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New England QB Tom Brady
Based only on the regular-season, Aaron Rodgers deserves the MVP award. However, you can’t review the NFL season without including its postseason. During the playoffs, nobody played the game better than Brady did. He finished the postseason completing 68.9 percent of his passes for 921 yards and 10 touchdowns. He led New England to two come from behind playoff victories. The first was against Baltimore in the AFC Divisional, and the second against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. In his final 15 games, he finished with 4,239 yards, 39 touchdowns, and just 11 interceptions. The Patriots posted a 13-2 record over that span.
Honorable Mention: Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers
Houston DE J.J. Watt
No defensive player was more dominating than Watt was. He finished second in the league with 20.5 sacks, becoming the first player in NFL history to record 20-plus sacks in two seasons. He also forced four fumbles and returned his lone interception 80 yards for a touchdown. The Texans, who finished 2013 with a 2-14 record, won nine games this year. Watt either forced a turnover or recorded a sack in eight of those wins.
Honorable Mention: Kansas City LB Justin Houston
Coach of the Year
Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
Winning 11 games is an impressive feat no matter what the circumstances are. Winning 11 in the toughest division in football, while dealing with a plethora of injuries, is somewhat remarkable. Carson Palmer was Arizona’s most notable injury. He started six games for the Cardinals, winning all six of them. Palmer was playing some of the best football of his career before tearing his ACL against the St. Louis Rams in week 10. The Cardinals best defensive player, Darnell Dockett, missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Running back Andre Ellington succumbed to a hip injury in late November. Despite all the turmoil, Arizona made the playoffs. Arians is the reason why. Rather than over-think matchups, he has the uncanny ability to trust his players and play to their strengths. His philosophy nearly led the Cardinals to a divisional title. Unfortunately, they lost one too many quarterbacks as Drew Stanton went down with a knee injury against St. Louis in week 15.
Honorable Mention: Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
Executive of the Year
John Schneider, Seattle Seahawks
Last year’s top executive was also the best in 2014. Last off-season, Schneider extended the contracts of defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, ensuring they’ll remain in Seattle for the foreseeable future. He also re-signed defensive end Michael Bennett, the team’s top free agent. He added veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams via free agency. Williams went played in all 19 of Seattle’s game, starting the final 11. In the draft, Schneider used a second-round pick on right tackle Justin Britt. The rookie battled injuries late in the season, but he was an upgrade over Breno Giacomini who departed via free agency. Finally, Schneider made the bold move to trade receiver Percy Harvin for a conditional draft pick during the season. Harvin had become a distraction. Instead of letting him linger, Schneider acted. The Seahawks went 11-3 without him.
Honorable Mention: Ted Thompson, Green Bay Packers
Offensive Rookie of the Year
N.Y. Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr
Despite missing the first four games of the season, Beckham led all rookie receivers in receptions (91) and yards (1,305). He scored 12 touchdowns, tying him with Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans for the most among rookies. He finished the season with authority, recording at least 100 yards receiving in seven of his final nine games.
Honorable Mention: Dallas OG Zack Martin
Defensive Rookie of the Year
St. Louis DT Aaron Donald
Expectations were high for Donald heading into the year, but I don’t think anyone thought he’d emerge as the Rams’ top defensive lineman in year one. That’s exactly what he did, leading all rookies in sacks with nine. Donald rotated between end and tackle, displaying amazing quickness off the ball and a resounding ability to finish.
Honorable Mentions: Baltimore LB C.J. Mosley & Oakland LB Khalil Mack
Pittsburgh RB Le’Veon Bell
After an underwhelming rookie campaign, Pittsburgh signed LeGarrette Blount in the off-season to help Bell in the backfield. Blount never achieved liftoff in Pittsburgh. It was apparent in training camp Steelers coaches knew what they had in Bell. He’s a fantastic runner, yes, but he’s also one of the best receiving backs in football. He finished with 854 yards and three touchdowns on 83 receptions. That’s on top of 1,361 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Bell enters just this third season in 2015.
Honorable Mention: Green Bay WR Randall Cobb
Most Improved Player
New England LB Dont’e Hightower
First-round picks expect to contribute immediately. While Hightower started in each of his first two season seasons, it was only until now that he finally began to achieve his potential. He rushes the passer well and is equally as good against the run. He has also developed reliable coverage skills. Simply put, he emerged as one of the game’s most complete linebackers in 2014.
Honorable Mention: Minnesota DT Sharrif Floyd
Most Disappointing Player
San Diego WR Keenan Allen
Only Eddie Lacy had a better rookie season in 2013 than Allen did. As a result, many expected the second-year receiver to emerge from this season as a legitimate top 10 receiving threat. He regressed instead, catching 77 passes for just 783 yards and four touchdowns. After averaging 14.7 yards per catch last year, he averaged just 10.2 this season.
Honorable Mention: San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick
Philadelphia QB Nick Foles
Well on their way to a second consecutive divisional title, all the Eagles had to do was defeat Dallas in two upcoming games in November and December. Then Foles went down with a broken collarbone in week 9, ending his season. The Eagles turned to Mark Sanchez. He led them to a 4-4 record, turning the ball over 12 times in those eight starts. The Eagles would miss the playoffs, despite winning 10 games.
Honorable mention: Arizona QB Carson Palmer
Best Off-Season Acquisition
New England CB Darrelle Revis
Many saw Denver’s signing of Aqib Talib last off-season as a coup for the reigning AFC champs. Bill Belichick always has a backup plan, though. Enter Revis, who the Patriots used primarily in man coverage. This allowed him to return to his comfort zone, where he can lockup the opponent’s top receiver. He responded with an all-pro season, emerging as the best defensive player for the Patriots.
Honorable Mentions: Detroit WR Golden Tate & Denver WR Emmanuel Sanders
Super Bowl XLIX: New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks
The improbability of Seattle’s comeback against Green Bay in the NFC Championship makes it a Game of the Year candidate. The Packers dominated the first 55 minutes, however. It took an epic finish to cement its status in NFL postseason lore. The Super Bowl, alternatively, didn’t have a dull moment. The Patriots started quickly, moving the ball well in the first quarter. The Seahawks bounced-back in the second and third quarters, scoring all 24 of their points during that span. The fourth quarter belonged to New England, though. Down by 10 to start the quarter, Brady methodically led New England on two touchdown drives in their final two possessions, utilizing a short passing attack. The Patriots took a 28-24 lead with 2:06 remaining. There was too much time on the clock, and you got the feeling that Seattle would respond. It appeared that way when receiver Jermaine Kearse made a bobbling catch going to the ground, setting the Seahawks up with a first-and-goal situation. A Marshawn Lynch run put the ball on the New England one-yard line. A repeat was imminent. Then, with less than 30 seconds remaining, Seattle decided to call a pass play instead of putting the ball in the hands of its best player. They called an inside slant; believing even an incomplete pass was a quality play because it stopped the clock. Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler had other plans. He stepped in front of Russell Wilson’s throw and intercepted the ball with 20 seconds remaining. The interception clinched New England’s fourth title in 14 years, while fans in the Pacific Northwest were left stunned.
Honorable Mentions: NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks & Week 13: New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers
Play of the Year
Odell Beckham’s one-handed TD catch against the Dallas Cowboys
All everybody talked about the Monday following the Cowboys three-point victory over the Giants in week 12 was Beckham’s remarkable one-handed touchdown catch. Beckham, displaying amazing vertical ability, overcame a pass interference and plucked the ball out of the air one handed. He landed in bounds for a touchdown, completing one of the more remarkable plays in NFL regular-season history. Honestly, my words can’t do this play justice. Just go check it out here.
Honorable Mention: Marshawn Lynch’s 79-yard TD run against Arizona in Week 16
Story of the Year
The Ray Rice Incident
In March of 2014, Baltimore running back Ray Rice was charged with third-degree aggravated assault. He received just a two-game suspension. In early September, TMZ released a video of Rice knocking out his then fiancée (now wife) in an elevator. The internet and media exploded. That Roger Goodell thought a two-game suspension was enough for a man who knocked a woman unconscious is unfathomable. We’re talking about a league that suspends a player four games for smoking a joint. The Ravens parted ways with him shortly after, and Goodell suspended him from the NFL indefinitely. The NFL went into full politico mode following the incident. “We will get our house in order,” Goodell said, as if he were an embattled politician facing a Washington scandal. Calls for his job still echo throughout the public. Since Goodell became commissioner in 2006, there are 56 incidents of players arrested for domestic violence. Those players were suspended a combined 13 games, and just 10 were released by their teams. Had TMZ never leaked the video, Rice probably would’ve played for Baltimore this season. The NFL is changing its standards when it comes to punishing players that commit domestic violence. A first offense is now a six-game suspension, a second is banishment from the league. A player can apply for reinstatement after a year. These are good steps, but it’s sad how we got here. Prior to this fall, the overwhelming evidence points to the league not taking domestic violence very serious. If harsher suspensions and policies targeting behavior can reduce any harm its players are causing, then the league has a moral responsibility to implement these standards. This is a no brainier for a sport that asks its players to play a violent game. It’s sad that it took a video for the league and its fans to realize this.
Honorable Mention: The long-term health implications of concussions
Most Surprising Team
The Lions played ferocious defense, finishing second in total yards and points allowed. They led the NFC North for 13 of the NFL’s 17 weeks, and had a chance to win the division on the final week of the season. Detroit couldn’t overcome Aaron Rodgers, though, and wound up in the wild card round. They outplayed the Cowboys in the playoff game, holding all-pros DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant in check. A controversial flag pickup allowed Dallas to complete a comeback, ending Detroit’s season. The Lions are still searching for their first playoff win since the 1991 season. This year represented a major step in getting it.
Honorable Mention: Dallas Cowboys
Most Disappointing Team
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were a trendy Super Bowl pick this off-season. In 2013, in Rob Ryan’s first year as defensive coordinator, they demonstrated much improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Add in an already dominate offense and perhaps the best home-field advantage in football, and you have the recipe for 12 or 13-win team. The Saints finished 7-9 in 2014. The defense regressed, finishing No. 31 in total yards and No. 28 in points allowed. Their offense struggled with turnovers, finishing with a minus-13 turnover ratio. Finally, the once renowned home-field advantage didn’t come through. They finished just 3-5 in the Superdome, losing their last five games. It was their worst home record under Sean Payton.
Honorable Mentions: Chicago Bears & San Francisco 49ers