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Ballot time

End of regular season means it's time for awards and all-pro honors

Posted: Monday December 29, 2003 10:45AM; Updated: Monday December 29, 2003 11:43AM
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MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Well, selecting my all-pro team this year has been tough. It always is, really. As one of 50 media voters for the Associated Press All-Pro team, which is the one that counts more than the others because it's been around the longest, I had the most difficult decisions to make at defensive tackle, wide receiver and running back -- particularly running back.

Running back is almost always impossible to narrow down to one. My biggest beef with the AP team is that it allows a voter to pick either two running backs or a running back and a fullback. I don't know any NFL squad that uses two running backs in tandem more than very occasionally, but obviously we all know lots of teams that use a running back and a fullback. I think omitting the fullback is dumb, but you watch. This year's all-pro group will probably have Priest Holmes and Jamal Lewis as the running backs. Silly. It's like having Peyton Manning and Steve McNair make first-team all-pro.

Anyway, on with my ballot, with a comment or two on each pick.

Offense

WR: Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis. Saw him take some hellacious hits and make two mind-boggling catches (which he seemed to reprise every week on the highlights) against Carolina in Week 6.  We tend to think of Harrison as a some sort of automaton, who catches 100-plus balls every year, with little effort because he's Manning's favorite target. Anybody could catch 100 with Manning, right? Well, watch how Harrison gets the living snot beat out of him and keeps coming back for more. Harrison's the only guy in the game who can even dream of challenging Jerry Rice's all-time record for catches.

WR: Rod Smith, Denver. Still the best blocking receiver in football, and he added another way of scoring -- by punt return -- against San Diego in November.

TE: Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City. Never seems to have an off year.

T: Jonathan Ogden, Baltimore. Had the pleasure of watching coaches' digital video with him after he handled Chike Okeafor and Chad Brown of Seattle in November. Ogden's size, strength and agility make him a near-lock for this team every year. But what impressed me as much as those traits was his brain. He's got such a good sense of what he's doing against a good rusher, and he's helped by knowing little things such as looking at their eyes as they come around the corner, just so he knows where his quarterback is. He avoided allowing a sack on one play by seeing Okeafor's eyes glomming onto Anthony Wright, then pushing Okeafor out of the way at the last moment.

T: Jon Jansen, Washington. Every time I see this sad team play, and I watch this technically sound and strong right tackle play, I think: "It's not his fault.''

G: Brian Waters, Kansas City. When I watch Priest Holmes, and I focus on the middle of the Chiefs' line, I always see the right guard clearing out bodies. He makes it possible for Holmes' marvelous cutback running to happen.

G: Steve Hutchinson, Seattle. Best draft pick of the Holmgren Era, which is saying something considering the coach also chose Shaun Alexander.

C: Dan Koppen, New England. Week 5, against Tennessee, with maybe the best rush defense in football, the fifth-round rookie from Boston College who looks like he shaves maybe twice a month is thrust into this impossible situation, playing because guard Mike Compton is hurt and center Damian Woody's been moved to fill in for Compton. Koppen keeps Tom Brady and the backs clean all day. The Pats rush for 161 yards. The two Titans DTs and MLB combine for one tackle, one assist and no sacks. New England wins 38-30.

QB: Manning, Indianapolis. Of course he has to beat Denver Sunday to get the gorilla off his back. But I say this about Manning winning the big ones: He won two big ones against the best team in his division, Tennessee, this year. He won a very big one on Monday night in October in Tampa. He quarterbacked his team to a division title.

RB: LaDainian Tomlinson. Imagine an offensive line as porous as San Diego's. Tell me you can name a soul on that line (Sunday's group: Ellis, Garmon, Raymer, Keathley, Bogle). And here's a guy who ran for 1,645 yards and caught 100 balls, and who electrified every game he dressed for. Tough call, Tomlinson over Lewis and Holmes and Ahman Green. I just think he did the most with the least. "I was an English major,'' said Marty Schottenheimer, when asked about Tomlinson after Sunday's 243-yard rushing day against Oakland. "And I have run out of superlatives.''

FB: Fred Beasley, San Francisco. "The MVP of our team,'' one 49ers assistant says. Kansas City's Tony Richardson, Detroit's Cory Schlesinger and Seattle's Mack Strong are better blockers, but Beasley's a good blocker and the best all-around fullback.

Defense

DE: Michael Strahan, New York Giants. The 18 sacks through constant extra attention from opposing offenses is enough, really. But what cliched his spot on this team was his performance the last two weeks, against Dallas and Carolina, when he played every play like his pants were on fire even though the Giants were competing for nothing. What a great player Strahan is. Sometimes you prove it more in the meaningless games.

DE: Richard Seymour, New England. End or tackle? Tackle or end? Seymour was going to make all-pro somehow. Then Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel told me he played about 55 percent of the defensive snaps outside, and I saw where he started 10 games at end and four at tackle. Great motor, and great production. In the midst of all the injury-related mayhem on the Patriots defense, he was a constant.

DT: Dan Wilkinson, Detroit. What? Big Daddy? Go back and look at Lions-Packer, Thanksgiving Day, and see why Ahman Green had a puny total of 67 rushing and receiving yards. The middle of the Packers offensive line kept getting caved in by Wilkinson. It's possible he had his best year in his 10th season, in the place so anonymous half the people reading this will say: "Wilkinson? I didn't know he played for the Lions.''

DT: Kris Jenkins, Carolina. A gimme. Should be a Ray Lewis-type fixture here for years.

OLB: Julian Peterson, San Francisco. A few times this year, I went to a game and said: "This guy's on my all-pro team unless he breaks his leg.'' Nov. 2, Niners 30, Rams 10, was one of those days. Peterson was a man among Rams. God, the guy was everywhere, playing with a Pete Rose zeal, rushing the passer, batting away three passes.

ILB: Ray Lewis, Baltimore. I keep hearing people say he's overrated. Right. And Springsteen can't sing.

ILB: Tedy Bruschi, New England. I feel really bad about keeping Dat Nguyen ("a football-playing dude,'' said Bill Parcells) of the Cowboys off this team. In fact, this was my final decision. But go back and watch the Patriots this year, a team that allowed 1.33 points per game less than any other team in football, and you'll see Bruschi in the middle of everything. Playing inside, outside, in coverage, rushing the passer.

OLB: Keith Bulluck, Tennessee. Late third quarter, Dec. 14, down to Buffalo 17-6 at home. The Titans are already on a two-game losing streak, and another loss could send them on the road out of the playoffs, and the Bills are driving for what would likely be the clinching score. Bullock steams in from the outside, sacked Drew Bledsoe, forces a fumble, recovers the fumble, and the Titans are off and running to a 29-27 comeback win. The guy made an impact like that all season.

CB: Ty Law, New England. Guts and guile. The guy never was right physically, and he'd scotch-tape himself together to win games all year. His acrobatic interception saved the win over Cleveland in Week 8.

CB: Troy Vincent, Philadelphia. Though he missed the final two games with a hip pointer that will threaten his presence in the playoffs, think how absolutely vital he was, with his fellow great mates in the secondary, Bobby Taylor and Brian Dawkins, missing much of the year with injuries of their own. Great leader too. Outsiders think Donovan McNabb is the locker-room leader of this team. He's one of them. But Vincent's the king.

FS: Roy Williams, Dallas. Hits like Chuck Cecil. Wraps up like Mike Singletary. Nice draft choice last season, Jerry Jones.

SS: Rodney Harrison, New England. Think back to Week 1. Disarray. What would the Patriots do without Lawyer Milloy! Sakes alive! Cancel the season! New England shed themselves of safeties Milloy and Tebucky Jones in the offseason for salary and other reasons, and Harrison had to become the dad of the secondary overnight. At 31, he had perhaps the best all-around year of a borderline Hall of Fame career. Just for fun, let's tally his year against the combined years of Milloy and Jones in Buffalo and New Orleans: Tackles: Harrison 135, Milloy/Jones 181. Sacks: Harrison 4, Milloy/Jones 3. Interceptions: Harrison 3, Milloy/Jones 1.

Specialists

K: Mike Vanderjagt, Indianapolis. He had 83 attempts this year, 37 field-goal and 46 PAT. He's 83 for 83. I want to mark a guy down for being a dome kicker as much as the next person, but when a fellow's 13 for 13 from the 40 and beyond and perfect from everywhere else as well, he's a gimme.

P: Craig Hentrich, Tennessee. Great 38-yard net, plus-18 inside-the-20 to touchback ratio, kicked off, stud backup field-goal guy (4 for 4 inside the 50-yard line this year).

PR: Dante Hall, Kansas City. My MVP through five weeks tailed off, but still is the most dangerous return man in the league.

KR: Jerry Azumah, Chicago. Pretty amazing when a guy can guarantee you 29 yards a return.

Awards

MVP: Manning. The bottom line in an MVP vote is trying to figure out which of the league's 1,696 active players meant the most to his team this year. It's hard not to pick Jamal Lewis. It might be harder not to pick Tomlinson. But I chose Manning for putting up 48 points in three quarters at New Orleans, for bringing Indy back from 35-14 down with four minutes left to win at Tampa, for driving the Colts 91 fourth-quarter yards for the clinching touchdown at Miami, for driving the Colts to two fourth-quarter scores in the last 12 minutes to win at Buffalo, for beating the arch-rival Titans twice, and for coming back from a 17-3 deficit in the fourth quarter yesterday in Houston to win the division.

Offensive Player: Tomlinson. For getting 2,360 yards from scrimmage while playing for the worst team in football.

Defensive Player: Rodney Harrison. See above comments on his all-pro selection.

Offensive Rookie: Anquan Boldin, WR, Arizona. Catching 101 balls for that team, with every defense focused on stopping you, is a great feat.

Defensive Rookie: Terence Newman, CB, Dallas. Darn near a shut-down corner as a rookie.

Coach: (tie) Belichick, New England; Parcells, Dallas. Leaving Marvin Lewis off is probably an injustice, because he changed a mentality in Cincinnati; the Bengals losing yesterday was the straw against him, fair or unfair. Parcells took a team that was 5-11 in each of the last three seasons to 10-6 and the playoffs by also changing a mentality. And Belichick might have done one of the great coaching jobs in NFL history, shuttling the second-most players in the league (64) in and out of the lineup for the final three months of the season ... and never losing. How about going 12-0 in October, November and December without having a set lineup?

Executive: Scott Pioli, vice president of player personnel, New England. This is not an AP category, though it is on several other teams I contribute to. No team's personnel department has done a better job scouting and building quality depth this year than New England's, led by Pioli. The proof: Through 16 weeks, four teams -- Cleveland, Oakland, Atlanta and New England -- had the dubious daily double of starting at least 40 players and playing at least 60 men in 2003. This is usually a sign of limping through the schedule with marginal roster fluff; the Browns, Raiders and Falcons have had disastrous double-digit-loss seasons. The Patriots won home field in the AFC and finished with a 12-game winning streak. They win because the lowest of their 64 players and 42 starters are real contributors, not dregs. "It seems like everyone we've brought in is a real player who has helped us win,'' said Crennel.

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Offensive Player of the Week

Cleveland RB Lee Suggs (26 carries, 186 yards, two touchdowns), for personally knocking Cincinnati from the playoff race with his first 100-yard game.

Defensive Player of the Week

San Diego LB Donnie Edwards, for a couple of reasons. Fourteen tackles, half-a-sack and an interception in the 21-14 win over Oakland is one reason. The other is that he's a damn good player hidden on a bad team, and every Sunday he plays like Seau.

Special Teams Player of the Week

New York Giants DE Osi Umenyiora. When you block two punts, you've had a day you'll never forget. When you block two punts against the best special-teams coach in football (Carolina's Scott O'Brien), you've had one of the best special-teams days of any player this season -- even in a 37-24 New York loss.

Coach of the Week

Carolina LB coach Sam Mills, for gutting out a full season on the sidelines while battling a serious bout with cancer, and helping the Panthers turn around their fortunes and win the NFC South. This is no garden variety, take-a-few-hits-of-chemo cancer either. This is serious stuff. But Mills doesn't complain. "Life gave me lemons,'' he told former Panthers corner Eric Davis recently. "And I've got to make lemonade.'' We're pulling for you, Sam.

Goat of the Week

The Vikings, for blowing an 11-point lead in the last two minutes against Arizona. Fitting, though. They lost to four 4-12 teams this year. They don't deserve to make the playoffs.

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Tampa Bay third-string QB Chris Simms.

MMQB: The last time we saw you, on draft day, you were pretty ticked off because every team in the league passed on you. How did it turn out?

Simms: It was a huge blessing in disguise. Am I still mad all those teams passed me up? Yeah. But I'm with the best quarterback coach on the planet. I couldn't be happier.

MMQB: What was your first year under Jon Gruden like?

Simms: I've learned more in half a year under him than I learned in all my previous years in football. He's amazing. He has original thoughts about everything. It's been a great experience.

MMQB: Now that you're in the pro game, can you finally have a conversation with your father about the NFL on equal footing?

Simms: That's a great part of this. My dad asks me questions now and really wants to know the answers.

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For a long time, Fran Tarkenton held the NFL record for career touchdowns with 343.

In 1995, at the age of 34 years and two months, Dan Marino threw his 344th.
In 2003, at the age of 34 years and two months, Favre threw his 344th. 

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"I've got no reason to leave now, not the way I'm playing. I still feel like defensive coordinators have to stop me. If that changes, my decision to retire will be easy. When it becomes a story of, 'Well, he's not the guy he once was,' I'll know. That's when I'll leave.''

--Favre, Aug. 23, 2003, on his future in football.

It's not time time yet.

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With a nod to Gregg Easterbrook for being smart enough to use haiku as a journalistic football tool, here's my tribute to the Merritt Parkway, which took our family to see relatives on Christmas Day:

A Merritt Christmas.
Clean. Tree-lined. But one problem:
I just had to nap.

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James Kuczero. Does that rhyme with "hero?'' An e-mail from this man woke me up over the weekend.

NOW THIS IS A GOOD IDEA. From James Kuczero of Fayetteville, N.C.: "You can't choose between Priest Holmes or Jamal Lewis for your Pro Bowl pick? Use your own method for ranking teams: Which back would you want on a neutral field (think Super Bowl) against a Super Bowl-caliber team?''

James, I am so glad you wrote. It hit me like a slap in the face. It really did. The best running back I saw this year, among the richest position on the field, is Tomlinson, and I have been letting yardage figures and touchdown totals influence what I have to do when voting for these teams. But you have to go by what you see. Tomlinson, on an awful team with one of the two or three worst lines in football (I saw this line fall like a house of cards in Denver in November), totaled 2,110 yards from scrimmage and made as many people miss as Barry Sanders did in his prime.

I BLEW IT. From S.C. Adams of Charlotte, N.C.: "What did you have in your eggnog latte -- where are the Carolina Panthers in your Fine Fifteen? This is probably your first column of the season with no Carolina mention.''

Sorry, I screwed up. Carolina should have been 9 last week. Just forgot.

THE FANS DESERVE TO VOTE. From Amedeo Feroce of Phoenix: "I listened to your interview on ESPN radio last week and I was shocked to hear you complain about some players that only made the Pro Bowl (and shouldn't have) because of the fan vote. You really think that fans don't know anything about football, do you? It amazes me how dumb you are for blasting the fan vote. Get a clue, King!''

I never said some players made the Pro Bowl only because of the fan vote. I did rip the vote for Jeremy Shockey; no player of any skill level deserves to make the Pro Bowl after missing 44 percent of the season with an injury. If Barry Bonds broke his leg on July 15 in the Giants' 88th game, and he missed the final 72 games of the year, would you think he should be voted one of the three starting National League outfielders on the postseason equivalent of the all-pro team? I did rip the vote for Larry Allen, who is a ridiculous choice after struggling all year with various injuries. In my opinion, the majority of the decision-making for the Pro Bowl should be done by coaches.

GOOD QUESTION. From Wade Vandort of Bellevue, Wash.: "What could happen if Parcells is the Pro Bowl coach of Shockey?''

Just so the readers know, the Pro Bowl coaches are the staffs of the losing team in the conference title games. So if the Cowboys lose the NFC Championship Game, we'll get to see Parcells coach Shockey... providing Shockey's healthy enough to play. That's in doubt now. There's little question in my mind that Parcells would never mention Shockey's remark about the coach and Parcells would pretend like it never happened, and he'd look at any reporter who would ask him about the commet like the reporter is nuts.

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1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the NFL weekend:

a. I believe I'm correct in saying that on the last play of Bruce Smith's illustrious career, he was positively de-cleated by Eagles guard Jon Welbourn late in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 31-7 route of the 'Skins. I got the number of that truck, Bruce, if you need it.

b. Jeez, Tommy Maddox. Who in the world are you throwing to?

c. Tyrone Poole has been a great addition for New England at the corner opposite Ty Law.

d. Fitting that the Bucs, in their last two gasps of 2003, gave up 30 and 33 points to Atlanta and the Neil O'Donnell Tennessee Titans.

e. Did you see that Michael Vick bomb? Off his back foot?

f. I have never, and I mean never, seen a catch like 49ers Brandon Lloyd's on the sideline late in the loss to Seattle. That is a catch for the ages. Why in the world have the 49ers been hiding him all these weeks?

2. I think this stat tells you everything you need to know about the state of big winners in recent NFL history: Of the 10 teams in the last five Super Bowls, only three made the playoffs the next year.

3. I think, as long as we're talking about Favre's future (weren't we?), I should point out that he finished the year with 346 career touchdown passes, 74 behind Marino's all-time record. Favre needs to play three years to have a shot at it.

4. I think it's stunning to see what a bad product the Redskins under Steve Spurrier have put on the field. Can you believe that defense didn't even cover Chad Lewis, split wide, on the goal line, allowing McNabb to hit him with the easiest touchdown pass of his life? In two years now, Spurrier's gone 2-10 versus the NFC East -- both wins coming in meaningless December games when the 'Skins were long out of it. He's 0-4 against the Eagles, by a total of 59 points. And now he leaves for a two-week head-clearing process. Is this guy asking to get fired or what?

5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. I've got to had it to my brother-in-law, Lou Ranalli, and wife Julie for getting me the Myron Cope bobblehead for Christmas. It's staring at me right now. What I really like about it is it's looks absolutely nothing like him.

b. Coffeenerdness: You've got to be kidding me, Starbucks. Out of the egg nog latte mix in both Montclair locations so soon after Christmas?

c. I wonder if the A-Rod thing is really dead.

d. Just saw The Italian Job on DVD. Really liked it. Might have been a good idea, though, to ugly-up Charlize Theron as a cable guy. That could have been the most unrealistic scene in movie history -- Theron the runway model dressed in a cable-fixitman's outfit.

6. I think, McNabb, that you're not doing your image any favors by paying homage to Michael Jackson so often. I think that's what you were doing the other night after scoring. I realize we're innocent till proven guilty in America, but I get the creeps when you imitate that weirdo.

7. I think this is the ultimate note of the Minnesota Vikings season: They lost to each of the teams with the top four picks in next April's draft.

8. I think one guy I'll really miss in my travels around the league is Van Miller, the 37-year-veteran Buffalo Bills play-by-play man, who retired after Saturday's game in New England. I like to listen to games in most press boxes, and I always got a fair and accurate and insightful description from Miller. He started in Buffalo 53 years ago, doing high school basketball and football for $7 a game, and later had to do the 6 and 11 o'clock TV sports shows in Buffalo, sandwiching his TV/radio simulcasts of Buffalo Braves NBA games -- with no producer. But it's the kind of person he is that attracts such a Harwellesque following to Miller. When he'd walk through the stadium parking lot on his way into home games and folks would ask to take his picture, he'd say, "No, get someone to take a picture of US.''

Let me leave with with a Miller call, this one courtesy of Mark Dalton, Buffalo's media relations coordinator, from the Scott Norwood infamous Super Bowl miss 13 years ago: "Scott Norwood, rarely raises his voice above a whisper, he can fire the shot heard round the world now and win a Super Bowl with eight seconds to play...He's made only six of 11 outside the 40. Here we go. Lingner ready to snap it back to Reich. Eight seconds to play. Norwood takes a practice swing with the right leg. Everyon up on their feet, watching intently. Norwood reaches down and takes something off his left cleat, now does it again. Still standing up near his holder, concentrating, waiting for the snap. Here we go, the Super Bowl will ride on the right foot of Norwood. Waiting for the snap, Reich, arm extended, puts it down, on the way, it's long enough....and it is no good. He missed it to the right with four second to play. It was long enough but it was no good. And Norwood, walking slowly and dejectedly off the field. Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal that would have won the Super Bowl for the Bills."

I mean, does that paint a great picture or what?

9. I think, for Jamal Lewis, there should be nobility, not a sense of disappointment, in coming within 40 yards of the all-time rushing record. Just think of the bullseye that's been on his back.

10. I think there have been a few surprises in the NFL this year, but I'm not sure any rival the Lions holding the Rams to 187 yards and making Kurt Warner look like Spergon Wynn. If I'm Mike Martz, I'm not sleeping too well right now.

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1. New England (14-2). Not sure what this means, Men of Kraft, but only two of the last nine AFC top seeds have advanced to the Super Bowl.

2. Philadelphia (12-4). What a franchise: 11, 11, 12 and 12 wins the last four years.

3. Denver (10-6). Pay no attention to what happened yesterday at Lambeau. The Broncos didn't.

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4. Indianapolis (12-4). It says something about the state of the league when the fourth-best team needed 17 fourth-quarter points to pull off a must-win at Houston in Week 17.

5. St. Louis (12-4). From a sure thing to Jeckyl and Hyde, in 60 minutes.

6. Tennessee (12-4). Neil O'Donnell's arm is sore this morning, but it's a good sore.

7. Carolina (11-5). Stephen Davis holds the fate of the wild-card game with Dallas in his aching body.

8. Baltimore (10-6). Jamal Lewis has some jets, doesn't he?

9. Kansas City (13-3). I expect Dick Vermeil to use the bye week to put on his white lab coat and go into the Arrowhead laboratory and not come out till he's invented a run defense. Sorry, holding the Bears to 84 doesn't cure the problem, though it's a start.

10. Green Bay (10-6). Go ahead. Try to beat that whatever-it-is-that-Brett Favre-has-right-now thing.

11. Dallas (10-6). I can tell you one team that is VERY relieved to not be traveling to Minnesota this weekend.

12. Seattle (10-6). Game of the week: Mike Holmgren at Brett Favre. Irv will enjoy this one.

13. Miami (10-6). Wayne Huizenga wants a strong GM to get players for Dave Wannstedt. I suggest Pioli.

14. New Orleans (8-8). Tom Benson is in a mood to change things, from what I hear.

15. San Francisco (7-9). If I were Terry Donahue, I'd cut the cord with Jeff Garcia and go with the thriftier Tim Rattay. Not sure I trust the well-worn Garcia to stay healthy.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.

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