By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
BASN NFL Midseason Report Cards: The Good, Bad, And Ugly
NORTH CAROLINA — The NFL is now into it’s second half of the season and as always, it’s been a surprising and eventful season.
Teams most experts thought would compete for a championship are struggling including the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, teams most thought would struggle have done well so far and the teams who could surprise in the second half of the season.
We wanted to take the time out to examine the good, the bad and the ugly teams so far this season in the NFL while also giving a grade to match in each categories.The good:
Indianapolis Colts (9-0): Let’s see, Peyton Manning has the highest passing rating in the league, is third in the NFL in passing yardage with 2,527 and has 18 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions, Reggie Wayne is 5th in the league with 774 yards receiving and Marvin Harrison is 4th in the league in receptions with 54 and a 9-0 record once again were normal expectations for the team are all expected from the offense.
What we didn’t expect was the mental toughness the Colts have displayed throughout the season. Impressive and tough grinding wins back-to back at Denver and at New England especially since they defeated both teams last year, should give Colt fans aspirations of finally making the Superbowl with a great opportunity to win it. Grade: A+
Baltimore Ravens (7-2): With apologies to Steve McNair, I don’t think anyone could foresee what the Ravens are doing this season. With the Ravens, you expect Ray Lewis and the defense to be consentient, Jamal Lewis and the running game to be estimable and the offense to be adequate at best. Not this year. Although statistically the Ravens are not amongst the elite teams offensively in the league, the offense under the leadership of McNair has shown the ability to sustain drives, convert on first downs, score when they need to, comeback from deficits and not turned the ball over.
These are all annual qualities of the offense under other quarterbacks prior to McNair. Like the Bears, the Ravens have a tough schedule ahead. Home games vs Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Miami and road games at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Kansas City could prove the difference in a division championship or no playoff appearance at all but because the Ravens are off to such a great start with at least a three-game lead currently, the miscues of the defending champions and the dismay and dispair of the Bengals in the midst of the toughest schedule in the NFL, the playoffs seem very obtainable. Grade A+
Chicago Bears (8-1): The Bears have most of the components to make a run at the big game in Miami this season. A defense that’s ranked No.1 in the NFL in total defense, second in scoring defense and Thomas Jones is 10th in the league in rushing but the team does have some chink in the armor. Their rushing offense is in the bottom half of the NFL, Rex Grossman has shown his inexperience in certain games with disastrous turnovers that proved costly and the Dolphins have shown, if you can force the offense to turn the ball over and get a lead, the Bears have a hard time coming back from a deficit.
However, the Bears are still tough, well coached and very confident but like the Ravens, the second half will be a challenge with road games at the Jets, Patriots and St Louis and home games against the Vikings and Green Bay. If the Bears can win most of those tough games they will set their self up for a great chance to grab the best record in the NFC which means the road to Miami would go through the windy city in the playoffs. Grade: A-
Denver Broncos (7-2): Coming into this season, the Broncos and their fans were left with the question of “What if”after a disappointing loss in the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Steelers. What if Jake Plummer didn’t turn the ball over, what if we stop the Steelers when we needed, what if we won a few more games during the regular season to have home field advantage, what if, what if. Hind site is 20/20 and coach Mike Shannahan and the Broncos decided to put last year’s bitter pill behind them and focused on this season and they have.
Tough losses at St Louis and an even more bitter loss at home against the Colts have been the only bumps in the proverbial road for the Broncos. Overall, the defense is solid, the offense is 4th in the league in rushing and Jake Plummer has played well especially with the acquisition of Javon Walker. The key with the Broncos continues to be quarterback Jake Plummer. Last season, he had an MVP type of REGULAR season but struggled in the AFC Championship game vs the Steelers atrociously. If Plummer can continue to play well and they can take care of business against the Chargers and Chiefs, the immediate future is bright for the mile high team. Grade: A-
San Diego Chargers (7-2): When you think of the Chargers, you think of LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Marty Shotenheimer and those anomalous uniforms. Add one more thought to the team from sunny California…….Philip Rivers. In nine games, Rivers has completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,085 yards with 13 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. The third year player in his first starting role this season has a 100.4 passer rating which ranks second to only Peyton Manning among quarterbacks who’s started all 9 games this season. The Chargers in the past, have been their own worst enemy. Conservative offense and turnovers in the past led to a self-destructive result which usually left them out of the playoffs or left them as a lower seed in the playoffs but the key this year is Philip Rivers.
Although Rivers has only started 13 games in his short career including nine this season, he has shown poise, confidence and football savvy and with the talent around him and the coaches designing plays on offense to put him in positions to make smart decisions and big plays, Rivers should continue to be one of the best quarterbacks this year and year’s to come. The key for Rivers is how he performs in the second half of the season in pressure games and situations against divisional foes like Denver and Kansas City. Grade: A-
New Orleans Saints (6-3): Surprise Surprise! The New Orleans Saints are probably the biggest and most pleasant surprise in the NFL so far this season. Certainly, a lot of football fans and people alike are cheering for the Saints to do well this season and the Saints are trying to give them a reason to cheer for them on the field since most are cheering for the city and state off the field. The Saints are a surprise because most of the key players from last season’s team remain but it is very clear who has made a difference in a team on the brink of a possible division title and playoff run.
Coach Sean Payton has brought a sense of ability, confidence and swagger especially on offense through leadership and play-calling that the Saints have never seen before in franchise history. Payton quickly instilled the winning attitude into a losing franchise while understanding and knowing his personnel and totalizing them to the fullest making him an early favorite for coach of the year. Drew Brees isn’t a flashy quarterback with a strong arm, quick feet or the ability to run but he is steady, smart and solid and is having an MVP like season.
Brees has a quarterback rating of almost 96 but more importantly is the leader of the offense and the team. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes whether it’s an interception, fumble or taking a sack. He understands the game, understands the offense, the personnel and plays within himself while having a drive to win only matched by a few. Everyone is waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop” on the Saints and they fall out of division title contention and playoff contention but I don’t think they will. The Saints have a tough second half schedule as well playing Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Carolina but they are confident and well-coached. If Brees can make the second half feel like “a brees” and they win most of the games particularly the division games, the Saints will be “marching in” to the playoffs this season. Grade: A-
NY Giants (6-3): With the exception of the Sunday night collapse at home vs the Bears, the Giants have played well most of the season. Some were concerned Tiki Barber’s announcement of retirement would be a distraction for the Giants with constant questions about his retirement and other questions that would affect the team’s focus. I never thought it would and it hasn’t. Barber once again leads the NFL in rushing yards and should win the title especially since the player he lost it to by less than 100 yards last season, Shaun Alexander, is out with an injury.
The rest of the offense has weapons like no other with Jeremy Shockey, Plaxcico Burress and others in the running game but the Giants have to be concern about injuries. With Michael Strahan still out, Levar Arrrington and Amonti Toomer both out for the season and other key injuries, the Giants will be tested especially with games remaining against Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington as well as out of division games vs Carolina, Jacksonville and New Orleans. If they can get healthy fast and Tiki Barber and the offense can continue to be multi-dimensional, the Giants can be looking at a division championship and a possible number 1 or 2 seed position in the NFC playoffs. Grade: B+
New England Patriots (6-3): The question on many football minds right now and lately has been, “Is this finally the end of the era for the New England Patriots?” Some say it is, others say no because of two figures: Bill Bellicheck and Tom Brady. Briskly, Belicheck is becoming the second coming of Bill Cowher of coaching in the sense of losing assistant coaches but maintaining the team’s dominance and consistency in the league. Losing Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini should have deposit the Patriots in the basement of the AFC East or at least shut the door on the playoffs and Super Bowl but Belicheck remains steadfast with his 3 time championship team.
Brady, although complaining of losing receivers in the last two years including one time Super Bowl MVP Dion Branch, has flourished in the new look Patriots offense but still lacks the go-to receiver that can get the job done for them especially down the field. The defense, although tough and competitive is getting old and has new faces not to mention injuries in the secondary which was very evident in the lost to the Jets in Foxboro but as long as the Patriots have the two figures, they will have as good a chance to make the playoffs and Superbowl as the other elite teams in the AFC. Grade: B
Seattle Seahawks (6-3): Unlike most of the teams in this category, the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks have decline in numbers especially on offense. Their rushing yards and total offense is down, current MVP Shaun Alexander has been out with an injury and so has quarterback Matt Hasselback. Their defense also has had a sub par year and their takeaway to giveaway is a surprising -3 on the season thus far.
The good thing for the Seahawks is the mediocre division they play in. After defeating their nearest opponent in the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams for the second time this season, the Seahawks are almost assured of winning the division and making the playoffs however another Super Bowl appearance is really uncertain. Grade: B-
Carolina Panthers (5-4): Most experts of the NFL picked Carolina as the representative for the NFC in the Super Bowl in Miami this season but somehow the Panthers didn’t receive the memo. The switch from Stephen Davis to De’Shaun Foster that hasn’t turned out to consistency in the running attack. The injury to Steve Smith early in the season hurt the Panthers early and injuries to linebacker Dan Morgan and the offensive line has set the Panthers back into mere mortal status and into third place in the NFC South division.
The defense is solid led by ALL-WORLD defensive end, Julius Peppers which has kept them in every game they’ve played thus far. Looking at the Panthers second half schedule, the Panthers have some tough games vs Atlanta, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, St Louis and Philadelphia but if they can win their divisional games, they can control their own destiny especially since Atlanta and the up-start Saints, the Panthers can control their own destiny and prove the critics who picked them to make and win the Superbowl accurate in their prediction. Grade: B-
Kansas City Chiefs (5-4): No Dick Vermeil, no problem. Although the Chiefs got off to a tough start, they continued to play hard and suddenly are competing for the AFC West crown and a playoff position. With Trent Green out with a concussion, Damon Huard filled in admirably and even was a difference maker on offense and in games.
Huard was 5-3 as a starter setting up Green and the team in a good position going into this weekend’s game against Oakland at home. If Larry Johnson can run the ball as good as he did last season, an improve defense can continue to play well and Green is over his concussion situation, the Chiefs have an excellent opportunity to win the division and make the playoffs. If Green is ineffective, they have a more than capable back up in Huard to step in and get the job done. Grade: B-
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-4): Who can figure out the Jacksonville Jaguars? They look like a championship team in defeating the Steelers early in the season and then proceed to lose to the Houston Texans not once but twice including last weekend. The quarterback situation is troubling with Byron Leftwich upset because he is not the starter after David Garrard has shown the ability to make big plays with his arm and feet in winning three straight games before slumping against the Texans in the lost.
They’ve also had some injuries to their defense in particular their defensive line and will need to get healthy on that side of the ball fast. With the division crown seemingly out of reach, the Jags will have to focus on just making the playoffs as a wild card but they have to settle their quarterback position and get healthy fast. Grade: B-
Philadelphia Eagles (5-4): The Eagles were one of those teams most experts were really divided on when it comes to predicting the kind of season they would have in 2006. Some felt losing T.O. and other players would lead to a last place finish in the competitive NFC East while others felt a great champion nucleus still remained to propel them into the playoffs once again after a horrendous season last year. So far we still have questions with the Jekyll and Hide Eagles.
After winning three straight games and displaying a high powered offense in wins vs San Francisco, Green Bbay and Dallas, they looked inept in losing three straight games to New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.The up and down season continued when the Eagles came out of their bye week with a vengeance thumping the Washington Redskins 27-3 and moving to within one game of the division leading Giants.
Donovan McNabb is having is healthy once again and is having one of his best seasons ever and has found his new “T.O.” -Dante Stallworth is making big plays down the field and Reggie Brown has finally shown the talent the Eagles anticipated when they drafted him. The defense is adequate and no one has learned to stop Brian Westbrook. Looking at the rest of their schedule, the Eagles can control their own destiny but it will be difficult because 4 of their last 7 games are on the road including three of their last four games at Washington, New York and Dallas. They could make the playoffs but the division crown seems unlikely. Grade: B
Dallas Cowboys (5-4): When I think of the Dallas Cowboys this season, one word comes to mind: Consistency. The Cowboys have only one back to back games this year once when they beat Washington and Tennessee coming off a bye. . Now that Drew “DEADSOE” has been replaced by Tony Romo, the Cowboys offense seems to move the ball better, score more points and Romo is by far a better athlete and gives Dallas another dimension at quarterback with the ability to run the ball.
On defense, the Cowboys are not big but they are fast, athletic and talented and get after the quarterback pretty well. Like the Eagles, the Cowboys sit just one game back of the first place G-Men with the biggest test of their season this week at home vs the only undefeated team in the league, the Indianapolis Colts led by all-world quarterback Peyton Manning. A win against the Colts could spring board the Boys’ confidence and start a winning streak.
Looking at the Cowboys schedule, they play only two more games on the road so the schedule is in their favor but they still have tough opponents in the Colts, Saints, Philly, the Giants, New Orleans and Atlanta. If Romo can continue to give them solid play and make smart decisions at quarterback and the defense can overcome the loss of linebacker Greg Ellis for the season, the Cowboys could quietly sneak up on the Giants and the football world and take the division. Grade: B
NY Jets (5-4): The Jets have surprised many including myself. With the departure of coach Herman Edwards, the health issues of Curtis Martin and key losses on the offense and defense, the Jets were picked by many to be “cellar dwellers” in the weak AFC East division. Enter Eric Mangini and his fresh ideas, no nonsense attitude and Super Bowl experience with the Patriots and you have an ingredient for the surprise team in the AFC.
The Jets have been competitive all year and even won some surprising games including last week’s upset over Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxboro. What was more impressive about last week’s win was the fact they could have been talking about the two wins they had this season and be in first place in the division had they not started slowly in the lost against the Patriots in the Medowlands earlier this year.
Looking at their schedule, the Jets have three of their last seven games on the road against Green Bay, Minnesota and Miami all of which are pretty decent teams. They also play the 8-1 Chicago Bears this week, and winnable home games against Houston, Buffalo and Oakland. The Jets chances for a wild card are pretty favorable but a division title is unlikely. Grade: B
Atlanta Falcons (5-4): Atlanta’s chances of a division championship and a trip to the Super Bowl are in the hands (or sometimes out of the hands) of quarterback Michael Vick. Vick, like the team, has been up and down this year and lately more down then anything else. The Falcon coaches have tried desperately to re-shape the west coast offense to Vick’s talents and skills to no avail. Vick has shown flashes of dominance against the Steelers and Bengals and then seemed lost against weaker opponents in Detroit and Cleveland.
It’s not all Vick’s fault as the offensive line has not played well and the defense secondary looks old and out of touch. The pressure up front they had from the defensive line has been in consistent and some question the trade that send TJ Duckett away for an overrated Ashley Lilee from the Broncos. If the Falcons are to make the playoffs, they must get Mr. Vick back to utilizing his feet and arm more and put him in better situations to make plays and Vick can’t continue to have games where he is 19-40 with 3 interceptions and a costly fumble late in the game especially with divisional games vs Tampa, Carolina and division leader New Orleans on the horizon. Grade: B-The Bad:
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6): Oh how the mighty have fallen. Just nine months ago, the Steelers and their fans were floating on air after winning their fifth Super Bowl and first in over 26 years. Ben Roethlisberger, although struggled in the big game, was the toast of Pittsburgh, and unlike Lynn Swann, Hines Ward could have run for governor and actually won and Jerome Bettis rode off into the sunset………in his bus. Fast forward to November and the Steelers are on the brink of missing the playoffs and losing the opportunity of defending their crown.
What went wrong? Well you can read my article on Black Athlete to find out the answer to that question(shameless plug). What needs to go right for the Steelers is NO MORE TURNOVERS. If you look at the three games the Steelers won, they had a turnover or less, in the six losses they averaged nearly 4 per game. An abundance of those miscues fell squarely on the shoulders of Big Ben and the burden of turning the team around will begin with “Big Ben” too. The defense must also force turnovers to be successful and get to the quarterback because of the struggling secondary. Offensively, they must get back to running the football because that takes pressure off of Rothlesburger and the passing game.
The Steelers, known for running the ball and usually are in the top five in rushing offense are not even in the top 10. Even the Eagles averaged more yards per game on the ground than the Steelers. This is still a good football team with a lot of talent but if coach Cowher and his band of warriors in the black and gold want to defend their title, it must begin with discipline on defense and no mistakes on defense. With a huge game at Baltimore in two weeks, they better not overlook or take the Cleveland Browns lightly this week. Grade: D
Cincinnati Bengals (4-5): Some experts felt Cincinnati would be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl this season but I wasn’t one of them. I am not an expert but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at several factors: Carson Palmer is coming off a horrific injury in the playoff game against the rival Steelers, the defense lacks talent and play makers, the team had so many players with off the field problems in the off season and during this season and they have the toughest schedule in the league.
Not exactly components for success but a recipe for disastrous. Palmer has shown flashes of his old self but not enough and opponents have learned how to shut down and frustrate the colorful one, Chad Johnson. With games remaining at New Orleans, at Indianapolis and at Denver and divisional home games against the Ravens and Steelers, even if they improve as a team, the schedule is too tough and I can’t see them making the playoffs this season. Grade: C
Minnesota Vikings (4-5) The Vikings got off to a fresh start and great start under new coach Brad Childress but have stumbled lately. Over-confidence on defense and the lack of scoring on offense has taken them from a 4-2 start to three straight losses scoring a total of only 27 points in the three games(and average of only 9 points per game).
Brad Johnson is an aging quarterback with not a lot of mobility and needs a solid running game to take some of the pressure away from him and a offensive line who can protect him. They have not had either the last few weeks. Chester Taylor has not shown the kind of running ability in games when they needed him and the defense hasn’t played well in key situations. Both need to change if the Vikings want to compete for a wild card spot which will be tough after losing at home to the Packers and Bears already. They have three tough road games at Green Bay, Chicago and Miami but games at home against the Dolphins, Jets, Arizona and St Louis are definitely win able. With the Vikings, it’s easier said than done. Grade: C
St. Louis Rams (4-5): If the Rams miss the playoffs they will look back on 2006 and summarize their season with two words: “Blown Chances”. The Rams have the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks on the ropes twice this season and lost both games on last second field goals which could of made their record 6-3 instead of 4-5. Win those two games and the Seahawks would be looking up at the Rams at 6-3 and in first place rather than the opposite. The Rams still have an arsenal on offense led by quarterback Marc Bulger, Torry Holt, Issac Bruce and Stephen Jackson. The problem is missed opportunities during games, blown coverages on defense and penalties.
Despite all of this, the Rams were not picked to do much this season so a 4-5 record is better than some thought. If they want to make a playoff run they must start with a win at Carolina which will be a tough task but the schedule is definitely in their favor. With games remaining on the road at Carolina, Oakland and Minnesota and home games versus San Francisco, Chicago, Arizona and Washington, the Rams have the inside track to a wild card berth if they can limit mistakes and finish games. Grade: C
Green Bay Packers (4-5): After the big win on the road at Minnesota, Packer fans of Brett Favre are yelling at the top of every hill and mountain proclaiming “BRETT FAVRE STILL CAN PLAY THIS GAME AT A HIGH LEVEL”. Not so fast. I respect the compete nature and desire to win of Favre but let’s keep things in perspective. The Packers and Favre have four wins over Detroit, Miami, Arizona and Minnesota which are all average to mediocre teams at best. On the flip side, the Packers and Favre have lost to Chicago, New Orleans, St Louis, Buffalo and Philadelphia and were dismantled in three of those games.
I like the up tempo fast and furious style the Packers display on offense but it’s only been affective against weaker opponents. Donald Driver is one of the top receivers in the league and is having a great season but Favre needs another receiver to compliment Driver and a consistent running game. The defense is young and overwhelmed and is not a defense you can rely on especially to make a playoff run. Looking at their remaining 7 games, I can only see them with a chance to win two of them(against San Francisco and Detroit). Nice story and comeback for Favre, but no playoffs for the cheese heads. Grade: C-
San Francisco 49ers (4-5): The 49ers like the Saints and Jets have been a pleasant surprise. Who would have thought the 49ers would have identical records as Cincinnati, Minnesota and St Louis and have a better record than the Steelers, Buffalo, Miami and Washington? I certainly didn’t and it’s a credit to head coach Mike Nolan and his staff instilling a “never quit” mentality into the team.
Quarterback Alex Smith, has shown signs of becoming a star and has made strides as a leader this season and Frank Gore has run the ball pretty well for the young 49ers. The defense competes every game and puts the offense in a position to have a chance to win in most of the games but they are still learning too. Their is no playoffs this season for the young 49ers but the future is definitely bright to contend for the playoffs in the years to come. Grade: C+
Miami Dolphins (3-6): The Miami Dolphins had all the makings of dethroning the Patriots as AFC East champions, making a playoff run and even playing the Superbowl in their own stadium. Then they had to play the actual games this season. Like the Steelers, the Dolphins have under achieved immensely to the point of “fire Nick Saban” rumblings have surfaced in the land of the Fins.
We now know Daunte Culpepper rushed back on the field to play too soon and now he still has pain in the knee he destroyed in the game last year at Carolina. Joey Harrington hasn’t exactly set the NFL world on fire with his play, the running game led by Ronnie Brown has been insufficient and the wide outs have not done a good job in getting open. The defense has been the saving grace especially in upset wins over Chicago and Kansas City but they need help from the offense. From the too little too late category, the Dolphins will probably finish strong as they did last season and just like last season, they will not make the playoffs. Grade: D
Buffalo Bills (3-6): The Bills are not only one of the most inept teams, they are one of the most boring. No imagination on offense, no play makers on defense and a coach in over is head. Dick Jauron is a great defensive coordinator but not a good coach and the Bills would be in a better position had they not let Mike Mularkey go. Mularkey design plays to J.P.Losman’s strengths instead of putting him in positions to make mistakes.
He’s not the type of quarterback that will win games for the Bills he needs to get help from the skill position players, the running game and the defense in order to win which is something they haven’t done this year. Look for the Bills to continue to struggle on offense and struggle to win games the remainder of the season and if it continues next season, look for Dick Jauron and even Losman to be gone at the end of next season. Grade: DThe Ugly:
Cleveland Browns (3-6): No offense and a QB still learning. Grade: D+
Oakland Raiders (2-7): No offense, a quarterback still learning but the defense has surprisingly battled. Grade: D+
Houston Texans (3-6): The defense has improved and they have two wins over Jacksonville but still has problems on the offensive line and the offense. Grade: D
Tennessee Titans (2-7): Vince Young is talented and will have success in the NFL, but they are rebuilding and have no real talent on offense and defense. Grade: D-
Washington Redskins (3-6): Some have them making the playoffs, I didn’t. No quarterback equals no wins. Mark Brunell didn’t throw many interceptions but he couldn’t find the end zone either. With an overrated defense, an inept offense and coach who seems surprisingly over his head, the Redskins seem to have taken a major step back which will probably cause coach Joe Gibbs to retire once again. Grade: F
Detroit Lions (2-7): No more predictions Roy Williams, just keep catching passes as you have. The Lions are the type of team that plays hard against tough teams and not play as hard against inferior teams. The Lions have play makers especially on the offensive side of the ball and not much talent on defense. If they can take care of the football and execute,they can and should win more games. Grade: F-
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-7): They lost their quarterback an had to go with an inexperience quarterback, no receivers, and an old, overrated defense an a overrated coach. High Expectations but little results.Grade: F-
Arizona Cardinals (1-8): What can you say?Not much positive when it comes to the Arizona Cardinals. Edgerrin James hasn’t made a difference at all largely because of their pathetic offensive line, their defense has promise but are still a year or two away with draft picks and Dennis Green has coached this year “Not to lose his job” rather than coaching to win.
Is it time to say Dennis Green is overrated? Whether he is or isn’t and even if the Cards win some games in the down the stretch, they will not make the playoffs which is what Dennis Green was brought in to do. He will not be back next season. Grade: F