Wednesday, November 5, 2014

2014 at Halftime: The NFL Mid-Season Report and Awards


           Remember the good ole days when the biggest offseason storylines from the NFL were limited to treatment of concussions and long-term effects of brain injuries?  With the unresolved sagas of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Breaking Bad-style de-evolution of Roger Goodell into a Vince McMahon-like league villain, it’s safe to say those days are gone.  There has been, however, some good football to come out of the 2014 season at its mid-point – it just hasn’t involved any of the following: Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jay Cutler, Thursday Night Football, professional football in Washington D.C. and Oakland, London games played at 6:00am PST, and ghosts of Bill Gramatica.

Biggest Surprise: There are a few viable candidates here.  The Cleveland Browns are somehow 5-3 despite 0 yards being gained from Johnny Football, the non-reinstatement of their best receiver, injuries to their second-best pass catcher (Jordan Cameron), playing in a super-competitive division where everyone is above .500, and having a bottom-three rush defense.  And yet Cleveland has victories over New Orleans and Pittsburgh, along with two last-second losses to the Ravens and Steelers.  Their lone bad performance all season came against the Jaguars in Jacksonville (go figure).  And perhaps most amazingly of all, Mike Pettine has not even been fired yet!
            You could also go with the Buffalo Bills (5-3 in spite of a bad draft, major injuries on offense and defense, and Kyle Orton as QB) or the Miami Dolphins (also 5-3 with dominant victories over New England, Chicago and San Diego, with Ryan Tannehill turning into a white Michael Vick).  Or you could go with DeMarco Murray, a guy who suffered through severe sprained ankle, foot and MCL injuries the last three seasons before reaching a career high in rushing yards for a season . . . through the first nine games of 2014.  He is on pace for 2,000 rushing and 440 receiving yards while taking the title of unquestionably the NFL’s best runningback. 

            But the winner here has to be the only team to have held Murray under 100 yards in a game, which is precisely what the 7-1 Arizona Cardinals did last week.  If you were to ask at the beginning of the season which NFC team would start out with the best record through eight games, I realistically would have picked eight other teams before the Cards (Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Green Bay, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta).  It’s not as though the Cardinals are statistically blowing opponents away; the Cardinals rank dead last in pass yards allowed, 5th worst in rushing offense, and have only outscored their opponents by a total of 36 points.  Hell, they’ve had to turn to the likes of Drew Stanton, Logan Thomas, and Larry Foote to cement key wins.  They are winning games for two primary reasons: They don’t turn the ball over (six turnovers through eight games) and they know how to win close games.
            Of course on the flip side, you could make the case that moving forward the Cardinals still have to face the 49ers, Lions, Chiefs and two games against the defending champs.  They still have a 35-year-old quarterback who has never won a playoff game and an offense that has eclipsed 30 points only once.  But you could also point to how they have the best secondary in football with the fearsome combination of Cromartie-Peterson-Matthieu and how Deone Bucannon is a viable defensive rookie of the year candidate.  In a year when everything that could go wrong for Seattle and San Francisco has gone really wrong, Arizona has stepped in out of nowhere and played better than anyone could have expected (in its last 17 games, the Cardinals are an amazing 14-3).  I expect nothing less than this team to go on a 2008-like playoff run, and if that is the case, Arians seems like a shoo-in for Coach of the Year, while Palmer (11 TDs, 2 INTs, 99.3 QB rating) could be a front-runner (along with Arian Foster and Kyle Orton) for Comeback Player of the Year.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s hard to find an example of a disappointing team in the group of five AFC teams with losing records (Jets, Texans, Titans, Jaguars, and Raiders).  I don’t think anyone expected New York to be 1-8 at this point but I also don’t think many people realistically estimated substantial growth from Geno Smith or considerable help from 34-year-old Michael Vick.  They’ve also played only one sub-.500 team all season – the Raiders – which accounted for their lone victory.  Their October16 loss to the Patriots on a short week – a loss eerily mirroring their questionably-officiated, game-winning FG victory from last yearwas their 2014 season.  Meanwhile, I would argue that the Jaguars and Raiders are playing much better football than their record would suggest.
            That leads us to the NFC.  A cumulative record of 9-7 for the two best teams of 2013 (the Seahawks and 49ers) has to be considered a disappointment at some level, but both teams have suffered through throngs of injuries on both sides of the ball, along with a pair truly agonizing losses to the Rams.  If you had told Saints fans their team would be 4-4 at the break, you’d be met with some groans . . . but this would be amended after you told them that New Orleans is still the odds-on favorite to win the NFC South.  Atlanta and Carolina are certainly suffering through painful seasons after their successes in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but neither was exactly the Super Bowl favorite coming into 2014.

            Believe it or not, the only team that truly fits the bill for disappointment is the 3-5 Chicago Bears.  They are the very definition of an erratic and frustrating team: 0-3 at home, 3-2 on the road; blowout losses to the Dolphins and Packers, yet a truly impressive victory in San Francisco against the 49ers on national television; statistically outstanding seasons from Jay Cutler (17 TDs, 95.8 QB rating) and Matt Forte (1,000 total yards) but 9 fumbles by Cutler and only 3 rushing touchdowns for Forte.  Most beguiling of all, the Bears haven’t suffered any serious injuries outside of Peanut Tillman, meaning one of two things: Either (A) their starters really are just that bad, or (B) the team has lost focus due to turmoil in the locker room and lack of leadership on the parts of Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Marc Trestman. 
            For the second half of the season, the Bears do get treated to home games against the Vikings, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Saints and Lions, meaning they have ample room make up ground in the NFC North.  But there’s no way of predicting which team will show up on the field on any given day – the one that held the Falcons to under 300 yards of total offense or the team that gave up 21 points to the Patriots in a span of48 seconds.  Is it too late to call up Josh McCown again?

Team to watch in the Second Half: Once again, the disappointing first halves for the Seahawks and 49ers suggest that both teams are more than capable of righting the ship in time for playoff runs virtually everyone banked on going into the season.  Meanwhile, someone has to win the NFC East and while history would suggest that Eli Manning and the Giants can be the beneficiaries of injuries to Nick Foles and Tony Romo, New York has also lost three straight, has to fly to Seattle this weekend, and hasn’t defeated a team over .500.
            There is, however, a 2013 playoff team that no one is talking about because Brady-Manning-Luck have overshadowed the race in the AFC.  This team has victories over the Dolphins, Patriots, and Chargers, and close losses to the 49ers and Broncos.  So yes, while everyone in Jayhawk country spent the majority of the month of October rooting for their incredible baseball team (or rooting unsuccessfully against their odious governor), you could make the case that quietly the 5-3 Kansas City Chiefs are playing the best football in the NFL right now. They have found a legitimately frightening two-headed beast at runningback with the combination of Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, while Alex Smith is completing over 67 percent of his passes – most of which are going into the arms of breakout tight end Travis Kelce (419 yards, 4 TDs).  On defense, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have remained healthy and fearsome, combining for 16 sacks, and the Chiefs defense has given up the fewest points in the AFC (138).

            The problem?  Kansas City has been absolutely incapable of creating turnovers.  Of the five (you read that correctly, five) takeaways they’ve forced through eight games, three came against one opponent (the Patriots, on that memorable Monday night stampeding). Due to the impressive ball control abilities of the offense, the lack of takeaways hasn’t received a lot of notice, but the upcoming return of Eric Berry (out of the lineup since Week Two) should help a secondary that gets stabs at Kyle Orton and Derek Carr twice . . . but also Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, and Ben Roethlisberger.  I’m picking Kansas City here not so much because their schedule is favorable (which it is anyway) but because this is a legitimately talented team with playoff experience that is seriously going under the radar. We all now know what teams in KansasCity – along with their tremendous fans – are capable of.

Coach of the Year: Arians, for the reasons stated in the “Biggest Surprise” category.  But a close second would be Jim Caldwell, who has somehow turned the Lions into the best defense in football.  I don’t have complete faith in their 6-2 record, since two of those games were super-fluky wins over the Saints and Falcons, but Caldwell has done an amazing job of turning around a team that hasn’t had a top-ten defense since 1983.  All the more impressive is that defensive players haven’t revolted in wake of Ndamukong Suh’s lame-duck year.  I guess I just don’t understand how Caldwell is such a good coach – does he motivate his players through stern looks and unrelenting stares into empty space? 

Best Team: Come on.  This isn’t really all that tough, is it?  A month ago, the New England Patriots were sitting at 2-2.  They had two blowout conference losses, a home game against the Raiders they should have lost, and a borderline-unfair win against Matt Cassel and the Vikings the same week the Adrian Peterson scandal broke.  The beloved Belichick-Brady era seemed on its final ropes, as everyone had started predicting as long as five years ago.  “Trading Logan Mankins a week before the season was a terrible idea!” They chimed.  “No one can catch the ball other than Edelman and Gronk!” They proclaimed.  “They’re too old/slow/banged up/inexperienced/unmotivated/overmatched/untalented!” They insisted.
            It’s amazing to me that in year 14 of Brady-Belichick experiment people still don’t seem to realize that the Patriots feed off when the media criticizes them.  No way they can beat the Greatest Show on Turf in an indoors Super Bowl?  Not a problem.  No way they can recover from the penalties and repercussions of SpyGate?  No big deal.  No way they can win games after Brady goes down in the first quarter of Week One?  Nobody cares.  Take your pick of adversity and criticisms this team has faced: Losing Wes Welker and Randy Moss, the Aaron Hernandez saga, Gronkowski’s injuries, Brady’s age, bad officiating, bad drafting, 4th-and-2, and the Manning Brothers (good times and bad). 

            And yet after that shellacking by the Chiefs, the media still insisted that the Patriots were done for.  Don’t get me wrong.  That Kansas City game was terrible.  But as awful as that game was for Tom and company (and the fans that had to watch it), New England has responded with precisely that much more intensity, anger, and outstanding play – and they have done so in spite of losing their best rusher (Stevan Ridley), their best tackler (Jerrod Mayo) and their best defensive lineman (Chandler Jones).  They put up 43 points on the Broncos and the Bengals; Tom went 150 passes without throwing an interception (the one he did throw last week was a tipped pass); and with Brandon Browner back in the lineup, the secondary is pretty clearly the best in the AFC.  And the losses of Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, and Logan Mankins?  Not exactly the first thing on Pats’ fans minds anymore . . .
            So here’s the real question: How far can this team really go?  We’ve heard all these glowing praises before, but the Pats always find ways to shoot themselves in the foot with injuries and inexplicably poor play in January.  They have an incredibly tough slate of games coming up (at Indianapolis, at Green Bay, at San Diego, home for Detroit and Miami; meanwhile, Denver gets Oakland twice).  They haven’t run the ball especially well without Ridley and we all know Gronk could have a fluke injury at any point (every game there’s at least one “hold-your-breath-for-dear-life” moment like this one).  Peyton Manning won’t forget last week any time soon.  But for the time being, I’d take this group against any other team in the league, and the tough schedule will help keep them disciplined in their quest for title #4.

MVP: This is a tough one.  Prior to the last few weeks, the obvious candidate was Murray, a guy who legitimately seemed unstoppable in the rare Adrian Peterson/Jamal Lewis-in-2003/Barry Sanders mode.  And of course Murray could still win it, but two things will almost certainly need to happen: He will need to break the 2,000 rushing yard mark and the Cowboys will need to make the playoffs. 
            Murray supporters will also need to root for more mediocre play from perennial MVP candidates like Brady, Manning, and Aaron Rodgers, but I think the real favorite here has to be Andrew Luck.  He’s on pace for 5,484 yards, which would pass Manning’s record breaking mark from last season.  He has accounted for at least two total touchdowns in every game this season, and hasn’t exactly been able to rely on the ground game of Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw (even though the latter has played better than anyone expected).  If the NFL’s PR campaign wants to brand the league as guys who take the game seriously, have no off-the-field issues, and who are universally loved by seemingly everybody, then Luck is precisely the player they would want to bestow the league’s highest individual honor on.  And let’s be honest – this Colts team is hardly loaded with talent, and a total of zero people were seriously panicked after Indy’s 0-2 start or their defensive meltdown against the Steelers.  Luck just promotes that kind of confidence in this team.
            I write all this and yet (you’re going to hate me for this) my MVP vote goes to Rob Gronkowski.  Simply put, he is the most explosive offensive weapon in football.  You can’t put a linebacker on him because he’s too mobile, but you can’t put a safety on him because he’ll run him over.  You can’t protect against his run-blocking because he’s too dominant, and there’s no way you can guard against him with one-on-one coverage.  And then there are plays like these which he makes once or twice per game, which no one can possibly defend against.  In his five years in the league, no team has sufficiently figured out how to cover him, and if you don’t believe me, take a look at his career game log: 31 five-catch games, 15 100-yard games, and 35 games with a TD. 
            Gronkowski has been the best player in football in 2014 and this is true even considering how limited he was in the Pats’ first four games (he still managed three TDs).  With a healthy Gronkowski, the New England offense is historically great, and this isn’t even factoring in the receiving play of Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, and Shane Vereen.  He has systematically redefined the position he plays – how many players can you say that about?

            So there’s my mid-season report and I’m still not wavering from the Super Bowl pick I made at the beginning of the season: 31-30 Patriots over Seahawks.  Comments?  Questions?  Not enough time spent talking about how great New England is playing?  Write them below! 

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