BEN VOLIN I SUNDAY FOOTBALL NOTES
elaine thompson/Associated Press
We’ll start by clarifying that I do not vote for the NFL Most Valuable Player or any other award.
But I do have opinions, and the Globe is kind enough to grant me this space to give them.
So here is one man’s opinion on who should win the 2017 NFL MVP, listed in reverse order:
5. Russell Wilson. He was looking like he could make a real run at the award, but then his team lost to the Jaguars and Rams in Weeks 14-15, and now the 9-6 Seahawks are in danger of missing the playoffs. But Wilson has been phenomenal, throwing 32 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions while carrying a broken-down team on his back.
Not only has Wilson thrown for a respectable 3,762 yards, but he’s also the Seahawks’ top rusher, with the most yards (550), carries (90), and touchdowns (3). Wilson has accounted for 86.4 percent of his team’s total yards (4,312 of 4,990) and 97.2 percent of its offensive touchdowns (35 of 36). But it’s hard to vote for an MVP on a team that will at best be the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.
4. Carson Wentz. The budding star was probably the MVP favorite before he tore up his left knee in Week 13. Not all of his stats were perfect — the 60.2 completion percentage and 253 passing yards per game don’t jump off the page — but he was the leader of the best team in the NFL, displayed admirable toughness and leadership, and went 11-2 as a starter while putting up some big numbers.
Wentz still leads the NFL in touchdown passes (33), even though he hasn’t played since Dec. 10. But fair or not, his MVP hopes, and the Eagles’ Super Bowl chances, likely went out the door with his injury.
3. Tom Brady. He leads the league in passing yards (4,387), is second in passer rating (104.2), third in touchdown passes (30), and of course his team is 12-3, in line for the No. 1 playoff seed. The comeback win against the Steelers was a signature moment. The comeback win over the Texans was pure magic. And he kept the team rolling without Julian Edelman this year. If Brady wins his third MVP, you won’t hear me complain.
But he’s not my choice.
Most notably, Brady’s performance is regressing as the season heats up. He has thrown an interception in five straight games, the first time he has done so since 2002. His passer rating in December is 81.5, good for 19th-best in the NFL. Brady also has significant built-in advantages over the other candidates, working with the best tight end in the game, a veteran defense that is seventh in points allowed, and the best coach in NFL history.
I thought Brady deserved the MVP last year, which went to Matt Ryan. But Brady isn’t playing like an MVP down the stretch.
2. Rob Gronkowski. I wrestled with this chicken-and-egg dilemma — does Brady make Gronk, or does Gronk make Brady? The answer isn’t black or white, but the Monday night game in Miami provided clarity.
Brady and the Patriots’ offense ground to a halt that night, sputtering their way to a 27-20 loss that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. But when Gronkowski returned to the lineup the next week, the Patriots scored 27 points on the road against a tough Steeler defense. And with the game on the line, Gronkowski stepped up with three catches in a row for 69 yards to put the Patriots in position for the winning score.
If the Steelers win was Brady’s signature moment, it was Gronkowski’s as well — nine catches for a career-high 168 yards, and a crucial 2-point conversion.
And while Brady has become more pedestrian down the stretch, Gronk is playing like an MVP, with 464 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his last four games.
Here is an eye-opening comparison:
Brady passer rating when targeting Gronk over the last five weeks: 133.0 (28 of 37, 464 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT). Brady’s passer rating when targeting everyone else: 75.44 (78 of 127, 776 yards, 5 TDs, 5 INTs).
Gronk had several quiet games in the middle of the season. And that cheap shot to Tre’Davious White was ugly. But there’s no doubt that Gronk has been carrying the team on its march to the No. 1 seed.
1. Todd Gurley. To me, it boils down to this: Gurley has been significantly better than his peers, while Brady has not.
The 11-4 Rams are also the best and most surprising story of the season, set to become the first team in NFL history to go from No. 32 to No. 1 in points scored from one year to the next. And while Rams quarterback Jared Goff has had an excellent year, and coach Sean McVay has been a miracle worker, Gurley is the engine of that offense. Gurley has made Goff, not the other way around.
Gurley leads the NFL with 1,305 rushing yards, though he may not win the rushing title because he is sitting out on Sunday. He leads all running backs with 788 receiving yards. He leads the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,093). Gurley’s 19 touchdowns are six more than anyone else in the NFL. He is just the third player in NFL history with 2,000 scrimmage yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, and five receiving touchdowns in the same year (Marshall Faulk, O.J. Simpson). Gurley has 147 more total yards than Le’Veon Bell, on 63 fewer touches.
Why is Goff having such a great passing year? Because the Rams call the third-most play-action passes in the NFL, and defenses are selling out to stop Gurley and leaving receivers open. Gurley even excels in pass protection.
“He’s the most complete back I’ve ever played with, and he’s having the best season of any back I’ve ever played with,” Rams center John Sullivan told the Los Angeles Times. Sullivan blocked for Adrian Peterson in 2012 when he won the MVP award with 2,097 rushing yards.
This year, voters shouldn’t feel beholden to pick a quarterback for the league’s top award. Gurley is the choice.
■ Rob Gronkowski already has earned $3 million in incentives, and he’s close to earning the final $2.5 million, needing 11 catches or 116 yards against the Jets to trigger it. He also could earn the incentive for being named first team All-Pro. Travis Kelce is his only competition there, and their stats are similar.
When a player gets close to his incentives, I almost always root for the team to just pay it out and reward the player for his hard work. And Gronk has definitely worked hard this season. But if he falls short this time, I think the Patriots should take a hard line and not pay it.
That’s only because Gronk did it to himself with his foolish one-game suspension for taking a cheap shot at Tre’Davious White. If Gronk had played against Miami, he likely would easily reach his incentives. Instead, he lost his composure and let down his teammates.
■ Bill Belichick once again is stumping for the NFL to install cameras on the goal line to help with instant replay, and other rule changes. He proposed this several years ago, joking that the NFL could hold a “bake sale” to pay for the cameras, but the owners rejected it.
Speaking about the Jesse James non-touchdown last week on “Patriots All Access,” Belichick unprompted said, “One of the things that’s key on a play like that is to have a camera on the goal line. In the end, we all want it right. And that’s why I’m also for being able to challenge plays under two minutes. If you have a challenge left and you’re willing to use a timeout for it, if it’s an important enough play, I think you should be able to do it.”
■ James Harrison isn’t taking much of a pay cut to join the Patriots. He was making $70,588 per week with the Steelers (a prorated salary of $1.2 million). With the Patriots, he’ll make the veteran minimum of $58,823 for Week 17 (a prorated salary of $1 million), plus his playoff share. The Steelers also paid him a $500,000 signing bonus and a $500,000 bonus for making the Week 1 roster.
■ Texans coach Bill O’Brien isn’t looking like he will survive Black Monday, as he has a rocky relationship with general manager Rick Smith. But O’Brien may not be out of coaching long. Expect the former Patriots offensive coordinator to get a long look from the Lions, Buccaneers, and Titans, three teams with former Patriots as GMs. The Lions and Bucs jobs are supposed to open up, and the Titans job likely depends on whether they make the playoffs. O’Brien could be a solid choice to coach Matthew Stafford, Jameis Winston, or Marcus Mariota.
It wasn’t surprising to see the Giants hire Mattapan’s Dave Gettleman as GM last week. Gettleman worked in the Giants’ front office from 1999-2011, helping construct two Super Bowl teams.
But the timing was interesting. By hiring Gettleman before the season ended, the Giants decided not to talk to any candidates currently working for other teams. And it took the Patriots’ Nick Caserio out of the running, of course. Josh McDaniels is now far less likely to go there as head coach.
Having their GM in place will help the Giants hit the ground running in their search for a head coach this week. But they also limited their options at GM, opting for the familiar face over someone new.
And that might be the right path for the Giants. Tom Coughlin’s strict discipline grew old by the end of his 12-year tenure, but the last two player-friendly years under Ben McAdoo ended in disaster. The Giants’ locker room has run amok, with Eli Apple and Landon Collins openly feuding, and the Giants suspending three of their cornerbacks (Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Apple) at various points in the season for conduct detrimental to the team.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is the name to watch here. He has never worked with Gettleman, but both are close with Ernie Accorsi, who is consulting for owner John Mara.
The Bills have a chance to earn a playoff spot on Sunday for the first time since the 1999 season but need a few chips to fall into place. And several ghosts from the past will help decide their fate.
The Bills need to beat the Dolphins, but they also need outside help. Former Bills coach Doug Marrone can provide it, if his Jaguars beat the Titans. By the same token, Titans coach Mike Mularkey, another former Bills coach, can eliminate his former team with a win over Jacksonville. And the Bills’ postseason fate will also be determined by the Chargers, who play the Raiders and are led by former Bills coach Anthony Lynn.
In fact, if the Bills don’t make the playoffs, it will be the loss to Lynn’s Chargers in Week 11 that will be to blame. That was the week current Bills coach Sean McDermott decided to start Nathan Peterman over Tyrod Taylor, and the Chargers intercepted Peterman five times in the first half en route to a 54-24 win.
All players make the same salary in the playoffs. Players on wild-card teams get $26,000 next weekend, while the division winners get $28,000 (and players who get first-round byes don’t get paid). Every player in the divisional round makes $28,000. Everyone in the conference championship game gets $51,000. Super Bowl winners get $112,000, and the losers get $56,000.
So, if the Patriots win the Super Bowl, every player on the active roster will make $191,000. If a No. 3 or 4 seed wins the Super Bowl, every player makes $217,000.
Andrew Luck spoke to the media for the first time in months on Friday, and while he expressed optimism about his throwing shoulder being ready for offseason practices in April, his comments have to give Colts fans pause. “My gut and my feeling tells me I won’t need another surgery,” Luck said. “I’m very optimistic. I feel really good today. I do not think I need another surgery. I believe in the process I’m in right now. I plan on being ready for everything.” The lack of certainty, though, has to be frightening for Colts fans, and for potential head coaching candidates, who may not know what they’re getting out of Luck next year. Luck originally had labrum surgery last January, was supposed to be back for the start of the regular season, but missed the entire year and had to be shut down in October because of soreness.
. . . Looks like all that coverage about an NFL boycott and sagging TV ratings was just a bunch of hot air. Per NBC, the NFL finished the fall 2017 season as the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 rated TV shows in prime time. “Sunday Night Football” led the way with 18.2 million viewers every week, “Thursday Night Football” on CBS was second at 14.1 million, and “TNF” on NBC was fourth at 14.036 million. Yes, the numbers are declining, but that’s because overall TV viewership is declining, as people find other ways to consume entertainment. The NFL is still king . . . The smartest move of the season by the NFL was its recent change to the concussion protocol that places an unaffiliated neurological consultant in the league’s instant replay studio at NFL headquarters. Too many of the lapses in the concussion protocol come because officials on the field don’t see what we see at home. Now the league office can communicate directly with the officials if they see something on TV that merits attention . . . How strange was 2017? This year will mark the first time in the Super Bowl era that the Cowboys, Giants, Redskins, Packers, and 49ers all missed the playoffs. The last time all five of those teams missed the postseason was in 1964 . . . Chiefs fans get a glimpse of the future on Sunday when Patrick Mahomes, this year’s first-round pick and next year’s likely starter, gets the start for Alex Smith in a meaningless game against the Broncos. Mahomes will be the first Chiefs rookie quarterback to start a non-strike game since Steve Fuller in 1979.
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