The team announced that wide receiver Roddy White will be added to the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster as an injury replacement for Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Tight end Tony Gonzalez was the lone Falcon to actually be voted to the team. White ranked first among NFC receivers with 100 catches, fifth in yards (1,296), and tied for six with touchdowns (8). It marks White’s fourth consecutive Pro Bowl.
At midseason, the pick was Matt Ryan due to some inconsistent play during September coupled with high expectations going into the season. But now, a new winner has clearly emerged.
That player is none other than Ray Edwards, who I discussed briefly when talking about the team’s top newcomers before. But Edwards was a major disappointment, considering the Falcons brought him in to improve their pass rush. And while the Falcons pass rush did improve overall, it was hard to tell just by looking at Edwards.
When you examine the fact that Edwards played twice as many snaps as Jamaal Anderson did last year in terms of plays where he was asked to rush the passer, yet generated the same number of hits and pressures is very telling. Sure, Edwards wound up with 3.5 more sacks, but if you really go back and look at all of those sacks, they become a lot less impressive.
In all of the cases of his sacks, they came on plays were a teammate of his was able to get pressure as well and essentially flush the QB into Edwards waiting arms. Against Green Bay, his first sack of the year was the result of Aaron Rodgers spinning out of the grasp of Vance Walker into Edwards waiting arms. He had a sack in each of the Panthers games, and in one it came as a result from he, Babineaux, and Abraham all meeting Cam Newton practically at the same time. Edwards only wound up with the sack because it was to his side of the pocket where Newton slid to avoid the hits from Babineaux and Abraham off his backside. In the other Panther game, Edwards got backside pressure off the edge, but Babineaux got interior pressure, and with Babs in his face, Newton fled deeper in the pocket into the arms of Edwards. And then his half-sack against the Jaguars was shared with Abraham, because Abraham knocked Gabbert into Edward’s arms.
Now if you want to make the case that because the team’s overall pass rush improved, that Edwards presence and value was to help free up his teammates, then I will certainly buy that argument. And I will also buy that there were perhaps instances where teammates were assisted by Edwards in getting their own sacks just like he was by them.
But the fact still remains that the difference between Edwards and Anderson was fairly marginal, and that’s not at all what the Falcons were expecting nor paid for. Here’s hoping that Edwards is next year’s pick for Most Improved Player.
And just for the sake of argument, I would have also considered Sam Baker and Dunta Robinson. But in Baker’s case, he wasn’t particularly good in 2010, and many folks wanted him to be benched then. So the fact that he was benched this year in the eyes of many was just long overdue. And Robinson had enough good moments down the stretch to really keep him totally out of the doghouse.
This might be the hardest pick to make. At the mid-point, I chose Corey Peters as my pick. At that point in the year, he was playing his best football and looking like an impact pass rusher and playmaker. But unfortunately for Peters, the second half of the season was relatively quiet and it allowed for other people to be considered.
One obvious choice would be Sean Weatherspoon, who was picked as the defensive MVP. Weatherspoon had his moments as a rookie, but injuries and inexperience curtailed his success last year. The fact that he moved from role player last year to MVP this year, probably be default should make him this pick. But since I want to honor as many people as people, we’ll just leave him out of the running.
That could leave Harry Douglas, who went from afterthought last year to a guy that made some plays this year, particularly in the games in the middle of the year where Jones was out with injury. But unfortunately, Douglas sort of returned to being an afterthought once Jones came back from injury and was hitting his stride late in the year. So he too gets passed over.
Will Svitek would be another good pick, having stepped in and filled in for Sam Baker competently and being one of the major reasons why the Falcons were able to stabilize their ground attack and blocking up front. But as the season wore on, Svitek started to fall back to Earth a bit, so he too is out of the running.
Another good candidate would be Lawrence Sidbury, who hardly played a snap last year to finishing tied for second on the team with four sacks. Another good pick would be Dominique Franks, who also was a player that had a very limited role last year, playing on special teams. But late in the year with injuries mounting in the secondary, he was able to step in and solidify the nickel spot and seemingly improved with every single performance. But unfortunately for Sidbury and Franks both, it’s hard to pick them since while they were key contributors, their contributions were smaller due to the fact that they were role players and/or only played a smaller portion of the year.
So that brings us back to where we started with Peters as the best choice for the player that improved the most. Peters was a liability last year vs. the run, but was solid in that area this year. And his ability to make big plays and provide some pressure on the QB up the middle, coupled with the fact that he was a starter throughout the entire year makes him the best choice.
This is meant to distinguish which non-rookie addition to the team (i.e. free agent) stood out the most. At the midpoint, Kelvin Hayden was the pick. By year’s end, I can’t really take it away from him.
Hayden missed the last five games with injury, which is sort of damning that none of the other players were able to step up and take this honor from him in that span. And those other options would be Ray Edwards, James Sanders, and Reggie Kelly.
More on Edwards will come later, but he certainly did not produce anywhere to the level many expected from him. He was rarely a factor as a pass rusher, and while he made solid contributions as a run defender, the Falcons already had that player in Jamaal Anderson before.
Sanders got numerous opportunities to perform, having started for Thomas DeCoud early in the year, and William Moore later when he was out with injury. And while Sanders was okay, he never really stood out either against the pass or a run defender.
And don’t get me started on Reggie Kelly. He brought nothing to the table. He was tasked to be a blocker, but did very little there, and his lone reception was practically on account of charity by Matt Ryan.
So again, you’re stuck with Kelvin Hayden. Hayden was a solid pickup in the nickel. He wasn’t great all the time, but he at least inspired confidence that unlike Chris Owens, he was not going to get abused in that role. And while he gave his share of receptions, rarely were they big, game-changing ones like constantly seemed to be the case when Owens was in that role.
We might just as well re-name this to the Julio Jones Trophy. I don’t really have to explain the Jones pick, but I’ll just use this space to recap what the other rookies did this year.
Jacquizz Rodgers managed to make plays whenever he got opportunities as a runner and receiver, but most observers including myself can’t seem to understand why he did not get more opportunities. He runs as hard as any back on the roster, able to get yards after contact, and with his speed and quickness to make guys miss and hit the hole quickly, you just wonder what the coaches were seeing that the rest of us didn’t that merited him only getting limited carries. His primary role was in pass protection, another area where he was solid. I believe Rodgers could have made the race with Jones for this award much more interesting if it did not seem that the coaching staff was conspiring against him.
Akeem Dent played predominantly on special teams, and seemed to start to find his stride in the latter half of the year in coverage units. To the point that he might have been our best cover guy this year, which is saying quite a bit when you consider Weems had earned a Pro Bowl bid due to his abilities there just as much as his return skills.
Bosher has already been discussed. And Andrew Jackson and Cliff Matthews respectively spent the entire season on the practice squad or inactive, so there is really nothing to say about them. The only other rookie to make the squad was Darrin Walls, who played fairly well relative to his youth when pressed into duty late in the season, showing doubters like myself that he legitimately was deserving of a roster spot and not a player that just stood out from a weak group of corners this summer.
And I’ll briefly touch on Jones season. He was a bit inconsistent early in the year, and the injuries that plagued him during the middle of the year weren’t helping. But he really picked things up down the stretch and really was much more consistently able to showcase his game-breaking potential. He’s hoping he becomes even more consistent with showing that skillset in the future for the Falcons.
Very little attention is paid to special teams generally speaking. The only time this unit gets much pub is when your fat Polish kicker booms a 60-yard field goal, or some team is foolish enough to kick/punt the ball to your game-breaking returner. The Falcons did not have any of those moments this year.
At the midpoint, Matt Bryant was the pick. Bryant had been solid up to that point, but really he stood out because the other best options: Matt Bosher and Eric Weems had really have undistinguished years.
But that changed in the second half, particularly with Bosher. In the first half of the season, you had to go out of your way to make a case that Bosher was not the worst punter in the league. But in the latter half of the season, he was consistently kicking at a high level. Almost all of his kickoffs went into the endzone, and he was consistently making big 50 yard punts every game and pinning teams deep in their own territory. Early in the year, he was struggling just to kick the ball 40 yards.
Weems had high expectations going into this year because of his Pro Bowl status last year. And while he was solid this year, without the big plays, he just didn’t really have a good enough year to deserve much credit here. Bryant’s second half of the season wasn’t particularly stand-out. He was still his usual solid self, but there weren’t the clutch last minute kicks that we had been so accustomed to seeing earlier this year and in 2010.
So in the end the award goes to Bosher, who went from zero to hero.
Sean Weatherspoon was the choice at the midpoint because he was the one player that consistently was playing at a high level. And I think he is one of three candidates deserving of consideration by year’s end. The other two are John Abraham and Brent Grimes.
It’ll be hard to pick Grimes simply because he missed a couple of games at the end of the year, and the Falcons didn’t exactly fall apart. But Grimes played really well, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The simpletons out there will see that he only had one interception this year instead of the five he had in 2010 or six in 2011, and think he wasn’t as good. But he was arguably better. Teams learned their lessons and threw at him less, so the opportunities for the big plays weren’t always there. But he still was a disruptive guy that played at a high level every time he stepped on the field. The fact that he was able to effectively contain Calvin Johnson is proof positive enough that Grimes played at a high level.
And many people will look at Abraham’s final numbers and see a dropoff in his sack totals and think similarly that Abraham was not as good. But don’t let the relatively minor drop-off in sack production fool you, Abraham was a better football player in 2011 than he was in 2011. That is evidenced by an increased number of hits and pressures, as seen with Moneyball. Abraham was the only Falcons lineman up front that could be relied upon to get pressure on a relatively consistent basis. I would not say he was a one-man army, but certainly he would have qualified as a militia.
So that basically leaves me to stick by the midseason pick of Weatherspoon. Along with Grimes, he was the Falcon defender most deserving of being in the Pro Bowl, but he obviously got snubbed. Weatherspoon just was all over the field this year. He made plays as a pass rusher, in coverage, and versus the run at critical points in games throughout the season. And ultimately that’s exactly what you’re looking for in a MVP, someone that steps up in the big moments and makes the big plays.
For the first half of the season, I picked Tony Gonzalez as the offense’s most valuable player. Primarily because Gonzalez through the first 8 or so games was the only player that consistently played at a high level nearly every week. Gonzalez’s performance sort of tailed off as the season wore on. That’s not meant to be a knock on him as he still continued to play well, just that he did not stand out above and beyond other players. And that is probably more due to those players stepping up their play than probably any fall off from Gonzalez.
That leaves me with a bit of a quandary on who to pick as the team’s most valuable player on offense for the entire season, and my choice is Matt Ryan.
Ryan was who I considered the most disappointing player in the first half of the season, mainly because expectations had been so high for him and he was underwhelming in many of the early games. But as the season wore on, Ryan’s play picked up to the point that I would say he was probably the most consistent guy playing at a high level in the second half of the season. Ryan did not have a huge year this year, but he was generally very solid to good.
Early on the year, I think part of Ryan’s struggles hinged on all of the new weapons like Julio Jones into the offense, as well the inconsistency of the blocking. Once the Falcons were able to stabilize their running game and line, I think Ryan was able to settle in. And I think the one thing we learned about Matt Ryan is that he is not a guy that thrives when he is in stormy waters. But for the most part I think he was able to steer the boat to safety.
Here are some Moneyball stats worth considering to nail the point home: In the first half of the season, Ryan’s TD-INT ratio was 12:9. In the second half, it was 17:3. For the year, Ryan had 66 poor throws. 37 of them came in the first half of the season on 276 passes (13.4%). In the second half, he threw 29 poor throws on 290 attempts (10%). And he nearly doubled his number of 20+ yard completions, with 27 in the second half compared to 14 in the first half of the season.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez was the lone member of the team to be named to the 2012 NFC Pro Bowl team. Although it’s certainly possible that more could wind up being named to the team at a later date as injury fill-ins or alternates.
Gonzalez currently ranks third among all tight ends in the league in terms of receptions (79) and fourth in yards (867). His 7 touchdowns also are good enough to tie him for third-most among his position group. It is the 12th time he’s been named a Pro Bowler in his 15-year career, and the second time since joining the Falcons three years ago. He was a Pro Bowler last year. Earlier this season, Gonzalez moved into second place all-time among all receivers in terms of career catches.
Here are my picks for the Falcons players most deserving of these superlative awards through the first half of the 2011 season:
Offensive MVP: Tony Gonzalez
This was tough because in recent games, Michael Turner is probably the most valuable player on offense. When Turner runs well, the Falcons tend to win. But I thought Gonzo is deserving because he’s been consistent throughout the entire first half of the season. Turner was pretty average through the first 4 games of the year, although part of that could be blamed on the changes up front. But he just didn’t look like the same Michael Turner that he has been in the past month. He’s now running harder than he was early on, and thus part of his struggles were on him. With that said, Gonzo has been money throughout the year, particularly in the redzone where he is basically our entire redzone offense. Another reason for putting him here, is because I was one of those people that thought after last year, Gonzo was done. Still a solid, productive tight end, but no longer one of the best at his position. Boy, has he shown me I was dead wrong. He still has the best hands in the business, and while his explosiveness isn’t what it once was, he still has made a number of big plays at critical moments in games.
Defensive MVP: Sean Weatherspoon
If you had to pick one Falcon defender that is truly deserving of making the Pro Bowl this year, then it’s definitely Spoon. He’s been playing lights out all year long, making plays vs. the run, as a pass rusher, and in coverage. He’s been a valuable every down defender. While Spoon hasn’t been perfect, like Gonzalez on offense he has made his presence known in virtually every game. While he flashed this level of ability early on as a rookie, he’s taken things to a brand new level. And if he maintains this level of play in the second half of the season, he should definitely be on his way to Hawaii. If I had to choose a runner-up, it would probably be Brent Grimes. But he’s not having quite the impact he was having a year ago, partially because teams are not throwing at him as often as they did a year ago. But Grimes is staying playing at a fairly high level, just isn’t getting as many opportunities to make those big, game-changing impact players like he was a year ago.
Special Teams MVP: Matt Bryant
Who else would you pick? “Money” Matt Bryant has been everything his nickname indicates he should be.