Despite a rather boring regular season followed by a postseason that could only be salvaged by the best Super Bowl ever, we still have plenty of lessons to learn from the 2016 NFL season.
In between the obvious (Tom Brady is the GOAT, stop hiring Rob Ryan as your defensive coordinator) and the bizarre (Kirk Cousins will be a top-five paid quarterback, Cam Newton will continue to wear whatever he wants to post-game press conferences) here are a few more items I took from the 2016 season that we should remember going into next season.
Player activism will continue
Colin Kaepernick promised he wouldn’t stop kneeling for the national anthem until people of color were treated like equals in America, and the past month has offered no hope that we’re getting closer to that goal by next season’s kickoff. Kap, whether he’s with the 49ers or another team, will continue to kneel.
Of course, Kaepernick is far from the only athlete protesting. Doug Baldwin was one of the most vocal athletes throughout the season. So, too, were the Bennett Brothers. Martellus had no problem saying days before the Super Bowl that he wouldn’t visit the White House, and he’s sticking to it. Michael just pulled out of a trip to Israel so that he wouldn’t be used as a propaganda tool.
Players now fully recognize the power they wield, and they’ll keep using it for good.
Jimmy Garoppolo won’t be a Patriot
We knew halfway through last season that Tony Romo wouldn’t be a Cowboy in 2017, but it took Tom Brady orchestrating the greatest Super Bowl comeback to know that Garoppolo won’t be a Patriot next season.
If the plan was to have Garoppolo inherit the throne, that was done away last week when Brady announced (with his play) that he can still do this for four or five more years. There aren’t 32 good quarterbacks in this league, and New England seems to have two. A needy team like the Browns, 49ers or Bears should prefer a three-year veteran backup to one of these unknown rookie entities.
At the very least, the Patriots can get a second-round pick in a Garoppolo trade, and Belichick could probably shake a team down for even more if he senses desperation. Just like Belichick knew he couldn’t (or didn’t want to) pay Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, he knows he can’t shelve Garoppolo for another four years while Brady tries to win a sixth—and possibly seventh—Super Bowl title.
Titans are poised for a big year
Tennessee finished tied with Houston in the AFC South in 2016, and I expect the Titans to win the division for the first time since 2008 next season.
If Oakland and Dallas had the two best offensive lines in football last year, the Titans were a close third. Tennessee has invested the right way in protected franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota. He threw fewer interceptions in more games played his sophomore season and his sack rate of 9.3% from his rookie season was cut nearly in half.
Now the Titans enter the 2017 draft with picks No. 5 and 18, so they can dangle the fifth pick to a quarterback-needy team on draft night and get a ransom while still holding on to a first-round pick. If Tennessee can add a 1,000-yard receiver to an offense that has DeMarco Murray with Derrick Henry sprinkled in, the Titans could win the division.
NFC South is better than you think
Two of the four NFC South teams have competed in the Super Bowl the past two seasons. Obviously the Panthers and Falcons both lost, but their teams are well positioned to remain relevant in 2017 and beyond. Tampa Bay was still in the playoff hunt in Week 17 (although barely), and there’s little question that no division has better quarterbacks from top to bottom as the NFC South—the division boasts the reigning NFL MVP in Matt Ryan and the previous one in Cam Newton.
I wrote during the season that the NFC South is the poor man’s AFC West, but I believe it’ll be even better in 2017. Atlanta will want to avenge that horrendous collapse, the Panthers will bounce back from 6–10, Drew Brees and Sean Payton will want to make a run in what may be their final season together and if Jameis Winston can be more accurate, the Bucs could win the division for the first time in a decade.
Cowboys need a pass rusher
Jerry Jones beat me to it.
“If I have a chance to bring one of those premiere pass rushers, one of these war daddies that takes two to block, if I have a chance to get a player like that, I would,” Jones told ESPN Dallas radio last week.
The 2016 Cowboys team was nothing short of great, but their lack of a star pass rusher showed in their playoff loss to the Packers. If Dallas had that war daddy on the edge, maybe Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t have been able to escape so freely throughout the game, and especially at the end for the Jared Cook catch.
Dallas has struck out on Greg Hardy and is facing an 0–2 count on Randy Gregory, so maybe Jones should look for a pass rusher will a clean background. Whether it means getting that guy in the draft or paying for him in free agency, the Cowboys are a war daddy away from getting to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 21 years.
Vikings and Chargers can contend if they can stay healthy
Minnesota and San Diego (now Los Angeles...) dealt with more injuries at key positions than the other 30 NFL teams last season.
The Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater before the season started and Adrian Peterson two games into the season (he returned but probably shouldn’t have). And they used eight different offensive line combinations after injuries to Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, among many others.
The Chargers were without Danny Woodhead and Keenan Allen for nearly the entire season. Manti Te’o followed them to IR early in the season, too. The Chargers were sitting at 5–6 in football’s toughest division before they closed the season on a five-game losing streak that probably had something to do with an exhausted team playing with reserves at key positions.
There are big questions facing both teams in 2017: will Bridgewater be healthy to start the season? And will Philip Rivers’s arm hold up as first-year head coach Anthony Lynn takes the team in a new direction? But neither team had much of a chance with those kind of injuries last season.
Antonio Brown will have to calm down
The Steelers’ wideout is one of the top two receivers in the game (hello, Julio), but his antics are wearing thin and might cost him money.
As soon as the season was over, it was clear that Pittsburgh was maneuvering to lower Brown’s price as he enters the final year of his contract. The leaks came fast and furious after the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Patriots, and, to be fair, Brown didn’t help his case with his controversial Facebook Live after Pittsburgh’s victory against the Chiefs in the divisional round.
First came Brown’s $10,000 fine from the team for live-streaming his coach’s post-game speech, and then came reports Brown was pouting when a touchdown ball didn’t come his way. Additionally, more reports stated he cares more about individual stats than team success.
Put all of that on top of his early-season fines for his cleats and excessive celebration penalties that set his team back 15 yards on kickoffs and you can imagine the Steelers’ brass shaking their heads. I’m all for individuality, but Brown is putting himself in a position where his team can use his individuality against him in contract talks and leverage their way to a lower extension price—or maybe even a trade.
Excessive celebrations are a thing of the past
Speaking of Brown, twerking in the NFL has been laid to rest. In lieu of flowers, please send your complaints to Roger Goodell and Dean Blandino.
The league made it crystal clear in September that it would not tolerate any sort of hip gyrations that may spoil our youth when celebrating. We’ve known for years that the days of Ochocinco and T.O. dueling with celebrations were long gone, but we were buoyed by the fact that there could still be some fun in post-touchdown jubilation. That flame was snuffed out this year.
The 15-yard penalty for the violation is too severe to test, and the NFLPA has more serious matters to arbitrate in the next CBA than whether three pumps can be allowed. It’s a shame that players can’t have excessive fun playing a child’s game, but it’s where we are today.
Cleveland Browns will miss the playoffs
I think, therefore I am.