The weeks leading up to the Super Bowl have always marked the perfect time to look back at the season that was. So with the final game of the NFL season fast approaching, it's time to hand out a few extremely unofficial awards to deserving candidates. These awards are based on what happened in the regular season alone; the postseason has already determined its winners and losers in a far less subjective manner.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. Of course the MVP is going to be a quarterback - that's just the reality of the modern NFL. With that in mind, we have to hand it to Mahomes, who led the league in passing yards (5,250) and passing touchdowns (41). Again, this is just in the regular season, so we're not even including the fact that he just carried the Chiefs to the Super Bowl on one leg. Now, had the Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts not missed two games down the stretch due to injury, he may have put together a stronger challenge to Mahomes, who started all 17 contests.
Russell Wilson, QB, Denver Broncos. This is less about Wilson's on-field performance, although that was bad enough, and more about the fact that the Broncos mortgaged their future to bring him into the fold. First, they traded a package including two first-round picks to the Seattle Seahawks for his services and then signed him to a five-year, $242m contract ($161m guaranteed) that will hamper their spending for years to come.
The Broncos hoped that upgrading at quarterback would yield instant benefits. Instead, Wilson put together the worst year of his career and the Broncos went 5-12. This week the Broncos burned another draft pick (which they had gained by trading Bradley Chubb to the Miami Dolphins) in order hire head coach Sean Payton in the desperate hope that he can fix Wilson.
Offensive Player of the Year
Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings. This award is basically set aside for "best offensive player who is not a quarterback" due to QBs' monopoly of the MVP award. So, going along with tradition, this feels like a proper category to honor Jefferson after a season in which he led the league in receiving yards (1,809) and receptions (128). He even broke the single-season Vikings record once held by Randy Moss two weeks before the end of the season, just to avoid any asterisk talk given the expanded 17-game schedule.
Defensive Player of the Year
Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers. OK, yes, it's easy to pick the best player on the league's best defense. Still, Bosa isn't just here as a stand-in for his teammates, he had his share of individual accomplishments to celebrate this season. Bosa led the league in sacks with 18.5 and notched 51 tackles (41 of them solo efforts).
Coach of the Year
Doug Pederson, Jacksonville Jaguars. One suspects that the Jaguars would have improved this season even if all Pederson did was "not be Urban Meyer." However, nobody expected Pederson to turn the team with the worst record in the league last season into a legitimate playoff contender in 2022. Yes, a lot of that is because Trevor Lawrence took a second-year leap, but Pederson deserves plaudits for putting his young quarterback in a position to succeed.
Speaking of coaches getting the best from their signal-callers, let's give the 49ers' Kyle Shanahan some love as a runner-up. Shanahan deserves a badge simply for guiding a team that went through three starting quarterbacks to a 13-4 regular-season record. It's a testimony to his leadership that it never even felt as if the 49ers were undergoing adversity until they ran out of QBs in their postseason loss to the Eagles.
Comeback Player of the Year
Geno Smith, QB, Seattle Seahawks. You didn't think Smith had this kind of year in him either, did you? After his tumultuous time with the New York Jets ended with an ACL injury, Smith bounced from the New York Giants to the Los Angeles Chargers before landing with the Seahawks. Smith won the starting job in Seattle after the team traded Wilson to the Broncos, but nobody thought much of it at the time.
Then Seattle, like Jacksonville, went 9-8 and earned a playoff appearance. Smith was there for all of it: he played every offensive snap while compiling an impressive 69.8% completion percentage. It's fair to say that Smith will be sticking around the league for a little while longer.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Sauce Gardner, CB, New York Jets. More than a man with an undeniably cool nickname, Gardner showed himself to be a gamechanger right out of the gate as a key part of the Jets' impressive defensive turnaround. In his first year in the NFL, Gardner had 75 tackles and 20 passes defended, playing like a man who had been in the league for years.
Offensive rookie of the year
Brock Purdy, QB, San Francisco 49ers. Purdy's candidacy is based on whether the 5-0 run he went on to save the Niners' season after Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo were injured is a fun enough story to make up for the fact that this is a rather small sample size to reward. This writer is erring on the heartwarming side of the Purdy narrative, but if you want to argue that the award should go to New York Jets wide receiver Garrett Wilson (1,103 receiving yards in his rookie season) instead, there is a very solid case in his favor.
Off-field blunder of the year
The Indianapolis Colts hiring Jeff Saturday as interim head coach. Sometimes, it's not just hindsight that's 20/20. When reports first emerged that the Colts were going to let someone with no significant coaching experience lead the team, just about everybody said that it would be a disaster. And just about everybody was right.
How bad was it? Not only did the Colts go 1-7 under Saturday, that run included a game against the Minnesota Vikings in which his team set an NFL record for the largest blown lead (that would be 33 points). Somehow this was enough to ensure that Saturday's name remained in the mix for the job next season, although Colts fans are circulating an online petition urging the team not to rehire him.
On-field blunder of the year
There were a lot of memorable endings to games this season, but nothing quite like what happened between the New England Patriots and the Las Vegas Raiders. Instead of playing conservatively and hoping to win in overtime, the Patriots offense improvised a final play consisting entirely of ill-advised decisions that resulted in a game-losing turnover.
It wasn't just a profoundly silly way to lose a ballgame. It confirmed that Bill Belichick's Pats have long lost their air of invulnerability. In a wider sense, it was yet another reminder that the NFL always fulfils its promise to show you things you've never seen before.