Tumultuous 2016-17 NFL Season Concludes with Super Bowl LI

Alex Elchev, Reporter

From mounting rivalries to disappointing conclusions, the 2016-17 NFL season had its ups and its downs.

The season featured intriguing storylines around the league, from the emergence of Dallas  Cowboys rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s transformation from average to MVP-caliber. Shocking headlines dominated the year, both positive and negative.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman exceeded all expectations during the 2015-16 season. Jones led the league in receiving yards (1,871) and Freeman had the most rushing touchdowns (11).

This year, league MVP Matt Ryan led his most impressive campaign to date, passing for an impressive 4,944 yards – 1,409 of which went to Jones. Jones torched the Carolina Panthers secondary for 300 yards in week 8, becoming the sixth player in history to achieve the milestone.

The Falcon’s offense, which ranked seventh overall in 2015, skyrocketed to second place, leading the league with an incredible 33.8 points per game. Like the Patriots, the Falcons ended their historic season at Super Bowl LI.

The Dallas Cowboys made an incredible turn this season, going from 4-12 in 2015-16 to an AFC-leading 13-3 in 2016-17. The Cowboys’ success has been largely attributed to rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, both earning serious recognition as Offensive Rookies of the Year. Prescott ended up winning the award, with Elliot finishing a close second in voting.

Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott is joined by teammate and runner-up Ezekiel Elliott on stage after receiving the award. The pass and rush duo led the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record (Ezekiel Elliott/ Instagram).

Behind the best offensive line in the league, Prescott finished the season with 23 touchdowns to only four interceptions. On the ground, Elliot managed 1,631 rushing yards, just 177 yards shy of Hall of Fame RB Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing yard record of 1,808 yards. The Cowboy’s turned their 4-12 record in 2015 into a 13-3 record and a strong playoff push, awarding head coach Jason Garrett the Coach of the Year award.

Ryan took home the honor of 2016-17 NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, becoming the first Falcon to receive either award. Prescott won the Pepsi Rookie of the Year award, closely beating out teammate Elliott. On the other side of the field, Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack won Defensive Player of the Year.

Last year, Super Bowl 50 featured the high-powered offense of the Carolina Panthers pitted against the defensive playmaking of the Denver Broncos. Unfortunately for both teams, this is the first time since 2003 that neither team that attended the previous year’s Super Bowl did not make the playoffs the following year. Former league MVP Cam Newton followed up his incredible season with an unimpressive 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, rarely showing the skills displayed last year. Five-time MVP and former Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning left a significant void in the roster when he retired, and the Broncos have yet to recover. Their starter, second year QB Trevor Siemian, threw for only 18 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Both organizations hope that their teams are quickly restored to their former glory.

The Green Bay Packers continued their midwest dominance in the NFC North, winning the division with a record of 10-6, guided by the steady arm of Aaron Rodgers and steadier coaching by Mike McCarthy. Rodgers went on a hot streak after week 10, putting up a passer rating over 100 in seven out of eight games and not throwing a single interception in all eight contests.

Rodgers has honed the hail mary, a last chance desperation deep throw, into a dangerous weapon. He has completed three hail mary’s within the last two seasons alone, including one that evened the score of the Packers’ 2015 Divisional playoff round matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. In 2017, Rodgers found wide receiver Randall Cobb at the back of the end zone near the end of the first half of the Wild Card game against the New York Giants, a key scoring play that would be a nail in the coffin of their opponents playoff hopes. Rodgers’ antics have lead to his coronation as “The King of the Hail Mary.”

Aaron Rodgers prepares to throw the game winning touchdown against the Detroit Lions on December 3, 2015. This was the first of the three hail marys Rodgers threw over the past two seasons. (USA Today Sports Images).

Several other players had disappointing seasons. 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley ran for a measly 885 yards, which was more than 200 less than in his rookie season.

Adrian Peterson led the league with 1,485 rushing yards in 2015, but he was injured early into the 2016 season and only ran for 72 in 2016. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were taken first and second overall in the draft by the L.A. Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively, and both had subpar seasons. Goff started only seven games and threw just five touchdowns to seven interceptions. Wentz started all 16 games, and tossed 16 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. For these players and many others, there is certainly room for improvement.

On the other hand, plenty of players went above and beyond what was expected of them. Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver and kick returner Tyreek Hill caught, ran, and returned a kickoff for touchdowns on the same night, becoming the first player since 1965 to have a touchdown in three different ways in the same game.

The season saw the rare movements of franchises to other cities. The St. Louis Rams returned to Los Angeles for the first time since 1995. The San Diego Chargers also moved to Los Angeles after 56 seasons in San Diego. As of February 5th, 2017, the Oakland Raiders have had their bid to move to Las Vegas suspended, putting their future into temporary jeopardy. The last time a team relocated was the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) in 1997, and there has never been more than one move in a single season before 2016-17.

Unfortunately, 2016 was a year filled with horrifying injuries. Oakland Raiders QB Derek Carr, Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota, and Seattle Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett and Safety Earl Thomas lll all suffered lower leg fractures that ended their seasons. Dozens of players experienced serious knee injuries during the season. Minnesota Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater and RB Adrian Peterson, Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green, and Kansas Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles were among notable injured players. Three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt missed the entire season following several back surgeries. Despite suffering a significant Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) sprain, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson started all 16 games this season, pushing his streak to 80 games straight. Hopefully, these players will be able to bounce back and return to their former glory.

The NFL started taking serious note of concussions over the past two years after indisputable scientific evidence that showed that NFL players had a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life. New tackling techniques that attack the hips and knees rather than shoulder pads, along with stricter player monitoring and concussion protocol have reduced the number of concussions by 6.5% from last year. Despite the improvements to player safety, head injury numbers have risen sharply since 2010. Commissioner Roger Goodell gave $1 billion to settle lawsuits from former players claiming lack of disclosure about the danger of concussions. Goodell also pledged $100 million to concussion research. It is still unclear if this dangerous issue can be resolved.

The playoffs kicked off with the Wild Card round on Saturday, January 7th, and Sunday, January 8th, 2017. The Oakland Raiders were without their star quarterback after Derek Carr broke his leg late in the regular season. The Houston Texans made impressive adjustments on defense and booked a trip to play the Patriots in the divisional round. In the north, the Seahawks blew out the Detroit Lions, and the Pittsburgh Steelers trampled over the Miami Dolphins, who were making their first playoff appearance since 2008. Lastly, the Green Bay Packers defeated the New York Giants by a wide margin to continue Aaron Rodgers’ hot streak.

The following week, the Divisional round took place from Saturday the 14th to Sunday the 15th. In the NFC games, the reliably strong Seahawks defense was unable to slow down Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, losing by a score of 36-20. The Packers clipped the Cowboys impressive run 34-31, ending Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott’s hopes of a Super Bowl victory their rookie year.

In the AFC, the Patriots ran over the Houston Texans 34-16 to book their ticket to the conference championship. The Steelers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 18-16 off 6 field goals by kicker Chris Boswell. The Chiefs game-tying score was overturned in the final seconds due to a questionable foul call on offensive lineman Eric Fisher.

The Conference Championship games were by no means close games. The Falcons flew over the Packers 44-21, and the Patriots stamped the Steelers 36-17. The stage was set for a high scoring Super Bowl 51, the young and promising Atlanta Falcons vs the traditional and veteran New England Patriots.

Super Bowl 51 started off slowly, with the first score of the game coming approximately three minutes into the second quarter. The Falcons started to ramp up the score and were leading 28-3 by the start of the fourth quarter. The Tom Brady-led Patriots mounted by far the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, scoring 25 unanswered points to force the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Brady marched down the field, and a James White touchdown capped off the Patriots fifth Super Bowl win under head coach Bill Belichick. White finished with three touchdowns, just nearly being edged out of the MVP award by Brady.

#patsnation we love you!!!!! coming home with another one! #wegotsomereallybigrings

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New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman celebrates his Super Bowl 51 victory with quarterback Tom Brady. Brady and Edelman connected on an incredible catch late in the fourth quarter to help set up a game-tying score (Julian Edelman/Instagram).

Several important and historic players played their final season this year. Carolina Panthers legend and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith walked away from the game after a 15 year career. Former Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson retired at the age of 35, finishing tenth in all time receiving yards. Former Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick announced his retirement on February 3, 2017. Vick leads all quarterbacks with 6,109 rushing yards.

The 2016-17 NFL season may not have lived up to its predecessor in terms of interest, and it certainly had its ups and downs. From promising beginnings to disappointing ends, from record setting performances to horrifying injuries, the NFL looks to the past to build its own future.