NFL season in review: What we learned

Despite the lockout and the implementation of that screwy new kickoff rule, the NFL once again managed to provide one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory. If we can learn anything from this season, it’s that we know nothing; rookies break out, upsets happen and injuries can occur at any time.

Although the NFL has already named its MVP, Rookie of the Year, etc., I think it’s time that we recognize some of the other great stories this season provided.

*Biggest surprise award: Texans make the playoffs*

Since joining the NFL in 2002, the Texans had never clinched a playoff berth. The Colts have dominated the AFC South for the last decade, but with Peyton Manning sidelined, the Texans had their chance. Key offseason acquisitions on the defensive side allowed the once-porous Houston defense to establish a new image. Wade Phillips became the new defensive coordinator and added players like Jonathan Joseph, Danieal Manning and J.J. Watt.

The Texans offense, led by Arian Foster, managed to roll through the season despite starting rookie T.J. Yates after losing first- and second-string quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart to injuries. In addition to Mario Williams being lost for the year, Andre Johnson missed about half the season with a hamstring injury.

*Biggest surprise runner-up: Year of the rookie QB — Cam Newton, Andy Dalton*

*The Cade McNown Award — given to the biggest disappointment: Peyton Hillis*

Let there be no doubt, the Madden Curse is very real. Thanks to illness, a contract dispute and injuries, Hillis’ 2011 season was a travesty. In 2010, Hillis racked up over 1,700 yards of total offense and 13 touchdowns. In 2011, however, Hillis accounted for less than 720 yards of total offense, three touchdowns and averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. Hillis will become a free agent this offseason, and it’s rumored the Browns may be interested in re-signing him for another season of mediocrity.

*Runner-up: Philadelphia Eagles “Dream Team”*

*The “We don’t suck anymore” Award — Given to the most improved team: San Francisco 49ers*

From a 6-10 finish in 2010 to 13-3 in 2011, everything fell into place for the 49ers under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. Players like Alex Smith, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis all began to play up to their full potential at the same time. The defense, led by Patrick Willis, allowed the second fewest points per game and was the best in the league at defending the run (77.3 YPG). Were it not for two unfortunate fumbles by Kyle Williams in the NFC Championship, the 49ers would have been in the Super Bowl.

*Runner-up: Cincinnati Bengals*

*The “We would have won, but..” Award — given to the team most affected by injury: Kansas City Chiefs*

After going 10-6 and making the playoffs in 2010, the Chiefs were in position to improve and keep winning in 2011. However, in the first two weeks of the season, Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry — arguably the Chiefs’ two best players — both tore their ACLs and were lost for the year. An injury to starting quarterback Matt Cassel’s hand in mid-November required surgery, thrusting Tyler Palko into the spotlight. The Chiefs eventually claimed Kyle Orton off waivers, won three of their last five games and finished the season at 7-9 — one game behind the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders, who all finished 8-8.

*Runner-up: Chicago Bears*

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Breakout Player of the Year: Rob Gronkowski*

This was a very close call between Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, both bringing unparalleled size and athleticism to the tight end position. Gronkowski set the NFL single-season record for touchdown receptions (17) and receiving yards (1,327) for a tight end. Gronkowski gets the edge because of his slightly higher stats, his touchdown celebration spike, and his shirtless, post-Super Bowl dancing skills.

*Runners-up: Jimmy Graham, Tim Tebow*

_Kevin is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @KevinThorn10._