I can already hear you saying to yourself, “End of year NFL awards? There are still two weeks left in the season!”
Nonsense. If the NFL can name its Pro Bowl teams with two weeks to go, then we can hand out our 2015 regular-season awards. And the NFL season is all but over, anyway. The playoff fields are mostly set, the Panthers and Patriots are clear favorites for the No. 1 seeds, and the only thing left to sort out over the final two weeks is who wins the lousy AFC South and NFC East division titles.
So with that in mind, here is how we would vote for the 2015 NFL awards:
MVP — QB Cam Newton, Panthers
This award isn’t solely about numbers. Newton is the heartbeat of the best team in football, which has a legitimate chance to complete the second 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Newton and the Panthers have had a giant target on their backs with each successive week this season, and have only seemed to play better, and with respect to Tom Brady, Newton wins the “doing more with less” contest after losing young star receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the preseason and having retreads such as Ted Ginn and Corey Brown as his top wideouts. And, oh yeah, Newton’s overall numbers aren’t bad, either: 33 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, plus 580 rushing yards and seven more touchdowns. Newton deserves the award over Brady and Carson Palmer.
Coach of the year — Ron Rivera, Panthers
Pretty simple. You coach the best team in the NFL, you get the Coach of the Year Award. We’ll see if the Panthers can hold serve and reach the Super Bowl in a tough NFC, but getting to 14-0 is no joke, especially with the Panthers’ seemingly limited offensive weapons outside of Newton and tight end Greg Olsen. The Panthers barely had playoff hype entering the season, let alone talk of going 16-0 and earning the No. 1 seed. That the Panthers haven’t had one slip-up all season, and are arguably playing their best football of the season the last few weeks, makes Rivera’s coaching all the more impressive. Hat tip to Bruce Arians, Bill Belichick, and Jay Gruden.
Assistant coach of the year — Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, Chiefs
Sutton, a 64-year-old lifetime grinder, has quietly built a dominant defense in Kansas City. For the second year in a row the Chiefs are top three in points allowed (third this season) and top 10 in yards allowed (eighth), helping the Chiefs turn a 1-5 start into a 9-5 mark and a shot at the AFC West title entering Sunday’s games. Strong consideration also went to Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, and Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
Defensive player of the year — CB Josh Norman, Panthers
Yes, the Panthers are sweeping most of the major awards. But it is well deserved when you go 14-0. This award was almost a coin flip between Norman and his teammate, linebacker Thomas Davis, who has made an eye-popping number of impact plays this year: 5.5 sacks, three interceptions, and four forced fumbles. But one stat clearly seals it for Norman, who had a breakout performance in his fourth NFL season: According to NFL Network research, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant, and Julio Jones combined for nine catches for 89 yards against Norman. Yes, combined. Consideration also given to Texans DE J.J. Watt, Lions DE Ziggy Ansah, and Dolphins S Reshad Jones.
Non-QB offensive player of the year — WR Antonio Brown, Steelers
Brown is just about uncoverable, with 116 catches for 1,586 yards and nine touchdowns. He edges out Falcons receiver Julio Jones, Giants WR Odell Beckham, Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, and Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski.
Best individual performance — Raiders OLB Khalil Mack’s five sacks in second half vs. Broncos
Just a singularly dominant performance from the second-year pass rusher, who took the game over and led the Raiders to a comeback victory. Drew Brees’s 505 yards and seven touchdowns in a win over the Giants, and Antonio Brown’s 17 catches for 284 yards against the Raiders were also mighty impressive.
Breakout player of the year — WR DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
With a bevy of mediocre-to-terrible quarterbacks throwing him the ball — Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden — Hopkins put up monster numbers this year in just his second NFL season: 97 catches, 1,315 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Strong consideration to Jaguars WR Allen Robinson, Bengals TE Tyler Eifert, and Ansah.
Comeback player of the year — Carson Palmer, Cardinals
After tearing his ACL last November, Palmer returned this year better than ever, driving the bus on the league’s No. 2 scoring offense. Seemingly washed up three years ago with Oakland, Palmer has 4,277 yards, 32 touchdowns, and nine interceptions while leading the Cardinals to a 12-2 record. Drawing consideration: Chiefs S Eric Berry, Eifert, Peterson, and Bills G Richie Incognito.
Executive of the year — Bill Belichick, Patriots
This award has always eluded Belichick, yet he certainly deserves it for pushing all the right buttons this season. His controversial decisions to move on from Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Vince Wilfork, and Kyle Arrington all panned out, the Dion Lewis signing was a home run while it lasted, and the Patriots keep rolling along at 12-2 as usual. Hat tip to Jets GM Mike Maccagnan, Cardinals GM Steve Keim, and Seahawks GM John Schneider.
Questions about film ‘Concussion’
The NFL’s concussion issue has been prominent in the news the last week or so, with the movie “Concussion” hitting theaters on Friday and the ESPN report on Tuesday that the NFL pulled $16 million of funding from a head trauma project because the National Institutes of Health had appointed a head researcher the NFL didn’t approve of, Boston University’s Dr. Robert Stern. The NFL responded quickly, saying that it didn’t pull out of the project but that NIH had instead decided to fund the entire $30 million study by itself.
Whatever the case, the news items of the last week-plus give us a good opportunity to clear up a few points about the NFL, concussions, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease that is associated with repeated head trauma. The movie takes considerable artistic license with the story of CTE and the NFL — the family of the late Dave Duerson took exception to the way he was portrayed as a crass and uncaring NFL employee in the movie — and there was an excellent column in Slate recently detailing the movie’s many inaccuracies and how little scientists still know about CTE.
The easy narrative is that football is killing its participants — that repeated concussions lead to an onset of CTE, which then develops quickly into dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and other neurological diseases.
But the science is still in its infancy, and there is much we don’t know. Frank Gifford was found to have had CTE when he died this year, but he lived to be 84, so how much did CTE truly impair him? Former Steelers great Mike Webster, the centerpiece of “Concussion,” had a troubled family history — he was a victim of child abuse, his uncle committed suicide, and all four of his siblings were bipolar. Former Steelers great Terry Long abused steroids and was about to be indicted for mail fraud and arson. Duerson had split from his wife and had financial problems. How much did CTE contribute to their suicides? The movie draws the direct link, but the real answer is not yet known.
The movie makes no mention of a 2008 University of Michigan study that found that former NFL players suffer depression at about the same rate as the general population, nor a 2012 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that found former football players actually lived longer than the general population.
None of this is to say that CTE isn’t dangerous, just to point out that there is still much we don’t know about the subject — and that the NFL didn’t help its image if it pulled funding from an important study just because it didn’t like the doctor leading the project.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
Guerrero’s role worthy of scrutiny
Many Patriots fans weren’t pleased with the Globe’s story last Sunday questioning the relationship between the team and Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady’s “body guru” and business partner who has a lengthy history of shady medical claims and business practices.
The connection certainly deserves scrutiny given Guerrero’s past, and the uniqueness of the relationship — the Patriots pay TB12 for the work it does with Brady and his teammates, and it is rare for a team to have financial ties with a business owned by one of its players.
“To have your starting quarterback be an investor or an owner in a practice that the team is paying is beyond bizarre,” former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said last week. “There’s not another case like it.”
The Patriots say that nothing nefarious is going on. Why do Patriots players see Guerrero instead of using the team’s training staff? Because the players see how Guerrero has worked wonders with Brady over the years and prolonged his career. Why do the Patriots provide Guerrero with a work space? The practice is common (chiropractors often get space in the stadium as well) and it makes it easier for players to get their treatment on-site. Why do the Patriots pay TB12/Guerrero for his work? Because the NFL requires it. Why does Guerrero stand on the sideline with Patriots gear for some games? Because he does work on Brady before games, and NFL rules state that people with sideline passes must be outfitted in team gear.
We’ll take those explanations at face value. But Guerrero’s relationship with the team still does cause one significant issue: Who is really in charge of the Patriots’ training room? A significant angle of the story, which the team did not deny, is that Guerrero’s presence and nontraditional methods are not always welcome by the Patriots’ own training staff.
Are team doctor Matt Provencher and head trainer Jim Whalen still in charge of all physical therapy? Does Guerrero have to answer to them? If Guerrero discovers an injury, does he report it to the team?
The Patriots are successful on the field because of their strong “one voice” policy — all football decisions flow through Bill Belichick. But having two distinct voices in the training room can complicate matters.
“On a team, everyone needs to work cooperatively. Even the strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers need to see eye-to-eye on injury prevention,” former Chargers team doctor David Chao wrote on the National Football Post. “I have seen other NFL teams with dual training rooms before and it usually does not work. What if the philosophy on rehabilitations differs? Although we have not seen any issues arise yet, I am surprised that Bill Belichick allows this.”
Patriots’ foes are well-rested
More fodder for the Patriots truthers: When the Jets play the Patriots Sunday, they will have had one extra day to prepare — eight days since their last game, compared with seven for the Patriots. It marks the sixth time this year that the Patriots will have had less rest than their opponents.
The Eagles had 10 days to prepare to only seven for the Patriots, the Broncos had seven days while the Patriots had six, the Bills had 11 days compared with eight for the Patriots, the Redskins had 14 days while the Patriots had 10, and the Colts had 10 days while the Patriots had the usual seven.
Only twice have the Patriots had more rest than their opponents — 14 days compared with seven for the Cowboys, and 10 days to prepare for the Bills in Week 2, who only had seven.
One sentiment I hear a lot from Patriots fans is, “We’ll be fine once Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and everyone else comes back healthy for the playoffs.” So I asked Tom Brady about that last Monday when filling in on WEEI. Once Edelman returns from his broken foot, is the offense going to instantly click and start scoring 40 points per game again? “I think all that’s kind of wishful thinking, truthfully,” Brady said. “I think all of it requires a lot of practice and you know a lot of us being on the same page. There’s just no way to shortcut that.” . . . Smart decision by the Ravens to pull down a blog post and a tweet making light of a team dinner in which the rookies were stuck with an $11,561.62 bill. This is one of the worst practices in the NFL, with veterans taking advantage of rookies who A) are desperate to stick in the NFL and will do anything they’re told, and B) are making league minimum and don’t have long careers. How quickly we seem to forget the whole Dolphins bullying scandal from just two years ago . . . With two weeks left, the 3-11 Titans currently hold the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, followed by the Browns at 3-11, and the Ravens, Chargers, Cowboys, and 49ers at 4-10 . . . Tip of the cap to Charles Woodson, who announced that he will retire after this season the same week he earned his 10th career Pro Bowl nod. If Woodson isn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer, then no one is . . . Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin has a whopping 10 touchdowns over his last four games, tying Jerry Rice’s record for most touchdowns in a four-game span and joining Cris Carter and Calvin Johnson as the only players in league history with multiple TD catches in four straight games. Amazingly, Baldwin only has 21 catches in this stretch.
Quote of the week
“I’m going to eliminate it. I want to avoid [the headache]. It’s the No Fun League for a reason.”
— Panthers coach Ron Rivera on why he won’t allow his defensive backs to bring a baseball bat onto the field for warm-ups anymore after scuffling with the Giants last Sunday.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been a one-man wrecking crew this season and added to his MVP credentials with an extraordinary performance against the Giants last Sunday. Here’s a look at his season: