There is a strong temptation to vote for New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees as the NFL's Most Valuable Player.
He came back from rotator cuff surgery and helped lift an entire franchise to a remarkable season. The Saints were in shambles last January, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the firing of Jim Haslett as head coach. They cleaned house and went from 3-13 to 10-5. They have the second seed in the NFC for the first time in team history. Brees leads the NFL with 4,372 passing yards. He has eight 300-yard passing games.
But there are two problems with Brees as MVP. One is, Brees isn't even my pick as the All-Pro quarterback. No matter what the passing numbers say, Peyton Manning is better than Brees. Manning has the highest passer rating in the league at 100.9. He has an NFL-high 29 TD passes to just nine interceptions. (Brees has 26 TDs and 11 INTs.) Manning has faced tougher competition. He has been patient when teams have dropped back in deep zones and given him the underneath stuff. He has been unselfish by helping usher in rookie running back Joseph Addai, who has 1,017 yards despite sharing the load with starter Dominic Rhodes. Manning is my choice at QB.
Second, the MVP should go to the best player in the league. Period. I don't confuse the issue by thinking about who's more valuable to his team. The best player in the league this year is LaDainian Tomlinson.
He set the NFL touchdown record with 31 entering today's game. He leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,243. If he gets 100 yards today he will have the fourth best yards from scrimmage total ever. Let's not forget, he's doing it with a first-year starter at quarterback, albeit a good one, learning the ropes.
The Bills' defensive players said there were a bunch of plays in their game against the Chargers where all 11 guys did the right thing -- filled all the gaps -- and Tomlinson made a big gain anyway, due to his sheer talent. (The long TD run wasn't one of them; that was a Bills breakdown.)
Tomlinson gets this vote. Here's the rest of my Associated Press All-Pro ballot, compiled with the help of several scouts around the league.
MVP: Tomlinson. Manning is second, Brees third, Tom Brady fourth.
Coach of the Year: New Orleans' Sean Payton. He has had the most to overcome. It's not easy to change a losing mind-set within an organization. He pressed all the right buttons. He is a great play-caller. Runner-up is the Jets' Eric Mangini, with the Eagles' Andy Reid third, the Titans' Jeff Fisher fourth and the Chargers' Marty Schottenheimer fifth.
Offensive Player: Tomlinson.
Defensive Player: Jason Taylor, Miami. Better than the Bears' Brian Urlacher.
Comeback Player: Again, Brees loses out. I have to give it to Chad Pennington, who came back from a second shoulder surgery. Pennington missed 13 games last year. Brees started 16.
Offensive Rookie: Vince Young. He's 8-4 as a starter and is the first rookie QB to lead two comebacks from 14-point deficits in the same season. He also has the rookie record for rushing yards by a QB (523). He beats out the Saints' duo of Reggie Bush and Marques Colston and the Pats' Laurence Maroney.
Defensive Rookie: DeMeco Ryans, Houston, LB.
RB: Tomlinson and Frank Gore, 49ers. Tough call on Gore versus Larry Johnson. Gore has 1,542 rushing yards and a 5.5 average. L.J. has 1,651 yards and a 4.3 average.
OT: Walter Jones, Seahawks; Willie Anderson, Bengals. Honorable mention to the Colts' Tarik Glenn and Jamal Brown of the Saints.
OG: Alan Faneca, Steelers; Will Shields, Chiefs. Close behind are the 49ers' Larry Allen, who had a good year at age 35, and Kris Dielman of San Diego.
C: Olin Kreutz, Bears. Second choice is the Colts' Jeff Saturday.
WR: Marvin Harrison, Colts; Torry Holt, Rams. Next are the Colts' Reggie Wayne and the Bengals' Chad Johnson.
TE: Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs. His numbers are virtually identical to those of the Chargers' Antonio Gates, and Gonzalez still is a better blocker. Gates isn't a strong blocker. Gonzalez is more polished at the position, scouts say.
FB: Mike Karney, Saints.
K: Matt Stover, Ravens. He made most big kicks, including a 52-yarder to beat the Browns. The Bills' Rian Lindell was right up there with the Chargers' Nate Kaeding, the Bears' Robbie Gould and Denver's Jason Elam.
DT: Jamal Williams, Chargers; Kevin Williams, Vikings. Close call. Right behind were Miami's Vonnie Holliday and the Vikings' Pat Williams. The Bears' Tommie Harris started fast then tailed off. The Pats' Richard Seymour gutted it out despite nagging injuries.
DE: Jason Taylor, Dolphins; Julius Peppers, Panthers. Taylor has 13.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, eight passes defensed, two interceptions and two touchdowns. Incredible. The Bills' Aaron Schobel is the third choice. He was consistent all year, maybe even more consistent than Peppers. The Chiefs' Jared Allen is underrated.
OLB: Julian Peterson, Seahawks; DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys. The Chargers' Shawne Merriman was one of the five best players I saw this year, offense or defense. But I can't vote for a guy who was suspended four games for steroid use. Lance Briggs of the Bears is honorable mention.
MLB: Urlacher. Behind him are the Broncos' Al Wilson and the Ravens' Bart Scott.
CB: Champ Bailey, Broncos; Nnamdi Ashomuga, Raiders. Ashomuga blossomed in his fourth year with eight interceptions, and the Oakland defense was tough despite a pitiful offense. The Bucs' Ronde Barber is a close third.
S: Brian Dawkins, Eagles; Ed Reed, Ravens. Dawkins is a great player year in and year out who had a great year. Reed is a free safety as well, but safeties are interchangeable in the NFL much of the time. Adrian Wilson of Arizona is a star. The Jets' Kerry Rhodes killed the Bills and is a comer.
P: Brian Moorman, Bills. This was an especially windy year at The Ralph, probably as bad as the '04 season. Moorman was sensational.
KR: Devin Hester, Bears. Five return touchdowns in one year. Incredible. Yet another great pick by Buffalo native Greg Gabriel, the Bears' college scouting chief.