Before anyone gets carried away, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs had a tremendous season.
He was recognized for it by winning the 2011 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award.
Suggs was the top player on the league’s third-ranked defense and turned in the best campaign of his nine-year career. His career-high 14 sacks — most in the AFC — and franchise-record and league-leading seven forced fumbles reflected just how well he played during the 2011 season.
Becoming the third Baltimore player to receive the honor in the last 12 seasons — Ray Lewis received the award in 2000 and 2003 while Ed Reed earned the distinction in 2004 — Suggs is certainly appreciative of the recognition for his work in wreaking havoc against opposing quarterbacks.
“I want to thank the Ravens organization, my teammates, my position coach [Ted Monachino], all of our defensive coaches, and most importantly, the city of Baltimore,” Suggs said. “Our fans are the NFL’s best. I’ve always said that I play for our fans, and this honor is a tribute to them. I’m very appreciative of Ravens Nation and their love and support throughout the past nine years.”
His “Ball So Hard University” slogan began as a funny quip in a nationally-televised telecast and quickly transformed into a lucrative merchandising craze not seen in the Charm City since the coining of “Festivus” for the Ravens’ Super Bowl run during the 2000 season. Suggs’ battles with ESPN’s Skip Bayless were entertaining and brought plenty of notoriety for a player who has spent his entire career playing in the shadows of all-time greats Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
The media like his colorful outlook on football and other walks of life, offering quotes that steer away from the all-too-tired cliches that most athletes are coached to use when speaking publicly. All in all, the 29-year-old linebacker is one of the most likable players the Ravens have ever had.
So, why is it that Saturday’s announcement that Suggs was named Defensive Player of the Year felt underwhelming?
Perhaps the NFL’s decision to wait until the night before the Super Bowl to announce honors that had previously been awarded closer to the end of the regular season might have something to do with it. Or, maybe the sting of the Ravens’ crushing 23-20 loss in the AFC championship doesn’t allow for much celebration of personal accolades.
Taking nothing away from his All-Pro season, a closer look still leaves me thinking Suggs was not the most deserving of the NFL’s top defensive honor.
On a pragmatic level, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen finished with a league-leading 22 sacks, eight more than Suggs and just short of the NFL record of 22 1/2 set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Though the Vikings finished with a 3-13 record this season, does the league’s top defensive player have to play for a winning team in the same way critics argue for most valuable player awards?
There’s also the argument of how consistently Suggs’ impact was felt throughout the season. Of his 14 sacks this season, nine came in three games after turning in three-sack showings against Pittsburgh (in the season opener), San Francisco, and Indianapolis. His five remaining sacks were spread over 13 games, suggesting Suggs may have been the league’s supreme defensive player in spurts but not on the consistent basis you’d expect from the award winner.
In comparison, Allen was held without a sack in only three games all season while Suggs was shut out eight times.
In fairness, Suggs has more responsibilities in the Baltimore defense and does not line up as a pass rusher on every single play in the same way that Allen does for Minnesota. A defensive player’s full impact cannot be quantified in terms of numbers when you consider how much an opponent might have to account for premier players such as Suggs and Allen or the likes of Lewis and Reed in the prime, creating opportunities for teammates to make plays.
As the season wound down, teams began using a tight end to chip Suggs at the line of scrimmage, offering an assist to opposing tackles in keeping the pass rusher away from the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano responded by occasionally shifting Suggs to the opposite side of the defensive line to match up against the opponent’s right tackle.
But the numbers don’t lie as the Baltimore pass rush floundered down the stretch, with no one picking up the slack for Suggs in the process.
Counting two postseason games, Suggs was held to just one sack over the Ravens’ final 300 minutes of football this season.
There’s no question that Suggs played the best football of his career. He was certainly the best player on a great Baltimore defense and one of the finest defensive players in the entire league.
But the end of his season reflected the conclusion of the Ravens’ successful 2011 campaign.
It left you wanting a little more.
And if that’s too much to ask, perhaps he wasn’t quite worthy of the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Birk named Man of the Year
Ravens center Matt Birk is one of the class acts you’ll find in the NFL, and that was recognized on Saturday night with Birk being named the 2011 Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
The award recognizes off-the-field community service as well as excellence on the field, two areas in which Birk has thrived during his 14-year career in Minnesota and Baltimore.
“I am honored and truly humbled to be named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year,” Birk said. “This award is not about the recipient, but rather a celebration of the decades-long tradition of NFL players using their unique platform to touch lives and make a positive and lasting impact in the communities in which they work and live.”
Birk has not decided whether he will play again next season, but fans should recognize the impact he’s made in his three seasons in Baltimore. Besides simply calling out the signals for the offensive line, the 35-year-old has embraced the community through his Hike Foundation, various reading programs, and other charitable endeavors.
While it isn’t easy for fans to truly know what their favorite players are like off the field, take satisfaction in knowing Birk is one of the best men you’ll encounter in professional sports.
He’d be the first to tell you that numerous players are worthy of the honor he received on Saturday night, but it doesn’t make him any less deserving of the award.