MVP race gets interesting in unpredictable final week to season
Just when you think you've seen it all, Week 17 happened. Matt Flynn happened. An MVP race that could go either way, Brees or Rodgers, went kablooey. As did Tim Tebow, the Texans, the Jets, Carson Palmer and the Raiders.
This is going to be a different column. Hang on through the opening bit, and you'll see why.
From a veteran who might have played his last regular season game, to a struggling quarterback, to historic tight ends, to a precocious instant-star wideout, to a quarterback who we're going to have pay attention to right now:
Seems like the Steelers were doing everything they could to get him his 1,000th catch, when Ben Roethlisberger began the game in Cleveland Sunday throwing to him on two of the first three plays, and finally got him number 1,000 early in the fourth quarter, a shovel pass for minus-three yards, tackled immediately by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "The best minus catch of my life,'' Ward said, grinning, afterward. He's the eighth receiver to be in the 1,000-catch club, and it'll be interesting to see if that's all there is to his career -- I doubt the Steelers bring him back next year -- and if the Hall of Fame voters think that Ward, catching and blocking, has done enough to get a bust in Canton.
This isn't good, not with Dick LeBeau coming to Denver Sunday for a playoff game, not with the Steelers being the best in the league at disguising defensive looks. Tebow's going to have to be more efficient running the ball, and Willis McGahee, who knows the Steelers well from his time in Baltimore, is going to have to make Troy Polamalu pay when he comes down to be the eighth man in the box to stop the run. But you usually don't win a physical game against the Steeler defense.
What this season may have proven once and for all is it's not important who catches the ball for a team, as long as that receiver (or receivers) can move the chains and be threats the defense has to gameplan for. Darren Sproles has shown that in New Orleans, catching the ball in space. And the tight ends in New England have shown the same thing. Comparing the New England tight ends with the Detroit wide receivers, both duos catching the ball from a 5,000-yard passer:
Victor Cruz went on IR last year for the Giants after catching no balls in three games. Has any receiver ever burst onto the New York scene like this? Ever? Maybe Homer Jones with his speedy explosiveness compares, but that's about it. And he emerged slowly over two seasons before impacting the league with Bob Hayes in the '60s for a few years. New York hasn't been a haven for receivers, but it's doubtful Frank Gifford, Don Maynard or Al Toon had the impact overnight Cruz has had on one of the Gotham offenses. Put simply, he's nearly as vital to the Giants entering the playoffs as Eli Manning. What he's done in his first contributing season:
Interesting, but not surprising. After the last week, I expected Brees to win the popular vote, in part because of his greatness this year, and in part of what Bill Barnwell wrote about on Grantland.com recently. He called it "recency,'' as in "what have you done for me lately?'' Brees, in the last seven games, is 7-0 with 25 touchdowns and three interceptions; he has set NFL records for passing yards in a season (5,476) and completion percentage (71.2). In the last three weeks, Rodgers has lost to Kansas City, beaten Chicago with a five-touchdown night, and sat (coach's decision) against the Lions.
Amazing that sitting Sunday would do so much to affect the race. Or might do so much to affect the race. As @joshbickford wrote with his vote for Brees: "Matt Flynn changes my vote to Drew Brees.''
In other words, the sick performance by Flynn in relief of the resting Rodgers could well have the effect of leaking votes from Rodgers and giving them to Brees. If a rusty backup like Flynn can throw for 480 yards with six touchdowns piloting the Green Bay offense, doesn't that diminish what Rodgers has been able to do all season?
"That shouldn't be the case at all,'' Flynn told me after his shredding of the Lions. He seemed upset to think it might be. "The numbers today were just because we went back and forth all day. Nothing I did today should do anything to diminish what Aaron's done. He's the MVP, for sure, for what he's done from the start of the season.''
Let me weigh in on just that topic ...
Brees has had, arguably, the greatest statistical offensive season a quarterback has ever had, with the most passing yards, the best accuracy, and the fourth-most touchdowns in a season (46). Rodgers set the NFL mark for passer rating, became the first passer to have 12 straight games with a rating over 105, led the Packers to the best record in the league, and had the best passing season the Packers have ever seen -- which is saying something, considering their Hall of Fame heritage (Arnie Herber, Bart Starr and soon Brett Favre).
Sometime after 5 this morning, I finalized my call. I decided not to split the vote, because I thought it would be a cop out. I felt I had to make a decision. And I picked Rodgers. Four reasons:
1. I thought Rodgers was better for the full season. Rodgers was 14-1, Brees 13-3. So much can go into wins and losses, and each man did more than any on his team to lead to those wins. But in the two midseason losses that ultimately cost the Saints the second seed in the playoffs, Brees was less than perfect, and it hurt his team. In a six-point loss to Tampa Bay in Week 6, Brees threw one interception late in the first half that Josh Freeman turned into a touchdown three plays later. Late in the fourth quarter, down six, Brees threw an interception in the end zone. Two weeks later, New Orleans went to St. Louis and lost by 10 to A.J. Feeley and the Rams. Brees threw one interception that was returned for a touchdown, and the other was turned into a touchdown pass by Feeley. In Rodgers' first 12 weeks of the season, he ground up every opponent with remarkable efficiency, throwing 37 touchdowns with just five interceptions ... almost the same way Brees played at the end of the season. In the last eight games, Brees was as brilliant as Rodgers was for the first 12. The Saints were 8-0, and he threw 27 touchdowns with four interceptions, and was a paragon of accuracy. But those two losses to, as it turned out, 4-12 and 2-14 teams, with Brees mistakes a factor, weighed on my decision. In the end, it was like watching two almost perfect skaters, and one lands the quad and one has a perfect program except for double-footing the landing on one jump.
2. Brees had five multiple-interception games, Rodgers none. Not decisive, but a factor. I also thought the TD-to-interception differential (plus-39 for Rodgers, plus-32 for Brees) and the yards per attempt (9.25 to 8.33, in Rodgers' favor) was a factor.
3. I wanted to respect statistics but not be overwhelmed by them. I have tremendous respect for Brees the team player, and I couldn't care less that he was throwing the ball up 22 with three minutes to play against Atlanta. All he's doing is executing the plays that are called. But I don't want numbers, some of which are exacerbated in blowouts like the 62-7 rout of the Colts (Brees) and 45-7 rout of the Vikings (Rodgers), to affect the vote unduly, particularly since Brees threw 155 more passes than Rodgers.
4. Rodgers won the head-to-head matchup. Again, not overwhelming. But a brick in the wall.
As for the Flynn performance, I think it could be evidence that it's the system and the supporting cast as much as the player that makes the quarterback in Green Bay. But how much stock do you put in one game? Is it anecdotal or absolutely proof? I think it's more of the former, but I just don't think we have enough proof. How do we know that if Chase Daniel, Brees' backup, started against the Panthers Sunday with all that talent around him in the passing game, and with a superb play-caller in Sean Payton who knows what Daniel does well and what he doesn't, that he wouldn't have thrown for 330 and four touchdowns? We don't.
One of the things that bothers me about not voting for Brees is that I think, overall, he's been the best quarterback in football over the last six years, with a phenomenal record of achievement. And he hasn't won an MVP. I sincerely hope he does before he retires, and if he wins it this year, I won't be bothered at all, because Brees has been a great difference-maker this year. I just think Rodgers has been a little better for the full season.
"First time in my life I saw 10-man boxes,'' Jones-Drew told me. "Last week against Tennessee, we came out with two tight ends and two backs, and they had 10 in the box. That's unheard of in this league. The guys in front of me, I'm so happy for them, because they don't get the attention they deserve. I am lucky to play with them.''
For the season, Jones-Drew had 1,606 yards, 10 yards behind Arian Foster's league-leading total last year. And it was significant to him that the winning effort came against Indianapolis. He hates the Colts, and always will, because they drafted Joseph Addai over him in 2006. "Every game I ever play against the Colts will be special, and I don't care what's at stake,'' he said. "I always have something to prove against them.''
Taylor: "I don't know. I had big dreams. I just thought that first day, 'I hope I can make the practice squad.' But hey, I got the winning lottery ticket. I was drafted by a guy [Jimmy Johnson] who knew exactly how he wanted to use me. Right place, right time.''
Kleinsasser: "Now, you've got to understand. I came from North Dakota. Here I am in the Vikings locker room. That was the team. Randy Moss to the left of me, Cris Carter to the right, John Randle across the locker room. I'm like, 'Holy crap! What planet am I on? What am I doing here?' But soon you realize how everyone's got a job to do, and if you do your job, you belong.''
Taylor: "Tough to pick one. Very tough. One game I loved came in 2007 when we were 0-7 and the Bears were 7-0, and I got my 100th sack and an interception of Rex Grossman. That was memorable. Another day I loved -- and please don't get mad at me for this, Miami fans -- is when I played for the Jets last year and we beat the Patriots. What a great feeling that was. Winning was always the most important thing. I wish we did more winning.''
Kleinsasser: "Remember Adrian Peterson's record-breaking game against San Diego? [Peterson rushed for a single-game-record 296 yards against San Diego as a rookie.] I had a block in that game I'll always remember. It was a kick-out block to the sidelines, I think it was Shawne Merriman, and Adrian got a huge run, and he went on to make history. That was always important to me, because it was my job.''
Taylor: "Well, I never met a win I didn't like. But like I said, we didn't win enough. I really wanted to win a ring.''
Kleinsasser: "I've always been waiting for that one. I had a great career, but I had two disappointing NFC Championship Games. I wanted to win a Super Bowl. It's such a team game, and if you don't win that last game, it hurts.''
Taylor: "The first day of your professional career is the last day you'll be 100 percent healthy. But ... I think the rewarding thing to me about football has been the ability to make someone's day, to have an impact on people's lives. That is something I really appreciate, and something I hope I can continue to do. And one more thing: We belong to the best fraternity in the world.''
Kleinsasser: "Everything comes full circle. The same things that are important in life -- teamwork, hard work, work ethic, family -- are important in football. I was lucky to have such great parents who taught me the lessons I would need to know in football. Determination, sacrifice, having pride in your work ... Sometimes you say, 'There's no way I can do that,' but then you keep working with your teammates, and you realize you can do it. It taps into who you are as a person.''
Taylor: "Maybe TV. Maybe something in the media. I don't know. Maybe nothing for right now except being with my family.''
Kleinsasser: "Take some time. Be a dad. Find my path. Find my passion. I don't know what that is. But I have time.''
Before I get to Flynn, a few words on Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford was brilliant Sunday at Lambeau Field. What he should do with that game is take every offensive snap, put them on a DVD, and put it in a drawer. When he's 45 and his kids are old enough to understand football greatness, put the DVD on and show them what a special player their father is. Not just for throwing for 520 yards, but for hanging in and dueling the Packers (he can't play defense) on a foul-weather New Year's Day on which he became the fourth quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. It's going to be fun to watch Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and maybe Jay Cutler duel over the next eight or 10 years.
Okay. Now onto Flynn. Imagine the value of a 26-year-old unrestricted free agent quarterback in a market with four quarterback-needy teams (Indianapolis, Miami, Washington, Seattle and maybe Cleveland) who won't all be able to move up to get one of the two quarterbacks expected to go very high in the draft -- Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. That brings us to Flynn. He'll either be a free agent and get to choose whatever team he wants, or have the franchise tag put on him by the Packers and be traded in March or April to the team that likes him the most. My early money's on Washington or Seattle. The Redskins have to have a quarterback if Mike Shanahan is going to have any chance to win, and Seattle GM John Schneider worked for the Pack when Flynn was drafted by Green Bay. But we'll see.
"That's an easy trap to fall into, to be thinking about that right now, but I can't let my mind wander to that, because I love this team too much, and this team has been too good to me,'' Flynn told me after his masterpiece against the Lions. He threw for more yards (480) and touchdowns (six) than any passer in the storied history of the franchise. "I have to be focused on doing whatever I can to help this team win now. So I won't let myself get caught in that.''
Flynn called it "humbling, unbelievable,'' to have played the game he did. "It just got to be a shootout,'' he said of the 45-41 Packer win. "During the week, I had a feeling I might play, and [coach] Mike McCarthy just said to me, 'We're going for it.' We were going to do whatever it took to win with the players who were playing. Aaron [Rodgers] really helped me. The history of developing quarterbacks really helped me, because I've learned to prepare like a starter, and I've learned to physically mimic him as much as possible because he does everything so well.''
Flynn now has started two games in the last two seasons, and you can bet sometime soon (maybe this week) Shanahan and his peers in Miami and Seattle and Cleveland will be putting on the tape of these games:
In mid-March 2006, the Miami Dolphins were trying to decide between trading for quarterback Daunte Culpepper with Minnesota or signing free agent quarterback Drew Brees of the Chargers. One problem: Brees was in the early stages of rehabbing after major shoulder surgery, an operation that left in doubt whether he'd be near 100 percent for the start of the 2006 season. Brees had a generous (all things considered) offer from New Orleans of six years and $60 million, which seemed a little risky considering the surgery.
On the night Miami had to decide which way to go, owner Wayne Huizenga was out to dinner with a friend in Palm City, Fla., not far from his personal golf club, The Floridian. "I want them to sign Brees,'' Huizenga said at one point. "They want Culpepper.'' He said coach Nick Saban and the Dolphins' football people were worried about Brees' shoulder. Huizenga got a call on his cell phone and walked outside.
When he came back inside the restaurant, Huizenga said his football people were insistent that Culpepper, for reasons monetary and football and health, was a better choice than Brees. "I told them, they're the football guys, not me,'' said Huizenga. But the owner repeated that if it were up to him, he'd have signed Brees.
Miami is 38-58 since, with zero playoff wins; the Dolphins will have their fifth head coach since that night (including interim boss Todd Bowles) sometime in the next month. New Orleans is 62-34, with a Super Bowl win, with one coach.
Amazing how much damage one shortsighted decision can do to an organization.
Before you start, two words of caution: No Googling. Anyone can use the internet to be a big hero. I'll print the answers Tuesday, and though I'd love to give an all-expenses-paid trip to the inside of my disturbed brain to the winner, this is for entertainment only. No prizes. But if you're feeling brave and think you've gone 50-for-50, send me an email to brag, with your answers, to
I've broken the quiz into three sections -- general knowledge, identifying the speakers of the quotes of the year, and feats of the season. Here goes.
Hard not to pick the two guys who combined to throw for 1,000 yards Sunday in the breezy, cold snow of Lambeau.
When it was called Sunday, Akers had the option to kill the play and attempt the field goal if he thought the Rams were getting wise. But the play worked to a T, and Akers saw Crabtree near the sidelines and the Rams ignoring him. This is what I like about the 49ers -- they're not married to the conventional way of doing things. That's a good reason they're 13-3 and have the second seed in the NFC playoffs.
"Hey, about an hour ago, their D coordinator told us, told [offensive line coach Chris] Foerster, that if the Giants would have lost last week, they were in the playoffs. He didn't mention that they still had to beat us today. F--- him, f--- these guys, In 2012 the Redskins are gonna be the NFC East champions, and that starts right f------ today."
"I'll tell you what. It's tough for guys to follow a captain that kind of behaves in that manner."
"Who knows? Maybe I'll come back for another special season."
Now, Griffin is almost certainly leaning toward coming out, and ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday he would enter the draft; he has until Jan. 15 to do so. All he was saying Thursday is this: "I want Baylor Nation to enjoy this," Griffin said. "It's not about me. I have a decision to make. But I want us to enjoy these next few days, and when it's time to make that decision, I will."
"Sam is an extremely talented player. Nothing that's happened this year has changed Sam Bradford's future or his outlook going forward. I think, in some ways, going through seasons of adversity can really be a positive for a young player or a coach or anybody for that manner. Nothing comes easy. Sometimes it's good to learn those lessons young so that it makes you really understand and you really cherish the opportunity.''
The Jacksonville Jaguars have done something I am quite sure has to be an NFL record this season. They have placed 31 players on injured reserve and/or waived players with injury settlements. The Elias Sports Bureau, which has the Jags for 26 players on IR (the difference being several players who were waived with injury settlements, which I count as players lost for the year with injuries), said Jacksonville has the most players on IR of any team in football in the last 10 years, at least.
The amazing thing is the defensive backfield. Twelve corners and safeties lost due to injury. That's almost worth an exclamation point. I've never heard of any position group getting ravaged like that before. Check out the list of the 31 lost Jaguars:
Parity in the regular season (this is the 16th straight season at least five new playoff teams have qualified) and parity in the postseason:
In the last four seasons, home teams are 21-19 in playoff games.
In the last six seasons, the Super Bowl has been won by sixth, first, second, fifth, third and sixth seeds.
"Coach Jackson on 2012 role: 'I'm going take a stronger hand in this whole team, this whole organization. ... everything that goes on here.' ''
Uh, has anyone told Mark Davis and Amy Trask?
"Nice knowing you Raheem Morris.''
a. Romeo Crennel's job performance, which has to be one of the best by an interim coach in recent years. He went 2-1, including the Chiefs handing the Packers their only loss, and his defensive players showed how badly they want to play for him by allowing 33 points in the three games he coached. He deserves the full-time gig.
b. Telling Stat of the Day, from my NBC partner Joe Gesue: Steve Spagnuolo has lost more games in three regular seasons, 38, than Bill Belichick has lost in the last 10 regular seasons (37).
c. Jimmy Graham, with one of the best one-handed catches of the season -- with a Panther linebacker draped on him.
d. What a catch by Steve Smith, with Gumby-like use of his feet on the sideline.
e. Miami: a 21-play, 94-yard drive against a defense we all thought was supposed to be good this year.
f. Though he got fricasseed in the court of public opinion all season, Philip Rivers ended up a 4,624-yard passer this season, with a plus-seven TD-to-pick differential. Not great, certainly. But not a nightmare either.
g. Everything about Matthew Stafford this season -- from staying healthy for four months, to throwing the deep ball with such accuracy and instinct, and forming the best deep-ball bond in the game with Calvin Johnson.
h. Washington has a slew of offensive problems to fix, but Jabar Gaffney's not one of them ... 68 catches for 947 yards was a good season for a guy who always seems to get open.
i. Fitting that Indy linebacker Pat Angerer finished with an 11-tackle game. Every time I looked up this year, he was in double digits in tackles.
j. If this is it in Coltville for Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis (I think it is for both looming free agents), they went out well, Wayne with eight catches and Mathis with a sack of Blaine Gabbert.
k. The New England tight ends: 15 catches, 246 yards, three touchdowns. Who will cover them in the postseason?
l. Kudos, Rob Gronkowski, for the best offensive season a tight end has had: 90 catches, 1,327 yards (most ever by a tight end), 14.7 yards per catch, 17 touchdowns (most ever by a tight end).
a. Stupid call in Patriots-Bills late in the half, with Tom Brady chasing the play after an interception and Drayton Florence blocking him, and Florence getting a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. For, as the officials ruled, driving Brady into the ground. Dumb call. All Florence did was block a man going toward the pile, presumably to try to make a tackle.
b. Awful clock management in the final minute of the first half by Buffalo coach Chan Gailey, letting 25 seconds run off the clock instead of taking one of two timeouts left with the ball in New England territory.
c. You're kidding, Panthers. Fifteen seconds left in the first half and you let Marques Colston get behind everyone in the secondary and catch a bomb for a late, defensively idiotic touchdown?
d. The Giants not being able to run well. That's going to hurt at some point in the playoffs.
e. Another reason for Brett Favre Haters to rise up: When Favre took a dive and handed Michael Strahan the last sack of his record-setting 22.5-sack season a decade ago, he set the stage for Sunday, when Jared Allen, who finished with 22, would have had the record if Favre hadn't been so charitable toward Strahan.
f. The Raiders and penalties: 163 of them (10.2 per game) for 1,358 yards ... both being NFL records. (
g. Carson Palmer's season wasn't good enough to get the Raiders into the playoffs. Raiders without Palmer: 4-2. Raiders with Palmer: 4-6.
h. One more thing Hue Jackson has to figure out: Palmer's passer rating: 80.5; Campbell's, 84.1. A lot of that is Palmer learning on the fly, to be sure. But that just means there will be all the more pressure on Palmer to be a playoff quarterback in a weak division in 2012.
i. The Bucs have too many high picks on defense who are too entitled before they've done anything great.
j. Points allowed, Tampa, last eight games: 37, 35, 23, 38, 41, 31, 48, 45. A disgrace is what it is. How does a head coach with a defensive background allow that to happen?
k. Speaking of defense, what are Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham going to do this week with the Lions? Yards allowed last five games: 438, 425, 477, 367, 550. And now going back to New Orleans.
l. Bears offensive line ended 2011 in style, allowing seven sacks.
Of the many things the Jets have to fix in 2012, Holmes' attitude and Ryan's willingness to so easily hand over a position of authority as a carrot to a player he's trying to motivate is on page one of the list.
a. Drew Brees at Aaron Rodgers, again. Hope that becomes like the Colts and Patriots have been for so long -- an annual game.
b. Yes, Colts at Pats, again. Tom Brady needs a new Peyton -- or he needs the current Peyton to get back healthy so we can see more great duels.
c. And Tebow, or whoever Denver's quarterback is, at New England too.
d. Cam Newton and the Panthers at Michael Vick and the Eagles.
e. Tough road for the Niners next year. The Rex Ryan Jets (angry, I presume) on the road, along with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady ... all away from home. And a rematch of the Handshake Bowl at Candlestick -- Jim Schwartz and the Lions will come to town.
f. Green Bay at the Giants, again. And Green Bay at Seattle, which could be interesting. Could, because I think Seattle's one of the three or four teams I'd make a candidate to have strong interest in Packer free agent quarterback Matt Flynn.
a. Haven't seen
c. Happy New Year, Steve Sabol. I can't tell you how many people have asked me this year, "How's Steve doing?'' Wishing you a great year.
d. You too with the Happy New Year, Paul and Linda Zimmerman.
e. That was a rough movie to watch the other night,
f. Our first New Year's Eve in New York was a real barnburner. Slept through it, though I'm told there was a lot of yelling and screaming and fireworks. No recollection of any of it.
g. Coffeenerdness: To the woman in the East Side Starbucks who put a white cream mask of some sort on her face while nursing a coffee the other day and reading the paper ... I mean, gross.
h. Beernerdness: Beer highlight of the week, by far, was having my first Allagash White on tap in about six weeks the other day. That stuff's the nectar of the gods. You have to try it. It's the beer from the little brewery in Portland, Maine, that knows how to make a good white beer as well as anyone.
i. Winenerdness ... and no, I'm not starting this as a column staple, but I did want to praise Dan Patrick for introducing me to Hollywood & Vine cabernet, which we've had at some NBC Saturday night dinners this year. Had it the other night, and I was reminded how good it was -- smooth with a strong taste of blackberry.
j. Thanks to all for their concern and Twitter care and help in finding daughter Mary Beth's lost dog in Seattle. Lucy the shepherd-lab mix turned up a day later at an animal shelter, and the reunion was a good one.