Welcome to the first of our new features shining a light on sport from across the pond. MatchPint's first ever international correspondent, Pete Dombrosky, has cast his eye over the NFL's also-rans. This is Part One of four in an end of regular season round up. Enjoy.
Now that the NFL regular season has come to a close and the playoffs have begun, a clear line has been drawn that cuts through every division in the league. It separates the winners and the losers. If you made the playoffs you’re a winner. If you didn’t, you’re a loser. It’s that simple.
This is also the time of year when most people like to focus on the winners. After all, many of us share the sentiments of former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary.
We rarely enjoy dwelling on failures (Ah Pete, you have so much to learn about watching sport in the UK... Ed), whether they’re our own or those of someone else, and for good reason – it’s depressing, pointless and we end up losing invites to parties because we became “that guy that bums everyone out.”
So allow me the opportunity to find a little optimism within the dire straits of those NFL clubs that can’t help but see the glass half empty. Let’s explore the positives in the teams that missed the 2012-2013 NFL playoffs.
Chicago Bears (10-6)
After winning seven of their first eight games, the Bears were a popular pick to reach the Super Bowl. But after losing five of their last eight, they needed the Minnesota Vikings to lose their regular season finale to make the postseason. Adrian Peterson had other ideas, so the Bears dusted off their golf clubs and fired head coach Lovie Smith.
Although their collapse was disastrous, their defense was more effective than the Great Wall of China and its stat sheet was just as long. Chicago’s D finished the season ranked first in the NFL in takeaways with 44 (24 interceptions and 20 fumble recoveries). It allowed only 17.3 points per game and Charles ‘Peanut’ Tillman, Lance Briggs and Tim Jennings will haunt the dreams of offensive coordinators for years to come. It looks like most, if not all of their defensive starters will return so there’s no reason to believe they can’t dominate next season.
If Chicago can find a head coach with any clue about how to run an offense and their offensive line can solve the ever-puzzling conundrum of how to protect Jay Cutler and his bitter beer face, Bears fans might enjoy freezing their butts off at Soldier Field next January.
New York Giants (9-7)
The Giants finished this season with an identical record to last year. The only difference is that this year ended with whimper and a face palm instead of a Lombardi Trophy. New York were amongst the most puzzling teams in the NFL. One week, they would show up looking like, well, giants, beating playoff teams like the Green Bay Packers, 49ers and the Washington Redskins. Other weeks, they appeared sluggish and discombobulated, phoning in games from the comfort of their Tempur-Pedics. Giants fans promised onlookers back-to-back championships one week and cried themselves to sleep seven days later.
At its core though, this Giants team had a similar makeup as the team that won the Super Bowl. Injuries to key starters like Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks slowed their offensive production and that might have been the difference between going home and making another championship run. Next season, both of the above players should be healthy and explosive. Pro Bowler Victor Cruz and recently uncovered gems like Andre Brown and David Wilson should be healthy and turning heads next year as well.
And you can never overlook two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. Despite missing the postseason, Manning manned an offense that scored the second-most points in franchise history – with a franchise that has been playing since Calvin Coolidge was the President of the United States – and he was still considered to have a down year. The New York media is tough but Eli is tougher. He’ll come back better than ever in 2013.
Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
The Cowboys are often considered “America’s Team” and much like the U.S. economy, they’ve been trending downward for the past few years. The polarizing boys in the silver and blue managed to implode on the last day of the regular season thanks to the “franchise quarterback” Tony Romo, prompting Dallas fans to “wash the shit out” of their Romo jerseys with explosives and a Remington.
I understand the frustration of Cowboys fans concerning Romo. He’s 1-6 in win-or-go homes games, i.e. he wins games, just not when it counts. It makes me wonder how long Jerry Jones will wait to start pursuing someone else. Dallas can’t hang around for Romo to win something important. Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades and while I’m sure that most Texas residents are proficient in both, they shouldn’t be satisfied with their team’s field manager. It’s highly doubtful Romo will be replaced this offseason, but I’m not a Dallas fan so I couldn’t care less.
Who should they be pleased with then? Dez Bryant for starters. He scored at least one touchdown in seven of his last eight games and racked up 1,382 yards this season, sixth-best in the NFL. And his 12 touchdowns ranked behind only James Jones and Eric Decker. Tight end Jason Witten was also outstanding, snatching more passes in a single season than any other tight end in NFL history, despite starting the year with a lacerated spleen. Witten might have more heart than any other NFL player and if the Cowboys want to succeed, they’ll need to feed off that enthusiasm and mimic it on the gridiron.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
If you told me before the season that the Steelers wouldn’t be playing in January, I’d call you something hurtful, knock the sandwich out of your hand and walk away laughing.
Now I’d be buying you a sarnie and meekly apologizing.
For only the fourth time in the past 12 years, the Steelers played only regular season games. And let me tell you, as a Steelers fan I haven’t been this upset about the black and gold since Neil O'Donnell was picked twice by Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX. The new offense installed by offensive coordinator Todd Haley was like a dull knife and big plays were strangely absent, especially from game breakers like Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenall.
Fortunately, there were points to be pleased about. Roethlisberger was in MVP form before he got crocked against the Kansas City Chiefs in week 10. Up to that point, he’d thrown 17 touchdowns and only four picks - this all came in an offensive system he clearly didn’t like. Big Ben may have thrown two game-losing interceptions this year, but he’s clearly the heart and soul of the team and Pittsburgh are lucky to have him. They should also thank their lucky stars for tight end Heath Miller and center Maurkice Pouncey, both of which made the 2013 Pro Bowl. And I’d be remiss to forget about kicker Shaun Suisham. He quietly was amongst the most consistent and reliable Steelers, missing only three of his 31 field goal attempts.
Overall, it was a season for the scrap heap but you can count on the Steelers making the postseason next year, history is on their side. The last time Pittsburgh missed the postseason in consecutive years was in 1999 and 2000.
Carolina Panthers (7-9)
The Panthers found a way to inject some optimism into a woeful season by winning six of their last seven games, but it was too little too late. For the third straight year, they finished the regular season without a 1000-yard rusher. They went 3-3 against a mediocre NFC South and even though they can rest now that their rough season has ended, their salary cap situation reeks of trouble.
Despite a forgettable season, here are a few names Panthers fans will surely remember from 2012: Steve Smith, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly.
If it feels like Smith has been around for a while, mainly because he has. This was his 12th season (all with Carolina) but he totaled his third-best single-season yardage total (1,174), making this the eighth-straight year he’s been the team’s leading receiver.
Cam Newton had something of a sophomore slump, but Panthers fans shouldn’t show up at his home with torches and pitchforks. He still threw for 3,869 yards, notched 27 touchdowns (19 passing and eight rushing) and he threw five less interceptions than in 2011.
Last but not least is the absolute monster of a rookie linebacker, Luke Kuechly. Although he had only one sack, Kuechly was numero uno in the NFL when it came to tackles (164). He’s a franchise defensive player much like Brian Urlacher or Clay Matthews. In my opinion, he should be a lock for defensive rookie of the year.
Does Pete know his stuff? Has anyone get an unfair slating here? Let us know on the comments below.
See Part Two right here.
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