The inherent problem with awards season is taking the abstract and making it concrete. Voters take works of art, whether they are feature films or albums, and attempt to crown one of them as “the year’s best.” There’s no quantifiable way of achieving these decisions. Every vote is nothing more than opinion and perception being funneled through humans with biases and agendas, all culminating in the distribution of a few golden statues that are rarely awarded without controversy.
Awards for professional athletes are quite the opposite. There are ample statistical measures for every athlete in every sport. In the modern era, we have more numbers and analytics than John Nash could shake a stick at. Yet, when we attempt to award a player an honor such as “Most Valuable,” we’re then forced to take these concrete qualifiers and apply them to the abstract.
The Most Valuable Player award incessantly harkens arguments to the true meaning of value, points that were never made louder than the year Peyton Manning missed a season following neck surgery, resulting in his Indianapolis Colts’ 2-14 record. If Manning misses a season and a franchise crumbles, isn’t that a true marker of value? Do we award the person who adds the most value to his team, or do we honor the person who performed the best?
This year, Manning is a runaway favorite for the MVP award. His passing numbers broke every record in the book, and his abstract qualifications, overcoming a career-threatening injury and making Omaha culturally relevant again, can’t be questioned.
While the MVP award seems to be all but Manning’s, there is another award which, by definition, is just as ambiguous, but more hotly contested, the Offensive Rookie of the Year title. At the moment, Eddie Lacy and Keenan Allen are runaway favorites for the award, both having breakout seasons during their first year in the league. So they both fit the qualifications of being talented and new to the NFL.
Here are their stats for this season:
Eddie Lacy: 284 RUSH, 1,178 RUSH YDS, 11 TD
Keenan Allen: 71 REC, 1045 REC YDS 8 TD
Lacy may be slightly ahead in the pure stats category, with more yards and touchdowns, but Allen was the most dangerous weapon on a Chargers team that made a late and miraculous playoff push which involved defeating Manning’s Broncos in Denver (a game in which Allen had two touchdown receptions), winning a road playoff game over the Bengals and nearly winning against those same Broncos in the divisional round (Allen had two touchdowns here as well). Lacy has plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up his claim to the award as well, so like I said, it’s a dead heat.
Yet, I think there are two more rookie running backs who are being overlooked simply because the traditional categories of measuring their positions’ successes don’t live up to those of Lacy.
Le’Veon Bell: 244 RUSH, 860 RUSH YDS, 8 TD / 45 REC 399 REC YDS
Giovani Bernard: 170 ATT 695 RUSH YDS 5 TD / 56 REC, 514 REC YDS 3 REC TD
Neither Bell nor Bernard has the gaudy rushing total of Lacy, but when you factor in their receiving totals as well, both rookies break the 1,000 yard mark.
I think to adequately compare these four rookies, we need to create a more common measure. So, for each of the four rookies, I compiled their stats into four categories: the number of times each player touched the ball in a meaningful capacity for total touches (rushes plus receptions), total yards, yards per touch and total touchdowns. Lacy also recorded 35 receptions for 257 yards, so I included that to his total.
When you look at the totals, Lacy at first looks like a runaway winner. He finished with 200 yards more than his nearest competitor and 3 more touchdowns. BUT, but he also leads in total touches, meaning Lacy needed the ball far more than the other rookies to achieve his totals.
Allen runs away with the yards per touch category because he didn’t register a single rush during the season and benefits from the inflated numbers of a pass catcher in the modern pass-happy NFL. That’s not to put down Allen. He only had the ball in his hands 71 times over the year and still broke 1,000 total yards, while the other three candidates needed the ball over 200 times to reach their totals.
The player I believe this graph benefits most, however, is Giovani Bernard. The explosive Bengals running back got the ball nearly 100 times less than Lacy but trails him by only 200 total yards. Bernard’s 5.3 yards per touch, compared to Lacy’s 4.5, speak both to the Cincy back’s explosiveness with the ball and his versatility and ability to make big plays rushing as well as catch the ball. Bernard’s totals are not as flashy as Allen’s or Lacy’s at first glance, but when you consider how impressive he was on a per-touch basis, I think he needs to be in the thick of the race.
When it comes down to it, I think these stats pull the rookies a lot closer together. Lacy wins marks for pure totals, but Allen and Bernard dominated in efficiency and explosiveness. As far as I’m concerned the three of them are in a dead heat for the award.
Like I said earlier, awards like Offensive Rookie of the Year are all about taking the concrete and applying it to the abstract. Since I can’t come to a concrete conclusion using the numbers, I’ve chosen instead to choose an arbitrary and biased method of selecting my winner. So if you’re looking for more analytical jargon, forget it, because I’m throwing it out the metaphorical window.
I believe this Rookie of the Year award deserves to go to the most exciting of the four, and in my humbly biased opinion, that’s Giovani Bernard, by a landslide, because Bernard wasn’t simply the most electrifying rookie, he was the most exciting player to watch in the league. Period.
When Bernard had the ball in his hands, he was must-watch television. Maybe because of East Coast bias, or that Manning’s career year overshadowed so many other stories, Bernard wasn’t getting the attention he deserved every weekend, but every time he was given the ball in the backfield, I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for him to break the big one. When he snuck out of the backfield for a pass, I wasn’t watching Andy Dalton. I was watching Bernard to see if he’d get the ball.
Bernard broke into the football conversation in Week 2 against the Steelers with this big 27-yard touchdown reception that put the Bengals ahead in the 3rd quarter. It was his second touchdown of the day.
Cutting through a stout Pittsburgh defense is no easy feat. Bernard’s other-wordily speed let him do it without being touched by a defender. It was a simple dump-off that he took to the house. But Bernard made it look too easy, and running a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash will help with that. We should have seen the rest coming.
Bernard followed up his Monday night debut with a big game the next Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. If you weren’t impressed by his speed, how do you feel about acrobatics?
If Bernard ever tires of cutting up defenses, I’m sure he could find employment with Cirque Du Soleil. The man doesn’t play by the conventional rules of an NFL player because he doesn’t play in the traditional space. How you defend a man who hurdles a defender from a near-stand still and then propels himself 4 yards into the end zone? You can’t. He’s indefensible. He’s Giovani Bernard.
If Bernard’s profession was breaking ankles, business would be good. In a post-Bernard NFL, blockers are no longer necessities, they’re luxuries. This is Bernard, in open space against Buffalo. Never let Bernard get open space.
If Bernard doesn’t have a perfect agility score on Madden next year, I will lose all faith in the video game industry. But I will never lose faith in the Giovani Bernard industry.
In the modern era of high-scoring offenses, there is plenty of talk about how recent rule changes affect these gaudy numbers. The inability to touch a quarterback, as if defenders were caught in a perpetual episode of Arrested Development, has aided the passing revolution. But when you watch Bernard’s tape, this isn’t the result of a rule change. If anything, Bernard’s dominance is a call back to the days of lone feature back, when Barry Sanders or Walt Payton could carry a team with their ability to escape any situation.
Every physical therapist who has seen an increase in patients as a result of Bernard entering the league should add that patient to his Christmas card list immediately.
What’s even more impressive is Bernard’s intelligence on this play against the Vikings. Not only does he make a spin move straight out of your wildest fantasies, but after breaking free, he slows down around the 25-yard line to wait for his blockers. Then, with the additional help from his teammates, he’s able to bring the ball inside the 10-yard line. Bernard isn’t just a human highlight reel. He has the awareness to cut back and use his blocking to get every yard he can out of every play.
But, like I said earlier, Bernard wasn’t in the conversation with Lacy and Allen merely because of his rushing, but also because of his pass catching ability as well. And Bernard isn’t merely a back with good hands on short screen passes. He can go deep.
That’s a catch plenty of wide receivers don’t make. It was an amazingly good throw for a wide receiver. It was a catch that required incredible talent. It was a catch that required Giovani Bernard.
Despite all of these incredible feats, there always seems to be a year defining play. In the college game, analysts love to talk about a player’s “Heisman Moment,” the play or game that showed they’re deserving of the sport’s highest award. Unfortunately, Rookie of the Year doesn’t have such a catchy title for that moment. Maybe we can call it is “Rookie Moment”? Maybe we can call it “Pulling a Giovani”? Just know, whatever you wish to call it, you may never see anything like it again.
I won’t comment on this any further, because words can’t do this justice. Just know, this was his play of the year. This was his Rookie of the Year moment.
Both Lacy and Allen had outstanding seasons, and they both deserve the award. Honestly, I’d be surprised if Bernard was actually given the award, which is disappointing. After all, this was an incredibility biased and subjective method for picking a Rookie of the Year. When you have a highlight reel as long and impressive as Bernard’s, however, being objective is rather boring.
So there it is. If I had a vote, I’d pick Giovani Bernard for Rookie of the Year. It’s loosely based on the numbers and largely based on my biases. But really, aren’t they all?