Halfway front-runners for NFL awards

BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer

When every team had reached the halfway mark of its 2014 season, one name stood out in the race for The Associated Press NFL awards: Arizona coach Bruce Arians.

The other seven honors, including the new assistant coach award, should provide a mad scramble heading toward January.

Measuring performance through the first eight games can be a valuable tool in predicting which teams and individuals will be busy in January.

Still, things often change as the weather gets colder, the schedule gets shorter and the pressure ramps up.

Some would argue, though, that Arians deserves top coaching honors regardless of how his Cardinals fare the rest of the way. They have the NFL’s best mark through eight games despite a bunch of injuries and living in the rugged NFC West.

“How are the Cardinals 7-1 after missing their starting QB for three games and, at one point in the season, being down six of last year’s starters in the front seven?” asks Jenny Vrentas of The Monday Morning Quarterback and one of 50 panel members who vote for the awards in January. “The first reason is good coaching. Arians hasn’t let his team make any excuses and has taken control of the formidable NFC West at midseason.”

Of the half-dozen AP voters asked in an informal survey, all six selected Arians as Coach of the Year so far.

As for the AP’s newest award, for assistant coaches, Arians’ defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, received lots of support.

“Bowles is winning, somehow, without Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, John Abraham and Darnell Dockett, not to mention lesser injuries this season for Calais Campbell and others,” says Don Banks of SI.com.

USA Today’s Jim Corbett favored Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, whose unit has played far better than many thought it was capable of doing.

Another intriguing race is shaping for Comeback Player of the Year. Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, Cowboys linebacker Roland McClain, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, Texans running back Arian Foster and Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer got mentions.

Most of them are coming off injury-shortened seasons, while McClain flopped in Oakland and walked away from the game twice in Baltimore.

“His plan to take a one-year deal with the Eagles instead of trying to hit it big on the market will pay off this coming offseason,” Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports says of Maclin.

Just as with Coach of the Year consideration, the top defensive player award appears to have been a runaway through the halfway point of the schedule. While Houston and Denver LB Von Miller have stood out, too, Texans DE J.J. Watt has soared highest.

“It’s incredible to think a player as consistently dominant as him can be a part of a team that’s lost 17 of its last 23 games,” Garafolo notes.

“The NFL’s most disruptive defender does it all,” adds Banks. “He has the sacks, the touchdowns (three, one each via interception, fumble return and reception), the fumble recoveries, the passes defensed and the tackles for loss to make this race no contest in 2014.”

There figures to be a 16-game contest for Offensive Player of the Year, which quite often is earned because of statistical performance. That could give Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray the nod over the likes of quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Tom Brady, and receivers Antonio Brown and Bears RB Matt Forte.

“The Cowboys running back’s streak of eight consecutive 100-yard games ended on Sunday,” Vrentas says, “but with 1,133 rushing yards so far this season, Murray alone has amassed more yards on the ground than 28 NFL teams.”

More than 28 teams — try 32 — have had rookies making an impact already. That’s the pattern of the NFL nowadays thanks to the salary cap and the way the passing game has become dominant.

So the top two rookie awards are, well, very much up in the air.

Not surprisingly, Bob Glauber of Newsday favors a receiver and a cornerback. Glauber pinpoints for Offensive Rookie of the Year Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who “already has 40 catches for 589 yards and five TDs.” His choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year is Chicago CB Kyle Fuller, “already a starter with three interceptions.”

Others to consider halfway through the schedule on offense include Bills WR Sammy Watkins, Saints WR Brandin Cooks, Eagles WR Jordan Matthews, Cowboys guard Zach Martin, Packers center Corey Linsley and Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon.

Other defensive contenders range from Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley to Rams DT Aaron Donald to Browns CB Justin Gilbert to safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Green Bay, Deone Bucannon of Arizona and Jimmie Ward of San Francisco.

Maybe even one of the outstanding rookie kickers — Arizona’s Chandler Catanzaro and Philadelphia’s Cody Parkey — or punter Tress Way or Washington will get recognized.

As for the most recognizable award, MVP, quarterbacks usually dominate the conversation. But Murray and Watt certainly have become major parts of the discussion.

Corbett, Vrentas and Banks favor Brady.

“Brady has stats that are comparable to Peyton Manning, and just convincingly outplayed him head to head in Foxboro,” Banks says.

Glauber likes the five-time MVP Manning, as does Garafolo.

“I almost went Andrew Luck here, but that’s probably a reaction to the down game Manning had in New England followed by Luck and the Colts thrashing the Giants the next day,” Garafalo says. “Manning has been outstanding once again and his arm strength seems to have gotten even better. Luck’s numbers are gaudy and he’s been very good, but he’s not wrong when he points out there are areas he can clean up.”

Most intriguing would be if Watt gets strong support for MVP, an award that has gone to just two defensive players: Alan Page (1971) and Lawrence Taylor (1986).

“Eight-year, $108 million contract extension hasn’t led to any complacency,” Glauber says of Watt. “Just the opposite, the guy goes a million miles an hour on every play.”

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