|ESPN.com: NFL Nation||[Print without images]|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals are the only viable team in the NFC West as the season hits its midpoint. We still found a way to honor the best -- and worst -- this division had to offer.
|Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE|
|Kurt Warner has guided the Cardinals to a 5-3 record.|
Most Valuable Player: Kurt Warner, Cardinals
The Cardinals might not be a .500 team without him. Warner has 16 touchdown passes against six interceptions. He's on pace for nearly 5,000 yards passing with a rating well into triple digits (104.2). A poor performance against the Jets is skewing his overall turnover stats, but Warner has otherwise done a much better job protecting the football. That makes him one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Defensive player of the year: Adrian Wilson, SS, Cardinals
Wilson's toughness gives the Cardinals an edge on defense. No player in the division does a better job disguising his blitz intentions before the snap. Wilson still makes mistakes in coverage, but there's no mistaking the toughness he brings to Arizona's defense. The knockout shot he put on Bills quarterback Trent Edwards showed why Wilson is the most-feared player in the division.
Coach of the year: Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals
The Cardinals own the only winning record in the division thanks in part to Whisenhunt's willingness to make bold decisions. The franchise wanted Matt Leinart to emerge as the starting quarterback. Whisenhunt went with Kurt Warner in a manner that helped coax smarter play from the freewheeling quarterback. Whisenhunt benched Edgerrin James. Whisenhunt is similarly bold with his in-game decision making. Sometimes the tactics backfire, but Whisenhunt plays to win and his team has responded.
Overall rookie of the year: Tim Hightower, RB, Cardinals
His breakout performance against the Rams in his first NFL start helped Arizona open a three-game lead in the division heading into Week 10. Hightower has seven touchdowns. He has been highly effective as a short-yardage runner. Chris Long (Rams), Donnie Avery (Rams), John Carlson (Seahawks) and Josh Morgan (49ers) have also had their moments.
Offensive rookie of the year: Donnie Avery, WR, Rams
Hightower gets overall rookie honors, but Avery is gaining on him. The speedy receiver has 17 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns over his last four games. His 18.6-yard average during that stretch shows the big-play ability that made Avery the first receiver chosen in the 2008 draft. I didn't expect Avery to overtake Torry Holt so quickly.
Defensive rookie of the year: Chris Long, DE, Rams
Long is getting to the quarterback more than expected. He has shown the versatility to play on either side depending on how injuries affect the team's personnel needs. Long has four sacks. He is improving just about every week.
Breakout player of the year: Steve Breaston, WR, Cardinals
The Cardinals drafted Early Doucet in the third round to compensate for losing Bryant Johnson in free agency. They also hoped Breaston might challenge for the job. Breaston is on pace for 78 receptions and 1,006 yards. He has enjoyed big games with and without Anquan Boldin in the lineup. Breaston is fearless after the catch. His unorthodox approach can make him more difficult to defend.
Fired coach of the year: Mike Nolan, 49ers
His 2-5 record wasn't enough to keep his job, but it was more than enough to beat out the Rams' Scott Linehan. With Nolan and Linehan out, and with Mike Holmgren leaving Seattle after this season, Whisenhunt becomes the division's only incumbent head coach for 2009.
Interim coach of the year: Jim Haslett, Rams
The Rams became a competitive team overnight when Haslett took over for Linehan after an 0-4 start. St. Louis has lost its last two games and injuries are clouding the team's chances for a rebound, but Haslett seems to be doing a good job.
Thief of the year: Oshiomogho Atogwe, S, Rams
Atogwe has four interceptions in his last five games and 11 in his last 16.
Halftime performance of the year: Mike Singletary, 49ers
Nothing more needs to be said.
Upset of the year: Koren Robinson rejoining the Seahawks
Seahawks president Tim Ruskell has built his reputation on weeding out problem players from the locker room. He ran off Robinson three years ago after the troubled receiver blew a pair of .191s following a traffic stop.
Bringing back Robinson would have seemed unfathomable in August. A desperate situation at receiver convinced Ruskell to take another look.
Safe bet of the year: Cardinals will win the division
Only an injury to Warner can derail the Cardinals at this point, and even that might not be enough given the state of the division.
Backup Matt Leinart might be good enough to start for every other team in the division as long as Marc Bulger is struggling and Matt Hasselbeck is injured.