NEW ORLEANS -- Velvet ropes. Crystal chandeliers. A red carpet. It can only mean one of two things: your sister-in-law is getting married again, or it's time for the second annual National Football League Honors.
The Honors provide the NFL with a chance to present its many awards in front of a national television audience, for players to model formalwear, and for B-listish celebrities to discover that the football media cannot identify them at all. Early in the red carpet promenade that precedes the ceremony, a bank of reporters called out to a small clutch of attendees to get a word with Jessie James, and we were legitimately shocked to find ourselves speaking to an attractive woman, not the dude who customizes cars on television, the 19th century outlaw, or (my guess) the members of Team Rocket.
The awards themselves are the main story. Adrian Peterson had a Ben Hur night, winning the Most Valuable Player award, the Offensive Player of the Year award, and the coveted Fantasy Player of the Year award, which really exists and is not just a bear hug from the guy two cubicles over who keeps bragging that he won 1200 bucks this year. Peyton Manning had to settle for the Best Adapted Screenplay award, otherwise known as Comeback Player of the Year.
J.J. Watt won Defensive Player of the Year in a landslide, with 49 of a possible 50 votes. Von Miller, who had an outstanding season, was Watt's Walter Mondale. Luke Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year, while Jason Witten earned the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for outstanding achievements both on the field and in charitable work.
The only controversy of the night was Robert Griffin's selection as Offensive Rookie of the Year, beating Russell Wilson, who had better statistics, took his team further in the playoffs, and stayed healthy all season while Griffin limped down the stretch and was knocked out for good once Mike Shanahan's denial finally eroded in the playoffs. Wilson would have been the more deserving choice, though the way the Redskins worked Griffin in the playoffs, Griffin may also find himself up for Comeback Player of the Year in 2014.
But the red carpet is an event unto itself. The affair started slowly, as many of the guests (and much of the press pool) was stuck in French Quarter traffic en route to Mahalia Jackson Theatre. Those covering the event live had to tap dance. "It doesn't get any better than this," intoned a live radio broadcaster stalling for time as event staffers shuffled about. No, it does not, unless you include NFL games themselves, and perhaps the first round of the draft, top-notch documentaries like A Football Life, the third preseason game, seven-on-seven drills in training camp, and some of the livelier moments of the Scouting Combine. The dignitary line started slowly, with new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and Texans safety Glover Quin, up for a Play of the Year award, leading the celebrity trickle. Entertainment industry reporters were as perplexed by Arians and Quin as football reporters were by the female Jessie James.
Soon, the star power intensified, though some of the biggest names mistook the red carpet for a Combine drill and confounded reporters by showing off their impressive 40 times. Griffin's injured knee looked solid enough as he quickly sliced past photographers, the savvy scrambler using Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice as lead blockers/attention occupiers. Aaron Rodgers was in a similar hurry, as was Russell Wilson, who looked dazzling in a purple-hued version of the Victorian smoking jacket worn by Rod Taylor in the 1960 version of The Time Machine.
The quarterbacks can be forgiven. The runway experience started with a long photo opportunity and extensive video interviews. It ended with another mandatory set of interviews with the NFL Network, Sirius XM Radio's NFL channel, and other outlets of obligation. Everything in between was optional, and if there is one thing that quarterbacks are getting better at these days, it's running the option.
The marquee celebrities, like presenter Alec Baldwin and actor Steve Carell, also get ushered though the red carpet's EZ Pass lane. Those of us in the creamy center of the receiving line made due with the likes of the female Jessie James and Miss USA, the amazingly statuesque Nana Meriwether, so really there was nothing to complain about.
Among the other celebrity presenters were An Actress who Plays a Vampire, The Actress who Used to Play that Cheerleader, The Guy who Played Hawkeye in The Avengers, and That Girl from The New Girl who is not the New Girl. James Carville was there as co-chair of the Super Bowl Host Committee, not as the political strategist behind Watt's victory.
Despite the football-lite atmosphere of the red carpet, there were still occasional opportunities to talk some serious pigskin:
Jim Kelly, on how to stop the 49ers offense: "Everybody has their own philosophy, but if it was me, every single chance to hit [Colin] Kaepernick, I would hit him as hard as I could, making sure he's on the ground. And every time he drops back or just thinks about holding on to that football, he's going to get hit."
Clay Matthews, on the lessons the Packers defense can pass on to the Ravens about Kaepernick: "Better learn how to run, 'cause we were in trouble."
Joe Namath on what the Jets need: "I can't answer that in the amount of time we have right here. We've got to look deep at the issues. We've got some problems on personnel on both sides of the ball. We have some problems filling the coaching vacancies that have suddenly developed. It's going to take some fine decision making by the powers that be."
Namath, on the Super Bowl in New Jersey next year. "I think it's a great idea!" (Holding out the Big Apple pin on his lapel.)
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, winner of a Fritz Pollard Salute to Excellence award for outstanding achievements by minority coaches and executives earlier in the week, on the state of the Rooney Rule and minority hiring practices: "The commissioner and Mr. Rooney were at the Fritz Pollard Alliance award dinner, and they mentioned the fact that they were disappointed with the hiring process this past season. I know that they are going to try to do some things to shake it up a little bit, and make it better going forward. Hopefully, things will improve."
Charles Tillman, on Adrian Peterson before his award show sweep: "Crown him, because he's the MVP champ right now. The year he had, it was fun to see. We play him twice, and I witnessed it. He ran all over our defense, and many defenses in this league. I'm a fan, and it's a blast to see, not on us, but on other teams."
After the action on the red carpet faded, Baldwin took the stage and began roasting players. He did the Ray Lewis squirrel dance and made a deer antler joke. He said that Watt looked like the child of Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago. He made fun of Rob Gronkowski's party-guy reputation and Andrew Luck's neck beard. The National Football League Honors looked more like a typical award show than the Pro Bowl looks like a typical football game, which is a good reason why one is being positioned as the replacement for the other.
But the real glamor event is on Sunday. The best award shows are the biggest nights on the calendars of their industries. But all of the starlets and chandeliers in the world will never make the Honors anything but the warm-up act for the Super Bowl.