Friday, January 7, 2005

Patriots 2004 Regular Season Awards (1/7/2005)

Before we start looking ahead to next weekend's match up, I thought I'd take us down memory lane for a moment and recognize some of the best players on the 2004 Patriots. They weren't the best team this regular season, finishing one game behind Pittsburgh. But they scrapped their way to another stellar 14-2 record, and that means their players were among the league's best. So here's my take on who was the best of the best on the Patriots this year.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Corey Dillon

It was a closer call this year, but Tom Brady continues to be the one irreplaceable cog in the Patriots offense. The team's receivers, tight ends, running backs, and offensive linemen were in and out of games, shuffled from position to position, injured, and sometimes inconsistent. But through it all, Brady was the constant on a team that scored the fourth most points in the NFL this season and second most points in their history (437 in 2004, 441 in 1980). He improved from 2003 in yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns, and quarterback rating. He also worked to strengthen his upper body and improve his technique to reduce his fumbles and it worked like a charm: he fumbled only about half as many times, from 13 down to 7. And if you need more proof of his value to the team, his two worst games of the year were the Patriots two losses. Oh, and he made the Pro Bowl again.

Corey Dillon brought balance to the Patriots attack this year. He was instrumental in helping the Pats drop their pass/run differential from 106 more passes in 2003 (578 to 472) to only 6 more passes in 2004 (530 to 524) and to improve their time of possession advantage from 1:40 a game to 2:44 a game. He also set a Patriots record with 1,635 rushing yards and helped the Pats achieve 4 yards a carry for the first time in 20 years. Not bad for a supposed malcontent from a franchise with exactly *zero* winning records in the past 15 years.

Most Improved Offensive Player: David Patten
Honorable Mention: Daniel Graham, David Givens, and Stephen Neal

If this was Most Improved Offensive Position, then Corey Dillion would win it hands down, but that's not the way I see this category. David Patten was injured for the bulk of 2003, and he came back in 2004 with a vengeance. He had career bests in touchdowns (7) and yards per catch (18.2), and came within a whisker of his career highs in yardage (824 in 2002, 800 in 2004) and first downs (39 versus 37). But this is mostly about his improvement from 2003 to 2004, and it was astounding: games played (from 6 to 16), starts (5 to 11), receptions (9 to 44), yards per catch (15.6 to 18.2), touchdowns (0 to 7), and first down catches (6 to 37). Many experts thought Patten might be cut during the pre-season, and few if any gave him a chance to play much, let alone start. Just goes to show that you never know with the Patriots coaching staff.

Daniel Graham's statistics improved, but mostly this is a gut feeling of mine that he has become more dependable. Brady throws to him more, and he rarely drops a catchable ball now. All you need to know about Stephen Neal are the following facts: he outplayed Super Bowl starting guard, Russ Hochstein, replacing him before the season began; and he started zero games in 2003, 14 in 2004. He will sometimes commit silly penalties, but pretty good improvement. David Givens improves every year, and he's the one guy the other teams don't seem to have an answer for. He caught 56 passes this year, 47 of them were "Good for another Patriots... FIRST DOWN!"

Offensive Rookie of the Year: No Winner

The Pats had only two rookies play on offense this year. Ben Watson played one game, had two catches and one first down and was injured for the rest of the year. Cedric Cobbs played in three games and ran for 50 yards. Maybe one of them will win Most Improved next year.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Tedy Bruschi
Honorable Mention: Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, and Rodney Harrison

Tedy Bruschi finally gets is due. I've long said that Bruschi's versatility makes him the key to the Patriots defense, and it was never more evident than this year. He plays the run and pass equally well, and that gives the Pats coaching staff the freedom to play either run or pass against almost any offensive player grouping. Spread the field with five wide receivers? no problem, Bruschi plays the middle alone in case it's a draw play and drops into coverage to help the defensive backs. Bunch everyone up to confuse the DBs? Bruschi's got it covered, directing traffic until the snap, hitting anyone who comes over the middle, and then covering the running back in the flat. He finished 2004 with 122 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles, and played on special teams every single game. And no one made a more important play this year than Bruschi's interception early in the Jets game. It set the tone for another win -- just like Bruschi does every week.

Willie McGinest is becoming one of those ageless wonders. Who knew when Parcells drafted him that he'd lead the Patriots in sacks (9.5) in his eleventh season, even though he dropped into pass coverage more this year than the last two years combined. He had 51 tackles, four passes defensed, and an interception; and they all seemed to be big plays. Richard Seymour had another Pro Bowl year, although his numbers were down from his monster 2003 season. He had five sacks and controlled his half of the offensive line week after week; and he's still the defender the opposition has to game plan around. And Rodney Harrison continued his revival tour, leading the team with 138 bone-jarring tackles and, perhaps most importantly, holding the secondary together through all their injury problems. I'm hoping to play San Diego in the playoffs, just to see Rodney play "angry" against his old team.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork
Honorable Mention: Ted Johnson, Tully Banta-Cain, and Troy Brown

Unlike last year, when the winner (Willie McGinest) showed the most year-over-year improvement with the Patriots, Vince Wilfork showed the most improvement within the season. In the season opener, the Colts ran for 202 yards, with Vince taking about 40% of the snaps at nose tackle (sharing time with Keith Traylor). At the time, I hoped that Vince would get better as the year progressed, and he did. In that first game, he was played to a stand-still by the Colts center, which is unacceptable for 3-4 defense; the nose tackle must force a double-team *or* make the tackle himself -- and Wilfork did neither. But he came on as the season went along. He had sacks in the first two games of October, which brought the double-team the middle of that month. By mid-December, he was working through the double-team to make the tackle or pressure the quarterback. He finished the year with two sacks, and it seemed like he was very close about eight other times. With Vince, Richard, Jarvis Green, and Ty Warren all four years or fewer in the league, the defensive line could be dominant for a while to come.

Both Ted Johnson and Tully Banta-Cain are more intuitive choices on my part. Both had better stats, but it was more than that with them. I don't recall seeing Ted out of position, missing a tackle, or being beaten for a big pass play all year, and those problems were his downfall in the past. He always had the physical skills, and now that he's improved his pass coverage and is playing more within the system, he is rock solid. And Tully, well, I'm not sure what to say except that he seemed better at the pass rush than either McGinest or Seymour this year. He was just always around the ball making plays, and of course, he's one of those wedge-breaking maniacs on special teams.

As for Troy Brown, when you start your defensive career at age 93 and can still keep up with the young guys, it's says a lot for you. FYI, he finished with as many interceptions as Deion Sanders (3), and had 9 more tackles and as many passes defensed as Neon Deion. Troy Brown might have been the best fifth DB in the AFC. Astonishing.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Vince Wilfork
Honorable Mention: Randall Gay

For info on Vince Wilfork, see the above. He has a chance to be something very special in this league for a long time.

Randall Gay was one of those Nick Saban (former head coach at LSU) recommendations that the Patriots took a chance on. Aside from Jarvis Green, those gambles hadn't paid off yet; but it was worth the wait with Randall. With the injuries to our secondary, Randall stepped in and played like an experienced fifth defensive back. And when the injuries got worse, he stepped into the starting role and only gave up a few big plays all year. (For contrast, think back on what Earthwind Moreland did when he was forced to start. Go ahead, think about the Kansas City game, I'll wait... Okay then, now you realize how bad things could have been.) He learned the complex defensive schemes quickly, was rarely out of position -- although he was physically beaten a few times -- and was a sure tackler. If Ty Law and/or Tyrone Poole leave next year (or are asked to leave), expect Randall to play full time.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Adam Vinatieri
Honorable Mention: Larry Izzo, Je'Rod Cherry, and Josh Miller

With his back totally healthy, Adam returned from a sub-standard 2003 to lead the NFL in scoring (141 points) and field goal accuracy (93.9%). He really is Mr. Clutch, missing no important field goals and using his directional kickoffs to help the Pats coverage team. I can only remember two games where their kick coverage team was significantly outplayed, and Adam's kicks have been higher and just a bit longer than in past years -- just enough to help out in this critical part of the game. Oh, and he finally made the Pro Bowl this year, something that's way overdue. And he did throw the only touchdown by a kicker to a part-time defensive back this year.

Larry Izzo made the Pro Bowl again, as he continued to excel with downfield coverage and in captaining the special teams. He's been in the league 9 years, but plays like a rookie trying to win a job. Je'Rod Cherry was cut and re-signed about 80 times this year, but when he played, he made it count. Just last week, he downed two punts inside the five yard line against the 49ers, which (as I said at the time) is a very good season for most players. And Josh Miller gave us a 42 yard average (up from Ken Walter's 37.7) and had only five touchbacks on 56 punts.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Adam Vinatieri
Honorable Mention: Lonnie Paxton

For info on Adam, see above.

Lonnie was hurt toward the end of last season, and with him back and a new holder, the Pats had their most accurate field goal kicking season ever. Guess his rehab was a success.

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: None

There weren't any rookies who stood out on special teams. Vince Wilfork played some in field goal defense units, and Dexter Reid did some kick coverage. But overall, the Patriots played mostly veterans on their kicking units. I know they wanted to give P.K. Sam a chance to unseat Troy Brown on punt returns, but a pre-season injury put that on hold until next year.

Well, that's about it. Hope you enjoyed watching these guys play as much as I did. Here's hoping we get to see them at least three more games (Super Bowl, baby!). And I hope the lack of an offensive and special teams rookie of the year isn't a bad omen for this year's draft. They did get good production out of their defensive rookies, and some of the others will return from injury next season. Keep those fingers crossed.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-2!

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