Don Banks: Top 10 NFL stories of 2011 - Sports Illustrated

Biggest NFL stories of 2011

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1. A new meaning for the L word, as in Lockout. Talk about your labor pains. The NFL and the league's players went at it for more than four months, negotiating, posturing, pontificating and threatening, but in the end, a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement was forged in late July, averting any loss of games except the excruciatingly boring Hall of Fame Game to kick off the preseason. At 136 days, it was the longest labor stoppage in league history, and both sides took turns looking like the Grinch who wanted to steal Christmas from the nation's rabid football fans. The new CBA strongly reworked the parameters of rookie contracts, but players won plenty of concessions on safety issues, health care coverage, the terms of free agency and the length of the regular season (remaining at 16 games for now). In the end, it really was the rich fighting the richer for the right to get richer, and naturally both sides benefited. As if to prove it, the NFL announced new TV contracts with all of its partners in December, and the rights fees are now officially in the gazillions.

2. Tebow-mania comes to the NFL. There should almost be before and after shots of the Denver Broncos' team picture this year. Before second-year quarterback Tim Tebow -- the most overly dissected player in the history of the NFL -- was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 7, the Broncos looked one way. Mostly defeated (they were 1-4) and rather conventional with Kyle Orton at quarterback. But after Tebow, the Broncos were a different team in so many ways. In the most important way, they were winners, going on a remarkable 7-1, take-over-first-place run with the enthusiastic and polarizing Tebow running the show. With a skill set that's almost unique in league annals, Tebow has converted many non-believers to his style of game, even those in the Broncos' front office. The resulting obsession with all things Tebow has been breathtaking in its scope, and as Denver approaches its first playoff berth since 2005, there's no end in sight.

3. The Colts play (sort of) without Peyton Manning. The unthinkable and unimaginable happened in Indianapolis this season. And it was anything but uneventful. Manning, the ultra-reliable quarterback who had missed only one snap due to injury in his 13-year tenure, sat out the entire season after having neck surgery in May and again in early September. With a recovery that just kept taking far longer than anticipated, Manning was at first expected to be ready for the start of training camp, and then the opening of the regular season. But neither happened, and whether he ever resumes his career remains a question to be answered in 2012.

Without Manning, Indy bravely tried to take a "next man up'' approach to the season, but the problem was, it wasn't a case of the "next Manning up.'' First veteran Kerry Collins came out of retirement and flailed about for a few weeks as the Colts' starter. Then the ill-fated Curtis Painter era began. Finally Dan Orlovsky took over, but it wasn't until Week 15 that 0-13 Indianapolis staved off infamy and won a game, the Colts' first with anybody but Manning under center since 1997 (they added a second win in Week 16). Two years after making a run at a perfect season in 2009, Indy threw it into reverse and nearly lost them all, definitively answering the question of Manning's worth.

4. The Year of the Packers. It was Green Bay's world in 2011, and the rest of us were just living in it. The Packers started the year by beating archrival and NFC North champ Chicago on Jan. 2 to squeak into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6, and then kept right on winning. The underdog but red-hot Packers swept through the postseason at 4-0, knocking off Pittsburgh 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV in Cowboys Stadium, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers earning the game's MVP award. But that was just the warm-up for the 2011 regular season, when Green Bay won its first 13 games, dominating the league offensively and establishing the second-longest winning streak in NFL history at 19 games. The run, and some of the fun, finally ended for the Packers with their Week 15 upset at Kansas City, but Mike McCarthy's team still has likely-MVP-to-be Rodgers and the NFC's top seed in the playoffs.

5. The death of a football icon. Al Davis had a one-of-a-kind résumé, and a one-of-a-kind vision and world view. The Raiders' owner, who died at 82 on Oct. 8, always swam against the tide in a league that valued and almost demanded conformity. But Al was going to do things his way, and for decades in Oakland and then Los Angeles (and then Oakland again), Al's way worked and brought the Raiders' franchise great success and worldwide popularity and brand recognition. His teams couldn't produce the on-field results late in his long tenure, and his football judgments were diminished in time. But his career was varied and illustrious -- coach, commissioner and team owner -- and his legacy is secure. Nobody sounded like Al Davis. Nobody thought like Al Davis. And for a long time, nobody won like Al Davis.

6. The Cam Newton phenomenon. The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Auburn was the talk of the NFL Draft, and everybody had an opinion on whether his blend of passing and running talents would succeed in the league. But for all the scrutiny and critical assessment he was subjected to, Newton still managed to ace every test and went first overall to the Carolina Panthers. Then things got really crazy. Despite the lockout wiping out the offseason, Newton started from Week 1 on, blowing everyone's mind with rookie-record-breaking 400-yard-plus passing performances in his first two games. He set a single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14 and counting), broke Manning's rookie record of 3,739 yards passing and brought fresh hope to a moribund franchise in Charlotte, leading the Panthers to a respectable 6-9 record through Week 16. Funny, but I can't even remember what the doubts were about any more.

7. The Dream Team wakes up belatedly. I'm sure Vince Young wishes he had that one back. No, not any particular pass he has thrown since arriving in Philadelphia this summer. You know, the label he tossed out there so cavalierly at his first Eagles press conference, the one that's been used to beat him and anything wearing green and white senseless all season long. To be sure (and a little bit snarky yet again), there have not been any Dream Teams playing in Philly this year. Once the lockout was over, the Eagles went on an acquisition frenzy, landing the likes of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, defensive end Jason Babin, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, running back Ronnie Brown, ex-Giants receiver Steve Smith and Young. But all it won them was the underachievement of the year award, and a third-place 7-8 record with no chance to make the playoffs entering Week 17. The Eagles are finishing strong with three consecutive victories, but this wasn't how the story was supposed to go in 2011.

8. The Year of the Turnaround Team. There is a happy little turnaround team or two every season in the NFL, but 2011 was particularly rich in terms of that feel-good storyline. The San Francisco 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh away from nearby Stanford University, put together a fearsome defense and proceeded to start the season 10-1 and clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2002. The Houston Texans remember 2002. They played their first expansion season that year. But until this season, Houston had never tasted the NFL playoffs. It will in January, having wrapped up the AFC South title a few weeks back, taking full advantage of a Manning-less division.

Making the Texans' feat all the more impressive is the way they did it, persevering and winning despite a string of injuries to front-line players like outside linebacker Mario Williams, quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson. In Detroit, the long-downtrodden Lions had their own dramas to endure, mostly of their own making. But third-year coach Jim Schwartz has his Lions playoff bound for the first time since 1999, when Bobby Ross was still their coach and Matt Millen just a former player and color analyst on TV.

9. Well, at least the game was good. Jerry Jones worked very hard for many years to ensure that Super Bowl XLV at his two-year-old Taj Mahal of a stadium in North Texas was memorable and record-breaking. Mission accomplished. No Super Bowl has ever featured more snafus, screw-ups and debacles than February's Packers-Steelers matchup at $1.2-billion Cowboys Stadium. Where to begin? On Friday, ice and snow falling off the roof of the stadium injured six people and gave the league a black eye. Then came game day. Somehow, in quite possibly the largest PR disaster in NFL history, about 1,250 temporary seats in six sections weren't fully installed and inspected by the time the gates opened. The league scrambled to find those fans new seats, but it was a nightmare scenario.

Added to that issue were the long lines and hours-long waits that some fans endured to get in, delays caused when a decision was made to close four of the stadium's 10 gates in order to avoid the risk of more falling ice. It was that kind of day, deep in the heart of Texas. By the time national anthem singer Christina Aguilera blew a few lyrics in the song most of us know by heart, it was only the third-biggest mistake of the day.

10. The arms race. The NFL has been a pass-first, run-later league for a while now, but never quite like this season. The year started with a record-setting burst of scoring (172 touchdowns and 15,771 net passing yards in the opening two weeks) and then the quarterbacks really got hot. With three weeks left in the season, four passers (Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Eli Manning) had all topped 4,000 yards passing in 2011, the earliest that benchmark had ever been cleared by so many.

At one point, all of those quarterbacks were on pace to take down Dan Marino's 1984 single-season record of 5,084 yards, one of the game's most enduring marks. Brees broke that record Monday night against the Falcons; his 5,087 yards through 15 games puts him on pace to set the new bar at 5,426. Brady (187 yards away, on pace for 5,223) should also top Marino's old mark this season. Before this season, only two passers had ever been on pace to break that record with even four or fewer games left on the schedule: Oakland's Rich Gannon in 2002, and Brees in 2008. Without a doubt, the recent rule changes to further protect the quarterback in the pocket, as well as the defenseless receiver downfield, have favored the offense and contributed to the huge passing numbers. But another factor can't be overlooked either: With Rodgers, Brady, Brees, the Mannings, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo, we might be witness to one of the league's golden eras of passing.