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The envelope, please

Posted Jan 12, 2013


Leon Hall

Monday marks the 10th anniversary of the Bengals hiring Marvin Lewis as head coach and so we honor the day by handing out The Marvins, the Bengals.com end-of-season awards.

MOST VALAUABLE PLAYER: DT Geno Atkins — He's the best player on the defense that held teams to a stunning 12.8 points per game while paving the way for the 7-1 finish. He's a living, breathing walking double team. And he did MVP things in MVP moments, like teaming with left end Carlos Dunlap to wrestle Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of field-goal range on the first drive of the third quarter in Pittsburgh last month.

"The thing that separates Geno is his strength," says defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "It's Herculean. Put that together with his motor and he's really become a presence not only against the pass, but he's also very good against the run."

But it is the pass rush where Atkins has become dominant. His 12.5 sacks were 4.5 better than the next closest tackles in the league and in Bengals history. Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and former Bengal Dan Wilkinson were both at 8.0. The greatest interior lineman in Bengals history, 3-4 nose tackle Tim Krumrie, had 34.5 career sacks in 188 games playing a position that doesn't cultivate sacks. But Atkins does play a spot where he can get them and has 23 in his first 48 games.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: WR A.J. Green — The coaches have to get him the ball next season like they did in first half of 2012 when he scored TDs in nine straight games while racking up numbers that made him the first wide receiver in history to get 100 catches, 1,500 yards and 10 TDs in his first 20 games.

Green scored just one TD in the final seven games, but he made the biggest catch of the year on a 21-yarder with eight seconds left in Pittsburgh that got the Bengals into the playoffs. His 116-yard game that day against the NFL's No. 1 defense is what franchise players do in elimination games.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: P Kevin Huber He passed records set back in the presidencies of LBJ and Nixon in setting the club mark for net average (42 yards) and gross average (46.6), but it was his NFL-leading 11 punts inside the 20 that gave the Bengals some major General Motors bailouts.

In the 38-31 shootout win over RGII in D.C., Huber pumped three inside the 20 and had one downed at the 2 in the fourth quarter. He put all three of his punts inside the 20 during the 20-13 slugfest in San Diego, including one at the 4. In the ultimate field position game in Pittsburgh, he drilled six punts for an average of 52.7 yards, put four inside the 20, and one out of bounds at the 2.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CB Leon Hall — After Hall tore his Achilles against the Steelers on Nov. 13, the Bengals were looking at studies that showed cornerbacks coming off such an injury played as few as 50 percent of the snaps. They projected him to start the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). Maybe the time had come to make that move to safety.

But he vowed to be ready for the first snap of training camp and not only did he do that, but in a memorable performance mixing courage, athleticism and professionalism, Hall responded with a Pro Bowl-type season at one of the game's most demanding positions.

Remember, the run for the playoffs began with Hall holding the Victor Cruz of the Giants to three catches and ended with Hall scoring the only Bengals touchdown on a 17-yard interception return in Pittsburgh.

In the last eight games the Bengals faced gunslingers Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger and held them to a combined 64.2 passer rating while allowing just four TD passes with nine interceptions while winning seven of the last eight games.

Hall may indeed eventually become a Pro Bowl safety. But it looks like he's got plenty of corner left to play. If this wasn't the year of the Bionic Man comebacks of Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson, he'd win the NFL award easily.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: WLB Vontaze Burfict He needed to do something like play a new position, ring up 174 tackles, and start the most games ever by a Bengals rookie free agent with 14 because this is the most productive Bengals rookie class since, well, last season, and has plenty of candidates.

First-rounder Kevin Zeitler is a staple on every all-rookie team at right guard. Third-rounder Mohamed Sanu's four receiving TDs were third-most by a rookie in the AFC despite missing the last five games with a broken foot. Center Trevor Robinson stepped in between two first-year guards and played like a veteran in seven starts.

But Burfict was an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate and a Hollywood story. The most well-known undrafted player, he had spent his last season at Arizona State slipping from the first round to out of the draft and topped it off with a poor, uncommunicative combine where he ran the slowest of the linebackers.

The rest is history. At his college workout Burfict struck a chord with head coach Marvin Lewis, out in Arizona for his daughter's wedding, and became a Bengal an hour after the draft. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach Paul Guenther weren't so sure when Burfict arrived and after watching tape of that '11 season they thought his fundamentals were so bad they didn't know if he'd make it through rookie minicamp. And the Bengals were also concerned about Burfict's 16 personal fouls in his last 26 games.

Presto. With Lewis, Zimmer and Guenther all over him, Burfict figured it out quickly. Smart, instinctive and competitive, he moved out of his lifelong position of middle linebacker when WILL backer Thomas Howard tore his ACL before the second game of the season. Burfict not only provided excellent play, but he supplied an edgy take-no-guff presence this defense has needed without getting flagged.

Burfict had just three penalties and didn't get a personal foul until the last third down of the season, when he desperately tried to jolt the ball out of Texans tight end Garrett Graham's hands with 2:32 left after he caught a ball to convert a third-and-two and was called for hitting a defenseless receiver.

Burfict figured he'd get fined, acknowledging it was helmet-to-helmet.

"I didn’t mean to," he said. "I was just trying to get the ball out."

As he heads into that second season, Burfict won't be taking anyone by surprise.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer — He capped the most successful five-year run by a Bengals defense in nearly 40 years with a back-to-back top 10 finish, Cincinnati's third in his five seasons. While the offense struggled down the stretch, the defense bailed it out scoring as many touchdowns as it did with four in the final four games.

And Zimmer did it losing his best linebacker (Howard) after the opener, his best corner coming off Achilles surgery (Hall) and getting back starting safety in Chris Crocker the last week of September. Plus, he had only one position coach returning in Jay Hayes on the defensive line.

OTHERS GETTING VOTES: Jay Hayes, Defensive Line; Chip Morton and Jeff Friday, strength and conditioning — The Bengals set a franchise record with 51 sacks and all but 10 came from the front line. After losing Frostee Rucker and Jon Fanene in free agency, the fear was where the Bengals were going to come up with their 10 sacks.

Hayes got them and more in a mega season from Atkins, a career year from right end Michael Johnson (11.5), and 6.5 from a guy in right end Wallace Gilberry who arrived the third week of the season after Jamaal Anderson went down with a season-ending leg injury. Hayes pulled the strings of a seven-man rotation of matchups and down-and-distance while also keeping in mind the fourth quarter as he made sure everyone had plenty left for a closing run.

The 7-1 finish highlighted the work of Morton and Friday in the weight room. During the second half of the season they emphasized rest and recovery as they watched their foundations built in the offseason, the spring, and training camp take over. In the 16th week of the season in the most physical game of the year against their most physical and respected opponent, the Bengals won the 13-10 crusade in Pittsburgh in a game that saw a couple of Steelers carried off on their shields.

OFFENSIVE PLAY OF THE YEAR: Just Wild About The Cat, Sept. 23 — Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had been watching Sanu "sling" the ball around before practice and he had watched Sanu's Wildcat quarterback exploits at Rutgers on the computer. But the opener in Baltimore was no place to use it and the next week at home against Cleveland, Sanu wasn't active as the Bengals scrambled to respond to Howard's season-ending injury on Thursday.

But Sanu was going to be up that third week at FedExField and Gruden wanted to unwrap it after watching the Redskins being pretty liberal with the blitz. And like most defenses, whenever they saw the Wildcat deployed, they put a safety in the box and left the receivers one-on-one.

Good plan. Great plan. (Can we see more next year?) So good that Lewis told Gruden to run it the first play and take the air out of the biggest crowd the Bengals had played in front of in eight years (80,000). It worked to perfection with Sanu making a deft run fake before hitting Green for a 73-yard touchdown on Cincinnati's longest play of the year, and the Bengals were off to a huge 38-31 victory that got them to 2-1.

DEFENSIVE PLAY OF THE YEAR: Hall of Justice, Dec 23 — Late first quarter in Pittsburgh. The Bengals have the Steelers backed up on third-and-four and they've got to get off the field for good field position. The Steelers came out in a rather unconventional set on third down, but Hall was able to react to Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller coming across the middle at the first-down marker.

"They went with double tight ends," said Hall, usually the slot corner in three-receiver sets. "It's stuff that we had seen before. I ended up in front of the guy and was able to cut underneath it."

It gave Hall 22 career interceptions, putting him all alone in fifth place on the Bengals all-time list, three behind fourth-place Lemar Parrish's 25.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY OF THE YEAR: Brown Out at HeinzJosh Brown had been a Bengal for just 17 days, but he delivered one of the biggest field goals in club history with four seconds left when his 43-yarder put the Bengals in the playoffs. It came just moments after he missed a 56-yarder in a building where there has never been one longer than 52. It was his only miss in his 12 pressure kicks of December and January and he'll probably be back to try another one sometime next year.

It turned out Brown had his own rivalry with the Steelers after losing to them in the Super Bowl while with Seattle.

"That was my only opportunity to possibly win a Super Bowl," Brown said. "Now I get the opportunity to take something from them. That is something that is probably a small chip on my shoulder."

MOVE OF THE YEAR (ON THE FIELD) — Any of the five cornerback Adam Jones made during his 81-yard punt return touchdown against the Browns in the home opener.

MOVE OF THE YEAR (OFF THE FIELD) — The only tie in the history of the Marvins between the owner and the special teams coach.

Bengals president Mike Brown decided to hold training camp in downtown Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium after 44 seasons the team had gone offsite to Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio and Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. It opened up the team to a wider array of fans while Lewis was able to have all of his burgeoning technological empire at his fingertips.

When Mike Nugent injured his calf in practice Dec. 5, the next day Darrin Simmons was faced with a three-man kicker tryout between Brown, Neil Rackers and Billy Cundiff. At the time, the Bengals thought Nugent might miss only one game, two at the most. It turned out to be more. The Bengals may have been lucky they were playing the Cowboys that week, since Dallas was 25th returning kicks. If the Bengals had been playing the Steelers or Ravens return men, who knows? Simmons may have gone with Cundiff, a great kickoff man but not so reliable kicking field goals.

After Brown was one of Cincinnati's December MVPs, now's a good time to go back to one of Simmons's quotes from the day he picked Brown.

"I think experience, for one. Not that other guys don't have experience. The other thing that factors into it they are all very, very talented guys," Simmons said. "They each have positives, each have negatives. They all three kicked pretty good. It was kind of a gut feeling a little bit. I've got a lot of confidence in him. I know he's been good kicking game-winners. And we could be playing in some close games here to finish the season where we are playing some pretty good teams. He's been a clutch guy in the past. Not that other guys aren't or don't, just a gut feeling."

Clutch indeed.

QUOTE OF THE YEAR: "For years people were telling us Pittsburgh has your number. I always felt like we weren't home to answer, but today we picked up the phone and gave them a piece of our mind." — Defensive end Michael Johnson after he had one of the four sacks to go along with a quarterback hit and seven tackles, two of them for losses in the 13-10 victory in Pittsburgh.



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