NFL in ’09: Perfection, controversy and tragedy

From the beginning of the year with a great Super Bowl matchup to a pair of teams having made a run at perfection, the 2009 NFL year had its usual collection of great storylines to follow. In fact, two of those subplots – high-profile trades and quarterback controversies – were so replete with subjects they had to be grouped into two of the top four spots on our annual list of the top 10 stories of the year.

Chad Ochocinco continues to make headlines on the field and off.
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Sadly, another area that had four prominent stories was death and off-field issues, involving Steve McNair(notes), Chris Henry, Donte Stallworth and Plaxico Burress(notes). Their tragic stories served as the lowlights of another busy year for the most popular sport in the land. The year was so packed with news that the firing of Mike Shanahan and Albert Haynesworth(notes) striking it rich in free agency didn’t even make the top 10.

With that, here’s a look at our rankings:

10. Collective Bargaining Agreement: OK, we’ll make this brief because there is no subject in football that numbs the brain faster than talking about the CBA. The bottom line is it’s highly unlikely that anything significant will get done on the CBA until February or March of 2011. In the meantime, the 2010 season will be an uncapped year and all the rules that kick in will drive most fans to the edge of insanity. For the past year, the most interesting development on this front was the election of DeMaurice Smith as the head of the NFL Players Association. Smith has made a lot of pronouncements about wanting full disclosure from the owners and wanting to get a deal done. He’s not lying, but the owners aren’t really listening. As for the rest … oh, never mind, it’s too boring to get into just yet. There will be plenty of time later.

9. Tom Cable and Randy Hanson get raw: In one of the strangest stories to involve two coaches on the same team, Hanson, a former Raiders assistant coach and current scout, accused Tom Cable of hitting him so hard as to cause a broken jaw and two cracked teeth. The matter was investigated for more than a month by the Napa, Calif., police, who ultimately declined to press charges against Cable. The story went on for nearly three months, with Cable later being accused of violence by his former wife and a former girlfriend.

8. Twittermania: NFL players took their chances with direct communication to fans via Twitter. However, the lack of a filter between players and fans had inconsistent results. Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Ochocinco(notes) became a tweeting fool, getting into a Twitter spat with Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes) and even threatening to tweet during games. Meanwhile, San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes) got fined for tweeting out of turn about the food the Chargers served during training camp. Kansas City running back Larry Johnson(notes) took it even further by getting cut after making disparaging remarks about Chiefs coach Todd Haley and homosexual references about fans over Twitter.

7. Michael Crabtree(notes) holds out: After falling to the No. 10 overall pick because of a stress fracture in his foot, Crabtree staged one of the longest-running holdouts in recent memory when he missed all of training camp and the first five games of the season. There were threats along the way that he would sit out the entire season and reenter the draft in 2010, talk that teams had tampered with him (the 49ers even filed a charge that later was dropped) and indications he wanted more money than No. 7 overall pick Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes). In the end, Crabtree finally signed and claimed to have been “humbled” by the process, but almost immediately moved into the starting lineup and showed little rust from all the time he missed.

6. Terrell Owens(notes) gets cut: Owens’ former teammates in Dallas finally got tired of his antics, which included his usual bit of grousing about the play of his quarterback, and beseeched owner Jerry Jones (with the aid of Jones’ son Stephen) to get rid of Owens. The situation dragged into March before the Cowboys finally let go of Owens, who said he had been assured by Jerry Jones that he would return to Dallas this season. Despite wearing out his welcome on three teams (San Francisco and Philadelphia before Dallas), Owens lasted only four days as a free agent before Buffalo signed him to a one-year, $6.5 million deal. However, now 36, Owens appears to have hit the downside of his career. He has posted his worst full-season numbers in nine years.

5. Death and the legal system: The sad slaying of former Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair by his mistress (who then took her own life) and the accidental death of Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry were the lowlights of the year, but they weren’t the only dominant off-field stories. On a positive note, Michael Vick(notes) got out of prison and, despite initial controversy, returned to the NFL without being an overwhelming distraction (more on that later). On a negative note, Cleveland wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth(notes) killed a man in Miami while driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. Although Stallworth was out of jail in time to play the season, he was banned for the year by commissioner Roger Goodell. Finally, wide receiver Plaxico Burress went to prison for his gun charge in New York. Burress is fighting to get out in time to play next season, but it will be difficult for him to earn an early release.

4. Trades abound: Led by Cleveland dumping tight end Kellen Winslow(notes) in the offseason and wide receiver Braylon Edwards(notes) in the regular season, big trades abounded in the NFL. That included six prominent former Pro Bowlers (Winslow, Edwards, defensive tackle Richard Seymour(notes), quarterback Jay Cutler(notes), tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) and linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes)) and a potential franchise quarterback (Matt Cassel(notes)). The biggest of those deals was Chicago acquiring Cutler, who was expected to put the Bears in playoff contention after they gave up two first-round picks in the deal (not to mention quarterback Kyle Orton(notes)). Instead, it’s Denver, Cutler’s former team, that has made the playoff run this season while Cutler has been an interception machine and helped put coach Lovie Smith’s job in jeopardy.

Brett Favre's move to Minnesota wasn't popular with everyone.
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3. Controversial QBs: Cutler’s trade was big news early in the offseason, but he was little more than an afterthought by the time the season got rolling. From Ben Roethlisberger(notes) being sued in civil court for rape to Vick returning to the NFL to Tom Brady’s(notes) comeback from injury to the latest Brett Favre(notes) saga, quarterbacks dominated the news as they usually do. Roethlisberger’s case remains unresolved, but he has played well this season despite the issue looming. Vick’s return has become much ado about nothing, both from a protest and performance standpoint. While there was a lot of talk about how people would react, there was barely a murmur of protest once the season really got going. On the field, Vick has thrown 11 passes and run 19 times all season as a souped-up Wildcat quarterback. He didn’t even score or throw for a touchdown until the 12th game of the season (a lopsided win at Atlanta). Most importantly for his own sake, Vick stayed out of trouble and generally out of the news. Of course, Favre eventually made the biggest news when he finally signed with Minnesota in hopes of getting revenge over Green Bay. Favre, now 40, has responded with one of his greatest seasons.

2. Steelers win sixth title in a thriller: Some might argue that this was the top story of the year, especially considering the thrilling nature of the victory over Arizona. Pittsburgh wide receiver Santonio Holmes’(notes) tightrope work on the sideline for the game-winning touchdown ranks as one of the great throws and catches in Super Bowl history (Roethlisberger deserves a lot of praise for one beautiful throw). Add in the fact that the lead changed hands twice in the fourth quarter and you have arguably one of the greatest Super Bowls in the history of the game. This game was so good that Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison’s(notes) 100-yard interception return as the clock ran out in the first half was almost an afterthought by the end of the game. The title was the sixth for the Steelers, who have more than any team in the Super Bowl era.

1. Indianapolis and New Orleans making runs at undefeated seasons: Going undefeated deep into the season has seemingly become easier in recent years, with five teams getting to at least 10-0 in the five years. However, having two teams get out to 13-0 starts is something the league had never seen and deserves great recognition, even over a great Super Bowl. The Colts reached 14-0 before losing to the Jets on Sunday, while the Saints fell in a dramatic game against Dallas the previous week. The teams got there mostly on the strength of great quarterback play from Peyton Manning(notes) and Drew Brees(notes), respectively. The two, along with Favre, are staging a great battle for NFL Most Valuable Player honors while they attempted to put Miami’s perfect season to its latest test.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Dec 28, 2009