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2020 RZL Awards:: A Closer Look
By Anthony Fernandez
Special to

There were a tons of qualified this year, it seems even more than ever. I could legitimately see a case for EVERY nominee in the big 3 categories. It was so exciting that I wanted to go a little more in depth than usual, listed below. The irony is that there were probably even a few MORE cantidates who should have made it, but just missed the cut. What say you?

RedZone MVP

QB Will Wright, Redskins
4001 YDS | 53.65.0% | 30 TD | 9 INT | 38 SCK | 94.6 QBR
It’s ironic that Wright would ever be mentioned as an MVP candidate, considering how many times we’ve all publically heard GM Jason Arnold want to kill him, trade him, cut him, and such of the sort. In 2020 things changed, as Wright matured and rewarded GM Arnold for his patience, preventing him from having to pull the plug on him like past Franchise QBs that were shipped out of DC like Bobby Reid, Colt McCoy, and Major Hester. Wright had a great season, and I bet you can’t even name his RB or two of his WRs. While Wright still has a ways to go before he’s considered the best QB in the league, you can make a strong case that he’s among the most valuable to his franchise. While the Redskins have surprised some teams in years past with above average play from journeymen like Graham Harrell, we got to see in 2020 just how good the Redskins can be with a legit Franchise QB. The Rams spanked their ass in the playoffs, but snatching the division title from the defending Super Bowl Champion is nothing to frown at.

HB Fat Mike, Chiefs
1838 YDS | 7 TD | 5.44 AVG | 3 FUM
The Chiefs have long been viewed as Matt Stafford’s team, but with the frequency that he has been hurt from the volume of snaps the Rams PB requires, Chiefs GM Dave Bauer knew that he was going to have to find someone to lean on. A few years back he drafted Fat Mike in the 1st round, and he’s been slowly getting a little better each year. In 2020, the Chiefs became his team, as he pulverized opponents to the tune of nearly 2000 yards at about five and a half yards a clip. This bowling ball of a back was able to quietly carry the Chiefs all the way to the playoffs, where they were surprisingly ousted by the upstart Dolphins. If you remove Fat Mike from the 2020 Chiefs, however, they would very likely not have been in the playoffs to begin with, and you can bet that Mike’s presence is going to lengthen QB Stafford’s career considerably.

QB Matt Moore, Saints
3428 YDS | 54.65% | 32 TD | 7 INT | 14 SCK | 98.9 QBR
The Saints are a factory at producing Pro Bowl running backs, but the QB position gets very little credit in the Big Easy. Because of the success of the running game, it is easy to overlook the puppet-master under center, dating all the way back to when that was Drew Brees calling the plays. Moore has quietly inherited the role very well, proving to be a very sturdy QB who is accurate and reliable. Moore is smart with the ball and turns it over infrequently, not to mention a strong pocket-presence that limits the sacks he takes. When he’s healthy for 16 games, the Saints are annually one of the toughest teams in the league to beat, and 2020 was no exception. It’s not a stretch to assume he could be putting up much bigger numbers in a different offense, but it’s also not a stretch to assume the Saints would be a .500 team without him under center.

HB Dwain Nair, Steelers
1847 YDS | 8 TD | 4.86 AVG | 6 FUM
Nair has been the go-to guy in Pittsburgh since GM Brian Brown acquired him for a 1st Round Pick from Tampa a few years back. Since then, Nair has flourished as a feature back and has been carrying the Steelers on his wide shoulders ever since. Nair has been a fixture in the record books since putting on the black and gold, and his bruising style has made him an instant classic in the hardnosed community in Pittsburgh. Nair thought he was finally going to be getting some help in 2020 when the team acquired QB Sam Bradford, but injuries hindered that and forced Nair to carry the team for most of the regular season on his own. Thankfully Bradford would return in the playoffs and the Steelers would win the AFC Championship. Unfortunately, an early injury to Nair in SBXV completely shut down the Steelers offense, and they had trouble scoring after that. It’s tough to say for sure, but it’s probably not a stretch to assume the Steelers may have been the SBXV Champions if it weren’t for Nair getting injured in the 1st Quarter of biggest game of his career.

Coach of the Year
Olivier Ratajczak, Detroit Lions
Olly will truly be going out on top after calling it a career following his best season since his 1st in 2012, making sure that he’s remembered for how brave he is as a coach and GM, and not the “loveable loser” title obtained by a span of 8 straight seasons that had no better than six wins for the Frenchman. Bookended between those rough patches however are his 1st season when they went (12-4) and made the playoffs before running into the buzz-saw New York Giants who would go on to win the NFC Championship, and this 2020 season where Olly would capture his 1st NFC North Championship in his career. The year would be remembered fondly for many reasons, perhaps the biggest being that Olly turned in his notification to the league early in the 2020 season that this would be his last. That led to many GMs rooting for the Lions, and they would hold on to send their GM out with not only the 1st division title of his tenure, but the teams 1st since the many years of dominance experienced from 2008-2011 that included a Super Bowl win. Olly would lose in the playoffs to the eventual SBXV Champion Panthers, but will be leaving the team in very good shape, adding talented players like FS Normand Barstow, CB John Bowie, MLB Max Fisher, DT Brian Price, DE Da’Quan Bowers, WR Golden Tate, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, and the list goes on. After years of taking chances on career journeymen and retreads at QB, Olly would finally cash in by acquiring QB Eric Stubbs this offseason, and the team rode him to moderate success and have set him up with enough offensive firepower to really make a splash for the next GM. The moves, coupled with great coaching that featured the Rams PB sparingly, would see the Lions jump from (5-11) to (10-6), and when you glance over the roster you can easily make a case for this team jumping another few games to the 12-13 win range in 2021. It’s a shame he’s leaving right as he’s hitting his stride, as the Lions seem to have an aura much closer to the St. Louis Rams or Kansas City Chiefs who wer bad for a long time before eventually turned it around for good, rather than a team like the Broncos who were bad for a while before having a storybook season or two before returning to irrelevancy.

Matt Spencer, New York Jets
Matt Spencer is one of the more accomplished, yet underappreciated GMs in RZL history. The Jets in many ways have followed the path taken by RZL greats like Jon Paglia, Kevin Mullendore, and Keith Van Wagner – working hard, assembling great teams, amassing tons of wins, and just waiting for that exclamation point to propel them into elite RZL company with guys like Brian Brown, Anthony Fernandez, and Jeff Downey. Few have doubted his ability to be a spectacular GM, but had you mentioned Spencer in a “coaching” category a few years back, most would have chuckled at the thought, as Spencer was perhaps the founding father of the most successful and emulated offensive approach the RZL has seen. Spencer had already perfected the offensive stylistic approach that gave defenses fits while guys like Rams GM Jeff Downey spent years drafting well in the Top 10 to accumulate the assets to imitate the approach, or while Bucs GM Anthony Fernandez watched his gameplan time get cut in half from 2014 to 2015, then reduced to nearly nothing in 2016 – transforming the Bucs from one of the most diverse and unpredictable overachievers in the 2014 Super Bowl run, to the “stop us if you can” offensive spread that was so popular in New York, winning the Bucs a 2nd Super Bowl and nearly a 3rd. Nowadays, you can find the attack almost everywhere – just look at the film room for the four guys nominated for GMOTY this season. Yes, I have made it sound a bit more complicated than it is – you get a couple amazing WRs, a reliable offensive line, and a (hopefully sturdy) high AWR/THA QB, then you drive the Rams PB as far as it will take you. That said, if it weren’t for the success GM Spencer had with it, it may have never caught on quite like it has.

Fast forward to 2020, where the Jets have already spent a couple years re-tooling to try and stay competitive with the now-Juggernaut Buffalo Bills. With brave moves like jumping up to #1 overall to draft QB Andrew Luck, the Jets looked poised to continue their offensive superiority for another generation. “Disaster” would hit (in RZL terms, anyway), when the Jets would barely get out of the preseason without suffering devastating injuries to QB Luck (who would miss half the season), and the Jets secondary. It is very hard to win without these two areas, especially with the level of competition in RZL. To compound the situation, the Jets backup QB Brian Brohm has literally been “the glass man” in RZL, so much so that there was a rule put in place years ago largely out of concern he may die in a game if his INJ rating hit 0 (which looked inevitable). Spencer would respond in a big way, proving he could “coach” and finding new, less risky ways to win games. They would weather the (2-4) start to finish (10-6) and help the Dolphins wrestle the AFC East out of the hands of the defending AFC Champion Buffalo Bills. The Jets would lose the division on tiebreakers to Miami, but the battle was so close the two decided to settle it in a Wild Card game in Miami. The Dolphins would use a 16-point 4th quarter to steal a victory from Spencer, but the Jets certainly left 2020 feeling great about their future. We’ve all known Spencer was an amazing GM, and it will be interesting to see how he proceeds now knowing he’s got a few other offensive attacks in his arsenal.

Kevin Mullendore, New Orleans Saints
Kevin has long been one of the most pivotal members of the RZL community, but no amount of work he’s done for the league can overshadow the tremendous work he’s done with the New Orleans Saints. As mentioned above with Matt Spencer, Kevin is in a group of incomparably successful GMs just waiting for that exclamation point on their career, and many thought Kevin and his Saints would grab the brass ring in 2020. As one of the most dominating teams during the regular season, it came to the surprise of many when the Saints got bounced early by the eventual RZL Champion Carolina Panthers. That does not diminish the accomplishments of being able to dominate a division that featured the eventual Super Bowl winning Panthers, an upstart bunch of Falcons who can win any given Sunday (just not the ones that count quite yet), and the twice Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints led the pack for most of the year in Usain Bolt-like fashion, almost to the point where at times it felt like showboating. It was not showboating, however, as the Saints have just put a stamp on their franchise, this division, and the league that teams have a hard time figuring out.

While elite passing teams are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, the rushing dominance of the Saints over the last decade has been a thing of beauty. It seemingly doesn’t matter who Kevin plugs in at RB, because in true Shanahanian-fashion, Kevin will find a way to make him an All-Pro running back. The Saints are featured prominently in the record books for individual rushing performances in a game, as well as in a season. The Saints are the only team in RZL history to have a DIFFERENT 1000 yard rusher four times in eight seasons (Marshawn Lynch, Gannon Beck, Cedric Peerman, Ryan Williams). Even more impressive is the seamless transition that saw them go back-to-back with different RBs twice (Lynch/Beck in 2012/2013, and Peerman/Williams in 2019/2020). And make no mistake, when we say “1000 yard rusher”, most of these seasons were damn near 2k yards rushing, and almost always over 1500. Kevin has clearly got a monopoly on coaching RBs, and to further my point, MOST of the guys he’s done it with traditionally wouldn’t even considered “1st round talents” by the majority of teams. Oh yea, did I mention there’s another HB on the roster that Kev drafted (Sicky) that’s on pace to break most Kick Return records in RZL history? If you want to learn how to coach up your running game, and win a lot of games in the process, study and emulate Kevin’s’ Saints like everyone else has done Matt’s Jets. I challenge anyone to come anywhere close to the amount of success Kev had in 2020 while only using the Rams PB one time.

Brian Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
What is there to say about BB that already hasn’t been said? The guy is a fucking legend, plain and simple. The amount of success he’s been able to achieve the last few years with limited time strikes visuals of that old saying “more talent in one pinky than most have in their whole body”, or however that saying goes.BB pioneered the first RZL Dynasty, and in his RZL curtain call he obtained QB Sam Bradford and put together a run that nearly ended in Cinderella fashion. Adding another AFC Championship to the resume is nothing to frown upon, and BB is perhaps the only GM in the entire community that has nothing left to prove. Checking his film room will show you that even with limited time, BB made an effort to find ways to win with his new-look Steelers (absent of the comfort of Big Ben and Santonio Holmes), a route a bit tougher than just plugging in the Rams PB every week. He won the AFC Championship in a season where his best player was HB Dwain Nair, a player that would be a Hall of Famer if he weren’t misused as a backup HB and KR for most of his career in Tampa Bay before BB noticed his potential and saved his career. He also got 14 sacks out of DE Adrian Clayborn, a very average “add-on” to an offseason trade. There just won’t be another Coach or GM like BB, not even if RZL is open for another 15 years.

Being here since the RZL has opened its doors, the RZL has seen nearly 100 different GMs and BB has an above .500 winning percentage against ALL of them (who have played him at least twice) except six GMs. Two of those, Anthony Fernandez (.000) and John Stanley (.000), can be tossed out simply because they only play him once every four years so the sample size is not that big. Two others, Paul Willis (.333) and Matthew Hansen (.444), have been solid against BB, but only joined the RZL long after the years of AFC North dominance that surely would have slanted the numbers a bit more towards BB. That leaves just two GMs, Luka Livojevic (.429) and Joe Gaspar (.429), who were around for BB in his prime and have a winning record against the legend. That is true dominance from a GM who once lost just 1 regular season game in a three year span. With Super Bowl wins in multiple leagues on his resume already, coupled with multiple RZL GMOTY awards, and this 2020 AFC Championship, perhaps the only thing left off of BB’s extensive resume is a Coach of the Year award. Oh, and the RZL Hall of Fame, but that one is a lock the first time he’s eligible for the ballot.

GM of the Year

Keith Van Wagner, Carolina Panthers
In the COTY award synopsis of GM Spencer, we outlined a group of guys who have been extremely successful in the RZL, guys like Spencer, Mullendore, Paglia, and KVW who have amassed tons of credentials in their RZL tenures but were just waiting on that exclamation point to join the generally accepted elite company in the RZL annals. Despite the retired Paglia, all three of the other guys would get into the tournament and have a chance to realize that legacy, but it was KVW and his Carolina Panthers who would capitalize on the opportunity. The Panthers have been one of the most storied franchises in RZL history, much of that success due to KVW. The Panthers would win their 3rd Conference Championship, a feat only previously done by one GM (Anthony Fernandez), and two teams (Tampa Bay and San Diego). That’s pretty incredible when you consider how many great GMs and teams the RZL has seen. Even more incredible was the route the Panthers took to get there – battling constant injuries to QB Drew Stanton and playing in a division that routinely features 3 (and recently 4) playoff caliber teams. The competition is so tough that the Panthers last division title was in 2011, nearly a decade ago. Not winning the division would not phase the Panthers in the playoffs however; as after bouncing the NFC North Champion Lions they would eliminate the NFC South Champion New Orleans Saints, and then went on to bounce the twice Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams to prevent them from furthering their Dynasty. This all in itself was probably enough to bump KVW’s legacy to elite status, but the Madden Gods were not done.

On tap were the Pittsburgh Steelers for SBXV, a rematch of the last time these two teams were in the RZL’s biggest game 9 seasons ago for SBXI. To compound the pressure, the game was widely believed to be Steelers Future Hall of Fame GM Brian Brown’s last game in his storied madden career. The Steelers used a 21-point 4th quarter to rally and beat the Panthers in SBVI, but the suffocating Panthers defense would not even allow the Steelers to score 21 points in the entirety of SBXV, defeating the best GM in RZL history 26-13 to capture their 1st RZL Super Bowl. QB Drew Stanton would get the start and the win, despite missing most of the 2020 season and forcing KVW to find ways to win games (including PLAYOFF games) with young QB Blaine Gabbert. Stanton’s trophy case that already featured multiple RZL MVP awards, an Offensive Player of the Year award, and Best Quarterback Award honors finally included a Super Bowl Trophy. The win does many things for the Carolina Panthers, the first of which being that the playoff progression has set up Gabbert to be a legitimate QB of the Future for the Panthers and set them up for years to come following Stanton’s eventual retirement. The win also furthers the legacy of Drew Stanton to the point where he clearly passes QB’s Colt McCoy and Joe Flacco in the “best of all time” argument, and while all three are clearly 1st ballot Hall of Famers, Stanton is pretty untouchable in the RZL record books now. Perhaps only Big Ben, who beat Stanton in SBVI, can be mentioned in that argument. The final thing the win did, and perhaps most importantly, is it established KVW as a top guy in the RZL community, on equal footing with other RZL greats like Brian Brown and Anthony Fernandez. KVW already has COTY and GMOTY awards in his Trophy Case, and while another GMOTY would be sweet, nothing will be sweeter than winning SBXV and capitalizing on his years of hard work in the RZL community.

Matthew Davis, Jacksonville Jaguars
Matthew Davis has been a polarizing figure and lightning rod in RZL since he took over the Jaguars a decade ago in 2011. Davis had a great initial burst into RZL, but most GMs discredited that, instead deferring that credit to the “previous GM” roster contributions. This bothered Davis, as perhaps nobody in RZL history has come as close to GM Anthony Fernandez at “worrying about their legacy” as Davis has. Davis wanted to build the roster the way that he wanted it, and he wanted full credit for it when he eventually turned it around. The outcry was lose-lose for Davis, as if he rode out his aging team for a couple more seasons and hoped they cap one off, his contributions would be downplayed, and if (and in this case, when) he dismantled the team and rebuilt it, he would get criticized for “blowing up a good thing”. It takes balls to stare in the faces of the masses and make such a move, chillingly similar to what is going on with 30-year old 1st time GM Rob Hennigan for the NBA’s Orlando Magic (although Matt would have played that to the deadline and gotten maximum value). Still, with the rebuilding of the Jaguars Davis knew he would be criticized, but he was going to rebuild it anyway, and in a span that featured plenty of losing seasons, Davis never lost confidence in himself or his drafting. In fact many times on a stretch of sub-.500 teams he would piss off rival GMs like Nic St. Marie for perhaps “talking without credentials” or embellishing his own success and ability.

The more seasons that have passed, and the further we’ve got on the rebuild, it has become more and more clear that Davis was not embellishing at all. Davis is the real deal when it comes to GMing, and few GMs put in the time working phone lines to find not just trades – but the RIGHT trades. Like GM Fernandez, Davis’ favorite return asset in deals is often draft picks, and he’s used them to build his team from scratch and the final product is looking pretty imposing. In 2020 the Jaguars would finish (12-4) and win their 2nd AFC South Championship in Davis’ tenure. It was the best season in Jaguars history since Davis’ 1st year with the club, and most consider the team to be a favorite in the AFC moving forward. The silencing of critics must certainly be nice, speaking from experience. In the rearview are memories of Davis having to “hear it” from nitpicky GMs who pointed out players like Byron Leftwich and Matt Jones, who were ostracized from the Jaguars roster, would go on to win Super Bowls in other cities. Headed into 2021 with talented players like QB Adrian McPherson, WR DeMaryius Thomas, Michael Floyd and an entire young defense handpicked by GM Davis, it’s brutally clear it won’t be long before GM Davis has a Super Bowl win of his own. If the team hadn’t run into the Pittsburgh Steelers while Brian Brown attempt to close out his HOF career in storybook fashion, Davis might already have that Super Bowl moment.

Eric Eggleston, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins and GM Eric Eggleston were a touchdown away from playing in Super Bowl XV. Just take a minute to let that all soak in. At this point you’re probably assuming I’m joking, because the Dolphins haven’t seen that kind of success since GM Ryabin/QB Cantwell won RZL Super Bowl IV. Hell, not even Dan Marino won a Super Bowl in Miami with HC Jimmie Johnson or HC Don Shula. So how in the blue hell was Eric Eggleston knocking on the doorsteps, flirting with bouncing the most prolific GM in RZL history in what could have been the final game in his career? Well simple. Eric quietly made some really smart, really beneficial trades for South Beach while nobody really paid attention because most of you tuned out when the team traded DHB and we no longer had to check in once a year to see what records he was on the verge of breaking for a sub-.500 team. “When in the hell did the team get Brady Quinn”, you’re thinking. Yes, so was I. Snuck in just before the trade deadline, the Dolphins sent a 3rd round pick and career backup QB Tim Hiller to the Minnesota Vikings, basically just to absorb his gargantuan contract. And why not? The Jets and Bills had refused to establish themselves at the midway point of 2020, the Dolphins were hanging around and had the $25M in cap space necessary. And with that move, they nearly bought a Super Bowl Title. Don’t let that move alone fool you, however, as the rest of the Dolphins roster was meticulously assembled by GM Eggleston, adding talented players via the draft like HB Garry Reyes, WR Jonathan Baldwin, and CB Bobby Peterson. The team is also very active on the trade front, and whether you like dealing with Eggleston or not, you know he’s always just a hard ass to deal with because he cares about his team and is trying to win a Championship. With Brady Quinn set to come back in 2021, you have to believe this won’t be the last time Eggleston challenges for that honor.

James Paronne, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers were coming off of the worst record in the league during the 2019 season (3-13), which was accompanied by the #1 overall pick. Few GMs believed that JP would have the discipline to KEEP the top pick, draft the best player available, and begin to revamp their biggest Achilles heel since taking over the Packers – their defense. To everyone’s surprise, the Packers kept the pick and selected CB Morris Claiborne, and then coupled the pick with a few crafty moves, like stealing CB Chas Poston in free agency, as well as acquiring some solid building blocks through trade and free agency like HB CJ Spiller, DT Torell Troup, and DE Corey Wootton. The Packers also got sizeable contributions out of other recent draft picks like LB Zach Brown, FS Roman Free, WR Chris Rainey, SS Eddie Whitley, and CB Paul Bennett. The Packers also benefited by solid contributions from recently acquired captains MLB Donald Butler and QB Philip Thompson. Despite some early struggles with Thompson, JP did something we haven’t seen him do in his RZL tenure – stick with a QB through the bumps and bruises. After starting (2-5), JP would refuse to throw in the towel and won 8 of his final 9 games to finish in a tie for the NFC North Championship. Unfortunately for the Packers, their two games v. the eventual (10-6) division champion Lions came before the young Packers “figured it out”, and the Lions would advance to the playoffs based on tiebreakers. Despite that, the Packers have gutted the roster of plenty of aging vets and bloated salaries, and thanks to solid drafting and less trading “for sport”, the Packers are looking like a contender for the foreseeable future.
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