The NFL concluded its 2022 season last week by crowning the Chiefs as champions and handing out awards for MVP, Coach of the Year, and more.
For the first time, I had the privilege of being one of 50 voters for the awards and All-Pro teams, both managed by the Associated Press. The AP revamped the voting process to utilize ranked-choice voting, which resulted in Jets receiver Garrett Wilson winning Offensive Rookie of the Year over Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker despite having fewer first-place votes.
The AP asked us to keep our ballots secret until the awards were announced on Feb. 9. My selections mirrored many of the results, particularly at MVP, where the final order was mostly the same as my ballot: Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow. (Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson finished fifth, but I voted for San Francisco’s Nick Bosa to give a nod to a defensive player.)
Instead of going over my entire ballot, here are a few interesting areas in which I differed from other voters:
▪ Coach of the Year — Winner: Brian Daboll. My pick: Nick Sirianni.
Only the craziest of superfans predicted the Giants would improve by 5½ wins and make the playoffs after a five-year drought. But this award had several terrific candidates, and I don’t understand what set Daboll apart.
No one saw the Seahawks going 9-8 and making the playoffs with Geno Smith, but Pete Carroll only got one second-place vote, and no firsts. The Jaguars were a massive surprise at 9-8 and a playoff appearance under Doug Pederson, but he finished third in voting. Kevin O’Connell and the 13-4 Vikings significantly outperformed expectations. Dan Campbell and the 9-8 Lions were the best story of the second half.
Sean McDermott guided the Bills to 13-3 under immense pressure and horrible circumstances. Andy Reid led the Chiefs to 14-3 after trading Tyreek Hill. And Kyle Shanahan, who finished second in voting, led the 49ers to 13-4 with three starting quarterbacks.
That’s why I voted for Sirianni. The Eagles were expected to be good entering 2022, with the 10th-best Super Bowl odds following a 9-8 season and wild-card loss. But few, if anyone, expected them to be the NFL’s last undefeated team (8-0), to be the clear No. 1 seed throughout the season, and to go 14-1 with Hurts, who blossomed from a question mark to a bona fide superstar. Sirianni finished criminally low in voting, coming in fifth with just six first-place votes. Giving the award to a coach who finished in third place (Daboll) instead of one who finished in first (Sirianni) doesn’t make any sense.
▪ Assistant Coach of the Year — Winner: DeMeco Ryans. My pick: Ben Johnson.
Ryans’s defense was fantastic, with the 49ers finishing No. 1 in points and yards allowed. But I gave Ryans my third-place vote because the team was loaded with talent and was supposed to be great. My second-place vote went to Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, who called plays and got terrific improvement out of quarterback Daniel Jones.
Johnson, who finished second with 11 first-place votes, was the obvious choice. In his first year as coordinator, the Lions’ offense was incredibly efficient and inarguably the biggest surprise of the season.
The Lions were No. 4 in offensive points scored (up from 23rd last season), tied for the third-most touchdowns (52), No. 4 in the red zone (66 percent), and were darlings of the analytics community. The Lions had the No. 4 offense in Expected Points Added, were tied for No. 3 in EPA on third downs, and were No. 2 in EPA in the pass game, behind only the Chiefs.
They did this, mind you, with Jared Goff, who had been dumped by the Rams and was viewed as a seat-warmer until the Lions drafted a new quarterback. Goff was a revelation this season with 29 touchdowns against seven interceptions for a 99.3 rating, seventh best among QBs.
▪ First-team All-Pro wide receiver — Winner: Hill. My choice: A.J. Brown.
Brown finished fourth in voting behind Jefferson, the Raiders’ Davante Adams, and Hill, but I gave Brown the nod and put Hill on my second team. Hill got 25 more targets for the Dolphins, and had the advantage in yards (1,710 to 1,496), but Brown was more explosive for the Eagles. Brown had the better average (17.0 to 14.4), more touchdowns (11 to 7), led the NFL in catches of 25-plus yards (18 compared with 14 for Hill), and was fifth among all receivers in average yards after catch (6.5 compared with 4.2 for Hill).
There’s also an argument that the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle deserved it over Hill, and I regret not finding a way to give Waddle a second-team vote. Waddle, with 1,356 yards, led the NFL with an 18.1 average, scored more touchdowns than Hill (8 to 7), had more catches of 25-plus yards (16 to 14 in 53 fewer targets), was fourth among receivers in yards after the catch (6.7), and was No. 2 in receiving EPA behind only the Bills’ Stefon Diggs.
▪ All-Pro running backs — Winners: Josh Jacobs and Nick Chubb. My choices: Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler.
The voters selected the two best rushers, with Jacobs leading the NFL with 1,653 yards for the Raiders and Chubb finishing third with 1,525 yards for the Browns on an impressive 5.05 average. But give me the versatile running backs who play all three downs and are weapons in the passing game. McCaffrey and Ekeler finished 1-2 among running backs in receiving stats, and also played for winning teams, serving as crucial pieces to a playoff run.
McCaffrey, my nod for first team, finished third in total scrimmage yards (1,880) and touchdowns (13) thanks to 85 catches for 741 yards and five receiving TDs, combined between the Panthers and 49ers. Ekeler finished sixth in scrimmage yards (1,637) and first in touchdowns (18) thanks to 107 catches for 722 yards and five receiving TDs for the Chargers. Jacobs and Chubb had great years, but their teams didn’t win and their stats were a little empty.
▪ First-team All-Pro cornerback — Winner: Patrick Surtain II. My choice: James Bradberry.
I didn’t have Surtain on my ballot, going with the Steelers’ Cameron Sutton and Seahawks’ Tariq Woolen on the second team. Surtain had a nice year in Denver, but his numbers did not match up with the others.
Bradberry, who made second team, had three interceptions, including a pick-6, in his first year in Philadelphia. He was third in the NFL with 17 passes defended, and allowed just three touchdowns in 17 games for a passer rating allowed of 54.7, second among cornerbacks behind Woolen. He allowed a catch on just 46 percent of targets (39 of 85), second in the NFL behind Sutton. Bradberry was No. 1 in the NFL in EPA as the nearest defender, and committed just three penalties in 17 games.
▪ All-Pro punters — Winners: Tommy Townsend and Ryan Stonehouse. My choice: JK Scott.
The Chiefs’ Townsend was named to the first team, ahead of the Titans’ Stonehouse, while Scott of the Chargers finished seventh, with my vote as his only one for the first team. There is no one standard for evaluating punters, but I was blown away by one stat: Scott allowed just 58 punt return yards all season, the fourth fewest this century, on 73 punts. That’s just 0.79 return yards per punt, which was more than twice as good as the next punter (the Steelers’ Pressley Harvin, 1.99) and more than three times better than the third (the 49ers’ Mitch Wishnowsky, 2.51).
Scott finished tied for 16th in net punting average (41.1), but that stat relies heavily on situations — punters who kick with shorter fields are going to have lower net averages. But only 19 of Scott’s 73 punts were returned this season, for a 26 percent return rate that was the lowest among all punters (only two others were below 33 percent). In short, I believe the punter’s most important job is to prevent returns, and Scott blew away the competition in that regard.
Stonehouse, a rookie, was the opposite. Voters seemed to be impressed with his 53.1-yard gross average, which broke an 82-year NFL record. But Stonehouse allowed the most return yards among all punters (636, with the next at 401), had the highest return average (7.1 yards per punt), and the highest percentage of punts returned (65.6 percent). Stonehouse also had nine touchbacks, tied for second most. He clearly had a lot of long fields and boomed a lot of big punts, but he often outkicked his coverage.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Windows open for Brady return
Tom Brady announced his retirement for a second time this month, and even filed retirement papers with the NFL. Except the retirement papers are a symbolic gesture that mean nothing. And every other action by Brady suggests he is keeping his options open to play in 2023.
First came the news from Brady that he won’t begin his broadcasting career at Fox until 2024. Then came what Brady didn’t do: sign a new contract with the Buccaneers to give them relief from the $35.1 million dead salary-cap hit he leaves for 2023. Brady could easily help out the Buccaneers by signing a contract worth the minimum salary, waiting to retire until after June 1, and spreading out the $35 million over multiple years.
If Brady is truly done playing, why not? There is no harm to signing a dummy contract, and the Buccaneers were always good to him.
But Brady isn’t helping out the Buccaneers. He isn’t going to sign a new contract. He will be an unrestricted free agent March 15, and the Buccaneers are going to take the full $35 million cap hit this year.
It’s possible the Buccaneers wanted it this way, so they can take all of their cap lumps this year and be ready to go in 2024. More likely, it seems Brady is leaving his options open, just in case he decides he wants to play again.
He wouldn’t be the first aging star to get the itch once training camps roll around. And it would be difficult for Brady to join a team in training camp if he has to disentangle himself from a dummy contract with the Buccaneers. Instead, Brady will be free to sign with anyone, whenever he wants.
I’m not ruling out his return until the season kicks off in September.
Should the Bears move on from Fields?
A case is building for a young quarterback to be an unexpected entrant on the NFL’s trade market this offseason. The Bears drafted Justin Fields at No. 11 overall two years ago to be their franchise QB, but are in a unique position this offseason with the No. 1 pick and may be better off moving Fields and drafting another quarterback.
Fields went 3-12 as a starter this past season and threw for just 149.5 yards per game. Former Eagles president Joe Banner made a persuasive case last month that the Bears should trade the run-first Fields and draft a better passer, either Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. This past week, former Jets and Dolphins GM Mike Tannenbaum echoed a similar argument on ESPN’s “First Take,” saying Young’s ceiling “is way higher” than Fields’.
The fact that Fields admitted on Super Bowl’s Radio Row that he feels “way slower” in the cold, struggles to play in the cold and wind, and hopes the Bears’ new stadium has a dome, is another reason for Chicago to consider trading him.
It also would make financial sense. Even though Fields has just two years and $5.5 million left on his contract, and the No. 1 pick will sign a four-year deal worth about $39 million, all fully guaranteed, the swap still buys the Bears two years of time — four years on a cheap rookie QB deal instead of just two more with Fields. The decision on Fields’s fifth-year option, which would guarantee him about $25 million in 2024, is one year from now.
Fields recently told Rich Eisen that he just wants “honesty in the process. It’s a business so totally understand. No hard feelings.” Teams that need a quarterback but don’t have a high pick — such as the Panthers, Commanders, Buccaneers, and Saints — should give Bears GM Ryan Poles a call, and he should listen intently.
It seems Colts owner Jim Irsay was finally convinced to hire a real, qualified head coach instead of going with his old pal, Jeff Saturday. Irsay landed on Shane Steichen, an NFL coach since 2011 who has been the Eagles’ offensive coordinator the last two years. Steichen, 37, did a great job developing Jalen Hurts, but Irsay’s coaching moves don’t make much sense. Previous coach Frank Reich did a solid job under terrible circumstances at quarterback, and certainly wasn’t the reason for the team’s struggles. But he got fired anyway, and now the Colts ultimately hire another offensive-minded coach, but one with far less experience. Vaya con Dios . . . A few great scenes from NFL Films’s “Mic’d Up” hourlong special of the Super Bowl. Skyy Moore’s fourth-quarter, walk-in touchdown that looked like the same play the Chiefs ran for their previous touchdown, but reversed? Nope. The Chiefs were really lined up in the wrong formation, and Patrick Mahomes improvised on the spot. Andy Reid also tried to run in and call a last-second timeout before the snap, but was denied. The Chiefs also called “Church Mode” after James Bradberry’s holding penalty, i.e. take a knee three times and kick a field goal. Jerick McKinnon smartly fell down at the 1 . . . Moore became the fourth player in NFL history to score his first career touchdown in the Super Bowl . . . It wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan Tannehill also hit the trade market. He’s entering the final year of his deal with the Titans, has a non-guaranteed salary of $27 million, and can save the Titans nearly $18 million in cap space. Two destinations that make sense are the Falcons, with former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith now as head coach, and the Jets, with former Titans OC Todd Downing recently hired as passing game coordinator. Downing also coached Derek Carr for three years with the Raiders . . . The Patriots aren’t the only AFC East team to raise ticket prices for 2023. The Bills are raising prices by an average of 12 percent . . . Hurts and the Eagles declined to talk about a contract extension following the Super Bowl loss, but don’t be surprised if he has a new deal before the Combine starts in a week and a half. Prior to the Super Bowl, the Eagles had already approached veterans about redoing deals to make space for Hurts . . . The Lions believe they will play the Chiefs in Germany in 2023, per one team official . . . Crazy tweet from Rams PR: In 2023, Sean McVay (37) will be the NFL’s youngest coach for the seventh straight season. He was two weeks shy of his 31st birthday when he was hired in 2017 . . . Students in grades 4-12 who are interested in writing may want to consider entering the 2023 Will McDonough Writing Contest run by the Sports Museum in honor of the legendary Globe sportswriter. Rules and entry forms are on The Sports Museum website. Deadline is March 6.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.