2013 Dwight Stephenson Award

Leaving the value conversation at the door, Sam Monson presents PFF's 2013 Stephenson Award to the best player in football.

| 3 years ago

2013 Dwight Stephenson Award

2013-stephensonIn most sports the Most Valuable Player is inherently also the best player. In football the most valuable players are quarterbacks and there is a significant gap between that position and any other, but the best players can play at any position all over the field.

The NFL’s MVP award has essentially become a quarterback prize with 10 passers winning since the 2000 season and the other spots being taken by running backs. In many of those seasons other players enjoyed far better seasons but were never likely to earn the recognition because of the perceived value of their contributions.

So screw value, here is an award that recognizes simply the best overall performance of the NFL season – the best player in football in 2013: The Dwight Stephenson Award.

PFF Founder Neil Hornsby:
So why the Stephenson Award? Well, we wanted it to say explicitly that this is about more than just quarterbacks; that a player from any position, if they are outstanding enough, could win. Who better to represent that than Dwight Stephenson? A center, that started only 87 games before being cut down by injury, but was so clearly transcendent, he was still voted to the Hall of Fame. This is the Gale Sayers of offensive linemen.
We don’t have any PFF metrics for Stephenson, although he is one of those players that goes beyond that. All you have to do is watch pretty much any Dolphins game in which he played and it becomes immediately apparent this is a player “out of time”; so unbelievably quick that he hardly ever looked in trouble, never mind beaten. He’s a player that epitomizes our belief that if PFF had been grading games in the early 80s he’d have won at least one of these awards despite his position.

The award is named after a player who may pre-date PFF, but doesn’t pre-date the site’s ethos. Dwight Stephenson played only eight NFL seasons for the Miami Dolphins, but was a five-time All-Pro and was selected to the All-Decade team for the 1980’s. More importantly, you only have to watch a few minutes of tape to see that he was something a little bit special.

Naturally this award will come with the benefit of PFF’s unique analysis, grinding through every player on every snap of the NFL season — and have no positional prejudice whatsoever. A guard or center is every bit as likely to win this award as a quarterback, depending purely on their level of dominance and performance in the regular season.

So let’s take a look at the candidates this season.

The award this year comes down to a choice between a series of standout performances on defense and the record-breaking year enjoyed by Peyton Manning on offense.

Runner Up

Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Make no mistake, Gerald McCoy was dominant this season. Ndamukong Suh put together his best season as a pro but was still a distant second place in our defensive tackle rankings for 2013 to the player he trumped in the 2010 NFL draft.

Last season Geno Atkins emerged as the best defensive tackle in football, but this year McCoy staked a claim to that accolade now that he was able to finally put together a healthy season. He dominated on a team that gave him no help whatsoever up front, allowing teams to focus almost solely on him if they chose to do so.


While not a single other member of the Tampa Bay defensive line earned a positive grade on the season, McCoy ended atop the DT rankings with a +57.3. His final tally of 80 total pressures was a mark bettered by only four other players in the entire league, and his Pass Rushing Productivity score was head and shoulders clear of the rest of the field at his position.

McCoy was the most destructive defensive tackle in football this season and managed it despite nobody else taking the focus off him on the Buccaneers’ defensive line.

Runner Up

Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos

The records speak for themselves. Everybody was so wrapped up in Manning’s chase for 51 passing touchdowns that the fact he was also chasing the single-season yardage and the single-season points records snuck up on us. He ended up setting all three, sitting at half-time of Denver’s Week 17 game after breaking the last of them against the hapless Raiders.

What most impresses me about Manning though is not his air-raid passing, but all of the smaller things. He controls that Denver offense, impacts his pass protection in a positive way like no other quarterback in the game with an instant ability to adjust and get rid of the ball the moment he feels pressure coming, and makes those around him better.


His arm is clearly not what it once was, but he has adjusted his game in such a short time to account for it that he is able to set all-time records in spite of it. Manning’s anticipation, accuracy and ability to exploit what a defense gives him means his marginal arm strength is almost irrelevant.

It’s a testament to his abilities that at the age of 37 he was able to put together arguably his greatest season and one of the greatest the game has ever seen. He is without doubt the most valuable player in the NFL this season, but that isn’t enough to earn him the Stephenson Award.

Runner Up

Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

Sometimes you have to feel for players whose timing is just off. Guys can pull a devastating move, beat their man instantly, but they timed it for a play where the quarterback was on a three-step drop and the ball was gone before they could get there anyway. Similarly players can put together awesome seasons and just happen to time it for a year when somebody else was slightly better.


This is how I feel about Robert Quinn’s 2013 season. He broke out this season to become the NFL’s most fearsome edge rusher. His speed and burst off the edge terrified offensive tackles and his league-leading 91 total pressures was not only the best mark this season but the second best PFF has ever tallied, trailing only Tamba Hali’s 97 in 2010.

He didn’t just amass a huge pressure total but did it at an unmatched rate, with a PRP score of 15.3 the best mark we have ever recorded for a 4-3 defensive end over a season and only a hair shy of the best marks we have ever seen from any position.

He beat up on bad offensive tackles like nobody in the league and while other players were shut down by the best ones, he was at least able to generate some pressure still.

In most other seasons Quinn takes a clean sweep of DPOY and the Stephenson but this season he misses out on both to the same player.

2013 Dwight Stephenson Award Winner

J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

Last season he became the inaugural winner of the Stephenson Award, this year J.J. Watt becomes the first ever two-time winner.

It was definitely an easier case to make last season. The conventional statistics looked just as ridiculous as the rest of his play, with Watt making a legitimate chase for the single-season sack record in between swatting passes back into the faces of quarterbacks all season long. The media was firmly on board the bandwagon as the Texans won games and Watt was the clear Defensive Player of the Year choice and the easy winner of the first Stephenson, albeit with other fine seasons at least keeping him honest.


This season, though, the media has abandoned the bandwagon, jumping off somewhere along the Texans’ 14-game losing streak, and the box-score statistics don’t look as healthy. Instead of chasing the sack record Watt had to make do with eleven sacks and six batted passes, a full ten short of his 2012 mark. Sometimes you need to look beyond such transient numbers,though, and dive into the tape to see how a guy is playing.

Watt, if anything, was actually better than a year ago on a play-by-play basis. He practically broke the PFF grading system last year becoming the first player to top 100 grading points (+101.6), but this year he was a full ten grading points better (+111.6) over sixteen games.

StephensonAward3-ThumbHe made 67 defensive stops, 26 clear of anybody else at his position, far clear of any other defensive lineman, and a figure topped by just two players (Paul Pozluszny and Lavonte David). His grade was 267% better than any other 3-4 defensive end this season, a dominance over the rest of his peers that can only be matched by Quinn, except Watt didn’t have the quiet games Quinn did.

The consistent level of dominance Watt displayed on a team that was going nowhere made him the best defender in football, rightfully earning him PFF’s Defensive Player of the Year award and his second successive Stephenson award.

Forget value, JJ Watt is the best player in the NFL right now.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam 

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Geo McDowell

    How valuable is it to a team to have the Dwight Stephenson Award winner? Ask Houston: It just got them the first pick in the draft.
    What a joke this particular award is. Why not name it after Andre Dawson, who once won the MVP while on the last place Cubs?