For the past few years, I've been one of Julius Peppers' biggest critics. For a guy who is compared so often to Reggie White, Peppers, I thought, should be producing more than 10 sacks a year, which was his eight-season average in Carolina. And when the Bears signed him in March for, in essence, $1 million per game, I thought: They'll be disappointed in his production for that money.
Though Peppers had but eight sacks this year, he had a huge impact on a defense that went from 21st in the league in points allowed in 2009 to fourth this year; from 4.3 yards per rush last year to 3.7 this year; from 29 touchdown passes surrendered last year to 14 this year. He pushes the pocket. He buzzes around the quarterback. He makes other guys -- Israel Idonije, Tommie Harris -- better.
There's no question the return of Brian Urlacher at the pivot point of the defense has been a significant addition, but Peppers has been the most important reason the Bears have become the Monsters of the Midway again, and that's why he's my defensive player of the year.
I considered Clay Matthews long and hard for this award, and it was close. Midway through the season, Matthews was the guy. But then I saw Peppers beat a wounded Jake Long for two of his three sacks against the Dolphins, and saw how he pushed Bryant McKinnie around on the Monday nighter in Minnesota. He's the John Stockton of the Bears defense, the guy who makes everyone around him better.
That's the headline of my awards. Here's my ballot. Keep in mind that the playoffs mean nothing; the balloting is for regular-season play only.
Let the arguments begin.
Now for your e-mail:
• NO QUESTION THIS WILL BE A STORYLINE AROUND FOXBORO THIS SPRING.
He's under contract to the Bengals for one more year, but if they release him, I'd bet the Pats would look into him.
• GOOD QUESTION.
I don't doubt this happened. But it's as old as the hills, and I remember it happening back in the eighties when Sam Wyche was using the no-huddle and sugar-huddle offense to speed up the game and to keep defenses from substituting. Last year in the Super Bowl, I'd bet anything the Saints did it once or twice to slow down Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter, once with Anthony Hargrove. But I don't sense anything from the league to put a rule on the books to deal with it. In the end, how do you prove a player isn't hurt?
• HE WANTS TO EXPAND THE PLAYOFFS.
Not a fan of expanding the playoffs to include 50 percent of the teams playing in the postseason. Not much more to say. I think it diminishes the importance of the regular season. But that doesn't mean 14 in the playoffs, and maybe 16, aren't coming.
• I PLEAD GUILTY.
You're right. I try to use what I see and what I know from people in the game I talk to in an effort to read the future, and very often it doesn't work. (Though with Whitehurst in the example you cite, I was simply talking about the game he just played, not projecting what would happen the following week.) The fact that I'm wrong quite often when I try to predict the future is my fault. I try to own up to my mistakes and do the job the best I can. But as you've pointed out, I often look like a dummy. Hazards of the game.
• YOU MIGHT BE RIGHT ABOUT THE STRENGTH OF THE NFC NORTH.
It's hard to say any one division was best top to bottom this year, but 1 to 3, I think the NFC South, with Atlanta being 1, New Orleans 2 and Tampa Bay 3, would have comprised the best in football this year.