Year 1 of the NFL’s newly adopted 17-game season had a little bit of everything.
The good: Aaron Rodgers’ drama-filled offseason, during which he floated the idea of retirement, was transformed into one of his most epic performances. Mac Jones delivered a playoff berth for Bill Belichick’s Patriots as a rookie. Tom Brady continued to stiff-arm Father Time as no one else ever has. And somehow, some way, the Tennessee Titans survived without their best player to earn the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed.
The bad: Urban Meyer flamed out in less than a year on the job. Sam Darnold fizzled after a promising 3-0 start. The Seahawks had their first losing season with Russell Wilson. And then there’s the Giants.
As a wide-open playoff field begins what should be an eventful postseason, we look back at a regular season filled with something for everyone:
Most Valuable Player: Rodgers, QB, Packers. This race seemed wide open just a few weeks ago, with Rodgers, Brady, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor and Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp all in the hunt. By the end, it looked like a two-man race between the NFL’s two best quarterbacks. We’ll give this to Rodgers, who, after a clunker on opening day, was a touch more consistent than Brady. Rodgers guided the Packers to the NFL’s best record, but man, is Brady still amazing at 44, passing for a career-high 5,316 yards. He had an extra game to do it, but who cares? That’s amazing. Rodgers led the NFL with a 111.9 rating and four interceptions.
Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans. Plenty of worthy candidates here. Belichick did a masterful job shepherding Jones through a quick apprenticeship and into the playoffs. Zac Taylor got the Bengals to the postseason behind a magnificent performance from Joe Burrow. Matt LaFleur did excellent work navigating the Rodgers soap opera and came out with the NFC’s best team. And don’t forget about Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia, whose team was in freefall after the fiasco that resulted in Jon Gruden’s early-season ouster. But no one did a better job than Vrabel, who lost All-Pro running back Derrick Henry to a foot injury, endured one injury after another to his defense and held on to win the AFC South title and earn the top seed.
Offensive player of the year: Kupp, Rams. He had one of the best seasons in NFL history, leading the NFL with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns. Even in a passing league, these numbers are absolutely remarkable, and Kupp was one of the biggest reasons the Rams won the NFC West title in Matthew Stafford’s first season in Los Angeles.
Defensive player of the year: T.J. Watt. You can make a case for Aaron Donald to win this honor, because his play has been as good as ever in his Hall of Fame-caliber career. But Watt also was brilliant in tying Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record with 22 ½. Watt is worth every penny of his new contract, and there’s no way the Steelers would have earned an unlikely playoff berth in the twilight of Ben Roethlisberger’s career without Watt’s performance.
Best assistant coach: Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, Cowboys: The Dallas defense was epically bad last year, and the Cowboys were a shell of the team they once were. But Quinn’s arrival in Big D after his dismissal as the Falcons’ head coach was a godsend, and he transformed his side of the ball in brilliant fashion. The aggressive style he was known for in Seattle before landing the Falcons’ job was very much in evidence with the Cowboys, and it likely will land Quinn another head-coaching job soon — perhaps in the coming weeks.
Best executive: Brian Gutekunst, GM, Packers. Things got very, very tense in the offseason with Rodgers, who at various points demanded a trade and threatened retirement. But Gutekunst remained patient and correctly slow-played the situation, Rodgers returned, and the two met somewhere in the middle — to the point that it’s not inconceivable that Rodgers will spend the rest of his career in Green Bay. Aside from Rodgers’ situation, Gutekunst’s belief in LaFleur, plus his exceptional drafting, have put Green Bay in prime position for a Super Bowl run.
Offensive rookie of the year: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals. Chase set a rookie record with 266 receiving yards in a huge win over Kansas City, part of a magnificent debut season in which he finished with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. No wonder Burrow wanted his former LSU teammate in Cincy.
Defensive rookie of the year: Micah Parsons, ILB, Cowboys. The Giants passed over a chance to take Parsons by trading down in the first round, and Dallas jumped at the chance to get the former Penn State star. He was a revelation, helping to rebuild a Dallas defense desperately in need of playmakers. He had 13 sacks, three forced fumbles and 84 tackles, drawing favorable comparisons to another NFC East great: Lawrence Taylor.
Hiring cycle renews diversity concerns
The NFL recently bolstered its Rooney Rule requirements in hopes of improving diversity among head coaches and general managers, requiring all teams to hold at least two in-person interviews with candidates of color. And while it remains to be seen whether the league’s efforts at creating more equity among minority coaches and executives will succeed, there already were concerning developments in the days after the regular season ended.
There were three African-American coaches when the season began, but only one — Mike Tomlin of the Steelers — remained after the Dolphins fired Brian Flores after a second consecutive winning season and the Texans fired David Culley after one season. The developments led Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and a former NFL GM, to send a message to owners as they consider their options during the current hiring cycle.
"The recent dismissals of Brian Flores and David Culley is a disappointment given efforts to increase the representation of Black coaches as head coaches in the NFL," Graves said in a statement Friday. "The fact that we stand today with only one Black Head Coach makes clear that the current system does not provide a sustainable pathway for the growth in numbers of minorities as head coaches. For many, the time for progress is now. With 11 openings (among coaches and GMs), the NFL has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to diversity of leadership. We hope that our increased involvement as partners with the NFL will have an immediate and long-term impact on the system of hiring and evaluating leadership performance."
A lack of representation among Black coaches has been a consistently troubling issue for the NFL and especially commissioner Roger Goodell, who has pressed owners to be more inclusive in their hiring practices. The league is composed of approximately 70% African-American players. Goodell and the league’s diversity committee, chaired by Steelers owner Art Rooney II, whose father, Dan Rooney, helped create the Rooney Rule, have urged teams to give greater consideration to diversification at the highest levels of their organizations.
Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has become a focal point of the NFL’s hiring process, having repeatedly been passed over for head-coaching opportunities. But KC coach Andy Reid believes Bieniemy will get his chance this year.
""It disappoints me that someone hasn’t hired him," Reid said. "I think this year he’s going to end up with one."
Remembering a Jets legend
Don Maynard, the greatest receiver ever to play for the Jets and a member of the team’s only Super Bowl championship team, died on Monday at age 86. Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Namath, who built an incredible on-field chemistry with Maynard during their playing days, remembered his teammate in a touching tribute he wrote after Maynard’s passing.
He published the note on Wednesday, the 53rd anniversary of the Jets’ improbable Super Bowl III win over the Colts.
"This day, January 12th, 1969 was one of the greatest days of my life . . . our lives . . . and none of us could’ve done it without each other," Namath said on his Twitter account. "In fact it was only possible because of Don’s sensational catches in the AFC championship game."
Maynard didn't have a catch in the Jets’ 16-7 Super Bowl win, but his sensational game in the Jets’ 27-23 win over the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game forced the Colts to alter their coverage.
"Ironically, as people like to point out, he didn’t catch a pass the whole Super Bowl," Namath said. "But that’s because Coach [Don] Shula and Baltimore’s defense respected Don so much and knew he was the lightning strike of our team so they had him in double coverage every play, which opened up the whole offense for us. The strength of the defense always rotated to Don’s side. His influence on the Super Bowl was hidden from the casual fan, so to speak, but to those of us that understood, he was invaluable.
"That word almost sums [Maynard] up . . . invaluable," Namath said. "He was a wonderful teacher to me about life and football. He’s one of the finest men I have been fortunate enough to spend this lifetime with and I don’t have a single bad memory of him. We all come and go. We move to the next level where our spirit roams free and I just have this image of him galloping down a heavenly field like a thoroughbred. Rest in Peace Don, until we meet again."
Berrios wins in the end
Braxton Berrios was shut out of the Pro Bowl voting, although he was made an alternate to the NFL’s all-star game. But he got a far more prestigious honor when he was named The Associated Press All-Pro kick returner. There is only one player who wins that award, and it was Berrios, whose 30.4-yard average was tops among all players with at least 20 returns. Berrios had a 102-yard return for a touchdown. Bravo on a job well done.
Hitting it big with quarterbacks is still an inexact science, but those teams that do make the right call have been rewarded handsomely. Consider: A quarterback taken in each of the last six drafts made it to this year’s playoffs. That includes Mac Jones of the Patriots (2021), Joe Burrow of the Bengals (2020), Jalen Hurts of the Eagles (2020), Kyler Murray of the Cardinals (2019), Josh Allen of the Bills (2018), Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City (2017) and Dak Prescott of the Cowboys (2016) . . . There were 34 games in 2021 that included the game-winning score on the final play. That’s the most in NFL history. There were 49 game-winning scores in the last minute of regulation or overtime, tied for the most ever . . . If the Eagles pull off an upset of the defending champion Bucs, it will be because of their running game. They led the NFL with an average of 159.7 yards per game and were the first team since the legendary ’85 Bears to rush for at least 175 yards in seven straight games. Hurts, who will be making his playoff debut, led all quarterbacks with 784 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns . . . 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel had a terrific year with 1,770 scrimmage yards, third best in the NFL. Samuel also became the first player in NFL history with at least 1,400 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards in a single season (1,405 and 365). Terrific use of his talents by coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the league’s great offensive minds . . . Tomlin owns one of the most remarkable streaks in today’s NFL: He has led the Steelers to winning records in all 15 of his seasons as head coach. He qualified for the playoffs for the 10th time . . . With his 23rd playoff start, Roethlisberger will tie Joe Montana for the fourth-most postseason starts by a quarterback in league history . . . Does momentum matter when heading into the playoffs? We’re about to find out. Arizona got off to a terrific start at 7-0 and 10-2, but the Cardinals lost four of their last five heading into Monday night’s first-round matchup against the Rams at SoFi Stadium. Keep this in mind, though: The Cardinals went 8-1 on the road, including a 37-20 win on Oct. 3 in Los Angeles.