Let’s tear open some more envelopes.
Hit of the Year: CB Damarious Randall on Chiefs RB Knile Davis
In a kinder, gentler but, most importantly, safer NFL, the line between great hit and penalty is often a judgement call. But football, at its core, is a contact sport. And in the Packers’ third game of the season — a Monday night tilt against the Kansas City Chiefs — two members of Green Bay’s secondary dished out some major decleaters.
The winner is rookie corner Damarious Randall’s perfectly timed hit on Chiefs running back Knile Davis, who was put horizontal and separated from the ball on a first-down play in the fourth quarter with Green Bay leading 38-28.
The runner-up was a play earlier in the fourth quarter of the same game, when safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix unloaded on receiver Jeremy Maclin. The difference in the two plays: Clinton-Dix drew a flag for hitting a defenseless receiver — despite it being clear shoulder-to-shoulder contact.
Shadows to Spotlight Award: WR Jeff Janis
He was a fan favorite based on potential and underdog status — a big, fast kid from a small Division II school in Michigan with NFL dreams. Unfortunately, he was not a favorite of his quarterback or apparently his coach. Despite being 6-foot-3, 217 pounds and running a 4.4 40-yard dash, Janis couldn’t get on the field. He was Jordy Nelson-sized and faster — but raw and inexperienced, didn’t run crisp routes and struggled on releases and adjustments. But his athleticism shone through on special teams in a big way as he became one of the team’s top gunners, finishing second on the team with 15 tackles and unleashing some big hits on opposing returners. He also averaged nearly 29 yards on 18 kickoff returns.
But in a year when Nelson was lost, Davante Adams failed to impress, Randall Cobb led the team in drops and rookie third-round pick Ty Montgomery got hurt, Janis still could not get on the field, despite seeming to be exactly what the offense needed — a big, fast receiver to take the top off a defense. He finished the regular season with just two catches for 79 yards — both against San Diego. But when his coach and quarterback absolutely needed to go to him after Cobb sustained a punctured lung in the divisional playoff game at Arizona, Janis responded with a game that left everyone wondering how on earth he wasn’t worked into the mix sooner — force fed into the offense if that’s what was needed. In the desert, Janis’ cult status grew with a seven catch, 145-yard performance that included a 41-yard Hail Mary catch in front of All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson at the end of regulation that forced overtime. It was his second touchdown of the day. And while 101 of those 145 yards came on two catches, Janis’ upside can no longer be ignored. He’ll be given a shot for a bigger role in 2016.
Most Disappointing Player of the Year: RB Eddie Lacy
Unfortunately, this award had a few candidates. There was Davante Adams, who let a golden opportunity to replace the injured Jordy Nelson slip away by failing to improve off a rookie season that saw him shine periodically but disappear for weeks at a time. He dropped six passes, according to STATS, and failed to produce after his coach called him the “MVP” of the offseason. Teammate Randall Cobb dropped six passes, as well. Fresh off inking a four-year, $40 million deal, he was unable to dominate without Nelson across from him and the increased attention from opposing defense. But by far the biggest disappoint (figuratively and literally) was running back Eddie Lacy.
Poised to take his place as one of the league’s elite backs after back-to-back seasons of 1,100-plus yards and a total of 20 touchdowns, Lacy managed just 758 yards and three touchdowns. He had more games of 10 yards or less (three) than he did 100 yards or more (four), and he was easily 25 pounds heavier than he was the year before. He also fumbled four times, tying his total from the previous two years. A popular and well-liked player by his teammates and coaches, Lacy needs to decide if he likes football enough to commit to keeping himself in shape. No player better illustrated his potential and pitfalls more than his 61-yard run in the playoff loss at Arizona when Lacy ran over and spun away from would-be tacklers but appeared ready to collapse at the point that he was pulled to the turf, 8 yards shy of the end zone.
Play of the Year: TE Richard Rodgers’ “Miracle in Motown”
He’s not fast, he can’t stretch the field, he doesn’t break tackles and he isn’t a great blocker — but Richard Rodgers knows how to get open and, man, does he have some great hands. The big tight end out of Cal had a solid stat line with 58 catches for 510 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. But it was that touchdown at Detroit that will be remembered long after he hangs up his cleats someday, taking a spot next to his father’s famous play in the Stanford-Cal game.
With the season seemingly slipping away, quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped back with no time on the clock from Green Bay’s 39-yard line, with the Packers trailing 23-21. He stepped to his left but got pressured by Detroit defensive ends Devin Taylor and Jason Jones. As he rolled back to his right, Jones had him in his sights but backup tackle Don Barclay put a block on him to buy his QB some time. Rodgers stepped up and heaved one from his own 35 that seemingly almost hit the Ford Field raftors. With Jared Abbrederis, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and James Jones spread left to right across the middle of the end zone surrounded by blue jerseys, Richard Rodgers pulled up on the 3-yard line, spotted the ball dropping from above, stutter-stepped backward into the end zone and jumped up into the air, catching the ball at its highest point and pulling it down in front of five Lions defenders and his teammates for a 61-yard score that won the game. And saved Green Bay’s season.
Worst Play of the Year: Larry Fitzgerald’s 75-yard catch-and-run in the Divisional Playoffs
Weeks later, it’s still horrible to watch. After Jeff Janis’ 41-yard Hail Mary put the Packers’ playoff contest into overtime, the Cardinals struck on the first play with the kind of fluky play reminiscent of the NFC Championship Game loss the year before in Seattle.
On first-and-10 from their 20, Carson Palmer took the ball under center and dropped back as a blitzing Clay Matthews split the guard-tackle gap to Palmer’s right. Palmer stepped up to avoid Matthews and nearly ran into linebacker Mike Neal, who worked inside of offensive tackle Bobby Massie. Palmer spun away from Neal and bumped into Massie, who was then able to get a block on Neal. With Palmer moving to his right, chased by Mike Daniels, he heaved the ball back to his left.
Unfortunately for Green Bay, Larry Fitzgerald had run a crossing route to the left sideline. Rokie corner Damarious Randall, who already had an interception on the day and a deflected end zone pass that wound up being a Cardinals touchdown, inexplicably failed to follow him and dropped back into coverage. Fitzgerald didn’t have a white jersey within 15 yards of him when he caught the pass. After missed tackles by (in order) Matthews, Sam Shields, Morgan Burnett and Jake Ryan, Fitzgerald was finally pulled down by Casey Hayward at the 5-yard line. Two plays later, Fitzgerald took a flip pass from his quarterback in for the win.
Consummate Pro Award: RB James Starks
Edging out linebacker Clay Matthews, who took one for the team by spending most of his time at inside linebacker, this award goes to Green Bay’s other running back, James Starks, who picked up the slack when their superstar unexpectedly struggled. Starks will always have a soft spot in the heart of Packers fans for his role during the 2010 championship run. But injuries and the drafting of Eddie Lacy put Starks into a complementary role. He never complained. He never sulked. And when called upon, he made the most of his opportunities as a slashing, change-of-pace to Lacy’s wrecking-ball style.
In 2015, as Lacy struggled with his focus, commitment and weight, Starks stepped into the biggest role he’s had in his six-year career and responded with career highs in rushing yards (601), receiving yards (392), total yards (993), receptions (43), and total touchdowns (five). His 11.37 yards after the catch per reception led the entire NFL (regardless of position) by almost 2 yards. All the while, he remained supportive of Lacy, whom he often referred to as a little brother. The only black mark on Starks’ season was his five fumbles — which matched his total from his first five years. As a free agent turning 30 on Feb. 25, it’s hard to know if Starks will get an opportunity to start for another team. If not, the Packers would do well to bring back the quiet, and committed pro that put up nearly 1,000 yards of offense.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.