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Denver QB Peyton Manning
Two years removed from a career-threatening neck injury, Manning produced the greatest statistical season in NFL history from a quarterback. Including postseason, Manning threw for 6,387 yards and 60 touchdowns in 19 games. That’s an average of about 336 yards and three touchdowns per game. Manning’s historic season paved the way for Denver to become the first offense in NFL history to score 600 or more points. The Broncos also made their first Super Bowl appearance in 15 years.
Honorable Mention: Kansas City RB Jamaal Charles & Philadelphia RB LeSean McCoy
Seattle CB Richard Sherman
Some may argue that Seattle safety Earl Thomas is more valuable to the Seahawks' defense than Sherman is. We've seen ball-hawking safeties before, though. We've seen very few shutdown corners. Sherman is a legit shutdown corner. According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman did not allow a single reception against New Orleans and San Francisco in the NFC playoffs. In the Super Bowl, he allowed just two receptions for 10 yards. In the NFC championship, he made perhaps the year’s best defensive play when he deflected San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s pass intended to Michael Crabtree into the hands of Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith. During the regular-season, Sherman was the foundation of a secondary that held opponents to 172 passing yards per game, the best in pro football. The Seahawks also held opponents to a 63.4 passer rating. The next closest (Cincinnati) was over 10 points higher. He also led the league with eight interceptions.
Honorable Mention: Carolina LB Luke Kuechly, Indianapolis LB Robert Mathis, & Seattle S Earl Thomas
Coach of the Year
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Because of some incredible comebacks, the Patriots somehow managed 12 wins and made their third consecutive appearance in the AFC championship. They did this without Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Sebastian Vollmer for much of the year. They also had to overcome the off-season distraction resulting from Aaron Hernandez’s legal situation. Many credit Brady for their success, but he did not have a great season. His 25 touchdown passes were his fewest in a season since '06. His passer rating was his lowest since '03, and he posted the second worst completion percentage of his career. You can’t discount Brady’s leadership, but Belichick’s ability to adjust his team on the fly allowed New England to overachieve. He took a passing team and made them run-oriented. He also patched together the defense. Most coaches try to force a player to fit his scheme. Belichick adapted his philosophy for the players he had.
Honorable Mention: Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals & Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Executive of the Year
John Schneider, Seattle Seahawks
A disciple of Ron Wolf, Schneider (along with Pete Carroll) built Seattle into the best team we’ve arguably seen since the '04 Patriots. Schneider did an excellent job of utilizing all his resources. This off-season, he traded a first-round pick for Minnesota wide receiver Percy Harvin. Injuries derailed Harvin’s season, but he came up huge in the Super Bowl with 137 all-purpose yards on four touches. In addition to Harvin, Schneider signed defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency. The duo combined for 16.5 sacks in 2013.
Honorable Mention: John Elway, Denver Broncos
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy
Both Lacy and San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allen had a case for offensive rookie of the year. However, Lacy was the only player keeping the Packers afloat with Aaron Rodgers hurt. Lacy especially stood out in three games. The first was his 120-yard effort on the road in Baltimore. After that game, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy grew more confident in Lacy as a play caller. The other two were without Rodgers in the lineup. Against Minnesota, Lacy ran for 110 yards and a touchdown, as the Packers battled their rival to a tie. The other was his performance against Dallas. Down 26-3 at half, Lacy and backup quarterback Matt Flynn led the Packers to a 34-point second half. Lacy finished the game with 141 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. Without the late-season win at Dallas or the mid-season tie against the Vikings, Green Bay would have missed the playoffs.
Honorable Mention: San Diego WR Keenan Allen
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Buffalo LB Kiko Alonso
Throughout the off-season, many expected quarterback E.J. Manuel and wide receiver Robert Woods to generate buzz as Buffalo rookies. Neither proved as consistent and ready for the NFL as Alonso did. A second-round pick out of Oregon, Alonso finished third among all players with 159 total tackles. He also forced a fumble and intercepted four passes in a span of four games. During a week six matchup with Cincinnati, Alonso had a season-high 22 tackles. His presence inside has Buffalo feeling optimistic about their defense's future.
Honorable Mention: N.Y. Jets DL Sheldon Richardson
Cleveland WR Josh Gordon
A month into the '12 season, Gordon began to emerge as a bright spot on an otherwise gloomy Cleveland roster. In the off-season, the NFL suspended Gordon two games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Despite the suspension, Gordon went off and posted Calvin Johnson style numbers. In 14 games, he caught 87 passes for a league-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns. He went over 200 receiving yards in consecutive weeks with 237 in week 12 and 261 in week 13. The Browns appear as dysfunctional as any organization in football right now, but Gordon’s ascension offers hope for the future.
Honorable Mention: St. Louis DE Robert Quinn
Most Improved Player
Philadelphia QB Nick Foles
In his rookie season, the speed of the NFL appeared to overwhelm Foles. The Eagles' signal caller really didn’t display any encouraging signs. Still, he entered the off-season vying for Philadelphia’s starting quarterback position. The job went to Michael Vick, but -- as he often does -- Vick got hurt. This opened the door for Foles, who went onto produce monster numbers. He threw for 2,891 yards, 27 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions in 10 starts. He displayed excellent command of head coach Chip Kelly’s offense and played at a much faster pace. The Eagles' offense took off and finished behind only the Broncos in total yards.
Honorable Mention: Chicago WR Alshon Jeffery
Most Disappointing Player
Baltimore RB Ray Rice
After four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Rice underperformed significantly in 2013. He ran for just 660 yards and four touchdowns, while averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. His 3.1 yards per carry was the lowest average for a running back with 200-plus carries this season. In addition, his receptions (58) and receiving yards (321) were his lowest since his rookie year.
Honorable Mention: Baltimore QB Joe Flacco & N.Y. Giants QB Eli Manning
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers
Following a 1-2 start, Green Bay reeled off four consecutive wins and emerged as major players in the NFC. In week nine, however, Rodgers broke his collarbone on the opening series of a Monday night game versus Chicago. Including the Monday night game, Rodgers missed eight games for the Packers and the team went just 2-5-1 without him.
Honorable Mention: New England TE Rob Gronkowski
Best Off-Season Acquisition
San Francisco WR Anquan Boldin
When the 49ers acquired Boldin from Baltimore for a sixth-round pick, they expected him to compliment Michael Crabtree as a No. 2 receiver. Crabtree tore his ACL in the off-season, though, forcing Bolding to fill the void. He did just that. He led the 49ers in receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,179). He also added seven touchdowns. Boldin set the tempo early for San Francisco. In the season opener versus the Packers, Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown. Crabtree returned in December, but Boldin remain a focal point of the offense throughout the playoffs. In a divisional playoff game at Carolina, the 33-year-old receiver caught eight passes for 136 yards.
Honorable Mention: Denver OG Louis Vasquez
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
Throughout most of the year, Seattle and San Francisco appeared to be on a collision course for NFC championship. For once, the public received the matchup they wanted with the Seahawks and 49ers squaring off for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The 49ers jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, but the Seahawks fought back to tie the game early in the second half. Midway through the third quarter, Kaepernick put the 49ers ahead after throwing an amazing touchdown pass in which he left his feet as he threw the ball. Seattle struck early in the game‘s final period, however. On fourth-and-7, quarterback Russell Wilson launched a throw to the end zone, where wide receiver Jermaine Kearse caught the ball to give the Seahawks a 20-17 lead. Seattle failed to put the game away, though, and clung to just a 23-17 lead as Kaepernick drove the 49ers into Seattle territory. With 30 seconds remaining, Kaepernick got greedy and took a shot to the end zone, but Sherman tipped the pass, allowing Smith to intercept the ball. What made the game feel special was its contrast to today's NFL. Instead of high-scoring and inflated statistics, it was hard-hitting and featured a pair of teams that do not like each other. Seattle showed just a bit more grit than San Francisco did, allowing them to walk away victorious.
Honorable Mention: Week 12: Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Week 17: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, & AFC Wild Card: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts
Play of the Year
Aaron Rodgers' 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on 4th and 8
Less than a minute remained, Green Bay faced a fourth-and-8, and the NFC North title was at stake. Rodgers -- playing in his first game in over a month -- rolled to his left and delivered a strike to Cobb for a 48-yard touchdown with just 33 seconds remaining. Part of what made the play brilliant (aside from Rodgers' amazing throw) was the block fullback John Kuhn delivered on Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers. Kuhn came across the line and delivered a cut block on Peppers, who had Rodgers dead to rights. There’s simply no way Rodgers would’ve been able to roll to his left, spot Cobb, and deliver a perfect throw without Kuhn’s block. The game-winning score clinched the NFC North for Green Bay. The play goes down as one of the greatest in the history of the Green Bay Packers.
Honorable Mention: Malcolm Smith’s interception off Colin Kaepernick in the NFC championship game
Story of the Year
The Locker Room Culture
In the middle of the season, Miami tackle Jonathan Martin left the team and accused guard Richie Incognito of harassing him. A media firestorm followed bringing the culture of an NFL locker room to the forefront of the news. An NFL locker room is not going to be full of choir boys and nobody should expect the culture to evolve as fast as general society has. Still, Martin suggested that his race might have motivated Incognito. It became a very serious story, as a result. The story is still unfolding, but the more we learn, the worse Martin looks. To be sure, Incognito appears to be a 30-year-old man going on 13, but Martin isn’t without fault in the incident. Voicemails made public by Incognito show Martin also sporting vulgar language as he talked to Incognito. Miami players also took Incognito’s side in the dispute. Perhaps most damaging of all is that Martin continues to hide behind his agent and lawyer. It took him months to break his silence, while Incognito did a national interview less than a week after the incident made headiness. Everything about Martin screams rehearsed. Many people will cry of attacking the victim, but Martin was participating in the culture he’s now attacking. Nobody looks good here. Incognito looks like a jerk, Martin seems cunning, and the Dolphins appear clueless.
Honorable Mention: Peyton Manning’s legacy debate, Chip Kelly’s offense, & Seattle’s dominating win in Super Bowl XLVIII
Most Surprising Team
Because of Chip Kelly, the Eagles were a compelling team entering the season. While I do believe they benefited from playing in the lowly NFC East, the thought of them winning 10 games never seem plausible. Yet, that’s exactly what Kelly did in his first season as Philadelphia’s head coach. Led by Foles and running back LeSean McCoy, the Eagles' offense took the league by storm, averaging 417.2 yards per game. The Eagles still have work to do in rebuilding their defense, but the offense appears poised to be the strength of the team for the next several seasons.
Honorable Mention: Arizona Cardinals & Kansas City Chiefs
Most Disappointing Team
The freefall of Houston was the league’s biggest surprise in 2013. It’s not as if the Texans dealt with more injuries than anybody else did. They simply could not win close games. Of Houston’s 14 losses, eight were by a seven points or less. The Texans are too talented of a team to remain in the basement of the NFL for a prolonged period. Still, for Texan fans, it’s going to take a major turnaround in 2014 to wipe away memories of an atrocious three-win season.
Honorable Mention: Atlanta Falcons & N.Y. Giants