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Friday, January 8, 2010
Reflections on a season in the NFC South

By Pat Yasinskas

Jon Beason, Drew Brees and Thomas Morstead
Jon Beason, Drew Brees and Thomas Morstead headline the list of NFC South players receiving end-of-the-year honors.
We’ve rolled out the All-NFC South offense and defense for the 2009 season already and we’ll get to the special teams, coaches and front offices very soon. But with the Saints on a bye for the first round of the playoffs and the rest of the NFC South done for the season, it’s time for our annual awards.

Some are pretty conventional and some are not, but put them all together and, hopefully, you’ll have a comprehensive review of the season.

Most Valuable Player: Drew Brees, Saints. Do I really have to explain? Let’s save time and move on.

Most Valuable Player not named Brees and not with the Saints: Jon Beason, Panthers. Consistently excellent. Should have been named to the Pro Bowl. Best player on the division’s best defense.

Rookie of the Year: Thomas Morstead, Saints. Yes, I’m going with a punter and it’s not because the pickings are slim. There were some other decent options. But Morstead was so good punting and on kickoffs that he earned this award.

Best win: The Saints steamrolling the Patriots on Monday night. If the Saints play like that in the postseason, they’ll win the Super Bowl. That said, I’m a little concerned that the Saints might already have played their best game.

Worst loss: Carolina’s 20-9 home loss to Buffalo. The Panthers had a chance to get to 3-3 after an 0-3 start. They had one of the worst teams in the league coming into Bank of America Stadium. They didn’t just lose. They got embarrassed. Think about what might have happened if they just had been able to win that game?

Worst injury: You could see right away that Atlanta rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry was going to be an impact player. He was making everybody around him look better. Problem is, Jerry went down with a knee injury on Sept. 20 and missed the rest of the season. You instantly could see the rest of Atlanta’s defensive line start to slide.

Best injury: The leg injury that New Orleans linebacker Dan Morgan suffered in minicamp. It wasn’t major, but it was enough to prompt the star-crossed Morgan to retire for the second time. Sure, it’s a shame that he missed out on being part of what became a very fun season in New Orleans and a healthy Morgan truly might have prospered on that defense. But Morgan made the right call in walking away. The guy put his body through too much and had some concussion issues in his Carolina days. He’s got a family and his health is more important than football.

Worst logistical decision: The Bucs not leaving until Friday for their trip to London. That had to be tough on the players. But, more importantly, the Bucs passed on a chance to really jump on a golden public relations opportunity. Their ownership also owns the Manchester United soccer club. Gee, anybody think there might have been some great marketing opportunities for both franchises if the Bucs had spent the week there, practiced at Manchester United’s facility and made some appearances?

Best logistical decision: The Saints moving training camp from Jackson, Miss., back to their facility in Metairie, La. There’s no way to prove this, but I still think part of the reason the Saints had so many injuries in 2008 was because their training camp was too tough. I’m not saying Sean Payton eased up on his guys just because they moved back home. But I think training camp was just a little more pleasant for the players in Metairie.

Josh Freeman
The Buccaneers traded up to select Josh Freeman at No. 17 overall in last April's draft.
Best draft pick: Tampa Bay selecting Josh Freeman. Yes, I picked Morstead as Rookie of the Year and Tampa Bay receiver Sammie Stroughter, a seventh-round pick, would have been my second choice. But we’re talking long-term impact here. Freeman only played the second half of the season, but he showed some pretty strong signs he can grow into a true franchise quarterback. Think about that for a second. You’re taking a gamble even when you’re drafting a quarterback No. 1 overall. The Bucs got a franchise quarterback in the second half of the first round.

The Todd Sauerbrun Award for not knowing when to keep your mouth shut: Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Bryant. Not just once, but several times, Bryant spouted off about not getting the ball enough. He put the blame on the coaching staff and on Freeman. Not a real smart idea. When you’re in a contract year, you don’t take shots at the franchise quarterback or the coaching staff. That's how you hasten your exit from a place with nice weather and no state income tax.

Most endangered position: Kickers. The NFC South went through kickers like crazy. There were switches in New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Veterans Jason Elam and John Carney lost their jobs. Only Carolina’s John Kasay made it through the entire season without any major issues.

Best free-agent signing: The Saints adding veteran safety Darren Sharper wins in a landslide.

Worst free-agent signing: Tampa Bay paid a small fortune for running back Derrick Ward. The thinking was he could be a feature back after being a very good role player with the Giants. Ward turned out to be a backup.

Worst non-signing: Carolina not signing a defensive tackle with some ability at some point in free agency. Instead, the Panthers didn’t sign anyone in free agency and the lack of depth was exposed when defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu went down with a season-ending injury on the first day of training camp. Kemoeatu was a very average defensive tackle, but you would have thought he was an All-Pro by the way the Panthers responded. They lost their first three games, mainly because they were so soft in the middle of their defense. They scrambled and kept bringing in a bunch of journeyman before veteran Hollis Thomas eventually solidified the position. But, if the Panthers just had something close to a decent backup for Kemoeatu to start with, they might still be playing.

Best stat from 2009: The Saints had 19 different players score touchdowns. That wasn’t quite a league record (21), but it’s still pretty impressive.

Best stat looking ahead to 2010: No NFC South team will face a slate of opponents that had a .500 record in 2009. In fact, Atlanta’s 2010 schedule is the hardest of the four and it comes in at No. 20. Maybe next year, we might see more than one NFC South team in the postseason.