The Best of the Best
Pats Pulpit's Regular Season Awards
[Note: Here's a link to last year's selections.]
How fun is this? Picking the best players on the only 16-0 regular-season team in NFL history, a team that broke every major single-season record in existence. (Can you break a record that's not in existence?)
Now, while you think about that, think about this:
Most Valuable Player
It's the biggest no-brainer in the history of Earth. Quarterback Tom Brady is the New England Patriots Most Valuable Player. This team was a different team when Brady took over in 2001. It never would be the team that it is now, and the team as it's currently constituted wouldn't be the same without him.
I hope we don't have to find out for a looooong time what the Patriots will be without Brady, but if New England had Moss on their roster and a run-of-the-mill quarterback last year? The last several years? This year?
No, the Patriots probably wouldn't have been undefeated without Moss. But they would still be one of the top teams in the AFC. Without Brady, they might not even make the playoffs.
All those statistics and numbers? I'll discuss those in my NFL Awards story later this week.
Runner-Up: Randy Moss
Without question, this one belongs to wide receiver Randy Moss. Moss transformed New England's offense and, in effect, the entire team in profound ways. Because of Moss's constant threat and overwhelming talent, ability and work ethic, opponents had to dedicated an inordinate reserve of resources to defending Moss.
Put so elegantly by Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel: "Moss has been killing people and we didn't want him to kill us, so we died by the hands of somebody else."
Even more than that, more than a standard running game, trying to stop all of these facets of New England's offense wore teams down. Evidence Dallas, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Giants -- all teams that had 2nd-half leads against New England. When the Patriots scored their comebacks, those defenses looked like they simply couldn't hold the floodgates closed any longer. For all the talk of New England's "aging defense," a lot of those teams looked tired.
By the same token, the success of the offense meant the defense stayed longer on the sideline, stayed fresher, had less pressure to perform on every single series as though the game was on the line. The defense played better because the offensive played better because opposing defenses couldn't deal effectively with Moss.
Again, I'll discuss individual statistics in the NFL Awards story.
Runner-Up: Wes Welker
Line up the candidates. This most underrated defense hasn't received near the attention of the offense, because few defensive statistics impress people. When they do, it's usually because one player has gaudy statistics and those of the rest of the defense are merely mortal.
On this Patriots team, a few stats stand out, but none qualify particularly as "gaudy." And if you haven't watched New England play -- though evidently a lot of people have -- none of these guys stand out on numbers alone.
My 2006 Patriots Defensive Player of the Year, cornerback Asante Samuel, proved last year was not a fluke (and, as I pointed out long ago, Samuel was vastly underrated before then). Samuel encored his 10-interception season with a 6-pick effort, including a pick 6 against Philadelphia. He was among the team leaders in tackles, and he was the one constant in the defensive secondary.
Defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren finally got the recognition they deserved, Warren finally reaching the Pro Bowl. Even fellow lineman Jarvis Green started the season on fire with Richard Seymour on the physically unable to perform list.
Tedy Bruschi led the team in tackles. Adalius Thomas had a tremendous impact, especially early and late in the season. Junior Seau played outside himself for an "old man." In spite of a four-game suspension, safety Rodney Harrison continues to hawk the ball like no one else in the league.
But linebacker Mike Vrabel is the defensive player of the year. Vrabel, moved back to his "natural" position at outside linebacker when the Patriots signed Thomas, was the defensive playmaker, and he made more big plays in more big situations than anyone else on the defense.
Vrabel is now listed with 12.5 sacks on the season after lately being credited with a sack for chasing Cleo Lemon out of bounds short of the goal-line late in the Miami game. Against Washington, Vrabel registered 3 sacks, forcing fumbles on all of them, one of those returned for a touchdown by Rosevelt Colvin. Vrabel forced 5 fumbles on the season.
Even our highly intelligent readers noted after several games that Vrabel should have been nominated for player of the game, though his stats (as stats often do) failed to support the suggestion. Vrabel's impact, as they pointed out, was rarely borne out by statistics. That much is true, most notably in the Pittsburgh game, when Vrabel had a tent and a campfire in the Steeler backfield.
Runner-Up: Adalius Thomas
Special Teams Player
There were some memorable plays on special teams. The first that comes to most minds will be Ellis Hobbs's NFL record 108-yard kickoff return for touchdown, one of the early sparks to a season of success. Others will remember Kelley Washington's punt block against the New York Jets, a key maintaining the perfect record late in the season. Then there was Willie Andrews's kickoff return for a touchdown when teams decided to stop kicking to Hobbs.
Hobbs, no doubt, had a great season end-to-end. He was among the league leaders in several statistics, and he gave the offense fantastic field position on several occasions. He's as good as a kickoff returner as the Patriots have had in many years, if not ever. He made a few mistakes, as all are prone to do, but he was consistently solid.
This year is goes to last year's Patriots Rookie of the Year, place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
Let's look at a couple quick comparisons with Patriot Legend, Adam Vinatieri in the traitor's best season.
Vinatieri, 2004: 31 of 33 field goals (93 points), plus 48 of 48 extra points (48 points), for a total of 141 points.
Gostkowski, 2007: 21 of 24 field goals (63 points), plus 74 of 74 extra points (74 points) for a total of 137 points.
(Note that the only touchdown on which Gostkowski was not asked to kick the point after was -- the next to last touchdown of the season on which Brady hit Moss for the dual record-breaker.)
One more Gostkowski-Vinatieri comparison for now:
In 2004, Vinatieri kick the ball the highest number of times in his Patriots career: 24 FG attempts, 48 extra point attempts, and 94 kickoffs, for a total of 175 kicks. This season, Gostkowski made 24 field goals attempts, 74 extra point attempts, and 112 kickoffs, for 210 kicks. Is it any wonder the coaches didn't want him kicking unnecessary 50-yarders instead of going for it on 4th-and-short? The man must have a bionic leg.
For now, remember that Gostkowski's value was more obvious down the stretch run, especially in several of the close games. The second-year player missed a field goal against Philadelphia, but that was a game Brady had trouble with the wind, too. Gostkowski was successful on another that turned out to be the margin of victory.
Gostkowski was 2-for-2 against Baltimore, another 3-point win. He was 2-for-2 against the Jets, and anyone can tell you that was no easy feat in the wind and freezing rain. Those field goals made it a two-score game, forcing New York to take more risks late in that game.
And finally, Gostkowski went 3-for-3 against the Giants. No one needs to explain how important those kicks ended up being.
Runner-Up: Ellis Hobbs
Rookie of the Year
This award goes to .. no one. No rookie did enough to merit winning such an award. Safety Brandon Meriweather may have come closest, and he may have a great career ahead, but for the 2007 regular season, I am unmoved.
Coach of the Year
This was another difficult one.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels is an easy choice. The Patriots were easily the league's best offense, averaging 411.2 yards per game. Green Bay was second at 370.7. An 40-yard difference is mind boggling. New England's 67 offensive touchdowns tied the 1984 Miami Dolphins for the most prolific offense ever (they had just 9 field goals to New England's 21).
Looking at the talent, some might say that anyone could have coached that offense. I don't agree with that, but hold the thought.
But most impressive, with this "aging" crew, was that they finished fourth in points allowed with just 17.1. Tampa Bay was third at 16.9 and Pittsburgh was second at 16.8. Three-tenths of a point out of second. And they did that though they played three of the league's top five scoring offenses (minus themselves -- so, three of the top four, really) and six of the top 10 (minus themselves).
You could look at receivers coach Nick Caserio, who for the second straight year somehow got a completely new corps of receivers to work together seamlessly in a very complicated. Or linebackers coach Matt Patricia who had to shuffle his lineup with the Thomas signing and was forced to change it again when Rosevelt Colvin was lost for the year. Or defensive line coach Pepper Johnson who built a dominating front with Richard Seymour on the sideline for half the season. Or offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia who built a line that gave up just 21 sacks on 586 passing plays despite numerous injuries to key players.
Good options, all. But not the right one.
The 2007 New England Patriots Coach of the Year is the man who put it all together: head coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick kept his coaches and his team singularly focused one game at a time for 17 weeks. All the made up garbage in the videotape scandal, the loss of a half-million dollars, the constant questions and future allegations, the ensuing constant questions about running up the score, the undefeated season, blueprints, or any other ridiculous minutia the media and losers everywhere dreamed up.
None of it penetrated the fortress.
As you've doubtlessly heard and read countless times, it's difficult enough to win one game in the NFL, much less several in a row. No team has ever won 16 games in a regular season; none had ever won 15 straight. Only one team had won 18 consecutive regular season games (and that was another Belichick Patriots team), but 16 of those didn't come in one season. It is a feat that stands alone in pro football history.
In Belichick we trust? There's no doubt about it.
12th Man Award (a.k.a. the "Troy Brown Award")
There's no way I could improve upon the player already selected as the Patriots 12th Man, wide receiver Wes Welker.
Welker is New England's new jack-of-all-trades, what coaches like Belichick would emphatically call, "a football player."
In 2007, he shattered teammate receiver Troy Brown's single-season receptions record of 101 with 112. Welker accumulated 1,175 tough, important yards, very reminiscent of Brown himself. Brown was Brady's go-to guy for the tough yards, the big third-down conversions for years. That's Welker now. The acquisition from Miami also scored 8 touchdowns.
Don't be surprised if you one day see Welker playing defensive back, pooch punting or kicking the occasional field goal.
Runner-Up: Tedy Bruschi. He's not a playmaker any more, they say, but he still led the team in tackles and solo tackles -- again.
Comeback Player of the Year (a.k.a. the "Tedy Bruschi Award")
I had to make a decision here, and the decision was to pick a player who was on the Patriots roster last year. (Obviously, this will be different for my league awards.) That eliminates a couple worthy candidates.
And this might seem a little weird, but my Patriots Comeback Player of the Year is safety Rodney Harrison. This was a difficult choice because of Harrison's suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, but in the end it also boosts the argument for Harrison.
Harrison rehabbed -- again -- and likely used human growth hormone in the process. As a result, he missed the first quarter of the season.
But when he finally regained the field, his impact was tangible. Despite missing those four games, Harrison eventually placed fifth on the Patriots in solo tackles (54) while also defending seven passes, intercepting one, forcing two fumbles, notching two sacks, and generally acting like a persistent gnat to every opposing offense in the league.
Runner-Up: Junior Seau. Seau deserves a few words. At nearly 39 years old, that Seau even put on a uniform and was an occasional starting linebacker, fourth in tackles, second in solo tackles and tied for fourth in sacks and tied for second in interceptions on one of the top defenses in the league is absolutely amazing. And that's all after recuperating from a broken forearm suffered in Week 12 last year.
Most Improved Player
As for the Comeback Player of the Year, this selection was required to be a member of the 2006 Patriots roster.
Really, it's hard to find a player who dramatically improves from one year to the next on a team this good, especially when such a team brings in so many highly touted free agents during the offseason. But there is one player who not only improved over last season, but improved as the season progressed and contributed far more than almost anyone expected.
Gaffney came to New England last year nearly halfway through the season. He seemed almost an afterthought during the regular season, after Brady put so much effort into working with the other subpar receivers, working Gaffney into the mix was effort difficult to justify. But Gaffney's insignificance didn't last forever. He was key to New England's post-season success with 8 catches against New York and 10 against San Diego. Unfortunately, he faded again against Indy with just 3 receptions.
And he certainly had a slow start this season, what with Moss and Welker and Stallworth joining the Patriots roster and all but erasing the memory of anyone who lined up split wide in 2006. But Gaffney persevered. He, like so many other Patriots, worked and worked and worked. Eventually his time came.
With just 1 or 2 catches per game for the first seven games of the season, Gaffney began to emerge against Washington. Gaffney had 4 receptions, but he threatened to fade into the background again. But he played a bigger roles late in the season in several of the close games. Six catches and a touchdown against Philly, the last-minute touchdown against Baltimore, seven catches and a touchdown against Pittsburgh (remember the double-lateral?), and five catches and a touchdown against Miami (remember how he stuck with the Lance Schulters non-interception?).
For the season, Gaffney has 36 receptions for 449 yards and career-high 5 touchdowns. Not the greatest statistics, but after 2006, more than almost anyone expected playing behind Moss, Welker and Stallworth.
Executive of the Year
Here's an easy one to wrap it up.
They were all acquired for a relatively small price by the 2007 Patriots Executive of the Year, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli.
OK, I don't know a lot of the Patriots executives to pick much of anyone else, but Pioli is a top candidate for the league-wide exec of the year, so I threw him in because his role had such an obvious impact this year.
OK, so what about you? Who's on your list? Who did I get wrong? Who else should have been considered?