NFL awards (and NBA awards, too, I suppose) are a little different than the baseball awards, in part because they don’t split up awards by league/conference, and in part because, for better or worse, football and basketball don’t have quite the same infatuation with numbers and statistics that baseball does (Need proof? Quick, what’s the all-time record for touchdowns in a season?).
They’re still fun, though, and this year there are very few clear-cut favorites for any of the major awards in the NFL. There will be fierce debate for most of them, as several players have had truly special seasons to garner legit consideration for the league’s top honors.
Here’s my attempt to break them down. These aren’t my predictions for who will actually win, but who I would choose if I had a vote.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
As a Vikings fan, it’s tempting to want to throw safety Harrison Smith into this discussion, as the Notre Dame alum had a big impact on the Vikings overachieving defense, proving Rick Spielman wise for trading up for him.
That said, Smith isn’t even a serious candidate for the award.
Rams defensive back Janoris Jenkins returned three interceptions for touchdowns, while Packers corner Casey Hayward ranked among the NFL leaders in passes defensed while picking up the slack for the injured Charles Woodson. Several rookie linebackers had strong seasons as well, none more than the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL with 164 tackles.
The pick: Luke Kuechly
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Obviously this comes down to three rookie quarterbacks who all led their team to the playoffs — Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Washington’s Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck of the Colts.
Luck set a rookie record for passing yards with well over 4,000, but ranked near the bottom of the NFL in completion percentage and QB rating (his QB rating was actually lower than Christian Ponder’s). That doesn’t mean he isn’t a future star, or that he had a bad year, but it disqualifies him from beating out RG3 or Wilson for top rookie honors.
Wilson threw 26 TDs with just 10 INT and ran for over 400 yards despite being slated to begin his career as a backup, and while his success was certainly a bigger surprise than RG3’s, Griffin was the better player.
Last year’s Heisman winner threw for over 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. For a rookie starting QB to only throw 5 picks is extremely impressive, and Griffin also ran for over 800 yards.
Side note: Is Blair Walsh eligible for this award? I wouldn’t probably give it to him over RG3, but it’s impossible to overstate the significance of his season. 10-for-10 from 50 yards or more? That is simply incredible. Say what you will about Adrian Peterson, the Vikings are probably a 7-9 team without Walsh (we’ll get to what they’d be without AD in a minute).
The pick: Robert Griffin
Comeback Player of the Year
Poor Jamaal Charles. He’s doomed to spend his entire career in the shadow of Adrian Peterson. Did you know Charles averaged an NFL-record (for running backs) 6.4 yards per carry in rushing for 1,467 yards in 2010? He did. Then last year he tore his ACL after just 12 carries.
He returned this year to rush for 1,509 yards. Normally that would make him a shoo-in for this award, but the NFL’s all-time leader in yards per carry (5.8) doesn’t have a chance, and that’s not even necessarily unfair.
Peyton Manning returned from four neck surgeries — on a new team — as if he never missed a snap, leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record. And Adrian Peterson returned from a torn ACL that happened 13 weeks later than Charles’ did, to rush for 2,097 yards, the second most in NFL history. And the Vikings went from 3-13 to 10-6.
Picking Peterson or Manning (who threw for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns and led the NFL with a 68.6 completion percentage) is virtually impossible.
I split my vote.
The pick: Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning
Coach of the Year
Another tough one. It’s awful tempting to go with Pete Carroll in Seattle, as the Seahawks would be Super Bowl favorites right now if they had home field advantage in the playoffs.
And Leslie Frazier’s ability to convince his team they could win now is noteworthy. Remember, the Vikings had Peterson for almost all of last year and still went 3-13, so it’s not like Frazier has done nothing but put the ball in AD’s hands. The Vikings quick turnaround was stunning.
That said, the Colts went from 2-14 to 11-5. Chuck Pagano was supposed to coach this team, but cancer pushed him to the sidelines, and in stepped Bruce Arians. They both deserve tremendous credit for fighting through adversity and leading the Colts to an amazing season.
The pick: Bruce Arians/Chuck Pagano
Defensive Player of the Year
The easiest call of the bunch. Houston defensive end JJ Watt led the NFL with 20.5 sacks, made 81 tackles, and added a ridiculous 16 pass defenses. Apologies to Aldon Smith, but not really.
The pick: JJ Watt
Offensive Player of the Year
Considering a defensive player hasn’t won NFL MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986, I don’t see the point of even having this award (it’s also worth mentioning that in 1982 Washington kicker Mark Moseley was voted NFL MVP — no, really, he was).
That said, they do have it, and since the word ‘valuable’ is absent I take it to mean simply which guy put up the most impressive numbers offensively.
Lions receiver Calvin Johnson has a case, setting the NFL single-season receiving yards record, and Drew Brees had another boring and ultimately meaningless 5,000 yard passing season, but this is Adrian Peteron’s award.
He rushed for 2,097 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, while adding 40 catches and scoring 13 total touchdowns.
The pick: Adrian Peterson
Most Valuable Player
How good would the Green Bay Packers be without Aaron Rodgers? We got a glimpse of just how heavily they rely on him in the regular season finale against the Vikings, when, for long stretches, he seemed like the only Packer who really cared if they won the game, and he is, with apologies to Manning and Tom Brady, the best quarterback in the league.
That said, Brady had another quietly tremendous season, as did Matt Ryan, who led the Falcons to the NFC’s top seed.
But it seems this award is going to come down to Manning or Peterson, which due to the aforementioned comebacks, is truly amazing.
Despite going to a new team after a decade and a half as the face (and some would say offensive coordinator) of the Colts, Manning was, well, the same old Manning, exerting complete control of his offense and making the players around him better to the tune of 13 wins. The Broncos could very well win a Super Bowl this year, and if they do, there’s no question Manning will be the overwhelmingly primary factor.
Peterson, of course, has had a similar impact. Week in and week out, opponents know stopping Peterson isn’t just their biggest key, it’s basically their only key. With Christian Ponder wildly inconsistent and the receiving corps ranging from mediocre (with Percy Harvin) to terrible (without him), Peterson continually faced a wall of defenders and ran through them.
He surpassed 100 yards in just one of the Vikings’ first six games, then rushed for 1,598 yards over the final 10 games.
He failed to reach 100 in just one of those 10 games, twice went over 200 (and also hit 199 once), and went over 150 seven times.
He finished the season with over 1,000 rushing yards after contact.
What would the Vikings’ record had been without him? Well, Toby Gerhart isn’t terrible, and they won a few games early on without Peterson doing anything spectacular, but it’s probably conservative to say that Peterson gave the Vikings at least five more wins than your typical 1,000-yard, 4.2-yards-per-carry back would have. And remember, Manning took over a team that went 8-8 last year and won a playoff game with Tim Tebow at QB.
The pick: Adrian Peterson