Andrew Luck is one man’s choice for MVP
Now that the NFL regular season is complete, it’s time to reveal my choices for the 2018 awards, which will officially be announced the night before the Super Bowl.
To be clear, I don’t have an official vote, and this ballot is simply for fun and debate:
■ MVP: Colts QB Andrew Luck.
Runners-up: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, Saints QB Drew Brees, Chargers QB Philip Rivers, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.
I take the definition of MVP literally — most valuable player, not necessarily the player with the best statistics. And in 2018, the NFL’s most valuable player was Luck, not Mahomes or Brees or any of the other quarterbacks whose numbers are better than Luck’s.
The Colts were 4-12 without Luck last season, and 10-6 with him this season. Luck and the Colts won nine of their final 10 games and became just the third team in NFL history to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start. Luck won almost every game he had to over the final two months, including a 24-21 thriller at Houston, a 23-0 win over Dallas, a huge 28-27 comeback win over Giants, and a 33-17 win at the Titans in Week 17 that clinched the Colts their first playoff berth since 2014.
And Luck did this with a new coach (Frank Reich), in a new offensive system, and was surrounded by T.Y. Hilton and a bunch of nobodies (the Colts only had two Pro Bowlers, tight end Eric Ebron and guard Quenton Nelson). Nobody did more with less than Luck.
Luck didn’t have the best stats, finishing 11th in passer rating (98.7), but he was still great. Coming back from a mysterious shoulder injury, Luck played in all 16 games, threw for 4,593 yards, and finished second in the NFL with 39 touchdown passes. The Colts were the best third-down team in the NFL, and Luck had three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives.
The other candidates are all worthy. Mahomes, the likely winner, had a phenomenal season. But he joined an already loaded Chiefs team that had won two straight AFC West titles before Mahomes took over. Brees was arguably the MVP from September to November, but the Saints’ offense hit a wall in December, and they won with their defense. Rivers had a career year, but his roster is loaded and he had a lot more help than Luck did. Wilson is an awfully tempting choice, but the Seahawks’ success was largely predicated on them running the ball a ton and throwing the fewest pass attempts in the league.
■ Offensive Player of the Year: Mahomes.
Runners-up: Rams RB Todd Gurley, Saints RB Alvin Kamara, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott, Steelers WR Antonio Brown, Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill.
Even in a season with a multitude of standout performers, Mahomes is the easy choice. He became just the third player in NFL history to throw for 50 touchdowns (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning), and joined Manning as the only players to do so while also throwing for 5,000 yards. Mahomes led all quarterbacks with 8.79 yards per attempt, was second in passer rating (113.8), and unofficially led the NFL in highlight-reel throws. Mahomes burst onto the scene like no other quarterback has since Aaron Rodgers back in 2008, and is going to be good for a long, long time.
■ Defensive Player of the Year: Rams DT Aaron Donald.
Runners-up: Chiefs DT Chris Jones, Texans DE J.J. Watt, Bears OLB Khalil Mack, Chiefs OLB Dee Ford, Panthers LB Luke Kuechly, Colts LB Darius Leonard, Bears S Eddie Jackson, Bears CB Kyle Fuller.
Donald should join Lawrence Taylor and Watt as the only back-to-back winners of this award. Donald led the NFL with 20½ sacks, an incredible number for a defensive tackle and 4½ more than anyone else in the league. He also led the NFL with 25 tackles for loss, and tied for sixth with four forced fumbles. Jones, Watt, and Mack were excellent this season, but Donald was unquestionably the most disruptive player in the league.
■ Coach of the Year: Texans’ Bill O’Brien.
Runners-up: Colts’ Reich, Bears’ Matt Nagy, Rams’ Sean McVay, Saints’ Sean Payton, Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, Chiefs’ Andy Reid.
This is by far the toughest award to choose, and there is no wrong answer. Reich and Nagy did incredible jobs in their first seasons. McVay, Payton, and Reid guided the best teams. Carroll remade the Seahawks on the fly and got them back to the playoffs.
But Billy O gets my vote. The Texans became just the sixth team in NFL history to make the playoffs after an 0-3 start. Houston came out of nowhere to win 11 of its final 13 games and capture the AFC South title. And this was a team coming off a dreadful 4-12 season, led by a quarterback coming off a torn ACL who had only played seven career games, and a pass rusher who lost his 2017 season to back surgery. This season represented a remarkable turnaround by the Texans, and O’Brien deserves a lot of credit.
■ Executive of the Year: Bears GM Ryan Pace.
Runners-up: Colts GM Chris Ballard, Seahawks GM John Schneider, Chiefs GM Brett Veach.
Pace hit all the right buttons, pulling off a mega deal for Mack, hitting a home run with new coach Nagy, and surrounding quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with solid free agent additions (Trey Burton, Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel). Trubisky also played a lot better, and the result was a 12-4 record.
■ Comeback Player of the Year: Luck.
Runners-up: Watson, Watt, Giants WR Odell Beckham, Redskins RB Adrian Peterson.
I try to avoid doubling up on awards, but this one would be a sham if not given to Luck. No one knew if he could even throw a football again, but he came out firing in 2018, and put together an MVP-caliber season. Despite the uncertainty with his throwing shoulder, Luck finished second in the NFL with 639 pass attempts, or 39.9 per game.
■ Offensive Rookie of the Year: Browns QB Baker Mayfield.
Runners-up: Giants RB Saquon Barkley, Jets QB Sam Darnold, Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, Broncos RB Phillip Lindsay, Falcons WR Calvin Ridley, Browns RB Nick Chubb.
Barkley joined Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as the only rookies with 2,000 total yards, and he would win Fantasy Rookie of the Year. But in real life, Mayfield is the man. He threw 27 touchdown passes, a rookie record, went 6-7 as a starter, and injected a ton of life and swagger into the NFL’s most depressed franchise.
■ Defensive Rookie of the Year: Colts LB Leonard.
Runners up: Broncos DE Bradley Chubb, Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch, Browns CB Denzel Ward, Chargers S Derwin James, Patriots CB J.C. Jackson.
Leonard, a second-round pick out of South Carolina State, was an absolute machine for the Colts’ defense. He led the league with 163 tackles, added seven sacks, four forced fumbles, and eight passes defensed, and helped the Colts finish fifth in points allowed, after finishing 30th in 2017.
STAKES ARE HIGH
Dealing Brown won’t be easy
Antonio Brown’s temper tantrum with the Steelers and request to be traded out of Pittsburgh was the story of the week, and had fans from New England to San Francisco dreaming of acquiring the All-Pro receiver.
But Brown still has three years left on his contract, and his contract will likely thwart his desire to get traded.
The Steelers are set to pay Brown $15.125 million next season (with $2.5 million due March 17), with a $22.165 million salary-cap charge. If the Steelers trade Brown before March 17, they save all that salary, but they have to carry a $21.12 million dead-salary cap charge. While the Steelers would gain $1 million in cap space, that’s a lot of dead money to be carrying for a player no longer on the team.
The other option would be to trade Brown after June 1. This would require the Steelers to first pay Brown $2.5 million in March, then take dead-cap charges of $9.5 million in 2019 and about $14 million in 2020.
That’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, if the Steelers simply want to get rid of Brown and avoid another Le’Veon Bell type of situation next season. But the far likelier scenario is for the Steelers to just sit back and wait for Brown to report, and if he doesn’t, they can dock his pay, suspend him for conduct detrimental, and make his life way more difficult.
The Steelers still have most of the power in this situation, and Brown knows it, which is why he’s causing such a fuss now. But the chances of him getting traded don’t seem likely.
Making playoffs helps bottom line
A couple of facts and figures about this year’s playoffs:
■ Every player makes the same salary in the playoffs, from Tom Brady down to the 53rd man on the roster. In the wild-card round, players on the No. 3- and No. 4-seeded teams earn $29,000 per game, and players on wild-card teams earn $27,000.
In the divisional round, all players make $29,000. It’s $54,000 for players in the conference championship games, then $118,000 for players on the winning Super Bowl team, and $59,000 on the losing team.
So if a wild-card team wins the Super Bowl, those players will earn $228,000 for their four games. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, their players will make $201,000 for three games.
■ The NFC is the home team in Super Bowl LIII, and will have its choice of jerseys. The NFC team will practice at the Falcons’ training facility and use their home locker room, which will be a fun story line if the rival Saints make the Super Bowl. The AFC team will practice at Georgia Tech.
THE SEARCH IS ON
Busy week for prospective hires
The first week of the coach hiring season has been an interesting one. The eight teams looking for head coaches have been casting a wide net, cycling many of the same candidates through multiple interviews. The Patriots’ Brian Flores did the NFL version of speed dating over the weekend, interviewing with the Dolphins, Broncos, Packers, and Browns. Several other coaches did the same.
What has become clear is that there really are no sure-thing candidates this year, and that the eight teams didn’t really have a full plan when they fired their previous coaches. They just knew they wanted to fire their coach, and they would hopefully find the answer in their interviews.
That process worked well for the Rams, who hit a home run with Sean McVay two years ago. And it worked out horribly for the Cardinals, who ended up with Steve Wilks last year and now find themselves looking for a head coach again this year.
TE Kittle shines after catch
San Francisco tight end George Kittle accomplished one of the more remarkable feats of the season, leading players in yards after catch with 881. This is a stat that is dominated by running backs, representing 10 of the top 14 YAC gainers in the league this season.
Accurate YAC stats only go back to 1992, but Kittle’s 881 yards are second all time to Marshall Faulk (930 in 1999). Kittle is also the only tight end to lead the league in yards after catch.
Pro Bowl: Picks don’t always add up
Only 28 players are named first-team All-Pro, while 86 are elected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot. But six players named All-Pro weren’t chosen for the Pro Bowl: Packers LT David Bakhtiari, Eagles C Jason Kelce, Chargers DB Desmond King, Colts LB Darius Leonard, Chiefs RT Mitchell Schwartz, and Ravens K Justin Tucker.
Clearly, Pro Bowl voters don’t know how to identify the top offensive linemen.
Glass half-full or empty?
Some good news and some bad news about the popularity of the NFL. The TV ratings rebounded nicely in 2018, with a 5 percent increase overall from 2017. Every broadcast window saw a ratings increase, and 46 of the top 50 most-watched shows this fall were NFL games.
But the league’s excellent TV experience continues to detract from its in-stadium experience. Per the Sports Business Daily, the NFL’s average attendance of 67,100 was its lowest since 2011. Business was booming in Los Angeles, where the Chargers were up 29 percent from last season and the Rams were up 14 percent, but the Redskins were down 19 percent in attendance, while the Buccaneers were down 9 percent.
Caesars Entertainment became the first official casino partner of the NFL, and its casino on the Las Vegas Strip will host a majority of the events for the 2020 NFL Draft. It wasn’t long ago that the NFL barred Tony Romo from holding a fantasy football convention in Vegas, and NFL referees still aren’t allowed to even walk through a casino . . . The 2018 season wasn’t just a banner one for quarterbacks. This season set a record for rushing average, with ballcarriers averaging 4.42 yards per carry. That’s a not-insignificant increase over the next-best season, 4.29 yards in 2011. This season marked the fewest rushing attempts per game in NFL history, but teams chose their spots better . . . Tom Brady led the NFL in jersey sales, per the league, which is pretty incredible. After 19 years, who doesn’t have a Brady jersey at this point? A lot of people, apparently . . . The Broncos had back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1971-72, and back-to-back double-digit-loss seasons for the first time since 1966-67 . . . A wild-card team hasn’t reached the Super Bowl since the Ravens at the end of the 2012 season . . . The Dolphins sound like they are going to dump Ryan Tannehill and his $18.75 million salary next season. They almost certainly will draft another quarterback, but will also look for a bridge quarterback such as Joe Flacco, Teddy Bridgewater, or Nick Foles — none of whom are appreciably better than Tannehill but will certainly be cheaper . . . From longtime writer Rick Gosselin: First-year referees Shawn Hochuli and Shawn Smith and their officiating crews finished first and second in terms of most penalties called this season. It’s possible that they officiated games that simply had more penalties. Or, more likely, the first-year referees were calling things a bit too tightly.
Quote of the week
“It’s embarrassing as hell.”
— Cardinals GM Steve Keim on getting the No. 1 draft pick.