The final moments of sporting events or seasons often cloud our memories of what came before. Last month's Chiefs-Steelers wild-card game is a prime example. It may have had an exciting finish, but it was, by no measure, a good football game. The end fools us into thinking otherwise.
And then came Sunday, which gave us the greatest Super Bowl finish ever, punctuating a fairly lackluster 2016-17. The question thus becomes: Was Super Bowl LI good enough to make up for a mediocre season?
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What were the good things we'll remember about this NFL season? In no particular order: The emergence of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott who, along with Dez Bryant, could be giving us a triplets for the new millennium. A Cowboys offensive line that's the closest thing the NFC East has seen to the Hogs and seems to ensure success in the future, which is good for the NFL, which sees its ratings skyrocket when Big D is successful. Jimmy Garoppolo was solid in relief of Tom Brady (before getting hurt), showing that the Pats can survive without Tommy Boy, if not Bill Belichick. Kirk Cousins yelled some more. Carson Wentz was a revelation for the first month of the year before the NFL predictably caught up with him. Matthew Stafford had a career's worth of comebacks wrapped in one season, setting the NFL record for most fourth-quarter deficits overcome in a season. Aaron Rodgers solidified his reputation as a Hail Mary savant. The Cowboys and Steelers gave us a game for the ages in the regular season, and then the Cowboys and Packers provided another in the playoffs. And the league's postgame fashion finally got within shouting distance of the NBA's, led by Cam Newton who, on most days, looked like Johnny Depp dressed for Halloween as The Edge. That's a win for everybody.
And the bad? (Deep breath.) The league's marquee star retired, leaving a hole in the national television schedule that was exacerbated by a wild presidential election that temporarily made politics as interesting as sports. The other star was suspended for the first four games and played for a team that's as universally reviled as toothaches, winter sunset times and Congress. Brock Osweiler, the biggest free-agent acquisition of the offseason, wasn't just a bust, he was a bust that had been shattered when hit by an errant throw from Brock Osweiler. Ryan Fitzpatrick was equally horrible with the Jets. Other than Dak and Zeke, new stars were few and far between. The NFL continued cracking down on end zone fun. Concussions are proving to be evermore unavoidable, which hurts the games for various reasons. Moving to Los Angeles was hardly the rousing success the Rams hoped for. Jared Goff vs. Carson Wentz wasn't exactly a Andrew Luck/RG3 one-two punch. There were two ties, both caused by missed chip-shot field goals, each of which wreaked havoc with playoff scenarios later in the year. Injuries halted promising seasons by some new NFL blood in Oakland (Derek Carr), Detroit (Stafford) and Miami (Ryan Tannehill). Of the 10 playoff games before the Super Bowl, nine were unwatchable. Ratings were down. Criticism was up. The pessimist would say that the NFL was in the initial throes of proving that nothing stays on top forever. And then, like a rancid cherry on top, a franchise even more hated than the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl.
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The theme of the year, at least up until the calendar end of 2016, was a rebirth. The new Cowboys, the Matts (Ryan and Stafford) putting up the seasons of their careers, the Raiders, Bucs and Redskins on the verge of new eras with game-changing quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota avoiding the sophomore slump. With Peyton gone, the NFL felt wide open.
And then the final four teams were led by Brady, Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Ryan -- the first three had Super Bowl wins and the last was the 2016 MVP. The youngest of the group was 31, the average age was 34. So much for the youth movement.
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Unlike games, which are defined in the moment (and then quickly redefined after a team blows a 25-point lead), the stories of seasons aren't written without the benefit of hindsight. Back in 1984, the 49ers ushered in an unprecedented era of dominance for the NFC, which was impossible to know at the time. In 1999, the Greatest Show on Turf kicked off an era of offensive football aided by speed, high-percentage passing and rule changes. In 2001, who could have expected that the New England Patriots had just started the greatest dynasty of all time? In various years, you could sum up a season with one of the prominent offensive trends of the time (which tend to quickly flame out): the wildcat, the pistol, the read option, the run-and-shoot, etc.
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More often than not, though, it's the Super Bowl winner that comes to represent the season, even though the Super Bowl winner is merely the survivor of a one-and-done tournament and rarely the team that most excelled over the four months of the regular season. If you're talking about the 2010 season, for instance, the Packers are the team to remember, even though they were 10-6, needed an ugly 10-3 win over the Bears in Week 17 just to make the playoffs and then could barely hold off Caleb Hanie in a rematch in the NFC championship game. Record-wise, those Packers had one the three worst marks of any Aaron Rodgers team, but since they won the Super Bowl we automatically assume Green Bay 2010 was one of those patented 13-3 Wisconsin juggernauts.
The Pats were 14-2 that year. The Jets were a miracle AFC championship participant. Seattle went 7-9, won a division and upset the Saints in the wild-card game thanks to Marshawn Lynch's run. Michael Vick led the Eagles to the playoffs. Though remembered (slightly), none of those facts tells the story of a season. It's merely Green 31, Pittsburgh 25.
For 2016, remembering only the Super Bowl winner will be more appropriate than in most years. Though New England flew under the radar as much as a 14-2 team possibly can while Dallas garnered the most headlines, the story of the Deflategate suspension, Brady's historic 39-year-old season and then a Super Bowl that featured the dynasty's unprecedented fifth ring, a comeback for the ages and the savory taste of revenge will rightfully overshadow the other 266 games that came before it. New England is a championship team that defined its season even before winning a championship.
As for how we'll remember 2016? We won't beyond the Patriots and that historic collapse by the Falcons. That's not a bad thing, however. When the last game of the year is the placeholder for all before it, having a great one helps.
The Super Bowl rarely lives up to the greatness of an NFL season. But this year, an unmemorable season didn't come close to living up to the Super Bowl.
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