Published December 27, 2012
For all the down-to-the-wire finishes, record-setting performances and outstanding rookies, 2012 will not rank near the top of special years for the NFL.
Not with the lockout of on-field officials that blew apart with a blown call and may have played a role in the playoffs field.
Not with a murder/suicide involving a player, a drunk-driving death involving two others, and the death of a coach's son at his team's training camp.
And not with the bounty scandal and league investigation that lingered for months.
When we look back at this season's remarkable comebacks by Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning, they might be offset by the sharp image of Golden Tate's touchdown reception on a desperation pass. The controversial completion lifted Seattle past Green Bay in Week 3, and was the final call by the replacement officials. From that Monday night debacle came a Wednesday night agreement on a new contract for the regular officials — and they were back at work in Baltimore on Thursday night.
To cheers from the fans.
"It was great to have those guys back," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "It looked like they knew what they were doing."
By season's end, though, there was the usual complaining about flags thrown or kept in pockets, and about the rule book being overwhelmingly long and complex.
The officiating dispute and its aftermath — the victory Seattle got over Green Bay has helped the Seahawks make the postseason and could affect the Packers' seeding in the playoffs — may have been annoying. It wasn't tragic.
What happened in a span of one week in December was.
Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and mother of his young daughter on Dec. 1. He then drove to the team complex and, in front of coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli, committed suicide.
"You're taking the easy way out!" Crennel told Belcher moments before he turned the gun on himself, according to the police report.
The next Saturday, Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent crashed his car while driving drunk, police said, killing teammate and close friend Jerry Brown. Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter.
During training camp, Eagles coach Andy Reid's troubled son, Garrett, was found dead in his dorm room at the team's training camp at Lehigh University. He died of a heroin overdose.
Early in the regular season, Ravens receiver Torrey Smith played — and scored two touchdowns — less than 24 hours after his younger brother, Tevin, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Smith's performance was memorable and uplifting. The same could be said for how the Colts responded to coach Chuck Pagano being stricken by leukemia.
Pagano began chemotherapy treatments less than a month into the schedule, with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians taking over as interim coach. Under Arians, and behind top overall draft pick quarterback Andrew Luck, Indianapolis went 9-3. One year after going 2-14 and earning that first pick, Indy already was in the playoffs when Pagano returned to the sideline this week.
"Professional athletes are funny cats," Arians said. "When you get them to play for something more than a paycheck, they will do some funny things."
The league believed the Saints were doing some unethical things, such as conducting a pay-for-pain program that rewarded defensive players for hits on opponents that could knock them out of games. Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season, with GM Mickey Loomis getting eight games.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was barred indefinitely as the mastermind of the bounty program; a league investigation turned up 50,000 pages of documentation.
But four players who also were suspended — Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (one season) and defensive end Will Smith (four games), former Saints LB Scott Fujita of Cleveland (three games) and former Saints DE Anthony Hargrove (eight games) — appealed and also went to court to fight the punishments. Vilma even filed a defamation lawsuit against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
By December, Goodell had turned over the case to his former boss, Paul Tagliabue. The former commissioner, while finding fault with nearly everyone tied to the bounty case, tossed out the suspensions of the four players.
"My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines," the ruling said. "However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
At least Payton figures to be back next season, although his contract situation in New Orleans is uncertain. Reid, Norv Turner in San Diego, Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona, Chan Gailey in Buffalo and Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville all could be out of head coaching jobs very soon.
And Arians could be in the mix for one.
Arians moved from offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh to the same position in Indianapolis. But when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in September, Arians moved up on an interim basis.
"Obviously, the job that Bruce has done has been tremendous," Colts owner Jimmy Irsay said. "That's what a team is about."
What a team is not about is what the New York Jets turned into: the Mess at the Meadowlands.
That saga went from a failed pursuit of Manning as a free agent to extending incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez's contract. Then adding Tim Tebow, the most popular and polarizing backup QB around.
That pretty much guaranteed tabloid mania, which was exacerbated all season by the team's inability to incorporate Tebow in an offense that was, at best, mediocre. As Sanchez stumbled, the Jets' circus tumbled out of control, with coach Rex Ryan even bypassing Tebow for third-stringer Greg McElroy.
It made people wonder what was more important to owner Woody Johnson, winning Super Bowls or headlines in the dailies.
Manning, of course, wound up in Denver after Indianapolis cut him rather than pay a $28 million bonus. After being out for the 2011 season following neck surgery, the first missed games in a career that began in 1998, Manning has made a sensational comeback. The four-time league MVP has the AFC West champions poised for a Super Bowl run.
"It has been such a unique season for me personally, I really feel fortunate to be playing," he said. "I really have had an interesting year and a half and so I'm proud our team is in the mix."
Right there in the mix are Peterson and the Vikings, too. Less than nine months after major left knee surgery, Peterson was back on the field for Minnesota. He's had the best season of a spectacular career and is threatening 2,000 yards rushing.
Also right in the mix are the Colts, Seahawks and Redskins, all non-qualifiers a year ago whose leaders are rookies.
From perhaps the best rookie class the NFL has seen, Luck, Seattle's Russell Wilson and Washington's Robert Griffin III have emerged as stars. As playmakers. As winners.
"None of these guys is surprised they are on winning teams," said Tony Dungy, who coached the Colts to the 2006 title. "They are used to being the reason their teams win, it is not anything that has caught them off-guard."
Defenses have been caught off-balance all year. One reason is a rulebook skewed toward the offenses; flags fly so freely for hits on defenseless players that many defenders no longer are sure about what is a clean hit.
Another reason has been coaches' willingness to try college-style attacks such as the read-option that works so well for Griffin, Wilson and Carolina's Cam Newton.
Plus, the talent infusion from the colleges has been geared toward offenses, too. That's really shown up this year with the work of the quarterbacks and 1,000-yard rushers Alfred Morris and Doug Martin.
Those kinds of performances keep the NFL so popular even as the major story lines aren't so positive. In the first year of a full slate of Thursday night games, there hasn't exactly been a call for less football.
And for every implosion by the Lions and Cardinals and Eagles, there's the rise of other teams such as the surprising Redskins, Colts and Seahawks. Who knows, one or more of them might wind up playing in the Superdome in early February.
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