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Sunday Football Notes

In a battle of best, Tom Brady may get the nod

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 25, 2011
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They are the preeminent passers in the game today.

Each has a Super Bowl ring, and each has led his team to a stellar season heading into the playoffs.

And each of the three is closing in on Dan Marino’s season record of 5,084 passing yards set in 1984 - before it became illegal to tackle a quarterback too hard or play pass defense.

Drew Brees. Tom Brady. Aaron Rodgers.

You could hardly go wrong picking any of them for Most Valuable Player.

We think Rodgers should win the award based on his team’s record and the fact that he put up the best numbers during the part of the season before playoff berths were clinched.

But for entertainment purposes, we thought it would be fun to look at the quarterbacks and their value a different way. Basically, who is doing more with less?

Three personnel evaluators - two general managers and one director of pro personnel - who have no connection to Brees, Brady, or Rodgers were asked to evaluate the three teams’ personnel in 10 categories that factor into pass production, from the best split end (or “X receiver’’) to the defense getting the quarterback the ball back to the play-caller on the team.

Each first-place vote was worth 3 points, with 2 for second and 1 for third. One of the evaluators abstained from commenting on pass blocking and play-calling because he didn’t have enough information.

In the end, Brees had the best overall talent around him. The Saints finished with 62 points and 11 first-place votes. New Orleans also led with 12 second-place votes. The Saints swept in three categories: third-down back, running game, and defense. New Orleans had just one category, “Z receiver,’’ post three third-place votes.

Rodgers and the Packers were a close second, with 58 points and 10 first-place votes. Green Bay swept two categories (X and fourth receiver). The Packers didn’t fail to register a second-place vote in any category.

Brady and the Patriots finished third with 48 points, including seven first-place votes. Six came from the unanimous selections of Wes Welker as top slot receiver and Rob Gronkowski as top tight end. The Patriots’ 15 third-place votes were more than the Saints and Packers combined (13). New England got all third-place votes in three categories: X receiver, fourth receiver, and play-calling.

Does that make Brady the MVP? Possibly. But that’s for others to decide.

Here’s a look at how the voting went at each position, followed by selected quotes from the personnel evaluators.

X receiver:Greg Jennings, Packers, 9 points; Marques Colston, Saints, 6; Deion Branch, Patriots, 3.

Comments: “I wouldn’t say [Jennings] far and away. Colston is close. I think Jennings has just a little bit more big-play ability, but Colston’s clutch. He’s just not going to make those downfield plays like Jennings is.’’ . . . “Branch, he’s not what he used to be, but he’s solid.’’ . . . “Jennings is the best all-around. Best route runner of that group. Colston, with his size, is a red zone target and a little unique.’’ . . . “Just all-around, [Jennings] is on top of his game. Right age. Athleticism but plays speed. Reliable hands. Runs disciplined routes.’’ . . . “Jennings is the class, no doubt. He can separate and get down the field. Colston is so big. Deion is a descending player. He’s quick, but can’t run.’’

Slot receiver:Wes Welker, Patriots, 9; Lance Moore, Saints, 5; Donald Driver, Packers, 4.

Comments: “Lance Moore is a close second. He’s pretty good. That kid can play.’’ . . . “Welker is the best by far but Driver and Moore are close. I’d go with Driver because he’s so reliable.’’ . . . “Wes is super, super crafty. Can get separation inside, sit in the zone, knows the quarterback. Tough. Strong. Great run after the catch.’’ . . . “Moore is a very good player. Can track the ball down the field outside.’’ . . . “Driver is last just because he’s descending at this point.’’

Z receiver (flanker):Jordy Nelson, Packers, 8; Aaron Hernandez, Patriots, 7 (he is a tight end but is included here because of how much the Patriots play both tight ends); Devery Henderson, Saints, 3.

Comments: “Just off of numbers, Nelson is the top of the class. And then you go with Hernandez because of the matchup problems he causes. I think Henderson is a threat with his speed, but he’s inconsistent.’’ . . . “All three of them are bona fide guys that cause defensive coordinators to have some sleepless nights just because of the matchup problems they cause. It’s all what you want. They’re all different but are matchup problems.’’ . . . “Hernandez is a big guy who is an excellent athlete who has very good hands and if he keeps himself straight [off the field], that tandem [with Gronkowski] is unreal.’’ . . . “The season Jordy is having, he’s becoming a lot more reliable, dropping a lot less balls. He can run after the catch.’’ . . . “Hernandez has size, athleticism, mismatches.’’ . . . “Henderson is a just a post-and-go guy.’’

Fourth receiver:James Jones, Packers, 9; Robert Meachem, Saints, 6; Chad Ochocinco, Patriots, 3.

Comments: “Chad’s lack of production kind of speaks for itself. I don’t know if it’s the playbook or what. Everybody says that, but is that truly the case? I don’t know.’’ . . . “New England is a disciplined place and if you have a little free-lance to you, like Chad does, it’s not as easy.’’ . . . “Jones is a rotational player, more reliable this year with his hands.’’ . . . “Meachem is good, has big-play ability. Strong. He’s just not quite as consistent.’’ . . . “Ochocinco, I don’t know what to say. Descended player in my mind.’’

Tight end:Rob Gronkowski, Patriots, 9; Jimmy Graham, Saints, 5; Jermichael Finley, Packers, 4.

Comments: “With Finley and Graham, you’re splitting hairs. Gronkowski’s No. 1 just because he can block. But those other two are so close, it’s tough. I’d probably go with Finley just because of the experience.’’ . . . “Gronkowski is strong, big, reliable, athletic after the catch, but also has some quick to him. Very, very competitive. He’s just a big-time playmaker. Graham is also a big-time playmaker. Graham has to come into his own. He’s only been playing a few years. He’s a better all-around athlete than Gronkowski, but Gronkowski has been playing the game. And he can block.’’ . . . “Gronkowski and Graham are both really good. Gronkowski blocks his ass off, he can do short area, and get down the field. He’s a horse.’’

Third-down back:Darren Sproles, Saints, 9; James Starks, Packers, 5; Danny Woodhead, Patriots, 4.

Comments: “Sproles easily. He’s a complete matchup nightmare.’’ . . . “Sproles is a pure difference maker, separate from those guys.’’ . . . “Woodhead is a tough little guy.’’ . . . “Starks has to be more consistent and prove himself more.’’

Best complementary running game: Saints 9, Packers 5, Patriots 4.

Comments: “That’s kind of a toss-up. When [Mark] Ingram’s playing, I’d definitely say the Saints. Then Green Bay with Starks and Ryan Grant.’’ . . . “I just think that with Pierre Thomas, Ingram, and [left guard Carl] Nicks, they can gore you.’’

Best pass protection: Saints 6; Packers and Patriots tied with 3.

Comments: “If we’re talking about the Packers right now, with how beat up they are, they’d be last. But healthy, I’d put them behind the Saints.’’ . . . “Saints have a very good group.’’

Best defense to get a stop: Saints 9, Packers 5, Patriots 4.

Comments: “Just because the Saints are so aggressive.’’ . . . “I think the Saints have turned a corner with some of the tweaks [defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams has made.’’ . . . “The Packers really miss Cullen Jenkins.’’ . . . “The Patriots can’t stop anybody between the 20s. At least they tighten in the red zone.’’

Best play-caller:Mike McCarthy, Packers, 6; Sean Payton, Saints, 4; Bill O’Brien, Patriots, 2.

Comments: “McCarthy and Payton are really close, but I’d go with McCarthy. They both know matchups, not that O’Brien doesn’t. I think Mike has a really good feel in today’s games with the matchups, and that’s such a big deal.’’ . . . “Bill O’Brien doesn’t get nearly enough credit. He’s going to be a head coach sooner rather than later.’’ . . . “McCarthy knows how to use the field. He knows who he is but can adjust to what needs to be done. He’s very creative.’’ . . . “They’re all awesome.’’ . . . “I think Bill does a pretty good job. He’s always going to get flak because of who the quarterback is.’’

- We asked one final question of the three evaluators - and one additional pro personnel director - that was not tabulated in the final results. If they had to win one game, which quarterback would they pick?

Brady and Rodgers split the vote down the middle, with two firsts each. Brees came in third on all four ballots.

Comments: “It’s a good question. Right now I would say Rodgers just because of the threat of the run and the pass.’’ . . . “I’d take any of them. If I’m building a team, I’d probably go with Rodgers because he has the whole package with athletic ability. But to win one game, you’d probably go Brady.’’ . . . “Brady’s got such moxie, such experience. He has such a history to pull from. I’d take him in a heartbeat. I love everything about Tom Brady.’’ . . . “ Rodgers’s ability to run when things break down puts him over the top.’’

MADE FOR MIAMI

Dolphins close in on Peterson

Despite his denials, all signs point to the Dolphins hiring Carl Peterson as team president in the near future.

The former president and general manager of the Chiefs has close ties to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, and is currently an executive of FanVision, one of Ross’s entities.

The Dolphins could certainly do worse than hiring Peterson.

There is little question that he knows how to build a franchise (boy, do the Dolphins need that) and hire the right people. As long as that is the extent of Peterson’s job description, the Dolphins will be in fine shape. Probably better off than they were when Bill Parcells was running the place.

But there are some in NFL circles who believe, eventually, Peterson will try to get more involved with the football operations - specifically contract negotiations. That was part of his downfall in Kansas City.

Peterson needs to decide whether Jeff Ireland should stay on as general manager, and then hire the right coach. And then he needs to get out of the way and worry about ticket sales.

Peterson, 67, is a football man at heart and knows the game thoroughly. He worked his way up as a coach from high school to college before his former boss at UCLA, Dick Vermeil, hired him as director of player personnel for the Eagles in 1977.

The Eagles were 5-9 that first season. Four seasons later, they were in the Super Bowl.

Peterson built the Philadelphia Stars into the class of the USFL with a staff that included such well-respected coaches as Jim Mora, Dom Capers, and Vic Fangio.

Peterson was hired by the late Lamar Hunt as president, general manager, and chief operating officer of the Chiefs in 1988. At that time, the Chiefs were the dregs of the league. They had gone to the playoffs once in the previous decade, no one went to their games, and there was a very real fear that the team might move.

Peterson hired Marty Schottenheimer as coach and the franchise quickly became one of the elite in the league again with an 8-7-1 record the first season and then seven playoff berths in the next eight years. The Chiefs had a long sellout streak, and game day around Arrowhead Stadium became an event.

Things didn’t go perfectly in Kansas City. In Hunt’s later years, some felt that Peterson had too much power and wielded it mightily. That earned him the moniker “King Carl’’ from then-Kansas City Star columnist JasonWhitlock.

Peterson made a mistake hiring Gunther Cunningham as coach, but rectified it when he persuaded Vermeil to come out of retirement. Peterson drafted some excellent players in Kansas City, and pulled off trades for top players such as quarterback Trent Green and running back Priest Holmes.

But near the end, he rankled people with the hard edge he took in negotiations of all kinds.

He infamously swore at tackle John Tait - a Mormon - and his agent during the draft pick’s holdout. Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen wouldn’t even entertain a contract offer from the Chiefs before he forced his way to the Vikings via trade.

Why?

“His name was Carl Peterson,’’ Allen told reporters earlier this season when the Vikings played the Chiefs. “You can write that in caps. Obviously I guess I had a problem with [Chiefs chairman and CEO] Clark [Hunt], too, because he chose Carl over me.’’

Those who know Peterson attribute his hard negotiating edge to a competitive streak that he never lost after moving from the field to the front office.

If the Dolphins hire Peterson, that’s what they have to look out for. There is no question he’s qualified to revive a franchise - he is 3 for 3 doing that. But Peterson needs to know, three years after leaving the Chiefs, that he can’t do it all anymore. He needs to get the right people in place, and let them do their jobs.

ETC.

Nickel package

1. Thank goodness the Giants-Jets game is over with. Now there’s more oxygen for the rest of us. Think they realize no one outside the tri-state area cares that much about their “battle’’?

2. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Chargers owner Dean Spanos may be warming to keeping general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner for another season, after three wins in four games. Is Spanos nuts? This happens every year! Keep Smith, but Turner has to go. Unless he’s trying to move to Los Angeles, which Spanos might be.

3. Will be interested to see if Packers coach Mike McCarthy and, more importantly, quarterback Aaron Rodgers adjust to the team’s injury woes down the stretch. Not having receiver Greg Jennings is one thing, but Rodgers will need to get rid of the ball quickly behind a beat-up offensive line. He hasn’t always done that in the past.

4. The Steelers need to sit injured quarterback BenRoethlisberger until the playoffs. He has to get healthy for that team to have a chance. The layoff won’t hurt Roethlisberger. He could roll out of bed and throw the ball.

5. Don’t know why, but the Texans still scare us. Yeah, they looked pathetic losing to the Colts but didn’t have Andre Johnson. And that running game and defense will be tough in the postseason.

By the numbers

3: Leading sackers in the league who have worn a Chiefs uniform. Eagles end Jason Babin (18 sacks) was with Kansas City in 2008. Vikings end Jared Allen (17.5) was there from 2004-07. Tamba Hali (12) is still there.

17.2: Average points scored by the Texans since quarterback Matt Schaub went on injured reserve. They averaged 27.3 with him in the starting lineup.

29: Players placed on injured reserve this season by the Jaguars, with six getting injury settlements and released. The Jaguars had to cut their practice squad from eight to four to stay at 80 players.

View from the outside

The guys from FootballOutsiders.com, which is run by Sharon native Aaron Schatz, half-jokingly suggested that football should have an equivalent for basketball’s assist - giving the ball to a teammate and putting him in a position to make plays. One way of doing that is dishing out assists to quarterbacks on any completion with at least 10 yards after the catch. Well, Tom Brady would win that going away. He had nine “assists’’ against the Broncos to put him at 80 through 14 games. Nobody else had more than 67 (Matthew Stafford of the Lions and Drew Brees of the Saints).

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