NFL awards: Putting a unique spin on the best performances of the 2021 season

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The envelopes are in. As usual, it’s the one vote, one-man system with the honors including a nod to history. The lineup:

Joe Montana Legend Award: Tom Brady. At 44, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback with seven Super Bowl rings set career highs with a league-leading 5,316 passing yards, 485 completions and 312.7 yards per game. He may be getting older, but the results – including an NFL-high 43 TD strikes, second-most in his career after tallying 50 in 2007 – suggest he’s still in his prime. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Brady used to marvel at the cold efficiency of Montana. Now his childhood hero, still living in Cali, marvels at Brady’s cold efficiency. Still.

P-Money MVP Award: Aaron Rodgers. Despite the kerfuffle stemming from his decision not to get vaccinated for COVID-19 – and apparently misleading efforts along the way – the Green Bay Packers quarterback was brilliant enough on the field to emerge as the projected winner of his fourth NFL MVP award. Only one person, Peyton Manning, has won more MVPs (five). And Manning can also relate to the frustration that comes when MVP campaigns don’t end with Super Bowl triumphs. Rodgers led the NFL with a 111.9 pass efficiency rating, with a sizzling 37-4 TD-to-INT ratio. Yet after another home playoff loss, winning an MVP trophy is a bit half-empty while speculation about his future in Green Bay is suddenly reignited.

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrates as he walks off the field following the game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrates as he walks off the field following the game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.

Michael Strahan Award: T.J. Watt. Talk about bang for the buck. The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker began the season with a record contract – a four-year, $112 million extension with $80 million guaranteed that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player – and ended it by tying the league’s single-season record with 22 ½ sacks. Sure, he matched Strahan’s 2001 mark in a 17-game season. But Watt’s milestone actually trumps Strahan’s mark when considering two things: Watt only played 15 games, missing two with an injury. Plus, Strahan’s record-setting sack came as a gift when Brett Favre flopped. And there’s also some dispute that Watt should have been given a sack on a play that forced a Tyler Huntley fumble in Week 18; instead, it was ruled a tackle for a loss. Anyway, there’s no dispute that with an array of clutch plays beyond the sacks, Watt was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Eric Dickerson Award: Jonathan Taylor. It’s too bad the Indianapolis Colts didn’t make more of the spectacular season produced by Taylor, who won the NFL rushing crown with 1,811 yards, led the league with 2,171 yards from scrimmage and tied Austin Ekeler with a league-high 20 touchdowns. And Taylor’s NFL-best 119 first downs were 29 more than the next player in that category, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp. All that, and Indianapolis missed the playoffs after suffering a stunning upset at Jacksonville in the finale. Still, it was a throwback performance that was Offensive Player of the Year honors. Dickerson, an ‘80s-era star runner for the Colts, would appreciate the effort as Taylor was the rare non-quarterback to play himself into the conversation for NFL MVP honors.

You Got Moss’d Award: Ja’Marr Chase. The Cincinnati Bengals star, reunited with former LSU teammate Joe Burrow, is the most impressive rookie receiver to hit the NFL since Randy Moss broke in with the Vikings and put up 17 TD catches in 1998. Now he's such an obvious pick as the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Inside Chase’s 1,455 yards on 81 receptions (13 TDs) were two 200-yard games and an 82-yard TD scamper against Baltimore. And Chase is also the first rookie to produce two 100-yard receiving games during the playoffs. Even better than the numbers are the highlights. Like Moss, a Hall of Famer now, Chase looks like a man among boys with a knack for making the first would-be tackler miss. Add to that the team’s succeed success as Cincinnati won the AFC North, won the franchise’s first playoff game since 1990 and advanced to the AFC title game. Doubt that happens without Chase.

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L.T. Award: Micah Parsons. The Dallas Cowboys got a steal with the 12th pick in the draft, “settling” for the Penn State linebacker after the two cornerbacks they coveted – Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II – went off the board picks earlier. Parsons assuredly will be the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, bolstered by versatility. His 13 sacks (which threatened the NFL rookie record of 14 ½ set by Jevon Kearse in 1998) only tell part his impact story. Parsons often drops into coverage and he cleans up with sideline-to-sideline pursuit. In a word, he brings energy. Not to suggest that he’ll become another Lawrence Taylor, the NFL’s top defensive rookie in 1981. There may never be another game-changer on Taylor’s level. But in earning All-Pro honors as a rookie, Parsons clearly stepped onto the NFL stage, just as L.T. did from the start, and proved that he is indeed a rare talent.

Adrian Peterson Award: Joe Burrow. What a comeback. After his rookie season was cut short by a horrific knee injury (torn ACL, torn MCL), the unflappable Bengals quarterback came back even better to spark the roll to a division title and trip to the AFC title game, adding to his Comeback Player of the Year credentials. Burrow put up the league’s biggest passing performance in 2021 with a 525-yard slaying of the Ravens, which topped two other games of more than 400 yards. And he led the league with a 70.4% completion rate. Better yet, he established himself as a surefire leader whom teammates rally around. This is surely what Cincinnati had in mind when it drafted the Ohio native with the top pick overall in 2020. He has arrived. And it figures to only get better from here. For comebacks from reconstructive knee surgery, it might be the most impressive since Peterson came back in 2015 and won another NFL rushing title with 1,485 yards.

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John Madden Award: Kyle Shanahan. Give it up to resilience. The San Francisco 49ers were the last team in the NFC to punch a ticket to the playoffs after finishing third in the NFC West, yet they wound up in the NFC title game after claiming gritty road victories at Dallas and Green Bay, where they knocked off the top-seeded Packers. And remember, San Francisco was 3-5 at midseason. Shanahan’s team thrived despite the turbulence at quarterback – Jimmy Garoppolo kept his job despite the presence of rookie Trey Lance, then has had to battle through injuries – and the coach injected new life into his offense by creating a hybrid role for gutsy wide receiver Deebo Samuel to double as a running back. Add the hard-nose defense coordinated by rising star DeMeco Ryans, emphasis on special teams (see the win at Lambeau Field) and, of course, another sweep of the Rams, and Shanahan’s growth as a coach has been on full display – worthy of All-Madden Team honors. It’s the playoff run that puts him over the top for Coach of the Year honors, although young Bengals coach Zac Taylor has surely earned his stripes, too.

Justin Tucker Award: Daniel Carlson. They call him “Cash Money Carlson” in Las Vegas, which says something about his reliability as a good bet for the Raiders. Carlson nailed five walk-off field goals to win games for the Raiders during the 2021 season, including the 47-yarder in overtime against the Chargers that clinched a playoff berth. Carlson kicked five treys in the NFL’s regular season finale to finish the campaign with a franchise-record 40 field goals and an NFL-high 150 points. Tucker, the Baltimore Ravens kicker who set an NFL record with a 66-yard field goal at Detroit in Week 3 and is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, is still the NFL’s best at his position. But Carlson has proven to be plenty clutch in his own right.

Ozzie Newsome Award: Les Snead. The Rams GM pulled the trigger on the big moves that underscored the all-in mindset for a Super Bowl mission. It started with the acquisition of Matthew Stafford in the swap that sent Jared Goff to Detroit. Then in midseason, the Rams dealt for Von Miller to add a savvy pass-rusher and lured Odell Beckham Jr. for the chance to revitalize his career – which became even bigger with the loss of Robert Woods to a season-ending torn ACL. L.A. has mortgaged some more of its future draft capital and stretched its salary cap, but that’s hardly new. Nor is another division crown. And Snead oversees a personnel department that has been better than most in scoring hits at all levels of the draft, something that Newsome – who built two Super Bowl teams with the Ravens, yet inexplicably never won NFL Executive of the Year honor – could appreciate.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL awards: Why Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady were among the best