GREATNESS COMES in cycles, so let's call 2005 the Year of the Running Back. A half dozen were worthy of selection to the 27th annual Dr. Z All-Pro team, notably the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander, the Colts' Edgerrin James and the Falcons' Warrick Dunn, who had the year of his life. But I settled on the Giants' Tiki Barber, who has been around for nine years and has never gotten the recognition he deserved. When he set the Giants' single-game rushing record of 220 yards on Dec. 17, he was running behind a battered offensive line missing the starting tackles. In leading the NFL with a combined 2,390 rushing and receiving yards, he was pushing himself past the point of exhaustion week after week. He's the choice in a crowded position--and my pick for Player of the Year.
Elsewhere on the offensive unit, Carson Palmer, the biggest reason why the Bengals returned to grace after 14 seasons without a winning record, is my quarterback; the second biggest reason, wideout Chad Johnson, Cincinnati's long-ball threat, also gets my vote. He beat out stiff competition from Arizona's twin stars, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, along with St. Louis's Torry Holt and Washington's Santana Moss. The other wideout spot is an easy pick: Carolina's Steve Smith is simply the best in the game, filling the dual roles of possession receiver and downfield threat.
Tight end Antonio Gates, one of just two repeaters from my 2004 team, is one of three Chargers who earned a spot this year, unusual for a club that didn't make the postseason. But he's an unquestioned pick at the position, the team's leading target as well as a willing blocker. For the combined fullback and H-back position I'll take the Redskins' Chris Cooley, who blocks with power and is Mark Brunell's leading possession receiver.
The Denver rushing factory that seems to crank out a different 1,000-yard runner every year provides two of my offensive linemen. Tackle Matt Lepsis is smooth as a pass blocker, and he's nifty footed and technically sound, rather than punishing, as a drive blocker. Center Tom Nalen, mobile and smart, beat out the Colts' Jeff Saturday and the Chiefs' Casey Wiegmann.
The Seahawks' Walter Jones, solid in every game except one, against Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, is a repeat choice at tackle. Both picks at guard are sleepers. San Diego's Mike Goff, after seven years of anonymity, had a breakout season, supplying a lot of the muscle that kept LaDainian Tomlinson in business. Ryan Lilja, the Colts' second-year veteran, was a total surprise, but his grades, particularly on trap blocks to either side, jumped off my chart.
On defense, the Giants' Michael Strahan is one of my ends. He went into the season lighter than usual, which gave him great pursuit ability and stamina to go with his already formidable ability to play the run and the pass. His sidekick, Umenyiora, lost by a whisker to Bears end Alex Brown, the most relentless member of the best defensive line in the business.
Nosetackle Pat Williams migrated from Buffalo to Minnesota and brought a very nasty attitude with him. He left a trail of damaged centers around the league. No other lineman, on offense or defense, graded as highly on my chart as Williams did. Richard Seymour of the Patriots fills the other tackle spot. When he missed three games with a knee injury, the Patriots' defense slumped noticeably.
Miami's Zach Thomas, who gets more coverage responsibility than any other middle linebacker in the league, is a narrow choice over the Eagles' Jeremiah Trotter. Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman started the season as a backup (rookies make coach Marty Schottenheimer nervous) but came on as a pass-rushing maniac at midseason and turned the Indianapolis game almost single-handedly. The Bears' weakside backer, Lance Briggs, a gifted pass defender, beat out the Colts' Cato June and the Redskins' Marcus Washington at the other outside spot.
Shutdown corners are practically gone from the game; the league's rule makers are creating a position that's almost impossible to play. Based on their consistency, Carolina's Ken Lucas and Dallas's Terence Newman got my votes. The Broncos' Champ Bailey is the most talented physically, but he has lapses that put six points on the board for the other team.
Pittsburgh's dynamic Troy Polamalu is my strong safety. The Vikings' crafty old vet Darren Sharper, who has become a master at reading defenses, beats out Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins and Washington's Sean Taylor at free safety.
Neil Rackers made an NFL-record 40 field goals and had the league's highest field goal percentage (95.2%), which makes the Cardinals kicker an easy choice. Usually, domers are among the league leaders in punting, so it's amazing that Buffalo's Brian Moorman, who kicks in one of the toughest places in the NFL, had the league's highest punting average (45.7 yards per attempt) and the second highest net (39.1). The Texans' brilliant Jerome Mathis was slightly below the Bills' Terrence McGee in kick return average, but Mathis had two TDs and his unit was not as skilled. He's the pick. The Bears' Brendon Ayanbadejo didn't have as many special teams tackles as some other players did, but his were of the memorable variety that made returners think twice.
The Colts' Tony Dungy is the Coach of the Year. Tampa Bay's Cadillac Williams, who missed two games with a foot injury but still ran for almost 1,200 yards, is the Rookie of the Year.
Dr. Z's All-Pro Team
|Player of the Year||TIKI BARBER||Giants|
|Rookie of the Year||CADILLAC WILLIAMS||Bucs|
|Coach of the Year||TONY DUNGY||Colts|