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The Top Stories of the 2008 NFL Regular Season

THE TOP OFF-THE-FIELD STORIES:

 

5. The NFL Owners Opt Out of the CBA

Unhappy with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and eager to start negotiations for a new one, the NFL owners voted unanimously in mid-May to opt out of the CBA that they had approved just two years ago. The current CBA will expire in 2011, but we will have NFL football as usual for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Incidentally, 2010 will be a year without a salary cap if no new CBA has been ratified by then. A work stoppage is obviously possible in 2011 if a new labor deal is not in place. The last NFL work stoppage happened in 1987.

 

4. The Passing of Gene Upshaw

Upshaw, who had served as the executive director of the NFL Players Union since 1983, died abruptly of pancreatic cancer just a couple of weeks before the start of the regular season. Among his notable accomplishments as union chief, Upshaw had helped players obtain free agency and the wealth that came with it. The former Oakland Raiders star and NFL Hall of Famer took a leading role in all union negotiations that resulted in new CBAs in 1977, 1982 and 1993, along with extensions in 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2006. He was 63 years old.

 

3. Hurricane Ike Hits Reliant Stadium, Texans’ Schedule

Back in mid-September, Hurricane Ike made landfall near

Houston as a severe Category 2 storm, causing extensive damage to the retractable roof at Reliant Stadium. Since the multi-million dollar facility was unusable immediately after the storm, the NFL rescheduled a Week 2 contest between the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens for Week 10. The Texans’ originally scheduled Week 10 game against the Cincinnati Bengals was moved to Week 8, which was the scheduled bye week for both teams. When all the schedule-change dust settled, the Texans ended up with a Week 2 Bye, and they were not able to play their home opener until October 5 (Week 5). On the positive side, the scheduling changes allowed

Houston to play four straight home contests (from Week 5 through Week 8) at Reliant Stadium with the damaged roof open.

2. The Plaxico Burress Meltdown

Already in hot water with the New York Giants for his lackluster play and repeated violations of team rules, the wide receiver was arrested on two counts of felony criminal possession of a weapon in early December after he accidentally shot himself in the thigh with his own .40-caliber Glock pistol while partying at a New York area night club.

New York

law prohibits the possession of a concealed weapon. The Giants placed Burress on the Non-Football Injury List for the rest of the season while he recovered from the gunshot wound. Although Burress is presumed innocent unless proven guilty, the odds are stacked against him returning to the Giants or the NFL in the short-term. Anyone convicted of an illegal weapons possession charge in

New York is required to serve a minimum three-and-a-half year jail sentence.

 

1. The Richard Collier Shooting

The entire league was stunned by the vicious and nearly fatal shooting of the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle in early September. He was shot 14 times while sitting in a car and left for dead. Collier miraculously survived, but he had to have his left leg amputated and remains paralyzed below the waist. In case you missed it, Collier joined his teammates at midfield for the pregame coin toss during

Jacksonville’s last 2008 home contest. A suspect has been arrested and charged in connection with the shooting.

 

THE TOP ON-THE-FIELD STORIES:

 

15. The Thanksgiving Day Games Were

Turkeys

Complaints about the often disappointing quality of the Thanksgiving Day NFL contests have been flying for years, but Thanksgiving 2008 featured the most noncompetitive, boring slate of games in recent memory. The Tennessee Titans annihilated the Detroit Lions 47-10, the Dallas Cowboys ripped the Seattle Seahawks 34-9 and the Philadelphia Eagles pounded the Arizona Cardinals 48-20. If you’re a fan of

Tennessee,

Dallas or

Philadelphia, you obviously were not complaining, but the games were not enjoyable for the rest of us. It is time for a rotating Thanksgiving Day NFL schedule.

 

14. Mike Singletary’s Head Coaching Debut

Singletary’s first game as the

San Francisco 49ers interim head coach – a 34-13 home loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8 – was unforgettable. During his halftime locker room talk to the team, Singletary dropped his pants (but not his underwear) to provide visual emphasis about the Seahawks kicking their collective backside in the first half. In the fourth quarter, Singletary publicly reprimanded tight end Vernon Davis on the sidelines for committing a stupid personal foul and banished him to the locker room. Finally, Singletary gave a very intense, passionate postgame presser, apologizing for the team’s poor performance and

Davis’ conduct. He also vowed that selfish behavior from his players would not be tolerated and promised the team would play better. His promise came true as the 49ers won five games under him. His team’s improved play earned him the head coach position for next season.

 

13. The Benching of Donovan McNabb

Would quarterback Peyton Manning have gotten the hook if he was having a bad game? Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid’s decision to sit his star at halftime of what turned out to be a 36-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12 was a shocker. On the day, McNabb had gone 8-for-18 for 59 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Kevin Kolb, who replaced McNabb, didn’t do much better, completing 10 of his 23 passes for 73 yards with no touchdowns and two picks. McNabb got his starting job back the following week for the Eagles’ Thanksgiving Day game against the Arizona Cardinals. Prior to the benching, McNabb had turned the ball over seven times in six quarters. After the benching, he has turned the ball over just two times in six contests. McNabb led the Eagles to a 9-6-1 record and a 26-14 playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings. The McNabb benching also touched off a huge debate about whether he would return to

Philadelphia in 2009. McNabb is under contract with the Eagles through 2010.

 

12. Three Coaches Fired By Mid-Season

Following an 0-4 start to the season, the St. Louis Rams fired Scott Linehan in just his third year on the job. Linehan, who went 11-25 with the Rams, was despised by his players; they had clearly quit on him. The locker room dissension that had been building for two seasons finally erupted when

Linehan benched quarterback Marc Bulger. Running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Torry Holt were among several Rams players who publicly blasted the move, saying they had no confidence in Linehan’s ability to lead the team.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett served as

St. Louis’ interim head coach for the rest of the season.

Oakland Raiders managing partner Al Davis fired head coach Lane Kiffin after the Raiders had started the season 1-3, ending Kiffin’s unsuccessful, tumultuous 20-month stint (5-15 overall record) with the club. Davis and Kiffin had a huge falling out on a variety of on-the-field and off-the-field matters, which resulted in the two publicly feuding after Kiffin was dismissed. Offensive line coach Tom Cable served as interim head coach for the rest of the season.

 

Mike Nolan was shown the door after Week 7 by the

San Francisco 49ers after compiling an 18-37 record in three-and-one-half seasons. The club endured three losing campaigns during Nolan’s tenure, and a fourth had looked imminent. The offense (four offensive coordinators in four years) and especially the defense, which was supposed to be Nolan’s specialty, had never achieved consistency during his tenure. Nolan also floundered as the 49ers’ player personnel chief from 2005 to 2008. He was criticized harshly for using the team’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft on quarterback Alex Smith, who never panned out.

 

11. Peyton Manning Won His Third League MVP Award

Manning earned his record-tying third NFL MVP Award the hard way. As you probably recall, the 11-year veteran underwent late preseason surgery to have an infected bursa sac removed from his left knee and endured some post-surgery complications that forced him to miss training camp and all five of the Colts’ preseason games. Out of shape and rusty from not playing during the preseason, Manning struggled mightily during the first two months of the regular season. However, with the Colts wallowing at 3-4, Manning finally found his touch and led the team to nine straight wins and a playoff appearance (a 23-17 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers in the Wild Card round) to close out the season. By the way, Manning also won the NFL MVP Award in 2003 (shared it with retired quarterback Steve McNair) and in 2004. Quarterback Brett Favre is the only other player who has won three MVP Awards.

 

10. The Dawn of a New Era in Titletown

For the first time in 16 years, the Green Bay Packers started a quarterback who was not named Brett Favre. The Packers went 6-10 in 2008 (seven of their losses were by four points or less), but you can’t blame the club’s terribly disappointing campaign on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He comfortably slid into the starting job that Favre had held for a record 253 consecutive starts. Although Rodgers still has some flaws in his game (ill-timed fumbles, occasional bad reads and sometimes holds the ball too long), he completed 341 of his 536 throws (63.6 percent completions) for 4,038 yards with 28 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions for a 93.8 passer rating. He also rushed 56 times for 207 yards and four scores.

 

9. DeAngelo Williams’ Unexpected Breakout Season

During Williams’ first three years with the Carolina Panthers, he had flashed some big-play ability, but the

Memphis product never had been able to overtake running back DeShaun Foster (

San Francisco 49ers) for the starting job. When the Panthers spent a first-round pick on running back Jonathan Stewart in the 2007 NFL Draft, just about everyone had thought Williams was destined to continue his backup role. However, while Stewart was trying to work his way back from toe surgery during the preseason, Williams staked his claim to the team’s No. 1 tailback job, demonstrating jaw-dropping explosiveness and impressive between-the-tackles running. Despite sharing touches with Stewart, Williams rushed for 1,515 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and a whopping 18 touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

 

8. The Year of the Rookies

We saw an unprecedented number of significant contributions from rookie players on the offensive side of the ball. Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons), who was also named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens) both led their teams to winning seasons and playoff appearances. Ryan’s 87.7 passer rating ranked No. 6 in the NFC, while Flacco’s 80.3 passer rating was the tenth best in the AFC.

 

Running backs Steve Slaton (Houston Texans) and Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans) finished No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the AFC in rushing. In the NFC, running back Matt Forte (Chicago Bears) and running back Kevin Smith (Detroit Lions) closed out the season ranked No. 5 and No. 11, respectively, in rushing. Forte also led his team in receptions. Rookies Tashard Choice (Dallas Cowboys), Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers), Darren McFadden (Oakland Raiders), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England Patriots), Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens) and Tim Hightower (Arizona Cardinals) also made notable contributions to their respective teams during the course of the season.

 

Wide receiver Eddie Royal (Denver Broncos) finished sixth in the AFC with 91 catches while wide receiver DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia Eagles) led his team with 62 receptions and displayed a lot of prowess as a return man. Tight end John Carlson (Seattle Seahawks) was the most consistent of the rookie tight ends, leading his team with 55 catches (third best total among tight ends in the NFC).

 

7. The

Dallas Cowboys Imploded

Following their stellar 2007 campaign (13-3 record, 13 Pro Bowlers), the Cowboys were a popular preseason Super Bowl pick. However, 2008 will go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in the franchise’s storied history. Team owner Jerry Jones made some very debatable moves, which included signing Adam “Pacman” Jones and giving away a king’s ransom in draft picks to the Detroit Lions in exchange for wide receiver Roy Williams. Late in the season, wide receiver Terrell Owens ignited a firestorm by publicly accusing quarterback Tony Romo of showing favoritism in the passing game to tight end Jason Witten. Owens and

Witten disputed media reports that the two had to be separated during a very heated locker-room argument. The ongoing controversy, along with some questionable coaching, triggered stunning late-season collapses on both sides of the ball, which resulted in the Cowboys dropping three of their last four games (including an absolutely embarrassing 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles) to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs. Following the

Philadelphia loss, Romo and Owens publicly criticized the offensive play calling. And the soap opera continues.

 

6. The

Detroit Lions – Worst Team Ever

The bad NFL teams always have managed to squeak out a win or two during the course of a regular season, which is why most pundits did not think it was possible for the Detroit Lions to go winless. Nevertheless,

Detroit established a new league record for futility by going 0-16, shattering the previous league-worst mark of 0-14 that had been set by the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Is

Detroit truly the worst team ever? In fairness to the Lions, they did play hard most weeks and did come close to notching a few wins. Head coach Rod Marinelli, as expected, lost his job over the debacle (he went 10-38 overall with Detroit), but the lion’s share (no pun intended) of the blame for this Motor City mess rests squarely on the shoulders of now-former general manager Matt Millen. The Lions went 31-84 on Millen’s watch.

 

5. The Shocking End of an Era in

Denver

After serving 14 seasons as the head coach of the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan was abruptly fired just after the regular season wrapped up. During an emotional presser, team owner Pat Bowlen explained his stunning decision to oust Shanahan, saying the franchise needed to go in a different direction. Shanahan, who had entered 2008 as the NFL’s longest-tenured head coach, had compiled a 146-89 record and won two Super Bowls (1998 and 1999) with the Broncos, but he was just 24-24 in his last three seasons. The team’s late-season collapse had cost Shanahan his job. The Broncos had squandered a three-game lead in the AFC West standings, losing their last three contests, including a 52-21 debacle that gave the division title to the San Diego Chargers. Shanahan also had held the title of executive vice president of football operations, which gave him final say in personnel matters. Shanahan the coach was not to blame for

Denver’s failures on the field, but Shanahan the personnel guy was.

 

4. The Brett Favre Un-Retirement Saga

Shortly after his tearful spring 2007 retirement announcement, Favre un-retired and wanted to return to the Green Bay Packers. However, despite making public statements to the contrary, head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson did not want Favre to return, because they had moved forward with quarterback Aaron Rodgers firmly entrenched as the team’s new starter. Following a very lengthy, awkward and occasionally bizarre public feud between Favre and the Packers, the future Hall of Famer finally consented to a trade to the New York Jets. Despite missing a good portion of Jets training camp and playing in a completely different offensive scheme, Favre helped

New York race to an 8-3 start. However, he played poorly during the final weeks of the season, struggling with interceptions (Favre threw a league-leading 22 picks in 2008). It turns out that Favre had been playing with a torn bicep tendon in his throwing arm. The Jets went 1-4 in their last five games, which included a 24-17 Week 17 home loss to the Miami Dolphins that cost them a trip to the playoffs and cost head coach Eric Mangini his job after three seasons in the Big Apple. Mangini had gone 23-26 overall with one playoff appearance, which was a loss.

 

3. Tom Brady’s Knee Injury

The New England Patriots lost the 2007 NFL MVP Brady to a season-ending knee injury (torn ACL and torn MCL) in Week 1 when safety Bernard Pollard (Kansas City Chiefs) slammed into Brady’s knee while he was throwing a pass. To refresh your memory, the hit was legal and not considered malicious. Prior to the injury, Brady had not missed a start since September 30, 2001, which marked his first official start with the club.

New England turned the reins over to backup quarterback Matt Cassel, who struggled early but did show vast improvement later in the season. Although the Patriots also lost several other key players to season-ending injuries, they amassed an 11-5 record but missed the playoffs. By the way, rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo, the team’s first-round selection (No. 10 overall pick) in the 2007 NFL Draft, led the Patriots with 128 total tackles and was named the 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

 

2. The Flight of the New-Look

Atlanta Falcons

The Michael Vick dog-fighting ring fiasco, which ended Vick’s career in Atlanta, and the tumultuous tenure of now-former head coach Bobby Petrino, who walked out on his “dream job” after 13 games, demoralized the once-proud Atlanta Falcons franchise in 2007, resulting in a disastrous 4-12 campaign. Desperate for a fresh start,

Atlanta owner Arthur Blank cleaned house during the offseason, hiring Tom Dimitroff to serve as his general manager. Dimitroff hired Mike Smith (2008 NFL Coach of the Year) to coach the team and conducted a major overhaul of the Falcons’ roster, releasing or trading most of the well-known veterans who were fixtures during the Vick era, with the notable exceptions of wide receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Dimitroff’s biggest moves included signing coveted free-agent running back Michael Turner to a huge contract and selecting quarterback Matt Ryan out of Boston College with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. The result: A competitive 11-5 Wild Card playoff team that made a serious run at an NFC South division title.

Atlanta lost 30-24 to the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs, but the team undoubtedly exceeded even the most optimistic preseason expectations.

 

1. The Resurrection of the

Miami Dolphins

After a miserable 1-15 showing in 2007, Miami tied an NFL record for the biggest one-season turnaround by going 11-5 and winning the AFC East behind quarterback Chad Pennington (2008 NFL Comeback Player of the Year). Determined to change his team’s fortunes, Dolphins team owner Wayne Huizenga hired Bill Parcells to serve as his executive vice president of football operations. Parcells hired Tony Sparano from the Dallas Cowboys to coach the club and overhauled Miami’s roster, which included selecting Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Several well-known faces, such as linebacker Zach Thomas and linebacker Jason Taylor, were shown the door. The Dolphins also received unexpected contributions from a variety of players on both sides of the ball, most notably running back Ricky Williams and running back Ronnie Brown, who was returning from knee surgery, most often effectively using the Wildcat formation. The Dolphins’ 27-9 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens was a disappointment, but it certainly did not tarnish the team’s surprising 2008 accomplishments.

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