Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
05 Nov 2008
by Ben Riley and Vince Verhei
After Pittsburgh's 23-6 defeat of Washington, every team in the NFL has now played at least eight games. With the 2008 season officially halfway through, the Scramble team takes a break from its three-week barrage of postmodernism to bestow their midseason awards.
Ben: Michael Roos, left tackle, Titans. I know all that may be said. Yes, Clinton Portis is having a great season, but Ron Jaworski thinks that Jason Campbell is the Redskins' most valuable player to this point, and I'm inclined to agree with him (although neither player exactly tore it up against the Steelers). True, Drew Brees is putting up great numbers, but the Saints may not even make the playoffs. As for Albert Haynesworth, let me generate some controversy: I think he played better last year and that he's become the new Brian Urlacher, i.e., a defensive player who the pundits reflexively praise without actually watching him play. Plus, the Titans are afraid to give him a long-term contract lest his production plummet. That's not MVP performance we can believe in.
In my view, the real key to the Titans' 8-0 start is the outstanding play of their no-name offensive line, and the best player on that line is Taebla, Estonia's, (population 811) native son, Michael Roos. Admittedly, Chris Johnson is a special talent -- more on him in a moment -- but when LenDale White is routinely barreling through the secondary for 50-yard gains, you can be assured that the Titans' offensive line is largely responsible. Plus, they've given up a total of four sacks all year (none by Roos) and routinely allowed Kerry Collins upwards of six or seven seconds to wait for the Titans' talentless group of wide receivers to get open.
Runner-up: Justin Tuck, defensive end, Giants.
Vince: Clinton Portis, running back, Redskins. This is a very weird year for MVP candidates. Generally speaking, most of the best quarterbacks in any given season play on the league's best teams, but that's not the case in 2008. Three of the top four passers in DYAR play for teams that are .500 or worse. Meanwhile, Portis has been by far the league's top running back. Coming into this weekend, he had more than twice as many DYAR as the next highest runner, Michael Pittman. In mainstream stats, Portis is still a dominant leader, putting up 995 yards in the first half of the season. The next highest rusher, Adrian Peterson, is actually closer to sixth-place Marion Barber than he is to Portis. The Redskins are 6-3 and gunning for a wild card berth in the league's toughest division, and Portis is the biggest reason why.
Runners-up: Kurt Warner, quarterback, Cardinals; Drew Brees, quarterback, Saints.
Ben: Joey Porter, linebacker, Dolphins. In this week's comments to Audibles at the Line, "Mark" takes us for task for not writing more about Miami's turnaround this season. Well, Mark, this one's for you: I think the best defensive player in the NFL right now is Joey Porter, and he's the main reason the Dolphins remain in the playoff hunt. Porter already has 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and the league's biggest mouth, but he's backing it up on the field and he must be accounted for on every play.
Runners-up: Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Buccaneers; Nnamdi Asomugha, cornerback, Raiders.
Vince: Albert Haynesworth, defensive tackle, Titans. The best player on the team with the league's best record. He draws double- (and triple-) teams on almost every play, but he still leads the team in sacks, a rare achievement for a tackle. And it's his presence that allows Keith Bulluck and David Thornton to run freely into opposing ballcarriers. There are a bunch of good players here -- Bulluck, Thornton, Chris Hope, Cortland Finnegan -- but Haynesworth is the keystone to this defense.
Runners-up: Nnamdi Asomugha, cornerback, Raiders; James Harrison, linebacker, Steelers.
Ben: Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals. Don't look now, but the Cardinals are currently fourth (!) in total team DVOA for the year, and Whisenhunt deserves most of the credit. It takes guts to bench the alleged quarterback of the future in favor of a 37-year-old whose last full season as a starter was in 2001, but clearly the Cardinals are better off with Warner than Leinart at quarterback. Provided Whisenhunt can curb defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's tendency to outthink himself, this is a team that could make some noise in the postseason.
Runner-up: Tony Sparano, Miami Wildcats.
Vince: Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans. It's easy to see that the Titans are undefeated, name Fisher the Coach of the Half-Year, and move on, but there's more to it than that. The defense is actually significantly better than last season, when they were tops in the league (in a down year for defenses), with almost entirely the same personnel. The offense is generally treading water, improving on the ground and falling back in the air, but stability in this case is a remarkable achievement. This team is winning with Kerry Collins at quarterback and Brandon Jones as the leading wide receiver. And if you think any team with a great ground attack can win in the NFL, I will refer you to the 2007 Vikings. But beyond all that, Collins is only playing because Vince Young, the alleged savior of the franchise, has been beaten both in body and mind. Whenever a coach switches quarterbacks, turmoil should be expected, and this was no normal switch. In this case, police were called over concern the benched player may harm himself. Fisher hasn't let any of this be any kind of distraction, and he's got a flawed team looking at homefield advantage. It's a commendable achievement.
Runners-up: Dick Jauron, Buffalo Bills; Tony Sparano, Miami Dolphins; Jim Zorn, Washington Redskins; Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons. Hell of a year for rookie coaches.
Ben: Chris Johnson, running back, Titans. Watching highlights this week, I saw Matt Ryan execute an amazing play fake where he literally tossed the ball backwards in the air to himself before whirling around and hitting someone (probably Roddy White) for a first down. So if you want to make Ryan offensive rookie of the year, I won't argue with you. That said, let me be candid: I have unhealthy feelings for Chris Johnson. If Adrian Peterson is Purple Jesus, Johnson is my Sapphire Savior, my Cobalt Christ, my Beryl Buddha, my Indigo Vishnu, my Lapus Lazuli Love Machine. Not only is Johnson living proof of the genius of Bill Barnwell's Speed Score, he blocks and runs through defenders like a man twice his size. Now I need a cold shower.
Runners-up: Ryan Clady, offensive tackle, Broncos; DeSean Jackson, wide receiver, Eagles; approximately 14 other rookie running backs.
Vince: Matt Ryan, quarterback, Falcons. Rookie running backs post more great seasons (especially this year) than do rookie quarterbacks. That's why I'm listing Ryan here over Chris Johnson. Ryan is 10th in the league in passing DVOA, and he's doing it with a receiving corps consisting of Roddy White and, well, that's about it. Yes, he's feasted on some bad defenses and struggled against the better ones, and with Detroit, Kansas City, and Oakland in the rearview mirror, I may change my tune eight games from now. But that's just the measurables. Ryan's biggest impact on this team and city has been intangible. After the maelstrom of 2007, the Falcons needed a good, young football player who was only a good, young football player, not a media hype machine or sideshow freak. The fans know that every Sunday, Ryan will show up and do his job to the best of his ability, and he'll usually do it well, and he won't embarrass them with his words or actions. And they needed that so, so badly.
Runners-up: Chris Johnson, running back, Titans; Matt Forte, running back, Bears.
Ben: Chris Horton, safety, Redskins. Taken with pick No. 249 in the 2007 draft, Horton worked his way into the starting lineup in Week 2 and already has almost as many interceptions in the NFL (three) as he did during his career at UCLA (four). Plus, he has a sweet nickname courtesy of Fred Smoot. "He calls me K-Horton," Horton told the Washington Post . "He's like, 'C-Horton's old school. You've got to change your first initial to K and start spelling it new school.' " K-Horton is definitely new school.
Runners-up: Jerod "The Check is in the" Mayo, linebacker, Patriots; Chris Long, defensive end, Rams.
Vince: Jerod Mayo, linebacker, Patriots. The advanced age of the linebacking corps was (and is) a weakness for New England, so they drafted Tennessee's Mayo with the tenth overall pick last April. The youngster has not disappointed. He's the leading tackler on the Pats' 12th-ranked run defense. He's also helped somewhat in pass coverage, where New England ranks 11th in defending tight ends after finishing 21st in that category in 2007.
Runners-up: Brandon Flowers, cornerback, Chiefs; Curtis Lofton, linebacker, Falcons.
Ben: Kurt Warner, quarterback, Cardinals. Halfway through the season, Warner ranks first in Effective Yards (16 more than Brees), second in DYAR, and third in DVOA. Sure, it helps to have Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to throw to, but when Boldin missed two weeks with a broken face Warner didn't miss a beat, throwing to heretofore unheralded wide receiver Steve Breaston. If Warner's pace continues, he will likely win his third NFL MVP award and cement his ticket to Canton. Just an incredible story again.
Runners-up: The Chicago Quarterback Formerly Known as Neckbeard; Jason Campbell, quarterback, Redskins.
Vince: Kyle Orton, quarterback, Bears. Here's part of what I wrote about Orton in PFP 2008: "... in his only season as a starter in 2005, he almost single-handedly kept a great team out of a Super Bowl. Unless he has improved tremendously since then, he belongs on a bench or in the stands." Suffice to say, Orton has improved tremendously since then; his 16.9% DVOA this year blows the -33.8% he posted three years ago out of the water.
Runners-up: Joey Porter, linebacker, Dolphins; Le'Ron McClain, running back, Ravens.
Ben: Miami Dolphins. Last year at this time, as you may remember, the Dolphins were 0-8 and in serious panic mode. One year later, they are in the heart of the playoff race and responsible for introducing the most interesting fad in the NFL since the Icky Shuffle. But while the Wildcat may steal all the headlines, the real surprise down in South Beach is the outstanding play that Parcells-slash-Sparano have coaxed out of Chad Pennington and Joey Porter.
Runner-up: Washington Redskins. (As my friend Tarek never fails to remind me, I predicted Washington would pick first in the 2009 NFL Draft. I was wrong, horribly wrong.)
Vince: Tennessee Titans. Looking back at our Over/Under preview pieces for the AFC and NFC, well, mistakes were made. For example, I actually wrote this sentence: "But as I stand here today, there is no way the Dolphins are going to win six games." It is technically possible that will still be right. But I also picked the Titans to fall short of their eight-win number, and they've already matched that. I thought the defense would decline (it's gotten better), I thought the offensive line would have trouble playing together (I am a fool), I underestimated the impact of Chris Johnson (so did most of the 23 teams who passed on him), and I had no faith in the passing attack (still don't, actually). But they've, well, surprised me.
Runners-up: Miami Dolphins; New York Giants.
Ben: Braylon Edwards, wide receiver, Browns. As a Seahawks fan who still bears the scars from the 2003 season, when Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson combined to drop approximately 1,432 balls, I know the pain Browns fans are feeling right now. Braylon Edwards appeared on the verge of becoming one of the NFL's next elite wide receivers last year; instead, he's largely (though not entirely) responsible for Derek Anderson being sent to the bench this week. I have no idea what the problem is with this guy.
Runners-up: Any of the veteran wide receivers discussed here.
Vince: David Garrard, quarterback, Jaguars. The decline in Garrard's game runs deeper than his statistics (9.9% DVOA this year; 37.4% DVOA in 2007). I knew he would throw more interceptions this year, but there's more to it than that. Last year, Garrard would drop back, read his progressions, and deliver the ball with zip and accuracy. Now, he's dropping back, looking lost, holding the ball, and lobbing change-ups into the hands of defenders. Has the decline in the offensive line left him rattled? Were defenses selling out to stop the run last year, and have they now adjusted? I wish I had the answers to these questions. So does Jack Del Rio.
Runners-up: DeAngelo Hall, cornerback, (ex-)Raiders; Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Steelers (Fourteen total fumbles and interceptions this year after only 18 in all of 2007).
Ben: San Diego Chargers. Some would say the Seattle Seahawks, but after suffering injuries to (deep breath here) the starting quarterback, the starting linebacker, the starting defensive end, and the first-second-third-fourth-fifth-sixth-seventh-and-yes-eighth wide receiver, is it really surprising that they are 2-6? I say no. Instead, I nominate my own personal "Brokeback" team, the San Diego Chargers, because I can't just quit them, even at 3-5 -- although they are really 4-4 using my patented new AVOH (Adjusted Value Over Hochuli) formula. This team should be wiping the floor with the AFC West.
Runner-up: Jacksonville Jaguars. (Where have you gone, Pocket Hercules? The Jaguars turn their lonely eyes to you.)
Vince: Seattle Seahawks. I'm sick of this team. I'm sick of watching them, sick of charting their games, sick of writing about them in Audibles. So rather than talk about them here, I'm going to use this space to eulogize the Tuba Man. Seattle is rife with street musicians, but few stood out like Ed "Tuba Man" McMichael. First of all, he played the freakin' tuba. Second of all, he was -- and I write this with love and admiration, because it was a huge part of his endearing charm -- very, very bad at it. He was a jolly fat guy with glasses and a beard, and usually some goofy headwear like a Dr. Seuss hat. For the past 15 years, Tuba Man would always be seen before and after Seattle sporting events, slowly oompah-oompahing cover versions of Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part 2" or Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." He collected a few odd dollars and made plenty of friends. Then, early in the morning of October 25, Tuba Man was mugged. A police officer who witnessed the attack reported that Tuba Man "on the ground in a fetal position trying to protect himself as the group was kicking and punching him on the ground." Two suspects have been arrested in the attack, with three others still at large. On Monday morning, November 1, Tuba Man passed away. At least three radio stations -- from sports talk to news to classic rock -- are collecting money for a memorial fund, and there is a movement to erect a bronze tuba somewhere near Qwest and Safeco fields. I'll think about the Tuba Man whenever I'm downtown, and I hope that I'll still smile.
Runners-up: Dallas Cowboys; Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jason Beattie is still learning the finer points of diaper-changing. God bless him. Our comic strip returns for good next week.
This week, the Scramble team sends both of our weekly trophies to Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. He gets the Keep Choppin' Wood for needlessly losing a timeout on a pointless challenge as to whether the Colts had 12 men on the field, but he also gets the Colbert Award for Biggest Balls after going for it on fourth-and-15 late in the game. Yes, converting was unlikely, but Matt Cassel's ensuing throw to Bob Sanders served the same as a punt, and the Patriots were out of options (and timeouts). Keep Chopping those Big Balls, Bill.
We've got some big news this week, including the first-half LL wrap-up and a preview of the second half, but first, Week 9's biggest losers:
QB: JaMarcus Russell had nearly as many turnovers (two) as the Raiders had first downs (three), so it's no surprise he scored a 0.
RB: A pair of 2s here, for Antonio Pittman and Rudi Johnson.
WR: Five 1s is good if you're at Subway ("five, five-dollar, five-dollar footloooooooong"), bad in fantasy football. Reggie Williams, Bobby Wade, Brandon Stokley, Santana Moss and Devin Thomas each put up an uno.
K: Two 0s this week. Sebastian Janikowski did the easy way: by never getting a chance to kick. Jason Hanson did it the hard way: by making his only field goal, but going 2-for-3 on extra points.
With that out of the way, let's look at the worst players at each position for the first half:
QB: JaMarcus Russell, 93. It's all Lane Kiffin's fault!!!
RB: Fred Taylor, 72. Looks like the end of the road.
WR: Antwaan Randle El, 49. He's not really having a bad year -- his DVOA is 14.1% -- but he's the third option on the Redskins behind Chris Cooley and Santana Moss. He has only one touchdown in 2008 -- after having only one receiving touchdown two of the previous three years.
K: Adam Vinatieri, 46. Bad fantasy kickers play for bad fantasy offenses. Adam Vinatieri plays for the Colts. Black is white. Up is down.
Finally, it's time to crown our first-half Loser League champion: Fuzzy Wittle Kitten, with a score of 349! The team is owned by Simon McAndrews of New York, New York, who put together this wretched lineup:
QB: JaMarcus Russell, OAK
QB: Jeff Garcia, TB
RB: Willis McGahee, BAL
RB: Chris Perry, CIN
RB: Earnest Graham, TB
WR: Mark Clayton, BAL
WR: Ike Hilliard, TB
WR: Antwaan Randle El, WAS
K: Matt Stover, BAL
K: Olindo Mare, SEA
If you missed out on the first half of Loser League, we've got great news: It's time for the second half! It's the new and improved Loser League, complete with Chaz Schilens and Brooks Bollinger! (Yes, adding Schilens and Bollinger is an improvement.) To join in the fun, click the big purply-blue button at the top of the left-hand column on this page. Or just click here. If you win the second half, you'll get a free copy of the 2009 KUBIAK fantasy football projections -- just like Simon McAndrews will.
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