The Eagles’ Super Bowl victory summarized the season and left looming cliff-hangers
The championship dramatically punctuated themes from the season, but some intriguing questions remain
The Super Bowl was a perfect season finale for the 2017-18 NFL season. The made-for-TV football spectacular did everything you’d expect from a final episode. The championship dramatically punctuated themes from the season, concluded season-long story lines and left looming cliff-hangers.
For decades, the rigid thinking of NFL coaches and analysts perpetuated the myth that only “pro-style” quarterbacks can succeed in NFL “pro-style” offenses. For years, athletic quarterbacks chipped away at that myth, but without the support of a flexible coach, they could not fully topple that narrow thinking. Those players were labeled “college” quarterbacks, capable of running only college-style offenses that couldn’t succeed in the NFL.
But that changed this season, thanks in part to one of this season’s themes, the effectiveness and pervasiveness of college-style offensive principles like RPOs (run, pass options). RPOs are not new to the NFL this season; elite quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger used them in 2016. But according to Pro Football Focus, league offenses have used more RPOs than ever this season. And the team that used them most won the Super Bowl. Although Nick Foles isn’t the prototypical “college-style” quarterback, him using RPOs to prevail over Tom Brady, the prototypical “pro-style” quarterback, is the perfect way to end a season that has been shaped by the emergence of the RPO.
Injuries and the concussion protocol
For Foles, a backup quarterback, winning the Super Bowl is fitting for another reason. Injuries to star players were another theme this season. Foles replaced MVP candidate Carson Wentz, who tore his ACL in a Week 14 game against the Los Angeles Rams. Wentz joined a long list of starting quarterbacks who missed substantial time through injury:
- Sam Bradford
- Andrew Luck
- Carson Palmer
- Aaron Rodgers
- Ryan Tannehill
- Deshaun Watson
But it wasn’t just quarterbacks going down. The injury bug had a taste for elites this season, biting Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers at almost every position. Here are a few of the outstanding players who had their seasons ended by injury:
- Cliff Avril
- Odell Beckham Jr.
- Eric Berry
- Bryan Bulaga
- Kam Chancellor
- Jamie Collins
- Julian Edelman
- Dont’a Hightower
- David Johnson
- Brandon Marshall
- Haloti Ngata
- Jason Peters
- Adrian Peterson
- Jordan Reed
- Allen Robinson
- Richard Sherman
- Joe Thomas
- J.J. Watt
- Marshall Yanda
Given all of those big names, the 2017 NFL injury story is about wince-inducing collisions and the failures of the NFL’s concussion protocol. Days before the Super Bowl, Josh Begley, editor for The Intercept, shared this video.
Here's every concussion in the NFL this year pic.twitter.com/zyzwciboSj
— Josh Begley (@joshbegley) February 1, 2018
I had forgotten about many of those gruesome scenes, but there were a couple I don’t think I will ever forget:
- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, reaching for his spine while rolling over with limp legs, after a routine tackle.
- Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage convulsing on the Houston turf after being hit as he threw the ball.
Those stand out for me because I was watching both games when they happened, and they lay bare the NFL’s unsolvable crisis. The sport cannot be made safe. Those hits, like many of the NFL’s cringe-worthy moments from this season, were a result of legal plays. And even if those plays could be eliminated, there is no reason to believe that players will be at a lower risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Repeated hits to the head are what cause the accumulation of tau protein on the brain that causes neurodegenerative brain disease that leads to severe issues later in life, such as depression, suicidal urges, aggression and reduced brain function.
The concussion protocol is one of the measures the NFL has implemented to protect players. It is a process, implemented in 2009 and tweaked as recently as this season, meant to keep players from returning to play too soon after suffering a concussion, giving players’ brains ample time to recover after a brain trauma. That would be beneficial, but as was the case too often this season, the protocol failed, and players were sent back in when it was clear they should not have been. The Seattle Seahawks were fined for sending in their quarterback, Russell Wilson, without even allowing for a neurological exam after the referee determined that he needed one. And somehow a few players this season experienced obvious brain trauma and were sent back into a game, such as Savage and Washington safety Montae Nicholson.
Tom Savage hits head on ground, appears to have seizure while ref looks on, comes back in the game 5 minutes later. pic.twitter.com/gW9lYxDIwQ
— TheRenderNFL (@TheRenderNFL) December 10, 2017
— Domonique Foxworth (@Foxworth24) October 15, 2017
Sadly, even Super Bowl LII reflected the injury themes of the season. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins hit Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks after a big first-half reception. Cooks was left motionless, giving us the frightening injury we expected to see. And in the second half, Patriots safety Patrick Chung returned to the field after being knocked unconscious, reminding us that the concussion protocol is not working.
The catch rule storyline started well before this season. It first came under significant scrutiny in 2014, when Dez Bryant’s inability to complete a catch cost the Dallas Cowboys a win in the divisional round of the playoffs. The nuances of the rule were less well-known then. But since, it has become clearer. Despite popular belief, the catch rule as it is currently written is not hard to understand. The requirements for a reception are clear and are applied properly most of the time. However, it is fair to say that the requirements could stand to be loosened. Several plays this season exposed the flaws in the catch rule, but it was the late-season game between the New England Patriots and Steelers that broke the rule’s back. Steelers tight end Jesse James appeared to have won the game after extending the ball into the end zone, after “catching” it at the goal line. The ground caused him to lose possession, and the Steelers lost the game. “What is a catch?” become a joke among football fans, so much so that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at his pre-Super-Bowl State of the League address that the league would revisit the rule.
So years from now, fans may forget that the 2017 season finally killed the odd catch rule. But Super Bowl LII will remind us with two plays that forced us to go down the checklist of catch requirements for maybe the last time. Both plays were deemed catches and touchdowns for the Philadelphia Eagles, one to rookie running back Corey Clement and the other to Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz.
And like all good season finales, the NFL’s final episode left us with some intriguing unanswered questions:
What will the Eagles do with Nick Foles?
In the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, Foles played better than just about any quarterback in the history of the league. But that probably won’t be enough to keep Wentz, possibly the league’s best young quarterback, from reclaiming his starting job when he returns from his ACL tear. I could see Foles beginning the season as the Eagles’ starter or being traded between now and 2018’s Thursday night kickoff.
Will Gronk retire?
After the game, Patriots future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski responded to a question about his potential retirement by saying, “I don’t know how you heard that, but I’m definitely going to look at my future, for sure. I’m going to sit down the next couple of weeks and see where I’m at.” Though Gronk’s career hasn’t been long, there isn’t much left for him to accomplish. He has two Super Bowl rings and has been named All-Pro four times. He is in the conversation for best tight ends ever. Unless he wants to close the gap on all-time receptions between him and other tight ends, there isn’t anything left to accomplish. There are only two things pulling him back for another season: love of the game and money. Those are strong motivators, but we will see how they stack up against the specter of going through the physical and emotional gantlet of another NFL season.
Is the Patriots’ dynasty finally over?
The answer to the previous question might go a long way to answer this one. Whether Gronk returns or not, even the most delusional Patriots fans have to admit they are a little concerned about the future. The defense is in need of a talent influx. Both coordinators are leaving. The ownership seems to be dabbling in personnel matters more than they have in the past, which resulted in them trading their quarterback of the future, Jimmy Garoppolo, and tying their future to a quarterback who will be 41 years old in August. Alhough rooting against the Patriots has become a national pastime for NFL fans outside of New England, they have given all of us an incredible gift. Their unprecedented 17-year run is one of the most impressive accomplishments in American sports history. Brady and coach Bill Belichick will retire as the greatest ever. Getting to watch them will be a point of pride for all of us, when our grandkids boast about whoever wins Super Bowl LXXII.
America’s best drama/reality show/sport delivered the perfect season finale. All the way down to an unlikely ending with an unlikely hero. Well done, NFL. See you next season.