Whatever is the NFL equivalent of a purple heart, we're giving them out today in the form of the Bengals.com end-of-season "Way To Work Awards." The year 2020 was so hard on everybody in all walks of just trying to stay alive, it just seems like there ought to be something more.
Anyway, Way To Work:
MVP, WR TYLER BOYD: You never knew what you were going to expect day-to-day this season. You just never knew when you woke up what you were going to get at the top of your e-mail, what your schedule was going to be or even what the next hour would bring.
But you knew no matter what that Boyd would be in the slot with about 80 clutch catches or so and there he was with 79, becoming the fifth Bengal (Cris Collinsworth, Carl Pickens, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, A. J. Green) to lead the team in catches at least three straight seasons.
It was so 2020 when Boyd was wide open for a touchdown in the Monday Nighter against the Steelers, but ended up getting a concussion instead when he had to go up and battle for a ball that cost him three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Boyd has adapted to every situation in an offense that has been hounded by change and injury since he arrived. He has caught touchdowns from five different quarterbacks with three different play-callers.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, WR TEE HIGGNS: What another 2020 moment on Sunday's third snap when Higgins, one catch from Collinsworth's rookie Bengals record and 92 yards away from becoming the third Bengal rookie to get 1,000 receiving yards, sped to half of them on a 41-yard third-down conversion. But a penalty blew up the play and a pulled hamstring ended his season short of the record book. But long on vindication.
The Bengals were looking to model their 2020 re-build on the 2011 re-boot draft of wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round and quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round and reversed it with Joe Burrow and Higgins. And until Burrow got hurt, they were on pace to join Green and Dalton as the only rookie quarterback-receiver tandem to pass for 20 touchdowns and catch 1,000 yards.
Talk about adapting. Higgins caught Burrow's longest pass (67 yards), Ryan Finley's two third-down conversions against the Steelers and two of Brandon Allen's five touchdown passes. They drafted a 21-year-old kid who ended up looking like he'd been in the league for 21 years. He still ended up with 908 yards, fourth on the Bengals rookie list of Green, Collinsworth and Eddie Brown.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, FS JESSIE BATES III: Bates blossomed this year into the star the Bengals envisioned when they took him out of Wake Forest. Pro Football Focus has him rated as the league's overall top safety with a coverage grade ranked second and a run grade ranked fifth. His personality is as steady as his numbers and a nice complement to fire-breathing strong safety Vonn Bell. Here's the stat on Bates. Since he came into the league he's played 99 percent of the snaps in each of his three seasons. That means he's played 3,223 snaps before the age of 24.
(Three pretty good second-round picks. Bates in '18, Boyd in '16, Higgins in '20.)
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR, P KEVIN HUBER:
You have to give a nod to Brandon Wilson. The defending NFL kick return champ came back with the longest play in franchise history (103-yard kick return TD) and was all over the place as a gunner for the NFL's sixth ranked punt cover team and a leading teams tackler.
But Huber, at age 35, was immense in his 12th season with career-highs in average yards (47.2) and net yards (42.8). He even had the league's longest punt, a 72-yarder in Sunday's finale that was his 190th game as a Bengal. He looked to earn another contract, which would let him pass Ken Anderson for third place on the Bengals service list in the third game of 2021, which would give him 193 games. But he'll need to play in 2022 to get past Reggie Williams (206) and Ken Riley (207) and put a Cincinnati native on top of the Bengals all-time games list.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR, QB JOE BURROW:
Never mind that before he injured his knee he was on pace to throw for 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions on 65.3 percent passing for a Bengals-record 4,527 yards. Never mind that he was on pace to rush for 239 yards, the most by a Bengals quarterback since Jeff Blake 24 years ago.
And never mind that Wednesday's vote making Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year would have been a much closer if you look at Herbert's line of 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with 4,336 yards and 234 rushing yards.
Never mind all that. What certified Burrow as the franchise's future isn't the numbers. It's the work he put in behind the scenes as a team leader. The bid to reach out to his teammates was as effortless as if he'd been doing it for 15 years. When the Bengals crafted their social justice media statement, the veterans made sure Burrow was involved and he embraced it.
Better than the dime he tossed on Higgins down the sideline against Tennessee.
ROOKIE DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, LB LOGAN WILSON: Wilson missed the last three games and four in total, but he kept getting better every snap. With two interceptions and a sack, he was the first Bengals rookie linebacker in 15 years to put a mark in those two categories. The guy drafted right behind him in the fourth round, Akeem Davis-Gaither, joined him in the finale with his diving interception. The Bengals think they've got two good ones, there, and there's a belief that Wilson is well on his way to being a three-down guy.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER, DE CARL LAWSON: Lawson has always been a solid player, but this year he proved what he always knew. He's not only a clever and dangerous pass rusher, he can also play the run. Since he had 8.5 sacks as a rookie in 2017, he hasn't had an easy journey that has included ACL reconstruction that wiped out half a season. But this season he played 16 games for the first time since that rookie year while working a career-high 68 percent of the snaps. According to profootballreference.com, only the Steelers' T.J. Watt with 41 had more quarterbacks hits than Lawson's 32.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR, TE DREW SAMPLE: When starter C.J. Uzomah went down in the second game, the second-year Sample was pressed into service as the tight end for a three-by-one team and another second-rounder (2019), stepped up.
Sample missed the last seven games of his rookie year with an ankle injury, but rebounded to play not only every game but to also display the blocking skills he had coming in and the receiving skills they believed he would develop. PFF rated him in the upper third of tight ends in blocking and allowed pressures and the upper half of pass-blocking efficiency. He also caught 40 balls, three fewer than what Tyler Eifert had last season.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR, SS VONN BELL: Bell, the free agent from New Orleans, has been a great add on the field and in the locker room. A consummate professional and proven winner in college (Ohio State) and the NFL (the Saints), Bell delivered a career-high 114 tackles, three forced fumbles and, as we'll see later, the play of the year. How about the Bengals safeties? Bell, with his 77 games and 482 career tackles, just turned 26 three weeks ago. Bates, with those 3,000-plus snaps, turns 24 next month.
SURPRISE OF THE YEAR, OL QUINTON SPAIN: Here's a guy that got cut by the Bills and two weeks later he became one of the more indispensable players on the Bengals roster. After being handed the playbook on Friday, Oct. 30, Spain, a six-year vet with 66 starts, played all but the first series in the Nov. 1 win over the AFC South-leading Titans. Then he started the next three games at three different spots before settling at right guard for the last five games.
The Bengals are getting a new offensive line coach, so it's unclear what his future is here. But it's clear some thought he was better than some of their younger players and he, along with left guard Xaveir Su'a-Filo, brought a veteran physical presence that you can always use.
ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR, QBs DAN PITCHER: A very tight race. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons could very well be the guy. After his unit was ranked No. 1 last season in the league by Football Outsiders, Simmons had to rebuild when he lost leader Clayton Fejedelem and they drafted three rookie linebackers. He does what he always does and quietly churned out a top 12 group. This one was No. 9 by the Outsiders and it's significant because Simmons did it after he was named assistant head coach.
But it's even harder not to give it to Pitcher in his first season on the job after four seasons as an offensive assistant. He was heavily involved in the scouting and drafting of Burrow and helped guide him to what looked to be a Rookie of the Year season until he was injured. Then he helped Ryan Finley beat the Steelers, but not before getting Brandon Allen ready to play when Allen spent the entire year away from everybody as the COVID quarterback.
Pitcher didn't even talk to Allen indoors until he got the job on Nov. 23 and even then most of their conversations were on the practice field. Allen didn't throw with the No. 1 receivers in a team drill until the week he was supposed to play. Yes, he had a 0 passer rating in the finale, but in his first four starts he had the best completion percentage (69.4) of any Bengals quarterback in his first four starts.
When Allen beat the Texans in the next-to-last game, it marked the first time since 1984 the Bengals had three quarterbacks to win at least one game in a season.
PLAY OF THE YEAR, DEC. 21, 2020: Bell blowing up Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who made a spectacle of himself dancing on the other team's logo before games. Bell politely warned him during the week that he would be getting hit and when Bell drilled him over the middle early in the 27-17 win over Pittsburgh on Monday night, it turned into a fumble which turned into a Cincinnati touchdown.
Bell's hit brought some semblance of justice to Bengaldom. After Steeler shots by Hines Ward on Keith Rivers, Kimo von Oelhoffen on Carson Palmer and Ryan Shazier on Giovani Bernard, the league outlawed them the next spring. Bell's shot was not only legal, but textbook.
Footnote: Mike Tomlin "asked," Smith-Schuster to pull the plug on the logo dancing.
QUOTE OF THE YEAR, C TREY HOPKINS: With input from his teammates, Hopkins wrote the team statement on social justice:
"As this country continues to see instances of racial discrimination and injustices, it is time for us to act. Together, as a unified front, we must identify, address and ultimately end those practices and policies that would deny liberty and justice to all, regardless of race, religion, or creed. It is time for us all to take a stand!
"It is each of our responsibility to effect change in our communities, not only for us but for those yet to come. We cannot turn a blind eye to the racism still experienced in this country. This is not an issue of politics but a fight for equality and life. If this nation is to ever reach the goals that it has promised its citizens, we must be catalysts for change."