With the regular season coming to its annual close and the Patriots enjoying yet another successful year, it’s time to give out some hardware. Well, not real hardware. But fictional, invisible hardware based on the performances of some of the members of this year’s team.
Players in all phases of the game stepped up this season and made it one worth remembering. It is time to reward the improvements that the team made following their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss nearly 11 months ago.
Special Teams Player of the Year: My first award goes to special teams captain and two-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater. In 16 games this season, Slater has continued his role as gunner on the punt team as well as seeing a bit of action in the kick return game. A member of all four special teams units, he made 19 tackles while playing in every game for the second straight season. His biggest game of the year came in the loss to Seattle in which he made three special teams tackles on the afternoon. He had the third-highest tackles of any non-regular Patriots defender.
Matthew Slater (18) quietly had another successful year on special teams for the Patriots.
Walter Payton (Patriots) Man of the Year: This award annually rewards the player that best exemplifies the importance of not only being a good player on the field, but a better person off of it. Almost every week since he has arrived in New England in 2010, punter Zoltan Mesko has been spotted doing various projects around the community or just visiting children who might need their days brightened. He has taken the ‘Community Tuesday’ concept to a new level while continuing to be one of the best punters in the league for the third straight season. Some of his efforts over the past year have included visits to Children’s Hospital Boston, an appearance at a youth triathlon and some quality time spent with Hungarian fans.
Zoltan Mesko has gone above and beyond to give back to the community during his time with the Patriots.
Comeback Player of the Year: We all remember the ankle injury suffered by tight end Rob Gronkowski in last year’s AFC Championship game win over the Ravens. He wasn’t the same in the Super Bowl, but after offseason surgery and a rigorous rehab routine, Gronk returned for 2012 and looked like he never went down. The huge tight end caught 55 passes for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns while only playing in 11 games this season because of a broken forearm. He was elected as the AFC’s starting tight end in his second straight Pro Bowl and showed no signs of having ever sustained the injury. In his second return of the season, Gronk caught two passes for 42 yards and a touchdown in the 28-0 win over the Dolphins.
Rob Gronkowski came back after this injury slowed him down in last year’s playoffs only to get hurt again this year, but he still put up huge numbers.
Unsung Hero: Balance on offense is something that every professional football team strives to achieve. With all the passing weapons that this team has, it certainly would have been easy, as it had been it recent years, to only throw the ball and abandon the run. Stevan Ridley made sure that would not happen, however, as he had an incredibly strong sophomore season, leading the team in rush yards with 1,263 and finishing seventh in the league. In his rookie season, he showed signs, but really took his game to the next level this year and the balance that was brought back to the Patriots’ play calling did wonders for them both on the scoreboard and in the win column. Ridley definitely performed above most of the expectations set for him entering the 2012 season. His 12 total touchdowns, including two on Sunday were tied for third in the league.
Stevan Ridley found the endzone 12 timee this season, helping the Patriots return to the playoffs.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: There weren’t many to choose from in this department as the team spent most of its draft picks this past spring on defensive players, but one running back made the most of his time in the backfield to earn the award. As the only rookie really used by the Patriots on offense this year, Brandon Bolden caught the eyes of fans everywhere with his 16-carry, 137-yard performance in the Week 4 win over the Blls. Bolden finished the year with 56 carries for 274 yards and two touchdowns as he missed time with injuries and because of a four-game suspension for PED use. He also became a fixture on special teams, covering both kicks and punts for the Pats. Bolden does seem to have a pretty bright future ahead of him if he can work his way up and get the reps for any team that might want him.
Brandon Bolden showed enough promise to earn my Offensive Rookie of the Year award for 2012.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: With all the rookies who contributed on defense, it was kind of tough to pick one who stood out the most, but eventually, it had to be done and I decided to go with 7th round pick Alfonzo Dennard. I know he was only active for 10 games and missed the last two, but look at their record during those games compared to their 2-2 record before he began his season. Coincidence? Probably, but he did still have an impressive year. To finish the season starting opposite a strong and established corner in Aqib Talib with all the other options New England has makes his season one worthy of the award. Dennard finished 2012 with 35 tackles and tied for third on the team with three interceptions, including an 87-yard touchdown. Chandler Jones had a strong start to the year, but his production decreased as the season went on due, in large part, to injury, and he finished a close second.
Alfonzo Dennard has really been a big addition to the Patriots’ secondary as he’s helped keep opponents’ playmakers at bay in the second half of the season.
Offensive Most Valuable Player: No surprise here. What would the prolific offense be without its Hall of Fame leader? Tom Brady once again had another MVP-worthy season in 2012 and I’m not just talking team MVP. He is in the discussion for league MVP as well. His 4,827 yards and 34 touchdown passes each ranked in the top-five in the league. It is his presence too that enables the team to be so successful. His ability to keep everyone around him composed and create opportunities has again got the Patriots back to the playoffs as division champs. Brady finally lost a game in the second half of the season in Week 15 and it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s all he needs to make sure his team does not lose another one until the weather is warm again.
Tom Brady has shown little sign of slowing down as his value to the Patriots’ offense remains unmatched.
Defensive Most Valuable Player: There’s stopping someone once they get started and then there’s stopping someone before they even have a chance to get started. That’s what Vince Wilfork has done for the Patriots’ defense all season long. As a leader of the ninth-ranked rush defense in the NFL, getting through him has proven difficult to do for opposing running backs. His massive presence alone forces the other team to alter their game plan on a regular basis. Wilfork finished the year with 48 tackles, three sacks and four forced fumbles while constantly blowing plays up at or behind the line of scrimmage and was selected to his fifth career Pro Bowl. While his stats don’t necessarily reflect it, his value is unmatched anywhere around the league because of all that he forces opponents to account for.
Vince Wilfork has been huge for the Patriots’ rush D in 2012 while earning his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl.
There you have it – the recipients of awards for the Patriots in 2012 according to, well, me.
Follow me on Twitter @RealAndyLarmand.