Matt Ryan? No. Joe Flacco? Nope. Brett Favre? Funny.
The answer very well might be Tyler Thigpen. Who? The unheralded, second-year quarterback from Coastal Carolina has been on fire since taking over the starting job in Kansas City, and league observers have been effusive in their praise of the Chiefs' budding star.
"He has been playing really well," said an AFC scout. "They have to be impressed with the way he has stepped up his game."
Thigpen, the Vikings' seventh-round pick in 2007, has completed 66 of 102 passes (64.7 percent) for 710 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three starts. His passer rating of 104.6 during that span ranks as the league's third-best, and only Peyton Manning has tossed more touchdowns (7) in the past three games. Additionally, Thigpen has thrown 124 consecutive passes without an interception and hasn't turned the ball over in his last three starts.
With Thigpen playing exceptionally well, the Chiefs' sagging offense has shown signs of life. In the past three games (each lost in the waning minutes), the offense averaged 23.3 points, 351.0 total yards, including 238 yards passing. Compared to the Chiefs' first six games, the offense has improved by more than 10 points a game and over 93 yards a game in total offense.
So why did it take Kansas City so long to put him in the lineup?
The most logical answer is the presence of Brodie Croyle. The Chiefs' third-round pick in 2006 was expected to become the franchise quarterback, so the team gave him every opportunity to prove it. But Croyle was injured in four of his eight career starts (all loses) and was done for this season in mid-October when he sprained his right knee.
Thigpen's sudden emergence has some observers viewing the former cast-off as a franchise-caliber quarterback, and the team appears to building the offense around his strengths.
Thigpen, who starred in a spread offense at Coastal Carolina, has benefited from offensive coordinator Chan Gailey incorporating some familiar spread-like concepts into the game plan. Using their "Ace" personnel packages (one back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), the Chiefs have been showing a four-receiver look with Tony Gonzalez, Dwayne Bowe and Mark Bradley lined up at a variety of spots.
The clever use of run-heavy personnel prevents defenses from substituting extra backs to match up with the Chiefs' open formations. With the linebackers and safeties forced to defend Bradley, Bowe and Gonzalez in space, Thigpen has picked apart coverage with quick rhythm throws. In addition, the spread formation has made it easier for him to identify potential blitzes, enabling him to counter by attacking the vulnerable spots in the defense.
"It just helps the young guy when he can spread the field out," Thigpen said earlier in the season. "Not necessarily a young guy, but any quarterback, it just helps when you can spread the defense out and you can see where the blitz is coming from."
Gailey has also helped his star pupil by increasing the use of their "Red Ball" offense in recent weeks. "Red Ball", the Chiefs' version of the no-huddle, is used to quicken the pace and keep defenses in simpler looks. Defensive coordinators are reluctant to aggressively come after the quarterback with a number of exotic blitzes when the game is moving at a frenetic pace. Thus, Thigpen has been able to attack while working in rhythm, and the results have been so impressive that the Chiefs are expanding their offense to feature more of the no-huddle, spread offense.
"I imagine we will broaden the playbook so we are at the point where everyone can just walk to the line and not huddle," Thigpen said on the team's Web site.
Thigpen's emergence has finally given the team a playmaker at quarterback and Gailey the freedom to open up his playbook. The Chiefs have spent the past two seasons trying to find a solution to their quarterback problem, but it appears an unheralded player from a little known school might just be the answer.
As Pro Bowl votes are cast in the coming weeks, one name that should garner serious consideration is Haloti Ngata. The third-year defensive tackle is having an outstanding season for the Ravens, leading one AFC scout to say, "He is the most instinctive, athletic 300-pound tackle in the game."
Drafted 12th overall by the Ravens, Ngata has an unbelievable combination of size, strength and power, and is the ideal interior defender in the Ravens' 3-4. He is stout enough to "two-gap" (play both sides of the center) as a nose tackle, but also possesses enough athleticism to work on the edges when shaded over an offensive guard as a "three-technique." Ngata's presence in the gap forces a double team, allowing linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott to roam freely between the tackles. With the linebackers able to flow to the ball unobstructed, the Ravens' top ranked rush defense has been holding opponents to only 64.5 yards per game, and fewer than three yards per carry.
"We work to hold up guys for linebackers," Ngata told the Baltimore Sun. "As long as our linebackers are making plays that we're working hard for them to make the plays, I'm just happy with that...Being with linebackers like Ray and Bart, they make those plays."
Although Ngata has been outstanding against the run, he is more than just a run-stopper. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has started using him as an underneath dropper on zone dogs. By having his monstrous 345-pound tackle drop from inside, the Ravens have been able to confuse quarterbacks into crucial mistakes. Ngata's goal line interception against the Texans was the result of this unorthodox ploy working successfully.
The competition for the Pro Bowl defensive tackle position will be fierce with Albert Haynesworth and Kris Jenkins playing at the top of their games, but Ngata deserves a trip to Hawaii for his play in 2008.
While watching the Jets blanket Randy Moss and Wes Welker for most of the game during their impressive 34-31 overtime win Thursday night, I noticed that Eric Mangini used a trick learned from his days as a Patriots' assistant to neutralize his former team's top playmakers.
The Jets unveiled a hybrid "two-man bracket" coverage in the first half that effectively double-teamed Moss and Welker on passing downs. The scheme, which the Patriots used to frustrate Peyton Manning and the Colts in the 2004 AFC Championship Game, uses a combination of press coverage and two-deep principles to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the passing game. In the scheme, corners are instructed to aggressively "press" or jam receivers at the line of scrimmage while taking away all inside releases. They maintain a trail position as the receiver works up the field, and undercut all in- or out-breaking routes. The safeties protect the corners by covering the deep halves of the field to eliminate all deep throws down the sidelines. (The Jets tweaked the scheme by having the safety over top of Welker bracket the slot receiver instead of covering half of the field.)
The Jets assigned Ty Law to Moss and used their budding star corner Darrelle Revis against Welker in the slot. With their two top corners specializing in physical play at the line of scrimmage, the Jets made Moss and Welker work harder to get to their sweet spots on the field. In addition, the toll of the physical play frustrated the duo as they were unable to get their hands on the ball for long stretches (Moss had no catches in the first half and Welker had only two receptions at halftime).
Though the Patriots eventually exploited the weakness by having Cassell extensively target Ben Watson and Jabar Gaffney on the way to a 400-yard passing day, the Jets achieved their desired result by forcing the young quarterback to rely on the Patriots' third-and fourth-best options in the passing game.