The NFL’s annual awards night had some easy decisions, one really, really easy decision, and a few things that made us ask questions.
The easiest decision of the night
Two of them, actually. Peyton Manning was given his record fifth MVP award tonight while also being named the offensive player of the year. But really, he won both, oh, over a month ago. And arguably longer.
In past years there’s been at least an honest discussion about who should be named the league’s most valuable player. Throughout December and January we would debate the merits of this quarterback, or that running back, and how much their teams would crumble without them. This year, that didn’t even have a chance to materialize, as instead we were left discussing who we would discuss in a horrible world where Peyton Manning didn’t exist during the 2013 season.
But he did, and barring some horribly unforeseen circumstances that may involve alien abduction, he’ll exist again tomorrow during an amazing matchup, trying to win his second Super Bowl. He’ll do that after shattering records and often also smashing those shattered remains.
Manning set new single-season records for passing touchdowns with 55, and passing yards with 5,477. He did that while throwing just 10 interceptions despite leading the league in pass attempts with 659, ball security that included not chucking his first pick until Week 5, and recording nine interception-free games.
It gets better too, because everything did with Manning in 2013. He had nine games when he threw four or more touchdown passes, which included tying the single-game record by throwing seven TDs on opening night back in Week 1. One of my favorite Manning stats among so very many this year: if we count only those four or more touchdown games and therefore disregard nearly half the season, he still would have led the league in passing touchdowns with 40.
He was the anchor of a historically absurd offense that set the single-season record for points scored with 606, and he also tied Dan Marino for the most +400 yard passing games in a season with four, a record that had stood on its own since 1984.
So no, there was no conceivable way Peyton Manning wasn’t getting both of these honors tonight, and what makes them even more remarkable is that they come one year after he was named the comeback player of the year, and two years after he sat out a season following multiple neck surgeries, when even his own brother wasn’t sure he’d play again.
Riverboat Ron’s gambling gets love
I like you, Ron Rivera. I really do, and when you finally embraced the fact that risk has to be your friend in the NFL and settling for early field goals is unwise, great things happened. Revolutionary things even, which is why Rivera is a fine man to receive the Coach of the Year award as he did tonight.
But if you’ll allow me to split some hairs really wide here for a second, he wouldn’t have been my choice. It’s great that Rivera righted his early stumbling, and his Panthers only lost one more game in Week 14 after dropping three of their first four. For me, though, the miracle working Andy Reid did in Kansas City was more impressive.
Reid took a quarterback who places security and ball maintenance far ahead of field stretching and chunk yardage, and structured an offense which fit exactly those skills as well as the dynamic ability of Jamaal Charles, who would have been MVP this year in that aforementioned horrible world where Peyton Manning doesn’t exist. The result was 1,980 all-purpose yards for Charles, and 19 touchdowns, with the latter crushing his previous single-season career high (8). The real difference for Charles under Reid came as a receiver, as his 693 receiving yards also ripped apart his previous career single-season high (468).
As a team, the Chiefs went from averaging 13.2 points per game a year ago, to 26.9 in 2013, and they did that scoring by making one hell of a bounding leap in a rather important category: touchdowns. Last year they were dead last with only 18, a number that jumped to 52.
But hey, some knuckle dap to you, Riverboat. As I said, there’s always some hair splitting/pulling with these awards discussions, and any team that wins eight straight games at one point while beating the Patriots and 49ers, and then losing a playoff game by a measly one point is doing something right. That combined with the significantly lower quality of competition the Chiefs faced (no really, go look at the opposing quarterbacks they dismantled), and Kansas City losing four of its last six games tipped the scales in Rivera’s favor.
Rivera also bested Bill Belichick, who came one game away from yet another Super Bowl appearance while constantly adapting with an offense that was deconstructed last offseason. It was a fine year for Herculean coaching efforts.
Sheldon Richardson is a wall of human
When assessing who did and didn’t receive a shiny trophy at the end of each season, turning to numbers and only numbers is a natural reaction. Mostly, it’s a pretty foolproof one too (see: Manning, Peyton), because the most sparkling digits usually reflect the most significant contributors.
But there are positions where the surface numbers don’t tell us everything we need to know, and others that simply don’t compile those numbers often. Chief among them are interior linemen and 3-4 defensive ends, which is why it warms the heart of many a diehard that Sheldon Richardson was named the defensive rookie of the year tonight.
There was a strong case to be made for Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, who finished with 159 tackles and four interceptions, and he received deserved respect by finishing only four votes behind Richardson. But it was the Jets defensive end and first-round pick last spring who had more solo defensive stops than any other 3-4 defensive end not named J.J. Watt. And he did that as a rookie, while being the anchor in an intimidating Jets front that also features Damon Harrison.
Eddie Lacy rumbled and smashed
When the crown-to-the-helmet rule first passed last offseason, for a brief time we wondered if power running would gradually become extinct. That’s a pretty amusing thought now, and Eddie Lacy quickly reminded us that hurtful running is alive and well.
Despite missing a game Lacy still finished eighth in rushing yards with 1,178 yards, while adding 257 through the air. He also scored 11 times, placing him third among his position peers in just his first season.
There was a compelling case to be made for Keenan Allen to be the offensive rookie of the year instead of Lacy, and had Aaron Rodgers been healthy all season he likely would have received the nod here. The Chargers receiver had five +100 yard games, and then topped that with 142 yards during the Chargers’ playoff loss to Denver with two touchdowns. During the regular season he scored eight times, five of which came during San Diego’s four-game winning streak to end the season and seal a playoff berth. Even more impressively, in two of those games he flex his bulging red-zone muscle with four scores on only five catches.
But Rodgers wasn’t healthy, missing seven games before finally returning in Week 17. During that time the Packers were able to salvage two wins and a tie which kept back door playoff hope alive, and they did it while dumping everything on Lacy, who responded with 680 total yards and six touchdowns during Rodgers’ absence. That included 175 yards in a one-point Week 15 win over Dallas.
Luke Kuechly is doing some pretty fast hardware collecting
Like the coach of the year decision and to an extent the offensive rookie of the year donnybrook, this wasn’t easy.
Luke Kuechly’s main challenger for defensive player of the year ended up being Robert Mathis, who led the league in sacks with 19.5. But while Mathis’ presence was imposing and he was the sole driver of his team’s pass rush (Jerrell Freeman was far behind him with 4.5 sacks), Kuechly had a more diverse role up the middle. He’s an excellent run defender, and for the second straight season he had over 150 tackles, with his 156 this year ranking fourth. But he’s also superb in coverage, intercepting four passes and recording seven passes defensed.
However, a similar description applies to NaVorro Bowman, who was equally deserving, and in the opinion of many the better middle linebacker. And Robert Quinn was just as disruptive in the backfield as Mathis, finishing only a half sack behind.
If we’re taking a middle linebacker as defensive player of the year, Bowman would have been my choice. But this was a year with so many incredible defensive performances that satisfying anyone was an impossible task, which is why Kuechly won with 13 votes, with Mathis right behind at 11.5. Now as the figurehead of a vastly improved Panthers defense, Kuechly is the best defensive player in 2013, after being the best defensive rookie in 2012. Not bad.
The transformation of Philip Rivers
The Comeback Player of the Year award is the most arbitrary of all the awards handed out tonight. A comeback can either be one that started because of an injury, which is why Manning received the award last year, and why Tom Brady did in 2009. Or it can be awarded because the player in question was generally horrible in the preceding year.
Which brings us to Philip Rivers, and if we’re going with the latter definition (and tonight we are), he was undoubtedly the right choice. Between the 2011 and 2012 seasons Rivers threw 35 interceptions, and worse, he took 79 sacks. Then the monumental leap came this season under Mike McCoy, when he threw only 11 picks, while his yards per game rose by 54.5, and his per attempt rate ascended by nearly a yard-and-a-half.
Though the next trick is maintaining that consistency, there’s plenty of promise in San Diego between the youth of Keenan Allen, and the rumbling Ryan Mathews showed he’s capable of in a year when he managed to stay sort of healthy.