Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Sports Central’s 2011 NFL All-Pro Team
With the 2011 regular season over, it's time to honor this season's most outstanding players. This column exists to explain the reasons I chose certain players, or didn't take others, and to give recognition to those who just missed the list. If all you care about is who made the team, skip to the end and you'll find a list.
We name 13 players on offense and 13 on defense. With fullbacks playing ever smaller roles in the offense, a third wide receiver and second tight end are essential. On defense, we list three cornerbacks (everyone needs a good nickel back) and two each of defensive tackles and inside linebackers (accommodating both the 3-4 and 4-3).
Our choices are listed in order, so you'll know which receiver is third, which tight end is second, and so on.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers (GB)
Last Year: Tom Brady (NE)
With all the attention paid to Drew Brees' (NO) conquest of the single-season record for passing yards, a number of people have suggested that Brees, not Rodgers, was the best quarterback and most valuable player in the NFL this season. That's what you get from spending too much time looking at stats and not enough time watching football.
Brees is a great quarterback, and he had a sensational year. But he's not Aaron Rodgers. I've even seen it suggested that because Matt Flynn played well in Week 17, we should downgrade our evaluations of Rodgers. Sure, anyone can post a 122.5 passer rating with that receiving corps. Green Bay does have sensational receivers. But Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore, Darren Sproles, and Devery Henderson aren't exactly chopped liver. And it's interesting that with so much hype for Brees and the yardage record, there's been so little for Rodgers, who broke the single-season record for passer rating.
It is my experience that there are very few sport fans who don't like stats. What most people mean when they say they don't like stats is that they don't like having to think about them. They want one easy, intuitive number to tell them who was best. Batting average. Rushing yards. Points. RBIs. Passing yards. Drew Brees threw for 5,476 yards this season, Rodgers for "only" 4,643 yards. But Brees threw 31% more passes than Rodgers, 657 to 502. Rodgers actually averaged almost a full yard more per pass attempt (9.25 yds/att) than Brees (8.33). The yardage stat measures opportunity much more than performance. Do we really want to reward Brees over Rodgers just because he threw a lot? I'm all for giving Brees credit for what he did. But consider some other numbers, too.
Who threw touchdowns more often? Rodgers (9%), not Brees (7%). What about interception percentage? Brees threw picks almost twice as often (2.1%) as Rodgers (1.2%). Brees actually committed more than twice as many turnovers this season (15-6). Brees finished with a great passer rating (110.6), but not as great as Rodgers (122.5). Rodgers out-rushed Brees by almost 200 yards and scored 3 rushing TDs to Brees' 1. Even if you go by stats, Rodgers is clearly ahead when you look at all of them.
One last stat, a figure I used to think was useless: yards per completion. I'm increasingly interested in this number as a rough "degree of difficulty" indicator. Anyone can throw a bunch of five yard screens, anyone can hit an open receiver. Great QBs separate themselves by completing long passes, or hitting the receiver in stride so he can gain yardage after the catch. Rodgers averaged 13.5 yards per completion, one of the highest figures in the NFL. Brees averaged 11.7, one of the lowest marks in that category.
Tom Brady and Brees were excellent this year, but Rodgers was the best. He made the most big plays and the fewest mistakes, and had one of the greatest seasons in history.
Running Back: Ray Rice (BAL)
Last Year: Arian Foster (HOU)
Going into Week 17, there were three strong candidates: LeSean McCoy (PHI), Foster, and Rice. McCoy and Foster sat out because of injuries, while Rice rushed for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns. Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC), who led the league in rushing, deserves to be part of this conversation as well. But Rice, with his exceptional receiving contributions (76 rec, 704 yds, 3 TD), actually gained more yards and scored more touchdowns than Jones-Drew, with fewer fumbles.
McCoy earned Barry Sanders comparisons with his play this season. His vision and acceleration are what set McCoy apart. Foster scored double-digit TDs and trailed only Rice and Jones-Drew in yards from scrimmage, despite missing a quarter of the season with injuries. Jones-Drew was the one hero for what otherwise would rank among the worst offenses in modern history. Facing eight-man fronts, he still averaged 4.7 yards per carry and rushed for 1,606 yards.
But Rice was a fireball all season. He rushed for 1,364 yards with a 4.7 average, added 76 receptions for 704 yards, and scored a total of 15 TDs. He's quick, surprisingly tough, and a huge asset in the passing game. With Joe Flacco struggling through 2011, it was Rice who kept Baltimore's offense going. He was the first option and the safety valve, and he was explosive — a big-play guy. Rice led the NFL in rushes of 40 yards or more (5). Including two receptions of 40+, Rice had almost twice as many 40-yard plays from scrimmage (7) as any other RB (4) except Foster (5).
Fullback: Greg Jones (JAC)
Last Year: Marcel Reece (OAK)
For the second season in a row, Vonta Leach (BAL) is my runner-up. Leach is a purist's fullback, a battering-ram lead blocker who cleared the way for Arian Foster in 2010 and Ray Rice in 2011. But I have trouble looking beyond Jones this year. Foster is a star, with or without Leach in front of him, and while Rice surely benefitted from Leach's presence, his production wasn't at a much different level than in years past.
Jacksonville played basically the whole season without a passing game. Opponents knew the run was coming, knew all they had to do was get to Maurice Jones-Drew. And yet, playing with a nondescript offensive line, Jones-Drew led the league in rushing yards, maintaining a good average (4.7) despite the eight-man fronts. A lot of the credit goes to MJD himself, but a lot should go to Jones, too.
Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson (DET), Wes Welker (NE), Larry Fitzgerald (ARI)
Last Year: Roddy White (ATL), Brandon Lloyd (DEN), Andre Johnson (HOU)
Before anything else, let's celebrate the awesomeness of Calvin Johnson's season. He caught 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 TDs. He led the league in receiving yardage by over 100, he led all wide receivers in scoring, and he tied for the most receiving first downs (77) of any player in the league. He's the first man to top 1,600 yards in a season since 2003, the first WR with more than 15 TDs in a season since Randy Moss in '07. Here's a partial list of contemporary receivers who've never had a season of 1,600 yards or 16 TDs: Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Chad Ochocinco, Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne, Hines Ward... The Lions led the NFL in pass attempts this year, and some people will discount Johnson's numbers because of that. I maintain they threw a lot because they have Calvin Johnson.
Megatron was clearly the best receiver in the league this season. The other two spots were tougher. This is often a difficult position at which to make selections, and this year was even harder than usual. I gave especially strong consideration to Victor Cruz (NYG) and Jimmy Graham (NO). Cruz had more catches, more yards, and more touchdowns than Fitzgerald. His 1,536 yards would have led the NFL last year. Cruz went over 100 yards seven times this season, more than anyone but Welker and Megatron.
But Cruz played on a passing team with a good quarterback. The Giants' offensive line played well most of the year, and opponents had to respect the run based on past production, if not present. For most of the season, defenses concentrated on stopping Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw, not Cruz. Fitzgerald was the Cardinals' only weapon, and every opponent knew that. Nicks gained almost 1,200 yards, caught only 6 passes fewer than Cruz. Fitzgerald had more than twice as many receiving yards as the next-highest player on his team.
Jimmy Graham had a fantastic year. His size (6-6, 260) and athleticism make him almost a unique threat, a player safeties can't cover and cornerbacks can't tackle. He caught 99 passes this season as a part-time player. Graham ranked 3rd in the NFL in receptions, 4th in receiving first downs and receiving TDs, and 7th in receiving yards. But all those accomplishments came with the help of Drew Brees' record-setting year. Fitzgerald caught passes from John Skelton and Kevin Kolb.
Just by the numbers, Welker is a slam dunk: 122 catches, 1,569 yards, 9 TDs, 77 first downs. But notice that Welker caught 45 passes that did not make a first down. That's an astounding number for a wide receiver. Calvin Johnson and Fitzgerald caught just 19 balls each that didn't go for a first down. Cruz had 23, Graham 25, Steve Smith 26. Apart from Welker, the 1,000-yard receiver with the most non-first down receptions was Buffalo's Stevie Johnson (31). This is the argument against Welker: 99-yard reception notwithstanding, he's not explosive. He doesn't make big plays.
There's some truth to that. But a first down is a big play, and Welker made as many first downs as anybody. He made 21 receptions of 20 yards or more, 6th-most in the league. He caught 9 touchdown passes, more than Fitzgerald or Cruz or Mike Wallace or Roddy White. He had eight 100-yard receiving games, tied with Calvin Johnson for most in the league. And he caught 122 of Tom Brady's 611 passes this season, 20%. Welker accounted for more than 30% of the Patriots' completions this season. He was the one who kept drives going, the one who kept defenses off-balance to accomodate the long passes to other players. I'd rather reward Welker for his many good plays than punish him for the catches that didn't go anywhere.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski (NE), Tony Gonzalez (ATL)
Last Year: Jason Witten (DAL), Antonio Gates (SD)
Let's start here: Jimmy Graham is not a tight end. Yes, he's huge. Graham is tight end-sized. But tight ends block sometimes. Gronkowski and Gonzalez block. Witten and Gates block. Even Dallas Clark blocks sometimes. Graham is just a wide receiver who happens to weigh 260 pounds. Hall of Fame DT Alan Page weighed just 225 when he retired in 1978. Does that make Page a linebacker? A fat chihuahua is not a Great Dane, and Graham is not a tight end. I'd love to have him on my team as a wide receiver; he was one of the best players in the league this year. I'm not picking him here for the same reason I never listed Mike Alstott as a fullback. Graham doesn't do what a tight end does; he does what a wide receiver does.
The same cannot be said of Gronkowski. No one will ever confuse Gronk with Brandon Manumaleuna, but he can and does block, and he's a tremendous receiver. Gronkowski had an ever better receiving season than Graham: 90 rec, 1,327 yds, 17 TD. Far too much has been made of this, but those yardage and TD totals are single-season records for a tight end. Like Graham, Gronkowski gets open, has good hands, and is a terror to bring down. The difference is that Gronk shows an interest in blocking.
Gonzalez just signed a $7 million contract extension to play in 2012. He's still playing at a high level: 80 catches, 875 yards, 7 TDs, 53 first downs, doesn't come off the field in blocking situations. When Roddy White struggled early in the season, Gonzalez was there. When Julio Jones got hurt, Gonzalez was there. He's Matt Ryan's Wes Welker, first and foremost a guy you can count on. Every year, I'm surprised that Gonzalez remains an elite tight end. I should probably know better by now.
Center: Nick Mangold (NYJ)
Last Year: Jeff Saturday (IND)
This was a disappointing season for interior offensive line play. Normally, there are several guards and a center or two who really blow me away. This year, it seemed like everyone missed some plays. Mangold actually missed several games. The Jets went 0-2 without him, compared to 8-6 with Mangold in the lineup. He hasn't played at the same level he did a couple years ago, but with relatively thin competition, Mangold is probably still the best choice. I also like Ryan Kalil (CAR) and Dominic Raiola (DET). I still don't understand the hype for Maurkice Pouncey (PIT). He's a fine player, but the best at his position? I don't see it.
Guard: Carl Nicks (NO), Jahri Evans (NO)
Last Year: Josh Sitton (GB), Carl Nicks (NO)
Nicks and Evans regularly draw praise during television broadcasts, a rarity for offensive linemen, and while they probably don't deserve so much more positive attention than other linemen, they do stand out in a good way. Chris Snee (NYG) had some really good games, especially toward the end of the season, but that shouldn't cloud his uneven play earlier in the year, and he's started to draw a lot of penalties. It was nice to see Brian Waters (NE) back among the best in the league, but his linemate Logan Mankins (NE) seemed to slip a bit this season. I suspect he'll bounce back.
Offensive Tackle: Jason Peters (PHI), Andrew Whitworth (CIN)
Last Year: Jason Peters (PHI), Charlie Johnson (IND)
The AFC Pro Bowlers at this position are the same as last year: Jake Long (MIA), Joe Thomas (CLE), and D'Brickashaw Ferguson (NYJ). Are we supposed to believe that these teams are among the worst offenses in the NFL despite the outstanding play of their left tackles? Long is the best of the three, while Ferguson isn't even the best lineman on his own team. Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene haven't impressed a whole lot of people, but if the Jets really have good receivers and one of the best offensive lines in the league, shouldn't their offense be more productive?
I'd rather see recognition for Michael Roos (TEN) and Whitworth. The absolute standout at this position, though, is Peters. I've been complaining ever since Jon Ogden and Willie Roaf retired that there are no dominant offensive tackles any more. I can't say that this year. Peters has been fantastic. He's a very good pass-blocker, but where he's really separated himself is with run-blocking. Peters routinely drives his man five yards off the ball, clears alleys, gets to the second level. Best in the game.
Defensive Tackle: Brett Keisel (PIT), Calais Campbell (ARI)
Last Year: Ndamukong Suh (DET), B.J. Raji (GB)
This is sort of cheating. Keisel and Campbell are defensive ends. Thirteen teams use a 3-4 as their base defense, meaning there are 64 starting DEs and about 45 starting DTs. But a 3-4 end usually has responsibilities and skills very similar to those of a 4-3 tackle; many defensive linemen can play both positions well. So I'm listing Keisel and Campbell with the interior defensive linemen. Campbell ranked 3rd among all linemen in tackles (72, including 53 solo), including 8 sacks. He intercepted 1 pass and deflected 10 others. He forced 2 fumbles and recovered 1. That's an amazing line for a position that doesn't normally produce big statistics.
Keisel missed a couple games, and he doesn't have the same stats. But look at the Steelers' defense, which led the NFL in both points allowed and yards allowed. James Harrison and Lamar Woodley missed a combined 11 games. Troy Polamalu had an off season. Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke went on IR. Keisel is one of the constants on this great defense. He and Casey Hampton set things up front for everyone else to succeed.
If you insist on 4-3 DTs, I like Geno Atkins (CIN) and Cullen Jenkins (PHI). The Packers really miss Jenkins.
Defensive End: Jared Allen (MIN), Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG)
Last Year: Julius Peppers (CHI), Jared Allen (MIN)
Allen, of course, came within 0.5 of a sack of tying the official record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen also caused 4 fumbles, recovered 4, intercepted a pass, and scored a safety. Yeah, I'd say that deserves All-Pro recognition.
Pierre-Paul led all defensive linemen in tackles this season. He finished the regular season with 65 solo tackles, 16.5 sacks, a safety, and a blocked field goal. One of the most exceptional athletes at his position, JPP presents opponents with the same kind of problems the best tight ends do now. He's too fast to contain or avoid, too strong to overpower, and too big to do anything about. Health permitting, he should remain among the best defensive players in the league for a long time. Comparisons to Julius Peppers wouldn't be amiss.
Jason Babin (PHI) contributed 18 sacks in his first season with the Eagles, and I'm sure he'll receive a lot of All-Pro support. I saw Philadelphia 10 times this season, so I've seen a lot of Babin. But the thing is, I haven't seen that much of Babin. Trent Cole (PHI) was the one who impressed me. Babin would make a big play every once in a while, but in between he would just disappear. This shows up in the stats. Babin's sacks constituted half of his tackles this season, just 35 solo. Compare that to Pierre-Paul (65) or Allen (48) or Cole (42).
This is not Babin's first good season; I praised him in this same space last year, so I'm not trying to suggest his performance was a fluke or imply that he's not talented. But are Babin's 2 extra sacks worth more than Pierre-Paul's 30 extra tackles? Obviously not. One is an effective sack specialist, while the other is a looming menace to every opposing offense.
Besides Allen, Pierre-Paul, and Babin, the players who impressed me most at this position were Cole (who sacked opposing QBs 11 times in just 14 games) and Chris Clemons (SEA). The Seahawks quietly had a great year on defense this season, ranking among the top 10 in yards allowed, points allowed, and takeaways. Seattle was only middle of the pack in sacks, with 33, but 11 of them came from Clemons. This was just his second season as a starter, and he's had double-digit sacks in both of them.
Outside Linebacker: Terrell Suggs (BAL), Clay Matthews III (GB)
Last Year: James Harrison (PIT), Clay Matthews III (GB)
I feel like we're back in the '80s, when pass-rushing outside linebackers routinely took over games. Players like Lawrence Taylor and Andre Tippett were game-changers, the dominant defensive forces of their era. With more teams employing 3-4 defenses, and the ever-increasing emphasis on disrupting the opponent's passing game, the sack-specialist OLB is once again a star on many defenses. In this environment, it was painful choosing just two players to represent the position.
James Harrison (PIT), when he's on the field, is as good as anyone. He's most famous for terrorizing quarterbacks (and getting fined by the league), but he also plays the run and is a good pass defender when he drops into coverage. Harrison missed 5 games due to injury or suspension, though, and this position is too competitive to select someone who missed so much time.
Tamba Hali (KC) was the Chiefs' only legit pass rusher. He recorded more than twice as many sacks (12) as any of his teammates, actually had as many sacks as the team's 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th-leading sackers combined. When your opponent doesn't have to worry about anyone else, stopping one guy is supposed to be easy. Hali forced 4 fumbles and helped keep this defense respectable.
I've always liked DeMarcus Ware (DAL). To me, he's already a Hall of Famer. In just seven seasons, he has 99.5 sacks and 27 forced fumbles. Since his rookie season of 2005, only 11 players have 15 sacks in a season, and only two have done it more than once: Jared Allen twice, and Ware three times. He was my Defensive Player of the Year in 2007, and that wasn't even one of the 15-sack seasons. This year, Ware was 2nd in the NFL in sacks (19.5). But he disappeared at times, especially towards the end of the season, and to my way of thinking, the explosive moments didn't make up for the inconsistency. You can't neutralize an All-Pro (you can only hope to contain him!).
All those players had good seasons, and so did several others not listed here. But the best were Suggs and Matthews. Suggs sacked opposing quarterbacks more often than any other two Ravens combined, setting a single-season career high (14) in his ninth year. He led the NFL in forced fumbles (7), intercepted 2 passes, and deflected 6 others. With Ed Reed having a quiet year and Ray Lewis fading into the twilight, Suggs was the playmaker on Baltimore's defense.
I'm sure some people think it's crazy to choose Matthews, who only had 6 sacks and played on the sieve-like Green Bay defense, as an All-Pro. That much-maligned defense led the league in interceptions, and Matthews contributed 3 of them. Since realignment, how many linebackers have had 6 sacks and 3 picks in the same season? Three. Joey Porter (2002), Mike Peterson (2005), and Matthews.
As the only pass-rushing threat on the team, Matthews had to deal with frequent double-teams, and his coaches adjusted by dropping him into coverage more often. Matthews responded with three INTs, including one returned for a touchdown, and 9 other pass deflections. His total of 12 passes defensed led all OLBs, including those like Lance Briggs (CHI) who usually drop into coverage rather than rushing the quarterback. Essentially, Matthews combined great pass coverage skills with his threatening rushing ability. Ask opposing quarterbacks and right tackles if this guy had a down year.
Inside Linebacker: Brian Cushing (HOU), London Fletcher (WAS)
Last Year: Jerod Mayo (NE), Jonathan Vilma (NO)
Patrick Willis (SF) missed the final three games of the season. At a competitive position, that alone hurts your All-Pro case. But with NaVorro Bowman (SF) and Larry Grant filling in, the 49ers didn't miss a beat — and that absolutely kills your All-Pro chances. In 13 games, Willis accounted for 2 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, an interception, and 12 other passes defensed.
Derrick Johnson (KC) had the same kind of season. With 104 solo tackles, a pair of sacks, 2 picks, and 9 PDs, he proved that last year's career resurgence was no fluke. Johnson is still reasonably young (29), and once again looks to have a bright career ahead of him. The guy it killed me to leave off, though, was Brian Urlacher (CHI). With 3 INTs and 2 fumble recoveries, he was a turnover machine, trailing only Sean Lee (DAL) among linebackers. Sometimes fans forget that Urlacher was a safety in college. He still has those coverage skills, and even now, he's unusually quick for the position.
Two years ago, Cushing was a slam-dunk All-Pro as a rookie outside linebacker. Last season, suspended for a quarter of the season and adjusting to a new position, his level of play dropped sharply. This year, he was back in form as a 3-4 ILB. Cushing's game is defined by versatility. He can rush the passer (4 sacks), drop into coverage (2 INT), and play the run (76 solo tkl). Houston's defensive improvement in 2011 has been attributed mostly to Wade Phillips and Johnathan Joseph, and they both deserve praise, but Cushing's resurgence was a major factor, as well.
Fletcher is simply a marvel. He's credited with leading the NFL in tackles, which is a bit dodgy, because his 96 solo tackles actually rank 6th, and assist numbers are not 100% trustworthy. But either way, he's very near the top of the league. Fletcher remains a fine pass defender (10 PD, including 2 INT) and a big hitter (3 FF), and he's a veteran leader with intangibles every bit as solid as Urlacher's.
Cornerback: Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Lardarius Webb (BAL), Johnathan Joseph (HOU)
Last Year: Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Charles Woodson (GB), Brent Grimes (ATL)
By reputation, the Jets have a great defense. That's not entirely true. The Jets have Darrelle Revis. With several key players leaving the team or declining, the Jets actually ranked 20th this season in points allowed. But they were 3rd in opponents' passer rating (69.6), less than a point off the league lead. This despite a pass rush that was only average (33 sacks, t-17th). Revis combines smothering coverage with good ball skills (4 INT, 184 yds, TD) and solid tackling. He was the only standout on the Jets' exceptional pass defense in 2011.
Two teams that struggled defensively in 2010 ranked among the best in the NFL in 2011, thanks partially to free agent cornerbacks who made a big impact. During his six seasons in Washington, Carlos Rogers (SF) was known for dropping interceptions. This year, in San Francisco, he finally held on (6 INT, 106 yds, TD), and the Niners went from an average defense to one of the best in the league. Joseph helped turn the league's worst pass defense (4,280 yards and 100.5 passer rating allowed) into one of its best (3,035 yards, 69.0 rating).
When Webb was injured for the Ravens' Week 15 matchup against San Diego, the team allowed a season-high 34 points. The following game, Webb intercepted a pass and knocked down 3 more, as the Ravens gave up just 14 points and held serve in the competitive AFC North. Webb finished the season with 54 solo tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, 20 pass deflections, and 5 INTs for 81 yards and a touchdown. His 25 total PDs tied Revis for 3rd-most in the NFL.
Other corners worth mentioning: Brandon Browner (SEA), Brandon Flowers (KC), Ike Taylor (PIT), Tramon Williams (GB).
Free Safety: Eric Weddle (SD)
Last Year: Ed Reed (BAL)
This is Reed's 10th NFL season. Three times, he's missed four or more games due to injury. Among the other seven, this was his career-low in interceptions (3), and the first time since his rookie year that he failed to score a touchdown. It's not that Reed is a bad player now, but he just didn't have the same impact as usual.
Weddle has been among the best at this position for years. I've never named him All-Pro or voted for him to go to the Pro Bowl, but Weddle was an All-Pro candidate last year, and he's mentioned in my annual Pro Bowl discussion each of the last four seasons. This year, he finally made it to the top. Weddle tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (7), deflected 12 other passes, and made 70 solo tackles.
Ryan Clark (PIT), Thomas DeCoud (ATL), and Dashon Goldson (SF) also had nice years. I'm not as impressed by Earl Thomas (SEA) as most people seem to be.
Strong Safety: Kam Chancellor (SEA)
Last Year: Troy Polamalu (PIT)
This is the kind of season that makes me wish I chose All-Pros like the Associated Press: two safeties, never mind which position they play. Adrian Wilson and Polamalu were a little off their games. George Wilson (BUF) got hurt. Roman Harper (NO) can't cover.
Chancellor's coverage stats (16 PD, including 4 INT) are outstanding for a strong safety. Playing just his second season, Chancellor this year became a starter and played a major role in Seattle's defensive improvement. The Seahawks this year intercepted 22 passes and allowed just 18 passing TDs, tying the Ravens and Jets for best INT/TD differential (-4) of any team in the NFL. Chancellor led the team in solo tackles (75) and trailed only Brandon Browner in INTs.
Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski (OAK)
Last Year: Billy Cundiff (BAL)
When Neil Rackers broke the single-season field goal record in 2005, I voted for him as my All-Pro kicker. The game has changed. Teams are attempting, and making, more long field goals than ever before. Field goals of 50 yards or more:
For four consecutive seasons, teams have attempted over 100 field goals of 50+, and made at least 55. This year, both numbers jumped to totally unprecedented levels. A great kicker isn't just expected to be accurate, he's expected to give his team scoring chances even from far outside the red zone. I had four finalists for this position, and all of them made at least five field goals from 50 yards or beyond.
The first one I cut was David Akers (SF), who broke Rackers' record and scored the 4th-most points of any season in history, the most ever by a player who didn't score any touchdowns. Akers was 31/32 from inside 40 yards. That's great, but how much credit should Akers get for making 31 field goals at a range that should be almost automatic? NFL teams made 92.1% of their field goals from that range this season, a little lower than Akers (96.9%), but that's a difference of three points. Those 31 field goals were about good field position and poor red zone offense. Akers broke the record more because of unique opportunity than distinctive skill. This got much less press than the other record, but Akers also broke the mark for most field goals attempted in a season. He had a great year, but I don't believe he was the best kicker in the league.
The other finalists were all hard to evaluate, for different reasons. Josh Scobee (JAC) played on a terrible offense that rarely even put him in position to try a kick. He attempted less than half as many field goals (25) as Akers (52). Janikowski had two kicks blocked, which is sometimes the line's fault, sometimes the kicker's, and sometimes a little of both. He also missed one game with a hamstring issue, and was gimpy for a couple others. Robbie Gould (CHI) was a perfect 6/6 from 50+, and only 6/10 from 40-49. How does that happen?
Ultimately, I went with Janikowski. He began the season with a record-tying 63-yard field goal in Denver, he didn't miss anything under 40 yards, and two of his four misses were blocked, one from 49 yards and the other 65. The remaining misses were a 59-yarder that bounced off the crossbar, a game in which Janikowski made the winning kick in overtime, and a 56-yard attempt in a win over the Jets. That's nothing to be ashamed of. Fully 20% of Janikowski's field goals this season were from 50 or beyond, 7/35.
Punter: Zoltan Mesko (NE)
Last Year: Steve Weatherford (NYJ)
This was not a great year for punters. No one stood out the way Weatherford did last season. That said, Mesko did a lot of things well. His 41.5 net average ranked 3rd in the NFL, behind only Andy Lee (SF) and Thomas Morstead (NO). Lee, though, was just a bomber. He kicked way too many touchbacks (9), and most of his kicks got returned — no directional kicking or hang time, no finesse. Morstead was better, but he rarely had to deal with a short field, and like Lee, he had problems pinning the opponent deep. There are so many variables that affect punting average, and ratio of touchbacks (TB) to punts down inside the 20 (I-20) is one of the few ways for a punter to demonstrate his skill.
Lee and Morstead also have the benefit of kicking in friendly environs. San Francisco isn't the easiest place in the league to kick, but it certainly isn't the hardest, while Morstead plays in a dome. Mesko had home games in cold, windy Massachusetts. Ultimately, my choice came down to Mesko over T.J. Conley (NYJ).
Conley was among the league's most aggressive and accurate punters pinning opponents deep, with a remarkable 15 kicks down inside the 10. Conley also did a great job of preventing returns, leading the league in fair catches (31). Mesko gets the edge simply for distance. There's nearly a three-yard gap between his net average (41.5) and Conley's (38.8), and hang time isn't enough to discount that.
Just for the record, because I know people insist he's great, Shane Lechler tied for 29th in fair catches and had an even worse I-20:TB ratio than Lee.
Kick Returner: Patrick Peterson (ARI)
Last Year: Devin Hester (CHI)
I came thisclose to going with Ted Ginn, Jr. (SF) over both Peterson and Hester. No, I'm not crazy. Let's break this down, Ginn vs. Peterson and Ginn vs. Hester.
Peterson led the NFL in punt return yardage (699) and tied the single-season record for punt return TDs (4). He averaged 15.9 yards per return, compared to a league average of 9.9, meaning Peterson gave his team an advantage of about 264 yards compared to an average returner. That's sensational. Ginn averaged 12.3 yards per punt return, 4th-best in the NFL and a 91-yard advantage compared to average, with 1 TD. But Ginn was also among the best kickoff returners, with a 27.6 average (+110) and another TD. And unlike Peterson, Ginn didn't fumble, whereas Peterson dropped the ball three times.
Let's subtract 50 yards from Peterson's +264 comparison to average, for the lost fumble. That leaves him at +214, with 4 TDs. Adding his kickoff and punt returns, Ginn checks in at +201 with 2 TDs. That's actually pretty close, right?
So how about Hester? He actually had an even better punt return average than Peterson, 16.2, though with many fewer returns (44-28), he only added 176 yards compared to average, and he actually fumbled 4 punt returns, though he recovered them all. Hester also returned kickoffs, including one for a touchdown, but his KR average (21.9) was actually two yards worse than the league as a whole (23.8). Hester actually gained 63 yards fewer than you'd expect from an average returner. We can probably attribute that at least partially to opponents kicking away from him, but it's tough to view his kickoff returning as a positive for Hester.
So let's just forget about the kickoff yardage, though we'll let Hester keep his KR TD. That leaves him at +176, with 3 TDs. I don't see how that's obviously superior to Ginn's +201 with 2 scores. They're in the same neighborhood. But after all that, I'm sticking with Peterson. I'm not going to be the moron who doesn't appreciate one of the greatest punt return seasons in history.
Special Teamer: N/A
Last Year: N/A
I don't name a special teams ace, but Corey Graham (CHI) and Kassim Osgood (JAC) are still two of my favorites.
Five players repeat from my 2010 all-pro team: Carl Nicks, Jason Peters, Jared Allen, Clay Matthews, and Darrelle Revis.
Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers (GB)
Last Year: Tom Brady (NE)
No point looking past the obvious.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jared Allen (MIN)
Last Year: Ndamukong Suh (DET)
It's tough to look at Minnesota's defense, 31st in points allowed, and think anyone from that unit was the most exceptional defensive player in the NFL. But Allen probably was. Darrelle Revis (NYJ) had some tough games, especially Week 12 against the Bills, when he was repeatedly beaten by Stevie Johnson. Allen had 50% more sacks than Terrell Suggs (BAL), actually 57% more. He came within ½-sack of the single-season record without a lot of help from his teammates, and he contributed in every phase of defense.
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers (GB)
Last Year: Tom Brady (NE)
My top 10 ballot:
1) Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB
2) Drew Brees, QB, NO
3) Tom Brady, QB, NE
4) Ray Rice, RB, BAL
5) Cam Newton, QB, CAR
6) Calvin Johnson, WR, DET
7) Clay Matthews, LB, GB
8) Rob Gronkowski, TE, NE
9) Darrelle Revis, CB, NYJ
10) Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, JAC
You've probably heard that the 15-1 Packers allowed more yards this year than they gained. You can't judge teams, or players, just by yardage.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Cam Newton (CAR)
Last Year: Maurkice Pouncey (PIT)
There were three standout offensive rookies this season: A.J. Green (CIN), Andy Dalton (CIN), and Newton. Green gained over 1,000 yards and became the first rookie wideout to make a Pro Bowl since Anquan Boldin in 2003. Dalton took over for Carson Palmer and played mostly like a veteran, passing for 3,400 yards, with 7 more TDs than INTs, and leading the Bengals to the playoffs.
But Newton is a revolution. He threw for 4,051 yards, a rookie record, and ran for 706 more. He threw 21 TD passes and rushed for another 14. He took over an offense that ranked last in the NFL by a huge margin, and directed it to the 5th-highest total in the league. He's had one of the most incredible rookie seasons in history.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Patrick Peterson (ARI)
Last Year: Ndamukong Suh (DET)
The last thing I did was change this selection. I had it all written out, with Aldon Smith (SF), who had 14 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a safety, edging out fellow pass rushers Von Miller (DEN) and Ryan Kerrigan (WAS). Miller contributed 11 sacks and 2 FF, Kerrigan 7.5 sacks, 4 FF, and an interception. Jabaal Sheard (CLE) also showed promise, with 8.5 sacks and 5 FF.
I'm taking Peterson because I'm taking a stand for special teams. There is no Special Teams Rookie of the Year — and if there were, punter Matt Bosher (ATL) would merit serious consideration — so most people just ignore returning. It didn't used to be that way. For decades, everyone was evaluated as a player, and All-Pro defensive backs were often chosen as much for their returning as their pass coverage. Now we break everything down.
Well, not this time. Peterson was a more exceptional player than Aldon Smith, so he's my choice. Plenty of rookie defenders had nice years. Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ) played well on the Jets' defensive line, and Richard Sherman (SEA) defensed 21 passes, by far the most of any rookie. But ultimately, this was about Peterson — who tied Jack Christiansen, Rick Upchurch, and Devin Hester for most punt return TDs in a season — over Smith. The best of the pure defenders, Smith is a part-time player, a situational pass rusher, but he has the biggest numbers, and he provided big plays for a defense that got a lot better this year. Adding a rookie with 14 sacks will do that.
Did he provide more impact than a 16-game starter at cornerback, who intercepted 2 passes and scored 4 return TDs? Remember when I mentioned that Peterson gained 264 more yards on his returns than an average returner? Were Smith's sacks worth 264 yards? Patrick Peterson is my Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Coach of the Year: Jim Harbaugh (SF)
Last Year: Bill Belichick (NE)
Ugh, this feels like joining the Dark Side, drinking the Kool-Aid. I wanted to go with Mike McCarthy (GB), whose team went 15-1 and has a good chance to win its second straight Super Bowl. McCarthy might even deserve extra credit because he's basically his own offensive coordinator. The Packers run a slightly unorthodox offense — not Tim Tebow unorthodox, but more wide-open, more vertical than most — and McCarthy is its architect.
No one's talking about Belichick this season, but come on, the team is 13-3, accomplishing unique things from a two-tight end offense and overcoming a slew of injuries on defense. Gary Kubiak (HOU) has played various portions of the year without Matt Schaub (missed 6 games), Arian Foster (3), Andre Johnson (9), and Mario Williams (11). Teams have collapsed from much less, but the Texans held on to win the AFC South.
Harbaugh, though, completely turned around the 49ers, taking them from 6-10 to 13-3, with a first-round bye and a home playoff game. I'm turned off by the hype, and I'm not convinced he should win this over McCarthy, but Harbaugh has certainly done a hell of a job.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Dick LeBeau (PIT)
Last Year: Dom Capers (GB)
There are lots of strong candidates this season, and this is my tie-breaker: I've never chosen LeBeau before. He's been in the running just about every year, and I've always taken someone else. The Steeler defense repeatedly overcame injuries, leading the league in both yards allowed and points allowed for the third time in the last eight years.
Pete Carmichael Jr. (NO) was Drew Brees' quarterback coach in 2006, promoted to offensive coordinator when Doug Marrone left for Syracuse. I'd say Carmichael has done a pretty good job this year, directing an offense that broke the 1951 Rams' record for yards per game. Much the same can be said of Bill O'Brien (NE), who could be a hot head coaching candidate this offseason, and Rob Chudzinski (CAR), who oversaw Cam Newton and the incredible offensive turnaround in Carolina.
Defensively, you look at Vic Fangio (SF), Wade Phillips (HOU), Gus Bradley (SEA), and LeBeau. Bradley is the surprise in the bunch, but he did a terrific job integrating a lot of young players and getting the unit to gel.
2011 All-Pro Team
QB Aaron Rodgers, GB
RB Ray Rice, BAL
FB Greg Jones, JAC
WR Calvin Johnson, DET
WR Wes Welker, NE
WR Larry Fitzgerald, ARI
TE Rob Gronkowski, NE
TE Tony Gonzalez, ATL
C Nick Mangold, NYJ
G Carl Nicks, NO
G Jahri Evans, NO
OT Jason Peters, PHI
OT Andrew Whitworth, CIN
DT Brett Keisel, PIT
DT Calais Campbell, ARI
DE Jared Allen, MIN
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, NYG
OLB Terrell Suggs, BAL
OLB Clay Matthews III, GB
ILB Brian Cushing, HOU
ILB London Fletcher, WAS
CB Darrelle Revis, NYJ
CB Lardarius Webb, BAL
CB Johnathan Joseph, HOU
FS Eric Weddle, SD
SS Kam Chancellor, SEA
K Sebastian Janikowski, OAK
P Zoltan Mesko, NE
KR Patrick Peterson, ARI
Off POY — Aaron Rodgers, GB
Def POY — Jared Allen, MIN
MVP — Aaron Rodgers, GB
Off Rookie — Cam Newton, CAR
Def Rookie — Patrick Peterson, ARI
Coach — Jim Harbaugh, SF
Assistant — Dick LeBeau, PIT