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.
MVP: Tom Brady, QB, New England. Stopped being a race when Mike Vick had his non-factor final two weeks.
Coach: Bill Belichick, New England. Narrowly over Raheem Morris of the stunningly 10-6 Bucs, because Belichick oversaw the revamping of his offense with a great personnel and coaching job, winning 14 games.
Executive: Scott Pioli, GM, Kansas City. Again, narrowly over the Bucs' Mark Dominik, whose team played 13 rookies in winning games at season's end. But Pioli's draft (strong character players and impact rookies), and the Chiefs winning the AFC West, gave him the edge.
Offensive player: Tom Brady, QB, New England. Hard to beat out a guy with 36 touchdowns against only four interceptions.
Defensive player: Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago. Matthews and Cameron Wake my 2-3.
Offensive rookie: Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis. Played every snap and had a better season than Mark Sanchez (look it up), and still I strong considered Steeler center Maurkice Pouncey, who played like an eight-year vet from August on.
Defensive rookie: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit. Ten sacks with the amount of focus and pressure that was on him? Amazing. Edged Devin McCourty. Though I have McCourty as one of my corners and Suh not on my D-line, Suh had a better year than McCourty.
Comeback player: (tie) EJ Henderson, LB, Minnesota; Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia. Comeback player can mean coming back from anything -- injury, jail, whatever -- and I realize Vick was on the team last year and just didn't play much. I was solid on Henderson all along, but Vick's resurgence was so compelling and so great that I had to include him.
WR: Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Roddy White, Atlanta. Sorry, Brandon Lloyd and Reggie Wayne. You're both deserving. I just loved the year Johnson had in scraping together 77 catches and 12 touchdowns with subpar quarterbacks throwing to him.
TE: Marcedes Lewis, Jax. Over Antonio Gates because Gates missed so much time.
T: Jake Long, Miami; Marshal Yanda, Baltimore. I went tough at tackle. Two warriors here, particularly Long, who played so much of the year with a torn labrum.
G: Ryan Lilja, K.C.; Rich Seubert, Giants. Seubert's here, edging Brandon Moore of the Jets, because I thought he had a superb year of versatility. Seubert started 7 games at center, so it is difficult for me to exclude someone who played 16 games at the guard position, but he was such a versatile fireman for the Giants, he definitely deserved a place on this team.
C: Alex Mack, Cleveland. Doubt this? Watch the job Mack did on Vince Wilfork in the Browns' beatdown of the Patriots.
QB: Tom Brady, New England.
RB: Arian Foster, Houston. Won the rushing title and caught the ball well out of the backfield. Even so, I thought long and hard about Jamaal Charles here.
FB: Ovie Mughelli, Atlanta. Blocks as well as any fullback in the game. Huge edge for Michael Turner.
DE: Vince Wilfork, NE; Julius Peppers, Chicago. Wilfork played everywhere on the Pats' line, and played everywhere well.
NT: Kyle Williams, Buffalo. No other nose man is the combo pile-pusher and backfield invader that Williams is.
DT: Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta. Love how he moves so powerfully through guard-tackle and guard-center holes. He's one of the long-overdue guys to get credit for the Falcons' defense.
OLB: Clay Matthews, Green Bay; Cameron Wake, Miami. Two tremendous pass rushers who don't take plays off. Pretty hard to not put Terrell Suggs somewhere on this team, but these guys, I thought, were two of the most dangerous rush 'backers in the league this year.
ILB: Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh. Represents James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley here. Could have picked any of the three. Love the way Timmons moves sideline to sideline and covers as well as any other inside 'backer.
MLB: Ray Lewis, Baltimore. Don't believe the hype that this is it for Lewis. He played great this year.
CB: Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland; Devin McCourty, NE. McCourty makes it because Darrelle Revis was just OK for much of the middle part of the year because of his bad hammy, and because I thought Brandon Flowers had a so-so end of the year. Tramon Williams also very close here.
FS: Chris Harris, Chicago. Edged Nick Collins of the Packers. The Bear-turned-Panther-turned-Bear-again is a strong open-field tackler and had big picks against the Eagles and Vikes.
SS: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh. Missed two games and had a couple in which he had little impact because of his ankle/Achilles issues. Still the most instinctive safety in football.
Let the arguments begin.
Now for your e-mail:
• NO QUESTION THIS WILL BE A STORYLINE AROUND FOXBORO THIS SPRING. "So you think that New England might be in the market for a big receiver. How about Chad Ochocinco? We've heard for the past couple years how much Bill Belichick likes OC. Maybe OC will decide he can swallow his tongue for a season and see how it works? What do you think?''-- Mark, of Keene, N.H.
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'm a Jets fan still glowing from yesterday's victory. During the game, either Jim Nantz or Phil Simms suggested that some of the injured Jets defenders were faking to get the free timeout and slow down the Patriots' hurry up offense. I haven't heard anything about this since. Did you get a sense that this was happening, and if so, do you think it's fair play?'' -- Tom McBride, Davis, Calif.
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. "Hey Peter, I was wondering what your thoughts are on possibly extending the playoff format to 16 teams instead of 12, with the 7th and 8th seeded teams going up against the 1st and 2nd seeded teams. I ask this because it seems that the bye week for the top two seeds appears to do more harm than good for the top teams.
"I understand the idea of rewarding the two best teams in each conference with a week off, however when the divisional round comes along, it just seems to me that the teams having had the bye look like they need to shake the dust off, and I think that if they had a home game during wild card weekend, they wouldn't seem so off-cue. I know that extending the playoffs to a 16 team format would give 50% of teams a postseason, but the NBA uses a 16 team tourney, and they only have 30 teams total, and the top two teams in those conferences get the easy win first round opponents. So what do you think?''-- Jeff, Everett, Wash.
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. "I love your column and Mondays feel incomplete without it. This e-mail is not to single you out, rather an observation about sports pundits in general, but since I read you more than others, I can only quote your examples. You seem to be a having a tough couple of weeks in your predictions; you dedicated quite a lot of column space to Charlie Whitehurst in the NFC wildcard game, and he never got to play a snap. Then there was the raving about James Starks, who averaged a paltry 2.6 yards per carry and wasn't a factor in the GB win over Atlanta. Mark Sanchez was supposed to suck in the cold, yet he outshined Tom Brady. I'd love to have a job where I could be wrong more than half the time and still get nothing but love from my employers and fans.''-- Zeeshan, Irvine, Calif.
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. "After all the talk this season about the strength of the NFC East with the Eagles and Giants, as well as the NFC South with the Falcons and Saints, was the NFC North underappreciated or was something missed regarding the Division that provided both teams for the NFC Championship Game? Also, did the strength of this Division play a role in the collapse of the Vikings this season since both Green Bay and Chicago have proven their abilities and Detroit played everyone close this season?''-- Chris Stegge, Boeblingen, Germany:
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.