The MVP is race is stacked, superb route running and is Jason Garrett truly safe?
1. A crowded MVP field
Who is the MVP of this season?
I have no clue. Not one.
It's one of the more crowded fields in recent league history, maybe the second-most crowded of the past decade-plus. Last year was maybe the most packed ever with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas, Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, David Johnson in Arizona, Tom Brady in New England and Matt Ryan in Atlanta.
This year's is almost just as juicy. I asked an NFC scout to help me sort through the mess. His information is valuable and appears below.
One of the differences between this season and previous ones is the mention of Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald. He has zero shot at winning it, but he's getting numerous mentions across the league. The last defensive player to win the MVP race was Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
Another difference between this season and previous ones is the number of new names mixed with familiar candidates. We are seeing a changing of the guard with younger stars such as Carson Wentz, Gurley and Donald in the running.
Now, the scout's rankings:
First: Rob Gronkowski. "Tom [Brady] hasn't been Tom. He's still great but hasn't played at that level we're used to seeing. I feel like Gronk has saved the Patriots. What he did against the Steelers was one of the best tight end performances of the past 30 or 40 years."
(Can you be MVP if you missed a game down the stretch? And missed that game because of a one-contest suspension for a horrible cheap shot?)
"Yes, of course you can. Are you stupid?"
I am (even though the scout didn't actually say that), but let's move on.
Second: Aaron Donald. "I haven't seen a lineman, [playing] on the inside or out, have a year like this in a long time. If you took a camera and put it on him and people could watch just him play, he'd win the MVP hands down."
Third: Russell Wilson. "If the Seahawks make the playoffs, I'd move him to first or second. No one is better today at making something out of nothing."
Fourth: Todd Gurley. "Love his skill. Love everything he does. But to me, he's more of a flashy candidate."
Fifth: Tom Brady. "It's unfair to him. He's so good he's created unfair standards for himself. Any normal year, he's No. 1 easy."
Sixth: Cam Newton. "A very inspirational player. Rallies the team. Does a lot with less."
Seventh: Drew Brees. "He's been helped by the running game, but when teams focus on that, Drew kills them."
Eighth: Ben Roethlisberger. "I personally think this is the best year he's ever had." (I asked why he's not ranked higher.) "He's got a ton of help around him on offense. It's the most loaded offense in football."
Ninth: Le'Veon Bell. "Debated ranking him higher."
Tenth: Case Keenum. "I'm probably just as guilty as a lot of press and fans. I'm waiting for him to screw up more than appreciating how good he's been."
2. And Coach of the Year?
To this scout, it's Rams coach Sean McVay.
His reasoning is similar to something I hear from a number of team executives and coaches (and it's shaped my thinking). They say McVay is one of the better examples they've witnessed of the value of coaching.
"One year, that offense and team looks average," the scout said, "and in the next, they're in the playoffs. That's coaching."
3. Is Baltimore the most dangerous team in football?
One NFC assistant coach thinks it's possible. The reason is Joe Flacco's improvement.
Flacco started the season terribly. In his first 11 games, he had nine touchdowns and tossed 11 picks. Over the past four games, however, Flacco has seven touchdowns and just one interception.
The Ravens defense was always good this season. (Baltimore has three shutouts.) The running game is good. The question always was: Which Flacco would we see?
"If we continue to see this Flacco," the assistant said, "the Ravens and the Jaguars would be the most balanced teams in the AFC. Even more than the Steelers or Patriots. Flacco is the greatest unknown in the playoffs."
4. What's a catch?, part one kabillion
Do you agree with #NFL Football Ops explanation and ruling of the Kelvin Benjamin catch? #BUFvsNE https://t.co/Jxr4efFgFN2017-12-24 23:17:55
That absolutely terrible overturn of a Kelvin Benjamin touchdown in New England has been discussed plenty, but it needs to be talked about again.
I have covered the NFL for well over two decades, and only recently has no one known what a catch is.
Not even the officials. In Sunday's game, it was properly called a touchdown. Then replay officials in New York overturned it.
One of the best quotes about the ruined state of officiating came in a tweet from the former head of officials, Mike Pereira.
"Regarding the Buffalo no touchdown," he tweeted, "nothing more irritating to an official than to make a great call and then someone in a suit in an office in New York incorrectly reverses it. It is more and more obvious that there isn't a standard for staying with the call on the field."
Thank you, fellow Mike. Thank you.
Two years ago, there was a great debate about who would be the better quarterback: Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota?
Winston went first overall in the 2015 draft and Mariota second. That day was supposed to be one that would be debated forever, and it still might be. There still could be a point where we look back at that day as one on which two Hall of Famers were drafted in consecutive picks.
But that point is not now. In 2017, we saw both Mariota and Winston take massive steps back in a season they were supposed to take leaps forward.
Data can be important, but this is more than numbers. Both players have been overwhelmed by the mental part of the game. They make far too many mistakes. They will get better, but we weren't supposed to see both of them look so, well, at times awful.
Mariota and Winston will bear watching this offseason as their coaching staffs likely go through massive changes.
6. Route running
Ben Baldwin @guga31bb
DON'T DO EM LIKE THAT DOUG https://t.co/V2l5Yf9sWv2017-12-24 23:46:52
There is nothing to say about this route. It's so spectacular. It's so delicious. A jockstrap got killed while trying to cover it. Just enjoy Doug Baldwin running one of the best routes you'll ever see. Happy holidays!
7. The Texans' decision on Colin Kaepernick killed them
On Christmas Day, after Houston quarterback T.J. Yates was hurt, the Texans played someone named Taylor Heinicke.
I cover the sport for a living, and I had never heard of him. A quick Google search shows that he played quarterback at Old Dominion and was also a punter.
When Houston lost Deshaun Watson for the season, it had a chance to sign Colin Kaepernick. It decided against it and has since been in quarterback hell, alternating between scrubs Tom Savage, T.J. Yates and Heineken, er, Heinicke.
The Texans will be watching the playoffs from their couches, and this is just a reminder that they could have been in the postseason hunt had they signed Kaepernick.
8. Is Jason Garrett safe?
Jon Machota @jonmachota
Jerry Jones talking about Jason Garrett: "His job is not an issue here at all." Wouldn't rule out changes to other parts of the coaching staff2017-12-26 15:16:42
According to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, the owner of the team, Jerry Jones, said on 105.3 The Fan that coach Jason Garrett will be back.
It's likely true.
But some team executives aren't so sure. They think it's still too early to say. They think Jones, despite his public statement, could still change his mind.
9. Meanwhile, a bloodbath is coming
Jay Glazer said on Fox the number of coaches fired could be larger than normal this year. I'm hearing similar things. Coaches and executives in football believe this will be one of the worst firing seasons in years. They think you'll see as many as 10 to 12 fired.
10. A historic stat
Josh Dubow of the Associated Press cited this fact about the Raiders offense from Sportradar US: Oakland is the first team in the past 16 seasons to start six drives in a game at its own 40-yard line or better and fail to score a single point on any of them.
The Raiders are going to have some tough decisions to make this offseason. One of the toughest is how to improve quarterback Derek Carr. He was one of the biggest busts from this year. Can he be fixed? Yes.
The question for the Raiders is: Who will do it?
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.