Now that the regular season is over, it’s time to hand out some awards. Now I’m going for the less the obvious choices in some instances; the Colts obviously fell the furthest from a pure won-loss record standpoint, but we all know that’s due to Peyton not playing. And yes, Cam Newton had a bigger year at QB than my breakout player had at WR, but Cam is a number one overall pick; big things are to be expected of him. So enjoy folks, here’ what I’m seeing right now:
Breakout of the year (Player): Victor Cruz
An undrafted free agent 2010 who did not record one catch last season, Cruz took the league by storm this year to the tune of 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. If anyone had this pegged before the season started, they need to hit Vegas and bet the house on whoever they think is going to win the Super Bowl. Cruz is the latest in what seems like a wide receiver assembly line in New York, following in the footsteps of Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. If the Giants make any noise in the playoffs, you better believe it will be at least somewhat because of this guy.
Breakout of the Year (Team): Detroit Lions
The Lions were a popular pick to do some things this year and they did not disappoint, finishing 10-6 and making the playoffs as a wildcard. The biggest change for the team this year was in the health of quarterback Matthew Stafford. A former number one overall pick, Stafford finally played a full season and put up 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, drafted the same year as Stafford, also had a big year with 83 catches for 777 yards and five touchdowns. And of course there was Megatron, Calvin Johnson with 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. They have a ways to go defensively but they can score with all of the big boys and shouldn’t go quietly in January.
Breakdown of the Year (Player): Chad Ochocinco
No healthy big name player fell off in their production this year like Chad. Traded to the Patriots in the offseason, Ocho was expected to put in one last big year catching balls from Tom Brady in the high powered Patriots offense. To say that it didn’t happen would be a massive understatement. In 15 games, Chad rang up a grand total of 15 catches for 276 yards and one touchdown. In contrast Green Bay Packer Jordy Nelson had individual games with better numbers than that. There were games where Chad wasn’t even targeted by Brady, and five games where he caught no balls whatsoever. Now there weren’t any known injuries that Chad was playing with, so it looks like he was just lousy for no reason. At 33 years old, he should have a few more productive years left, but this may a sign of worse things to come.
Breakdown of the Year (Team): New York Jets
After two straight trips to the AFC Championship Game, Jet fans were hoping this would be the year they got through to the next level. Alas, that did not happen. Quarterback Mark Sanchez continued to struggle to reach elite status, completing less than 60 percent of his passes for the third straight year (even though he did hit on a career high 56 percent this time) and threw more interceptions than he did last season, going up to 18 from 13 in 2010. But that wasn’t all. The defense regressed, falling from sixth to 20th in points allowed, and the wide receiving tandem of Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress fell way short of expectations. The Jets record fell from 11-5 in 2010 to 8-8 this year, and now lots of questions await in the offseason.
Trend of the Year: the Passing Game
This season saw an unprecedented explosion in the air attack; before 2011 there were only two 5,000 yards passers in league history but 2011 saw that total more than double as three quarterbacks threw for over 5,000 yards. On top of that, 10 quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards, making it two out of the past three years for that benchmark. There are a lot of things at play here: the tighter rules on contact with receivers downfield, tighter rules on hitting the quarterback, and the rise of spread formation offenses. The way things are played now pretty much any functional quarterback who plays a whole season can go for 3,000 yards. Even journeymen like Rex Grossman and Tavaris Jackson were able to do this, and Carson Palmer literally came off the street and threw for 2,700 yards in 10 games. Shootouts where both teams top 30 points are not uncommon, and we cold very well see a Super Bowl that plays like an Arena League game. Will it hold up? Probably not for too long. Defenses find a way to adjust. But enjoy the ride while it lasts, folks.
Travesty of the Year: The defenseless receiver
Now I have no idea if this is a new rule, or an old one that was never enforced until 2011, but either way it just sucks. This season saw a plethora of situations where a wide receiver caught a pass, fell down untouched, and then was able to draw a flag by being hit when they were on the ground. I’m not talking about late hits when the whistle has already been blown, but live ball situations where the receiver has not been sent to the ground by anyone. There were also a lot of plays that sure looked like your garden variety over the middle blast to knock the ball loose, but resulted in fifteen yard penalties. Now I’m all for player safety, and I don’t feel let down if I watch a whole game without seeing a highlight reel blow delivered to anyone. But come on. At the rate we’re going they’ll be wearing flags in 10 years. It’s already bad enough that you can barely tocuh the quarterback and get called for roughing the passer. Now we have this. What’s next, no jamming at the line? No hitting at all?