In past years, we’ve delayed the PFT postseason awards until after the conclusion of the postseason. But with the Associated Press now unveiling its postseason awards the week before the Super Bowl, we’ve decided to announce ours in one fell swoop.
We’ll engage in a more comprehensive debate, with PFT Planet polling, when the AP recipients are named.
For now, at a time when you still actually care about these things, here are the men who, in our opinion, deserve special recognition.
Winner: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Runner-up: Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Honorable mention: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
I joked during Football Night In America that Sunday’s performance from Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn arguably revealed Rodgers as a system quarterback. And it’s possible that some of the 50 AP voters will downgrade Rodgers based on the perception that he’s not all that much of an upgrade over Flynn.
But that would be unfair to Rodgers, who took a team that climbed to the top of the mountain in February 2011 and, with no offseason training and a truncated training camp, led them out of the valley of 0-0 to a 13-game winning streak. Along the way, Rodgers had only one clunker — the Week 14 loss at Kansas City.
For the season, Rodgers generated an uncanny 122.5 passer rating, with 45 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Making the assumption that Rodgers would have performed at least as well as Flynn on Sunday against the Lions, Rodgers would have finished the year with 5,163 yards and 50 touchdown passes, tying Brady for the all-time single-season record. Though Rodgers obviously didn’t churn out those numbers, he shouldn’t be punished for the fact that he plays for a head coach who, unlike Pats coach Bill Belichick and Saints coach Sean Payton, isn’t willing to expose a key player to injury in meaningless games in the name of statistical achievement.
We strongly considered a Brees/Rodgers co-MVP. In the end, however, we decided that there should be only one MVP — even though the AP voting system is conducive to ties, since it employs only 50 total votes and permits voters to split their ballots.
And here’s one last point, aimed specifically at the AP voters who are contemplating following the lead of NFL Magazine and voting for Colts quarterback Peyton Manning based on the demonstration of his value via his absence. With momentum building for Brees, a Ralph Nader-style vote would disrespect the legitimate contenders. In the end, a wasted ballot on Peyton could determine the outcome of the entire voting.
2. Offensive player of the year.
Winner: Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Runner-up: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Honorable mention: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Though the MVP vote likely won’t be unanimous, this one should be. Brees obliterated the 27-year-old single-season passing yardage record with 5,476, he became the only player in league history to throw for 5,000 or more yards twice in his career, and he broke his own record for completion percentage, connecting on 71.2 percent of his throws. Brees also completed more passes (468) than the previous single-season record holder, Peyton Manning (450, in 2010).
Brees’ efforts easily overcome noteworthy performances from Brady (5,235 passing yards), Stafford (5,038 passing yards), Jones-Drew (1,606 rushing yards), and Gronkowski, who set single-season tight end records for receiving touchdowns (17) and total yards (1,327).
3. Defensive Player of the Year.
Winner: Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Runner-up: Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Honorable mention: Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith, Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Tying for fifth in sacks and delivering three of them in a season-opening shellacking of the Steelers and during the prime-time Harbowl on Thanksgiving night, Suggs has become the latest great player on a Ravens defense that is poised to make a serious run at a Super Bowl. He did enough to squeak past Pierre-Paul, who went from first-round project in 2010 to Pro Bowler (who wasn’t even on the ballot) in 2011. Disruptive and showing the kind of potential that could make him the franchise’s best defensive player since Michael Strahan or maybe Lawrence Taylor, Pierre-Paul will win this award once or twice, eventually.
But for the fact that the Vikings won only three games this year, Allen would have captured this award easily. His 22.0 sacks on an otherwise punchless defense represents a tremendous accomplishment, and he deserves credit for continuing to play hard even as plenty of teammates failed to recognize and emulate his example.
4. Coach of the Year.
Winner: Jim Harbaugh, 49ers.
Runner-up: Mike McCarthy, Packers.
Honorable mention: Gary Kubiak, Texans; Marvin Lewis, Bengals; Jim Schwartz, Lions; Bill Belichick, Patriots; John Fox, Broncos.
Harbaugh did the unthinkable. Though some (i.e., me) predicted that the Niners would win the NFC West, the prediction came more from a “none of the above” vibe. No one expected the Niners to emerge with 13 victories, especially with Harbaugh’s first year being hampered by the lockout.
But Jim Harbaugh would make nor accept excuses, and the team’s performance reflected that attitude.
McCarthy merits consideration because he managed to motivate a team that had every right to be complacent. Kubiak overcame a mine field of obstacles to take the Texans to the playoffs for the first time. Lewis helped the young Bengals scratch and claw their way to the playoffs. Schwartz led the Lions back to the postseason for the first time since 1999, reversing more than a decade of futility. Belichick the coach made chicken salad out of the roster that Belichick the personnel guru assembled. And Fox was willing to change the offense to suit Tim Tebow, winning an unlikely division title because of it.
5. Comeback Player of the Year.
Winner: Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
Runner-up: Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
Honorable mention: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Panthers receiver Steve Smith.
There’s a chance that some AP voters may choose to vote to Stafford, citing his return from two years of injuries and influenced by his strong late-season showings against the Raiders, Chargers, and Packers. But “comeback” implies that there was a pre-existing NFL standard set by the player. Stafford, due to injuries, had no baseline. (Under that logic, Giants receiver Victor Cruz would get some votes, too.)
Jackson did. And he finished second in the league in tackles after missing all of 2010 with a torn left pectoral muscle and 10 games in 2009 due to the same injury on the right side. He also provided a rare bright spot in a dreary Browns’ roster.
Dumervil gets the second-place nod because he made it back to the Pro Bowl a year after missing the full season with a torn pectoral of his own, getting back to elite level even though the Broncos hired a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator — and shifted from the 3-4 back to the 4-3 alignment.
Smith went from 554 receiving yards and a presumption he’d be traded or released to 1,394 yards.
6. Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Winner: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Runner-up: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
Honorable mention: Bengals receiver A.J. Green, Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, Falcons receiver Julio Jones.
Newton had the greatest rookie season of any quarterback in league history, giving him the edge over Dalton and his first-year playoff berth. Passing for a rookie record 4,051 yards, accounting for a rookie record 35 touchdowns, and rushing for an all-time quarterback record of 15 touchdowns, Newton showed a combination of talent, competitiveness, and leadership that will draw free agents to Carolina for years to come.
Dalton made Bengals fans quickly forget about Carson Palmer, but the presence of Green gave rise to the chicken-egg question regarding whether a great quarterback makes a great receiver, or vice-versa.
In Dallas, Smith has become a key contributor at right tackle, good enough that he could end up being the team’s long-term left tackle.
For the Falcons, Jones had a strong year despite chronic hamstring injuries. The jury is still out on whether the trade up to get him was worth the investment.
7. Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Winner: Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
Runner-up: 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith.
Honorable mention: Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.
Miller quickly became one of the leaders of the Denver defense. Though Smith has more sacks (14.0 vs. 11.5), Smith didn’t start a single game. Miller started 15.
Watt and Kerrigan became disruptive forces on their respective defenses. All four men could be perennial Pro Bowlers.
8. Executive of the Year.
Winner: Bengals president Mike Brown.
Runner-up: 49ers G.M. Trent Baalke.
Honorable mention: Lions G.M. Martin Mayhew, Texans G.M. Rick Smith.
By picking receiver A.J. Green in round one and quarterback Andy Dalton in round two, Brown landed a cornerstone combination that should fuel the passing game for years to come. And by fleecing the Raiders for a first-round pick and a second-round pick in exchange for the rights to a quarterback who never would play again for the Bengals, Brown put himself in position to further lay the foundation for a bright future.
In San Francisco, Baalke has been closely involved in the building of a roster that underachieved in 2010, but that found its full potential in 2011. Under Mayhew, the Lions have steadily improved since the ouster of Matt Millen. And the Texans did enough to upgrade their defense in order to do what no Texans team had ever done — get to the playoffs.