After the Patriots’ won the Super Bowl on Sunday night, the celebration went about as you’d expect. There was confetti, lots of players kissing the Lombardi Trophy, TV interviews wherein nothing of any importance was said, a few players dancing in the locker room, and then, late into the night, a catered after-party that doubled as a Ludacris concert. The Patriots have won six of these things in the last 18 years, as you may have heard, so they get the program by now.
But amidst all of that celebrating, Tom Brady was standing onstage, talking to Jim Nantz and holding his 6-year-old daughter Vivian. The little girl snatched the trophy away from her father, held it aloft, and smiled ear to ear. When photographers captured the moment, it appears as though Vivian is admiring her own reflection in one of the most revered trophies in all of sports. It was a moment of pure joy, amid what turned out to be another rote Patriots Super Bowl win.
But we thought it’d be helpful to take a look back at some of the most memorable storylines from the 2018 NFL season, before the 2019 league year starts and the race to catch the Patriots begins anew.
Dysfunction in Pittsburgh
Part of the NBA’s intrigue includes trying to decipher cryptic tweets and Instagram posts from star players. The NFL finally got to experience something similar when Le’Veon Bell, one of the best running backs in the NFL, decided he preferred to sit out the entire season rather than play on the franchise tag and risk getting injured before reaching free agency. He went radio silent for the whole season, aside from for some much-discussed tweets.
If that weren’t enough drama for one team, Antonio Brown went AWOL right before the Steelers’ season finale, when the team was still fighting for a playoff spot. Now it appears that the Steelers may part ways with a once-in-a-generation running back and receiver in the same offseason. Don’t worry Steelers fans, there are two more of them—Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner—waiting in the wings.
Attack of the (Sean McVay) clones
As the league watched 33-year-old Sean McVay lead the Rams to the Super Bowl, every team with a coaching vacancy, it seemed, decided to target young, up-and-coming offensive minds.
As the cliché goes, the NFL is a copycat league. But this copycatting seemed more obvious than usual. The Dolphins hired Zac Taylor, McVay’s quarterback’s coach, the Packers hired Matt LaFleur, McVay’s former offensive coordinator, and the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, McVay’s good friend. We know they’re friends because the press release made sure to mention it.
The Mahomes vs. Brees MVP debate
The final MVP vote wasn’t all that close—Patrick Mahomes received 41 votes, compared to Drew Brees’s nine. But there was a point, probably three-quarters of the way through the season, when Mahomes and Brees were neck-and-neck.
They both represented opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the quarterback position. Brees, with his 74.4 completion percentage, showed how quarterbacks could not just survive but thrive well into their late 30s nowadays. And Mahomes, with his no-look passes and his 50 touchdown throws, showed us that, for as long as Brees and his contemporaries stick around, the next generation is arriving now.
New eras start in Cleveland and Baltimore
If you read Seth Wickersham’s bombshell story, you know how dysfunctional the Cleveland Browns have been in recent years. (It also gave us arguably the quote of the season: “Get the [expletive] out of my office.”) It’s a miracle that, amid all that dysfunction, Baker Mayfield nearly carried the Browns to a winning season.
Meanwhile, across the AFC North in Baltimore, Lamar Jackson took over for the injured Joe Flacco, went 6-1 down the stretch, and carried the Ravens to another division title.
One team a perennial loser, another a perennial winner: Both have exciting quarterbacks leading them into 2019 and beyond.
The 54-51 game heard ‘round the world
The offensive explosion of 2018 culminated in the best game of the season, a Monday night matchup between McVay’s Rams and Mahomes’ Chiefs. This game seemed to almost single-handedly solve the NFL’s ratings crisis. This one game featured more than 1,000 yards of offense, 56 first downs, and 14 touchdowns.
Even the defensive plays, however rare, were spectacular. The Chiefs sacked Jared Goff five times, the Rams picked off Mahomes three times, and each team scored a defensive touchdown. The box score should be framed and hung at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jon Gruden’s garage sale
After taking over as head coach, Jon Gruden jettisoned two longtime Raiders stalwarts. He sent Khalil Mack to the Bears, and Amari Cooper to the Cowboys, in exchange for, among other compensation, three additional first-round picks.
Gruden was hoping those would be high draft picks. But instead, he inadvertently helped jumpstart two NFC playoff teams. Mack had 12.5 sacks, forced six fumbles and led the Bears to an NFC North title. After acquiring Cooper, the Cowboys went 7-2, thanks in large part to their new No. 1 receiver. Cooper caught 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns in those nine games.
So now the Raiders have picks No. 4, No. 24 (Bears), and No. 27 (Cowboys) in the upcoming draft.
Kareem Hunt’s sudden downfall
On November 30th, TMZ released a video showing Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel. Shortly after that, the Chiefs released Hunt, saying that he had lied to them about the incident in question.
Suddenly, the Chiefs, one of the best teams in the NFL, had to replace their starting running back. Damien Williams, a former backup with the Miami Dolphins, proved to be a fine replacement, especially with Mahomes at quarterback.
But the focus now turns to Hunt’s future. As of now, he’s on the Commissioner’s Exempt list. It’ll be interesting to see how the league handles Hunt’s eventual return, considering the league has bungled these situations in the past.
Alex Smith’s Joe Theismann injury
Another seismic trade, of course, came last offseason (technically during last year’s Super Bowl week), when the Chiefs shipped Alex Smith to Washington in order to clear a path for Mahomes. Smith, then, promptly led his new team to a 6-3 start, with an assist from another castoff, Adrian Peterson, the former Vikings running back who ran for 1,042 yards this season and seven touchdowns.
But then, in mid November, Smith broke his leg. The injury was so gruesome it reminded people of Joe Theismann’s famous injury. (Including Theismann himself.)
With Smith out for the season, Washington lost six of its last seven games and dropped from first place to playoff spectator. Now, Smith’s availability for 2019 appears to be in doubt, and there are whispers that the rest of his career may be in jeopardy.
Mike McCarthy is fired in Green Bay
In Mike McCarthy’s first 11 years in Green Bay, the Packers averaged 10 wins a season, won six division titles, and won one Super Bowl. They were perennial contenders, but they had only won the big game once, which some observers viewed as a knock on McCarthy, considering his quarterback was Aaron Rodgers, the two-time NFL MVP and surefire future Hall of Famer.
In 2018, as the Packers stumbled through their second-straight season without making the playoffs, a rift seemed to grow between Rodgers and McCarthy over the play-calling. Midway through the season, McCarthy was fired.
Now the Packers have replaced him with LaFleur, who most recently worked as the Titans’ offensive coordinator. The Packers better hope they chose right, if they want to win another Super Bowl in Rodgers’ prime.
The no-call in New Orleans
The morning after the Super Bowl, the front page of The Times-Picayune was completely blank except for two sentences:
What Super Bowl?
New Orleans may never get over the no-call from the NFC Championship game. Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman wiped out Saints’ receiver Tommylee Lewis on what appeared to be a clear pass interference penalty. Had it been called, the Saints could’ve run out the clock and kicked the game-winning field goal.
The Saints had an all-time great at quarterback, they had elite players at receiver (Michael Thomas) and running back (Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram), and they were led by one of the better coaches in the league (Sean Payton). You could argue that they would’ve given the Patriots a better game in the Super Bowl.
But we’ll never know. It’ll remain one of the greatest what-ifs in NFL history.
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