The script was almost finished – until the Kansas City Chiefs screwed it up.
Green Bay had shown every sign of steamrolling to a 16-0 record. In the process, Aaron Rodgers (Most Valuable Player) and Mike McCarthy (Coach of the Year) would earn two of the NFL’s most prestigious individual honors without much debate. In fact, the vote for both might have even been unanimous.
It’s now time for a rewrite after Kansas City’s stunning 19-14 upset last Sunday knocked the Packers from the unbeaten ranks.
One loss isn’t the end of Green Bay’s season. Every previous Super Bowl winner except one – the 1972 Miami Dolphins – has stumbled at least once along the way. Rodgers and McCarthy are also still considered favorites for the aforementioned awards just like the Packers retain frontrunner status to win a second straight Lombardi Trophy.
But what would have been slam-dunk selections for the Associated Press’ 50-member voting panel (myself included) should no longer be considered as cut-and-dried. Green Bay’s loss and the trickle-down effect it may have on how the Packers handle the rest of their regular season will allow other worthy candidates to receive a longer look.
Let’s start with the impact Green Bay’s loss makes on Rodgers. Arguably no passer in NFL history was ever better through the first 13 games of a season. I was so strongly leaning toward Rodgers as MVP before the Chiefs debacle that I’m quoted in last Saturday’s Green Bay Press-Gazette as saying, “Rodgers is setting a new standard for quarterbacking. How could anyone else get a vote?”
I’m still favoring Rodgers but what transpires over the next two weeks with the Packers and two other amazing quarterbacks — Drew Brees and Tom Brady — could make me and other voters change our minds.
Some of this potential reassessment stems from the new dynamic Green Bay is facing without the possibility of perfection. The Packers will secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a Sunday night victory against visiting Chicago, a squad that has dropped four straight games since the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler (thumb injury).
Should they win as expected, the Packers may be less inclined to play select starters for an entire game – if at all – in the Week 17 home finale against Detroit now that a 16-0 record is unattainable. With Rodgers getting sacked seven times in the past two games and injuries decimating the offensive line, McCarthy must decide whether he wants to potentially expose his star quarterback to more physical abuse in what would be a meaningless matchup with the Lions.
The less Rodgers plays, the wider the door opens for Brees and Brady to make a late MVP push.
Not that they need much wiggle room. Brees is 305 yards away from breaking one of the most celebrated records in NFL history — Dan Marino’s single-season passing mark of 5,084 yards set in 1984. And with a 71.53 completion percentage, Brees is also set to best the single-season mark of 70.62 that he posted in 2009.
What works against Brees: Rodgers has more touchdown passes (40 to 37) and fewer interceptions (six to 11). Rodgers also doesn’t have two ugly blemishes on his 2011 resume. Brees was mediocre in a 31-21 loss at St. Louis — yes, the 2-12 Rams — and he threw three interceptions in a Week 6 defeat at Tampa Bay.
Rodgers struggled against the Chiefs with his first sub-.500 completion percentage since Week 8 of last season but Kansas City fields a far better defense than the Rams or Bucs. Rodgers also didn’t finish with a quarterback rating lower than 106.2 for the first 12 weeks of the season.
Like Brees, Brady is on pace to break Marino’s yardage record. Brady also is tracking to finish with his highest touchdown and completion percentage totals since New England’s march to a 16-0 record in 2007. Brady, though, had a four-interception stinker in Week 3 against Buffalo and wasn’t in his usual fine form in midseason losses to Pittsburgh and the New York Giants.
Since then, the Patriots have averaged 35.8 points a game with Brady throwing 17 touchdowns and just one interception. Such a strong late effort should elevate Brady into serious contention for a third career MVP honor.
As for Coach of the Year, McCarthy was a shoo-in had Green Bay finished 16-0. But a 15-1 record doesn’t guarantee this award as last proven by Bill Cowher with the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers. Voters have tended to award Coach of the Year honors to those whose clubs have exceeded preseason expectations, like Marty Schottenheimer did with the 2004 San Diego Chargers.
The coach whose team finished with the most regular-season victories has won this award only twice in the past eight years. That was New England’s Bill Belichick in 2007 and 2010.
The candidate who most fits the overachiever bill this season is San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh. In his first year at the helm, Harbaugh has helped guide the 49ers (11-3) to their first playoff appearance since 2002 and biggest win total in a decade.
Curiously, the MVP and Coach of the Year awards haven’t proven an accurate barometer for forecasting postseason success. The last MVP to win a Super Bowl that same season was St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner in 1999. The same goes for Belichick (2003) as the only Coach of the Year recipient to win a Super Bowl since 2000.
This is another reason why Rodgers and McCarthy will be the first to tell you that individual awards aren’t a significant concern of theirs. Nor should they be.
The prize that matters most — as always — is winning the Super Bowl.