Forget the all-or-nothing vote. Our panel—made up of players, media and analytic minds—picks MVP, top rookies, coach and more via a tiered vote. The result is a nuanced look at the best the NFL had to offer this season
Have I ever told you how much I love The MMQB’s annual NFL awards? I love them, in large part, because of how different they are from the traditional Associated Press awards, which are one-vote-per-category, all-or-nothing awards. I prefer a vote of 1 through 5, so there can be a list of deserving people in each category. (More about this later.)
And I love how enthusiastic the voters are. I asked our 24 panelists to email me their ballots by late Monday, the day after the season, giving us time to tabulate and write about them so you can see the results soon after the season ends. At 3:15 a.m. Eastern, I was writing Monday Morning Quarterback, and my email bell bonged, and here came the first ballot filed. It was from one of our newest voters: John Legend. Yes, that John Legend, the Bengals fan, the gigantic NFL fan. I sat next to him at an SI event once and we talked football for two hours and boom—here he is one of our experts. Did his homework too: Vikings rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks was fourth on his Defensive Rookie ballot.
At 9:55 a.m. Pacific, here came another vote: from Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. One of his assistant coaches was Arizona receivers coach Darryl Drake, and I took that as a sign of immense professional respect. Sherman and Drake have never been on the same team, but Sherman admires the job Drake has done—which he understands from playing against Drake’s receiver group twice a year in the NFC West.
More about our panel in a few moments. But what you’ve all been waiting for …
The big winners of The MMQB’s second annual NFL awards, and deservedly so, hail from the great state of North Carolina, home of the 15-1 Carolina Panthers. Each panelist voted for five players in our six categories, with the first-place vote worth seven points, second-place worth five, third-place three, fourth-place two, and fifth-place one. The 7-5-3-2-1 split was important in one category, which you’ll see.
* * *
MVP: Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina, with 20 of 24 first-place votes. Four players got one.
Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera, head coach, Carolina, with 18 first-place votes. Andy Reid was next with four.
Executive of the Year: David Gettleman, general manager, Carolina, beating the Jets’ Mike Maccagnan, 10 first-place votes to five.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Closest vote by far. Rams running back Todd Gurley and Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston got 10 first-place votes each, but Gurley scored 133 points overall to Winston’s 114, so Gurley’s our winner.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Marcus Peters, cornerback, Kansas City, in a rout over fellow corner Ronald Darby of the Bills, 19 first-place votes to three.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator, Denver. Another very tight race, with Phillips getting seven first-place votes (91 points overall), Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson six first-place votes (70 points) and Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula five (64 points).
The voters showed distinct respect for the Panthers across the board. The MVP mystery vanished in Week 17, when Newton erased all doubts with an exclamation point on his 45-touchdown season in a 38-10 rout of the Bucs. Rivera’s steady hand showed early and often in Carolina; every time there was a hint of discord, he calmly snuffed it out. And Gettleman, whose draft was panned on draft weekend, had the last laugh when the important events happened. You know, the games. But he learned from his mentors in the business, among them former GM Ernie Accorsi, that there is no gloating in football; this year’s executive of the year could be next year’s 6-10 GM.
* * *
The Players (3)
Richard Sherman, Seahawks
Jason McCourty, Titans
Geoff Schwartz, Giants
The Celebrity Fan (1)
The ex-NFLers (3)
Ross Tucker, former lineman
Marty Hurney, former GM
Scott Fujita, former linebacker
The Analytics Crowd (5)
Khaled Elsayed, Pro Football Focus
Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders
Alex Stern, Elias Sports Bureau
Ben Stockwell, Pro Football Focus
Neil Hornsby, Pro Football Focus
The Media (7)
Kevin Clark, Wall Street Journal
Steve Cohen, Sirius XM NFL Radio
Alex Flanagan, NFL Network
Tom Pelissero, USA Today
Mike Silver, NFL Network
Judy Battista, NFL.com
Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk
The MMQB staff (5)
* * *
When the AP vote for MVP is announced, I’d expect it to be close to unanimous for Newton, among the 50 media members who have votes. Maybe 48-2, with Carson Palmer spoiling the shutout, but maybe 50-0 too. I have spoken about the vote with AP’s late, great football maestro Dave Goldberg and his successor, Barry Wilner, both fine football men. They always have believed the single-vote way is the best because voters have to stick their necks on the line for one candidate, instead of diffusing credit. It’s just personal preference. I always have wanted to know—as in the baseball vote—who was second, and beyond. So, when I got my own site, voila! We invented a new NFL awards list, asking voters for their top five choices, not their top one. So, away we go.
(Editor’s Note: We’re only listing the top five vote-getters in each category.)
* * *
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina: 20 first-place votes, 158 points.
2. Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona: 1, 98.
3. Tom Brady, QB, New England: 1, 84.
4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle: 1, 55.
5. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh: 1, 17.
Newton took a supporting cast of mostly mediocre skill players overall and made Carolina the highest-scoring team (exactly 500 points, or 31.3 per game) in the NFL. Newton had his usual strong year running the ball (636 yards, 10 touchdowns) and supplemented that with 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in what was a historic year for quarterbacking in the NFL.
• Legend (Newton): “Best player on the best team. Most important individual of the season.”
• McCourty (Newton): “As a player in this league it has been a lot of fun to sit back and watch the year he’s having. He has developed so much with his ability to make plays from the pocket this year, and his ability to make plays in clutch moments to lead his team to victory.”
• Cohen (Newton): “In these days of injuries and concussion protocols, how Cam Newton plays the quarterback position defies logic. He’s truly one of a kind.”
• Stockwell (Palmer): “I base the decision more heavily on performance level than making it a judgment of supporting cast. In an offense predicated on the deep and intermediate passing game, for Palmer to be the most accurate quarterback in the league (lowest percentage of inaccurate throws), is staggering and shows how Palmer drove this offense more than the surrounding talent elevating Palmer. Even in his subpar games, Palmer still produced staggering downfield throws. Taking the whole season into balance with a crop of quarterbacks who were crucial to their team’s success, it is Palmer’s level of performance that stands out to me in a terrific season of quarterback play.”
• Fujita (Brady): “We probably take him for granted. But this season, he's been beyond extraordinary. Accusations and endless chatter dating back to last season. An offseason (and preseason) in litigation, with playing status uncertain. Injuries decimating nearly all of his primary receiving targets. Musical chairs along the offensive line, keeping him under near constant duress over the second half of the season. All this, and one could argue that he's never been better. He's unshakable. I've studied this offense for many, many years, and I'm in awe of what Brady has accomplished this season.”
* * *
Coach of the Year
1. Ron Rivera, Carolina: 18 first-place votes, 150 points.
2. Andy Reid, Kansas City: 4, 73.
3. Bruce Arians, Arizona: 1, 66.
(tied) Bill Belichick, New England: 1, 66.
5. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota: 0, 40.
• Silver (Rivera): “Who takes a team whose receivers are Ted Ginn, Philly Brown, Jericho Cotchery and Devin Funchess and guides it to one of the best regular season records in NFL history? The Panthers lost their top offensive weapon (Kelvin Benjamin) in training camp and played much of the year without their top pass rusher (Charles Johnson) and never even played a bad game. Ask the Panthers’ players why, and they all immediately cite Rivera’s steady leadership.”
• Florio (Rivera): “Coaches are judged based on how they perform relative to expectations. No one expected 15-1 from a coach whose team was 7-8-1 a year ago.”
• Clark (Reid): “The hardest thing a coach can do in the NFL is save a lost season. When you walk into the facility of a team in the midst of a bad season, the misery is obvious and overwhelming—players fear being cut, coaches fear being fired, no one wants to talk or joke. Reid turned a 1-5 team into a dangerous playoff team, even after the Chiefs lost star running back Jamaal Charles. He came close to winning a division title. To not only save a lost season but to get your team in the conversation as a buzzy Super Bowl pick is one of the more remarkable coaching jobs I can remember.”
* * *
Executive of the Year
1. David Gettleman, GM, Carolina: 10 first-place votes, 89 points.
2. Mike Maccagnan, GM, New York Jets: 5, 66.
3. Steve Keim, GM, Arizona: 2, 66.
4. Scot McCloughan, GM, Washington: 2, 39.
5. John Schneider, GM, Seattle: 3, 35.
• Tucker (Gettleman): “I'm not sure most people know just how bad Carolina’s cap situation was when he took over a couple of years ago. For him to win three straight division titles while essentially in cap purgatory is amazing. More impressive is how many journeymen, re-treads, and unknowns are real contributors on this team. Michael Oher at left tackle after two franchises gave up on him? Ted Ginn at WR making plays all over the field? Mike Remmers at right tackle, Roman Harper, Kurt Coleman? The list goes on and on and is a testament to Gettleman. Makes me wish he was a GM when I was playing. Maybe if his team had signed me I could've been a better player.”
• Klemko (Gettleman): “The Gettleman regime has become expert at mining for talent after the first day of the draft and those crucial moments at the end of the seventh round when the undrafted free agents are parsed. From Kawann Short (second round, 2013) to Trai Turner (third round, 2014) to A.J. Klein (fifth round, 2013) to Andrew Norwell (undrafted, 2014), Gettleman has identified big-school afterthoughts and small-college standouts in building a 15-win team centered around the cornerstones he inherited from the previous regime, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly.”
• Pelissero (Keim): “He has become a perennial candidate, and not just because of the Carson Palmer trade that keeps on giving. In 2015, Keim’s moves included: 1) Finding a contractual compromise to keep receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who repaid him with 109 catches; 2) Paying big in free agency for veteran guard Mike Iupati, who played better than some scouts expected; 3) Drafting Markus Golden, David Johnson, Rodney Gunter and J.J. Nelson, who contributed as rookies; and 4) Filling injury holes along the way with two aging stars nobody wanted, running back Chris Johnson and Dwight Freeney, who ended up leading the team in rushing yards and sacks. Of the 53 players on the Cardinals’ roster, 44 were acquired by Keim, whose philosophical alignment with coach Bruce Arians is critical to their success.”
• Flanagan (Keim): “Who else in this league thought Dwight Freeney and Chris Johnson could be critical additions to a roster in 2015? Keim has made nearly 200 transactions in 2015 to ensure the Cardinals have talent and depth.”
* * *
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis: 10 first-place votes, 133 points.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay: 10, 114.
3. Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland: 0, 55
4. Tyler Lockett, WR/KR/PR, Seattle: 3, 42.
5. Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee: 0, 32.
• Elsayed (Winston): “Winston is far from the finished article and didn’t finish the year well, but there were stretches when you forgot you were watching a rookie, so at ease did he look. He can make all the throws, has enough mobility to scare defenses and won the team some games with his efforts. It’s incredibly tough to come in as a rookie QB and make your team better, but Winston did that.”
• Klemko (Gurley): “Tyrann Mathieu said it best when he tweeted that Gurley basically would be Adrian Peterson in four years. Gurley is the most complete back to come out in recent memory. He fought through inconsistent quarterback play and stacked defensive boxes to rush for more than 1,100 yards and 4.8 yards per carry. And if you re-draft it, Gurley would be a top-three pick.”
• Legend (Lockett): “I’d pick Lockett for his special-teams dominance, but there’s no category for that.”
* * *
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City: 18 first-place votes, 146 points.
2. Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo: 3, 119.
3. Leonard Williams, DL, New York Jets: 3, 62.
4. Eric Kendricks, LB, Minnesota: 0, 34.
5. Stephone Anthony, LB, New Orleans: 0, 14.
• Benoit (Peters): “Both Peters and Darby had tremendous seasons playing very similar roles. Peters had a stronger end to the season, and he did lead the league in interceptions. [He was tied with Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson for the lead, with eight.] He has a real true knack for the nuances of matchup coverages. He’s a guy who just knows how to guard people.”
• King (Peters): “In midseason, I had Darby winning this, because he’d made so many big plays in the first half of the season, and took to the physical and instinctive cover-corner role Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman want in their corners. But I thought Peters made so many big plays from the start of the year to the end. Granted, Peyton Manning was hardly Manning this year, but Peters picked him off in both Chiefs-Broncos games. His pick in Baltimore, which he returned for a touchdown, was a huge play. Cornerback is a playmaker’s position, and Peters made so many of them.”
* * *
Assistant Coach of the Year
1. Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator, Denver: 7 first-place votes, 91 points.
2. Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati: 6, 70.
3. Mike Shula, offensive coordinator, Carolina, 5, 64.
4. Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England: 1, 43.
5. Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator, Carolina: 1, 22.
• Though he didn’t make the final five, Buffalo offensive coordinator Greg Roman got a great endorsement from Schatz that I thought we should include: “Buffalo finished with a top-10 offense in Football Outsiders ratings despite a quarterback who had never started an NFL game, a star running back who missed four games and was nicked up the rest of the time, and a questionable offensive line. The Buffalo defense collapsed and the Bills went 8-8 anyway. That's a hell of a coaching job by Greg Roman. Wade Phillips is a great defensive coordinator and the Broncos finished as one of the 10 best defenses of the last 25 years, but it sure seems like he had a lot more raw talent to work with than Greg Roman had this year.”
• Mike Florio (Shula): “At a time when too few college quarterbacks are ready for the NFL, Mike Shula has helped transform a one-read, look-to-the-sidelines-for-guidance spread quarterback into one of the best NFL quarterbacks of his generation.”
• John Legend (Jackson): “He has done a remarkable job with both Andy Dalton and A.J. McCarron. Of course, they have great skill players as weapons, but Jackson clearly is a great leader for the offense with a defensive-focused head coach. He should be seriously considered by the Browns or anyone else with an opening.”
John Legend! The next Gruden!
* * *
Before we go, one plaintive wail from a voter, The MMQB’s Andy Benoit.
“I wish the NFL would rename the MVP the Joe Montana Quarterbacking Award or something like that,” Benoit said. “Because of the nature of football, and especially professional football, the most valuable players are inherently quarterbacks. I once argued against running backs and defensive players in an MVP debate over dinner with other writers and Mike Tanier (now of Bleacher Report) said, So wait, what you’re basically saying is only a quarterback can win MVP? Yes, that’s exactly what I was saying—if we’re to take seriously the Most Valuable part in the award’s title. Quarterbacks have too great of impact on the foundational tenets of the game. We still need to honor non-QBs, of course, which is why Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards should carry more clout. Let’s get rid of the MVP altogether, replace it with a QB award, and put greater emphasis on the offensive and defensive players of the year.”
Nothing wrong with a healthy discussion. Send your thoughts on what you think of the picks of our panelists to email@example.com. We’ll run some of your thoughts next week.