Another NFL season filled with unpredictable twists and turns ended in a blaze of glory on Sunday night, with the second play from scrimmage about the only successful offensive play of note in an NFC West battle supreme.
Seattle's victory over St. Louis means there will be five new teams competing for a chance at the Super Bowl that were not in contention last year. Over the past 15 years, the average turnover has been six teams. (Consider that the NHL and NBA, with more post-season entrants, average a turnover of about five and four, respectively.)
NFL draft order
7. San Francisco
You could fill a book with all the major developments of the season: Bill Belichick became the first coach to win at least 14 games in four separate seasons, as Tom Brady set a new standard for ball control…The Brett Favre and Randy Moss sagas…Mid-season coaching changes almost rivalled the NHL or NBA in number…The mediocrity soup that was the NFC West…The freefall of the Carolina Panthers…The rise of the Bucs and the Missouri teams.
Here's four storylines, not necessarily the biggest, that particularly resonated:
1. Knock on Wood
It wasn't quite the biggest game-changing moment of the season, but a key development occurred with a little noticed transaction on Sept. 18, the type that doesn't stand out from the rest in the sports agate.
The Patriots claimed running back Danny Woodhead, jettisoned by divisional rival New York a few days earlier. Had the waiver wire addition not suffered an apparent head injury early Sunday, he would have likely gone over 1,000 yards combined rushing and received for New England.
With New York's offence workmanlike at best on most days this season, it could have used someone other than Brad Smith to provide a dash of flash.
2. Made of Steel
Pittsburgh's resurgence on defence after a disappointing 2009 allowed the team to survive the four-game suspension of Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers went 3-1 during that span despite losing both Dennis Dixon and Byron Leftwich to injury, with Charlie Batch holding the fort like the veteran he is. That four-game stretch looks better than it did on paper in the summer, as it included wins over the ultimately improved Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as well as a Tennessee squad that began the season 5-2.
3. Chiefs run wild
Charlie Weis evidently decided to pull a Costanza and leave on a high note for the University of Florida. But not before helping transform Kansas City's offence.
Matt Cassel took another step forward in his development. Almost as important in this era of quarterback jeopardy (see No. 4), only an appendectomy prevented Cassel from completing three straight seasons of uninterrupted work.
Cassel was helped by a rushing attack powered by Jamaal Charles, which led the NFL with 2,627 yards.
An otherwise fine football stats site harped long and often on how Thomas Jones was taking away too many carries Charles deserved, but you need a runner to pound between the tackles, and more importantly, it's not unreasonable to expect two-back systems to be de rigeur if the 18-game season goes through. Remember, this is the franchise of Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes — Charles didn't need to be run roughshod when he appears to have plenty of years to give.
4. Under centre, under fire
The titanic battle between the Jets and Bills on Sunday saw former star Mark Brunell go up against never-was Brian Brohm. That pushed the total of quarterbacks to start an NFL game in the 2010 season to nearly 65. Several teams had to start three over the campaign, something virtually unheard of just over a decade ago.
It seems to be a record, although it's not exactly a stat the league would trumpet.
The demands of the position and inability to hide concussions contributed to the increase. There's no doubt that had it been pre-2010, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler would have tried to play the games they ultimately missed.
The NFL, of course, wants to expand to 18 games per season despite the extreme toll the season already takes on its primary assets. If that initiative goes through, it seems reasonable to expect at least a modest increase in roster size.
All of this combined with potential changes to rookie salary structure, could make it even more imperative to develop at least two or three viable options at the position. And could that even have an impact for CFL personnel men, with that league not exactly known in recent years for grooming emerging QBs?
Of much assistance
It's always worth taking a look at the coordinator scene, especially with the possibility of double-digit coaching vacancies for 2010.
Hue Jackson, fresh off a strong year in Baltimore as QB coach, earned plaudits for breathing life into Oakland's offence despite the fact that neither Jason Campbell nor Bruce Gradkowski exactly covered themselves in glory.
The following are top and bottom turnarounds in wins from the 2009 season.
Reports emerged late Sunday that DC's Rob Ryan (Cleveland) and Ron Rivera (San Diego) will interview for NFL head coaching jobs after credible work in 2010.
At least three old hands burnished their defensive coordinator bona fides. Green Bay, under Dom Capers, largely shut down playoff teams like the Jets and Chicago, and put forth the best performance of any one in the second half of the season against New England's offence (remember, the Patriots scored on a pick-6 and another TD was fueled by an improbable 71-yard defensive lineman kick return).
The Kansas City Chiefs under Romeo Crennel were vastly improved, and even though Miami put forth two embarrassing efforts to close the season, the Dolphins under Mike Nolan allowed 80 fewer points than last year and appear to have the bones of a unit that can be formidable down the road.
Last but not least are the primary pair from the Lions. True, given the fact that Detroit allowed nearly 500 points in 2009, there really was only one way to go on defence, but there was no denying the progress under Gunther Cunningham.
Maybe it wasn't the the most impressive job of any NFL coordinator, but the most resourceful likely came from Scott Linehan. Despite injuries to three quarterbacks and a prized rookie running back, the Lions finished with 80 more points than last season and were in the top half of the league in passing yards.
To the points
The following is how the NFL teams fared in points for and against compared to the 2009 season. A negative total in the second column is a good thing, but not quite as much in the first column.
For the truly perverse out there, I'll save you the trouble: total points were up in the NFL by just over 200.
If you're truly committed you can delve deep into strength of schedule and injury games lost, but they're fun at a glance as well.
Would you have guessed that Baltimore, with two veteran receivers added to the fold, would score fewer points this year than last? Or that Dallas without Tony Romo and Indianapolis without several key offensive components, would score more?
Much-maligned Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals scored more points as a 4-12 team than as a 10-6 playoff unit last season. Guess Terrell Owens was worth the money.
Speaking of the Cowboys, it's pretty clear that one of the most prized and challenging of the coordinator openings of the off-season will be DC for Dallas.
A note about the Patriots: New England may have finished with more points allowed this season, but all you needed was a pair of eyes to notice that with the likes of Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes, it's a unit on the rise. The Patriots allowed just 47 points in the last five games.
And for all the talk of Mike Martz in Chicago — and Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were improved — the Bears scored only seven more points this season. Chicago head to the playoffs with a bye thanks to Julius Peppers, a healthy Brian Urlacher and the rest of the defence.