The Associated Press will announce its 2015 NFL award winners the night before the Super Bowl. With the schedule halfway done, here’s a look at the top performers so far.
ASSISTANT COACH — Among the dozen or so noteworthy candidates, two stand out: Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Both are veterans at their craft, former head coaches who do their best work with one unit.
“The job Wade Phillips has done is very impressive,” says Dan Pompei of Bleacher Report. “Jackson, though, has done the most difficult thing a coach can do — help transform a quarterback. In the process, his offense has become elite and the Bengals have exceeded expectations and become a Super Bowl contender.”
COACH — At the top of the list has to be the guys guiding the three remaining undefeated teams. Of those, who is doing more with less than Ron Rivera in Carolina?
“Carolina is a very tough out this season, and the Panthers are now on a ridiculous 12-1 run including playoffs since the final month of the 2014 regular season,” says Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks. “And to think Rivera was on a bit of a hot seat at times last fall.”
Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, a prime example of why coaching stability is wise, deserves plaudits. So do two coaches for their ability to turn around struggling franchises: Dan Quinn in Atlanta and Jack Del Rio in Oakland.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE — Looks like a two-man race between Oakland receiver Amari Cooper and St. Louis running back Todd Gurley.
In supporting Cooper, Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton says, “He could have made Jamarcus Russell look good.”
In supporting Gurley, Bob Glauber of Newsday counters, “He’s performing like a once-in-a-decade running back so far, and it’s all the more impressive that he’s doing it a year removed from ACL surgery.”
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE — A much more wide-open field than for the offensive honors — and they represent nearly every position.
Jets lineman Leonard Williams, linebackers Jordan Hicks of the Eagles (done for the season with a pectoral injury), Eric Kendricks of the Vikings, Kwon Alexander of the Buccaneers, and Stephone Anthony of the Saints, and cornerback Marcus Peters of the Chiefs have stood out.
“This linebacker is fast and is going to gain more notice in the second half of the season,” ESPN’s John Clayton says of Alexander.
As for Williams, Glauber offers: “The Jets were fortunate that Williams dropped all the way to No. 6 overall in the draft, and he has fit in seamlessly to help a defense that has been transformed from a year ago.”
OFFENSIVE PLAYER — Often this is as much a statistical award as anything. The usual quarterbacks are in the running, from winning teams (Tom Brady, Andy Dalton), to guys such as Philip Rivers, who’s performing wonders for the also-ran Chargers. Absolutely worthy are Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, who leads the NFL in touchdowns; teammate WR Julio Jones, who has been uncoverable; another sensational wideout, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins; and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, as dominant as any player at any position.
“On a team with no other threats at receiver, Kyle Shanahan keeps scheming up ways to get Jones the ball and he’s taking advantage — on pace for 142 catches for 1,829 yards and 11 touchdowns,” says Tom Pelissero of USA Today.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER — Until they were somewhat exposed in Indianapolis on Sunday, the Broncos seemed to have the front-runners. Take your pick among Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr.
All figure to bounce back, although Ware is now battling a back injury.
The other truly noteworthy defensive performances have come from Carolina, which has a slew of big-play artists led by Josh Norman, the definition of a shutdown cornerback this season. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis also have been special.
“It has been impossible to miss the emergence this season of Norman as the game’s premier cover man,” Banks says.
“He has played the cornerback position about as well as it can be played,” Pompei adds. “Aqib Talib was a contender for this award until his penalties against the Colts.”
COMEBACK PLAYER — A sentimental choice might be Eric Berry, whose courageous return from lymphoma is the feel-good story of the year. And Berry has played well enough to be a co-favorite with Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer, who comes off a second long rehab from knee surgery and has the Cardinals looking like a Super Bowl contender.
“I have debated Adrian Peterson‘s eligibility for this award, but I can’t justify it, given he is coming back from a mess of his own making,” Pelissero says. “Carson Palmer gets my vote for returning from knee reconstruction at age 35 and leading a Cardinals offense that has outscored everybody but the Patriots so far.”
Clayton makes another intriguing suggestion: Buffalo’s Richie Incognito.
“After missing last season, he has re-established himself as one of the best guards in the game,” Clayton says.
MVP — Almost exclusively a quarterbacks award these days — in the past eight seasons, only Peterson in 2012 was a non-QB winner.
So which quarterback? Consensus so far, it seems, has Tom Brady over Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton.
“Tom Brady, no question,” Lofton says.
“There really is no close No. 2,” Pompei suggests. “It’s amazing how so much has changed around Brady over the years, but he continues to make the Patriots’ offense almost impossible to contain.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.