NFL Nation: midseason nfc 08
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
It's that time of year again. Yes, we're well aware that the Redskins and Cowboys are past the midway point, but we hated to jump the gun on the Giants and Eagles. To this point in the season, the NFC East has been both brilliant and baffling. Just when you think you know the Redskins, they go and crater on national TV.
The Eagles (5-3) cratered early, but have gained momentum heading into Sunday's game against the Giants. A victory would vault them into a second-place tie with the Redskins (6-3), who will play the Cowboys (5-4) after the bye.
It's hard to decide which has been the bigger story line: The meteoric rise of Jim Zorn or the fall from preseason grace by the Cowboys. But in the interest of your attention span, let's roll out the 2008 NFC Beast Middies -- or the NFCBMs.
|AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson|
|Coach Jim Zorn has guided the Redskins to a strong start.|
The halfway coach of the year: And our first Middie goes to Redskins first-year head coach Jim "Z Man" Zorn. Tom Coughlin has done a phenomenal job of guiding his players through some adversity (Osi Umenyiora, Plaxico Burress), but Zorn is the one who's caught everyone by surprise. When I talked to Joe Gibbs on Monday (you like how I did that?), he couldn't stop talking about the job Zorn has done. Zorn had the good sense not to blow up everything and make a bunch of changes. He's secure enough to surround himself with Gibbs holdovers, and he does a great job of empowering his staff. If you thought this team could be 6-3 after that opening game in the Meadowlands, meet me in Vegas next weekend. Zorn is the rare head coach who doesn't try to act like he has all the answers. His postgame news conferences feel like brainstorming sessions. I'm pretty sure he asked a reporter Sunday how he liked the Redskins' burgundy on burgundy look. That alone makes him worthy of a Middie.Rookie of the (half) year: Before the season, you thought Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Cowboys running back Felix Jones were the best candidates for a Middie. Neither of those players has disappointed, although Jones has missed three games with a hamstring injury. But for my money, no rookie has had a bigger impact than Redskins seventh-round draft pick Chris Horton. Fortunately for executive vice president of Danny Snyder's football team, Vinny Cerrato, Horton has helped take the attention away from those three second-round picks. If anyone spots Malcolm Kelly, send him back to Redskins Park. But the seventh-rounder Horton has been the team's best playmaker on defense -- outside of maybe London Fletcher. A scout told me recently that Horton was a "poor man's Troy Polamalu," which was definitely meant as a compliment. Horton is not particularly fast, but he always ends up near the ball. Watching him throw his body at Willie Parker on Monday was pretty entertaining.
Offensive player of the "year" award: We're going with Giants running back Brandon Jacobs here. Quarterback Eli Manning has been solid for the most part, but it is Jacobs who helps give the offense its smash-mouth identity. He may not have the raw power of Marion Barber, but he's more nimble and capable of making defenders miss. It also helps that Derrick Ward has been an excellent complement. And before you (Redskins fans) start firing off comments, remember that we have an MVP award coming up.
Most improved: This one's always a little awkward. It sort of sheds light on the fact that a player may have struggled in the past. For instance, we've eliminated Clinton Portis and DeMarcus Ware from the "Most Improved" category. And our winner is: Jason Campbell of the Redskins. Despite his poor performance Monday against the Steelers, Campbell has been rock solid for much of the season. He makes plays when the game is on the line and he has embraced Zorn's West Coast offense. Campbell's biggest strength is his knack for remaining calm at all times. You can't tell by his demeanor whether he's won or lost -- and that's a good thing.
The Rudy Ruettiger Award: We're pleased to announce that Jerry Jones will be installing a digital Hustle Board in his new stadium to honor Terrell Owens. The wide receiver can no longer beat press coverage, but he runs players down from behind after interceptions and blocks for teammates downfield. To be fair, Brad Johnson could turn Jerry Rice into Arnaz Battle, but we thought it was important to salute T.O. for giving that old college try while jousting with stalwarts Leon Hall and Rod Hood.
Defensive player of the "year" award: The Beast will take the easy way out and select co-defensive players of the year in Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Tuck might not have the numbers Ware has, but his sacks and forced fumbles seem to come at crucial times. Ware has piled up some of his numbers after games have been decided. Tuck has gone from a shrinking locker room violet to a go-to quote for the leering New York press -- and at least one fledgling ESPN.com blog. Coughlin gets a lot of credit for how the team responded to the Umenyiora injury, but i
t was Tuck who set the tone in the locker room. He never flinched, and now the Giants are sitting at 7-1.
The MVP after nine weeks: Clinton Portis is a no-brainer. A running back can set the tone for a team, and Portis' rugged style resonates throughout the organization. He committed himself to getting in better shape this past offseason and it's paying huge dividends. If the season ended today, Portis would be the odds-on favorite for league MVP. Who else are you going to pick? Albert Haynesworth? Nope, Portis is the man and he's poised to take home the MVP hardware.
The defining moment at the midway point: I thought Manning's pass to Amani Toomer on fourth down against the Steelers in Week 9 was brilliant. He took a penalty when things didn't look right to him at the line of scrimmage and then he lofted a perfect pass to Toomer. Manning is still capable of making poor decisions, but when the stakes are high, who would you rather have at quarterback? You don't have to answer that.
The Moving Van award: Cowboys coach Wade Phillips has lost key players to injury, but the slide began before Tony Romo went down with a broken pinkie. Phillips' refusal to hold anyone accountable in public has helped create a locker room of thin-skinned players. With the exception of Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton, it doesn't seem like players are truly bothered by losing. That's a reflection of a head coach who would rather coddle huge egos than hold their feet to the fire. If the Cowboys fail to secure a wild-card spot, Phillips will be gone.
Best under-the-radar player: The Giants player who benefits the most from Plaxico Burress' antics is Domenik Hixon. Eli Manning and Hixon bonded while Burress was injured during training camp. And when Burress was suspended against the Seahawks, Hixon replaced him and had a 100-yard receiving day before being sidelined with a concussion. Hixon has excellent speed and he did a great job of working on body control during the preseason. I sense that Manning takes a great deal of pride in the fact that the Giants have succeeded when Burress hasn't been available.
The NFC East punting award goes Down Under *: Step right up, Eagles punter Sav Rocca. Your mighty Australian leg has bailed the Eagles' offense out numerous times this season. Following in Mat McBriar's footsteps, Rocca combines a powerful leg with a cunning ability to make balls stay out of the end zone. The young Rocca will join the Beast soon for an exclusive interview. If you have any questions for him, please utilize the comments section. McBriar is out with a broken foot -- hence the asterisk.
Most compelling story line for the second half: Can Tony Romo overcome his injury and breathe life back into the Cowboys? Is this a sleeping giant or a collection of individuals that will never be on the same page? My guess is the latter. We'll be here to document all of it for you.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
With the season at its halfway point -- or pretty close to it -- it's time for the midseason NFC South awards.
|Drew Brees has completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown 15 touchdowns so far.|
Most valuable player (offense): New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. There's really no one else to consider here. Brees has been putting up numbers that could make him a candidate for the league's overall MVP. The bottom line here is that the injury-plagued Saints are 4-4 almost entirely because of Brees. Take him away and they'd be 0-8.
Most valuable player (defense): Atlanta defensive end John Abraham. Some people (mainly Carolina coach John Fox when he's defending Julius Peppers) like to say it's not all about sacks. Point taken. But Abraham has 10 sacks and has had a huge impact even with the Falcons wisely limiting his number of snaps.
Most valuable player (off the field): Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas. He might have made the biggest play of the entire season back in August. After getting punched out by teammate Steve Smith, Lucas instantly forgave the wide receiver -- and truly meant it. In the process, Lucas might have saved Smith's career, the jobs of coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney and set up the Panthers for a big season.
Best rookie: Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. No need for an explanation.
Best rookie not named Matt Ryan and not taken in the first round: Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Carolina's Charles Godfrey and Tampa Bay's Jeremy Zuttah deserve mention, but Lofton has taken over as the quarterback of Atlanta's defense.
Most disappointing rookie: Tampa Bay receiver Dexter Jackson. The Bucs got their backs up right after the draft when some in the media suggested Jackson would be nothing more than a return man in his rookie season. Guess what? Jackson now doesn't even have that job, losing it to undrafted rookie Clifton Smith.
Best comeback: Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme. His name has become synonymous with Tommy John, and that's a good thing.
Best individual performance that amounted to nothing: New Orleans' Reggie Bush against Minnesota. In a Monday night game at the Superdome, Bush returned two punts for touchdowns and the Saints still squandered the game.
Worst-laid plans: New Orleans' overhaul of its defense looked brilliant back in the offseason. But even though linebacker Jonathan Vilma has helped, injuries have made this defense look too much like last year.
Best reclamation project: Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Bryant. The guy was out of football last year and has become the team's No. 1 receiver. The Bucs have taken some grief for giving players too many chances. This is one case they can point to as a success story.
Best coaching job: Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden. Seriously. Yeah, you can say all you want about Gruden's offense and its inability to go downfield. But Gruden's found a way to win six games with rotating quarterbacks and Joey Galloway out for much of the time.
Best performance by an assistant coach: Atlanta offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. He doesn't have a lot of talent to work with, but Boudreau has been able to keep Ryan upright and allow Michael Turner to run for a bunch of yards.
Best unsung player: Carolina strong safety Chris Harris. He seems to force a fumble every week and he's been a big help to rookie Charles Godfrey at free safety. Harris has put himself in place for Pro Bowl consideration.
You've heard of getting ahead of the curve? Well, we jumped out a bit two weeks ago when we presented our near-midseason awards on a slow Saturday during the bye week. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but we're kinda out of juice now that the actual midseason has arrived and the bosses want a true slate of midseason awards to coincide with the midpoint of the season.
So here then are the first updated near-midseason awards at midseason in ESPN.com Blog Network history:
|David Stluka/Getty Images|
|No, there's nothing wrong with your computer screen: Kyle Orton is the NFC North's midseason MVP.|
Rookie of the year: Chicago tailback Matt Forte
He hasn't had a 100-yard game since the opener, but Forte's steady work has put him on pace for an 1,100-yard season. His best contribution might be as a receiver, where he is more comfortable than anyone could have imagined. UPDATE: Obviously, we knew it was a matter of time before Forte got his second 100-yard game. It came Sunday against Detroit, putting him on pace for a 1,280-yard season.
Coach of the year: Chicago's Lovie Smith
Green Bay's Mike McCarthy got consideration for navigating the Packers through the Brett Favre mess. But Smith's decision to start quarterback Kyle Orton, and his willingness to trust him with a wide-open offense, has put the Bears in the thick of the division race. UPDATE: Smith will really earn this award if the Bears hold on to first place with backup quarterback Rex Grossman at the helm.
Yin and yang executive award: Green Bay's Ted Thompson
Clearly, Aaron Rodgers was ready to assume the team's quarterback position. And clearly, Thompson should have ended the Brett Favre saga sooner. You can only wonder how much of the Packers' penalties and other sloppiness can be traced to a distraction-filled training camp. UPDATE: Thompson is so confident in Rodgers that he's already made him a very rich man. And the Packers still have a limp in their gait.
Quietest 684-yard performance: Minnesota's Adrian Peterson
Yes, he has five touchdowns -- including a 54-yard jaunt last Sunday at Soldier Field. But his production hasn't translated into victories; only one of his four 100-yard games have come in a win. UPDATE: Darn! We thought this would happen but didn't write it: Peterson's 139 yards Sunday against Houston gave him a second 100-yard game in a Vikings victory. Another lost scoop.
Offensive player of the year: Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings
Jennings is the NFL's most explosive receiver, leading the league with 685 receiving yards and 12 receptions of at least 20 yards. Defenses should know by now that he's Aaron Rodgers' favorite receiver. UPDATE: Jennings has slumped to second in the NFL with 764 yards, but he has managed to save face by maintaining his league lead with 14 receptions of 20 or more yards.
Defensive player of the year: Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson
It's been nothing short of miraculous: Woodson is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions despite playing the past six games on a fractured toe. He's hardly practiced but his coverage hasn't suffered. (Ask Dallas' Terrell Owens.) UPDATE: Woodson is back to practicing on a limited basis but it hasn't affected his performance on Sunday.
Most Valuable Player: Chicago quarterback Kyle Orton
Can't say I envisioned writing these words, but Orton is the key to the Bears' success these days. His accuracy and quick adaptation to the no-huddle offense has caught opposing defenses off guard. Face it: with an injury-depleted defense and a mediocre running game, the Bears are a passing team. Gasp. UPDATE: And that means the passer isn't supposed to run. But Orton tried to get fancy the other day at Soldier Field and will miss a few games because of a sprained ankle.
Biggest swing and miss: Detroit's plan to run the ball
The Lions' conversion to a zone-blocking run scheme, a knee-jerk reaction to the pass-happy ways of former coordinator Mike Martz, has been a total disaster. Linemen aren't blocking it well, runners aren't finding the holes and coaches aren't mixing up the calls. Their average of 77.7 rushing yards per game is the third-worst mark in the NFL. UPDATE: That average is now down to 72.0 yards and is kind of like the stock market: No one knows where rock-bottom might be.
Best offseason acquisition: Minnesota receiver Bernard Berrian
Berrian has given the Vikings exactly what they were missing last season: A receiver who could take advantage of the attention paid to tailback Adrian Peterson. Berrian's 517 receiving yards rank 10th in the NFL and put him on pace for a career season. UPDATE: Berrian now ranks 9th with 621 yards. He's only a few Gus Frerotte rainbows away from the first 1,000-yard season.
Worst offseason acquisition: Minnesota fullback Thomas Tapeh
The Vikings envisioned Tapeh as a long-term companion for Adrian Peterson and paid him top money for a fullback. As it turns out, however, the Vikings didn't know Tapeh had knee surgery a month before signing. He played in two games and already has been released. The Vikings could be on the hook for as much as $1.855 million. UPDATE: It turns out his name really wasn't Thomas. (Sarcasm alert.)
APB Award: Green Bay defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila
"KGB" has a half-sack to his credit despite playing in all seven games. The Packers are limiting his playing time to maintain his health, but it's time to start wondering if he has simply seen his better days
. UPDATE: The Packers agree. They released Gbaja-Biamila last Saturday.
Most patience: Readers of this blog
Thanks for sticking with us through FavreGate I and II, MillenGate, the Soldier Field fracas and the OCCASIONAL typo or misjudgment. Most of all, let's keep having fun. That's what football is about, right? UPDATE: You're right, it's "Rob" Bironas.
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.