The first time I really took notice of Patrick Dangerfield was at some point during 2012. That year he went from a player with potential to competition ball magnet: in his fourth season he racked up a whopping 600 disposals. I remember that was the year he became a top 10 player and was selected in the All-Australian team for the first time. He finished seventh in the Brownlow medal. He was also ranked the best player in the AFL for inside 50s that year. But 2012 is when it all started to click for him at the Crows: he averaged 26 disposals, kicked 23 goals and landed 77 tackles (then, his personal best). It was as if he flicked some secret switch that elevated him from budding gun to AFL star.
But if you've been paying attention to Dangerfield, the last two weeks especially have painted a portrait of player who has reached the summit; a player who is armed with an all-round game that is difficult to stifle. Against the absorbing Bulldogs Dangerfield collected 36 disposals, 12 tackles and kicked four telling goals: the Cats' opener from outside 50; a left foot kick on the boundary from 45; a crumbing goal; and the game sealer from 35 out directly in front. The Cats won by 23-points. The Bulldogs could argue, had Dangerfield not played, they might have won that match. Over the weekend Dangerfield kicked three goals with 24 disposals and eight tackles against the Power, which saw the Cats scrape home by 2-points.
Such is the influence of Dangerfield: he wins games consistently. This makes him the most valuable player in the AFL. Chris Judd had similar clout. James Hird and Michael Voss also played a hand in many games where their importance determined the win-loss outcome. What we've seen through the evolution of Gary Ablett Jnr. – the Brownlows, the lofty highs, the acts of brilliance, the games won off his boot- we're now seeing with Dangerfield.
For the past 10 years, Dangerfield has not only increased his average disposal count, but he's added features and parts that win games: contested ball, consistent goal kicker, inside 50 production, clearance work and efficiency; three of those he's ranked number one in the AFL. At 27-years old, the 2016 Brownlow medalist is the best in the AFL and the league's benchmark player. And even though the next five years will determine his level of greatness, we can't forget that he hasn't always been elite and it's taken a large chuck of time for Dangerfield to get here.
It's Dangerfield's giftedness that makes him a cut above the league's best. While most midfielders are simply stat-stuffers, the Moggs Creek native bears football traits that can't be taught, like being a big game player, and attributes like his 6-foot-2 height that define him as an imposing athlete. Former Cat great Jimmy Bartel once defined Dangerfield as the second coming of Crow legend Mark Ricciuto.
"His work rate inside the contest and then still to have the power to explode away from it is a rare attribute that only the greats seem to have," Bartel said. "He has a commanding presence on the field, he is competitive and he pits himself against the best at training."
What's been interesting to note about Dangerfield's all-round game, is how he's become more efficient in front of goal. Teams in the modern age of football who boast midfielders that can kick goals, generally play finals. In 2016 he kicked 24 goals from 48 shots, and in 2015 he booted 21 goals from 35 attempts. This year he's on 19.7, on track for a personal record of 40 or more goals. It would be easy to say the reason for a better strike rate on goal is because he's kicking them from a close distance, but the truth is, Dangerfield has been slotting goals from everywhere: outside 50 on the run or anything from the boundary line seems effortless too. Everything he's doing in front of goals – whether it be a set shot because he's roamed forward and found space, or he's been opportunistic – seems to be falling into place.
The rise to greatness hasn't come overnight but there have been key milestones along the way that have acted as checkpoints and validation that Dangerfield is becoming one of the AFL greats. In 2011, the year before he broke out, he delivered in seven games, accumulating 20 or more touches. He backed that up with eight games of 30 touches the following year. In 2014 he managed a career best with 27 handballs against the Hawks. In 2015 Dangerfield won the Crows best and fairest in his last year with the club and 2016 has to go down as his greatest year yet: he won the Brownlow Medal; he won the Cats best and fairest; in his first game for the Cats he racked up 43 touches against the Hawks; he grabbed 48 disposals against the Roos; kicked six goals against the Suns; and 39 touches against the Swans in a losing Preliminary Final. This year he's superior in clearances, disposals, handballs and goals kicked by a midfielder. He's exceeded every test in an incremental fashion where each Dangerfield season seems to be greater than his previous one.
Quite simply, Dangerfield is the player that every one strives to be. He's yet to win a premiership, which is the only thing left for him to accomplish but that's another debate for another time. He's reached a point where he doesn't need to worry too much about strategy and blueprints because what he does on the field is organic and natural; he leads from the front and inspires hard-at-it football. He seems to find new ways to bring his teammates into the game, which is how the Dangerwood tag evolved. Matthew Llyod believed Dangerfield was the sole reason the Cats transformed from mediocre team to finals contender. It's not enough to say Dangerfield is one of those footballers with freakish talents. He's also a competitor with a monster work ethic and an overdrive to succeed. That was Dangerfield against the Power on the weekend in a game that could have gone either way. But it didn't.