The 2016 NFL season was full of drama and intrigue. It started with New England Patriots finding themselves without Tom Brady for the first four games. It ended with Brady hoisting his fifth Lombardi right in front of the man who stripped him of those first four games.
In between, the season had its ups and downs. Ratings took a nose dive during the early part of the year, partly due to both a lackluster product and the election itself.
That gave way to a pretty dramatic conclusion of the season that saw both the Oakland Raides and Dallas Cowboys surprise the masses with playoff spots.
Meanwhile, the conference championship favored Arizona Cardinals found themselves having to come back from a disastrous start to the season. In the end, they fell short of their ultimate goal while missing out on the playoffs altogether.
Individual honors were to be had too. Both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott dominated the landscape of the NFL as rookie for the aforementioned Cowboys. Matt Ryan took that next step to elite status with an MVP award. And Khalil Mack cemented his status as one of the league’s best players with the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
These are all among the top-10 storylines from the season that was around the National Football League.
1. Front offices failed their franchise quarterbacks
Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are both $100-plus million quarterbacks. They have combined to earn three Super Bowl trips and a Lombardi Trophy during their still young NFL careers. They both also took a major step back this season, primarily due to the play of their respective offensive lines.
Can we really blame Mike Remmers for struggling as Newton’s blindside protector in Carolina? He was set up to fail after the season-long concussion issue Michael Oher dealt with. Still, the Panthers’ front office and general manager David Gettleman failed Newton at every turn here.
In reality, it’s Carolina’s complete unwillingness to invest in its offensive line that did the team in this past season. The team has selected a grand total of one offensive linemen in the first two rounds over the past eight years. That left the Panthers incredibly thin along this unit with Remmers, who struggled in Super Bowl 50, having to take on a more-important role.
When all was said and done in 2016, Carolina turned a 15-win 2015 campaign into just six wins. All the while, Newton himself was under consistent duress. He suffered a concussion earlier in the season and was the third most-pressured quarterback in the entire NFL. That right there is on the team’s front office. And it’s surely something that must change this spring.
The same can be said for Seattle, who earned the NFC West title with a 10-5-1 record. If the team’s offensive line had performed at anywhere near an adequate level, we could be talking about Seattle as the defending champs. This is how good the rest of the squad was in 2016.
Unfortunately, the inability of general manager John Schneider and Co. to add anyone of substance to what had been a weak offensive line came back to haunt the 12’s in a big way. Wilson was sacked a total of 41 times in 16 games and dealt with a plethora of injuries throughout the season.
Seattle’s situation along the offensive line was so bad that it had to rely on a player in Garry Gilliam to play right tackle who had spent the vast majority of his college career at tight end. The team’s starting left tackle George Fant had never played that position in any level, high school and college included.
That’s just not acceptable. The Seahawks have invested a whole heck of a lot in Wilson. To leave him high and dry just makes absolutely no sense. Much like Carolina, they must address this situation big time during the offseason.
2. Dallas Cowboys rookies shine
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a reason why Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was named the NFL’s Executive of the Year. What he and the Cowboys’ front office did in the lead up to the 2016 season was absolutely amazing. Going away from conventional wisdom that tells us not to draft a running back early, Dallas selected former Ohio State standout Ezekiel Elliott No. 4 overall.
All Elliott did in response was record nearly 2,000 total yards with 16 touchdowns en route to earning NFL Rookie Offensive Player of the Year honors. But he was so much more valuable than that award would want us to believe. In helping Dallas turn a four-win 2015 campaign into 13 wins this past season, Elliott simply proved himself to be among the most valuable players in the entire league.
Here’s a guy that put up 100-plus total yards in all but two of his final 12 regular season games. The only exceptions there were 90-plus yard performances in a blowout win over Cleveland and a meaningless Week 17 outing against the Eagles.
For as good as Elliott was in Dallas as a rookie, fellow 2016 class mate Dak Prescott was even more impressive. Taking over for an injured Tony Romo in the preseason, most figured the rookie fourth-round pick would struggle mightily.
Prescott responded by putting up 29 total touchdowns compared to four interceptions en route to leading Dallas to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. It was an historically dominant rookie performance from Prescott, one that no one really saw coming.
These two youngsters, with hardware already showing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will lead the next era of football for America’s Team. They will do so with high expectations and a previously level of success we’ve never seen from a young tandem in the history of this league. Football in Dallas is surely in good hands here.
3. Lackluster playoff product
Super Bowl LI might have been the greatest of the 51 to be played. What New England did to come back was one of the greatest things we’ve ever seen in the sports world. But the playoffs leading up to that big game were nothing more than a snooze.
Blowouts coupled with horrendous all-around team performances led to eight of the 10 games being decided by 13-plus points. In fact, the average margin of victory in these 10 games stood at 15.7 points per. That’s not the type of competitive football we would expect from the best the NFL has to offer.
Sure there will some dominating performances that led to this. What Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers did to the New York Giants in the second half of their NFC Wild Card game was extraordinary. The same can be said for Atlanta’s utter domination of the aforementioned Packers in the NFC Championship Game. But more often than not, disastrous efforts from losing teams led to non-competitive games.
We will never forget Brock Osweiler’s three-interception outing against New England in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. The rest of Houston’s team played well enough to pull off what would have been a tremendous upset. Though, it was the free-agent bust who almost literally gave the game away.
This surely does beg the question whether the current playoff format makes sense. Houston did not look like a playoff team heading into the postseason. It won a disastrous division that saw the champion win nine games. In fact, the Texans boasted a 4-6 record outside of the AFC South. Meanwhile, a much more competitive Denver Broncos squad missed out on the playoffs.
Either way we put it, and no matter the excuse we want to use, the 2016-17 NFL Playoffs were defined by non-competitive football. This, coming off a regular season that saw ratings dip around the league.
4. NFL’s relocation nightmare
The entire Chargers relocation from San Diego to Los Angeles read like something out of a tremendous episode of Saturday Night Live. Whether it was the team’s unfortunate attempt at re-branding or the disastrous press conference in Los Angeles after the move, this situation was botched from the get.
It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the Chargers were left waiting until November to see if an uphill ballot initiative for a new stadium in San Diego would pass. It didn’t, which led to the ultimate relocation a bit up north.
But it’s the process that was absolutely botched by both the Chargers and the NFL. In their final home game in San Diego, Philip Rivers and Co. were left playing in front of a stadium that consisted of 80 percent Raiders fans. For Rivers, it was a sad culmination of his largely successful career in California’s southernmost city. And it really gave us a front-row view of how this process impacts the players themselves.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles itself, the Rams — playing in Southern California for the first time in over two decades — barely resembled a NFL team. Jeff Fisher proved to be completely inept on the sideline (imagine that), and was ultimately fired.
The team threw out Case Keenum to start over rookie No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, which proved to be a downright failure. And when Goff himself took to the field, he obviously didn’t seem prepared to be playing at the highest profession the football world has to offer.
The end result here was a Rams team that finished with a 4-12 record while scoring an average of 13.4 points in seven home dates at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. All the while, drama took hold behind the scenes with then head coach Jeff Fisher battling it out with all-time great Rams running back Eric Dickerson (more on that here).
Now that the NFL is heading into an even more uncertain offseason with the Oakland Raiders looking to relocate, the hope here is that the league doesn’t botch this situation. Unfortunately, with casino mogul Sheldon Adelson pulling out of the Raiders’ stadium project in Las Vegas and more questions surrounding that whole mess, there’s really no reason to believe the league will step up its game here.
5. Starting a conversation
Whether you agree with Colin Kaepernick’s stance about perceived inequality in the United States doesn’t really matter here. His willingness to put himself out there as a face for those who view themselves as oppressed set off a national conversation in the United States. It’s an uncomfortable conversion — one that has oftentimes created even more divisiveness. But as a whole, Kaepernick’s national anthem protest opened up dialogue in this country. That’s most definitely not a bad thing.
Once Kaepernick’s protest bled over to other teams, it really did open up an avenue for players around the NFL to voice their opinions on the racially heated issues of the day (more on that here).
There is no given responsibility for celebrities to use their platform to enact change. Just as there is no rule that states they can’t use said platform to help change the hearts and minds of Americans. Through his hard work and dedication within the community, Kaepernick himself acted as a role model for other NFL players. That was no more evident than during this feature on the Fox Super Bowl LI pre-game show.
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) February 7, 2017
Again, we can take a stand in support or against Kaepernick. That’s what makes America great. We don’t have to hold back our opinions for fear of retribution. We have the right to freedom of speech and freedom to protest. Maybe, Kaepernick allowed Americans of all backgrounds to look beyond their small echo chambers and right into an issue a minority of Americans feel to be the biggest problem in today’s society — racial inequality and police brutality. If that didn’t happen, at least a conversation was started in the mainstream. And for that, we owe Kaepernick a major thanks.
6. Matt Ryan’s ascension to elite status
Ryan’s Falcons might have bombed out in Super Bowl LI, but what he did in the lead up to that game was nothing short of amazing. Here’s a guy that passed for nearly 5,000 yards while throwing 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions en route to leading the league’s No. 1-scoring offense during the regular season.
That was good enough for Ryan to beat out Tom Brady for the NFL MVP award. That in and of itself is an amazing accomplishment.
But there’s a lot more to look at here. It seems like ages ago that Atlanta headed into the 2016 season having come off three consecutive non-playoff campaigns. Questions actually existed about whether the Falcons should continue to rely on Ryan as their franchise quarterback. After all, the 2015 season saw him throw just 21 touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions in what was Ryan’s worst performance since his rookie season.
Working with new San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, Ryan turned that around big time. Even in defeat against New England in the Super Bowl, the reigning league MVP completed 17-of-23 passes for 284 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. This enabled him to finish the postseason having accounted for 10 touchdowns and zero picks.
Now, with the frustration of Sunday’s brutal loss still in his recent past, Ryan heads into the offseason potentially set to become the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. That would have seemed like an absolute joke just this time last year. That’s how well Ryan played this past season. The entire perception of him as a quarterback has forever changed.
7. Struggles in the desert
The Arizona Cardinals entered this past season as the odds-on favorites to win the NFC. They were coming off a tremendous 2015 performance that saw them earn a trip to the NFC Championship Game. Carson Palmer was playing the best football of his career. Young running back David Johnson looked prepared to become an All Pro-caliber player. Meanwhile, the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd formed one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL.
This didn’t even take into account an elite-level defense that was headed by Pro Bowlers Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary.
All that came crashing down early in the season with Arizona losing three of its first four games, including a two-game losing streak at the hands of Buffalo and Los Angeles that saw Arizona turn the ball over a ridiculous 10 times.
Despite Bruce Arians’ reputation as one of the best coaches in the NFL, the Cardinals were never really able to rebound from this disastrous start. In the end, they finished with a 7-8-1 record and well out of playoff contention in the NFC.
The issue here is Arizona’s future and what it might bring. Sure Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald have indicated they will return for another season. But that appears to be it for the two veterans. After that, there’s a ton of questions about what the future will look like in the desert.
Johnson is coming off a tremendous sophomore campaign that saw him put up over 2,100 total yards and 20 touchdowns. He figures to be the face of the franchise moving forward. Unfortunately for Arizona, there’s no long-term solution at either quarterback or wide receiver here. Palmer will soon give away to an unnamed young quarterback, potentially one selected in the upcoming draft. Heck, the team is rumored to be interested in Clemson product Deshaun Watson in a trade-up scenario.
Either way, it’s pretty shocking to see the Cardinals go from legitimate Super Bowl contenders to a team with more questions than answers in the matter of just six months. How Arizona responds to this in the offseason will tell us a lot about its future.
8. A disastrous quarterback situation
We absolutely loved watching Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers go at it during Conference Championship Sunday. It represented the best the NFL has to offer from a quarterback perspective. But this is most definitely not indicative of the quarterback situation in the league as a whole.
From Cleveland and San Francisco to New York and Chicago, there were just some horrendous quarterback situations around the NFL during the 2016 season.
Consider the likes of who started actual regular season NFL games. We’re talking about Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, EJ Manuel, Cody Kessler, Scott Tolzien, Matt Barkley, Derek Anderson, Blaine Gabbert and Case Keenum. That’s not good for anyone involved. And in reality, it tells us a story of a talent vacuum that needs to be filled around the league.
Unfortunately for the NFL, the 2017 draft class at quarterback is considered one of the weakest in years. In fact, experts believe it is right up there with the 2013 class that saw Manuel and Smith come off the board first.
This is going to leave multiple teams in desperation mode when it comes to looking for a quarterback solution during the offseason. Heck, it will likely lead to the likes of Jay Cutler and Colin Kaepernick being given starting jobs on new teams.
As the NFL continues to move forwards with a pass-first approach on offense, quarterback play will continue to become that much more important. It was magnified during the 2016 season. And in reality, it could lead to only a handful of teams vying for the Lombardi Trophy over the next several seasons.
9. The upstart Oakland Raiders
If it weren’t for a freak injury to young superstar Derek Carr late in the regular season, the entire AFC Playoffs might have played out completely different. At the time of Carr’s injury in Week 16, Oakland had an opportunity to earn the No. 1 seed in the conference.
It had won 12 of its first 15 games after missing out on the playoffs in each of the past 13 seasons. The team boasted eventual NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack and a dynamic offense that included Carr as well as two top-end receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
While the Raiders’ season would eventually go up in smoke due to Carr’s injury, leading to a wild card loss against the Houston Texans, there’s a lot to like about this squad moving forward.
For his part, Carr threw for nearly 4,000 yards with 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions en route to leading the league’s seventh-ranked scoring offense. Cooper and Crabtree combined for nearly 2,200 receiving yards, both surpassing the 1,000-yard plateau in the process.
And while the Raiders’ defense did struggle with consistency, Mack proved himself to be one of the best players in the entire NFL. The former top-five pick tallied 11 sacks to go with five forced fumbles while earning the top individual honor for a defensive player in the league.
Oakland surely has a tremendous foundation upon which to build moving forward. Jack Del Rio has proven himself to be a tremendous coach. General manager Reggie McKenzie has been a dynamo from a player personnel standpoint. And the Raiders head into the offseason with Super Bowl expectations on the horizon. It’s an amazing turnabout for one of the most downtrodden franchises in the league over the past near two decades.
10. Tom Brady proves he is the GOAT
Brady is like that long-running television show we have enjoyed for years but feel it has run its course. And just when we are about to quit it, ridiculous plot after ridiculous plot brings us right back in. How many of you wrote Brady and the Pats off when they were down 28-3 against Atlanta in Super Bowl LI? Be honest, no one is going to judge you.
It sure looked like Brady’s Patriots were done. Their dynasty was about to end in front of a commissioner that did everything possible to end said dynasty. One of the greatest runs in sports history nearing its culmination.
It was at this point that Brady put up a display we have never seen from a quarterback in the grand history of the game. Passing for nearly 300 yards in the final 23-plus minutes of the game, Brady led his Patriots back from a 25-point deficit to force overtime.
Then, like a surgeon working through the human anatomy, Brady was precision itself en route to leading the Patrots on an eight-play, 75-yard drive resulting in a game-winning touchdown run from James White.
It was the best performance for a quarterback in the history of the game. When all was said and done on Sunday night, Brady broke the single-game Super Bowl record for completions, attempts and passing yards. All this culminating in a fifth Lombardi Trophy, enabling him to surpass Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most among quarterbacks in league history.
This all came on the heels of a regular season that saw Brady suspended for the first four games due to his alleged involvement in Deflategate and the NFL’s seemingly out-of-hand response. It also came after Brady himself threw 28 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions in 12 starts.
Set to enter the 2017 season as a 40-year old quarterback, Brady himself has indicated he has years left in the game. With seven Super Bowl appearances, five titles and three Super Bowl MVP awards under his belt, there’s no telling just how said career will come to an end.
What we do know here is that Brady is now the greatest quarterback of all-time. It’s not even really up for debate. Sure the likes of Otto Graham and Joe Montana were great in their times, but we’ve never seen such a dominating figure at a time when the salary suggests parity should be the name of the game.