It was a crazy 2015 regular season. Home teams struggled to maintain advantages. The standard for quarterback production increased so much that you almost need to be a 68 percent passer with more than 30 touchdowns to be considered successful. Receivers thrived. Running backs regressed. Injuries slightly declined. And, it was a season of the closet margin of victories ever.
Here are my regular-season awards:
Most Valuable Player: Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina Panthers. This was a tough one. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was the clear favorite in the first three months of the season. Newton moved into my top spot during his first 14 games, but by Week 16, I was leaning toward Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals. Week 17 pushed the choice to Newton, who rushed and passed for 45 touchdowns this season and led the league's highest-scoring offense at 31.3 points per game. Palmer, Brady, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers completed my top five.
Coach of the Year: Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers. No one topped 15-1, but the story goes back to last year. The Panthers were 3-8-1 in one of the worst division races in NFL history. He won his last four to make the playoffs and went 14-0 to start this season. Riverboat Ron is on a roll.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator, Denver Broncos. Phillips turned a very good defense into a historically great defense. He turned loose as many as six pass-rushers along with having more speed than on any defense he had ever coached. Bill Callahan is second for what he did with the Washington Redskins' offensive line.
Executive of the Year: John Elway, Denver Broncos. Elway faced a dilemma. He wasn't sure Peyton Manning could last the whole season. He hired Gary Kubiak to work with Manning, along with developing Brock Osweiler as a quarterback who can run Kubiak's two-tight-end offense that featured bootlegs and rollouts. Although sometimes it didn't look pretty, the Broncos eked out the AFC's No. 1 seed and could get Manning back to the Super Bowl. Dave Gettleman of the Panthers, Steve Keim of the Cardinals and John Schneider of the Seahawks were my next choices.
Owner of the Year: Woody Johnson, New York Jets. He made the right moves hiring Mike Maccagnan as general manager and Todd Bowles as coach. Johnson also gave them the resources to spend $149 million in contracts for four defensive backs. The Jets improved to 10-6 and were a heartbeat away from the playoffs.
Offensive Player of the Year: Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite not having Ben Roethlisberger for four full games, Brown caught 136 passes for 1,834 yards. Had Big Ben been able to play 16 games, Brown likely would have had more than 2,000 receiving yards.
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans. Watt dominates. He had 17½ sacks, 8 pass deflections and 3 forced fumbles. The reason the NFL can't put this award in his name is because Aaron Donald of the St. Louis Rams was a close second to him this season.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Jameis Winston, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had the second-best yardage for a rookie and didn't throw as many interceptions as most expected. Tough choice, though. Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders and Todd Gurley of the St. Louis Rams were right behind him, and Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans wasn't far off.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ronald Darby, cornerback, Buffalo Bills. Darby immediately established himself as a quality corner for Rex Ryan. It was difficult to pick Darby over Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs, however. Peters had eight interceptions, but he also had 919 yards against him through the air. My sleeper pick is linebacker Kwon Alexander of the Buccaneers.
Comeback Player of the Year: Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City Chiefs. He beat cancer along with being part of a great stretch run of defense in the final 10 games by the Chiefs.
Surprise Comeback Player of the Year: Richie Incognito, guard, Buffalo Bills. After being out of the league in 2014, Incognito re-established himself as one of the best guards in the league. We'll see whether it leads to a big payday in free agency.
Most Improved Player: Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson recovered from a poor start to put his name up with the top four or five quarterbacks in the league. I've had him as the league's seventh-best quarterback for the past two seasons. Now he's in the top five.
Sure Thing of the Year: Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota Vikings, leading the league in rushing and taking the Vikings into the playoffs. Peterson came off a knee reconstruction a few years back to rush for more than 2,000 yards. It was easy to predict that he would come back from his 15-game suspension to win the rushing title and help Teddy Bridgewater to his first trip to the playoffs.
Biggest Story of the Year: Officiating. The technology and quality of the television broadcasts has caused a dilemma on the field. Fans can see players on the big screen in some angles better than the officials on the field. This has led to more confusion and mistakes by officials not wanting to be judged poorly by the league office. Dean Blandino, the league's supervisor of officials, and the competition committee have a lot to sort out to help out officials in the future.
Missing Persons Report Award: Featured running backs. Only seven backs had 1,000-yard seasons, six fewer than in 2013 and 2014. Unfortunately for backs, this will cause more teams to try to hold veteran running back salaries to $4 million a year or less.
The "They did what?" Award: Jed York, owner, San Francisco 49ers. Firing Jim Harbaugh and hoping loyal employee Jim Tomsula could bail out a team that lost more than 20 players from the previous season was too predictable. Tomsula was set up for one-and-done failure from the beginning of the offseason.