NFL Midseason Report: 2010
Story of the year so far has to be NFL's crackdown on dangerous hits
One of the most overlooked storylines has been resurgence of Buccaneers
Name of the Year, Game of the Year, Midseason Awards and much more
We're about to make the turn and head into the second half of the NFL's 2010 schedule. You know the drill. Midseason review time...
STORY OF THE YEAR -- High-speed collisions and their impact: In Week 6, high-profile hits dished out by the likes of New England safety Brandon Merriweather, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison and Atlanta safety Dunta Robinson set off a firestorm of criticism and alarm about what constitutes the acceptable level of contact in today's NFL. The league immediately added teeth to its rules concerning illegal hits to the head and neck area, threatening future suspension and issuing fines of $50,000 to $75,000 to the three aforementioned defenders. The whole saga sparked a raging, weeklong, national debate about the physical price the game exacts, and whether players or the league know what's best for football.
-- Kudos to: The league's lack of an elite class in the season's first half, with upstart Kansas City being the last unbeaten at a modest 3-0.
SIDESHOW OF THE YEAR -- Randy Moss keeps running go patterns: Moss just joined the Titans, his third team in the past five weeks, and that makes him the runaway leader for the league's Go-Away Player of the Year (as opposed to Comeback Player of the Year). Moss talked his way out of New England, then found he missed Foxboro so much he couldn't quite bring himself to leave it once his Vikings came for a visit in Week 8. For a guy who everyone agrees is a great teammate and game-changing talent, there never seems to be any shortage of folks who are willing to live without him.
Kudos to: The Albert Haynesworth-Mike Shanahan power struggle in Washington, with all its many splendid twists of intrigue and ambiguity.
BENCHING OF THE YEAR -- Calling Rex "Two-Minute'' Grossman!: We tend to react to benchings these days as if they were public beheadings -- which are clearly irreversible -- but it was difficult to overstate the impact of Mike Shanahan yanking Donovan McNabb late in the Redskins' Week 8 loss at Detroit to play Grossman, his long-forgotten and lightly-respected backup. Shanahan first cited Grossman's superior execution of Washington's two-minute offense, then switched to a discourse on the lack of McNabb's cardiovascular fitness. In other words, to play for Shanahan, you gotta have heart. Miles and miles of heart.
Kudos to: Kevin Kolb takes a seat behind Michael Vick in Philadelphia in Week 4, right after Andy Reid reminded everyone that the recently-concussed Kolb was still his starter.
MELTDOWN OF THE YEAR -- You need a ticket to get in: Watching the 1-6 Cowboys implode after spending all offseason talking up their intention to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on their own home field has been a Dallas hater's Mardi Gras. The only thing that has come close to matching the Cowboys' lack of discipline and execution has been their lack of determination and desire. Oh, and did we mention their glaring void on the leadership front? What a fun, whimsical Super Bowl week in the Metroplex it's going to be for Jerry Jones and friends.
Kudos to: Brad Childress suddenly acquiring that reverse Midas touch in Minnesota, where his Super Bowl-or-bust Vikings (2-5, and tied for last in the NFC North) have reeled from one debacle to the next.
WORST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING MAN -- Missing Mississippi: Twice in the past three seasons, Brett Favre has lost in overtime of the NFC title game, and then failed to go out on that relative high note with his legacy intact. But he has never paid for his waffling ways when it comes to the retirement question quite like this season. He has absorbed some of the biggest hits of his career, and been routinely ridiculed and assailed. And that's just off the field, where the Jenn Sterger tabloid-fest continues to loom over his reputation. As his injury-riddled nightmare of a season unfolds, the 41-year-old Favre looks more and more like the guy who stayed too long at the party and spoiled a pretty good thing.
Kudos to: The Redskins are better this season, but the Donovan-McNabb-as-savior storyline looks a little silly in the span of time.
TREND OF THE YEAR -- Kicking game big-play impact: Right around Week 4 or so, one AFC general manager told me he couldn't remember a season in which so many big plays on special teams were helping decide the outcome of games. And then things got really crazy on that front. According to the Dallas Morning News, there were 63 "explosive plays'' on special teams in the first seven weeks of the season, meaning touchdown returns, blocked kicks or turnovers. That's up from 38 such plays over the equivalent seven-week span as recently as 2008.
According to the NFL's PR department, the 11 kickoff return touchdowns in the opening eight weeks is tied for the most in league history at that point in the season. And remember New England's Week 4 performance at Miami? The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to score touchdowns on a running play, passing play, interception return, kickoff return and blocked field goal in the 41-14 win, which prompted Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano to fire his special teams coach, John Bonamego, within 12 hours.
Kudos to: The parity thing. A league-record 21 teams have .500 or better records through eight weeks. But maybe more telling in terms of how closely teams are clumped, 20 of those 21 teams have either four or five victories.
STATISTIC OF THE YEAR -- New blood come January? Eight of the 10 teams that currently hold at least a share of first place in their divisions did not win their divisions last season. Six of the NFL's eight divisions have new leaders or new co-leaders. If those six finish the job, it would tie 2008 for the most new division winners ever. Only New England (6-1) in the AFC East and Indianapolis (5-2) would be repeat champions. The other six divisions feature Pittsburgh and Baltimore (both 5-2) atop the AFC North, Kansas City (5-2) leading the AFC West, the Giants (5-2) in first in the NFC East, the Packers (5-3) atop the NFC North, Atlanta and Tampa Bay (both 5-2) sharing the top of the NFC South, and Seattle (4-3) leading the NFC West.
Kudos to: The Chargers have the NFL's top-ranked offense (426.9 ypg) and defense (260.0), and yet are 3-5, in large part due to special teams breakdowns. San Diego has had four punts blocked in eight games.
GAME OF THE YEAR -- Falcons 27, Saints 24, OT, Week 3: Atlanta knocked off its arch division rival and the defending Super Bowl champions, silencing the Superdome when kicker Matt Bryant nailed a 46-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining in overtime. The Saints were dangerously close to improving to 3-0 and knocking the Falcons to 1-2, but New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal wide left in overtime, giving Atlanta new life and the rest of the league hope that the Saints were indeed beatable. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan combined for almost 600 yards of passing and five touchdowns.
Kudos to: Texans 30, Redskins 27, OT, Week 2.
EGG-LAYING OF THE YEAR -- Raiders 59, Broncos 14, Week 7: Oakland scored the game's first 38 points, all in the first 22 minutes, then cruised to the 45-point win before a stunned crowd at Denver's Invesco Field. It was the highest point total in the 51-season history of the Raiders franchise, and tied for the most points ever allowed by the Broncos in those same 51 seasons. Oakland rolled up 328 yards rushing, with Darren McFadden scoring four touchdowns. It dropped Josh McDaniels to 0-4 in division play at home in his two seasons on the job, and 4-13 overall since Denver opened last year a surprising 6-0.
Kudos to: Seahawks 31, 49ers 6, Week 1.
UPSET OF THE YEAR -- Browns 30, Saints 17, Week 7: Cleveland may not know how to build a playoff team, but the Browns know how to take out a defending Super Bowl champion on any given Sunday. For the third year in a row, Cleveland beat the guys who hoisted the trophy the season before, and this time it was the most convincing victory of all. The Browns intercepted Drew Brees four times, sacked him three times and returned two of the picks for touchdowns (both by veteran linebacker David Bowens). Cleveland improved to 2-5, and the Saints slipped to 4-3, dropping their second home game of the year after going 8-2 in the dome last season.
Kudos to: Rams 20, Chargers 17, Week 6.
SI Now: Make or break year for Danica Patrick
SI Now: Russell Simmons on the benefits of meditation for athletes