|Brees and Rodgers must have lots to talk about these days. (Getty Images)|
With a temporary cease-fire on the NFL coaching front, the moment is right to shift our attention from the people and teams that screwed up this season to those who did not.
|More NFL awards|
Translation: It's time to hand out our year-end awards.
This season's choices are more difficult than usual, with none more complicated than the league MVP -- and not because we didn't have enough worthy candidates; but because we had too many.
Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees. Tom Brady. You name one, you have a winner. Unfortunately, the last time I checked, three didn't go into one easily. So we make it one award for one player, and let the roll call begin.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay: Forget one trophy. Let's make it three this year. Rodgers, Brees and Brady all were deserving, and you can make the argument -- as I have -- that Brady did more with less than anyone out there. Nevertheless, Rodgers stands out because of his unerring play, pushing the defending Super Bowl champion to a 13-0 start and the best record in football. That's not easy. Just ask Brees what he went through last season. Nevertheless, Rodgers wins in a photo finish, not only because of what he did but because he did it while operating with the league's 32nd-ranked defense.
|Offensive Player of the Year|
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: He led the league in completion percentage. He led it in touchdown passes. He led it in yardage, breaking Dan Marino's single-season record. And he extended his record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 43, second only to Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas. It's hard to ignore the facts, and the facts are these: Nobody compiled bigger or better numbers than Brees.
First runner-up: Rodgers
Second runner-up: Brady
|Defensive Player of the Year|
Jared Allen, Minnesota: It's not only his 22 sacks that make the guy extraordinary. It's his motor. He never slowed down on a team that was stuck in reverse for most of the season. Allen was virtually unblockable, a relentless pass rusher who produced at least a half-a-sack in all but three of his starts. He had six multi-sack games and three with three or more. But why stop there? He also had four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and one interception. When you look at what worked in Minnesota this season you start here.
|Coach of the Year|
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco: This one was easy. He raised the Titanic, not only delivering San Francisco its first winning season since 2002 but clinching the NFC West and locking down one of the NFC's two first-round byes -- and all in his rookie season. Harbaugh taught the 49ers how to close out games, with comeback victories vs. Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Detroit. What makes those triumphs notable is that all were on the road, where the 49ers were 6-2. Only Green Bay had a better record.
First runner-up: Mike McCarthy, Green Bay
Second runner-up: Gary Kubiak, Houston
|Offensive Rookie of the Year|
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina: He didn't win many games, but he knocked down a passel of rookie records, threw for more than 4,000 yards and combined for 35 touchdowns rushing and passing. Better yet, he made Carolina worth watching. I give Panthers GM Marty Hurney a lot of credit for making Newton his the No. 1 overall pick. It was controversial and one that made me nervous. But Hurney insisted he had done his homework and that Newton would be OK. He was more than OK. He was an "icon."
|Defensive Rookie of the Year|
Von Miller, LB, Denver: It was a close call between Miller and the 49ers' Aldon Smith, but Miller is more of an every-down player than Smith. He's an irrepressible pass rusher who attacks the pocket and unhinges quarterbacks. Yeah, OK, so he wasn't the same after suffering a thumb injury late in the season, but he played with a cast that affected his ability to grab and shed offensive linemen. Miller made the Pro Bowl for a reason. The guy's a load.
|Assistant Coach of the Year|
Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator, Houston: The Texans made a raft of offseason moves but none more significant than hiring Phillips to install a 3-4 and restore order to a defense shredded by opposing quarterbacks. If you play in the same division as Peyton Manning, you better be able to defend the pass -- and Houston couldn't until Phillips showed up. The Texans ranked 32nd in pass defense in 2010 and 30th overall. This season? Try third against the pass and second overall -- and that's with linebacker Mario Williams sidelined most of the season.
First runner-up: Vic Fangio, defensive coordinator, San Francisco
Second runner-up: Jim Washburn, defensive line, Philadelphia
|Best Free Agent Pickup|
Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans: All he did was produce an NFL-record 2,669 yards rushing, receiving and returning, and tell me that wasn't a factor in the Saints’ 13-3 season. Sproles was the guy New Orleans tapped to replace Reggie Bush, only he was more effective than Bush. He's a threat to score whenever he touches the ball, and his departure was a significant setback for San Diego -- and a bonus for the Saints.
|Worst Free Agent Pickup|
Ray Edwards, DE, Atlanta: I'll make this one brief. The Falcons signed him to a $30 million deal because they thought he could become the perfect bookend to John Abraham. Well, he wasn't. In fact, he produced only 3.5 sacks, his worst season since his rookie year. When we talk about bad investments in today's economy, it's moves like this that we have in mind.
|Comeback Player of the Year|
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit: It was at the March owners' meetings that I asked Detroit coach Jim Schwartz about Stafford's history of injuries, and he all but growled at me, saying Stafford was good to go. Score one for Schwartz. All his quarterback did was throw for 5,038 yards, set a franchise record for touchdown passes (41) and lead the Lions into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Oh, yeah, and he didn't miss a start after sitting out 19 the previous two seasons.
|Most Improved Player|
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England: He more than doubled his receptions from his rookie season. He almost tripled his yardage. He put up 10 more touchdowns, a league-record 17 scoring catches by a tight end. In short, there was nothing Gronkowski didn't do. I marvel at how Brady operates without depth at wide receiver, but it's tight ends like Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez -- guys who play more like wide receivers than tight ends, anyway -- who make Brady's job less difficult than it could be.
|Most Surprising Team|
San Francisco: The 49ers hadn't had a winning season since 2002 and ran through more coaches than Rocky has sequels. Then Harbaugh appeared and, suddenly, the 49ers are nobody’s pushover anymore. They not only won their division for the first time since 2002; they had the NFC's second-best record, earning a first-round playoff bye. Harbaugh was hired to make them better, but the 49ers weren't supposed to be this good this fast. The franchise has been criticized for questionable hires in the past, but it got this one right.
First runner-up: Cincinnati
Second runner-up: Denver
|Most Disappointing Team|
Philadelphia: When newcomer Vince Young dubbed the Eagles the "Dream Team," he did coach Andy Reid, his teammates and himself a disservice. Because from then on, the pressure was on -- with overzealous fans settling for nothing short of a Super Bowl. Well, the Eagles aren't going to the Super Bowl. They're not going to the playoffs, either. After a dreadful 4-8 start they straightened themselves out, wining their last four and finishing tied for second in the NFC East. That's the good news. The bad is that they weren't designed to finish second to anyone.
First runner-up: Tampa Bay
Second runner-up: N.Y. Jets
|Executive of the Year|
Mike Brown, owner, Cincinnati: It's not often Brown is recognized for much of anything, but he will be now because it was Mike Brown who found a franchise receiver and quarterback in the same draft. And it was Mike Brown who refused to give in to Carson Palmer after he vowed never to play again for Cincinnati ... not budging until Oakland got desperate and offered first-and-second-round draft picks. In essence, Brown turned a player with no future in Cincinnati into lucrative draft choices. Brilliant. It's not often you see that adjective used in conjunction with Mike Brown, but it belongs here. He manipulated the draft to make the Cincinnati Bengals a quality team for the next decade.
First runner-up: Ted Thompson, GM, Green Bay
Second runner-up: Rick Smith, GM, Houston
|Pick I want back|
Before the season, I chose the St. Louis Rams to win the NFC West. They tied Indianapolis for last in the league with a 2-14 record and just fired their head coach and general manager. Anyone in the mood for mulligans?