Wednesday, December 30, 2015

How Did We Pick the 2015 Championship Belt Winner?

Most years, it's been pretty easy to determine the winner of the New York Athlete Championship Belt. Sure, there might be a bit of grey area between two candidates at some point, but by year's end, the champ has usually made himself* obvious.

*There's never been a female Belt winner. If Carli Lloyd hailed from New York instead of New Jersey, she would've had a legitimate shot at this year's title.

Just as most league MVP races end anticlimactically -- like last year's "duel" between Stephen Curry and James Harden that ended with Curry earning four times as many first-place votes -- the Championship Belt competition frequently ends in a landslide. Looking back at the winners from the last two decades, only Darrelle Revis in 2011 looks a little surprising. (Then again, maybe I'm just not surprised because I picked each winner.) In the guidelines I originally set up for choosing the Belt winner, I wrote, "The most important New York athlete is usually easy to spot."

But not this year. Sure, a bunch of great athletes made their marks, but each was flawed in his own way. At the beginning of December, the field had "narrowed" to a still-healthy pool of four worthy candidates -- Daniel Murphy, Henrik Lundqvist, Kristaps Porzingis, and Odell Beckham.

As of November 29, the day the Giants played the division-rival Redskins, Beckham had the edge in my mind. His sophomore season had provided a terrific encore to the greatest catch many of us have ever seen. He'd also displayed an eccentric, self-assured personality similar to past Belt-winners like Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson, Walt Frazier, and Revis.

All the Giants had to do was beat the Skins and/or a few of their remaining opponents, and they'd cruise into the playoffs in the putrid NFC East. With a Giants playoff berth -- or even just a spirited run at the division crown -- Beckham would snag the Belt. In that late November game, Beckham didn't disappoint, gaining 142 yards on nine receptions, including the insane second-best grab of his career.
Still, the Giants lost a tough game to Washington, so Beckham hadn't yet wrapped up the Belt. Even though the Giants were in danger of missing the playoffs for the second time in his two seasons, as long as the receiver kept playing well, he'd take home the title despite his teammates' poor play.

The next two weeks after the Washington game saw Beckham continue his insane season by combining for 315 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets and Dolphins.

You know what happened next, when Big Blue took on the undefeated Panthers on December 20. Beckham dropped a first-half bomb that would've put the Giants up early. Then, Josh Norman and his Panthers teammates got in Odell's head enough to cause Beckham to commit a late unnecessary roughness penalty -- his third of the game -- that earned him a one-game suspension. For Odell and the Giants, it effectively ended the season. Beckham will have more chances to snag the New York Athlete Championship Belt, but he couldn't lock down the hardware that was his for the taking in 2015.

Thanks to the wonders of Internet videos, we'll remember many of Odell's great plays from 2015. Unfortunately, we'll also always have video of the dirty play that killed his Belt chances.


After Odell had done to his season what Plaxico Burress once did to his leg, it was time for me to look at the other three most outstanding candidates. Of that trio, each had his own flaws in 2015. After leading the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals at the end of last season, Lundqvist has struggled mightily lately. Despite a bright future that has Knicks fans treating Porzingis like Moses, the Latvian has also sputtered in December. Murphy, meanwhile, no longer even resides in New York, having signed with the Washington Nationals earlier this week.

So that leaves us with one question: Which of those aforementioned players will future generations look back on as the most important New York athlete of 2015?

The answer to that question is now almost certainly "Daniel Murphy".

When I posted the 10 candidates for the Belt a few weeks ago, my buddy Chris said, "It's gotta be the Murph. How's it not?" I hedged, saying that Murphy had a wonderful nine-game run, and that stretch just happened to come in the playoffs. "Yeah, when it matters," Chris countered. "Possibly the best stretch of playoff baseball of all-time."

Can't argue with that point. And with Odell Beckham out of the running, Murphy is a fine choice. Sure, he caught lightning in a bottle, but in a year with no clear Belt-winner, that was enough.

Now a National, Murphy will be unable to defend his New York Athlete Championship Belt. Perhaps, next year Odell will take advantage of a chance to help a talented Giants team to the playoffs, which might represent the beginning of a long Belt run. Or Porzingis might grab the Belt as he continues to take the NBA by storm. Or maybe a young Mets pitcher will outpace the field. No matter how you foresee the next year, the 2016 winner will probably be easier to spot than Daniel Murphy, who used a few captivating weeks in October to run out of the ring with the Belt.

Agree with my choice for the New York Athlete Championship Belt? Disagree? Let everyone know in the poll on the right side of the page. Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

NOTE: I published this post when I was in Chicago for the holiday season. I had not yet read or heard about the possibility (probability?) that Beckham was subjected to homophobic slurs by members of the Panthers during that fateful game in December. Murphy, meanwhile, said some relatedly tone-deaf things about the gay "lifestyle." back in May. Read the above post, then, as an acknowledgement of the players' on-field contributions, and nothing more. It's a shame that the Giants' best player was apparently subjected to some disgusting comments and that this year's Belt winner comes off as a pretty ignorant person. 

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