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Peter King’s picks for NFL MVP, coach, rookie of year, more

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The awards are always difficult. They could be painful this year, because four incredibly strong candidates—Drew Brees (MVP), Pete Carroll (coach), J.J. Watt (Comeback Player) and Ryan Pace (Executive)—all could fall short though they have excellent cases for the highest honors in their fields.

The Associated Press hands ballots to 50 voters in the football media for the annual awards, which will be announced Saturday night, Feb. 2, in Atlanta, the night before the Super Bowl. The NFL awards are basically all-or-nothing deals: voters are asked to pick one man in each category. I don’t do that all the time; I’ve split my vote on many occasions for certain awards.

A word about the MVP, which is the Holy Grail of the awards. The voting has not been close since 2005, when Shaun Alexander beat Peyton Manning 19 votes to 13. Since then, the winner has had an edge of at least 10 votes each year. I have no idea whether this year will be close or a runaway, but there are certainly two deserving candidates—Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Saints QB Drew Brees.

We’ll start there.

MVP: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City

The late Paul Zimmerman left me with one indelible lesson: “USE YOUR EYES! What did you see!” What I saw watching the game this season was Mahomes, a 23-year-old kid, an electric kid, taking over a division champion when incumbent Alex Smith was traded, playing like he belonged from the first series of the season, outplaying Philip Rivers on the road in Week 1, outplaying Ben Roethlisberger on the road in Week 2, throwing a left-handed desperation pass completion on third-and-five at Denver on the winning late drive in Week 4, going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and surviving a bad first half in a 43-40 loss in Week 6, hiccupping at the Rams in the bizarre 54-51 November loss, and then willing his team to beat the formidable Ravens in Week 14.

But nothing is easy in this MVP season. In the last four weeks, I had the following leaders: Brees (Week 13), Mahomes (Week 14), Brees/Mahomes tied (Week 15), Mahomes (Week 16). The difference? Paper thin. Brees threw only three touchdown passes in the Saints’ last five games (he sat out the fifth), and New Orleans looked mortal offensively in every Brees game after Thanksgiving, against Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Pittsburgh. (Teddy Bridgewater played Sunday against Carolina.)

Finally, there’s the matter of touchdown passes. Mahomes 50, Brees 32. That matters. It’s unfortunate that Brees, who turns 40 in two weeks, has never won the MVP, because he’s one of the best quarterbacks of all time. I struggled with this decision Saturday, going over data and simply thinking about it for a while. The leadership of Brees has to be factored, too; there are few more respected players than Brees. Anyone who votes for Brees gets no guff from me, because he’s just had the most accurate passing season ever, and he is the keystone to the team with the best record of the regular season. That matters too. But my eyes saw the explosive and exciting Mahomes as the better player this year, slightly, and he gets my vote.

Next: 2. Drew Brees, 3. Philip Rivers.

Coach: Matt Nagy, Chicago

Some strong contenders here, but I like the impact of Nagy. The Bears in the four years pre-Nagy: 5-11, 6-10, 3-13, 5-11. GM Ryan Pace hired Nagy in January from Kansas City, and he won more games than any first-year coach ever in franchise history (including George Halas with the pre-Bear 10-1-2 Decatur Staleys in 1920). Nagy did a smart thing in hiring a smart coach he didn’t know and empowering him—offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich—to help Mitchell Trubisky grow. We don’t know if Trubisky’s going to be really good, but Nagy did an excellent job of managing Trubisky and hiding his weaknesses.

Two things put me over the top with Nagy. After the devastating opening-night loss in Green Bay, he kept the team together, and the Bears won the next three (by an 88-41 count) to establish he knew what he was doing. And I loved what he did in a stunning OT loss to the Giants in New Jersey in Week 13: Down seven in the last 10 seconds, he called a double reverse/halfback pass, and Tarik Cohen threw the tying pass to send the game to overtime. Chicago lost, but I love a coach who’s willing to put the game in such a risky scenario because he’s so confident in his players. Doug Pederson did it with Trey Burton and Nick Foles in the Super Bowl; Matt Nagy did it with Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller with home-field in the playoffs on the line. That’s good coaching.

Next: 2. Anthony Lynn, T-3. Pete Carroll and Frank Reich. 

Offensive Player: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City

A phenom. First-year starter. Threw more touchdown passes in a season than Tom Brady, Dan Marino, John Elway and anyone not named Peyton Manning ever did. There will be a 30-for-30 made about this Mahomes season one day.

Next: 2. DeAndre Hopkins, 3. Drew Brees.

Defensive Player: Aaron Donald, L.A. Rams

Hard to imagine a player—without a training camp, with a slew of new defensive mates to get accustomed—having a better year on the fly than Donald. Once he got used to his surroundings, Donald had 16.5 sacks in his last 10 games, and threatened Michael Strahan’s NFL sack record of 22.5. Donald finished with 20.5.

Next: 2. Fletcher Cox, 3. Khalil Mack.

Comeback Player: J.J. Watt, Houston

Watt overcame three years of injuries to be back to dominant form this year. In 2015, he played with a torn groin, a broken hand and a herniated disc. In 2016, he missed most of the year with surgery on the herniated disc. In 2017, he suffered a tibial plateau fracture, necessitating a risky surgery, with no guarantee he’d be able to play at the same level. His 14.5 sacks were impressive enough. The best thing for him and the Texans: He played dominating football for 16 games. The Andrew Luck comeback would win in almost any other year, but after being hurt for three years and returning to form, Watt seems the better pick to me.

Next: 2. Andrew Luck, 3. Marshal Yanda.

Offensive Rookie: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland

If stats alone determined the winner here, Saquon Barkley would be the pick, with his seven 100-yard games and four games with nine receptions or more … and also putting up the third season ever of 2,000 scrimmage yards by a rookie. But this one’s about stats and impact. Mayfield was The Man from the day he got drafted, and he willed the Browns from 0-16 to a stunning 7-8-1 record. He threw more touchdown passes, 27, than any rookie passer in history. And get this: The number one defense in football, Baltimore, gave up 300 yards passing only three times all season. The list: Patrick Mahomes, 377; Baker Mayfield, 376; Baker Mayfield, 342.

This was an incredibly successful season for the Browns. And it was Mayfield, who was a top-five quarterback in the league in passer rating in the second half of the year, at the center of it.

Next: 2. Saquon Barkley, 3. Quenton Nelson.

Defensive Rookie: Derwin James, L.A. Chargers

A thumper from day one, with 16 sacks/hits/hurries (second only to Jamal Adams among NFL safeties), James also held quarterbacks to a rating under 70 when thrown at. When I think of James, I think of two things. He’s precociously aggressive for a rookie. And he reminds me of a more lithe Troy Polamalu. James had to be really good to beat out NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard.

Next: 2. Darius Leonard, 3. Leighton Vander Esch.

Executive: Chris Ballard, Indianapolis

A tougher call for me than MVP. Ryan Pace picked the right coach (Matt Nagy), re-signed the right corner (a dubiously received deal with the underachieving Kyle Fuller), and made the trade of the year (for Khalil Mack). But think of Ballard’s year. He fires Chuck Pagano. He makes a deal with Josh McDaniels to be his coach, trusting McDaniels so much that he agree to hire three McDaniels-approved assistants—and then McDaniels decides to stay in New England after the Super Bowl. The musical chairs are full. No top-prospect coaches left. Ballard settles on a guy who had zero interest from any other teams when the coach carousel was spinning, Frank Reich of the Eagles. Then the draft. Knowing he wanted to build a fortress around Andrew Luck, Ballard picked a long-term guard (Quenton Nelson) in round one and long-term tackle (Braden Smith) in round two. He got two other starters in round two for the D: the leading tackler in the league, linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis. Sixth-round wideout Deon Cain went on IR in the summer or he could have been another star. All in all, this was a great year for Ballard.

Next: 2. Ryan Pace, 3. John Dorsey.

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Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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It’s now or never for Seahawks to sign Russell Wilson to long-term deal

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I don’t think signing a boilerplate contract averaging $34 million a year—something Wilson never could have dreamed possible when he was the 75th player picked in the 2012 draft—will be enough for him, and for his representative, Mark Rodgers, a baseball agent with one football client, Wilson. I think Wilson actually would be content playing out his current contract and then working under the franchise tag for the next two seasons rather than taking a typical mega-millions contract. Playing year-to-year, Wilson would average $27.8 million a year over the next three years, rather than a solid $34 million a year over five or six.

That seems ridiculous. There’s a few reasons why it’s not.

But first, this deadline agent Rodgers has given Seattle. Today’s a big day in the Pacific Northwest if you take Wilson and Rodgers at their word, that—according to a source close to the talks—they say they won’t do a long-term deal with the Seahawks if it’s not done by tonight. Read that last sentence again. I didn’t mean they’d put off further talks on a new contract till 2020 if it’s not done by tonight. I meant Wilson and Rodgers don’t plan to negotiate further with the Seahawks, period. My source says they’ve told GM John Schneider it has to be done now, or not at all.

That’s why, with this being what Wilson likely believes is his last chance to get a truly market deal in Seattle, I would be shocked if he leaves this all to Rodgers, regardless how much he trusts his agent. Wilson’s an activist. I would bet he wants Schneider and/or Carroll to hear from him directly about why he wants to get this deal done now, and he wants to get it done differently than other quarterback deals have been done. I’ve known Wilson since training camp of his rookie year, and he’s one of the ultimate hands-on players I’ve met. He has never struck me as the type to hand a job this big to his agent and say, Good luck. Call me when it’s done.

If it does get done, my source says the contract would likely include devices to adjust future years of the deal based on how high the cap goes up year to year, or based on new revenue streams (gambling revenue, for example, or a TV contract that explodes). If it is not done, it means the Seahawks have determined Wilson isn’t worth setting such a precedent. (No NFL player’s contract fluctuates based on cap increases or increases in the league’s bottom line unknown at the time of signing.) That would be understandable, but would it be the right call for the Seahawks? It could be a potentially career-altering risk for Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

Of course, there’s no real reason why a deal couldn’t be done July 15 or Dec. 15 either. But waiting would be calling Wilson’s bluff. Maybe you win, maybe you lose. It’s a risk. Normally, talking about hard negotiations, I’d say big deal. Quarterbacks—all except Kirk Cousins—might play a year on the franchise tag, but they eventually sign long-term and stay with their teams. I think there’s a good chance Wilson could be different.

Like Cousins was, Wilson is not afraid to play year-to-year: this year at $17 million, and then as many as two years on the franchise tag, at $30.3 million in 2020 and $36.4 million in 2021. If the Seahawks chose to franchise Wilson a third time, the cost would rise to $52.4 million for 2022. Which would be a very difficult one-year salary for any team to digest, unless the cap skyrockets in 2021, when a new CBA is due to take effect.

Most players want the assurance of guaranteed money and long-term security. They’ll take significant guaranteed money in exchange for fighting for what Cousins got (a fully guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract) or what Wilson presumably wants (a fluctuating contract, based on the league’s future success). But from what I hear, Wilson and Rodgers feel the league could be on the precipice of major new revenue streams. Recently, Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said she wanted to have the opportunity to provide sports betting inside their stadium. What might the NFL’s take on in-stadium gambling be, and how would that be divided with the players? Could Facebook or some digital brand bid an unheard-of sum for the rights to part of the TV deal in 2022?

Because the game is so injurious, you don’t see many players going year-to-year. But Wilson’s durability is a big part of his football appeal. Since the day Wilson was drafted in 2012, the Seahawks have played 125 regular-season and postseason games. Wilson has started them all. Last year, he was the only NFL quarterback to take every offensive snap for his team. In the last two years, he has played 2,186 of Seattle’s 2,191 offensive snaps. That could change in an instant, of course. But Wilson is fine gambling on himself, and on his durability.

For those who would not put Wilson in the same stratum as Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees, it’s understandable. But Wilson is the second-highest-rated quarterback in history (100.3). He has 83 career wins, regular-season and postseason, in seven years, an average of 11.8 a year.

Schneider, of course, has to worry about 53 players, not just one. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is due to hit free agency after this season, and he’s had the kind of career that one day will merit Hall of Fame consideration. If Wilson, the offensive leader, gets a precedent-setting contract, then what of the unquestioned leader of the defense, Wagner? He certainly wouldn’t get quarterback money, but Wagner might want to push for the kind of financial incentives Wilson gets.

A few other things, counter to the current rumor mill. I do not believe Wilson is pushing for a trade right now, to the Giants, or anywhere. I believe he wants to work out a deal with Seattle. I believe Wilson wants to know where he stands with the Seahawks long-term, which is one of the reasons why he is pushing hard for a deal to be done now. I believe if the Seahawks do not do a deal by midnight tonight, it doesn’t meant they don’t want Wilson to be their quarterback for the next decade—it just means they’re not willing to set a contractual precedent like tying his contract to how fast, and how high, the cap rises over the life of the deal.

Pragmatically, if I’m Wilson, everyone around the league views me as an Eagle Scout type, and as long as I step on the field, I’ve got to be all-in, and a team guy all the way. That is the only way he can maximize his value long-term, and perhaps post-Seahawks. And if I’m the Seahawks, I know the kind of person I have in Wilson, so maybe I feel: Let’s go year-to-year over the next three years, for reasonable money for a franchise quarterback, and hope at some point in those three years there’s a thaw and we can re-visit this contract.

Whatever happens, this is a dramatic day in Seattle. I don’t know which way it’ll go, but I don’t think it’s time to shred the “3” jerseys yet. Gut feeling: At the very least Wilson plays in Seattle three more years. And a lot can happen in those three years.

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