Welcome to the halfway point of the NFL season; 132 of 256 regular-season games are in the books, meaning that just over 51 percent of this year's games have been played after Sunday night's Raiders-Broncos contest. We've learned a lot about Dak Prescott and precious little about Kirk Cousins. We've seen football that has been admittedly frustrating and sometimes infuriating, but also fun and competitive.
What I've learned from the past is that doing awards throughout the season is both fun and edifying. So much has changed over the past five weeks, when I handed out quarter-season awards, that it's really hard to remember what I was thinking for some of the winners at the time. Context in the NFL changes so quickly that we often forget what the prevailing narratives and stories were a month ago, let alone any longer. Remember when Ezekiel Elliott started his season with 134 yards across 41 carries in his first two games and the Cowboys were angry at him for visiting a marijuana dispensary in Seattle? Life moves fast.
So to see what has changed and honor some of the league's best players through half a season, let's hand out the major official awards for the first nine weeks. Before that, though, let me run through some fake awards in regard to the weekend we just saw. That begins in Baltimore, where the Ravens pulled off what might have been a season-saving upset over the Steelers with some help from a ... questionable play:
Most unfair criticism of an onside kick: Chris Boswell, Steelers. I won't pretend that the end result was pretty. Boswell's attempt to grab one final possession for the Steelers went about as well as last year's fake punt from the Colts in terms of special-teams trick plays. But while that Colts play was a dismal decision that never should have happened after the players who were supposed to be involved were injured and unavailable, Boswell's onside kick was wholly defensible.
No, Boswell didn't trip; he was actually attempting a rabona, the soccer sleight-of-hand used to disguise the direction of a kick. Such deception is critical for such a low-probability play. Remember that the likelihood of recovering an expected onside kick is below 15 percent; unexpected onside kicks are recovered three times as frequently.
It would be one thing if Boswell simply wasn't able to pull off the rabona. Not everyone is Erik Lamela. In college, though, Boswell successfully created an extra possession for Rice with his trick kick:
Most confusing tackle attempt: Ron Parker, Chiefs. Tackling NFL players is tough. Tackling Chris Ivory is even tougher. Tackling Chris Ivory with a head of steam, tougher still. I still can't understand Parker's attempt at bringing down Ivory on the sideline, though. Parker presumably tried to lower his shoulder, but he barely ducked and seemed more to brace for contact than anything else. It didn't go very well for him, as Ivory deposited Parker in the turf on his way to a 42-yard gain.
Least Harvard play: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jets. I've mentioned in the past that despite Fitzpatrick's reputation as a veteran game manager and a smart player, he tends to make some boneheaded decisions. His 3.4 percent career interception rate is worse than league average. He routinely forgoes sliding at the end of his runs to take on defenders or dive headfirst, even in relatively meaningless situations. On Sunday, again in lieu of sliding at the end of a scramble, he decided to extend a play by wildly pitching the ball to Bilal Powell, who caught it and ran for 4 extra yards.
It's not hard to imagine a league in which designed laterals at the end of typical plays are more common -- famously progressive high school coach Kevin Kelley incorporated designed laterals into his offense -- but this was from a player who was falling down and out of control. And by staying up instead of going down, Fitz was leveled by a defender. Nobody doubts Fitzpatrick's toughness and desire to win, but that's an extremely high-risk, low-reward play.
Lesson learned award: Jason Garrett, Cowboys. Staying in the Ivy League, let's head over to Princeton and former quarterback Jason Garrett, who has had a habit of overworking his starting running backs in the fourth quarter of games that had all but been decided. Garrett has done excellent work this year, and nobody can blame him for wanting to feed Ezekiel Elliott, but Elliott is on a guaranteed contract for three and a half more seasons.
With the Cowboys' playoff odds at 94.3 percent heading into their game against the Browns on Sunday, Garrett also needed to think about the importance of keeping his star rookie as fresh as possible for January. The Cowboys were up 25 points when they took over on offense at the end of the third quarter, and while Elliott had "only" 17 carries heading into the fourth, Garrett wisely gave his starter most of the remainder of the game off. The Cowboys ran the ball 14 times during the fourth quarter, but Elliott toted the rock only once, with most carries going to backup Alfred Morris. Fantasy owners probably won't be thrilled with Garrett, but Cowboys fans should be.
The "Oh no!" award: Mike Mitchell, Steelers. Let's finish up with another Steelers award. Sunday just wasn't Mitchell's day. Mitchell is known as a big hitter who struggles in space, and Sunday's loss to the Ravens brought that to the forefront. He was exposed early, when Steve Smith caught a shallow cross from Joe Flacco and easily shrugged off Mitchell before running past him for 30 yards.
And then Mike Wallace beat Artie Burns on a slant and shed the rookie's tackle attempt for a first down, leaving Mitchell as the last line of defense. Tackling Wallace isn't easy, but Mitchell has to be able to bring him down or at least slow him to the point where his teammates can assist. Mitchell did nothing of the sort; Wallace stiff-armed Mitchell aside before running past him down the sideline for a 95-yard touchdown. If Mitchell can at least force Wallace to the inside, it's probably just a long completion. Instead, Mitchell ceded the sideline and ended up allowing a score, which ended up as the Ravens' margin of victory.
Even worse, after the game, Smith hit Mitchell as hard as Ivory hit Parker. Smith had Mitchell, his former teammate in Carolina, on his "lifetime hit list" after Mitchell allegedly laughed at an injured Smith in 2015. (Smith originally thought Mitchell had speared him and put him on the list for that infraction, but left him on the list even after realizing that the spear had come from Lawrence Timmons.)
During his postgame comments, Smith compared Mitchell to a cabinet before getting off the money quote. "He ain't on my level," Smith said. "He never will be. He is not even on the same level as my kids." Ouch.
All right. Let's get to the seasonal awards (I'll also include my quarter-season winner of each award). Keep in mind that this is my vote for who would win if the award were handed out now, not who will win after Week 17. I'm also trying to abide by the recognized voting patterns of the electorate, so even if the Most Valuable Player also should logically win Offensive Player of the Year if he's a quarterback, I'm going to pick a separate winner for each. My fake ballot, their weird rules.
Comeback Player of the Year: Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers
Pick Through Week 4: Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks
Here's an idea: Let's stop calling players busts after one year. Gordon looked wildly disappointing after his rookie season, but he struggled with a knee injury that required offseason surgery and was fluky-bad near the goal line. His 217 touches as a rookie were tied for the sixth most since 1970 without a touchdown. That was always going to improve.
Not even the rosiest-cheeked Gordon supporter could have imagined he would be this good this quickly, given that he was coming off microfracture surgery. With virtually every other weapon around him on the Chargers' offense missing because of injury, Gordon has turned into a one-man show. He's tough to bring down in the open field, as Titans fans saw time after time on Sunday. Gordon moves like a player who already has his next step in mind; he's seeing opportunities and exploiting them like a confident player.
Gordon is also a far more complete back than he was as a rookie, playing a much bigger role in the passing game with Danny Woodhead and Dexter McCluster both out for the season. Gordon is one of four backs in the league with 100 carries or more who's averaging 2-plus yards after contact (DeMarco Murray, Elliott and Jay Ajayi are the others), and Gordon is responsible for 29.9 percent of San Diego's yards from scrimmage this season. Elliott and David Johnson are the only backs over 30 percent.
Graham's performance in returning from a patellar tear has been remarkable, but after consecutive 100-yard games in Weeks 3 and 4, Graham has 176 yards combined over his three ensuing games. He's still in the running, but with Gordon looking like one of the five best running backs in football at the moment, he gets my nod.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars
Pick Through Week 4: Ramsey
Like many of his teammates on an underrated Jaguars defense, Ramsey happened to have his worst game of the season during Jacksonville's lone nationally televised game so far this season, the blowout loss to the Titans on "Thursday Night Football." Otherwise, he has been a revelation at corner for the Jags, initially lining up in the slot before moving outside and into the starting lineup ahead of expensive free-agent addition Davon House. Teams are avoiding Ramsey, preferring to throw at fellow veteran import Prince Amukamara. When you consider that even cornerbacks who end up as All-Pro talents are liabilities as rookies, Ramsey deserves a ton of credit.
The most obvious competition for Ramsey at the moment is Joey Bosa, who missed the first four games of the year after his summer holdout with a hamstring injury. Bosa made an impact as a pass-rusher from the moment he stepped into the lineup, knocking down quarterbacks 10 times in his first four games as a pro. That's more than players such as Ndamukong Suh and Jerry Hughes have all season.
Bosa was quiet during Sunday's win over Tennessee, leaving briefly with an injury, and has been playing on a limited snap count. While Bosa has been the flashiest defensive rookie, Ramsey has provided more value to his team through Week 9, lining up for hundreds of additional snaps.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
Pick Through Week 4: Prescott
With all due respect to Michael Thomas and Jack Conklin, this was a three-man race after Week 4. Carson Wentz was the third person in that group, but since Week 5, he has posted a 36.6 QBR; only Brock Osweiler (35.7) has been worse. (Or if you prefer passer rating, Wentz's was 28th in the league over that span.) There's no reason to panic about Wentz, but he's just not playing at a high enough level to win this award right now; he was brutally bad for stretches against the Giants on Sunday and might have had three or four picks with slightly worse luck.
The Offensive Rookie of the Year, at least on this ballot, is unsurprisingly coming from Dallas. But who? It's really a question of preference. Elliott is among the best running backs in football right now. I think David Johnson is playing better with less help around him, but Elliott is not far from the top. Meanwhile, Prescott is not the best quarterback in football, but he's second in QBR and fourth in passer rating while contributing 13 first downs himself as a runner. There's no bad choice here.
Each benefits from the context in which they play. Elliott runs behind the best offensive line in football, even if he's not a creation of that line. He's 10th in terms of average yards before contact (2.8 yards) and eighth in average yards after contact (2.2 yards) per ESPN Stats & Information data. He also benefits from having a mobile quarterback in Prescott, and you can look at the Seahawks' offense to see how bright running games can crawl to a halt when the quarterback isn't a threat to move. Prescott, meanwhile, obviously benefits from operating behind a dominant running game. Even if he gets less out of the offensive line than Elliott, the Cowboys are still an above-average pass-blocking unit up front.
The tiebreaker for me was positional scarcity. If Prescott and Elliott both somehow became free agents and hit the market this offseason, who would get more money? Of course, it would be Prescott, and it's not particularly close. Elliott would get something in excess of the five-year, $40 million deal signed by DeMarco Murray last offseason; it wouldn't be crazy to imagine him getting $10 million per season, even if he didn't get to bring Tyron Smith & Co. to his new digs.
When you consider that Osweiler got $72 million over four years (and $37 million over the first two seasons), wouldn't a desperate team like the Browns give Prescott $20 million per season? Young quarterbacks are just so incredibly valuable. Free-market contract value isn't the exact metric to consider when thinking about this specific award, but it illuminates the gap in perceived value between quarterbacks and running backs. If Prescott were a league-average quarterback, I'd give the nod to Elliott. But Prescott has been too good to be called average.
Coach of the Year: Jack Del Rio, Raiders
Pick Through Week 4: Gary Kubiak, Broncos
Sunday night was a convenient passing of the torch, huh? In what must have been their most important home game in more than a decade, the Raiders stomped the Broncos 30-20 to move atop the AFC West at 7-2. The Raiders now lead what may very well be the best division in football by a half-game over the Chiefs and one game over the Broncos.
You can argue that the Raiders are outplaying their point differential. They're 7-2 having outscored their opposition by a total of 22 points, figures that suggest they should "really" be a 5-4 team through nine games. Those numbers also suggest that Oakland is likely to regress some over the remainder of the season.
The other side of that argument: The Raiders have a 80.9 percent chance of making the playoffs per the ESPN Football Power Index after missing out in each of the past 13 postseasons. (Rex Ryan also would be in the Coach of the Year discussion if the Bills make the playoffs for similar reasons.) Even if they aren't playing like a typical 7-2 team, the Raiders probably need to go only 3-4 on the back end of their schedule to make the playoffs, and they start that run with three straight home games after their Week 10 bye. We're two years removed from the Raiders starting the season 0-10. They've gone 14-11 with Del Rio at the helm.
After Del Rio, there's a large mass of candidates lurking a step behind. Kubiak and Mike Zimmer, who looked like the two favorites after Week 4, each started 4-0 and have gone a combined 3-6 since. Garrett should be talked up, given what he's doing with a rookie fourth-rounder under center and a defense most people left for dead before the season. Bill Belichick deserves consideration but probably will win this award only if the Patriots go 15-1 and both the Cowboys and Raiders collapse. These awards have an unfamiliarity bias.
Oh, and it's not a real award, but I would love to see somebody hand out awards for Offensive and Defensive Coordinator of the Year. I'll take the Lions' Jim Bob Cooter on offense and the Eagles' Jim Schwartz on defense. The Eagles' Dave Fipp would be the favorite for a Special Teams Coordinator of the Year award, too, were it to exist. They could call it the Tasker!
Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller, OLB, Broncos
Pick Through Week 4: Miller
I don't see any reason to veer away from Miller after picking him following the first month of the season. Miller didn't win on Sunday night, but he was breathtaking and forced the Raiders to bring in a sixth offensive lineman on his side for stretches just to block the reigning Super Bowl MVP from getting around the edge. And while Miller is clearly a freak athlete, he also was jumping the snap count at times and getting after Derek Carr with his brains and preparation, too.
There really isn't a candidate outside of the top pass-rushers. No cornerback has taken the league by storm the way Richard Sherman and Josh Norman have in years past. Tackling machines like Luke Kuechly haven't been their usual selves, although the Panthers have gotten more out of Kuechly by moving him around and using him as a blitzer in recent weeks.
So, if it's a pass-rusher, how can you pick against Miller? He leads the league in sacks with 9.5 through nine games, just ahead of the shocking breakout season from Lorenzo Alexander and the rapidly improving Dee Ford. His toughest competition is likely Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has 19 QB hits this season, three more than any other defender. Donald is a totally viable candidate, but Miller has been more consistent. He has at least a half-sack in eight of his nine games this year. The record for most games in a season with a half-sack or more is 14, set by DeMarcus Ware in 2008 with the Cowboys. Miller can still set the record if he keeps this up the rest of the way.
Offensive Player of the Year: Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
Pick Through Week 4: Derek Carr, QB, Raiders
I loved what Derek Carr did against the Broncos on Sunday night. His numbers weren't incredible -- he went 20-of-31 for 184 yards without a touchdown or an interception -- but he was playing the best defense in football, and the Broncos were helping out with penalties. Carr generated four pass interference calls for 60 yards, each of which was in or within steps of the end zone. The Raiders had a game plan -- go after Lorenzo Doss, Taurean Nixon and the other Broncos players filling in for the injured Aqib Talib. With Chris Harris Jr. moving from the slot to stay exclusively on the outside with Talib hurt, the Raiders had a weak spot to exploit and hit it hard. When they were able to get going running the football with Latavius Murray, Carr did very well for himself.
After nine weeks, though, Carr is fifth in the league among qualifying passers in passer rating and 10th in QBR. He has been very good, with 17 touchdowns against three picks, but I don't know that he's still playing well enough to win this award. Matt Ryan is well ahead of Carr in just about every category -- 20 points ahead in passer rating, 16 points ahead in QBR, nearly 2.5 more yards per attempt -- with Carr narrowly ahead in interception rate. I'd even consider putting Matthew Stafford ahead of Carr thanks to Stafford's late-game heroics, although Carr has had plenty of those, too.
It's tough to target a non-quarterback here. David Johnson has been the most productive running back in the league for a Cardinals offense that has sputtered to a halt without him as its focal point. Johnson has accounted for 35.3 percent of Arizona's yards from scrimmage. Elliott, in second place, is at 31.2 percent. The league's great receivers -- Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green -- haven't separated themselves from the pack. Rob Gronkowski wasn't his usual self until Tom Brady showed up. I could see a case for Johnson or even Zeke, but Ryan is very clearly the second-best quarterback in football right now, and that's extremely valuable.
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
Winner Through Week 4: Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
I wrote about how incredible Brady has been this season last week, before the Patriots' Week 9 bye. I won't reiterate my points from that piece here, but the instructive comparison is to think about the Bosa-Ramsey debate. Bosa missed four games and has been a part-time player in the others. When he has played, he has been one of the best pass-rushers in football.
Now, compare that to Brady, who has missed four games and been a stalwart in the lineup ever since, coming out only when games are secure. He has been comfortably the best player at his position when in the lineup. He has turned Gronk back into a superstar, something that simply wasn't the case with Jimmy Garoppolo and friends taking over for Brady. Pats games haven't even felt close since Brady returned to the fold. We'll get our first shot of Brady against a super-tough defense Sunday night, when the Patriots take on Seattle. Even if the Seahawks slow down Brady, we've yet to see anybody stop him. And until someone does, even having missed four games, Brady is my MVP pick.