Super Bowl LI was filled with a year’s worth of surprises and disappointments, but let’s not forget that there were 30 other teams who participated in the 2016 NFL season.
New York teams, running backs and teams that were playing for a chance to go to the Super Bowl only a year ago were among the biggest surprises and disappointments of 2016.
Surprise: Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott
As the No. 4 overall draft pick, Ezekiel Elliott was expected to contribute right away.
The Cowboys running back did more than just contribute.
Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 rushing yards and was third with 15 rushing touchdowns. He’s the fifth rookie since 1970 to lead the NFL in rushing, joining Earl Campbell, George Rogers, Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson.
But it wasn’t enough to earn Elliott the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. It wasn’t even enough for Elliott to be the top rookie on his own team.
Quarterback Dak Prescott was voted the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year. The fourth-round draft pick was thrust into duty when Tony Romo hurt his back in the preseason, and he won’t be giving up the job anytime soon.
Prescott threw for 23 touchdowns and four interceptions in leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, tying Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie mark for quarterback wins. Prescott became the first quarterback drafted in the fourth round or later to throw 23 touchdown passes in his rookie season, according to Pro Football Reference. Three had thrown 22, but not since 1960. Fran Tarkenton in 1961 and Mark Rypien in 1988 both threw 18 in their first year.
Unlike Elliott, Prescott wasn’t drafted with a lot of fanfare and therefore was a bigger surprise. But who knew that after a 4-12 season two rookies would fuel an immediate turnaround for the Cowboys?
Say this about the Panthers, opposing quarterbacks weren’t any safer against them in 2016. The Panthers went from 44 sacks and sixth in the league in 2015 to 47 sacks and second this season.
But the defending NFC champions didn’t improve in the standings, dropping from 15-1 to 6-10, the worst record for a defending conference champion since the 2005 Eagles, according to Sporting Charts.
Despite those sacks, the Panthers allowed the fourth-most passing yards in the league and their overall defense ranked 21st. Rescinding Josh Norman’s franchise tag doesn’t look like the brightest move now. Norman tied for fifth in the NFL with 19 passes defended for the Redskins.
Cam Newton, meanwhile, had his worst year in terms of passer rating (75.8) and completion percentage (52.9). The latter number was the lowest among full-time starting quarterbacks this season.
There wasn’t much dabbing going on in Carolina this year.
Surprise: Chris Hogan and James White
There are no spare parts on the Patriots roster. Bill Belichick’s game plans are so specifically tailored that fringe players like Chris Hogan and James White can become instant stars on the game’s biggest stage.
Hogan, a wide receiver who the Patriots signed from the Bills as a restricted free agent, caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs, in the Patriots’ 36-17 AFC championship game win over the Steelers.
White didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The running back was second on the team with 60 receptions this season. But he wasn’t exactly a household name.
He is now.
White caught a Super Bowl-record 14 passes in the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons. His three touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving, put him in the elite company of Hall of Famers Terrell Davis and Jerry Rice, as well as Pro Bowlers Ricky Watters and Roger Craig, as one of five players to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl.
White also set a Super Bowl record with 20 points scored. He ran for the two-point conversion that pulled the Patriots to within 28-20 with six minutes left in regulation. With a minute left, he ran for the 1-yard touchdown to set up Danny Amendola’s game-tying two-point conversion.
Then White became the only player to score an overtime touchdown in Super Bowl history with his game-winning, two-yard run.
He stopped more hearts than Malcolm Butler did two years ago.
The Cardinals turned an old sports cliché inside-out in 2016.
The sum of their parts was greater than the whole.
With improvements in each of Bruce Arians’ first three seasons as head coach, the Cardinals appeared to be a Super Bowl contender. They lost in the wild-card round in 2014 and fell to the Panthers in the 2015 NFC championship game.
They didn’t come anywhere near the conference title game this season, slumping to 7-8-1.
The Cardinals found a way to beat the Panthers in one area, leading the league with 48 sacks. But 2016 might be remembered as the year that revealed how much sacks are overrated. Only three of the teams in the top 10 (including ties) in that category made the playoffs.
That pass rush was part of the league’s No. 2 overall defense. The Cardinals also had the league’s leading pass catcher in Larry Fitzgerald (107 receptions) and the league leader in yards from scrimmage in David Johnson (2,118 yards).
Despite that football talent, the Cardinals have been hitting golf balls for more than a month.
The Cardinals at least would have been 9-7 if Chandler Catanzaro had made a 47-yard field goal as the clock ran out in Week 1 against the Patriots and if he hadn’t hit the upright on a 24-yard chip shot in overtime against the Seahawks in Week 7. The Cardinals 23-21 to the Patriots and tied the Seahawks 6-6 in those two Sunday Night Football home games.
Even though the Cardinals broke even in turnover differential, forcing 28 and committing 28, they might have dug themselves too big of a hole by turning the ball over 10 times in weeks 3 and 4.
Carson Palmer threw four interceptions in a 33-18 loss at Buffalo in Week 3. Arizona turned the ball over five times in that game and they turned it over five times in a 17-13 home loss to the Rams the following week. After that 1-3 start, the Cardinals never got beyond .500 for the rest of the season.
Surprise: Jay Ajayi
The Dolphins, and Jay Ajayi’s career, seemed to be going nowhere through the first five weeks of the 2016 season.
Ajayi didn’t even make the team flight to Seattle in Week 1 because new head coach Adam Gase wasn’t happy with his effort.
Apparently Ajayi learned his lesson.
He had a breakout game in Week 6 and sparked a Dolphins turnaround.
The second-year running back gashed the Steelers for 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 30-15 win at Miami. Ajayi ran for 214 yards the following week against the Bills, and the Dolphins won four more in a row after that, going from 1-4 to 7-4 and eventually their first playoff berth since 2008.
A fifth-round draft pick in 2015, Ajayi joined Earl Campbell, O.J. Simpson and Ricky Williams as the only players to run for 200 yards in back-to-back games. He had never even run for more than 48 yards in a game before that.
Ajayi ran for 111 yards in the Dolphins’ third straight win, but the only other time he ran for more than 100 after that was when he went for 206 against the Bills in Week 16.
Still, Ajayi never dipped below 45 yards in his final 11 games. That’s more than he ran for in any of his first four games.
Disappointment: Todd Gurley
If you Google “sophomore slump,” don’t be surprised if Todd Gurley’s name shows up among the top results.
The Rams moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and the 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year didn’t seem ready for the bright lights in 2016.
After rushing for 1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns and 4.8 yards per carry in 13 games as a rookie, Gurley managed just 885 yards and six touchdowns in 2016. Gurley’s decline wasn’t because of reduced opportunities. He played in all 16 games and ran the ball 278 times, but his 3.2 yards per carry was the lowest average among running backs with at least 150 carries.
According to Jason Cole of Bleacher Report, members of the departed Rams coaching staff said that Gurley missed much of the offseason program and spent a little too much time hanging out with Jay Z.
New Rams coach Sean McVay, at 31 the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL, is at least old enough to be a big brother to Gurley and see that he straightens out his act this offseason.
Surprise: DeMarco Murray
Put DeMarco Murray behind a decent offensive line, and he won’t disappoint.
After leading the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards in 2014, Murray signed with the Eagles last season and ran for just 702 yards, 3.6 yards per carry.
After firing Chip Kelly, the Eagles traded Murray to the Titans as part of their housecleaning and Murray became relevant again.
With the help of an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked the best in the NFL, Murray ran for 1,287 yards, third in the league.
The Titans were in contention for a playoff spot until they lost at Jacksonville in Week 16, but the future looks bright in Tennessee. Marcus Mariota took a step forward in his second season and Murray’s three-year journeyman run looks like it’s come to a landing spot in Tennessee.
Disappointment: Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly took three years to wear out his welcome in Philadelphia. It took just one year for the 49ers to fire him in 2016.
In a way, Kelly picked up where he left off in Philadelphia. The Eagles went 10-6 and lost a wild-card game in 2013, Kelly’s first season. They went 10-6 and missed the playoffs in 2014 and then dropped to 7-9 in 2015. Kelly was fired after Week 16.
Kelly’s regression continued in San Francisco. He somehow did a worse job than Jim Tomsula. The 49ers slipped from 5-11 to 2-14, their worst record since 2004. They only could beat one team, the Rams. But at least Kelly beat two different coaches. The Rams fired Jeff Fisher after 13 games, so John Fassel was the coach when the 49ers won at Los Angeles in Week 16.
Now Kelly is being talked about as a candidate to replace Kyle Shanahan as Falcons’ offensive coordinator while Shanahan takes Kelly’s old job in San Francisco.
In the wake of their epic collapse in Super Bowl LI, that could be a “rebound” marriage for the Falcons.
Like the Dolphins in the AFC, the Giants made the playoffs under a new coach after a long absence. The Giants’ five-year drought wasn’t as long as the Dolphins’ eight-year drought. But much of the surprise spotlight in Miami shined on Jay Ajayi.
The Giants did it with an offense that ranked 25th in the NFL, one spot below the Dolphins. The Giants’ rushing offense averaged 3.5 yards per game, 30th in the league.
Odell Beckham Jr. was no surprise. He was third in the league receptions (101) and receiving yards (1,367) and fifth in receiving touchdowns (10).
The most surprising part of the Giants’ resurgence was their defense. It ranked last in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed in 2015, but the Giants under new coach Ben McAdoo improved the unit largely through free agency. That can be hit-or-miss way to build a team.
Former Dolphin Olivier Vernon led the Giants with 8.5 sacks. Former Ram Janoris Jenkins was second on the team with 18 passes defended and added three interceptions. Former Jet Damon Harrison was named the league’s best run defender by Pro Football Focus, and the Giants ranked fourth against the run and 10th in overall defense.
The Giants finished 11-5 and beat the 13-3 Cowboys twice in the regular season. It took the only other team that could beat the Cowboys in a meaningful game to eliminate the Giants.
It didn’t take long this season to find out why the Jets waited so long to re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick set a franchise record with 31 touchdown passes in 2015, but he threw three interceptions at Buffalo in Week 17 as the Jets choked away a playoff berth despite a 10-6 record.
It turned out that Fitzpatrick was closer to the one the Jets would get in 2017. He threw 12 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, including six in a 24-3 Week 3 loss at Kansas City that set in motion a four-game losing streak and a 1-5 start that the Jets never recovered from.
Fitzpatrick wasn’t the Jets’ only problem, however. After sacking Andy Dalton seven times in a 23-22 Week 1 loss, they somehow managed to finish 29th in the league with only 27 sacks. It didn’t help that Darrelle Revis was aging before everyone’s eyes at cornerback.
Matt Forte also showed his age on the other side of the ball after a promising start, and the loss of Eric Decker to hip and shoulder injuries after an 80-catch season was another blow.
It all added up to a 5-11 season for the Jets and a mess at the quarterback position.