The feel-good stories have been few and far between in the NFL’s tumultuous 2014, a season unlike any other thanks to the depressing off-field developments that enveloped the league in scrutiny and controversy and prompted a series of changes to the league’s personal conduct policies. But there have been bright spots amid the turmoil and the gloom. Here’s a fond look back at my 10 favorite things that happened in the NFL this year:
1. Jim Kelly makes his biggest comeback -- The long-suffering Buffalo Bills and their fan base actually had a number of challenges and great developments unfold in 2014, but they all paled compared to the successful fight against cancer made by Kelly, the beloved Hall of Fame former Bills quarterback who battled sinus cancer for much of the year, before being declared cancer free in late August -- a recovery that was by no means assured at times this spring and summer.
The emotional highlight after Kelly’s life-threatening brush with the disease came at the Bills’ home-opener against Miami in Week 2, when he returned to Ralph Wilson Stadium to speak at a ceremony honoring Wilson, the team’s long-time owner who passed away in late March at age 95. An ovation that seemed to last forever washed over Kelly as he took the podium, an outpouring of love, support and appreciation from the 73,000-plus fans who knew him best and were with him in spirit, rooting as never before as he fought for his life.
Kelly was eloquent with his heartfelt remarks, but then in classic tough-guy style, wrapped up by imploring the Bills to go out and “Squish the Fish,’’ which they obligingly did, improving to 2-0 in the process. Combined with the news earlier that week that Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula had agreed to buy the franchise and permanently keep it in Western New York, the celebration of past, present and future that day at the stadium was multifaceted, meaningful and perfect on so many levels.
2. No one has ever bent it quite like Beckham -- What is it about Giants’ receivers and their ability to turn in the most ridiculous, astounding, mind-blowing one-of-a-kind receptions we’ve ever seen? David Tyree, meet Odell Beckham Jr. You guys should really talk.
Beckham’s catch for the ages didn’t come in the Super Bowl, of course, and it didn’t even provide the margin of victory for the Giants in their Week 12 Sunday-night showdown with the visiting Cowboys, who rallied from a huge first-half deficit for the win. But the rookie’s leaping, twisting, one-handed, bent-over-backwards grab of Eli Manning’s almost-overthrown pass was the single-most remarkable feat of athleticism executed in the NFL this season.
Not only did Beckham somehow secure the football with that one gloved hand -- really just three fingers of it -- he did it while managing to stay in bounds, land in the end zone, and fight off the effects of pass interference by outmatched Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr. To say Beckham’s catch was the talk of the NFL doesn’t do it justice. The clip of it became an instant internet classic and the buzz surrounding it dominated social media that night and most of the next day.
Beckham’s jaw-dropping catch both mesmerized and enthralled us, and no matter how many times we watch it, it still inspires disbelief.
3. One Hekker of a call -- Jeff Fisher hasn’t been on the happy side of .500 in quite a while, but if you like your head coaches on the daring side, the Rams’ boss man is a riverboat gambler who should take his act out on the nearby Mississippi one of these days. Fisher made the gutsiest call of the year in Week 7 at home against the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, and the results were as rewarding as the decision was risky.
Leading 28-26 and facing a 4th-and-3 from his own 18-yard-line with 2:55 left, Fisher let punter and former high school quarterback Johnny Hekker fake it, and throw for a mind-boggling 18-yard completion to Benny Cunningham as the stunned and hood-winked Seahawks looked on. To repeat, if the Rams’ ploy failed, Seattle was already in game-winning field goal range, with less than three minutes remaining.
But the NFL’s ballsiest call of the year worked, and St. Louis hung on for that eye-opening two-point win, snapping the Rams’ three-game losing streak and launching them on a run that saw them win five of their next eight games, including an upset over last season’s other Super Bowl team, Denver, in Week 11. St. Louis was the only NFL team to turn that particular twin killing.
4. Chip Kelly dares to call the draft a crapshoot, and lives to tell about it -- I loved everything about Kelly’s brilliant, sensible and refreshingly blunt take on the draft-hype factor, and his willingness to actually admit that no one is a draft expert, because they don’t exist. They are only people who play draft experts on television, or the Internet, or for any of the NFL’s 32 teams for that matter.
“What’s the worst thing about the league?’’ the Eagles’ second-year head coach said to The MMQB’s Peter King this summer. “I said the draft. I mean, the hype that goes into the draft is insane. Totally insane. The biggest thing for me is that everybody thinks whoever you drafted or whoever you signed is now gonna be a savior. They come in just like me and you come in as freshmen in high school or freshmen in college, or your first year on the job at Sports Illustrated -- you’re not telling people what to do, you’re just trying to figure out what room to go to.
“I think a lot of times the hype turns into really, really hard times for the individual who got picked, because there’s so many expectations of everyone building them up to be Superman because they had three months to write about them and talk about them. Then when they get picked, they’re a very, very good prospect, but there’s a learning curve when you go from any job out of college into a company. If you take a job at Wells Fargo when you get out of college, your first day of the job they don’t say, ‘He’s our first-round draft pick, he’s the savior to the company!’ The hype part is just constant.’’
Amen. Amen. Amen. Preach it, Chipper. If Tom Brady goes in the sixth round of the draft, nobody knows anything. And the sooner we all just admit it, the better.
5. He really moves well for a big man -- Big men scoring touchdowns were all the rage this season, thanks mostly to the multi-talented J.J. Watt in Houston, and others who piggybacked off his dual-threat role. But when it comes to a big man who made the most of his rare visit to the end zone, the line starts somewhere behind Colts fourth-year left offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo.
In Week 11 at home against the vaunted New England Patriots, the Colts lined up Castonzo as tackle-eligible on the left side, then had quarterback Andrew Luck throw him a one-yard touchdown pass on third down, cutting the Patriots lead to 28-20 in the fourth quarter. But we kind of lost track of the score as soon as Castonzo dropped the ball and went into one of the more original and entertaining touchdown celebration dances of all time.
If you saw it, you know it was, wow, just too cool for words. Castonzo went into a combination crouch and shimmy, with his arms and hands upraised, and we simply couldn’t take our eyes off him. Some thought he was channeling M.C. Hammer, but turns out it was ... well, we’ll let him tell it:
“That was the Dhalsim celebration from Street Fighter II,’’ Castonzo explained, referencing a ‘90s-era video game. “He’s kind of like a left tackle in the sense that he uses his hands to keep guys away from him.’’
I don’t care what it was -- we need more of it.
6. Peyton Manning tries very hard to look like a dork -- Yes, it was contrived and entirely choreographed, but that little game of keep-away that the Broncos’ pass-catchers played on Manning, supposedly not letting him get the ball he just broke Brett Favre’s career passing touchdown record with, was a nice little schtick that at least made me remember the moment.
You could tell Manning was in on the joke, because he played the frustrated sixth-grader at recess a little too well, probably even researching the role for several weeks with his trademark thorough preparation skills.
But that’s OK. That’s just Peyton. They say if you can fake authenticity in this world, you’ve got it made. And it was mildly entertaining, and just cornball goofy enough to make Favre wish he had thought of that when he broke Dan Marino’s passing touchdown record in 2007.
7. Running in (first) place -- I got hooked on the NFL at the dawn of the ‘70s and learned to appreciate teams that could run the rock and impose their will on the ground, all day long. The Larry Csonka-Jim Kiick-Mercury Morris three-headed backfield of the Dolphins were my guys, but I also had respect for the Cowboys with running backs Duane Thomas, Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison, and those Super Bowl-winning Steelers, led by Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier on the ground.
So I found it very retro-cool this season when running back DeMarco Murray and Dallas had a turn-back-the-clock Sunday almost every week, with the Cowboys racing to a 6-2 record and first place in the NFC East at midseason, largely on Murray’s load-bearing back. Murray gained at least 100 yards rushing in the first eight games of the season, breaking the legendary Jim Brown’s record of six triple-digit showings to start a season, a mark set in 1958, even before the Colts and Giants played their iconic and breakthrough overtime NFL title game that year.
Murray’s streak ended in Week 9 in a loss to Arizona, but he’s still plowing away, and the Cowboys are still in first place, paving a path to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Back to the future is the way Dallas rolled this season.
8. Thank goodness Andy Reid didn’t request this in Philly last year -- You go to a ballgame and you never know what you might see these days. Take Week 5 in Detroit, for instance. Bills linebackers Ty Powell and Randell Johnson were apparently paying very close attention back in OTAs when new Buffalo defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz -- the former Lions head coach -- told his players he wanted to be carried off the field when the Bills went to Detroit this season, and won.
Lo and behold, the Bills won in Week 5 at Ford Field, scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter to rally to a 17-14 victory in quarterback Kyle Orton’s first start with the team. And in an unusual move that wasn’t particularly well received in Detroit, Powell and Johnson carried through with their plan, triumphantly carrying Schwartz off the field on their shoulders, with the DC still wearing his headset on his ears.
Lions veteran receiver Golden Tate, who never played for Schwartz in Detroit, called it “a total douche move,” and went on to say, “I thought it was so disrespectful -- so disrespectful. I did not like it at all. If I knew I wasn’t going to get fined, I would have snatched him right down off their shoulders and threw him on the ground, personally, but obviously I couldn’t do that.’’
I’m not sure why Tate got quite that uptight about Schwartz’s little victory lap, but the move was quite illustrative of how much the former Lions coach worked this year with a chip on his shoulder. He desperately wanted the revenge of that win against Detroit, and actually won on Ford Field again later in the season, when the Jets-at-Bills game was moved there in Week 12 after Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium got buried by a freak early snowstorm. The general rule, however, is one ride on somebody’s shoulders per year, and Schwartz was seen walking off the field on his own power after the win over the Jets.
9. A Bird takes a bath, for a good cause -- For a while there this summer, the Ice Bucket Challenge fad was absolutely ubiquitous, and thankfully so, as awareness of ALS rose to an all-time high. It was at its peak as NFL training camps got underway in late July, and the first one I witnessed on my tour was by Baltimore second-year kicker Justin Tucker, who took the chilly dousing one steamy day after a joint workout with the visiting San Francisco 49ers at the Ravens team complex in Owings Mills, Md.
Tucker had been challenged by his Baltimore teammate, receiver Torrey Smith, who assisted three visiting military members in dumping the icy water over Tucker’s head. Tucker did his homework and issued his challenge to a rather diverse and eclectic list of folks.
“I’m Justin Tucker, kicker of the Baltimore Ravens, and I’m going to call out Kim Kardashian-West and her husband Kanye, along with both Harbaugh brothers and their father, Jack,’’ Tucker said as cameras rolled. “Let’s do this! Give me a countdown.’’
Tucker got his countdown, and shortly thereafter his bracing blast of cold water, too.
10. The Colts get just the miracle they need -- It was way back on Jan. 4, but my first assignment in last year’s postseason was to cover the epic wild-card playoff game between Kansas City and Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium, which went from a blowout to instant classic material seemingly in the blink of an eye. Kansas City led 38-10 with 13:39 left in the third quarter, and most of us in the press box already were crafting stories about the vindicating playoff victory being recorded by the Chiefs’ combo of head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith, both of whom had gone unwanted by their 2012 teams and then re-located to Kansas City for career revivals.
But then Luck happened. The Colts, behind second-year quarterback Andrew Luck, refused to go quietly into the good night, scoring touchdowns on five of their next six possessions. You knew it was going to be Indy’s night when Colts running back Donald Brown fumbled at the Kansas City 2, but the ball bounced off center Samson Satele’s helmet and right to Luck, who scooped it up and dove into the end zone for the touchdown that drew Indianapolis to within 41-38 with 10:38 to play.
Luck finished a gaudy 29-of-45 for 443 yards and four touchdowns passing, with another on the ground in the stunning 45-44 win over the shell-shocked Chiefs. It was the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history -- trailing only that historic 32-point rally by the Bills over the Oilers in a wild-card game in January 1993 -- and the Colts and Chiefs combined for those 89 points, 11 touchdowns and a dizzying 1,049 yards of offense. For heartbroken Kansas City, it continued a playoff losing streak that has now reached eight games and spanned 20 years.
All in all, it was ridiculously entertaining way to kick off the NFL’s 11-game postseason.