Controversies. Rule changes. Emergent superstars. The failure of Thursday Night Football. The NFL, as it does every year, managed to dutifully produce both the fickle and familiar in 2016.
Much of this season felt strange, like a paradigm shift was underway. It started under center, when Peyton Manning beautifully said his final goodbyes. Then the real football began sans a suspended Tom Brady. Cam Newton no longer played superhero, Carson Palmer never woke up from his NFC Championship Game nightmare and Aaron Rodgers continued to regress.
As the running back position ebbed and flowed and the list of elite wide receivers was ever-changing in recent years, the NFL’s quarterback era has been its backbone. Without the comfort of the mega-star quarterback, could the league’s popularity be in jeopardy? After all, television networks billed Brady-Manning as such not because they ever shared the field at the same time but because those were the two players viewers clamored to watch.
But the NFL is masterful at regeneration—producing new stars and storylines every season—while ensuring its creature comforts endure. Brady came back with a vengeance, and Rodgers caught fire after midseason. Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford are having career years, while Derek Carr and that guy ahead of Tony Romo in Dallas have emerged as the future. Exhale.
Despite their on-field impact, only a few quarterbacks were among the 16 people who defined the NFL in 2016. In a year of movement in the form of relocation and a movement in the form of protest, our list encapsulates the wide-reaching nature of the $12 billion beast that is the National Football League.
16. Carson Wentz
A blockbuster trade that shipped Sam Bradford to the Vikings in exchange for two draft picks days before the season put the rookie starkly in the spotlight. Wentz was supposed to join fellow rookie Jared Goff “in development” but was suddenly the Week 1 starter instead. The Eagles looked liked Einstein after Wentz looked like Montana for three weeks. “Wentzylvania” roared as the Eagles dashed to a 3–0 start on the arm of their young quarterback, who threw five touchdowns and no interceptions over that span. Then the schedule got tougher, Wentz looked more and more like a rookie, the losses mounted (Philadelphia now sits at 6–9) and Eagles fans prayed for a refund on their Super Bowl tickets.
15. Tyreek Hill
Unlike Wentz, the Chiefs wideout has continued to emerge as one of football’s most dangerous and electrifying new stars throughout his rookie year. Blink and you’ll miss the latest Hill kick return TD or 70-yard run or dump pass taken to the house. Hill has nine touchdowns on the season, most of the explosive, jaw-dropping variety. He was drafted in the fifth-round by Kansas City, which according to Pro Football Talk was one of the only franchises to have him on its board due to Hill’s guilty plea for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend while at Oklahoma State. As the Chiefs prepare for the postseason, the cloud of their biggest star’s troubled past looms.
14. The errant kicker
There is Justin Tucker. There is everyone else. Placekicking reached an absolute low point in 2016. The extra point that was once a gimme now has become complete chaos since the PAT was moved to the 15-yard line. In Week 11 alone, there were 12 extra points missed, and only five of 32 starting kickers have been immune to the shank. Field goals have not been much better. Bucs rookie Roberto Aguayo is only 50% on attempts between 40 and 45 yards; Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter is only 44% from the same distance. The epidemic is real, and the only certainty is that one of these kickers is more likely than not to miss a crucial kick in the playoffs.
T-13. Robert Katzmann, Barrington Parker, Jr. and Denny Chin
No, they are not a fancy architecture firm; they are the three federal judges who decided the NFL’s Deflategate appeal, reinstating Tom Brady’s suspension by a 2–1 vote (with Judge Katzmann dissenting) that overruled a prior decision by Judge Richard Berman. The ruling was significant because the Patriots would lose Brady for four games but more so because the balance of power on player discipline so quickly shifted in Roger Goodell’s favor. With one stroke of the pen, Goodell’s arbitrary use of Article 46 in CBA was completely validated and is poised to manifest itself in ways not beneficial to players.
12. Josh Norman
Norman is not a poor man after signing a five-year, $75 million deal ($51.1 million guaranteed) with Washington two days after Carolina rescinded its franchise tag and made him a free agent in April. The outspoken corner has mostly been a success in his first year in D.C., though some have questioned his overall value as a shutdown corner. In Week 1 against Pittsburgh, he did not cover Antonio Brown because of Washington’s scheme, and Brown responded with 126 yards and two touchdowns. But Norman’s impact is perhaps most clearly felt with the Panthers, who have seen their vaunted 2015 defense wither in ’16 due to the hole he left at cornerback.
11. Stan Kroenke
Possibly the most hated man in Missouri, Kroenke brokered a deal to build a $2.9 billion stadium as the center of a mega-entertainment complex in Inglewood’s Hollywood Park district. On Jan. 12, owners voted 30–2 to allow Kroenke to realize his dream of relocating the Rams back to Los Angeles, leaving St. Louis fans devastated. The Rams’ return to L.A. started with much fanfare—a turn on HBO’s Hard Knocks—before ending with a thud, the firing of longtime mediocre coach Jeff Fisher. The Rams move into their new stadium in 2019; until then, Kroenke will try to keep them relevant.
10. Peyton Manning
The Sheriff won his second Super Bowl and rode off into the sunset after 18 seasons. Most people under 40 had little experience with a Peyton-less NFL. The work ethic, the dissection of defenses and the OMAHAs would be missed, but Manning still graced our television screens every Sunday on a plethora of commercials. Manning’s exit from the NFL wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine: Allegations of HGH mailed to his residence swirled in the spring before the NFL cleared him in July. Meanwhile, a New York Daily News columnist uncovered a decade-old sexual assault charge from a Tennessee trainer while Manning was a student. The scandal quickly dissipated after character questions about the accuser emerged.
9. Von Miller
Five years ago, Miller was drafted No. 2 behind Cam Newton. On Super Bowl Sunday, Miller single-handedly neutralized Newton and his Panthers, nabbing 2.5 sacks and forcing two fumbles en route to a convincing 24–10 win. Miller was named Super Bowl MVP, and the off-season of Von took off from there. Commercials, Dancing with the Stars, hanging with Kanye, interviews galore. You name it, Miller did it. His style, swagger and eyeglass collection turned Miller into a star that transcended the football field. Once he was back on it, Miller picked up where he left off: dominating. Miller is currently second in sacks (13.5) behind Atlanta’s Vic Beasley.
8. Aaron Rodgers
The fact that Rodgers is now a legitimate MVP candidate is simply remarkable. The Packers started the season 4–6, and while Rodgers still had above-average numbers his performance contributed to that stunning malaise. Rodgers failed to connect with receivers on everything from simple dump-offs to intricate back-shoulder passes. Yes, his dropsy wideouts weren’t helping, but still it felt as if the offense was just introduced five minutes before kickoff. Or perhaps we’re rattled when Rodgers looks like less than the transformational quarterback we’ve come to expect year after year. Skepticism brewed: Was Rodgers past his prime? Was he on a sharp decline? Did he disapprove of JoJo? The answer was an emphatic no (well, for the first two) as Rodgers led the Packers to a five-game winning streak and possible playoff berth by reminding us that he’s the best quarterback in the league.
7. Tom Brady
Brady gave up his Deflategate legal battle and sat out the first quarter of the season. Just as we were learning to spell the name Garoppolo, the 39-year old ageless wonder returned to thoroughly dominate with 25 touchdowns and only two interceptions, leading the Patriots to a 10–1 record. Brady remains at the pinnacle of his prime, as it doesn’t seem any cell in his body ages. Perhaps that’s because he follows the insanely strict “living document” that is his $200 cookbook.
6. Reggie McKenzie
Executive of the Year receives less fanfare than MVP or Defensive Player of the Year, but it is an equally important award, and it should be handed to the Raiders’ general manager. What McKenzie has done in Oakland over the past five years in overhauling a broken franchise is nothing short of incredible. The centerpiece of that rebuild was landing both Khalil Mack and Derek Carr in the 2014 draft. The Raiders had been notoriously errant in free agency, but under McKenzie the pieces slowly came together in recent years, from wideout Michael Crabtree in '15 to guard Kelechi Osemele this past off-season. In fact, McKenzie rebuilt the entire offensive line. McKenzie has not worried about the value of contracts and track records so much as signing players who want to be Raiders. The result: a 12–3 record and the driver’s seat to a first-round bye.
5. Cam Newton
Whether winning an MVP award, storming out of a Super Bowl press conference, donning splashy attire, answering societal questions or dodging them, Newton was omnipresent in 2016. There is always a headline for Newton, the most recent being the lack of roughing-the-passer calls. After a Week 8 loss to Arizona, Newton vented his frustration: “It’s not fun. It’s really taking the fun out of the game for me. Honestly, it really is. At times, I don’t even feel safe. Enough is enough.” With the beating he takes, can you blame the guy for not wanting to wear a tie to the game?
4. Odell Beckham Jr.
He kicked a net and drew an unsportsmanlike penalty in disgust. He made up with the net (and proposed) in jubilation. It’s never a dull moment when it comes to Beckham. Are his antics worth it? A one-handed catch attempt gone awry because he should have been using two hands indicates the answer is no. Then he breaks free and takes off for 75 yards and a score and it’s hell yes. Beckham is currently second only to T.Y. Hilton in receiving yards (1,323) and has ten touchdowns to boot. Beckham’s year was been monstrous, his highlight reel mindboggling. While he seems to have stabilized, who knows when he will go off the rails again.
3. John Elway
When the Broncos went 5–2 with Brock Osweiler under center for an injured Peyton Manning last season, the longtime backup was universally anointed Manning’s successor—except by Elway, who missed the memo, shrewdly and shockingly letting Osweiler walk right onto the green carpet on Houston. Without even a face-to-face meeting, the Texans signed Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract. Rumors swirled about Denver’s future under center. Elway passed on trying to acquire Colin Kaepernick. He drafted Paxton Lynch, who was far from NFL-ready. So the team settled for little-known Trevor Siemian, who just needed to be a game manager as the Broncos entered the season with the league’s top defense. As Denver busted out to a 4–0 start and Osweiler struggled out of the gate, the “Elway is a genius” mantra became commonplace. Osweiler got even worse over time (and was recently benched for Tom Savage), but the Broncos simultaneously regressed and were eliminated from playoff contention on Christmas Day. Elway may be a mastermind of an executive, but he’s going to need a quarterback to return to the Super Bowl. I wonder if there will be any veterans like Manning available for next season.
2. Rookie Cowboys
The Cowboys’ offensive line rightfully gets a lot of praise, but what Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott have done this season is simply astounding. Elliott looks like a steal with the No. 4 pick, crushing the league in rushing yards with 1631 through 15 games. That is almost 400 more yards than the next best back. Elliott plays the part of the throwback to perfection, finding every nook and cranny the Cowboys’ line creates for him. Prescott may be the biggest steal of the draft. He hasn’t shown a modicum of nerves, nothing to signal that the moment is just too big. Prescott deals week after week, and now the 13–2 Cowboys are in the driver’s seat in the NFC having secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Think about the Cowboys at this point last year. The team was sputtering to the off-season. Greg Hardy and his unique brand of toxicity was permeating the locker room. The 2016 version has more confetti and camaraderie, in large part thanks to the team’s rookie phenoms.
1. Colin Kaepernick
The act of taking a knee is a simple one, but not if your name is Colin Kaepernick. Cameras first caught Kaepernick sitting on the bench during the national anthem before the 49ers’ third preseason game. For subsequent anthems the quarterback pivoted to taking a knee, for reasons he would describe as protesting police brutality and racial inequality in the country. Naysayers disgusted by what they presumed was disrespecting the military called for his release. Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick “find a new country.” The fury was real and widespread. But so was the support. Teammates like Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea joined Kaepernick’s protest, as did players from around the league and across the sports world. Kaepernick became a hero to many looking for a voice or just inspired by his willingness to take a stand amid a toxic environment. The movement transcended the sport, dominating the national news cycle for months.