QBs, controversy dominated the year

Like the now-extinct Mayans, the NFL shuns use of the traditional Gregorian calendar.

Sure, the league is cognizant of holidays and follows a seven-day work week. But the NFL calendar year doesn’t end on Dec. 31 and begin anew on Jan. 1. The NFL work year kicks off in March with the opening of the free-agent signing period. For 2013, that date is March 12.

Considering this, here’s a look at four of the most pleasant NFL surprises and four major disappointments that have occurred over the past nine months.

We’ve tossed in four things to keep an eye on in the upcoming year to give us a total of 12 entries. In honor of the year that was 2012, of course.


Chuck Pagano and Indianapolis Colts

During a year in which the franchise parted ways with iconic quarterback Peyton Manning, all eyes were focused solely on rookie replacement Andrew Luck until Oct. 1. That’s when the news head coach Chuck Pagano had been diagnosed with leukemia became public.

Pagano already had endeared himself to Colts players through his positive attitude and attempt to “Build the Monster” with a team that had finished an NFL-worst 2-14 in 2011. Pagano’s battle to recover from the disease became further inspiration — and the Colts responded by winning nine of their next 12 games under interim replacement Bruce Arians to make the playoffs.

Pagano has reassumed his coaching duties after successfully completing chemotherapy and will return to the sideline for the first time Sunday when the Colts host the Houston Texans.

The miracles of modern medicine

Twenty years ago, the odds that Denver QB Peyton Manning (neck) and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson (knee) would have made complete comebacks from the kinds of serious injuries they had suffered would be far greater. The medical technology and rehabilitation programs just weren’t that advanced.

But thanks to the treatments available as well as their hard work in recovery, Manning and Peterson are now neck-and-neck for NFL Most Valuable Player honors. Manning, who endured four neck surgeries, has led Denver (12-3) to a league-high 10 consecutive victories and AFC West title. Peterson, fresh off torn ligaments in his left knee suffered last December against Washington, is 102 yards away from his first 2,000-yard rushing season.

Rookie quarterbacks

For 29 years, the Class of 1983’s NFL Draft has drawn praise for producing three Hall of Famers (Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and John Elway), one Super Bowl starter (Tony Eason) and a decade-long starter (Ken O’Brien).

Who knows what heights the Class of 2012 will reach, but it’s off to a good start. Luck has led the Colts into the playoffs while breaking Cam Newton’s NFL rookie mark for passing yards. Luck, though, isn’t even a shoe-in for the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year honor because two other quarterbacks — Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson — have played so well.

Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden have started all 15 games while Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, Arizona’s Ryan Lindley and Washington’s Kirk Cousins (replacing an injured Griffin) also got at least one nod in 2012. One more passer to watch in the future is Denver’s Brock Osweiler, who is being groomed as Manning’s heir apparent.

Record-setting performances

Starting with Week 1 — when Griffin enjoyed the best starting debut for a rookie QB in league history against New Orleans and San Francisco kicker David Akers tied the NFL mark for longest field goal with a 63-yarder in Green Bay — the NFL record book was frequently rewritten.

One year after New Orleans QB Drew Brees broke Marino’s passing record, the single-season mark of another NFL icon fell by the wayside. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson has topped Jerry Rice with 1,892 receiving yards and has a legitimate shot at hitting the 2,000-yard plateau Sunday against Chicago.

Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5 may be next to tumble. Houston’s J.J. Watt (20.5) and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (19.5) both have a shot entering Week 17.

Brees broke a long-standing Johnny Unitas record with a touchdown pass in 54 consecutive games before the streak came to an end. With one more TD pass Sunday against Carolina, he will become the first player with back-to-back seasons of 40-plus scoring throws.

New England’s Wes Welker is now the first player with five consecutive 100-catch seasons. With 104 catches, Dallas’ Jason Witten broke Tony Gonzalez’s single-season receiving record for tight ends. New England’s Tom Brady is the first QB to win 10 division titles. Griffin (104.1) is on pace to best Ben Roethlisberger for the top rookie QB passer rating. And Minnesota rookie Blair Walsh has kicked an unprecedented nine field goals of 50-plus yards.

From a league standpoint, the NFL enters Week 17 on pace to set new marks for average yards (696.3) and passing yards (465.3) per game.

One team record that won’t fall: The NFL’s only perfect season posted by the 1972 Miami Dolphins. That squad’s place in history was secured once again when the Atlanta Falcons became the final unbeaten team to fall in Week 10.


Replacement referees

The only place where this wouldn’t top the list is Seattle, which was the biggest beneficiary of the inept officiating that stained the first three weeks of the season. A blown call on the final play of a Monday night game between Seattle and Green Bay gave the Seahawks a 14-12 victory.

The mistake and subsequent national outrage — even President Barack Obama weighed in — provided the impetus for the NFL to reach agreement with the real referees for their return before another game was played. This served as little consolation for the Packers. Green Bay (10-4) should already have clinched the No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round playoff bye entering Week 17. Instead, the Packers need to win Sunday at Minnesota to guarantee such standing.

What smarts even more: Seattle (10-5) would win a head-to-head tiebreaker against Green Bay for the No. 2 seed if the Packers fall, Seahawks defeat St. Louis and San Francisco (10-4-1) loses at Arizona.

The New York Jets/Tim Tebow marriage

“I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to develop. I think the scheme we’ll be playing in is a great scheme. My goal is just to be the best player, the best quarterback, the best teammate I can be . . . and find a way to help the team in whatever role that is.” — Tim Tebow from his Jets introductory news conference, March 21, 2012.

Ok, you can stop laughing now.

Nine months later, Tebow’s NFL career — as well as that of fellow Jets QB Mark Sanchez — is in tatters just like the Jets themselves.

New York never developed Tebow to the point they ever trusted playing him at quarterback more than in a limited wildcat role. He was bypassed last Sunday for a starting spot against San Diego in favor of third-stringer Greg McElroy after the Jets benched Sanchez, whose confidence and rhythm was destroyed by being indiscriminately yanked on and off the field for Tebow snaps that almost never worked.

The Me-Bow in Tebow then came out when ESPN reported that he refused to play in the wildcat package versus the Chargers. Jets head coach Ryan rubbed further salt in the wound Thursday by naming Sanchez to start ahead of Tebow in Week 17 against Buffalo after McElroy was diagnosed with a concussion.

While the entire Tebow fiasco continues to keep the Jets in national headlines long past their on-field relevancy, it has created peripheral damage by exposing the extent of New York’s football mismanagement as well as horrific offensive coaching under offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. The kicker: New York surrendered a 2012 fourth-round draft pick for all this when acquiring Tebow from Denver, which knew his quarterbacking limitations first-hand and was happy to move on from all the drama that surrounds him.

The Bounty Scandal

The next time the NFL does an investigation, it should be done properly. The league announced in March that the New Orleans Saints had run a program offering financial rewards for injuring opposing offensive players. Saints coaches — most notably Sean Payton (one-year ban) — and front-office members were hit with fines and suspensions. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell then levied harsh penalties upon four Saints players he claimed were implicitly involved.

The problem: That wasn’t exactly true.

After months of appeals and legal wrangling, Goodell’s predecessor Paul Tagliabue was brought out of mothballs to review the case. Tagliabue overturned the suspensions, but not before irreparable damage was done to the reputations of Jon Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove.

With so much of the investigation never made public, it’s impossible to determine just how much of the NFL’s case was legitimate. We do know that Goodell is in for a rude welcome when he heads to New Orleans in late January for Super Bowl XLVII festivities.

Active NFL player deaths on back-to-back December weekends

This isn’t “disappointing” per se, but heartbreaking.

The first death was that of Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and mother of their infant daughter Dec. 1 before driving to Chiefs headquarters and committing suicide in front of team employees — including general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel.

The shooting marked a tragic end to a rocky relationship that wasn’t helped by counseling provided by the franchise, which knew Belcher was having off-field difficulties. The New York Post reported that Belcher had sent text messages to another woman he was seeing that claimed he would shoot Kasandra Perkins if she “didn’t leave him alone.” Belcher also claimed Perkins was threatening to “take all his money and child” if the couple split. No matter what issues had created a rift between Belcher and Perkins, a baby girl now has no parents.

One week later, Dallas Cowboys practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown was killed in an alcohol-related car accident involving a close friend and teammate. Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent was indicted Wednesday on one count of intoxicated manslaughter — a felony that carries a two- to 20-year prison sentence — after police determined he crashed their vehicle while driving with a blood-alcohol content more than double the legal limit in Texas.

Among the tools at his disposal to guarantee a safe ride home that Brent ignored was a free car service provided by the Cowboys for employees who believe they’ve had too much to drink.


Changing of the guard

After a season in which no head coach was fired, changes could reach double-digits once Week 17 comes to a close. With 14 seasons in Philadelphia, Andy Reid is the most tenured of the group that will be ousted.

One of the reasons for the delay in dismissals stems from some teams having plans to fire their general managers as well. San Diego (coach Norv Turner/GM A.J. Smith), Kansas City (Crennel/Pioli), Buffalo (Chan Gailey/Buddy Nix), Cleveland (Pat Shurmur/Tom Heckert Jr.) and Jacksonville (Mike Mularkey/Gene Smith) likely fall into that boat.

As for players, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez says he plans to retire despite still being on top of his game at age 36. St. Louis running back Steven Jackson, Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson, Indianapolis outside linebacker/defensive end Dwight Freeney, Baltimore safety Ed Reed and Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher have only played for their respective franchises, but may be heading elsewhere in 2013 as pending free agents.

Possible elimination of kickoffs, low-blocks

These two radical proposals will come under consideration in February and March by the NFL’s Competition Committee. This stems from Goodell pushing rules changes in an attempt to make the game safer (and, by extension, keep the NFL from getting hit with future lawsuits for negligence like the ones pending by more than 4,000 former players claiming concussion damage).

The injury rate on kickoffs is higher than on any other play. One proposal that will be discussed was made by Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano. The team that scores would receive a fourth-and-10 possession on its own 30-yard line. The team could either go for it — which compensates for the loss of the traditional onside kick — or punt the football away in what is generally a safer return scenario.

The low-block issue came to light after Texans standout inside linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a season-ending knee injury when chopped down by Jets left guard Matt Slauson during a prime-time game in Week 5. Although it seems unlikely that all low blocks will be banned, the NFL will probably further restrict the area in which such a tactic is legal.

Stricter DUI penalties

Brent’s arrest marked the 17th DUI-related charge levied against an NFL player in 2012, which more than doubled the total from the previous year. The league is pushing for a mandatory two-game suspension for convicted players, but the NFL Players Association has yet to agree.

Expect the union to ultimately acquiesce or face a flurry of negative publicity, especially after the DUI cycle inevitably starts anew during the offseason when players have more free time.

Human growth hormone (HGH) testing

This is another area in which the NFL and NFLPA have reached an impasse. Both sides agreed to begin a program upon completion of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in July 2011, but have since haggled about implementation and protocols. This drew the attention of Congress, which made both sides testify earlier this month in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Stronger government involvement may be needed to force both sides to stop dragging their feet. The longer there is no testing, the more it appears some players have something illegal they want to hide. Trying to create and maintain a level playing field for everyone should be of the utmost priority for the NFL and NFLPA. The excuses why this isn’t being done have grown tiresome.