The NFL began releasing its end-of-season awards this week, and there is certainly no shortage of worthy candidates in each category.
But only one person can win each award, and you can bet your last bottle of holiday bourbon that the "pundits" who choose such things will f*ck it all up, as they so often do. These "pundits" typically create a storyline and then do everything in their power to see their initial impressions validated, no matter how badly their fallacious impressions are defied by Cold, Hard Football Facts.
This year, there are two winners who will be absolutely, positively incorrect: Sean Payton of New Orleans, the prohibitive favorite to capture Coach of the Year honors, and Tennessee phenom Vince Young, who was named Offensive Rookie of the Year
COACH OF THE YEAR
Let's start with the gridiron generals who lead each NFL team.
Payton, the first-year man in New Orleans, seems like the undisputed front-runner for the award.
No doubt he's done an excellent job with the Saints. They were 3-13 last year. They're 10-6 this year, with a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Tack on the sympathy vote, and Payton will probably run away with the award.
Fortunately, for the benefit of your gridiron knowledge, the Cold, Hard Football Facts don't tally sympathy votes.
The truth is that the Saints were not as bad in 2005 as they appeared, when Hurricane Katrina blew the entire franchise to hell for a season. In terms of talent, and who they would have been sans Katrina, they were closer to the 8-8 team of 2004. Add a quarterback upgrade from Aaron Brooks to Drew Brees (economy to first class), toss in the great draft gift that was Reggie Bush, and you had an offense that was destined for something bigger than it was in 2005 – no matter who was at the helm of the organization.
Payton also did little to improve the defense, which finished 31st against the run (4.94 per carry) – putting the Saints close to the list of all-time worst run defenses
– and 28th in interceptions (11).
And this all took place in the NFC, the Triple A of professional football. Payton's little pigskin playground, the NFC South, was barely competitive: Its four teams went 29-35 overall, 17-23 out of the division and had a -122 scoring differential.
Now let's look at the real coach of the year, Eric Mangini of the N.Y. Jets.
He forged the same type of turnaround as Payton, but did it against stiffer competition, against greater odds, in a tougher environment and with far less in the way of "name" talent.
The Jets went 4-12 in 2005, just a game better than the Saints. They're 10-6 this season – same record as the Saints – in the toughest division in the toughest conference in football. The AFC East led the NFL in cumulative record (35-29), out-of-division record (24-17) and scoring differential (+135).
Mangini did it the old-fashioned way, too: He put his nose to the grindstone and his middle finger up at the notoriously brutal New York media.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts fell in emotionless attachment with Mangini back in April, when he grabbed offensive linemen with his top two draft picks. You could hear sportswriters all over Gotham sharpening their claws. But the Cold, Hard Football Facts did nothing but stand in starry-eyed admiration for a young guy who had the stones to defy the pathetic pleas of the "pundits" for a big-name star in the Big Apple.
And while Payton had talent fall in his lap, Mangini said bye-bye to the Jets' biggest names on both sides of the ball. He lost defensive end John Abraham, who was one of the NFL's sack leaders in 2005 (10.5) and cornerback Ty Law, who picked off more passes than any player in football last year (10).
Future Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin, meanwhile, was unable to recover from injury, so the Jets ground game was left in the hands of the immortal trio of rookie Leon "Boom Boom" Washington (team-leading 650 yards), Cedric "the Entertainer" Houston (374 yards) and Kevan "I Set the" Barlow (370 yards and a pathetic 2.8 YPA).
And the quarterback? No contest. While Brees was blowing through the defenseless NFC, Mangini put his entire game plan in the hands of Chad Pennington, who's about to break Joe Namath's franchise record for surgically repaired body parts.
At the start of the season, there was no reason to believe that the Jets would compete in the AFC.
Not only have they competed, they've won – despite being average or below in just about every statistical category. Mangini has done more with less than any coach in football.
That makes him the clear choice for Coach of the Year by any rational and emotionless measure. If only the "pundits" would adopt our loftier standards, they might get these things right more often.
Cold, Hard Football Facts Top 5 Coach of the Year candidates:
3. Marty Schottenheimer, San Diego. The Chargers have the talent, but 14-2? No one saw that coming.
4. Brian Billick, Baltimore. Ditto, but 13-3.
5. Andy Reid, Philadelphia.
He gets a bit too much credit for the excellent play of Jeff Garcia, who should have been considered an elite QB
based upon his consistent Pro Bowl performances in San Francisco. But, despite terrible luck, Reid has the Eagles poised for another Super Bowl run.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
There's no doubt that Tennessee quarterback Vince Young can run with the best of 'em. He ran past defenses throughout his rookie campaign, and he ran away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award yesterday.
He's a great talent – but clearly the wrong choice for the honor in the eyes of the Cold, Hard Football Facts. In some years, when the rookie class has been so-so, Young could be the pick – but in this Year of the Rookie?
Young got an awful lot of credit for Tennessee's unexpected 8-8 finish, but the Cold, Hard Football Facts tell us much of this credit was undue.
Cold, Hard Football Fact: Young had a terrible season as a passer. His final passer rating of 66.7 was 30th in the league – worse than Brad Johnson, worse than Charlie Frye, worse than Joey Harrington. This alone should disqualify him from contention for any postseason honor, regardless of his wonderful running ability (552 yards, 6.7 YPA).
Cold, Hard Football Fact: The Tennessee offense was not very good. The Titans finished 16th in the NFL in scoring, which sounds decent until you consider their eight touchdowns on returns. They ranked 27th in yards (300.6), 26th in offensive TDs (28) and 31st in TD passes (13). Only the historically inept Raiders scored fewer TDs through the air.
Cold, Hard Football Fact: Tennessee's six-game win streak would not have been so impressive without a historic performance by the Titans defense. Remember, it was the defense that scored three TDs in a 24-17 mid-December win over Jacksonville. The Tennessee offense that day accounted for just five first downs, 98 total yards and held the ball for 15 minutes and 38 seconds.
Were the Titans a surprise 8-8? Sure. Was Young exciting? Yes. If there's an Offensive Rookie Who Surprised You and Excited You Award, Young is our pick.
But there isn't, and he's not.
So who is the Offensive Rookie of the Year? Here's a hint: He was the best rookie on the best team in the league.
It's Marcus McNeill, the beefy (336 pounds) offensive tackle out of Auburn who anchored the all-important "blind side" of the San Diego offensive line.
McNeill is no ordinary offensive linemen: He's the starting left tackle for the best offensive line in football (No. 1 in our Hog Index
), for the best offense in football (30.75 PPG), and for the record-setting best running back in football (San Diego Superman LaDainian Tomlinson).
You'll see no highlights of our OT, unless you break down game film in your spare time. But he got plenty of results.
Cold, Hard Football Facts Top 5 Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates:
2. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville. He led all running backs with an average of 6.5 yards every time he touched the ball on offense, averaged 5.7 YPA on the ground and scored 15 touchdowns. That's excellence, folks. Oh, and for good measure, he averaged 27.7 yards per kick return.
3. Marques Colston, New Orleans. He was the early runaway candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year before losing time to injury. Still, he finished with 70 catches, 1,038 yards and 8 TDs in what amounted to 12 games.
4. Young, Tennessee.
5. Reggie Bush, New Orleans. He didn't have spectacular numbers, but his presence on the field made a huge impact for one of the surprise teams of the year.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Well, the "pundits" got this one right yesterday when they named Houston middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans the league's top defensive rookie.
Ryans was a great choice for the award, easily leading the NFL in solo tackles (126). After being dead last in run defense last year (143.9 YPG), the Texans improved to 19th this year (122.2 YPG).
Cold, Hard Football Facts Top 5 Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates:
2. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore.
This massive defensive tackle anchored the top defensive line on the top defense in football. He had him listed at No. 1 in our midseason awards
. We could go either way here at season's end, but you can't quibble with Ryans.
3. Mark Anderson, Chicago. He registered an amazing 12 sacks for the NFC's top defense.
4. A.J. Hawk, Green Bay. The outside linebacker came on strong later in the season and ended the year with impressive numbers: 119 total tackles, 2 INTs, 2 fumble recoveries and 6 passes defended.
5. Tamba Hali, Kansas City. The defensive end was a force for one of the most improved defenses in football this year, with 57 total tackles, 8 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and an INT.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Really, the MVP has got to be LaDainian Tomlinson. This is one award the "pundits" will likely get correct. He set the NFL's all-time scoring record with a record 31 TDs. He's also the best player for the best team, generating 2,323 yards from scrimmage for a 14-2 club.
Best player + best team = MVP in almost every football equation.
Tomlinson also got screwed out of the award after his immortal 2003 season. They should put his numbers that year next to the term "jaw-dropping" in the dictionary: He rushed for 1,645 yards and averaged an awesome 5.3 YPA – slightly better than his 5.2 YPA here in 2006.
But that's only half of the story. He also caught 100 passes for 725 yards. It's one of the great individual seasons in the history of football. Alas, the 2003 Chargers went 4-12 and the MVP award was shared by Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, whose numbers that year looked downright tame compared with LT's, but whose teams each went 12-4.
Call this LT's makeup award – one that he's also earned.
Cold, Hard Football Facts Top 5 MVP candidates:
2. Drew Brees, New Orleans. A huge difference-maker in New Orleans, his 26-11 TD-INT ratio and 96.2 passer rating were spectacular – despite a rotating cast of mostly green wideouts.
3. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis. It's not sexy to recognize Manning for his greatness, but he was the best QB in the league (101.0 rating) for a 12-4 team.
4. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia. While the "pundits" were falling all over themselves crediting Andy Reid with the Eagles' success, Westbrook was doing the real work. He finished the season with 1,916 yards from scrimmage that Philly couldn't have lived without.
5. Larry Johnson, Kansas City. When you set the NFL record for carries (416) for a playoff team, you're pretty valuable. Scoring 17 TDs isn't so bad either.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
This honor routinely goes hand-in-hand with MVP
. We're looking at it the same way this season.
Cold, Hard Football Facts Top 5 Offensive Player of the Year Candidates:
4. Steven Jackson, St. Louis. A hero to fantasy football fans everywhere in 2006, Jackson scored 10 TDs in the pivotal final four games of the season as the Rams nearly claimed a playoff berth. For 2006, his 2,334 yards from scrimmage were second only to Tomlinson.
5. Tiki Barber, N.Y. Giants. The soon-to-be broadcaster finished with 2,127 yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.1 YPA and literally carried his team into the playoffs on the final day of the season.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The top five on our list are all deserving, but we go with Denver cornerback Champ Bailey.
He had a season like few cornerbacks have ever had, with 74 solo tackles, 10 INTs and 21 passes defended – despite the opposition's reluctance to throw his way.
Cold, Hard Football Facts Top 5 Defensive Player of the Year candidates:
2. Shawne Merriman, San Diego. He collected 17 sacks in 12 games and proved his worth when he was out of the lineup: The Chargers allowed 16.3 PPG when he played, 26.7 PPG when he did not.
3. Jason Taylor, Miami. He recorded 13½ sacks and made some memorable plays, including a pair of interception returns for TDs. He stands today as the only player in league history to score at least 7 TDs, register at least 100 sacks and recover more than 20 fumbles in a career.
4. Ed Reed, Baltimore. He didn't have big numbers (52 solo tackles, 5 INTs), but he has supplanted Ray Lewis as the unquestioned leader of the league's best defense.
5. Brian Urlacher, Chicago. The Bears fell apart late in the year, but he did enough work in three quarters of a season to make the list.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
There's talk of Drew Brees being a front-runner here, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, as he played a full season in San Diego last year and was excellent (89.2 rating). He did have to rebound from offseason surgery, but Comeback Player of the Year? No.
Our unsexy pick is Trevor Pryce. The former Denver pass rusher came out of nowhere to register a team-high 13 sacks for the Ravens, matching his total from 2003-05.
Cold, Hard Football Facts Top 5 Comeback Player of the Year candidates:
2. Chad Pennington, N.Y. Jets. He guided the Jets into the playoffs at 10-6 despite major doubts that he'd even be able to be a starter this year. His 82.6 passer rating was 12th, and his completion percentage (64.5) was fourth.
3. Warren Sapp, Oakland. After a terrible two years in Oakland, Sapp was among the best defensive linemen in the league in 2006.
4. Isaac Bruce, St. Louis. The old man had to be all done after missing time with injury in 2005 and finishing with just 525 yards. Right? Wrong. Bruce caught 74 passes for 1,098 yards this year.
5. Charles Woodson, Green Bay. He finished his Raiders career on a down note, missing 17 games with injury his last two years and being a poster boy for discontent. But he made a big impact on the Packers, with eight picks for a surprising 8-8 squad.