One moment, Super Bowl XLVI was coming down to one play. More than 110 million Americans felt a shared, palpable intensity.
The next, the ball hit the ground in the end zone, a foot away from the hands of Rob Gronkowski. In that moment, Giants quarterback Eli Manning became "elite," Patriots QB Tom Brady heartbroken and the Giants Super Bowl champions.
And just like that, the best NFL season we have seen in years was over.
What made this season so special?
It all began last summer, when we were mired in the NFL lockout.
Fans were fed up, some vowing never watch an NFL game again. Commissioner Roger Goodell was probably hearing the boo birds in his sleep. But when he and union head DeMaurice Smith inked a new deal on July 25, just 17 days before the first preseason game, they brought labor peace for 10 years.
By saving something so beloved, such a monumental part of American culture, they also won the psyches of fans. Seriously, do you even remember the Hall of Fame Game being canceled?
Year of the quarterback
When Saints quarterback Drew Brees breaks Hall of Famer Dan Marino's single-season passing record and is runner-up to the Packers' Aaron Rodgers for MVP, it's a signal that it was a special year through the air.
Three quarterbacks (Brees, Brady and the Lions' Matthew Stafford) finished with more than 5,000 yards passing, and three others (Manning, Rodgers and the Chargers' Phillip Rivers) were all close.And then there was rookie sensation Cam Newton of the Panthers, an athlete who personifies the term "human highlight reel." As a Niners fan, I appreciate a great defense, but there is a reason the quarterback is usually the highest-paid player on a team. His role as MIP (Most Important Player) means fans watch him under a microscope.
What, no gossip?
Also unique this season: the lack of a scandal. I am talking Brett Favre-, Ben Roethlisberger-, Michael Vick-type scandals.
These were stories we were embarrassed about following but still did -- sort of like Monday nights with "Bachelor" Ben Flajnik. They became the main event, often supplanting the core of the NFL -- actual football. But not this this year.
All the major controversies -- diva behavior (receivers DeSean Jackson of the Eagles and Santonio Holmes of the Jets come to mind), breaches of etiquette (The Handshake between Lions coach Jim Schwartz and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh) and ill-informed predictions (Jets coach Rex Ryan) -- fell within the comfortable confines of the game.
The exception, of course, is Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. But Tebow is the opposite of scandal. He is the best Samaritan. Yes, we dissected him ad naseum, but we didn't feel dirty for doing so. And, while some gave him Beatles-like status, others thought he was a bit too preachy (thank you to Jason Sudeikis of "SNL").
But Tebow Time was largely an on-the-field affair. We went from debating whether he should be the starter to whether he should remain the starter, and now we are pondering whether he should be starting next year. Love him or hate him, Tim Tebow drew a good chunk of new fans into the game, and for that we should say, "Amen."
A few issues
Of course, the 2011 season was not without flaws. The officiating was as bad as the quarterbacks were good. And the concussion issue remains serious. There are many things to dislike about Goodell but remaining silent in the midst of criticism is not one of them. He has floated the notion of full-time officials and vows to keep concussion research at the forefront. He is even threatening to get rid of the worthless Pro Bowl.
Cheers to an NFL season that was happy, shiny and super fan-friendly. Who's ready for the scouting combine in 15 days?