Wednesday, January 4, 2006
SC’s 2005 NFL All-Pro Team
In the past, my all-pro team has been listed at the end of the Week 17 Power Rankings, but this year, it gets its own column, partially because I'm doing things a little differently this time.
The last three seasons, I've followed the long-standing Associated Press tradition of naming two defensive tackles and two inside linebackers, meaning the team has 12 defenders. This year, I'm extending that to a third wide receiver, a second tight end, and a fifth defensive back.
The AP's team makes sense because about a quarter of the league uses a 3-4 defense that employs one interior lineman and two inside linebackers. Additionally, at this point in the league's development, many teams use three-receiver and two-tight end sets as often as they utilize a fullback. And to counter those offenses, every team needs a good nickel back.
I will never join the AP's new policy of naming two running backs and a fullback, since no team uses such a formation with any frequency. I'll list each position in the order I picked the players, so you'll know which receiver is my third, which tight end is my second, and so on.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (IND)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (IND)
Manning was the front-runner all season. I also considered Tom Brady (NE) and Carson Palmer (CIN), but Manning is simply more in control of the game than any player I've seen in the last decade. Palmer will probably win AP's top position, because the voters prefer to pick people who have breakout seasons. The consistently great players make a lot of Pro Bowls, but they often get snubbed on all-pro teams. Warren Moon, who made nine Pro Bowls but only one all-pro team, is a good example. Tommy Kramer, Don Majkowski, and Mark Rypien combined to make as many all-pro teams as Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, and Moon put together.
I'm not saying Palmer will be a Majkowski — he looks more like a Kelly or Moon — but this award goes to the best player, and there's no way that Palmer is better right now than Manning. Peyton's arm is as good as anyone's, his play-fakes are the best I've ever seen, he doesn't take sacks, and he controls the game from the line of scrimmage, in total command of his own offense, and frequently the opposing defense, as well.
Brady is second on my list, but the focus seems to be on Manning and Palmer. This shouldn't be the only criterion, but I think the Bengals still win the AFC North if Peyton is their quarterback, and I know the Colts don't start 13-0 with Palmer. Brady and Palmer will probably get theirs someday, but I'm not going against the best player just because he's won it before.
Running Back: Tiki Barber (NYG)
Last Year: Tiki Barber (NYG)
I had this entry written a couple weeks ago, with Shaun Alexander (SEA) winning, but I changed it after Barber's third 200-yard performance of the season. Several backs had great seasons, but Alexander and Barber were the only ones in serious contention. While Alexander's talents were showcased by arguably the best offensive line in the league, there's no arguing with his production. Alexander used his opportunities to showcase exceptional speed, great agility, and keen balance, an underappreciated necessity for runners.
The power has always been there, and for his first several years in the league, many people pegged Alexander as primarily a power runner, without great speed or cutting ability, but he showed both this year, and he always seems to come up big in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The line helps a ton, but I'm sold on what Alexander did in the open field and goal-to-go situations.
Tiki had less to work with, though, and seemed to create big plays by sheer force of will. Barber is a terrific all-around back, good at blocking and receiving, effective inside and outside. He's got great vision, and he's a very tough runner who never assumes he can't break a tackle.
Fullback: Tony Richardson (KC)
Last Year: Tony Richardson (KC)
I thought this was going to be the year I finally took someone else, but instead, I'm going with Richardson for the third time in a row. Also in the running were Mack Strong (SEA), Lorenzo Neal (SD), and Chris Cooley (WAS), whose blocking has really improved over the last year. What really sold me on Richardson was the way Larry Johnson took off when Priest Holmes got hurt. Johnson is a great runner, and like Alexander, he benefits from a terrific line, but Richardson's terrific lead blocking keyed the team's rushing game, which ranked in the NFL's top five in yards, average, TDs, and first downs.
Wide Receiver: Steve Smith (CAR), Santana Moss (WAS), Hines Ward (PIT)
Last Year: Marvin Harrison (IND), Terrell Owens (PHI)
Smith and Moss have all the stats, but they're even better than the numbers show. Both played on teams that got little from their other wide receivers, but they were dynamic with the ball in their hands. They finished first and second, respectively, in receiving yards, but they weren't just downfield threats. Smith and Moss also led the league in yards after catch, by a wide margin. Smith had 729, Moss 600. Only two other receivers topped 400: Anquan Boldin (ARI), who had 500, and Rod Smith (DEN), with 418. Ward, my third receiver, didn't put up big numbers in Pittsburgh's run-first offense, but he was the team's only receiving threat, leading the Steelers in catches by 30, in yards by 417, and in TDs by five.
Tight End: Antonio Gates (SD), Chris Cooley (WAS)
Last Year: Tony Gonzalez (KC)
Gates is beyond discussion at this point, but Cooley, who plays a hybrid FB-TE position in Joe Gibbs' scheme, was a close call over Gonzalez, Todd Heap (BAL), and Jeremy Shockey (NYG). Normally, one of the two tight ends is primarily a blocker, so Alge Crumpler (ATL) would seem like a reasonable choice, but I've seen him drop so many balls this year that I'm willing to take a lesser blocker.
Center: Jeff Hartings (PIT)
Last Year: Kevin Mawae (NYJ)
Probably the hardest position to choose this year, and I changed my vote three times while working on this article, going back and forth between Hartings, Jeff Saturday (IND), Casey Wiegmann (KC), and Tom Nalen (DEN). Needless to say, the AFC owns this position.
Guard: Steve Hutchinson (SEA), Brian Waters (KC)
Last Year: Alan Faneca (PIT), Brian Waters (KC)
Hutchinson was a lock, and has been most of the season, but Waters beat out Faneca, Kynan Forney (ATL), and his own teammate, Will Shields (KC). It's tough sorting out Kansas City's offensive line, because everyone is so good. That makes the guys next to them look good, too, and it can be tough to distinguish the true standout if you don't know the actual line calls. In this particular case, you've got Shields pulling to the left, and Waters covering Trent Green's blindside. The run-blocks are probably more important for the team, but Waters is great at sealing his man, and he gets the nod.
Offensive Tackle: Walter Jones (SEA), Tarik Glenn (IND)
Last Year: William Roaf (KC), Tarik Glenn (IND)
I agonized over who to pair with Jones. I had Glenn penciled in for most of the season, but he didn't play well against San Diego or Seattle, letting others into the picture. He got a boost, though, when I took Colts center Jeff Saturday off my list, because I couldn't imagine not having any offensive linemen from Indianapolis, which ranked third in total offense and allowed the fewest sacks in the league this year. Roaf, when he was healthy, was easily one of the top two tackles in the league, but he only played in 10 games.
I realize I took two left guards and two left tackles. It would be easy to replace Waters with Forney or Shields, and Glenn with Willie Anderson (CIN) or Jon Jansen (WAS), but I'm looking for the best players, and the distinction between playing to the left or right of the center isn't sufficient for me to pass over the player I feel is best.
Defensive Tackle: Cornelius Griffin (WAS), Tommie Harris (CHI)
Last Year: Richard Seymour (NE), Cornelius Griffin (WAS)
Washington's defense fell apart when Griffin was out of the lineup in the middle of the season. The team is 9-2 when he's healthy. Harris, who anchors Chicago's league-leading defense, edged John Henderson (JAC) for the last spot. Seymour, who's actually a 3-4 defensive end, looked incredible at times, but he missed four games with an injury and didn't look great in his first few weeks back.
Defensive End: Osi Umenyiora (NYG), Simeon Rice (TB)
Last Year: Julius Peppers (CAR), Aaron Schobel (BUF)
Umenyiora was dominant in the middle of the season, but he's looked average-to-bad the last three weeks. Against the Chiefs, Umenyiora was held totally in check by Roaf. He was ineffective at Washington in Week 16, and despite recording two sacks, he didn't have a great game against the Raiders. Earlier in the season, though, Umenyiora was a game-changing force, and he's still my top defensive end.
The second position had more candidates than any other spot on my team, but I eventually narrowed it to Rice, Dwight Freeney (IND), and Michael Strahan (NYG). Freeney is a lock for AP's team, and he'll probably get some DPOY votes. Everyone says he's terrific, but I've seen a lot of Freeney, and he's just not the player the hype makes him out to be. I eventually decided on Rice, who actually plays the way people say Freeney does.
Outside Linebacker: Shawne Merriman (SD), Keith Bulluck (TEN)
Last Year: Takeo Spikes (BUF), Willie McGinest (NE)
I've seen very little of Tennessee this season, and it's hard to believe that anyone from the team's 29th-ranked scoring defense is worthy, but Bulluck has been among the league's best for years. In a year without any slam dunks at the position, I'll trust the analysts who swear Bulluck has been playing the way he did in 2003 and 2004. He edged Derrick Brooks (TB), Cato June (IND), and Lance Briggs (CHI) as a player in space, while Merriman just beat Joey Porter (PIT) as a pass-rusher.
Inside Linebacker: Brian Urlacher (CHI), Mike Peterson (JAC)
Last Year: James Farrior (PIT), Donnie Edwards (SD)
Urlacher is on everyone's list; Peterson is on almost no one's. What they have in common is great help. Peterson plays behind the human wall formed by Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Urlacher is surrounded by the best defensive cast in the league. That kind of help makes it easy to look good, but both make the most of their opportunities.
Cornerback: Ronde Barber (TB), Ken Lucas (CAR), Rashean Mathis (JAC)
Last Year: Ronde Barber (TB), Chris McAlister (BAL)
You'd like a ball-hawk for the nickel spot, so it was tempting to take someone like Deltha O'Neal (CIN) or Nathan Vasher (CHI). Champ Bailey (DEN) has been exceptional at times, but he's too inconsistent for my tastes. Lucas has six interceptions this season, so he counts as a ball-hawk, while no corner plays the run better than Barber. Mathis edged Charles Tillman (CHI) and Bailey for the last spot.
Free Safety: Sean Taylor (WAS)
Last Year: Brian Dawkins (PHI)
Taylor and Darren Sharper (MIN) were the only guys I planned to look at, but on impulse, I examined Chris Hope (PIT) and Dawkins. I was shocked at the stats posted by Philadelphia's defensive leader this season. Statistically, Dawkins was better this season than last year. He had more tackles, more sacks, more forced fumbles, and more than twice as many passes broken up. I ended up ranking Dawkins ahead of Sharper, who had nine picks and led the NFL in interception return yards, but wasn't much more than a ball-hawk. Taylor's game-clinching Week 17 touchdown on a fumble return sold me on taking him. He combines the big-play element presented by Sharper with Dawkins' lethal solo tackles. Free safeties should be playmakers, and this year no one fit the bill like Taylor.
Strong Safety: Troy Polamalu (PIT)
Last Year: Ed Reed (BAL)
Other strong safeties had nice seasons, but Polamalu has been in control of this position since about Week 4. He's slowed down a little, but the man was just all over the field.
Kicker: Neil Rackers (ARI)
Last Year: Adam Vinatieri (NE)
I didn't look at anyone else for this spot. Rackers broke the NFL record for field goals in a season, going 40/42, with no misses under 40 yards. Also, he sent two kickoffs through the uprights in Mexico City.
Punter: Mike Scifres (SD)
Last Year: Mike Scifres (SD)
This was between Scifres, Mitch Berger (NO), and Shane Lechler (OAK). At the last minute, I threw in the Pro Bowl punters, as well, but neither measured up. Josh Bidwell (TB) had way too many touchbacks, and Brian Moorman (BUF) never forced fair catches. Lechler had the best gross average of the remaining three, but he was behind in more significant stats, like net average, percentage of punts returned, and ratio of touchbacks to punts downed inside the 20-yard-line. Berger was phenomenal at keeping his kicks out of the endzone, but more than half of Scifres' punts ended in fair catches. That's amazing. He kicks a beautiful ball, and Scifres is my choice.
Kick Returner: Terrence McGee (BUF)
Last Year: Dante Hall (KC)
McGee and Jerome Mathis (HOU) were the only candidates. I always try to pick someone who returns both kickoffs and punts, which McGee doesn't, but Mathis didn't have much success as a punt returner this season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Tiki Barber (NYG)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (IND)
It's tempting to give this to Shaun Alexander, as a reward for his record-breaking season, and for passing him over at running back. But this is the best offensive player in the league, and if Barber's a better RB, Alexander can't win this one. It was also tempting to choose Manning, the league's best quarterback. But even Manning didn't excel the way Barber did, playing his best football at the end of the season when the Giants' passing game was somewhere between uselessness and liability.
Defensive Player of the Year: Troy Polamalu (PIT)
Last Year: Ed Reed (BAL)
Last year, Reed and James Farrior were the only candidates. This season didn't have any standouts like that. Cornelius Griffin and Richard Seymour might have been possibilities if they hadn't gotten hurt. Osi Umenyiora seemed like a great choice until Week 15. My final list of possibilities, though, included Shawne Merriman, Brian Urlacher, Ronde Barber, Sean Taylor, and Polamalu.
I tried not to hold it against Merriman that he's a rookie, but he is a pass-rush specialist, and probably not dominant enough in that capacity to justify this award. Urlacher is the safe pick, a popular player on the league's best defense, but I think the hype is bigger than reality. Barber has great stats, but that can be deceiving for a cornerback. Taylor is still developing, and for all his big plays, he also made mistakes and wasn't as consistent as I'd have liked. Polamalu disappeared at times during the second half of the season.
I cut the young guys, Merriman and Taylor, leaving Urlacher and a pair of DBs. Both Barber and Polamalu had some down games, and it's hard for CBs, especially, to have the kind of impact that justifies a Player of the Year award. Middle linebackers, in contrast, are all over the field, natural candidates for honors like this.
However, when I saw Chicago this year, Urlacher was nothing special. Polamalu, though, seemed at times to have a magnetic attraction to the ball, so he was always around the play. I take him more by default than anything else — this is my least enthusiastic POY ever — but I believe he's the best choice.
Most Valuable Player: Tiki Barber (NYG)
Last Year: Peyton Manning (IND)
Barber, Manning, and Alexander were the only candidates. I took Barber for basically the same reasons you've already read, but any of the three would be a reasonable choice.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Cadillac Williams (TB)
Last Year: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)
Williams wasn't a lock for this. As late as Week 15, I was planning to take Logan Mankins (NE), the Patriots' left guard. Williams, though, was so explosive when he was healthy, and the Bucs are clearly a different team when he's on the field.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Shawne Merriman (SD)
Last Year: Jonathan Vilma (NYJ)
No one else was close. It's strange to say that after a season in which several rookie defenders showed great promise, but Merriman was in a league of his own.
Coach of the Year: Tony Dungy (IND)
Last Year: Bill Belichick (NE)
Dungy barely won out over Lovie Smith (CHI) and Marvin Lewis (CIN), although the Bengals' weak finish made this a two-man race. I wouldn't fault anyone for taking Smith, who led the Bears to a division title and first-round bye after I picked them to finish 3-13. Dungy, though, led the league's best team. He brought the young defense together and turned it into one of the NFL's best units. For 13 weeks, the Colts met all comers, and this could be the season that puts Dungy in the Hall of Fame.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Tom Moore (IND)
Last Year: Tom Moore (IND)
A lot of people like Gregg Williams (WAS) here, but Washington's defense was decidedly subpar in the middle of the season. I prefer Ron Rivera (CHI). The best assistant coaching jobs of the 2005 season, though, may have been turned in by offensive specialists. Ken Whisenhunt (PIT) has had the fortitude to stick with the run, which many teams say they want to do, without following through. Moore's Colts used a balanced offense to attack whatever the defense gave them.
Many candidates for this honor suffer from shared credit: Rivera with Lovie Smith, Whisenhunt with Bill Cowher, and Moore with Peyton Manning. That could lead back to someone like Williams or Monte Kiffin (TB), but I'll stick with Moore, whose offense was just as good this year as it was when I gave him this award in 2004. Some day, though, I will figure out a way to give this to a special teams coach.
2005 All-Pro Team
QB Peyton Manning, IND
RB Tiki Barber, NYG
FB Tony Richardson, KC
WR Steve Smith, CAR
WR Santana Moss, WAS
WR Hines Ward, PIT
TE Antonio Gates, SD
HB Chris Cooley, WAS
C Jeff Hartings, PIT
G Steve Hutchinson, SEA
G Brian Waters, KC
OT Walter Jones, SEA
OT Tarik Glenn, IND
DT Cornelius Griffin, WAS
DT Tommie Harris, CHI
DE Osi Umenyiora, NYG
DE Simeon Rice, TB
OLB Shawne Merriman, SD
OLB Keith Bulluck, TEN
ILB Brian Urlacher, CHI
ILB Mike Peterson, JAC
CB Ronde Barber, TB
CB Ken Lucas, CAR
DB Rashean Mathis, JAC
FS Sean Taylor, WAS
SS Troy Polamalu, PIT
K Neil Rackers, ARI
P Mike Scifres, SD
KR Terrence McGee, BUF
Off POY — Tiki Barber, NYG
Def POY — Troy Polamalu, PIT
MVP — Tiki Barber, NYG
Off Rookie — Cadillac Williams, TB
Def Rookie — Shawne Merriman, SD
Coach — Tony Dungy, IND
Assistant — Tom Moore, IND