Before next weekend’s Super Bowl, the third-annual NFL Honors will be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The awards are also known as the show you watch for 20 minutes before you go out on Saturday night. It’s like any other award ceremony, just without the skits and fashion and drama that make other award ceremonies remotely entertaining. You get the idea. With that event a week away, now seems like a good time to finish up our own quarterly slog with my picks for who will win this year’s key NFL awards. And yes, because some of the awards are pretty straightforward (hi, Peyton), I’ll also be throwing in the person/people who I think should win the award, even if they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.
Play of the Year
For obvious reasons, this wasn’t an award I went through and picked as the season went along. While you might want to put together an online petition to vote some meaningless four-yard run in midseason as the play of the year, the NFL has put together a 20-play short list that will be narrowed down to 10 choices, which you can find here.
The play from 2013 that I find most enjoyable — which isn’t exactly play of the year, but perhaps should be — is one of the nominees. That’s Terrelle Pryor’s game-opening 93-yard run with the read-option against the Steelers and Mike “The read-option is the flavor of the month” Tomlin. I broke that play down here, but really, all you need is the GIF:
If there were an award for worst play of the year, that would be up there in terms of the work done by the Steelers defense. Running 93 yards is impressive, but Pittsburgh took itself so far out of that play that Marcel Reece didn’t even have anybody to hit as the lead blocker for Pryor.
The best play of the year should be both visually impressive and meaningful in terms of winning. It’s also likely to be biased toward a play from the end of the season, since we are more likely to remember a play that happened recently than one that took place months ago. Last year’s winner was the fourth-and-forever conversion by Ray Rice against the Chargers, which hit all of those categories.
I think this year’s play will be of the same mold: Aaron Rodgers’s game-winning fourth-down touchdown pass to Randall Cobb against the Bears in the de facto NFC North championship game in Week 17. I also happened to break down that play, and you can see the video of it here. There are more physically impressive plays or individual efforts — Gio Bernard’s ode to horizontal yards comes to mind — but in six months, if you ask me which play I remember most from the 2013 season, it’ll be Rodgers throwing the Packers into the playoffs. Or Peyton Manning’s 87-yard touchdown run off the read-option in the Super Bowl. Oh, sorry, spoiler.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
This award was wide-open during the season, as I named Buffalo’s Kiko Alonso and Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu as likely winners at different points of the campaign. Mathieu seemed like the favorite heading into the home stretch, but he suffered a knee injury that ended his season and kept him to just 13 games, which will hurt his chances. I believe Mathieu would have won if he had stayed healthy, and given how great his story is, he still might pick up the hardware next weekend.
If I had a vote, I would give it to the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson, who was an excellent run defender on the league’s second-best run defense. I don’t know that he was all that much better than Star Lotulelei — such is life when you’re judging the murky, near-ungradable lives of interior defensive linemen — but Lotulelei had more stars around him and the cumulative effort in Carolina wasn’t quite as good against the run.
I suspect that the electorate will instead opt for Alonso. It’s not an awful choice by any means, but it’s definitely an easier call. Alonso has stats to help make his case, which goes a long way. He played on 1,145 snaps for Buffalo this season, making him one of just six linebackers to suit up for 100 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in 2013.1 While the Bills don’t have a reputation as such, they were the fifth-best overall defense per DVOA last season. Alonso’s four interceptions hinted at his range and left him tied for third in that category among linebackers, while he finished fifth in the league in the (almost entirely arbitrary) tackles statistic. Richardson ran over a few guards and occupied a lot of linemen, but there are no numbers for that.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
After a checkered history of possible winners throughout the season — including Jets quarterback Geno Smith, for some reason — this basically comes down to a two-man race between Packers halfback Eddie Lacy and Chargers wideout Keenan Allen. (Sorry, NFC North guard true believers.) Let’s try to make a case for each.
Lacy ran for 1,178 yards on 284 carries and scored 11 touchdowns in what amounts to 14 games, as he came out after one carry against Washington with an injury and was absent the following week. He was also banged up at the end of the year with an ankle injury suffered when Mike McCarthy sent him out for a meaningless halftime draw. (Don’t get me started.) He also had to deal with eight-man boxes while Aaron Rodgers was injured, thanks to the presence of Scenatt Toflace at quarterback. Oh, and his starting left tackle went down with a season-ending injury during the preseason. The odds were stacked against Lacy this year, but he still delivered the best single-season performance from a Packers running back since the heyday of Ryan Grant.
Allen also missed some time; injuries and other receivers kept him out of the starting lineup until Malcom Floyd got hurt. In 14 starts, Allen produced a 71-catch, 1,046-yard, eight-touchdown campaign that ranks as one of the most impressive rookie seasons for a receiver in recent memory. Just 12 wideouts since the merger have managed to post 1,000-yard campaigns during their rookie year, and it’s a pretty spectacular group. Plus, Michael Clayton! Allen was the star of a resurgent Chargers passing attack under Philip Rivers, and while there were more notable names in the San Diego receiving corps, Allen was the guy Rivers turned to when he needed a play. Seventh in third-down conversions this year, Allen converted 55 percent of his third-down targets into first downs, which was only topped by Tony Gonzalez and Anquan Boldin.2
I think it’s just about a dead heat. For me, I would say that the tie would go to the player taken later in the draft, which would push the trophy toward Allen. I know that’s entirely arbitrary and unfair, but it’s a sportswriter (fake-)voting for an award; that’s not anything new. I also think Allen will win the real voting because he had a better finish to the season, notably scoring twice in the nationally televised win over the Broncos. But if Lacy wins, nobody needs to riot.
Worst Contract of the Year
In a stunning late upset, it’s the capped-out Cowboys giving kicker Dan Bailey a seven-year contract!!! OK, maybe this isn’t a real award, but I had to find a space to talk about it. This, even for Jerry Jones, is a stunningly dumb move. The Cowboys just handed Bailey a deal that guarantees him $7.5 million and averages $3.2 million per year. They have absolutely no cap flexibility and need to save every penny they can, which would leave kicker — the most fungible position in football and a place where you can find competent guys as undrafted free agents every single year like, not coincidentally, Dan Bailey — as an obvious place to try to save money.
There’s nothing wrong with Bailey — he’s a fine kicker. Football Outsiders suggests that he’s been worth 16.5 points over average on field goals over the past three years, even while he’s been almost exactly league-average on kickoffs. And yes, some of the length of the deal is to pad out the money involved and spread the signing bonus over a longer period. When you’re doing that to create the cap space needed to lock up a kicker, you’re probably doing something stupid. Put it this way: There are nine players signed through 2019, and they’re almost all superstars.3 Cutler and Bailey are now the only players signed through 2020. Thanks, Jerry!
Coach of the Year
This was Andy Reid’s award to lose from the first quarter of the season on. By the end of the year, I had begun to think he actually might have lost it, but I still think he comes away with this nod, and he probably deserves it, too. If you think he might have lost it after his performance against the Colts in the wild-card round, remember this only includes regular-season performance (and that he was actually sorta great in that wild-card game, too). I don’t care how easy Kansas City’s schedule was; 2-14 to 11-5 is too impressive of a swing to not hand the award over to Reid.
There are plenty of other candidates, of course. In order, I’d say that the runners-up should look something like Ron Rivera, Bill Belichick, Bruce Arians, and Sean Payton. And that doesn’t include the coach of the best team in the league (Pete Carroll), the coaches who split time among the second-best team in the league (John Fox and Jack Del Rio), and the guy who might have actually created the biggest transformation with pure coaching ability in the league (Chip Kelly). It was a good year for coaching, man.
Defensive Player of the Year
If the voting for this award took place today, Richard Sherman would win. Famous and great trumps great, especially in a muddled, deep field like this year’s DPOY bunch. Since the voting took place after the regular-season finale, I think Sherman will end up splitting some portion of his votes with fellow Seahawks defensive back Earl Thomas, who might actually be the better player of the two. That’s not necessarily fair, but it’s how the voting goes. Sherman will be the odds-on favorite to win next year’s award, especially if he shuts down Demaryius Thomas in the Super Bowl.
This year’s trophy? It’s another tough call. The PFWA chose Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, and it’s an understandable pick for those who watched Quinn every week this season. Nobody looked more unstoppable up front on a snap-by-snap basis than Quinn, and while he benefited from having Chris Long on the other side of the line, Quinn took a massive step forward this season and probably became the best pass-rusher in football. He finished second in the league with 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles.
There’s a guy who finished ahead of him in both those categories, and his team made the playoffs. Robert Mathis paced the league with 19.5 sacks and a whopping eight forced fumbles, throwing in a safety for good measure. Mathis did that with virtually no help from his teammates, as he nearly finished with more sacks than the rest of his team combined. Alas, he only ended up with 46.5 percent of Indy’s sacks, the 10th-best rate since the league started tracking sacks in 1982.
And yet, I still find myself leaning toward Luke Kuechly. Kuechly was third in the league in (the still almost entirely arbitrary statistic of) tackles this year, including a now-legendary 24-tackle performance against the Saints in Carolina’s NFC South–deciding win over New Orleans in Week 16. That put him behind two viable candidates in their own right in Vontaze Burfict and NaVorro Bowman, but Kuechly has more range in pass coverage than Burfict and gets less help from the players around him than Bowman. He threw in four interceptions, one of which came in that key win over the Saints. It doesn’t hurt that he was in coverage on that key final play against the Patriots on Rob Gronkowski, a player who most teams wouldn’t dream of manning up with a middle linebacker. And nobody outside of Lavonte David covers more ground against the run. I thought he was the best all-around defender in football this year. My guess, though, is that Mathis or Quinn will win.
Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player
What, you’re expecting me to go to bat for Shady McCoy or something here? Obviously, Peyton Manning is your MVP. And given that he reset the two big season passing records in football along the way, he deserves to sweep and win Offensive Player of the Year, too. Want to see something fun?
Player A is Russell Wilson. Player B is Peyton Manning’s season split in half. Pretty decent, I guess. One more table?
Player A is Peyton Manning’s 2013 season. Player B is Eli Manning’s cumulative performance across the 16 best starts of his career.4 And Eli is 33. Peyton just dropped that season at 37. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. I don’t think Peyton will be in attendance at the NFL Honors, given that it’s the night before the Super Bowl, but if he does show up, he should really just get onstage for his speech, drop the mic, and walk back out of Radio City. The only thing left for him to do is finish it off with a win next Sunday. He won this award weeks ago.