Unlike with several college football awards, I don’t actually get a say in these NFL awards, but I like to make my opinion known on them. These picks are who deserves to win the awards, not who will. None of these awards take into account post-season performance.
MVP: RB Adrian Peterson (Minnesota)
I was meaning to do this before the post-season started. These are regular season awards and I didn’t want anything that happened in the post-season to potentially skew my picks for these awards. I didn’t have time to do it before the post-season, but luckily it didn’t matter. Neither of the two candidates for this award, which was the only one I was really flip-flopping on, won a playoff game this year.
We all know why Peyton Manning is deserving. He took over what was an average team at best to begin with and took them at the #1 seed in the AFC. He was the best quarterback in the regular season this year and this award normally goes to that player and for good reason. This is a quarterback league and you can’t win the Super Bowl without good quarterback play. The Vikings were never a Super Bowl contender because of their quarterback play, in spite of Adrian Peterson.
However, that makes what Peterson did this year even more amazing. Running backs don’t drag teams to the playoffs like Peterson did, at least not any more. A quarterback does what Peyton Manning does every year, but the type of season Adrian Peterson just had is one we might not see for another 10 years. I’d argue he was equally valuable to Manning, at the very least. With even an average running game, the Vikings don’t even sniff the playoffs.
Christian Ponder needed a career best game against the Packers week 17 to get his yards per attempt up over 6 for the season. The Vikings finished, averaging 6.1 YPA, 31st in the NFL. How much did they exceed the record of the average team who gains 6 or fewer yards per pass attempt? Try 6 wins (I know the Vikings technically averaged 6.1 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 1/10 of the yard was what got them the extra 6 wins). Including this year’s Chiefs, 22 other teams since 2006 have averaged 6 or fewer yards per attempt. 20 of them won 5 or fewer games and none won more than 7. They averaged 3.8 wins per season and 14.6 points per game. The Vikings won 10 (in arguably the toughest division in football) and averaged 23.7 points per game.
Without Peyton Manning, the Broncos aren’t a number #1 seed, but with an average quarterback, they may have still made the playoffs. After all, they played in arguably the worst division in football, a division that they won with Tim Tebow the year before. With an average running back, the Vikings might not have even won 5 games. As long as these two players were even equally valuable, I have no problem giving Peterson the award based on his position. It’s just so hard to be as valuable as Peterson was from his position and when it happens, you almost have to give him this award.
Comeback player of the year: QB Peyton Manning (Denver)
Adrian Peterson gets MVP, but I think Peyton Manning is the clear Comeback Player of the Year. Why? Well, in March, if Peyton Manning had announced his retirement, I don’t think anyone would have been surprised and certainly I don’t think anyone would have blamed him. If Adrian Peterson had retired, I think the reaction would have been “Wow, I didn’t know he was THAT hurt!” Peyton Manning is 36, missed all of last season, got cut and had to find a new team, and had 4 surgeries on an incredibly vital body part. Adrian Peterson can’t say any of those things, so this is Peyton Manning’s award.
Offensive rookie of the year: QB Robert Griffin (Washington)
I’d like to start this by saying that I don’t see Andrew Luck as a legitimate contender for this award. Stats aren’t everything, but sometimes stats are too blatant to ignore. Griffin and Wilson were 3rd and 4th in QB rating, Luck was 26th. He took the Colts from 2 wins to 11 wins, but he did it against an incredibly easy schedule and with almost no convincing wins. He won just 2 games by more than a touchdown and just 3 games against .500 or better teams. A 9-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less is impressive, as were his league leading seven game winning drives, but when you remember most of those came against the likes of Tennessee, Detroit, Kansas City, and Buffalo, it’s not so impressive.
So that leaves us with Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson from arguably the best rookie quarterback class ever. I’m going with Griffin. Russell Wilson was never counted on to be a savior. The Seahawks won 7 games last year with 14 games of a banged up Tarvaris Jackson (7-7) and 2 games of Charlie Whitehurst (0-2) under center. They had the #7 scoring defense in 2011 and the #1 scoring defense in 2012. Wilson, as good as he was, had plenty of help.
Griffin, meanwhile, was the Redskins’ savior. They literally put all of their eggs in one basket with him, trading away three 1st round picks and a 2nd round pick for him, naming him the starting quarterback about 2 days after the draft, and building their entire new innovative offense around him. They asked him to single handed turn around a 5-win team and he did that.
The Redskins’ had the league’s 21st rated defense in 2011 and it was even worse in 2012, despite having much less pressure on them thanks to the offense, as they ranked 22nd. Injuries were to blame as they were without top pass rusher Brian Orakpo for most of the year and also lost starters Brandon Meriweather and Adam Carriker for most of the year as well.
Injuries weren’t limited to defense, as Griffin was playing without expected right tackle Jammal Brown all season, lost talented tight end Fred Davis midseason, and played without #1 receiver Pierre Garcon for most of the year. And he still took them to the playoffs, where they were leading Wilson’s Seahawks 14-0 before he got hurt (it’s not a post-season award, but this is worth mentioning).
Plus, unlike Wilson, Griffin played well all year. Through 8 games, Wilson had 8 touchdowns to 7 interceptions (with one touchdown that should have been an interception) and the Seahawks were 4-4. After a 5 interception in two weeks stretch, in which the Seahawks lost to the Rams and barely beat the Panthers, there were calls for Wilson to be benched. Griffin never played that badly. He never had a multi-interception game, throwing just 5 all year, and even when the Redskins were 3-6 heading into the bye, Griffin still had an 8 to 3 touchdown to interception ratio.
Defensive rookie of the year: CB Casey Hayward (Green Bay)
A lot of people might not know Casey Hayward, but he’ll be a big name someday. He was my top underrated prospect of the 2012 NFL Draft and I can’t remember the last time I was this right about anything. Hayward, a 2nd round pick, was the Packers’ nickel cornerback this year, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role. Because the Packers are in their sub packages so frequently, Hayward played on 703 of the Packers’ 1118 regular season defensive snaps, around 63%. He also made 7 starts when injuries struck.
Despite not being a full-time starter, only three players (Tarell Brown, Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan) played more pass snaps and didn’t surrender a touchdown and Hayward’s interception total, 6, was double the high of anyone in that group. He also got his hands on 12 more balls, deflecting them, a number that was tied for the most among players who didn’t surrender a touchdown and was tied for 6th overall in the NFL. His 6 interceptions, meanwhile, were 4th in the NFL.
As you can imagine, when a player allows 0 touchdowns and picks off 6 passes, his QB rating against must be pretty low. That was exactly the case with Hayward. His 31.1 QB rating allowed was not only the best in the league among those eligible, but among players ineligible, only Darrelle Revis played more than 29 snaps and allowed a lower QB rating and he only played 93. Only Richard Sherman played more snaps than him and had a QB rating that even rivaled his and his was 10 points higher at 41.1.
It wasn’t just a great touchdown to interception ratio powering that low QB rating. Hayward allowed 33 completions all year, on 74 attempts, a 44.6% completion percentage. He surrendered just 456 yards, 6.2 YPA. He also was not penalized all year and played the run well, as well. He ranked 4th among eligible cornerbacks in run stop % and missed just 3 tackles all season. For all his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback and deserves to be this year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Defensive player of the year: DE JJ Watt (Houston)
This was a great year for individual defensive performances. Geno Atkins and Von Miller would both deserve this award 9 years out of 10 and Aldon Smith had a lot of support as well. I’d like to start off with Aldon Smith. Aldon Smith was 2nd in the league with 20 sacks and for a while looked on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single season record. However, here’s where the perils of just looking at sack totals comes into play.
Aldon Smith wasn’t even ProFootballFocus’ top rated player at his own position, ranking 3rd, nor was he even the top pass rusher at his own position, where he ranked 2nd behind Clay Matthews. Smith was not an elite player against the run and struggled when asked to drop into coverage. While Smith had 20 sacks, he still ranked 2nd at his position in pass rush efficiency behind Paul Kruger. Pass rush efficiency takes into account quarterback hits and hurries as well as snaps played and provides a more accurate picture of how someone was rushing the passer.
Smith also saw frequently single blocking or at sometimes even saw blocking from just a back. ProFootballFocus takes all of this into account, how he did against back blocking, single blocking, and double blocking, as well as pass rush efficiency, run play and coverage play and they didn’t even think he was the best player at his own position. The reason Smith saw such frequent easy blocking was Justin Smith, a talented defensive lineman who played on the same side as Aldon.
Justin, a defensive player of the year snub a year ago, was the most important player on their defense and the guy they ran their scheme around. There’s a reason that they surrendered 76 points in 6 quarters as soon as he got hurt against New England. That wasn’t all him, but a lot of it was. Since Justin got hurt against New England, Aldon hasn’t recorded a single sack. Justin had a higher rating on ProFootballFocus than Aldon and I agree with that. Aldon Smith isn’t even the best defensive player on his own team, let alone in the NFL.
That leaves us with four players, the aforementioned JJ Watt, Von Miller, and Geno Atkins, as well as Cameron Wake, another underrated player who deserves to be the discussion far more than Smith. All 4 paced their positions on ProFootballFocus by a wide margin. Wake finished with a 53.7 rating, Miller with a 78.5, Atkins with a 79.9, but Watt has to take this. He recorded the first 100+ rating in the history of ProFootballFocus (5 years) with a 101.7.
Among the other three, only Atkins didn’t have a regular season game with a negative rating, but Watt was the only who graded out above 1 in every regular season game (he did graded out -0.1 against the Patriots in the playoffs, but still). In fact, with the exception of one game, he never graded out worse than 4.5 in a single regular season game. 2.0 is a great game. Watt was also listed as a “stud” in my studs/duds in my Power Rankings every week, something no one else came close to doing.
The raw stats are this: Watt led the league with 21 sacks and also had another 25 hits and 30 hurries, giving him a pass rush efficiency rating of 10.8 (sacks X .75 hits X .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), which is unheard of for a 3-4 defensive end. He rushed the passer like an edge rusher and he’s not even an edge rusher. That also doesn’t take into account the league leading 15 passes he batted down at the line. No one else had more than 8.
10 edge rushers did have a higher pass rush efficiency rating than that, but again JJ Watt is not an edge rusher. He doesn’t play in space. All of his quarterback pressures (sacks, hits, and hurries) were gotten through pure power through double teams in the trenches, which is why it’s so ridiculous that he was that efficient. 3-4 ends are supposed to stop the run first and foremost and Watt did that as well, leading all 3-4 ends in run stop percentage by over 5% and missing just 2 tackles all year. There wasn’t a better defensive player in the league this year and it’ll be tough for anyone, even Watt, to have this type of season again in the next 5 years.
Coach of the year: Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians (Indianapolis)
Yeah, the Colts had an easy schedule and didn’t have a lot of convincing wins, but they still improved 9 games and the new coaching staff deserves to be recognized for that. This is a joint award and it’s not a pity award because of Pagano’s leukemia. This duo legitimately deserves this. Arians coached the most games, going 9-3 in 12 games as Head Coach, and how he held this team together effectively and gracefully after Pagano’s diagnosis was amazing. He didn’t just turn this team around 9 wins; he did it in the face of, as Pagano would put, it “circumstances.”
Pagano deserves credit too. Not only was he their inspiration, but you don’t just roll out of bed week 1 a 9-win improved team. Arians coached the most games and deserves a ton of credit for the wins he actually got on the field, but Pagano helped build this team and mold them into a playoff team in the off-season. He was their coach for 4 months from rookie camp to week 1 before he was even diagnosed with cancer and laid the framework for Arians to take over and have the kind of success they did. Both men were their Head Coach and both men were the reason they were able to such an amazing season. Both men deserve this award.