Remember back to the dispiriting offseason of locked out players and no transactions in the NFL.
Relive the anxiety and angst surrounding whether there would be a season at all (although I wrote repeatedly it would all work out).
Recall the two incredible weeks in which every single draft pick and free agent had to be signed.
Think of the truncated training camp schedule and the number of new coaches and new systems that needed implementing. This seemed an unlikely prescription for the unprecedented success and domination that the NFL produced.
Start with the unprecedented television ratings for prime time NFL games. Remember how many alternative viewing options there are — hundreds of competing networks, showing comedy, drama, movies, reality. There is competition from the NHL, NBA, college football and basketball, soccer, MLB just in the sports realm.
The NFL achieved a saturation which was unique — not just on Sunday, but Monday nights. The week of Sept. 6-12 the top three Nielsen rated shows were NFL games or pregame, and five of the top 10 shows overall. Half of the top 10 was the NFL prime time. And this trend continued throughout the season with NFL prime time comprising three of the top 10 shows.
Direct TV continued to expand the viewing alternatives with more innovative ways to enjoy the Sunday afternoon schedule. The NFL Network continued to build with a more limited schedule.
In the midst of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, stadiums were filled. Sports bars were crowded. Memorabilia sales continued to soar. And fantasy football leagues grew. Millions of fans had their own teams and camaraderie with friends as they competed for bragging rights.
$3.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial is a new high. Polls indicated that the NFL was by two to one the most popular team sport.
I had thought that the advantage this season would be with established franchises with incumbent coaches, systems, and key players. Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, Baltimore, Atlanta, New York and Pittsburgh all benefited from stability. These are “gateway” teams with huge national following. But San Francisco, and colorful coach Jim Harbaugh defied all odds to provide a reinvigorated franchise and division championship in the coach’s first year. Detroit returned to national prominence. Houston took a great leap forward.
The most identifiable position on the football field by many multiples is the starting quarterback. These are the poster boys that the NFL promotes.
In an NFL that was Peyton Manning and Tom Brady dominated, bright new stars emerged. Rookie Andy Dalton resurrected the Cincinnati Bengals and led them to their first playoff in years. Rookie Cam Newton provided thrills for Carolina. Drew Brees and Aaron Rogers emerged as the new guard of quarterback excellence. Brees broke multiple passing records. Playoff teams are quarterbacked by emerging stars Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan. Alex Smith emerged from his exile. Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning continued their steady play.
Tim Tebow became a national phenomenon, with his unbelievable fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories. Even though he returned to Earth in later games his warmth, values and tenacity made him the most talked about player of the season. And his remarkable transformations at the end of many games made “Tebow Time” must viewing. His performance in the Steeler game during wild card weekend was a revelation.
These playoffs offer exciting matchups and are attracting record viewing.
Southern California finally made real progress toward a state of the art stadium and the ability to attract a NFL franchise. The NFL continued to lift the veil of denial and confront the long term dangers of head injuries. Much work remains to be done, but the issue is front and center.
The security afforded by a 10-year collective bargaining agreement makes the future even brighter. Compensation was redirected from unproven rookie contracts to proven veteran contracts. Fans know the games will be played and all of the energy off the field of the owners and players will be focused on even more creative ways to enhance the brand. New and even more innovative revenue streams will be found.
So from an offseason mired in labor strife and doubt emerged one of the most productive and exciting NFL seasons in years.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.