PEYTON MANNINGhad another fine year, further establishing himself as the reigning quarterbackof this era. But for those of you who say that no player, quarterback orotherwise, meant as much to his team as Drew Brees did to the Saints, I won'targue. In fact, he is my Most Valuable Player, even though I couldn't put himin the QB spot over Manning. It's the first time in 28 years of picking SI'sAll-Pro team that I've split the vote that way.
TheChargers--Super Bowl front-runners--dominate the lineup with four choices. Theeasiest was the league's premier runner, LaDainian Tomlinson, who put thealltime touchdown record out of sight with 31. Teammate Antonio Gates is arepeater at tight end. The Broncos paid him the highest tribute by puttingshutdown corner Champ Bailey on him in man coverage.
Marvin Harrison,as smoothly efficient as ever, is one of the wideout selections. The otherinvolved an agonizing choice among half a dozen candidates. But I gave the nodto the Jets' Laveranues Coles because no one else has his awareness of exactlywhere the first-down sticks are. If you're looking for the Bengals' ChadJohnson, whose numbers jumped off the chart, sorry, I take a dim view ofdropped balls.
Young JammalBrown, the Saints' left tackle, is this year's offensive line star, displacingan old standby, Walter Jones of the Seahawks. I let my charts do the work forme, and Brown, a big reason for Brees's success, simply had higher grades. Theother tackle, the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden, is again his old drive-blocking self.San Diego right guard Mike Goff was my sleeper lineman last year, and I guesshe's still a sleeper because the Pro Bowl voters refuse to honor his work inproviding the muscle up front for Tomlinson. On the other side, tough-as-nailsLogan Mankins of the Patriots edges others with fancier credentials. I keeplooking for ways to avoid picking Denver center Tom Nalen because he despiseswriters and makes sure his fellow linemen keep away from them. But his gamejust refuses to come down from the high level he set so many years ago. Atlantaknows how to run the ball, and in fullback Justin Griffith the Falcons have amobile and versatile athlete.
I had threefinalists at defensive end. The Dolphins' Jason Taylor is the greatgame-changer. The Chiefs' Jared Allen is the intimidator, a relentless,punishing competitor who never stops coming. That was my pair, but how aboutthe Panthers' Julius Peppers? When he's fresh, he's the best in the game, butthe Panthers have worn him out. The Vikings' Pat Williams is a repeat defensivetackle from last year. There's no interior lineman in the game who has had theyear Baltimore's Trevor Pryce has. "Best defensive player in football,"says Ravens coordinator Rex Ryan, and I can't disagree.
Once again theDolphins' Zach Thomas is the middle linebacker pick by an eyelash, this timeover Brian Urlacher of the Bears. Thomas got my vote thanks to his amazingability to get to the ball in a hurry. San Diego's Shawne Merriman is the rushlinebacker who attacks the edge with fury and doesn't worry too much aboutcoverage. Chicago's Lance Briggs is the all-around backer who has the finelytuned game of many standouts from the past.
I'd never pickedBailey at a corner--other people just graded higher. However, going around theleague and realizing how much respect he commands, I can't leave him off thisyear. But the young guy who is really exciting is the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha,a great ball hawk and a cover man who in his fourth year already has offensesgeared to avoid him. The Browns' Sean Jones was an easy strong safety pick.Under my complicated system, he had the best grades of any defensive back. TheEagles' Brian Dawkins has had a fine year at free safety but the Jets' KerryRhodes was even more active, if that's possible.
Sorry, but Ican't pick a kicker who hasn't tried one longer than 49 yards. Thus Baltimore'sMatt Stover is my choice over Chicago's Robbie Gould. Brian Moorman of theBills is my repeat punter.
Chicago's DevinHester, with his record six TDs, is everybody's choice as a returner, andPhiladelphia's Quintin Mikell, who not only busts wedges but is also a terrificblocker on kickoffs, is my all-around special teamer. The Saints' Sean Paytonhas done a magnificent job handling his rushing tandem, Reggie Bush and DeuceMcAllister. He's a narrow choice over the Jets' boy wonder, Eric Mangini, as myCoach of the Year. My heart said that Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill wouldbe a terrific choice for Rookie of the Year, but my head said that quarterbackVince Young deserved the honor for taking the Titans into playoffcontention.
The Best of2006
[This article contains tables. Please see hardcopy or pdf.]
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
COACH OF THE YEAR
The Sainted Brees