Congratulations to Aaron Donald, 2020-21 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Donald is undeniably a first-ballot Hall of Famer and, considering the body of his work in its entirety, the best defensive player in the league today. I still cringe when I think about how the Bears missed him by one pick in the 2014 NFL Draft (although Kyle Fuller is a nice consolation prize). And with all that said, T.J. Watt was robbed.
I’ve heard the arguments about Donald being lined up primarily on the interior, making it easier for him to be double teamed and how traditional stats will always favor an outside linebacker like Watt, etc. While all that may be true, it doesn’t change my opinion. The fact of the matter is, opposing offenses presented Watt with opportunities that he consistently exploited. Why should he be punished for that?
And, if the voters were indeed influenced by the “what ifs”, it begs the question, why did Stephon Gilmore win the award last year based purely on stats? Here’s what it boils down to; when we start allowing subjectivity to permeate the voting process, we’ve opened up a can of worms that can’t be resealed. And that’s exactly what just happened.
Essentially, the writers who voted for Donald projected the stats he would have produced if given the same circumstances that Watt enjoyed this season. And it simply doesn’t sit right with me. Granted, we’ve seen advanced analytics slowly become a powerful tool in sports when dissecting a player’s worth and I’m all for it in regards to determining the value of a free agent, etc. But when it comes to accolades, that’s where I draw the line.
To me, this equates to giving the Silver Slugger Award to a player with higher WAR over a player with more RBIs. The argument being, RBIs are somewhat dependent on having runners on base and certain players are consistently pitched around and deprived of the chance to drive in runs. I understand the logic, but to assume a player would produce more RBIs if given the chance is simply irresponsible.
T.J. and his brother, legendary defensive end J.J. Watt, agree with this sentiment, using Twitter to voice their displeasure. J.J. even went as far as to post a graphic (see below), showing why his brother should have won the award. How anyone could not vote for T.J. after seeing such compelling visual evidence is beyond my comprehension. Is Donald the better overall player? Yes. Was Donald better than Watt THIS YEAR? No.
And the final tally should have reflected exactly that. Don’t get me wrong, Donald had yet another dominant season, generating an NFL-high 76 quarterback pressures and finishing second in sacks with 13.5. He also finished fourth in sack-rate (2.9%) among all players with at least 200 pass-rush snaps. I seek to take nothing away from his greatness. I’d simply like to point out that, on this particular year, T.J. was greater.
As my mother taught me growing up, “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me“. Either you had better stats or you didn’t. That’s it. In the words of the immortal Michael Scott, sometimes you just need to keep it simple, stupid.