Before I submit my PFWA ballot for this year’s NFL award winners, I thought I would share the thought process behind each pick on here. With a reminder that these are all regular-season awards, I want to make sure I get my picks in before any postseason game influences my choices.
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Let me start by saying that I think this was the weakest MVP race with the worst field in the salary cap era. If there was ever a year where a non-quarterback could have earned it, it should have been this one. But even that did not materialize as no defender was outstanding enough (or played enough of his team’s snaps to justify it), and the two skill players (Jonathan Taylor and Cooper Kupp) came up short of a 2,000-yard milestone (rushing or receiving).
I strongly believe MVP is a quarterback award, but it was not a good year for standout quarterback play. The rookies were weak, Dak Prescott’s season was too mistake-filled despite the Cowboys scoring the most points, and Russell Wilson ensured he’d still never get an MVP vote after having the first major injury of his career.
The top three quarterbacks in 2020 (Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen) all regressed in 2021.
I watched Allen against the Steelers in Week 1 and could see right away that something was off. He hit some big passes against the Chiefs in Week 5 when Kansas City was still playing horrific defense and Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP that night. The oddsmakers were even agreeing around that time, but I never bought it. After Allen imploded with three turnovers in a 9-6 loss to Jacksonville, I eliminated him in my mind.
Mahomes had the worst season of his career and still finished fifth in QBR and perhaps one fewer CEH fumble or blown lead in Cincinnati away from the top seed and best record in the NFL. High standard to be judged by. The Chiefs still finished No. 1 in yards and points per drive too, and Mahomes had several of the best games by any quarterback this year. However, there was an eight-game stretch where he threw 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions and averaged 6.43 YPA. Throw in the defensive turnaround during that time helping the Chiefs go on a winning streak, and there was just no way Mahomes was the MVP this season.
If we gave an MVP for the first half of the season, then Matthew Stafford should have run away with it. However, the Tennessee game happened and that kickstarted a slide into the Detroit Stafford we’re very familiar with.
Kyler Murray was another quarterback who I thought had a chance at MVP this season, but it was dicey when the Cardinals still managed to go 2-1 with Colt McCoy starting. Then Murray had some rough games and that was a no-go.
Justin Herbert was my MVP pick after Week 5, then he hit a slump. After the Pittsburgh win in Week 11 and the incredible long touchdown throw against the Giants in Week 14, I was back to thinking he had an argument. But then the Chiefs took over the division with that epic overtime win despite a decent game from Herbert, and that seemed to follow them to a bad loss against Houston. By that time, he had no realistic chance, and now after missing the playoffs despite another epic performance on Sunday night in Vegas, we know he’s not getting a vote this year. But his day should come.
So, I’ve just eliminated Allen, Mahomes, Stafford, Murray, and Herbert. I’ll quickly mention that Joe Burrow absolutely had a shot at this had he been able to close out those games against the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Even just two of them might have done the trick, but he threw some bad interceptions in a couple of those games or couldn’t get the game-winning drive in the others. But he was a matter of a couple drives from deservedly pulling this off, so I think his day too may come for this award.
Who does that leave? Oh yeah, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. By default, I ended up taking the 2020 standout who regressed the least and that was Rodgers. This is a default MVP choice in my eyes, just as Peyton Manning was the default pick in 2008 and Brady was the default pick in 2010 and 2017.
The last thing we need is Brady getting a third default MVP. Also, I had 2400 reasons to want it to happen based on my preseason bets as a $200 bet on Brady at +1200 was my top MVP bet.
Going into Week 15, Brady looked like he was going to be handed another MVP by default. My bet to win $2,400 had a cash out option of $1,300 at the time. It didn’t seem likely that the Bucs would lose another game after getting past Buffalo in overtime. It also didn’t seem likely that voters would vote for Rodgers after his numbers were down from 2020 and all the COVID nonsense he brought on himself.
Then 9-0 against New Orleans happened in front of a national audience. Brady had a chance to show his MVP worth on a night where the Bucs had a lot of injuries, and he couldn’t even put up a single point. He got swept by the Saints with Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill at quarterback. In between he lost to a bad Washington team with Taylor Heinicke. But 9-0 was the death knell for his MVP case.
Of course, at no point this season did I think Brady was deserving of MVP despite my profitable bet if he won the award. He spent the year throwing to the best receiving corps in the league, which was accurate before Antonio Brown compounded the loss of Chris Godwin, behind an elite pass protection line. He was feasting on short fields for touchdowns. He threw the second-most passes in NFL history and had just the 13th-highest YPA of his career. He was completely outshined by Stafford in the showdown in Los Angeles. He wasn’t even more impressive than Allen in that head-to-head game in Week 14, a game largely decided by what was called pass interference at the end. The aforementioned ugly trio of losses, including the pick-six in New Orleans when he had a chance to win the game. Let’s not also forget that he only managed one touchdown drive in New England against Bill Belichick in one of the most overhyped regular-season games of all time.
Brady was the MVP this year only if MVP means Mass Volume Player. So, when Bruce Arians calls it a travesty if he doesn’t win it, I’m calling it a travesty if Brady gets a vote. And you know he will.
By the way, I cashed out my Brady MVP bet at $244 before Week 17, so I made $44 in the process. Something is rigged if Brady wins it when Rodgers is listed at -400 (or higher) at many sportsbooks right now.
Here is how Rodgers and Brady stack up to past MVP winners at quarterback in the stats I have tracked for MVP worthiness for years.
You can see the 2021 seasons are not up to par. Rodgers is the first season to lead in QBR without being at least 75.0. Maybe there was a formula change this year, but it doesn’t make any sense why they would not apply that to older seasons too. Rodgers’ DVOA is also the lowest to lead the league since Dan Marino in 1996, so it’s not just QBR. This will also be the first time in over a decade where the QB on the No. 1 points per drive offense isn’t the MVP.
So, what is the case for Rodgers? While not as good as his 2011, 2014, and 2020 seasons, Rodgers still led all quarterbacks in QBR, DVOA, TD%, lowest INT%, passer rating, and ANY/A. The Packers beat the odds and won 13 games for the third year in a row, the first team in NFL history to do so. The 17th game was not necessary for that too as the Packers already had the No. 1 seed locked up despite ranking 21st in points per drive allowed. He also lost his tight end (Robert Tonyan) and played without his stud left tackle (David Bakhtiari). The great throws for the highlight reel were still there for Rodgers this year. He had a memorable game-winning drive in San Francisco. He won in Cincinnati despite Mason Crosby having other ideas. He gutted out the win in Arizona against a 7-0 team despite his receivers missing with COVID. Despite the toe injury, he finished red hot with 20 touchdowns and no picks over the last seven games.
Are there arguments against him? Sure, he had a horrible Week 1 against the Saints, but it’s not like a horrible game in Tampa Bay last year prevented him from that MVP. It’s just one game and clearly an outlier for the season. The only other loss he finished was in Minnesota in a game where he threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns and didn’t get the ball last. That was an MVP-worthy day despite the final score.
Of course, you have the COVID situation where he misled about his situation and missed the big Kansas City game as an unvaccinated player. The Packers lost and his absence was huge, but it also weirdly added to his value as the team scored just one touchdown with Jordan Love making his first start.
Would that kind of stuff be enough to make him lose the award to Mahomes last year? I think so, but then again Mahomes was my MVP pick in 2020. But is it enough in a 2021 MVP field that was so weak to not give him the award? Hell no.
As a nod to Rodgers, you’d have to be a bum to vote for a different quarterback for MVP this year.
Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams
I jumped the gun on this one in December, claiming that Jonathan Taylor was a lock for it. Unfortunately, Taylor is stuck with Carson Wentz as his quarterback, so he was a bit at the mercy of that for the season’s first three games and the last two. Still, it was a sensational year for Taylor.
But Cooper Kupp is…god damn. Kupp had at least 92 receiving yards in every game this season except for the first Arizona meeting when he had 64 yards. Kupp’s active streak of 13 games with 90-plus receiving yards is already the NFL record.
If there was ever a modern season where a receiver could win MVP, we saw the elements for it this year with Kupp. He helped Matthew Stafford to a career year while making history of his own with the 90-yard streak. Kupp led the NFL with 145 catches, 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns. It also helped that it was a down year for quarterbacks, giving Kupp a shot at MVP.
But Kupp ended up being at the mercy of his coach, quarterback, and defense on Sunday. After a brilliant drive that he ended with a go-ahead touchdown, Kupp never got another catch. Imagine if he would have gone for a 62-yard touchdown in overtime to win the game and go over 2,000 receiving yards. That should have been able to get him at least a couple MVP votes, right? Alas, Stafford threw an interception and the chance at history was over.
Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Steelers
Look, Aaron Donald is awesome, but it gets boring to pick him every year. Let’s honor someone who had a historic year. Watt led the league in sacks and tackles for loss for the second year in a row, but he chased history in stunning fashion. While playing a 17th game helped him tie Michael Strahan’s sack record at 22.5 sacks, the fact is Watt only played 15 games, and even that is misleading.
Seemingly getting injured every third drive, Watt missed two full games and had four other games where he played no more than 55% of the snaps. In the 11 games where Watt played at least 50 snaps, he had 20.5 of his 22.5 sacks, so I don’t want to hear a thing about him getting the record cheaply. Strahan is the one who had Favre take a dive for sack #22.5.
The Steelers were also 9-2 in the 11 games he played the most snaps. Watt played a huge role in wins over the Bills, Seahawks, Bears, Ravens, and Browns. In addition to the sacks, he forced five fumbles and got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to make a game-deciding two-point conversion fall incomplete in Week 13.
Was it frustrating to see Watt on the sidelines so often? Sure, but he gave it his all when he was on the field. If Watt could ever stay healthy for a 17-game season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could get to 25 sacks. But he should be able to settle for a share of the record and the award for Defensive Player of the Year.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals
I’ll admit I was falling off the Chase bandwagon and starting to come around to the idea of Mac Jones for this award. It was when Chase followed his 201-yard game against the Ravens with a seven-game stretch where he averaged 3.7 catches for 40.6 yards. But then he lit up the Ravens again before having the best game by any receiver this year against the Chiefs. Jones also had a rough finish to the season in New England.
Chase against Kansas City was actually one of the best receiving games in NFL history. Chase caught 11-of-12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He converted a third-and-27. He drew two DPI flags on third downs as well. His touchdowns were long and mostly all him with his YAC. He was absolutely incredible.
Justin Jefferson just had one of the all-time great rookie wide receiver seasons in 2020, but Chase was right there with him this season with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. It was ballsy to pass on offensive line and pair Joe Burrow with his college teammate, but I cannot see the Bengals in the position they are in right now if the team took Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater instead of Chase.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys
The Cowboys nailed that 12th pick of the draft with Parsons, who finished with 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 30 QB hits. He helped the defense lead the NFL in takeaways (34) this year. He’s also personally a trip to watch.
Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals
It feels like Dak Prescott was predestined for this one, but I think Burrow, after his own serious knee injury, pulled away with those two monster performances against the Ravens and Chiefs. In the end, he led the NFL this season with 70.4% completions and 8.9 YPA. Prescott’s injury was gruesome and I’m definitely a fan, but I have to give it up for Burrow leading a culture change in Cincinnati and getting this team to a division title in his second year.
Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals
Double-dipping on awards is usually not my style, but not only did Burrow return from a significant injury to lead the Bengals to a great season, but he had a breakout year after giving off some Sam Bradford vibes in 2020. No more concerns there after leading the league in YPA and averaging 12.6 YPC too.
James Conner in Arizona would have been a good pick too, though he only averaged a career-low 3.7 YPC. But he was money as a receiver, catching 37-of-39 targets, and he scored 18 touchdowns.
Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans
Remember when this was going to be Brandon Staley, then Kliff Kingsbury, then a little Bill Belichick run too? In the end, Mike Vrabel is the choice after guiding the Titans to the AFC’s top seed despite so many games missed from Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones. The Titans had a couple embarrassing losses (Jets and Texans), but they also beat the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, Saints, and 49ers. They also swept the Colts to help win the division.
Tennessee is 8-3 against winning teams this year, the best record in the league. Destroying the Chiefs 27-3 is the main reason this team does not have to worry about travel this postseason.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders
Did some thinking outside the box on this one. Bisaccia was just a special teams coach before taking over as the interim coach following the Jon Gruden fallout. This team had every reason to fall apart this year with the Gruden scandal and Henry Ruggs’ disaster, but the Raiders hung in there and caught some breaks down the stretch. They won a memorable game against the Chargers to get their 10th win and make the playoffs. Bisaccia could end up getting promoted to the real head coach for next year. I am generally against that move, but let’s see what they can do in this playoff run.
Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams
I struggled with this one because I felt like every contender from last year that remained on top this year didn’t do anything special to improve their teams. The New England roster, while improved, is still pretty basic. The Bengals made a great move to draft Chase, but I didn’t want to pick them again here. Dallas’ improvement was largely about getting Prescott back healthy.
So, why not the team that went all in and acquired Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr.? So far, it has led to a 12-5 record and the NFC West crown. Things may not end well here at home, but the Rams are in better position to go farther than they did last year, and that was ultimately the goal behind these moves.