2010 NFL Awards (cont.)
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit
Speaking of no-brainers, the Lions' rookie defensive tackle has seemingly had a hammerlock on the defensive rookie award since mid-September or so. Or was it August? Suh leads all rookies with nine sacks, but he's yet another player whose stats don't do him full justice. Suh is such an impact presence that opponents began quickly accounting for him in their game planning, feeling that if they could minimize the disruption he causes, they go a long way towards beating the Lions defense.
Suh has slowed down some in terms of sacks in the season's second half -- he has just one in his past four games, and 2½ in his past eight -- but he has learned to make opponents pay in other ways. He's already a formidable run stopper, and in addition to his 60 tackles, he's got four passes defensed, one interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. In short, league personnel men already consider him one of the game's best defensive tackles, and he plays with a well-known mean streak that has added much a much-needed intimidation factor to the Detroit D.
Kudos to: Devin McCourty, CB, New England
E.J. Henderson, LB, Minnesota
As I detailed in a story last week, the comebacks come in all shapes and sizes this NFL season, but Henderson's return from the devastating broken femur he suffered in a game at Arizona in early December 2009 is the stuff of storybooks. Henderson seemed to be the only one who thought he'd play in the NFL again after the gruesome injury, and maybe a bit of his confidence sprang from the fact that doctors and trainers had such little experience rehabilitating a football player from his kind of injury that he didn't know the long odds he faced.
But not only did Henderson come back, he came back from day one this season, and played better than ever. Though the Vikings defense has not lived up to expectations, the eighth-year veteran has been a solid and reliable presence in Minnesota's middle, leading the team with three interceptions (tied for most among NFL linebackers) and recording 130-plus tackles in his 15 starts. And he's done it all with a titanium rod in his leg where his femur once was, inspiring teammates and opponents alike.
Kudos to: Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia
Charlie Weis, offensive coordinator, Kansas City
This isn't an official AP award, but if it was, how could it go to anyone but Weis, the former Notre Dame head coach who returned to the NFL assistant ranks this season after five years and immediately began recreating the kind of success that landed him the Irish job in the first place? Weis's impact on quarterback Matt Cassel's game has been obvious, much as it was in New England early in Tom Brady's career. After a shaky first season in K.C., Cassel has blossomed into one of the league's most accurate and productive passers this year, with 27 touchdowns, five interceptions and a sterling 98.8 rating.
Led by running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, Kansas City's offense fields a league-best rushing attack, averaging 167.5 yards per game, 15 yards more than the No. 2-ranked Raiders. Overall the Chiefs offense jumped to ninth this season (359.6 yards), and Kansas City's 23.7 points per game ranks 11th in the league, a jump of 12 spots from 2009 (18.4). Weis's reputation might have taken a hit at Notre Dame, but his work in Kansas City, even while he was suffering from health issues, has again elevated him to the ranks of the NFL's elite offensive coordinators.
Kudos to: Mike Martz, offensive coordinator, Chicago
Mike Tice, offensive line coach, Chicago
I don't know anyone in the NFL who has earned their money this season more than Tice, the former Vikings head coach who jumped from Jacksonville to Chicago last offseason in order to take on one of the most challenging projects in the league: rebuilding a Bears offensive line that was in tatters. My choice of Tice comes with the acknowledgement that he has not been a miracle worker in Chicago. The Bears offensive line started the season horribly, and quarterback Jay Cutler was running for his life on a weekly basis.
But like any good coach, Tice made necessary adjustments, kept coaching his guys on how to get better, and finally cobbled together a pretty decent unit that has shown improvement as this surprising 11-4 division-winning season in Chicago has unfolded. The raw statistics aren't flattering: the Bears offensive line has allowed a league-worst 50 sacks and its 85 QB hits ranks among the most in the NFL. But I see the essence of good coaching in Tice's performance this season. He took chicken-you-know what, and ended up making chicken salad.
Kudos to: Brian Ferentz, offensive assistant, New England. (A quick footnote: New England doesn't have anyone on staff with the title of tight ends coach, but Ferentz, the son of University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, works mostly with the segment of New England's offense that has produced standout rookie seasons from both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.)
Scott Pioli, general manager, Kansas City
There's nothing more difficult in the NFL than the task that faced Pioli upon being hired to run the Chiefs in early 2009: effecting a dramatic change of culture on a losing and moribund franchise that had grown almost comfortable with defeat. But the ex-Patriots personnel guru has done exactly that, and quickly. After a four-win season last year, the Chiefs are the turnaround story of this NFL season, going 10-5 and earning their first division title since 2003.
Pioli gets props for Kansas City's stellar, cornerstone-type 2010 draft class, for his work in free agency (see Thomas Jones, Ryan Lilja and Casey Wiegmann), and for being smart enough to have helpful, former associations in New England with new Chiefs coordinators Romeo Crennel and Weis. Pioli will admit the pieces have come together in K.C. even more rapidly than he thought possible, but he and second-year head coach Todd Haley have brought a new and demanding attitude to the Chiefs, and winning is now the expectation.
Kudos to: Mark Dominik, Tampa Bay general manager