Andrew Luck threw for nearly 400 yards and Aaron Rodgers was almost perfect against the Bears and Steve Smith had a huge game against his old team on Sunday. But the NFL’s best player was Texans defensive tackle J.J. Watt.
And so I’d like to begin my J.J. Watt for MVP campaign right now.
It may be ridiculous to start talking about a Most Valuable Player when we’re just a quarter of the way through the season, but I want to begin this campaign early because as Watt’s self-appointed campaign manager, I’ve got an uphill climb. The overwhelming majority of NFL MVPs have been quarterbacks and running backs. The last defensive player to win the MVP was Lawrence Taylor in 1986, and the only time a defensive lineman won the award was when Minnesota’s Alan Page got it in 1971. The 50 MVP voters appointed by the Associated Press have a clear bias toward the offensive skill positions, and that bias is going to be tough to overcome.
But if Watt isn’t an MVP candidate, then we might as well say no defensive player is ever going to be an MVP candidate. All Watt does is change games, week after week. On Sunday against the Bills, Watt picked off an EJ Manuel pass and raced 80 yards for a touchdown in a play that completely turned the game around: At the time the Bills led 10-7 and were driving deep into Texans territory, looking poised to take a 17-7 lead. Instead, Watt’s touchdown gave Houston a 14-10 lead over Buffalo, a lead the Texans would not relinquish the rest of the way. Watt also had another pass deflection, and he put constant pressure on, hitting Manuel a whopping nine times. (Quarterback hits are an unofficial statistic, but a pass rusher who gets two or three of them in a game is having a big day. Nine in a game is ridiculous.)
What’s really amazing about Watt is that he’s a great player every week. Even though opposing teams are constantly game planning to stop him, to double team him, to run away from him, to throw quick passes so the quarterback can get rid of the ball before he collapses the pocket, Watt finds a way to disrupt the game. He won’t have nine quarterback hits and an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown every week, but he’ll do something great every week. One week he’ll have a couple sacks, another week he’ll have a forced fumble, the week after that he’ll knock down three passes. And sometimes he’ll do things you’d never expect, like catch a touchdown pass. He’s already done that once this year, and the Texans’ coaches have said they’ll continue using him as a goal-line tight end. (Watt and former Patriot Mike Vrabel are the only players since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to have both a touchdown catch and an interception return for a touchdown in the same season.)
So is it realistic to think Watt could win an MVP? It’s a long shot, but this might be the right season for it. It doesn’t look like any quarterback is going to approach the statistical totals that Peyton Manning reached last year, and although DeMarco Murray is off to a great start, I don’t think he has the durability to approach 2,000 yards. That means it’s a good year for someone at some other position to stake a claim to the MVP award. And with Watt being a disruptive presence on the defensive line while the 3-1 Texans occupy first place in the AFC South, there’s no better option than Watt.
Watt was my favorite player on the field on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:
The Jets’ play calling makes no sense. On the first drive of Sunday’s game in New York, Chris Ivory was amazing: He ran nine times for 51 yards against a Detroit rush defense that previously hadn’t allowed any running back to gain 50 yards in an entire game all season. So, clearly, Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg had found something that worked and would stick with it, right? Wrong. Mornhinweg instead abandoned Ivory and didn’t call for him to run the ball even once on the Jets’ next two drives, both of which would go three-and-out. In the end, Ivory ran the ball just eight more times the rest of the game after that phenomenal performance on the first drive. Lions fans know all too well how many blunders Mornhinweg makes because Mornhinweg was the Lions’ head coach for two years in which Detroit went 5-27. Now the Lions have benefited from Mornhinweg’s mistakes.
Celebration flags are cheap. NFL players need to know the rules about excessive celebrations, and Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins should have known not to go to the ground to celebrate his touchdown on Sunday. Still, it’s kind of ridiculous that in the NFL, a minor celebration like the one Hopkins made after his score is a 15-yard penalty — the same penalty a player gets for a serious offense like taking a cheap shot that injures an opposing player. The NFL should cool it with the celebration penalties. Instead of giving 15-yard penalties for a quick celebration, make it a five-yard delay of game penalty if the player carries on with his celebration while the officials are trying to spot the ball for the next play, and if the celebration doesn’t delay the next play, then don’t penalize it. The rules of the No Fun League go too far.
Ryan Tannehill got what he needed. After a week in which Tannehill was threatened with the possibility of a benching, he responded with a big game, completing 23 of 31 passes for 278 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and no sacks, in a 38-14 win over the Raiders. You might say he needed the threat of being benched to motivate him to play well. I’d say what he really needed was to play a bad team like the Raiders.
A game without a punt. Sunday’s Packers-Bears game was just the second regular-season game in NFL history without a single punt by either team. I still remember the first as one of the greatest games I ever watched, a 1992 Bills-49ers classic matching Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young. This Packers-Bears game, however, wasn’t a particularly good one. Jay Cutler threw two interceptions that made Bears fans wish they had punted, and Green Bay blew Chicago out in the fourth quarter.
Cam Newton is not the same. Newton, who has been dealing with ankle and rib injuries, just isn’t the same player as he was when healthy during his first three seasons. Newton averaged 677 rushing yards a season during his first three years. This year, Newton has just 33 yards a quarter of the way through the season. When Newton isn’t a threat running the ball it’s easier to rein him in as a passer, and as a result Newton is on pace for career lows in touchdown passes and passing yards as well. After Sunday’s 38-10 loss to the Ravens, the Panthers have now been blown out two weeks in a row. They need the Cam Newton of old, and they need him soon.
Devin Hester continues to amaze. Hester continued to show that he’s more than just a kick returner for the Falcons on Sunday, catching five passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. But the reason he’s a future Hall of Famer is that he’s the greatest return man in history, and even though he didn’t break any long returns on Sunday, he affects the game when he doesn’t touch the ball because opposing teams are so concerned about kicking away from him that they kick the ball short. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told the FOX broadcast team, “We don’t want it anywhere near Devin Hester,” and the Vikings’ first punt went just 24 yards as a result.
The NFL continues to surprise. When the Eagles lost to the 49ers on Sunday, it left just two teams — the inactive Bengals and Cardinals — undefeated. It seems like we say this every year, but this might be the craziest NFL season yet. Maybe even crazy enough for a defensive tackle to win MVP.