Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Patriots 2005 Regular Season Awards (1/31/2006)

There was no bye week this year, so this is coming out a lot later than usual. I wanted to take a few minutes to honor the best players on the team for 2005. Certainly a drop from 14-2 to 10-6 means that some of the players had off years, but there were distinct bright spots and I don’t want those performances lost in the post-season disappointment.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady

Honorable Mention: None.

No Patriot was in the same class as Tom Brady this year. When faced with a brutal schedule and many key injuries, he engineered late drives against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Miami to win each of those games. He wasn’t perfect. But by winning those four games, he kept the team near .500 and their late surge (winning 7 of 8 games) gave them the division title. Without those early wins, they would have been 1-8 and would have missed the playoffs. He led the NFL in passing yards for the first time, and 2005 was simply his best regular season. It always amazes me that he gets better; but somehow he does it every season.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Deion Branch

Honorable Mention: Ben Watson, Patrick Pass, Nick Kazcur

Deion became the go-to receiver this season, more than doubling his number of catches (from 35 to 78), yards (454 to 998), and first downs (27 to 51). Granted, he played 16 games, as opposed to only 9 last year, but that durability was crucial this season, as Andre Davis was not an adequate replacement for David Patten and Bethel Johnson spent much of the year either injured or in the dog house. With all that uncertainty at wide out, Branch’s consistent, dependable, and sometimes spectacular performances were sorely needed.

Ben Watson improved by playing in 15 games instead of the 1 he had last year, and his 29 catches (22 for first downs) are better than what the Patriots have averaged from the tight end position the past few years. Patrick Pass ran for more yards, a higher average, and more first downs, and the fans chose him as the Pro Bowl fullback (though the players/coaches voting knocked him off the team). Anyone who saw Nick Kazcur in his first and last games this year (both against Denver) couldn’t help but see the vast improvement this rookie made.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Kazcur and Logan Mankins

Honorable Mention: None

I couldn’t choose between Kazcur and Mankins. Offensive line play is difficult enough to break down, and I can’t grade out individual linemen very well while watching the games. However, with both these rookies playing to Tom Brady’s blind side, the season could have gone down in flames early; but they overcame early difficulties and held it together enough to make a playoff run. Suffice it to say the future looks very bright along the offensive line, with young players at every position and depth galore on next season's roster.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Richard Seymour

Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel

Seymour’s 46 tackles, 4 sacks, and 4 passes defense don’t sound too impressive. But the guy simply can’t be blocked one-one-one anymore, and that always means either someone else is free to make a play or that Richard is free to make it. He possesses everything you want in a defensive lineman: speed, explosive strength, great instincts, leverage, discipline – did I miss anything? They say the proof is in the pudding, so consider this: from the time Richard was injured against San Diego until he returned, the team was outscored by an average of 31.6 – 21.7 per game, and allowed their two highest scoring totals of the season (41 and 40). After he returned, they outscored their opponents by an average of 24.0 – 14.8, and gave up their four lowest scoring totals of the season (3, 7, 0, and 3). And it wasn't just bad competition; the two excellent teams they played without Seymour averaged 40.5 points playing in Gillette Stadium (San Diego, and Indianapolis), while the only excellent offensive team they played without Seymour scored only 26 points, even though it was a home game for the opponent (in Kansas City).

Mike Vrabel’s versatility and ability were crucial to the Patriots late-season run. With Tedy Bruschi’s stroke, the Pats needed Vrabel to move to inside linebacker and replace Monty Beisel (who was stinking up the joint every week). All Vrabel did was have his best season ever, posting career highs in tackles (108), interceptions (2), and touchdowns (4, including three on offense).

Most Improved Defensive Player: Rosevelt Colvin

Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel, Ellis Hobbs, Vince Wilfork

The 2005 Rosevelt Colvin was the version we all thought we were getting in 2003, when the Pats signed him away from the Bears for big money. Alas, his 2003 season went up in smoke when he suffered a career-threatening injury in the second game. 2004 was like an extended rehabilitation; but he showed flashes toward the end of the year, notching one sack and two forced fumbles in his last four games. But in 2005, the old fire was back, with Colvin flying off the corner and busting through the middle for 7 sacks and many quarterback “pressures.” He was near his career high in tackles (60), and spent the second half of 2005 disrupting just about everything the opposition did.

For more information on Mike Vrabel, see above. Ellis Hobbs moved from rookie special teamer to starting cornerback, and his ascension to starter provided the stability needed to start dominating again. And Vince Wilfork improved from a non-performer early to a dominant nose guard late. Here’s hoping he comes out of training camp on fire next year.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ellis Hobbs

Honorable Mention: None

When Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay went down, poor Duane Starks was thrust into the starting lineup, and he was injured and he sucked. So about mid-season, the Patriots were desperate to plug that hole and they threw Ellis into the fray. By the end of the season, teams were purposely throwing and running away from his side of the field (Miami threw one pass his way, he knocked it down). Now that is respect. Need more? Okay, NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt named Hobbs a cornerback on the his All-Rookie Team (http://www.nfl.com/news/story/9169011). Still more? How about this: Sports Illustrated football writer, Don Banks, wrote a story about how the first round of last year’s draft would have gone if teams knew then what they know now. In the story (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/writers/don_banks/12/29/draft.redo/index.html), Hobbs jumped from the 84th pick to the 15th pick, and was Banks’s second cornerback taken. Hobbs was one of the best rookies in the entire league; no way he’d lose this award on his own team.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Josh Miller

Honorable Mention: Michael Stone

Miller improved in almost every significant special teams statistic. Better average (from 42.0 to 45.1), more kicks downed inside the 20 (19 to 22), fewer touchbacks (5 to 4), fewer yards per return (11.8 to 9.6), and a better net average (33.7. to 38.3). He was fourth in the NFL in net punt yardage, and had only 4 touchbacks in 16 games – and trust me, he punted a lot in those games (20 more times in 2005 than in 2004). He was also the holder on field goals and I never saw him botch one.

I love seeing Michael Stone fly down the sideline and make a hit. Now if we can just keep him off the field during the regular defensive snaps, we’d be getting somewhere.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Josh Miller

Honorable Mention: Lonnie Paxton

For information on Miller, see above.

As for Paxton, I can’t remember a single bad snap this entire season. Not one. Add to that the five or six tackles he made and the two times he kept punts from going into the end zone, and he had an out-standing year for a long snapper. His snaps were all good in 2004, too; but he made more plays in 2005.

Special Teams Rookie of the Year: Ellis Hobbs

Honorable Mention: None

Ellis Hobbs should not be remember just for the one fumbled kickoff return in the playoffs. He had a very solid 24-yard return average on 15 returns this season.

And that does it for the 2005 season. Everything from here forward will be looking ahead to 2006 and beyond.

My Super Bowl prediction: Seahawks 27, Steelers 17.

Enjoy the off season,

- Scott

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