Tuesday, October 10, 2006

NFL: The Early Awards

Is there anything more fun than arbitrarily handing out awards? I didn't think so. Therefore, I'm weighing in with some NFL awards for those players and staffers that have had the biggest impact so far on this young season.

I planned on writing this column last week and coming up with a marginally clever title like "The Quarterly Report" or something equally pun-tastic, but since a handful of NFL teams had only played three games at the time, it seemed a little early to be tabbing people for awards. So I settled on a post-Week 5 column, which doesn't lend itself to the same symmetry, sadly.

Without further preamble, here are the "Early Awards":

Early MVP - Donovan McNabb. Were it not for Philly's collapse against the Giants back in week two, McNabb would be the proud owner of an absolutely perfect five-game run. With a supporting cast that could best be described as either "injured" or "sketchy," McNabb has thrown up 1,602 passing yards with 11 touchdowns against just one interception. Not only that, but his scrambling ability seems to have returned as he's rattled off three rushing touchdowns to go with a 7.3 yards per carry average. The throw he had against Dallas when he felt the rush, stepped up in the pocket, and instinctively fired a 50-yard strike to Hank Baskett was probably the best throw of the year. And the head roll-shake-taunt move after his 18-yard scramble against Green Bay was borderline transcendent.

Others Considered: Rex Grossman (1,243 yards and 10/3 touchdowns-to-picks while being sacked just four times for the 5-0 Bears), Peyton Manning (1,278 and 8/2 with two rushing touchdowns for the 5-0 Colts), Steve Smith (23 catches for 261 yards only tells part of the story - the Panthers are an ugly 0-2 without Smith and a dangerous 3-0 when he's on the field), and "Pick a Ram" (Marc Bulger has thrown for 1,259 yards and seven touchdowns with nary a pick, Steven Jackson is tied with Frank Gore for the rushing lead with 465 yards, and Tory Holt has 372 yards receiving and four scores for 4-1 St. Louis).

Early Defensive Player of the Year - Julius Peppers. The guy is just a monster. He has 22 solo tackles as a defensive lineman, which is impressive enough, but he also has two forced fumbles and leads the NFL in both tackles for losses and sacks (6.0). The sight of Atlanta shredding the Panthers D in week one is hard to shake, but Peppers has been so good since then that he still gets the nod.

Others Considered: Bart Scott (the torch has been passed again - first from Ray Lewis to Ed Reed and now from Reed to Scott, who is now Baltimore's best individual defender), Tommie Harris (the linebackers get the attention, but Harris is the Midway Monster the sets the tone for Chicago), Shawne Merriman (not as good as Oakland made him look back in Week One, but not far off either), DeAngelo Hall (quickly becoming the best - and cockiest - corner in the game), and Champ Bailey (the leader of this terrific Denver defense and the one guy that might be holding Hall off).

Early Offensive Rookie of the Year - Reggie Bush. I don't understand the people that are saying Bush has been a bust. Granted, he's doing little in the running game, but who cares? He's such a distraction for opposing teams that the Saints are able to get single-coverage for their wideouts and running lanes for Deuce McAllister. Not only that, Bush has 552 all-purpose yards, leads the NFL in receptions with 34 (on pace for 112 for the year), and scored his first touchdown in game-winning fashion by running back a punt in the waning minutes against Tampa Bay.

Others Considered: It has been a great year for offensive rookies. Among the standouts are Marques Colston (Bush's teammate has caught 23 passes for 374 yards and 3 TD's, quickly becoming Brees' primary deep threat), Greg Jennings (364 yards and 3 scores as Green Bay's #2 receiver), Maurice Jones-Drew (the former UCLA dynamo has 521 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns while carving out a role for himself in the Jacksonville offense), Joseph Addai (272 rushing yards in Indy's time share), and Laurence Maroney (332 yards and three touchdowns on the ground).

Early Comeback Player of the Year - Deuce McAllister. Does it get any better than the story unfolding in New Orleans? As if the Saints' turnaround wasn't enough, McAllister has returned from a grisly knee injury to once again become one of the league's top backs. Despite sharing some touches with Bush, Deuce has 380 yards and four touchdowns on a fantastic 4.8 yards per carry average (third among backs with 50 or more carries).

Others Considered: Kellen Winslow (the loud-mouth is backing up the talk this year with 30 catches for 283 yards and two scores).

Early Defensive Rookie of the Year - Mark Anderson. The fifth-round draft pick out of Alabama has become yet another ferocious member of the Bears' pass rush and actually leads the team with 5.5 sacks. He's also forced a fumble and deflected a pass as he seems to grow more comfortable with every passing snap.

Others Considered: Ernie Sims (33 solo tackles for Detroit's new linebacker) and Thomas Howard (the good news for the Raiders is that second-round pick Howard looks really good; the bad news is that he looks a lot better than first-round pick Michael Huff).

Early Surprise Star - Bernard Berrian. The whole Chicago offense has been a surprise, but the line was always considered solid, Jones was known to be a good back, and Grossman was always talented albeit injured. But Berrian? I don't think anyone could have seen this coming. The speedster leads the NFL with four touchdown catches while ranking third in receiving yards with 413. I know, I can't believe it either.

Early Disappointment - Randy Moss. I suppose it is ironic that Daunte Culpepper was the other leading choice, since these two have been positively worthless from the moment they were separated. I have to wonder how long it will be before either Miami or Oakland decides to gamble on acquiring the other half of this Misery Puzzle. I give Moss the nod here because at least Culpepper can blame his bum knee. And while Moss is certainly in an undesirable situation, he could at least try. He could at least avoid sitting down with Fox's Chris Myers every week and telling the world that he doesn't care about football.

Early Coach of the Year - Lovie Smith. I wanted to be more original here, but it is hard to argue with Smith. If you can think all the way back to late August, it was the Panthers who were being viewed as the prohibitive favorite in the NFC. It is a testament to Smith's work that things have changed so fast. He managed to push the right buttons with the backfield and turned what seemed to be certain disaster into a highly productive time share (with Thomas Jones rightfully doing most of the work). He stuck with Rex Grossman through a tough preseason and now looks like a genius (I wonder how many of the thousands of Bears fan who were calling for Brian Griese will admit to it now?). He has seamlessly folded Ricky and Daniel Manning into the secondary. In short, he's been flawless through five games.

Early Executive of the Year - Mickey Loomis. New Orleans is 4-1 and playing games in the Superdome, which pretty much says it all. Considering the upcoming schedule, I still think the Saints will be lucky to make the playoffs, which is all the more reason to reward them now. Loomis has been the guy pulling all the strings, from jumping on Bush with the #2 pick to unearthing Colston from deep in the draft to signing Drew Brees to cobbling together a serviceable defense to hiring the right coach in Sean Payton. High marks all around.

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