Monday, January 5, 2004

2003 Regular Season Awards (1/5/2004)

Before we look ahead to the playoff game this Saturday, I'd like to take a little time to look back and recognize some of the integral parts that made up 2003's best team - your New England Patriots. The team seems to care less about individual honors than the feelings of their vanquished opponents, but that shouldn't stop us from praising those who contributed most to the team's dominating 14-2 record. As the Patriots reminded us all year, this is a team game, so all three phases of the game will be recognized.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady Honorable Mention: Damien Woody

The Patriots won without Damien Woody, Antowain Smith, Deion Branch, Daniel Graham, and even Troy Brown, all of which leaves little doubt as to who makes this offense go. Tom Brady worked all off-season to improve his long passing, durability, and pocket presence, and it shows. He had more 50+ yard passes this year than the previous two combined. In 2002, there were lingering doubts about his health toward the end of the season, but not even a knee-shot from Lawyer Milloy could knock him out this year. And he's been more mobile in the pocket this year - just enough to buy that extra half-second to kill the opposition. No wonder he came in third in the NFL MVP voting.

Damien Woody was an All-Pro center who improved his game by moving to guard.
He was a standout blocker all year and helped hold together a line that had several injuries and position changes.

Most Improved Offensive Player: David Givens Honorable Mention: Damien Woody, Tom Brady, Daniel Graham

His statistics alone make this an obvious choice. He bettered his 2002 numbers in every important category: receptions from 9 to 34; total yards from 92 to 510; yards per catch from 10 to 15; and touchdowns from 1 to 6. But the numbers really don't do him justice. He made the tough catches over the middle, a last-second touchdown to win the Denver game, important catches to convert first downs, and in Troy Brown's absence, he became Brady's most dependable go-to guy. He's even a good downfield blocker. Toward the end of the year he'd landed the starting job alongside Brown - not bad for a seventh round pick.

Daniel Graham is still too inconsistent, but his run and pass blocking have been great and like Givens, he's improved in every offensive category from 2002. For details on the improvements made by Woody and Brady, see the offensive MVP section above.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Dan Koppen Honorable Mention: Bethel Johnson

Koppen is one of the dozen or so rookies who stepped in due to injury this season. When Damien Woody was out for the second game of the year, Koppen became the starting center and never gave the job back (Woody was moved to guard). And the Patriots started rolling, losing only once more after trouncing the Eagles in Koppen's debut. His poise and ability belied the fact that he was a rookie and a late fifth-round pick to boot, and he became an anchor on an offensive line that kept Tom Brady healthy all year. Without his stabilizing presence along the offensive line, the Patriots would never have reeled off twelve consecutive wins and we might never have known how much better Woody was at guard.

Bethel Johnson had some standout games (the Broncos and Colts games spring to mind), and his speed helped transform the Patriots offense from a "dink-and-dunk" short game to one that could score from anywhere on the field.

The Defense

Most Valuable Player Defensive Player: Richard Seymour Honorable Mention: Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Tyrone Poole

This is the closest contest of them all, with Seymour edging Harrison by the tip of his huge wingspan. What can I say about Richard that hasn't already been said? How about this. It's amazing that a defensive lineman had more passes defensed than the starting safety - but Seymour had ten to Eugene Wilson's nine. He also had eight sacks, a forced fumble, and a key blocked field goal to force overtime in Miami. All this while facing constant double-teaming and game plans designed to neutralize him. A monster year.

Harrison showed he had plenty left in the tank, despite the whispers from his former team, the Chargers. He collected three interceptions and made a ton of big hits among his 125 tackles, including 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Looks like he might have the same kind of "twilight of his career" that Roger Clemens did. Bruschi continues to be the heart of the defense (no slight to Lawyer Milloy, but he always was), notching 128 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions himself. And the two corners kept opposing wide receivers Ty-ed down all year - the only legit set of shut-down corners I saw all year.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Willie McGinest Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel, Ty Law

Willie played like Willie again this year. The addition of Ted Washington and the switch to the 3-4 re-energize McGinest. His numbers are comparable to last year. But often being blocked by running backs or tight ends allowed him to be a much more disruptive force and to make impact plays at crucial times. In two important games toward the end of the year, he kept Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler on the run all day, and he made key stops against the Colts. At age 32, he can't be "The Man" on defense anymore, but he complimented the players around him so much better this season, he looks like he could go another five years.

Mike Vrabel made substantial improvement this year, and might have won the award if he didn't miss twice as many games as McGinest did. And Ty Law's numbers are better than last year (2 more INTs, 13 more passes defensed, and great run support) and the fact that he managed it with several lingering injuries is all the more impressive.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Eugene Wilson Honorable Mention: Asante Samuel

Drafted as a cornerback, Eugene Wilson started at safety in one of the most complex defenses in the NFL and turned in weekly performances that made everyone forget the Patriots Super Bowl-starting safety (Tebucky Jones - traded to New Orleans in the off-season). After a rocky start against the Bills, Wilson acquitted himself well, with the game against the Colts his only backward step. For the year, he snagged four interceptions, had nine passes defensed, and helped Rodney Harrison restore some attitude with punishing hits week after week.

I think Asante Samuel has a chance to be a great player in this league, if he could just get on the field (the two Tys are unlikely to relinquish much playing time). He played exceptionally well in the nickel package and was the NFL's Rookie of the Week in the first Jets game.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Larry Izzo Honorable Mention: Bethel Johnson

It's difficult to assign this award if the team doesn't have a dominant kicker, because special teams often look like semi-organized chaos. But Larry Izzo was the special teams captain for a reason. The Patriots kick coverage and return teams were improved over last year, and the team counted on Izzo's intensity, leadership, and his plain old willingness to sacrifice his body to make the tackle. Every year there is only one special teams player designated for the Pro Bowl, and Larry has made it twice. And he continues to exemplify the "do whatever it takes" attitude needed to make an impact on special teams.

The Patriots needed all of Bethel Johnson's speed and his explosive burst to keep up with the Colts in their November showdown, and his impact was shown every time the opponent squib-kicked to avoid a big return.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Ken Walter Honorable Mention: Je'Rod Cherry

I know what you're thinking: "Ken Walter almost single-handedly lost the Broncos game." Well, for all his woes this year, Ken kicked very well in all but three games (Denver, Dallas and Indy). He was probably the only NFL punter to get a game ball this year (against Cleveland), and in three games this year, he had at least 75% of his punts downed inside the opponent's 20 yard line (not to mention 9 of 13 punts since returning against Jacksonville). Additionally, he improved over his 2002 performance in several significant areas: percentage of kicks that went for touchbacks (from 13% down to 4%); percentage of kicks downed inside the 20 (from 27% to 33%); and the average punt return against him dropped almost a full yard. Deride if you like, but we probably lose the Cleveland game and the second Jets game if he doesn't perform well.

My choice of Je'Rod Cherry is based on the number of times he made a play to down a ball or keep it out of the end zone on kick coverage. A notable improvement over last season.

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: Bethel Johnson

No Honorable Mention because no one is even close. Bethel might well be the NFL special teams rookie of the year if the league had such an award. He leads the AFC in kickoff return average, and it only took three games before teams started kicking away from him, often giving the Pats a short field to keep the ball away from Bethel. He also had two huge returns in the Colts game (one for a touchdown, one to set up the winning touchdown). With Troy Brown returning punts, the Patriots might have the most dangerous return tandem in the NFL.

Well, that's about it. I'll send something along at mid-week with info on this weekend's game. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed watching the team this year.

Happy New Year,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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