The Associated Press now unveils its postseason awards the night before the Super Bowl, weeks after most people have stopped caring about the winner.
So we announce ours immediately after the regular season ends.
At a time when you still actually are interested in these matters and not, you know, you’ll win the Super Bowl, here are the men who, in our opinion, deserve special recognition for their accomplishments in the freshly-completed regular season.
Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Winner: Russell Wilson, Seahawks.
Runner-up: Robert Griffin, III, Redskins; Andrew Luck, Colts.
Honorable mention: Alfred Morris, Redskins; Doug Martin, Buccaneers.
The AP award likely will go to either of the top two picks in the draft, but it shouldn’t. Wilson entered the league short on height and long on smarts and talent and determination. Russell Wilson commanded the No. 1 spot on the depth chart in Seattle, beating out big-money free-agent Matt Flynn and incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson, and Wilson then began to prove week-in and week-out that he is as good as his more famous counterparts who were selected much higher.
Despite the 11-5 record for the Colts, Luck had too many turnovers (contributing to a mediocre passer rating of 76.5), and Griffin missed a game and crunch time in another due to an inability to avoid contact. While Luck broke Cam Newton’s rookie passing yardage record, Wilson tied Peyton Manning’s record for touchdown passes by a rookie — and Wilson showed that he could run the ball effectively (489 yards, four touchdowns) without getting hit or, in turn, hurt.
The best news is that the three rookie quarterbacks all made it to the playoffs, and they’ll all make their postseason debuts on the same day.
Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Winner: Luke Kuechly, Panthers.
Runner-up: Janoris Jenkins, Rams.
Honorable mention: Bobby Wagner, Seahawks; Lavonte David, Buccaneers; Casey Heyward, Packers; Harrison Smith, Vikings.
The ninth overall pick in the draft, Kuechly led the NFL with 164 tackles, finishing 10 short of the rookie record set in 2007 by Patrick Willis. Kuechly also had 10 games with 10 or more tackles. In Week Five, he slid from outside linebacker to the middle, where he participated in every snap on defense for the rest of the season.
Jenkins, a second-round steal, instantly became a dangerous cover man and return specialist. He could soon be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Some may say he already is.
Coach of the Year.
Winner: Bruce Arians/Chuck Pagano, Colts.
Runner-up: Leslie Frazier, Vikings.
Honorable mention: Mike Shanahan, Redskins; Pete Carroll, Seahawks; John Fox, Broncos; Mike Smith, Falcons.
The best coach routinely is determined based on a team’s actual performance relative to its expected performance. This year, no team exceeded expectations more than the Colts, who won 11 games a season after winning only two. Pagano and Arians combined to generate a wild-card berth despite Pagano’s three-month absence due to leukemia treatments, as part of a run that included seven come-from-behind wins.
Frazier and the Vikings improved their win total by seven, going from 3-13 to 10-6 and a playoff berth secured on the last day of the season against the Packers. Shanahan and the Redskins reeled off seven straight to secure the NFC East after Shanahan seemingly threw in the towel on the 2012 season. (And all future coaches whose teams are 3-6 after nine games will do the same.)
In all, three of the six worst teams from 2011 have vaulted to the playoffs only one year later, providing real hope to every other non-playoff team, in 2013 and beyond.
Comeback Player of the Year.
Winner: Peyton Manning, Broncos; Adrian Peterson, Vikings.
The two greatest comebacks in NFL history came in the same year. For Manning, the return from multiple neck surgeries was unprecedented. For Peterson, his performance following a Christmas Eve 2011 ACL tear was equally stunning and unlikely. Both deserve the recognition, and it’s only fair for them to share it.
It’s also only fair that there be no one else mentioned as the runner-up or otherwise. Manning and Peterson are in their own class on this one, and no one else comes close.
Executive of the Year.
Winner: John Elway, Broncos.
Runner-up: John Schneider, Seahawks.
Honorable mention: Ryan Grigson, Colts; Rick Spielman, Vikings; Les Snead, Rams.
Elway wanted Peyton Manning in large part because it gave Elway cover to dump Tim Tebow. The gamble (in light of Manning’s recent medical history) paid off in a major way, making other teams (like perhaps the Texans) wish they’d done more to land one of the greatest players in NFL history. Though making the move for Manning is enough on its own, hiring coach John Fox in 2011 after a two-win season in Carolina, picking linebacker Von Miller in last year’s draft, and not giving up on Knowshon Moreno are icing on a cake that Elway has been masterfully baking for the past two season — even though Elway entered the job with fry-cook credentials.
Schneider found a quarterback who could become one of the best current signal-callers in the league in round three of the draft, five spots after the Jaguars picked a punter. Schneider likewise rolled the dice in round one on Bruce Irvin, a controversial pick who panned out as a rookie. Throw in linebacker Bobby Wagner in round two and the prudent decision to re-sign Marshawn Lynch, and Schneider had a lot to do with the team’s unexpected success in 2012.
Grigson quickly turned around a talent-challenged roster with a strong draft and the ability to make good decisions about who should stay and who should go, bringing back Reggie Wayne and keeping Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. His success will make more owners opt for young, grinding scouts.
Offensive player of the year.
Winner: Adrian Peterson, Vikings.
Runner-up: Calvin Johnson, Lions.
Honorable mention: Drew Brees, Saints; Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks.
Peterson is the easy and obvious choice, given that he rushed for 2,097 yards, the second most in NFL history.
Johnson set the single-season record for receiving yardage with 1,964, and Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards for the third time in his career. Lynch’s performance gets lost in Peterson, but the guy the Bills gave away has become one of the best running backs in the league.
Defensive Player of the Year.
Winner: J.J. Watt, Texans.
Runner-up: Von Miller, Broncos.
Honorable mention: Aldon Smith, 49ers; Charles Tillman, Bears.
Watt was a wire-to-wire disruptive force for the Texans. Beyond his league-leading sack total (20.5), Watt has shattered the mold for 3-4 defensive ends. Miller is becoming one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL, and Smith has emerged as the top 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebacker.
Amazingly, all three players are in only their second seasons in the NFL.
Winner: Adrian Peterson, Vikings.
Runner-up: Peyton Manning, Broncos.
Honorable mention: J.J. Watt, Texans; Aaron Rodgers, Packers; Tom Brady, Patriots; Matt Ryan, Falcons.
Many have wrestled with this one for weeks, determined to give it to Manning but keeping an open mind for Peterson. It would have been easy to say Peterson gets it only if he sets the single-season rushing record. It’s harder to accept that he missed it (by 27 feet) but still deserves it.
In the end, Peterson’s value to his team simply outweighs Manning’s — even though Peyton once again has had a season to remember, shrewdly picking a talented team with an easy schedule and pushing the franchise to the top seed in the AFC. Last year, however, the Broncos made it to the final eight without Manning. This year, the Vikings would have been nothing without Peterson, a man who overcame a serious knee injury to become better than he ever was.
Moreover, at a time when we are more sensitive than ever before to the damage inflicted on the bodies of NFL players, Peterson earned every yard, foot, and inch that he gained. Even the long runs came after he ran through a potential tackler. Or two. Or five.
So that’s the full list. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments.