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.
Comeback Player of the Year
Quarter-Season Winner: Terrell Suggs
Half-Season Winner: Terrell Suggs
Can you think of anybody who would be in the running for this award besides Terrell Suggs? Were it the Comeback Person of the Year award, I think you could make a strong case for Sean Payton winning the award, but this is players only. Philip Rivers, maybe? Brian Orakpo, maybe, if he goes on a tear at the end of the year? I don’t see it. Suggs has slowed down a bit after a hot start, but he still has nine sacks and is the defensive leader on a Baltimore team that’s probably going to end up as the sixth seed in the AFC. The only reason he wouldn’t win would be if the voters considered his limited stint with the team last year as his “comeback.”
Coach of the Year
Quarter-Season Winner: Andy Reid
Half-Season Winner: Andy Reid
Whoa — not so fast, Mr. Reid! Kansas City’s 9-0 start after a 2-14 2012 campaign seemed to make Reid a shoo-in for Coach of the Year, but Reid’s Chiefs have now lost their last three games and seem to be in a free fall. I think the Chiefs will turn it around, but their losing streak seems to open the door for other candidates; after all, voters are naturally influenced more by what happens at the end of the season than what happens at its beginning.
Who would step in as a possible COTY candidate if Reid were to slip out of the running? Depends on what happens over the final four games of the year, of course. It would be hard to argue against Chip Kelly being involved in the running if the Eagles win the NFC East; leading (Reid’s) 4-12 team to a division title one offseason later is a pretty good argument on its own, and that’s without including the obvious strategic advances Kelly has popularized around the league.
You could also make a case for Sean Payton or Ron Rivera, both of whom took middling teams from a year ago and turned them around without changing much, if at all, in the way of personnel. Whoever wins the NFC South would be the better candidate of the two. I think you could even make a case for Pete Carroll if the Seahawks were to go 15-1, but they’re slight underdogs this week against the 49ers and would likely rest some of their stars over the final couple weeks of the season if they won and clinched the top seed in the NFC.
At the moment, I’m still taking Reid to win the award, because I think the Chiefs will finish 11-5 or better. I just think Kelly and Rivera aren’t too far behind.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Quarter-Season Winner: Kiko Alonso
Half-Season Winner: Tyrann Mathieu
With no standout candidate on the defensive side of the ball this year, the winner comes down to what the voters value more. The best story, obviously, belongs to Mathieu. The Arizona safety has been a starter on one of the league’s best defenses, but he’s also a rookie who still gets picked on a lot and makes his fair share of mistakes. You can’t knock the big plays he’s made, but when you watch the Cardinals play, you see teams go at Mathieu a lot and, honestly, he might be the weak link on the defense.
The best numbers belong to Alonso. He’s still tied for fourth in the league with four interceptions, and his 125 tackles are the second-most in football, behind Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The Bills also secretly have a very good defense; they’re fifth in DVOA but 24th in points allowed because they’ve faced the league’s fifth-worst average starting field position across an NFL-high 158 possessions. That would all mean a lot if the voters used numbers.
The actual best rookie? It’s probably an interior lineman, which would be either Star Lotulelei of the Panthers or Sheldon Richardson of the Jets, or one of the deep crop of safeties around the league, notably San Francisco’s Eric Reid and New Orleans’s Kenny Vaccaro. With no standout candidate, though, I suspect the voters will opt for the easiest narrative, and that’s Mathieu.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Quarter-Season Winner: Geno Smith
Half-Season Winner: Eddie Lacy
At the halfway point of the season, there seemed to be three players battling it out for Offensive Rookie of the Year. They each took a step backward over the third quarter of the campaign. Eddie Lacy’s quarterback broke his collarbone, and without Aaron Rodgers, Lacy faced a steady stretch of eight-man fronts. He has averaged 3.1 yards per carry over his last four games. Zac Stacy has struggled some with injuries over the past month, losing his best chance to impress (versus the Bears) to a concussion that cost him most of the game. And Keenan Allen had two middling games before back-to-back 100-yard days his last two trips out.
A new candidate has emerged, though: What about Mike Glennon? Voters are always going to be inclined to consider quarterbacks before players at any other position, and Glennon was entirely competent while leading the Buccaneers on a three-game winning streak in November. He has completed 62.8 percent of his passes, thrown 13 touchdowns against just five picks, and has a 90.3 passer rating that’s good enough for 11th in the league. Voters care about that stuff.
I think all four of those guys are in the running for this award, and with nobody in this group likely to make the playoffs, it’s going to essentially come down to who plays best over the final four games of the year. My suspicion is that Lacy narrowly beats out Glennon, even though Allen has been the most impressive offensive rookie to my eyes this year.
Defensive Player of the Year
Quarter-Season Winner: J.J. Watt
Half-Season Winner: Robert Mathis
No, this plaudit isn’t going to keep circulating around the teams of the AFC South. Sorry, Paul Posluszny. Watt has fallen out of contention, as his team has roughly emulated one of the satellites in Gravity for most of the season. Mathis is still a very viable candidate, as he still leads the league with 15.5 sacks, but his numbers aren’t so obviously dominant that he’ll win the award on them alone.
In situations like this, where there’s not one dominant candidate, voters tend to look toward the best player on the league’s best playoff-bound defenses. (Sorry, Patrick Peterson.) The two best defenses in football are in Carolina and Seattle, which … well, there’s the problem. If you want to nominate somebody from the Panthers as DPOY, it’s easy: You opt for Luke Kuechly, Carolina’s otherworldly middle linebacker. If you want to pick somebody from Seattle, you’re probably choosing Richard Sherman, right? Sherman is a fantastic player, but he might not even be the best guy in his own secondary with Earl Thomas around, let alone the best defensive player in the league. My guess is that the Seattle candidates would split the vote.
That leaves Mathis versus Kuechly. With the Colts virtually assured of winning the AFC South, I think Mathis’s case will still be strong enough to win the race over Kuechly. If Kuechly has a big game on national TV against the Saints on Sunday night, it might tip the scales in his favor.
Offensive Player of the Year
Quarter-Season Winner: Drew Brees
Half-Season Winner: Calvin Johnson
I get the feeling that this is the runner-up prize that Megatron gets when his MVP candidacy falls short. I think he’ll need to hit 2,000 yards to have a viable shot at MVP, and right now, he’s on pace to finish 228 yards short of that figure. The only receiver within 170 yards of his yardage total at the moment is Josh Gordon, and that’s with Johnson having missed a game this year (admittedly, Gordon has missed two). The numbers, the tape, and his reputation suggest that he’s the best receiver in football by a comfortable margin. Assuming that the Lions pull out the NFC North and Johnson plays at his current level the rest of the way without pulling off another 300-yard game, he ends up as OPOY.
Most Valuable Player
Quarter-Season Winner: Peyton Manning
Half-Season Winner: Peyton Manning
Allow me to count down the five top candidates for the award right now.
5. NFC South QB: Whoever wins the Panthers-Saints game next week will see their quarterback enter the running as a possible MVP candidate. If the Panthers win, Cam Newton will have produced a nine-game winning streak and have won nationally televised games over the Patriots and Saints. He’s basically the same player he’s been since he entered the league, but wins are wins in the MVP race. If Drew Brees pulls out the victory, he’ll wash away the sour taste of that dismal performance against the Seahawks and have his perennially great numbers to point toward. I don’t think either of these guys really has much hope of winning, but they’ll be on the outskirts of the discussion.
4. Nick Foles: No, really! Foles is 5-1 as the Eagles starter, and his one loss came in a game in which he suffered (and likely played through) a concussion. He leads the league in yards per attempt and passer rating and has thrown 19 touchdowns against zero interceptions. Now, let’s say the Eagles run the table and win their next four games to win the NFC East, and Foles keeps up his level of play. If Foles is sitting there at the end of the year with the league lead in two key statistical categories, a 9-1 record, an NFC East title, and something like 30 touchdowns against one interception … don’t you have to think that he would at least be in the running for MVP?
3. Calvin Johnson: I think that a receiver will need to catch 20 touchdowns or accrue 2,000 receiving yards to win the MVP award, preferably both. Johnson probably isn’t hitting either of those marks.
2. Russell Wilson: You saw him lay waste to the Saints on Monday night, right? Wilson’s numbers are up across the board from a year ago, he’s the quarterback on the team with the most wins in football, and he’s had to deal with a bevy of injured receivers and offensive linemen. The Seahawks have spent some or all of the year without their top two wideouts, and as many as three of their top offensive linemen have been sidelined by injury. Wilson hasn’t shown any sign that it has bothered him. If the Seahawks get to 15-1, it’s going to be hard to argue against Wilson at least being in the discussion for MVP.
1. Peyton Manning: Yeah, after all that, P.M. is still no. 1. Some voters will remember the defeat against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football and dock Manning for his efforts there, but the guy is still the quarterback on a 10-2 team, and he still has 41 passing touchdowns in 12 games.
The biggest knock against Manning is voter exhaustion, the idea that the electorate is more likely to choose a “new” candidate over somebody who has already won the award in the past. That gives the likes of Wilson and Megatron added hope, but it’s not enough to overcome the gap in their respective levels of play. Barring a sudden shift over the final four games, and having lost out to Adrian Peterson last year, I suspect that Peyton will do enough to earn his fifth MVP trophy this offseason.