As the regular season wraps up, here's how one ballot for the league's major awards would look:
Most Valuable Player: Peyton Manning, QB, Colts
Peyton Manning's passer rating of 121.4 is well above the single-season league record of 112.8 by Steve Young for San Francisco in 1994.
(Brent Smith - Reuters)
Other contenders: Drew Brees, QB, Chargers; Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles; Michael Vick, QB, Falcons; Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers; Terrell Owens, WR, Eagles
Owens was the midseason choice here, but the Eagles' dominance is a fading memory now and Owens's severe ankle sprain that cost him the final 2- 1/2 games of the regular season (and probably all of the playoffs) might lead to him being passed for the league lead in touchdown catches. Manning didn't shatter Dan Marino's single-season NFL record for touchdown passes, as it once appeared he would. But he did break it. He has thrown only 10 interceptions. His passer rating of 121.4 is well above the single-season league record of 112.8 by Steve Young for San Francisco in 1994.
Yes, this season's rules emphasis on eliminating clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs has helped him. But it has helped every other quarterback in the league, too, and Manning has been the best, by far. He has had, quite simply, one of the best seasons ever by a quarterback, and he is the reason the Colts are one of the league's top teams. In this case, there's no need to look beyond the obvious choice because the obvious choice is the right one.
Coach of the Year: Marty Schottenheimer, Chargers
Other contenders: Bill Belichick, Patriots; Bill Cowher, Steelers; Jim Mora Jr., Falcons; John Fox, Panthers; Mike Mularkey, Bills
Belichick has managed to keep the Patriots on top while having to do things like use veteran wide receiver Troy Brown at cornerback. Cowher has coached the Steelers to the league's best record after his job security was questioned before the season. Fox has the Panthers on the verge of securing a playoff spot after a 1-7 start. Mularkey has the Bills on the doorstep of the postseason following an 0-4 beginning in his first season as an NFL head coach. Mora is one win from having the Falcons match the fifth-best improvement that a team ever has enjoyed under a new coach.
But Schottenheimer is the clear-cut choice. The Chargers went 4-12 last season and ended up being stuck with a quarterback, in Brees, that they didn't particularly want. They traded away their best wide receiver, David Boston, and emerged from draft day with a first-round pick, quarterback Philip Rivers, who ended up unprepared to help them at all as a rookie after a lengthy contract dispute. It looked like the recipe for a 3-13 season that would get Schottenheimer fired and possibly end his coaching career.
But Schottenheimer, somehow, made it all work and emerged with one of the league's best half-dozen teams. He even abandoned his "Marty-ball'' tactics -- except when confronted with a snowy field in Cleveland 12 days ago -- and ended up with the third-highest-scoring club in the NFL.
Rookie of the Year: Roethlisberger
Other contenders: Roy Williams, WR, Lions; Michael Clayton, WR, Buccaneers; Kevin Jones, RB, Lions; Julius Jones, RB, Cowboys
The only way this wouldn't be a landslide is if football were like baseball and Bills tailback Willis McGahee retained his rookie status by sitting out all of last season. But it isn't and he'll have to settle for being comeback player of the year, while Roethlisberger gets rookie of the year in a runaway. Sure, the Steelers have a superb offensive line, good receivers, an overpowering running game and the league's top-ranked defense. But Roethlisberger was extremely solid, showed the poise of a 10-year veteran, made clutch plays when needed and didn't lose a single start. End of story.
Defensive Player of the Year: James Farrior, LB, Steelers
Other contenders: Ed Reed, S, Ravens; Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts
Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis isn't even the best defender on his team any more, much less in the league, but even Reed's dynamic season isn't enough to give him the nod over Farrior. Farrior has been the top performer on the league's No. 1 defense, and his teammates voted him the club's most valuable player. The best player on the best team -- that's enough to nudge him ahead of Reed.
Coaching Decisions Coming
There were two head-coaching changes during the season, and it's likely that there will be a few more after this weekend. But, at least as of right now, it looks like there won't be as many head coaches ousted this year as there were a year ago, when seven clubs made switches.
Jim Haslett once looked virtually certain to be dismissed as head coach of the New Orleans Saints. But the Saints have surged down the stretch, and they're alive for an NFC wild-card spot. The man who would have been the popular choice locally to replace Haslett, LSU Coach Nick Saban, already has taken the Miami Dolphins' job, and Saints owner Tom Benson might want to retain Haslett rather than pay off the remainder of his contract. But there is one bad omen for Haslett: The Saints face the Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte. Each of the club's previous two head coaches (excluding interim coach Rick Venturi), Mike Ditka and Jim Mora, coached (and lost) his final game at Carolina.
The status of San Francisco 49ers Coach Dennis Erickson is to be determined in meetings with co-owner John York and General Manager Terry Donahue next week, and Erickson could resign or be fired if he and management can't agree on the issue of possible changes to his coaching staff. The 49ers didn't seem particularly upset when Erickson interviewed late in the season for the University of Mississippi's coaching job, and they might have liked to have seen him go. But he didn't depart. And the 49ers, like the Saints, might not want to pay their coach not to coach.
Oakland's Norv Turner is widely considered to be on the way out, but a person familiar with the situation said last weekend that might not necessarily be the case, since Raiders owner Al Davis has been supportive of Turner in the team's internal deliberations and realized from the outset that the club was in for a rebuilding season.
Seattle's playoff appearance might save the job of Seahawks Coach Mike Holmgren. St. Louis Rams owner Georgia Frontiere assured her team's players in a letter that the club wasn't firing Coach Mike Martz. The Rams, thanks to the player-resting program of Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid, enter the weekend still in the running for a playoff spot. But a loss to the New York Jets on Sunday would leave St. Louis with a 7-9 record, and it wouldn't be the first time that a coach who was assured he wouldn't be fired got fired.
Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has said that Mike Shanahan can be his coach as long as Shanahan wants. But the Broncos have been wildly inconsistent this season and the discontentment with Shanahan in Denver will grow if the team goes a sixth straight season without a playoff victory.
There were recent rumblings about Coach Jeff Fisher being in trouble in Tennessee, but he seems to have resolved his differences with owner Bud Adams over contract extensions for his assistants. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had another disappointing season and players have criticized Coach Jon Gruden publicly, but Gruden is only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl triumph.
The Minnesota Vikings have fallen apart in the second half of the season for a second year in a row. But Coach Mike Tice's job probably was saved by the language in his contract that forced owner Red McCombs to decide by Saturday, a day before Sunday's regular season finale, whether to exercise the club's $1 million option for next season in Tice's contract. McCombs informed Tice on Monday that he was exercising the option. Now, even if the Vikings lose to the Washington Redskins on Sunday and fail to reach the postseason, McCombs would have to pay Tice $800,000 of that $1 million to dismiss him, provided that he has officially exercised the option.
There often is a surprise coaching change or two. Jacksonville Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio has been linked to the coaching vacancy at LSU created by Saban's departure. One of the league's elder coaching statesmen, the Dallas Cowboys' Bill Parcells or the Kansas City Chiefs' Dick Vermeil, could walk away, although Vermeil has said he's coming back and Parcells has given no indication that he's about to exit.
But the coaching turnover could be comparatively modest this year. The Cleveland Browns are the only NFL team currently in the coaching market, and it's possible that they won't have nearly as much competition as the seven clubs who hired new head coaches a year ago faced.
The seven head coaches hired a year ago have a combined record of 45-60 this season entering the final weekend of play. Only Mularkey and the Bills (at 9-6) and Mora Jr. and the Falcons (11-4) have winning records. Each of the five other clubs with new head coaches this season -- the Raiders with Turner, the Redskins with Joe Gibbs, the New York Giants with Tom Coughlin, the Chicago Bears with Lovie Smith and the Arizona Cardinals with Dennis Green--enters the final weekend of the regular season with a record of 5-10.
Colts Need Big Day for Scoring Record
The single-season scoring record of 556 points by the Vikings in 1998 probably is safe. The Colts have scored 508 points this season and probably will sit their starters for at least part of Sunday's game at Denver . . .
The 49ers placed quarterback Tim Rattay on the injured reserve list Thursday. Rattay underwent surgery on his ailing forearm this week, but had already had his season ended by a foot injury. San Francisco needed a roster spot for a defensive lineman, and promoted rookie Josh Cooper from its practice squad . . .
The Rams placed veteran safety Aeneas Williams on the IR list this week because of an arthritic condition in his neck that appears to be career-threatening . . . The Rams have won 13 straight regular season home games in December and January, with their last loss in such a game coming in 1997 . . . St. Louis rookie tailback Steven Jackson seems ready to go this weekend despite suffering a bruised knee during his 148-yard rushing performance in Monday night's win over the shorthanded Eagles . . .
Brooks Bollinger might be the Jets' backup quarterback, behind Chad Pennington, on Sunday in St. Louis. Quincy Carter has been suffering from flu-like symptoms this week and hasn't practiced, and the Jets plan to elevate Bollinger to second on the depth chart if Carter can't practice today. Bollinger has played in only one NFL game while Carter, the former Dallas starter, won two of three games as the starter when filling in while Pennington was hurt . . .
Coach Marvin Lewis officially named Jon Kitna the starter at quarterback for Cincinnati at Philadelphia on Sunday, with Carson Palmer out of the lineup for a third game in a row because of his knee injury. But Lewis indicated that Palmer, suffering from damage to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, will be the No. 2 quarterback and could play if needed . . .
Rivers could throw the first pass of his rookie season Sunday, with Schottenheimer likely to sit Brees and the other Chargers regulars at some point against the Chiefs. Schottenheimer has not said yet whether Brees will even start the game. Rivers has played in one game but hasn't thrown a pass . . .
Giants tailback Tiki Barber needs 94 rushing yards Sunday night against the Cowboys to break the single-season team record of 1,516 yards by Joe Morris in 1986. He needs only 66 yards to surpass Rodney Hampton as the Giants' career rushing leader . . .
Detroit signed punter Nick Harris and reserve linebacker Donte Curry to three-year contract extensions Thursday, keeping them off the free-agent market in the spring.