Sunday is the Super Bowl, the NFL’s biggest stage and grandest display. But before the game, the league looked back at the year that was in the NFL Honors ceremony on Saturday night. There, some of the biggest names and moments of the year were celebrated with awards, and the 2019 Hall of Fame class was announced. Here is the full list of winners:
- AP Most Valuable Player: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes II
- AP Offensive Player of the Year: Mahomes
- AP Defensive Player of the Year: Rams DT Aaron Donald
- AP Offensive Rookie of the Year: Giants RB Saquon Barkley
- AP Defensive Rookie of the Year: Colts LB Darius Leonard
- AP Coach of the Year: Bears coach Matt Nagy
- AP Assistant Coach of the Year: Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio
- AP Comeback Player of the Year: Colts QB Andrew Luck
- Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019: Champ Bailey, Pat Bowlen, Gil Brandt, Tony Gonzalez, Ty Law, Kevin Mawae, Ed Reed, Johnny Robinson
- Moment of the Year: Aaron Rodgers’s comeback against the Bears in Week 1
- Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award: Eagles DE Chris Long
- Bridgestone Clutch Performance Play of the Year: The Miami Miracle
- Celebration of the Year: The Seattle Seahawks
- Pepsi Rookie of the Year: Barkley
- Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award: Gabe Infante, St. Joseph’s Prep
- FedEx Air Player of the Year: Mahomes
- FedEx Ground Player of the Year: Barkley
- Game Changer Award presented by Gillette: Seahawks LB Shaquem Griffin
- Salute to Service Award: Falcons G Ben Garland
- Deacon Jones Award: Donald
- Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award: Saints QB Drew Brees
- Courtyard Unstoppable Performance Award: Rams QB Jared Goff
- Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year: The Los Angeles Rams
Yes, about half of these awards are trying to sell you everything from pickup trucks to cola, but don’t underestimate their importance: They serve as history markers for the league. Decades from now, the winners—especially those who won AP awards—will provide a snapshot of what the NFL looked like during this time.
So with that, let’s look at some of the biggest takeaways:
They Got the MVP Right
There shouldn’t be any debate about this one. Patrick Mahomes II dominated by every available metric. To recap, here are the statistical categories Mahomes finished either first or second in among qualifying QBs this season:
- Passing touchdowns: 50 (first)
- Passing yards: 5,097 (second)
- Yards per attempt: 8.8 (second)
- Adjusted net yards per attempt: 8.89 (first)
- TD%: 8.6 (first)
- Passer rating: 113.8 (second)
- QBR: 81.7 (first)
- Pro Football Focus grade: 92.9 (second)
- Football Outsiders’ DYAR: 2,039 (first)
- DVOA: 40.1 percent (first)
Drew Brees made a solid case for himself over the middle of the season, but when the dust settled, it wasn’t close: Mahomes was far and away the best player in football in 2018.
It’s been a long time since someone owned a season the way Mahomes did. Last year, Tom Brady won the MVP award with a solid but unmemorable performance—at least by Brady’s standards. Matt Ryan was enshrined in 2016 for helming one of the most efficient offenses in league history, but that was as much a credit to his system as it was his play.
Mahomes’s MVP season reminds me of LaDainian Tomlinson’s in 2006. Those two play different positions, obviously, but the mix of statistical prowess and eye-popping highlights ensured that both were the focus of water-cooler conversations across the country. Tomlinson’s jump cuts and stiff arms are seared into my memory the same way Mahomes’s side-arm passes will be a decade from now. Those throws have already become iconic—they’re the NFL’s version of Steph Curry 3-pointers:
Some of Mahomes’s throws defied physics:
Here’s one more, just because I could spend all day watching them:
Patrick Mahomes, where the impossible becomes the ordinary— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) December 24, 2018
How did he make this throw??? pic.twitter.com/652C0c2THi
Mahomes won in the stats book, on tape, and in our hearts—he’s the no-brainer MVP.
The Hall of Fame Class Is Bittersweet—Like Always
Ed Reed, Tony Gonzalez, and Champ Bailey were virtual locks to make it, and they were joined by Kevin Mawae, Pat Bowlen, Johnny Robinson, Ty Law, and Gil Brandt.
Every Hall of Fame class includes legends, but the instant reaction I always have is to who didn’t make it. Former Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli is the most notable player on that list. The former no. 2 pick out of USC helped build the Jags when they were a brand-new expansion franchise, and he made five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams in seven seasons with the franchise. The main knock against Boselli is that injuries limited his career to 91 games, but it feels like he’s on the edge of induction every year. Indeed, the committee debated Boselli’s case for nearly a half hour:
The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection meeting has concluded. Longest discussions for the modern-era finalists were held on Ty Law (27:16), Tony Boselli (26:10), Kevin Mawae (24:52), Don Coryell (22:37) and Tom Flores (18:54). The shortest was Ed Reed (2:20).— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) February 2, 2019
While Boselli had a short but incredible peak, another notable player who missed had the opposite sort of career: Isaac Bruce. The former Rams wideout had the second-most receiving yards of all time when he retired, consistently performing over a 16-year career that included four Pro Bowl appearances, yet he too will have to wait at least one more year.
And those aren’t the only two. Don Coryell is a massively influential coach who helped create modern NFL offenses, but his lack of postseason success has kept him out. But every year there are Hall of Fame snubs, and while it can feel cathartic to loudly complain, the committee also had a reason to be picky—no one wants a bloated, watered-down Hall. As they say: There’s always next year.
A Young Offensive Mind Won Coach of the Year—and It Wasn’t Sean McVay
This was a close one between Colts coach Frank Reich and Bears coach Matt Nagy. Both took over tough situations and led their teams to the playoffs.
While Nagy took home the hardware, both he and Reich represent a trend toward offensively minded head coaches. Nagy came to Chicago from Kansas City, and Reich came to Indianapolis from the Eagles. The Sean McVay–ification of the NFL extends well beyond the Rams head coach: Forward-thinking, offensively-minded, progressive head coaches everywhere are finding success.
The Offensive Rookie of the Year Isn’t an Award About Value
This was the closest race coming into Saturday, with NFL experts split on whether the award would go to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield or Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
The debate between the two mirrors a greater philosophical conversation in the NFL. Since he plays quarterback, Mayfield is automatically a more valuable player than just about any running back. He was awesome down the stretch, of course, but his season got off to a rocky start. Overall, Mayfield ranked outside the top 10 of qualified QBs in adjusted net yards per attempt, passer rating, QBR, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and virtually any other statistic imaginable. He was a bit better by more advanced metrics (Pro Football Focus handed him its ninth-highest grade for any QB) and he showed massive promise for a rookie. But there were many quarterbacks better than him in 2018.
Meanwhile, Barkley dominated both the running and passing games for the Giants. With a league-leading 2,028 scrimmage yards to go with 15 total touchdowns, the rookie was arguably the best running back in all of football (and he did win the FedEx Ground Player of the Year award). Even when he had little help, Barkley could make magic happen:
This award doesn’t have the word “valuable” in it, so it was unclear whether voters would side with the more impressive player in Barkley, or the more important one in Mayfield. There was no bad choice here, but in the end, the AP narrowly went with Barkley.
No One Predicted the Defensive Rookie of the Year in the Preseason
This was a banner year for defensive rookies. Derwin James dominated at safety for the Chargers, Denzel Ward helped lead the Browns to their best season in years, and Bradley Chubb paired as well as everyone expected next to Von Miller in Denver. So it’s a massive credit to Darius Leonard that he was able to swoop in to take home this trophy, though it was close:
Final votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year:— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) February 2, 2019
Darius Leonard: 29
Derwin James: 20
Bradley Chubb: 1
Leonard led all NFL players in tackles and, along with fellow rookie Quenton Nelson, has given the Colts one of the brightest futures in the league. He entered the league with so little hype that he didn’t even make the Pro Bowl, which is selected far earlier than the All-Pro team (which he did make) and this award. This hardware signals that he’s not just the best rookie defender in the league, but that he’s one of the best, period.
The Assistant Coach of the Year Award Might Be Cursed
The Associated Press has been giving out an award for Assistant Coach of the Year since 2014, and here are the winners:
- 2014: Todd Bowles, Cardinals defensive coordinator
- 2015: Wade Phillips, Broncos defensive coordinator
- 2016: Kyle Shanahan, Falcons offensive coordinator
- 2017: Pat Shurmur, Vikings offensive coordinator
- 2018: Vic Fangio, Bears defensive coordinator
With the exception of Phillips, who was 67 years old when he won and doesn’t seem interested in head-coaching opportunities, everyone who has taken home this trophy has immediately gone on to become a head coach the next season. That remains true with Fangio, who accepted the Broncos gig in January.
Yet so far, none of these former assistants has found much success at the top of a franchise. Bowles, Shanahan, and Shurmur have gone a combined 39-73 as head coaches since winning the award. Bowles was fired from the Jets this offseason, and Shanahan and Shurmur are both at the helms of dire situations. The assistant coach of the year award is looking for its first bona fide success story. Perhaps Fangio can break the curse.
Aaron Donald Has Solidified Himself As a Generational Player
The AP has been handing out Defensive Player of the Year Awards since 1971, and only a handful of players have ever won it multiple times: Joe Greene, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Ray Lewis, and J.J. Watt. All of these guys are in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Watt, who is on his way there.
Now we can add Donald to that list. With his second straight DPOY campaign, he’s joined this exclusive group—and it won’t be long before we’re wondering where to slot him on the list of best defenders ever. He’s certainly earned every penny of the megadeal the Rams gave him this offseason.
The Play of the Year Award Makes No Sense
The NFL first unveiled a Play of the Year Award in 2011, when the inaugural NFL Honors show was held. Over the award’s first six years, it was handed out to regular-season plays: from Randall Cobb’s 108-yard kickoff return in 2011 to Mike Evans’s one-handed catch in 2016.
Then, last year, the league bucked tradition and selected a postseason play: The Minneapolis Miracle. That play is worth highlighting, but selecting it raises a question: Is this not a regular-season award?
Since this accolade is given out before the Super Bowl, the NFL couldn’t recognize what became the actual play of the year last season: The Philly Special. As cool as the Minneapolis Miracle was, it has nothing on a fourth-down trick play that went for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. The Eagles didn’t build a statue to commemorate the play for nothing.
Fans will remember the Philly Special regardless, but its exclusion from the awards process is disappointing. The entire point is to celebrate the most memorable players, coaches, and moments from the season. But by handing out awards before the Super Bowl, the NFL’s most important game gets ignored. That would be fine if awards only applied to regular-season accomplishments, but last year’s Play of the Year showed that they don’t.
This year’s Play of the Year winner, The Miami Miracle, is a great pick—or at least, it appears to be right now. But if another Philly Special–type of moment happens on Sunday, this award will once again look very bizarre in retrospect.
And that isn’t the only part of this process that is confusing …
The Timing of the Show Makes No Sense
Why does the NFL broadcast the show at 9 p.m. ET on the Saturday before the Super Bowl? This is probably the worst possible day the league could pick to hand out the awards.
First, no one wants to watch this show at 9 on a Saturday night. This is like when ESPN tried to make the College Football Playoff happen on New Year’s Eve. People don’t want to watch television on nights when they have other things to do.
Second, as detailed above, the show takes place before the Super Bowl, which means the NFL can’t recognize its most important game with any awards.
And finally, the NFL sacrifices what should be a decent news cycle. By Sunday morning every NFL fan on the planet will be focused on the Super Bowl. Speaking of which, go read some of The Ringer’s great Super Bowl coverage and get ready for the game.