While the remarkable rise of Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos has dominated the headlines and captivated fans in the season's second half, there have been plenty other surprising examples of what we'll call the Danny Woodhead Effect, a lightly regarded player who emerges to overachieve beyond all reasonable expectations.
As the final quarter of the regular season unfolds, here are 10 out-of-nowhere players who have made a much bigger name for themselves in 2011:
Robinson has scored all seven of his touchdowns in Dallas' past six games (the Cowboys are 4-2 in that span), and his 14.9-yard average catch trails only Bryant's 15.5-yard average among Cowboys with at least 10 receptions. With a whole month of the season remaining, Robinson has established career highs in every major receiving category.
That's six more sacks and three more forced fumbles than Maybin produced in his entire 27-game, two-year stint in Buffalo, which took him 11th overall out of Penn State in 2009. Maybin has three sacks in New York's past two games, both wins, and his fourth-quarter strip sack of Rex Grossman on Sunday in Washington was the pivotal play in securing the Jets' 34-19 victory.
Cruz didn't catch a single pass as a rookie in 2010 (although he did sparkle in the preseason), and he started this year at the bottom of New York's receiving depth chart. But he took advantage of his opportunity when Dominik Hixon went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 and he now leads the Giants in receptions (62), yards, touchdowns (seven) and average catch (17.4 yards). He's already the guy Eli Manning looks for on big downs, and I'm starting to really like his understated salsa dance end-zone celebrations.
But Murray wasn't a first-round pick like Peterson. He was taken in the third round this year, 71st overall, the sixth running back selected. The five rushers taken ahead of him have combined for 1,035 yards, just 163 more than what Murray has managed alone. Though he has cooled off somewhat in the past three games, Murray had a four-game streak where he averaged a ridiculous 10.1, 9.3, 6.3 and 6.8 yards per carry, sparking a 3-1 Dallas run.
Arrington went undrafted out of Hofstra in 2008, and spent parts of two years with Tampa Bay. But the Patriots picked him up during the season in 2009 and he has proved to be a solid find. He had just one interception in his first 24 games with New England, but has at least one pick in five different games in 2011, and his 12 passes defensed also lead the Patriots.
Over the course of Arizona's recent 4-1 spurt, Roberts has emerged as one of the Cardinals' most reliable targets, catching 20 passes for 286 yards, including his second career 100-yard game in Sunday's upset of Dallas (six receptions for 111 yards, including a 40-yarder). In addition to being Arizona's third-leading receiver this season, he might be a Cowboys-killer in the making, given that both of his career 100-yard games have come in home wins over Dallas.
Baldwin has exhibited toughness and the ability to make the difficult catch in traffic, and his season-high eight-catch, 136-yard, one-touchdown day against the Giants in Week 5 led Seattle to its biggest road win of the year.
Bush has a pair of 100-yard games this season, including an even 100 in Miami's 34-14 beatdown of Oakland at home on Sunday, and his 4.3 average rush is also very respectable. While he remains a decent pass-catching threat out of the backfield for the resurgent Dolphins, his primary role has been as Miami's top ground gainer, and he's on pace to play all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season of 2006.
Bryant blocked a field goal and an extra point in Week 12 at home against Washington, after blocking two Phil Dawson field goal attempts in a 6-3 loss at Cleveland in Week 7. He has been one of the bright spots in Seattle this year, and the Seahawks are currently 3-1 in the season's second half, climbing to 5-7 to remain on the outer reaches of wild-card contention.
So far, the fifth-round pick is handling it just fine, leading the first-place, playoff-bound Texans to seven-point wins in a relief role of Leinart at Jacksonville, and in his first career start at home against Atlanta. He hasn't been spectacular, but solid works just fine for Houston about now. Yates is 20 of 40 for 258 yards and one touchdown, and he's taken good care of the ball, throwing no interceptions and losing just one fumble. If the wins keep coming for the Texans, Yates is going to get the save for Houston's 2011 season.