The most prestigious regular season awards in the NFL are given out by the Associated Press (AP), who will not name their award winners until February 2nd, the night before the Super Bowl. Other groups and publications, however, have already named their award winners for the 2012 NFL season, and while they may not carry as much weight as the AP awards, they certainly say something about the best individual performances of the season. For what it's worth, here are my picks for who should win each of the major AP regular season awards:
Most Valuable Player: RB Adrian Peterson (MIN)
Adrian Peterson came up eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record in 2012, despite beginning the year a bit slow (by his standards) as he got back into game shape (he didn't play in the preseason). As far as I'm concerned, Peterson's season was more impressive than Dickerson's, despite the fact that he fell short of his yardage total. Peterson ran the ball 31 less times than Dickerson, and caught 19 more passes.
As far as this season, Peterson was the only player on the Vikings' offense that opposing defenses feared, especially after Percy Harvin's year was ended by an injury in the ninth game of the season. The Vikings boasted the 31st ranked passing "attack" in the league, so it was pretty much Peterson or bust on every Sunday. What did the league's best running back do? He led his team to the playoffs with the entire weight of the state of Minnesota on his shoulders.
Peyton Manning had an absolutely sensational season, but he inherited a team that made it to the second round of the playoffs in 2011 with Tim Tebow as their quarterback. If Tebow is really as terrible as most people say he is, what else could you expect but an impressive 13-3 season? Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are also worthy candidates, but it's extremely rare to see a running back single-handedly carry his team to the playoffs like Peterson did.
Offensive Player of the Year: RB Adrian Peterson (MIN)
I often award OPOY honors to a different player than the MVP, as there is often a player on a non-playoff team who puts up wild statistical numbers in electrifying fashion (i.e. Chris Johnson in 2009). This season, however, the player with the most eye-popping stats and performances was on a team that also made the playoffs. Adrian Peterson averaged over six yards per carry and was less than a first down away from breaking one of the league's most celebrated records.
Six players before Peterson have rushed for 2,000+ yards, and all but one of them won OPOY for their 2,000 yard seasons. The only one that didn't, ironically, is the record holder, Eric Dickerson. Dickerson just so happened to have his 2,000 yard season the same year that Dan Marino broke the single-season record for passing yards - a record that stood for 27 years.
I don't remember anyone breaking any passing yard records this year, so I've got Adrian Peterson, who was by far the most impressive player on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensive Player of the Year: DE J.J. Watt (HOU)
I'd imagine that Watt is probably the general consensus for this award. Though he's listed as a defensive end, Watt lines up all over the field and affects the play before the ball is even snapped. With his exceptional leaping ability and timing, quarterbacks are forced to find him and adjust accordingly, or else they'll have the football smacked right back in their faces - or worse, smacked into the air and intercepted. Watt led all defensive linemen with 16 batted passes, seven more than the next closest player. Even when he doesn't get the sack, Watt forces the quarterback to put more air under his throws, making life easier for his teammates in the defensive backfield.
When Watt doesn't get the sack, he can still be very effective, but the fact of the matter is that he frequently does get to the quarterback. Watt's 20.5 sacks led the NFL, as he used his unique combination of speed and brute strength to blow past (or through) offensive linemen. He also forced four fumbles, recovered two, and was second on the Texans in tackles.
The numbers make a strong case for Watt as DPOY, but I think his versatility and the confusion he causes for opposing quarterbacks is really what makes him this year's best defensive player.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: QB Robert Griffin III (WAS)
This is going to be a really tough award to give out, because there are three candidates who would have won easily in most other years (Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson). Andrew Luck was sensational, leading a team that was 2-14 last season to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. However, Luck completed 54.1% of his passes (better than only Chad Henne - yes, worse than Mark Sanchez), and turned over the ball too much (18 interceptions and five lost fumbles). He was also aided by a very underrated defense.
Russell Wilson also had an incredible season, but with the top ranked scoring defense and third ranked rushing offense, I think a good amount of quarterbacks could have had the same sort of success with that team.
RG3 not only led his team to the playoffs (where he lost to Wilson in part due to a bum knee), but his numbers are absolutely eye-popping. With 27 total touchdowns compared to seven total turnovers, Griffin displayed plenty of big play ability with the poise and control of a veteran. He led the league in both yards per pass attempt and yards per rush, easily making him the most dangerous dual threat from the quarterback position. His 65.6% completion percentage was good for 4th best in the league... And he did all this with his only decent receiver - Pierre Garcon - sidelined for six games due to injury.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: LB Luke Kuechly (CAR)
Take a look at the Panthers' 2012 defensive rankings, with their 2011 rankings in parentheses next to it - Total Defense: 10 (28), Scoring Defense: 18 (27), Pass Defense: 13 (24), Run Defense: 12 (25).
It's pretty obvious that the Panthers improved a lot on the defensive side of the ball in 2012, and the biggest difference, as far as personnel, was middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The only number on Kuechly's stat sheet that stands out are his 164 tackles, which led the NFL and were 15 more than any other player. He also notched one sack, two interceptions, eight passes defended, and three fumble recoveries. Kuechly's presence on the field made a bigger difference than that of any other rookie in 2012.
Comeback Player of the Year: RB Adrian Peterson (MIN)
This award will be amongst the most debated for the foreseeable future, but I don't think it should be. Everyone knows that the only other player who could possibly win this is Peyton Manning, who had several neck surgeries that held him out of the 2011 season. As far as I'm concerned, Peyton's comeback took way too long - he was supposed to be healthy for Week 1 of the 2011 season, and it took him an entire extra year to recover. Peterson was considered a likely candidate to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, but beat his timetable by a long shot and was immediately effective.
In addition, Peyton - as doctors said - was never at any more risk of injury than he ever was. It's not like his neck was surgically sewn back together. Peyton's biggest hurdle was regaining feeling in his throwing arm. Doctors said that if he could regain that feeling, he'd be the same old Peyton. One of Peyton's personal physicians said on March 9th of 2012, "The neck is as good as you would expect for anyone who has played that long. It really comes down to the arm." Three of his physicians on that day told reporters that Peyton's neck was fine, and that the concern is now "nerve and strength regeneration." Well he regained that strength, and surprise, surprise... he was exceptional!
When you combine Peterson's nearly record breaking season (eight yards short of the single-season rushing record) with the fact that he beat his timetable, and throw in the history of major knee injuries diminishing athletes' careers, I find Peterson's comeback to be far more impressive than Peyton's.
Coach of the Year: Bruce Arians (IND)
The simple fact that Arians was able to get his players to focus on preparing for game days after head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia was extremely impressive. However, that is not the only reason I'm giving him this award.
Arians was in charge of an extremely young team that had tons of new faces of players who had never played with each other. Their leading passer, leading rusher, and second-leading receiver were all rookies. Their third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh leading receivers were not on the Colts in 2011 (four of them were rookies). Their top two leaders in interceptions and three of their top four leading tacklers were first-year Colts.
Arians set a record for wins by an interim head coach with a 9-3 record, and he united a team of strangers as they fought their way to the playoffs, all while handling offensive coordinator duties and dealing with the illness of his colleague.