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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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NFL fans apparently don’t want an 18-game regular season

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In the news this week, as the league gets back to business for the 100th season of American professional football:

• The owners and players meet Wednesday in another formal bargaining session for a new CBA. A three-day meeting is scheduled between the NFL’s Management Council and the NFLPA’s Executive Committee (a 10-player unit including president Eric Winston and VPs Richard ShermanBenjamin Watsonand Adam Vinatieri). This will be the fourth bargaining session between owners and players this spring/summer, with the hope being the two sides can reach an agreement on a new bargaining agreement in 2019. (The CBA has two more seasons to run, and expires in the spring of 2021.)

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told CNBC that it is “certainly our intent” to try to get a new CBA before the start of the season. In a round of calls Saturday, I got some optimism from a team source who felt the chance of making a deal on a new CBA was 50-50 this year if the union would stick with the current economic formula of the game; currently players get about 47 percent of the game’s gross revenue.

But I talked to a source on the player side who wasn’t nearly as hopeful, in part because he felt the players need a bigger cut of the pie to agree to a new deal two seasons out from the end of the current CBA. This person called the first three meetings positive, but baby steps toward a deal. I do know that there have not been any significant discussions on a change in the revenue split yet. Those talks will have to progress for anything to get done.

• The 18-game schedule is nowhere near a reality. I heard that one or two teams are interested in what the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the NFL has proposed discussing with the players as part of the CBA talks: an 18-game regular-season schedule, with each player eligible to play a maximum of 16 games. This is not a new idea—it’s been thrown around at league meetings as one idea to expand the inventory and enrich the league’s TV deals for years.

“I can’t see it,” one plugged-in club official told me. “Imagine you pay to see Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Patriots announce that week it’s one of the two games he’ll sitting out this year. Now you’re seeing Brian Hoyer throw to some practice-squad guy. I don’t see any way we could ever do that.”

I’ve always thought in an era when the reduction of head trauma is job one in everything the league does, the only way the NFL could even consider 18 games is with teams playing players a maximum of 16 weeks. But the details make it too hard. How would a team divvy up the starts, say, for the starting offensive line? Would they figure the starting tackles should play every week with the starting quarterback, and thus doom the backup in his two games to a run-for-your-life offensive scheme?

The continued pursuit—or the continuing broaching—of an 18-game schedule is such a short-sighted and greedy thing. The NFL paid each team $275 million out of the league share of total revenue in 2018, and teams paid about $215 million annually in player costs (cap plus benefits). After that, teams can reap major raw profits over what they did in local team revenue.

Someone in the NFL seems determined to kill the most golden of geese by pursuing, even in a passing way, this stupid idea. Greed, in this case, is not good.

• Fans don’t want 18 games either. I put out a Twitter poll Saturday and Sunday, asking if readers preferred a 16 or 18-game schedule. Of 13,533 voters, 79 percent said 16. Great comment from a Vikings fan, Jason Altland: “If I pay out the nose for decent tickets in Baltimore or New York to see my Vikings, I want to see all the healthy stars play. I don’t want to pay and end up with a [Stefon] Diggs or {Adam] Thielen bye game.”

Pro Football Talk also polled its readers over the weekend about the 16/18-game idea, with more options than I offered … and 62 percent said they favored 16 games—with 8 percent saying they favored 18 with a maximum of 16 games per player per season.

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Why Melvin Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers could get ugly

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I think this Melvin Gordon-Chargers impasse could get ugly. The Chargers running back, entering his fifth season, could hold out from training camp into the season if he doesn’t get either a new contract or a significant raise from his $5.6-million salary in 2019. There’s a few reasons the holdout could last a while, starting with the fact that Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who grew up in the Bill Polian front office of the Colts, is not afraid to take a hard line. But mostly, it’s about what happens in recent years when teams have either paid runners or drawn a hard line with them. Examples:

• Le’Veon Bell balked at the Steelers’ offer of $14.5 million on the franchise tag last year. James Conner wasn’t quite as productive as vintage Bell—270 touches, 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns—but he was close. And Conner, who made $754,572 last year, cost 1/19th of what Bell would have commended. No one in Pittsburgh is bemoaning the loss of Bell, though he’s a great player.

• Todd Gurley is a great back too, and the Rams paid a guaranteed $45 million last year. They’ll say they aren’t regretting what they paid Gurley, but an odd and persistent knee problem last year limited him to 88 carries in the Rams’ last nine games—including a 35-yard rushing performance in the Super Bowl. The Rams picked up C.J. Anderson off the street in December, and in five games, he rushed for 488 yards.

• David Johnson of the Cardinals responded to his new $13-million-a-year deal on the eve of the 2018 season by rushing for 940 yards (3.6 yards per carry).

• Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta for $22 million guaranteed in 2017. He’s missed 16 of the Falcons’ last 32 regular-season games and averaged 58 yards per game in the 16 he’s played.

In 30 games over his two NFL seasons, Charger understudy Austin Ekeler has proven elusive and reliable, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per catch, with just two lost fumbles. I don’t think Telesco will be afraid to take the slings and arrows of a holdout. So if you’re drafting your fantasy team very early, I’d give a long look at Ekeler.

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