NFL Review 2016
Gary Jordan looks at the highlights and quirks of an interesting season, starting with a look at the two contenders for Super Bowl LI
Legends and Leaders
The word Legend is often used and in most cases taken out of context when describing sports men and women. It’s far too easy to get carried away in the moment and pass someone off as legendary, when in the overall scheme of things it’s just an incredible achievement in an otherwise normal event. It could be that walk-off Home Run that elevates a team to the next level, or a downtown three-pointer that seals a come from behind improbable victory, or the baseline rally that ends with a flicked backhand that sends the opponent reeling across the court. Snapshots in time that make one great and makes them champions.
In the modern world where social media is King and the smartphone and tablet its Queen, we witness history every day. Through politics to space missions, we get the live stream and move to the next one. A constant and endless picture that is all too easily forgotten. When you’re living in the moment it can pass you by, it’s only when you have a chance to stop and realise what you’ve actually seen can you assess if it’s worthy of Legend status.
You may be wondering where all this is leading. It’s very hard to compare different eras, and come up with who was the greatest, and it does of course lend itself to great debate. In the NFL there are endless opinions of which player is more befitting the title Legend. If you’ve been paying close attention to the NFL this year you will have noticed a certain player that has gone about his business in a fashion that didn’t take the headlines each week, didn’t trash talk his way through press conferences, and most of all – kept on winning.
Tom Brady has earned the title of Legend. His play in 2016 has been that of model consistency and one which makes all of us notice in the here and now that we are truly witnessing history. Twenty years from now when articles are being written about legends in the game one of the first, if not the very first name that will be mentioned is his. He guided his New England Patriots team to a record sixth straight Conference title game, something that is highly unlikely to be challenged for a long time. Of course he couldn’t have done this all alone and is his own unique way threw off any personal tributes aimed his way and pointed at his teammates during the AFC title postgame interviews. A great team indeed and the Patriots organisation have been setting new benchmarks for well over a decade now. Players come and go but the new pieces that come in are always of the right shape to complete their jigsaw.
At the helm and always the man who gathers those pieces from far and wide is another who will also be forever be tagged a Legend, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. Coaching at this level, and to be consistently winning at this level requires huge sacrifices and if ever a young and aspiring coach needs to know what it takes they should go straight to his page in the history books when he finally hangs up his hoodie. It’s easy to say the Patriots are the best of a bad bunch in the AFC, and yes their division has been one of the weaker ones of late, this shouldn’t take anything away from how they’ve created history. They may not have reached every Super Bowl over the years, and not even won all the ones they have got to, but they will always be a constant threat until one or both of the Legends retire.
After beating off all the AFC could throw at them New England went to Houston to take on the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. The tagline for the team from Georgia is Rise Up and they certainly did that this year. Boasting the league’s number one offense in terms of points scored, a huge 33.9 per game, second in total yards gained but had the best average of yards per play with 6.7. Led by second year Head Coach Dan Quinn the Falcons have been the “next man up” in a Conference that so often throws up a new contender to be a dominant force. Seattle, Carolina, even the New York Giants have threatened with being the team that everyone wants to be but have not quite pushed on to be that model of consistency.
The Falcons have been the nearly men a few times in recent years, a franchise that would flatter to deceive with its flirtation with the win column. This year they managed to gain 11 wins and was good enough for second seed and when others failed to live up to their billing they came through when it mattered most. QB Matt Ryan had his coming of age season and posted MVP numbers. He was helped with an array of talent that looked more like a Fantasy football roster at times with the stats they pulled, no less than 10 players ended the season with double digits catches, 3 of them having caught 50+ balls. Julio Jones was the main recipient and had a huge 100.6 yards per game average. Add to this the threat of Devonta Freeman on the ground and through the air, who amassed a total of 1,541yards from scrimmage, it’s easy to see why the Falcons were an exciting team to watch this year. They even had the NFL sack leader Vic Beasley (15.5), he even had time to record the most forced fumbles (6). No wonder team owner Arthur Blank has been dancing his way through the playoffs. His investment in the team in 2002, has had its ups and downs, he though like all Falcons fans will have enjoyed this most satisfying of years.
Location, Location, Location
Moving can be a stressful time for anybody. You can never be too sure how it’s all going to work out. When it’s a return to your spiritual home all should be well. Shouldn’t it? Well for the Rams, moving back to Los Angeles from St. Louis wasn’t going to guarantee instant success on the field, in fact their 4-12 record saw the firing of head coach Jeff Fisher. LA hadn’t seen Pro football for 20 years and the poor record kept attendances lower than expected. Now though they will have 2 teams battling it out for the paying public’s money. The Chargers have decided to up sticks from San Diego to Hollywood. It was a move that had been billed, but its suddenness took some by surprise. They will play their games in the temporary surroundings of the 30,000 seated StubHub Centre, before moving to a new facility in 2019 to be shared with the Rams. Moving away from the area with former Los Angeles connections are the Raiders. They have filed papers to relocate from Oakland to Las Vegas. This is a move that is still to be confirmed, but the NFL moving into Vegas seems like a perfect combination.
With the 2016 season now consigned to the history books we can look at some of its more notable moments. Way back in preseason we saw the start of a movement when San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem in protest to police brutality across the nation. Also before the season started Dallas Cowboys lost their starting QB Tony Romo to injury, his return was due around mid-season, but the emergence of fourth round pick Dak Prescott alongside rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott meant that Romo rightly, if reluctantly, gave up his starting role. The Cowboys rode the coat tails of their new superstars all the way to the playoffs, where they fell to a resurgent Green Bay Packers. Miami returned to the playoffs after an eight year absence, their future also looks bright under Coach Adam Gase. Detroit went toe-to-toe with the Packers in their division race, but once more couldn’t get it done in the postseason. The chance to repeat for the Denver Broncos was too much an ask with the retired Peyton Manning, and their defeated foes in Super Bowl 50, Carolina Panthers, fell way short of the standard they set themselves a year before. Cleveland Browns managed to avoid a winless season when they beat the Chargers in their penultimate game.
London have been given an extra game next season after once more hanging sold out signs around the three games in 2016. Twickenham was a welcome change from the usual safe zone of Wembley and the home of rugby will host back to back games in 2017. Three teams new to London this year are the Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns. At first glance the teams and matchups are not the marquee ones that would appeal to most, but you can stay assured that they will sell out. The NFL knows how to pitch its brand and with the talk of a London franchise still a hot topic, these four games will go a long way in helping that cause.