theScore’s NFL monthly awards: Top players, teams, and more
Welcome to the first edition of theScore’s NFL monthly awards.
With September 2023 in the books, it’s time to recap and praise the best events and moments from around the league in Weeks 1-4.
Player of the month
Christian McCaffrey, RB, 49ers
A few quarterbacks were under consideration here, including Tua Tagovailoa, but the Dolphins’ defeat by the Bills left McCaffrey as the only contender without a bad game so far this season. With his four-touchdown Week 4, the 49ers star leads the NFL in touches (98), scrimmage yards (600), total touchdowns (7), and rushing yards per game (114.8). No other player with 60-plus carries averages as many yards per attempt as McCaffrey’s 5.7. The two-time Pro Bowler also paces all rushers in yards after contact, missed tackles forced, explosive runs, and first downs. Finally, by scoring at least one touchdown in every game this campaign, the 27-year-old passed Jerry Rice to set a franchise record with a TD in 13 consecutive appearances dating back to last year.
Team of the month
Miami didn’t play at its best and suffered its first loss in Buffalo, but that result tells you more about how good the Bills can be than it does about Miami. Through four weeks, the Dolphins have built an offensive juggernaut en route to becoming Super Bowl contenders. Led by MVP candidate Tagovailoa at quarterback and receiver Tyreek Hill, Miami leads the NFL in EPA per play, passing yards, and rushing yards. The team is averaging 511 total yards per game with no other club above 400. Mike McDaniel’s outfit – which has used motion unlike any other NFL offense ever – also had the year’s most emphatic win, beating the Broncos 70-20 in Week 3 while amassing 726 offensive yards. Largely due to subpar defensive play, the Dolphins aren’t as balanced as the 49ers, Eagles, or Cowboys. However, no team has been more fun to watch than Miami.
Carmen Mandato / Getty Images Sport / Getty
Rookie of the month
Puka Nacua, WR, Rams
C.J. Stroud (Texans), Christian Gonzalez (Patriots), Jalen Carter (Eagles), and Bijan Robinson (Falcons) have stood out, but we already expected them to perform at a high level as first-round picks. Meanwhile, few people knew who Nacua was until Week 1. He entered the NFL as a fifth-round choice out of BYU and was the 20th wideout off the board. But the 22-year-old didn’t have any problems making history and putting up Cooper Kupp numbers with the 2021 Offensive Player of the Year sidelined in the season’s first month. Nacua amassed a record 39 catches and 501 receiving yards, the most in a player’s first four career games in NFL history. He also found the end zone for the first time in Week 4, scoring the Rams’ game-winning touchdown in overtime.
Coach of the month
Jim Schwartz, DC, Browns
Several head coaches were in contention, but Schwartz earned the nod as one of the offseason’s best hires. Granted, the Browns – playing with a fifth-round rookie quarterback – suffered a 28-3 loss in Week 4. But Schwartz, whom Cleveland hired as defensive coordinator in January, deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done. Just a year after ranking 25th in EPA per play allowed, the Browns lead the league in that category. The team’s defense also ranks first in total yards and is the only one in the NFL allowing fewer than 200 yards per game on average. Cleveland did add edge Za’Darius Smith and defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson, among others. But Schwartz should be praised for helping build a defensive juggernaut.
Under-the-radar player of the month
Dennis Gardeck, EDGE, Cardinals
Don’t feel guilty if you aren’t familiar with Gardeck; not many people have watched Cardinals games this season. The 29-year-old is quietly putting together a solid campaign, racking up four sacks and six QB hits while being a top-20 edge rusher in football, according to PFF. Arizona doesn’t look as bad as many around the NFL expected, and Gardeck has been one of its main contributors defensively.
Michael Owens / Getty Images Sport / Getty
Who is Gardeck? An undrafted player out of Sioux Falls in 2018, Gardeck has spent his entire career with the Cardinals, logging mostly special-teams snaps until this season. In 76 career appearances, he has 12 sacks, largely thanks to a 2020 campaign in which he recorded seven despite playing just 10% of Arizona’s defensive snaps. In 2023, after the Cardinals lost their top pass-rushers in the offseason, Gardeck has played 42% of the club’s snaps on defense, easily his highest career rate. He’s signed through the 2024 season after inking a three-year, $10-million extension in 2022.
All-NFL team of the month
Facts you should know
The Josh Allen roller coaster. It’s hard to believe that the Allen who put on a show and had a perfect passer rating in Week 4 is the same Allen who had a terrible performance with four turnovers just three weeks ago. But we shouldn’t be surprised by his ups and downs at this point. Following this season’s first four games, the Bills’ 2018 first-round pick has tossed 64 career interceptions and suffered 54 fumbles (21 lost). Allen’s 118 INT/fumble total is easily the most in the league in the last six seasons. However, after racking up five touchdowns versus Miami, Allen has now also accounted for 188 TDs, behind only Patrick Mahomes (212) in that span.
Things can change fast. The Vikings posted a 13-4 record last season. Yet many observers were unconvinced, as 11 of their wins came in one-possession games. This season, all three of Minnesota’s defeats have come in one-possession games. Add in the Vikings’ 31-24 wild-card loss to the Giants in January, and they’re 1-4 in one-score games in the year 2023.
Can’t contain CMC. We already mentioned how special McCaffrey’s 2023 has been. But his numbers in the span of a full regular season are something else. Since not starting his first San Francisco game days after joining the team via an October 2022 trade, McCaffrey has started 17 games with the 49ers (including the playoffs), racking up 2,047 scrimmage yards and 20 total touchdowns on 351 touches. Oh, and he also threw a 34-yard TD. San Francisco is 16-1 in that span, with the only loss coming in the NFC title game versus Philly.
Stat of the month
Running back Derrick Henry tossed a touchdown in Week 4 to help the Titans claim a 27-3 victory over Joe Burrow and the Bengals. Henry now has as many games with at least one touchdown pass this season (one) as Burrow, who recorded his only two TD throws of the season in Week 2.
Russell Wilson completed an unbelievable Hail Mary touchdown pass to Brandon Johnson as time expired in Week 2 against the Commanders. Though the Broncos couldn’t force overtime due to a failed two-point conversion attempt, the miraculous play deserves a spot here.
A HAIL MARY AS TIME EXPIRES
— NFL (@NFL) September 17, 2023
The WYD Award
Raiders coach Josh McDaniels ran away with this award in prime time of Week 3 after opting to kick a field goal from the 8-yard line on a fourth-and-4 with 2:25 left in the game and his team down 23-15 against the Steelers. The decision cut Las Vegas’ chance to win the matchup by 5.4%, according to The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen. It made even less sense given the club’s subpar defensive performance. As expected, Pittsburgh converted a first down to all but end the contest on the following drive.
The “Best tweet” category is coming up next, but a post from ESPN’s Bill illustrated how bad McDaniels’ call looked after the Raiders got the ball back with 12 seconds left on the clock:
All the Raiders have to do here is get one play to get in field goal range, kick a field goal, convert an onside kick, hit another play to get in field goal range, and kick another field goal to win the game. Easy.
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 25, 2023
Taylor Swift watching Travis Kelce and the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium alongside the star tight end’s mom, Donna, is already one of the season’s biggest storylines. Kelce ultimately caught a touchdown to help Kansas City earn a 41-10 victory over the Bears in Week 3, and social media was loving it.
Travis Kelce begging his teammates to let him score one in front of Taylor Swift pic.twitter.com/oFQFUtyNMX
— Kevin Wilemski (@kevinwilemski) September 24, 2023
I’m talking to America here, excuse me.
Referee Alex Kemp went viral for his response to Geno Smith after the Seahawks quarterback was called for intentional grounding in Week 2 against the Lions. Smith approached Kemp to complain about the call, but the ref had already started to announce the penalty and had no time for the veteran signal-caller.
Most surprising upset
Arizona has played better than many expected, but not even the biggest Cardinals fan actually thought the team would take down Dallas in Week 3. The Cards – arguably football’s least talented roster – lost their first two games, while the then-perfect Cowboys outscored their opponents 70-10. But Arizona rode a solid defense and dominant run game to a shocking 28-16 victory as an 11.5-point underdog. The Cardinals finished the matchup with 222 yards (7.4 per carry) and two touchdowns on the ground and allowed just one TD in six Cowboys red-zone trips.
We can’t recap the season’s first month without discussing the Jets. New York’s quarterback situation has been stealing headlines since the team traded for Aaron Rodgers in April. However, the Super Bowl aspirations that followed Rodgers to New York ultimately broke Jets fans’ hearts when the former NFL MVP went down with an Achilles injury in Week 1. Since then, the offense mostly struggled with Zach Wilson as QB1. That’s led to Rodgers calling out some of his teammates for their behavior on the sideline and franchise legend Joe Namath saying he’s seen enough of Wilson, who’s failed to meet expectations since entering the NFL as the No. 2 pick in 2021.
Al Bello / Getty Images Sport / Getty
While the Jets did sign a new quarterback in Trevor Siemian, the eighth-year veteran won’t solve their problems. Wilson also played better in Week 4 despite a brutal late fumble. But this already feels like a losing season for a Jets team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. Should New York make an in-season trade for another starter? Kirk Cousins – who’s in the final year of his contract with the 1-3 Vikings – is a name that comes to mind. But accepting reality and focusing on 2024 might be N.Y.’s best option. Between Robert Saleh’s support for Wilson, Rodgers refusing to rule out a potential return in the playoffs, and juicy rumors ahead of the Oct. 31 trade deadline, all we know for sure is that we’ll be talking about the Jets’ quarterback situation for a while.
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