This has been the season of Cam. Whether you rank Newton first in the MVP race or not, there's no denying that he's loomed larger than any NFL figure this season.
It's hard to believe that Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III were considered better prospects not so long ago. Even back in September, Newton was under the radar as he dispatched lackluster opponents with minimal flair. That unspectacular start hurt him for a while in my season-long quarterback rankings until his boundary-expanding finish. No one has ever played the position quite like Newton, dominating in the passing game while being the key ingredient to the most complex running game in the league. No quarterback punishes tacklers quite like him. When he's rolling, it feels like no defense can stop him.
That's why he's the first recipient in my Annual Awards column below. For the full Week 16 rankings, head to the bottom of this column. In the meantime, let's hand out some pretend internet hardware.
Best Game: Cam Newton versus Falcons, Week 14
Only two performances this season "broke" my amateur grading scale, topping 100. Carson Palmer's road victory in Seattle was full of haymakers under fire, but the edge here goes to Cam's destruction of his division rivals in Week 14. Newton deserves extra credit for piling up so many stunning throws in such a compact performance. He "only" finished with 265 yards and three scores on 21 throws, but the degree of difficulty of his completions were off the charts.
Newton, Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger make the most "throws other QBs can't make" on a weekly basis. (Big Ben had my third highest grade, his Week 2 domination of the 49ers.) Newton's throw behind a defensive lineman's ear, past a linebacker's arm, and into the diving hands of tight end Ed Dickson was outrageous in his conception, much less execution. You can overcome a lack of arm strength in the NFL, but Newton has shown again and again this season how it can beat perfect coverage.
Newton looks off coverage and goes to his secondary receivers more than ever. After five seasons with coordinator Mike Shula, Newton has his offense mastered. It's helped him play with insane confidence and lift the level of the receivers around him. This game was the pinnacle of the 2015 Panthers experience.
Best trend: Rise of the Young Folks
The Class of 2014 had a better year than we could have possibly imagined. Derek Carr made the leap to unquestioned franchise quarterback. Blake Bortles would win my award as the most most fun to watch, playing like a mix of Cam and John Elway without a conscience. He's second in the league in touchdowns. Blake Bortles!
Marcus Mariota was steady as a metronome despite awful surroundings and looks every bit like a long-term fixture. Jameis Winston had fewer downs, and more ups than expected. The Bucs finally found Their Guy. Teddy Bridgewater lagged behind most of the year doing his poor man's Alex Smith impression until a late-season surge reminiscent of his great finish to 2014.
Worst trend: The last "Next Generation" tanks
Andrew Luck, the safe bet of the 2012 class, inexplicably played the worst football of his life before suffering a devastating kidney injury. There was a moment when we could actually write, "Matt Hasselbeck has improved the quarterback position for the Colts." Luck is going to be working with his fourth offensive coordinator next season, which is one fewer coordinator than Ryan Tannehill will have played under. Is he the new Jay Cutler coordinator killer? The Dolphins guaranteed Tannehill's base salaries for the next three years just because he played like a well-below average starter.
It wasn't all bad, of course. Newton made the leap and Russell Wilson played better than ever. Luck should rebound. But this year was a reminder that early stardom at quarterback doesn't even guarantee a starting job for long in the NFL.
Most enjoyable destruction of the Dalton Scale: Andy Dalton
It was just last season that I gave Dalton an award for his perfect maintaince of the Dalton Scale, Chris Wesseling's brilliant invention of the prime meridian of NFL quarterbacks. If your starting quarterback was above Dalton, you had a franchise quarterback. If your quarterback was below Dalton, you needed to think of a new solution at the position.
Dalton's breakout year reminded me a little of Alex Smith's first boffo season with Jim Harbaugh, but better. You couldn't quite believe it was happening until he dropped vertical passes on unsuspecting defenses week-after-week. Dalton slowed down after midseason, but he was a demonstrably different player in 2015. Now Smith can replace Dalton as the mid-point for NFL starters. And Dalton can hopefully avoid an offseason during which Bengals fans wonder if AJ McCarron is actually better.
Toughest to evaluate: Tyrod Taylor
The signing of Taylor was the most tangible positive Rex Ryan brought to Buffalo. Rex's favorite beat out general manager Doug Whaley's first round pick (EJ Manuel) in training camp, and then put together a terrific season for a first-time starter. Taylor still needs to develop, and it almost makes me uncomfortable how high he lands in my amateur grading system. I have to knock him down a few pegs because of the eye test.
I'm not the only one high on Taylor. ESPN's QBR ranks him as the sixth-best quarterback in football, and Pro Football Focus has him 10th. He's the best runner at the position and can throw the deep ball. Despite all that, Taylor came up small in too many big moments throughout the season. He can hold the ball forever. We hope he doesn't eventually go the way of Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman's last pupil.
Most Outrageous consistency: Carson Palmer
Try to to find the poor Palmer performance from this season. It doesn't exist. Some box scores look better than others, but even Palmer's lesser games had brilliant moments without many errors. When he did make some mistakes like against Cincinnati, he would make up for it by raining down vertical shots. Yes, Palmer is in the perfect system and surrounded by extraordinary talent. That doesn't take away from the difficulty of the throws he makes week after week, with accuracy as strong as any quarterback in the league. His lack of anything approaching a poor game is ultimately why he ranks No. 1 below.
Most depressing swan song: Peyton Manning
Best sneaky leap by a superstar: Russell Wilson
Wilson had his best season despite the Seahawks losing more games than any season with him as a starter. Like Newton, his comfort in the pocket and mastery of his offensive system increased exponentially without losing any of his athleticism. It reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger's mental game finally catching up to his physical prowess a few years ago. Wilson is ahead of schedule.
Best Matt: Hasselbeck
It was a rough year for Matts. Stafford imploded in the first half of the season with a few of the worst performances by any veteran starter all year before rallying with a top-10 second half alongside unlikely Einstein, Jim Bob Cooter. Matt Ryan took a little too much heat for some untimely interceptions, but he was undeniably average in a season where we expected him to be solidly in the top 10. Matt Hasselbeck surprisingly returned to relevance, but it was painful to watch him struggle to get to the finish line with injuries while opposing defenses batted him around like a piñata. Ultimately, Hasselbeck gets this coveted award as a going away prize for a great career and fun storyline while it lasted.
*And now on to the Week 17 rankings. These rankings are based on this season's play only. We'll have a season-ending rankings next week. *