Ed Reed seized two interceptions from quarterback Chad Pennington in the Baltimore Ravens’ 27-9 playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, but could not grab his second Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award on Monday afternoon.
Not surprisingly, Ravens message boards and Baltimore sports talk radio were abuzz with dismay over the perceived snubbing of the Pro Bowl safety, who finished third behind winner James Harrison (16 sacks and seven forced fumbles) from Pittsburgh and Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (20 sacks).
Reed, the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, led the league with nine interceptions in the regular season before turning in his amazing performance in the Wild Card round. He added to this league-leading feat with 41 tackles, a forced fumble, 16 pass deflections, and three defensive touchdowns.
He is unquestionably the best safety in football, and has been the best player in the NFL over the last seven weeks. In his past seven games, including Sunday’s postseason contest, the free safety has grabbed an astonishing 10 interceptions, deflected 12 passes, and scored three defensive touchdowns.
His dominating tear started much too late in the season to argue he clearly deserved the award over Harrison or Ware. Both players had outstanding seasons, so an argument could have been made for any of the three defenders.
Not unlike the Heisman Trophy commotion of college football, NFL awards are often spurred by national media hype, albeit on a smaller scale than the Heisman campaign hoopla.
Reed’s name was merely an afterthought before his two-interception performance against the Washington Redskins on a nationally-televised Sunday night game in Week 14. By that time, the Harrison and Ware publicity wagons had been rolling for weeks.
It’s conceivable that many voters had already made up their minds on a candidate before the season was even over.
It didn’t help Reed’s cause that the Steelers are a media darling, while the Cowboys have been the most popular soap opera in professional sports over the past few months.
Until recently, the Ravens were mainly viewed as an overachieving pretender, and they are still trying to shake their past reputation of being out-of-control bullies.
Both the Steelers and Cowboys own a more storied history than the newer Ravens and had higher expectations entering the season. All things being equal between several choices, voters will lean to the candidates from the more fashionable teams, as they often do in college football.
Though it can be debated whether Reed deserved the award, there is no question he was the league’s best defender over the last six weeks.
But herein lies the problem.
Where was Reed in the first 10 games of the season?
Besides a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown in Week Three, Reed had a meager six pass deflections. The ball-hawking playmaker appeared to be a ghost in many critics’ eyes.
The same message boards and talk radio callers clamoring for Reed to be Defensive Player of the Year on Monday were questioning the play of the Ravens safety as late as mid-November.
One popular Ravens message board even had a thread titled “Ed Reed on the decline? Looks to be” that went on for several pages. The 30-year old safety was a shell of himself, according to many.
Until Reed’s breakout performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 12, which included two interceptions and a record 107-yard interception return for a touchdown, the safety was having a poor season compared to his lofty standards.
Two factors contributed to the slow start.
Reed sustained an injury in the 2007 season finale against Pittsburgh, suffering a nerve impingement in his neck. The injury limited the movement and strength in his shoulder, causing him to miss the entire preseason and putting his status for the regular season in doubt.
He chose to play with the injury, but it forced him to play cautiously, shying away from his trademark big hits in the secondary. Reed has told media that surgery on the injury would potentially end his career.
A second factor in Reed’s slow start was the lack of health in the Baltimore secondary. Cornerbacks Chris McAlister (injured reserve), Samari Rolle, and Fabian Washington all missed multiple games in the early stages of the season.
Strong safety Dawan Landry sustained a neck injury in the second game of the season and did not play again.
With a revolving door of defensive backs playing beside him, Reed had to play more cautiously, often covering more ground and unable to take as many chances. Once Rolle and Washington returned to the lineup and safety Jim Leonhard became more comfortable in the backfield, Reed’s playmaking ability was reborn.
Although his play early in the season did not show up in the statistics, he anchored a pass defense that ranked second in the league despite a plethora of injuries.
Unfortunately for Reed, these factors were unlikely to sway national voters to vote for him over Harrison or Ware, players that had more consistent production over the course of the season.
Though Reed came up short in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year, his recent play is putting an exclamation point on an already impressive career.
If Reed can pick off another piece of hardware by postseason’s end, the Vince Lombardi Trophy, he may grab a more prestigious honor than any he missed this season: a future invitation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.