A pair of Aarons pulled off an N.F.L. hat trick Saturday night.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers earned his third Associated Press Most Valuable Player Award, while Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald took his third top defensive player prize at N.F.L. Honors.
Another notable trio for the night: Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning and Calvin Johnson, who were selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.
Also taking home awards were two members of the Washington Football Team: quarterback Alex Smith won the Comeback Player of the Year Award in one of the most inspirational stories of 2020, and edge rusher Chase Young was recognized as the top defensive rookie.
Derrick Henry, the Tennessee Titans’ 2,000-yard rusher, won the Offensive Player of the Year Award, and the offensive rookie honor went to Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski was named the coach of the year, and Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll earned assistant coach honors.
Rodgers had perhaps the best season of his 16-year career, leading Green Bay to a 13-3 regular season, the N.F.C.’s best mark. Just a few months after questions arose about his comfort level with the Packers — and their choosing a quarterback in the first round of April’s draft — Rodgers, who turned 37 in December, tore up the N.F.L. Rodgers topped the league with 48 touchdown passes with a completion rate of 70.7 percent. He was picked off just five times.
The night also belonged to Manning, the quarterback whose meticulous attention to detail helped turn the 21st-century gridiron into a chessboard on turf. The son of Saints legend Archie Manning and brother of two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning will be joined later this year in Canton by another first-ballot lock, Woodson, the defensive back who beat out Peyton Manning for the Heisman Trophy in 1997, and then spent nearly two decades trying to stop him. Johnson, who was known as Megatron, was also a first-ballot selection, his mere nine years of playmaking excellence with the Detroit Lions more than enough to persuade the panel.
Also making it were guard Alan Faneca, who made nine Pro Bowls and missed only one game over 13 seasons with the Steelers, Jets and Cardinals; and John Lynch, the hard-hitting safety who burnished his reputation in Tampa Bay, which plays Kansas City for the Super Bowl title Sunday.
Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson was selected in the senior category; former Raiders Coach Tom Flores, as a coach; and longtime Steelers scout Bill Nunn as a contributor.
In a nod to Covid-19, the voters eschewed their traditional all-day meeting Saturday in favor of a virtual gathering on Jan. 19. The winners’ names were made public at the N.F.L. Honors awards ceremony Saturday night. Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli and Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas were among the finalists whose names were not called.
Manning going into the hall was all but preordained. That’s fitting, in a way, because he was known for his intense preparation during the week and at the line of scrimmage, doing all he could to eliminate doubt about the result of every play before it happened.
His work in the video room, his “voluntary” off-season throw-and-catch sessions with receivers, his quizzing of coaches and teammates alike during practices — all were the stuff of legend.
When Manning retired after leading the Broncos to the title in 2016, he had the career records for passing yardage (71,940) and touchdowns (539), among others, and was part of the conversation as Greatest Of All Time.
Drew Brees and Tom Brady have eclipsed those numbers. Brady, playing in his 10th Super Bowl on Sunday, will with a win on Sunday join Manning as the second quarterback to lead two franchises to a title. Still, he’s well aware of Manning’s role in making the modern-day passing game what it is today.
“Like any great quarterback, there’s a lot of responsibility that you take on,” Brady said in the past week in reflecting on Manning’s place in the game. “You want to make sure everything’s a reflection of how you see the game and you want to make sure everyone’s on the same page. And when everyone’s seeing it through the same set of eyes, it’s a great way to play football.”
He ushered in an era that turned the reading of the Xs and Os from an art to a science, setting the template for a modern-day passing game very much reliant on pre-snap reads that lead to quick decisions and allow the smartest of quarterbacks to get out of bad plays before they happen.
All those smarts, of course, belied a physical gift that allowed Manning to play for 18 years, including a comeback from four delicate neck surgeries that left him unable to grip a football at first.
Weeks after the second operation, Manning sneaked off to a Colorado Rockies batting cage to throw, but his first toss went about 5 yards before fluttering to the ground. Not three years later, Manning threw 55 touchdown passes — that record still stands as the most in a season — and started in the Super Bowl for the Broncos. Two seasons after that, he wasn’t in much better shape, ailing with an arch injury that cost him half the season and what was left of his limited mobility. But he guided the Broncos to a win in Super Bowl 50 — then left the field forever.
Manning both entered and exited the N.F.L. the same time as Woodson, the cornerback who went to one Super Bowl in his first eight years with the Raiders, then went to Green Bay to win his only Super Bowl title, before finishing out his career as a safety in Oakland.
He finished his career with 65 interceptions and 13 defensive touchdowns, tied for the career record with Rod Woodson and Darren Sharper.