Handing out some less-obvious awards as the NFL season reaches its mid-point
Week 9 of the 18-week NFL season is in the books, which means it’s time to hand out some mid-year awards. While the more traditional honors like Mid-Season MVP (Lamar Jackson) and Best Team (Philadelphia Eagles) are popular this time of year, we’re going in a different direction. Here are our choices for some of the less obvious, and hopefully more entertaining, awards of the first half of the 2023 season:
Best Rocket-Scientist Doubling as an NFL Quarterback: Josh Dobbs, Cleveland Browns/Arizona Cardinals/Minnesota Vikings
The well-traveled Dobbs started his season in Cleveland before being traded to the Cardinals just days before the opener. There, with no training camp to acclimate to the system, he started the first eight games and played respectably for a bad Cardinals team. Dobbs led a Week 3 upset of the Cowboys in which he completed 17-21 passes and rushed for 55 yards. He was then dealt to the Vikings prior to Week 9, after Minnesota lost Kirk Cousins to a torn Achilles. On Sunday, before Dobbs had participated in a single practice, he was thrust into the lineup when starter Jaren Hall got hurt. Dobbs learned the Vikings pre-snap cadence on the sideline before going in, and head coach Kevin O’Connell had to translate the play calls as he radioed them into the headset in Dobbs’ helmet. No worries. Dobbs went 20-30 passing with two touchdowns, no interceptions and rushed for 66 yards as the Vikings knocked off Atlanta.
It would take a rocket scientist to master an offense a quarterback had never run before in a real NFL game. Fortunately for Minnesota, Dobbs is trained as one. He literally majored in aerospace engineering in college. That background, combined with his athleticism and ability to extend plays and create outside the pocket, have made Dobbs one of the feel-good stories of this NFL season. If the Vikings eventually trade him to NASA, don’t be surprised if he’s piloting a space mission the following week.
Best Team With A Bad Record: Los Angeles Rams (3-6)
Maybe the Rams really stink. The thing is, they feel better than a 3-6 team. Granted, Matthew Stafford is hurt, and they’ve been quarterbacked by Brett Rypien the past two weeks. But they still have Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua, and a respectable offensive line, and Aaron Donald on defense. They still have Sean McVay, one of the league’s great offensive minds. Even with Rypien, it feels as though L.A. should have been able to muster more than 118 passing yards on Sunday against a Green Bay team that had lost four games in a row and was starting two rookie 7th Round draft picks at cornerback. But injuries, weak spots in the roster and a stagnant offense have conspired to doom them, with rock bottom being their 20-3 loss in Green Bay where they gained just 187 total yards and had 10 first downs. Still, Stafford is expected to be back soon, and that could spark a resurgence. The Rams play some bad teams down the stretch (Cardinals, Giants, Commanders), and if they get hot they could sneak into the playoffs in the mediocre NFC.
Worst Team With a Good Record: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
The Steelers aren’t a very good football team right now. They’ve been outscored on the season by 30 points, they’ve been outgained by their opponents in every contest, they rank near the bottom of the league in most offensive and defensive statistical metrics and their offensive coordinator is so unpopular that fans are chanting for him to be fired at hockey games.
And yet, if the playoffs started today, Pittsburgh would be in.
How is this possible? Credit Mike Tomlin for finding ways to prepare his team to win, even when they play poorly for long stretches or seem overmatched. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a losing season since 2003, and that permeates the culture of the franchise. Credit their defense, too, for its bend-but-don’t-break nature. The unit gives up yards but not many points, which is essential since Pittsburgh’s offense can’t score. And credit Kenny Pickett for his “Clutch Kenny” persona. Pickett is at his best in the 4th quarter, when many of Pittsburgh’s games are decided. His 4th quarter QBR is the best in the league of all active players over the past two seasons, and he has led the team to seven 4th quarter comeback wins in his 18 NFL starts. The recipe for Pittsburgh winning games, then, is clear: Tomlin prepares them well, the defense keeps things close for three quarters and then Pickett makes enough plays in the final few minutes to eek out a win. It may not be sustainable, but it’s working for now.
DVR Alert Award: Miami Dolphins Offense
The Dolphins have shown so far this season that they can annihilate bad teams and lose to good ones. That aside, their offense has been must-watch football. Head coach Mike McDaniel has diagrammed some of the most creative plays in the league, whether they are no-look shovel passes from quarterback Tua Tagovialoa or pre-snap motions that send skill players down, back and around the formation. Miami is combining speed and innovation to perplex opposing defenses — the bad ones, anyway — and I always find something new when I observe them. For X-and-O geeks like myself who enjoy studying the game as much as watching it, McDaniel’s offense provides a graduate level course in play design.
Making-It-Up-As-They Go Award: The NFL League Office and its Officiating Crews
Here’s an honest question: What’s pass interference these days? What’s roughing the passer? What’s a hit against a defenseless receiver?
Don’t know the answer to these questions? Neither do I. No one seems to know, and that includes the suits at the league office who are trying to reshape the nature of the game on the fly. Attempting to limit injuries to players is noble, but the way it’s being done — arbitrarily, with no clear rubric, and in a manner that detracts from the nature of the game — is compromising the product on the field. It’s also putting the league’s officials into the impossible position of having to determine things like player intent and the exact positioning of a helmet on a violent hit occurring at full speed. These are absurd things to require referees to determine in real time. The fact they cannot adequately do so, but are flagging players nonetheless, is the biggest problem with the game at present. When the officials can’t be trusted to get things right — and they can’t — how can the integrity of the game remain in tact? If there’s one question the league must answer entering next season, this is it.
How the Mighty Have Fallen Award: New England Patriots, New York Giants, Denver Broncos
These three franchises, who have combined to win 13 Super Bowls, including 11 of the past 26, are a cumulative 7-19 this season.
New England is 2-7, has been outscored by 93 points and has no distinguishable identity. How much longer Bill Belichick coaches may be something only he and owner Robert Kraft know for sure. The future Hall of Fame coach has certainly earned a long leash. But Belichick is about to turn 72 years old and may have lost his touch when it comes to motivating players. New England seems checked out, which is a damning sign for any coach.
The Giants are also 2-7 and are playing Tommy DeVito at quarterback. He was actually one of the bright spots in the 30-6 drubbing they took at the hands of the Raiders on Sunday. Unfortunately for DeVito, the Giants treated pass protection like a mere suggestion. DeVito and starter Daniel Jones, who was knocked out with a season-ending knee injury, were sacked eight times. Brian Daboll was the NFL Coach of the Year in 2022. Now he may be on the hot seat. Amazing how quickly one’s fortunes can change in this league.
Denver is the toast of this group at 3-5. The Broncos were a train wreck a month ago, when they surrendered 70 points to the Dolphins. They’ve won three of five since, including an upset win over the Chiefs in Week 8. But they’re giving up over 400 yards and 28 points per game, both last in the league. Russell Wilson has been inconsistent at quarterback, and new head coach Sean Payton has struggled to rebuild the culture he was so critical of when he took over for Nathaniel Hackett. Denver seems headed for their fourth straight last place finish in the AFC West, and their seventh straight losing season.
Unexpected Role Reversal Award: Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are 7-2 and own one of the best records in the NFL. That’s no surprise. What is surprising is how they’ve gotten there. The defense has been the better of their two units, outplaying their heralded offense, particularly over the past few weeks. Kansas City held the explosive Miami offense to just 14 points in Germany on Sunday. They held the Jaguars to 9 points and the Chargers to 17. Kansas City is allowing the second-fewest points per game in the league and the fourth-fewest yards. Their offense remains solid, but they’ve fallen to 12th in points per game. If the defense continues to play as it has, and the offense rounds back into top form, the Chiefs will look like the Chiefs come playoff time.