NFL Midseason Report: 2013
We're a stickler about these things, but Week 9 concluding means 133 of the NFL's 256 regular-season games (52 percent) are history, giving us a suitable spot to stop and reflect on the first half of 2013. You know the drill. Midseason review time. ...
• Story of the Year -- The Kansas City Chiefs execute the perfectly unexpected turnaround: From the well-earned first overall pick in the draft to the best record in the NFL, all in the span of about six months, is a pretty good trick if you can manage it. Kansas City is 9-0 and setting the pace in the league, after going 2-14 last season, and 29-67 (.302) from the start of 2007 on. The Chiefs already have matched the best start in franchise history (9-0 in 2003), and also become the first team ever to start 9-0 after finishing with the worst record in the league the year before.
The comeback story started with the hiring of head coach Andy Reid and the trade for quarterback Alex Smith, but it's really the defense that has led the renaissance, allowing just 111 points (12.3 per game), with a league-high 36 sacks and six defensive touchdowns. We knew there was some underutilized defensive talent in Kansas City, but we didn't know the Chiefs would be channeling the '85 Bears this season.
I had the Chiefs as an AFC wild-card team in the preseason, and that might still be the road they wind up taking in the playoffs. But consider this: Of the 18 teams that have started a season 9-0 in the Super Bowl era, 11 have made the Super Bowl and seven have won it. Wild card? The Chiefs have to be saying: "We don't need no stinkin' wild card.''
-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning decides to rewrite history. In bunches. It started with his seven-touchdown passing performance against Baltimore on opening night, and has barely slowed down. The Broncos 37-year-old quarterback threw for 2,919 yards and 29 touchdowns in his first eight games, putting him on pace to shatter the single-season record in both glamor categories. His team has more wins (seven) than he does interceptions (six), and Denver is averaging 42.9 points per game, which would break New England's 2007 scoring record of 589 points by almost 100 if the Broncos can keep it up.
• Trend of the Year -- The NFL schedules a pick-six parade every week: There have been a whopping 38 interceptions returned for a touchdown in the season's first nine weeks, the most since the 1970 merger. The Chiefs already have a league-high four pick-sixes (tying them with the Redskins), by four different players. Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall leads all defensive playmakers with three touchdowns, two on interceptions and another via a fumble recovery.
And it has been a case of happy returns all around in the NFL in 2013, because with the 19 fumble returns for touchdowns factored in, the 57 interception and fumble return scores are also the most in the first nine weeks of a season since 1970. Only three teams -- Pittsburgh, the Giants and New Orleans -- don't have at least one pick-six or fumble return for a touchdown, with four teams recording four or more (Kansas City 6, Washington 5, Dallas and Chicago 4).
-- Kudos to: Those see-sawing, on-again, off-again Jets. They've won and lost on alternating weeks the entire season thus far, never once streaking in either direction. Sure, it's become something of a punch line, but really, who's laughing? Not the Patriots and Saints, who just lost to Rex Ryan's 5-4 in-the-playoff-hunt team.
• Game of the Year -- Denver 51, Dallas 48, Week 5: Ah, there's nothing like a good Arena Football game on a crisp Sunday afternoon in the fall. The Broncos and Cowboys gave us everything but the narrow field goal posts and the sidewalls with this thriller at Jerry World. The Broncos scored six touchdowns and three field goals, and the Cowboys, dang it all, could only manage six touchdowns and two field goals.
Jerry Jones called it a "moral victory,'' but the league is only starting to consider whether to officially recognize those. Denver won it on a last-play 28-yard Matt Prater field goal, scoring 10 points in the final 2:39, partly with the help of Tony Romo's only interception of the game. Only Romo could throw for 506 yards and five touchdowns and still manage to make it a forgettable experience. It's a skill, like anything else.
-- Kudos to: New England 30, New Orleans 27, Week 6: Tommy Brady, throwing to four receivers the Patriots signed at halftime, goes 70 yards in 1:08 with no timeouts to knock off the undefeated Saints. The game-winning 17-yard touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins comes with just five seconds left, and sends the 327 fans who didn't leave Gillette Stadium into histrionics.
• Egg-laying of the Year -- Carolina 38, New York Giants 0, Week 3: Less than 20 months after winning the Super Bowl in February 2012, the Giants bottomed out at 0-3, losing by 38 points in a shutout to the then-0-2 Panthers. Eli Manning was sacked five times in the first quarter alone, and New York totaled 18 yards of offense, including one passing yard, in the first half. Add in three Giants turnovers and it was the third-worst shutout loss in New York team history.
-- Kudos to: The vaunted 49ers fell flat in Weeks 2 and 3, losing 29-3 at Seattle and getting drubbed 27-7 at home the next week by the Colts. The twin losses set off panic alarms everywhere for the defending NFC champions, but they have yet to lose in their five games since that mini-slide.
• Sideshow of the Year -- As the Josh Freeman Turns, in Tampa Bay: A team photo shoot missed. Wake-up calls blown. A benching, and a banishment to the "inactive suite.'' But then, the real ugly stuff. Leaks of confidential player information and recriminations of the he-said, he-said variety, and finally, inevitably, Josh Freeman, the Bucs' fifth-year starting quarterback, is released. It was one of the uglier and most public divorces in recent NFL history, and absolutely no one exited it with their reputation enhanced. No winners in this game of chicken, only losers.
-- Kudos to: Well, there has been the whole weirdness of Freeman's brief time in Minnesota. And his dreadful start against the Giants on Monday Night Football was a sideshow unto itself.
• Statistic of the Year -- Matt Schaub gives Houston a problem: Quarterbacks have been tossing the old pigskin around in the NFL for parts of 94 seasons now, but nobody ever threw touchdowns to the wrong team in four consecutive games until Houston's Schaub put his mind -- and right arm -- to it this season. From Weeks 2-5, Schaub threw one pick-six a game, as an entire NFL city slapped its collective forehead in utter disbelief.
The record-breaker in Week 5 at San Francisco was something special. Wasting no time in giving a national TV audience exactly what it tuned in to see, Schaub threw his first pass of the game to 49ers defensive back Tramaine Brock, who returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. I'm still surprised they didn't stop the game and acknowledge the moment. History is history, people.
-- Kudos to: The winless Jacksonville Jaguars seem just as determined as Schaub to leave their mark (or stain). They're 0-8 and have been outscored 264-86, a staggering 178-point margin. That's 22.3 points per game, or more than three touchdowns. The Jaguars have lost every game by double digits, coming no closer than a 19-9 defeat at Oakland in Week 2. You can have 'em, London.
• Play of the Year -- Giovani Bernard makes the entire South Florida region miss: Or so it seemed when the Bengals rookie running back reversed field and scored on the kind of scintillating 35-yard scamper that would make Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers stand up and salute. On the game-tying fourth-quarter play, in Cincinnati's 22-20 overtime loss at Miami in Week 9, Bernard took a toss from Andy Dalton and started toward the right sideline, but doubled back to the left when a pair of Dolphins tacklers headed him off. He made it all the way back to the left sideline, evading another tackler, before picking up three blockers and cutting back toward the middle of the field and the end zone.
The run took so long that Miami cornerback Brent Grimes had two different shots at Bernard in two completely different parts of the field, and whiffed both times, a fact he'll be able to tell his grandkids. At least if Bernard goes on to much of an NFL career.
-- Kudos to: Dez Bryant records the greatest five-yard one-handed touchdown catch in NFL history, with two Lions draped over him like a shawl. In Week 8, the Cowboys receiver took a backseat to the Calvin Johnson Show, but not on this play, a third-and-goal jump ball in the end zone that Night Train Lane couldn't have defended.
• Controversy of the Year -- The Washington team name debate: Whether you see the use of the Redskins nickname as revered NFL tradition or the perpetuation of an offensive ethnic slur, the highly polarizing topic has sparked a national discussion and prompted everyone from the president on down to weigh in. And given the pace of real change in Washington, it's not going away any time soon.
• Biggest Move That Didn't Matter -- The Bucs pull the trigger on the Darrelle Revis trade, but still don't have a shot: It was a bold gambit, landing the Jets' cornerback and acknowledged best cover man in the NFL. But the whole effect of the headline-grabbing secondary upgrade in Tampa Bay has been lessened considerably by the Bucs getting off to their first 0-8 start since 1985. Meanwhile, the Jets, playing without Revis, seem to be coping rather well.
-- Kudos to: The Falcons spend most of the offseason coaxing tight end Tony Gonzalez out of retirement and back into black and red. But at 2-6 and all but eliminated in the NFC playoff chase, Atlanta really could have saved its energy and its money. And Tony G. could have stayed on the couch, or coached his son's football team.
• Consequential Penalty of the Year -- Bucs give Jets second chance: In Week 1 at MetLife Stadium, the Bucs had the Jets beat in the final seconds, but Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David gave New York rookie quarterback Geno Smith an unnecessary little shove as Smith scrambled out of bounds at the Bucs' 45 with seven ticks left. David was called for unnecessary roughness and the extra 15 yards made all the difference on Nick Folk's game-winning 48-yard field goal on the following play.
That flag realistically could have altered the course of both Tampa Bay and New York's season. Instead of getting off to a hopeful 1-0 start with a road win, the Bucs have instead disintegrated to 0-8, with that loss being the first loose thread of the Josh Freeman unraveling. The Jets and Smith stole one that day, and their 1-0 start at home eased the pressure that had built steadily on head coach Rex Ryan throughout a tumultuous preseason.
-- Kudos to: The new rule outlawing pushing from behind on the line of scrimmage on field-goal attempts that wound up biting the Patriots in the butt in overtime against the Jets in Week 7. Once again, New York and kicker Nick Folk made an opponent pay, picking up the needed yardage on the 15-yard penalty to convert the game-winning 42-yard field goal, beating New England 30-27.
• Most Over-Hyped Storyline -- Chip Kelly's fast-break offense in Philadelphia will either revolutionize the NFL, or be a complete flop: Actually neither has happened. At least not for long. How boring. The Eagles offense has looked unstoppable at times -- like in the first half of the season-opener at Washington, or the whole game at Oakland in Week 9 -- and totally ineffective at other points (see 17-3 home loss to Dallas in Week 7 and 15-7 home loss to the Giants in Week 8). Could it be our expectations were wrong? Never.
-- Kudos to: Rex Ryan is a dead man walking, and the Jets are a disaster of epic proportions in the making. Unless they make the playoffs, that is. Then, you know, forget about the rest of that stuff and thank goodness Ryan inserted Mark Sanchez into the fourth quarter of that preseason game, clearing the way for Geno Smith. Brilliant.
• Best Individual Performance -- Calvin Johnson Totally Megatrons the Cowboys: The Lions all-world receiver had a very good month against Dallas in Week 8, hauling in 14 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown in Detroit's thrilling 31-30 win. That was enough to outgain the entire Cowboys offense all by himself (329 to 268), and put Johnson just seven yards shy of breaking the Rams' Flipper Anderson's 1989 NFL single-game receiving yardage record. It was only the fifth 300-yard receiving game in league history, and the first since Anderson's.
-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning and Nick Foles -- and how many times do you hear those names in the same sentence? -- both had games with seven touchdown passes, eight weeks apart. Before Manning did it for Denver against Baltimore in the league's season-opener, it hadn't been accomplished even once since the NFL merger in 1970. And then Philly's Foles, making just his ninth career start, matched Mr. Manning in routing Oakland in Week 9.
• Best Division -- The AFC West: Last season, the Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs combined for 13 wins, the same number as division champion Denver. But it's not the Broncos and the three dwarfs any more. At midseason, the AFC West's four teams are a combined 23-10 (.697), the highest winning percentage by a division through nine weeks since 1970. Kansas City (9-0) and Denver (7-1) are playoff locks, and San Diego (4-4) and Oakland (3-5) are both in the AFC wild-card hunt.
-- Kudos to: The NFC West isn't too shabby, with a combined record of 21-13 and conference superpowers Seattle (8-1) and San Francisco (6-2) having been beaten only by either Indianapolis or each other.
• Worst Division -- The NFC East: I'm not saying the once-proud East has slipped, but the division's theme song this season sounds suspiciously like "Send in the Clowns.'' As for the standings, they read like a countdown, with the Cowboys at five wins, the Eagles at four, the Redskins at three and the Giants at two. The longest winning streak in the division this season is two games, with Dallas, Philly and New York all managing that just once each.
-- Kudos to: The AFC South is comprised of the first-place Colts (6-2), and three non-winning teams in the Titans (4-4), Texans (2-6) and Jaguars (0-8). There's no bigger disappointment in the AFC than Houston, the two-time defending division champ, and the Jaguars are worse than they ever were as a mid-'90s expansion entry.
• Coaching Trend of the Year -- Learning curve anyone?: Eight teams made head coaching changes during the offseason, and six of those hires were men who had never before been a full-time head coach at the professional level. The two who have been full-time head coaches at the pro level, Kansas City's Andy Reid and Chicago's Marc Trestman (with CFL experience), have their team no worse than tied for first place in their division.
The other six have had mostly decent, but not great starts to their NFL coaching careers: Arizona's Bruce Arians and San Diego's Mike McCoy are 4-4, in charge of third-place teams. Philadelphia's Chip Kelly and Cleveland's Rob Chudzinski are 4-5, with second-place clubs. Doug Marrone's Bills are 3-6 and in their accustomed last place in the AFC East, while Jacksonville's Gus Bradley has started 0-8 with the woefully undermanned Jaguars. Conclusions are somewhat difficult to reach at this point, but experience coaching in pro ball has been rewarded so far in Kansas City and Chicago.
-- Kudos to: Going for it on fourth down, which is starting to be viewed as less and less of a risky move, and more of regularly chosen path. In Carolina, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, normally a cautious type, has rolled the dice seven times this season, with his team converting five of those calls for first downs (71.4 percent). Denver is 4-of-4, with Cleveland 10-of-19 (52.6) and San Francisco 6-of-8 (75 percent), as well as eight other teams at 50 percent or higher with at least six fourth-down attempts.
• Non-Enviable Position of the Year -- Where are all the great running backs this season?: After last season's tour de force performance, Adrian Peterson talked boldly of gaining 2,500 yards rushing, but he's on pace to barely crack 1,400 (with 711 through eight games). Baltimore's Ray Rice is averaging 2.7 yards per rush and has topped 50 yards exactly once in seven games. The Titans' Chris Johnson finally scored his first two rushing touchdowns of the season in Week 9, and the Jaguars are about to put an ABP out on Maurice Jones-Drew (48.9 yards per game).
And then there's Trent Richardson, who the Colts gave up a ton for in that blockbuster mid-September trade with the Browns. Explain to me why again? The former first-round pick has been the 30th most productive runner in the NFL so far, with 353 yards (44.1 per game) and two touchdowns to go with his modest 3.1 average tote.
-- Kudos to: Recent Super Bowl winners. The Ravens, Giants and Steelers -- three of the NFL's past five champions -- are a combined 7-17, and trail in their divisions by a cumulative margin of 8.5 games with eight weeks remaining.
• Most Valuable Player -- Peyton Manning, QB, Denver: Don't tell Jim Irsay, but Manning is racking up "Star Wars numbers'' again, with 29 touchdown tosses, a 71.2 completion percentage, 2,919 passing yards, a 119.4 passer rating and just six interceptions in his eight games. I have this little rule: When a quarterback threatens to rewrite the NFL record book, I give him the benefit of the doubt in the MVP race. Especially if he already owns four of those suckers.
-- Kudos to: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
-- My preseason pick: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay
• Offensive Player of the Year -- Peyton Manning, QB, Denver: The seven-touchdown season debut against the defending Super Bowl champions. The seven 300-yard passing games in eight tries. The Broncos averaging more than 42 points per game. There's production, and then there's Manning-level fireworks.
-- Kudos to: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit
-- My preseason pick: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
• Defensive Player of the Year -- Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle: This is a wide-open competition at midseason, but I'm giving the brash-talking, playmaking Sherman the slight edge so far over all those emerging stars in Kansas City (see linebackers Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, and defensive lineman Dontari Poe). Sherman's four interceptions are tied for the NFL lead, and his game-winning pick-six off Matt Schaub at Houston was the definition of impact.
-- Kudos to: Justin Houston, LB, Kansas City
-- My preseason pick: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina
• Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay: Went with Lacy as my preseason choice for OROY, and he's justified the pick and then some. He leads all rookie rushers with 596 yards on 134 carries (4.4 average), and since coming back from a Week 2 concussion sustained on his first carry of the game, Lacy has averaged 109 yards over the past five games, with a 4.6 average and three touchdowns. He has been the picture of consistency during that span, with games of 99, 120, 82, 94 and 150 yards, giving Green Bay the viable running game it has lacked throughout the Aaron Rodgers starting era.
-- Kudos to: Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets
-- My preseason pick: Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay
• Defensive Rookie of the Year -- Kiko Alonso, LB, Buffalo: The kid doesn't talk much, but the second-round pick can sure play. And I mean every play, without ever leaving the field. Alonso is third in the league in tackles (89), tied for the lead in interceptions (four), with two sacks, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered. Buffalo, at 3-6, has lost some heartbreakers, but through little fault of Alonso.
-- Kudos to: Sheldon Richardson, DT, New York Jets
• Coach of the Year -- Andy Reid, Kansas City: Quite the rebound in Chiefs red for the guy they call Big Red. He's leaving the personnel decisions to Kansas City general manager John Dorsey, and the defense to coordinator Bob Sutton, but he brought just the right touch to an organization that lacked direction and leadership, not talent. No team has even done the pivot from 2-14 to 9-0 before, and Reid's club has already set a K.C. record with its seven-win improvement from 2012.
-- Kudos to: Sean Payton, New Orleans
-- My preseason pick: Andy Reid, Kansas City
• Offensive Breakout Player of the Year -- Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia: Don't overlook the second-year Eagle in favor of candidates like Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Denver tight end Julius Thomas, Cleveland tight end Jordan Cameron or Chicago receiver Alshon Jeffery. Foles has thrown 13 touchdowns without an interception, has a 127.4 QB rating, is completing 62.7 percent of his passes and has played the majority of the snaps in three of the four games the Eagles have won this season. The home loss to Dallas is the only blip on the screen for Foles, who has rendered Michael Vick something of an after-thought in Philly.
-- Kudos to: Terrelle Pryor, QB, Oakland
-- My preseason pick: NA
• Defensive Breakout Player of the Year -- Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, N.Y. Jets: The third-year Jets' defensive lineman is a beast for the opponent every week, recording at least one sack in seven of the Jets' nine games (a team-high eight sacks overall), with an interception and two forced fumbles mixed in. Wilkerson has emerged as an elite player in the season's first half, and he's Pro Bowl-bound this season, with a shot at working himself into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.
-- Kudos to: Dontari Poe, DT, Kansas City
-- My preseason pick: NA
• Comeback Player of the Year -- Sean Lee, LB, Dallas: Lee missed all but six games in 2012 after suffering a season-ending toe injury, but he's making up for lost time in 2013. He's tied for the league lead in tackles (90) and interceptions (four), with one pick-six return and a fumble recovery. If the rest of the Cowboys defenders were as consistent as Lee, Dallas would be at least 7-2 and running away with the NFC East.
-- Kudos to: Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
-- My preseason pick: NA
• Offensive Coordinator of the Year -- Jay Gruden, Cincinnati: Gruden has quarterback Andy Dalton taking that third-year step into the league's elite class that everyone demanded, and he also has diversified the Bengals offense into more than just an A.J. Green one-man show. First-place Cincinnati is 6-3 and has taken command in the AFC North.
-- Kudos to: (tie) Mike Shula, Carolina; Ken Whisenhunt, San Diego
-- My preseason pick: NA
• Defensive Coordinator of the Year -- Bob Sutton, Kansas City: You can cite the Chiefs' fairly soft schedule all you want (they have not played a team that currently has a winning record) and their lucky habit of facing backup/reserve quarterbacks (see Jeff Tuel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Campbell and Case Keenum in the past five games) but holding the first nine opponents of the season to 17 points or fewer has only happened one other time in NFL history (the 1977 Falcons), and that settles it for me.
-- Kudos to: Rob Ryan, New Orleans
-- My preseason pick: NA
• Executive of the Year -- John Dorsey, General Manager, Kansas City: To the winners go the spoils, and nobody has won more than the 9-0 Chiefs thus far. Dorsey, hired a couple weeks after Andy Reid, deserves a good chunk of credit for the transformation in Kansas City. From the Alex Smith trade, to the re-signing of No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe, to the addition of seven valuable waiver-wire pickups after final cutdown day (cornerback Marcus Cooper, receiver Chad Hall and linebacker Dezman Moses among them), Dorsey has done superb early work with the Chiefs. Only the struggles of No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher at right offensive tackle have gone counter to the success story unfolding in Kansas City.
-- Kudos to: John Idzik, GM, New York Jets
-- My preseason pick: NA