Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, set to play Sunday when the Los Angeles Rams face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, was named the NFL’s defensive player of the year. The Chicago Bears’ Matt Nagy was named coach of the year. The comeback player of the year was Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Top-rookie nods went to New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley on offense and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard on defense.
Mahomes was the star of stars in an NFL season that was all about unstoppable offenses and superior quarterback play. The Chiefs moved up to select him in the opening round of the 2017 NFL draft and committed to him being the starter this season after he spent his rookie year awaiting his turn behind Alex Smith. During Super Bowl week last year, the Chiefs arranged to trade Smith to the Washington Redskins, with the deal becoming official last March.
The Chiefs were rewarded as Mahomes flourished in Coach Andy Reid’s offense. Mahomes threw passes from all arm angles and with almost-unimaginable body contortions. He threw no-look passes. He threw the occasional left-handed pass. And, mostly, everything worked. He had one of the best passing seasons in league history, throwing for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns with 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 113.8.
The Chiefs secured the top seed in the AFC playoffs. They hosted the Patriots in the AFC title game, which went to overtime. But Mahomes never left the sideline during that overtime session as the Kansas City defense could not stop the Patriots from crafting an opening-possession touchdown drive to win.
“The season is still kind of fresh on my mind,” Mahomes said. “I’m wishing I was playing this week. But at the same time, if you look back, we did so many great things this year. We have a lot of young guys … We all wish we were in the Super Bowl. But we’re going to use that as motivation for this next season and try to come back and find a way to get there next year.”
Donald was next to unblock-able and led the league in sacks with 20.5, putting him 4.5 ahead of runner-up J.J. Watt of Houston. The Rams made Donald the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player when they signed him in late August to a six-year contract extension worth $135 million, ending a holdout by Donald that lasted through training camp. Donald rewarded the Rams with his second straight defensive player of the year award.
Nagy left Reid’s staff in Kansas City and thrived as a rookie head coach in Chicago. He pushed along the development of second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky, benefited from the Bears’ preseason trade for pass rusher Khalil Mack and took the team to an NFC North title before losing an opening-round playoff game to the Philadelphia Eagles on an agonizing missed field goal by kicker Cody Parkey.
“This represents all of us,” said Nagy, who cut short a vacation for his 17th wedding anniversary to attend the ceremony with his wife. “This is a ‘we’ award … We didn’t reach all of the goals. But in the end it’s a step for us, a step for our future.”
Luck returned to the Colts after missing all of last season in a slower-than-expected return from shoulder surgery. He shoved aside the doubts about his future and reclaimed his status as a true franchise quarterback. His 39 touchdown passes were the league’s second-most, and he threw for 4,593 yards while taking the Colts to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs after a 1-5 start to the season.
Barkley edged Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield for top offensive rookie. The two had put a friendly wager — the purchase of a chain — on the outcome. The Giants were criticized by some for taking Barkley second overall in last year’s draft ahead of quarterback Sam Darnold, but they maintained that Barkley was too good to pass up. He was second in the NFL with his 1,307 rushing yards.
Leonard led the NFL with 163 tackles, 19 more than anyone else during the regular season. He was snubbed in the Pro Bowl balloting but was named first-team all-pro by the AP, quite an immediate return for the Colts on the second-round draft choice they used last spring on the unheralded linebacker from South Carolina State.
“My feelings were hurt,” Leonard said of his Pro Bowl snub. “But I wasn’t going to stop and dwell on that.”