Top team awards turn into consolation prizes

The 49ers handed out consolation prizes Wednesday to their top players who were spurned by the NFC in Pro Bowl voting.

But for some of them in this dismal season of 2005, that was almost as good.

Take 12th-year defensive end Bryant Young for example. Young, a four-time Pro Bowler, wasn't getting his hopes up too high that he would earn a fifth trip to Hawaii in February. He had strong competition in the NFC at the position, he missed three games at the beginning of the late November/early December stretch run, and he played on a team that had a season that certainly wouldn't win him any votes.

But Young swept a couple of the 49ers' top team awards and, particularly to him, that means something.

Young was the named the recipient of the Matt Hazeltine Iron Man Award, given by coaches to San Francisco's most courageous and tenacious defensive player. But that honor paled in comparison to the Len Eshmont Award, which Young won in a vote of teammates for a record sixth time.

"I'm just kind of in awe and disbelief that I won it again," Young said. "We have so many other guys who are deserving. It really is (humbling), because earning respect from the guys you play with to me means the most, and I'm just grateful for that."

Young was thought to have perhaps the best chance of any 49er to make the NFC's Pro Bowl team. He was among the NFL leaders with eight sacks before suffering ligament damage in his right knee Nov. 20 against Seattle and missing the next three games.

The injury could have kept Young out the remainder of the season. But he returned to the starting lineup last week against Jacksonville, even though his knee still isn't completely recovered.

That's the latest example why Young again is the recipient of celebrated Eshmont Award, the team's most prestigious individual honor. The award is given annually to the San Francisco player who best exemplifies inspirational and courageous play. Voted on by teammates, it's usually an unofficial recognition for the team's best player.

"B.Y. swept the Grammys," 49ers kicker Joe Nedney said.

Young won the honor for the second consecutive season and sixth time in the past 10 years. No other player has been honored more than twice in the 49-year history of the award.

"They should just change it to the Bryant Young Award," said linebacker Julian Peterson, who won the honor in 2003. "It's a slam dunk every time. Even the year I got it, I thought he should have won."

Peterson is one of just two San Francisco players given Pro Bowl recognition by the NFC. A two-time Pro Bowler (2003-2004), Peterson was named a NFC first alternate at outside linebacker. Nedney was named a second alternate at kicker.

Peterson, however, was shut out in the team's annual honors. Nedney and linebacker Derek Smith were co-recipients of the Bill Walsh Award, given to the team's most valuable player as selected by coaches.

Nedney, who has made 23 of 25 field-goal attempts this season, leads the 49ers with 83 points. His output represents 43 percent of the 195 points scored by San Francisco this season. He has scored all of the Niners' points in seven of their 14 games this season.

"It's kind of a good thing and a bad thing," Nedney said of a kicker earning the distinction as team MVP. "It's good for me, but not having an offensive guy in that spot … It's bittersweet (for the team). But it feels good to me. It's just good to know that I'm back to the form that I'm accustomed to and I can produce again. Hopefully, when the team needs it, I'll be there in the future."

Though Young and Peterson are more widely-acclaimed talents, Smith also is deserving of his honor. He leads the 49ers with 141 tackles – 61 more than any other player on the team – and is on track to lead San Francisco in that category for the fifth consecutive season since joining the team in 2001.

In the 49ers' other annual honor announced Wednesday, center Jeremy Newberry won the Bobb McKittrick Award given to the team's top offensive linemen. That also turns out to be something of a consolation prize for the team's top veteran on offense, who started 10 games this year with virtually no cartilage in his right knee before finally going on injured reserve Nov. 29 to have major microfracture surgery on the knee.

Like Young with the Eshmont Award, Newberry is a McKittrick mainstay. He now has won the award three of the past six years.

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