Hard to believe we’re cleaning up the confetti after another NFL season. From opening night in New England to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, the 2015 campaign stayed true to form. Equal parts wild, wacky, controversial, headline-grabbing, jaw-dropping, and FUN, the last five months delivered what football fans crave. It was pure drama from start to finish, and that weekend adrenaline rush will be sorely missed.
How should this season be remembered? How will it be remembered? Two very different questions with a variety of answers depending on perspective. I hope it’s remembered for the return of Chiefs safety Eric Berry, from beating cancer to making the Pro Bowl to earning Comeback Player of the Year. I fear the season will be remembered for the unraveling of Johnny Manziel. Going into the offseason, he may be the most coveted interview in all of sports. The former first round pick partied his way out of a job in Cleveland, and now he’s under investigation for domestic violence while his family pleads for him to get help. Football needs to take a backseat in Manziel’s case.
Throw in a few Hail Mary passes from Aaron Rodgers, a plethora of backup quarterbacks, the new PAT rule, and weekly adventures in kicking. Mix in the devastation of the Cowboys, the rise of the Redskins, the emergence of Winston and Mariota, an 11-game win streak, another rushing title for Adrian Peterson, and dazzling feats of strength by Antonio Brown and OBJ. Drop in a few stunning playoff finishes and a full slate of coaching changes, and you can almost tell the full story of 2015. Almost, but not quite.
The Year of the Improbable Champion. In a pass-happy league, defense can still carry the day and propel a team to the top. The Denver Broncos beat the odds with a dominant pass rush, a stingy secondary, and massive takeaways at every turn. Head coach Gary Kubiak says the Broncos call themselves the “Grinders,” a group that doesn’t mind winning ugly. They stuck to the same blueprint all season. Despite inconsistent quarterback play, a shaky offensive line, and a spotty rushing attack, Denver thrived in close games because the D loved the pressure and the challenge. From flamboyant Super Bowl MVP Von Miller to fearless leader DeMarcus Ware to brash cornerback Aqib Talib to laid back architect Wade Phillips to a host of other players who will never be household names, the defense put on a show for the ages.
Super Bowl 50 will always be the stage on which Peyton Manning earned his second ring. He can ride off into the sunset after a triumphant ending with 200 career victories, a winning record in the playoffs, and the last laugh. For all the times Peyton carried teams on his back, the Denver defense returned the favor. And he took every opportunity to point it out. No NFL champ has gained fewer yards on offense than the Broncos did at Levi’s Stadium (a measly 194). Peyton was sacked five times, engineered numerous three-and-outs, and put up a paltry QB rating; but he owns another title no one can tarnish or take back. His teammates point to his leadership and wisdom as invaluable, and they all wanted to see him win again. The most improbable and difficult season of Manning’s career may also be his most satisfying.
The Year of Cam. On the field and in the headlines, Cam Newton is the new face of the league. He captured his first MVP award with eye-popping numbers. He was the first quarterback to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and run for 10 more in a single season. He threw darts from the pocket off his back foot and he eluded with his legs; in fact, he was fifth in the NFL in rushing touchdowns! Fans will remember him for his dabbing and dancing, his wide smile, and his bold personality. He is unapologetically Cam, for better or worse. His audacious style set the tone for his entire locker room, and they fed off his energy. His supporters point to a more mature Cam who sparked his team to a 15-1 campaign and the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Cam’s year ended with plenty of fuel for his critics, too. His sullen postgame media session lacked professionalism and grace, while his exit interview was full of defiance blended with excuses. Carolina coaches and teammates back him to the hilt, though; ultimately, that’s most important. Love him or hate him, Cam is impossible to ignore.
The Year of the Concussion Protocol. With the added emphasis on preventing and treating head injuries, it’s no surprise the number of concussions skyrocketed. According to data released by the league, 271 concussions were diagnosed this season, up 32% from last year’s total of 206. Extra spotters and independent doctors now call time-outs if they see what they believe is a woozy player or a player that needs to be checked. Athletes may be less inclined to hide symptoms with all the new science pointing to long-term health concerns and CTE. Without a doubt, concussions remain one of the major topics of conversation inside the football world.
How will the 2015 NFL season be remembered? A few dominant headlines with a million other minor captions. As we start to experience the inevitable football withdrawals, we’ll need every memory to carry us through seven long months with no action on the field. There simply is no substitute for NFL weekends.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.