While the National Football League and its top members are likely counting the minutes until the dreadful 2014 season – a year shrouded in scandal – is behind them, the seventeen weeks that encompassed the regular season still captivated a nationwide fanbase like it does every year. Even with a half dozen teams being virtually eliminated from playoff contention by Halloween, we still were treated to a few wild – some, unconventional – divisional races and the typical jaw-dropping performances that keep us coming back year after year.
The NFL’s regular season is unlike the other three ‘major sports’ in the sense that it is not a marathon. It is, in contrast, a dead sprint, where the winner of the race is often times the runner whose lungs give the ability to kick into a higher gear towards the end. Because of this, we also have violent swings in the races for each award, as one week’s favorite could quickly fall off the map.
What made 2014 so interesting is that defensive end J.J. Watt was so dominant throughout the year that there were serious talks about Watt becoming the first defensive player to win the Most Valuable Player award in nearly 30 years. But even with Watt performing at an extraordinarily high level, he was still eclipsed Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. This pattern is true for most of the league, as almost every award includes a few contestants that would have otherwise been considered the favorite had it not been for one runaway champion.
Most Valuable Player
It makes sense to start the awards with the biggest, not because of its weight, but by the respect owed to the man who so out-performed the aforementioned J.J. Watt that he solidified the league’s MVP. Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the 12-4 Packers, second seed in the NFC, tossing 38 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions, and boasting a ridiculous 8-0 home record during which he did not throw an interception, yet tallied 25 passing touchdowns, takes home the hardware.
Perhaps the most important statistic of all is that the Packers needed every one of Rodgers’ performances to stave off the 11-5 Lions in the NFC North race. Not only was Rodgers the best player in the league this season, but his value to a team that won its division and earned a first-round bye on his shoulders is undeniable. J.J. Watt was critical to keeping the Texans’ playoff hopes alive, but Aaron Rodgers made the Packers into the dominant force that proved to be one of the league’s best teams.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers
Runner-up: J.J. Watt
Offensive Player of the Year
Aaron Rodgers is the obvious winner, but in an effort to avoid redundancy, we will focus on the runner-up, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Murray opened the season with a record-breaking eight consecutive games with at least 100 rushing yards, and finished the year with twelve such performances. Leading the league in rushing yards, touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage – he also led in attempts and yards per game, but those are largely functions of the other stats – Murray blew past all other players at his position, cruising to what would have been an Offensive Player of the Year award, had it not been for Rodgers.
Easily one of the most dynamic and elusive players we have seen in years, Murray’s season is a testament to his ability when he is able to avoid injury for an entire season. But even that was tested, as the running back broke a bone in his hand, yet still contributed to Dallas’ Week 16 blowout of the Colts, rushing for a touchdown in the game.
Winner: Aaron Rodgers
Runner-up: DeMarco Murray
Defensive Player of the Year
How do you describe a player who totaled 20.5 sacks, one interception – returned for a touchdown in one of the most athletic plays all season – four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, and three receiving touchdowns? With all of these accolades, J.J. Watt may actually be the best player in the league, regardless of the side of the ball on which he plays. In fact, if he was listed as a tight end in fantasy football, he would likely be drafted in most leagues.
Watt’s dominance is evident on nearly every play. He disrupts all aspects of his opponent’s gameplan and single-handedly took over the battle in the trenches. No defensive player was more impactful than Watt, and no one is playing at a higher level, right now. When both of those align – and considering the fact that Watt has been able to avoid any sign of a regression – the winner is obvious.
Winner: J.J. Watt
Runners-up: Luke Kuechly, DeAndre Levy
Offensive Rookie of the Year
“Rookie wide receivers don’t perform.” Throughout each pre-season, this is the common phrase regarding the new crop of pass catchers about to enter the league. Typically, the belief is not far-fetched. That was, until 2014.
Print out a sheet of the wide receivers drafted in the first round of the 2014 draft. Throw a dart. If you hit the paper, chances are, one of the receivers caught it. In fact, if you expanded the list to the entire draft, talent could be found in nearly every round, from third-round selections Donte Moncrief and John Brown to fourth-rounder Martavis Bryant.
Yet, like almost every other award this year, with an abundance of choices, the winner sits a significant cut above the rest.
New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. was not only one of the best rookies in his class, but one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league. By the time the Giants were practically eliminated from playoff contention, the future of most of the team’s coaching staff was considered ‘in doubt’. There was, in essence, an aura of doom around a team that was quickly slipping into irrelevance.
Then, Odell Beckham, Jr. took over the sport.
Sparked by what was easily the play of the year (we considered a category for this, but again, the landslide made all other options irrelevant), Beckham went on to impress on a nearly weekly basis, surpassing every other rookie in his class. Despite playing in only 12 games, he ranked tenth in the league in receiving yards.
Winner: Odell Beckham, Jr.
Runner-up: Mike Evans
Defensive Rookie of the Year
History tends to drive the perception of a franchise. The Colts – formerly led by Peyton Manning and now Andrew Luck – are considered an offensive powerhouse. The Ravens of recent years tend to draw the memory of their once dominant defense. Little thought is given to how average the team had become on the side of the ball that used to be their strength.
Enter rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley. The twelfth-ranked defense in yards allowed for two straight seasons, the Ravens’ jump to sixth place the year Mosley was drafted was not merely coincidence. With 133 combined tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovered, Mosley was a beast across the board.
If the Ravens’ defense returns to the form of its early 2000’s body, it will largely be due to the stellar play of the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Winner: C.J. Mosley
Runner-up: Aaron Donald
Comeback Player of the Year
Finally, there’s some competition for an award. That is the nature of the comeback, however, as the two-fold requirement of outstanding performance and a clear regression the season prior limits the amount of eligible parties, but lumps everyone into one pool.
New England’s Rob Gronkowski – seven games played, four touchdowns, and 592 yards in 2013 – and Houston’s Arian Foster – eight games played, two touchdowns, and 542 rushing yards – lead the group with nearly identical bounceback campaigns from an injury-riddled previous season. This year, Foster’s thirteen touchdowns and 1,573 in thirteen games were the perfect compliment for Gronkowski’s twelve touchdowns and 1,124 receiving yards in fifteen games.
In the end, the winner comes down to the player whose floor was lower – in fact, capable of collapsing – yet recovered in epic proportions. While Rob Gronkowksi may never shake the injury bug completely, he is such a physical specimen at a position in which his strength allows him to dominate that it is tough to imagine he can’t still perform at a high level for years to come. Arian Foster, playing the position with the shortest shelf life – running back – over 1,400 touches into his career, could have easily fallen off the map, entirely. Instead, in fewer games, he topped Gronkowski in yards and touchdowns, and finished second in the league in rushing yards per game.
Winner: Arian Foster
Runner-up: Rob Gronkowski
Coach of the Year
What head coach Bruce Arians did in Arizona is downright amazing. Despite three different quarterbacks starting at least two games, the Cardinals finished with an 11-5 record and grabbed the first Wild Card berth, one loss to the Seahawks away from securing an NFC West title. Granted, quarterback Carson Palmer was healthy for a portion of the year, but the team, as a whole, was well-run and organizationally successful.
Even when Palmer went down, Arians adjusted his gameplan only slightly to accommodate the drop-off in talent, but remained aggressive and in the driver’s seat despite a clear disadvantage without his starter. When the reigns were officially handed to backup Drew Stanton, the team continued to find ways to win and, despite the obvious and expected skid at the end of the year, remained playoff-bound thanks to the mind of Arians.
Without any singular talent dominating on the field in Arizona, the collective group outperformed the level of its pieces. When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the head coach is the clear galvanizing element.
Winner: Bruce Arians
Runner-up: Jim Caldwell