Ben Roethlisberger, my choice for NFL MVP through the first half
of the 2012 season. (my training-camp photo)
The bests and worsts of the NFL, through the first half of the season:
****** TEAMS ******
You might think this is a no-brainer, but until their complete domination of the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, I was dubious of the Falcons’ undefeated record. They could easily have been 4-2, or even 3-3, if it hadn’t been for great fortune. But, man, did they look solid in Philly. They’re 7-0, uber-talented – starting with QB Matt Ryan and his receivers – and confident.
Runnerup: Houston Texans
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs haven’t led one game at any moment in regulation; they took their only lead at the conclusion of their overtime win in New Orleans in Week 3. They have the league’s worst turnover ratio, at -18, and are as poorly coached (by Romeo Crennel) as any NFL team we’ve seen in some time.
Runnerup: Jacksonville Jaguars
FASTEST RISING TEAM
Green Bay Packers
The Pack’s victory at Houston on Oct. 14 probably is the most impressive win by anybody this season. QB Aaron Rodgers has fully bounced back from whatever mini-funk he’d sunk into late last season. And the Packers defence has been fabulous, just a year after being the leakiest in the league; it leads the league in sacks with 26, just three shy of its 2011 total.
Runnerup: Denver Broncos
FASTEST SINKING TEAM
New York Jets
Since crushing the Buffalo Bills in Week 1, the Jets are 2-5, have lost their best player on both sides of the ball (CB Darrelle Revis, WR Santonio Holmes) and their starting QB Mark Sanchez has completed just 51% of his passes – for just seven TDs against seven picks, 184 yards a game and a dismal passer rating of 67.2. Plenty more of all this to come.
Runnerup: Philadelphia Eagles
MOST ENIGMATIC TEAM
It’s crazy, but owner/GM Jerry Jones might actually be correct – the talent is there to win a Super Bowl. Problem is, the capacity is also there among too many key players to screw up too often for the club even to make the playoffs, probably. Again. Tony Romo, for instance, on the same drive (let alone in the same quarter or game) can make throws like both an all-pro and a bad college backup. A shame, because the Dallas D is for real.
Runnerup: Detroit Lions
BEST HEAD COACH
Joe Philbin, Miami Dolphins
Everyone laughed at the Dolphins in August, especially after the club had traded away its most talented offensive player (WR Brandon Marshall) and best defensive back (Vontae Davis). Yet coming off a 6-10 season, the Fins are 4-3. They’re the only AFC team on a three-game winning streak, and their two losses before that were both in OT. Every respected talent evaluator said rookie QB Ryan Tannehill wasn’t ready to start, but he has been a solid playmaker. The Dolphins D is vastly under-appreciated too – allowing the fewest points in the AFC, and third fewest in the league.
Runnerup: Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears
****** PLAYERS ******
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
A controversial pick, yes. But by definition of this category, no NFL player has meant more to his team’s success so far. Big Ben’s elite quarterback play and leadership was the glue that held the 4-3 Steelers together through a shaky first 5-6 weeks. Through three games, for instance, the Steelers running game was inept (125 yards total), the offensive line awful (nine sacks allowed) and the defence was reeling from myriad injuries. Yet Roethlisberger has been elite from Game 1’s opening kickoff.
Runnerup: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver
BEST PLAYER, OFFENCE
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay
Yes, Aaron again. He’d be the first to admit both he and the rest of the Packers offence stumbled a bit out of the gate. But since the replacement officials jobbed Green Bay out of that win at Seattle in Week 3, he’s been better than ever. The numbers: 70% completions, 18 touchdown passes, two interceptions, 121.1 passer rating. And that’s after the Packers’ top running backs went down, and with WR Greg Jennings mostly sidelined.
Runnerup: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver
BEST PLAYER, DEFENCE
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
The second-year man is redefining 3-4 interior defensive line play, not only with his league-leading 9.5 sacks but with his 10 pass knockdowns. The only person disappointed in his stats is him – that’s how high his goals are. He affects a game like no other defender in the NFL. Since the playoffs he’s been doing it each and every week.
Runnerup: Tim Jennings, CB, Chicago
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver
He’s Mr. Commercials for a reason. The elder Manning is playing as well as any offensive player in the league right now. In his past five games, he’s more prolific than any QB (324 yards per game) and his passer rating of 109.0 trails only Rodgers’. Most impressively, Manning has thrown only one interception since he obviously had arm issues in the Week 2 loss at Atlanta – and that was when a novice receiver ran the wrong route at San Diego. Neck, shmeck. He’s back.
Runnerup: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
RGIII has been as dynamic as promised. His passing numbers are not prolific but he’s top-shelf efficient. He has thrown only four touchdowns in the past five games, but he continues to make clutch plays – in the air and on the ground – that has veteran NFL coaches shaking their heads. And he’s just getting started.
Runnerup: Alfred Morris, RB, Washington (uh, good draft, Shanny)
Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas
He makes many a spectacular play both as a receiver and kick returner. But Mr. Off-field Rules gives as many back with stupidity, laziness, inattentiveness or craziness. At least three of Tony Romo’s interceptions are on Bryant. There’s no way his antics couldn’t be having a negative effect on team morale.
Runnerup: Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo
But it’s not his fault. Really. He has said he was ineffective in the opener because Jets’ Austin Howard (in first career start at RT) used illegal hands-to-the-face tactics. And a mysterious left-wrist injury has hampered him since. So ignore his general ineffectiveness and just keep the money coming.
Runnerup: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit
MY ALL-PRO MID-SEASON TEAM
(2nd-teamers in parentheses)
QB: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (Peyton Manning, Denver)
RB: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (Alfred Morris, Washington)
TE: Rob Gronkowski, New England (Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta)
WR: A.J. Green, Cincinnati (Roddy White, Atlanta)
WR: Victor Cruz, NY Giants (Steven Jackson, Tampa Bay)
SLOT: Percy Harvin, Minnesota (Wes Welker, New England)
OFFENSIVE LINE: Houston Texans (New York Giants)
DE: J.J. Watt, Houston (Jason Pierre-Paul, NY Giants)
DE: Jared Allen, Minnesota (Chris Clemons, Seattle)
DL: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore (Kyle Williams, Buffalo)
DL: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati (Ryan Pickett, Green Bay)
OLB: Clay Matthews, Green Bay (Daryl Washington, Arizona)
LB: NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco (James Laurinaitis, St. Louis)
LB: Patrick Willis, San Francisco (Jerod Mayo, New England)
CB: Tim Jennings, Chicago (Casey Hayward, Green Bay)
CB: Cortland Finnegan, St. Louis (Antoine Winfield, Minnesota)
S: Thomas DeCoud, Atlanta (Ed Reed, Baltimore)
S: Stevie Brown, NY Giants (Jairus Byrd, Buffalo)
P: Brandon Fields, Miami (Andy Lee, San Francisco)
PR: Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo (Marcus Thigpen, Miami)
KR: Jacoby Jones, Baltimore (Percy Harvin, Minnesota)
THE SEASON’S TOP 10 STORYLINES, UPDATED:
These are the Top 10 storylines we figured would dominate this season, originally written Sept. 3 for our kickoff package.
On some predictions we were bang-on. On others, umm, not so much.
Herewith, at the NFL’s halfway point between Weeks 8 and 9, are updates:
1. PEYTON MANNING.
Twenty months, four neck surgeries and a change of scenery later, is Manning fully healed? Can he still make all the throws? Can his neck hold up to the hits? Can he be the Peyton of old, or just an old Peyton? Nobody’s sure. Probably not even him.
UPDATE: Um. Yeah. He can still play. Magnificently. Nnnnnext.
2. THE SAINTS.
No one knows how the bounty scandal will affect the Saints on the field. Will Payton’s absence hurt the offence more than many realize? Will the distractions prematurely exhaust the squad’s focus and mental energies?
UPDATE: Yes and yes – to degrees no one imagined possible. But worse than both of those factors has been the Saints’ league-worst defence. Even Drew Brees and the New Orleans offence can’t keep up on the scoreboard. The Saints deserve their 2-5 start.
3. REPLACEMENT REFS.
The season will start with replacement officials temping for the league’s full-time zebras, who are locked out … Can you imagine the stink that would follow a blown game-deciding call? The longer the lockout lingers, the bigger the mess the NFL will have on its hands.
UPDATE: Hooboy, did we nail this one. We’ll be watching slo-mo replays of the “Fail Mary” for decades to come. You remember, when Seattle beat Green Bay on a last-play bomb on Monday night that even nine-year-old girls (well, at least mine) could see was an interception – but which was ruled joint possession and, thus, a game-winning touchdown for the Seahawks?
4. NEWBIE QBs.
Five rookies will start on Sunday: Andrew Luck (Colts), Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Brandon Weeden (Browns) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks). Expect some low-scoring games to start the season.
UPDATE: Hooboy, did we ever blow this one. Scoring never has been higher in the NFL. And the rookies have shocked with their high level of play. Especially RGIII, Luck and Tannehill.
5. TEBOW-SAURUS REX.
If anyone believes the New York Jets quarterback situation this season is going to end up in anything other than disaster, raise your hand. Rex Ryan insists Tim Tebow can help the Jets win. And he might well be right, when they reveal precisely what second offensive package they’ve been cooking up for him. The disaster will come when starting QM Mark Sanchez inevitably screws up to the point where frustrated New Yorkers would rather see Tebow start.
UPDATE: We’re practically there. But we’re all puzzled as to why the Jets have barely used Tebow and his wildcat-ish sub-package. If they’re still holding parts of it back, then, like the titular Dr. Strangelove said to the Russian diplomat in that 1964 dark-humour classic: “Of course, zee whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you KEEP it a SECRET!”
6. CAN THE GIANTS REPEAT AGAINST THAT SCHEDULE?
Head coach Tom Coughlin knows what it takes to follow up a Giants Super Bowl win with a gangbuster start the following season, having led one in 2008. His defence is even better this time, and QB Eli Manning has more weapons at his disposal on offence. But that schedule.
UPDATE: After laying an egg in the opener against Dallas, and barely coming back to beat Tampa Bay to avoid an 0-2 start, the Giants have rolled. They’re 6-2. But no more Clevelands or Carolinas ahead.
7. AS THE NFC EAST TURNS.
Which team will implode first? The Eagles or the Cowboys?
UPDATE: Both teams are 3-4 and imploding about equally horrifically right now. Get a front-row seat if you can. Shield your eyes if you must.
8. TAKING TO THE AIR UP (NFC) NORTH.
The Detroit Lions might feature the game’s most scintillating passing combo in years, in QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin “Megatron” Johnson. Not far behind in aerial-circus wonderment is Green Bay’s QB Aaron Rodgers — with any of WR Greg Jennings, WR Jordy Nelson or TE Jermichael Finley. Don’t sleep on the Bears’ reunited duo of QB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall.
UPDATE: We’re all still waiting for the Stafford-to-Megatron thing to start happening again – what a head-scratcher. Rodgers now is as sharp as ever, even without the injured Jennings (groin). And Cutler-to-Marshall indeed has proven dangerous.
9. LATER START FOR LATE AFTERNOON GAMES.
UPDATE: I had this wrong last time. Only the 4:15 games moved to 4:25 p.m. EDT. Effect? Negligible.
10. IS EXCITEMENT ABOUT THE BILLS LEGIT?
Buffalo Bills GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have hitched their wagon to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Stevie Johnson, RB Fred Jackson and, especially, to DE Mario Williams, the $100-million free-agent signee. Most observers remain unconvinced the Bills will contend with the Patriots for the AFC East title. Some remain skeptical the team will even remain long in the playoff hunt.
UPDATE: Bingo. Williams so far has been the bust of the year among free-agent signees, and Fitzpatrick’s ceiling seems to drop by the week. Playoffs? Not likely.