In the last weeks of 2019, The Comeback is taking a look back at the 2010s in every major professional sport, reminiscing on the biggest moments and pondering the trends and changes that will take hold entering the 2020s. After looking at the NBA and NHL, we’re diving into the NFL.
Off-field craziness dominated the NFL in the 2010s. We saw Roger Goodell’s struggle to deal with crime and concussions, Colin Kaepernick and the resulting discussion surrounding politics and social justice, Deflategate, Bountygate, and various other controversies that dominated headlines. The game’s best receiver went completely off the rails and was accused of rape.
All of that is important, to varying degrees, and has been discussed at length. In this decade review, we’re going to focus on the teams that dominated, and the changes we saw on the field. Analytics, as in other sports, plays a bigger role in decision-making.
Let’s dive into the 2010s in the NFL:
The significant teams
The New England Patriots defined the decade, the second time they’ve done that. The Patriots’ dynasty is already the most remarkable in sports history, and as the decade closes, we’re not done seeing them at the top of the standings and in Super Bowl contention.
New England finishes the 2010s with a 125-35 regular season record, winning 79 percent of their games. No team approaches that figure; the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are tied for second in total wins with 102, and only six teams even won 60 percent of their games. The Patriots will finish the decade with, at minimum, five Super Bowl appearances and three titles. (They might add on to those numbers this winter.)
Many teams want to imitate New England’s methods, but there is no code to crack, or strategic mastery to be unlocked. As many Patriots outposts that open across the country (currently Houston, Tennessee, Detroit, and Miami), no one has been able to replicate Bill Belichick’s success. We can pinpoint reasons for New England’s dominance, but it’s hard to say that the Patriots are approaching things completely differently than everyone else. They’re just better.
Tom Brady probably has to be considered the GOAT, simply based on how much he’s won. It’s reasonable to say that there have been better or more talented quarterbacks, but Brady has won so much at the most important position that he’s almost out of reach. He’s thrown to a constantly-rotating group of receivers who have rarely been elite, though he did enjoy the best tight end in NFL history when Rob Gronkowski was healthy.
As the new decade approaches, New England possess the two best special teamers in the entire league: Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel. That they’ve accumulated that talent in that area of the field feels like a good summation of the Patriots’ success.
Behind the Patriots in total wins for the decade: Steelers, Packers, Seahawks, and Saints.
Pittsburgh was arguably the most exciting team to watch in the league for a handful of years, when the Killer B’s offense (Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell) was at its height. Running out an offense with a Hall of Fame QB, the best WR in the league, and the best RB in the league — plus a high-level offensive line — is pretty insane, and had it not been for injuries, playoff disappointments, and the Patriots, the Steelers would have won at least one Super Bowl with that core.
The closest they came was the 2016 AFC Championship game, in which the Patriots offense ran rampant over the Steelers’ defense. Brady went 32-42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns, picking apart Pittsburgh’s zone defense. Bell was injured for most of that game, as he was in the 2014 loss to the Ravens in the wild card game and in the 2015 divisional round loss to the Broncos. The Steelers were also missing Brown in that 2015 loss, and had to play with an injured Roethlisberger after a wild and brutal first round win over Cincinnati. 2017, the last year of the full Killer B’s, saw them fall in the divisional round after giving up 45 points to Blake Bortles. It all publicly collapsed last year, and now Roethlisberger is on his last legs.
Seattle created what could reasonably be called a dynasty. They went to a couple of Super Bowls, blowing out the Peyton Manning Broncos in one and losing the other when, well, you know what happened. The “Legion of Boom” defense was good enough to have its own name. No offense could do anything against Seattle’s secondary, which featured Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor. Bobby Wagner was and might still be the best middle linebacker in football.
That Seahawks defense finished second in DVOA in 2012, first in 2013 and 2014, and fourth in 2015. Their defenders were consistently on the All-Pro Team — Sherman was 3x first team, 1x second team, Thomas was 3x first, 2x second, and Chancellor was 2x second — and linebacker Malcolm Smith was Super Bowl MVP. Shutting down the record-setting 2013 Broncos offense in Super Bowl XLVIII is an underrated achievement. Russell Wilson was one of the best QBs of the decade, and will likely finish 2019 second in the MVP race.
Aaron Rodgers’s Packers started the decade with a Super Bowl win over the Steelers, and it’s almost an injustice that they never returned to the big game. In 2011, they finished 15-1 and Rodgers won an MVP, but they lost in the divisional round to the Super Bowl champion Giants. They followed that by going 11-5, 12-4, 10-6, and 10-6 in the next four seasons in which Rodgers was fully healthy. Yet, with Mike McCarthy at the helm, they did not make it past the conference championship.
In 2014, Green Bay lost in overtime against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game after Brandon Bostick fumbled an onside kick, blowing a 16-0 halftime lead and a 19-7 lead, while having the ball, with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Two years later, they lost in the conference title game to the juggernaut 2016 Falcons offense, 44-21. The tone of the decade changes if they capitalize on this year’s 13-3 season with new coach Matt LaFleur.
The Saints were largely one of the most successful teams in the league, outside of four 7-9 campaigns. They did not win a Super Bowl in the 2010s (though their 2009 championship technically happened in 2010), but they did finish with records of 13-3 (2011, 2018, and 2019) and 11-5 (2010, 2013, and 2017). Drew Brees has all-time records for completion percentage, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. He was robbed of a spot on the NFL’s All-Time team. (To be fair, everyone was robbed of a spot on that team.)
Let’s run through some other notable teams:
– The Falcons with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones could be remarkable. In 2016, they tore it up on offense and took a massive lead against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, only to squander it and lose in overtime. Jones could be considered the best receiver of the decade, though Brown was the best in the league for a handful of years.
– The Broncos went to two Super Bowls, going 1-1. In 2013, they set a league record for points scored in a season. Manning set records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season. They were the first team to have four players catch double-digit passing touchdowns: Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas.
They won Super Bowl 50 over the Panthers when Denver’s defense was the best in the league. Von Miller won Super Bowl MVP, and while Manning had regressed badly by this point, he walked off into the sunset with a win in his final game.
– The Ravens were sixth in the league in total wins for the decade, winning a Super Bowl in 2012 over Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Joe Flacco got hot that year, earning him a massive contract that did Baltimore no favors over the next few years. But they consistently hung around under the guidance of John Harbaugh, and they were often threatening on defense.
They finish the 2010s with the electric Lamar Jackson winning MVP and leading the Ravens into what should be the brightest future in the league. Also, Justin Tucker is the best kicker in NFL history.
– The Chiefs saw quarterback Patrick Mahomes win an MVP last year as they eventually lost in the conference championship to the Patriots in overtime. Before Mahomes, they were consistently in contention, ripping off winning seasons from 2013-19 and winning double-digit games in six of those seven seasons, most of which featured Alex Smith at QB. Andy Reid is likely the second-best coach of the decade.
– The Giants won a championship with Eli Manning. Things did not go as well for the rest of the decade.
– The Houston Texans had an underrated run of success in the first half of the decade. Matt Schaub (who’s still in the league!) was a yards machine, throwing to Andre Johnson and handing off to Arian Foster. They went 12-4 in 2012, with JJ Watt winning his first of three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Now, they’ve made the playoffs the last couple of seasons with Deshaun Watson on his rookie contract.
– The Panthers went 15-1 in 2015 and went to the Super Bowl. The Cam Newton era appears to be ending, but it’s impressive what they were able to do without a huge amount of talent at wide receiver.
– The Chargers had a Hall of Fame quarterback in Phillip Rivers, but lost a ton of close games and suffered some playoff disappointments. They also moved (for no real reason) from San Diego to LA.
The on-field trends
Many of the league’s successful teams take analytics into account. John Harbaugh’s Ravens are the most prominent right now. They go for it on fourth down, and go for two after touchdowns when it makes sense.
Others, like Philly’s Doug Pederson and Indianpolis’s Frank Reich, have shown that they are invested in making the right kinds of aggressive decisions. Even Bill Belichick, regardless of his public comments on the matter, appears to take analytics into account.
We know that teams should be going for it more on fourth down. Brian Burke, a respected analytics mind at ESPN, did a study of fourth down decisions back in 2014. The takeaway: Aggressiveness will be rewarded, yet conservatism abounds in the NFL. The same goes for two-point conversions.
Establishing the run does not exist; establishing play-action should be the real mantra. The effectiveness of play-fakes does not depend on a team’s success in running the ball, because defenders will bite on the fake regardless. Teams should run the ball less in general — although runs on third and fourth down tend to be more effective — and use play-action more.
The Ravens, with Lamar Jackson tearing teams up, are a fascinating counter to the idea that passing is far more efficient. Even as Baltimore embraces analytics, they have built a run-first offense that no team has been able to stop this season. There is a place for the run in an analytics world, if used correctly and effectively.
What we’ve learned
There was only one dynasty over the past decade, and only a couple of teams that were truly successful by the measure of championships and championship appearances. A handful of teams could not break through despite an effective QB — the Steelers, Saints, Chargers, Lions, Packers, Colts, etc. If the Patriots didn’t exist, it might be possible to say that the NFL contains real league-wide parity, perhaps even more than the NHL, which saw only a handful of teams win titles for a stretch of 10 years.
Entering the 2020s, there will be a burgeoning QB market. As teams realize how valuable rookie contract QBs are, we will see more urgency to win in that fleeting time frame, and hopefully we’ll see teams be willing to cut bait with passers who don’t live up. The Bears with Mitchell Trubisky, the Bucs with Jameis Winston, and the Raiders with Derek Carr will be interesting case studies, with different variables involved in each situation.
Running backs might continue to have their value suffer. A number of backs who were signed to big contracts in the last couple of years have not panned out — Todd Gurley being a prime example in LA, and Bell with the Jets as a possible other one — and we know that backs are easily found for cheap in later rounds of the draft.
All of the various issues that the NFL deals with will stick around. Player empowerment could continue to blossom, seen in the form of trade requests and hold outs. Others could make a similar decision to Andrew Luck’s, deciding that their long-term health takes priority and retire early. It can, understandably, be hard to get over the concussions for many potential fans.
The fact remains, though, that the NFL is the country’s favorite league, and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.