AP names Matthew Stafford Comeback Player of Year

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The Associated Press announced Saturday evening that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was its 2011 selection for Comeback Player of the Year.

Stafford edged out Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who received 15 votes to Stafford’s 21. 49ers quarterback Alex Smith came in third. Also receiving votes: Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, Giants quarterback Eli Manning, Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil, and Patriots defensive end Andre Carter.

Stafford was a logical choice for Comeback Player of the Year honors. Still not quite 24 years old (he turns on February 7), Stafford was limited to three games by injuries in 2010. In 2011, Stafford returned to start all 16 games and directed the Lions to a long-awaited playoff berth while posting borderline video game stats.

Among those who received 2011 AP votes for Comeback Player of the Year, Stafford stood out as easily the highest-impact player on his team and in the league.

Von Miller named AP Defensive Rookie of the Year


The Associated Press announced Saturday that Broncos linebacker Von Miller is the 50-member panel’s winner of the 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Miller won pretty handily over 49ers linebacker/defensive end Aldon Smith. Miller got 39 votes, Smith 11.

The advantage Miller had over Smith was that Denver’s rookie was an every-down player. Miller played strong-side linebacker on most early downs, and flipped to defensive end in the Broncos’ nickel packages. He finished with 64 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles.

Smith was a designated pass rusher, playing primarily in San Francisco’s sub-packages. Benefiting from attention commanded by hulking defensive linemen Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith, Aldon racked up 14 sacks to lead all rookies.

Cam Newton wins AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award

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The Associated Press announced Saturday evening that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is the 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Newton won in a landslide, receiving 47 of the AP’s 50 votes. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton got the other three.

Newton was an easy pick after setting an NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in 2011. He scored 14 times on the ground, and also became the first player in league history to both pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 500.

As for Dalton, a solid case could have been made that teammate A.J. Green was more deserving of Rookie of the Year votes.

Raiders interested in Stanford defensive coordinator Jason Tarver

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ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the Raiders have interest in Stanford defensive coordinator Jason Tarver regarding the same role in Oakland.

Tarver is actually co-defensive coordinator at Stanford and also oversees the Cardinal’s inside linebackers. At Stanford, Tarver helped replace Vic Fangio, who left to join Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers staff in 2011. Ironically, the 37-year-old Tarver spent the previous decade working in the Niners’ organization as an outside linebackers coach and offensive assistant.

The Raiders have also shown interest in Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. for the defensive coordinator job vacated by Chuck Bresnahan’s expired contract.

Archie Manning: Peyton “didn’t want all of this attention”

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NFL.com’s Jeff Darlington caught up with Archie Manning in Indianapolis on Saturday, and Archie made it clear that his son, Peyton, wanted no part of the media circus that diverted attention and recognition from his brother Eli leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl game against the Patriots.

“This week, he didn’t want all of this attention,” said Archie. “But I guess maybe it was inevitable because they’re playing the game here (in Indy). But we’re fine. I told Peyton from the get go, ‘it’ll work out. It will work out.’

“He’s doing all that he can to get healthy. That’s all he can do. He’s had a good attitude about it all.”

Archie was asked whether he believes Peyton will be playing football in 2012.

“I feel like he will,” said Archie. “But I’m not a doctor. I know he’s going to make every effort. Because he wants to play so bad, I hope it works out.”

Bills receiver says Fitzpatrick played through cracked ribs

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Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2011 performance downturn seemed to begin immediately after the team signed him to a surprise in-season extension worth $59 million. Fitzpatrick’s team went 1-8 down the stretch, and he threw only 10 touchdown passes compared to 16 interceptions in Buffalo’s final nine contests.

Bills receiver David Nelson, however, believes that Fitzpatrick’s sudden, sharp decline had more to do with an injury the team never revealed.

“A lot of people don’t know, but Fitz, during the Washington game, actually cracked a couple of ribs,” Nelson said. “So after that, he was playing hurt.”

Fitzpatrick did show up on the injury report the following week, listed with a “chest” injury. He was “limited” in practice that week, and started the next game against the Jets.

We might believe Fitzpatrick’s second-half swoon was attributable to injury if he hadn’t started hot, then crashed down the stretch the season before. But that’s exactly what happened to Fitzpatrick in 2010, as well.

As Mike Florio reported in late November, the Bills do have the option of getting out of Fitzpatrick’s contract. They can trade or cut him before the seventh day of the new league year (March 19) by declining to pay his scheduled $5 million option bonus.

Hines Ward recovering from ankle surgery


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is recovering from surgery to repair bone fragments in his ankle.

It’s the latest bit of confirmation that Ward intends to play football in 2012. He may have passed on the procedure if his career were over.

As to whether he’ll return to Pittsburgh, Ward has publicly put the ball in the Steelers’ court. He met face-to-face with coach Mike Tomlin and owner Art Rooney this week.

“They really didn’t say anything [definitively],” Ward told the Post-Gazette. “It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad. We were just talking.”

In order to remain a Steeler, Ward will have to take a significant cut in pay. He’s owed a $4 million base salary, the Steelers are well over the cap, and Ward would enter the 2012 season as no better than the team’s No. 4 receiver.

Rich Gannon: Matthew Stafford showed “great toughness” in 2011


2011 NFL Comeback Player of the Year candidate Matthew Stafford was once called a “china doll” by his teammate. Former Lions linebacker Zack Follett criticized Stafford in the summer of 2011 for going down every time he got hit.

Truthfully, Stafford’s early-career injuries were just bad luck. And he confirmed his toughness and durability by playing the 2011 season through a fractured finger and high ankle sprain.

I just thought he showed great toughness,” CBS commentator Rich Gannon told the Detroit Free Press. “I know how important it was to him to dispel all those myths about him. … I really think that the guy is becoming a special player.”

Stafford turned a major corner in 2011, playing the first full 16-game season of his career and leading his team to the playoffs. He ranked third in the league in passing yards (5,038), third in touchdown passes (41), and second in completions of 40-plus yards (18), all while absorbing the sixth most sacks in the league (36).

The Comeback Player of the Year award will be announced on Saturday. PFT gave Stafford an honorable mention for the honors in our postseason awards picks.

Bills re-sign kicker Rian Lindell


Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 in Buffalo reports that the Bills have agreed to terms with kicker Rian Lindell to an undisclosed contract.

Lindell was scheduled to hit free agency next month. The 35-year-old missed eight games due to a shoulder injury in 2011.

Lindell hit 13-of-15 field goal tries before the injury. He has been Buffalo’s kicker since 2003, and figures to retain the job in 2012.

UPDATE: Rodney McKissic of the Buffalo News reports that the deal is worth $3 million annually. The length of Lindell’s contract remains unknown.

Packers, Finley making no progress on new contract

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Impending free agent tight end Jermichael Finley spoke to reporters in Indianapolis on Friday, and indicated that he and the Packers have had no discussions regarding a new contract.

“Hey, it’s the NFL,” Finley said. “With business right now, I don’t even know what’s going on. … You just have to play that (waiting) game. It’s the Green Bay way.”

For Finley, the “waiting game” has a timeline. NFL teams can begin franchise tagging players on February 20, and have a 15-day window to apply the mechanism.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel confirms that Finley is “expected” to pursue classification as a wide receiver as opposed to a tight end.

Finley is listed as tight end on the Packers’ depth chart, but plays a high percentage of snaps in the slot and out wide. An arbitrator would decide Finley’s position as it relates to the tag.

As Mike Florio pointed out way back in November, the monetary difference between the wide receiver and tight end franchise tags is expected to be roughly $4 million.

Packers stay in-house to replace Joe Philbin, promote Clements

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The Packers announced Thursday that they are staying in-house to replace outgoing offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements received the promotion.

Packers.com calls it “the least surprising news of the NFL postseason.”

“Tom has been an integral part of our success and our staff, making it an obvious decision to promote him to offensive coordinator,” said head coach Mike McCarthy. “He has earned this opportunity and we look forward to continued offensive success in 2012.”

Philbin became the Dolphins’ head coach on January 20.

Clements spent the last six seasons overseeing the development of Aaron Rodgers. The Packers drafted Matt Flynn in 2008, and thanks at least in part to Clements’ tutelage, Flynn has played well enough in spot duty to garner a starting job in 2012 free agency.

McCarthy will continue to call the Packers’ offensive plays.

Forte open to franchise tag if long-term deal follows


Impending free agent running back Matt Forte told ESPN 1000 Chicago Thursday that he is open to receiving the Bears’ franchise tag so long as it leads to a long-term contract.

“If they are doing the franchise tag just to get more time in order to negotiate a long term deal,” Forte said, “then I would be OK with it. But if it’s just to hold me another year and just, ‘Let’s throw some money at him right now to keep him quiet,’ that’s not going to solve anything.”

Running backs have short shelf lives, and NFL teams aren’t obligated to follow up franchise tags with more high-dollar, lengthy investments if they don’t want to. Even if they privately say they will.

Forte showed in 2011 that he is willing to play hard without a long-term contract. He had the best season of his career on a per-game and per-play basis. New G.M. Phil Emery has made no commitments about giving Forte what he desires, and the franchise tag could keep him hungry.

“I’m tired of talking about it, and I bet everybody is tired of hearing about it,” Forte conceded. “The production level is there. Everything seems like it’s pretty simple to get done, so let’s do it.”


Stevie Johnson still hopes Bills re-sign him

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Impending free agent Stevie Johnson has the potential to be one of the top-five wide receivers available on the 2012 open market. But he’s been a featured player in the Bills’ offense, and hopes the team re-signs him.

Of course I’m hoping Buffalo will step up,” Johnson told the Buffalo News. “If not and I hit the market in free agency, then Buffalo is in the picture no matter what. But to be in free agency to see what other teams are saying, that’s also good.”

Johnson is keeping his options open, leaving contract talks and his future up to agent C.J. LaBoy.

“I told my agent that this is the first time I’ve been in this situation and I hired you and I trust your work,” Johnson explained. “I told him if there’s something that needs to be brought to the table, let me know about it and we’ll go from there. I’m trying to get better mentally and physically. Whatever stuff [the Bills] say, just bring it to my attention and that’s how we’ll go about it.”

Johnson, still only 25 years old, has racked up 158 receptions for 2,077 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He was a seventh-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2008 draft.

Raiders ask Packers permission to interview Joe Whitt


The Raiders lost out on Greg Manusky to the Colts, but they’ve lined up fallback options to fill their defensive coordinator vacancy.

Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times reports that the Raiders have requested permission to interview Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr.

New Raiders G.M. Reggie McKenzie knows Whitt from their time together in Green Bay, where the 33-year-old rising position coach has helped develop former undrafted free agent cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields into starters. The Packers, however, can opt to decline Oakland’s request to interview Whitt because the promotion offered does not involve a head-coaching job.

Whitt has been on the Packers’ staff since 2008. In Oakland, Whitt would answer to defensive-minded new head coach Dennis Allen.

Tony Gonzalez says 2012 season probably his last


Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez signed a one-year, $7 million extension on January 1, and the new deal spanned only one year for good reason.

Gonzalez plans to call it a career after 2012. Tentatively, at least.

One year,” Gonzalez replied when asked on a Facebook chat Thursday how many more seasons he’ll play. “I said that last year, though, and the year before. But I really do believe this is it.

“First of all, this is the first time my wife has come to me and said, ‘You’re only going to play one more year, right?'”

Gonzalez, who turns 36 later this month, caught 80 passes for 875 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011. While Gonzalez still possesses soft hands, he has lost speed in recent seasons.