Blair Miller > The 2013 NFL Upside-Down Awards
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The NFL season is over and we miss it too. But this is a 24/7/365 sort of league and the offseason is already under way, chugging along toward free agency and the draft, not to mention other ancillary drama. Before we turn the page on the 2013 season that was, we gladly bring you TFQ’s inaugural Upside Down Awards. They’re our own unique take on the NFL season – sometimes serious, often off the wall, always passionate, and never pulling punches.
Most Valuable Player
Yeah, yeah – Peyton Manning is the official MVP, and deservedly so. But these are the UDAs, which means a different yet still logical take on some traditional awards, along with some fun new accolades. While Manning’s validity as the Most Valuable Player is virtually undisputed, it’s aligned with one of the two traditional extreme arguments for MVPs: The best player on the best team and/or one whose success is statistically overwhelming. The other extreme makes the argument that a player is most valuable because of the (hypothetical) decline in success his team would experience were said player removed from the roster.
Winner – RB Arian Foster, Houston
While Manning might apply to this extreme as well, Foster rendered his team’s struggles non-hypothetical with his absence from the Texans for more than half the 2013 season while Houston limped to the NFL’s worst record after a 12-win season in 2012.
In short, one of the league’s most complete offensive skill players never had a clean bill of health all season – Foster sat out all of training camp to rest a bad back – and his team’s fortunes were doomed as a result even prior to Houston and Foster accepting that the star player required season-ending surgery. (It didn’t help that backup RB Ben Tate played much of the season with injured ribs.)
It’s not much wonder that Foster entered the training camp period needing to rest his ailing body, what with former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak leaning on his top running back heavily throughout the 2012 season to the tune of 351 carries. That number edges dangerously close to the infamous 370-carry season, one that, according to a dated yet relevant piece from Football Outsiders, is a virtual lock for a lackluster output the following year.
In fact, Houston had been flirting with danger before 2012. Since breaking into the NFL as a full-time starter in 2010 no running back had more carries coming into last season than Foster’s 956 – an eye-popping average of 319 carries over three seasons, not to mention his 159 total receptions over that span. In fact, the Football Outsiders study was based on more traditional tailbacks like Shaun Alexander, Terrell Davis, Curtis Martin and Jamal Lewis – none of whom played an active role in the passing game to the extent that Foster and many of his contemporaries do. In this sense Foster has been subjected to more wear and tear than those aforementioned backs, whose role in throwing situations tended more towards blocking and/or watching obvious passing downs from the sideline.
It’s likely that Foster can return to highly productive levels – at age 27 his physical prime could be ahead of him, unlike many of the backs in the Football Outsiders study – but his marked absence from the Texans offense during 2013 was not only to the detriment of the ground game (Houston ranked seventh, second and eighth in the NFL in rushing from 2010 to 2012 but tied for 20th in ’13) but it also exposed the shortcomings of QB Matt Schaub, who fell into a funk of pick-6’s that he never recovered from.
Runners up: WR Michael Crabtree, San Francisco; TE Dennis Pitta, Baltimore
Executive Of The Year
For the executive of a franchise who either did well to get fired from a bad environment, or whose ineptitude helped his team fall so far that it kick-started a needed rebuilding phase.
Winner – Mike Lombardi, Cleveland
Lombardi gets the nod in large part because it’s almost impossible to define what it was exactly that he did while with the Browns. His official title in Cleveland was general manager, but in actuality his presence was awash in bureaucracy, like a worker in the classic film Brazil. Owner Jimmy Haslam had already chopped off the head of Mike Holmgren and replaced him with CEO Joe Banner, who, by all media accounts of any significant transactions during Lombardi’s tenure, was the decision-maker as far as personnel. Whatever Lombardi did as an employee of the Browns wasn’t enough to keep him afloat after head coach Rob Chudzinski was fired before returning to town on the season’s final day. Banner was shown the door too.
It’d be nice to criticize Lombardi’s role in the ongoing shitastrophe that is the Cleveland Browns, but no one really knows what he was expected to do – including Lombardi.
Runners up: Bruce Allen, Washington; Jerry Jones, Dallas
Awarded to the best wide receiver in the NFL – second to Megatron, aka Calvin Johnson.
Winner – Josh Gordon, Cleveland
To say that NFL disappointment returned to Cleveland is an understatement. But despite a parade of below-average quarterbacks, Gordon led the league with 1,646 receiving yards – a first for a Browns wide receiver. His 87 receptions were just 3 behind the franchise single-season record, and no player with more than 32 catches last season averaged higher than Gordon’s 18.9 yards per reception. (And he achieved all of this after missing the first two games of the season due to suspension.) In other words, every opponent knew that a bad QB would have to look to Gordon for a big strike, and he consistently delivered anyway. Marshall has proved his dominance over a longer period of time and Megatron still rules supreme, but the 2013 season belonged to Gordon.
Runner up: Brandon Marshall, Chicago
Tony Robbins Defense
Sometimes all an offense needs to do in order to get its confidence back is play against a bad defense. Sometimes one team’s D stands above the rest in terms of being a get well tonic for slumping O’s. This award goes to the defense that most consistently made their opponents feel better about themselves.
Winner – Dallas Cowboys’ D
The Bears were good for whatever ailed an opponents’ ground game, giving up almost thirty more rushing yards per game on average than the second-worst run defense in the NFL last season, so this decision was closer than some might think.
But the allas Cowboys efense lacked any semblance of D. They gave up a league-worst 415.3 total yards from scrimmage per game en route to setting franchise records for total yards allowed (6,645) and passing yards allowed (4,589). Last offseason owner/GM Jerry Jones brought in Monte Kiffin, the creator of the famed Tampa Two scheme, to run the defense but did next to nothing to adapt the roster for a transition from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. As a result (along with several injuries, to be fair), the D-line was unable to generate a pass rush on its own – a must in Kiffin’s scheme, or else the defensive backs and linebackers get woefully exposed in passing situations.
The result: Teams on an offensive schneid got well when facing the ’Boys. The Lions went through a bad three game stretch, averaging just 16.7 points over that span, but then put up 31 in the next game when “Big” D came to town. Detroit didn’t score less than 20 points for 5 more games after that. The Saints had lost 2 of 3 games and looked like their offense was sputtering – until their Week 10 matchup with Dallas, in which they lit up the scoreboard for 49 points. Chicago had been squeaking by with game management from backup QB Josh McCown, surpassing 23 points scored just once over a five game stretch, but then scored 45 against Jerry’s Boys. The Bears would fall short over the last month of the season, but that game made them look like NFC title contenders. Christ, even the moribund Raiders reached 31 points against Dallas. Enough said.
Runner up: Chicago Bears’ D
Paper Wall Blocking
You know when college teams come out of the tunnel and burst through a paper banner? Often offensive linemen or whole O-lines end up barely sufficing as such while getting torn apart by defensive fronts. This dubious distinction is given for the most paper-thin protection of an NFL QB this season.
Winner – Miami Dolphins
In the offseason, Miami let left tackle Jake Long go to St. Louis via free agency, which started a straw-grabbing party for someone(s) to protect sophomore QB Ryan Tannehill – who, with the lack of an imposing rushing game on his team, largely defines the fortunes of the ’Fins. Things were so shitty in Miami in terms of cobbling together a viable unit that the franchise pulled a midseason trade for left tackle Bryant McKinnie only to watch him fit in with the rest of the pylons on the O line. Ironically enough, Tannehill was on pace to break David Carr’s record for times sacked in a single season before some thing went down with some guy named Incognito and another guy named Jonathan Martin. Somehow Miami avoided that infamous mark, but after the bully controversy cost the team two starters on the O-line, the deal was sealed for this award.
Runner-up: Jacksonville Jaguars
Back To Basics
In an increasingly cerebral league sometimes it makes all of the difference to get back to the simple things. This award goes to the team that rediscovered itself via a trip to square one with good ’ol fashioned run blocking that in turn helps the passing game.
Winner – Arizona Cardinals
When Week 7 ended, Bruce Arians’ Cards were 3-4, and looked lost. Only twice had they managed to gain 90 yards or more in the running game, and QB Carson Palmer hadn’t thrown for 300 yards since a loss on opening day. When the weak defensive front of the Falcons came to town the following week, it was an ideal time to start trying to assert a run game. The result: A season-high 201 rushing yards as a team. ’Zona would fight through injuries in the backfield for the rest of the season, but would only fall short of 90 yards on the ground as a team twice in the last eight weeks. Lo and behold, Palmer would enjoy a renaissance of sorts during that span, posting a passer rating above 100 five times in a seven game span while the Cardinals made an unexpected playoff push in the ultra-competitive NFC West.
Runner up: Pittsburgh Steelers
Blue Light Special
Detroit, the birthplace of K-Mart might be broke, but that doesn’t stop NFL franchises from finding some bargain bin deals that pay off when a player produces well beyond the value he signed for. This award goes to the player that gives his team the most for their dollar.
Winner – Anquan Boldin, San Francisco
This one was really close. If you were a GM, would you be ecstatic about getting three wins out of five starts and a passer rating over 100 for $865,000, like the Bears got from backup QB Josh McCown? Of course. Can you believe that the Giants were the only tea to invite Patriots WR Julian Edelman for a visit last offseason when he was an unrestricted free agent? Neither could New England, who happily welcomed Edelman back into the fold with a one year contract worth $1 million – a deal that he rewarded his employer for with a team-leading 105 catches and 1,056 receiving yards while teammate Danny Amendola missed chunks of the season with injury, getting paid $28.5 million over five years. Shaun Phillips almost gets the nod because he helped his team reach the Super Bowl. Star ’backer Von Miller missed the first six games of the regular season and Phillips ably filled in while costing the Broncos just $1 million in 2014.
But there was no better bargain-godsend than Boldin. Acquired by head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team from his brother’s Ravens for a sixth round draft pick after Baltimore didn’t want to count the $6 million on the last year of the 33-year old’s existing contract against their salary cap. Boldin refused to take a pay cut, and for that he was shipped off to one of the best all-around teams in the league. At the time the trade looked like a very good team adding a possession receiver to help young QB Colin Kaepernick adjust. Then came the offseason injury to Michael Crabtree, which thrust Boldin back into the primary receiver role that he had filled so capably for Baltimore during their Super Bowl run just one year prior. The physical receiver picked up where he left off for the Ravens, becoming Kaepernick’s much-needed security blanket, just like he had for Joe Flacco in Baltimore (who, by the way, just so happened to look lost and uncomfortable in his first season without Boldin). 85 receptions, 1,179 yards and 7 TDs later, the Niners got a pretty solid return on $6 million spent on a guy who was considered to be on the verge of too old to dominate against younger cornerbacks. Boldin’s unexpected huge value to San Fran is all the more obvious now that they are in the process of re-signing him.
Runners up: Josh McCown, Chicago; Julian Edelman, New England; Shaun Phillips, Denver
At Least Let Us Keep The Shirts On Our Back
This award goes to the player (and his agent) who has the most overpriced contract in the NFL given the disparity between his paycheck and his production.
Winner – Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay/Minnesota
Let’s see if I have this right…So if you play like shit and alienate your franchise you can get cut, picked up by another team that is willing to pay you $2 million for 12 weeks of service left in the regular season, and you don’t even have to play? Bernie Madoff is probably jealous he didn’t think of being Freeman’s agent.
That’s right. After stinking his way to a 59.3 passer rating and pissing off his coaches through three starts with the Buccaneers got Freeman released, the Vikings inked him to a $2 million deal to – everyone assumed – supplant struggling quarterbacks Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. So it was Freeman to the rescu…only he slipped over the fire hoses while the building burned down: 20 completions, 53 attempts, (37.7%), 190 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception and a 40.6 passer rating in his first start in purple. (A loss.) It turned out that was Freeman’s only start in Minnesota last season. He suffered a concussion, and was still held out for the rest of the season after it was obvious he was healthy enough to play. I guess the inexcusable 53 attempts (?!?!?!) in his only game gave the Vikings front office enough evidence that he shouldn’t see the green of the field again. So they decided to pay Freeman $166,667 per week to hold a clipboard.
I never expected anyone to grift a team more than Matt Flynn ripped off the Seahawks and Raiders, but Minnesota’s deal for Freeman takes the cake. A two million-dollar cake that they never even ate a slice of while it went moldy.
Runner up: Matt Flynn, Oakland/Green Bay; Joe Flacco, Baltimore
The Bad Negotiator
We’d understand if you made the mistake of thinking this is a statement about the shitty Kevin Spacey-Samuel L. Jackson film, The Negotiator. However, this award goes to the player who stinks up the joint the most in a contract season.
Winner – Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay/Minnesota
See above. Freeman’s magnificent bed shitting can’t be contained by just one UDA. Even rubber bed sheets wouldn’t hold this deluge.
Runner up: Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants
Thief In The Night
It’s extremely rare for a team to win a game it didn’t deserve to win. That doesn’t mean, however, that other games don’t conclude with the winning team essentially snatching a victory from the claws of defeat like a cartoon robber runs off toting a sac with a dollar sign on it. This award goes to the team who most impressively made a W seem like larceny.
Winner – Carolina wins vs. New England, 24-20, Week 11
It’s tempting to give this one to New England for overcoming three first quarter turnovers that resulted in Denver scores. But that one might have been the “happy ending” for the Patriots being Karma Sutra-d, because just one week before that epic comeback New England was robbed of a win by Carolina because of a brutal no-call by the referees. I’ve read umpteen accounts of how LB Luke Kuechly played legal defense on TE Rob Gronkowski on the controversial final play of the game, but it pisses me off that analysts and fans alike judge a pass uncatchable because the defender grabs the intended receiver before the ball is halfway to its target. NFL officials have their hands full trying to get such calls correct, but this gaffe arguably cost the Pats home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Runner up: New England wins vs. Denver, 34-31 (OT), Week 12
The What-Just-Happened-I-Can’t-Breathe-And-My-Pants-Are-Full Game Of The Year Award
Every once and a while we get treated to a game that, when it ends, we feel exhausted, confused and euphoric – like the next morning after a wild night. This award goes to the craziest game of the season.
Winner – Baltimore wins vs. Minnesota, 29-26, Week 14
As a local announcer proclaimed during the ridiculous final minutes of this game, “this isn’t football, it’s ping-pong!”
Watching this ridiculous seesaw finish was an attack on one’s football senses. No other game in NFL history has seen FIVE go-ahead touchdowns in the final 2:30 of the fourth quarter. (Elias Sports Bureau) That dizzying span saw two short TD passes from Ravens QB Joe Flacco, a 41-yard TD run, a 77-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a catch-and-run that went for 79 yards to the house. And all of it went down on the auspicious Snow Day, when a blast of winter weather covered the northeastern seaboard in snow.
I remember that there were several other close games that day…Indeed, the Packers, Patriots ad Dolphins would also eke out nail-biting wins in the 1:00 slot. But Ravens-Vikings was the type of ending we only see once an era. At least.
Runner up: Denver wins @ Dallas, 51-48, Week 5
The Timmy Smith Award
In his rookie season of 1987 Redskin RB Timmy Smith had zero starts and 126 total yards in the regular season. In what is to date perhaps the most surprising performance in NFL history, Smith made his first career start in the Super Bowl against the Broncos and rushed for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards. Smith would never again rush for more than 107 yards in a game and was out of the league two seasons later. This award goes to the most surprising performance by a player who is likely never to repeat it.
Winner – Matt Asiata, Minnesota
Asiata ran for three touchdowns in a Week 10 win over the Eagles. Not only was it Asiata’s first career start, but he also became the first player in NFL history to rush for his first three touchdowns in his first start. (NFL Media) Alas, the top two Minny running backs, Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, eventually returned to action, so the undrafted Utah Ute went back to scratching himself and sipping Gatorade.
Runner up: Bobby Rainey, Tampa Bay
Off Of The Milk Carton, Onto The Field
Given to a once-renowned player that had a standout performance after a stint of time spent in obscurity.
Winner – Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants, Week 6
After throwing his helmet into the stands and yelling his way out of New York, the reigning Tiptoe Burglar managed to alienate the coaching staff in San Fran the following season. Somehow he ended up back in the Big Apple, and when second-string RB David Wilson went down with an injury Jacobs reached deep and pulled out 106 rushing yards – his first 100-yard game since Week 13 in 2011, and just his fourth such game since the 2008 season.
Runner up: James Harrison vs. Cleveland, Week 11
Sometimes life comes back to fuck you in the ass. Given to the player/team who most noticeably experienced such retribution.
Winner – Atlanta Falcons, Overall
The Falcons came one play away from winning the NFC Championship for the 2012 season, but injuries came back to bite Hot-lanta in the hoo-haa. RB Steven Jackson – one of the highest value free agent acquisitions of the offseason – injured his leg in Week 1 and didn’t return to the field until Week 8…when he had 6 yards on 11 carries against Arizona. Overall, injuries to already-weak offensive and defensive lines made matters worse – not to mention losing star WR Julio Jones in Week 5.
Often, making a deep playoff trip means the injury gods smile upon you. This was true for the Falcons in 2012. In 2013 things balanced out, to say the least.
Runner up: Mike Shanahan/Washington Redskins vs. New York Giants, Week 13
This award goes to the player who performs best in 12” of Snow.
Winner: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia, Week 14
See my account of the game in What I Saw, Week 14. Most of us woke up to pregame calamity, assuming that every game on the eastern seaboard would be a shit show. Some of them were, but in the most visually amusing snow game in recent years, Shady blazed through the powder past Detroit defenders like an Olympic skier takes on slalom flags, amassing 217 rushing yards on 29 carries (a 7.5 average) and 2 TDs. It was arguably the second-best bad weather game by a running back behind Hall of Famer Gayle Sayers, who scored 6 TDs in the mud against the Niners as a rookie.
Runner up: Tony Montana, Scarface
Sometimes a person showers people with so much praise it’s hard to understand how he/she can still manage to talk with that person’s dick in their mouth. This award goes out to the most shameless praise-giver.
Winner; Lifetime Achievement Award – Jon Gruden, ESPN
If Gruden chastises a bad (or good) player for chronically bad play my head might implode from the shock. It’s impressive that a coach who was so successful at chewing players out during his NFL career can pull an about-face and shower everyone with praise for merely holding their own in the pros, like how an annoying guitarist thinks that anyone who can play numerous chords must be talented. Collinsworth gets the nod for runner up simply because he’s too ignorant to know who is making mistakes – even at wide receiver, the position he once played for the Bengals.
Runner up: Cris Collinsworth, NBC
Tits On A Bull
Given to the most useless and/or superfluous individual in the NFL, be it on the field or off.
Winner; Lifetime Achievement Award – Mike Ditka, ESPN
His thoughts are more like sneezes than ideas. He can’t finish a sentence without starting another one. Worst yet, his new reading glasses make him look like a senile version of Seinfeld when he wears the vintage theatre’s lost and found specs for Kramer so that Lloyd Braun doesn’t think he’s showing up Bruan’s craziness. It’s no coincidence that Ditka is the last analyst on Monday Night Countdown to weigh in on almost every topic that isn’t Bears related.
Runners-up – Bob Costas, NBC; Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver