One year changes a lot in the NFL. At this time in 2013, the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles were set to do battle over Chip Kelly. Geno Smith was being mentioned as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady held the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs.
(OK, not everything has changed.)
With all that behind us, we wanted to take a look at five things we loved about the NFL in 2013 and look ahead to five things we can't wait for in 2014. Thank you for reading and Happy New Year!
What we loved about 2013
But nobody had a better year than the NFL's uncle -- nay, America's uncle -- Peyton Manning. The Broncos quarterback put together a season that will go down in history as the greatest ever by a quarterback. The fact that he did this at 37 years of age and two years removed from multiple neck surgeries is both widely known and strangely underappreciated.
Manning needs to close. We all know this. If he falls on his face in January -- fair or not -- the achievement of this magnificent regular season will become the setup to a punch line.
But that won't change how I loved what Manning pulled off in 2013. The NFL's great uncle told the entire league to get off his lawn.
- -- Dan Hanzus *
We are a spoiled football populace. We get a half-dozen bananas finishes to games every week. The folks that didn't see the games on Red Zone watch it on Game Rewind or NFL Replay during the week. There has never been a better time to be addicted to football.
It doesn't just seem like the games are closer; they really are. 68 percent of games were within one score at some point in the fourth quarter. That number -- and the percentage of games decided by one score -- rank in the top four seasons for close games in NFL history.
The close endings extend to the standings. Thirteen of 16 games mattered in Week 17. A bye was decided in the last minute in Atlanta on Sunday. The last playoff spot in the AFC came down to an insane missed kick and even more insane fake punt. (And yes, a missed call.) The NFC North and NFC East were decided by dramatic plays in the closing minutes. These are the good old days.
- -- Gregg Rosenthal *
You must marvel at Chip Kelly's ability to silence the critics who said he wouldn't translate into the NFL. In 2013 the coach proved his offense is more than a "gimmick" zone-read scheme that took advantage of Pac-12 defenses in college. He proved a guru whose most important offensive philosophy lies in forcing defenses to cover the entire field. Kelly's deployment of LeSean McCoy was spectacular. The running back constantly got in open space and gave us jaw-dropping runs (who will ever forget him treating defenders like practice cones in the Blizzard Bowl?).
It also should be noted that in a season filled with key injuries Kelly's team remained the healthiest throughout. After suffering some early season-ending injuries in training camp, the Eagles rarely sported multiple serious injures on their weekly report. Kelly's famous smoothies and revamped conditioning plan might have been mocked early in the season, but you can bet this offseason every NFL team will -- and should -- be after his closely guarded secrets.
- -- Kevin Patra *
Riverboat Ron's epiphany
Brooks: Fear the Pack
My favorite story of the 2013 season was "Riverboat" Ron Rivera's football epiphany. The nickname delighted NFL cognoscenti because of the paradox, like dubbing your hulking friend "Tiny." Football coaches don't veer from their long-held philosophies on a whim. One of the most conservative voices in the league entering the season, Rivera finally saw the light after a Week 2 wakeup call etched in his mind the notion that touchdowns are better than field goals.
Rivera didn't come by his conversion lightly. He made a conscious effort not to play it by the proverbial book, choosing instead to cite a study by a UC Berkeley statistics professor that argues conventional wisdom on fourth-down approaches is flawed. Buoyed by Rivera's brazen gambles, the Panthers reeled off an eight-game winning streak en route to becoming the Around The League crew's favorite team to watch.
- -- Chris Wesseling *
Emerging front sevens
I don't think we'd be talking about "Riverboat Ron" or the Panthers in January if it wasn't for Carolina's nasty front seven. We got an early dose of what this defense was capable of back in a primetime preseason game against the Ravens, and Carolina never let up. Luke Kuechly can do it all at linebacker and first-round tackle Star Lotulelei showed us once again: the Panthers know how to draft defensive talent. It wasn't just the Panthers. The Jets, Saints, Cardinals and Bills -- and even the Browns -- emerged as tough-nosed front sevens stocked with young linemen and pass rushers. New York's front -- starring Damon "Snacks" Harrison and rookie Sheldon Richardson -- arguably saved Rex Ryan's job, while the revamped defense in New Orleans forced Jerry Jones to admit he made a mistake by firing Bad Santa last winter. In a year when NFL offenses shattered records, these young and promising defenses get my vote.
- -- Marc Sessler *
What we're looking forward to in 2014
Johnny Football is on his way. The Texas A&M quarterback has yet to decide whether he'll enter May's draft, but I'm betting Gregg Rosenthal's seaside condo that it happens. Manziel is going to generate Tebow-level attention as we close in on Draft Day, but he's a much better quarterback than what Timmy offered teams. NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah projects four of five teams at the top of the order -- the Texans, Jaguars, Browns and Raiders -- as candidates to draft a signal-caller in the first round. Cleveland sounds sold, but Jeremiah hinted at another organization that might swoop in and make Johnny Football their own: Chip Kelly's Eagles. Imagine that. Wherever Manziel goes, he's going to play sooner than later, and I can't wait to see it.
- -- Marc Sessler *
The next great receiver
Cordarrelle Patterson is poised to make the leap in 2014. While the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver had an uneven 2013, he displayed the type of speed, playmaking and athleticism that can dominate a game. He was a dynamo in kick return from Week 1, which highlights his make-you-miss athleticism. Patterson became just the second rookie in NFL history with multiple kick return TDs (2), receiving TDs (4), rushing TDs (3). The most intriguing aspect of 2013 was his improvement as a receiver as the season wore on. When he becomes a more polished route runner and learns to attack the ball at its highest point he will be a beast for the Vikings.
Regardless of who the coaching staff is next season, Patterson's leap in his second year will be fun to witness. If the 22-year-old gets a creative offensive coordinator who can improve his skillset at the receiver position and also isn't afraid to utilize him as a movable chess-piece, Patterson could make defenses cry. And what a joy that will be for us to watch.
- -- Kevin Patra *
I have no special affinity for the Washington Redskins, but I'm looking forward to Robert Griffin III returning with a furious vengeance in his third season. Who has shorter memories than NFL observers? Prior to blowing out his knee in last year's playoffs, the charismatic Griffin was well on his way to becoming the face of the league -- and perhaps of American professional sports. From his first NFL start -- which prompted none other than John Madden to label him the best player in the league -- Griffin showed preternatural poise and playmaking ability as the most dynamic young player to come along in years.
I wasn't around the Redskins this year. I don't know if RGIII morphed into an operaticleverage-mongering diva. I can't say whether Mike Shanahan did him a favor by administering a much-needed lesson in humility. What I can say is that it's been less than a full calendar year since RGIII was widely viewed as the NFL's most entertaining young player and a bedrock franchise icon.
Griffin isn't the first quarterback to struggle in his return from reconstructive surgery. Tom Brady wasn't himself the next year, either. I fully expect Griffin to regain the blinding speed, supreme confidence and textbook throwing mechanics that set his promise on par with that of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.
- -- Chris Wesseling *
Good fantasy Luck in 2014?
Like NFL coaches, I have a hard time thinking past this week. And why would I want to? I can't remember a more loaded playoff conference field than this NFC group. The best quarterback in football plays in Green Bay. (Sorry Peyton.) And the most exciting offense resides in Philadelphia. And those are the two worst teams in the field. There are young gun quarterbacks galore (Russell, Kaepernick, Cam), and a future Hall of Famer in Drew Brees. There are three dominant defensive fronts. There is the best new school rivalry in the NFL (Seattle-San Francisco) and the official team of Around the League: Carolina.
The best part: I can see any of them making a run to New York. Which reminds me: The Super Bowl is going to be played in my former home of 10 years and my favorite city in the world this side of New Orleans. All the hand-wringing over weather issues on Super Bowl Sunday are silly. Bring on the snow. Who would ever forget that? There's no need to look ahead to next season yet.
- -- Gregg Rosenthal *
I was going to write about my excitement over the sweeping protocol changes that will correct the weekly failings of game officials, but that's about as likely as Mike Glennon winning a rap battle on 8 Mile.
Instead, I'll offer up a bunch of things I'm excited about in 2014:
The playoffs. A draft in which Eric Fisher isn't a prominent talking point. Another year for Rex. RGIII no longer running like Tom Berenger in "Major League." More Jon Gruden. Less Dan Dierdorf. A totally insane and unfounded Brett Favre rumor. "Is Eli still elite?" NFL Network roundtable discussions in June (this is a joke). No Tebow. New stadiums. Andrew Luck's first MVP. The termination of the licensing agreement between Sara Bareilles and Microsoft. A full season of Aaron Rodgers. Hope in Cleveland. No Tebow. Johnny Football. Jerry Jones luxury box camera shots in Week 17. Taking a toboggan to the Super Bowl. No Tebow.
- -- Dan Hanzus *