Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

The regular season is over, but the NFL makes fans wait another month before revealing its annual award winners. Why prolong it? We polled 26 smart NFL observers and are ready to unveil our MVP, top rookies, best coach and more

By Peter King
December 30, 2014

It’s been 28 years since a defensive player has won the Most Valuable Player award, and that streak is not likely to be broken in this, the NFL’s 95th season, despite the great season by Houston defensive end J.J. Watt.

But the news is: Watt could make it very interesting.

The MVP is tabulated from 50 media votes—each voter is asked to choose one player—this week by the wire service Associated Press, and the award is announced the night before the Super Bowl … in this case, Jan. 31 in Phoenix. So that gives us a month to speculate whether Watt, the Houston defensive end who had 20.5 sacks this year and 98 other quarterback pressures and knockdowns (for an incredible 7.4 quarterback disruptions per game at a position where player value is as much run-stopping as pass-disruption), has done enough to be seriously considered for the MVP.

As The MMQB moves to the end of its second season covering the NFL, we decided to poll 26 respected voices in and around the game for a fresh look at the awards that mean so much to the fans who love the game and the players and executives who make it great. We have our staffers at The MMQB, and analytics fellows from Elias Sports Bureau and Pro Football Focus. We have three active players—Tennessee cornerback Jason McCourty, Giants guard Geoff Schwartz and Washington safety Ryan Clark—who are all respected veteran voices. We have a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and respected ESPN analyst, Trent Dilfer. We have former Saints Steve Gleason and Scott Fujita, two of the smartest former players I know. We have NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, who has wanted an MVP vote forever, and his colleagues Mike Silver, Albert Breer and Alex Flanagan. We have former Niners GM Scot McCloughan … and, well, I think we’ve crafted a group of 26 that you’ll respect as knowing and respecting the game and its traditions.

The Panel

The MMQB (5): Greg Bedard, Andy Benoit, Peter King, Robert Klemko, Jenny Vrentas 

The Players (3): Ryan Clark, Washington; Jason McCourty, Titans; Geoff Schwartz, Giants

The ex-NFLers (5): Trent Dilfer, former quarterback; Scott Fujita, former linebacker; Steve Gleason, former safety; Scot McLoughlan, former GM; Ross Tucker, former lineman

The Analytics Crowd (5): Khaled Elsayed, Pro Football Focus; Neil Hornsby, Pro Football Focus; Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders; Alex Stern, Elias Sports Bureau; Ben Stockwell, Pro Football Focus

The Media (8): Albert Breer, NFL Network; Kevin Clark, Wall Street Journal; Steve Cohen, Sirius XM NFL Radio; Rich Eisen, NFL Network; Alex Flanagan, NFL Network; Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk; Tom Pelissero, USA Today; Mike Silver, NFL Network

I had the 26 voters pick their top five in six categories: MVP, offensive and defensive rookies of the year, coach of the year, assistant coach of the year and executive of the year. I awarded seven points for a first-place vote, five for second-place, three for third-place, two for fourth-place, and one for fifth-place.

The headline: Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is The MMQB’s MVP, receiving 15.5 of our 26 first-place votes. Maybe the bigger headline, though, is who’s number two. Watt finished second, with 8.5 first-place votes. Interestingly, our three active players—Clark, McCourty and Schwartz—all voted Watt. “If Watt, who is a once-in-a-generation player, doesn’t win the MVP this season, then no defensive player will ever win," Schwartz said. “The game is built for offense, and he still totally dominated."

MVP First-Place Votes Total
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay 15.5 156
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston 8.5 120
Tom Brady, QB, New England 0 64
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas 0 34
DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas 1 27
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh             0 21
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis 1 16
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle 0 12
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England 0 11
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle 0 5

 

A sampling of the opinion on the MVP vote, with their first-place vote in parentheses:

Watt (Fred Vuich/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Watt (Fred Vuich/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Steve Cohen, Sirius XM NFL Radio (Watt): “When it comes time to discuss the MVP award most quickly look at the quarterback position. This year after the NFL decided to make aggressive play in the defensive backfield a point of emphasis (not a rule change, but something that certainly benefitted quarterbacks) we saw a record nine different quarterbacks throw 30 or more touchdown passes (the previous high was five) but we didn't have a quarterback who dominated the position. As I look at every starter in the NFL I see one player who stands alone as the dominant player at his position and that's why J.J Watt gets my vote for MVP. He also had 32 points—for a defensive player! From his team-inspiring pre-game speeches to his lead by example play on the field for a rebuilding team and a first-year head coach, J.J Watt should be the first defensive player since Lawrence Taylor (1986) to win the league's MVP."

Tom Pelissero, USA Today (Rodgers): “We can debate the definition of ‘valuable,’ but in considering J.J. Watt for MVP, I keep coming back to this question: Would Aaron Rodgers be under consideration if the Packers missed the playoffs at 9-7 ‘because his team didn't have a defensive lineman?’ Any argument for Watt leans on his ability to keep the Texans in the hunt amidst their quarterback issues. But that's the problem with voting for him over Rodgers or, in my opinion, several other quarterbacks this season. That position controls everything, and not even the best defensive player of a generation can supersede it. Watt seems to make two or three high-impact plays every game—which is incredible—but the QB has a chance to impact the game every play he's on the field, both before and after the snap. My vote is for Rodgers, who played the most important position at the highest level over the course of this season."

Rich Eisen, NFL Network (Rodgers): "I went with Rodgers over Watt merely because Rodgers played as flawlessly at his position over a 10-week stretch as I've ever seen. Plus, for a quarterback to directly address his fan base in this social-media-driven, long-time-listener-first-time-caller-laden day and age and telling them to relax, it makes his play the greatest walking of the walk I've ever seen."

Steve Gleason, ALS pioneer (Murray): “I realize J.J. Watt had possibly the most dominant defensive season in memory, possibly in NFL history. He’s a freak, but he’s not my MVP. To have an MVP on a non-playoff team defies logic in my mind. If you're the MVP, you should affect the game enough to make the playoffs. Without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers downright stink. With Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are serious Super Bowl contenders. Without J.J. Watt, Houston doesn't make the playoffs but with Watt, they ... don't make the playoffs. DeMarco Murray is my MVP. Before Murray's emergence, the Cowboys monopolized mediocrity. Murray broke impressive records, most notably Emmitt Smith’s single-season rushing record for a Cowboy, and Jim Brown's record of consecutive games with 100 yards. Two absolute legends."

Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders (Rodgers): "I feel like MVP voting has the same problem in every single sport. What exactly are we voting for? If we are truly voting for the 'most valuable player,’ then the top dozen players should all be quarterbacks. J.J. Watt is the best defensive player alive, probably one of the 10 best ever, but there's just no question that a good quarterback is worth a lot more to a football team than even the best defensive player alive. No matter how good Watt is, the Texans still don't have anything close to the best defense in the league overall. I'm still going with Aaron Rodgers."

Jason McCourty, Titans (Watt): “I am a little biased in my decision, being that I am a defensive player and play in the same division as my top MVP candidate, but J.J. Watt impacted the game in two out of three phases this season, which is incredible. His ability to take over a game on defense with tackles, sacks, pressure and quarterback hits are second to none. He has also intercepted the ball and has become known for batting passes down. He’s been able to do all this while lining up on offense and scoring touchdowns."

Khaled Elsayed, Pro Football Focus (Luck): “I was torn here. Luck isn’t the best player in football (that’s J.J. Watt) and he’s not even a top five passer given his blend of off-target throws and questionable decision making. But his unique ability and uncanny knack for making the big play when it’s most needed is the difference in the Colts making the postseason and picking in the top 10 in the draft."

Greg Bedard, The MMQB (Watt): “The quarterbacks are too tough to distinguish between. I really don’t see why there’s much of a difference between Rodgers and Romo. They are basically in a dead heat statistically while fronting similar teams (good weapons, good lines, good running back, mediocre defenses). Romo’s signature win (at Seattle) is better than Rodgers’ (home vs. New England), and Rodgers was terrible against the Seahawks. And Romo has more fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. As for Watt, he’s simply the best player—by far—on his side of the ball. He had one of the great seasons (again) that a defensive player can have, let alone a 3-4 end who is constantly the No. 1 agenda on any opposing game plan, and one who has scored five touchdowns. If Watt doesn’t win it this season, he never will. And that would be a shame. We should just turn it into the Best Quarterback Award if that’s the case. Everything else is handed to the quarterbacks."

• Also on The MMQB: A college stats professor charts NFL wins, comparing all 32 teams to Vegas and statheads predictions going into the 2014 season

* * *

So Watt didn't beat out the man likely to win the league's MVP. But he did beat out Tom Brady and every other shiny offensive weapon in the NFL. I think Rodgers wins the AP award a month from now, but the fact Watt could contend could make for an interesting race on Super Bowl weekend.

Now for the next five categories we polled our expert panel on...

Odell Beckham's final 2014 stat line: 91 catches, 1,303 yards and 12 touchdowns ... and four games missed. (Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Odell Beckham's final 2014 stat line: 91 catches, 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns ... and four games missed. (Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Offensive Rookie First-Place Votes Total
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants 25 168
Zack Martin, G, Dallas 1 82
Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay 0 66
Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati 0 55
Joel Bitonio, G, Cleveland 0 27
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota  0 19
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina 0 9
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo 0 7
Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay 0 7
Derek Carr, QB, Oakland 0 6

  

So … do you want to know how good a rookie season Odell Beckham Jr. had? He missed the first four games of the year—and then routed a very strong field. Check out Beckham’s average game in 2014 as a rookie versus star wideout Dez Bryant’s average game as a 2014 veteran:

Beckham — 7.6 receptions, 108.8 yards, 1.0 TD

Bryant — 5.5 receptions, 82.5 yards, 1.0 TD

That seems ridiculous: two more catches and 26 more yards per game than a superstar like Bryant. But that is the trail Beckham is traveling. "He’s one of the most impressive rookies I have seen in 20 years, especially at the receiver position which we all know usually struggles in the first year," says Scot McCloughan, the former Niners’ GM. “He has made veteran play after veteran play and I feel he has a chance to be an all-pro player because of size, speed, route-running ability, quickness in and out of breaks and big-play ability.’’

“The New York Times recently used the perfect word to describe Beckham: incandescent,'" says Rich Eisen of NFL Network. “He is, quite simply, a bright, shining star. I love watching this guy play and can't wait to see how the future keeps unfolding."

Defensive Rookie of the Year 

Defensive Rookie First-Place Votes Total
Aaron Donald 15 146
Khalil Mack 5 110
C.J. Mosley 5 104
Chris Borland 0 47
Anthony Barr 1 35
Deone Bucannon 0 7
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix 0 5
Preston Brown 0 3
Bradley Roby 0 3
Aaron Lynch 0 2

 

Three candidates dominated voting in this category. “It was tough for one to stand out above that group but Aaron Donald did that on a consistent basis,” explains Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus. “When you can come in and put your body of work immediately up against the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Kyle Williams you’ve had some sort of a rookie season. Donald’s rookie season placed him among the best defensive linemen in the league for the 2014 season, at least in the bracket below J.J. Watt.”

Strong cases were also made for the Raiders’ Mack, who played in almost 90 percent of Oakland's defensive snaps this year. “He’s had only two negatively graded games and despite what the numbers may say (sacks are still the most overrated stat) has rushed the passer very well indeed (54 QB disruptions),” says Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus. “However, it’s his run defense which has got him at the top of this list for me. Playing like a combination of Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson (the two best run defending OLBs of this era) he’s made his area a no-go area for halfbacks.”

Bruce Arians has led the Cardinals to double-digit win totals in each of his first two seasons as head coach. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Bruce Arians has led the Cardinals to double-digit win totals in each of his first two seasons as head coach. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Coach of the Year

Coach First-Place Votes Total
Bruce Arians 17 157
Jason Garrett 3 90
Jim Caldwell 2 60
Bill Belichick 2 63
Pete Carroll 1 40
Bill O’Brien 0 18
Mike McCarthy 0 11
Mike Tomlin 0 9
Joe Philbin 1 7
Doug Marrone 0 3

 

While Arizona’s Bruce Arians was the runaway winner, Coach of the Year was a crowded field. Six coaches earned first-place nominations, and the ballots weren’t full of the usual suspects. Three coaches in the top 10 (Bill O’Brien, Joe Philbin and Doug Marrone) failed to bring their teams to the playoffs. Reasons Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal: “Something that happens in presidential primaries and Oscar races happens in coach-of-the-year voting, too: Sometimes a choice is so obvious that there’s a counterintuitive movement against it and we forget how amazing it is. Arians shouldn’t just be coach of the year, he should be coach of the millennium."

A myriad of setbacks, including injuries to starting quarterback Carson Palmer, then his backup, Drew Stanton, barely fazed Arians, who led the Cardinals to the No. 5 seed and a game shy of the franchise’s first 12-win season. 

The Lions’ Jim Caldwell also led his team to a surprising playoff run. Caldwell earned two first-place votes, including one from Scott Fujita. “From 2009-2013, how many times did you watch the Detroit Lions play, and think: ‘Boy, they sure are talented. But, boy, do they do a lot of dumb sh--?'" Fujita asks. “But this season under Jim Caldwell, things have changed. These numbers tell the story... I started by comparing the 2014 season to Detroit's five seasons under Jim Schwartz, in categories I labeled "Mentally Dumb Penalties" (false starts and defensive line of scrimmage penalties) and "Physically Dumb Penalties" (unnecessary roughness, personal fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct, roughing the passer, illegal chop blocks). This year, the Lions had 27 total MDP's and 10 total PDP's, compared to yearly averages of 40.8 MDP's and 18.6 PDP's from 2009-2013. That's a huge difference."

Rich Eisen, meanwhile, explains why he was one of two voters to choose New England’s Bill Belichick: "Just because he's on the Mount Rushmore of NFL head coaches (now fourth all-time in wins) and just because it's widely stipulated he's the modern day Lombardi, doesn't mean Bill Belichick shouldn't be honored when he deserves it.”

Assistant Coach of the Year  

Assistant Coach First-Place Votes Total
Todd Bowles 15 145
Rod Marinelli 6 81
Teryl Austin 1 40
Scott Linehan 1 28
Dan Quinn 0 19
Todd Haley 1 17
Mike Munchak 1 15
Dave Fipp 0 15
Bill Callahan 1 13
Adam Gase 0 13

 

Arizona lost two defensive stalwarts (Daryl Washington and Darnell Dockett) before the season began, and was without John Abraham (11.5 sacks in 2013) for much of the year. And yet the Cardinals defense barely missed a beat, carrying the team for much of the season. Behind the 51-year-old Bowles, Arizona limited opponents to 18.7 points per game, fifth-best in the NFL. And through their first 10 games, the Cardinals only allowed one team to rush for more than 100 yards. Says Rich Eisen: “If you're a party of four at a restaurant and Todd Bowles comes up to your table, he'll bring five people with him and rush it."

Bowles dominated voting with 15 of 26 first-place nods and appeared on all but one ballot. He was followed by Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, mastermind of the Cowboys’ dramatic one-year turnaround. Last year, Dallas ranked dead last in the NFL, allowing 415.3 yards per game. This season looked equally bleak, especially when Dallas cut DeMarcus Ware for cap space, lost Jason Hatcher in free agency, and saw its best linebacker, Sean Lee, sustain a season-ending injury in minicamp. “I was on record many times before this season started saying that I thought the Dallas Cowboys very possibly could have the worst defense in NFL history and I meant it,” says former offensive lineman and media personality Ross Tucker. ”Marinelli somehow cobbled together a group of journeymen and got them to play solid football.  They were a hustling group of opportunistic overachievers who played disciplined football in his mold to help the Cowboys get to 12 wins and their first NFC East title in years.  Most of the guys in that group including Rolando McClain and Tyrone Crawford had career years.  Simply put, Marinelli made chicken salad out of chicken ... well, you know.”

Executive of the Year 

Executive First-Place Votes Total
Jerry Jones/Stephen Jones 8 94
Steve Keim 9 91
John Elway 5 73
John Schneider 3 64
Bill Belichick/Nick Caserio 0 42
Ted Thompson 0 22
Martin Mayhew 0 18
Ozzie Newsome 1 19
Kevin Colbert 0 15
Dave Gettleman 0 6

 

This was the tightest race, with five executives (or, in the case of Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones, and Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio, executive tandems) receiving first-place votes. In the end, the ‘Boys from Dallas edged out Cardinals general manager Steve Keim. 

The Cowboys were lauded for their first-round draft pick, offensive lineman Zack Martin, who earned Pro Bowl honors after helping DeMarco Murray to a 1,845-yard rushing season. The Martin pick was notable as Dallas bypassed the temptation of Johnny Manziel. “Jerry Jones has made the unsexy pick for years now,” says conference foe, Washington safety Ryan Clark. “But this, along with a long-term commitment to Romo that paid off, are huge reasons Dallas is tops in the NFC East." 

Another personnel move that paid dividends: luring Rolondo McClain out of retirement to replace Sean Lee at linebacker. “That was a surprising choice, sure,” says The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas. “But the proof is in the Cowboys’ 12-4 record.” 

As for Keim: “He has been making transactions at record pace since being elevated to GM two years ago," says NFL Network’s Alex Flanagan. “It's Keim's eye for finding talent that helped keep Arizona alive this season when the Cardinals suffered one devastating player injury after another." 

In a close third was John Elway of the Broncos. “I love that the Broncos are in win-now mode, but still able to make moves that benefit them for life after Peyton Manning,” says Khaled Elsayed of Pro Footabll Focus. “They’ve morphed from being dependent on him, to being able to win on the ground or with their defense.”

—Additional reporting by Emily Kaplan


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