My friends, THE GURU is feeling generous this holiday season so it’s time to hand out the annual Crystal Ball Awards.
First, let’s talk Coach of the Year, an honor which recognizes the guy which has gotten the most out of his team in 2017. In many cases, the winner and top vote-getters are men whose teams are resurgent and go deep into the playoffs. That’s true for some of this year’s recipients but at least two – and as many as three – won’t sniff the postseason:
Honorable Mention: Sean McVay, Rams.
McVay has done an amazing job of taking a very good roster and coaxing far more out of it than previous Jeff Fisher did. Credit McVay, as much as anything, for hiring a great defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips and staying out of his way.
True to his roots, McVay focuses on the offense, the area where he is a true difference-maker, like Ro-Tel Tomatoes in a good queso dip. No one creates mismatches in favor of the offense better than McVay – we saw it during his years as offensive coordinator of the Skins and we are seeing it in L.A. An absolute joy to watch.
3rd Place: Anthony Lynn, Chargers, and Doug Marrone, Jaguars.
Lynn, a rookie head coach, has done a remarkable job of keeping the team together despite an 0-4 start, somehow maneuvering them into the playoff hunt. And don’t forget he had to organize a team that was thrown into flux by the San Diego-to-LA move.
Marrone is a gutsy guy who had the courage to leave a good Buffalo team in 2014 – their first winning season since 2004 – because he didn’t feel comfortable with new ownership. The discipline that he and the organization’s head honcho, Tom Coughlin, have brought to the franchise is the #1 reason why the Jaguars are going to be a tough out in the postseason.
2nd Place: Todd Bowles, Jets, Jay Gruden, Redskins, and Doug Pederson, Eagles.
Yes, the Jets are 5-9 heading into the season’s final two weeks but they were built by management to be a Cleveland-like one- or two-win outfit with many media outlets suggesting the squad was tanking to get a top quarterback in the 2018 draft. Instead, they have given almost everyone they’ve played a battle, with nice wins over three teams that could make the playoffs: Buffalo, Jacksonville and Kansas City.
The two most remarkable stats: New York is actually a winning team at home (4-3) and has been outscored by just four points a game. Compare that to the Browns, whose opponents have outscored them by 11 points per contest. Impressive work by Bowles, a man who played for Bruce Arians in college and the legendary Joe Gibbs in the pros before coaching under both Arians and Andy Reid in the NFL. He must have soaked up knowledge like FATBACK HOBBS sops up gravy.
Bowles shares second place with Jay Gruden, whose terrific coaching job I’d favorably compare with the stunning 8-8 record that Marty Schottenheimer wrung out of a middling Skins team in 2001.
Management set Gruden up for failure by stripping him of his two stud starting wide receivers (Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson), keeping his quarterback, Kirk Cousins, in limbo with another franchise tag and signing an absolute bust, Terrell Pryor, as a new starting wideout. The league gave the Redskins the toughest schedule. And injuries decimated the roster beyond belief, sending a dozen starters to injured reserve during the season, including all world tackle Trent Williams, star tight end Jordan Reed and stud rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Allen.
Yet, despite all those issues, Gruden had his team firmly in the playoff hunt until a December loss at Dallas. They went to the west coast and beat the Rams and Seattle, led the Saints by 16 points with five minutes left and took the Vikings and Eagles to the wire. Also, like Bowles, Gruden’s team has a winning home record (4-3) and has been outscored by just four points a game.
Pederson, coach of the NFL’s wins 2017 wins leader, has a winning record both at home (6-0) and on the road (6-2). He also has the best intra-conference record (10-1), is one of only two coaches whose teams are undefeated in their own division (5-0) and has led the Birds to a stunning +159 point differential vs. their opponents. Last season they were +36 and went 1-7 away from Lincoln Financial Field. Somehow, though, this disciple of Andy Reid gets little respect. Here’s hoping that changes.
1st Place: Mike Zimmer is the hands-down winner and not just because he is from my hometown of Peoria, Ill.
In three years since taking over a 5-10-1 team, he has posted an impressive 37-25 record and, at 11-3 this season, has the Vikes in contention to become the NFC’s top seed. He can be cantankerous, crusty and ornery – and those are on his good days. But he’s a terrific teacher and his players love him.
Zimmer has masterfully handled the Case Keenum-Teddy Bridgewater-Sam Bradford quarterback situation, turning what looked to be a weakness into a great strength. And, as usual, he has a defense that is built for a good stretch run. Hats off to you, Coach, and congrats.
As for Executive of the Year, it’s an easy decision: Tom Coughlin of the Jaguars. He and Coach Marrone have injected the type of discipline rarely seen outside of the military. Case closed.
The Most Valuable Player award is surely tougher to decide but not as tough to select as one might expect. Of course, the conventional wisdom is that one Tom Brady is on his way to winning the award with everyone else in his wake. I feel differently.
Yes, Brady is an outstanding player who will go down as an all-time great, but it says here that he isn’t even the most valuable player on his own team. Did you see how lost he looked in the bad loss to the Dolphins a couple of weeks ago? He bounced balls, overthrew receivers, didn’t seem in synch with his teammates and looked like anything but the league’s top player.
Honorable Mention: Fletcher Cox, Eagles, Todd Gurley, Rams, and Kirk Cousins, Redskins.
Cox is the leader of a surprisingly outstanding – and highly underrated – Philadelphia defense while Gurley is a bell cow who, I’ll tell you right now, will one day end up in Canton, Ohio. Cousins’ exploits have often been chronicled here so I won’t go into great detail but suffice to say that any quarterback who can throw 24 touchdowns and only nine interceptions with the decimated group surrounding him is a stud.
3rd Place: Brady’s teammate Rob Gronkowski is the surprise bronze medal winner given how important he is to the success of one of the league’s top teams.
Sure, an MVP candidate shouldn’t unleash the type of cheap shot that the Pats tight end did vs. Buffalo a few weeks ago but the New England offense can grind to a halt without him e.g. the Miami defeat. But with him, as we saw in last week’s huge win in Pittsburgh as Gronkowski had 135 second-half receiving yards, victory is always within reach. The one difference between the Pats vs Miami and the Pats vs the Steelers was big 8-7.
2nd Place: Russell Wilson.
Simply put, Seattle is a two- or three-win team without him. Seriously. The somehow 8-6 Seahawks owe their 2017 existence to former NC State and Wisconsin QB as he has accounted for 33 of the team’s 34 TDs. Think about that: Seattle has only scored one offensive touchdown this year without his hand in it. That is greatness.
1st Place: Carson Wentz.
Water-logged Ramen may be stronger than his ACL, but Wentz is the runaway winner of the 2017 MVP award. He was absolutely everything a leader should be until being derailed by injury and still leads the league with 33 TD passes.
But Wentz’s value goes far beyond the numbers: he is the emotional leader of the squad and possesses the type of instincts and intangibles that don’t come around often. He is a mature version of a young Big Ben with the leadership of Brady and toughness of Favre. This won’t be his last MVP.
After a 14-2 week, the season mark is 124-75 (.623). On to the games…
4:30 PM, NFL NETWORK
Indianapolis (3-11) loses at Baltimore (8-6). Good to see coach John Harbaugh back in the playoff race as Baltimore’s past, the Colts, meet its current and future, the Ravens.
8:30 PM, NBC
Minnesota (11-3) at Green Bay (7-7).Thank goodness, we aren’t talking about Aaron Rodgers any longer and can instead focus on this outstanding Minnesota outfit. They are built for the postseason the same way TOMMY BIRD is built for a desk job. VIKINGS, 33-16.
1 PM, CBS
Cleveland (0-14) gets win #1 at Chicago (4-10). Bears fans can’t wait to turn on their team this Sunday, a Chicago tradition as old as its outstanding giardiniera. BROWNS, 9-8…
…Miami (6-8) falls at Kansas City (8-6). The Chiefs have awakened and Andy Reid is hungry. CHIEFS, 33-16…
…Buffalo (8-6) at New England (11-3). Belichick & Co. should be careful here as Buffalo will to play. PATS, 22-21…
…Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) at New York Jets (5-9). Can the Jets rise up one more time? This’ll be a tight one. CHARGERS, 26-22…
…Denver (5-9) at Washington (6-8). It’s stunning that Washington is favored to beat the league’s top defense. Last week, someone named Kapri Bibbs – or was it Bibbs Kapri? – scored a touchdown for the Skins, playing in his first game for the team. This week, he is likely to start (!) at running back against his former team, backed up by a new hire named Dare Ogunbowale, signed on Thursday. SKINS, 10-9.
1 PM, FOX
Tampa Bay (4-10) loses at Carolina (10-4)…Dee-troit (8-6) wins at Cincinnati (5-9) and the Rams (10-4) win in Tennessee (8-6) over the reeling Titans…
…Atlanta (9-5) at New Orleans (10-4). I’m going with the upset here – the Falcons seem to be on the upswing and I’m still not sold on the Saints. They have first-round flameout written all over them. Let’s go with the visitors. FALCONS, 33-30.
4:05 PM, CBS
Jacksonville (10-4) at San Francisco (4-10). This could be the game of the week, folks. NINERS, 24-23.
4:25 PM, FOX
The New York Giants (2-12) fall at Arizona (6-8) and Seattle (8-6) gets smoked at Dallas (8-6).
4:30 PM, NBC/NFL NETWORK
Pittsburgh (11-3) at Houston (4-10). The Texans filed this season away a while back while Pittsburgh is still in the hunt for the home field advantage. The visitors may squeak by here. STEELERS, 43-2.
8:30 PM, ESPN
Oakland (6-8) at Philadelphia (12-2). A cross country trip for a west coast team on Christmas. Very classy of the NFL to do, eh? EAGLES, 37-24.
That’s it for this week, folks. Enjoy the games and God bless!