- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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The trophy went to the wrong guy. No surprise, really. This year the MVP award was destined to go to the undeserving because no one truly deserved it. When the reigning best player on the planet, Tom Brady, went down in a heap seven-and-a-half minutes into the season, the parity that rules the NFL trickled down to the hardware. The list of candidates read like invites to a party where everyone is asked to come so no one is offended. If Peyton Manning earned checks in his box, didn't Matt Ryan? (Yes.) If James Harrison was worthy, then wasn't Ray Lewis? (Of course.) If Adrian Peterson was under consideration, didn't Michael Turner deserve a second look? (Sure.) And how could we forget DeAngelo Williams? (Duh.) Or Kurt Warner? (Him, too.) Or Drew Brees? (Please … ) Or Jay Cutler? ( … not … ) Or DeMarcus Ware? ( … Ryan … ) Or Clinton Portis? ( … Fitzpatrick.)
What really kills us, though, is that there were actually two worthy candidates out there who barely got a sniff. So before most of this is forgotten in the rush to Super Bowl XLIII, we felt the least we could do was throw our MVP picks—the NFL's true MVPs—a party, even if it feels like we're holding it in a garage with dime-store decorations, foldout chairs, Pabst Blue Ribbon and an eight-track. Please press Play for the drumroll, and pass the envelope containing the names of those who proved themselves most valuable in 2008:
The Giants offensive line.
And the Titans defensive line.
Don't give us that look. Groups win major awards all the time. At the Oscars, the Best Picture is usually co-produced. A team of reporters can win a Pulitzer. The Grammy for Album of the Year can go to a band. It's a shame—dumb, really—that it never happens in the ultimate team sport.
It's totally legal, by the way. The 50 media types who decide the Associated Press MVP can vote any way they want. But no one has ever actually chosen a group in the award's 51-year history. Maybe the idea felt too radical. Maybe the writers were seduced by all the December drama and simply forgot that the Giants offensive line and the Titans defensive line carried their teams to 11–1 starts and No. 1 seeds in the playoffs. Maybe the literal interpretation of the award—Most Valuable Player, not Players—got to them. Either way, it's too bad. Says Dave Goldberg, one of two AP writers who administer the award: "In a team sport, you'd like to think that a unit could win."
We think so (as do writers from The Boston Globe, Newsday and Football Outsiders, who have also made this claim). And we didn't come by our group winners haphazardly, either. Many units were evaluated in an agonizing process. These units, in fact:
PANTHERS RUNNING BACKS
PRO: With Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart turning on the afterburners, the Carolina backs secured the team's playoff spot by averaging 158 yards per game from Weeks 4 to 14.
CON: Their opponents those weeks, in order, were the Falcons, Chiefs, Bucs, Saints, Cardinals, Raiders, Lions, Falcons, Packers, Bucs and Broncos. C'mon, Cedric Benson might be MVP against those rush defenses.
PRO: These ballhawks make multiple game-changing plays each Sunday.
CON: So have most sets of Steelers linebackers. Since 1974.
BRONCOS OFFENSIVE LINE
PRO: Heavily relied upon by the one-dimensional Broncos to protect Cutler each week.
CON: Heavily relied upon by the one-dimensional Broncos to protect Cutler in losses to the (cough, hack) Chiefs, Raiders and Bills.
VIKINGS OFFENSIVE LINE
PRO: Paved the way for another monster season from Peterson.
CON: Eaten alive by the Titans, which is acceptable, and the Saints, which is not.
PRO: The NFC's 2009 Pro Bowl starting receivers helped the doormat Cardinals reach the playoffs.
CON: Forgot the season doesn't end on Nov. 16.
Great candidates all. But in the end, nobody has been a bigger factor this season than New York's offensive line and Tennessee's defensive line—which are consistently great and elevate those around them. Just consider the Giants offense. Eli Manning had his best regular season (completing roughly six of every 10 passes, with a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio), punctuated by his first Pro Bowl selection. Meanwhile, the Giants led the NFL with a century and a half of rushing yards per game. Whenever one of them gets the ball—be it Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward or Ahmad Bradshaw—Giants runners are blessed with huge holes (despite being cursed with lame nicknames).
Let's get the five Giants' names out of the way so we can go back to referring to them collectively as a line, which is how they prefer it: left tackle David Diehl, left guard Rich Seubert, center Shaun O'Hara, right guard Chris Snee, right tackle Kareem McKenzie. They've played all but a handful of drives together the past two seasons. They know their jobs so well that all of them typically point to the mike linebacker before the snap—spotting the mike defines their blocking scheme—instead of relying on the center, as most teams do. "They work as well together as any group I have ever seen," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt gushed earlier this year.
The Giants line is so in sync that its members have even stopped ragging on one another. In previous years, Diehl got crap for being unresponsive when they gave him crap; Seubert was hazed for always complaining; O'Hara for being a media darling; Snee for being married to coach Tom Coughlin's daughter, Kate, and McKenzie for sleeping during meetings and carrying around novels that nobody believes he reads. But after playing for so long at such a high level (they are among the NFL's least-penalized offensive lines), they have truly bonded. "We try to join forces now and make fun of other groups," Seubert says. Which ones? "Quarterbacks."
Eli probably takes more shots during the week than on game day. There's no stat for the perfect pocket, but if there were, it would surely tell you the Giants produced them more consistently this season than any skill player produced yards or TDs. Go back to the Cowboys game on Dec. 14. On a third-and-11 in the second quarter, the Giants faced a typical Dallas front: six defenders flirting to blitz but only four who would do so. Ware took two steps into McKenzie and tried a spin move; he got only 180° before he was stopped cold and pushed aside. Snee and O'Hara doubled tackle Jay Ratliff. Seubert bottled tackle Greg Ellis, who stunted with end Chris Canty, who was erased by Diehl.
By the time Manning finished his shotgun drop, he had two passing lanes to choose from: a gaping one to the left and a smaller one to the right. He looked left toward his first read, through the alley that had been created specifically for that purpose. But he didn't fire. Instead he danced forward, looking right. The line instinctively flowed with his progression, and another massive lane opened. After 5.2 seconds, Manning hit Steve Smith on a crossing route for 14 yards. No Cowboy was ever within two yards of Manning. No Cowboy even got a hand up. And this occurred during the offensive line's worst game all season. Not that they were impressed. "We haven't blocked a play perfectly all year," says McKenzie with a shrug.
Nice try. The Giants run a version of the Patriots' bread-and-butter pass play: a one-step throw to an outside receiver, who picks up a few blocks and turns upfield. It requires a nimble lineman like New England left tackle Matt Light, who can dart outside and eliminate a cornerback. The Giants' version? Four linemen hustle to the flat, devouring defenders like a plate of wings. New York ran that play against Dallas with Bradshaw split wide. When he was brought down, 16 yards later, three linemen were downfield with him, trying to swat every tackler.
MVP voters either missed, ignored or forgot such highlights. But we didn't. So after explaining to the Giants line that they are one of our MVPs, we expect to be wrapped in a crushing bear hug. Nope. "That isn't something we think about or care about," says Diehl. "If we win the game and our quarterback doesn't get sacked and we have a lot of yards rushing, that's enough for us."
Diehl does mention that there's a local precedent for rewarding a group. Last year, the Giants line shared the team award for Offensive Player of the Year with Plaxico Burress. Then, with a smile that peeks through his strong, silent beefcake veneer like light through closed blinds, he adds, "I'd love to get the trophy."
The Titans would too. But they're not coy about it. To them, a group's winning the trophy isn't novel; it's overdue. "I'd stack us against anybody," says defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "We've consistently gotten pressure against quarterbacks every week."
Wrecking an opponent's quarterback is the most direct—and usually difficult—way to win games. Yet even the most stalwart max-protection schemes are no match for the Titans defensive line. The four starters—ends Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse, tackles Albert Haynesworth and Tony Brown—are each relentless, creative attack dogs. So are the three primary backups: ends Jacob Ford and Dave Ball and tackle Jason Jones. In fact, the group is so adept at collecting what they call Where's Waldos, in which the QB disappears under an avalanche, that the Titans rarely need to blitz. According to Football Outsiders, only the Colts rushed just four players more often, and nearly three-quarters of the Titans' QB hurries were due solely to defensive-line pressure.
The chief beneficiaries are Tennessee's defensive backs, with cornerback Cortland Finnegan, strong safety Chris Hope and free safety Michael Griffin all having multiple-interception games this season. Says defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, "We can do so much more in coverage because we don't have to blitz."
The Titans use only two fronts: their "over" look, with Kearse lined outside the tight end, and the "under," with Kearse between tight end and tackle. But they're rarely slowed. Tennessee's win over the Vikings on Sept. 28 was a clinic in defensive disruption. In the second quarter, Vanden Bosch stripped the ball from Peterson, and Brown recovered it. In the fourth quarter, Haynesworth drew three blockers, and Brown stunted behind him, getting in Gus Frerotte's face as the QB threw an interception to cornerback Nick Harper. Both turnovers led to touchdowns in a 30-17 slugfest.
A month later against the Colts, Haynesworth smeared left guard Charlie Johnson and left tackle Tony Ugoh, hitting Manning as he threw and forcing an incompletion to Reggie Wayne, who was alone in the end zone. Thanks to constant pocket heat, the Titans picked off Manning twice to secure a 31-21 win. "The coaches have faith in us as a defensive line," says Brown. "They put a lot on our shoulders."
Of course, the Giants and the Titans didn't play perfectly in every game. But they came closest when it mattered most. Against the Steelers on Dec. 21, with Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch sidelined by injuries (they'll be back for the playoffs), Tennessee sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and forced him into four turnovers in a 31-14 rout. A few hours later, the Giants rushed for 301 yards—the franchise's highest total since 1959—in a rousing 34—28 overtime win over Carolina. The victories guaranteed each team homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Nothing is more valuable than that.
Now, with that settled, there's only one thing left to address: gifts. See, it's tradition for quarterbacks and running backs who win awards to give back to their linemen. But what would the linemen buy the backs? Watches? Suits? Cars? Diamond-studded Isotoners?
"Nothing," Seubert says, straight-faced. "We're still the bottom of the barrel, man."
Not to us.
Know who's never won the NFL's MVP Award? A group of offensive linemen. Know who else? A group of defensive linemen. And—this year especially—that's too bad.