5. The debut of Johnny Football: I’ll admit it: I was wrong. Dead wrong. I’ve long been skeptical of the phenomenon that is Johnny Manziel, but—as No. 2 trotted onto the field against the Cincinnati Bengals—I was practically drowning myself in the Kool-Aid. The buzz around Paul Brown Stadium felt so real. The Browns had finally found their savior.
But that raw excitement dispelled faster than you could say “10-18 for 80 yards and two interceptions,” as the former Heisman trophy winner turned the worst professional debut for any NFL quarterback in a 30-0 loss. The wild, death-defying scrambles that usually ended with a miraculous Mike Evans catch at Texas A&M evaporated before our eyes as Johnny Football was swallowed whole by an NFL defense unwilling to put up with his gridiron shenanigans. I remember one play in particular where Manziel showed off some of the old college magic in evading a strong pass and floating a ball to a wide open receiver 30 yards downfield, only to have a Cincinnati corner make an unbelievable break on the ball and intercept the pass. That, in my mind, was the ultimate “Welcome to the NFL” moment for Mr. Football.
Then—in the blink of an eye—Johnny was gone, lost with a hamstring injury before subsequently receiving a fine for missing a scheduled treatment for said hamstring. Now, reports are flooding in that Manziel has entered a rehabilitation center, putting his NFL future in further jeopardy. Hopefully, we will be able to see Johnny Football return to action and I personally would love to see a sequel to the Cincinnati performance. The schadenfreude is real.
4. The Ray Rice situation: The NFL prides itself on dominating the sports conversation even in the offseason. In the minutes after the confetti settles at the Super Bowl, the conversation immediately moves to trades, free agency and Mel Kiper’s physics-defying hairstyle. But this season was a little different, as the league dominated the news cycle for all of the wrong reasons—even more than usual.
First, there was Commissioner Roger Goodell receiving backlash from seemingly every corner of the universe for handing down a two-game suspension to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice before suddenly reversing course and dropping the hammer after footage of Rice’s altercation surfaced. The initial suspension was one thing, but the change of heart after video evidence appeared out of nowhere took this issue to a whole new level. As long as Goodell continues to hold his position as judge, jury and executioner, the NFL discipline policy will continue to be consistently inconsistent possibly even detract from the product on the field. The fact that the Rice situation, a completely off-the-field issue, dominated the NFL conversation during the season will be one of the biggest takeaways from this year, as the league continued to grapple with image and safety concerns.
3. Deflategate: I really don’t like this story, but I’m including it here anyway because it will be one remembered as one of the defining moments of the season, especially after the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl title. First of all, I wish we would do away with the media convention of coining every potential scandal “X-gate.” If there were ever a future scandal involving water or Bill Gates, what would they call it?
At any rate, the discovery that 11 of the 12 New England footballs were underinflated below the league minimum is both a huge story and a nonissue at the same time. On one hand, the revelation puts another stain and cloud over New England’s success, just as the franchise was beginning to turn the corner after the spying allegations of the 2000s. At this point, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s legacies are solidified beyond a doubt, but there will always be those lingering questions. In that sense, Deflategate will be a lasting legacy of this 2014 NFL season. On the other hand, New England dominated Indianapolis in the second half, with different footballs, so it’s unclear how much of an advantage they actually received. The real question is—if they indeed tried to pull a fast one on the rest of the league—why they felt the need to cheat? That would be like Isaac Newton trying to copy answers on a calculus test.
2. J.J. Watt: Now we get into the real stories of the season; the memorable moments on the field. And there is no other place to start than to talk about what just might be the most incredible single-season defensive performance of all time. Going into this season, J.J. Watt was already a household name, but the level of dominance he displayed in 2014 was unlike anything the league has seen since the days of Lawrence Taylor. With 20.5 sacks to go along with five touchdown receptions on offense, Watt nearly carried his team into the playoffs and earned unanimous defensive player of the year honors for his impossible achievements.
On top of that, Watt finished a clear second in league MVP voting behind Aaron Rodgers. Just think about that for a second. In a sport where the rules now favor offenses to an unfair degree and treat defensive players as second-class citizens, Watt made a serious push for the most prestigious individual award in the game. Although he didn’t take home the trophy, I would argue that J.J. has changed the course of football conversation in this country and forced us to pay attention to the guys on the “other” side of the ball.
1. A Super Bowl for the ages: As I began reflecting on Super Bowl XLIX, I became a little depressed. The game was absolutely incredible—no doubt—but that’s exactly the problem. We will likely never see a Super Bowl this good in our lifetime—and that’s kind of sad.
For the first three quarters, the game itself was pretty unspectacular, but—in the blink of an eye—it transformed into a series of almost indescribable moments of transcendence. From Jermaine Kearse’s bobbling on the ground that raised the average blood pressure in Boston by 20 points to Malcolm Butler making his first career interception at the absolute perfect time, this game had it all.
With Tom Brady finally climbing back to the pinnacle of the sport after a decade of heartbreak and Russell Wilson receiving his first taste of serious disappointment in what will surely be a very successful NFL career, it’s hard to overstate not only the quality of the game but also the it’s importance in shaping a countless number of legacies down the road, especially Bill Belichick’s and Pete Carroll’s.
In the last minute of the game, I was stunned when Belichick elected not to take a timeout and practically speechless when Carroll and his staff chose to throw the ball on second down with one of the best short yardage backs in the game in Marshawn. But as I’ve thought about Seattle’s ultimately ill-fated final drive, I’ve begun to think that both coaches made the correct call.
Belichick, drawing upon his experience in six Super Bowls, knew what a mess it is to coordinate play calls and signals in the final two minutes of the game and forced Seattle to figure things out instead of stopping the clock with a timeout. It was the ultimate, psych-you-out, poker move, and I wouldn’t expect it from anyone else. Obviously if Seattle had milked the clock and scored, Belichick’s decision would not look that good, but I’m not sure Brady would have been able to score in 30 seconds without a deep threat against the league’s best pass defense.
As for Carroll, it’s yard not to use the outcome of the play to question the decision, but I think he made the right call. There wasn’t enough time on the clock to run the ball three straight times, so a pass on second down made sense. Of course, Murphy’s law kicked in and the worst possible outcome of that pass came to fruition. Nevertheless, I think the decision from the outset made a lot of sense.
After last year’s yawner of a Super Bowl between Seattle and Denver, this game brought the excitement back to the biggest stage in sports. At this point, we can only hope that future games bring at least half the excitement as the show the Patriots and the Seahawks put on.
Vihan Lakshman would have loved to write this column about his beloved Atlanta Falcons, but that would involve the Falcons actually being good at some point… fat chance. Commiserate about it with him at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.