- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

The last four months have to go down as one of the more interesting NFL seasons. Mediocrity reigned in the AFC West and NFC West, where the division champions went 8-8 and 9-7. But in the conferences’ East divisions, only one out of eight teams finished below .500.

And then there were the rookie coaches and players. Baltimore, Atlanta and Miami all hired first-time coaches and are in the playoffs. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco started from Week 1 and finished a combined 22-10, and three of the league’s top eight rushers were newbies.

Before the playoffs start Saturday, here are The Washington Times’ picks for the regular-season awards.

Coach of the year: Tony Sparano, Miami

The Patriots’ Bill Belichick could get the nod here for going 11-5 with a quarterback who hadn’t started since high school (Matt Cassel) and a cornerback crew that would struggle in the Arena Football League. But since the Patriots didn’t make the playoffs, the honor goes to the Dolphins’ Sparano.

Miami’s one-season turnaround (1-15 to 11-5) is tied for the best in league history, and the Dolphins won the competitive AFC East. Sparano, a former Dallas assistant and Bill Parcells’ hand-picked coach, got veterans to buy into his program immediately.

Offensive MVP: Peyton Manning, Indianapolis

He undergoes two knee surgeries in the summer, doesn’t take a snap in the preseason and struggles during a 3-4 start. How does Manning respond? He leads a nine-game winning streak to reach the postseason for the seventh straight year.

Manning finished with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions despite the Colts’ 31st-ranked run offense. During the streak, he has 17 touchdowns and three interceptions.

If MVP is defined as the player worth the most to his team, just imagine where the Colts would be without No. 18. Although his 95 passer rating was his lowest since 2002, this might have been Manning’s best year.

Defensive MVP: James Harrison, Pittsburgh

Harrison was the best player on the NFL’s best defense this year. He finished fourth in the league with 16 sacks along with 133 tackles and seven forced fumbles.

In five previous seasons (60 games), Harrison totaled 12.5 sacks. This year, he posted four multisack games.

Offensive rookie: Chris Johnson, Tennessee

Obviously, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is a deserving winner for helping the Falcons to a playoff berth. But he got a ton of help from running back Michael Turner. Johnson’s quarterback with the Titans was graybeard (literally) Kerry Collins. Teams geared up against Tennessee’s run game.

It didn’t work. Johnson finished with 1,228 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He trailed fellow rookies Matt Forte and Steve Slaton in yards, but Johnson was the only one of the three to reach the postseason. The Titans finished with AFC home-field advantage in large part because Johnson produced right away and took the load off Collins’ arm.

Defensive rookie: Jerod Mayo, New England

Belichick saw Mayo’s playmaking ability and smarts at the University of Tennessee and fast-tracked the Newport News, Va., native into the system after the Patriots selected him in the first round. He started every game and led the Patriots with 126 tackles, helping reinforce an aging linebacker corps.

New England became the second 11-5 team in league history not to qualify for the playoffs, but it found a future defensive player of the year.

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