The Best of the Best
Rookie and Players of the Year
Plus MVP and Coach of the Year
Sixteen games, and the New England Patriots posted a 12-4 record, winning another division title and earning another playoff berth.
Without a doubt, it takes 53 players -- sometimes more -- to make that happen. And in every game, many individual performances comprise a team win. Here are those players that day in and day out delivered the goods.
Rookie of the Year
This is not as easy a selection as you might think. Start with this: Who is the only rookie to play in all 16 regular season games?
That's right: Stephen Gostkowski.
I've extensively chronicled his exploits recently, so I won't recount them here.
OK. Who's next?
If you said Laurence Maroney, you'd be incorrect.
Tight end David Thomas has played in 15 games this season. Thomas has 11 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown. His 14.5 yards per reception leads the Patriots. Unfortunately, it's not a large body of work, and despite playing in all those games most of his catches came in a two-week span (3 against Houston, 5 against Jacksonville). very 2001 Jermaine Wiggans-like.
Wide receiver Chad Jackson played in 13 games, had just 2 more receptions and 2 more touchdowns but 7 fewer yards than Thomas. (He also had 4 rushes for 22 yards.) Jacksn added 3 punt returns for 76 yards and 1 kickoff return for 21 yards. I still believe there's potential there -- and that was proven in the Tennessee game where he had 2 receptions and 2 punt returns, one for 39 yards that set up the game-sealing touchdown -- but this was not an impressive rookie campaign. Let's hope the playoffs make up for it.
Offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan played in 11 games and start six. He's been a valuable asset, especially with some of the early injuries along the line, and he's played pretty well.
Ultimately, Laurence Maroney is the obvious choice. Despite playing fewer games (14) than Gostkowski and Thomas, and despite a couple injuries, Maroney has added another dimension to an already dangerous running game. Maroney carried the ball 175 times for 745 yards (4.3 avg), scoring 6 touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 194 yards (8.8 avg) and a touchdown. And if that weren't enough, add in 28 kickoff returns for 783 yards (28.0 avg) with a long return of 77 yards. Oh, and by the way, he has one heck of a devastating stiff-arm. I wonder where he learned that?
Comeback Player of the Year
This was not an easy decision either. I long considered Corey Dillon for this award.
Dillon had a tough 2004, aggravated by injuries. Dillon played in just 12 games in 2004 and he started in only 10. He rushed 209 times for 733 yards (a scant 3.5 average) and 12 touchdowns. He had 2 runs of 20-plus yards and 49 first downs. He also caught 22 passes for 181 yards (8.2 avg), good for a TD and 8 first downs.
Dillon played all 16 games, starting 13, this season. He carried 10 times fewer (199) for 79 yards more (812), an average of 4.1 yards per carry. He had 3 rushes longer than 20 yards, 48 first downs and 3 touchdowns. Add 15 catches for 147 yards (9.8 avg), and that's a pretty good season for a guy who shared time with a second feature back.
Not bad for a 32-year-old guy.
Oh, he has a pretty devastating stiff-arm, too. I wonder where he learned that?
But my Patriots Comeback Player of the Year is Rodney Harrison, who made two comebacks this season and may -- with a little luck and some additional blood, sweat and tears -- be working on a third.
Harrison came back from an injury that would be debilitating to the mere mortal, all the more amazing for a 33-year-old (now 34) man who plays his style. In his first two months this season, Harrison averaged 21.5 tackles and clearly impacted the defense in all his special intangible ways.
But in the eighth game of the season, Harrison broke his shoulder blade, and he missed 6-plus games. New England lost the game in which Harrison was injured and two more that he missed. That's three New England's four losses.
Not to be denied, Harrison healed, rehabbed, and came back again.
His stats against Jacksonville and Tennessee were nothing special, but his presence was obvious. Of course, he played for barely more than a quarter in Tennessee, and his misfortune may have had more impact then (and will from here out) than his usual stellar play.
Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin gets an honorable mention. His stats are no better than last year, but his presence was noticable, espcially with the injury to Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi's perceived "lack of production." (Bruschi led the team with 112 tackles.)
Offensive Player of the Year
On a team where the offense's only true "star" may be Tom Brady, for reasons already enumerated, Corey Dillon is the Patriots Offensive Player of the Year. His 959 combined yards from scrimmage just edges Maroney's 939 (of course, Maroney's return yardage gives him 1,722 all-purpose yards). And his 13 rushing touchdowns ties Curtis Martin for the franchise record for most rushing touchdowns in a season.
An honorable mention goes to Reche Caldwell for 61 catches and 760 receiving yards, both team bests, and to Troy Brown for, well, being Troy Brown.
Defensive Player of the Year
In a season where the Patriots defense was among the best in the league and the best in club history, this decision was the toughest. There are many worthy candidates: Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin, Jarvis Green.
But there's one guy who nearly won a couple games by himself, had tremendous impact on a couple others, and generally held together a duct-tape-and-chewing-gum defensive secondary. The Patriots Defensive Player of the Year is Asante Samuel.
Most of us are well aware of his league-leading 10 interceptions (tied with Denver's Champ Bailey) for 120 yards, but did you know that Samuel led the Patriots in solo tackles with 59? Sure, Bruschi had 112 tackles, but 58 were assists (54 solo). Samuel was the last line of defense, and he brought down 59 potential touchdowns. (He also had 5 assists.)
Throw in 14 passes defended and a forced fumble for good measure. Samuel missed one game: Green Bay. They didn't really need him for that one anyway.
Two interceptions in the 20-10 win over Miami, three in the 17-14 win over Chicago (9 tackles in that game, too), two last week to wrap up the season in Tennessee.
Most Valuable Player
There should be no surprise here. Tom Brady makes the New England Patriots "The New England Patriots. Before the season, we were suffocated with relentless assertion that the Patriots could go nowhere after losing David Givens and with Deion Branch holding out. When New England traded Branch to Seattle, the Patriots were left with Troy Brown, last year's No. 3 receiver, as the sole returnee.
"A rookie and a bunch of castoffs." That's what they said. Then it was "Tom Brady's body language." It went on and on.
In response, Brady threw for 319 completions (3rd best in his career) on 516 attempts (3rd), a 61.8 completetion percentage (4th, but just by a touch), for 3,529 yards (5th). He also threw for 24 touchdowns (4th) and just 12 interceptions (tied best). He has a passer rating of 87.9, the third best in his career and just under is career average 88.4.
Doesn't sound too spectacular, but for what all the "experts" expected -- only one returning receiver, no break-away speed, injured rookie -- to maintain that level of excellence despite the "lack" around him, it's phenomenal. Take away Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne from Peyton Manning and see how great he is. Brady connected with FIFTEEN different receivers, 11 of them for touchdowns (one shy of the NFL record he tied last year).
Brady also ran a career-high 49 times for 102 yards (2nd). A lot of those were tough yards for first downs, and one was a back-breaking (almost) hit from which he returned one play later. For the third straight year, he took a career-low 26 sacks.
Then there's the fact that he's Tom Brady: team leader and field general extraordinaire, a player who makes "intangibles" even less tangible, while proving their impact.
Tom Brady is the New England Patriots Most Valuable Player
Coach of the Year
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees is without a doubt the New England Patriots Coach of the Year.
I've been raving about this defense all season, and this is the first time I've mentioned Pees. And, in case you haven't heard, this Patriots defense is the best in team history. The "Homeland Defense" allowed just 237 points, 1 point better than the 2003 team and good for second in the NFL this season (Baltimore, 201).
There's more coming about the defense, so I'll leave it at that for now.
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