NFC South: Most Valuable Player

Why not Matt Ryan for MVP?

December, 23, 2012
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Matt RyanAP Photo/Rick OsentoskiMatt Ryan again demonstrated his value to the Falcons with another sparkling performance.
DETROIT -- Quite unintentionally, the Atlanta Falcons made the strongest case yet for Matt Ryan's most valuable player award candidacy Saturday night.

Ryan did his part by completing 25 of 32 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-18 victory against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

But this isn’t a story about numbers. It’s a story about how Ryan is the dominant force for the first NFL team to win 13 games this season.

That was obvious from the start as the Falcons put the game in Ryan’s hands early, and Atlanta seemed on the way to a blowout. It became even more obvious in the fourth quarter when the Falcons put the game back in Ryan’s hands and made sure they clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“They’re not talking about him, but he’s my MVP," Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “Who’s playing better than him? In my mind, nobody. I’d definitely vote for him."

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson are getting all the attention when it comes to MVP talk. But maybe Weatherspoon has a point.

Why not Ryan for MVP?

For the moment, he’s the best player on the only team to win 13 games this season, and isn't it all about winning? He tied Steve Bartkowski’s franchise record for touchdown passes in a season (31) and he’s at or on his way to career highs in every statistical category.

But, again, this isn’t about numbers. It’s about how valuable Ryan is to the Falcons, who, once and for all, need to realize they aren’t the same old Falcons. And coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter need to realize they should stop even attempting to be anything close to the same old Falcons.

Let’s be honest. Running back Michael Turner has had a wonderful run with Atlanta, but his days as the backbone of the offense are long gone. The Falcons are a pass-first team now, and Smith and Koetter need to lose the stubborn streak that’s prompting them to force a running game that just isn’t there anymore.

They almost learned that the hard way against the Lions.

After Ryan played a nearly flawless first half (15 of 16 for 184 yards and three touchdowns) and led Atlanta to a 21-6 halftime lead, the Falcons took the ball out of Ryan’s hands in the third quarter.

They got conservative and tried to force feed Turner at the start of the third quarter. That got them nowhere, and it almost got them into deep trouble. The Lions followed a three-and-out by Atlanta with a touchdown. Early in the fourth quarter, a Detroit field goal cut the lead to 21-16 and all the momentum seemed to shift to the Lions at a time when Calvin Johnson was chasing (and, eventually, breaking) Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season.

But that’s when the Falcons put the game back into Ryan’s hands and he made his case for MVP. On a drive that featured only two runs by Turner, Ryan led the Falcons on an 11-play, 77-yard drive that was capped by a touchdown pass to backup tight end Michael Palmer.

“Matt made some big time throws on that drive," Smith said. “That’s what he’s been doing all season."

The people who vote for MVP should look long and hard at that drive, and so should Smith and Koetter. Ryan is the reason the Falcons are 13-2.

“There’s a lot of politics that come along with being MVP and things like that," said Atlanta receiver Roddy White, who caught Ryan’s first two touchdown passes and finished with eight catches for 153 yards. “But the guy has been here five years and he’s won a lot of games. Come on. He’s won 13 already this year and put us into this position going into the playoffs. And his numbers are up there with everybody else’s. I don’t see anybody else out there that’s better than him."

Neither do I. But White’s got a point about the politics. Brady and Manning have won Super Bowls. Ryan hasn’t even won a playoff game. The reality is Brady or Manning or Peterson, who’s putting up huge rushing numbers, probably will win the MVP this season, no matter what Ryan does.

But there’s a way Ryan can get more heavily involved in the conversation in the future. There also is a way for Smith to stop everyone from talking about what he and Ryan have yet to do.

That would be to go out and win a playoff game.

“This is a different team from last year or two or three years ago," White said. “Our players are more mature. I think we’re ready to go."

They’ll be ready and they’ll be a different team in the postseason only if Smith and Koetter grasp the fact that they’re not going to get anywhere with the running game. They need to grasp the fact that this team can only go a long way if it’s riding Ryan’s arm.

The Falcons can win in the playoffs, maybe even the Super Bowl, if they just let Ryan go out and play like an MVP.

NFC South afternoon update

December, 19, 2012
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Let's take an afternoon run through some odds and ends from all around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

In this Insider post, Insider KC Joyner makes a strong case for Matt Ryan to win the Most Valuable Player award. Ryan has had a great season, but Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Adrian Peterson probably will win the award.

Coach Mike Smith said Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have played as well as any safety tandem in the league. He’s right. Both of those guys took some time to develop, but they’ve turned into very solid players this season.

Pro Football Focus has its own choices for the NFC Pro Bowl roster and you’ll see multiple NFC South representatives. But the one choice that kind of surprised me was Atlanta right tackle Tyson Clabo. You don’t hear much about him, but Pro Football Focus says he’s the NFL’s most consistent right tackle.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Quarterback Cam Newton had a pretty profound quote when he said he’s found out as the season has gone on that the Panthers aren’t a one-man team. Makes you wonder if Newton perhaps was trying too hard when he struggled early in the season. Whatever, he certainly has looked much more comfortable recently.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Dallas coach Jason Garrett danced around questions over speculation Sean Payton could end up taking his job. There really isn’t anything Garrett can say. He just has to hope the Cowboys end the season well and Payton and the Saints can agree to a contract.

Right tackle Zach Strief (ankle) sat out Wednesday’s practice. His backup, Charles Brown, already is on injured reserve, so it looks as if William Robinson could get another start.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Check out this Insider post Insider in which Matt Williamson said that rookie linebacker Lavonte David reminds him of Derrick Brooks. David still needs some work to get to Brooks’ level, but he’s had an excellent rookie season.

Receivers coach P.J. Fleck, who has been hired as the head coach at Western Michigan will finish the season with the Buccaneers.

Coach Greg Schiano said he doesn’t plan to reduce running back Doug Martin’s carries with the Bucs out of the playoff race. That makes sense. The Bucs need to get back on a good track and carry some positive momentum into the offseason. Martin is one of their best offensive players, so there’s no reason to stop giving him the ball.

St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher had some praise for quarterback Josh Freeman, who hasn’t been getting much praise from Tampa Bay fans in recent weeks.

Stock Watch: NFC South

November, 20, 2012
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FALLING

Matt Ryan, quarterback, Falcons. Yes, he came away with a win Sunday and that is the bottom line. But Ryan threw a career-high five interceptions against the Cardinals. That’s enough, at least for the moment, to take him out of the Most Valuable Player conversations. Not all the interceptions were Ryan’s fault. Still, he has to be sharper than that if the Falcons are going to go anywhere in the playoffs.

Thomas Davis, linebacker, Panthers. The guy has been a tremendous story as he’s come back from his third torn ACL, and he’s played better than anyone could have hoped for. But Davis handed the Buccaneers 15 yards when he was flagged for a penalty late in Sunday’s game. That helped the Panthers squander what once had been an 11-point lead with less than five minutes left.

Charles Johnson, defensive end, Panthers. He called out his teammates via Twitter and said the late collapse was embarrassing. No argument there. But I just double checked the stat sheet and Johnson didn’t have a sack or a tackle against the Bucs. Shouldn’t the highest-paid player on the team at least do something positive at some point in a game? If Johnson had done that, then maybe his words would have carried some weight.

RISING

John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux, defensive linemen, Falcons. They helped bail out Ryan and the offense multiple times. But the play that stood out came in the second quarter when Abraham hit the arm of Arizona quarterback Ryan Lindley as he was about to throw. The ball came loose and a lot of players from both teams stood around thinking it was an incomplete pass. But Babineaux realized no whistles had blown, so he picked the ball up and ran it in for a touchdown.

Dallas Clark, tight end, Buccaneers. The veteran has been quiet for most of the season. But he came through in a big way Sunday. He had seven catches for 58 yards, including 15-yard touchdown from Josh Freeman to win the game in overtime.

Mark Ingram, running back, Saints. He’s been a target for criticism since the Saints drafted him in the first round last season. Ingram hadn’t shown much, largely because he wasn’t getting many carries, and fans were growing impatient with him. But that’s started to change in recent weeks. Against Oakland, Ingram averaged 5.6 yards a carry, finished with 67 rushing yards and had a 27-yard touchdown run.

All-NFC South midseason team

November, 7, 2012
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NFC Midseason Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

All four division teams have played eight games, so that means it’s time for our All-NFC South midseason team.

Before we roll out the chart, let’s talk about a few significant matters that came up in choosing this team.

In recent years, the New Orleans Saints have dominated every time we’ve done any sort of midseason, postseason or preseason all-star team. That’s not the case this time, and there’s a very good reason for it. The Saints no longer are dominating the NFC South – or much of anything outside the controversial news headlines. Not even Drew Brees, the best player in NFC South history, made the team. How could he? Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is undefeated and is mentioned in every conversation for most valuable player. Also, when it comes to the rest of the team, how each team is faring factored heavily into who made the team. You’ll notice this team includes quite a few Falcons.

Speaking of the Saints, you’ll notice they don’t have a single defensive player on the team. I gave a lot of thought to including middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has been perhaps the only bright spot on the New Orleans defense. Lofton has done his job and been as solid as he can be. But I just couldn’t bring myself to include anyone from a defense that has a shot at being -- statistically -- the worst in NFL history.

As long as we’re on the subject of linebackers, this was the toughest position to pick on the entire team. Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon was an automatic choice. After that, I put Lofton in a group with Tampa Bay’s Mason Foster and rookie Lavonte David and Atlanta’s Stephen Nicholas, then I agonized for a bit. I chose Nicholas, partly because the Falcons are undefeated but mostly because he’s a player who has always had good athleticism and was always in place to make big plays in the past. But, this year, Nicholas is actually making the big plays. After that, it came down to a brutal choice between David and Foster. I like everything about David and think he could be a regular Pro Bowler. But I’m going with Foster because I get the feeling the Tampa Bay coaching staff has been more than pleasantly surprised with his huge jump from a confused rookie to a second-year player who is running the defense.

Speaking of the Bucs, I included guard Carl Nicks even though he went on injured reserve after seven games. Nicks won’t be on the end-of-season All-NFC South team, but I’ll take what he did in seven games over what any other guard in the division has done in eight games.

While we’re on the topic of offensive linemen, let’s talk about center. There’s no question Carolina’s Ryan Kalil is the best center in the division, maybe in the entire NFL. But he went on injured reserve early. That’s why I’m going with Atlanta’s Todd McClure. The veteran might have seen better days, but he still is playing at a pretty high level.

When you look at the chart below and see Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker on it, don’t laugh. I know he has had his problems in the past, but he is having a very solid season and his team’s record helps. I also went with Carolina’s Jordan Gross as the other tackle. He made it by only the slightest of margins over Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn. But part of it is that Gross deserves a lifetime achievement award, plus I needed to get a little Carolina representation on the team.

Speaking of Carolina, some of you might not be happy that defensive end Charles Johnson isn’t on the team. He has decent numbers, but he hasn’t been as consistent as a guy who is making a pile of money should be. I went with Atlanta’s John Abraham because he’s flat-out better than Johnson, and I took Tampa Bay’s Michael Bennett as the other defensive end because he’s been much more consistent than Johnson and is doing that while making the NFL’s minimum salary.

Finally, let’s talk about the secondary. This one took some thought because Carolina’s Chris Gamble is on injured reserve and my policy of no Saints on the defense eliminated New Orleans’ Jabari Greer. That left me little choice at cornerback. I went with Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson, who has been better than he was the past couple of years, and teammate Asante Samuel, who might no longer be great but clearly isn’t in steep decline. Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber is 37, but he also clearly isn't in any sort of decline in his first season after switching from cornerback. Barber was an easy choice. The other safety spot wasn’t easy. It came down to Atlanta’s William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, who both are having very nice seasons. I went with DeCoud because he has made a few more big plays.

Now, on to the NFC South midseason team:

Matt RyanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Atlanta Falcons should make Matt Ryan the highest-paid player in the NFL.

Everything I’ve seen out of Matt Ryan this season makes me think it’s his turn.

No, I’m not saying it’s Ryan’s turn to win the Super Bowl, although it might be. I’m not even saying it’s time for Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons to win a playoff game, although I think they probably will.

I’m simply saying it’s time -- or soon will be -- for the Falcons to make Ryan the highest-paid player in the NFL.

The fifth-year quarterback is blossoming. People are talking about him as the early favorite for MVP. It makes sense on a football level. It also makes sense on every level the Falcons are all about.

They preach continuity. They preach character. They also want a new stadium around 2017.

Go ahead and give Ryan a contract for a dollar more than the five-year, $100 million deal New Orleans’ Drew Brees signed in the summer. And do it fast.

The undefeated Falcons have a bye after Sunday’s home game against Oakland. If general manager Thomas Dimitroff is half as smart as I think he is -- and I think he’s very smart -- he’d use that week to work out an extension for Ryan.

I know that may not be realistic or possible. Ryan is a private and focused guy, and he probably wouldn’t want the distraction of a new contract in the middle of the season.

But the Falcons shouldn’t wait too long to pull this off. If Dimitroff hasn’t done so already, the day after the Falcons wrap up their season, he should be on the phone to agent Tom Condon about a deal that will wrap up his quarterback for the next five or six years.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/John BazemoreFalcons quarterback Matt Ryan is off to an MVP-type start to the season, and that could mean a big contract.
Ryan’s contract runs through 2013, but there is no way the Falcons should let him get any closer to free agency. Just look at how the waiting game didn’t translate into on-field success for Brees and the Saints. It even divided New Orleans fans.

Speaking of Brees, you might argue my point that Ryan should get a larger contract. I understand that. Yeah, Brees has won a Super Bowl. So has Peyton Manning, who has the second-biggest contract at $19.25 million per year. To date, Ryan hasn’t won anything, except for a lot of regular-season games.

But Condon, who also represents Brees and Manning, is going to argue that Ryan deserves more money. That's Condon’s job. But it’s also a valid point.

Brees was 33 when he signed his new deal. Manning was 35, coming off neck surgery and since has turned 36. To some degree, the Saints and Broncos were paying for what Brees and Manning did in the past.

Ryan is only 27. He has been paid nicely under the terms of his rookie deal, which was for six years and $63.7 million.

But it's easy to make the case that Ryan deserves more because he still has so much upside. He has been showing it every week, and the Falcons know it.

They finally have made this Ryan’s team. Under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Falcons have become much more of a passing team. They’re letting Ryan throw deep and, although critics once said that wasn’t a strength, he’s thriving.

Fans in Atlanta are more excited about the Falcons than they ever have been. Owner Arthur Blank knows he has a good thing going with Ryan, Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. Blank has visions of a new retractable-roof stadium in downtown Atlanta and you can bet he envisions it packed every Sunday.

The way to make sure that happens is to stay ahead of the curve. Lock up Ryan before his play drives up the price tag even more.

Sure, it’s complicated any time you talk about a contract for a franchise quarterback. But this one doesn’t have to be as complicated as most. The Falcons know they want Ryan for the long haul, and he seems very comfortable with the organization and the city. Condon has established the high end of the market with Brees and Manning.

Dimitroff and Condon have a good relationship -- they got Ryan’s rookie deal done in May 2008, back at a time when rookie deals didn’t get done until July, August or September. There’s no real reason why a new Ryan deal couldn’t be done at any time.

And, although it’s important, let’s not get too caught up in the salary cap. The Falcons aren’t flush with cap space. They already have $114 million committed toward 2013, which would put them roughly $10 million below the cap. That’s not including next year’s rookie class or any of their own free agents they want to keep (Brent Grimes and Sam Baker?).

But Ryan already is scheduled to count $12 million against the 2013 cap, and that number could go up if the quarterback meets some not-likely-to-be-earned incentives in his current contract.

There’s plenty of room to get a deal done even before we begin speculating after the season that defensive end John Abraham (scheduled to count $6.25 million against the 2013 cap) could retire or that running back Michael Turner ($7.5 million for next season) could be gone or playing for a lot less.

But you don’t even need to think too much about the likes of Grimes, Baker, Abraham or Turner at this point. If a new deal for Ryan is structured properly, his cap figure could even drop for next year. Brees’ cap hit for this year is only $10.4 million.

This prospective deal really is all about Ryan. He’s a quarterback just entering his prime, and that drives his value so high that Blank may have to open his retractable wallet.

But that would be worthwhile because it would secure Ryan, the future of the Falcons, until he’s at the age when Brees and Manning were getting paid largely for past deeds.

NFC South programming notes

February, 4, 2012
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It should be a quiet morning, followed by a busy late afternoon and evening around these parts.

That’s because we’ve got a couple of major events coming later Saturday. Late this afternoon, we’ll find out who has been selected to the Class of 2012 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Former New Orleans offensive tackle Willie Roaf appears to have a good chance to get in. If he does, I’ll be back with full analysis.

In a new twist, the NFL’s major awards will be announced Saturday night. I’m expecting Carolina quarterback Cam Newton to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Most Valuable Player also will be announced. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees may be a long shot because Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers appears to be the favorite.

As soon as the awards are announced, I’ll be back with analysis.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees may not win the Most Valuable Player award, which will be announced the night before the Super Bowl. That probably will go to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.

But Brees is picking up his share of hardware. The latest came Friday night in Los Angeles as Brees was announced the winner of the 46th annual Byron “Whizzer’’ White Award during the NFL Players Association PULSE Awards.

Brees
White served as a Supreme Court Justice. The award is designed to honor a player who embodies White’s ideals of a “scholar, athlete, patriot, humanitarian and public servant." All 32 teams nominate a player and the list is then narrowed to three finalists. Pittsburgh quarterback Charlie Batch and New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson were the other finalists with Brees.

“It’s such a tremendous honor,’’ Brees said. “As I look at the list of names associated with this award, and certainly the namesake, Mr. Byron 'Whizzer' White, this award stands for so much.''

Brees also got pretty philosophical about his role as a football player and citizen during his acceptance speech.

“My head coach, Sean Payton, is a Bill Parcells disciple, and something that he has told us many times -- you’ll actually hear Bill Parcells say it as well -- as an NFL player, you get asked to ride on that train, and you try and ride it for as long as you can,’’ Brees said. “At some point, you’re going to be asked to get off, but you’re going to be better having had the opportunity to ride on that train. I think also, the mindset should be not only is it going to leave you better than when it found you, but I think your mission should be to leave the game better than when you found it. Not only does that mean what you do on the field, but that means what you do off the field.”

Brees has been extremely active in charitable and community events since arriving in New Orleans in 2006. Even before that, he was involved in charitable activities. As a member of the San Diego Chargers in 2003, he started The Brees Dream Foundation to advance cancer research and help children in need.

Brees also received another award Friday night. As the result of fan voting, Brees was chosen as the winner of the “Heart of the Game Award. That’s designed to honor a player for his “determination, enthusiasm and overall passion for the game and his teammates."

Sprow: Saints can take Packers

December, 26, 2011
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NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints are focused solely on their “Monday Night Football’’ game with the Atlanta Falcons right now. A victory will give them the NFC South title.

But fans and media have been getting ahead of the game and comparing the Saints to the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans’ quarterback Drew Brees to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. There’s also been a fair amount of debate about which of those quarterbacks should win the Most Valuable Player award.

Well, the looking down the road continues. In this Insider post, Chris Sprow goes into great detail about how well Brees has played in the past six games. He says that if Brees continues playing the way he has been, the Saints can beat the Packers, even if it’s in the NFC Championship Game in Lambeau Field.

He then points to several other reasons why the Saints might be better than the Packers, including the New Orleans defense and the continued emergence of Jimmy Graham.

Another chorus of 'Drew Brees for MVP'

December, 23, 2011
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Colleague Ashley Fox has a column that says New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is a worthy candidate for the Most Valuable Player award. If that sounds familiar, it should. I wrote a column that made a similar point just about a month ago.

Before Packers’ fans start shouting, Fox and I both make it pretty clear that Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers will win the award. We’re not saying Rodgers is unworthy of the award. He absolutely is worthy. He’s had a great season and so have the Packers.

But the point Fox and I are making is that Brees at least belongs in the conversation. He’s on the verge of shattering Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season (5,084). And the Saints are 11-3. The Packers were undefeated until Sunday, but their loss at Kansas City takes away one strong argument for Rodgers.

He no longer is playing for an undefeated team. He’s playing for a great team and so is Brees. Both quarterbacks are having great seasons. Neither would be a bad choice.

But the reality is Rodgers will win the award. He plays for the Packers. Green Bay might officially be the NFL’s smallest market and New Orleans isn’t far behind. But, unofficially, the Packers are a national team with a huge profile and lots of history.

The Saints’ national profile has grown in recent years, but they don’t have the lore of the Packers. That pretty much guarantees Rodgers will win the MVP, but Brees definitely belongs in the conversation.

Matt Ryan for MVP?

December, 21, 2011
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Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is not going to be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, but he at least is in the conversation.

Well, sort of. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers almost certainly will win the award, and you could at least make a strong case for New Orleans’ Drew Brees as the alternative choice. Beyond that, there aren’t any other realistic candidates.

But colleague Mike Sando does a weekly MVP Watch and he has Ryan at No. 5 this week, behind Rodgers, Brees, Tom Brady and Calvin Johnson. Each week, Sando sends out a note to all the division bloggers and asks us for input on players that may be worthy of being on his 10-man list.

For most of the season, my response has been something like, “I’ve got Brees and you know all about him. Beyond that, I’ve got nothing much to offer."

But that started to change last week, as Ryan was coming off a four-touchdown game against Carolina. I mentioned him to Sando and Ryan went out last Thursday night and added three touchdowns in an easy victory against Jacksonville.

When Sando’s weekly email came Tuesday night, he mentioned that several guys were falling off his list. I went to bat for Ryan, based on the fact he’s been much more consistent and effective recently and he also has a very good chance to finish with career highs in touchdown passes and passing yards.

Sando worked him in at No. 5, which I don’t think is out of line at the moment. But I liked the way Sando phrased his synopsis on Ryan’s candidacy. Essentially, Sando said a victory by Ryan and the Falcons against the Saints on Monday night, could move Ryan even higher up the list. But he also added a loss could move Ryan down the list -- or off it.

I’d say that’s fair.

By the way, when I emailed Sando on Tuesday night, I gave him a wild card besides Brees and Ryan. I suggested he take a look at Darren Sproles’ full body of work -- as a runner, receiver and return man -- and the overall impact he’s had on the Saints.

Sando listened and was intrigued, but couldn’t quite bring himself to put Sproles on the list. He said he’d keep Sproles in mind for next week. Just like Ryan, whatever happens Monday night could have a big impact on if Sproles is on the list next week.

Cam Newton a top-10 quarterback?

December, 9, 2011
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Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter has a thought-provoking column in which he ranks the league’s starting quarterbacks.

I found his rankings on the four NFC South quarterbacks quite interesting and, after a bit of thought, very accurate.

He has New Orleans’ Drew Brees ranked No. 2. I can’t really argue with that. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers will win the Most Valuable Player award, but Brees at least deserves to be in the conversation. The guy is on pace to set the record for most passing yards in a season.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Trotter ranks Carolina rookie Cam Newton at No. 9.

At first, I wondered if Newton should be a top-10 quarterback. Then, I looked at the three guys ranked directly in front of Newton – Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Alex Smith. After seeing that, I no longer have any doubt Newton belongs in the top 10, maybe even up a few spots from where he is.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is No. 15. My first instinct was to argue that one, especially when I saw Matt Moore and Michael Vick ranked directly ahead of Ryan. But, then, I thought about Ryan’s performance in Sunday’s loss to Houston and his inconsistency for much of the season. He’s right about where he belongs.

Trotter put Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman at No. 25. That’s one spot behind Seattle’s Tarvaris Jackson. If you’re talking purely about talent, there’s no comparison between Freeman and Jackson. Freeman’s way better. But Trotter is talking about production and Freeman hasn’t produced this season.

Drew Brees for MVP?

November, 29, 2011
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Drew BreesRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesDrew Brees had 363 passing yards, four touchdowns and rushed for another score against the Giants.
NEW ORLEANS -- Maybe the reason Drew Brees is such a good quarterback is because he can see things the rest of us can’t.

Take the case of Monday night’s 49-24 victory by the New Orleans Saints against the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It looked to be about as close to a perfect performance by a quarterback as there has ever been.

Brees threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown, perhaps the most spectacular run of a career that hasn’t included a lot of runs. But the most impressive stat of all might have been that the Saints had 577 yards of total offense (the second-highest output in franchise history) without a 100-yard rusher or receiver and without a sack.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever witnessed that before.

Didn’t think so. It sure looked like perfection.

Instead of celebrating, though, Brees was ripping himself apart -- and apologizing to Michael Jordan -- for not doing enough.

“I’m always hard on myself,’’ Brees said. “I expect perfection. I just know deep down there are some things I still need to work on.’’

Really? What’s left to work on when you’ve put 49 points on the board and spread 25 completions among seven different receivers?

“He is his own worst critic and he is as hard on himself as anyone else could possibly be,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “The time he’s been in our system, we’re on Year 6 now, and he’s throwing the ball with great rhythm and anticipation.’’

But let’s stop the tap dancing and the personal critiques. Let’s get right to the truth.

Brees has been a very good quarterback for a long time. But he now is playing better than he ever has. He should be a candidate for Most Valuable Player.

Go ahead and start the chants for Aaron Rodgers. I get it and there's no doubt Rodgers is having a tremendous season. But I think Brees is having every bit as good a season as the Green Bay quarterback. Maybe better, and I am not alone.

“Aaron Rodgers is on an undefeated team and obviously that means a lot,’’ New Orleans right tackle Zach Strief said. “Aaron Rodgers is an absolutely great quarterback, no doubt. But is anybody playing better than Drew Brees right now? Probably not.’’

No, definitely not. Brees is on a roll that has him on pace to break Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a single season (5,084 in 1984). On his current pace, Brees would finish with 5,366 passing yards. He’s also got the Saints off to an 8-3 start and alone atop the NFC South.

Yeah, the Packers defeated the Saints in the season opener and Rodgers and Green Bay have kept right on winning. No knock on Rodgers, but he’s got a great team around him. So does Brees, but name another true superstar on the New Orleans roster?

I don’t think there’s one besides Brees. He’s surrounded by a bunch of good players, who he makes even better. If he wasn’t hitting running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham on underneath routes against the Giants, he was throwing downfield to Devery Henderson, Marques Colston and Lance Moore.

Could Brees end up as the MVP?

“He’s in that conversation,’’ said Colston, who had six catches for 78 yards. “As long as we keep winning, he’s got to stay in that conversation.’’

Colston came into the NFL in 2006, the same year Brees arrived in New Orleans. Colston has seen Brees in games and practices. They went to an NFC Championship Game in their first year together and won a Super Bowl in the 2009 season. Brees became only the second quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards in 2008.

“Drew Brees is even better now than he’s ever been,’’ Colston said. “The crazy thing is that we long ago came to expect great things from him. But he’s taken it to an even higher level. Heck, that touchdown run he had, I’ve never seen out of him.’’

Ah, yes, the touchdown run. If you haven’t seen it, check the highlights. It came with 5:48 left in the third quarter. That’s when Brees dropped to throw, tucked the ball, ran and dived across the goal line.

Shades of Tim Tebow from a guy who's never been known as a runner.

“When he’s throwing the football, you would say he’s very decisive,’’ Payton said. “On that play, you could say the same thing.’’

Brees was decisive on the run that gave the Saints a 35-10 lead. He even was decisive on what he attempted to do next, although that was the one moment of the night where Brees wasn’t perfect and that’s where the apology to Jordan came in.

After scoring, Brees made a run for the goalposts. His plan was to dunk the ball over the post, in the same manner he used to imitate Jordan’s dunks on a shorter-than-regulation basketball rim when he was growing up.

“I was a little more tired than I thought I would be,’’ Brees said. “I didn’t quite get the oomph and I turned it into more of a finger roll. I apologize to Michael Jordan.’’

But Brees didn’t have to apologize for anything else. Heck, Brees is so good that he forces Payton to defy every coaching handbook he's ever seen. When the Saints got the ball back at their own 12-yard line with 1:09 left in the first half, Payton didn't call for handoffs to run out the clock. He turned Brees loose. The Saints went straight down the field and scored on a pass to Moore with 40 seconds left in the half and a 21-3 lead.

"It's that confidence that players around have in him and, obviously, we have in him,'' Payton said.

In the locker room after the game, his teammates were still in awe.

“It’s weird to say this,’’ Strief said. “You play with lots of guys through the years and every guy you play with, you can remember him having a bad game at some point. I can honestly say I’ve never seen Drew Brees have a bad game. What he did tonight was simply amazing. He just keeps getting better and better.’’

“He’s the only quarterback I’ve really played with in the NFL,’’ Colston said. “But I look around at other quarterbacks and I just can’t imagine a better quarterback than Drew Brees.’’

Or a better MVP candidate.

Thursday’s going to be a very big day in NFC South land. Sure, the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each will play their final preseason game.

But final preseason games are even more meaningless than other preseason games. What I’m talking about is much bigger than preseason games.

I’m talking about our predictions for the season. ESPN.com will be rolling out predictions from the entire NFL staff of writers. I’ll be giving my take on where each NFC South team will finish and I think you’ll see that some of my predictions are contrary to what you’ve seen from most media outlet predictions.

Part of it is because I like to be different and part of it is because it’s what I feel in my gut. Most of you know I generally avoid predictions, but this is the one time of year I do them. I can’t reveal them here. But, like I said, I think you’re going to see some surprises.

I’ll also be picking winners for all the other divisions and teams that I think will earn wild-card berths. I’ll also be picking a Super Bowl winner -- and that may or may not be an NFC South team.

Well also be predicting a Coach of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. You just might see some NFC South representation in those categories.

Awards coming this week

January, 31, 2011
1/31/11
2:36
PM ET
Multiple readers have written to ask why we haven't heard anything on various awards for the 2010 season. That's because they've been pushed back to Super Bowl week.

The announcements will start coming tonight with The Associated Press' Defensive Player of the Year award. The Offensive Player of the Year will be announced Tuesday and Coach of the Year will come Wednesday.

The Pepsi Rookie of the Year will be announced Thursday and the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year will be revealed Friday. The Comeback Player of the Year will be announced Saturday and the Most Valuable Player will be revealed Sunday morning.

I'm thinking the rookie awards might be the place where the NFC South has its best chance for representation. Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount have to be strong candidates, although St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford could be an obstacle.

Coach of the Year could go in any number of directions, but Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris and Atlanta's Mike Smith each could have a shot.

All NFC South awards

January, 20, 2011
1/20/11
2:30
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We've already presented the offense, defense and specialists on our All-NFC South team. Now, it's time for some division-wide awards.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
AP Photo/David GoldmanMike Smith led the Falcons to 13 victories this season.
Coach of the Year: Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons. There was strong temptation to go with Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris here. He did a fantastic job, but I'm also trying to spread things out. I'll go with Smith. Forget the debacle in the playoff loss to Green Bay. The Falcons won 13 games, and they did that by playing disciplined, smart football.

General Manager of the Year: Mark Dominik, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the league's lowest payroll and a slew of injuries, the Bucs managed to win 10 games. Dominik pulled some rabbits out of a hat by finding some impact players late in the draft, off the waiver wire and off the practice squads of other teams.

Rookie of the Year: Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Exhibit A of Dominik's success. Williams was a fourth-round draft pick, but he immediately was Tampa Bay's No. 1 receiver.

Coordinator of the Year: Greg Olson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams are bigger names. But I'll take Olson just on this season. With Josh Freeman in his first full season as a starting quarterback, a bunch of young guys playing at receiver and running back, and an offensive line that was hit hard by injuries, Olson still made this the most entertaining offense in franchise history.

Defensive Player of the Year: John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons. This was probably the hardest choice on this list. It was not a banner year for defense in the NFC South. I narrowed the list to Abraham and New Orleans' Jonathan Vilma and Malcolm Jenkins. Vilma might be the most consistent and best overall defensive player in the division, and Jenkins probably has the most upside. But Vilma didn't make a lot of big plays, and I'm hesitant to give Jenkins this honor in his first full season as a starter. Abraham had 13 sacks and made more big plays than any defensive player in the division.

Offensive Player of the Year: Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons. Yes, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Freeman got consideration here. So did Atlanta running back Michael Turner. All those guys are good. But when you look at their production this season only, can you really make a case that they were the best in the league at their position? I think you can do that with White, and that's why I'm going with him.

Special Teams Player of the Year: Eric Weems, Atlanta Falcons. He did it all for the Falcons, returning kickoffs and punts and also helping out on the coverage units. He became a big-play guy as a return man, and that's why he's going to the Pro Bowl.

Breakout Player of the Year: Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans Saints. He moved from cornerback to free safety, and even made a brief return to cornerback when injuries piled up. He made some huge plays and showed signs he could become a force for the long term.

Equipment Manager of the Year: Jackie Miles, Carolina Panthers. Hey, I had to get the Panthers involved somehow, and there really wasn't a legitimate case for any of their players, coaches or executives. But the one guy with the Panthers who is the absolute best in the league at what he does is Miles. He might not be an owner, player, coach or general manager, but there are times you watch Miles do his thing and you feel like you are watching Ted Williams (the baseball player, not the guy with the big voice) taking batting practice.

Most Valuable Player: You'll have to wait a bit. That's going to be announced in a column that is to appear Friday afternoon.

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