The 2011 season was memorable across the NFC South for many reasons, both good and bad. We saw the Saints go 13-3 while setting all sorts of records and we saw Tampa Bay fall apart about as completely as any team ever has.
We saw the Atlanta Falcons, at times, look like a great team and, at other times, look very ordinary. We saw the rebirth of the Carolina Panthers, who ended the season as a team very much on the rise.
So let’s take a look back at the season with a lists of awards and “bests’’ and “worsts’’.
Most Valuable Player: This one’s as easy as it gets. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees carried the Saints and set a new single-season record for passing yardage.
Most Valuable Player (non-quarterback): This one’s not all that difficult either. New Orleans’ Darren Sproles set a new NFL record for all-purpose yards. He also made it impossible for opposing defenses to match up with the Saints.
Defensive Player of the Year: This one’s difficult because the NFC South isn’t known for strong defense. It also didn’t help that Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who might be the division’s best overall defensive player, missed almost the entire year with an injury, and New Orleans middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was slowed by a knee injury most of the season. That’s why I’m going with Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon. Look around the division and tell me if there’s a guy who makes more big plays. I couldn’t find one.
Rookie of the Year: This is almost as easy as giving Brees the MVP. Carolina’s Cam Newton wins easily. He set a rookie record for passing yards and had more rushing touchdowns in a season than any quarterback in NFL history. His “Superman’’ celebration truly fits.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one’s not as obvious as Newton. But when you give it a little thought, Tampa Bay defensive end Adrian Clayborn easily was the best rookie defender in the division. Clayborn was one of only about two or three bright spots for the Bucs. He showed he’s a complete defensive end — one who can rush the passer and play the run.
Best Performance by a Second-Year Player: Weatherspoon was a candidate for this, but the nod goes to New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. He had one of the best seasons ever by a tight end. I know the Saints have a lot of pressing contract issues and Graham is under contract for three more seasons. But at some point this offseason, they should give Graham an extension and a huge pay raise. Graham’s only making minimum wage. If ever a player has outperformed his contract, it’s Graham.
Coach of the Year: I respect the job Ron Rivera did in Carolina, but I’ve got to go with New Orleans’ Sean Payton. He got his team to 13 wins, despite having his knee shattered in a sideline collision.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Prior to Payton’s injury, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael had lived in the shadows of the head coach. But Carmichael started calling the plays when Payton went down. Payton let that continue the rest of the season and the Saints kept winning.
Executive of the Year: It has to be Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. In one offseason, he hit two home runs on two of the biggest challenges a general manager can face. He hired Rivera, who is well on his way to being a good head coach. More important, Hurney found a franchise quarterback in Newton. Many doubted Newton prior to the draft. Hurney did his homework and it paid off.
Best Turnaround: The Panthers might have won only six games, but that’s triple what they won last year.
Worst Collapse: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the biggest collapses in NFL history. They started 4-2, then lost their final 10 games while appearing totally out of control on and off the field.
Best Offseason Move: There’s no doubt it was the signing of Sproles. He was the best free-agent signing in the entire NFL. And for those Tampa Bay fans who like to bash their ownership and front office for not bringing in Sproles, the fact is you never had a chance. The Bucs and other teams made inquiries about Sproles, but were told it wasn’t going to happen. All along, Sproles was headed nowhere else but New Orleans, for a reunion with former San Diego teammate Brees. They continued spending their offseasons together. Brees was recruiting Sproles throughout the lockout and, in New Orleans, Brees gets whatever he wants.
Worst Offseason Move: That would be Tampa Bay not finding a running back to pair with LeGarrette Blount. It didn’t have to be Sproles and the Bucs weren’t wrong in letting Cadillac Williams go. But they should have gotten a legitimate NFL running back who could catch passes out of the backfield and pass-block. Blount can’t do either — and the Bucs made a severe miscalculation by thinking he could be an every-down back.
Best Bounce-Back Season: The winner here is Carolina receiver Steve Smith. In the offseason, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in Carolina. Once he caught a few passes from Newton, everything changed. Smith was back to being the dominant receiver he was a few years back.
Worst Disappearing Act: Soon after signing with the Atlanta Falcons, defensive end Ray Edwards proclaimed himself the "missing link.'' Instead of leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl, Edwards simply was missing most of the season. He played the run all right, but Atlanta’s pass rush didn’t improve and that’s why he was signed.
Best Off-Field Decision: You can accuse Tampa Bay’s ownership and management of being inept all you want. After a 4-12 season, it’s fair game. But someone very high up with the Bucs made an excellent decision when the team turned down the opportunity to appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.’’ Whoever that wise person was realized that it might not be such a great idea to open the organization to cameras around the clock. Those cameras could have captured things wouldn’t have looked great – things like assistant coaches trying unsuccessfully to explain the uncomplicated art of pass-blocking to Blount or a gregarious former coach taking the camera crew on a late-night tour of Tampa.
Equipment Manager of the Year: That’s Carolina’s Jackie Miles, of course. I used to say Derrick Brooks was the best player in NFC South history. Now, I’ll admit Brees has at least caught up to Brooks and maybe surpassed him. But, if I had to pick a third guy who’s the best at what he does in the history of the division, it would be Miles. To those who know him, the man’s a legend in many ways and could end up being the first equipment manager in the Hall of Fame.