- Adam Schefter, NFL
- 0 Shares
Football season flies faster than time. We're already nearly halfway through it. As quickly as the first half has gone, the second half will pick up speed and go even quicker.
Here's a look back and a look ahead at who has been and could become some of football's top performers.
First-half MVP -- Colts QB Peyton Manning: Good enough that even Titans head coach Jeff Fisher wore his jersey.
Second-half MVP -- Saints QB Drew Brees: The Saints' schedule is set up for Brees to have a monster second half.
First-half offensive player of the year -- Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger: What used to be a run-first offense has turned into a pass-happy and mighty successful offense.
Second-half offensive player of the year -- Eagles QB Donovan McNabb: Through the season's first half, McNabb has thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception. With the offensive weapons he has, McNabb could have a big second half.
First-half defensive player of the year -- Vikings DE Jared Allen: As good as Allen's former Vikings teammate Darren Sharper has been for New Orleans, the Minnesota defensive end has been more relentless and more effective.
Second-half defensive player of the year -- Steelers LB James Harrison: How he continues to fly under the radar is hard to imagine, but his next six games are against offenses in which Harrison has the chance to flourish.
First-half offensive rookie of the year -- Vikings WR Percy Harvin: Unlike other Florida wide receivers in the NFL, Harvin has turned into a dangerous and dominant game-changer.
Second-half offensive rookie of the year -- 49ers WR Michael Crabtree: In two games, Crabtree has 11 catches and now looks poised to have plenty more in the season's second half.
First-half defensive rookie of the year -- Bills S Jairus Byrd: Buffalo knew something other teams didn't when it used the 42nd overall pick on a cornerback who is playing better than any top pick.
Second-half defensive rookie of the year -- Texans LB Brian Cushing: The Texans' defense, and Cushing, has begun to grow up, and the second-half schedule is set up nicely.
First-half coach of the year -- Denver's Josh McDaniels: The man whom many wondered about knew exactly what he was doing as he turned Denver into one of the first-half's biggest surprises.
Second-half coach of the year -- New Orleans' Sean Payton: With its soft second-half schedule, New Orleans should be able to put away the NFC South title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Let's move on to our weekly 10 Spot.
No one person has had a greater impact on this football season than Dr. James Andrews, the noted Alabama surgeon: More than three years ago, Andrews operated on Brees' shoulder, saving his career and allowing the quarterback to play the way he is today. Just last spring, Andrews operated on the torn biceps tendon of Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, saving his career and allowing the quarterback to play the way he is today. Without Andrews' work, Brees would not be thriving in New Orleans, Favre would not be thriving in Minnesota, and the playoff picture would look entirely different.
Perhaps the only people nearly as significant to this season as Andrews are the three judges of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who upheld earlier decisions from a federal court, allowing Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams to play this season rather than be suspended for four games in the noted StarCaps case. Once they were allowed to play, the NFL had little choice but to allow Saints defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith to play. So both the Vikings and Saints have gotten an extreme amount of medical and legal help on their way to becoming the two best teams in the NFC.
In the offseason, Dallas demanded more out of its wide receivers; Philadelphia questioned its own: And now, to the surprise of many, Dallas' Miles Austin and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson have emerged as two of football's top wideouts and legitimate candidates to represent their teams at the Pro Bowl.
The last time a Cowboys and Eagles wide receiver went to the Pro Bowl in the same season -- and this is a great trivia question that surely would stump football's smartest historians -- was 17 years ago, in 1992, when Dallas' Michael Irvin and Philadelphia's Fred Barnett were selected. Before that, Dallas' Tony Hill and Philadelphia's Mike Quick each were voted to the Pro Bowl in 1985. But now, the Cowboys and Eagles each have the type of weapon that they haven't had since Terrell Owens, who has played for both franchises. These teams meet again Sunday night in Philadelphia.
Of all the plays Denver must defend Monday night against Pittsburgh, the one it has to fear the most is the play-action fake: No quarterback in football has been more effective off the play-action fake than Roethlisberger. This season, when using play-action, Roethlisberger has a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating, completing 25 of 29 passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions, according to an ESPN video analysis. Part of the reason might be that, over the years, teams have had so much respect for Pittsburgh's running game that it has aided the Steelers' passing game. But gradually, the Steelers have transformed from a run-first team to a pass-first team. And the play that it has affected most is the play-action fake.
One of the great parts about working at ESPN is getting statistical nuggets from the video analysis department: This week, it sent over one that should alarm Chiefs fans. After Kansas City claimed Chris Chambers off waivers Tuesday, it gave the Chiefs three wide receivers who have struggled to hold on to the football this season. Three of the 10 receivers with the most drops this season now play for Kansas City: Dwayne Bowe, Bobby Wade and Chambers. Had Bowe and Wade held on to some of those passes, QB Matt Cassel's numbers might be better, and so might the Chiefs' record.
The flip side -- it's much nicer to be a glass-half-full than a glass-half-empty person -- is the receivers who have held on to the football. No wide receivers have done a better job this season than the list below, which offers further proof that Jacksonville's Mike Sims-Walker and Dallas' Miles Austin are for real.
Few would have predicted that, on Nov. 6, heading into the ninth week of the NFL season, Cincinnati would be ahead of Pittsburgh and Baltimore and in first place in the AFC North: But the Bengals have been one of this season's biggest surprises. Were it not for a tipped pass to Denver wide receiver Brandon Stokley, Cincinnati would be garnering even more attention than it has. For now, though, it has positioned itself for a playoff run, no matter how tough its schedule is the next two weeks.
On Sunday, the Bengals host the Ravens, and then Cincinnati plays at Pittsburgh -- a brutal divisional doubleheader. But then there's dessert. After the Ravens and Steelers, the 5-2 Bengals play at Oakland before returning home for back-to-back games against Cleveland and Detroit. The schedule sets up nicely for the Bengals to be playing into January.
Playing Indianapolis is challenging enough. Doing it in what is the most significant game in a franchise's history makes it even more daunting: But that's what Sunday's game is for the Houston Texans -- the biggest game they have played. Ever. And no, that's not overstatement. If the 5-3 Texans are going to advance to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and finally improve upon the 8-8 records they've had the past two seasons, they're going to have to win one of those who-expected-that games. Indianapolis is one. Houston has never -- that's right, never -- won in Indianapolis. But the Texans, who typically have been a stronger team at home, have been better this season on the road, where they've strung together a 3-1 record.
The Texans will have to win without tight ends Owen Daniels and James Casey, and no tight end in football had been targeted as often as the 58 times that quarterback Matt Schaub threw to Daniels. But if they can overcome the loss of their tight ends and find a way to win in Indianapolis for the first time, they will be making a statement that they might be the best little playoff team in Texas.
When Washington visits Atlanta, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder will get a perfect look at what he must do this offseason: He must find a quarterback like Matt Ryan. (Of course, the same is true of any franchise that needs a quarterback.) Over the past three games, Ryan has struggled more than he has at any point in the NFL, throwing seven interceptions. But he still is the best young quarterback in the game -- and he's dominant at home. At the Georgia Dome, Ryan has posted a 10-1 record, including 3-0 this season, compared to the 5-6 record he has compiled on the road. But Ryan is, in the opinion of many who have met and spent time with him, Peyton Manning 2.0, an ideal face of a franchise and the type of player whom Washington must aspire to draft this spring.
While Tampa Bay rested in Week 8, St. Louis posted its first win of the season: Then Tennessee followed. And by the end of the Buccaneers' bye week, they were left as football's only winless team. The challenge now, aside from getting rookie first-round pick Josh Freeman ready for his first NFL start at quarterback, is finding a spot on the Buccaneers' schedule where they will win a game. Tampa Bay hosts Green Bay on Sunday before the schedule reads like this: at Miami, New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Carolina, New York Jets, at Seattle, at New Orleans and finally against Atlanta. There will not be a game in the bunch in which the Buccaneers will be favored. And if that isn't troubling enough, Tampa is providing some of its own losing reminders. Against the Packers, Tampa Bay will be wearing the old creamsicle-colored uniforms that transformed the Bucs to the Yuks in the season the Buccaneers went winless. Tampa does not want to repeat.
In 1967, Joe Namath became the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Now, 10 quarterbacks are on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards, proof of how much the game has changed and how good today's quarterbacks have become: And it is only a matter of time, it seems, before one of these quarterbacks shatters the season passing record that Dan Marino set in 1984 (5,084 yards). Last season, Brees fell just short of the passing record, throwing for 5,069 yards. This season, Manning is on pace to throw for 5,090 yards. Maybe Manning will reach and surpass Marino, a quest he starts with Sunday's key game against the Texans. But if Manning doesn't, any one of this season's 10 passers on pace for more than 4,000 passing yards could.
Forget statistics, experts, history. The surest way to predict which team will win the Super Bowl is simply to see which one ESPN's Trey Wingo decided to visit that season with his son, Chappy. It's Wingo magic: Each season, father and son pick one game in one city at one stadium they have not visited together. In 2004, Wingo took Chappy to a Patriots-Ravens game in Foxborough, Mass; the Patriots won the Super Bowl. In 2006, Wingo took Chappy to a Colts-Bills game in Indianapolis; the Colts won the Super Bowl. In 2007, Wingo took Chappy to a Giants-Redskins game in New Jersey; the Giants won the Super Bowl. Last season, Wingo took Chappy to a Steelers-Chargers game in Pittsburgh; the Steelers won the Super Bowl. And last weekend, Wingo took the 14-year-old Chappy to the one and only game they opt to attend each season. The Wingos watched the Eagles rout the Giants in Philadelphia. So, with apologies to New Orleans and Minnesota, Philadelphia now becomes the favorite to win this season's Super Bowl. But anyone wanting the Wingos to visit their city next year is a little late. They've already planned their annual football pilgrimage to Green Bay.
The Schef's specialties
Game of the week: Dallas vs. Philadelphia -- An opportunistic Eagles defense against a Cowboys quarterback who has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions over his last three games.
Player of the week: Steelers LB LaMarr Woodley -- On Monday night, Woodley will be going up against Broncos offensive tackle Tyler Polumbus, who will be making his first NFL start in place of the injured Ryan Harris.
Upset of the week: Carolina over New Orleans -- And there would go the talk of an undefeated season.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
Adam Schefter takes a look at who has been and could become some of football's top performers in 2009.