Every NFL season has its share of the unexpected. For instance, who would have guessed when the league resumed business in July that Albert Haynesworth, the disinterested defensive tackle, would con not one but two teams — New England and Tampa Bay — into paying him a salary? On a somewhat smaller scale, who had any inkling that Brandon Banks, the Washington Redskins‘ flyweight kick returner, was capable of hurling a 49-yard touchdown pass? Wonders never cease.
But the gasps those two produced were relatively minor compared to some other developments this season. Without further ado, then — and with only the faintest of drum rolls — here is one man’s 10 Biggest Surprises in the NFL in 2011:
1. The pain in Peyton Manning’s neck keeping him out the entire year. Only Nostradamus could have foreseen that Manning would require three surgeries … and that, in his absence, the Indianapolis Colts would go 2-14 and owner Jim Irsay would take a wrecking ball to the franchise. After all, Peyton had looked perfectly fine in 2010, throwing for 33 touchdowns and being voted to yet another Pro Bowl. The fallout in Indy has been truly breathtaking. The coach (Jim Caldwell) is gone, the team’s longtime architect (vice chairman Bill Polian) is gone, and with the first pick in the draft the Colts are almost certain to take Stanford QB Andrew Luck — which figures to make Manning available in free agency. Just one jolt after another. We’re talking 10 on the Richter scale.
2. The New York Giants reaching the Super Bowl after being swept by the 5-11 Redskins. When the Redskins left the Meadowlands after their Week 15 victory, the Giants were 7-7 and looking like anything but a playoff team. But they’ve been aflame ever since, reeling off five straight wins — the first four by double-digit margins — to get to the championship game. And they’ve done it with Victor Cruz (1,536 yards), an undrafted and previously anonymous second-year receiver, leading the way. Amazing.
3. The Philadelphia Eagles, offseason Super Bowl winners, struggling early and missing the playoffs (despite a 5-1 division record). The Eagles looked like one of the teams to beat after fortifying their defense with cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, pass rusher Jason Babin and tackle Cullen Jenkins. But they never jelled — and had to win their last four just to finish 8-8. Maybe it would have been different if there hadn’t been a lockout.
4. The NFL’s ill-considered decision to move up kickoffs 5 yards to the 35. In its defense, the league was trying to do the right thing. It wanted to make the game safer by cutting down on dangerous collisions. (It also, in the same vein, reduced the kicking team’s running start to 5 yards.) But the net result was that 2011 became the Year of the Touchback — or, almost as bad, the Year of the 27-yard Kickoff Return to the 18-Yard Line. There were 658 fewer returns in 2011 than there were the season before — almost three less per game. And really, who wants see a speedy runback guy, one of the most exciting players on the field, catch a kick and drop to one knee (or watch the ball sail over his head)? It just took some of the fun out of the festivities. We can only hope the owners will see the error of their ways and go back to the old rule next year. Kickers are too good these days to be kicking off from the 35.
5. Peyton Hillis adorning the cover of the Madden NFL 12 computer game. Who knew Hillis had become such a folk hero — because of his rumbling runs for the Cleveland Browns in 2010 — that fans would vote him this coveted honor? I mean, he was a total unknown before he rushed for 1,177 yards that year. And when he was hurt this season, he went back to being invisible (587 yards, 3.6 average).
6. A postgame handshake actually becoming — briefly — a big story. You remember the episode, don’t you? Detroit’s Jim Schwartz thought San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh was a little too jovial — or was it too dismissive? — after the 49ers dealt the Lions their first loss in Week 6. At any rate, Schwartz chased after Harbaugh, the two exchanged further pleasantries and we were treated to 24 hours of discussion on Proper Postgame Handshake Etiquette.
7. The Houston Texans losing their top two quarterbacks in Games 10 (Matt Schaub) and 11 (Matt Leinart) and still qualifying for the playoffs. (Remember, this is a franchise that had never even made the playoffs before this year.) The Texans were 8-3 after Schaub and Leinart went down — and were playing very well defensively, a departure from the past. But their only alternative at QB was T.J. Yates, an undrafted rookie. Somehow, they won two more games, enough to capture the AFC South, and even gave a good account of themselves in the postseason, bashing the Bengals 31-10, and causing the Baltimore Ravens a bit of worry before losing, 20-13.
8. The Green Bay Packers going 15-1 — and the Patriots 13-3 — with pass defenses as bad as theirs. How bad? Historically bad. The Packers gave up 4,796 yards through the air, the most in NFL history. The Patriots gave up 4,703, the second-most. And they had the best records in their conferences! It makes you rethink what really matters in pro football, what it takes to be successful.
9. Cam Newton having a huge immediate impact on the Carolina Panthers. You’re never sure, when a quarterback comes out of a spread offense like Auburn’s, how quickly he’ll adapt to the pro game. But even without the benefit of minicamps and OTAs, Newton hit the ground running (14 TDs, a record for a QB and passing (4,051 yards, topping Manning’s rookie mark). The Panthers improved from 2-14 to 6-10 — and should continue to get better as Newton does. The kid’s a major talent, a kind of souped-up version of Randall Cunningham.
10. The Redskins not drafting or signing a quarterback. After the Donovan McNabb debacle in 2010, it behooved Mike Shanahan to start developing a young QB. But he stubbornly stuck with Rex Grossman and John Beck, and the club suffered through another miserable season. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Andy Dalton, a rookie second-round pick, quarterbacked the Bengals to the playoffs.
How did my Top 10 compare to yours? Don’t hesitate to weigh in (by any electronic means available). Also, keep in mind that we still have a game to play, the biggest one of all. Something probably will happen Sunday that will belong on this list — something jaw-dropping such as a receiver catching a crucial pass by pinning a ball to his helmet. (OK, maybe not something that impossible.)