Commentary

Some 2007 resolutions were exciting, but a scary prospect looms

The NFL should be headed for a happy New Year, as trends and story lines developed that made the game more intriguing this season. But in his review of 2007, John Clayton writes there is one scary prospect looming.

Originally Published: December 29, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

T. J. HoushmandzadehAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesCincinnati's T. J. Houshmandzadeh is just one of the many No. 2 receivers who had breakout seasons. More effective passing games seem to be the result of relatively few holding penalties assessed in 2007.

The problem with the NFL and the New Year's holiday is that the timing isn't right.

For the NFL, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are usually workdays. The 17-week regular season often extends past Jan. 1, and even though the regular season ends this year on Dec. 30, teams are either preparing for the first round of the playoffs or preparing for exit interviews and organizational evaluations.

All of this makes it hard to make New Year's resolutions. The Super Bowl is in February and the technical new year for the NFL starts March 2 when free agency begins and a new salary cap starts. With that in mind, it's too early to look ahead. Instead, it's time to look back at the New Year's resolutions that were lost in the shuffle and affected the 2007 season.

Somewhere, coaches didn't catch on that officials weren't going to call many holding penalties. Even though there was no such announced resolution, the reality of fewer holding penalties was huge. Entering Week 17, quarterbacks league-wide have completed 61.17 percent of their passes. There hasn't been a season with a completion average of 60 percent in NFL history.

There could be eight 4,000-yard passers and 27 1,000-yard receivers, both records. Scoring is up two points a game and passing yards have improved 21.8 yards a game.

Only 1.33 offensive holding penalties have been called per game. Think of it as the NFL's equivalent of global warming, where even seemingly subtle change can have broad effects.

For example, the lack of holding calls -- a good thing because it promoted offense -- helped role players.

Teams' No. 2 receivers and slot receivers thrived with the extra time to throw provided to quarterbacks. Entering their regular-season finales, T.J. Houshmandzadeh of the Bengals and Wes Welker of the Patriots lead the league with 103 and 101 receptions, respectively.

Tight ends Jason Witten of the Cowboys and Tony Gonzalez of the Chiefs are fourth and fifth in receiving with 94 and 92 catches, respectively. The average yards per completion has dropped from 11.4 in 2006 to 11.2 yards this season, but possession receivers have thrived.

The lost resolution on holding calls created some great stories.

Bobby Engram

Engram

Wide Receiver
Seattle Seahawks

Profile

2007 Season Stats
Rec Yds TD Avg Long YAC
90 1082 5 12.0 49 354

A season ago, the Seahawks thought the career of wide receiver Bobby Engram was over. He had a rare thyroid condition that dropped his weight into the 170-pound range and zapped his speed when he trained. Engram should be the comeback player of the year. He leads the Seahawks with 90 catches for 1,082 yards and he's been among the best in yards after the catch.

Finally, had general managers anticipated how much the game would change this year because of the lack of holding calls, they might have altered their spending plans on defense.

Dwight Freeney might not have received $12 million a year from the Colts because it's so much tougher for quick ends to get to the quarterbacks. The escalating price of cornerbacks like Nate Clements of the 49ers might also have been affected. Of course, the cost of great players continues to grow anyway, with the salary cap increasing from $109 million this season to $116 million next season.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Miami Dolphins operator Wayne Huizenga might now have resolutions to never again hire college coaches, but the damage is done.

[+] EnlargeArthur Blank, H.Wayne Huizenga
Paul Spinelli/Getty ImagesAfter their recent experiences with head coaches hired from the college ranks, the Falcons' Arthur Blank, left, and the Dolphins' Wayne Huizenga probably have a common resolution for 2008.

Former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's short stay in Atlanta and ex-LSU coach Nick Saban's tenure in Miami were disasters. It might take years for the franchises to come out of the rubble.

Petrino alienated the Falcons' veterans and then quit on them and Blank just 13 games into this season to take the job at the University of Arkansas. In 2006, Saban used veteran and street free agency to prop up an aging Dolphins team -- then he left in January 2007 for the University of Alabama.

Both teams fell to the bottom of the league. Unless other owners have amnesia, the only college candidates for NFL head coaching jobs this offseason will be Pete Carroll of USC or Kirk Ferentz of Iowa.

Roger Goodell's ability to go through a year without being locked into preordained resolutions has made him a great commissioner.

He worked with the NFL Players Association to come up with a conduct policy to make players more accountable for their off-the-field acts. He administered punishment for the misdeeds of Michael Vick, Tank Johnson, Adam "Pacman" Jones and others. He handled everything on a case-by-case basis.

Goodell probably went against the owners' resolution to use the leverage of the NFL's appeal to force cable operators to accept the NFL Network on their terms by putting the Patriots' season finale on free TV, but it was the best decision for the game.

Patriots coach Bill Belchick might not have changed his yearly resolution to use every piece of information in preparing his team, but despite the spy game incident with the Jets, he's proved he can win without cheating.

In Week 1, the Jets caught a Patriots cameraman trying to steal signals of Jets coaches. The Patriots lost a first-round draft choice and Belichick was fined $500,000. But if Belichick goes 16-0, he deserves NFL coach of the year honors. He's done the finest one-season coaching job I've ever seen.

Team owners need to start an annual resolution to be more patient with their head coaches. For no particular reason, the NFL probably won't have a lot of coaching changes this offseason, although since 1992, the NFL has averaged seven coaching changes a year.

But with fewer quality free-agent starters available because of teams' salary-cap space and ability to keep them, changing a coach and changing systems can only make teams worse instead of better in most cases.

With instant replay a permanent part of the NFL landscape now, the league faces some procedural decisions whether to expand or condense replay officiating.

From close finishes this year, it's pretty clear the league needs to include field goals and receiver "force outs," but things could get out of control. Now, referees are going under the hood and looking to fix too much. Replay was established to fix the grossest mistakes on the field. There are some plays in which the referee could call four different penalties on challenges that aren't related to what a coach might be contesting. It's getting too confusing.

One resolution doesn't appear to be changing, and that's scary.

The league held a salary-cap seminar recently and the feeling is the NFL owners plan to blow up the current collective bargaining agreement after the 2008 season. That's disturbing. The league needs labor peace. While the strategy is just a negotiating tool, the NFL can't slip back into the threats of strikes and nonsalary-cap years as it had in the 1970s and 1980s. The NFL has a great game now. It doesn't need to go back into the dark ages.

Overall, the NFL is heading for a happy New Year. There could be a possible Colts-Patriots AFC Championship Game. The two teams are establishing one of the great rivalries of this era. Life is good in the NFL. Here's a toast to the success.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer