Takeaways from an epic season

Every Wednesday this season, Brian Billick wrote a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and discussing experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting. This is the final one for the 2012-2013 season.

There are still pieces of confetti floating down Pratt Street in Baltimore — and having taken that parade route before, I can tell you there’s nothing quite like the feeling of communal elation that you experience when you and your team bring a Lombardi Trophy back to the fans — but the exhilarating 2012 National Football League season has finally come to an end.

As we close the book on the season just passed, I find myself taking a step back from Sunday’s highlights (and blackout-induced lowlights) to take the measure of what I’ve learned about football this year.

A few things stand out:

The strong, agile, dual-purpose quarterback is coming, and this isn’t a “Wildcat”-type fad.

The most exciting thing about this season has been the way the quarterback position has begun to evolve right before our eyes. Robert Griffin III was a dynamic presence in Washington, and Russell Wilson’s charismatic performance leading the Seahawks also turned the tables on expectations. But if you look into the future of the quarterback position, it’s possible that it will look a lot like Colin Kaepernick. His unprecedented blend of size, speed and legitimate touch on passes will be hard to duplicate right away. But there’s a tradition in football: A player breaks the mold (think Kellen Winslow, as a new sort of tight end in the ’80s) and before too long, another generation follows in that same model (Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates). Another set of quarterbacks with Kaepernick’s skills could change a lot of the assumptions we’ve made about what kind of quarterback can win an NFL title.

We’re now in an era when offenses go on runs, like college basketball teams running off a string of points.

Games played at greater speed with fewer interruptions (due to more teams running no-huddle offenses) lend themselves to more pace and, by definition, more momentum. We saw it in the Super Bowl, where the Ravens went up 28-6, before the 49ers responded with their own 21-6 run to make it a game. We saw it throughout the playoffs, especially when the Falcons went up 20-0 on the Seahawks, then weathered Seattle’s second-half comeback. This is also the function of big-play offenses and high-risk defenses or, as my old colleague Rex Ryan once encapsulated his philosophy of pressure defense, “Somebody’s band is gonna play.” Teams that can play and score faster also means that leads that we’ve long considered “safe” — 17, 21, 24 points — aren’t necessarily so anymore. Seeing how quickly teams can rally these days, you tell me: Do you call off the dogs and lift your starting quarterback when you have a 28-point lead? 35 points? Or do you keep trying to score until there’s no plausible way the other team can respond? There’s no mercy rule in the NFL, and some of the comebacks we’ve seen this year show why.

Momentum matters in seasons, too.

Take a look at the two boldest in-season moves in the NFL this year: In San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh elevated Kaepernick to the starting position over a veteran quarterback with a 104.2 passer rating. In Baltimore, John Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator in December, with less than a month left in the season. When they made those moves, both men knew they’d be absolutely hammered if they didn’t work out. But they also sensed that if they stood pat, their teams would remain good-but-not-great. Good but not great doesn’t win Super Bowls.

Icing the kicker has probably run its course for a while.

When the strategy started, in the ’80s, the philosophy was clear: Football was still a relatively methodical game, kickers tended to be (perceived as) high-strung sorts, so why not call a timeout right before the field goal attempt to let the kicker think about the enormity of his task a little bit more? But the ploy has been used for so long that kickers now expect it, and I’ve heard some kickers tell me they actually prefer being “iced.” When they come on the field for the initial try, they are sometimes rushed, and at that point, they don’t know whether there’s going to be a timeout or not. Once the timeout is called and they have to re-kick, they can calmly go through their pre-snap routine without having to worry about another timeout. I think the philosophy on this was starting to change well before Pete Carroll’s ill-timed icing of Matt Bryant in the Seattle-Atlanta playoff game. (And I’m not blaming Carroll, necessarily — a lot of coaches may have called a timeout there.) It’s unlikely we’ll see as much of this in coming seasons as we have in the past.

Free-agency signings are going to grow even more selective.

The big contracts aren’t going to go away, of course. And when a once-in-a-generation talent like Peyton Manning goes on the market, he’ll get his dazzling contract (and justifiably so). But what we’ve seen more of in recent years are good teams that supplement their squad with a few select, situational under-the-radar free-agent signings. There weren’t any news helicopters tailing Jacoby Jones when he signed with the Ravens. But look at what a key factor he was in making Baltimore a more dangerous team, not just on Super Bowl Sunday but throughout the year.

Joe Flacco is about to make a lot of money.

And he deserves it.

Some lessons you learn over and over again.

At the end of the season, everyone is exhausted: players, coaches, fans, even announcers. Each season is an epic all its own, and this year was no different. If you love the game, it absorbs you for six months. After a week at the Super Bowl, I don’t want to think about football for a while. I want to spend time with my wife and family, walk with my dogs, go see a movie, and recharge my batteries. But it won’t be long … there’s a Combine in Indianapolis, free agency coming soon, the schedule drops in early April, and then the draft at the end of that month. And another epic will be getting under way. And those of us who love the game will be wrapped up in it all over again. Thanks for reading this season, and sharing the story with me.