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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 17

At the New York Times Fifth Down Blog this week, I explain my choices for the major awards this season.

Offensive Player of the Year: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

Generally, the Most Valuable Player award is given to the best quarterback, while the Offensive Player of the Year is usually the player with the most impressive statistics. In the last five years, Tom Brady — first in 2007, and then again in 2010 — is the only player to take home both awards in the same season. Last year, Drew Brees won the award while Aaron Rodgers took home the M.V.P., but running backs Priest Holmes (2002), Jamal Lewis (2003), Shaun Alexander (2005), LaDainian Tomlinson (2006), and Chris Johnson (2009) have all won the award in the last decade. While Calvin Johnson will probably get some support for breaking Jerry Rice’s single-season record for receiving yards, Adrian Peterson has had this award locked up for a month, and finishing the season with 2,097 yards was the icing on the cake.

I don’t think you’ll find too many people arguing about this one. Peterson’s story is outstanding, and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t provide the single most impressive performance by an offensive player this year. Quarterbacks may be more valuable, but it’s hard not to just sit back and admire what Peterson’s done. Johnson’s also had a magnificent season, but he was greatly aided by the Lions also breaking the record for pass attempts in a season.

Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

The shine is off the Texans, but there’s no denying that their star lineman has been outstanding this year. If the stars were aligned slightly differently — say, the Texans were streaking towards the end of the year, and Watt had a monster primetime game late — he’d have a legitimate chance at the M.V.P. award. Last month, I talked about how this award was a three-man race with the stars all coming from the 2011 Draft. In that article I also mentioned Geno Atkins as a possible darkhorse, and he’s been ever better since. But Watt has 20.5 sacks and the national reputation as the Sultan of Swatt, so this award is pretty easy to predict.

And well justified. Watt’s production as a 3-4 defensive end is remarkable. He now owns the single-season record for sacks by a player at that position, but he’s far from one dimensional. We know that he is fantastic at tipping passes at the line of scrimmage and is excellent in run support. He’s a complete player in every respect, a dominant force at a position that rarely receives media attention.

I’d select Von Miller as my runner-up and give Atkins the bronze. While Aldon Smith gets more attention because of his lofty sack totals, he’s a one-dimensional player. While he’s outstanding at that one dimension, just being a dominant pass rusher only makes him the fourth best defensive player this year. He also disappeared down the stretch, which not coincidentally began when star defensive end Justin Smith went down with a triceps injury.

Comeback Player of the Year: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning missed the entire 2011 season, but as soon as he took the field in 2012 he became the favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year. A quarterback has won this award each of the last four years — Chad Pennington (2008), Tom Brady (2009), Michael Vick (2010), and Matthew Stafford (2011) — and the trend should continue in 2012. Comeback Player of the Year is a two-man race, and there’s no wrong answer when choosing between Manning and Peterson. If the voters could, surely the majority would pick that Manning and Peterson split the award. If ever an award called for a split, this was it.

Peyton Manning’s neck injury was considered career-threatening this time last year. Many questioned his arm strength in the pre-season and in September, but by the end of the year he was once again the best quarterback in the league. It’s simply splitting hairs picking between Manning and Peterson, who tore two ligaments in his knee just over a year ago and rebounded to rush for 2,000 yards. And let’s at least recognize Jamaal Charles, who in any other year would likely take home the award. The Kansas City running back tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last season, and rebounded to rush for over 1,500 yards in 2012. My guess is that those voters looking for a tiebreaker focus on the fact that Manning missed the entire 2011 season while Peterson ran for 970 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, making Manning more of a “comeback” story.

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