Super Bowl XLIV marked a perfect ending to the decade for reasons beyond its high entertainment value and the fact it was won by perhaps the most popular underdog in the game's history.
What truly made the Super Bowl an ideal punctuation to the NFL's first 10 years of the 2000s is the fact it featured two of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Manning and Brees are two of the faces of a position that clearly became better since the last group of the quarterbacks that dominated the NFL: Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Steve Young, and Jim Kelly.
Manning and Brees piled up staggering numbers on the way to each winning a Super Bowl. Manning also won a record four NFL Most Valuable Player awards.
Tom Brady won three Super Bowls while also putting up some spectacular numbers, especially during a historic 2007 season. Ben Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls, while fellow 2004 first-round draft pick Eli Manning won one. Philip Rivers, another '04 first-rounder, doesn't have a ring, but he has firmly established himself among the better passers in the NFL. Ditto for Tony Romo.
Further enhancing the notion that the position is emerging from the decade in the best shape ever is a couple of rising prolific stars in Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub, as well as a couple of promising youngsters in Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. (Jay Cutler is worth mentioning somewhere, although his struggles with the Chicago Bears last season raise questions about the validity of his impressive stint with the Denver Broncos. Perhaps the Bears' hiring of Mark Martz as their new offensive coordinator will bring Cutler back to his Bronco form).
The league's emphasis on enforcing rules that helped open up the pass is a factor in their success. But it doesn't explain everything. It still takes exceptional talent to make the plays, and this collection of quarterbacks has it.
What we also remember from the decade
» The Ravens' dominant defense. There was plenty of talk during the 2000 season that this might be the best defense ever assembled, surpassing that of the 1985 Bears. The Ravens did precisely that by dominating the Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV.
» 9/11. Personal memory: I covered a game between the Giants and Broncos on Monday night, Sept. 10, 2001, at Invesco Field at Mile High. I was aboard my flight the next morning when I received a frantic call on my cell phone from my wife, telling me, "We're under attack! They're crashing planes into the World Trade Center ... and the Pentagon ... and you'd better get off that plane!" A couple of days later, I wound up driving home. My friend and colleague, John Clayton of ESPN, was at the same game and staying at the same hotel. He drove home as well. As I headed toward Western New York and John headed toward Seattle, we periodically checked in with each other by phone, just to see how the other guy was doing and trying to comprehend something that was way beyond our comprehension.
» The Patriots' dynasty. Love them or hate them (and there seemingly were more people who fell into the second category), the Patriots stirred plenty of strong feelings on their way to three Super Bowl wins and four appearances in the big game. Their consistent success -- which included a 16-0 regular season in '07 -- was the object of admiration and scorn. Many fans of the NFL's 31 other teams simply got tired of hearing about how good the Patriots were, and became even more weary over constant praise for Belichick and Brady. After the "Spygate" scandal, when the Pats were found guilty of illegally videotaping opponents' signals, Belichick became a favorite target of Patriot bashers.
» Roger Goodell replacing Paul Tagliabue as commissioner. At first blush, this was seen as a consummate marketer/media expert taking over for a consummate corporate lawyer. It turned out that Goodell brought much more to the table than the guidance to expand the NFL's reach and revenue in the digital era. He quickly established himself as a strict disciplinarian, readily handing out punishment to players who run afoul of the law and elevating the league-wide standard for behavior by instituting a personal conduct policy.
» Tony Dungy's coaching resurgence with the Colts. After being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dungy proved that he was every bit the standout coach he had been with the Bucs, who would win a Super Bowl largely with the team he helped put together. Four years later, Dungy would lead the Colts to a Super Bowl win before retiring.
» Randy Moss' revival with the Pats. The disinterest he displayed with the Oakland Raiders raised questions about whether there was much of a future for this once-dominant receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. But those questions disappeared when he joined Brady and became a difference-making force in the Patriots' Super Bowl run.
» Michael Vick's suspension and imprisonment. After his arrest for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring landed him in jail, Vick was suspended indefinitely by Goodell and also did a prison stretch. He went from being one of the NFL's most dynamic players as the fleet-footed quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons to a symbol of the worst sort of behavior among pro athletes. Vick's reinstatement and signing with the Philadelphia Eagles last summer was a remarkable comeback, although he still has a long way to go to demonstrate that he can succeed as a passer.
» Expanded use of the 3-4 defense. The number of teams switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 saw overwhelming growth in the past year. And it continues to grow as more and more teams realize it is the best and most versatile way to stop the run, generate pressure, and handle the spread passing attacks that every offense employs.
» Kurt Warner's career revival. After becoming one of the all-time great Cinderella stories in sports by leading the Rams to a Super Bowl victory after the 1999 season, he went from a prolific passer to a presumed bust with the Giants, and then helped the Arizona Cardinals reach Super Bowl XLIII.
What's ahead in the next decade?
It's hard to look at just about anything on the field until the greatest off-field challenge the game has faced in many years is resolved: The consummation of a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association.
It seems unlikely that a deal will be reached in time for the NFL to avoid an uncapped season this year, its first since 1993. That is going to dramatically impact free-agent movement, because a couple of hundred players who would have enjoyed the financial boom of unrestricted status will now have to wait two more years to get there because of the cap's removal. Without a cap, clubs also won't have a minimum for spending, which will further limit player movement and contribute to what likely will be one of the quietest free-agency periods in a long time.
But as different as this offseason might be as a result of no new CBA agreement, it won't compare to what's in store for next year if the sides are unable to find a resolution. A lockout by owners is a distinct possibility. NFLPA leadership insists it is a foregone conclusion, although Goodell disagrees.
A work stoppage would seemingly do severe damage to what has been the gold standard of sports, and the NFL, its teams and players could very well spend a significant portion of the next decade trying to recover.
Meanwhile, there are some matters that figure to get plenty of attention in the short term:
» Concussions. The NFL will continue to address this area, and attempt to find meaningful ways, through rules changes and new equipment, to help minimize their occurrence.
» Tanking of late regular-season games. Fans and media express outrage when teams that can do little, if anything, to improve their postseason positioning sit starters for some or all of remaining regular-season games to preserve them for the playoffs. When the Colts caused a fury by doing so last December, with a 14-0 record, Goodell showed his displeasure as well. And now it is a topic that is likely to be addressed in the offseason. The biggest problem is the compromising of the integrity of the game because teams still vying for a playoff spot are impacted, positively and negatively, by the decision of other clubs to tank their final regular-season games.
» Overtime procedures. Questions about the way the NFL settles overtime games always linger, but they grew louder last month when the NFC Championship Game saw the Saints win the coin toss and march to the winning field goal while Favre and his Vikings teammates could only watch helplessly from the sidelines. That also brought back memories of Peyton Manning and his Colts teammates doing the same after the Chargers won the toss and proceeded to score the decisive touchdown in last year's wild-card game at San Diego. Some observers believe the only way a change might occur is if the "nightmare scenario" plays out, with the Super Bowl won by the team that wins the OT coin flip and the other team never sees the ball.
» New York Super Bowl. The commissioner wants this to happen, but it will be interesting to see how comfortable owners are about staging their showcase event in a roofless stadium with the potential for weather similar to what has recently pounded the East Coast.