- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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With nine weeks in the books, here's a recap of my nine biggest headlines from 2005's first half:
Bless you, boys
Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in late August and left thousands of residents homeless or displaced. The region's NFL team was not spared the same inconvenience. With the Louisiana Superdome uninhabitable after being used as a shelter during the storm, the Saints relocated their headquarters to San Antonio for this season and, if the Texas city has its way, beyond. New Orleans has played "home" games in three cities this season: at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in Week 2 as part of a weekend dedicated by the league to hurricane relief; at Louisiana State's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.; and at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
With star running back Deuce McAllister sidelined by a season-ending knee injury, New Orleans has stumbled to a 2-7 record. But the team's present is not what is most pertinent. No one knows where the Saints will call home -- what with New Orleans' struggling to rebuild itself, let alone support a pro football franchise. San Antonio wants the Saints, and owner Tom Benson wants his team there. The vacant Los Angeles market looms as a possible destination, though not a likely one with Benson as the team's owner. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recently declared it the league's intention to keep the Saints in Louisiana. Meanwhile, Benson keeps making a fool of himself, shoving a television camera and engaging in an altercation with a fan in Baton Rouge, then telling Tagliabue via e-mail that he "could have been hurt or killed" and refusing to return to LSU. The Saints are the saddest story in sports right now.
Show me the [door]!/Give me the damn [boot]!
Give this much to Eagles wideout Terrell Owens: He is a man of his word. He said in the offseason that if his contract (the one with six years and 40-something million bucks remaining on it) was not reworked that he would cause problems for the Eagles. And man, has he ever. Philadelphia suspended Owens for a week in training camp. Monday, the Eagles kicked him out for good after suspending him for, among other things, fighting with former Philly defensive end and "team ambassador" Hugh Douglas and calling the organization classless for not recognizing his 100th career touchdown catch, not to mention saying the team would be better off with Brett Favre at quarterback than Donovan McNabb, who has played all year with an assortment of injuries. In a nice twist, McNabb said after the Eagles lost to Washington on Sunday night and fell to 4-4 that the team was better off without the walking, talking distraction that is Owens. Owens has dominated the airwaves as much as he did the seven games he played this year: 47 catches for 763 yards and six touchdowns. Less than a year after his heroic return to play in Super Bowl XXXIX, Owens is eight inactive weeks from receiving a one-way ticket out of town. Speaking of "one way," the Eagles have one way of moving the football on offense -- through the air -- and now, by their choice, they will try to do so without their one true threat at receiver.
With Randy Moss having been shipped off to the Raiders and several defensive additions on board, this year was supposed to be, in the words of the Isley Brothers, "nothin' but smooth sailin'" for the Vikings. Instead they've been Team Turmoil. ESPN The Magazine's preseason pick to win the Super Bowl lost four of its first five games as Daunte Culpepper, who clearly missed Moss and center Matt Birk (injured reserve), tossed 12 interceptions and only four touchdowns. Things got worse for Culpepper in a Week 8 loss at Carolina when he tore three ligaments in his right knee -- a career-altering if not career-threatening injury. As bad as all that is, none of it compares to the controversy Vikings players created during their bye week when a reported 17, a group that allegedly included Culpepper, coordinated wild sex parties on two Lake Minnetonka cruise ships. An investigation is ongoing. Still, Minnesota's season remains afloat, thanks to the sorry state of the NFC North. Brad Johnson has replaced Culpepper, and the Vikings are 3-5, two games behind division-leading Chicago.
In February, just days after the Pro Bowl, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi suffered a minor stroke. Shortly thereafter, he underwent surgery to repair a small hole in his heart. But after months of intense rehabilitation, doctor consultation and soul-searching, Bruschi came off the physically unable to perform list in time to spark the Patriots to a Week 8 home win over Buffalo, a game in which he participated in a remarkable 64 of 77 defensive snaps. How hard did he work to get back? Bruschi recently told me that physical tests proved him to be stronger and more agile before the start of this season than he was before last.
For all that Bruschi brings to New England's defense (experience, leadership, a knack for the big play) he does not, however, play strong safety, defensive end, left tackle or running back -- positions at which the Patriots are missing Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Matt Light and Kevin Faulk, respectively. New England, which lost a total of four games in winning the Super Bowl the past two seasons, is 4-4 after its 31st-ranked defense allowed 40 points to the Colts on Monday night. The Patriots still should win the weak AFC East, and in the playoffs -- with Bruschi, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Adam Vinatieri and the remaining members of the gang -- New England is capable of winning a game or two. Or a fourth Super Bowl.
A matter of heart
His performance, and therefore his team, admittedly languishing because he was suffering from a heart infection, Rams coach Mike Martz stepped aside after a Week 5 home loss to Seattle dropped St. Louis to 2-3. Two weeks later, against New Orleans, team executives John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt prevented Martz from what they thought would be an overstepping of his boundaries -- advising offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild on which plays to call. Martz took the hint and declared himself done for the year. Most believe he is done, period, as coach of the Rams, having led them to one Super Bowl berth and engaged in several feuds with the front office. Meanwhile, interim coach Joe Vitt has coached the Rams (4-4) to consecutive wins over the Saints and Jaguars despite being without quarterback Marc Bulger and receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
Colts are coming
At 8-0, Indianapolis is the league's only unbeaten team, having outscored opponents 229-98. With defenses playing the pass, two-time league MVP Peyton Manning has practiced patience, content to put the ball in Edgerrin James' hands, creating a balanced, ball-control offense that contrasts with the explosive Colts from past seasons. But the story in Indy is the emergence of -- say what? -- a reliable defense, one that ranks fourth overall and allows a league-low 12.3 points per game. The one knock against the Colts might be that their opponents have an aggregate record of 23-42. They'll be tested, though, in the second half, with road games against Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Seattle and home tilts with Pittsburgh and San Diego. Should the Colts secure home field throughout the playoffs, they'll be an overwhelming favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XL.
Loss of a legend
This would be a different league as a matter of fact, there might not even be an NFL if not for New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who died Oct. 25 at age 89. Words like "parity" and phrases like "any given Sunday" are part of pro football's lexicon because, rather than maximize revenue in the country's largest media market, Mara was willing to share those millions with small-market teams such as Green Bay and Pittsburgh. "He shaped nearly every rule and philosophy we have in our league today," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. In what will go down as one of the most memorable victories in team history, the heavyhearted Giants honored their patriarch by beating rival Washington 36-0 behind an inspired Tiki Barber and his career-high 206 rushing yards. Mainly thanks to Eli Manning's emergence in his second season, the Giants have given Mara and their loyal fans plenty of which to be proud: They're 6-2 and lead the NFC East, the league's tightest division.
Quarterback is the toughest position in sports; a good one is hard to find; and a team is more lucky than good if it can keep its QB healthy. Most quarterbacks are fortunate if they don't fall into one of these categories: benched, ineffective, injured or hurting. Let's see: McNabb has been playing with a sports hernia, a bruised chest and shin, and a rib injury. Ben Roethlisberger is about to miss his third game because of a knee problem, so Charlie Batch gets his second start after Tommy Maddox stunk up the joint in his one chance. Michael Vick has missed a game and has given the Falcons a few scares. Minnesota, Tampa Bay and St. Louis are on quarterback No. 2 because of injuries to their starters. Baltimore is turning back to Kyle Boller, who returns from an ankle injury. Then there are the Jets and 49ers, teams that, because of injuries, already have played four QBs each this season. Buffalo benched J.P. Losman for Kelly Holcomb after a slow start and the move has paid off. Dennis Green has gone from Kurt Warner to Josh McCown and back. And in Detroit, Joey Harrington has replaced his replacement, Jeff Garcia. Just issues everywhere. On the flip side, there have been feel-good stories in Dallas and Washington, where Mark Brunell, who started the season on the bench behind Patrick Ramsey, and Drew Bledsoe, thought to be washed up after last year, have the Redskins and Cowboys off to 5-3 starts. And in Chicago, rookie quarterback Kyle Orton has the Bears atop the NFC North.
L.T. edges James for MVP
San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson is my first-half MVP over James in the closest vote ever. Everyone knows that as L.T. goes, so go the Chargers, yet only Marty Schottenheimer and Philadelphia have been able to stop San Diego's do-everything tailback. Tomlinson has rushed for 13 touchdowns, caught two and thrown for another three. He's third in the league in rushing (835 yards) and is viewed by many as the best player, period. My runner-up is James, who is making defenses pay for devoting so much attention to Peyton Manning. The league's second-leading rusher (905 yards), James has cracked 100 in four straight games and six times on the season. It's hard to overlook Shaun Alexander's 14 touchdowns and league-leading 949 yards for 6-2 Seattle. He's third on my list. Also receiving votes: Carson Palmer (70 percent completion percentage) and Carolina wideout Steve Smith, whose 55 catches are a ridiculous 42 more than any other Panthers receiver.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Michael Smith reviews the first half by taking a look at some of the prominent headlines, including Katrina's impact on the Saints.