There was a point in the season when everyone thought the answer to the question was a foregone conclusion.
Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.
Then, a series of injuries and near constant double and triple teams started to slow Matthews. That isn’t to say his presence wasn’t felt. Matthews opens things up for his teammates, like defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who registered a career-high seven sacks playing opposite Matthews.
That doesn’t change the fact that the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award is still somewhat a stats-based award.
While Matthews had a great, at times dominant, season, his dip in statistical production in the season’s second half has let other people back into the race.
Unlike last season, when you could have made a strong argument for multiple players — Charles Woodson, Darrelle Revis, Darren Sharper, Elvis Dumervil, Jared Allen — this season’s group of contenders isn’t nearly as strong.
Several players who compiled impressive seasons statistically played for crappy teams, which should eliminate them from contention. After all, great players elevate teams to otherwise unattainable heights, not just pile up stats.
So, DeMarcus Ware, take your 15.5 sacks (three of which came against the Eagles’ backups in week 17) and your 6-10 record and dangle. Same goes for you Cameron Wake, with your 14 sacks and 7-9 mark.
Then there are guys who missed several games due to injury, who otherwise may have been strong competitors. I’m sorry, but if you can’t stay on the field, you’re the opposite of valuable and this is an MVP award.
The Baltimore Ravens Ed Reed is at the top of the list. Reed led the league with eight interceptions, which is impressive. What isn’t impressive is he played only 10 games and finished with a weak 37 tackles.
The Philadelphia Eagles Asante Samuel is in the same boat — an impressive seven interceptions, generally considered a shutdown corner, but only started 10 games and recorded an unimpressive 26 tackles.
Probably because they couldn’t stay on the field, neither of these guys were able to fill up the box score in other areas like Woodson did last season, either.
What we’re looking for are full-time playmakers, which leads me to conclude the leading candidates for the award, in no particular order, are as follows.
- Tamba Hali, outside linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
- John Abraham, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons
- Devin McCourty, cornerback, New England Patriots
- Troy Polamalu, safety, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Julius Peppers, defensive end, Chicago Bears
- Clay Matthews, outside linebacker, Green Bay Packers
So, as I like to do in these situations, let’s look at the stats. We’ll consider team record, defensive rankings and the completely subjective game-altering ability. In considering multiple defensive ranks, we’ll help establish a player’s impact all over the field and in considering game-altering ability, we’ll account for things like double teams, leadership and intangibles.
DR = defensive ranking, P = passing defense, R = rushing defense, S = scoring defense, GA = game-altering ability
Team records were as follows.
- New England (14-2)
- Atlanta (13-3)
- Pittsburgh (12-4)
- Chicago (11-5)
- Green Bay (10-6)
- Kansas City (10-6)
First, let me speak to the game-altering ability rankings. With all due respect to Matthews and Peppers, Polamalu gets the nod. Simply put, look at where the Steelers are this year compared to last year, when Polamalu was injured for 11 games. They went from 9-7 and missing the playoffs to 12-4 and winning the AFC North.
Peppers, frankly, wouldn’t even be on this list if it weren’t for this category because his stats aren’t off the charts. However, Peppers consistently commanded double teams and had to be game planned for by opposing offenses. The Bears defense jumped from 17th in the NFL in 2009, when Peppers was a Carolina Panther, to fifth in 2010. That’s impact.
Matthews is third for the reasons we mentioned above — constant double and sometimes triple teaming and the impact he made on the players around him. The reason he doesn’t rank higher is because he plays for the best defensive coordinator in the game, Dom Capers. Capers could start a 50-year-old Chuck Cecil at safety and still finish with a top-five defense.
The remaining three players I don’t consider legitimate contenders for the award, so we’ll only discuss them briefly.
Hali, at fourth, had his best season in his fifth year in the league. He’s had up-and-down sack totals, and while he’s always been decent, I’m not convinced other teams are game planning for him.
Abraham, at fifth, is no longer an every-down player at age 32.
McCourty, at sixth, may one day be one of the better playmaking corners in the game. However, his high number of tackles tells me, despite his seven interceptions, opposing offenses are still throwing on him… a lot. That means they don’t consider him a shutdown corner.
So, like we did last season, let’s rank and total each category.
Our rankings are tabulated by assigning a weighted value to each of the categories above.
There are two stipulations to the scoring. 1. If someone has recorded a zero in a category, such as Hali in interceptions, they don’t get any points for that category. 2. If two players have recorded the same number in a category, such as Matthews and Abraham in forced fumbles, we combine the points for both places and split them evenly between the two players.
Totals: Polamalu (51.5), Matthews (40.5), Peppers (38), McCourty (30), Hali (28.5), Abraham (28.5)
If you want to look at this and throw out the defensive rankings and records, the contest gets a little closer, but still has the same outcome.
Totals: Polamalu (24.5), Matthews (22), Peppers (19), McCourty (17), Hali (17), Abraham (12.5)
Certainly, anyone could make the argument Matthews and the Packers faced more adversity with season-ending injuries to linebackers Nick Barnett, Brad Jones and Brandon Chillar, safety Morgan Burnett, and defensive end Mike Neal, as well as multiple games missed by Jenkins and linebacker Frank Zombo, and Matthews should be rewarded for keeping the Packers defense at the top of the league despite that.
It’s an impressive feat, but I don’t see it happening.
We’re calling the defensive player of the year race for Troy Polamalu.