Putting a unique spin on the best performances of the 2022 NFL season for awards | Opinion
The one-man, one-vote system is still intact for our annual NFL awards. And as usual, the awards are named to pay homage to some legends. The envelopes, please ...
Joe Montana Award: Patrick Mahomes. The phenomenal Chiefs quarterback continues to find new ways to dazzle as the league’s MVP, while the production keeps humming along. Mahomes led the NFL with 5,250 passing yards and 41 touchdown passes, defusing doubts that there would be significant drop-off after Tyreek Hill’s departure. Even more impressive, Mahomes kept it flowing despite assorted injuries to offensive skill players as the Chiefs led the NFL in scoring with an average of 29.2 points per game. Montana was once that type of spark plug, with back-to-back league MVP and three Super Bowl MVP awards while leading the 49ers to four Super Bowl crowns during the 1980s.
Deacon Jones Award: Haason Reddick. He is no longer anybody’s draft-day bust. Reddick exploded to a career year for the Eagles, his third team in three seasons, pacing a unit that led the NFL in sacks with a career-high 16 and an NFL-high five strip-sacks. He’s the first player in NFL history to produce double-digit sacks in three consecutive seasons with three different teams. Sure, Nick Bosa, who has hardly lacked fanfare as part of San Francisco’s top-ranked defense, led the NFL with 181/2 sacks … but he did it while logging 60 more pass rush attempts than Reddick and headed into the NFC title game with just one sack in his previous four games. Jones, the late Hall of Famer who coined the term “sack” while starring for the Los Angeles Rams during the 1960s and ’70s, did his damage before the sack became an official statistic in 1982 but retro research maintains that he was the only player to lead the NFL in sacks five times and the only player to produce three seasons with at least 20 sacks.
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Kurt Warner Award: Brock Purdy. The storyline reads like a Hollywood script for the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Last man drafted in April. Emergency replacement after the 49ers lost Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo to season-ending injuries. Undefeated and pretty much unflappable in helping his team advance to the NFC title game. Warner can relate to this rags-to-riches storybook theme. He came out of nowhere after Trent Green’s 1999 season ended in the preseason with a torn ACL and led the Rams to a Super Bowl title while launching a Hall of Fame career … after once stocking shelves at a grocery store.
Ronnie Lott Award: Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. The Jets star gets the nod as Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading the league with 20 pass breakups while allowing just one TD (zero in college). Gardner was the first rookie cornerback to earn first-team All-Pro honors in 41 years, since Lott broke in with an all-rookie secondary in 1981 that helped the storied 49ers win their first Super Bowl title.
Honorable mention: Aidan Hutchinson. The Lions defensive end, drafted second overall, became the first player since Richard Dent in 1990 to produce at least 91/2 sacks (which led NFL rookies), three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
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All-Madden Award: Buffalo Bills training staff and the emergency responders at Paycor Stadium. They saved a man’s life. The moment Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field due to cardiac arrest, Bills assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington immediately rushed to his side and began administering CPR. And the medics nearby, per NFL protocols, quickly reacted as the Monday night showdown at Cincinnati on Jan. 2 became an afterthought. As stunned players from both teams stood nearby, the medics used a defibrillator to revive Hamlin’s heartbeat before he was transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Madden, who died in December 2021 as one of the NFL’s greatest ambassadors, loved highlighting unsung heroes during his years in the broadcast booth. It’s safe to suggest he would have made room on his “All-Madden Team” for those playing clutch roles for Hamlin when it mattered most.
Colin Kaepernick Award: Jalen Hurts. To call the rising Eagles star a “system quarterback” is a disservice. Hurts is more like a spark plug that makes the entire system work. In this honor roll, Hurts – joining Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks since 2000 to post 35 TDs with eight or fewer turnovers – is the NFL’s Most Improved Player with a nod to his offseason emphasis to become a more lethal passer in his second year as a starter. Part of the proof came with his 13 scoring strikes of at least 20 yards that tied for the league lead. And he remained plenty dangerous as a runner, evidenced by his 760 rushing yards with 13 TDs. Of course, the bottom-line measurement included a 14-1 mark in his regular-season starts. Kaepernick, remember, made quite the mark in his second NFL season as a multidimensional force with the 49ers in 2012, coming off the bench to replace an injured Alex Smith and keeping the gig en route to a Super Bowl 47 berth highlighted by the 181 rushing yards he put up in his postseason debut – most ever by a quarterback in a regular-season or postseason game. It’s a shame that due to his national anthem protests, Kaepernick never saw his full potential as a player realized. Here’s to hoping that Hurts is just beginning to make his mark as a prolific QB.
Reggie White Award: Robert Kraft. When a disgruntled former teammate shot to death three University of Virginia football players and injured two other students ambushed on a bus as they returned from a field trip, the New England Patriots owner provided one of the team’s Boeing 767 jets to transport football players to the funerals. It was a Hall of Fame gesture, but hardly the first time that Kraft has used his resources for humanitarian causes. He also used the private jets to fly U.S. soldiers home from Germany to connect with family last Memorial Day weekend, flew Parkland (Florida) High School students to a Washington, D.C., anti-gun rally and, after the pandemic struck in 2020, aided in picking up more than a million N95 masks from China to ease supply shortages. The late White, aka “The Minister of Defense,” will be remembered, too, for giving back with a huge heart.
Joe Gibbs Award: Ben Johnson. A funny thing happened for the Detroit Lions on the way to another season without making the playoffs: They became an offensive juggernaut under their first-year coordinator. Johnson, the pick for Offensive Assistant Coach of the Year, pushed the buttons for a unit that ranked third in the NFL with 6,460 yards, fifth with 453 points (26.6 per game) and scored at least 30 points in eight games (which tied for the NFL high). In rallying from a 1-6 start to finish 9-8, the Lions became fun to watch not because they were “biting kneecaps” of opponents but because of their fireworks that lit up the scoreboard. Gibbs earned Hall of Fame status by guiding Washington to three Super Bowl crowns with three different quarterbacks, but before that he toiled for two years as an offensive coordinator on Hall of Fame finalist Don Coryell’s staff.
Jerry Rice Award: Tyreek Hill. While there’s so much love for the emergence of Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson as one of the NFL’s best receivers (leading the league with 128 catches and 1,809 yards … but minimized by the Giants in a playoff-opening loss), the impact that Hill brought to Miami after being traded by the Chiefs puts him over the top for me as Offensive Player of the Year. Hill’s stats (119 catches, 1,710 yards) ranked second to Jefferson (and not by much), but they also came during a season when Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa missed five games (including the playoff loss) and was knocked out of another contest due to concussion issues. Hill was the change agent that Miami desired for new coach Mike McDaniel’s offense. Rice, the NFL’s all-time leading receiver, would approve.
Bill Parcells Award: Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers cruised to the playoffs with a 10-game winning streak to close the regular season despite losing opening-day quarterback Trey Lance and former Super Bowl starter Jimmy Garoppolo to season-ending foot injuries and handing the keys to the car to seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy (aka “Mr. Irrelevant). Shanahan pushed the right buttons to keep the flow moving, which reminds me of the time Parcells won Super Bowl 25 with Jeff Hostetler at quarterback a few weeks after Phil Simms suffered a, well, season-ending foot injury.
Ozzie Newsome Award: Howie Roseman. The Eagles general manager worked the market to add some huge pieces that helped earn the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Roseman fleeced the Tennessee Titans in trading for big-play wide receiver A.J. Brown. He solidified the secondary by dealing for C.J. Gardner-Johnson and adding James Bradberry. Then there was the free agent haul to bolster the D-line. Roseman lured Haason Reddick, then fortified the deep rotation with defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph coming aboard as midseason additions. Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, left an even bigger mark in the front office, becoming the NFL’s first Black general manager and building two Super Bowl champions.
Buddy Ryan Award: DeMeco Ryans. One of the rising stars in the NFL coaching ranks just happens to coordinate the NFL’s best defense for the 49ers. Ryans, a former NFL linebacker in his second season in his role, is the Defensive Assistant Coach of the Year. He has found myriad ways to get the best from the deep collection of talent assembled by GM John Lynch & Co. – Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and Jimmie Ward included – that preserved the Super Bowl mission for a team down to its third quarterback. The late Ryan, who was the bigger-than-life coordinator of the Chicago Bears “46” defense that paved the way to a Super Bowl 20 triumph, would have loved the versatility and big-play impact of DeMeco’s D.
Eric Berry Award: Damar Hamlin. The Bills safety inspired a nation as he recovered from the cardiac arrest that nearly cost him his life. “Pray for Damar” became a unifying action mantra that also symbolized the humanity that is too often discarded for the players who provide entertainment for the masses while playing in a brutal sport.
Honorable mention: Brian Robinson Jr. The Commanders running back was shot twice during an attempted carjacking in Washington in August. Fortunately, Robinson healed from the gunshot wounds in his knee and hip, making his rookie debut in Week 5.
These real-life-meets-football episodes bring to mind the determined comeback that Berry, a former Chiefs safety, demonstrated in 2015 as he came back to beat cancer and earn two more first-team All-Pro honors after battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014 and 2015.
Scottie Pippen Award: Travis Kelce. Pardon the NBA comparison, but it fits. For best supporting role in a juggernaut, Kelce is like Pippen was to Michael Jordan, the ultimate wing man for Patrick Mahomes. His monster performance in the AFC divisional playoffs (a tight end playoff-record 14 catches for 98 yards and two TDs) was just one example. During the regular season, he paced NFL tight ends with 110 catches for 1,338 yards. And his 12 TD grabs ranked second in the league to Davante Adams (14). Pippen? He won six NBA rings with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but it’s easy to envision that if he played football, he would have been a dangerous tight end target in the red zone, like Kelce.
The Hogs Award: Here’s to the unsung grunt men in the trenches. Philadelphia’s offensive line had three of its members – right tackle Lane Johnson, center Jason Kelce and left guard Landon Dickerson – named to the Pro Bowl as it achieved a share of the NFL’s best regular-season record (14-3) and posted the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack. “The Hogs,” of course, were arguably the most high-profile offensive line in history as they developed a cult-like following in helping Washington win three Super Bowls during the 1980s and early ’90s.
Peyton Manning Award: Geno Smith. It turns out that the Seattle Seahawks had a formidable replacement already in-house when they traded Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos last spring. Smith, 32, had a phenomenal season in leading the Seahawks to an unexpected playoff berth and reviving his career after backing up Wilson for two years. Smith is the choice for Comeback Player of the Year as his career-high 30 TD passes were surpassed by only three players in 2022 (Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen) and were more than his total from his first five NFL seasons after entering the league with the Jets in 2013 as a second-round pick. Coming soon: payday. Smith could become a free agent this spring, but the better expectation is that Seattle signs him to a long-term deal. Manning, for all of his records, MVP honors and Super Bowl rings, was also the league’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2012 after he came back from neck surgery and found a fresh start with the Broncos.
Kool Moe Dee "How Ya Like Me Now" Award: Josh Jacobs. Last spring, the Raiders didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on the rookie contract of the running back they drafted 24th overall in 2019. In NFL philosophy, that equates to a message that something needs to be proved in the final year of the contract (or that running backs are a dime a dozen). Jacobs surely proved himself worthy of his next (even bigger) deal, exploding for a 2,000-yard season. He won the rushing title with 1,653 yards (with 12 TDs) and added 400 yards on 53 receptions to lead the league with 2,053 yards from scrimmage. And the 2022 highlight reel for Jacobs comes with a fitting soundtrack provided by Moe Dee (given name Mohandas Dewese) with his classic 1987 hit.
Al Michaels Award: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Lisa Salters. The strong performances from ESPN’s new “Monday Night Football” crew makes you wonder: How in the world did Fox let Buck and Aikman get away? For my money, they are still the best in the broadcast booth on game day. Salters, the sideline reporter, is a holdover from ESPN’s previous “MNF” crews (while doubling on NBA duty) and proved again just how elite she is in her work while handling the breaking news as it unfolded after Hamlin collapsed. The legendary Michaels, who left NBC for Amazon, received flak for his play-by-play call of the Jaguars’ amazing comeback win during the AFC wild-card round (he returned in an emeritus role for NBC). The criticism was over the top … although he might have borrowed from his past and said of the Jags comeback: Do you believe in miracles?
Nate Burleson Award: Richard Sherman. In his rookie year as an analyst on Amazon’s pregame show, the charismatic Sherman was just what we’ve come to expect: insightful. The former All-Pro cornerback, who typically provided sharp, fearless commentary during his playing days, should only get better in his TV role. Burleson, meanwhile, has followed in the footsteps of Michael Strahan to carve his own niche on “CBS This Morning” (and “Entertainment Tonight”) while demonstrating that he can do more than just talk football.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Patrick Mahomes, Damar Hamlin among nods for unique spin on NFL awards