Rookie of the Year
A collision of NFL Rookies of the Year. Vikings' RB Adrian Peterson is tackled by 49ers LB Patrick Willis in a game played last month. Peterson was named the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year this week, and Willis is a preemptive favorite for the defensive award (Photo by Greg Trott/Getty images via Yahoo sports).
The NFL will announce its Defensive Rookie of the Year later today, but the winner is a foregone conclusion. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis is expected to win that honor, and by a wide margin. Despite playing for a terrible team that ended the season 5-11, Willis led the league in tackles, finishing with a total of 174. That's 30 more than his nearest competitor, D.J. Williams of the Denver Broncos.
Admittedly, middle linebackers are supposed to make a lot of stops in a 4-3 defensive scheme, but few have registered the immediate impact of Willis. By comparison, the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, long considered the best at that position, finished the year with 121 tackles. During his rookie season (1996), Lewis was credited with 110 tackles, roughly two-thirds the number that Willis collected this year.
While Lewis has enjoyed a storied career--a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, seven Pro Bowls and Super Bowl MVP honors in 2000--Willis' on-field exploits may elevate him to that same, rarefied level. He has been twice-named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Month twice, and is one of only two 49ers selected for this year's Pro Bowl. Those honors are a testament to Willis' incredible tackling skills, but they're also a reflection of his speed and football instincts.
Those remarkable abilities were neatly summarized in a single play during the November 25th game between the 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals. Wide receiver Sean Morey caught a pass from Cardinals' quarterback Kurt Warner, and dashed down the sideline toward the end zone. Willis took off in pursuit, though few thought the linebacker could run down a wideout.
They were wrong. "I can catch this guy," Willis thought. Sixty yards down field he did just that, tackling Morey, preventing a touchdown and preserving one of the 49ers few victories. San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter John Crumpacker called it the team's "play of the year," and given the 49ers' struggles, it would be hard to disagree. Willis' play was one of the few bright spots on a team that finished near the bottom of their division, and in most NFL statistical categories.
While Willis is a virtual lock for Defensive Rookie of the Year, he also has an outside shot at an even bigger prize--NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury-News believes that the 49ers linebacker belongs on the list, despite his rookie status. But, as Mr. Brown notes, voting for defensive player of the year is an inexact science, since statistics often fail to tell the story. And when voters do rely on empirical evidence, they tend to focus on the flashiest numbers: sacks and turnovers. Willis had four sacks this season, and forced only two fumbles.
If he doesn't win defensive player of the year, Patrick Willis can still take satisfaction in a sensational rookie season. Incidentally, the last 49er defensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl (1981) was Ronnie Lott, one of the greatest defensive backs in the history of the game. However, Lott lost out on rookie of the year honors to a linebacker. His name was Lawrence Taylor.
ADDENDUM: Willis' success for the 49ers represents the latest chapter in a remarkable football (and personal saga). As we noted last year, the linebacker's road to the NFL was filled with adversity. His mother abandoned the family when Willis and his siblings were young. At age 10, he was working in the fields of western Tennessee to help support his brothers and sisters. When Willis' father proved unable to care for his children, they were placed in foster care.
Out of high school, Willis signed with Ole Miss--the only SEC school to offer him a scholarship. And, just before his senior year--on the cusp of football fame and an NFL contract--Patrick Willis had return home and bury his brother, who drowned in a tragic swimming accident. Yet, he somehow remained focused, receiving all-SEC and All-American honors, and winning the 2006 Butkus Award, given to the nation's top collegiate linebacker.
Members of the San Francisco media describe Willis an unfailingly polite and well-mannered, a notable exception in an era of brash, trash-talking sports starts. Willis told an interviewer last year that he prefers to let his performance speak for him. And it has.
UPDATE: Announcement of the Defensive Rookie of the Year was delayed a day, reportedly because of a little dust-up between the AP and the Boston Herald. Seems that the wire service has selected the Pats Bill Belichik as "Coach of the Year," but didn't plan to announce it until next week. Someone at the Herald found out and spilled the beans, forcing the AP to move up that award--and delay announcement of the defensive rookie award.
Sure enough, Patrick Willis' selection as Defensive Rookie of the Year was finally announced this afternoon.