Exactly one year ago Tuesday, Peyton Manning, Gary Kubiak and the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game to punch their tickets to Super Bowl 50. Hours later, league MVP Cam Newton led the Carolina Panthers to victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
A year later? Well, the Patriots are still good.
Things change in an eyeblink in the NFL, and the number of things that can change in a calendar year is stunning. Neither the Broncos nor the Panthers even made this season’s playoffs. Manning and Kubiak are both retired, and Manning is being talked about as a potential GM. Newton finished this season with a career-low completion percentage, and he threw 14 interceptions, the most since his rookie year (17).
So if you like this year’s Super Bowl matchup and storylines, enjoy them while they last. By this time next year, you’re likely to look back and think: “Wow. Remember Taylor Gabriel?”
In the spirit of change, and specifically the amount of change one NFL year can bring, here’s a look at a few more things that have changed since this time last year:
The league’s star power is in refresh mode
In addition to Manning, well-known NFL stars who have retired in the past calendar year include Marshawn Lynch, Calvin Johnson, Charles Woodson, Jared Allen, Justin Tuck and Steve Smith Sr. There are a lot of jersey sales and a lot of fantasy football titles connected to that list. And while the league has exciting stars to fill the void, those former players were some heavy hitters. Good news: The NFL has a class of fresh, young quarterback faces that looks fuller than expected. A year ago, we had no idea how close Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston were to success. We had no idea that Carson Wentz would be ready so soon, and Dak Prescott wasn’t on anyone’s radar — even the Cowboys’. We still don’t know much about Jared Goff, and the best young QB in the league could be the guy in Oakland, Derek Carr, whose late-season ankle fracture cost the Raiders a chance at something great.
There’s reason for optimism in Dallas
Yeah, the old narrative about how the Cowboys are always going to mess up their opportunity doesn’t hold as much water when they have a young star quarterback and a young star running back. Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record in their first NFL seasons, helped greatly of course by the league’s best young offensive line. And while the season ended with a heartbreaking playoff loss to Green Bay, Dallas looks poised to open 2017 as one of the Super Bowl favorites thanks to its young core. Tony who?
The Giants, Dolphins and Raiders all made the playoffs
These are three franchises with solid roots running throughout NFL history, but they’d all fallen on hard times. The Giants had missed the playoffs four years in a row, the Dolphins seven and the Raiders 13 before reaching the postseason this year. New York’s young defense indicates that the turnaround could be more than a one-year fluke. Miami is led by one of the game’s brightest young coaches. And Oakland has Carr and a plethora of reasons to consider its own future bright.
The Browns somehow got worse
I know, right? Cleveland had a new coach and (at one point) the No. 2 pick in the draft … and still didn’t win a game until Christmas Eve. The Browns’ 1-15 record was the worst in franchise history (yes, really) and two games worse than last year’s. The good news is this appears to be in accordance with the Browns’ plans — amass draft picks and rebuild from the ground up. The bad news is they still don’t have a quarterback to build around.
Jeff Fisher got fired
It’s easier to hide mediocrity in St. Louis than it is in Los Angeles, and Fisher felt the heat all year before the Rams finally let him go in December. His last winning season was in 2008 with the Tennessee Titans, and he has been a head coach every year since then except one. It was probably time. Also turning back into pumpkins this season were Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley, San Francisco’s Chip Kelly, Buffalo’s Rex Ryan and San Diego’s Mike McCoy. Of those men, Bradley and McCoy are the only ones currently employed on NFL coaching staffs.
The Texans found their quarterback … but maybe not really
The Texans thought signing Brock Osweiler away from the Super Bowl champs was a coup, but for the most part, the first-year results were disappointing. Will Houston make a push for Tony Romo? Can Osweiler rebound in Year 2? Is Tom Savage in the mix to start in camp? Lots of questions remain a year later, in spite of the big change Houston made at the most important position.
Gillette Stadium no longer appears among recent destinations on Roger Goodell’s navigation app
No, the NFL commissioner hasn’t attended a game in Foxborough since suspending Tom Brady four games for Deflategate. Believing that’s a coincidence requires you to come up with some good reason Goodell went to the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta on Sunday (rather than the AFC one in Foxborough) after attending a playoff game in Atlanta the weekend before. Hard to blame Goodell for not wanting to go, and I don’t see why Patriots fans would want him there anyway — except they know it would make him miserable. But they’ll all be in Houston together next week, and if the Patriots win the Super Bowl, guess who has to hand them the Lombardi trophy? Awkward …