On the outside looking in.
Guys like Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Philip Rivers know the feeling.
Top-shelf careers. Startling numbers. Jazzed-up highlight reels and weather-worn tales of regular-season heroics -- but something's missing. We all see it. Careers passing by with no mountaintop moment.
Radioactive debates around QB wins aside, it's a struggle not to ponder a fellow like Marino without coming back to one ill bullet point on an otherwise-sparkling résumé: He never won it all. You can't tell his story without pondering the empty spaces.
It's too late for Danny Boy, but not the humans below. There's still a light in the distance.
As I have done for the last few years, I've pinpointed a flock of NFL figures I'd like to see hoist the Lombardi before they vanish into the mist. (Full disclosure: I'm a Browns fan and -- heart of hearts -- would just list Kevin Stefanski, Nick Chubb and eight other Cleveland types, but that's not how this exercise works.)
Let's dive in.
We were deprived of a Chargers playoff appearance and the chance to see Justin Herbert’s rocket arm flicking passes with derring-do. Paired with brainy Brandon Staley -- thumbing his nose at the mere concept of fourth-and-10 from his own 17 -- Herbert enters ‘22 as one of the game’s most visually enticing athletes and a signal-caller set to alter how we view the position.
The void left by Tom Brady’s retirement is made less bleak due to today’s rich landscape of fresh-faced quarterbacks. This list would include (and revolve around) Joe Burrow, too, if he hadn’t already marched into the Super Bowl in his second campaign. Herbert, though, rests right beside him as a newly discovered burning sun of the AFC.
They’ve been clipped by the Chiefs two years running, but there’s zero question whether Buffalo can match wits with Kansas City. The Bills remain viable as long as Allen does what he did down the stretch: Put the entire organization on his back before ripping through cowed defenses without a second thought.
I expect Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane to further surround their quarterback with starry pieces. Losing play-caller Brian Daboll is a concerning X-factor, but the consistent Bills promoted an in-house known quantity in Ken Dorsey -- Allen’s pick for the role -- to play coordinator.
Fans of a certain age can view this version of the Bills as a vessel arriving to avenge those Super Bowl losses from decades ago. They’re a lovable entity. Few storylines would be sadder than this powerful iteration failing to win it all.
There's a logical, sliding-doors reality where Aaron Rodgers is playing elsewhere in 2022. I'm operating under the assumption he makes one more run with the Packers, but if Aa-Rod departed through a high-octane trade – perhaps Denver’s Nathaniel Hackett whistles a siren song – could it lead to a roster overhaul?
For Packers purposes, keeping the band together would likely require handing new money to Rodgers and slapping the franchise tag on Adams, who is looking to become the highest-paid wideout in league history. A huge extension feels unlikely with Green Bay entangled in the second-worst cap situation league-wide.
Parsons defies that nagging sense of style over substance that has hung over this Cowboys franchise for several decades. Nobody will be THE NEXT LAWRENCE TAYLOR, but Parsons comes close to mimicking the versatile, wrecking-ball nature of the greatest linebacker in history. He changes how we view this otherwise-underperforming Dallas operation.
Shanahan is eye-of-the-beholder material.
You can see him through the prism of this past January, tugging the Niners through a crucible of edgy wins over the Rams in Week 18, Dallas on the road on Super Wild Card Weekend and Green Bay in frigid Lambeau in the Divisional Round. Or you can ask why his Falcons attack fell apart on the back end of a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI -- or why his Niners offense (and defense) did the same down the stretch in Super Bowl LIV. We can laud Shanahan for effectively playing around a hot-and-cold Jimmy Garoppolo, or ask why Trey Lance faded into the wallpaper as a first-round rookie passer.
I don't need to look beyond what Shanahan accomplished with Deebo Samuel. Turning his powerful pass-catcher into the team's most dangerous rusher helped morph the Niners into a burning torch. Jimmy G threw passes, but Deebo, in many ways, was the team's true quarterback for drives at a time. If Lance can evolve and grow into a spicy starter, Deebo -- the target for a massive extension -- becomes only more of a raging headache.
I'm saving a space for Rivera for the second year in a row. He won a Super Bowl with the '85 Bears as a bone-crushing defender, but the Lombardi has eluded "Riverboat Ron" in his 11 years as a head coach. This nod comes under the assumption that Rivera examines his own roster and realizes the team cannot float into September without a rock-solid option under center. Taylor Heinicke had his moments, but this coaching staff must be open to grooming a first-round rookie or swinging for the fences by trading for a scenery-altering star.
I want to believe the NFL still needs dudes like Vrabel. Staying afloat in a choppy sea of 33-year-old, offensive-minded nerdlings, the 2021 NFL Coach of the Year feels like a throwback.
With his offensive centerpieces in and out of the lineup, Vrabel spent 2021 getting the most out of a squad forced to use more players than anyone else league-wide. The former 'backer milked liquid gold out of a defense that bullied opponents post-Thanksgiving. A January run felt like too much to ask, but the Titans are a lock to throw punches next autumn. Especially with old-school thumper Derrick Henry returning to form for a club that reminds us that 1973 still has its charms.