Sunday, January 6, 2013

Patriots 2012 Regular Season Awards

The 2012 season ended in dramatic fashion, with a win on the final Sunday that ensured a first-round playoff bye and an extra week to get healthy.  But before the Patriots start what we hope will be a long playoff run, here is a look back at the best performers, newcomers, and most improved players of the 2012 season.

The Offense 

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker, Nate Solder

The rest of the team might have to wait until Brady retires to get a shot at this award.  It was another stellar year; he threw for 4,827 yards, completed 63% of his passes, and tossed 34 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions.  Brady again was in complete control of the offense, and three of the four losses on the year were by 1, 1, and 2 points -- so the team could easily have been 13-3 or 14-2 (or even 15-1).

Wes Welker started the season under a cloud of rumors he was being phased out.  He ended up with 118 catches (second in the NFL), 1,354 yards, and 6 touchdowns.  Reminds me of the twilight of Roger Clemens' career -- we can all only hope to be phased out like that someday.

More on Solder's value in the next section.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Nate Solder
Honorable Mention: Stevan Ridley

In one year, Solder went from a "now reporting as eligible" third tight end to a 16-game starter who replaced the underrated (and under-appreciated) Matt Light a left tackle.  He was better protecting Brady's bilnd side than Light was last year, and in a position group with so much change and uncertainty, Solder was the only dependable starter all year long.

For sheer numbers, Stevan Ridley increased his rushing yards by 180% (441 to 1,263 -- the highest total since Corey Dillon left the team) and touchdowns 11-fold (1 to 12).  He did unfortunately increase his fumbles to 4, but he lost only 1 fumble in the last 11 games of the year.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Lloyd
Honorable Mention: none

Lloyd didn't work out as well as people dreamed he might, but he was more than a solid addition, grabbing 74 passes for 911 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Some catches were spectacular and his game against San Francisco helped the team climb back from a 28-point deficit and almost win.  Not Randy Moss (circa 2007), but a very good addition who could play dividends when both tight ends play in the playoffs.  He will also likely improve next year.

The Defense 

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

Patriots interior defensive linemen never get big numbers, but Wilfork still got 48 tackles, 3 sacks, and knocked down 6 passes.  More importantly, ever since the AFC Championship Game last year, Wilfork has been playing at a new level, even for him.  He breaks through double-teams and still makes tackles, and he almost always pushes the pocket back, which helped outside rushers Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones total 8 and 6 sacks respectively.

Wilfork is almost as important to the defense as Brady is to the offense, and he is playing at a level equal to Richard Seymour in his prime.

Jerod Mayo moved to outside linebacker this year, and he got more pressure on the quarterback and helped shore up the the edge run defense.  He also stepped inside when needed, showing the kind of versatility the Patriots like.

McCourty also changed positions, from cornerback to safety, and he also switched back when needed.  The change led to 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and he was second on the team with 82 tackles (albeit a distant second, to Mayo's 147).

Most Improved Defensive Player: Rob Ninkovich
Honorable Mention: Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham

Ninkovich also changed positions, moving from linebacker in the 3-4 to D-lineman in the 4-3.  And the improvement was remarkable -- increase his sacks from 6.5 to 8.0 and his forced fumbles from 1 to 5.  He also helped (along with Jerod Mayo) to shore up the outside run defense, doing a much better job holding the edge than he did the previous year.

McCourty for reasons already mentioned; he played some safety last year, but his move to safety in 2012 helped solidify the position group.

Cunningham had 1 tackle in 9 games last year, and improved to 24 tackles in 12 games this year.  Of course, he got busted for performance-enhancing drugs, so make you own judgment as to how he improved.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Chandler Jones, Steve Gregory
Honorable Mention: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard

Jones and Gregory brought new energy and solid play to the front and back of the defense.  Jones was second on the team with 6.0 sacks.  His mediocre middle of the season was bookended by a sensational start and a solid finish.  The Patriots defense is not easy to learn, and Jones did a great job holding up for 14 games.

Gregory came to a secondary that couldn't get any worse (remember Matthew Slater at safety and Julian Edelman at corner?).  An injury slowed him in the middle of the year, but Gregory did a nice job playing centerfield for the team -- helping to keep plays shorter when he played.

Aqib Talib played in only six games and had only one interception, and Dennard played in ten games and grabbed three interceptions.  But their impact was to allow McCourty to return to safety and for Kyle Arrington to cover slot receivers, and that is the best secondary lineup they have.

The Special Teams 

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

Slater was named the AFC Pro Bowl special teams player, so there's no question he deserves the award for his team.  He did a great job flying down on coverage teams, and that helped Mesko put 28 punts inside the 20 yard line and also helped keep all but 6 punts from being touchbacks.

Mesko was key to keeping some of the Patriots lesser opponents backed up, which helped the defense.  And when the defense stepped up, it gave the offense short fields.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Matthew Slater
Honorable Mention: none

Slater had almost as many tackles this year (19) as in 2011 (24) -- the difference is that he did not play on defense this year, so all 19 tackles were on special teams.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: none
Honorable Mention: none

Sorry -- but no one new really distinguished themselves this season.

So there you have it; the coveted regular-season awards.  Now we're ready for the playoffs -- look for a preview of the Patriots/Texans tilt some time this week.  Until then...

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4 & 0-0!

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