Can Richard Sherman Win Defensive Player Of The Year?

***Update 12/27/2012*** Aaaaaannnnnd Sherman has been acquitted.  Free at last!

Well, for starters, not making the Pro Bowl is a bad sign.  But, that probably says more about the Pro Bowl than it does about Sherman’s abilities and his status as the best cover-corner in the NFL.

Nobody’s really talking about this right now (not tooting my horn or anything; I just haven’t seen any articles on the topic), so let’s take out the possible suspension of Sherman for Adderall for the sake of argument.  I don’t know if you’re allowed to win any awards if you’re suspended for this, but my gut tells me either way, by the simple fact that we have these allegations, there will probably be people who leave him off their ballots entirely.

There have been 41 winners of the D-POY award.  15 have been linebackers, 9 have been defensive ends, 7 have been defensive tackles (including Cortez Kennedy in 1992), 5 have been safeties (including Kenny Easley in 1984), and 5 have been cornerbacks.  So, right there, it’s pretty rare to have a cornerback win the award.

When you think about the D-POY, what do you think of?  You think of a defensive player who has made the biggest impact in the league.  What does that mean?  Well, for starters, you have to like the chances of a guy who’s going to the playoffs over a guy who doesn’t.  Only 6 players who’ve won the D-POY did not participate in the playoffs that season (with Cortez Kennedy being the most mind-boggling in this regard, coming off of a 2-14 season with those ’92 Seahawks).  You also gotta figure he’s on a defense that’s in the top half of the league.  There’s only one player who was on a defense ranked worse than 14th and that’s Reggie White in a 1987 strike-shortened season where the Eagles missed the playoffs; their defense was ranked 23rd out of 28 teams.  Still, when you’re Reggie White and you get 21.0 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and a touchdown, those are the kinds of undeniable numbers you can’t ignore.

Richard Sherman is on a top-flight defense (easily in the top 3 in the league in most catagories).  Richard Sherman’s team is also going to the playoffs.  Those are two big checks in his favor.  Of course, they’re not the ONLY things voters look at.

Going back, you’re talking about a guy who makes the biggest impact; what does that mean?  Having a lot of tackles is great and all, but tons of guys have a bunch of tackles.  Those won’t separate you from the pack.  Impact plays are, in no particular order:  sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, and touchdowns.  Then, when you’re talking about cornerbacks, you’ve gotta look at Passes Defended, you’ve got to look at number of penalties against, you’ve got to look at number of targets (i.e. how many times that player was challenged by the opposing quarterback; because if a quarterback is avoiding that side of the field due to the level of competition on defense, that’s a HUGE impact), and finally, I’m sure the voters do the ol’ Eye Test.  Does he LOOK like a defensive player of the year?  This could go any number of ways.  They can watch the games, they can watch highlight packages, they can read about him in local and national articles, they can hear what players and coaches say about him.

Anyway, that’s what you’re looking at.  I’m just a humble blogger, so I don’t know things like how many times he was targeted, or what the players are saying about him.  But, there are plenty of websites that can give me the hard stats.  First, let’s take a look at past winners; specifically, past winners who were cornerbacks.

What does it take to be a cornerback and win the D-POY?

  • 2009 – Charles Woodson (Green Bay):  2 sacks, 9 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 3 touchdowns, 65 tackles, 18 passes defended.
  • 1994 – Deion Sanders (San Francisco):  6 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery, 3 touchdowns, 34 tackles, 14 passes defended.
  • 1993 – Rod Woodson (Pittsburgh):  2 sacks, 8 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 touchdown, 95 tackles, 23 passes defended.
  • 1980 – Lester Hayes (Oakland):  13 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown, an unknown number of tackles & passes defended (because these were not recorded stats back then).
  • 1975 – Mel Blount (Pittsburgh):  11 interceptions, an unknown number of tackles and passes defended.

I don’t know a thing about Mel Blount, but I know he played for the Steelers.  The Steelers in the 1970s had one of the most fearsome defenses in the league.  A Steeler won the D-POY 4 times out of the first 6 years the award was given out, all in the 70s.  I gotta think that’s a major reason why Blount won it in ’75 (plus, you know, 11 interceptions is pretty fucking insane for a cornerback).

I don’t know much about Lester Hayes either, but that’s a pretty damn good season.  Plus, he had some cachet back then.  If you’re a cornerback and you have eyes on the D-POY award, you’ve got to have some name recognition.  Hayes (for being just a brutal hitter and tackler), Rod Woodson, Deion (Primetime) Sanders, and Charles Woodson all have HUGE name recognition.  Normally, the best athletes are reserved for offense.  It’s pretty rare to be the best athlete on your team and also play corner.  In the case of these last four guys, you’re talking about just that.  You’ll also notice that a lot of these guys have returned kicks in their days; not a coincidence.  If your best player is a cornerback, you do whatever it takes to get him on the field with the ball in his hands.

Of the five guys listed above, I think Rod Woodson’s season was probably the most impressive.  I mean, 95 tackles for a corner?  Are you KIDDING me?

Anyway, let’s take a look at Sherman’s numbers for reference:

  • 2012 – Richard Sherman (Seattle):  1 sack, 7 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 2 touchdowns, 53 tackles, 23 passes defended.

He’s up there in interceptions, which is good.  He’s got some forced fumbles, he’s got a couple touchdowns, he’s got a ton of passes defended, and he’s even got a sack for good measure.  These are all numbers right in line with the best seasons of any cornerback.  So, let’s look at some of the other great cornerbacks this year.

  • 2012 – Charles Tillman (Chicago):  3 interceptions, 10 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 touchdowns, 71 tackles, 14 passes defended.
  • 2012 – Tim Jennings (Chicago):  8 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 53 tackles, 19 passes defended.
  • 2012 – Patrick Peterson (Arizona):  7 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries, 50 tackles, 15 passes defended.
  • 2012 – Champ Bailey (Denver):  2 interceptions, 58 tackles, 9 passes defended.
  • 2012 – Johnathan Joseph (Houston):  2 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 53 tackles, 9 passes defended.
  • 2012 – Antonio Cromartie (New York Jets):  3 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 28 tackles, 13 passes defended.

In case you were wondering:  those are the six starting cornerbacks selected to this year’s Pro Bowl.  Whether you agree with the decision or not, these are six premiere corners and thus need to be taken seriously as competition with Richard Sherman for D-POY.

If you look among the league leaders, Sherman is tied for 2nd with 7 intereptions (Jennings is alone at the top with 8).  In forced fumbles, among defensive backs (including safeties), he’s tied for 7th in the NFL with 3.  Tillman has a GROTESQUE 10 forced fumbles to lead the league, regardless of position.  If you take the safety position out of the equation, then Sherman is tied for 2nd among cornerbacks with 3.

If we just stick with cornerbacks, it’s only Sherman and Tillman and everyone else.  Tillman has forced a combined 13 turnovers.  Sherman has forced 10.  Both have multiple touchdowns.  Both have name recognition.  Tillman has been in the league for 10 years, so he has a little MORE name recognition, but still.  People know who Richard Sherman is, and they will only continue to know who he is.  He leads the league in opposing quarterback rating when he’s thrown at.  Don’t know where Tillman ranks, but based on the fact that he has nearly 20 more tackles, I gotta think opposing quarterbacks don’t fear him quite as much.  It’s not opposing QBs’ fault that their wide receivers keep getting stripped by the guy.  Likewise, Sherman has nearly 10 more passes defended.

Looking elsewhere, J.J. Watt is getting a lot of pub down in Houston.  As a defensive end, he currently has 20.5 sacks.  Aldon Smith for the 49ers has 19.5, but you can see his play has tailed off considerably with Justin Smith injured.  Getting punked by Russell Okung in primetime surely didn’t help his chances either.

As for the linebackers, you’ve got a dark horse in Arizona by the name of Daryl Washington.  He’s got 123 tackles and 9 sacks to go along with an interception and 2 forced fumbles.  You’ve got London Fletcher with Washington:  128 tackles, 1 sack, 5 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 10 passes defended.  Then there are the big dogs in tackles – Luke Kuechly (151, with 1 sack, 2 INTs), Chad Greenway (145, with 3 sacks, 1 INT), NaVorro Bowman (144, with 2 sacks, 1 INT), and Jerod Mayo (142, with 3 sacks, 1 INT).  I’m going to say, with his name recognition, and the fact that everybody LOVES the guy, I’m putting London Fletcher as the clubhouse leader among linebackers.  He’s got a nice stat spread that could go a long way in this race.

I don’t think there are any serious contenders among the safeties.  The usual suspects – Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed – have either been injured, or less stellar than in years past.

That leaves us with four legitimate candidates:

  • London Fletcher
  • J.J. Watt
  • Charles Tillman
  • Richard Sherman

My hunch?  I really like London Fletcher’s chances.  Remember when they gave Denzel Washington the Academy Award for that awful Training Day movie?  This is kind of like that.  A belated award to an industry veteran who’s at the top of his game while slumming it.  In the case of Fletcher, “slumming it” means he’s on a TERRIBLE defense, but is the one shining vision of glory holding things somewhat together.

But, I don’t necessarily think anything is decided yet either.  Will Sherman win his appeal?  That’ll go a long way.  Will Sherman close out the regular season in dramatic fashion?  Maybe he gets another interception, scores another touchdown, keeps the national focus on himself.  Do they put into consideration playoff performance?  I don’t know, but if they do, then Sherman will have more opportunities to shine.  I would wager:  more opportunities than either Fletcher or Tillman.

A lot of things up in the air for the D-POY award.  It’s not impossible for Sherman to win it, but right now I’d say he’s a longshot.

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