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  • From the protest movement to a kicker’s redemption (and a little Irish Dance), MMQB staffers recall what made 2017 memorable for them in the NFL
By The MMQB Staff
December 29, 2017

We asked MMQB staffers to recall one moment, memory or aspect of pro football in 2017 that made its mark on them. What’s yours? Send it to talkback@themmqb.com. 

The Players Discover Their Power

By Jenny Vrentas

Rarely in the NFL are Week 3 games pivotal. This year they were. On Sunday morning, Sept. 24, eyes across the country were on the NFL. How would teams respond to the latest, most pointed attack from the President of the United States against players who chose to participate in the movement, started last year by Colin Kaepernick, to demonstrate during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality?

The pressure was on: What kind of display could rosters of 53 individuals, plus coaches and club owners, from different backgrounds and with a wide range of political leanings and personal beliefs, make in unison? There was no perfect answer. There was backlash for those who continued to kneel during the national anthem; confusion over blanket gestures of unity that didn’t seem specific to the initial reason for the demonstrations; and some locker rooms divided.

Nonetheless, what happened on NFL sidelines across the country and in London, too—players and coaches and owners linking arms, and some kneeling or raising fists, and some staying in the locker room entirely—was remarkable. It would be inaccurate to describe 2017 as the year NFL players found their voice, because that would be overlooking the time and money many players have been quietly donating all along to causes that matter to them, including to correct social injustices. But this was the year that they found their power.

Malcolm Jenkins and other players made their voices heard in 2017.
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In a league where playing careers are short and the “next man up” culture reinforces that everyone is replaceable, the negotiating table is almost always tilted in favor of the billionaires who own teams. That changed this year. Players taking a stand, in whichever way they chose to go about it, turned the tables. Their work, led by leaders like Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins, brought about a change in viewpoint in the minds of people like Giants co-owner John Mara, who said in October, “sometimes you have to put the interests of your business behind the interests of issues that are more important,” a statement that was fairly remarkable to hear. In November the NFL committed $89 million in new funds toward a social justice platform focused on issues such as criminal justice reform and education equality, on both the local and the national level.

The divisiveness sparked by not just the anthem demonstrations but also the efforts to address the issues behind the demonstrations was a mirror image of a country grappling with division at all levels and in many ways this year. Which makes what NFL players did in 2017 all the more significant: It wasn’t that they found their voices; it was that they made sure those voices were heard, and they turned that into a tangible, positive step forward. 


A Kid in West Virginia, Channeling ODB

By Jonathan Jones

My favorite moment of the 2017 NFL season came before the season ever began, in a state that’s never seen an NFL game.

This summer was my first being on the famed MMQB van. I was looking forward to spending some time with the mostly New York-based crew, getting face time with some NFL teams I don’t have strong relationships with and seeing some more of America on this journey.

On a Tuesday morning in August, expert driver Tim Rohan rode through the tiny town of Hinton, W. Va., as I rode shotgun and Peter King sat in the back. To our left was a young man—Peter figures he was no older than 9—on the sidewalk wearing a blue Odell Beckham Jr. jersey. He was black, and he had his fauxhawk frosted blond, just like his idol.

ODB’s impact is felt far and wide.
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If this sounds familiar, it’s because Peter wrote a short note about it in that week’s MMQB. But I felt in that moment that a short story could be written about it, and I feel like this year-end vignette is the perfect place for it.

At the risk of this sounding like one of those stories where some elite liberal media member goes to Appalachia and finds Trump country in terrible need of an economic boost, this next paragraph may sound just like that.

Hinton does not have much. It’s three square miles with little industry or attraction. The 2010 census recorded 2,676 people in the town, which has seen a decrease in population in every census since 1940. Summers County, of which Hinton is the seat, went red like the rest of the state, with 71% of voters choosing Donald Trump.

So on this morning there’s this young man being active (truthfully I cannot remember if he was on a scooter or skateboard, and it has changed in my mind every time I’ve thought of it in the past five months) in a sleepy town that American time is passing by. And he’s wearing a jersey of a Louisiana guy who has channeled his amazing physical gifts into becoming an international superstar in the world’s biggest media market in our country’s most important sport.

There are plenty of problems with the NFL and football in general. But there’s also a lot of hope the sport and its stars offer.


Hunt for a Red No. 7 49ers Jersey

By Tim Rohan

About two weeks before the 2017 season started, Colin Kaepernick was still unsigned and people were speculating that the owners were colluding against him because of his protests during the national anthem. As a story, it was really picking up steam with the season approaching. That’s when editor Adam Duerson came up with an idea: We send someone to an NFL game wearing a Kaepernick jersey, and see what type of reaction we’d receive.

Kaepernick won’t play a down this season, but I think his story will be the one that we remember 10, 20, 30 years down the line. Even though he didn’t give an interview all year, we at Sports Illustrated and The MMQB did our part in helping tell his story. We profiled the charities to which Kaepernick donated his money, we had Beyoncé present him with the Muhammed Ali Legacy Award at our Sportsperson of the Year event, and then there was this jersey story.

The first thing I had to do was acquire a red No. 7 Kaepernick 49ers jersey. He had played for the team less than eight months earlier; I thought it’d be easy.

I started by checking NFL.com. No dice. They had women’s and children’s Kaepernick jerseys—no men’s. I checked Nike.com, too. Nothing doing.

I decided to call Modell’s, a local sporting goods dealer in New York that carried all kinds of NFL jerseys. No Kaepernick jerseys there, they said. I called two other Modell’s locations just to be sure. None there, either.

I was so desperate, I tried Googling how women’s and men’s NFL jerseys compared size-wise, when I finally found a men’s jersey on eBay, my last resort. It arrived a few days later, folded in a cardboard box that was once used for Christmas lights. It felt as though the jersey had been smuggled across the border.

I’d like to believe that all of these jersey purveyors had simply sold out of their stock of Kaepernick jerseys. I’m not exactly sure what happens to shirts after a player leaves a team. You typically see them on the clearance racks, I thought. I won’t speculate as to what happened to Kaepernick’s jerseys after he left the 49ers in early 2017. I found it odd how hard it was to acquire one, is all I’m saying.

Tim Rohan sports the only Kaepernick jersey in sight.
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I wore the jersey to a Jets-Bills game in Buffalo, and it ended up being an eventful trip. You can read about it here. The gist of the story was that Kaepernick’s 49ers jersey had taken on some special meaning. To wear it in public now is to show people that you support Kaepernick in his efforts off the field. Some people view it almost as a political statement.

Now, I’m here to tell you, a Kaepernick jersey makes for a great holiday present for the sports fan or social activist in your life. The same way you see Chicagoans wear Walter Payton jerseys, or Miamians wear Dan Marino jerseys, I think we’ll see people wear Kaepernick jerseys for years to come—just for different reasons. It’ll be a relic that speaks to this unique moment in time.

But don’t wait. Supplies are apparently running out.


Year of the All-Star Injury

By Andy Benoit

Every year we say that it feels like there have been more injuries this season than usual. It’s hard to imagine that not being true this time. The 2017 All-Injured Team might be better than the 2017 All-Pro Team. Truly.

QB: Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz (take your pick)
RB: David Johnson, Dalvin Cook
WR: Odell Beckham, Julien Edelman, Allen Robinson
TE: Greg Olsen (now healthy)
OT: Joe Thomas, Jason Peters
G: Marshal Yanda, Mike Iupati
C: Ryan Kalil (now healthy)
DL: J.J. Watt, Cliff Avril, Arik Armstead, Markus Golden, Whitney Mercilus
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Jordan Hicks
CB: Jason Verrett, Richard Sherman
S: Kam Chancellor, Eric Berry, Malik Hooker

There’s an increased emphasis on player safety, but a lot of these injuries were unavoidable. It’s just part of the game. And since it can be such a big part of the game, you could argue that coaching is more important than ever. The teams that survive the season are the ones that run systems complex enough to produce but easy enough for backups to quickly pick up. They are systems that win through design as much as talent. And systems that have the right people teaching and coordinating them.

Aaron Rodgers was one of many big names who fell to injury this year.
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Some of the NFL’s best records this year belong to teams with sharp, defined systems: the Rams, Eagles, Vikings, Saints, Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs.

Then again, for most of the season, many of those teams have had the good fortune of avoiding injuries. The analyst in me hates to say this, but what stands out from 2017 is that a big part of NFL success stems from having the good fortune to just stay healthy.


In Praise of the Kicker (and No Eye-Gouging!)

By Gary Gramling

I sometimes pretend I don’t know why I have a soft spot for kickers, but it’s pretty obvious: They’re all 5’ 9" former soccer players. They’re the only guys in an NFL locker room I can look at and say, He’s just like me (with the exception of being able to kick a football very far). Thus, I get pangs of sympathy anytime a kicker shanks one. You’re talking job security with every miss. It’s especially true for young kickers; a couple of early mistakes snowball and then, oh crap, your career is over in six games. (Just ask Roberto Aguayo.)

I assumed Jake Elliott was heading down that same, sad path. He was a relatively high draft pick last spring—fifth round, 153rd overall by the Bengals—and yet was a preseason cut in Cincinnati. Philly scooped him up after Caleb Sturgis was injured in the opener, and in his Eagles debut Elliott missed a 30-yarder to end of the first half in what would be the team’s first loss of the season. A week later he missed a 52-yarder in what would turn into a barnburner with the hapless Giants. It was a forgivable miss, but Elliott’s career seemed to be playing out like a Greek tragedy. A short Greek tragedy, with less eye-stabbing and more unsure ball-striking.

That’s what made the end of that game especially sweet. The Giants came back on Philly, and it took a 46-yarder from Elliott, with less than a minute to go, to tie it and presumably force overtime. The Giants tried to put together a late field goal drive of their own, but (as they do) ended up giving it back to the Eagles less than 40 seconds later after two Ereck Flowers penalties and a 28-yard punt. Carson Wentz connected with Alshon Jeffery to set the stage for a desperation kick to end regulation, a 61-yarder.

You know the rest of the story. (Or, if you don’t, this setup strongly implies that he made it. Which he did. Try to keep up.) There was the clip of Carson Wentz promising he’d sign over his game check. And the reaction of Elliott’s parents sitting at the other side of the Linc. But my favorite moment of the 2017 season was the one below, captured by Mitchell Leff of Getty Images. It’s not just Elliott getting the Rudy treatment. Look at that crowd—that’s a Neil-Young-coming-back-for-a-second-encore reaction! For a placekicker! It just makes your heart swell.

Jake Elliott gets a victory ride.
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The Lord of the Dance

By Kalyn Kahler

If you’ve watched a Ravens game on TV this season, you’re probably well aware that starting running back Alex Collins has a background as an Irish dancer. “And that’s why you Irish dance!” Tony Romo shouted as Collins juked a defender for a big gain against Miami on Thursday Night Football. “Alex isn’t going to give us any Irish dancing?" said a disappointed Sean McDonough on Monday Night Football when Collins scored an eight-yard touchdown against the Texans, but chose not to celebrate with a signature move. 

Alex Collins’ breakout season is my favorite moment of 2017, because I’ve got a small rooting interest in him. I wrote a piece on Collins’ Irish dance hobby almost two years ago, back when he was preparing for the 2016 draft. I was an Irish dancer myself and was shocked to find a football player who was into the niche sport (yes, dance is a sport—don’t get me started). Collins said he was using it as a form of cross training to improve his footwork and quickness. 

Collins was drafted in the fifth round by Seattle and saw limited action there last season as a rookie. Though he’d rushed for a thousand yards three consecutive seasons at Arkansas, it wasn’t clear he’d have an NFL career, especially when Seattle added free agent Eddie Lacy and seventh-round picks Chris Carson in the off-season. Carson, a Seahawks training camp sensation, quickly passed Collins on the depth chart, and Seattle released him in early September. He landed on the Ravens’ practice squad a few days later, and I remember thinking, Well, that was a fun story while it lasted.

But it wasn’t the end. Collins got a shot with Baltimore when Danny Woodhead went on injured reserve in Week 1 and has since become the Ravens’ lead back. He has two 100-yard games and is 10th among rushers in the NFL with 895 yards. 

Alex Collins shows off his dance-inspired footwork.
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As journalists, we love to see stories come full circle. When Collins scored his first touchdown at Green Bay this season, he celebrated in the end zone with an Irish dance move called a leap over. When the Ravens lost to Steelers by one point in Week 14, Collins rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown. There was one play where Collins caught a swing pass from Joe Flacco, broke through two Steelers defenders and high stepped on his tiptoes along the sideline for an 18-yard gain. He looked light on his feet, almost as if he were prancing, almost as if he were … Irish dancing?

What are your favorite memories of 2017 in the NFL? Send them to themmqb@gmail.com.

 

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