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The Ringer’s NFL Awards: The Playoffs Matter Edition

We’re factoring in postseason performance and casting our ballots for MVP, Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and more

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The NFL will dispense its highest honors on February 4, but we’re not going to wait that long. We’re also not going to limit our considerations to what occurred during the regular season, because the last time we checked, the playoffs kind of matter! So without further ado (and without delaying for a brief exhibition game in Orlando) The Ringer’s NFL experts cast their full-season ballots for the sport’s top awards — and mix in some quirky theoretical accolades as well.

MVP

Kevin Clark: Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan. The playoffs have confirmed what we already knew: Ryan produced the best body of work this season. If he had faltered in his first outing this postseason, or if Aaron Rodgers had clearly outdueled him in their NFC championship game showdown, there might have been just enough reasonable doubt to warrant overturning Ryan’s clear regular-season MVP run. But that didn’t happen. Ryan bested Rodgers, while Tom Brady, who delivered as productive a 12-game regular-season span as a quarterback possibly can (only 0.5 percent of his passes were intercepted!), falls short because … it was only a 12-game span. Ryan has played at a ludicrously high level since September, and he’s peaking at the right time:

Danny Kelly: Ryan. Nobody did it better for longer this season than Ryan, whose incredible consistency and surgeon-like execution powered one of the best, most crushingly versatile offenses in NFL history. Ryan ran Kyle Shanahan’s offense to near perfection, and he consistently demoralized opponents by utilizing pretty much everyone on the squad, setting a new NFL record by throwing touchdowns to 13 players. Mixing short throws to his running backs, midrange darts to his tight ends, and bombs to his speedy receivers, Ryan shredded defenses at a historic rate.

Robert Mays: Ryan. Ryan’s regular-season numbers still don’t make any sense. Helming the best offense in football (by both points scored and DVOA), Ryan completed 69.9 percent of his passes for nearly 5,000 yards while averaging 9.3 yards per attempt. Ryan delivered an all-time great season in an all-time great offense — yet somehow, he’s been even better in the playoffs. In throttling the Seahawks and Packers, Ryan became the first player ever to throw for at least 335 yards, three or more touchdowns, and complete at least 70 percent of his passes in two games during the same postseason. The Falcons offense is a doomsday machine, and Ryan is the guy who makes it go.

Rodger Sherman: Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. The Falcons smacked the Packers in the NFC title game, with Matt Ryan displaying that he’s clearly the key cog in the best offense in football. But somehow, that made me feel even more like Aaron Rodgers is the league’s Most Valuable Player. This season, Ryan had at his disposal a squad of spectacular wide receivers, including superhuman Julio Jones; a pair of wonderful running backs with different styles; and an offensive coordinator who made sure everybody is always open. An average quarterback might have gotten Atlanta to the playoffs. Sub out Aaron Rodgers for an average quarterback in Green Bay, meanwhile, and the Packers would be a pile of farts. Even when his receivers weren’t open, even when opponents didn’t have to respect the ground game, and even when the offensive strategy was nothing more than “Uh, Aaron, just go do something,” Rodgers made it work and got his team to within a game of the Super Bowl. I won’t say he was the best player, but he was certainly the most valuable.

Overlooked MVP

Offensive Player of the Year

Clark: Ryan. Uh, yeah, he’s still really, really good!

Kelly: Rodgers. If Ryan’s season was a display of robotic über-efficiency, Rodgers’s was closer to abstract art. It was unlike anything we’ve seen and rarely seemed to obey the laws of physics, but it was beautiful. Rodgers shook off a relatively slow start to finish with a league-high 40 touchdown passes, with far too many of those coming after he had escaped from seemingly sure sacks to thrust a dagger into the heart of opposing defenses. It’s a cliché to say that a player is “in the zone;” Rodgers was on a higher plane of consciousness.

Mays: Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell. I’m not sure a healthy Bell would have made the difference in the AFC championship game, with Tom Brady turning into Jack the Ripper against the Steelers defense, but even so, seeing an injured Bell wrapped in a comically large coat for most of the game was a bummer. Bell’s numbers were staggering this season, as he became the first player in league history to average 100 yards on the ground and 50 through the air. In annihilating defenses left and right — including in two monster playoff performances — his singular playing style made him must-see TV in a way few players can ever hope to be.

Sherman: Ryan. Watching the Falcons offense is like watching ballet, if ballerinas spent their whole act viciously humiliating opposing ballerinas. Ryan could hit anyone at will all season for one of the most effective offensive units in recent football history. If the person most responsible for that isn’t the Offensive Player of the Year, who is?

Defensive Player of the Year

Clark: Oakland Raiders DE Khalil Mack. Mack earned this honor during the regular season, and nothing about the postseason changed that. He was the most disruptive force on a defense that lacked top-tier talent at most positions, and his 11 sacks and five forced fumbles changed games. The Raiders, when healthy, won contests they shouldn’t have for two reasons: (1) Derek Carr’s late-game heroics, and (2) Mack’s unstoppable ability to thwart opponents’ drives. Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, who made a real run at this award during the regular season, gets extra consideration after making the Super Bowl, but it’s unfair to knock Mack just because the Raiders tanked after Carr’s injury. Connor Cook can only get you so far (specifically, nowhere).

Kelly: Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald. The Rams offense was bad enough to make this team largely irrelevant in Jeff Fisher’s swan song season, but even Fisher couldn’t obscure the fact that with J.J. Watt sidelined, Donald was the game’s scariest, most unblockable defender this season. Despite being subjected to double- and triple-teams almost every snap, and despite rushing from the inside, the Rams defensive lineman finished with eight sacks, led the NFL with 31 quarterback hits, and tied for the league lead with 17 tackles for a loss. No other interior defender in the league pairs pure explosiveness with brute strength like Donald, who not only wreaks havoc in the passing game, but is a force against the rush as well, ranking as Pro Football Focus’s third-best interior run defender.

Mays: Mack. We need to say only one thing about Mack’s season: He somehow managed to be the most impactful defender in a league in which Von Miller has continued the out-of-body experience he started during last year’s playoffs. Mack is a drive-ruiner of the purest form, affecting games as a pass rusher (11 sacks), run defender (14 tackles for loss), and turnover creator (five forced fumbles, one INT returned for a touchdown). Mack is the Raiders defense, and he’s one of the central reasons the future is blindingly bright in Oakland.

Sherman: Donald. Triple-team Aaron Donald. Put him on a team few care about, with a garbage coach and an offense that can’t score enough points to get a win even if Donald plays his best. Take away his best linemate, Robert Quinn, who didn’t play the season’s last few games. He won’t care. He’ll still bully through the heart of your line and ruin you. Many defensive tackles merely mitigate damage; Donald creates it. Opposing offenses can’t stop him, but I hope that humanity can before it’s too late.

Butt Fumble Award

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Clark: Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott. Nothing in the playoffs changed my assessment of the clear Rookie of the Year, who also doubled as an MVP candidate. The only thing that changed during the postseason is that Dallas coach Jason Garrett apparently forgot Elliott was any good, because he didn’t give him enough touches against Green Bay (125 yards on 22 carries). Perhaps if Elliott had carried 30 times instead, the Cowboys would still be playing and the MVP conversation earlier in this piece would have been different.

Kelly: Elliott. This one’s simple. The rookie superstar out of Ohio State led the NFL in rushing yards (1,631), was third in touchdowns (15), and finished fifth in yards per attempt (5.1) as the engine that powered a dominant Dallas run game. The easy power Elliott displays in running through arm tackles and picking up tough extra yards at the end of a run — punctuated by explosive spin moves and seemingly impossible bounces to the outside — makes him one of the sport’s most entertaining players to watch. And he’s just getting started.

Mays: Elliott. Elliott got some stiff competition from his quarterback, Dak Prescott, who was downright excellent in keeping pace with Rodgers in the divisional round. But the unrivaled efficiency that the former Ohio State runner brought to Dallas’s offense this season is too much to overlook. Yes, Elliott enjoyed a cushy environment while running behind the league’s best offensive line, but his 5.1 yards per carry, 1,631 rushing yards, and 15 touchdowns perfectly represent his mind-numbing consistency. Every game, Elliott was essentially good for 100 yards and a score. That isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Sherman: Elliott. We need to make this trophy out of mashed potatoes this year so that Zeke can spoon-feed it to himself on live TV. He was so much freakin’ fun to watch this season. He was explosive, creative, and unstoppable on the field, then smiled about it on the sidelines. Sure, he had perhaps the league’s best offensive line blocking for him, but we don’t get mad at the Colorado River for having the Grand Canyon. Any other year, this would go to the rookie QB of the team that went 13–3, but Elliott was the rare player who managed to be the best in the NFL at his position as a rookie. That deserves some credit.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Clark: San Diego Chargers DL Joey Bosa. In just 12 games, Bosa proved himself to be one of the best pass rushers in recent memory. Nothing anyone could have done in the playoffs would change this pick, and that’s saying something as rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones star for Atlanta’s defense. The Chargers (who now share a stadium with an MLS team!) are going to be a buzzy pick to be next year’s Falconsesque team that makes the leap, and Bosa will be a big reason.

Kelly: Bosa. Bosa shrugged off an acrimonious holdout and a subsequent hamstring injury that caused him to start his Chargers career a bit later than expected, putting together one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever for a defensive lineman once he hit the field in Week 5. In fact, per Pro Football Focus, the other rookie superstar out of Ohio State racked up more pressures (60) through his first 12 games than any defender since 2006. Bosa finished with 10.5 sacks, and the 6-foot-5, 280-pound defensive lineman already sports a repertoire of pass-rush moves typically associated with seasoned veterans.

Mays: Atlanta Falcons LB Deion Jones. It pains me to give this to someone other than Joey Bosa, who, at 21 years old, is already one of the five best pass rushers in football. But this is where including the playoffs makes a difference for me. Jones’s performance during Atlanta’s march to the Super Bowl puts him over the top. The second-round pick missed a total of four defensive plays in the NFC championship game and was on the field for all 55 defensive snaps in their win over Seattle. Jones finished the regular season tied for the league lead in passes defensed among linebackers (11) and returned two of his three picks for touchdowns. As a rangy option who can neutralize both tight ends and running backs out of the backfield, no player better represents Atlanta’s dedication to speedy, matchup-wrecking defenders.

Sherman: Jacksonville Jaguars DB Jalen Ramsey. Rookies aren’t supposed to be shutdown corners! They’re supposed to come into the league and either get some time to adjust or get smoked. Ramsey was tasked with guarding opponents’ best receivers every week and more than held his own. He could soon be in the running as the best in the league.

2018 Super Bowl Champion

Coach of the Year

Clark: Atlanta Falcons’ Dan Quinn. Jack Del Rio would have gotten my regular-season vote, but if we’re considering the playoffs, I have to give this to Quinn, whose two postseason games so far have been complete shellackings of really good teams. Del Rio, to be clear, caught a bad bounce when Carr’s leg broke, and he didn’t do anything wrong — everyone short of Bill Belichick would’ve lost a playoff game while starting Connor Cook. Sorry, Jack. It’s not your fault.

Kelly: Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Garrett. This season, Garrett did the previously unthinkable, producing one of the game’s most dominant offenses and finishing with the conference’s best record despite starting a rookie fourth-round pick at quarterback. When Tony Romo went down with a back injury in Week 3 of the preseason, Garrett and Co. had exactly one week to put together a contingency plan and tailor their offense to Dak Prescott’s skills, and what followed was one of the best rookie seasons for a quarterback in the history of the game.

Mays: New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick. There’s often an inclination to go with what’s new when handing out awards, but the guy who should win this every year remains the clear-cut favorite this season, as well. The Patriots won 14 games in the regular season with Tom Brady missing four starts, led the league in scoring defense, and once again established themselves as the best team in football by season’s end. Watching Belichick’s team completely outclass a Ben Roethlisberger–led Steelers group was the final flourish in one of the Hooded One’s more remarkable campaigns. I doubt Belichick has the capacity to cry, but if he does, and if his Patriots manage to defuse the Falcons, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him weep. There will be no more worlds to conquer.

Sherman: Garrett. Garrett took a team that went 4–12 last year and went 13–3 this season despite having to sub in quarterback Dak Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick with a different playing style than the injured Tony Romo, whom Garrett had coached since taking over the head job in 2010. Yes, Garrett also had a brilliant running back, a brilliant offensive line, and ultimately a QB who turned out to be better than the average fourth-round draft pick. But think about this: The Cowboys didn’t win the Super Bowl with a rookie QB and rookie running back … and it feels like a disappointment. That’s remarkable, and it has a lot to do with Garrett.