Time is running short on the last year of the '00s, so it's time to dive into the daunting task of ranking the NFL's best of the decade. Best what? Best everything. We're going with a series of top 10 lists, and if something miraculous happens between now and December 31st, well, we'll just have to catch it at the end of 2019.
We've seen a lot of changes in the last decade -- free agency and an ever-increasing salary cap have taken parity to a somewhat unbalanced hierarchy, and with an uncapped year looming, we may see a return to a haves/have-nots situation in the future. Ongoing labor concerns aside, here are what I classify as the ten most important strategic changes since 2000.
10. Sabermetric research impacts front offices
It took years before the work of Bill James really made a difference in Major League Baseball front offices, but the NFL has been far more open to "Moneyball" ideas. From the early works of SI's Paul Zimmerman, to The Hidden Game of Football, to the current efforts of Football Outsiders and an ever-growing community of stat mavens, the interest in advanced statistical analysis on the part of NFL teams has affected personnel and game strategy to a greater degree than ever before. Some teams have bought into it more than others, but the Patriots, 49ers and Lions are franchises with documented practice in the "new math". Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who earned a degree in economics from Georgetown, may be the most vocal in his approval of, and reliance on, this kind of analysis.
9. Guards get marquee money
This actually started the year before Steve Hutchinson's(notes) $49 million poison pill contract in 2006. When the Packers lost guards Mike Wahle(notes) and Marco Rivera(notes) to free agency before the 2005 season, it marked the worst year of Brett Favre's(notes) career. Favre threw a career-high 29 picks and registered a career-low 70.9 quarterback rating. After Hutchinson got his $49 million contact, the floodgates opened -- Kris Dielman(notes), Derrick Dockery(notes). Eric Steinbach(notes) ... the list went on and on and the NFL was minting left tackle money for inside linemen for the first time. If you question the wisdom of such financial decisions, simply look at Minnesota's offensive line since they got Hutchinson, and Seattle's line since they lost him. Case closed.
8. Tight Ends: The new big receivers
This trend really expanded in the 1990s with Shannon Sharpe, but more and more, college teams running spread offenses directed their tight ends to split out from the tackle and go slot, flex, or wide. These days, you'll see many teams with specific pass-catching and blocking tight ends (you know, the guys replacing all those fullbacks!)
7. The death of the fullback as a stat factor
Jim Taylor? Larry Csonka? John Riggins? In the modern era, these guys would be H-backs or blocking tight ends. And these days, the most famous fullback might be Tim Riggins of the Dillon Panthers. Backs like Michael Turner(notes) and Jerome Bettis, who would have been old-school fullbacks a generation ago, are now renamed "halfback", and the blocking responsibilities are given to earthbound guys like Heath Evans(notes) or Ovie Mughelli(notes). Baltimore's Le'Ron McClain(notes) proudly carries the torch for the hybrid, but he's a dying breed.
In Week 3 of the 2008 season, the 0-2 Miami Dolphins were trying to recover from the previous year's 1-15 futility. Going up against the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium didn't look like a cure for that particular malady, but new quarterbacks coach David Lee had a trick or three up his sleeve from his days as Arkansas' offensive coordinator. He drew up a series of blocking-heavy option plays that decimated the Pats' slow, aging linebacker corps on the way to a 38-13 win. Ronnie Brown(notes) scored four touchdowns on the ground and passed for another. The Dolphins rode their gadget-y new offense to a completely improbable AFC East title, and more than half the teams in the NFL have taken direct snaps to non-quarterbacks in the following year with results ranging from ridiculous to sublime.
5. The rise and fall of the Cover-2
Zone defenses with deep safeties became very much in vogue when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII with a defensive system that got pressure from its front four, and put its linebackers in coverage. Of course, what many of the copycats missed was the fact that if your front four didn't have guys like Warren Sapp(notes) and Simeon Rice(notes), expecting consistent pressure from four guys was a bit foolhardy. You'll still see teams running the Cover-2 and the Tampa offshoot, where the middle linebacker drops into deep coverage more often than not, but more and more teams are adopting the hybrid look of bringing their cornerbacks to the line and playing their safeties in a shorter two-deep, or bringing the strong safety in the box.
4. The Polian Rule
When the New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts' receivers into oblivion in the 2003 AFC Championship Game, Colts president Bill Polian looked to increase the stringency of the illegal contact rules first put into effect in 1978. Since then, defenders have felt the heat -- the NFL called 202 defensive pass interference calls and 192 illegal contact calls in 2004, and passing offenses have exploded in recent years.
3. The 3-4 Swing
With the recent success of the defenses of the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers, the copycats were back, and they wanted themselves some 3-4 defense! The difference between the successful teams and the one-year bailouts is having the personnel to run the scheme -- the 2006 Jets were a disaster when they tried it, while the 2008 Broncos and Packers have thrived in new systems.
2. The furtherance of running back committees
More and more, teams are becomg aware of the effects of running back overuse, leading to committees of running backs where before, there was one workhorse. Looking at five-year averages since 1978, we see that the percentage of backs per season with 200 or more carries has increased from 17.8 percent (1978-1983) to 2004-2008 (24.2). The days of Earl Campbell running up the middle 400 times a season and needing a walker to get around for the rest of his life are hopefully over -- the NFL must learn from lessons like these.
In 2007, the New England Patriots became the first NFL team to pass more than half the time from the shotgun formation. As their offense was perhaps the most dynamic single-season entity in NFL history, the usual copycats got busy. In addition, the preponderance of shotgun snaps in recent years has a lot to do with the new wave of spread option quarterbacks, and the need to ease their development at the NFL level. The numbers are astonishing -- from 1999 through 2005, the NFL never saw more than 15.55 percent of snaps in shotgun. In 2006, that number went up to 19.42 percent, and it shot through the roof in 2007 (27.03%) and 2008 (32.29%). In the second half of Super Bowl XLIII, you saw two teams -- the Steelers and Cardinals -- set their running games aside and go no-huddle, mano-a-mano, with a plethora of shotgun snaps. As quarterbacks learn to run play action and expand the running game from the shotgun, this trend will continue to increase.
Comments, criticisms, omissions, and your own top ten lists are encouraged in the comments below.