Rise of the Machines?

From Here to Paternity

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images Peyton Manning

The NFL Midseason Awards

Predicting who would haul in the hardware at the halfway point

Five weeks ago, I put together an NFL quarter-season awards column that broke down the races for each of the league’s most notable trophies through four games. Now, with each NFL team having suited up for at least eight contests, it’s time to step forward and figure out where the NFL award races stand at the halfway point of the NFL season.

To be honest, I’m surprised how much things have changed. The complexion of certain competitions has changed entirely, thanks to injuries and newly emerging talents. In other cases, players with narrow leads have surged ahead of the competition. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that the players who are in the running for these trophies right now will be the favorites once the season’s up; Adrian Peterson was a likely Comeback Player of the Year winner this time last season, but his run to the MVP only really came about during the second half of the campaign. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s another AD who emerges in 2013.

Keep in mind that these choices are not necessarily my personal picks for who should win these awards, but instead who I think the voting electorate would choose if they had to vote based on the half-season they’ve seen. I’ll try to throw in some insight if I think that a given player’s chances are more likely to improve during the second half.

Terrell Suggs

Comeback Player of the Year

Quarter-Season Winner: Terrell Suggs

Is there any reason to think that Terrell Suggs shouldn’t be the prohibitive favorite to win this award? Suggs is coming off of a serious injury that dramatically affected his 2012 season, and this year he’s been a force coming off the edge for the Ravens, ranking fifth in the league with nine sacks. Given all the turmoil in Baltimore amid their personnel overhaul, Suggs has been a steadying force and a leader on defense.

There’s only one reason I can think of that might prevent Suggs from winning this award: voters noting Baltimore’s drop-off from Super Bowl winner in 2012 to a below-average team in 2013 and tying it to Suggs’s performance. That couldn’t be more unfair; Suggs was basically a passenger on the 2012 team, missing most of the season and offering limited returns as a situational player when he was around. He has been a much more impressive and important player this year.

If the electorate decides against Suggs, there would be only a few other candidates who would make sense. With a new head coach, Philip Rivers has reversed years of decline and put together arguably his best professional (half-) season alongside a bunch of rookies and castoffs in San Diego. Jason Peters has performed admirably as Philadelphia’s left tackle after tearing his Achilles twice last year and missing the entire season. The league could even consider Cowboys defensive end George Selvie, who was expected to be a star during his time at South Florida before producing a disappointing final season at school and falling all the way to the seventh round of the 2010 draft. He bounced around the league’s bottom-feeding teams and rode the bench for Jacksonville last year before making his way to Dallas this season, where he has emerged as a pretty talented pass-rusher, with six sacks in nine games. His comeback isn’t as simple a story as that of Suggs or Peters, but his work in becoming a viable NFL starter is admirable, too.

Coach of the Year

Quarter-Season Winner: Andy Reid

While he was in the running with Sean Payton for Coach of the Year four weeks ago, it’s now a foregone conclusion that Andy Reid will end up claiming the Coach of the Year trophy for his work in turning the 2-14 Chiefs into an as-yet-undefeated playoff contender. No voter can resist that win jump. At the same time, Reid is benefiting from the core of talent left for him by the previous administration in Kansas City; it wasn’t an accident that the Chiefs had multiple Pro Bowlers a year ago. Merely by upgrading to an average quarterback, Reid has helped drive a gigantic shift in winning percentage.

Were I voting for Coach of the Year, I would put Reid in that discussion. But there are a number of coaches who I think have done a better job of molding their schemes to the talent on hand or getting more out of less on their roster. Marc Trestman has totally revitalized the Chicago offense, protected Jay Cutler, and quietly gotten a mammoth season out of Matt Forte. Mike McCoy has done the same thing in San Diego, with Rivers having the aforementioned career season in an offense built around the talents of Danny Woodhead. Rex Ryan has taken a team that was left for dead and gotten brilliance out of an inexperienced defense, saving his own job in the process. And you can definitely make a case for Ron Rivera, who has built one of the league’s best defenses without a viable secondary, in addition to becoming a shockingly good in-game decision-maker. Any of those guys would be better choices than Reid. In the real world, alas, Reid is a lock to win this one.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Quarter-Season Winner: Kiko Alonso

After Week 4, Kiko Alonso had four interceptions. By my math, that’s one interception per game, which is awful good. After Week 9 … Kiko Alonso still has four interceptions. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — Alonso remains tied for the league lead in picks — but he’s not quite the slam-dunk choice he was a month ago.

Alonso’s competition is one of the best stories in football. Tyrann Mathieu has been a wildly fascinating player this season for Arizona; even though he was a midround pick coming off of a year spent out of competitive football, he has stepped right into the lineup from Week 1 and been a playmaker on what quietly might be the league’s best defense. Mathieu has a sack, two interceptions, and a forced fumble on a would-be touchdown by Jared Cook in Week 1. He has also come up with a number of big passes defensed, notably on Detroit’s fourth-down play in Week 2 to seal a victory. At the same time, he gets targeted a lot by opposing teams, which should tell you that they’re not scared to throw at him. The Cardinals have been awful against tight ends this year, and some of that is on Mathieu. (He also has just one kickoff return and no punt returns this year, which isn’t his fault, but is surprising.) I’d also consider the Saints’ Kenny Vaccaro as a candidate, but right now, I expect that Mathieu would narrowly edge out Alonso.

Eddie Lacy, Chris Conte

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Quarter-Season Winner: Geno Smith

The candidates from the three-quarters pole have washed out. EJ Manuel got hurt. DeAndre Hopkins slowed down with the quarterback mess in Houston. Geno Smith has taken a lot of responsibility for a rookie quarterback with little to work with at receiver, but other offensive players have surpassed his level of competence.

Right now, we’ve got a three-man race. Behind Door 1 is Zac Stacy, the squat 216-pound halfback who seems to get better and better with each week. On a Rams team that has used first- and second-round picks on a variety of running backs and receivers over the past several seasons, their rookie fifth-rounder might be the best rusher and receiver they have.

Behind Door 2 is the guy who will have to carry the load in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers out: Eddie Lacy. (He was only squat for a half-hour on Twitter over the summer.) For a guy whose toe was basically supposed to fall off once somebody stepped on it at the professional level, Lacy sure looks like a different class of running back versus the James Starkses of the world. He’s been a boom-or-bust back so far, but he has now had 20-plus carries every week since returning from an injury, so his workload is going to produce some gaudy counting stats by the end of the year. It’s not unreasonable to think that he could end up with 1,500 rushing yards, at which point it would be hard to rule out his candidacy.

The secret superstar hiding behind Door 3, though, is Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, who has been an absolute monster catching passes from Rivers. Over his past five games, Allen has produced 31 catches for 497 yards and three scores. Prorated over a full 16-game season, that amounts to a 99-catch, 1,590-yard, 10-touchdown campaign. Since Week 4, the only receivers who have averaged more receiving yards per game than Allen are Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Justin Blackmon (sigh), Alshon Jeffery, and A.J. Green. He’s playing at a higher level than Stacy or Lacy right now.

Put to a vote, I think Lacy would win because more people see the Packers every week. But I think Allen’s the most productive rookie in the league right now.

Defensive Player of the Year

Quarter-Season Winner: J.J. Watt

Watt slowed down some over the past five weeks; he had an incredible performance against the Colts on Sunday night, but Watt’s numbers are notably down from where they were a year ago. The two stats that stood out for him a year ago were his 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defensed; he’s on pace for 11 sacks and eight knockdowns this season. There’s no shame in that — Watt’s still a phenomenal player, and one of the best defensive talents in football — but having set the expectations so high, it will be tough for Watt to win this award two years in a row.

There are two candidates who seem like the most likely winners. Start with Richard Sherman, who’s had to take on an even bigger role this season with Brandon Browner alternately injured and ineffective across the field for most of the first half. Sherman locking down Anquan Boldin in prime time in Week 2 after Boldin’s 208-yard game in the season opener is the most memorable performance by a cornerback this season. And his pick-six of Matt Schaub famously led to an unlikely Seahawks comeback, one that really stands out as a season-shifting experience for the Texans. You could also argue that Schaub wasn’t exactly skimping on pick-sixes, and you could point out that Boldin has averaged 49 yards per game since his Week 1 breakout.

Here’s why I think Robert Mathis wins instead. How many players can you name on the Indianapolis defense who you know to be consistently effective? How many players pass that test for Seattle? Sherman is surrounded by great players, including both the safeties backing him up in the secondary. Who else on the Indianapolis defense is going to even sniff a Pro Bowl berth, besides possibly Jerrell Freeman? Vontae Davis looked great against the Broncos and promptly got torched by Andre Johnson. Their front seven is otherwise below-average. Mathis is a one-man show; remember, he has more sacks (11.5) than the rest of his team combined (10.5). If Mathis finishes the season with 15-plus sacks and he’s the only player the voters can pick out of a lineup, he’s going to win this award. I’m not saying that’s fair, but I do think that’s the logic that will come into play.

Offensive Player of the Year

Quarter-Season Winner: Drew Brees

Also known as the runner-up for MVP award or the “Wow, your stats look good” trophy. It’s probably better to talk about this one with the MVP award in one discussion, so …

Most Valuable Player

Quarter-Season Winner: Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning’s stats, as split by the first and second quarters of the 16-game season:

That’s a very different player. The guy from the first four games is having the greatest stretch of play, quite possibly, by any quarterback in NFL history. The guy from the next four games is Drew Brees with a couple extra interceptions thrown in. There’s no shame in that, of course — Brees is a viable MVP candidate himself — but it’s not a runaway the way it was a month ago. There’s also the very real effect of MVP fatigue built in with Manning; voters just like picking new players, and if he’s in a dead heat with somebody who hasn’t won an MVP trophy before, I expect that Manning would lose.

Who are his challengers? Start with the guy who vanquished Manning in Indianapolis a couple weeks ago. If you’re going purely on gaudiest stats (and the voters often do), you can’t really make a case for Andrew Luck. Among qualifying quarterbacks, he’s 21st in yards per attempt (7.0) and 25th in completion percentage (58.3). At the same time, we’ve all watched those games, and it’s pretty clear that Luck’s better than the numbers, and is continuing to play that way. He’s now beaten the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos, and that matters. Luck’s schedule also gets easier over the second half, which should help his numbers improve. He’s also underrated in terms of avoiding turnovers; Luck has just three interceptions and three fumbles all season, which is remarkably low for a passer through eight games. My only concern is that he might struggle a bit without Reggie Wayne, but given what he did to the Texans during the second half last week, Luck seems to be doing just fine. At the very least, Luck deserves to be in this discussion.

The non-quarterback candidate is Calvin Johnson, who missed one game in the first half and played another upon his return at far less than 100 percent. In the other six games, he’s averaging 132.7 receiving yards per game. He almost single-handedly kept the Lions in the game against the Cowboys in Week 8. He has a number of circus catches that are going to be shown over and over again on highlight reels throughout the remainder of the season in a way that an endless string of eight-yard option routes from Peyton won’t. Johnson is universally acclaimed as the best player at his position and arguably as the best non-quarterback in football, but he’s never sniffed an MVP award.

Most notably, though, Megatron is going to have an opportunity to produce a second-half run for the ages. As I wrote on Monday, Detroit faces the fourth-easiest schedule in football over the remainder of the season. That means it will likely be winning a bunch, which in itself raises Johnson’s stock. Voters want winners. Specifically, though, Megatron will be playing against an incredibly friendly slate of opposing pass defenses. Here’s each team Johnson will suit up against this season, and their respective ranks in pass defense DVOA.

That’s zero top-10 pass defenses and four bottom-10 units. If Calvin Johnson stays relatively healthy, he is very possibly going to have one of the greatest second halves an NFL wide receiver has ever had. Throw that in with a team going from worst to first in the NFC North and you might have something.

At the moment, I doubt that Megatron has done enough to wrest the award away from Peyton. I do think Johnson would win the Offensive Player of the Year award through a half-season, with Peyton beating out Johnson, Luck, and Brees for MVP. By the end of the 2013 season, though, don’t be surprised if those roles are reversed.

Filed Under: Awards, Bill Barnwell, NFL, People, Sports

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell