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.