Come the end of the season the whole ‘value’ part of MVP seems to screw everybody up. In most sports it tends not to be a problem, as the best players are also inherently the most valuable — but that isn’t necessarily the case in the NFL. This league is so quarterback driven that it takes a lot to view somebody other than a passer as the most valuable player.
So I say, to hell with it. Let’s create a fairer award. We’re looking to recognize not the most valuable player out there, but the best player in football in the 2012 season. So I present to you the inaugural PFF Dwight Stephenson Award, given to the NFL’s best player of the regular season.
The award is named after a player who may pre-date PFF, but doesn't pre-date the site's ethos. Dwight Stephenson played only eight NFL seasons for the Miami Dolphins, but was a five-time All-Pro and was selected to the All-Decade team for the 1980s. More importantly, you only have to watch a few minutes of tape to see that he was something a little bit special.
Naturally this award will come with the benefit of PFF’s unique analysis, grinding through every player on every snap of the NFL season — and have no positional prejudice whatsoever. A guard or center is every bit as likely to win this award as a quarterback, depending purely on their level of dominance and performance in the regular season.
So, let’s look at the candidates for 2012. There were some great seasons this year. Players like Richard Sherman, Evan Mathis, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and even Cameron Wake were fantastic, and in any normal season would stand a great chance of walking away with the award. Manning and Rodgers are likely two of the top three candidates for the NFL’s MVP award, but neither was quite good enough to make the final shortlist for the Dwight Stephenson Award.
Miller is the first player to fall into the ‘any other year’ category of bad luck. The season he put together in only his sophomore outing in the NFL would be garnering crazy attention in most other years. He has destroyed the rest of the field in our 4-3 outside linebacker rankings, and it isn’t solely down to his pass-rush. Even with that removed, his play against the run is graded more than three times higher than the next best player at his position. His average depth of a tackle in the run game is 0.25 yards down field, and his grade for the season ended up at a ridiculous looking +78.5 overall.
Miller is one of the most dominant edge rushers the league has seen in years, and when the Broncos get a lead, forcing teams to pass to catch up, he might be legitimately unstoppable. Only Cameron Wake notched more total pressures than the 86 Miller posted this year, but it took Wake 131 additional rush snaps to notch one single additional pressure. In terms of players used primarily, or at least largely, as pass rushers there wasn’t a single more efficient threat to produce pressure at any position than Miller. That’s the kind of standard that was set across the league this year, because Miller isn’t in the Top 3 candidates for the inaugural Dwight Stephenson Award.
The 2012 season saw Geno Atkins become the most dominant defensive tackle in football, re-write what was thought possible from that interior position, and generally wreak havoc on any team he faced — but surprisingly few people are talking about it because of the bigger headlines elsewhere. But seriously, just turn on the tape, any game, and watch Geno Atkins rag-doll the guy opposite him. I can’t think of another defensive lineman that plays with better natural leverage than Atkins does on every snap, and he has teamed that with unbelievable strength and speed in combination.
Atkins ended the year with 78 total pressures, trailing only Von Miller and Cameron Wake league-wide. That’s right, from defensive tackle Atkins had more pressure this year than all bar two players in the NFL. He ended up sacking the quarterback 16 times, netting him 12.5 sacks when the NFL is through imposing its half-sack deductions. It’s not like he was a one-trick pony either, because he finished second in both stops against the run and percentage of run stops per snap among DTs. This translated to a final season grade of +79.9,when the best previous mark we had given out was +44.2 to Kyle Williams for his 2010 season. So Atkins wasn’t far shy of doubling the best grade we have given to a player of his position in five years of grading. He became one of the most destructive defenders in the NFL this season, and misses out on the Dwight Stephenson Award by mere fractions. Maybe next year.
We are still only 13 months removed from the moment Adrian Peterson tore two knee ligaments and the meniscus in his left knee against Washington late in the 2011 season. It’s worth mentioning, because Robert Griffin III is facing similarly daunting injuries and people are questioning if he will be able to play next season, or even if he will ever be the same player again. Peterson rehabbed in an offseason, skipped preseason games and then rushed for 2,097 yards, falling just nine short of setting the single-season all-time rushing record.
He put together arguably the greatest season ever by a running back in the NFL, and did it months after the kind of knee injury that has ruined careers and felled players in the past. Every single Peterson statistic this season is ridiculous. He gained 1,369 yards after contact, which would be the seventh-best rushing total of 2012 on its own. He forced a league-leading 69 missed tackles and had a ridiculous 40 runs of 15 or more yards. When the Minnesota Vikings faced an end of season stretch that looked like an impossible ask, Peterson put the team on his back and rushed for 861 yards in his final five games to get them into the postseason. Peterson was at his best when the team lost Percy Harvin and needed another star to carry the offense. He grew stronger as the season went on, and the more carries the Vikings gave him the harder he was to bring down.
In any other season Peterson would be a mortal lock for this award, but in this instance it’s tough just to separate the Top 3 candidates. In the end, much like Atkins, Peterson misses out by fractions.
2012 Dwight Stephenson Award winner — J.J. Watt
So here it is, the winner of the inaugural PFF Dwight Stephenson Award — J.J. Watt.
In case you weren’t watching this season, Watt set about redefining what is possible at the 3-4 end position. People talk about how Lawrence Taylor burst into the league and changed the way people thought about 3-4 outside linebackers. You are witnessing the same thing happening now with Watt. He gave the all-time single-season sack record a close run, finishing with 20.5 sacks and actually getting to the quarterback 25 times this season. That ties him for sixth on the all-time list with L.T. himself. Watt recorded the same number of sacks in a season as one of the better performances from one of the greatest rush threats to ever play the game, and he did it from an interior line position. Make no mistake, that’s exactly where Watt played. Though the Texans moved him around, they kept him inside most of the time, with just 6.9% of his snaps coming on the edge in a four-man line.
However, Watt wasn’t just about the sacks. He batted down 15 passes on the season. The next best mark over the past five years of play is the 10 Johnny Jolly recorded in 2009. What about his play against the run? His tackles in the run game this season totaled 11 yards of gain for the offense. When Watt made a tackle in the run game the back averaged 0.16 yards, and it’s not like he was missing many tackles either, allowing just two to get away from him. He made a ridiculous 72 defensive stops, 18 better than the next best player at his position, who in turn was 13 clear of the chasing pack.
Watt became the first player to ever top 100 grading points in a single season at any position, ending the year with a farcical looking +101.7 grade on 958 snaps. This time last season we anointed Justin Smith the second-best player in football, and one of the most dominant defenders in the league, with a grade of +46.5 on the season. Watt more than doubled that, and this time last year we would have told you that there wasn’t much room for a player to be better than Smith. J.J. Watt is completely re-writing what we thought was possible from his position. We are witnessing something very special, and, if nothing else, we have witnessed the first winner of this award in action.
Value be damned. J.J. Watt was the best player in football this season. That earns him the Dwight Stephenson Award.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam