QUARTERBACK (Tom Brady) If the Patriots go all the way, you will be reading a lot of stuff written by people who never saw John Unitas, never saw Otto Graham, know only what their fathers told them about Terry Bradshaw and have only a dim recollection of Joe Montana ...
Stuff about why, in their opinion, Brady is the greatest of all time. I'm going to try to stay away from this one as long as humanly possible out of respect for the past. Brady will be evaluated when his body of work is close to being completed, but I think it's disrespectful to throw him into the mix right now.
But gosh, what a year he's had. You can say that everything is in place, the great receivers, the terrific protection. But someone still has to pull the trigger. And not flinch in the face of the rush, when it appears. At least he makes the choice of one position on an All-Pro team a whole lot easier for people such as myself.
RUNNING BACK(Brian Westbrook) No, not two running backs, Associated Press, one! Got it, one! A normal team lines up with one feature runner, and that's what an All-Pro unit should look like, even though it's a lot more convenient to avoid having to make the thorny choice.
Westbrook had the most yards, rushing and receiving, in the NFL. At the midway point I was leaning toward Adrian Peterson, who'd just come off his 296-yard afternoon. But for all the kid's greatness, he was stopped at times. Westbrook always found ways to make his presence felt. And do you remember what the Eagles looked like without him? They got murdered by the Giants and gained 190 yards, total. Not meaning to take anything away from Peterson, who's a fine runner, but in the two games he was out, the Vikings went 2-0 and Chester Taylor ran for 241 yards.
WIDEOUTS (Randy Moss) Moss is the reason New England scored the most points ever. If he wasn't catching all those touchdowns himself, he was opening things up for the other guys. Sure, he drops the ball at times, but you just have to live with it. It's like not being able to break Uncle Herman of the habit of spitting in the street.
My favorite Moss play this year? In the opener against the Jets, when they buttoned everything up with max protection and sent Moss galloping across the field, past the corner, past the safety, past the corner from the other side ... zip, zip, zip. It was like the old A train, the Eighth Avenue Express, going past the local stops between 59th and 125th Sts., zip, past 72nd, past 81st, past 86th. Fifty one yards and a touchdown, a continent and a half away from where he started.
We actually had competition at the other wideout. I did a game-by-game breakdown between T.O. and Reggie Wayne. T.O. is another guy who drops the ball, as we know, but I didn't let that swing the election. Wayne won it on 23 more catches, plus more big games, plus value to his team. Almost everyone else on the Colts' receiving corps was hurt. There were games in which it seemed that he and Joe Addai and Peyton were keeping the offense afloat among them.
TIGHT END (Jason Witten) Witten finished three catches behind Tony Gonzalez as the league's top pass-catching TE, but he lost the lead in the last week, when the Cowboys were resting people. He's more of a significant blocker; the Cowboys were more serious about their sweeps and off-tackle runs than the Chiefs were, with their skewed offensive line. Antonio Gates had roughly the same kind of year he had in '06, which was good enough to get him to the Pro Bowl, but not better than Witten's season, and I'm glad the Pro Bowl pickers finally have wised up to Alge Crumpler, who drops as many as he catches.
SLOT RECEIVER (Wes Welker) Why do the All-Pro pickers insist on a fullback, when most teams use one for about 10 plays a game, preferring a three-wide attack? OK, if I had to choose a FB it would be Cleveland's Lawrence Vickers, who goes after people with disdain, but there's no way I was going to pick an All-Pro team and leave Welker off.
You know how they're always saying how it takes a new receiver time to adjust to the quarterback? I mean, I heard that about the Colts' Anthony Gonzalez for more than half the season. But it took Brady about five minutes to get timed up with Welker.
And what a boost that's been to the offense. Welker broke the Pats' single-season pass-catching record by 11 receptions, and tied for first in the NFL. He was Brady's hot man against the blitz, his bail-out receiver who always seemed to put a move on a defender just as he made the difficult catch. I've said many times that he's the greatest hot receiver I've ever seen.
TACKLES (Flozell Adams, Jason Peters) I'd never picked Adams on my All-Pro team and I didn't plan to this year. I mean, his technique was just so sloppy. He kind of engulfs people. I wasn't even going to do a grading on him, along with the other lads. But then I was going through my DEs and the Giants' Osi Umenyiora flunked out, basically because of a pair of zeros against the Cowboys.
Now a zero in my system is very rare. It doesn't just mean no sack, it means no outstanding defensive play of any kind ... force against the pass or against the run, tackle near the line, even enough penetration to blow up a play. All those get a check mark of some kind. But Flozell held Osi to nothing. So I looked at him more closely, or rather, at his opponents.
Jason Taylor of Miami. Zero. Huh? I know he's been beaten up this year, but a zero for Jason? I'd never seen that. Rosevelt Colvin of the Patriots. Zero. Andre Carter of Washington. Zero. Schobel of Buffalo, a single force. Cole of Philly, who's a good active rusher, two tackles on running plays. I had found the rarest commodity of all, an offensive tackle, which are just so difficult to come by these days. And I didn't even do a grading on Flozell, his drive blocking, etc. Just the guys he faced.
I went with my grades for the other tackle spot. The Bills' young, athletic Peters scored highest. When he left the Giants game with a groin pull, the offense fell apart. I use the same basic system for all 0-linemen, but my tackle grades are the lowest for any position.
Light of the Patriots, a quick type of blocker, was runner-up. Joe Thomas, the Cleveland rookie, finished next. Very sound, but for a while he was into some weird, cutting technique that didn't serve him very well. Then he played it safe, and soft, and didn't let his man near the QB very often, but didn't move many people out, either.
Samuels of Washington started out well, then faltered. Lepsis of Denver, another guy I've liked in the past, came apart toward the end of the season. I was told the Panthers' Jordan Gross was the best RT in the league. Not in the games I saw him. New Orleans Jammal Brown, everyone's favorite tackle last year, never recovered from what I assume was a pretty bad injury because he struggled. Seattle's perennial Walter Jones has lost most of the punch he had at one time, but he can still get pretty decent position.
GUARDS (Logan Mankins, Jason Brown) Mankins was my favorite guard last year, and this one, too. He's got it all, brains, quickness, meanness. I saw him have only one tough game, and that was against Haloti Ngata of the Ravens, but everyone has trouble trying to move that guy. It's like blocking something out of a quarry.
A sleeper, Brown of the Ravens, ran away with my other position. A different type. He's a 6-3, 320-pound bowling ball, and when he hits 'em, they fly. If I needed any convincing at all on him, and I really didn't, it came against the Patriots, when he just about put a hole in Richard Seymour's chest.
People occasionally ask me for my scoring numbers on the linemen, and I don't mind providing them, except for the tackles because they're embarrassingly low. But here are the grades for my top guards: Mankins 5.5; Brown 5.3; Hutchinson of the Vikings, a little slower, a little less sure footed than my pair, 4.7; Lilja of the Colts 3.7; the Redskins' Pete Kendall, who had a terrific game at Green Bay, 3.6; Pittsburgh's Faneca, not as young nor as balanced as he used to be, 3.5; Andrews of Philly 3.2.
If you're sad that your favorite Pro Bowler isn't mentioned, it's because I started grading him, realized that he'd never make it, and gave it up before I'd gotten every look.
CENTER (Jeff Saturday) I'll go with the same drill, OK? The Colts' Saturday and Koppen of the Patriots were pretty close all year. At crunch time I was faced with a choice, Saturday, the old pro who might be starting on the downside in years to come, or Koppen, who's on the rise. I went with the old vet, whom I'd never picked before, having chosen Tom Nalen for as long as I can remember.
The grades were 4.9 for Saturday, 4.6 for Koppen, and here comes the rest of the parade: Meester of Jacksonville 4.4, Mangold of the Jets 3.9, Jackson of Philly 3.3, Mawae of Tennessee 3.2, Faine of New Orleans 2.7. You'll notice that most of these players are of the fairly quick-footed variety. Probably the best of the brute force type is Gurode of Dallas, but after six games I gave up on him because he just wasn't in the hunt.
I'll have to award an asterisk to Miami rookie Samson Satele, very willing, very energetic. Big effort, some mistakes. He had a really outstanding game on the road against the Jets, in others he had his share of whiffs. Definitely a guy to watch for the future, though. He might be better as a guard.
I've been asked how many looks I'll get on a particular player. The most I got on any team this year was 16, for the Giants. I had 13 looks at the Patriots. The fewest was four for the Rams. Generally, the average is around seven or eight. If I'm still undecided about someone, I'll get coaching films from the team. They're generally pretty good about sending them. I did that with two players last year: DeMeco Ryans of the Texans and Kyle Vanden Bosch of Tennessee.
ENDS (Jared Allen, Aaron Kampman) I don't want to brag but ... well, let me brag a little. I had Allen last year. No one else did. Generally, it takes a year or two for someone to get recognized, and then once he's picked to something it takes forever for them to stop picking him. Battling to survive on a desperate team, the NFL's sack leader kept the heat on almost all year. No defensive player, at any position, approached the 7.0 grade I had for him.
I had a problem at the other spot. The Bears' Adewale Ogunleye graded out slightly higher than Kampman, but Wale was basically rushing upfield while Kampman played run and pass. Chicago's defense was vulnerable on the ground, and I couldn't tell how much of that was because there were too many rushers along the front and not enough run-stoppers. So I went against the grades and let the deciding factor be: How much each player meant to his defense. Kampman, who seemed to get less relief than anyone else on that D-line, got the call on that basis.
I did charts on a ton of DEs, 15, tied with cornerback as the heaviest position on my board. After four weeks Marques Douglas of the 49ers was running away with it, while Allen was sitting it out on a suspension. Wow, what a great pick that would be for me. Sometimes you start rooting for players as you watch them and record their efforts. That's what I was doing with Douglas, who was selling out on practically every snap. But it didn't last. By the Arizona game in November he was wearing down. He had been raising hell against the Cards in the opener. By December he was a very tired ballplayer. A shame.
With Mario Williams of the Texans it was the reverse. I didn't even chart him at the beginning of the year. Then the lightbulb seemed to go on in November against Denver and he whipped Lepsis, in a three-sack frenzy. So I went back and did a complete work-up. I didn't think he matched that outing, at least in games I saw.
I felt that Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks was the best player on the field against the Redskins in the wild-card playoff, so I went back and charted him, too. I had thought that, coming from the Atlanta 3-4 he'd go wild with the Seahawks, and he did, kind of, at the end of the year, but not in the earlier contests I had on tape. His overall figures were good, not great.
I enjoyed watching Robert Mathis, who played on the left side, the power end position, for the Colts -- at 235 pounds. It's the old Charles Haley syndrome. Everyone says, "Wow, watch them run against him," but these guys are just so good, technically, they use such fine leverage, that they just don't get buried. People also used to say that about Deacon Jones, the Rams' great pass rusher. "We'll run at him. We'll make him play football." So on first down he slaps the blocker away and now it's second-and-10, and what do you do? Mathis was a high grader on my chart, with me rooting all the way.
TACKLE (Albert Haynesworth) Just one of them. I lined my team up in a 3-4, which is what I've done when the MLB's are better than the DTs. Haynesworth was so good that even the Pro-Bowl selectors didn't screw up the pick. He got tired at times and had to come out, played hard most of the way, tore up the inside of the line, formed a nasty two-man tandem when he and Vanden Bosch, the end next to him, were working their stunts, jumped offside and took an occasional cheap shot. In other words, he gave you a full afternoon.
No one was close. I could list the roster of DTs or NTs I went through, but none were in his class. I will mention two, though. Pat Williams, neglected by everyone except one Dr. in New Jersey two years ago, finally is getting the recognition he deserves, and I'm happy to see it. And Ngata was really fun to watch, mainly because they couldn't move the guy with dynamite. I called a couple of Ravens' offensive coaches about him. They told me that none of their linemen wanted to face him in practice. I could guess why. Because they'd look foolish trying to budge him. Yep, the typical phone booth linemen, but not a real pass-rush threat.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (Lance Briggs, DeMarcus Ware) Generally I try to have one cover guy and one rusher. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way. This year it did. My top cover man was Briggs, who held up well in a defense that got overrun at times. Then, in order, came Sims of Detroit, Crowell of Buffalo and Hawk of Green Bay. My favorite hybrid type -- sometimes rush, sometimes drop, was Harrison of Pittsburgh, followed by Dansby of Arizona and the Patriots' Vrabel, who, in typical Belichick fashion, was an edge rusher in some games and a player who merely took a zone drop in others. Hard to figure out, except that I saw him wearing down a bit during the year. I think the Colts' Freddy Keaiho, who was hurt for part of the season, is a sound, and also explosive player who will be a star of the future. Oops, forgot one. LeroyHill of the Seahawks is very good and often overlooked by flashier people around him.
There are a million rush specialists. Some, such as Suggs of Baltimore, I call DEs because they have practically no coverage responsibility. Last year I thought Merriman was the most devastating. This year I felt it was Ware, who is also effective popping up in an underneath zone and disrupting things. Shaun Philips, I felt, was better than Merriman, his Chargers running mate, Peterson of the Seahawks was very scary when he got on a roll.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (Patrick Willis, Jonathan Beason) Two rookies, Willis and Beason, ran away with it. They were both dynamic and quick-striking -- and amazingly sound in their coverage. There really wasn't much separating them in ability, except that Willis was a bit more explosive. Morrison of Oakland was my early leader, but he tailed a bit as the season wore on, and struggled against the Jaguars, as all the Raiders did. I really like the heroic effort all year by Indy's Brackett, and despite all of Brian Urlacher's reported back troubles, I thought he hung in pretty well.
Without getting into a huge grade thing, this is the order in which I had them, after Beason and Willis, and this position represented what I felt was the highest quality of any of them -- Urlacher; Ruud, Tampa Bay; Morrison; Farrior, Pittsburgh; Brackett; Barnett, Green Bay; Henderson, Minnesota; Witherspoon, St. Louis.
CORNERBACKS (Terence Newman, Will Allen) Next to OT, this was the toughest position on the board in which to find an All-Pro because the league seems dedicated to legislating them out of existence. There are no, repeat no, shutdown corners anymore, but there are a lot of Cover Two guys. Every announcer who ever covers a Denver game, however, will assign that role to Champ Bailey. It's not true. He gets his share of man coverage, but he'll give up the underneath stuff, and if he isn't paying attention he'll get beat deep as well.
Ron Jaworski, in doing the Denver-San Diego game on ESPN, came up with some Bailey statistics that brought me out of my chair, because they're the kind I keep. Thirty seven completions out of 63 attempts, Jaws said, 58 percent (actually closer to 59), only three touchdowns. "A shutdown cornerback." Huh? Not on my chart. That's little better than mediocre.
My system is pretty complicated -- make that very complicated -- because of all the variables involved. I didn't pick Bailey because, although capable of a great game on occasion, he simply gave up more than other players did. I looked hard at Asante Samuel, and I found a flashy player who gambles on occasion, when he thinks the odds are with him, but also likes to play deep and try to snatch up the quick out when people don't expect it.
Newman of Dallas became a starter on my team when he emerged from the pack, allowing a higher percentage of completions than I'd like but the lowest average of yards per attempt (4.0). I tracked my All-Pro from last year, Nnamdi Asomugha, and I noticed teams staying away from him, which is a plus, but I didn't see as much activity from him as he showed last season.
I thought Nate Clements, who cost the Niners a fortune, was a major disappointment. I liked the year that Washington's Shawn Springs had, until he suffered a major collapse against the Seahawks. Tillman of Chicago, Woodson of Green Bay, Winfield of Minnesota (when he was healthy), Trufant of Seattle, Mathis of Jacksonville ... all were fairly effective on my charts.
I really liked the aggressive way in which Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan came on, after they stopped weeping about the loss of PacMan and gave him a chance, and ... let's see, who's left? Oh yes, San Diego's Antonio Cromartie. A swooper, a ball hawk ... he was my other All-Pro cornerback until ... until ... OK, I can't avoid it any longer, and I need a new paragraph for this one.
They have already called the psycho ward and reserved a place for me because Will Allen of the Dolphins is my other All-Pro corner. When I went to bed with Newman and Cromartie as my pair, I didn't feel good about it, in fact I felt miserable, kind of like Benedict Arnold did after he had let the side down. At 4 a.m. I was sitting at the kitchen table, giving the charts one last look. Sometimes I start phoning people, even at that hour, to crystallize my thinking, but I didn't want to hear a single other opinion about Allen because I knew it would be, "Waddya nuts?"
I had him as the best player on the field when the Giants beat Miami in drizzly London. In fact, it was the best game I'd seen for any cornerback this season. I had another good one for him in the downpour at Pittsburgh. I had a couple more good ones and one bummer -- against the Jets the second time, when they dragged him across the field and completed a long one on him. He graded out higher than anyone except Newman.
He was still a guy no one ever had picked for anything and, since he'll be 30 next season, probably never will. But dammit, he had been terrific on my modest little chart; did I have the courage of my own convictions or was I going to live and die the copout, the wimp, that all my high school teachers predicted I'd become? "No!" I hollered, jumping to my feet and waking , with a start, Little Jake, the tabby, who was sleeping on the table. "I will do what is right!" Thus, Will Allen is my All-Pro corner, and if you want my game-by-game charts, I will supply them, along with sobriety test results.
And just in case you're wondering why Cromartie's name appears in Sports Illustrated, please bear in mind that it was done by somebody else. My man is Allen and that's all I'm going to say about it.
STRONG SAFETY (Bob Sanders) Have to calm down now. Need a sure-fire choice, and thank you, Bob Sanders, for making it easy for me. Not every game of his was wonderful, but the overall achievement was. He made his teammates play faster, he enabled them to take more chances, since he could shut down a play swiftly and surely. The Colts, don't forget, allowed the fewest points in the league.
FREE SAFETY (Ed Reed) I had written SeanTaylor's name in after half a dozen games. He had toned down the wildness and had become technically sound and a terrific ballhawk, to go with his thunderous hitting. The complete package. Then that terrible night in Palmetto Bay and everything went to hell. The Redskins kept his name on their starting depth chart all year. The Pro Bowl selectors voted him a posthumous spot. I'd like to come up with a similar honor, but all I can do is shake my head at the tragedy that arises from nowhere and get on with my job of picking the player I think is best at the position.
And it's the Ravens' Ed Reed, a fairly comfortable choice because what he does on the field is the most noticeable. A real sleeper, a player whose game is subtle but effective -- especially when he's covering tremendous territory to find a distant interception -- is Oshio Atogwe of the Rams.
Almost all of them have raised their percentage to unheard of heights, but KrisBrown does it for me because of his 5-for-5 from 50 yards or longer, including his 57-yarder than beat the Dolphins with one second to go.
Punters have been seeking the elusive 40-yard net average ever since the league, at the urging of ex-Giant booter Dave Jennings, first listed the statistic 31 years ago. This season not one, but two, reached it, Lechler of the Raiders (41.1) and the Niners' Andy Lee (41.0). This is a momentous occasion, and I'd dearly love to pick both of them, but the rules say one punter per team, so I'm going with Lechler, who now is the all-time record holder.
My return man is Devin Hester on the strength of his six combined TD's, which give us another all-time mark.
Michael Robinson, possessed of the arcane skill of blocking for returns as well as merely busting them up is our ace in that department.
Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year offer no surprises, Belichick has to be our coach. Too often do you see some guy who raised a team from 2-14 to playoff level get the honor, only to exit quickly in the postseason while the Super Bowl winner gets to be determined after the award is given.
Finally a special award:
Assistant Coach of the Year: If you wonder why Brady has so much time to pass, please give some credit to the guy who has turned the O-line into such a beautifully synchronized unit, and that's Dante Scarnecchia.