Believe it or not, we're already three-quarters of the way through the NFL season. As we approach Week 14, each team has 12 games in the books and four games left to go, which means that it's time to take stock of the league at the quarter pole. Today, that means our scheduled look at the candidates likeliest to win the various league- and media-sponsored awards that'll come out at the end of the NFL campaign.
We've been tracking each of the league's key races, four games at a time, and it's been surprising to see how different things can look with only a month of change. Award winners who seemed like competitors after the first four games of the year or even at the halfway point are now jokes, and at least one candidate who seemed like a lock as recently as Week 9 might be usurped for his award by the time things are said and done. Nobody is having a truly dominant season the way that J.J. Watt and Adrian Peterson did a year ago, and the only guy coming close to that stratosphere has won this award so many times that the voters might very well be sick of him.
So let's go through the league's seven most notable awards and see where they stand with four games to go, starting with the one that actually appears to be locked up. Keep in mind that my picks here aren't necessarily my choices for who should win the award, but instead the person who I think is most likely to win, given the historical preferences of the electorate.
Every season, Thanksgiving is about when we start figuring things out, and this year is no exception. Several teams made their playoff case last week, with the Saints, Panthers, Colts, and Eagles all gaining ground in either a division or wild-card race. But it’s also the time of year when teams finally come to the sad realization that it’s time to close up shop. Last week, with losses to a one-win Bucs team and a Matt McGloin–led Raiders team, respectively, those teams were the Falcons and Texans — two teams that came into this season with back-to-back trips to the playoffs.
Including Atlanta and Houston, there are currently eight teams down at least two games in the loss column for a playoff spot, and we know that for those fans, the holidays can be a cold, lonely stretch. So with Black Friday just around the corner, we wanted to give those teams a little something to keep them warm by putting together a holiday wish list for that one gift each needs as it looks forward to next year.
For someone who loves both giving awards and pro football, I should love the NFL MVP race. And maybe I would, if it weren’t completely devoid of fun and/or intrigue.
Bill Barnwell wrote about this in detail amid last year’s uncharacteristically murky race, but here’s the gist: The NFL MVP is the Best Quarterback Award, barring a mind-blowing, record-shattering season by a running back. In the past 20 years only seven non-QBs have won the award, and each time, it’s taken an historic effort to do it.
Adrian Peterson needed the seventh 2,000-yard season ever. Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis each needed one too. Shaun Alexander broke the single-season rushing touchdown record during his MVP campaign in 2005. LaDainian Tomlinson broke that record the following year. You get the idea.
So, this is happening. It doesn’t get much better than the NFL’s best defensive lineman against the NFL’s best offensive line. I’m putting this game right up there with Gravity in terms of making me think about the vastness of the universe and mankind’s place within it.
The Niners’ line played its best game of the season last week against St. Louis as San Francisco seemed intent on committing to its running game. Frank Gore’s were the most he’s had in a game since Week 14 of the 2009 season, and his 7.65 yards per carry was the 10th best mark of his career.
Watt will spend most of the day dealing with guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, both of whom were Pro Bowl–level players a year ago (Iupati went; Boone did not). Boone was one of the better run blockers in the entire league last season. He’s a massive 6-foot-8 mauler, but he occasionally struggles in pass protection. Watt doesn't struggle with anything.
During Monday Night Football, Jon Gruden noted that every one of the coaches he knows (which is presumably a lot of coaches) breaks up the season into four quarters. It's their way of breaking down the season into manageable chunks; if you can go 2-2 in each quarter, you're doing a decent job. That logic is good enough for me, mainly because it allows me to get away with doing one of my favorite columns: short-term awards! I would do an awards ballot every week if I could get away with it. Once every four weeks is actually pretty good, since it strikes a reasonable balance between putting things in perspective and updating the bigger picture with a meaningful amount of new information.
So, here are my picks for the major award winners through the first four weeks of the season. Obviously, things are still very premature, so consider these selections to be my choices for who has been the best through Week 4, not who will win the award(s) at the end of the season. But if the person I pick now ends up winning the award(s) at the end of the season, please give me credit for mentioning them here. Thanks.
On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
It Was All Good Just a Week Ago
Andrew Sharp: It feels like just yesterday that Chip Kelly was splitting the earth in half and setting the Redskins secondary on fire and exceeding all the hype. Now? Uhh ...
Philly's 1-3 after Sunday, and everything after that outrageous first half in D.C. has felt like one, long reality check. Especially this week, when the Broncos spent most of the afternoon reminding us that even the Eagles' biggest strength isn't half as good as the best offense in the league. Now the backlash starts, and you know the Philly media's only going to get exponentially more miserable with each passing loss.
It's all a little bit unfair. Nobody expected the Eagles to actually be good until that first half in D.C. That's when everyone threw logic out the window. Now Chip's being judged against that curve, and every loss is proof that he's a fraud or something. With that in mind, hopefully everyone can just wait and see what happens here. There's a decent chance it never clicks in Philly, in which case Chip Kelly goes back to college to rain hellfire on the Pac-12 or ACC or Big 12. That would be cool. But there's also a chance this Eagles team was always going to be kind of shitty, and given a season to learn and tweak things — and an offseason to rebuild that defense — things could look a lot better a year from now. In the meantime, the Eagles are still more fun to watch and argue about than any other 1-3 team in the NFL. That was always the best part of the Chip Kelly deal for the rest of us. Between the grumpy Philly media and the crazy offense and Michael Vick and LeSean and DeSean ... The team may not be good this year or next year or ever, but whatever happens, the insanity will keep everyone entertained.
Almost without exception, there’s one thing you can count on from every NFL rookie — at some point, each of them will be completely, hilariously embarrassed. This isn’t really their fault. Even the highly drafted, quickly effective brand of first-year player is bound to face this type of moment. Whether it’s at the end of a long drive, or early in a game before they’ve become entrenched in the action, somewhere along the way, the muscle memory and lesser physical demands from the college game are likely to take over. It isn’t laziness. It’s nature.
Fourth overall pick Lane Johnson was great in his debut for the Eagles in Week 1, fitting right alongside his teammates as they pushed the Redskins around the field and allowed LeSean McCoy to rack up more than 180 yards on the ground. And with the confusion that resulted from Philadelphia’s new-look offense, Johnson didn’t have to worry much about Ryan Kerrigan teeing off on the quarterback.
Week 2 was a bit of a different story. Johnson played fine, but with a week of film, the Chargers were able to test the Eagles’ rookie tackle just as they were able to test the rest of the Philadelphia offense and defense.
Back when he was a Colt, Dwight Freeney had the reputation for having the best spin move of any pass-rusher in football — a reputation that was deserved. Spinning made Freeney’s already compact frame even more difficult to get a hand on, and it regularly played a role in Freeney’s seven double-digit-sack seasons in Indianapolis.
Freeney isn’t the same player he was five years ago, but what made that spin so dangerous is how small a misstep it takes from an offensive linemen for the move to work. And on Sunday, Freeney was playing a rookie prone to just that type of subtle mistake.
In the NFL, rivalries are fleeting. There are exceptions (Dallas-Washington, Chicago–Green Bay), but stakes, as much as familiarity, are what breed contempt in pro football. If the Redskins are 5-10, no one cares about their Week 17 game in Dallas.
For the past decade, the games we’ve come to anticipate are the games between teams who’ve played often and for something. In the early part of the Manning-Brady era, the Colts and Patriots seemed to play at least once a year (and they still do). At some point, we shifted to the Ravens and Steelers, who spent two games seeing who could be the first team to 17 points and/or turn the other team into dust. Now, the league’s best rivalry resides in the NFC West, and we get our first installment of the season Sunday night.
Scattered throughout the channel-flipping madness that is Week 1 was a sight that had become familiar by late Sunday afternoon. Whether it was in Carolina, St. Louis, New York, or New Orleans, former first-round defensive linemen seemed to be making plays constantly. Rams defensive end Robert Quinn (2011, 14th overall) sacked Carson Palmer three times, causing fumbles on two of them. Muhammad Wilkerson (2011, 30th overall) had a sack for the Jets, and his linemate Sheldon Richardson (2013, 13th overall) added several key stops in the run game. Cameron Jordan (2011, 24th overall) looked to be acclimating nicely to the Saints’ new 3-4 defense, and each of the past two players drafted 14th overall (Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers and Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei) were impressive in anchoring their teams’ run defense.
Each of these teams (aside from Carolina, which had a more than respectable showing against Seattle) won Sunday, and in doing so, appeared to add even more evidence that winning teams are built from the lines out. It was all enough to make me wonder — when it comes to defensive lines, is that adage actually true? There are some who look at the 49ers’ turnaround and note that San Francisco made an effort to invest heavily in its offensive line, spending three first-round picks in four years to build what may be the best group in football. There are some teams who’ve made a similar choice on defense, most notably the Rams, who’ve drafted three defensive linemen in the first round since 2008 (to go along with Quinn and Brockers, St. Louis also has Chris Long, taken second overall in ’08). My question was whether this strategy has actually worked historically, whether a first-round defensive lineman actually makes an appreciable difference in how a team’s defense performs overall.
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next few weeks providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
There are two ways to think about the news that J.J. Watt has been lobbying Gary Kubiak to play offense for the Texans. The first is to lament the 22 days until the NFL kicks off, to curse the steady stream of meaningless stories sure to populate the few short weeks before actual football begins. The second, the one I’m choosing to go with, is that this would be the greatest thing that’s ever happened.
“I’ve been lobbying since day one,” Watt said, according to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. “It hasn’t worked yet, so I don’t think it’s going to work anytime soon. But it’s (Kubiak’s) team.” Kubiak said later yesterday afternoon that he’s considered using Watt as part of a goal-line package, but not much has come of it quite yet — and it’s unlikely anything will.
My Watt feelings have been made clear, so I’m in favor of whatever puts him on the field for more plays. And c’mon, it’s not like the Texans offense has been flush with receiving options in the past. Watt is 6-foot-5, has a 37-inch vertical leap, great timing, and excellent feet. Is it that hard to imagine him making a few big plays if used sparingly on offense? I’m only half-kidding about this!
What's that? You were wondering exactly how many days until the start of the NFL season? Well, you're in luck! We here at the Triangle are set to spend the next two months providing a daily reason to get excited about pro football's return.
In almost any other season, what Von Miller did in 2012 would’ve been enough to not just win Defensive Player of the Year, but win it unanimously. According to Football Outsiders, to go along with his 18.5 sacks, Miller was also fifth in the league in quarterback knockdowns (combined sacks and hits), first in hurries (by their tally, his 41 were seven more than the man in second place, Chris Long), third in run tackles for loss, second in fewest average yards allowed per run tackle (to J.J. Watt), and second in defeats (also second to J.J. Watt).
The second pick in the 2011 draft, Miller was also the second-best player in the NFL last season, and the Broncos have found themselves a pass-rushing, run-stopping force. Labeling Miller a 4-3 outside linebacker is almost an insult. He may be the most unique defensive player in the league, capable of lining up all over a defense and doing whatever Denver asks of him. In rounding up the best pass rushers in the league yesterday, I decided Miller needed an analysis all his own. And what better way to get ready for 2013 than to count down Miller’s personal top 10 from 2012.