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How We’d Fix It: The NFL Awards

While every other professional sports league has had some kind of reckoning over who truly deserves its end-of-season awards, the NFL is still giving the MVP to the same kind of player every season: a good quarterback on a good team. It’s time for the season-long prizes to better represent how football actually works.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When I was a few months out of college and working as a reporter, I asked Bart Scott, then a linebacker with the New York Jets, to tell me what the most important parts of football were that no one outside of football really understands. Scott explained that my question was nearly impossible to answer, since the truly important things in the sport don’t have names. They are abstract concepts. The nuances are the sport, and most of the things outsiders consider important—tackles, for instance—are simply a means of record-keeping.

There’s always been a vocabulary problem in football. The way we talk about and observe the sport is divorced from the way it’s played. Football diehards love to point out that wins are not a quarterback statistic—but winning quarterbacks are rewarded as if they are. If a pass rush forces a mistake that leads to an interception, the camera focuses on the defensive back who snagged it. Simply put, in order to truly understand the sport, the focus needs to be sharpened.

Much of that onus falls on the league—and there’s no better example of the outdated way we talk about the sport than its annual awards. We are about three-quarters of the way through the season, meaning we are about to enter an assault of MVP stories. On Monday, asked whether Tom Brady or Carson Wentz would win the award. A large part of the media connects nearly all of Alvin Kamara’s accomplishments to the Saints running back’s offensive rookie of the year case.

The problem is not that the wrong people are winning the awards; Wentz and Brady are fine candidates given the rather dull parameters voters have established. In other words, they are quarterbacks on NFL teams that look particularly impressive in a given year. The awards are simplistic at best and meaningless at worst. Other sports have come around: Félix Hernández won the Cy Young with a 13-12 record in 2010, something that never would have happened earlier in baseball history. True dominance can be overlooked in NFL award seasons, though. Drew Brees has five of the top eight passing yardage seasons in history and has never won the award. Russell Wilson is on pace to break the record for the highest percentage of yards by one player on a team, and apparently no one cares.

The NFL Honors show, a glitzy gala launched in 2011 that’s already been hosted three times by Alec Baldwin, gives out a dull parade of honorifics: rookies of the year on both sides of the ball, offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year, an award for sportsmanship, etc. If an individual award does carry some creativity, it’s because there’s a sponsor attached. I am not sure that anyone other than Courtyard by Marriott hotels care about the “Greatness on the Road” award, won by Le’Veon Bell last year. There’s a “Clutch Performer” award, because Castrol oil, like last year’s winner Derek Carr, is apparently also a clutch performer.

And so I bring to you a modest proposal: Let’s redo the awards. If the league must keep some of the simple awards because of tradition and the record books—MVP, All-Pro teams, rookie awards—it can, but it’s time to augment them with awards that help us better understand the sport:

Best Supporting Player

The NBA has the Sixth Man of the Year, a useful award designed to highlight the best bench player in the sport. It is impossible to give this award in the NFL; the player rotations ensure that there are no “bench” players, and “starter” is typically a cosmetic term. The solution is to single out players who do their specific role extremely well. The more specific the better. Saints tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has pass blocked on over 40 percent of the pass plays he's been in for this season, and according to Pro Football Focus, he's allowed one total pressure, meaning he’s been successful 98 percent of the time. He’s on the candidate list. Washington defensive back Kendall Fuller has played 301 snaps in the slot this season—holding opponents to a 54.4 passer rating, the worst rating in the NFL. And quarterbacks are throwing at him once every 6.8 snaps, an impressively high number.

Michael Hoomanawanui Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Spotlighting these players would do wonders for fans understanding the nuances of the game. Pass blocking and coverage in the slot is important to wins and losses. I do not want to sound like a tape guru here, banging on pots and pans about the unheralded stars of the game, but it’s important we better identify the sport’s quiet badasses. Yes, there would be some problems—somehow Mike Alstott would have won like four of these awards for his 1-yard runs in the 2000s—but this award would be a net win for fans and unheralded players who do their job as well as any superstar.

Most Impactful Player

This is the award I feel most passionate about: I’ve joked on The Ringer NFL Show about how good Ryan Tannehill must be because when you watch the Dolphins without Tannehill, they’re awful. So, the award is simple: Which player’s injury or non-suspension-related absence led to his team falling apart the hardest? Last year, the Seahawks without Earl Thomas looked like they didn’t understand the rules of football, let alone have any experience playing it. The all-time example of this, of course, is Peyton Manning’s 2011 season, in which he missed all 16 games and the Colts went 2-14 after finishing the previous season 10-6.

The candidate list this year is as long as it’s ever been. The Packers have looked like garbage since Aaron Rodgers departed with a collarbone injury. Tyrod Taylor left the Bills for a half, via benching, and they looked like perhaps the worst team of the past decade. That is a MIP candidate performance. Tyron Smith’s back and groin injuries were such a blow to the Cowboys that Dak Prescott looked below-average when he was out. (When Smith returned, Prescott didn’t improve all that much, which suggests that the absence of Zeke Elliott might be the biggest in the NFL, but he’s of course suspended, not injured, and so he wouldn’t be eligible for this.) Again, we can throw Tannehill in there. If the Seahawks secondary is incompetent without Kam Chancellor or Richard Sherman, both of whom are out for the year, maybe the pair of them will be candidates, too. With injuries being such an accepted and expected part of the game, this award would hit on a key narrative each season by answering the question: Whose team sucks the most without them?

Best Playbook

This is not about the dull “assistant of the year” award—last year’s winner was then–Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan—which follows the general arc of most NFL awards: Good coaches on improved teams win. Instead, the key here is to find the best set of plays—perhaps last year, that was Shanahan as well. This season, the Rams’ Sean McVay should win coach of the year and best playbook for his creative play designs, great use of play-action, and well, just consistently cool shit:

Andy Reid and Matt Nagy would be in the mix here for their creative designs if the Chiefs recover and ever get another first down, while Philadelphia's Doug Pederson and Frank Reich would also be in the hunt for running Reid’s offense better than he does. This is strictly about play design—offensive or defensive. Jim Johnson, the former Eagles defensive coordinator, would have racked up these awards with his blitz designs. A good idea is all you need. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you win a lot; it just matters if it looks good.

Chip Kelly would have unanimously won this award in 2013 for his uptempo spread offense that lit the league on fire that season and launched a parade of imitators, while Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman would have won for their innovative, pistol-heavy offenses in 2012.

Best Position Unit

There’s already an offensive line award, the shtick being that it’s “Built Ford Tough.” The Cowboys won last year. (What, you didn’t know who won the Built Ford Tough award?) The problem is that there’s no recognition for a dominant unit outside of the offensive line. Seattle’s Legion of Boom needed an award in 2012 and 2013. Jacksonville’s defensive line is reaching historic levels—they have 41 sacks as a defense, three more than any other team. Despite the fact that the pass defense has two of the best players in football this year in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, I would vote for the defensive line. Also considered would be Philadelphia’s defensive line for its all-around consistency; it leads the NFL in rushing yards against. But imagine the other possibilities, too: New Orleans’s running backs should be nominated, so too should the Vikings’ pass catchers. By highlighting how individuals within specific groups work together and make each other better, this may be the best way for fans to understand why, outside of a quarterback, teams win games.

Best Touchdown

FIFA has the Puskás Award, given annually to the best goal anywhere—doesn’t matter what the level or situation is. This is the same: I don’t care if it was dramatic or in a meaningless game; I just want to see the best score. Jerome Simpson’s flip? Yeah, that’s a winner. Michael Vick splitting the Vikings defense? Yeah, winner. This year hasn’t seen any historically great touchdowns, but this one ain’t bad and is likely the front-runner:

Most Exciting Player

My boss, Bill Simmons, claims that Rob Gronkowski would already have three of these awards if it existed. In the same way that UFC’s “Fight of the Night” bonus encourages some flair from its participants, this award would do exactly what it says: reward players for causing excitement. At present, Kamara is the runaway favorite, replacing Kareem Hunt, who was the favorite for the first month of the season, and Deshaun Watson, the favorite for October. Antonio Brown is making a nice run for it. Barry Sanders would’ve won this award, like, five times. There are plenty of other candidates—Jalen Ramsey, Joey Bosa, Leonard Fournette, and Everson Griffen just to name a few. Watson would even have a case for the season-end award despite playing for only a month. Tom Savage would be last in voting. But there’s a long list of possibilities because the league is full of talented players with great personalities. Now it’s time for the awards to reflect that.