NFL in 2011: Lockout to the loss of an icon


The NFL had its usual array of intriguing storylines, from the offseason that wasn't (the lockout changed the landscape) to the great play of No. 1 pick Cam Newton (an NFL record for rushing scores by a quarterback and some impressive passing numbers). Aside from impressive play, there was the usual bit of controversy, such as Detroit's Ndamukong Suh stomping on an opponent and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson living up to his "MeSean" nickname. Around the league, defensive players fumed about the interpretation of the rules on helmet-to-helmet hitting, particularly by safeties against wide receivers.

[Yahoo! Year in Review: The standout news of 2011, top 10s and more]

There was even the sale of the Jacksonville Jaguars, which has plenty of people wondering if the team will relocate (unlikely in the short term, but there will always be speculation about the Jags). However, the death of an NFL pioneer, the performance (or non-performance, as it were) of three quarterbacks and the annoying negotiations between the team owners and players were the dominant storylines of a year that, for the first time in what seems like forever, didn't feature Brett Favre.

Here are the top five NFL stories of 2011:

5. Let's make a deal, finally

Almost three years of jockeying for position and four months of hardcore talks concluded with something fans should be very happy with – a 10-year collective bargaining agreement. Sure, fans (and the media) were incredibly annoyed with what the players and owners were arguing about for months. Essentially, how do you want to split up $10 billion a year (and probably closer to $20 billion a year real soon)?

In a classic battle of the wealthy vs. the rich, neither side looked good in the process. There were plenty of tough moments, such as Panthers owner Jerry Richardson mocking Peyton Manning in one meeting and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones playing the tyrant in some sessions. There were also courtroom battles and serious threats to blow up the season.

If you didn't know how big football is compared with the rest of sports in America right now, take a look at the fan angst during the lockout. NFL fans lost their minds when the league and the union merely went to court. Meanwhile, you barely heard a murmur about the NBA when it ended up missing nearly two months of actual games. It's a shame, but it's reality.

In the end, a deal got done. Whether it's a good deal for either side remains to be seen, but the best news is that fans won't have to worry about it again for a decade.

4. There are those who call me … Tim

The emergence of Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback in Denver has led to all sorts of controversy. Mostly, it has made the Broncos into contenders, at least for the short-term.

Since he entered the starting lineup, Tebow led Denver into playoff contention. Yeah, the Broncos' defense played a more consistent role in that run, but Tebow made an awful lot of big plays along the way and silenced many critics (including yours truly) in the process. In the backdrop of that is the overarching Christianity angle with the evangelical Tebow, creating plenty of fodder for some very strong feelings on all sides.

For such a nice young man (and that is meant with complete seriousness), Tebow is perhaps the most polarizing figure in the NFL today. It's an amazing social phenomenon. Critiquing him as a football player is nearly impossible without it bleeding into a social discussion. The situation is so stunning that John Elway – the greatest Broncos player ever, who led the team to five Super Bowls, including two titles, and is now the executive vice president of the team in charge of running football operations – has been getting ripped by some fans for not fully supporting Tebow. Moreover, Tebow's play has started to make people take a second look at the moves of deposed coach Josh McDaniels. Could it be that McDaniels wasn't a complete train wreck?

Tebow is the real-life Tim the Enchanter.

3. Manning and the Colts come up lame

If ever there were a question about the importance of Peyton Manning to the Indianapolis organization, it has been answered. With Manning lost for the season to neck surgery, the Colts disintegrated into a team that lost its first 13 games. They went from consistent playoff contender to a team in line for the No. 1 overall pick.

That shows the depth to which the Colts built everything, even their defensive strategy, around Manning. The expectation is that Manning will heal from neck surgery. However, the Colts will likely have to deal with the possibility of drafting Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick, creating all sorts of questions about the future for Manning in Indianapolis.

2. Mr. Rodgers takes over the neighborhood

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has pulled one of the great magic acts of NFL history. He has made Brett Favre disappear, at least in the minds of Packers fans who have come to understand just why general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy made the decision in 2008 to get rid of Favre.

In the simplest terms, Rodgers is better and showed that in leading the Packers to the Super Bowl title in his third season as the starter. In fact, Rodgers is right now better than anybody who has ever played the position – at least for the past calendar year. Since Dec. 26, 2010, the Packers have gone 18-0, including 4-0 in the playoffs last season. Rodgers has posted a quarterback rating of better than 106 in all but two of those games and is on pace to break the NFL's single-season rating record. His performance in the Super Bowl was other-worldly. Even if Rodgers didn't play a single down the rest of the season, he'd probably still be the Most Valuable Player.

1. Call Me Al

The legacy of the late Al Davis, who died Oct. 8, is so vast in scope and importance that an attempt to summarize it in a few sentences is obscene. If you don't really get it about Davis, do some homework.

He influenced every facet of the NFL, from how the game is played on the field to the draft to the merger of the league to how business is conducted to how teams leverage cities for better deals. He was completely dedicated to the NFL. At the same time, he was the great agitator of the league, serving as the ultimate villain in his creation of rivalries and controversies. He was both one of the greatest winners (the Raiders went to the playoffs in 10 of 11 seasons in one stretch) and one of the greatest losers (the Raiders went seven consecutive seasons with 11 more losses) in league history.

Davis was always in the middle of the fray. Now, his death leaves the Raiders in flux with son, Mark, in charge. It will be fascinating to see how ownership of the team is handled over the next few years.

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