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08 Nov 2012

Film Room: Midseason Pro Bowl Team, NFC

by Andy Benoit

(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's midseason Pro Bowl teams. -- Aaron Schatz)

With the elections finally ending, football fans can shift their voting focus back to the NFL. Pro Bowl ballots opened a few weeks ago. With most of the teams having played exactly half their schedule, it’s time for a look at midseason honors. This NFC Pro Bowl roster represents one man’s opinion, based on what the film has shown this season. (Players are listed in order of merit.)


Quarterback (3)

Matt Ryan, Falcons
Ryan has responded to Dirk Koetter’s new offense quite well, wouldn’t you say? Most encouraging is how comfortable he looks throwing from a muddied pocket.

Eli Manning, Giants
Week 9 struggles aside, having the best season of his (we’re now realizing) illustrious career.

Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Dropped off the radar just a bit due to a slow start. But nine games in, despite injuries at wide receiver and problems along the offensive line, he has 25 touchdowns and just five interceptions, leading the Packers to a 6-3 record. Give him the defense Jay Cutler has (Cutler is playing extremely well, by the way) and the Packers would be undefeated.

Running Back (3)

Adrian Peterson, Vikings
Showing absolutely zero signs of any lingering knee issues. If anything, he’s been better than he was before.

Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks
Tenacious as ever, but Lynch is also showing patience and vision behind Seattle’s zone-blocking line. Without him, the Seahawks offense would be spinning mud.

Frank Gore, 49ers
Averaging well over 5.5 yards per carry in an offense that opponents know is going to run the ball.

Wide Receiver (4)

Victor Cruz, Giants
Ability to generate late movement on routes makes him the toughest one-on-one cover in the NFC -– especially when he’s coming out of the slot.

Roddy White, Falcons
Percy Harvin has been great, but White has been nearly just as versatile. The Difference is, from a pure wide receiver standpoint, White is the more refined (and therefore more dangerous) player.

Brandon Marshall, Bears
Marshall has been everything Chicago’s offense needed as a possession receiver. And somehow, despite ho-hum speed, he has an ability to get downfield, too.

Calvin Johnson, Lions
With Megatron and the Lions offense having somewhat of a down year (by their standards), you could make strong arguments for Harvin, Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald and Marques Colston in this spot. But what’s easy to forget is that none of those guys, not even Fitzgerald, command the type of everydown attention that Johnson gets.

Fullback (1)

Henry Hynoski, Giants
At times, he has almost been like a sixth offensive lineman coming out of the backfield.

Tight End (2)

Jason Witten, Cowboys
Jimmy Graham is a more dynamic player, but game plan-wise, he hasn’t contributed nearly as much to New Orleans’s offense this season as Witten has to Dallas’s.

Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
Gonzalez makes it nearly impossible for defenses to guard Julio Jones and Roddy White the way they’d like to.

Offensive Tackle (3)

Joe Staley, 49ers
Not a stalwart, but he has developed into the most stellar pass-protecting outside lineman in the NFC. And, of course, he’s also adept in the run game.

Matt Kalil, Vikings
Adrian Peterson’s favorite lineman throws one of the best pass-blocking punches in the game. It’s evident that this sport comes very naturally to the No. 3 overall pick in this year's draft.

Sam Baker, Falcons
Baker has quickened his feet in pass protection after losing his starting job at one point last year.

Guard (3)

Mike Iupati, 49ers
Tremendous movement skills for a man with his power.

Kevin Boothe, Giants
Gets to the second level as a run-blocker and has been a key contributor on the most unified, consistent pass-blocking line in the league.

Jahri Evans, Saints
If New Orleans ran more, we wouldn’t forget how gifted he is so easily.

Center (2)

Max Unger, Seahawks
Unger's mobility and knack for delivering well-angled blocks in space are key to Seattle’s zone efforts.

John Sullivan, Vikings
Sullivan's an up-and-comer with good feet in confined areas. Improved strength has means he is no longer a liability in pass protection or inside road-grading.


Defensive End (3)

Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants
Always dominates in ways the stats don’t show. (Plus his stats are pretty darn good.)

Chris Clemons, Seahawks
Quietly one of the most explosive edge-rushers in the league. Supple strength makes him very good against the run, too.

Jared Allen, Vikings
Productive as ever. And another star who is also better than his stats.

Defensive Tackle (3)

Henry Melton, Bears
Splendid one-gap shooter who’s a perfect fit in Chicago’s scheme.

Justin Smith, 49ers
Just about everything the Niners do with their dynamic front seven hinges on him eating up blocks.

Brandon Mebane, Seahawks
A stout run-stuffing nose tackle who plays with near-flawless leverage and lateral strength. Mebane is also capable of pressuring the passer, particularly with second efforts late in the down.

Inside Linebacker (2)

Brian Urlacher, Bears
Urlacher fills run gaps as effectively as anybody in the game. He's also started making plays in coverage after seemingly overcoming the knee issues that hounded him early in the year.

NaVorro Bowman, 49ers
It’s a tossup between Bowman and Patrick Willis. Bowman has done slightly more in San Francisco’s dime package, but we’re splitting hairs between two elite players. Perhaps the fair thing to do is leave both of them out and just go with Daryl Washington. The third-year Cardinal has been outstanding in all facets this season, particularly on passing downs.

Outside Linebacker (3)

Clay Matthews, Packers
The swiftest front-seven force you’ll find these days. He stands out on film more consistently than anyone in the league.

Aldon Smith, 49ers
In his second year, Smith has maintained his dominance as a pass-rusher while improving dramatically as an edge-setter against the run.

DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys
The linchpin to Rob Ryan’s pressure packages. Can command double teams on non-passing downs, too.

Cornerback (3)

Charles Tillman, Bears
Turnover creating machine who can also line up and simply stop opposing No. 1 receivers.

Richard Sherman, Seahawks
The obnoxiously-cocky second-year pro is every bit as good as he thinks he is.

Tim Jennings, Bears
In addition to six interceptions, he’s also been outstanding in run support.

Strong Safety (1)

William Moore, Falcons
A wider array of responsibilities has turned him into an adequate cover guy who still has a big-hitter mentality.

Free Safety (1)

Dashon Goldson, 49ers
He doesn’t quite have Earl Thomas’s range, but his speed is still well above-average. Goldson has a great feel for positioning in San Francisco’s two-deep man scheme.


Kicker (1)

Blair Walsh, Vikings
His outstanding accuracy is all the more impressive when you look at the distance he’s kicking field goals from.

Punter (1)

Andy Lee, 49ers
Lee's power and placement skills are always unparalleled in the NFC.

Return Specialist (1)

Devin Hester, Bears
Big plays haven’t been there quite as much this season, but Hester still alters field position by simply walking out on to the grass.

Follow @Andy_Benoit
email andy@footballoutsiders.com

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 08 Nov 2012

56 comments, Last at 12 Nov 2012, 10:43am by kamiyu206


by Mike J (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 12:19pm

Amazingly, there is word that Goldson might be a free agent in 2013.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:59pm

Goldson is playing under the tag this year, however, if the niners tag him again it will still be for less than he wanted last year before they tagged him.

I'd add that as a niner fan, I'd pick earl Thomas at free safety, outstanding player.

by commissionerleaf :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 6:49pm

I don't see Goldson as a great safety. I see him as a guy contributing to a great defense that generates a strong pass rush and frees him from underneath coverage responsibilities.

That's not nothing, but Thomas is a more valuable player to his team and I'd put Morgan Burnett up there too.

by TwoScoops :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 12:39pm

Does anybody else find it wrong that there are 2 safetys on the ballot as opposed to 3 QBs and 3 RBs? It seems like those proportions might be off.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 12:47pm

I can't tell you how depressing it is for a Vikings fan that an offense with Kalil, Sullivan (who is so much better than he was two years ago that it can barely be believed), Peterson, and Harvin, with a Jared Allen and some other significant talent on the other side of the ball, won't be playing a meaningful game in December, in all likelihood.

Nothing matters except qb play, it seems sometimes. I'll say it again; football is a better game when the qb is not the equivalent of the starting pitcher.

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 12:59pm

I see your point (and I've agreed with it in the past) but I think this year we have teams competing without great QB play.

The Bears are obviously the best example. Now, they have a once-every-five-years type of defense right now (best I've seen since the '02 Bucs), but they are 7-1 with Cutler having an average year. Statistically, Alex Smith is having a good year, but he's not a 'elite' QB and that team is at it again. Even Eli has regressed to pre-2011 Eli and that team is doing well. The best QBs this year all have three losses on their resume (Manning, Rodgers, Brady, Ben) and the Texans aren't 7-1 mainly because of Schaub.

This might all change come January, but I think I'm happy that the top teams so far in 2012 are more well-rounded and less of the all-offense juggernauts we saw in Green Bay, New England and New Orleans last year.

In a way, this season reminds me a lot of 2008. The offensive levels are still very high (I think about 15 QBs are on pace for 4,000 yards) and those teams are still winning, but the best teams aren't defined by their offense. In 2008, the best team who's best unit was their passing game was probably the #4 seeds in both conferences (Arizona and San Diego). The top two teams in the NFC that year were defined by their run games (Giants, Panthers), while this year it is good play everywhere (Atlanta) and an exceptional defense (Chicago), while the next up is a mix of both (San Francisco). In the AFC, the best team is defined by its defense and play-action game built off their run game (Houston) and then a bunch of pass-first teams (Denver, New England, Pittsburgh).

by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:41pm

Well, the Bears are obviously showing that a team can still ride a dominant defense into title contention, although I'd argue that Cutler's performance is still being significantly constrained by poor offensive line play.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not disappointed that the Vikings aren't title contenders with poor qb play. I'm disappointed that really good o-line play, paired with a great running back, and non terrible defense, can't even play a game in December that means anything. Hell, they might be finished before Thanksgiving.

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:05pm

Well, the Vikings defense is also suspect. They're 18th right now by DVOA. Though now that I look closer, the difference between pass defense and run defense is striking.

I don't know if the Vikings are demonstrating the importance of QB or just the passing game in general.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:44pm

I think that they are really showing that really good o-line play, even when paired with a great running back, doesn't amount to much any longer, in and of itself.

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:28pm

Sure, but when was the last time that a good running game, average defense, and poor passing game lead to playoff contenders?

by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 4:43pm

I'd have to go back and check every 8-8 team for the last 25 years. My guess would be that some Schottenheimer teams fit the mold.

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 4:57pm

The other problem is just how stacked the NFC is.

If the Vikings were in the AFC West or South, they're probably be right there.

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 5:56pm

The 2004 Falcons are an example. Ranked by DVOA as #17 on defense, #3 run offense and #31 pass offense.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 6:10pm

The last year when dbs could more freely jam receivers, making offensive line play more important than is now the case.

I know I keep telling those damned kids to get off my lawn, but I'm tellin' ya', it was a better game when offensive line play was more important. So get off my lawn!!!!

by dmstorm22 :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 7:28pm

Wasn't '04 the first year of the increased enforcement.

Polian complained after the 2003 Title Game. 2004 was the first year of the offensive explosion. Manning had his 49 TD season, Culpepper had 39 TDs, McNabb went 31/9.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 9:07pm

Stop messing with my narrative!

by centja1 :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 12:59pm

Please check your selection at punter. Thomas Morestead is the leader in both gross and net average by quite a bit

by Dean :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:08pm

Yes, but New Orleans is 3-5.

by LionInAZ :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 6:01pm

Are you saying that's the punter's fault?

by Dean :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 9:23am

No. I'm saying that apparently Rivers is just as guilty as anyone else in Big Media when it comes to loading up all pro selections from teams with winning records.

by Roch Bear :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 1:48pm

Perhaps. But the fact that a punter leads the conference in gross and net does not, for me, close the case that the punter is the best. Not only is there the 'where did the kick take place' correction. There is also the "my special teams coordinator said kick the thing for massive hang time" adjustment (which, of course, does not show up in gross but should influence net). For me, gross is useless, net is valuable but still strongly influenced by the other 10 guys. Additionally the long snapper can have a major effect.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 6:16pm

Those stats are dependent on the quality of his team, if a punter is seeing a lot of short fields then both of his averages will drop. Last year Lee was amazing but with the niners actually moving the ball for once it is not a surprise to see his averages falling. New Orleans have been moving the ball less capably than normal and so their punter's conventional numbers will have received a boost.

by centja1 :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 6:32pm

New Orleans Punting DVOA is 7.4, San Francisco Punting DVOA is 5.0 (edited to say those numbers may be VOA, I'm not sure)

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 6:51pm

Actually, I believe those numbers are success points, not (D)VOA. Which makes it a counting stat, not a rate stat.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 7:08pm

Indeed but those numbers are influenced by the coverage teams and the opponent, even after the opponent adjustment. The 49ers' coverage teams have been very hit and miss this season with CJ Spillman in particular giving away some unfortunate penalties, they also suffer from a Randall Cobb TD return that should have been called back. The gross punting figure is the only stat that is discrete from the other players but as I pointed out is influenced by other factors out of the punter's control. The point I'm trying to make is that there isn't a perfect statistic for measuring the performance of a punter.

Andy Lee has been very, very good even if his numbers are depressed from last year. I would add that I haven't seen much of Morestead to compare.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 1:56pm

"Bowman has done slightly more in San Francisco’s dime package"

This false perception results from the Green Bay game when FOX kept showing Willis every time he was on the sideline and Bowman was still in. The reality is that they alternate who stays in the dime package by series and in that game the pack drove more effectively when it was Bowman's turn to stay in. If anything that means that the defense did a better job getting off the field when Willis was in.

As for the pick at MLB, if I had three I'd take Willis, Bowman and Washington. I love Urlacher, always have but he's looking like he's slowing down this year. He's still making plays but I get the impression that for the first time in his career he's getting more help from his team mates than they draw from him, which took long enough and also shows how good the rest of the Bears defense has become.

Briggs though should find his way onto this team, he might have been the most impressive second level defender in the first half of the year. Push Matthews into Clemons' defensive end spot and put Briggs in at OLB.

Moore is having a really good year, he deserves it having grown up through some really tough times.

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:28pm

3-4 vs 4-3 is really screwing up defensive probowl selections.

Maybe instead of AFC vs NFC we need 4-3 and 3-4 teams.

by justanothersteve :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 3:19pm

Would that also be true of offenses? Some teams use 3WR/ 1TE/ 1RB, some 2WR /2 TE/ 1RB, and some still use 2WR/ 1TE/ 2RB as their base set. (And then there are teams like Green Bay and New England that run all sorts of crazy formations.)

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 3:23pm

This isn't as big of a problem since New England is the only team I know of that has a #2 TE who should be anywhere near a probowl, and very few teams have 3 receivers worthy of a selection.

by Duke :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 4:10am

Agreed on the LBs...Urlacher has been okay this season, but not the Urlacher of old, or really a top-tier performer. Briggs, on the other hand, has been his usual fantastic.

Urlacher has been looking better the past few weeks (incredibly slow interception returns nonwithstanding), so he might get into the conversation as the year continues.

by theslothook :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 5:33am

Not sure this is true Karl,

I read an article that linked to a site that was measuring snap counts and they noted that Bowman has overall played more snaps when the 49ers go dime than Willis. Pff also noted that they do more with Bowman in terms of blitz than Willis.

I might suspect this is of the small sample size variety of conclusions, but honestly, I think it does speak volumes when the supposed best MLB in the nfl has played less snaps than other MLB on the team. Of course, saying Willis is now 1b to Bowman's 1a really shouldn't be too disappointing to 49er fans.

by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 1:55pm

The SF press were driven into a flurry of questions when they saw Bowman in the game ahead of Willis and as a result they asked about it really quite a lot, so much that they were able to get some answers out of the normally taciturn staff. I agree that it speaks highly of Bowman's ability and that it's a good thing for the niners (if they can keep Bo). Bowman is a better blitzer than Willis, who seems to have regressed at that and gets a little stiff where Bowman shows more ability to dip and slide past his man.

by Dean :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:12pm

Chris Clemons has never been good against the run. Robert Quinn has just as many sacks and is a more complete player.

by Hawks (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:26pm

Did you really just list Brian Urlacher on there b/c he scored a TD last week? HAHAHA

Willis and Bowman...no one can even sniff their talent at the ILB position in the NFC, let alone the league.

by TomC :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:35pm

I love me some Devin Hester, but there must be somebody who's producing more in the return game this year. I don't think Hester is really altering how teams kick---except Ron Rivera's team---and he's only broken one return all year.

EDIT: Hint, this might be a way to get that Harvin fellow (36 y/KR, 1TD) on the team after all.

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:45pm

There are only 4 NFC teams with positive values for both kick and punt returning. Minnesota, Chicago, Greenbay, and San Francisco. No team is better than Chicago at both, though Minnesota is much better at kick returns, and San Fran is better at punt returns.

You could pick Percy Harvin, but he doesn't handle punt returns.

Likewise, the 49ers have Willians and Ginn sharing return duties.

by KB (not verified) :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 6:15am

I think a pretty convincing argument could be made for Randall Cobb. I mean he has more attempts all together on both punt and kick returns while averaging 1 yard more on KR and 2 more yards on PR.

According to NFL.com Cobb has a TD on a PR while Hester does not. Also Hester hasn't had a 40+ yard KR this year while Cobb has 2.

Based on these stats I find it a bit ridiculous that Hester would get this honor. There are a few players with better statistical years. To say because of his reputation he deserves it is a bit annoying. If that is the case I believe Tim Mashtay deserves to be the NFC Pro Bowl Punter. He seems to dominate the field position battle against Hester the last few games. They don't seem afraid to kick it to him either.

by Guest789 :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 1:36am

This. If it's possible for a punter to be under-rated, Masthay is.


“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

by Chaz (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:41pm

Are you freaking kidding me.... you left out the most dominating defense end in the game today.... J.J. freaking Watt....

You are an idiot.

by Guido Merkens :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:48pm

Hint: which conference does J.J. Watt play in?

by NYMike :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 5:11pm

I just love it when people who make fundamental errors end their posts with "You are an idiot." I love it more when they end their posts with "Your an idiot."

by BigCheese :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 12:30am

Yup. Always love those. Reminds me of all those siple arithmetic posts that have been going around Facebook and keep stumping about 80% of people. It is ALWAYS the ones who get it wrong who are calling others names for having a diferent (including the correct) result.

My favorite one was on a quesion of 80 + 5 x 0 + 5 = ? and the responder just above me wrote "Fasil, es 5" which is the equivalent of writing "that's easi, it's 5"

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by kb (not verified) :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 6:21am

What an idiot. Every1 knows Yx0=0.

by BigCheese :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 3:37pm

This is parody, right? Because the correct answer is 85.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by LionInAZ :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 3:16pm

Associativity is just another Marxist plot! It should be banned from math texts!

by Guido Merkens :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 2:46pm

It's probably time to eliminate the fullback position from the Pro Bowl. Many teams don't even have a fullback on their roster, and very few use one on a majority of their offensive snaps. Hynoski may be having the best fullback season in the NFC, but the Giants' offense would still be 95% as effective without him.

by dbostedo :: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 7:24pm

Change "probably" to "definitely". Having separate "runningback" and "fullback" spots to me is like having "cornerback" and "nickelback" spots.

by ptp (not verified) :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 12:54pm

Seattle's running game makes heavy use of FB Michael Robinson.

by Guido Merkens :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 3:15pm

I'm not saying there aren't exceptions, but you don't have a league-wide Pro Bowl position based on how one or two teams use their personnel. Having a Pro Bowl fullback now is as silly as having a Pro Bowl wildcat QB as a position distinct from regular QB.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 5:52pm

Agree - H-back is almost as relevant these days. A waste of space on the ballot.

by BigCheese :: Fri, 11/09/2012 - 6:26pm

I'd rather see Long Snapper on the ballot than Fullback at this point (and I LOVE the FB position, but let's be realistic).

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by glickmania :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 3:22am

Only 4 teams don't have a FB on the roster (Lions, Colts, Chiefs, Rams). So until the position is actually dead (and not just steadily shrinking) I say leave it on the ballot.

by BigCheese :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 3:46am

That's still 4 more than the number of teams that have no long-snapper, so...

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by glickmania :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 7:25am

... so that means every team kicks punts and field goals. And nothing more. Point is, the position isn't gone and to acknowledge a position over it that doesn't impact as many plays on each game is somewhat silly. Not to mention that FBs can still be actual weapons whereas the LS's role and utility is limited by comparison. And until I see stats that say otherwise FBs see more snaps each week than LSs do.

Yes, a team losing its LS without a competent backup can be catastrophic depending on how many times a snap is needed that game. Same can be said for any team losing a key blocker or even ball carrier in the form of their FB. Special teams already are represented well on the ballot, no need to add a position with comparatively less importance. The big running back is still in today's game just not as much as in the past.

by theslothook :: Sat, 11/10/2012 - 5:38am

I'm not exactly a Brees fan(that meaningless td he threw against the rams just to keep the record going really rubbed me the wrong way), but is there any reason other than wins that Eli is listed over him? I mean, by dvoa and dyar, brees is ranked higher in both categories and had it not been for his stupendously terrible defense, we really wouldn't be discussing whether Brees belongs or not.

by kamiyu206 :: Mon, 11/12/2012 - 10:43am

Gap between Eli and Brees by DVOA or DYAR is small. In terms of both statistics, they have been roughly equal.

Now, considering Eli had some bad plays in meaningless time (check weekly Quick Read) while Brees pad some garbage time stats (especially against the Broncos), and Eli's Giants are enjoying a better offensive season so far than Brees' Saints (check team offensive DVOA), I think Eli deserves the place ahead of Brees.

Of course, I'm talking about Week 1 to Week 9. If we factor in Week 10 performance, then it's a different story.