Since we’re at the halfway point of the season, it feels like the perfect time to run through the top candidates for the NFL’s various awards.
A lot has changed over the past five weeks. The athlete I chose as the Most Valuable Player after Week 4 isn’t even remotely in the running as an MVP candidate these days, as Philip Rivers has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt and thrown more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five) during San Diego’s three-game losing streak. San Diego is not even the only team to collapse, either, as the likes of Carolina and Cinci—
WE INTERRUPT THIS COLUMN FOR A GRANTLAND NEWS SPECIAL REPORT …
Breaking news out of Cincinnati: Andy Dalton is terrifying.
Dalton delivered one of the worst games you’ll ever see a quarterback produce Thursday night, going 10-of-33 for 86 yards with three interceptions. He was so bad that Johnny Manziel produced more fantasy points than the Red Rocket, and Manziel never came off the bench. He was so bad that the Bengals benched him for Jason Campbell late in the fourth quarter.
To put it in context, it’s virtually impossible for a quarterback to be as bad as Dalton was over that many passes. Either you get better out of sheer variance, or the other team plays prevent defense and you pick up some meaningless garbage-time yardage, or you get benched. Dalton threw 33 passes against the Browns and posted a passer rating of 2.0. That’s not a mistake. Two. Point. Zero. I think you can make a case that it’s even worse than that, and it might be the worst quarterback start of the modern era.
Among NFL games since 1960 in which a quarterback threw 30 passes or more, that 2.0 passer rating is the fourth-worst, and the worst since 1983, when Giants passer Scott Brunner posted a 0.3 passer rating during a loss to the Cardinals, a game that got him benched on a permanent basis. The only zero-point-zero over that many attempts belongs to Bills quarterback Gary Marangi in 1976; in seven games as a starter during that 1976 season, he completed 36.2 percent of his throws and threw 15 interceptions. His career was done after that season, too. And there’s Norm Snead, who posted a 0.5 rating on 32 attempts in 1961, one of four single-digit passer ratings he would post during his rookie season in Washington. Unlike the others, though, Snead had 15 more NFL seasons left in him.
As bad as those guys were, though, Dalton might very well have been worse. He’s playing in an era in which passers are more protected and productive than any other in NFL history. He was playing a defense that ranked 21st in defensive DVOA; we don’t have DVOA for those games from the distant past, but the opponents for the guys who finished with worse passer ratings than Dalton were either good (Brunner, Snead) or about as bad as the Browns (Marangi). And none of them had A.J. Green to work with!
While it’s tempting to look at Thursday’s game and use it as proof that Dalton is a failure the Bengals should move on from as quickly as possible, that’s too reactionary. It’s always easy to pile on a quarterback after a truly awful performance (see: Brady, Tom). That goes double when the quarterback has an outsize compensation package, but the talk about Dalton having a $100 million contract should have stopped a couple of days after his deal was announced. Dalton really has a two-year, $25 million deal with five subsequent team options ranging from $10.5 million to $17.5 million.
It’s also hard to argue that Dalton got much help. Right tackle Marshall Newhouse, filling in for the injured Andre Smith, committed two holding penalties and made various Browns pass-rushers look like they were superstars. Green dropped a couple of passes. Backup wideout Greg Little, who spent the week talking about how he was going to use this game against his former team as motivation, got an early penalty for head-butting, inexplicably cut off his route on one of Dalton’s interceptions, and didn’t make his first catch until Campbell came in late in the fourth quarter. It would be a surprise if he was even on the roster this time next week.
That’s not to pretend like Dalton played well, because that would be lying. He was awful. If you thought Dalton was some stud because he won all the time, well, you’re seeing what happens when his defense isn’t up to snuff. He’s a competent passer with serious flaws, and while Thursday’s performance was a data point in that argument, it wasn’t itself proof. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dalton deliver the sort of haltingly effective performances he was previously known for against the likes of the Saints and the Texans in the weeks to come.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled column already in progress.
Welcome back. I’ll be noting the candidate I previously chose for each honor when I first made these picks after Week 4. Note that these picks aren’t necessarily my opinions of who should win each award, but instead who would win each award if the season ended today.
The only exception is that I’ll exclude players I know have no hope of claiming the award because their future is guaranteed to take them out of the running, like Jimmy Smith. The Ravens cornerback would have been an outside candidate for defensive player of the year based on what he did during the season’s first half, but given that he just went on injured reserve, I wouldn’t consider him as a candidate.
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Coach of the Year
Week 4: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
Week 9: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
It’s impossible to pick anybody else after that first half, during which the Cardinals suffered injuries to virtually every one of their key players and went down to a raw third-string quarterback during their one loss. Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles have cycled through their backups and managed to put out a competitive team week after week, and while the advanced metrics suggest Arizona is unlikely to keep up its 7-1 pace, there’s nothing to indicate that a massive collapse is about to occur. The Cardinals should make the playoffs comfortably, and that should push Bowles into a head-coaching job and send the hardware Arians’s way.
That would be a pretty staggering achievement for a guy the Steelers forced into retirement in January 2012. Since then, Arians went 11-5 as an interim coach for the Colts and followed that with a 17-7 start to his Cardinals career. Arians also won coach of the year in 2012, so if he wins it this year, he will have won the nod twice in three seasons with different teams. Nobody has ever done that before. The coaches who have won coach of the year two times or more are a who’s who of legendary headmen: Allie Sherman, George Halas, Don Shula, George Allen, Chuck Knox, Joe Gibbs, Mike Ditka, Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, and most recently Bill Belichick. Even if Arians doesn’t lead the Cardinals to a home Super Bowl, he deserves to be in that group of great coaches.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Week 4: Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears
Chris Borland Anthony Barr, LB, Vikings
Fuller quickly emerged as an obvious candidate after forcing five takeaways across his first three games, but he’s been struggling with multiple injuries ever since and hasn’t intercepted a pass since the Monday Night Football win over the Jets. Chicago’s pass defense has been brutal for most of the five-game stretch after that win, so while Fuller is playing an important role and is still in the running, he’s no longer the leader in the clubhouse.
There is no shortage of candidates coming up in Fuller’s stead. I wouldn’t be offended if you wanted to pick Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who shut down Dez Bryant on the national stage during Monday Night Football two weeks ago. There’s a case to be made for Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who consistently makes devastating trips into the backfield. Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley is a natural and the guy I would pick to still be playing for his team in 10 years if I had to choose somebody. Khalil Mack has delivered on the hype despite playing in the obscurity of Oakland. And Cardinals hybrid defender Deone Bucannon is playing a big part in Arizona’s three- and four-safety alignments.
Beyond all of them, I think Anthony Barr both has the best chance of winning and the best case to do so. He leads all rookies with four sacks, had a game-winning strip-and-score in overtime, and appears to be learning new skills at a terrifying rate. Barr was supposed to be a raw prospect who relied on his speed to break down tackles, but he has been far more versatile and effective than those projections would suggest. He can do just about everything Mike Zimmer asks a 4-3 outside linebacker to do and get after the quarterback, which leaves him as some hybrid of Vontaze Burfict and Von Miller.
My favorite Barr play is this tackle on a swing pass to Theo Riddick:
Maybe 10 linebackers in football make that play. Barr doesn’t get caught up in the trash (the tight end who is supposed to cut Barr’s path off, Eric Ebron, is actually called for pass interference), uses his athleticism to get a viable tackling angle, doesn’t overrun the play, and makes a clean tackle for a gain of 3. That’s a first down 95 percent of the time and likely more. And Barr just makes it look like a routine play. He’s a monster.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Week 4: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
Week 9: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
Benjamin was out to a hefty lead after the first quarter of the season, but he’s given most of that lead back after a disappointing five-game stretch that’s seen him catch just 19 of the 42 passes thrown in his direction. Some of that is Cam Newton force-feeding him the ball out of sheer desperation, but Benjamin has dropped a lot of passes. He also sat out the opening series of Carolina’s game with Seattle after reportedly showing up late to a team meeting.
That drop-off has opened the door for Sammy Watkins, who added a game-winning catch against the Vikings to his résumé while steadily affecting the Buffalo offense. His numbers are virtually identical to Benjamin’s. Like, really almost exactly the same. Benjamin has 40 catches for 589 yards and five touchdowns. Watkins has 38 catches for 590 yards and five touchdowns. The difference is that Watkins has needed 11 fewer targets to pick up those yards, but the electorate isn’t looking at target totals. I’m sticking with Benjamin because he had already established himself as the leader; if Watkins had led the group after four weeks, I’d be picking him here.
Unless one of the rookie quarterbacks has a markedly improved second half, this is rapidly becoming a two-man race. The best candidate might actually be Dallas guard Zack Martin, who has become a key contributor on the league’s best offensive line and might very well make the Pro Bowl as a rookie interior lineman, something that has happened only three times since the merger in 1970. (Less excitingly, two of those three times have occurred in the last four seasons.) The chances of the committee picking a guard over a high-profile running back or wide receiver, though, are virtually nil.1
Defensive Player of the Year
Case in point: Lions guard Larry Warford played every offensive snap, didn’t allow a sack, and blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, yet received only one vote for offensive rookie of the year.
Week 4: J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
Week 9: J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
In a season without a standout cornerback, the award’s going to come down to a pass-rusher. There will be players who finish with more sacks than Watt, just because they play positions where it’s easier to accrue sacks. Justin Houston has 12 sacks in eight games, which is tied for the fifth-highest total through a half-season since sacks were officially recorded in 1982. He’s on pace to set the single-season sack record with 24.
Even if Houston sets the sack record and the Von Miller/DeMarcus Ware combination approach 40 sacks for the Broncos, nobody should come close to Watt in this balloting. Nobody. What he’s doing in terms of affecting opposing offenses on a week-to-week basis is on another level. Every offensive line Watt faces spends the entire week preparing to stop him, and nobody has even come close. Maybe he “only” finishes with the 15 sacks he’s on pace to earn. Maybe Watt “only” ends up with the two return touchdowns he’s picked up during the first half. Even if the Texans finish 6-10 and Watt toils for a going-nowhere team, he’s so much better than everybody else that this should not even be a discussion.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Offensive Player of the Year
Week 4: DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys
Week 9: DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys
As is often the case, Murray would win this award under the tortured logic that the Most Valuable Player, almost always an offensive player, is somehow not the best offensive player in football. That would make Murray the second-best offensive player in football, and while I wouldn’t personally make that case for a running back under the vast majority of circumstances, I think a good number of the AP voters will.
In the context of the modern NFL, Murray’s workload remains insane. Through Dallas’s first nine games, Murray has carried the ball 225 times. That’s the largest workload for a player to start the season since 2000, when Ricky Williams toted the rock 232 times for the Saints. (He promptly broke his ankle in his 10th game and missed the remainder of the season.) Hell, even making it to 200 carries in nine games is rare; the only player to do that over the past five seasons was Arian Foster in 2012.
Murray is on pace to hit some pretty round numbers. If he keeps this up, he’ll finish with exactly 400 carries and narrowly make it over the 2,000-yard barrier, finishing with 2,014 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. A lot of things have to go right for him to get there, mainly staying healthy, but those figures aren’t out of the question. And while the injury to Nick Foles likely improves Dallas’s chances of winning the NFC East, I can’t see Murray winning the MVP unless his team wins the division and he breaks Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. Both are definitely feasible.
If there were no strong candidate at quarterback, Murray might be able to occupy the candidacy vacuum and become the best possible choice. The problem, though, is that there is a strong candidate at quarterback.
Most Valuable Player
Week 4: Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
Week 9: Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
With Rivers collapsing, the natural landing point was Luck, who is well ahead of his previously established performance level. Luck completed 57.0 percent of his passes and averaged 6.8 yards per attempt during his first two seasons in the league. They’re impressive numbers, given what we know about the team around Luck and how he’s had to carry them at times, but hardly otherworldly for a quarterback who seems capable of anything at anytime.
That’s different this year. When I did research on which factors influence MVP voting, I found that the most popular MVP picks are quarterbacks who lead the league in fantasy points and win their division title. Luck is several lengths ahead of the fantasy pack, having already thrown for 3,085 yards and a career-high 26 touchdown passes in nine games. He’s on pace to finish with 5,485 passing yards and 46 touchdowns. He’s also on a team that is almost surely going to win its division, if not strike its claim on a first-round bye.
Furthermore, there are no worries about voter exhaustion with Luck. If he ends up producing similar numbers to Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, Luck might receive a few extra votes because he has not won the award before. That happens across the sporting spectrum. I could see voters considering Murray, and if Ben Roethlisberger continues what he’s been doing over the past two weeks, he may force himself into the running, but Luck is the prohibitive favorite to come away with his first MVP trophy.