Ranking the 50 Best Athletes of 2011

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2011

Ranking the 50 Best Athletes of 2011

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    Determining the best athlete of 2011 was a tricky process, one that required months of careful study, thousands of computations and a formula that I simply cannot share with you for national security purposes.

    But trust me—it's foolproof.

    Okay, so a list such as this could never be foolproof, or perfect or anything beyond subjective. And that's what makes it fun. All I can do is give you my criteria for determining this list and then sit back and let the arguments begin.

    Here is my criteria: I looked for athletes who most dominated their respective sport, giving special consideration for both those who did so in a historic manner and those who did so with a high level of flair, earning themselves public adoration or fame this year.

    And I focused on those achievements that occurred during this calender year (or at least partly, given seasons that are split between years), meaning that some achievements may have been a part of a previous season but were considered because they occurred in 2011.

    Let the arguments begin.

50. LeBron James

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    There is no way I can win here.

    Some of you will point to his performance in the Finals as evidence that he shouldn't make this list. Others will note that his 26.7 PPG (second in the league), 7.5 RPG and 7.0 APG made him a legitimate MVP candidate last year, and that combined with the fact that he got to the Finals in the first place earned him a higher place on this list.

    Both sides make compelling arguments, so let's split the difference and start our list with LeBron.

49. Floyd Mayweather

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    It is hard to include boxers on a list like this, especially when a guy like Mayweather only fights once a year AND the finish of that fight was controversial (though Mayweather was clearly ahead of Victor Ortiz in their fight when the fourth-round knockout when down).

    But how can you keep the fighter widely considered either the best or second-best pound-for-pound fighter in the world off of this list, especially when he looked sharp in his only fight of the year? He may not have done enough to find himself higher on this list, but he did nothing to suggest he isn't worthy of being here.

48. Xavi

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    Xavi is one of three Ballon d'Or finalists, given annually to FIFA's player of the year. As you can probably guess, the other two players are from La Liga, one also plays for Barcelona and each will be making an appearance on this list.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the most obvious foreshadowing ever.

47. The Klitschko Brothers

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    Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko continued their stranglehold on the heavyweight division in boxing this year. Vitali defeated Odlanier Solis and Tomasz Adamek to retain his WBC title, while Wladimir defeated David Haye to win the WBA (Super) belt and retain the WBO, IBF, IBO and The Ring heavyweight titles.

    Got all that?

    The first family of the heavyweight division maintained their place on the throne this year.

46. Ryan Kesler

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    Kesler won the the NHL's Selke Award last season as the league's best defensive forward. It should be noted that he was excellent offensively as well, accumulating 73 points and a +24 plus/minus while leading the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals.

    And all while pestering opponents with his chippy play. He was arguably the NHL's most complete player last season, and thus deserves recognition here.

45. LeSean McCoy

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    All he does is score touchdowns.

    McCoy has been the bright spot in an Eagles season otherwise marred by the death of the "Dream Team," rushing for 1,274 yards and 17 touchdowns while also hauling in 47 catches for another 305 yards and three scores.

    So that's 1,579 yards of offense and 20 total touchdowns. Shady is going to be entertaining the Philadelphia fans for years to come.

44. Kevin Durant

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    Durant led the NBA in scoring last season, averaging 27.7 points per game and solidifying himself as one of the truly elite players in the game.

    He continued to impress in the playoffs, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks while averaging 28.6 points per game in the postseason.

    While he and Russell Westbrook are still a work-in-progress as a duo, there is no question that Durant is the Batman in that relationship.

43. Manny Pacquiao

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    Pacquiao continued to handle his business this year, defeating Shane Mosley and Juan Manuel Marquez (though his defeat of Marquez was hardly impressive).

    Until Pacquaio and Mayweather fight one another, nothing they do will seem impressive. It's time. There is nowhere to go from here.

    Give us the superfight.

42. Rafael Nadal

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    Nadal finished the ATP World Tour in 2011 ranked second in the world after earning a cool $7,668,214. He also won his record-tying sixth French Open, equaling the number of titles won by Bjorn Borg.

    He also made it to the finals of three of the four Grand Slams, and were it not for a tennis player higher on this list, he would have finished with another epic season to put on his resume.

41. Anderson Silva

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    Silva continued to prove that he is the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world, defending his UFC Middleweight Championship for an eighth (defeating Vitor Belfort) and ninth time (defeating Yushin Okami).

    In other words, 2011 was just another year at the office for the Spider.

40. Danielle Adams

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    2011 has been a good year for Danielle Adams. In her senior season at Texas A&M, Adams was named an Associated Press First Team All-American, was named the NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player after scoring 30 points in the title game and won a national championship with the Aggies.

    She was drafted by the San Antonio Silver Stars and promptly made the WNBA All-Rookie team and was named to the WNBA All-Star Game as a reserve.

    Not bad, Miss Adams. Not bad at all.

39. Tom Brady

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    Tom Brady pretty much makes this list by default, right?

    Nonetheless, I should mention that he has thrown for 4,593 yards, 35 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year.

    Oh, and the Patriots are 11-3 and just defeated the vaunted Denver Tebows. Just another year in the life of Tom Brady.

38. Drew Brees

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    You know, this Drew Brees guy isn't too bad himself. Brees has thrown for 4,780 yards, 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year. He is almost assured to break Dan Marino's single-season yardage record of 5,084 yards with two games left to play.

    Oh, and the Saints are 11-3 and might be the only team in the NFC that has a chance to beat the Packers in the playoffs. And Brees is probably the only player in football that should even be mentioned for the MVP alongside that quarterback from Green Bay.

37. Jacoby Ellsbury

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    If there were a position player who was going to win the AL MVP this season, that player would have been Jacoby Ellsbury. Here's why:

    119 212 32 105 39 .321 .376 .552 .998

    Amidst a season in Boston that will be remembered as one of the more painful collapses in the team's history, Ellsbury was a bright spot (and helped the club in every feasible way). Additionally, he finished second in the MVP voting and helped me win my fantasy baseball league.

    Thanks, Jacoby!

36. Tamika Catchings

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    Catchings finally earned the WNBA's MVP award this season. The honor had been a long time coming. From ESPN:

    Indeed, Catchings is the most successful WNBA player from the Tennessee program. She has won the league's defensive player of the year award four times; helped lead Indiana to the playoffs in eight of her 10 seasons; and made it to within one victory of a league title in 2009. Catching also won gold medals in the 2004 and '08 Olympics.

    But MVP had been an elusive honor for her. She was a strong contender for MVP her rookie season, averaging 18.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. But then-Houston Comets player Sheryl Swoopes won the award. In 2003, Catchings averaged 19.7 points and 8.0 rebounds. But the MVP went to Seattle center Lauren Jackson.

    In 2007, Catchings' averages were 16.9 and 9.0. In 2010, they were 18.2 and 7.1. Jackson also won the MVP both of those seasons.

    Catchings averaged 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals and led the Indiana Fever to the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference.

35. Kemba Walker

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    Kemba Walker had a sweet 2011, finishing as a finalist for the Oscar Robertson Player of the Year award, was named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and led UConn to a national championship.

    Oh, and he had one of the most clutch shots of the year as well.

34. Carmelita Jeter

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    Carmelita Jeter killed it at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, winning the 100 meters and 4x100 meter relay and finishing second in the 200 meters.

    She is the world's fastest woman.

33. Maria Höfl-Riesch

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    I don't know a ton about skiing, but this is what I know: Germany's Höfl-Riesch was last season's Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup overall champion, ending Lindsey Vonn's streak of three-consecutive overall championships in the process.

32. Corey Perry

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    Hey, when you score the most goals in the NHL (50), finish third in the league in points (98) and win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP, I'd say you had a pretty amazing year.

31. Jimmer Fredettte

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    It's Jimmer time!

    Jimmer Fredettte won the Oscar Robertson trophy as the country's best college basketball player last season, and along the way became a sensation in the sports world for his high-scoring performances and long-range shooting.

    Get ready, NBA—you're about to get Jimmered.

30. Abby Wambach

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    At first glance, this choice might appear to be national homerism at its finest after Wambach's epic goal against Brazil in the Women's World Cup this year. But she also had four goals in the tournament, tied for second-most with Brazil's Marta.

    And, yeah, she had the most epic moment in American sports this year. So, yeah, she makes the list.

29. Caroline Wozniacki

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    Wozniacki is the top-ranked women's tennis player in the world despite not winning any Grand Slams this year.

    But she did win six WTA titles and led all female players with 63 match wins, and consistency counts for something. She's also only 21 years old, so she has time to start accumulating the Grand Slams.

28. Sally Pearson

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    Here's what Australia's famous 100-meter hurdler did at the World Championships in Daegu (from Universal Sports):

    Pearson raised eyebrows with her opening-round victory in 12.53 on Friday, and was the talk of the meet after running 12.36—a time which would have won every Olympic gold medal in history—in her semifinal heat earlier today.

    The 24-year-old put a giant exclamation on her dominant showing later in the evening, blazing to her first world title in a preposterous 12.28 seconds, establishing new championship, national, and Oceanic area records.

    She was also named the IAFF Athlete of the Year, though some felt that the woman on an upcoming slide deserved that honor.

27. Cadel Evans

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    When you win the Tour de Fance, you make this list. It's as simple as that.

    But Australia's Cadel Evans has an interesting story to boot. From The New York Times:

    Evans was born three weeks past his due date and with a broken nose. At 8, his skull was fractured when a horse kicked him in the head, and he spent weeks in a coma. Doctors did not expect him to walk again. He not only walked, but he also became a cyclist many long expected would contend at the Tour de France.

    Yet he had not won it. He finished second twice, in 2007 and 2008, and his tour, year after year it seemed, was often defined by bad luck. He crashed as the presumed favorite in 2008 and fractured his elbow in 2010. In between, he switched teams.

    Cadel went into the last Friday of the Tour trailing Andy Schleck of Luxembourg by 57 seconds. By the end of Saturday, he established a 1-minute-34-second lead for the win.

26. Petra Kvitova

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    Reuters does a pretty good job of succinctly summing up Kvitova's season:

    Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was voted WTA's Player of the Year Monday following a season in which she claimed her debut grand slam title, steered the Czech Republic to Fed Cup glory and shot up 32 places in the world rankings.

    The Czech, who ended the year ranked second, picked up four prizes in total Monday following a remarkable 12 months in which she won six titles and chalked up a 6-0 record in Fed Cup singles.

    She also won the Most Improved Player award, the fair play prize, and the Breakthrough Player of the Year award (as voted on by the fans).

25. Vivian Cheruiyot

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    If you are anything like me, you might not be up on your track and field news. Thanks to The Telegraph, however, we can be up to speed on the achievements of Vivian Cheruiyot:

    The Kenyan was untouchable this year, winning world titles in the 5,000 and 10,000m to add to the 8km crown she won at the World Cross Country Championships.

    The world titles referenced above were at the World Championships in Daegu.

    I got tired just thinking about watching those two races, let alone trying to run them. Or, for that matter, winning each.

    Well done, Cheruiyot.

24. Luke Donald

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    Luke Donald was voted as the 2011 PGA Tour Player of the Year by his peers, had 14 top-10 finishes, won two tournaments, finished atop the money leaders' rankings and is the top-ranked golfer in the world.

    Any questions?

23. Tony Stewart

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    Tony Stewart didn't just win the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he won it in style.

    He won the final race of the season—the Ford 400—edging out Carl Edwards, who finished both second in the race and in the final standings (the two were tied in points but Stewart had more wins). Stewart also won five races in the 10-race Chase, steamrolling his way to a title.

22. Daniel Sedin

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    Daniel Sedin finished 2011 by winning the Art Ross (regular-season scoring leader) award with 104 points along with winning the Ted Lindsay award, which is the league MVP as voted on by the players.

    Oh, and he also finished tied for fourth in the NHL with a plus/minus of +30.

    Not too shabby, Mr. Sedin.

21. Rob Gronkowski

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    After 14 games this year, tight end Rob Gronkowski has 75 receptions for 1,141 yards and 16 touchdowns (15 receiving, one on a backward pass that was technically a rushing touchdown).

    Oh, and those 15 receiving scores are the most touchdowns caught by a tight end in NFL history. And he set the record with three games to go.

    Here's another stat that might interest you: In standard-scoring leagues, Gronkowski has more points than every wide receiver except for Calvin Johnson, and the two are separated by a meager six points on the season.

    The man, quite simply, is a beast.

20. Sebastian Vettel

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    Sebastian Vettel won his second straight Formula One World Championship in 2011, which apparently is a big deal around the globe.

    Though I don't know anything about Formula One, the fact that Vettel won 11 races and was leaps and bounds ahead of second-place racer Jenson Button in the standings seemed pretty darn impressive to me.

19. Ryan Braun*

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    No, that asterisk next to his name is not a typo.

    The National League's MVP had a fantastic season and deserved the honor even if, in my opinion, he wasn't the league's best player (see the next slide).

    But if he, in fact, did take a performance-enhancing drug, he does not deserve his place on this list. We will presume him innocent until the appeals process takes place, however.

18. Matt Kemp

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    In my mind, Matt Kemp was the more deserving MVP Candidate, and here is why:

    Matt Kemp 115 195 39 126 40 .324 .399 .586 .986 10.0
    Ryan Braun 109 187 33 111 33 .332 .397 .597 .994 7.7

    We all knew Braun was going to win, given that the Brewers won their division and the Dodgers missed the playoffs. But if you asked me which player I would have rather had on my team last year, my answer would be Kemp.

17. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Ronaldo is one of three Ballon d'Or finalists for FIFA Player of the Year, has scored 20 goals this season and at this point is pretty safe to pencil in as world's second-best player, right?


16. Clayton Kershaw

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    Clayton Kershaw turned 23 this year. Then he won the NL Cy Young by compiling a 21-5 record with 248 strikeouts, a 2.28 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP.

    The NL West is shaking in fear at the thought of having to hit against Kershaw for the next decade.

15. Derrick Rose

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    Rose was named the 2011 NBA MVP after a stellar third season that saw him average 25 points, 7.7 assists and one steal per game. He also led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost in five and Rose was surprisingly stymied by the defense of LeBron James.

    But Rose proved in 2011 that he was a superstar and a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

14. Robert Griffin, III

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    Coming into the season, most people assumed the Heisman Trophy was Andrew Luck's to lose.

    Then Robert Griffin III went out and won it.

    RG3 put up fantastic numbers this year, throwing for 3,998 yards and 36 touchdowns to only six interceptions. Oh, and he ran for 644 yards and nine more touchdowns.

    Oh, and he led Baylor to a 9-3 record, leading the team to victories over TCU, Texas and Oklahoma.

13. Tim Thomas

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    Tim Thomas had a pretty nice year.

    He won the Vezina Award as the NHL's best goaltender, led Boston to a Stanley Cup championship and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the NHL postseason.

    Yup, Tim Thomas had a pretty nice year.

12. Cam Newton

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    Cam Newton got his year started off the right way, leading Auburn past Oregon in the Tostitos National Championship Game.

    He was selected as the first overall pick by the Carolina Panthers and has taken the league by storm, racking up 17 passing touchdowns and 13 rushing scores (a new NFL record for quarterbacks).

    Sure, he's thrown 16 interceptions, and the Panthers are 5-9. No matter. An NFL star was born this year, and he won himself a national championship in January on top of that.

    2011 was kind to Newton, indeed.

11. Maya Moore

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    Here's what Maya Moore did this year:

    During her senior season at UConn, she was named to the Associated Press All-America First Team, won the State Farm Wade Trophy Player of the Year and added the ESPY for best college athlete. Then she was drafted by the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx where she made the 2011 WNBA All-Star Team, was named the rookie of the year and won a WNBA championship.

    Did you get all of that?

10. Homare Sawa

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    Japan's Homare Sawa took home the Golden Ball (tournament MVP) and Golden Boot (top scorer) in this year's World Cup after she scored five goals and led Japan over the United States in the championship game.

    We tip our hats to you, Sawa, even if we still think Abby Wambach's goal was the moment of the tournament.

9. Usain Bolt

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    So what did the fastest human being in recorded history do this year?

    Well, he won his third-straight IAAF Male World Athlete of the Year Award. Here's why:

    Bolt, 25, successfully defended his title in the 200m at the World Championships in Daegu clocking 19.40, the second-fastest performance of the year. He concluded the Championships by anchoring a Jamaican quartet to a 37.04 world record in the 4x100m relay and ended the season undefeated in four 200m races. He was also the 2011 world leader in the 100m at 9.76, and won five of his six races over the distance.

    Had he not been disqualified in the 100 meter race at the World Championships for a false start, well, he probably would have won that as well.

8. Yani Tseng

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    Tseng was the best golfer in the world this year. She won 11 worldwide titles and two major championships, the LPGA Championship and British Open.

    But there's more. From USA TODAY:

    Since becoming No. 1 earlier in the season, Tseng has steadily separated herself from her rivals and is a staggering lead 7.52 points ahead of No. 2 Suzann Pettersen in the Rolex women's world golf rankings.

    Tseng leads the money list with $2.88 million, about $1.45 million more than second-place Cristie Kerr. Tseng already has wrapped up the player of the year award for the second consecutive year.

7. Jon Jones

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    Jon Jones dominated the sport of MMA in 2011.

    He went 4-0, defeating Ryan Bader, Mauricio Rua (for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship), Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Lyoto Machida. Whispers of a superfight between he and Anderson Silva have made the rounds, though it is unlikely that will happen.

    No matter—Jones is a star, and no fighter in the world was as dominant as he was in 2011.

6. Dirk Nowitzki

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    Dirk became something of a national hero when he led the Dallas Mavericks past the Miami Heat and won his first NBA title.

    But Dirk was also ridiculous in the playoffs, averaging 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He earned his Finals MVP trophy, scoring 62 fourth-quarter points when the stars of the Heat seemed to suddenly cool off.

    Way to go, Dirk.

5. Anthony Robles

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    Wrestler Anthony Robles went 36-0 during his senior season at Arizona State and won the 2011 NCAA National Championship at 125 pounds.

    And he did that with only one leg.


4. Lionel Messi

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    The last of the Ballon d'Or finalists for FIFA Player, Messi has had another transcendent year and currently has 17 goals during this campaign, second in La Liga to Ronaldo.

    Messi is now universally viewed as the world's best soccer player, and he's done nothing this year to change that perception.

3. Justin Verlander

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    Justin Verlander wasn't just the best pitcher in baseball this year—he was also the best player.

    Verlander won both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards this season, compiling a 24-5 record. He led the American League in wins (24), strikeouts (250), innings pitched (251), games started (34), WHIP (0.92), ERA (2.40) and WAR (8.5).

    Oh, and he threw a no-hitter.

    Dominance has a new name, and it is Verlander.

2. Novak Djokovic

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    All Novak Djokovic did this year was win three Grand Slams (US Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon) and 10 titles overall, finish with a 70-6 overall record, win 41 straight matches and become the top-ranked player in the world.

    Oh, and he finished with the most winnings in ATP World Tour history, earning a cool $12.6 million. It's hard to imagine someone having a more dominant 2011 than he did.

    But such a man exists.

1. Aaron Rodgers

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    If we are looking at performances in 2011, let's lump together last season's playoff run with this season when analyzing Rodgers (since they fall within the same calender year.)

    That means we are looking at a total of 18 games. In those 18 games, Rodgers has led the Packers to a 17-1 record, including last season's Super Bowl victory. In those games, he has thrown for 5,455 yards, 49 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.

    He was the Super Bowl MVP, is nearly a lock to win the regular-season MVP award this year and seemed primed to lead his team to an undefeated regular season before a shocking loss to the Chiefs, which broke a 19-game winning streak dating back back to last year's regular season.

    His performance this season has been one of the most spectacular displays of quarterback play I've ever seen. He has no weaknesses as a quarterback. Unlike Brady and more so than Brees, he is athletic enough to make plays with his legs when the pocket breaks down.

    Aaron Rodgers has been the best athlete in sports in 2011.

    My name is Timothy Rapp, and I put the "grrrr" in Swagger.

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