- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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Although we in the NFC South sometimes have an inferiority complex when it comes to recognition, there will be no shortage of it in what follows.
Comeback Player of the Year: I’m starting with this one because it’s probably my favorite story of the season. I’m going with Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. He probably won’t win the league-wide award because Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson are bigger names (there’s that NFC South inferiority complex again). But nobody came back from more than Davis. The guy tore his ACL three times. As far as anyone knows, no NFL player had ever come back from three torn ACLs -- until Davis did it. And he did more than come back and just play. He turned in a very solid season.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: This one is easy. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is the only choice. On the night they drafted him, coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about how Martin would be an all-purpose back. He was precisely that. He ran inside and outside, caught passes and made LeGarrette Blount disappear.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one is not quite as easy. I’m giving the nod to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, but only by a slight margin. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David also had an excellent first season, but Kuechly led the NFL in tackles, and Carolina’s defense was better than Tampa Bay’s.
Coach of the Year: Hmmm, I’ll go way out on a limb and take Atlanta’s Mike Smith. In a year when the other three teams went 7-9 and the Falcons went 13-3, Smith is the only option. Aside from throwing a challenge flag on a play that would have been automatically reviewed and trying to force the ball to Michael Turner too much, I can’t think of very many mistakes Smith made. Of course, the real test for Smith will be whether he can get the first postseason win of his career.
General Manager of the Year: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff wins in a landslide for the same reason Smith did. You just can’t argue with 13-3. Plus, I’ve got to give Dimitroff a lot of credit for not listening to public sentiment (that’s not a strong point for every general manager in this division) during the free-agency period. Fans were screaming for the Falcons to go after Mario Williams and other big-name free agents. Dimitroff didn’t listen and simply re-signed most of his own free agents. You can’t argue with the result.
Best free-agent signing: Receiver Vincent Jackson cost the Buccaneers a fortune, but he was worth every penny of it. Almost instantly, he became the best receiver the Buccaneers have ever had (yep, he edged out the likes of Alvin Harper, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green). He gave Tampa Bay a big-play threat, and he also made Mike Williams perhaps the best No. 2 receiver the Buccaneers have ever had.
Best trade: Dimitroff’s biggest move of the offseason was a trade to get Asante Samuel, even though there were rumblings the veteran cornerback was in steep decline. That turned out to be far from the truth. Samuel showed he has plenty left. More importantly, he has brought a swagger that Atlanta’s defense lacked in recent years.
Second-best trade: I know there is a segment of Tampa Bay fans that thought the midseason trade of Aqib Talib to New England was a horrible move. I understand that the Bucs' pass defense was bad and trading away your best cornerback isn’t going to provide immediate help in that department. But I think Dominik deserves kudos for looking at the big picture and for getting anything in return for Talib. Let’s be honest: Talib was nothing but a headache throughout his time in Tampa, and there was no way Schiano was going to want him around in 2013. Talib would have walked away in free agency, and the Bucs wouldn’t have had anything to show for him. The trade at least gave them a 2013 fourth-round pick.
Best release: A lot of people think Smith is too nice a guy. That’s mainly because the Atlanta coach genuinely is a nice guy. But that doesn’t mean he’s soft. Smith can be very firm when it’s in the best interest of his team, and that’s what happened at midseason when he and Dimitroff released defensive end Ray Edwards. Let’s not sell Edwards short and say he was a slouch. The 2011 free-agent signing was a tremendous slouch. He had lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann, and he was causing problems in the locker room. Instead of letting things fester and spread to other corners of the locker room, Smith simply told Edwards to hit the road.
Best defensive player on the worst defense in history: The New Orleans defense shouldn’t get too many accolades because it allowed more total yards than any defense in history. But middle linebacker Curtis Lofton deserves some praise. He came over from Atlanta, where he no longer was viewed as an every-down linebacker and showed that, at least for the Saints, he still was an every-down linebacker.
Best assistant coach: Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wins, although Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan got consideration. Koetter came in and did a better job than predecessor Mike Mularkey of letting Ryan go out and do the things he does best.
Best off-field tactic: Appeal anything and everything. That’s the approach New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma took throughout the entire bounty scandal. There were plenty of twists and turns, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who oversaw the final appeal, did not clear Vilma of wrongdoing (no matter what Saints fans think), but Tagliabue ultimately did vacate what was supposed to be a season-long suspension for Vilma.
Most underrated player: Robert McClain. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re not a Falcons fan. Even Atlanta fans had no idea who McClain was until Brent Grimes went down with a season-ending injury. McClain stepped up and gave Atlanta quality play as the No. 3 cornerback and sometimes even as the No. 2 cornerback. For the record, McClain was a seventh-round draft pick by Carolina in 2010 and spent some of 2011 in Jacksonville. He probably will be sticking around Atlanta for a long time.
Best performance by a guy that had a "down" season: Drew Brees might be the only guy in the world who can go out and throw for 5,000 yards and have people still think he had a bad season. Brees wasn’t horrible. But when you’ve been almost flawless for several seasons, anything less is viewed as an off year.