Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
05 Jan 2006
by Michael David Smith
Most of the members of my All-Pro team didn't make the Pro Bowl. I'll leave for you to judge whether that represents an oversight on my part or on the part of the Pro Bowl voters, but I will say that from my observations, the Pro Bowl voters tend to select older players, better known players, and players on winning teams. I certainly have plenty of experienced, famous and playoff-bound players on my squad, but I'd rather recognize a young, up-and-coming player than one whose reputation precedes him.
As great a passer as Manning is, what really separates him from other quarterbacks is his ability to avoid the pass rush. The San Diego game was the first time the pass rush made much of a difference because Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly. He didn't have the gaudy numbers he had a year ago, but Manning is still football's best quarterback.
Tiki Barber of the Giants is great, and he's a more complete back than Johnson, but Johnson is the league's best pure runner by such a wide margin that there's really no other choice. Prorate his starts to a 16-game season and he breaks Eric Dickerson's record for yards in a season. And he did it running behind an offensive line that was without its best player, Willie Roaf, for half the season. Dick Vermeil didn't recognize early in the season how far superior Johnson was to Priest Holmes, but when Holmes' injury left him no choice but to make Johnson the focal point of the offense, Johnson quickly became the best back in the league. If you saw the Chiefs' touchdown drive in the first quarter against the Chargers, you saw a back with amazing speed and power. (You also saw some great blocking by tight end Jason Dunn on San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman. Has any team ever had a better blocking-receiving combo at tight end than Dunn and Tony Gonzalez?)
Smith is an easy pick. A lot of big-play receivers are freelancers who don't run good routes, but Smith does it all. No team relied on one receiver more than Carolina, which meant no receiver faced tighter coverage than Smith. Moss got off to a great start, then slowed down a little bit in the middle of the year when teams started using more press coverage and safety help to keep him from getting deep. But his addition did a great deal to open up the Joe Gibbs offense. In Gibbs' first stint in Washington he used Gary Clark as a speedy receiver who was always a threat to pick up additional yards after the catch, and Moss is filling that role now. He was this year's best off-season acquisition.
Some tight ends have speed but aren't strong enough to take on a strongside linebacker at the line of scrimmage. Others are tough enough to go over the middle for a few yards but don't stretch the field. Gates does it all. This guy is 25 years old, didn't even play college football, and is by far the best tight end in the league. Is there any doubt that he'll be in Canton in 20 years?
A couple of decades ago, fullbacks carried the ball regularly. In this era of fullbacks used almost exclusively as lead blockers, though, there hasn't been one better than Neal. The amazing thing about Neal as a blocker is that when the Saints drafted him in 1993 out of Fresno State, they thought he'd be a running back, not a fullback. And he was, gaining 175 yards in his first two games as a rookie only to be lost for the season with an injury in the second game. In his second season the Saints told Neal he'd have to learn to be a blocker, and the rest is history.
I seriously considered Kareem McKenzie of the Giants or Alex Barron of the Rams. Barron will be a great one, but he had too many mental mistakes this season. McKenzie's arrival had such a huge impact on the offense that he was impossible to ignore -- McKenzie has great feet, which he shows against speed rushers, and great power, which he shows when he blocks down on defensive tackles. But when McKenzie suffered a late-season hamstring injury, Anderson moved ahead of him. He's probably the best run-blocking tackle of the last decade, but as this is the first time Cincinnati has made the playoffs in 15 years, not many people have noticed.
Hutchinson is one of those linemen that every high school coach ought to show his players. Perfect technique, doesn't take plays off, gets out of his stance in a hurry, etc. Goff and Kris Dielman quietly developed into the best pair of guards in the league this year. The best thing about Goff is the way he clears space in short-yardage situations. If the Chargers need a yard, they know they can get it running right behind Goff.
A tough choice between Nalen and LeCharles Bentley of New Orleans. Nalen got the nod because Bentley is supposed to be the more powerful of the two, but he struggled against the Lions' big Shaun Rogers in Week 16. Nalen has been the one constant on the Denver offensive line going back to the Terrell Davis years, when the Denver line has made a long succession of running backs into stars.
I initially planned to install Walter Jones in this spot. And if Roaf had been healthy all year I probably would have picked Roaf. But as I watched Shaffer late in the season, I was consistently amazed by how well he moved. Left tackles just aren't supposed to be so quick out of their stances that they can handle speed rushers or reach the second level to hit linebackers the instant the ball is snapped. He did have the occasional lapse, and Simeon Rice outplayed him both times they met. But those two games don't nullify the whole season, and Shaffer had several outstanding games. Some have accused the Falcons' linemen and their coach, Alex Gibbs, of dirty play, but I didn't see any of that from Shaffer. I just saw consistently excellent technique.
No one combines rushing the passer and stopping the run as well as Allen. Against Washington, in the first meeting of Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs since 1982, Allen (who was born that year) had three sacks and recovered two fumbles. Against Denver, Allen snuffed out the Broncos' screens, stopping Tatum Bell for a gain of a yard and Kyle Johnson for a loss of three on screen passes. Against the Jets, Curtis Martin ran towards Allen twice and had a gain of two and a loss of three to show for it.
Vanden Bosch doesn't stop the run as well as Allen does, but he's a terror in the pass rush. After entering the season with four sacks in his four-year, injury-plagued career, he turned into the best pure pass rusher in football.
Neither Scott nor Williams made the Pro Bowl. I like the quickness of Atlanta's Rod Coleman, and I like his discipline against screen passes, but in general I think tackles who rush the quarterback get too much credit, while tackles who stop the run get too little. So that left Scott and Williams as the two best choices. Williams' presence made a big difference on Minnesota's run defense, which improved from terrible to mediocre, and his absence made a big difference on Buffalo's run defense, which declined from great to terrible.
Scott was the unsung member of the Chicago line. His best game came at Detroit, when he didn't have a single tackle but routinely got such a quick first step that the Lions were forced to use both center Dominic Raiola and guard Kyle Kosier on him. That left Brian Urlacher unblocked for a game-high nine tackles. Those are the little things that rarely get noticed but turn a defense into the best in the league.
I often think middle linebackers get too much credit when they have a good pair of tackles in front of them. Peterson is the opposite â€“ most of what we hear about the Jacksonville defense centers around tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, but I'll take Peterson for his ability to stop the run, take on fullbacks and drop into pass coverage.
Picking Bulluck gives me two Titans on defense, which is odd, considering that Tennessee has one of the worst defenses in the league. But both players are deserving. The All-Pro team is a collection of individuals, and just because their teammates haven't played well doesn't mean Bulluck and Vanden Bosch should be ignored. Bulluck does everything. He plays the run and the pass and is incredibly quick, often making tackles even when plays go away from him. He led the league in a stat we call Defeats, which combines turnovers, plays stopped for a loss, and conversions prevented on third or fourth down.
Want a linebacker who can rush the passer? Porter is your man. Want a linebacker who can drop into coverage? Porter is your man. Want a linebacker who can contain the running back when he tries to break one outside? Porter is your man.
For the first 10 weeks or so, Harris had a heroic season. When all around him failed, he consistently shut down the top receivers on opposing teams. Toward the end of the year he started to look like all the losing was weighing on him, and he wasn't quite his dominant self. But he was still plenty good, and I don't want to ignore the best first half of the season that any defensive player had this year. Barber, like his identical twin brother, has shown no sign of slowing down after his 30th birthday. As good as he is in pass coverage, the most impressive thing about him is his run support. Most cornerbacks are back on their heels on running plays, but Barber explodes toward the opposing running back like a linebacker.
I considered Darren Sharper of Minnesota, but a lot of his interceptions just seemed to be bad passes that happened to float in his direction. Then when I watched the Christmas night Vikings-Ravens game, Sharper missed some tackles and generally didn't look impressive, and when he intercepted a pass it happened because he left receiver Mark Clayton open and got lucky when Kyle Boller overthrew him. That left me with Harris. I thought it might be a little early to put Harris on an All-Pro team, but he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and in a year when no free safeties stood out, I liked rewarding the one new starter on the vastly improved Bears defense.
Kenoy Kennedy of Detroit looked like a lock for this spot at the season's halfway mark, but he, like just about everyone on the Lions, gave a dreadful performance on Thanksgiving and then just phoned it in the rest of the year. That left an opening for Wilson, one of the best young defensive players in the league. He can tackle, he can cover, and he can even blitz â€“ after Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, Wilson is third on the team in sacks. Wilson was a fifth-round pick in 2004 and Harris was a sixth-round pick in 2005. The second day of the draft has some gems.
Seattle drafted Jones in 2004 and released him after the season. For Miami he instantly became the best punter in football. His hang time always gives his coverage units plenty of time to get downfield and make the tackle.
Great distance on kickoffs, great accuracy on field goals, easy selection.
(Ed. note: When I read this, I had to go check the numbers. You'll notice that our special teams numbers have Arizona far ahead of everyone else in field goals. But they're also far behind everyone else in net kickoffs. How can Mike say that Rackers is the best kicker in the league? Because Arizona's kickoff coverage is astonishingly bad. Based on kick distance only, Rackers ranks third. He led the league in touchbacks. But Arizona allowed three kick return touchdowns and allowed 28.3 yards per kick return, highest in the league. Yikes.)
Some players just have a great natural feel for kickoff returns, and McGee is one of them. His straight-line speed isn't as good as some of the league's other top returners, like Jerome Mathis of Houston. But for finding holes in the coverage and accelerating through the holes, there's no one better.
One of the few bright spots for Baltimore was the way the tiny Sams (who's listed at 185 pounds but looks smaller) bounced around the field returning punts. Few players can get to full speed as quickly as Sams does.
It's no accident that the Giants' special teams were outstanding all year with Tyree on the field, but fell apart against Minnesota when Tyree was out with an injury. This is a position the Pro Bowl voters get wrong often, but they were right this year.
When Rex Grossman went down in preseason, the talk around Chicago was that the season had already ended. Instead Smith guided his great defense to the top of the NFC North. He has done a marvelous job coaching Chicago.
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