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.
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.
And finally, we get to the champs. Well ... sort of, as Barnwell points out early on. The Ravens rode a highly improbable playoff run to their second Super Bowl win in franchise history last season, but these are preview podcasts. Taking stock of this year’s Ravens means evaluating a different group.
After rehashing Baltimore’s 2012 postseason, we get into all the changes Baltimore has made since winning the Super Bowl (7:09). Gone are Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, replaced (hopefully) by Baltimore’s first- and second-round picks from April’s draft. Playoff heroes Paul Kruger, Cary Williams, and Anquan Boldin are also gone, and although Barnwell has some concerns about how quickly all the new defensive pieces can come together, I chose to put my faith in Ozzie Newsome & Co. (OK, so did Barnwell; he just doesn’t think it happens this year).
One topic on which we’re a little further part is Joe Flacco (15:05). You can read our Flacco conversation in full below, but where Barnwell thinks the playoff Flacco is closer to the real Flacco, I still have my doubts:
Every year, as the NFL draft process drags on, a handful of players spark the same conversation about what evaluators should trust. Most often, they’re debates about the importance of 40 times or three-cone drills compared to what a player has put on film during three or four years of a college career. The consensus is often that the latter takes precedence. Few positions in the NFL are ever required to run far in a straight line, and if the tests and the tape have disparate results, falling back on 30 games is safer than falling back on 40 yards.
There are cases, though, when the stopwatch has been enough to scare teams off. Terrell Suggs’s final season at Arizona State included 24 sacks, still an NCAA record. When the draft process began that spring, Suggs was a top-five talent based on the film, but when he turned in a pair of 40-yard dashes in the 4.8 range, doubt started creeping in. Suggs went 10th overall to the Ravens, and we know what’s happened since.
This year's version of that player is Georgia’s Jarvis Jones. In college, Jones was a two-time All-American and probably the best defensive player in a conference littered with them. He can rush the passer, track down ball carriers, and has a knack for big plays. There was a point, before players were putting on track spikes, when he was considered by some to be the best player in the draft. Now, at the end of March, a suspect 40 time and some medical concerns have some analysts projecting him in the bottom half of the first round.
When I decided to count down the 22 most important players in Sunday’s Super Bowl, I didn’t imagine it was going to be all that hard. I mean, there are 44 total starters; picking half of them should be doable. Then I actually started.
Let me first explain what this list is actually supposed to represent. These aren’t the 22 best players in the Super Bowl or the 22 players I expect to make the biggest impact. This is my best attempt at figuring out which 22 players matter most, and that proved to be more difficult than I’d planned.
Even with some cheating (a few guys at similar positions are listed together, so actually there are 27 players. I'm not sorry), there are some notable omissions that I don’t feel great about. Jonathan Goodwin has been one of the best centers in football this year, but for the purposes of this list, he’s out. Not a single Ravens cornerback is listed, which isn’t to say that Corey Graham and Cary Williams won’t play a part; it’s to say that how San Francisco uses Michael Crabtree doesn’t make one side or area of the field more important than another. Dennis Pitta has been invaluable for the Ravens’ offense since Jim Caldwell took over, but I still think he’s been Joe Flacco’s third most important receiver in the playoffs. With all that in mind, here are the guys who actually did make the final cut.
On Sunday a Beyoncé performance will be bookended by a football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. But before these teams take the field in New Orleans to do battle, they will engage in a cold war. Subliminal and explicit insults will become bulletin-board material. Injury reports will be investigated like Watergate leaks. Jim Harbaugh will get increasingly irritated. Every day there will be a winner and a loser of the Story Line Bowl. Who decides these things? We do.
There's something philanthropic about the Ravens' return to the Super Bowl (their first appearance in the title game since winning it all in 2000). There's just a spirit of giving surrounding the team. John Harbaugh is giving Juan Castillo a second chance at a third career, as the noted early riser/unremarkable offensive line coach/much-maligned defensive coordinator has been announced as the Ravens' new well, I'll let Harbaugh explain: "He’ll be kind of a lead coach in terms of the run game and organizing the run game for us." Also receiving gifts this week? Joe Flacco, who got the kind of backhanded compliment that could only come from a father: "Joe is dull As dull as he is portrayed in the media, he’s that dull. He is dull." Don't bury the lede, Steve Flacco! Other Ravens tidbits: Brendon Ayanbadejo wants to use the Super Bowl and the intense spotlight that comes with it to promote his support of gay marriage, Terrell Suggs hasn't called the Niners "arrogant pricks" yet, Bernard Pollard thinks we are in the twilight years of professional football, AND NOBODY SEEMS TO KNOW WHAT TO GET MILLIE OR JIMMY FOR THEIR WEDDING PRESENT. We're dealing with a lot of shit! That being said, the Ravens seem to have gotten through the first true day of Super Bowl buildup without giving the Niners anything to get irrationally pissed about, and even put some good karma into the world.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Robert Griffin III threw for 163 yards and ran for 72 more to lead the Redskins to a 17-16 win over the Giants. "At times like these, I really wish I knew some curse words," said Eli Manning. "So I could think them to myself and feel cruel for just a moment."
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Kevin Garnett scored 26 points and Paul Pierce hit a dagger 3 with 52 seconds remaining as the Celtics beat the Heat 94-90 to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. In a sad development to the continuing LeBron James story, the Heat star has taken up slam poetry as a method to cope with his end-of-game struggles. "These prevaricating MEN, I call them al-IEN: Rondo and GARNETT, haven't killed me YET," shouted James, pointing emphatically from the press conference podium. "And you, Mr. Pierce, who call yourself the TRUTH, who are you to proclaim me FALSE?! Where is your BOOK OF LIES?! For I am a SCRIBE, a son of of the SCROLLS, king of the TRIBE and father of SOULS! Skippedy-bop-bang, cock-a-doodle-DOO, I-got-my-freedoms-and-a-bloobity-BLOO " The poetry descended into gibberish at that point, and ended with James weeping quietly on Erik Spoelstra's tiny little shoulder.
In this week's Fabulous and the Flops, we're advocating for suspensions for big hits, criticizing the performance of a likely Rookie of the Year, and talking about the most embarrassing drive of the year by any offense.