2011 Midseason Report (cont.)
MOST OVER-HYPED STORYLINE -- The Eagles are a Dream Team: Hey, don't blame us. Vince Young said it. We just took the label and used it to bash Philly over the head for the next 10 weeks or so. It's what we do. If it rhymes, we're going to belabor it (see: Suck for Luck).
-- Kudos to: Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco take their baggage to New England and learn the Patriot Way. OK, then what happened? Best we can tell, not too much. Not too much at all.
MOST OVERLOOKED STORYLINE -- The Bengals are contenders: Buoyed by their Mike Zimmer-coached defense and that boffo rookie QB-receiver combination of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, 5-2 Cincinnati has already topped its 2010 win total of four and is breathing down the neck of first-place Pittsburgh (6-2) in the AFC North. Did anyone see this coming? Not me. I picked the Bengals to be the worst team in the NFL this season and win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. And adding to their hot streak, Bengals owner Mike Brown might have executed the steal of the century (at least the new one) by shipping Carson Palmer to the desperate Raiders.
-- Kudos to: The regression by St. Louis and second-year quarterback Sam Bradford . The Rams were a widely popular pick to win the NFC West, and win it handily. But St. Louis didn't earn its first victory until Week 8, and the besieged Bradford at times has looked like he's taking the David Carr career track.
BIGGEST MOVE THAT DIDN'T MATTER -- Kevin Kolb lands in Arizona: The Cardinals won the bidding for the former Eagles backup/starter/backup, but that's about all they've won this year. Kolb so far has been more Scott Mitchell and Rob Johnson than Matt Schaub or Matt Cassel, and the more he plays, the more his flaws seem to be exposed.
-- Kudos to: How'd that Donovan McNabb acquisition in Minnesota work out? About the same as it did in Washington.
BEST MOVE OF THE YEAR -- Jim Harbaugh makes nice with Alex Smith: It would have been easy for the 49ers' new head coach to decide Smith's days were done after six mostly desultory seasons. But he didn't throw the former No. 1 overall pick out with the trash, he wooed him instead, and then turned the keys to his offense over to Smith. The results have been eye-opening. The 49ers are 6-1 and cruising to the NFC West title, and Smith is playing the best football of his career.
-- Kudos to: The Buffalo Bills' brain trust, for resisting the urge to draft a first- or second-round quarterback this year. The Bills believed in Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the rest of us have come around pretty quickly to the wisdom of that stance.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR -- DeMarco Murray "Wally Pipps'' Felix Jones: The Cowboys rookie running back made the most of the first extended playing time of his NFL career, rushing for a franchise record 253 yards on 25 carries in a Week 7 rout of the Rams. Duane Thomas, Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith never had a game like that, and Murray's 91-yard touchdown burst was the second-longest in Cowboys history.
-- Kudos to: Cam Newton becoming the first rookie quarterback to throw for 400 yards in his NFL regular season debut. Newton had 422 yards on 24 of 37 passing, with two touchdowns and one interception in a 28-21 Week 1 loss at Arizona.
UNDERAPPRECIATED STATISTIC OF THE YEAR -- The long-distance field goal craze: You probably haven't noticed it, but field goals of 50 yards-plus are all the rage this season, and we're not just talking about Oakland's thunder-footed Sebastian Janikowski. Through eight weeks, there have already been 45 field goals of at least 50 yards, the most ever at that point (there were 36 through eight weeks of 2010). The single-season record is 66, set in 2008, but the league is on a pace for 96 this year, obliterating the previous standard. In Week 5 alone, kickers went 10 of 10 on field goals of 50 yards or more, the most ever made in any one week.
-- Kudos to: Where have all the overtimes gone? There have only been four games that went into OT this year, and that's the league's lowest eight-week total since 2007. In 2010, there were twice as many overtime games through eight weeks (eight), and 19 games went to OT all season. The NFL is on pace for nine overtime games this season, which would be its lowest total since 1998 (seven).
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER -- Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay: Can't be much MVP debate this year. Rodgers is playing in a league of his own so far, with 20 touchdown passes, three interceptions and seven consecutive games with a passer rating of at least 111.0. His overall passer rating of 125.7 is more than 20 points higher than the QB in second place in that department, Tom Brady. My MVP standard is always who's the best player on the best team, and that's a no-brainer in Rodgers' favor.
-- Kudos to: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit.
-- My preseason pick: Rodgers.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay: As much as I respect the dual-purpose talents of Chicago running back and the receiving machine that is Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Rodgers is again a lay-up choice. His 71.5 completion percentage, 9.9-yard average attempt, and five games with three or more touchdown passes make him the game's most potent offensive weapon.
-- Kudos to: Matt Forte, RB, Bears; Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit.
-- My preseason pick: Rodgers.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota: Allen's monster season is getting overlooked to some degree due to the Vikings' struggles, but he has been a play-making force with a league-best 12.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception and four passes defensed. And Allen has been consistent, with at least a half-sack in each of his eight games, and four games with multiple sacks.
-- Kudos to: DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas; Patrick Willis, MLB, San Francisco.
-- My preseason pick: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Cam Newton, QB, Carolina: Newton is averaging almost 300 yards passing a game, with 11 touchdown passes, seven rushing touchdowns, and a respectable 87.1 passer rating. You have to give Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton the edge in terms of winning, because the Bengals are 5-2 and the Panthers are 2-6, but Newton's impact has simply created more offense than any other rookie.
-- Kudos to: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati.
-- My preseason pick: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR -- Von Miller, OLB, Denver: With six sacks, 26 tackles, two forced fumbles and two passes defensed, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft has been what the Broncos hoped he'd be. Right there with Miller in terms of first-year impact is 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who has 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles, a safety, one forced fumble and three passes defensed.
-- Kudos to: Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco.
-- My preseason pick: Von Miller, OLB, Denver.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR -- Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco: Through seven games last year, Smith had nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, and the 49ers were 1-6. Through seven games this year, Smith has nine touchdowns, two interceptions, and the 49ers are 6-1. He has career highs so far in completion percentage (63.2), yards per attempt (7.0), and passer rating (95.7).
-- Kudos to: Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit.
COACH OF THE YEAR -- Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco: Interestingly, Harbaugh gets the nod over Detroit's Jim Schwartz based on the outcome of their hotly-contested meeting in Week 6 in Motown. No, not the one involving the handshake after the game. The one the 49ers won on the field, just before the handshake gone bad. Both coaches are leading turnaround teams that will make the playoffs, but Harbaugh's 6-1, first-place showing barely edges Schwartz's 6-2, second-place results.
-- Kudos to: Jim Schwartz, Detroit.
-- My preseason pick: Jim Schwartz, Detroit.
COORDINATOR OF THE YEAR: Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati defensive coordinator: Despite losing standout cornerback Johnathan Joseph in free agency, Zimmer has pieced together a Bengals defense that ranks fourth overall in yards allowed (297.4), fourth in points allowed (17.6), second in rushing (85.4), and has given up just six touchdown passes, third lowest in the league. The Bengals D is the biggest reason Cincinnati is a surprising 5-2.
-- Kudos to: Wade Phillips, Houston defensive coordinator.
ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR: Sean Kugler, Pittsburgh offensive line coach: Kugler is doing superb work once again despite a bevy of injuries to deal with, just as he did last season when the Steelers' injury-decimated offensive line still managed to hold together long enough for the team's run to the Super Bowl.
-- Kudos to: Gary Gibbs, Kansas City linebackers coach.
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Buddy Nix, Buffalo general manager: Nix hired Chan Gailey last year, drafted defensive tackle Marcell Dareus this year, and has built a talented offense around lightly regarded players such as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running back Fred Jackson, receiver Stevie Johnson, tight end Scott Chandler and receiver David Nelson. The Bills have responded with a breakthrough season so far, and are 5-2 and tied with New England for first in the AFC East.
-- Kudos to Ted Thompson, Green Bay general manager.