Every year, the Associated Press names a Defensive Player of the Year. But not all winners are chosen by the same margin (the ’14 winner received 100% of the vote, while the ’13 winner had just 26%), and the AP is hardly the only authority. I thought it would be fun and informative to take a closer look at the selections in some prior years. Let’s begin with the 7-year period from 2000 to 2006.
2000: Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Lewis ran away with this award, although the voting is perhaps closer than you would have suspected. We remember “The 2000 Ravens” and Lewis, but these awards are voted on before the postseason. And Lewis was not exactly a unanimous choice outside the confines of the AP, either. College & Pro Football Newsweekly and Newsday (Bob Glauber) chose Glover, while Peter King of Sports Illustrated named … Keith Hamilton his DPOY? Really? Yes, really. The Giants defense was great, and Hamilton did lead the team with ten sacks while playing defensive tackle. But this is one of those decisions that does not look very good in hindsight. Then again, that’s sort of the point of this exercise. It’s easy to look back and say in 2000, Lewis was obviously the best defensive player in the NFL. That may have been the case, but it wasn’t quite so obvious back then.
Also of note: the Kansas City Committee of 101 went with a Defensive Player of the Conference award, selecting Lewis and Glover. Larry Felser at the Buffalo News did the same, and went with Glover and Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle.
Verdict: Lewis was the clear choice for DPOY, although far from a unanimous one.
2001: Michael Strahan, New York Giants
Strahan set the sack record this year, albeit in controversial fashion, so you might have thought he ran away with the award. Not so much. Urlacher was close in the AP voting, and Football Digest, Rick Gosselin at the Dallas Morning News, and Ira Miller at the San Francisco Chronicle all went with Urlacher (Gosselin did select Strahan as his runner up). Still, most sources did select Strahan, including the AP and Pro Football Weekly. The KC101 NFC Defensive Player of the Year award went to Strahan, not Urlacher, while Lewis was that organization’s pick in the AFC. And, for what it’s worth, Leonard Shapiro at the Washington Post went with Green Bay’s Darren Sharper. Oh, and if you want to go in the other direction, Paul Zimmerman (aka Dr. Z) chose Strahan as his Most Valuable Player in ’01.
Verdict: A close race, but Strahan was the consensus pick and a deserving DPOY choice. But Urlacher would have been, too.
2002: Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 2002 Bucs had perhaps the best pass defense in NFL history, and Brooks managed to return three interceptions for touchdowns during the regular season. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown, making him just the fourth player to score four defensive touchdowns in one season.1 As a result, Brooks basically ran away with the award. Since he and Taylor played in different conferences, each picked up the award from the KC101. One dissenter out there, though, was Peter King, who went with Taylor on the basis of his 18.5 sacks and strong run defense.
Verdict: Brooks was basically a unanimous choice. Given what he did in the playoffs, this was a slam dunk.
2003: Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
The 2003 Ravens are a good answer to the question of how good can a team be with a terrible passing attack. Baltimore ranked 29th in ANY/A that year, but had a dominant defense and Jamal Lewis, who ran for over 2,000 yards. Lewis was a runaway winner in the AP voting, but there were some notable exceptions. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King selected Harrison, while John McClain of the Houston Chronicle chose Williams. The top candidates were in the AFC this year, so while the KC101 selected Lewis as its AFC DPOY, it chose Michael Strahan (Giants) as the top defender in the NFC. Lewis also picked up 2 of 50 votes in the AP MVP voting.
Verdict: Baltimore’s defense ranked 3rd in yards, 3rd in yards per carry, 3rd in first downs, 2nd in turnovers, 1st in rushing touchdowns, and 1st in NY/A. Lewis was the star of the league’s top defense by DVOA, making him a worthy choice.
2004: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens
One of the closer races, as Reed picked up just 40% of the vote. Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America selected Reed, as did Football Digest and several other commenters. As is becoming customary, Peter King went in a different direction, selecting James Farrior, but he wasn’t alone: Rick Gosselin (Dallas Morning News), Bob Glauber (Newsday), Ira Miller (San Francisco Chroncile) all selected the Steelers linebacker as well.
Gary Myers at the New York Daily News chose Dwight Freeney, while AP writer Dave Goldberg had Edwards as his top choice, with Reed and Farrior tied for second. With all three of those players in the AFC, that left up Peppers to pick up the KC 101 NFC DPOY, while Reed also grabbed that honor in the AFC.
Verdict: Reed was no slam dunk choice, but was the plurality pick as the best defender in the league. The 2004 Ravens were one of the stars of the Billick Index, and one of the more lopsided teams of the decade. On the other side, if Farrior was a borderline Hall of Famer, I’d say looking at these results would have boosted his candidacy.
2005: Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears
AP voting: Urlacher (34), Dwight Freeney (4) (Colts), Troy Polamalu (3) (Steelers), Osi Umenyiora (2) (Giants), Adrian Wilson (2) (Cardinals), Lance Briggs (1) (Bears), Champ Bailey (1) (Broncos), Marcus Stroud (1) (Jaguars), Alex Brown (1) (Bears), Nathan Vasher (1) (Bears)
Three Bears defenders not named Urlacher received one vote each for DPOY! That’s kind of weird, but the sort of thing that happens when a team ranks first in points allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, and allowed 10 passing touchdowns while intercepting 24 passes. And goes 11-5 despite ranking 31st in offensive ANY/A! And no team since the merger has had a larger Billick Index score than the ’05 Bears.
Against that backdrop, Urlacher was a wise choice as DPOY. Well, not for Peter King, of course, who went contrarian and selected Briggs. Jarrett Bell at the USA Today selected Freeney, marking the second consecutive year that he was in the DPOY discussion and top three in the AP voting. In fact, the KC101 chose Freeney and Urlacher as the top defenders in the AFC and NFC, respectively. But to most, Urlacher was the clear best defender in football.
Verdict: Urlacher was the right choice, but Freeney’s arguably has a silver and bronze medal on his trophy case. His Hall of Fame case should be boosted by the fact that he was a top-three choice for DPOY in consecutive seasons.
2006: Jason Taylor, Miami Dolphins
Taylor had 13.5 sacks and scored two touchdowns on pick sixes, as he lead a Dolphins defense that ranked in the top five in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing yards allowed,and sacks. The voting was pretty close among the Associated Press pool, but most organizations did select Taylor as the top defender. That includes Pro Football Weekly / Pro Football Writers of America, along with (shockingly) Peter King and a host of other writers.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Bill Williamson of the Denver Post chose Bailey, as did Rick Gosselin at the Dallas Morning News, Nancy Gay at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune. But the KC101 also chose Taylor over Bailey for its AFC DPOY award, and Urlacher as the top dog in the NFC.
Verdict: Urlacher, who finished “2nd” in ’01 and won the award in ’05, boosted his HOF candidacy with another big year in ’06. Taylor, a “runner up” in 2002, may have done enough to earn a bust in Canton by snagging the 2006 DPOY award.