Every couple of years, owners and coaches need a reminder about what works in the NFL.
Thanks to the Eagles, Saints and Jets – pro football's Cinderella teams – the emphasis on chemistry and teamwork is perhaps the top trend of the 2006 season. No one educated the NFL on that concept more than Bill Belichick in the early 2000s with the way he put together the Patriots. Belichick stressed the team over individuals.
Belichick expanded the number of players he used in situational packages. Some weeks, he would make starters inactive. Other weeks, he'd change schemes to use different groupings of players.
In the end, he built one of the deepest teams in football, which has allowed the Patriots to survive injuries and player defections and still maintain a high level of play.
Eric Mangini, who learned under Belichick, is doing a lot of the same things with the Jets. Look at his running back situation. To outsiders, it seems like the Jets are playing a guessing game each week at running back with Leon Washington, Kevan Barlow and Cedric Houston. But Mangini knows what he's doing. Which running back gets the bulk of the carries usually depends on the matchup with the Jets' opponent. He's also used numerous starting combinations in the secondary. He is building depth and developing a smart team concept for the Jets.
In New Orleans, Sean Payton took over a 3-13 team in disarray and cleaned house. He brought in 27 new players over the offseason and completely changed the Saints' culture. Now they're 10-5 and have clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs. A new coach and a lot of new players changed the chemistry in New Orleans and produced one of the most surprising turnarounds in NFL history.
Andy Reid recaptured a locker room in Philadelphia that had been fractured by Terrell Owens. Donovan McNabb took back control of the team as the leader, but something was still missing. Though McNabb was performing at an MVP level, the Eagles didn't have a consistent running game to help them close out games.
Ironically, it took McNabb's getting hurt for Reid to finally put all the pieces together and the team has responded. Defenders came to the aid of the offense. Jeff Garcia and Brian Westbrook took leadership roles. A team divided in 2005, the Eagles, who are on a four-game winning streak, might be the tightest team in the NFL right now.
Meanwhile, Owens took his act to Dallas. Owens hasn't torn apart the Cowboys' locker room yet, because everyone seems to be ignoring his selfishness, but he sure seems to be trying. Owner Jerry Jones thought Owens was the missing piece who would get his team over the top. But now, the only way the Cowboys can win the NFC East is if they beat the Lions and the Eagles tie or lose to the Falcons on Sunday.
How much of a difference maker was T.O.? Well, he might have made more of a difference for the Eagles this year by not being there than he did for the Cowboys. The Cowboys were passed by an Eagles team that is playing like a team. Every now and then the NFL needs a reminder about the team concept and the Eagles, Saints and Jets have provided that in 2006.
Here are some of the other top trends of 2006:
1. Head of the class: The 2006 quarterback draft class may go down as one of the best since the Dan Marino-John Elway draft of 1983. The three first-rounders – Vince Young (Titans), Matt Leinart (Cardinals) and Jay Cutler (Broncos) – all look like studs. Young is emerging as the top offensive rookie and has the Titans within a tiebreaker of the playoffs. Cutler rebounded from a tough start and has the Broncos on the verge of locking up a playoff spot. Leinart, whose season ended Sunday with a shoulder injury, displayed the poise and passing skills to make the Cardinals a playoff contender next year.
2. The year of the running back: Nineteen backs have 1,000-yard seasons. Five more backs (Ahman Green, Tatum Bell, Willis McGahee, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ronnie Brown) are within 107 yards of reaching that plateau. If that happens, it will pass the NFL record for 1,000-yard running backs in a season – 23, set in 2000. LaDainian Tomlinson took the NFL scoring record to 31 touchdowns and 186 points and counting. One reason is that offenses are responding to increased blitzing by gashing defenses with running plays.
3. NFC in shambles: The NFC completely fell apart. Two years ago, the AFC dominated the NFC, 44-20. But the NFC showed promise last year by closing the gap to 35-29. With only two interconference games left this season, the NFC is on track for its second-worst showing in history against the AFC, trailing 39-23. The only NFC team with a winning record against the AFC was the Cowboys (3-1). NFC teams were an embarrassing 58-64 at home this season. There are many reasons for this, but the most glaring one is quarterback play. Pro Bowl quarterbacks such as Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Delhomme suffered through injuries and had disappointing seasons. Eli Manning regressed instead of making progress. Playing veteran quarterbacks such as Brad Johnson (Vikings), Jon Kitna (Lions) and Mark Brunell (Redskins) didn't work out.
4. Lining up youth: The Jets and Saints showed sometimes it's better to make commitments to younger offensive lines. The Saints looked as though they were crazy when they couldn't re-sign center LeCharles Bentley and traded left tackle Wayne Gandy to Atlanta. The Saints now look brilliant. Jammal Brown had a Pro Bowl season at left tackle. Rookie Jahri Evans had a great season at guard, and the trade for Jeff Faine at center was one of the steals of the season. The Jets turned around their offense by prioritizing the offensive line in their draft. Building the line around left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold helped make the Jets a surprise playoff team.
5. Year of the comeback: Chad Pennington should win the Comeback Player of the Year award after coming back from his second shoulder surgery. Pennington's smarts and ability to move the team in and out of no-huddle offensive sets have put the Jets on the verge of securing a playoff berth. Drew Brees returned from a major shoulder surgery to be right in the thick of the MVP race with LaDainian Tomlinson. Carson Palmer tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the first round of the playoffs last season and didn't miss a game this season. He's almost all the way back to where he was before the injury and earned another trip to the Pro Bowl.
6. Defensive scheming: Defenses have become more likely to use multiple schemes. For years, Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said the only difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense is that one defender plays with one hand on the ground or with two hands on the ground. The Ravens switch between a 3-4 and a 4-3 on a play-by-play basis. The Patriots can make those quick switches, too. Each year, more and more teams try to copy the physical nature of the 3-4 scheme, but most of them will also mix in 4-3 alignments to keep blockers and quarterbacks guessing. Expect more teams to employ hybrid schemes next season.
7. Don't count on free agency: By increasing the salary cap to $102 million this year and $109 million next year, teams will have more money to spend in free agency. But they likely will have fewer players to spend it on. Teams have so much cap room that they can lock up more of their key free agents. Placing the franchise tag on a player doesn't paralyze a team before the start of free agency the way it used to. There is $643 million of cap room in 2007. That's an average of more than $20 million per team.
8. First-time success: Rookie head coaches did surprisingly well in an era in which it is becoming harder to find impact players in the offseason who can immediately improve a team. Payton is 10-5 with the Saints and clinched the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Mangini's Jets can clinch a wild-card spot with a victory over the Raiders. Mike McCarthy re-energized Brett Favre and, despite injuries at the wide receiver position, helped improve the Packers from 4-12 to 7-8. Green Bay still has a shot to make the playoffs.
9. Off the hot seat: A number of coaches on the hot seat at the beginning of the season have really responded. Marty Schottenheimer has fought off pressure from within the organization and has led the Chargers to a 13-2 record and likely the top seed in the AFC. Brian Billick of the Ravens responded to a challenge from his owner by going 12-3. An 0-5 start had Jeff Fisher on the hot seat in Tennessee. But since then the Titans are 8-2 and owner Bud Adams is going to have to come up with some big money for a contract extension for Fisher.
10. Taking the snap: Non-quarterbacks are getting a chance to get behind center and take shotgun snaps. This trend is partially due to the success the Steelers had with Antwaan Randle El. It started this year with more running backs taking direct snaps while in shotgun formations and running with the ball. But teams are also getting receivers involved. The Broncos ran a trick play Sunday in which wide receiver Rod Smith took a direct snap and threw a lateral to Jay Cutler, who fired a 36-yard pass to Javon Walker to setup a touchdown.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.