It’s officially here. The NFL regular season is officially half way to completion. Come season’s end, the sports world will be handing out its awards—consolation prizes after blown playoff dreams for some, additional praise and accolades for others. However, the midseason point is more than enough time to get a feeling for how things are progressing, so here are our midseason awards for 2014.
Most Valuable Player—Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos.
Although this was close—especially after his unusually poor performance against the Patriots in Week 9—there are no two ways to slice it, without Manning, the Broncos are not sitting atop the AFC West, are not one of the top teams in the NFL, and are not still among the favorites to make the Super Bowl again this season. Manning is playing some of the best football of his career, and appears set to continue to break records for as long as he chooses to play.
Put simply, the Broncos are an almost immeasurably better team with Manning than they are without him, which is the very definition of an MVP player.
Of course, the same can also be said of players like Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady—both of whom were real contenders for this award—when these players fail to show up, their respective teams invariably lose. But what gives Manning the edge is the fact that in addition to QB, he is also, in effect, the Broncos offensive coordinator, which only adds to his value.
Offensive Player of the Year—Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts.
I always feel it’s a little odd to hand an offensive player the MVP award, and then turn around and hand a different player the Player of the Year title, but that’s exactly what I’m about to do.
Through 8 games this season, Andrew Luck appears to be on track to match, if not surpass, everything the man he replaced—Peyton Manning—was doing at this point in his career.
Manning may be more valuable to his team, and may even have some better statistics in some categories at this point. But Luck is doing it with less of a supporting cast, with much less experience, and with a poise and presence far beyond his years. Luck can do it all, and is proving this week in, week out. All else being equal, Andrew Luck may just be the best quarterback in the league today.
Again, Rodgers may have something to say about that, and it would be irresponsible not to consider DeMarco Murray, who started the season with 8 100+ yard rushing games, but after a slow start for Rodgers, and Murray running into a wall against Arizona, Luck is our pick.
Defensive Player of the Year—J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans.
J.J. Watt is not only the Houston Texans best defensive player, he is their defense. He does everything—literally. He has sacks, forced fumbles, fumbles returned for TDs, an 80 yard INT returned for a TD, and has even caught a touchdown pass on offense.
He is almost single-handedly responsible for the Houston Texans 4 wins this season—without him, the team’s record would likely reflect just how bad the rest of this team actually are this season—Arian Foster’s excellent performance thus far notwithstanding.
In truth, there aren’t even any other contenders here. Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman may both feel they are the best corners in the league, and may both be compensated accordingly, but neither have performed up to the level their contracts demand this season, and neither have been even remotely as disruptive or impactful as Watt.
Coach of the Year—Bruce Arians, Head Coach, Arizona Cardinals.
Much like with Watt, Bruce Arians is, through eight games, so far ahead of his competition as to make naming him mid-season coach of the year almost a moot point.
His Arizona Cardinals currently sit alone atop the NFL at 7-1, in spite of some very significant losses on both offense and defense.
His teams only loss came at the hands of the Denver Broncos, in a game without his starting QB, and during which his backup QB was knocked out of the game, alongside half-a-dozen other starters. Until these injuries, the team remained within touching distance of the Broncos even at Mile High stadium.
In Arizona, Arians has proven that his coach of the year award in 2012 in Indianapolis was no fluke. His team has bought into his philosophy wholesale, and the results are hard to deny. Arians has also made himself a media darling—infinitely quotable, down-to-earth, honest, and quirky—which certainly won’t hurt come the final votes either. However, at the end of the day, it is the results that speak for themselves, and Arians are second to none at this point in the season.
Offensive Rookie of the Year—Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills.
Sammy Watkins is one of a number of rookies who has made an impact from day one, and is making a legitimate case for offensive RoY accolades. He is virtually neck-and-neck, in terms of stats, with fellow rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, and the addition of rookie offensive guard Zack Martin has been a huge factor in the breakout of DeMarco Murray in Dallas.
But at least at this point in the season, Watkins gets the nod because of where he is playing. The Panthers would likely be a very similar team—similar stats, similar record—without Benjamin, and it’s hard to single out one member of the Cowboys offensive line as deserving of particular praise—the whole line has been vastly improved.
But Watkins is easy to single out as a major reason for the improvement of the Bills this season. He is not just one man in the crowd, he is the teams number one receiver, with all of the pressure that entails, and has helped lead the Bills to a 5-3 record at the midpoint of the season. The team need just three wins in the second half of the season to make it to .500—which would mark the first time they have not had a losing record since 2004, nearly a decade ago. While it is, of course, impossible to pin all of the success on Watkins, he has undoubtedly been a difference maker for this team.
Defensive Rookie of the Year—Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings.
In today’s offensively minded, pass happy NFL, it’s no surprise that rookie wide receivers, athletic quarterbacks, pass-catching tight ends, and running backs can get thrown in at the deep end, and make an immediate impact. With all of the rules and restrictions on defensive players, it shouldn’t be surprising that sometimes it can take rookie defensive players a little longer to adjust.
That’s why it is so impressive that so many defensive rookies have shone so brightly this season. Through 8 games, this award could easily have gone to at least 4 other players quite easily. Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, CJ Mosley and Kyle Fuller would all have easily been worthy winners here, and even players like Jason Verrett could easily make a solid case for themselves as the season continues to progress, as they see the field a little more often.
Most would probably vote for Mosley—he has slightly better numbers than Barr across several metrics—but this comes from playing behind a stellar Ravens defensive front. That’s not to take anything away from Mosley, or his achievements, but Barr has done it all himself. Indeed, he quite literally did it all himself when he won the game for his team on a strip-fumble-recovery-for-a-touchdown in overtime against the Buccaneers. In field goal range, many players would have fallen on the ball, and trusted their kicker to deliver the game for them, but not Barr.
There was never any doubt in his mind that he was going to take the ball to the end zone, and secure the result.
Comeback Player of the Year—Rolando McClain, LB, Dallas Cowboys.
McClain is the very definition of a comeback player—he was not even in the league last year, having retired during the 2013 preseason. Off-field issues, and on-field struggles caused McClain caused McClain to be released by the team that drafted him—the Oakland Raiders—and just weeks after being given a second chance by the Baltimore Ravens, McClain had another run-in with the law, which triggered his retirement announcement, aged just 23.
The Dallas Cowboys acquired him for a pittance—giving up their 2015 6th round pick for McClain and the Ravens 7th—considering McClain is a former top-10 pick, however few expected him to make a real impact for the Cowboys.
Assuming McClain stayed the course, and didn’t once again retire or walk away from football—a very real possibility—most expected McClain to be little more than a backup, and potential short-term replacement while Sean Lee recovered from an ACL injury. He was brought in to compete with an out-of-position Justin Durant, untested rookie Anthony Hitchens and second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman to try to fill the role.
McClain not only comfortably won the job, he has helped solidify the Cowboys as one of the better defenses in the NFL through the first half of the year.
McClain suffered a knee injury against the Cardinals, and could miss extended time in the back half of the season, potentially limiting his chances of winning the award come season end. Indeed, by the end of the season, we would be surprised if the accolade didn’t go to Arian Foster, but these are the midseason awards, and through the first half of the season McClain has had a bigger turn around than Foster, who was excellent last season when he played, in spite of missing extended time to injury.
Breakout Player of the Year—Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals.
Some will undoubtedly question this pick, when they see Ellington’s decidedly average rushing stats. At the midway point of the season, Ellington is on course for a 1,100 season, a respectable, but hardly earth shattering achievement. He currently sits at 8th overall in yardage, on the NFL Rushing leaders list, but has less than half the total yardage of the rushing leader DeMarco Murray, and has only 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, a far cry from the 5.5 yards per carry he averaged last season.
However, to look at rushing statistics alone is to miss why this season is such a breakout for the speedy young back. Firstly, in addition to his pure running stats, Ellington also has 32 receptions for 313 yards, and two receiving TDs. Many of those receptions are on screen passes which are effectively running plays. Although his longest run this season is just 22 yards, he has an 81 yard TD reception which highlights his versitility, speed and elusiveness.
More than that, however, and the ultimate reason Ellington wins this award is the fact that, in spite of his 5’9″, 199lb frame, he has developed into an every down, workhorse running back.
In a world of RB committees, the undersized Ellington is managing to average nearly 23 touches per game over the season, and 27 touches per game over the past three games. While he has yet to achieve the benchmark 100 yard rushing game this season, he has over 100 yards from scrimmage 4 times, and has been a key part in the Cardinals success. His performance, his explosiveness, his ability has forced teams for the first time in a long time to take the Cardinals running game seriously, and that, perhaps more than anything else, has resulted in wins for this team.