Sunday, January 8, 2012

Patriots 2011 Regular Season Awards

The 2011 season flew by, a whirlwind of comeback wins and just three losses (by 15 total points). The Patriots set several records, mostly on offense but the defense was suspect from the beginning.

Before the Patriots start the playoffs, here is a look back a the best performers, newcomers, and most improved players of the 2011 campaign. 

The Offense 

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker 

Brady actually dropped off a bit from 2010, and it might seem like the easy road to choose him as the offensive MVP again. But frankly, without him as the triggerman, no on else on offense would look as good. His 105.6 rating ranked a distant third this pass-happy year, but he led the league in first-down percentage and had yet another season of over 3-to-1 touchdown to interception margin. He also had two of the top five receivers in the league (Gronkowski and Welker).

Brady is so good, his offensive coordinators keep getting high-profile promotions and great jobs. No one here wishes current OC Bill O'Brien ill as the new head coach at Penn State. But you have to wonder if that will work out any better than it did for Josh McDaniels or Charlie Weis once they didn't have Brady under center.

Gronkowski simply had the best season of any tight end in history: the most catches ever (90), the most yards ever (1,327), and the most touchdowns ever (18). His rise to superstardom was one of the biggest stories in the NFL, and not only does he have great stats, he's one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.
Welker picked things up again, another year removed from his knee injury. He continued his energizer bunny impersonation, always working to get open and willing to take a hit and keep coming back for more. He led the entire NFL in receiving (122 catches), tied for the lead in first downs (77), and was second in receiving yards (1,569). 

Most Improved Offensive Player: Rob Gronkowski
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez 

Gronkowski more than doubled his receptions (42 to 90), yards (546 to 1,327), and continued his climb to the upper eschelon of NFL receivers (let alone tight ends).

Welker's numbers improved in catches (86 to 122), yards 9848 to 1,569), touchdowns (7 to 9), and games started (11 to 15).

Hernandez sort of got lost in all the Gronkowski kudos, but he went from 45 to 79 catches, started 7 games last year and 12 this year, and contributed more in the running game. A day might come when one of the tight ends decides to leave the team to become "the man" at tight end on another team, but it would be a mistake. The combination of these two, Brady, and tight ends coach Brian Ferentz is magic. 

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Brian Waters
Honorable Mention: Stevan Ridley 

The Patriots added guard Waters at the end of camp, after he was released by the Kansas City Chiefs. Usually, offensive linemen need time to learn the protections and gel with their fellow linemen, but Waters came from a similar system in KC and with the Patriots injuries, he had to play from the first game. And the results showed how well he adjusted.

He was their second-best linemen (to Logan Mankins), pass protecting well and blocking superbly in the running game (including pulls and plays in the second level). And with all the injuries along the offensive line, Waters' durability was key. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2002, Waters has played in 157 of 160 games. Not sure why the Chiefs let him go, but... well, it was nice of them to help the Patriots like that.

Ridley showed promise in the pre-season, but despite his one early game against Oakland (10 carries for 97 yards), the bulk of his work came late in the year. All that said, he ended up with 441 yards and ran for 5.1 yards a carry, and most teams are probably more afraid of his big-play ability than the other Patriots running backs. 

The Defense 

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork, Andre Carter
Honorable Mention: Patrick Chung 

Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis didn't work out, Mike Wright and Myron Pryor were injured early, and that left the defensive line to Wilfork and Carter.  Wilfork was the lynchpin inside. Besides his usual stellar play against the run, he had the first two interceptions of his career, notched 3.5 sacks, and recovered a fumble in the end zone for his first touchdown. He also allowed the team to get away with a revolving door on the defensive line (think you can pick Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick out of a police lineup?).

Carter accounted for 25% of the entire teams sacks, totaling 10 in all. (Trivia question: kudos to you if you can name the last player with double-digit sacks for the Patriots; answer below.) Carter also proved adept at holding the edge in the running game, and he came up with two fumble recoveries. Oh, and four of his sacks game against the Jets -- that was a little bonus that put him over the top.

Chung's value was apparent in the eight games he missed. There simply was no "second-best safety" -- the rest of the crew got beaten deep repeatedly and miscommunication made journeymen QBs look like All-Pros (remember Dan Orlovsky?). Chung's return to the lineup for the Buffalo game settled down the defense, and it bodes well for the playoffs that they kept pass plays in front of them in that game. 

Most Improved Defensive Player: Kyle Arrington
Honorable Mention: None 

In 2010, I wrote that any NFL wide receiver versus Arrington was a mismatch in the receiver's favor. What a difference a year makes. Arrington tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions, and he was thrown at less and less often as teams tried to avoid him later in the year.

His aggressive style is better suited to man-coverage; but without another man-corner, he had to play zone more. But it didn't matter -- the results speak for themselves. He's a lot like Wes Welker: an undrafted free agent who works hard to make the absolute most of his abilities, and who won't quit trying no matter the situation. 

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Andre Carter
Honorable Mention: None 

Carter for all the reasons detailed above.

No one else because the rest of the free agent signings, draft picks, and trades didn't work out well enough. 

The Special Teams 

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Matthew Slater
Honorable Mention: Zoltan Mesko, Niko Koutouvides 

Slater gets the nod because he led the team in special teams tackles for the second straight year. And as special teams captain, he really did set the tone for one of the better units in the NFL. He never worked out as a receiver (one catch this season), but he's a demon on coverage teams.

Mesko had a great year, finishing fourth in the NFL in net average and pinning 42% of his kicks inside the 20 yard line. The yards-per-return against him are slightly up from last year, but he improved in every other way: average (43.2 to 46.5), net average (38.4 to 41.5), kicks inside the 20 (19 to 24), fair catches induced (14 to 18), and fewer touchbacks (from 5 down to 3).

Koutouvides has the second-most tackles on special teams, despite being signed halfway through the season. 

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Zoltan Mesko
Honorable Mention: Tracy White 

Mesko for all the reasons detailed above. Also, he handled his field-goal holding duties flawlessly, and that operation was not perfect last year.

White was the perfect compliment to Slater, the two of them fed off each other all year, celebrating each other's accomplishments and then trying to outdo each other the next play. White ended up third in special teams tackles. 

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Danny Aiken
Honorable Mention: Niko Koutouvides 

Aiken is the fourth long snapper the Patriots have used in two years, and he appears to be a keeper. He only had one bad snap all year, and he pitched in with five special teams tackles. It's a shame he isn't versatile enough to fill in for the center; the Patriots used four players at that position in 2011.

Koutouvides was a nice addition, no matter how much he struggled at linebacker.

So there you have it; the coveted regular-season awards.  Maybe next year I'll do a 10th anniversary "All Your Patriots" team.

Keep the faith,

- Scott


PPS.  Trivia Answer: Tully Banta-Cain has 10 sacks for the Patriots in 2009.

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