Players vote on team's annual awards
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The disappointment of not making the Pro Bowl lingers for Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon. But being named the team's most valuable player eases the sting of that snub — and then some.
"This is more important to me at this point," Witherspoon said. "It says kind of what your teammates really think about you."
Witherspoon is this season's winner of the Daniel F. Reeves award, which goes to the Rams' MVP. Defensive end Adam Carriker won the Carroll Rosenbloom award as Rams rookie of the year. Strong safety Corey Chavous is this year's recipient of the Carl Ekern Spirit of the Game award.
The annual team awards are voted on by Rams players. Coach Scott Linehan announced the winners during Wednesday's squad meeting at Rams Park.
Witherspoon is the first defensive player to win team MVP since end Kevin Carter in 1998. Witherspoon viewed that as a sign that the defense is pulling its share of the load this season after years of playing in the shadows of the offense.
"Things are more balanced, the way they should be with a team," he said. "We'll see if we can keep it on the defensive side of the ball for a while."
In Witherspoon, Carriker and Chavous, the defensive unit swept the team awards for the first time since '98, when Carter was joined by linebacker London Fletcher (rookie of the year) and linebacker Mike Jones (Ekern award).
Entering Sunday's season finale against Arizona, Witherspoon leads the team with 128 tackles and has a team-high seven sacks. Witherspoon also is tied for second on the squad with 10 pass breakups and has two forced fumbles.
"It's well-deserved," Linehan said. "It just says a lot about how his teammates see him, and how they view his impact on our team."
Switching to middle linebacker in St. Louis after primarily playing outside linebacker for Carolina, Witherspoon has been a much more consistent performer in this, his second season, with the Rams. With nine tackles Sunday against the Cardinals, he will establish a career high for his six NFL seasons. The seven sacks already is a career high.
Long known for his sideline-to-sideline speed and pass coverage ability, Witherspoon added a new dimension to his game this season as a pass rusher. He had only 11 career sacks before 2007 but was used more as an edge rusher by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett following defensive end Leonard Little's season-ending toe injury.
Beyond that, Witherspoon has become a more physical tackler this season. Improved play up front by rookie defensive tackles Carriker and Clifton Ryan has kept opposing blockers off Witherspoon.
And that's one of the reasons Carriker was named rookie of the year. He was the team's first-round pick, No. 13 overall, in April. But in the 13 seasons that the Rams have been in St. Louis, only six first-rounders have been named the team's rookie of the year.
"I felt like I've played well," Carriker said. "I felt like I've progressively gotten better throughout the year as I got more comfortable with the positions."
With emphasis on the plural in "positions."
Carriker has played the nose and "3-technique" spots at defensive tackle, and has seen a fair amount of duty at end since Little's injury.
"Carriker's been outstanding," Linehan said. "He's been more than you could really count on, because we had to project him inside when he played defensive end in college."
Rather than have Carriker settle in at one position, Linehan said the Rams plan to continue to make use of his versatility next season. And that's fine with Carriker.
"I actually kind of enjoy moving all over," Carriker said. "I get to do a lot of different things that a lot of guys don't get the opportunity to do."
Carriker has 43 tackles, two sacks, 10 quarterback pressures and a fumble recovery this season. He also was credited with a safety Nov. 25 against Seattle.
Chavous, meanwhile, won the Ekern award for the second consecutive season. By definition, the award goes to the Rams player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, work ethic and commitment to his teammates. But usually, the Ekern award seems to go to one of the team's top leaders.
Among the past Ekern award recipients since the Rams have been in St. Louis are Jones, defensive tackle Ray Agnew, tight end Ernie Conwell, safety Aeneas Williams and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
"I don't think it's really anything that I do necessarily as a leader that's spectacular," Chavous said. "There's probably times when I could be a better leader. But the fact that the guys are actually looking at you and how you go about your business — and respecting that — that's the thing that you're humbled by."