With three weeks left, awards races still very much up in the air
With three weeks left to play, the major award races are still very competitive
Adrian Peterson wants the single-season rushing record, but he has obstacles
Kirk Cousins in relief; Fine Fifteen; Stat of the Week; Ten Things I Think I Think
Adrian Peterson is not chasing 2,000 yards. He is chasing 2,105. The record.
Kirk Cousins is going to write for The New Yorker someday, and maybe not about football. In a few paragraphs, you'll read his take not only on getting the save over the Ravens, but also on the art of quarterbacking (his words, not mine).
And like Romeo Crennel a week ago, Dallas coach Jason Garrett had to tell his team unspeakable news Saturday, then think of a way to make football meaningful. And then, when the Cowboys' game in Cincinnati was over, he kept his team waiting. He had to make a phone call.
All of the stories of the day in due time, but this point first: Three weeks from today, the 50 voters for the annual Associated Press NFL awards have to file their ballots. Three weeks out every year, most of the races are either clear or have two or three men in the running. This year, as I see it, there's not a single easy race.
For MVP, I could make a solid case for any of the three quarterbacks with at least 20 more touchdowns than interceptions -- Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning -- or the aforementioned runner chasing 2,000 yards coming off knee reconstruction (Peterson), or one of the three transcendent 23-year-old defenders: Houston's J.J. Watt, Denver's Von Miller or San Francisco's Aldon Smith. And what about the rookie quarterbacks, with their insane frosh seasons; Robert Griffin III leads the league in passer rating. There's not a bad choice.
I'll take the quarterback with the longest winning streak (eight games) and who's had the biggest adjustment to make of all the very good ones this year, schematically and physically, on a new team in a new city. For now, give me Peyton Manning.
For Offensive Player of the Year, it'd be easy to vote for a quarterback with gaudy numbers, and justifiable. But this is one, if Peterson continues on his current pace (last seven games: 1,101 yards, 7.2 yards per rush) and hits 2,000 yards, that could be easy. For now, give me Peterson, with an asterisk, because he has to keep up his breakneck pace when the three remaining defenses he'll face all know he'll be getting the ball early and often.
For Defensive Player of the Year, it's likely to be a race between Watt, Miller and Smith, with Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman an outside threat. To me, it's a choice between one of the best pass rushers to come into the league in years, Smith, versus two men who are more all-around run-pass defenders, Watt and Miller. A factor that must be considered, obviously, is Smith threatening the NFL sack record. He has 19.5 after getting two Sunday against Miami. The record is 22.5 by Michael Strahan. With three games left -- at New England and Seattle, then home against the leaky Arizona line -- Smith needs 3.5 sacks. Today I'll take Watt, with his 16.5 sacks and league-record 15 passes batted down, four of which resulted in Houston interceptions. Three weeks from today, who knows?
The rookie awards are more congested than the others.
For Offensive Rookie, three quarterbacks of teams that didn't make the playoffs last year are in playoff contention this season. That would be amazing if any rookie quarter were doing it. But three? Andrew Luck of the 9-4 Colts is almost assured of a rookie playoff game; Russell Wilson of the 8-5 Seahawks (do you get extra credit for being a third-rounder and playing at a Pro Bowl level?) and Griffin of the 7-6 Redskins are deserving. And what of the league's third- and fourth-leading rushers, Tampa's Doug Martin and Washington's Alfred Morris? You can't go wrong with any of the five. Today I'd take Griffin, with his rookie-QB record 748 rushing yards and league-leading 104.2 rating. But if he misses time with his knee injury, Wilson or Luck could sneak in.
For Defensive Rookie, three linebackers stepped in from day one and became tackling machines -- Carolina's Luke Kuechly, Seattle's Bobby Wagner and Tampa Bay's Lavonte David. Cornerback Casey Hayward of the Packers has been a star from about Week 4. Linemen Chandler Jones of New England (outside) and Derek Wolfe of Denver (inside) have provided consistent pressure since Week 1. Safety Harrison Smith of Minnesota is already one of the most instinctive safeties in the league. For now, for the wins and the leadership and filling a gaping hole, I'll take Wagner of the Seahawks.
For Coach of the Year, line 'em up. Gary Kubiak has gone from firing line to best record in the league in 22 months. Mike Smith had the guts to change both coordinators on a playoff team, and the Falcons are 11-2. Greg Schiano jumped from Rutgers to playoff contender with Tampa; Jeff Fisher has taken the Rams (10-38 the last three years) and gotten them to .500. Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh and John Fox ... vote for any and you'll get no argument from me. My choice, today? I'll split my vote between the two men coaching the Indianapolis Colts: leukemia-stricken Chuck Pagano (by text and telephone) and interim Bruce Arians (by daily hard coaching).
For Comeback Player, we could argue all day about Peterson coming back to a very high level after surgery and Peyton Manning, for returning to Peyton Manning form after something no quarterback's ever done -- playing the position coming off four neck procedures in two years. And don't forget the stirring comeback of Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who'd win it in a walk in almost any other year. He's playing at a high level after tearing the same knee up in 2009, 2010 and 2011. For now ... I'd probably take Manning because of the unprecedented nature of his situation, and because he's played at such a high level and has the Broncos flying so high.
I asked Peterson Sunday who he'd pick for Comeback Player, and I liked his answer. "If I had a vote, who'd I take?'' he asked before pausing. "We got three weeks left. Let's let it play out."
Headlines of the weekend:
Another weekend, another tragedy. Dallas nose tackle Josh Brent apparently drove drunk and, in an ensuing accident, killed his best friend and practice-squad teammate Jerry Brown. Somehow, the players union and teams have to get players who have been drinking to call for the free ride. It's the only solution; players are going to drink on Friday nights, in every NFL city. They need to get to the point where the car services are common and acceptable. "We are going to keep pushing the education about drinking and driving, and pushing, and pushing,'' NFL director of player programs Troy Vincent said Sunday. "We're not going to stop, and we're getting to everyone in their circle of influence.''
A two-game suspension on the first DUI would be another positive step.
RGIII must be Elastic Man. Robert Griffin III's right knee whipped after being hit by a Ravens' defender in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field, and it hyperextended grotesquely. Remarkably, his MRI showed a knee sprain, which is a partial ligament tear, but not major damage. The Redskins know he can't expose himself to as many hits as he does at 218 pounds, but now's not the time for a lecture. If Washington's lucky, Griffin will miss Sunday's game in Cleveland and be back to face the Eagles and Cowboys to end the regular season.
The Colts take command of the AFC Wild-Card race. Pittsburgh lost, embarrassingly, to San Diego. Cincinnati got out-emotioned by the Cowboys. Indianapolis snuck by Tennessee. The upshot: The 9-4 Colts have a two-game wild-card lead for the AFC's fifth seed with three games to play; 1-2 will get them in the playoffs for sure, and 0-3 might. Another day, another bunch of odd heroes, like Cassius Vaughn and Vick Ballard, from among the 70 percent roster changeover from last year to this one.