Year 1 of the NFL’s newly adopted season of 17 games had a bit of everything.
The good: Aaron Rodgers’ dramatic offseason, in which he pursued the idea of retirement, was transformed into one of his most epic performances. Mac Jones provided a playoff spot for Bill Belichick’s Patriots as a rookie. Tom Brady continued to stiff arm Father Time like no one else has ever done. And somehow, the Tennessee Titans survived without their best player to earn the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed.
The bad: Urban Meyer flared out in less than a year on the job. Sam Darnold fixed after a promising 3-0 start. The Seahawks had their first losing season with Russell Wilson. And then there are the giants.
As a wide-open playoff course begins, what should be an eventful post-season, we look back on a regular season filled with something for everyone:
Most valuable player: Rodgers, QB, Packers. This race seemed to be open just a few weeks ago with Rodgers, Brady, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor and Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp all in the hunt. In the end, it looked like a two-man race between the NFL’s two best quarterbacks. We will give this to Rodgers, who after a sip on opening day was a bit more consistent than Brady. Rodgers guided the Packers to the NFL’s best record, but man, Brady is still amazing with his 44, passing for a career high of 5,316 yards. He had an extra game to do it, but who cares? It is fantastic. Rodgers led the NFL with a rating of 111.9 and four interceptions.
Coach of the year: Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans. Lots of worthy candidates here. Belichick did a masterful job of shepherding Jones through a quick apprenticeship and into the playoffs. Zac Taylor got the Bengals to the post-season behind a magnificent performance from Joe Burrow. Matt LaFleur did an excellent job navigating Rodger’s soap opera and came out with the NFC’s best team. And do not forget Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia, whose team was in free fall after the failure that resulted in Jon Gruden’s expulsion in the early season. But no one did a better job than Vrabel, who lost All-Pro running back Derrick Henry to a foot injury, endured one injury after another to his defense and held on to winning the AFC South title and earning the top seed.
Offensive player of the year: Coup, Rams. He had one of the best seasons in NFL history and led the NFL with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns. Even in a passing league, those numbers are quite remarkable, and Kupp was one of the biggest reasons the Rams won the NFC West title in Matthew Stafford’s first season in Los Angeles.
Defender of the year: TJ Watt. You could argue that Aaron Donald wins this honor because his playing has been as good as ever in his Hall of Fame caliber career. But Watt was also brilliant at equaling Michael Strahan’s single-season record with 22 ½. Watt is worth every penny of his new contract, and there is no way the Steelers would have achieved an unlikely playoff spot in the twilight of Ben Roethlisberger’s career without Watt’s performance.
Best assistant coach: Dan Quinn, Defensive Coordinator, Cowboys: The Dallas defense was epic bad last year, and the Cowboys were a shell of the team they once were. But Quinn’s arrival at Big D after his dismissal as Falcons’ head coach was a gift, and he transformed his side of the ball in a brilliant way. The aggressive style he was known for in Seattle before landing the Falcons’ job was very evident at the Cowboys, and that will likely give Quinn another head coaching job soon – perhaps in the coming weeks.
Best leader: Brian Gutekunst, GM, Packers. Things got very, very tense in the offseason with Rodgers, who at various times demanded a trade and threatened retirement. But Gutekunst remained patient and slowly played the situation correctly, Rodgers returned, and the two met somewhere in the middle – to the point that it is not inconceivable that Rodgers will spend the rest of his career in Green Bay. Aside from Rodgers’ situation, Gutekunst’s belief in LaFleur, plus his unique draft, has put Green Bay in a prime position for a Super Bowl race.
Offensive rookie of the year: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals. Chase set a rookie record with 266 receiving yards in a huge win over Kansas City, part of a magnificent debut season in which he finished with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. No wonder Burrow wanted his former LSU teammate in Cincy.
Defensive rookie of the year: Micah Parsons, ILB, Cowboys. The Giants went past a chance to take on Parsons by trading down the first round, and Dallas jumped at the chance to get the former Penn State star. He was a revelation that helped rebuild a Dallas defense that desperately needed playmakers. He had 13 sacks, three forced fumbles and 84 tackles, making good comparisons to another NFC East great: Lawrence Taylor.
The recruitment cycle renews concerns about diversity
The NFL recently strengthened its Rooney Rule requirements in hopes of improving diversity among head coaches and general managers, requiring all teams to hold at least two personal interviews with colored candidates. And while it remains to be seen whether the league’s efforts to create more justice among minority coaches and leaders will succeed, there were already worrying developments in the days following the end of the regular season.
There were three African-American coaches when the season began, but only one – Mike Tomlin of the Steelers – was left after the Dolphins fired Brian Flores after another winning season in a row, and the Texans fired David Culley after one season. The development prompted Rod Graves, CEO of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and a former NFL GM, to send a message to the owners as they consider their options in the current hiring cycle.
“The recent dismissals of Brian Flores and David Culley are a disappointment given the efforts to increase the number
representation of black coaches as head coaches in the NFL, “Graves said in a statement Friday.” The fact that today we only have one black head coach makes it clear that the current system does not provide a sustainable path for the growth of the number of minorities. as head coaches. For many, the time is right now. With 11 openings (among coaches and GMs), the NFL has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to leadership diversity. We hope that our increased commitment as partners with the NFL will have an immediate and long-term impact on the system of hiring and evaluating leadership performance. ”
Lack of representation among black coaches has been a consistently worrying issue for the NFL and especially Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has pressured owners to be more inclusive in their hiring practices. The league is made up of about 70% African American players. Goodell and the league’s diversity committee, led by Steelers owner Art Rooney II, whose father, Dan Rooney, helped create the Rooney rule, have urged teams to take greater account of diversification at the highest levels of their organizations.
Kansas City’s offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, has become a focal point in the NFL’s hiring process after he was repeatedly bypassed for head coaching opportunities. But KC coach Andy Reid believes Bieniemy will get his chance this year.
“It disappoints me that someone has not hired him,” Reid said. “I think this year he will end up with one.”
Berrios wins in the end
Braxton Berrios was shut out of the Pro Bowl poll even though he was made an alternate to the NFL’s all-star game. But he received a far more prestigious honor when he was named The Associated Press All-Pro kick returner. There is only one player to win that award and that was Berrios, whose average of 30.4 yards was top among all players with at least 20 returns. Berrios had a 102-yard return for a touchdown. Bravo for a good job.
Hitting the big one with quarterbacks is still an inaccurate science, but the teams that make the right call have been rewarded nicely. Consider: A quarterback taken in each of the final six drafts advanced to this year’s playoffs. It includes Mac Jones of the Patriots (2021), Joe Burrow of the Bengals (2020), Jalen Hurts of the Eagles (2020), Kyler Murray of the Cardinals (2019), Josh Allen of the Bills (2018), Patrick Mahomes from Kansas City (2017) and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys (2016). . . There were 34 matches in 2021 that included the game-winning result in the final game. That’s the most in NFL history. There were 49 match-winning goals in the last minute of regulation or overtime, a draw as the most ever. . . If the Eagles pull out of defending champion Bucs, it will be because of their running game. They led the NFL with an average of 159.7 yards per game. match and was the first team since the legendary ’85 Bears to rush at least 175 yards in seven straight games. Hurts, making his playoff debut, led all quarterbacks with 784 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. . . 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel had a great year with 1,770 scrimmage yards, third best in the NFL. Samuel also became the first player in NFL history with at least 1,400 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards in a single season (1,405 and 365). Great use of his talents by coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the league’s great offensive heads. . . Tomlin owns one of the most notable streaks in today’s NFL: He’s led the Steelers to winning records in all 15 of his seasons as head coach. He qualified for the playoffs for the 10th time. . . With his 23rd playoff start, Roethlisberger will tie Joe Montana to the fourth-most postseason start of a quarterback in league history. . . Does momentum matter when you are heading into the playoffs? We’re figuring it out. Arizona got off to a great start at 7-0 and 10-2, but the Cardinals lost four of their last five on their way into Monday night’s first-round matchup against the Rams at SoFi Stadium. Keep this in mind though: The Cardinals won 8-1 on the road, including a 37-20 victory on October 3 in Los Angeles.
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