NFL Midseason Report: 2014
Here’s how suddenly and dramatically a week can change the look and landscape of the NFL: Go back and read all those midseason reviews that were written just last week, after eight weeks of the regular season, and then read this one, from the vantage point of nine weeks in. Suffice to say waiting for every team to play at least eight games before taking an annual midyear snap shot might be the way to go. A week can mean a lot.
Has our perception of the suddenly reeling Dallas Cowboys been altered, now that they’re on the first losing streak of their season? How about the relative strength of New England to AFC defending champion Denver? Or the pecking order between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the tightly packed AFC North?
Did you think San Diego had a better shot as an AFC wild-card hopeful than Miami, at least until Sunday? The Saints finally scratched out a road win and found their way into first place in the mild NFC South. Does that change their outlook in the season’s second half? Are the third-place 49ers really still playoff material at .500, and are second-half bumps in the road ahead for Philadelphia, now that Nick Foles has given way to Mark Sanchez at starting quarterback?
A week in the NFL can wipe out a ton of conventional wisdom, and send everyone scrambling to amend a host of perceptions. But with 134 of the NFL’s 256-game regular season in the books (52.3 percent), here goes: midseason review time.
• Story of the Year, Part I -- The video renders both Ray Rice and the NFL damaged goods: In the NFL’s rich 95-year history, there’s never been a story that so completely overshadowed the action on the field, for what seemed weeks at a time, like the Rice saga. There were no winners in this shameful and still-unfinished fiasco, only losers, unless you count the positive changes that were sparked during a much-needed national discussion about the seriousness of domestic violence. Once deemed practically infallible, the league and commissioner Roger Goodell suffered a significant loss of credibility in the court of public opinion, and the controversy had tentacles that reached in many divergent directions.
• Story of the Year, Part II -- How ‘bout them Cowboys: They are undeniably leaking oil as we get into November, but even a two-game losing streak can’t deny the 6-3 Cowboys their due. Dallas was thought to be almost defense-less and destined for a state well below its usual mediocrity of 8-8 this year, but as it turns out, we were misinformed. With running back DeMarco Murray being the horse they chose to ride -- mixed in with some Rod Marinelli magic on defense -- the Cowboys are relevant again and dreaming of making the playoffs for the first time in five years. There’s a long way to go, especially if quarterback Tony Romo isn’t healthy, but who besides Jerry Jones thought Dallas would even get this far?
-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning does his record-breaking routine again, surpassing Brett Favre as the league’s leading all-time touchdown passer with four more scoring throws against visiting San Francisco in Week 7. Touchdown No. 509 was the history-maker, but he’s at 515 and counting in 248 career games at midseason.
• Trend of the Year -- Thursday night’s all right for blowouts: There have been nine Thursday night prime-time games thus far in the regular season, and almost three of them have been watchable. For a while there in September and part of October, I thought CBS stood for “Colossal Blowout Show,’’ because that was all it televised on Thursday nights. Each of the season’s first five Thursday night games was decided by at least 20 points, and who can forget such thrillers as Atlanta 56-14 over Tampa Bay, Green Bay’s 42-10 lambasting of Minnesota, and the Giants flogging Washington 45-14? The nine games have been decided by a margin of 184 points, or 20.4 per week. And still we watch. What else are you going to do on a Thursday night?
-- Kudos to: Rookie receivers don’t need learning curves any more, just go-from-the-start patterns. The season’s first two months have been a golden age for rookie pass-catchers, and they’re almost too numerous to mention. Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins and Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin are the leaders of the class, but don’t forget Mike Evans, John Brown, Jordan Matthews, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Martavis Bryant, Donte Moncrief, Davante Adams and Taylor Gabriel. You get our point?
• Game of the Year -- Seattle 26, Denver 20, in OT, in Week 3: Well who knew these two interconference rivals could play a tight, entertaining game? That would have come in handy last February in the Meadowlands, when we instead were treated to a 35-point Super Bore that wouldn’t end. This time, the Seahawks blew a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead, watching as Peyton Manning drove almost the length of the field for a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. But Seattle again got the last laugh, because Manning’s Broncos never got the ball back in the extra period. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson saw to that, leading the Seahawks to a first-possession overtime touchdown, which came courtesy of Marshawn Lynch from six yards out.
-- Kudos to: St. Louis 28, Seattle 26, Week 7: I didn’t see it at the time, but apparently the Rams’ Jeff Fisher coached the entire day wearing this really cool magician’s top hat, and he kept pulling rabbits out of it the whole game. But more on that below. What matters is the last-place Rams beat the defending Super Bowl champions, officially signaling that Seattle’s mojo of 2013 was non-transferrable, as they say.
• Play of the Year -- What the Hekker just happened?: The aforementioned Jeff Fisher, he’s got big brass ones, and we’re not talking about his lawn ornaments. The Rams’ coach made the gutsiest/craziest call I’ve ever seen in that Week 7 upset of Seattle, rolling the dice in a way that made Bill Belichick look perfectly sane for going for that 4th-and-2 against Indianapolis in 2009. Leading 28-26 and facing a 4th-and-3 from his own 18-yard line with 2:55 left, Fisher let punter Johnny Hekker fake it, and throw for a mind-boggling 18-yard completion to Benny Cunningham as the disbelieving Seahawks looked on. It was pure genius because it worked, but had it not, Rams owner Stan Kroenke should have gone to the sideline and had Fisher turn in his key card and parking pass right then and there.
-- Kudos to: In that same ridiculous Seahawks-Rams game, the St. Louis punt return unit pulled off its own certifiable miracle when the Rams’ Stedman Bailey somehow made himself invisible to everyone in Seattle colors, then fielded the ball and went untouched down the right sideline for a 90-yard touchdown return. On the opposite side of the field, St. Louis return man Tavon Austin acted like he was going to field the ball, and the Seahawks all took his word for it (at least in body language form), never once checking to see where the Seattle punter actually kicked it.
• Sideshow of the Year -- The plot (always) thickens in Washington: There’s enough drama to go around when a team employs the three-headed quarterback carousel of Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, joining only Tennessee and Minnesota among NFL teams that have started three QBs in the season’s first half. But when you add in the Griffin-loses-his-locker-room reports, Sunday’s bizarre pregame bus crash, the ongoing team nickname controversy and the notion that the quarterback call is coming from the front office, you’ve got all the elements that make D.C. dysfunction junction.
-- Kudos to: Russell Wilson has his own locker room issues in Seattle (maybe), and the surprising Percy Harvin trade was an indication that all is not right in Winnersville this season. Maybe it’s just a Washington thing this year.
• Statistic of the Year -- DeMarco Murray outruns Jim Brown: The Cowboys’ running back started his monster season by running for at least 100 yards in the first eight games of the season, breaking Jim Brown’s record of six set in 1958. That record had stood for almost 56 years, from an earlier era in the NFL. The league had only 12 teams in 1958, and it’s worth remembering that the Colts and Giants would play a rather historic game that season to settle the NFL championship. Cleveland finished 9-3 that season and in a first-place Eastern Conference regular-season tie with the Giants, but lost a tiebreaker game to New York 10-0. The Cowboys know all about just missing out in the season’s final week.
-- Kudos to: The Lions put the fun back in the field goal. Detroit’s Nate Freese and Alex Henery were both banished from Motown after they combined to miss eight field goal attempts in the season’s first five games, which is tough to do if you’re a dome team in this age of overwhelming field goal accuracy. The Lions’ third kicker of the half-season, ex-Bronco Matt Prater, missed 2-of-3 in his first game, converted a bank shot off an upright, and was bailed out of a game-ending miss in London by a delay-of-game penalty that negated his failure.
• Egg-laying of the Year -- Miami 37, San Diego 0, Week 9: The Chargers hadn’t been shut out since Halloween of 1999. They hadn’t been beaten this badly since New England administered a 45-7 tail-whipping in 1996. And they hadn’t been blanked by at least 37 points since the mighty 1975 Steelers turned that trick en route to a second consecutive Super Bowl title. Miami, nobody’s idea of a juggernaut, scored on its first four drives, and seven of its initial eight. San Diego never lost by more than 10 points last year in head coach Mike McCoy’s first season on the job, but it has now been edged by 14 points (in Denver) and 37 points (in Miami) in consecutive games.
-- Kudos to: With the bumbling Bucs, how do you choose just one? Tampa Bay managed to trail 56-0 at Atlanta in the third quarter in Week 3, losing 56-14, and then gave up five touchdown passes to Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in the first 16:03 of a 48-17 Week 6 loss at home to the Ravens. I blame the Bucs’ new uniforms.
• Best Division -- The AFC North: No division has more wins (21) or fewer losses (12) than the incredibly competitive AFC North, and let’s just declare right now that nobody does ties quite like the Bengals (thought we forgot about you, Mike Nugent?). The AFC North is the NFL’s only division with four winning teams, with top (Cincinnati at 5-2-1) to bottom (Baltimore 5-4) separated by a mere 1 1/2 games. The division is a gaudy 15-3-1 at home, with two of those losses being within the division. The only non-division home game defeat was Pittsburgh being upset by visiting Tampa Bay in Week 4. Three of the division’s teams have had winning streaks of three games, and the fourth, the Browns, have compiled a pair of two-game winning streaks.
-- Kudos to: The NFC West, which has that anybody-can-beat-anybody feel to it this year. The last-place Rams are just 3-5, and yet own wins against both Seattle and San Francisco. The first-place Cardinals are 7-1 for the first time since 1974 and are the only remaining one-loss team in the league, dropping only a Week 5 game at defending AFC champion Denver.
• Worst Division -- The NFC South: Brutal defenses abound in the NFC South, and it’s a shame anyone earns a playoff trip for winning this trainwreck. The division’s combined record of 10-22-1 is so ugly it’s beautiful, and the first-place Saints (4-4) are the only team with a winning record even at home, where they’re 3-0, to balance off that 1-4 road record. The entire division owns three road wins, and two of those came in head-to-head NFC South play. The last-place Bucs at Pittsburgh in Week 4 are the only team to go on the road and win outside the division. In Weeks 6-9, the NFC South managed just a 2-10-1 mark, with the Saints owning both of those victories.
-- Kudos to: The AFC South appears to be headed for a second consecutive season of having just one winning team, the first-place Colts. Indy started 0-2 this season, but has won six of its past seven, including Monday night’s 40-24 dismantling of the Giants at MetLife Stadium. Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville have combined for seven wins, to barely squeak past the Colts in that category, but their 19 losses are more than six times Indy’s total.
• Most Overhyped Storyline -- Johnny Football is Cleveland’s new savior and inevitable starter: So whatever happened to that kid who made that lame Snickers commercial this summer? Rookies Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr have been No. 1 quarterbacks for weeks now, but Johnny Manziel is just a bit player in the Brian Hoyer Extravaganza in Cleveland, and somehow all those folks who promoted Manziel to starter without even considering Hoyer’s 3-0 record in 2013 have grown very silent.
-- Kudos to: Tom Brady is in serious decline. Honest. You have to believe us on this one. He’s done. Finished. Kaput. And so are the Patriots. It was in all the papers. So it has to be true. Until Week 5 or so.
• Most Familiar Storyline -- The AFC does not do the parity thing: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but the Patriots, Colts, Bengals and Broncos are leading their divisions in the AFC. New England has won the four-team East all but two seasons since the 2002 realignment. Denver is trying to make it four division titles in a row. Cincinnati and Indy are defending division champs, but the Bengals are gunning for a fourth straight playoff trip and the Colts a third. Even Kansas City (5-3) and San Diego (5-4) -- last year’s AFC wild cards -- remain very much in the mix to repeat those playoff berths. In other AFC news, Oakland, Jacksonville, Tennessee and the Jets still stink.
• Encouraging Development of the Year -- The NFL’s Rust Belt Revival: I know it’s early. Too early. But the Lions and Browns and Bills, oh my. All three are over .500 at midseason and giving their tortured fans reason to believe. Or at least hope. Buffalo (5-3) hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999, while Cleveland (5-3) and Detroit (6-2) have gone exactly once this century. And the Browns (2002) and Lions (2011) were both one-and-done No. 6 seeds in those playoff trips. Credit some fresh coaching blood in all three locales: Newbies Mike Pettine in Cleveland and Jim Caldwell in Detroit, and second-year man Doug Marrone in Buffalo. Can they all hang on in the second half? I’m dubious, but wouldn’t that make for fun in and around the Great Lakes region this winter?
-- Kudos to: New ownership in Buffalo is part of the cause for optimism in Buffalo, where Terry and Kim Pegula have bought the Bills from the Wilson family with every intention of keeping the NFL in Western New York. Sorry, Jon Bon Jovi and Donald Trump. No more calls, we have a winner.
• Preventable Injury of the Year -- The Sack Celebration ACL phenomena: Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch and Chicago defensive end Lamarr Houston both blew out a knee and were lost for the season because they were determined to look like -- I’ll say it -- idiots in jumping up to demonstrably celebrate sacks. Tulloch at least had a meaningful sack of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers at home in Week 3, before bounding up to mimic No. 12’s signature championship belt/Discount Double Check touchdown move. Houston, as if he learned nothing from Tulloch’s misfortune, countered in Week 8 at New England, pulling the same stunt, even though all he did was drop Patriots reserve quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the latter stages of a massive New England blowout win. SMH.
-- Kudos to: We’ll call it the “Nate Burleson Pizza Syndrome.’’ Washington lead cornerback DeAngelo Hall tore his Achilles tendon in Week 3 at Philadelphia, and was lost for the season. He re-tore it last week, after he slipped at home on a late-night pizza run to the kitchen. Pizza has become a leading inflictor of pain among NFL players: Burleson broke his arm and missed nine weeks in 2013 for Detroit after crashing his car while attempting to save a boxed pizza from sliding off the passenger seat of his car.
• Best Veteran Acquisition -- The Ravens sign Steve Smith and the sizable chip on his shoulder: Carolina released him after 13 years, and that’s all the motivation Smith needed to re-invigorate himself in Baltimore. The 35-year-old added Sr. to his last name, then added 46 catches for 711 yards and four touchdowns to the Ravens offense in Baltimore’s first nine games. Though he has cooled off somewhat the past three weeks, Smith registered four 100-yard receiving games in the first six weeks, including that revenge-laden seven-catch, 139-yard, two-touchdown effort in a 38-10 blowout of Carolina in Week 4.
-- Kudos to: With apologies to the shrewd Darren Sproles trade in Philly, the off-the-couch Kyle Orton signing in Buffalo in late preseason probably saved the Bills’ bacon. Not to mention perhaps the jobs of Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone and GM Doug Whaley.
• Worst Veteran Acquisition -- Matt Schaub is still Matt Schaub, but now he’s Oakland’s problem: What 2013 game film of Schaub could the Raiders have possibly watched to come to the conclusion that Schaub was the answer at quarterback? That tape didn’t exist, thanks to Schaub’s pick-six-fest in Houston. The Raiders sent a sixth-round pick to the Texans for Schaub, who didn’t even get to Week 1 of the regular season before losing the starting job to rookie Derek Carr.
-- Kudos to: Almost everyone else Oakland and Tampa Bay brought in during their fairly extensive free agency hauls. The Raiders and Bucs have gotten very little bang for the buck from anyone, and are a combined 1-15 this season.
• Most Valuable Player -- Tom Brady, QB, New England: Last week, I would have given the trophy once again to Manning, who has been astounding for most of the season. But this week, after watching Brady out-do Manning convincingly on Sunday in Foxboro, the nod goes to No. 12. I can’t get around the fact that Manning, as well as he has played, has lost his two biggest games of the season, at Seattle and at New England. Isn’t that part of the MVP debate? Brady on the season has 22 touchdown passes to Manning’s 24, with three interceptions to Manning’s five. Manning has a better passer rating (112.0 to 103.5) and completion percentage (67.3 to 64.1), but Brady in the past five weeks has been ridiculous, with 18 touchdown passes and one interception, 1,601 yards passing and a 68 percent completion rate. And the 7-2 Patriots are averaging 31.2 points per game (second behind the Colts’ 32.2), having outscored their opponents by a league-high 83 point this season.
-- Kudos to: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver
-- My preseason pick -- Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
• Offensive Player of the Year -- DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas: Murray is certainly in the MVP discussion, and his argument would have been strengthened had the Cowboys been able to ride him to victory at home Sunday against Arizona without quarterback Tony Romo in the lineup. Instead, it was weakened, because Dallas lost and Murray had his record-breaking streak of eight straight 100-yard rushing games ended by the Cardinals’ stout run defense. Still Murray is out-rushing everyone in the NFL by at least 311 yards, has averaged almost 126 yards per game (1,133 yards overall) and has chipped in with 30 receptions for another 250 receiving yards. At 5.0 yards per rush, he’s a chains-moving machine.
-- Kudos to: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh
-- My preseason pick -- Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
• Defensive Player of the Year -- J.J. Watt, DL, Houston: What’s the point of debating this one? There’s Watt and then there’s everyone else on defense in the NFL. Not only is he the most disruptive defender in the league, but also he now takes it upon himself to critique the social media habits of opposing quarterbacks. (But don’t tell him I said that.) Watt almost literally does it all for Houston. He has 8.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, with one for a touchdown, one fumble forced, one interception for 80 yards and a touchdown, seven passes defensed, five tackles for loss, one kick block and a 1-yard touchdown catch on offense. That’s three touchdowns if you’re counting. Yep, he’s earning his $108 million contract extension.
• Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Zack Martin, Guard, Dallas: Striking a blow against the fantasy football group think that prevails, let’s salute Martin for being a big part of the success enjoyed by the Cowboys’ dominating offensive line. The return of the running game in Dallas has coincided with a return to winning, and that turnaround starts up front for Jason Garrett’s team.
-- Kudos to: Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo
-- My preseason pick -- Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans
• Defensive Rookie of the Year -- C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore: Minnesota outside linebacker Anthony Barr has that playmaking “wow’’ factor, but how can you not love the solid-from-Day-1 showing turned in by Mosley for the Ravens? He plays every down, has the poise of a veteran and rarely seems to be out of position or not around the ball. Mosley’s 85 combined tackles rank third in the NFL, and his six passes defensed, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble make him an easy choice.
-- Kudos to: Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota
-- My preseason pick -- Ryan Shazier, ILB, Pittsburgh
• Coach of the Year -- Bruce Arians, Arizona: No one has done more with less this season than Arians, whose Cardinals have kept winning this season despite at one point having three of the four team captains sidelined by injuries (Carson Palmer, Calais Campbell and punter Dave Zastudil). I really don’t know how Arians is doing it with all the defections and injuries his club has endured from the offseason on, but Arizona has the NFL’s best record at 7-1, and really is a threat to win the NFC’s top seed and become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on its own home field.
-- Kudos to: Jason Garrett, Dallas
-- My preseason pick: Gus Bradley, Jacksonville (Ouch!)
• Offensive Breakout Player of the Year -- Brian Hoyer, QB, Cleveland: The Browns have won five or fewer games for six years running, but they’re already at 5-3 this season, having won four of their past five. It has often been said it comes down to quarterbacking in Cleveland, and the Browns were just a competent passer away from relevancy. Hoyer has given his hometown team just that kind of consistent play, and even some spectacular comebacks along the way. Hoyer has thrown for 252 yards per game, with 10 touchdowns, just four interceptions, a quality 7.99 yards per attempt and a 90.3 passer rating.
-- Kudos to: Mohammed Sanu, WR, Cincinnati
-- My preseason pick -- N/A
• Defensive Breakout Player of the Year -- Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota: It turns out the Vikings knew what they were doing when they gave starter’s money to re-sign a career part-time player in Griffen this spring. Under new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, Griffen has blossomed into a consistent pass-rushing threat whose nine sacks in nine games are tied for second in the league, behind the 12 recorded by Kansas City outside linebacker Justin Houston. Griffen is a big part of the reason there’s plenty to like about the defense Zimmer is building in Minnesota.
-- Kudos to: Willie Young, DE, Chicago
-- My preseason pick -- N/A
• Comeback Player of the Year -- Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England: I get the support for Dallas middle linebacker Rolando McClain on the comeback front, but what did the former Raiders’ first-round pick ever accomplish in the NFL to come back from? Only underachievement, obscurity and eventually retirement. Gronk is not only back to his game-changing form of 2011, after two injury-plagued seasons, but also he’s a driving force in the Patriots again looking Super Bowl worthy. In the past five games, coinciding with New England’s five-game winning streak, Gronkowski has caught 36 passes for 516 yards and five touchdowns, with three 100-yard games and another 94-yard effort. With Gronk a weapon in the middle of the field once again, Tom Brady is in MVP contention.
-- Kudos to -- Arian Foster, RB, Houston
-- My preseason pick -- N/A
• Offensive Coordinator of the Year -- Pat Shurmur, Philadelphia, along with head coach Chip Kelly: The Eagles traded their top receiver of 2013 to Washington when they shipped DeSean Jackson out of town this spring. All-world running back LeSean McCoy started very, very slowly this season behind an offensive line that was decimated by injuries and suspensions in the season’s early weeks. Then quarterback Nick Foles struggled to regain his form of last season and started turning the ball over, before breaking his clavicle at Houston on Sunday. And somehow, the Eagles are still averaging 29.3 points per game and holding down first place in the NFC East at 6-2. It’s Kelly’s offense in Philly to be sure, and he calls the plays on gamedays, but the combination of he and Shurmur has done yeoman’s work so far in 2014.
-- Kudos to: Scott Linehan, Dallas (he’s called the passing game coordinator, but he’s the gameday play-caller)
-- My preseason pick -- N/A
• Defensive Coordinator of the Year -- Todd Bowles, Arizona: No Karlos Dansby. No Daryl Washington. No Darnell Dockett. No John Abraham. No problem. Even when Calais Campbell misses two plus games due to a Julius Thomas chop block and Tyrann Mathieu returns slowly from last year’s knee injury, the Cardinals just keep finding ways to win, limiting all but one of their opponents to 20 points or fewer this season. Bowles has been adept at making do with who’s available on his roster this season in Arizona, and he has every player ready to contribute and fill a useful role on gamedays.
-- Kudos to: Rod Marinelli, Dallas
-- My preseason pick: N/A
• Executive of the Year -- Steve Keim, Arizona general manager: I could build a case for John Elway after his defensive upgrades in Denver, Jerry Jones for the turnaround his Cowboys have executed, or Detroit’s Martin Mayhew for the wisdom of the Lions’ Jim Caldwell head coaching hire. But to the winner go the spoils, and nobody has a better record than Arizona this season, and the Cardinals are a league-best 14-3 dating from Week 8 on in 2013. Somebody deserves credit for that record. I’ll let Arizona head coach Bruce Arians make Keim’s case: “It speaks volumes for our players, but I think it also says a lot about Steve Keim and the way he’s built the second half of our roster. He continues to find us guys, and he does a great job getting us quality vets, so that we’re not totally dependent on younger players. The Tommy Kellys, Larry Footes, John Abrahams and Karlos Dansby last year. Those guys were Steve’s work.’’
-- Kudos to: John Elway, Denver general manager
-- My preseason pick -- N/A