DATE CREATED: 12/18/08Brady's injury triggers one of the most unpredictable years in NFL history
Tom Curran, NBCSports.com
Around 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 7, a 23-year-old named Bernard Pollard put a match to the NFL's script for 2008.
Lunging into the left knee of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on the 17th offensive play of New England's season, Pollard ripped the ACL and MCL -- two major ligaments -- in Brady's left knee.
Brady -- the league's reigning MVP and the best player on the NFL's Team of the ‘00s -- writhed in season-ending pain. And as he did, the fortunes of every team in the 32-team league were flung into the air like handfuls of confetti.
No team would be capable of even attempting to craft a gridiron Michelangelo as the Patriots nearly did in 2007. Instead, 2008 was going to be a Picasso -- a season you had to stare at for awhile before it made any sense at all. If it ever did.
Well, from chaos has come beauty. With two weeks of regular-season games left, the storylines are stacked high like cordwood. And the NFL has another winner of a year.
This weekend, the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers will fight face-to-face for the top playoff seed in the NFC. In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans will do the same.
Meanwhile, the chase for perfect imperfection continues for the Detroit Lions. If they lose to the New Orleans Saints this weekend, they will become the first team in NFL history to start a season 0-15 and will need to beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field to avoid lasting infamy.
And if the Lions do happen to win that finale to go 1-15, batten down the hatches in Wisconsin. Brett Favre is a New York Jet, he's going to the Pro Bowl, the Jets might be going to the playoffs and the Cheeseheads are looking at a long, dark, football-free January.
There's reality-show chaos in Dallas. We've got rehabbed franchises led by fuzzy-cheeked gunslingers in Atlanta and Baltimore. Another renovation job by the Tuna, Bill Parcells, has gone down with the Dolphins. In the desert, the woebegone Arizona Cardinals have won their first division title in 33 years. In the heartland, Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy have done another mind-meld and quietly lugged the Colts back from a poor start to become real threats. And there's a three-way tie at the top of the AFC East between Favre's Jets, those Dolphins (1-15 in 2007) and the surprising Patriots. All three are at 9-5, and we might need an abacus to figure out who wins that division when it's all done. Who's the MVP? Coach of the Year? Favorite to win the Super Bowl in Tampa? Pull up a bar stool and argue about it for a while. No stance is too far-fetched.
The business benefit to all this? More teams have a shot at a measure of success. Which means more cities and regions are engaged in the progress than normal. Which means people are watching and "consuming" football at a time of economic bleakness.
Last Sunday, 23.1 million viewers watched NBC's Sunday Night Football game between the Giants and Cowboys. That was a Sunday Night Football record.
Nobody's been closer to the NFL action for longer than Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films. He's been telling the stories of NFL seasons since 1962. Processing what it all means in the context of football history is what he does.
His take on 2008?
"I've always said that history is written by the winners and that an NFL season usually takes shape from its dominant team. This year, there is no dominant team," says Sabol. "The only thing certain is uncertainty. We've had three coaching changes, and two general managers have resigned. When I look at a season, I like to look in historical terms. This season to me takes on didactic dimension. It teaches us. And this season is teaching me the genius of simplicity is never appreciated the way the genius of complexity is."
The simplicity is that, had Brady not been injured, there's a great likelihood that the league would have spent this year staring up at New England once again. Even though they lost the Super Bowl last year in a brilliant twist of fate, this year still would have been focused on them. It would have been same linear storyline as 2007. Only New England's controversial and dominant march toward perfection would now be a season-long wait to see if they could gain redemption. Suddenly, the season was like a Tarantino movie script -- a whole bunch of little subplots that needed sorting out before they all intersected.
As Sabol said, "Football questions don't get answered. Just get asked over and over and over again."
And, he adds, the best part of this story is about to be written.
"The postseason is when the year takes its real shape. Joe Kuharich, who coached the Eagles in the 1960s and was the master of the malaprop, used to say, ‘I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel.' Well, that's really true now."
© 2008 NBC Sports.com
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