Squawka NFL

Hardware heroes: Squawka’s own ‘alternative’ 2021 NFL awards

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 15:30, 28 February 2022

Though another thrilling NFL season is in the books, and the memorable moments of the 2021 season will long remain with us, as will the spectacular and record-breaking performances that earned some of the league’s superstars some postseason hardware.

Every NFL season is chock full of superstar-making, legacy-defining and record-breaking performances. The 2021 season was no different. In the days prior to Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, the NFL handed out its annual awards, to some of the league’s brightest stars. That night, the most prestigious honour of the season went to a longstanding face of the league, Aaron Rodgers, while the rest of the slate consisted of an ascendant crop of outstanding young talents – Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals, Micah Parsons of the Dallas Cowboys, and Cooper Kupp of the Super Bowl champion Rams – that’s set to lead the NFL forward.

We, however, thought it might be interesting and somewhat instructive to hand out some awards of our own. You’ll notice that these awards, though more team-centric, prominently feature the protagonists and antagonists of the 2021 NFL season:

The Paper Lion Award (‘worst good team of the season’): Arizona Cardinals

There is competition for this ‘honor’. The New England Patriots looked well-rounded and an absolute pain to play against… until they very much didn’t. The Dallas Cowboys, the NFC East’s champion-elect all season, flirted with Super Bowl contention, and may even have been the favorites for a fleeting moment. One might also mention the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, though these were otherwise excellent teams lacking at the most important position in the sport. They get quarterbacks, they get fixed.

Ultimately, this dubious honor could only be bestowed upon one team.

Despite late-season collapses in each of the last two seasons, Kliff, Kingsbury and the Cardinals entered 2021 with a fair bit of optimism. And, for two months, they justified every bit of it!

The Cards reeled off seven straight wins to start the season, six of them by at least a touchdown, five by double figures. They followed up their first loss of the season, a three-point defeat to the Green Bay Packers, with a two-touchdown win over the 49ers in San Francisco.

The Cards went into their bye week an outstanding 9-2, and heavy favorites to lock up not only the NFC West, but the conference’s top seed in the playoffs. They came out of that bye with a double-digit win in Chicago.

From that point on, however, the season was an unmitigated disaster. Injuries to franchise quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins derailed a once-high-powered attack. Meanwhile, a penchant for bog plays swiftly and suddenly abandoned their big-play defense. After forcing 23 turnovers in their first 12 games, the Cardinals manage just four in their final six (including the Wild Card loss to the Rams). Arizona lost four of five to close out the regular season, limped into the playoffs as a Wild Card, put forth a toothless performance, and were summarily pasted by the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams.

The NFL’s ‘best bad team’ in 2021: the actual Lions

Heading into the season, we all had some fun at the expense of new Lions head coach Dan Campbell. In his introductory press conference, Campbell went beyond the industry standard ‘grit, heart and toughness’ coach-speak, vividly invoking the image of biting opponents’ kneecaps in the heat of competition.

Then Lions lost each have their first eight games, and were only spared from an 0-11 start by a Week 10 tie in Pittsburgh. To anyone judging solely on results, the new disaster wasn’t very different from the old disaster. On paper, Campbell might have seemed like yet another wannabe tough guy whose mouth written checks that neither his roster nor his coaching acumen could cash.

A funny thing happened along the way. The Lions – inexperienced, under-talented, and almost comically bereft of household names – played quality opponents, seemingly on a weekly basis, and they made the majority of them work: 

  • In week one, the 49ers’ 38-10 lead halfway through the third quarter only yielded a 41-33 win.
  • The following Monday night, the Lions held a halftime lead in Green Bay, before a comprehensive ‘Aaron Rodgersing’ relegated them to defeat.
  • The week after that, it was a two-point loss (19-17) to the Baltimore Ravens.
  • Two weeks after that, another 19-17 loss, this time in Minnesota.
  • They lost in Los Angeles to the Rams by just nine points.
  • Again, they came out of their bye week 0-8, went to Pittsburgh, and played the Steelers to a standstill.

Despite every excuse to do so, the Lions never wavered eased up on effort. They showed up to play every week. And finally, after losses to the Browns and Bears by a combined five points, they broke through, at home against the Vikings, with a thrilling two-point win (shoutout to the spectacularly named and extremely talented Amon-Ra St. Brown), before going on to manhandle the Cardinals and top the Packers in the season’s final four weeks.

To be clear, the Lions 2021 were not ‘good’. At the same time, they weren’t designed to be. However, thanks to the efforts of Campbell and his players, the 2021 Lions were something of a feel-good story, sparking genuine optimism for 2022 and beyond.

Viewer-Friendliest Team of the Year: San Diego Chargers

This award reward a particular class of team. First and foremost, the league’s most ‘TV-friendly’ team must obviously be ‘good’, with top-end talent on both sides of the ball. This often includes a quarterback who’s big-armed and bold, and playmakers with whom he has a rapport.

At the same time, it’s unlikely to be one of the league’s elite, as teams in the uppermost tier tend not to regularly play games that descend into chaos. This team must be capable of going toe-to-toe with the league’s best, but sufficiently prone to lapses that keep things interesting.  

Taking all of this into account, before I’d looked at a single statistic I knew the choice here was the Los Angeles Chargers.

Led by one of the most fun and physically gifted young quarterbacks in the league in Justin Herbert, one of the best multi-dimensional running backs in Austin Ekeler, a standout receiver duo in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, the 2021 Chargers scored a whopping 474 points – good for fifth in the NFL. Meanwhile, the defense, headlined by an elite pass rusher in Joey Bosa and superstar in the secondary in Derwin James, while more than capable of making plays, surrendered a fourth-worst-in-the-league 459 points. There was always something going on with these guys. 

The Chargers were not merely present for a bunch of high-scoring games, but true protagonists in more genuinely thrilling games during the 2021 regular season than any other team. Between Weeks 3 and 5, they lost dramatically to the Cowboys, traveled to Kansas City and knocked off the Chiefs, and won a fever dream of a game at home against the Browns (more on this in a moment).

They nearly pulled of a spectacular comeback against the Patriots, before giving up 27 points and a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Steelers in Week 11… before miraculously pulling out a 41-37 victory on a 53-yard pass from Herbert to Williams with just over two minutes remaining.

Of course, they lost handily the following week to the freefalling Broncos, before comfortably handling the eventual AFC champion Bengals, then pushing Kansas City to the brink again in Week 15, and then losing to the lowly Texans. It all ended, of course, against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 18’s ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma Special’. The Chargers and the Raiders entered their regular season finale each needing a victory to guarantee a playoff berth. However, in one of the most ridiculous scenarios in NFL history, if the teams remained tied after 70 minutes (regulation plus a 10-minute overtime), both would make the playoffs.

After 60 minutes, the teams were tied 29. About three minutes into overtime, the Raiders pulled ahead with a field goal. Two and a half minutes later, the Chargers answered with one of their own. With about a minute remaining, the sides were tied, 32-32, and hurtling toward one of the craziest outcomes in NFL history…

Until a (not unjustified, it must be said) late timeout by Chargers head coach Brandon Staley opened the door for a game-winning field goal as time expired that sent the Chargers home and the Raiders to the playoffs.

In terms of pure entertainment value up until the literal last possible second, it’s tough to think of team the pack the bigger punch than these Chargers.

Best Game (regular season) – Browns, 42, at Chargers, 47, in Week 5 (October 10, 2021)

Based on what you’ve just read, it won’t shock you to learn that 2021’s wildest and most thrilling regular season game involved the Chargers. Though there’s no shortage of option, in terms of pure fun and spectacular back-and-forth action from star-quality players, the Bolts’ Week 5 battle at home against Browns gets top billing.

In a battle between, at the time, two of the top threats to the Chiefs’ supremacy in the AFC, two exciting young quarterbacks and their cadres of playmakers trading walloping blows against two highly talented defenses. But this was much more than that. 

Early in the third quarter, the Browns held a 27-13 lead. with Baker Mayfield (who ended with 302 yards and no turnovers on 32 attempts) playing phenomenally, it seemed a safe bet that star running back Nick Chubb (who ended with 161 yards and a TD) and the Browns’ powerhouse defense would take over and safely secure the victory. Not so fast! 

That was merely the point at which the game truly began. Between the 12:18 mark of the third quarter and the 11:22 mark of the fourth, a nine-yard touchdown run by Herbert (plus a two-point conversion) and a 42-yard pass to Williams (who wound up with 165 yards and 2 TDs) for Herbert’s third passing TD of the game (he’d wind up with four, and 398 passing yards) put the Chargers ahead, 28-27.

The lead was short-lived, as 42 seconds later, a 71-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield to David Njoku (who had 149 yards) – plus a two point conversion – put the Browns back up a touchdown. Just over three minutes later, however, a four-yard run by Ekeler had the Chargers were back in the end zone, and the score tied at 35. Less than three minutes after that, Kareem Hunt ran in from eight yards out for his second TD of the game, to put the Browns back ahead, 42-35. Exactly a minute and a half later, however, Herbert found Ekeler for a 19 yard touchdown that would presumably re-tie the game. HOWEVER…. kicker Tristan Vizcaino missed the extra point attempt, leaving the Chargers down a point, 42-41, with 3:15 to play. 

A strong defensive stand returned the ball to the Chargers just over a minute later. 34 seconds after that, Ekeler ran in the game-winning touchdown from three yards out, to give the Chargers the 47-42 win.

In just about every way possible, this is what we all hope to see when we settle in to watch a game.

Best Game (playoff) – Bills, 36, at Chiefs, 42, in overtime, in the Divisional Round (January 23, 2022). So…

Take that bonkers Browns-Chargers meeting in Week 5, make the quarterbacks involved to two of the NFL’s three or four best, upgrade their supporting casts, and multiply the stakes exponentially.

The Bills-Chiefs Divisional Round slugfest almost defies words. This was the epitome of NFL football.

As with Browns-Chargers above, this was a more than decent game through three quarters, with the Bills having pulled to within two points, 23-21, on an inch-perfect 75-yard bomb from Josh Allen to Gabriel Davis, for Davis’s second touchdown catch of the night. It was a spectacular play and throw for the ages and, in hindsight (naturally) a sign of the absurdity to come… eventually.

The first 13 minutes of the fourth quarter yielded only a 26-yard field goal that extended the Chiefs’ lead to 26-21. And then, it was on!

With 1:54 remaining, Allen found Davis again, this time from 27 yards out, to put Buffalo ahead 27-26 – the lead grew to 29-26 after successful a two point conversion. 52 seconds later, it was Patrick Mahomes hooking up with Tyreke Hill on a 64-yard strike to put the Chiefs ahead again, 33-29. 49 seconds after that, it was Gabriel Davis, again, hauling in the last of his four touchdown catches with just 13 seconds remaining, putting the Bills up three, and seemingly into the AFC Championship Game.

For anyone who’d not yet passed out, this game had even more in store, as Mahomes, unnervingly calm in the face of unbelievable pressure (which, it must be said, Allen was as well), in all of ten seconds, complete two passes for 44 yards to Hill and Travis Kelce to set up Harrison Butker’s 49 yard field goal that sent the game into overtime. From there, Mahomes got right back onto the field, and authored an eight-play, 75-yards drive that culminated in an 8-yard pass to Kelce for the game-winning touchdown.

That painstaking description does not begin to do justice to experience of watching this game. This was two heavyweights, standing toe-to-toe, trading massive blows, while exploring the limits of their astounding abilities.

This really was as good as it gets.

The NFL’s ‘Group of Death’: NFC West

With honorable mentions for the AFC North, which put a team in the Super Bowl and had no team with a record worse than 8-9, and the AFC West, in which no team won fewer than seven regular season games, three of four teams has positive point differences, two (and SO nearly three) made the playoffs, and features arguably the best top-3 QBs of any division (Mahomes, Herbert and the Raiders’ Derek Carr), the NFL’s ‘group of death’ in 2021 was, without a doubt, the NFC West.

Like the AFC West, no team in the NFC West won fewer than seven regular season games. Every team in this division had a positive point difference in 2021, and it was an NFC West team, the aforementioned Cardinals, that was the last of the NFL’s ‘undefeateds’. Three of four NFC West teams make the playoffs – two of those teams squared off in the NFC Championship Game, and one of them, the Rams, went on to win the Super Bowl.

Also like the AFC West, this division features three outstanding quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, and a fourth in Jimmy Garoppolo who, while universally derided and seemingly on his way out in San Francisco who’s appeared in two NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl in the last three years.

Quarterbacks aside, the star power throughout this division is incredible: from the coaches (Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Pete Carroll and Kingsbury), to defensive stalwarts – two three-time Defensive Player of the Year winners, including the best defensive player of his generation, the league’s best cornerback in Jalen Ramsay, its best middle linebacker in Bobby Wagner, and historically excellent pass rushers in Chandler Jones, Von Miller and Nick Bosa – to an offensive arsenal that features an elite receiver duo in the record-shattering Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., a position-defying Swiss Army Knife in Deebo Samuel, another all-time great receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and a superstar tight end in Greg Kittle. It really is astounding.

That the Seattle Seahawks, with Wagner, Russell Wilson, DK Metcalf and Rashaad Penny are the weak link of this division tells you all you need to know.

“Is this the end?”: Quarterback Edition: Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts

There are four clear-cut starting NFL quarterbacks for who ended 2021 at serious inflection points on their respective NFL journeys.

First up is Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings. Frustratingly good, more frustratingly not quite good enough and nearly impossible to upgrade. At the same time, financial considerations, on-field staleness and a new head coach/GM regime mean that Cousins’ time in Minnesota may be over, provided the Vikings can find a taker for a trade.

However, Cousins’ time as an NFL starter is certainly not over. Either in Minnesota or elsewhere, Cousins will start at quarterback and put some impressive stats for a team that hopes to contend – and perhaps even flirts with contention –but ultimately falls short.

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Next, we have Jimmy Garoppolo of the 49ers and Teddy Bridgewater of the Denver Borncos. Despite helming the Niners for two trips to the NFC Championship game and a Super Bowl appearance in three years, Garoppolo at this is universally derided by fans and the media as the glaring weak link on an otherwise Super Bowl-caliber roster. 

Whether the reins are handed to the #3 overall pick in the 2021 draft, Trey Lance, or Tom Brady backpedals out of retirement for one last run with his childhood team, it seems exceedingly likely that Jimmy G’s time as San Francisco’s starter is up.

In a similar, if less successful boat is Teddy Bridgewater of the Denver Broncos. Neither particularly athletic nor possessing an overpowering arm, Bridgewater has come to be associated with unremarkable, low-ceiling competence. That’s undoubtedly damning with faint praise, but there are worse fates than spending over a decade in the NFL as quarterback.

For both Garoppolo and Bridgewater, a starting spot in 2022 is a possibility, though either will likely find no shortage of suitors looking for a high-end backup. One thing that can be said, despite their various on-field shortcomings, is that both Jimmy G. and Teddy are highly-respected as quality professionals and well-liked by coaches and teammates. On the other hand… 

From where I sit, the clear leading candidate for a demotion from the starting ranks is Carson Wentz of the Indianapolis Colts. The #2 overall pick in 2016, Wentz quickly blossomed into an MVP candidate in Philly, and jumpstarted the Eagles’ run to Super Bowl LII. However, after blowing out his knee and missing out on the actual Super Bowl run,

Wentz returned for a couple of notionally productive but frustrating and turnover-laden seasons, during which his relationship with head coach Doug Pederson, other members of the staff, and teammates deteriorated, prompting a trade to Indy last offseason.

Believing that they were just a quarterback away from a Super Bowl run of their own, the Colts sent their 2021 first round pick to Philly to bring Wentz to town. Injuries and the Colts early in the season, before Jonathan Taylor and a healthy, fairly effective Wentz helped right the ship and sparked an unlikely playoff run. In the end, the Colts need a single win in the season finale against the worst team in the NFL – the shambolic Jacksonville Jaguars. Not only did the Colts come up short and wind up having to watch the playoffs from home, more than any individual, it was Wentz who came up small in what should have been perfunctory win over what was, at best, a quasi-NFL team.

Heading into the 2022 season, it can no longer be assumed the Wentz is an NFL starter by default, nor that he’ll even be with the Colts, who have both on-field and financial incentives to trade once in the coming weeks.


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