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Midseason awards

Sure, he's a rookie, but right now Roethlisberger looks like an MVP

Posted: Monday November 8, 2004 10:37PM; Updated: Tuesday November 9, 2004 4:11PM
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Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 11 TDs against just five interceptions in seven games.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Nine weeks down and eight to go in the regular season means it's first-half review time in the NFL. The envelopes, please:

• Most valuable player of the first half: Entering Week 9, I was convinced Eagles receiver Terrell Owens was in the pole position in the MVP race, but then I took in Ben Roethlisberger's act in person for the first time over the weekend. How do you argue against an undefeated quarterback on the league's best team, even if he does only have six starts to his credit? Only once in the history of the Associated Press MVP honor has it gone to a rookie, and that was in 1957, the first year of the award, when Cleveland running back Jim Brown took home the hardware.

But as others have duly noted, Roethlisberger is not your average rookie. He's a rare package of poise, precision and play-making, and he hasn't been in a game yet that seemed too big for him. He's far from the whole show in Pittsburgh, but can anyone imagine the Steelers rising to these heights without him in the lineup?

• Offensive rookie of the first half: Make sure you spell it right on the trophy. It's R-o-e-t-h-l-i-s-b-e-r-g-e-r.

• Defensive rookie of the first half: The Jets didn't really miss a beat on defense when starting middle linebacker Sam Cowart was injured in Week 2 at San Diego, and that's because Jonathan Vilma has stepped in and stepped up. The former Miami Hurricane is tied for the team lead in tackles with 52, and has added an interception and a sack to a Jets defense that before Sunday's 22-17 loss at Buffalo hadn't allowed an opponent more than 14 points in its past five games. With a team-best three interceptions, Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson also deserves a nod.

• Offensive player of the first half: Several good choices, but with apologies to Priest Holmes and Peyton Manning, Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper's feat of throwing five touchdowns in three of his first five games this season deserves some kind of tip of the hat. Culpepper is no longer on pace to break six of the league's most significant passing marks, as he was through five games, but with 2,180 yards, 20 touchdowns and a 114.2 rating entering play Monday night, he's still lighting it up for the first-place Vikings.

• Defensive player of the first half: The legend of Ray Lewis consumes most of the oxygen in the debate when it comes time to talk about Baltimore's league-best defense, but for my money, it's safety Ed Reed who is forever around the ball and making game-changing plays. Reed has two sacks, a forced fumble and recovery for a touchdown, and a team-high four interceptions, the latest of which he returned a league-record 106 yards for a score in Sunday night's win against Cleveland. Baltimore has surrendered an NFL-low 113 points in eight games, and Reed is the Ravens' money man. Best player on the league's best defense equals your defensive player of the year.

• Most improved player of the first half: The Chargers didn't really even want quarterback Drew Brees back this season, but when first-round draft pick Philip Rivers signed so late, it gave Brees one final opportunity to show his stuff. He's done that and more, throwing 18 touchdowns to go with just three interceptions. San Diego is 6-3, tied for first in the AFC West, and it seems like a million years since last season, when Brees was benched for five games and yanked from two others.

The Chargers have won four home games in a row for the first time since Bobby Ross was their rookie head coach in 1992, and Brees has 14 touchdowns and no interceptions in those games.

• Best coaching job of the first half: I started to over-think this one for a time, and then I realized New England's Bill Belichick is still the measuring stick in this league. Despite getting every opponent's A game, Belichick has had his defending champion Patriots up to the challenge seven times in eight games, with their first six victories furthering New England's remarkable NFL-record 21-game winning streak.

Kudos to Bill Cowher, Jim Mora, Herman Edwards, Andy Reid and Marty Schottenheimer, but the Patriots' version of Billy Ball remains preeminent. Take New England's win at St. Louis on Sunday for example. Missing their top three cornerbacks, the Patriots won going away with receiver Troy Brown in the secondary, kicker Adam Vinatieri throwing a touchdown pass, and linebacker Mike Vrabel catching a touchdown. Whatever it takes, that's what the Patriots do.

• Worst coaching job of the first half: Anybody got any insight into the schizophrenic Saints? Would you mind giving Jim Haslett a call and cluing him in. He's obviously fresh out of approaches to take with this talented but underachieving bunch. The get-tough routine he went to this offseason doesn't seem to be working, and it seems like only a matter of time before the task of trying to push the right buttons in New Orleans won't be Haslett's problem any more.

With perhaps the best talent in the NFC South at his disposal, Haslett's 3-5 team has surrendered the most points in the conference (234), and lost games by 26, 24 and 14 points. You never know what you're going to see week to week with the Saints, and that kind of unpredictability always gets coaches fired.

• Assistant coach of the first half: Those Redskins hired themselves a heck of a coach this offseason, but it's now apparent that their coup wasn't landing Joe Gibbs. It was enticing former Bills head coach Gregg Williams to sign on as the team's assistant head coach/defense. Despite not having some of his best players available (LaVar Arrington, Matt Bowen, etc...), Williams has his unit ranked first in the league in yards allowed (261.0) and third in points surrendered (133). Smoke and mirrors? Maybe. But the Redskins defense hasn't given up more than 18 points in any game this season, somehow managing to keep the anemic Washington offense in every game.

• Most underrated team of the first half: Until they posted their historic twin killing of the undefeated Patriots and Eagles the past two weeks, no one suspected the Steelers had quite so much Super Bowl promise. Pittsburgh just dismantled the best team in each conference, and now it's the lead dog.

• Most overrated team of the first half: Seattle would get more than a few votes in some polls, but the Seahawks are at least in first place. More than any other presumed contender, Dallas had people drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that Bill Parcells could magically deliver another 10-win season despite evidence to the contrary.

• Best trade of the first half: The Eagles pick up Terrell Owens and finally have a receiving threat. The Patriots acquire Corey Dillon and finally have themselves a big-league run game. We're calling it a tie.

• Worst trade of the first half: Whatever Washington had to give up for Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell, it was too much. The weak-armed Brunell has made Redskins fans pine for the Danny Wuerffel era.

• Best lineup call of the first half: Yeah, we'd say Tennessee's Chris Brown was ready to take over for Eddie George. The second-year running back has rolled to 810 yards rushing, fifth most in the league, with five 100-yard games.

• Worst lineup call of the first half: I don't know exactly what Quincy Carter did in Dallas to make Parcells lose faith in him, but it must have been pretty bad for The Tuna to convince himself he could win with Vinny Testaverde at quarterback. The Vin-Man should be playing in a baker's hat these days, because he's a turnover-making machine.

• Most pleasant surprise of the first half: The San Diego Chargers, who haven't been in the post-season since 1995 and haven't won a playoff game since the 1994 AFC title game at Pittsburgh, are 6-3, tied for first in their division and scoring points like it's Don Coryell on the sideline instead of staid old Marty Schottenheimer. The Chargers have won five of their past six, and hung up 34 or more points four times in that span.

• Biggest disappointment of the first half: The restoration hasn't exactly gone as planned in Washington, has it? The second Joe Gibbs administration has looked strikingly similar to everything that has taken place in D.C. from about the Richie Petitbon era on. Say it ain't so, Joe? Did you come back for the dough?

Don't lose hope, Redskins fans. We hear Steve Spurrier is available and just itching to get back into the NFL.

• Most overrated free-agent signing of the first half: Oakland defensive tackle Warren Sapp has been all mouth and no game. He's everywhere when it comes time to give another irreverent interview to the network pre-game shows, but he's not showing up quite as often on the field. He has a half sack in nine games, and the Raiders' 247 points allowed are the most in the NFL. But he does look slimmer in black.

• Most underrated free-agent signing of the first half: The positive reviews didn't exactly come rolling in when the Bucs signed quarterback Brian Griese off the scrap heap. The guy was a disaster in Miami last season, but he's playing some inspired football in Tampa Bay. At this rate, the franchise's Chris Simms era may never really get started. The Bucs have won three of four games with Griese in the lineup, and what looked like a lost season in Tampa Bay is at least interesting again.

• Quirky trend of the first half: When Monday Night Football first got going back in 1970, there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing around the league about how difficult it was for teams to rebound the following Sunday after playing on Monday. Sports Illustrated even did a cover story on the perils of the short-week scheduling.

Well, it's back. Sort of. Following the Jets' loss at Buffalo on Sunday, teams that won on Monday night are now 1-7 this season in their next game. Only Philadelphia has bucked the trend, beating Minnesota at home in Week 2 before winning at Detroit the following Sunday.

Interestingly, teams that have lost on Monday nights this season are 5-3 in their next game, with Carolina, Minnesota, Baltimore, Green Bay and Tampa Bay all bouncing back with a much-needed win, and Washington, Denver and Miami losing again in six days to double their pain.

• Most significant development of the first half: This is roughly Day 107 of the Miami Hostage Crisis, otherwise known as Ricky Williams' surprise retirement party. And that's all that we need to say about that.

• Most overblown controversy of the first half: New Giants head coach Tom "The Fining Machine'' Coughlin can't stand his players being late for meetings. Even if they're on time. And he means it. Before each game this season, Coughlin has informed the referee that he wants the two-minute warning at the 3:30 mark. Like clock work.

• Best game of the first half: With less than six minutes left in their Week 5 NFC West showdown at Seattle, the Rams trailed 27-10 and were in danger of falling to 2-3 and 2 ½ games behind the Seahawks, who would improve to 4-0 and remain in first place. Then the sky fell in Seattle. St. Louis scored three touchdowns and a field goal, 23 points in all, in a span of less than nine minutes, and won 33-27 in overtime. The division race has been a jump ball ever since.

• Best individual game performance of the first half: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter -- the first quarter -- of Indy's 45-31 Week 3 shootout win against Green Bay. Manning finished the game with an almost anticlimactic 393 yards, five touchdowns and a 140.9 rating on 28 of 40 passing.

Manning was 17 of 22 in the first quarter, in which the Colts never once ran the ball.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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