Freeman was signed by the Minnesota Vikings three days after his release. He hasn't played there since one disastrous start against the New York Giants, and he doesn't appear to be in the Vikings' future plans. The Freeman release was just the latest in a string of stories about the Bucs that seemed to indicate a franchise disaster -- players were bucking at Schiano's authoritative style, and three players (guard Carl Nicks, cornerback Johnthan Banks, and kicker Lawrence Tynes) were diagnosed with the MRSA virus, a serious staph infection.
These diagnoses appeared to be a physical personification of a team that was broken from the inside out, but like the Dolphins, the Bucs managed to fight that perception as the season went on. Glennon has performed well for a rookie, the Bucs have won a few games, and Schiano might just stick around for another year.
Sept. 29 — Peyton Manning throws seven touchdown passes in season opener
The Baltimore Ravens ended Peyton Manning's 2012 season on their way to the franchise's second Super Bowl title, and Manning seemed eager for revenge. The Ravens had to travel to Denver for the 2013 season opener due to a scheduling conflict with the Baltimore Orioles, and when this game was over, Baltimore's defense may have felt that it was on another planet. Manning had to wait 33 minutes to get rolling as a lightning storm delayed the game, but he didn't need much time to torch the Ravens' defense from there. He completed 27 of 42 passes for 462 yards and an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns.
Baltimore actually had a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but Manning overwhelmed the Ravens from there with two touchdowns in the second quarter, three more in the third, and two more in the second to finish the defending champs off with a 49-27 win. Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco threw the ball 62 times in an effort to try and keep pace, but it was no use. Manning was on his way in a season that could see him break multiple single-season NFL records for productivity, and he has rarely looked better than he did on that night.
Aug. 29 — NFL settles concussion lawsuits
Through the years, more than 4,000 former NFL players had brought legal action against the NFL, claiming that the league knew more about the short- and long-term effects of in-game head trauma that it let on. The league's stance, of course, was that it didn't, but as more and more information about the NFL's medical negligence was made public over time, those lawsuits appeared to be the league's Doomsday scenario -- more than one high-ranking league executive has said that the ramifications could be the biggest financial hit the NFL has ever seen.
However, the league dodged a major bullet when it settled with the plaintiffs for $765 million plus legal and administrative costs. The total amount, expected to exceed $1 billion, appears to be a major amount, but it pales in comparison to what it could have been had the individual and group lawsuits actually hit the courts. The $765 million amount was earmarked for injury settlements, medical benefits for retired players, and to fund medical and safety research related to the game.
Of course, the actual mechanics of such an agreement are complex, and the approval of the settlement has dragged on as all the fine points get worked out. Some former players have criticized the process, saying that they may opt out, and through the NFL got the non-fault settlement it wanted, it's not out of the woods just yet.
June 26 — Aaron Hernandez arrested
Hernandez, who had been in trouble with the law since his high-school days and through his time at the University of Florida, was involved in the most shocking football-related crime since O.J.'s white Bronco rolled down a Los Angeles freeway. The former New England Patriots tight end's home was searched on June 18 in connection with the death of Odin Lloyd, a friend of Hernandez's. It was discovered that Hernandez had destroyed his own home security system, that he'd brought in a team of house-cleaners around the time of the alleged murder, and when Hernandez turned over his cell phone to authorities, it was in pieces. Nine days later, police took Hernandez into custody, and the Patriots released him on the same day. Hernandez was charged with first-degree murder and several gun-related charges. He was indicted by a grand jury for Lloyd's murder in August, and pled not guilty in September. He's being held without bond at the Bristol, Mass. County Jail.
For the Patriots, the effort to eliminate Hernandez from its history was swift and all-consuming. The team voided all guarantees in his contract, and team owner Robert Kraft established a jersey exchange in which fans owning Hernandez replica jerseys could trade them in for the replica jerseys of another player. The Patriots were said to have lost approximately $250,000 in merchandise profits, but they no doubt considered the move to be worth the cost.
April 21 — Jets trade Darrelle Revis to the Bucs for a first-round pick
It's not often that the best player at a position is traded, but that's what happened to Darrelle Revis after contract negotiations and overall communications broke down with the New York Jets -- primarily with new general manager John Idzik. Revis had missed most of the 2012 season with a knee injury, and it was clear that his vision of the future and the Jets' vision of his future were radically different. The trade netted Idzik the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft from Tampa Bay, and Revis signed an interesting six-year, $96 million dollar contract with no guaranteed money that's actually a series of one-year, $13 million contracts with $1.5 million roster bonuses added per season.
So far, the trade has worked out pretty well for both teams. After some struggles with Tampa Bay's zone defenses, Revis locked in and is now the league's third-best cornerback in opponent passer rating allowed (62.2, behind only Tennessee's Alterraun Verner and Seattle's Richard Sherman). The Jets took that 13th overall pick and spent it on Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who's played at a level that could net him the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Feb. 4 — Ray Lewis' turbulent month ends with Super Bowl title
It seemed that Ray Lewis could not enter a Super Bowl week without controversy. There was, of course, his involvement in the incident in Atlanta before Super Bowl XXXIV that ended with two men being stabbed to death. Lewis gave a misleading statement to police the day after the deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar when he and two associates, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were questioned in the crime. Oakley and Sweeting were acquitted, and Lewis was given probation for obstruction of justice. One year later, he was the Super Bowl MVP as the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Giants, 34-7.
In the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVII this past February, a report from SI's David Epstein and George Dohrmann indicated that Lewis had a conversation with Mitch Ross, owner of S.W.A.T.S. (Sports with Alternatives to Steroids). S.W.A.T.S. dealt in deer antler spray, a substance banned by the NFL which is said to contain some of the same regenerative characteristics as Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Ross said that Lewis used the product, but Lewis vehemently denied this, and Ravens VP of Communications Kevin Byrne said that Lewis had passed multiple drug tests with no incident.
During media week, Lewis also had a bizarre conversation with CBS' Shannon Sharpe (a former teammate) in which Sharpe asked Lewis what he'd say now to the families of the two men allegedly murdered in Atlanta.
“If you really knew how God works, he don’t use people who commit anything like that [murder] for his glory,” Lewis said.
Well, then. In any case, Lewis (who had announced his retirement on Jan.7) walked off into the sunset with his second Super Bowl win as the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31.
Jan. 16 — Chip Kelly leaves Oregon for Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles looked high and low when it was time to replace Andy Reid, speaking with 11 different candidates in the search for their next head coach. In the end, they decided that Oregon's Chip Kelly was their man. Kelly agreed, 10 days after he said that he would stay with the Ducks ... of course, the guarantee of any college coach that he'll stay put is only as strong as the contract extension that he can get out of the alternative. In any case, Kelly brought his high-tempo offense to the NFL, and the results have been singularly impressive. Rookie quarterback Nick Foles has played at a level conversant with last season's great first-year signal-callers, and LeSean McCoy is on pace to have perhaps the best season in the long history of the franchise. Philly still needs to get that defense figured out, but it's clear that Kelly was the right choice overall -- he's redefined his new team to the same level that fellow NCAA expatriates Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh.
Jan. 9 — RGIII has knee reconstruction surgery
Griffin re-injured his right knee in the Washington Redskins' wild-card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and the recovery from that surgery set off a season of drama that still isn't over. Griffin had the LCL and ACL in his right knee repaired, he was not able to participate in off-season activities as a result, and though Dr. James Andrews referred to Griffin's recovery as "superhuman," head coach Mike Shanahan put the kibosh on Griffin appearing in any preseason games. Though Griffin was criticized by some for seemingly being more interested in his work with adidas than with the Redskins in the offseason, that was a canard -- Griffin played through the 2013 season, though not as well in his rookie campaign, until Shanahan shut him down with three games left in the season ... citing concern for Griffin's overall heath and professional future. As Griffin's schisms with the Redskins defined the year to a great degree, you can bounce back to the top of this year-end review to see how it all turned out. Spoiler alert: It does not end well for Mr. Shanahan.