Patrick Willis led a San Francisco 49ers defense that turned in one of the best seasons in the NFL and keyed the team’s rise from a 6-10 also-ran to a 13-3 division champion. Like his team, though, Willis came up just short of a place in the spotlight on Super Bowl weekend.
In the league’s barrage of year-end awards (announced tonight in conjunction with the pre-Super Bowl hoopla), Willis was beaten out for Defensive Player of the Year honors by Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens. The loss isn’t an easy one for Willis’ fans to take, but as good as the fifth-year 49er was, Suggs was simply better.
In the first place, Suggs had jaw-dropping stats that Willis simply couldn’t match. Neither player had an extraordinary number of tackles—Suggs posted 70, Willis a career-low 97—and Suggs beat Willis in every other category (two interceptions to one, seven forced fumbles to four and 14 sacks to two).
Not only were Willis’ numbers subpar by his standards, they weren’t even the best on his own team. Youngster NaVorro Bowman upstaged Willis with an eye-popping team-high of 143 tackles on the year.
Obviously, numbers aren’t everything, and Willis’ intangibles are one of his primary contributions to a San Francisco team on the rise. However, it’s hard to make a case that his leadership is that much more valuable to the Niners than Suggs’ is to Baltimore.
After all, both teams have astounding defenses, and both have plenty of other talented players. Suggs has more leaders around him with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but it’s hardly a cut-and-dried case in Willis’ favor.
If San Francisco continues to play as well as it did in the team’s first year under Jim Harbaugh, Willis will have plenty of other chances to take home postseason hardware. For 2011, though, John Harbaugh’s linebacker was the more deserving choice.