With the final stretch of the 2012 NFL season upon us, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at the contenders for the six major awards given to individual players, plus one for coaches. From fresh-out-of-school rookies (like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III) to battle-hardened veterans (like Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson), several top-notch performers have put their respective teams on their shoulders this season.
Here are my picks for the major awards in 2012:
MVP: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Manning is the sentimental favorite here, returning to form after battling back from neck issues that kept him out for the entire 2011 season. But when you push past those warm and fuzzy feelings, you realize he's also having one of the finest statistical campaigns of his illustrious career, on pace to surpass his high mark for passing yards in a season. The bottom line is, Peyton's Peyton. He's the reason the Denver Broncos have already clinched the AFC West and are considered potential Super Bowl contenders. Before he signed with them, they weren't even expected to be the best team in the division.
Other contenders:*Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots.* Brady is having another typically great season; he's being taken for granted. ... Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. He'll have a tough time repeating as MVP, even though he's having a heck of a year, propelling that team with a weak offensive line and not much of a running game to speak of. ... Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings. Running backs don't have a ton of luck in this category. If Chris Johnson couldn't win the MVP award after rushing for 2,006 yards in 2009, I think it'll be difficult for Peterson to pull it off, as good a year as he's having.
Offensive Player of the Year: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Despite undergoing major knee surgery last December, Peterson is enjoying a career season. He needs 161 yards to set a career high for yards in a season, which he's likely to do, considering that all three of the Vikings' remaining games will be played indoors. After a 2011 season in which Minnesota finished with a disappointing 3-13 record and he tallied just 970 yards, Peterson seems to have rededicated himself to being good. Peterson has really put this group on his back; other than injured receiver Percy Harvin, this Minnesota team has no other weapons, although the offensive line isn't bad.
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Watt has just been so dominant. He should get the edge in what will be a three-horse race between him, Aldon Smith and Von Miller. For a 3-4 defensive end to finish with as many sacks as he'll have (16.5 already) is just unheard of; it's just so much more difficult for a defensive lineman to make that kind of impact from the inside, as compared to someone playing on the outside in a 4-3 defense. He's also fantastic against the run, anchoring the league's second-best rushing defense.
Other contenders:*Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco 49ers.* The NFL sacks leader (19.5) needs to collect just 3.5 more sacks over the final three regular-season games to top Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos. With 16 sacks, Miller has helped lead the NFL's fourth-ranked defense. It's worth noting that Miller, Watt and Smith were all products of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Darlington: QB class for the ages
Between Luck, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, you can pretty much flip a coin to decide who should win this award. I'd take Luck, because I think he's done more with a lesser supporting cast than Wilson or RG3. The Redskins and Seahawks have both outscored their opponents this season; Luck's Colts, meanwhile, have scored 37 fewer points than the opposition, yet have still managed to win nine games. That's more wins than any rookie quarterback drafted first overall. Luck has also led six fourth-quarter comebacks, the most by a rookie QB since the AFL-NFL merger. All three signal-callers are very good, but when it comes down to it, knowing what I know through Week 14, I'd still draft Luck first and RG3 second, with Wilson vaulting all the way up to the third spot (from his actual slot of 75th overall).
Other contenders:*Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins.* He's run for 748 yards and tossed 18 touchdown passes with just four interceptions, while posting a passer rating of 104.2. And he has the Redskins on the verge of making the playoffs despite dealing with mostly average receiver talent (with the exception of Pierre Garcon). ... Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. The biggest surprise among rookies, he's started every game for a playoff-bound team that has a chance to win the NFC West. Wilson has gotten better each week, throwing just one pick at home. ... Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins. In any other year, these two running backs would have a shot to win this award. Both have already topped the 1,200-yard mark.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
This was a really tough choice, having to pick between Wagner and Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Both have more than 100 tackles (Kuechly has 130; Wagner has 109), and both call plays for their respective units, which is highly unusual for rookies. But I had to give the edge to Wagner, who has more sacks (two) and interceptions (three) and whose team, more importantly, has given up 110 fewer points and won four more games.
Coach of the Year: Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians, Indianapolis Colts
That the Colts have notched nine wins with a rookie quarterback while saddled with almost $38 million of so-called dead money says it all. This was supposed to be a down year even before Pagano had to take a leave of absence to fight leukemia, leaving Arians to take over the interim role. Instead, Indianapolis is bound for the playoffs.
Comeback Player of the Year: Thomas Davis, LB, Carolina Panthers
Davis won't win this award, which, in reality, I think should go to either Peterson or Manning. But I had a tough time choosing between the two, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to call attention to Davis, whose story is one of the most compelling in the NFL. The veteran defender had gone through an extremely trying few years, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament three times and playing in just nine games from 2009 to 2011. (He did not play a single game in 2010.) This season, he's played in all but one of the Panthers' games, racking up 81 tackles (the second-most on the team) and one interception. To miss that much time -- and go through that many health issues -- and still be able play at that kind of level, is really something.
» This past weekend was the best, as far as rookie performances go, that I can remember watching since 1960. We had six rookies starting at quarterback, and five winners, including Luck, Wilson, Brandon Weeden with the Cleveland Browns, Nick Foles with the Philadelphia Eagles and RG3/Kirk Cousins with the Redskins. We also had standout showings from non-quarterbacks, like David Wilson, who set a New York Giants record for all-purpose yardage, and Redskins punt returner Richard Crawford, whose 64-yard return helped set up the winning field goal in overtime.
Of all the starters across the NFL in Week 14, 70 were rookies, not counting kickers and punters. The newbies just had an unbelievable week.
» Thanks to Bill Roberts, a high school official in Alabama, I got the full treatment of what a state championship day is like in that state last weekend. I now have first-hand knowledge of why the SEC is so good. As Roberts' guest, I watched games from the field and from the booth all day Friday, the second day of the event, sitting with other officials. I saw Hoover (Birmingham) High School, one of the top teams in the state (and the seventh-best team in the country, according to USA Today) win the 6A championship by beating Opelika, 31-0. I also saw a young running back from UMS-Wright (Mobile) named Troy Dixon run for 232 yards, including scoring runs of 52, 61 and 74 yards. He's just a sophomore in high school, but he looked like a future college star. My thanks to Roberts; I will remember that experience for a long time.
» Phone Call of the Week: Chatting with Baylor coach Art Briles this week, I told him he should lobby to have the 90-mile stretch of Texas State Highway 6 that runs between College Station and Waco renamed "The Heisman Highway," since it'll take you from the school that produced this year's Heisman Trophy winner (Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel) to the school that produced last year's (Baylor's Robert Griffin III).