Let's tear open some more awards ...
PLAY OF THE YEAR
TE Jared Cook’s 35-yard sideline catch vs. Dallas
Twelve seconds remaining. Game tied at 31. Green Bay facing a third-and-20 at their 32-yard line during a divisional playoff battle at Dallas. The predictions seemed spot on: The last team with the ball was going to win. At this moment, it was the Packers. Aaron Rodgers took the shotgun snap with Ty Montgomery lined up immediately to his left. Rodgers spun around and rolled to his left, as left guard Lane Taylor bought him a few precious extra seconds with a block on defensive end Jack Crawford.
Davante Adams was the lone receiver to the left side of the formation. On the right was tight end Jared Cook inside, with Randall Cobb to his right and Jordy Nelson to the outside. Adams and Nelson ran straight down the field while Cook and Cobb angled across to their left. Rodgers threw one of the most perfect passes of his career with a strike down the sideline where only Cook — who was just ahead of and downfield of safety Byron Jones — could make the 36-yard catch. Doing his best Michael Jackson, the tight end went up on the toes of his size-15 cleats and dragged them across the turf, making the catch as he fell out of bounds with 3 seconds on the clock. Initially ruled incomplete, a second official ran in and signaled it was a catch. Mason Crosby’s 51-yarder (which makes for a pretty good runner-up Play of the Year) sealed the deal. And we thought the Hail Mary the week before to Randall Cobb was the Play of the Year. Little did we know.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER AWARD
CB Damarious Randall
The trickle-down effect of Sam Shields’ absence in the secondary was felt from Week 2 through the NFC title game. It was especially impactful for Damarious Randall, who was looking to build on a promising rookie year that ended badly in overtime at Arizona, when he blew coverage on a long Larry Fitzgerald catch and run that set up the winning touchdown a play later. But with Shields exiting the lineup for good in Week 1 with a concussion, Randall was thrust into the spotlight, with hopes he could thrive — or at least survive as the No. 1 corner. Instead, Randall battled injuries and inconsistencies, missing games, missing assignments and missing tackles.
He was in on a handful of big plays to be sure — a game-saving tackle in the season opener at Jacksonville and two interceptions in a win over Seattle. But the touchdowns and long pass plays he gave up defined his season. The low point came during the Bears’ furious fourth-quarter comeback at Chicago, when he was benched after giving up an 8-yard score to Alshon Jeffrey. Green Bay won, but the coaches had clearly seen enough. In fairness, only Randall knows how much the litany of injuries impacted his play. But too often, Randall was out of position, seemed unsure of the coverage behind him or simply failed to make the play. By season’s end, LaDarius Gunter (aka OBJ’s Kryptonite), a former undrafted free agent, had taken over No. 1 cornerback duties. The potential is there for Randall. The speed and athleticism are there. And after seeing how receiver Davante Adams rebounded from his sophomore slump, no one should be bailing on this talented young corner just yet.
HIT OF THE YEAR AWARD
S Kentrell Brice on Cowboys WR Cole Beasley
While the league never has done more to promote player safety, legal hits like the one Packers reserve safety Kentrell Brice put on Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley truly underscore the phrase that football is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. The undrafted rookie was forced into extended action in the 34-31 playoff win over the Cowboys when starter Morgan Burnett was out. He led the team with six tackles, including this one, which is closer to a car crash than a takedown. On third-and-4 in Packers territory with just less than 2 minutes to play in the first half, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott delivered a ball to Beasley, who was streaking in from the right. Coming in fast from the left was Brice. He stopped Beasley in his tracks, upending him and planting him face-first on the turf. While Brice’s helmet definitely crosses Beasley’s facemask on the tackle, there was neither a fine nor penalty. Both players were fine after the play — which went viral on social media — and props to Beasley for not only hanging onto the ball after an 18-yard gain but popping back up immediately after the hit.
Honorable mention goes to inside linebacker Joe Thomas, who hit Bears running back Ka’Deem Carey so hard on a second-and-4 play at Chicago that the “C” logo on the side of his helmet flew off. The minus-4 degree wind chill gets an assist, but no one else’s logo came off that day, so the bulk of the credit goes to Thomas. Green Bay forced a field goal on that drive in a game they would go on to win 30-27.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD
WR Jordy Nelson
Slow, steady and eventually spectacular. That was NFL Comeback Player of the Year Jordy Nelson’s 2016. When Nelson was lost for the entire 2015 season, it had repercussions that carried through to the eventual playoff loss at Arizona. “If only Nelson were playing,” went the refrain. So, naturally, Nelson’s return to the starting lineup meant clear sailing to this year’s Super Bowl, or so the thinking went. But Nelson didn’t snap back to 2014 form in Week 1. Or Week 2. In fact, parts of Nelson’s game — basically being one of the league’s premier deep threats — didn’t really come back at all. At least not on a regular basis. In 2016, he had four catches of 40-plus yards, half of his 2014 total.
But Nelson was never a one-trick pony, and his ability to get better at every other part of his game — not to mention his near-psychic connection with his quarterback, allowed him to grab 97 balls for 1,257 yards and a league-leading 14 receiving touchdowns — one less catch, but one more score, than he had in 2014. Those numbers placed him fifth in the NFL in receptions and sixth in yardage. Though he was a Pro Bowl snub, Nelson’s return to the ranks of the game’s upper-echelon receivers played a huge role in running the table and a run to the playoffs. In a season full of highlights (the 60-yard bomb to set up the win at Chicago, the diving grab against New York) Nelson’s best might have been when he pointed to a spot near the pylon for Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball to, and then moved in front of Seattle safety Kam Chancellor at the last second to make the grab.
And not that Nelson needed to endear himself to his coaches, teammates or fans any more than he already had, but his return to the field for the NFC Championship Game just two weeks after cracking his ribs in a playoff win over New York tells you all you need to know about his toughness and passion for the game.
BEST PLAYER YOU DIDN’T NOTICE AWARD
LG Lane Taylor
It was the shock of the summer when the Packers released All-Pro left guard Josh Sitton following the final roster cutdown. In a season that started with Super Bowl aspirations, releasing arguably your best offensive lineman in the final year of his contract didn’t seem like the way to go. Panic ensued in Packer Nation about who would take over or what kind of musical chairs might occur on the offensive line.
As it turned out, Lane Taylor, a former undrafted free agent and three-year backup, was just fine, thank you. The fact that who played left guard was a non-story during the season tells you everything you need to know about Taylor’s steady, reliable performance. Taylor started all 16 games for the league’s eighth-ranked offense. And while he might never get to a Pro Bowl short of buying a ticket, check out who picked up the key block for Aaron Rodgers on that play-of-the-year pass to Jared Cook.
SHADOWS TO SPOTLIGHT AWARD
RB Ty Montgomery
When Eddie Lacy jumped out to the best start of his career with 360 yards through the first five games, no one envisioned a scenario in which Ty Montgomery would emerge as the starting running back. But when Lacy injured his ankle in a loss to Dallas on Oct. 16 and James Starks (and then Knile Davis) proved ineffective, the team turned to the 6-foot, 216-pound, second-year receiver to carry the load. While the versatile Montgomery had been touted as a bigger Randall Cobb and had taken the occasional carry out of the backfield, thinking he could be an every-down running back seemed like wishful thinking. Until, of course, he did it.
To that point in the season, Montgomery had a whopping five carries for 6 yards and, if anything, looked like he had made a move to separate himself from a crowded receiving corps with 10 catches for 98 yards in that Cowboys loss. Instead, he took over primary backfield duties and finished with a team-best 457 yards on 77 carries — a 5.9 yards per carry average. He displayed the vision of a veteran back, showed improving patience behind the line and unveiled unexpected power running through the hole, complete with stiff-arms near the sideline and a lowered shoulder near the goal line. Packer Report had Montgomery breaking a whopping 18 tackles on the year.
In his coming-out party at Chicago, he ran for 162 yards on 16 carries — including a 61-yard burst — and had two touchdowns. Aside from the No. 88 on his jersey, Montgomery looked every bit like an NFL starting running back. The bonus, of course, was that he could still be split out or catch the ball out of the backfield with the skill of a receiver, helping Green Bay win that chess match against opposing defenses who had to decide if a linebacker or defensive back would cover him. He added 348 yards on 44 catches. Make no mistake about it, Montgomery is, indeed, a running back.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.