Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Madden Awards, Minus the Whap

Anytime that a team ascends to first place in their division, there will always be a superstar that symbolizes that team (Tomlinson, Urlacher, Manning, etc) and receives all of the publicity. But to truly be a great team, there must also be players willing to do the dirty work that goes unnoticed. The following players are all relatively unheralded, underappreciated teammates who are nonetheless essential to their team's success:

San Diego, FB, Lorenzo Neal

LaDanian Tomlinson is the leading candidate for the NFL MVP, but he owes some of that front-runner status to the man running in front of him. Lorenzo Neal is a 5’11, 255 pound wrecking ball that feeds off of contact. Following Neal’s lead blocks gives Tomlinson the space he needs to take any carry the distance. When Tomlinson is giving his speech in Canton in a decade or so, he should be sure to thank Neal for helping to pave the way. For a true appreciation of the innerworkings of Lorenzo Neal’s mind, check out the Smorgasboard over at The Mighty MJD and search “Lorenzo.” My personal favorite comes from week 4.

(Update: Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver obviously read my blog, then scheduled an impromptu interview with Lorenzo Neal to produce this excellent article. Very shrewd of you, Mr. Silver.)

New Orleans, OT, Jammal Brown

Jammal Brown anchors the Saints’ offensive line and protects the blindside of one Mr. Drew Brees, who you may be aware is having a pretty decent season. In addition to already passing for over 4,000 yards and 25 TDs, Brees has only been sacked 15 times in 13 games. Jammal Brown hits an opposing pass rusher like it was his wife and she was late with dinner.

As an aside, the Saints traded with the Texans to move to the #13 spot in order to draft Jammal Brown in the 2005 draft. The Texans slid down to #16 and used that pick on Florida State DT Travis Johnson who has had very little impact on the team thus far. So Texans fans (are there any left?), your team could have had Jammal Brown and either Reggie Bush or Vince Young, but instead opted for Travis Johnson and Mario Williams. Ouch.

Baltimore, LB Adalius Thomas

Ray Lewis always gets all of the publicity on this Ravens’ defense what with his dancing and his belief that he’s chosen by God , and his ability to cover-up a murder and all. But while Lewis may be the most versatile player off the field, Thomas is the Ravens’ most versatile defender on the field. Thomas is a very effective pass rusher and has tallied 10 sacks this season. However Thomas isn’t just a pass-rushing specialist. He can also drop into coverage and is very good against the run. I’m sure Ravens’ fans already know how good Thomas is, but since he doesn’t have a seizure every time he makes a tackle, much of his play goes unnoticed around the league. By all accounts, Adalius Thomas is a good guy off the field too. He’s created the S.L.A.S.H. fund, which is a community foundation with the goal of promoting acadmic development in urban areas. And as far as I know, he's never been charged with murder.

Chicago, K, Robbie Gould

I was going to give the Bears’ nomination to LB Lance Briggs, as his 100+ tackles are a huge part of a Bears defense in which Urlacher gets most of the publicity. But then Peter King featured him on America’s Night of American Football in America. If Peter King is talking about him, then there’s no way he’s under the radar. So instead, I’ll go with Robbie Gould and his league leading (among kickers) 118 points. With Rex Grossman struggling, the offensive gameplan is just to avoid making mistakes and try to get an early lead for the defense to protect. In that scenario, Robbie is as good as gol…..no sorry, I just can’t do it.

New England, DL, Ty Warren and Vince Wolfork

Football analysts are so busy slurping on Tom Brady seven days a week that I’m surprised he has the energy to actually play on gameday. But since I drew #145,367 in the waiting list to lick Brady’s right nut, I’ll have to find another player that’s important to the team. The Pats’ defense is 3rd in the NFL in points surrendered, and as I’ve learned from playing Madden, it all starts up front on the line. Vince Wolfork does a great job occupying multiple offensive linemen and stuffing the run, while Ty Warren has a career high with seven sacks this season. Their activity frees up space for the linebackers to make plays and keeps pressure on the QB, which CB Asante Samuel certainly appreciates while he’s in the midst of contract negotiations. Drafting D-linemen in the 1st round has worked out much better for the Patriots than the Texans thus far.

Seattle, FB, Mack Strong

Mack Strong is to the Seahawks what Lorenzo Neal is to the Chargers (tho I’d say Neal is slightly better at the position). Coming into 2006, Mack Strong had been the fullback for a 1,000 yard rusher in 11 of his 13 seasons. With the injury to Shaun Alexander along with the departure of Steve Hutchinson, that stat will likely be 11 out of 14; but nevertheless, Strong has been doing his part- sacrificing his body so that someone else can get the glory. Even in a down year, the honor has to go to Strong, even if for no other reason than the process of elimination. The run defense has been horrid, Alexander has been hurt, and the passing game has been erratic since Hasselbeck injured his knee. How is this team in first place again? Wow, the NFC West is bad.

Dallas, LB, Bradie James

After watching their performance Sunday night, it’s hard to believe that the Cowboys are a first place team with a solid defense. But unless the Falcons prove otherwise this Saturday, I’ll consider the blowout to be the result of excellent play by the New Orleans Saints rather than poor play by the Cowboys. DeMarcus Ware is the most exciting and most dominant member of the Dallas defense, but it’s inside linebacker Bradie James that is actually leading the team in tackles with 83. In the Cowboys 4-4 start to this season, James was averaging 5.3 tackles per game. Since then, James has stepped up his play and is averaging 8 tackles per game, and the Cowboys are 4-1. I don’t know if that stat really has any meaning attached to it, but since I went through all the trouble of opening the Windows calculator to compute it, I’m using it! (I also probably doubled the hit count on Bradie James’ player card on espn.com).

All of these players help make the job easier for the anointed stars on their team. While it may not land them on a video game cover anytime soon, it has landed them in first place.


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