The envelopes are here!
As usual, the one-vote system applies for our annual NFL awards. And like always, the awards are named with a nod to history.
Joe Montana MVP Award: Aaron Rodgers. So much for the notion that A-Rod is on the decline. After the Packers drafted a potential replacement (Jordan Love) in the first round in April, Rodgers pretty much rolled back the clock to his first two MVP seasons (2011, 2014) and proved he is still on that level. Rodgers (48 TDs, just five interceptions) posted triple-digit passer ratings in 14 games, and his season mark (121.5) was just shy of his NFL-record 122.5. The cold efficiency is reminiscent of Joe Cool, who set the since-surpassed NFL bar (112.4) in 1989 and didn’t throw a single pick in any of the four Super Bowls he won with the 49ers.
Jim Brown Lifetime Achievement Award: Frank Gore. If this is it, what a remarkable run for a man who entered the NFL as a third-round pick and after 16 seasons ranks third on the all-time rushing list with a nice, round number: 16,000 yards. Gore, 37 like Rodgers, hasn’t decided whether he’ll try to return. He’s played 241 games, a record for a running back. He was the first player in NFL history to produce 12 consecutive seasons of 1,200 yards from scrimmage. And no, the legendary Brown never criticized the hard-nosed Gore for trying to avoid contact by running out of bounds.
Mean Joe Greene Defensive Player of the Year Award: Aaron Donald. In leading the NFC with 13 1/2 sacks, “The Terminator” just kept on blowing up offensive game plans from the middle of the trenches for the Rams’ No. 1-ranked defense, which Greene once did for Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” unit during the 1970s. Over three years, Donald has posted 46 1/2 sacks, more impressive when considering the numbers come from a man who primarily aligns at D-tackle, a la Greene. And the sacks don’t account for other forms of destruction, such as pressures, QB hits, plugging the run and creating plays for fellow linemen.
Adrian Peterson Offensive Player of the Year Award: Derrick Henry. In claiming a second consecutive rushing title with 2,027 yards, the Titans’ star became the eighth player in league history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and the first since Peterson had 2,097 in 2012. With three 200-yard games, King Henry claimed the NFL career record of four-such games, topping the mark shared with Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and LaDanian Tomlinson.
Joe Gibbs Coach of the Year Award: Kevin Stefanski. He wasn’t in the stadium when he won his first playoff game, quarantined in Cleveland with COVID-19. More impressively, in his first season as a head coach, Stefanski pushed all the right buttons after inheriting a wealth of talent and led the Browns to the franchise’s first playoff berth in 18 years. Many have tried. Since Butch Davis, Stefanski is the 10th Browns coach, including two interims. Gibbs knows all about changing a culture and adapting to win, guiding Washington to three Super Bowl crowns, with three different quarterbacks, during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Reggie White Community Spirit Award: Patrick Mahomes and Tyrann Mathieu. Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, and Mathieu, the glue on the back end of the Chiefs’ defense, demonstrated immense off-the-field impact by leading the push to use Arrowhead Stadium as a polling site for the presidential election. It’s where Chiefs coach Andy Reid, incidentally, cast his ballot in November. More significantly, it provided a community resource that can be used for years as Mahomes inspired the Chiefs to match his six-figure contribution to pay for the new voting machines that will also be used for future elections. White, aka “The Minister of Defense,” was a force off the field typically involved in addressing issues pertaining to disenfranchised communities.
Tedy Bruschi Comeback Player of the Year Award: Alex Smith. Not only did the WFT’s QB make it back after a two-year journey from a career-threatening compound leg fracture and ensuing infection that required 17 surgeries, Smith made a tremendous difference that allowed the franchise to claim its first playoff berth since 2015. Never mind that the WFT won the NFC East with a 7-9 record. It was 5-1 in games started by Smith, who began the season as the third-string emergency option … then saved the day as since-dumped “franchise” quarterback Dwayne Haskins unraveled. Bruschi, the former Patriots linebacker, knows something about coming back from severe setbacks, resuming his career eight months after suffering a stroke.
Jim Steeg Unsung Hero Award: The NFL’s contact tracers. In implementing the league’s COVID-19 testing plan needed to execute the essential protocols that allowed the NFL to pull off a season during the pandemic, the NFL tapped 18 staff members from various departments in the league office to investigate and track connections to positive cases in real time. The system was built from scratch and made a huge difference. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical adviser, said in late December that the contact tracers identified 37 people determined to be high-risk close contacts to infected individuals, thus allowing medical experts to take actions to mitigate spread within teams. Steeg is the former NFL director of special events who worked behind the scenes for years to help build the Super Bowl into the mega festival it has become.
Tom Matte Super Sub Award: Kendall Hinton. When the Broncos tapped a practice squad receiver, Hinton, to play quarterback in a pinch for Denver’s Week 12 game against the Saints with Drew Lock and other quarterbacks ineligible due to COVID-19 issues, it struck a nerve with Matte. In 1965, Matte – a former Baltimore Colts running back who, like Hinton, played quarterback in college – was used as an emergency quarterback for three games due to injuries to Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo. Hinton played 24 snaps and completed just one pass during a lopsided loss. But the effort can’t be knocked as he learned of his assignment the day before his first NFL game.
Kool Moe Dee How Ya Like Me Now Award: Tom Brady. What a coincidence. Brady bolted from New England after 20 seasons (six Super Bowl rings, nine AFC titles) and guided the Buccaneers to the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2007. Without Brady and with Cam Newton trying to revive his career, the Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 (when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1). Mohandas Dewese, an avid NFL fan who had his heyday as a rapper during the 1980s, could surely supply the soundtrack to a TB12 highlight reel. Brady fired 40 TD passes for the second time in his illustrious career, topped by his then-NFL record 50 TD throws in 2007.
Dan Marino Offensive Rookie of the Year Award: Justin Herbert. In passing for 4,336 yards with 31 TDs and 396 yards rushing, the Chargers’ quarterback got his jersey put up for display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He broke rookie records for TD passes (Baker Mayfield) and total TDs (Cam Newton) and passed for at least two TDs in a rookie-record seven consecutive games. But Herbert couldn’t save his coach, Anthony Lynn, from getting fired. Like Marino, the sixth quarterback drafted in 1983, Herbert was passed over for others. He was the third QB off the board, picked sixth overall from Oregon.
Lawrence Taylor Award: Chase Young. Washington’s defensive end, picked No. 2 overall from Ohio State, is the top defensive rookie. He arrived as advertised, with his 7 1/2 sacks only some of the big-play impact he delivered. Like Taylor was after being drafted No. 2 overall by the Giants in 1981, Young is the instant face (with flowing locks) of a talented D-line that starts four first-round picks.
Drew Brees Most Improved Player Award: Josh Allen. In his third season, the Bills’ quarterback demonstrated dramatic improvement in passing for a franchise-record 4,544 yards and 37 TDs. And a season after ranking last in the league with a 55.8% completion rate, Allen completed 69.2% of his throws. According to ESPN, he’s the fourth quarterback in the past 20 years to improve his completion percentage by at least 10 points. Besides the input from offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and QB coach Ken Dorsey, Allen’s work last offseason with quarterback tutor Jordan Palmer (Carson’s younger brother) is said to have done much to help him develop a better base with his footwork. As for Brees, remember his 2003 season with the Chargers? His 67.5 passer rating came inside a 2-9 campaign. The next year Brees posted a 100 rating for the first time as San Diego went 11-4. And so many records have fallen since.
Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch Best Supporting Actor Award: Stefon Diggs. The dots to Allen’s remarkable rise with the Bills are connected to the addition of Diggs, the play-making receiver obtained from the Vikings in an offseason trade. Diggs led the NFL with 127 receptions for 1,535 yards. That production is attached to Allen’s monster year, which compelled me to check the box score from the 1951 game when Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin set the NFL single-game record by throwing for 554 yards against the New York Yanks. Hirsch caught nine passes for 173 yards and four of Van Brocklin’s five scoring strikes that day. Yep. Every phenomenal passer needs someone on the receiving end.
Bobb McKittrick Award: Dennis Allen. The Saints’ defensive coordinator deserves credit for the development of his unit into one of the league’s best … although it is often overshadowed by the prolific offense that Sean Payton operates. McKittrick? The 49ers’ offensive line coach had a huge hand in the prolific West Coast offenses in the 1980s triggered by Joe Montana and designed by Bill Walsh, but the O-line unit was so anonymous when compared to the star-studded cast for which it blocked.
Eric Berry Inspiration Award: Ron Rivera. The Washington coach is using his platform to advocate for affordable health care as his first year on the new job included the challenge of receiving chemotherapy to battle squamous cell carcinoma. Rivera’s plight was inspirational as he guided the WFT to a division crown. Berry, the former Chiefs safety, overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma with rounds of chemo in 2015 to resume his All-Pro career.
Ernie Nevers It-Must-Be-The-Shoes-Award: Alvin Kamara. While sporting one green shoe and one red shoe to mark the occasion of playing on Christmas, the Saints’ running back tied an NFL record with six rushing TDs, matching the mark established by Nevers in 1929.
Ozzie Newsome Executive of the Year Award: Jason Licht. The Buccaneers’ general manager lured Brady to town and suddenly Tampa Bay got back on the NFL map. But Brady wasn’t the only move that helped the Bucs earn their first playoff win since the franchise’s Super Bowl run marked the 2002 season. He added Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy. Plus, he added quick impact from the draft with Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr. Newsome, the NFL’s first Black general manager, built two Super Bowl winners for the Ravens and in his last draft for them set the course for the franchise’s future by drafting Lamar Jackson. Weird, but Newsome was never voted by pro football writers as NFL executive of the year.