(Philadelphia, Pa) —- Sad, but true we are halfway through the 88th NFL season titled: “Who Wants It More” as it continues toward its inevitable February 2008 ending. As we reach the midpoint there is one thing abundantly clear, it is the Patriots and Colts (two unbeatens) and the rest of the league behind them. Forget “spygate”, the Patriots especially seem to be on a whole another level as they lead the NFL in crucial categories of points scored (331), points allowed (127), and touchdowns (43). They are on pace to break the 1998 Minnesota Vikings scoring record (556 points), but they remind me more of the balanced 1989 San Francisco 49ers team that was ranked #1 offensively and #3 defensively on their to a Super Bowl XXIV win of 55-10 over the Broncos. The Pats seem to be very close to the holy grail of an unbeaten season (1972 Miami Dolphins), but it is still too early to crown them even after a 52-7 shellacking of the Redskins in week 8. The week 9, “Clash of the Super Powers” in Indianapolis will tell everyone how close either unbeaten is too perfection and if the other 31 NFL teams should even try to compete with the winner. But remember every team wants to knock off the “town bully” each week bringing everything they have in their shot for immortality –-1985 Bears and 1998 Vikings, both finished 15-1 with lower level teams rising to knock them off for their only regular season losses.
I don’t know if it is parity or a dearth of talent, but there are 18 teams with a .500 or better record at the halfway point. There are also 13 teams with losing records including the surprising Super Bowl XLI runners-up the Chicago Bears (3-5), who have continued the Super Bowl loser “hangover” problem –since the ’93 Bills lost Super Bowl XXVIII, the big game loser has met with little success as 7 of the 13 teams since that team have missed the playoffs and only three won a playoff game in the subsequent season— that the Eagles and Seahawks ran into recently. Unfortunately for the job security of Scott Linehan and Cam Cameron, there continues to be two winless teams with the Rams and Dolphins (both 0-8). However give their coaching staffs should be given credit as both teams have some fight still in them and they have competed in almost all of their games with several “heartbreakers” (look for both of them to win one by week 12 as the 1976 Buccaneers 0-14 team should be safe).
Divisionally all but the AFC East are competitive, as the Patriots have seemingly wrapped up that division with a 5 game edge. The other divisions have brewing battles coming in the crucial November and December stretch drive months.o AFC South – This is possibly the NFL’s best division sporting the three well over .500 teams. The defending champion Colts are unbeaten, the dangerous 5-2 Titans (V.Y and defense), the also 5-2 Jaguars (Even without a QB there running game is shining), and the scrappy Texans (3-5) bringing up the rear.o AFC East – As mentioned earlier, the Patriots should this thing wrapped up by Thanksgiving. After the Patriots there are the scrappy Bills (fighting through injuries) and the hapless Jets (1-7) and Dolphins (0-8).
o AFC West – This maybe the NFL’s worst division with the Chiefs and Chargers tied at the top with 4-3 records. Both teams have turned it around from slow starts, but now we will see if they are “contenders”. The Broncos are still in the mix at 3-3, but they went through a stretch of three straight losses and the Raiders have already equaled their 2006 victory total coming in at 2-5.
o AFC North – Coming into the season I thought this would be one of the better races in the NFL, but I am shocked to say the Browns (4-3) are the third team in the mix with the Steelers (5-2) and Ravens (4-3). On the outside looking in are the Bengals at 2-5, which may cost Marvin Lewis his job.
o NFC North – The rejuvenated Packers sit tentatively at the top with a 5-1 record, but they are shaky on offense with no running game (leading rusher has less than 300 yards at the midpoint). Behind the Pack, the unanticipated Lions are 5-2 with big question marks defensively, followed by the underachieving Bears (picked wrong running back) and young but very inconsistent Vikings.
o NFC South – This is the NFC’s answer to the AFC West. At this time the Panthers are in the top spot with an inconsistent 4-3 record and on their third quarterback. After the Panthers, there is the equally inconsistent Bucs (4-4), the hard charging Saints (3-4) with three straight wins, and the Vickless/hapless Falcons (1-6).
o NFC East – This division could very well be sending three teams into the playoffs. The Cowboys look to the NFC’s best at 6-1 followed closely by the Giants (6-2) who have rattled off six straight wins, the up and down Redskins (4-3) and the underachieving Eagles (3-4).
o NFC West – In my opinion this is the NFL’s worst division. The division leading Seahawks don’t look like their perennial divisional winning self at 4-3 and they are followed by losing record teams the Cardinals (3-4), Niners (2-5), and the injured but reeling Rams (0-8).
Midseason AwardsAFC Coach of the Year: Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans – Fisher came into the season in the last year of his contract, but he proved in the first half of the season (5-2) that he deserved an extension. The Tennessee Titans obliged signing Fisher through 2011. The deal is thought to be worth $5.5 million to $6 million per year. Fisher is the longest-tenured coach with his team in the NFL (13 seasons) and a record of 110 wins, 95 losses in 205 games w/ 5-4 record in the Post Season. This year’s team might be his most amazing work to date as the Titans have relied on a tough running game and defense. Fisher has had to find ways to keep his team moving forward despite horrible passing games from quarterback Vince Young (42 yards passing in a win versus the Raiders in week 8).
Honorable Mention to Cleveland Browns Head Coach Romeo Crennel. The “Dawgs’” have become the “Scrappy Doos” as the Browns (4-3) have become a scoring machine on their “Save Romeo” trek. Surprise breakout player QB Derek Anderson, stud WR Braylon Edwards, and maturing TE Kellen Winslow have led the Browns who have averaged 30 points a game. Crennel is now 14-25 for his overall record.
NFC Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers – Following an off-season where everyone including veteran quarterback Brett Favre was questioning McCarthy and the Packer ability to win, the former Saints assistant responded. He continued his hot streak from 2006 (won last 4) as the Packers had an 8 game winning streak to start the season. At 6-1 the Packers are contenders and it should be a good battle with the Lions (5-2) for the Divisional title. McCarthy’s overall record is now 13-9 record.
AFC Offensive MVP: Quarterback Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Layup) – Every week of the first half of the 2007 season, Brady has been given a game ball or honorable mention as he has continued his assault on the record books. Brady may have Hollywood good looks, but he never puts himself ahead of his teammates and prefers to talk “team first” and what a team it is, maybe the NFL’s best at 8-0. He has set a NFL record for throwing at least three TD pass at the start of a season (8) and through 8 games, the three time Pro Bowler has throwing numbers of 198 completions on 267 attempts, an amazing 74.2%, 2431 yards, 9.1 ypp, 30 TDs, 2 INTs, w/ 25 yards rushing and 2 TDs. At his current pace he is on track to break Peyton Manning’s 2004 touchdown record (49) and Dan Marino’s 1984 yardage record (5084 yards). And we already know all of the talk of a perfect season for the Patriots.
NFC Offensive MVP: Quarterback Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys – The question everyone asked me coming into the 2007 was “Is Tony Romo for real??” My answer is so far in 2007 after 7 games is “yes”. This season America’s new sweetheart quarterback has led the ‘Boys to a 6-1 record and has throwing numbers of 150 completions on 239 attempts, 62.8%, 1984 yards, 8.3 ypp, 16 TDs, 9 INTs w/ 81 yards rushing and 2 TDs. He even got a victory in his worst performance as the Cowboys snatched victory from the jaws of defeat versus the Bills 25-24 despite Romo turning the ball over 6 times (5 INTs with two returned for TDs and 1 fumble lost). He is even got the “girl” by snagging American Idol’s Carrie Underwood. He also got a new contract on 10/29/2007 with the following details a six-year, $67 million deal that includes $30 million in guaranteed money.
AFC Defensive MVP: Defensive End Jared Allen, Kansas City Chiefs – Many players could lay claim to this award, but it is the high-motor sometimes wacky Chiefs defensive end that gets my vote. After serving a two game suspension for alcohol related events, Allen produced 26 tackles, 8 sacks, and 2 Forced Fumbles. He has cleaned up his act and has led the Chiefs to a 4-3 record for the first half. The stat that sticks with me most is that the Chiefs were 0-2 with out him and 4-1 with him. Dominated the Bengals in week 7 contributing 8 TKLs, 2 sacks (ninth career multi-sack game), and 2 FF while chasing Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer all day.
NFC Defensive MVP: Defensive End Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants – He did it all in the first half spearheading the Giants resurgence as they won six straight games. The stout Giants sack man has 24 tackles, 8 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. I am sure he is also haunting Winston Justice as he had a game for the ages collecting six sacks and setting franchise record against the Eagles, coming within an eyelash of tying Derrick Thomas’ NFL sack record (7). Had another highlight reel play against the Niners as he recorded another sack and got the “hat trick” on the play by stripping the quarterback, recovering the fumble and racing 75 yards for a touchdown (third longest in Giants history).
AFC Co-Offensive Rookies of the Year: Center Samson Satele, Miami Dolphins – I know everyone will be saying an O-lineman, C’mon on, but this kid is a cornerstone player. Satele is the first rookie ever to start on Opening Day at center for the Dolphins. Following in the footsteps of 2006 Center extraordinaire the Jets Nick Mangold, Satele has started from Day 1 in the pivot and has been a leader and a force. The rookie from the University of Hawaii started NCAA-record 53 games in college and then followed it up with 8 straight games in the pros. With the help of the stout center the Dolphins are better than their record averaging 20.8 points per game (13th in the NFL), 323.2 yards (18th), 115.2 yards (15th), and only 13 sacks in 8 games
Offensive Tackle Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns – The third player taken in the draft has been amazing from Day 1 starting at the crucial left tackle position. Thomas is the blindside protector for upstart QB Derek Anderson and the unquestioned leader of the Browns young improving line. He has excellent technique and he should be a starter for the next 10 years. The Browns have had a resurgence going 4-3 and Thomas is a big part as the offensive line as quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Charlie Frye have only been sacked 11 times in 7 games including 0 sacks vs. Rams. The surprising Browns are averaging 27.7 points a game (4th in NFL) and 356.4 yards (7th).
NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year: RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (I got this one right, woo hoo!!!) – This pick was almost as easy as the Tom Brady MVP pick earlier. Peterson has come into the NFL dominating and I guess all of the naysayers that said he was too injury prone before the draft want their vote back. His numbers (7 games, 128 rushes for 740 yards w/ 5TDs plus 11 catches for 187 yards and 1 TD) are unbelievable for a rookie and now he is even the unquestioned starter ahead of veteran Chester Taylor. Peterson greatest game in the first half was against the Bears as he was a man amongst boys rushing 20 times for 224 yards (fifth most by a rookie in NFL history) and three touchdowns in 34-31 win in Chicago. In that game, the University of Oklahoma rookie had touchdown runs of 67, 73, and 35 yards plus he had one catch for nine yards and 128 yards on returns, giving him 361 all-purpose yards (third-highest total in NFL history). NFL Network Analyst Deion Sanders said of Peterson, “He has the vision of a Marshall Faulk, the power of a Terrell Davis, and the speed of an Eric Dickerson. Let’s pray he has the endurance of an Emmitt Smith.”
AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year: DT Amobi Okoye, Houston Texans – Okoye may have been the youngest draft pick in modern history at 19, but he has come in the league and made a difference. Working with fellow first rounders Mario Williams, Travis Johnson, and Anthony Weaver (Ravens), the youngster has been active and looks to have a long future in the NFL. Has 19 tackles, 4 sacks, and a forced fumble in the first 7 games of the season.
NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year: Inside LB Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers – Tutored by the legendary Mike Singletary (LB’s and Assistant Head Coach), Willis has been a tackling machine from his inside linebacker position. The University of Mississippi linebacker has room to grow, but he already is one of the better players “digging through the trash” and finding the ball carrier. Willis has 63 tackles and 1 forced fumble in the first 7 games and look for him to make some game changing plays in the second half.Honorable Mention to New York Giants DB Aaron Ross – The 2006 Thorpe award winner has quickly adapted to NFL posting numbers of 21 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3 interceptions. Had his best game versus the Jets in a 35-24 win. In the game, he sat out the first half for disciplinary reasons and then recorded two solo tackles, two interceptions and one touchdown.
NFL Comeback Player of the Year: WR Randy Moss, New England Patriots – Going into the season no one knew which Moss was showing up in New England. He answered the questions quickly in week one after missing most of training camp, exploding on the New York Jets secondary for nine catches for 183 yards (20.3 ypc) including a 51-yard bomb touchdown in a shellacking 38-14 over the Jets. The 10 year veteran receiver has looked nothing like the malcontent that shuffled through the 2006 for the Oakland Raiders (42 catches, 553 yards, 13.2 ypc, and 3 TDs) and he is on a pace for some record setting numbers. Tom Brady’s must trusted receiving mate for his ability to catch jump balls (did you see the one against the Dolphins – one handed against three DB’s) has “sick” numbers of 47 catches, 779 yards, 16.6 ypc, 11 TDs .
Breakout Player(s): Tampa Bay RB Earnest Graham – The University of Florida running back came out of nowhere to become the Bucs lead back due to injuries to first team back Carnell Williams and second team back Michael Pittman. As the Bucs are 4-4 at the halfway point, Graham’s numbers are impressive at 8 games, 82 rushes, 330 yards, 4.0 ypc, 3 TDs and 24 receptions, 163 yards.
New York Giants DE Justin Tuck – This tall rangy defensive end from Notre Dame has played in the shadow of higher profile ends Strahan and Umenyiora, but he has emerged as a great two-way player. He is effective against the pass and the run plus he has versatility shown by his ability to move inside to defensive tackle in certain formations. He has already posted career highs in sacks (7) and has 33 tackles and 1 forced fumble.
First Pick of the 2008 NFL Draft: Quarterback Andre Woodson, Kentucky – Has lead his team to a good first half including a big upset of LSU 43-37 on 10/13/2007 throwing 3 TD’s in the game. Is a dual threat player who can move away from the rush and make all of the throws long/short/inside/outside. Has current numbers of 215-337, 2431 yards, 63.8%, 7.21 ypp, 28 TDs, and 7 INTs.
(Arkansas RB Darren McFadden is a close second as the best prospect)
Head Coaches on the Hot Seat
• Marvin Lewis – The Cincinnati Bengals head coach must be feeling the “hottest” seat in the NFL as his team fell to 2-5 after week 8. The Bengals had a bad stretch where they lost four consecutive games and they have gone 2-8 since starting 8-5 last year (didn’t make the playoffs). The “Bungles” routinely have had problems protecting Carson Palmer, not converted third downs, taken penalties, and turned the ball over in the first half. For Lewis the 2005 division title that he won seems miles away and the Bengals have become the NFL’s poster franchise for boorish behavior on and off the field.
• Scott Linehan – I know the winless Rams (0-8) have had several injuries on the offensive line and other areas, but the second year coach just doesn’t seem to have it to me. His team seems to have running problems and an inability to stop the big play. At the halfway point, it looks like Linehan (8-16) might be a better coordinator than head guy. Will probably be given a third year to get to the playoffs or else, but a winless or one win season might force the Rams hand.
• Cam Cameron – With the Dolphins 0-8 and appearing to wave the white flag with the trade of WR Chris Chambers to the Chargers, Cameron may not make it out of year one. The former University of Indiana coach might have made the wrong decision by cutting quarterback Daunte Culpepper and acquiring 37-year old Trent Green (lost for the year with a season ending concussion). I have heard Cameron’s rah-rah style has rubbed some veterans the wrong way especially veterans LB Joey Porter and DE Jason Taylor.
Calling a timeouts just as a kicker is swinging for a game-winning kick – I am appealing to the NFL Competition Committee and Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher a prominent member of the committee to change the rules around coaches calling timeouts as a kicker is swinging his leg. To me it is not “gamesmanship” or being tactical, it is just a plain abuse of rules. The timeout on the Cowboys kicker against the Bills didn’t work, but just ask the Raiders and Bills how they like the rule as they both suffered misses/blocks on second kicks in losses after their original field goal was good, but didn’t count due to a bogus timeout.
The Commish is on the job – Whether it is being over in London for the NFL’s first international game/ talking at a seminar about the international growth potential of the NFL, keeping discipline problem players (Michael Vick, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Ricky Williams Tank Johnson, Odell Thurman, and others) in order, working on NFL retirees pension issues, talking directly with Koren Robinson (re-instated), or meeting with the player advisory council, you know that Roger Goodell is on the job. Year one for Goodell has been tough, but the “Commish” has shown he was a great choice to lead the NFL.
AFC is better than NFC – As if the Patriots week six 48-27 drubbing of the previously unbeaten Cowboys wasn’t enough, the AFC has two unbeatens (Colts and Patriots), Nine teams over .500 to the NFC’s seven, the game’s best quarterbacks — Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady, and you know I can go on and on. The AFC has won the past four Super Bowls, and six of the past seven, which should not change with the Patriots or Colts representing the major conference. It has become almost as lopsided as the stretch from 1985-1997, when the NFC won 13 straight Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers dominating.
Watch out for games against former coaches – Inside information is at a premium in the NFL and former coaches associated with teams have capitalized on their former employers. We saw Cardinals coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm (both passed over for the vacant Steelers head coaching job) get the last laugh on the Steelers in helping to issue their first loss in a 21-14 victory. Plus in one of the NFL’s “no mercy” games, Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a former Eagles coach, showed that he knew the entire Eagles game plan and weaknesses as his unit held the Birds to three little points in a home win. By the way did I mention the franchise and NFL record 12 sacks the Giants registered.
Survival of the fittest – The NFL season truly is “survival of the fittest” as injuries have decimated teams (Rams) and units (Redskins O-Line, Bears D-Line, Bengals LB’s) all over the league. It seems every team has to deal with losing two to three key players each week – some for the year — and that is why quality depth on your 53 man roster is paramount. No position has felt the sting of the injury bug more than the quarterback position. Teams know from past history (see Rams 1999) that they better have a good bullpen of throwers (2 or 3 QB’s in reserve) to succeed in the NFL, because fast defensive players and schemes are always coming after the “golden boys”. The quarterback injury problem has gotten so bad that 43-year old quarterback Vinny Testaverde was called by the Carolina Panthers from his couch to play and he actually won a game in week six – becoming the oldest player to win as a starting quarterback in NFL history. Here is a list of some teams with quarterbacks that have missed playing time due to injury and I am sure the list will be growing weekly:
• Arizona Cardinals – Kurt Warner (elbow), Matt Leinhart (shoulder – Season)
• Atlanta Falcons – Joey Harrington (knee), Byron Leftwich (ankle)
• Baltimore Ravens – Steve McNair (groin)
• Carolina Panthers – Jake Delhomme (shoulder – Season)
• Miami Dolphins – Trent Green (concussion – Season)
• Minnesota Vikings – Tavaris Jackson (groin, broken finger)
• St. Louis Rams – Marc Bulger (broken ribs)
• Tennessee Titans – Vince Young (quad)