Sunday, January 9, 2011

Patriots 2010 Regular Season Awards

2010 opened with lowered expectations among the local and national media, but the Patriots outperformed those expectations, notching their third 14-2 record and eighth AFC East crown in the last ten years.

So before we move on to the real season, here is a look back at the best performers, best newcomers, and most improved players in the 2010 regular season.

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: none

Two seasons removed from a season-ending knee injury, Brady re-established himself as the best quarterback in the NFL. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was an absolutely unfair 36-4, and his 111.0 QB rating was the fifth best in NFL history.

His numbers against the best competition, teams with winning records, were otherworldly: 159 of 241 (66%), 1,934 yards, 16 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and QB rating 105.7. He will be named the NFL MVP; not much argument against him being the Patriots offensive MVP.

Most Improved Offensive Player: BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Honorable Mention: Tom Brady, Matt Light

BenJarvus wins this award going away. From 2009 to 2010, Green-Ellis improved 880% in carries (26 to 229) and yards (114 to 1,008), and in the process became the first 1,000+ yard Patriots rusher since Corey Dillion in 2004. He started zero games last year and 11 games this year, and he shouldered the load when Laurence Maroney was traded, and Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk were injured.

Brady's stats were better this year, but his biggest improvement came in managing crucial game situations much better. In 2009 he threw bad interceptions in losses to Miami and Indianapolis and did not perform well at the end of the Denver overtime loss. But he left all that behind this year.

Matt Light missed five games in 2009, and honestly rookie Sebastian Vollmer outperformed him -- not Light's best year. But he rebounded in 2010, starting all 16 games and did a great job protecting Brady's blind-side.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Alge Crumpler, Brian Ferentz
Honorable Mention: Danny Woodhead

The Patriots employed creative destruction at the tight end position. They released all of their 2009 tight ends and fired the tight ends coach. I wrote at the end of last season that the tight ends coach should go (link), but even I didn't foresee them turning over the entire position. The results were immediate, tangible, and vital to their success in 2010.

2009 tight ends: 43 catches for 546 yards and 7 touchdowns
2010 tight ends: 93 catches for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns

Quite simply, the productivity improvement at tight end is one of the five best position-improvements in the entire NFL (right up there with the Rams quarterbacks, Raiders running backs, and Chiefs quarterbacks). And the Patriots tight ends bring such different skills, it's difficult (if not foolhardy) to separate them -- so your winners are all three tight ends and their new coach. Kudos on a job well done, gentlemen.

Danny Woodhead's emergence was crucial to the Patriots success, especially given that he took the place of Kevin Faulk, long a dependable and underrated cog in the Patriots offense.  But Woodhead, who signed as a free agent when the Jets released him, brought more speed and elusiveness to the position, and he learned the offense well enough to split out at wide receiver or pick up blitzers -- whatever was necessary.

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty
Honorable Mention: Jerod Mayo

Wilfork was a more vocal leader in the locker room, was an absolute beast on the field, and showed amazing versatility throughout the season. He played all four positions on the defensive line, employing both 1-gap and 2-gap techniques to blow up running plays and pressure the passer, and he did it all with a revolving door of linemates due to injuries and new player rotations. Through it all Vince played at a Pro Bowl level and was the most important player on their defensive front seven.

The McCourty pick was widely panned by the media, but he ignored the naysayers, learned from early season mistakes, and was a legitimate Pro Bowler himself. He led NFL rookies with 7 interceptions, defended another 17 passes, forced 2 fumbles, and did a great job in run support on the edge. He led the team in INTs, and was *third* in tackles... not bad for a rookie who might not have started if not for the Leigh Bodden injury.

Jerod Mayo was far and away the leading tackler on the team, and like Wilfork, he played next to an array of linebackers, some of whom aren't even with the team any more.

Most Improved Defensive Player: Jerod Mayo
Honorable Mention: Patrick Chung

Mayo regained his speed and explosion this year, after suffering an early knee injury in 2009. But even more than that, he added his experience to the return of his physical prowess and simply dominated from the middle linebacker position. It helped that Brandon Spikes emerged, but Mayo went from leading his team in tackles in 2009 to leading the NFL in tackles in 2010.

And Chung has become the team's best safety -- the acknowledged "quarterback" of the secondary. He brought an attitude and consistency that made a real difference when he was in the game. Sort of the Bob Sanders of the Patriots -- except he seems to be more durable.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Devin McCourty
Honorable Mention: Brandon Spikes

Read above for information about McCourty -- and consider where the Patriots would be if McCourty hadn't been drafted and Darius Butler started opposite Kyle Arrington. Just don't think about it too long -- it's sort of scary.

Spikes' addition was critical to the team. Gary Guyton was a nice story in 2009, an undrafted free agent who played pretty well next to Jerod Mayo. But Spikes solidified the other inside linebacker spot, showing the toughness to stop the inside run and the speed and instincts to cover running backs out of the backfield and rush the passer. And he allowed the backup linebackers to do what they do best -- be backups.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Brandon Tate
Honorable Mention: Matthew Slater

Tate returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 28 yards a return. And the threat Tate represented caused other teams to kick away from him or kick short, which helped the Patriots get good field position week after week. In fact, kicking away from Tate led directly to Dan Connolly's 71-yard kickoff return on a squib-kick against the Packers... a game they won by only 4 points.

Slater had 15 special teams tackles in 16 games, and he never missed his lane on kick coverage that I noticed.  Not much of a receiver, but very good on special teams.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Brandon Tate
Honorable Mention: Dan Connolly

Tate's 2009 stats: 4 kickoff returns for 106 yards
Tate's 2010 stats: 41 kickoff returns for 1,057 yards and 2 touchdowns

Connolly's 2009 stats: 1 kickoff return for 16 yards
Connolly's 2010 stats: 3 kickoff returns for 90 yards
(Note: mostly kidding about including Connolly.)

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Zoltan Mesko
Honorable Mention: Matt Katula

I said it before but it bears repeating: in 2009 the Patriots finished 36th in punting... and there are only 32 teams in the league! This year Mesko ranked 11th in net yards and did a great job as the holder on place kicks. Also, he handled all the bad snaps when Jake Ingram got the "yips" earlier in the year. There were a bunch of low snaps that he pick up on the fly and he still got good kicks away, and he handled several high snaps on place kicks.

Once Jake Ingram was let go, the Patriots signed Matt Katula to replace him at long snapper. He didn't mess up a single snap for the balance of the season -- nailing every single on on punts and kicks.  Couldn't ask for more from a mid-season replacement.

That is it for the regular season awards. Keep an eye out for my Pats-Jets breakdown later this week, and enjoy the ride :)

Keep the faith,

- Scott




  1. A couple of notes:

    When Brady went down in 2008, Trent Dilfer stated this might be get for Brady. Not only would would it reinvigorate him (he had 3 rings, the TD record, a perfect regular season, and the consecutive win mark), but he could use the time to study more. And you know what? He might have been right.

    As a side effect, that season allowed us to showcase Matt Cassel, who was traded to KC for a #2 pick....who was Patrick Chung. Just saying.

    Also, love your note about Danny Woodhead. He did fulfill the Faulk role this year, and may continue to do so. Other side note on the 2008 Brady injury. Faulk missed that opener because of his drug use at an off season concert. He wasn't there on that shotgun snap, in which Laurence Maroney totally missed Bernard Pollard...yet another thing we can hate him for.

    Brandon Tate was in on some tackles early in the season on special teams, before the Moss trade, increasing your argument for him as special teams player of the year.

    Side note on MVP:

    So Brady is the NFL MVP, no competition. But, does he deserve offensive player of the year? Sometimes the MVP is the offensive player of the year, sometimes not. In cases where Manning has been MVP, he normally hasn't been offensive player of the year. However, Brady was both in 2007. For the record, in 2009 manning was MVP and Chris Johnson was OPY.

    The argument for QBs and OPY go like this: If the QB is providing most of the yards, IE, passes that are thrown the distance gained, the QB is a OPY candidate. If the receivers catch a 5 yard pass and then runs 20 yards on their own, the QB still gets credit but is not really an OPY candidate (see Brees or Manning, their receivers make them look great).

    Arian Foster is considered the front runner for OPY this year. Just wondered your opinion, if Brady should be that too because he provided most of the yards and conditions to the WRs, it wasn't YAC in most cases.


  2. I think it was Sammie Morris who missed the block on Bernard Pollard; but if I can find the video I'll check.

    I haven't tracked OPY versus MVP. I see the argument, and wonder if voters have been that sophisticated in the past. They usually just give the MVP to the best QB or running back, so they haven't shown very nuanced thinking in the past.

    As for the Brady injury, it might have given him a little more urgency; that is evidenced by the sideline rants and such this year.

    But the injury certainly hurt the team. They loaded up for another Super Bowl run in 2008, keeping older players and going with the big offense (Randy Moss) rather than continuing to build a solid defensive future (Asante Samuel). So when Brady went down, those moves looked worse in retrospect.

    Thankfully the Patriots only needed 2009 to rebuild; a lot of franchises would have taken a longer.

    - Scott