Here’s the best word to sum up the 2018 NFL season thus far: explosive.
Never before has there been so much offense in this league, thanks to the competition committee’s decision to go all Annie Wilkes in “Misery” and utterly limit defenders through rule changes that were passed this offseason.
Defenders can’t hit quarterback too high. They can’t hit QBs too low. Can’t hit them too late. Can’t land on them too hard. It’s crazy, completely unfair, and through nine weeks, we can see the effects — that the great quarterbacks are essentially unstoppable, while the great defenses … well, that basically means nothing.
The four teams that led the league in total defense (yards allowed) heading into Week 10’s action were the Ravens, Jaguars, Bills and Cowboys. Their collective record: 12-22. On the flip side, the four teams that led the league in total offense (Rams, Bucs, Chiefs and Steelers) were a combined 24-9-1. This is far from a scientific explanation, but the point is in 2018, having a great offense outweighs having a great defense in the NFL.
That said, even though defenses are limping around defeated like Paul Sheldon after his “Misery” hobbling — one of the most grotesque and memorable scenes in film history for anyone over the age of 30 — that hasn’t stopped this season from being fun. The offensive outburst has not only led to an explosion of big plays, but also a youth movement of sorts at quarterback, where there are several young passers who look primed to guide the NFL into the 2020s.
And on that note, the first midseason award for 2018 goes to …
Most Valuable Player: QB Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
There has been no shortage of Mahomes love in the media, and I’m certainly guilty of leading the charge on that. But how could you not love watching a long-ball throwing, physically gifted, football savant with a super-unique voice who has saved a city’s football sanity?
So yeah, while you’re seeing many people crown New Orleans’ Drew Brees with this award (we’ll get to him next), I’m not moving off Mahomes here. Brees’ candidacy is fair — both teams have only one loss, and you can argue Mahomes has a better supporting cast — but Mahomes’ creativity, moxie and prodigious arm strength have taken coach Andy Reid’s offense to a whole ’nother level.
Reid deserves credit for coaching the kid up, sure, but Mahomes’ innate ability to keep his eyes up under pressure, avoid the rush and make impossible throws has made the Chiefs’ offense the toast of football, one that shows no signs of slowing down. He is on pace to complete 66 percent of his passes and throw for 5,157 yards, 52 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. That’s Dan Marino stuff there, folks.
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Drew Brees, Saints
One of the benefits to the NFL’s emphasis on protecting its quarterbacks is that the great ones will be able to play longer than ever. If this were 1998, I’m reasonably certain Brees would be looking more like “Cap” Rooney from “Any Given Sunday,” injuries and all, than a potential MVP candidate.
But that’s pro football now, and Brees is on pace to complete 76 percent of his passes and throw for 4,672 yards, 36 touchdowns and a ridiculous two interceptions. That’s one of those seasons where your 99-rated quarterback has five years into your “Madden” franchise, provided you refuse to graduate from All-Pro to All-Madden. What’s more, the Saints added receiver Dez Bryant to the mix, someone I believe can really help them as a complement to The Outstanding Michael Thomas. The Saints face a tough schedule down the stretch, but I expect them to win the NFC.
One other player deserves mention here, and that’s the Rams’ Todd Gurley, who also doubles as the best running back in the league. Gurley does it all for the Rams, as he already has over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns, and if the Saints or Chiefs falter — and the Rams (8-1) keep rolling — you can feel free to swap him in here for Brees or Mahomes for either MVP or Offensive Player of the Year.
Defensive Player of the Year: DE Aaron Donald, Rams
It will be years before we see another interior defensive lineman like Donald. The 6-foot-1, 280-pounder routinely dominates offensive linemen with his rare combination of elite quickness, power, technique and effort. He’s currently on pace to finish with 53 tackles and 18 (18!) sacks for the Rams.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: RB Saquon Barkley, Giants
Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, actually doesn’t lead all rookies in rushing — that honor goes to Denver’s Phillip Lindsay, who has 591 yards to Barkley’s 519. But Barkley separates himself in the passing game, where his 58 catches ranked in a three-way tie for eighth among all NFL players heading into Week 10. Throw in his 1,016 total yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns, and he has been everything the Giants could have hoped. Too bad their quarterback has been gawd awful. Receiver Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons (33 catches, 463 yards, seven touchdowns) deserves consideration here, too.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: ILB Darius Leonard, Colts
I’ve been seeing some love for Denver outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, who has racked up eight sacks this season and is on pace to finish with 14 – just a half-sack short of the rookie record, set by Tennessee’s Jevon Kearse in 1999. Cleveland cornerback Denzel Ward, who is on pace to finish with 16 pass deflections and five interceptions, is a good choice, too. So is Chargers safety Derwin James, who is on pace for 110 tackles, eight sacks and 12 pass deflections.
But my pick is Leonard, the second-round inside linebacker who leads the NFL in tackles with 88 — despite missing a game! — and is on pace to finish with 176, which is more than Luke Kuechly (164), Brian Urlacher (123) and Ray Lewis (110) all tallied in their rookie years.
Comeback Player of the Year: DE J.J. Watt, Texans
It’s nice to see Watt, 29, back and wrecking fools after struggling with injuries in 2016 and 2017. After totaling one sack in those seasons, Watt already has nine this year and is on pace for 16 for the rapidly rising Texans, who have won six straight and are the prohibitive favorites in the AFC South.
A rejuvenated Adrian Peterson — who looked finished as a No. 1 back two seasons ago — also deserves credit for what he has done for a 5-3 Washington team, as he currently sits fifth in the NFL in rushing with 604 yards. So does Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, who missed all of last season with an injury but is on pace to complete 65 percent of his passes and throw for 46 touchdowns and 16 interceptions for the Colts (3-5).
Coach of the Year: Sean McVay, Rams
Yes, it’s true that McVay’s Rams have an abundance of talent. But let’s make a few things very clear.
First, a lot of that defensive talent is high-maintenance, which means it takes a strong leader who commands respect to keep things together. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips leads the group, but the 32-year-old McVay’s upfront attitude, attention to detail and general aptitude for the job has earned him the admiration of his troops.
Second, a significant portion of the offense’s success should be attributed to McVay, whose quarterback (Jared Goff) and star running back (Gurley) limped to a 4-12 record in 2016 thanks to the poorly designed offense of his predecessor, Jeff Fisher. McVay’s creativity and ability to coach up quarterbacks has not only saved Goff’s career, but Gurley’s, too; it wasn’t that long ago when the stud 24-year-old was averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry against eight- and nine-man boxes because teams did not fear the Rams’ prehistoric passing attack.
Fortunately for Gurley, the NFL’s recent rules changes have made it easier than ever to pass, especially when the man doing the offensive scheming is a genius. And considering the amount of fun the Rams have been to watch on offense this year, maybe the Wilkes-like crippling of defenses this offseason isn’t so bad after all.
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