Since we're at the midway point of the season, I'm shying away from my normal format of responding to readers' questions and will reveal my first-half awards. Next week, we'll return to the standard Q&A, so please send me a question and check next Wednesday's column.
Here are the honorees for the first half of the 2007 season:
1. Top offensive and defensive player?
There have been a number of impressive offensive performers, but this one is a no-brainer: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. For all his success in previous years, this year Brady is in a different situation with all the talent around him at wide receiver. He's not quite accustomed to spreading the ball around like this and keeping everyone happy, but he's been flawless in that regard. A lot of people think it's easy, but it's not. And for anyone who thinks it's easy just to throw the ball up and have Randy Moss go get it, talk to the quarterbacks in Oakland. Brady has developed chemistry with Moss in a short time the way that Daunte Culpepper and Randall Cunningham did previously.
Defensively, I have to give the nod to Indianapolis Colts strong safety Bob Sanders. There's a tremendous difference in that unit when he's on the field and when he's not. When it comes to size (5-foot-8, 206 pounds), he might be the best pound-for-pound defender in the game. He's a small guy in a big man's position.
2. Top offensive and defensive rookie?
Uh, let me think long and hard about this. Yeah, right! Another no-brainer: Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. We all knew coming into the season that he possessed great size (6-1, 217) and speed, but I'm not sure we've seen this combination since Bo Jackson. However, Bo didn't have quite the skill set that Peterson offers. Bo had the speed, but he wasn't a great technical runner. He wasn't nearly as elusive as Peterson. This kid has the ability to run through tackles, make people miss in the open field and rarely gets caught from behind. One thing I will say though: Folks are already suggesting that he's the best running back in the league. That's premature talk. He's not savvy enough in pass protection and he's not a dynamic receiving threat yet. I don't care how many yards he has, I'm not going to say he's better than LaDainian Tomlinson right now.
Defensively, this one is pretty tough because there's not a rookie defender having nearly the same impact as Peterson or Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch. New York Jets linebacker David Harris gets consideration for recording 20 solo tackles against the Washington Redskins Sunday. However, I'll lean toward San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who has stepped into that unit and easily leads the team in tackles (83 total).
3. Top coaching performance?
There are a lot of good choices here. There will be a lot of sentiment for guys whose teams are off to surprising starts: Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants, Rod Marinelli of the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy, who has done a terrific job of getting Brett Favre to work on his fundamentals and improve his game, and the team's performance. One candidate who is getting overshadowed is the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy. It's easy to ignore a guy who perennially starts the season winning his first seven games. However, you have to look at the challenge of getting your team to consistently play on a high level, despite the fact that they're constantly losing talented players through free agency and are forced to rely on young replacements. It's not easy, but Dungy makes it look that way.
While all of those candidates are extremely worthy, I have to give the nod to New England's Bill Belichick. There's been so much attention on all of the great playmakers the Pats acquired in the offseason. However, the key is finding guys who fit into the system. Not only has Belichick again displayed the ability to juggle personalities and get guys to perform their roles, but he has managed to keep them highly motivated. There have been all kinds of distractions since the offseason, but he's once against successfully implemented the "us against the world" attitude that is working to perfection. The Patriots have been an incredible story so far this year, but the best thing coming out of New England is the great coaching of Bill Belichick.
4. Top comeback player?
Speaking of New England, Moss is easily the pick here. The amazing thing to me is, Randy's not just getting back to the level he once played; he's rising above the high standards he's already set for himself. You don't see the mental lapses that occurred with the Vikings and Oakland Raiders. He's playing every snap and finishing his routes. You expect a guy to give his all when he steps out on the field and it's refreshing to see Moss doing that now.
5. Biggest surprise?
The Cincinnati Bengals have been a major disappointment. When you look at all the star power, the fact that they have a quarterback in Carson Palmer who is regarded by many as the third-best at his position, it's ridiculous for them to be in this position. Yes, they've been hit with injures, but I have long felt that all the character issues would eventually catch up with them. They do not have great leadership on the field. The selfishness and "me, me, me" stuff get you nowhere. Furthermore, coach Marvin Lewis is reminding us of the Baltimore Ravens' Brian Billick. He was brought in because of his expertise on one side of the ball, but has been unable to improve the defense.
Bonus: Will the Patriots go 16-0?
Yes. I thought in Week 2 after they destroyed the San Diego Chargers on primetime that they had a great chance. Now, following the win against Indy, I'm convinced that they don't have any glaring weaknesses. This "Spygate" controversy has given them tremendous incentive to put a major hurting on everyone they play, and they have a good mixture of veterans and young guys to remain focused and keep things under control.
- Bill Belichick