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Like a promise from the Cleveland Browns, the NFL's midseason awards typically amount to nothing. But that doesn't mean we're going to stop handing them out. Not when there is so much to ponder after the league's first nine weeks.
From the statistical gluttony of quarterbacks to the franchises falling apart at the seams (and all the rookies in between), the first half of 2009 delivered a litany of storylines. So let's get straight to the highlights and lowlights, with only one caveat: The same player or coach can't be given more than one player-centric award. So no doubling up on things like MVP and offensive player of the year.
With that in mind, on to the midseason awards …
Really, what more can be said about this play? It was the kind of thing 10-year-olds dream up in their backyards. And the 32-yard touchdown catch was just as amazing as the throw. First you have the Minnesota Vikings quarterback displaying some superb footwork while scrambling to buy a full six seconds in the pocket. You have an initial pump fake, which draws a hesitation in the secondary that buys Lewis a step. Then you have Favre dodging a San Francisco 49ers defender, stepping into his throw and releasing the football at the perfect moment, just before taking a hit.
On the other end, you have Lewis streaking across the field, dragging both a corner and a safety in his wake, but minding the back boundary line in the end zone. Indeed, if you watch all the angles of his route, you will see he never once steps out until catching the ball, putting his feet down and falling out of the back of the end zone. The timing and accuracy of the throw was sick, not to mention Lewis' hands. Undoubtedly the most exciting 10 seconds of football this season.
This was the kind of play that makes a head coach want to twist a player's helmet backward while his head is still inside it. The 49ers were trailing the Atlanta Falcons 35-10 in their Week 5 game when Bly intercepted a Matt Ryan(notes) pass. Inexplicably, with 75 yards of field in front of him and Falcons wideout Roddy White(notes) hot on his tail, Bly put one hand behind his head and began high-stepping – while simultaneously carrying the ball like a loaf of bread in his free hand. White stripped it from behind and the Falcons recovered. The 49ers lost 45-10, and Mike Singletary had 10 years shaved off his life in a single bonehead play.
Best game: Minnesota 27, San Francisco 24, Week 3
We'll talk forever about the aforementioned 32-yard touchdown pass in the final seconds. But in its entirety, this was a superb game. It featured five lead changes, a blocked field goal for a touchdown, a 101-yard kick return for a score and what should have been known as the first game 49ers tight end Vernon Davis(notes) fully realized his vast potential. And all of that came before Favre's 87-second, 80-yard, game-winning touchdown drive. Even watching Adrian Peterson (the unstoppable force) pound it out against Patrick Willis(notes) (the immovable object) was extremely entertaining. I hate the phrase "instant classic," but this was the rare NFL game you could have immediately rewound and watched over again.
Anti-award: Cleveland 6, Buffalo 3, Week 5
This was concrete proof the NFL should retain the right to black out some games at halftime – especially if the league is interested in protecting the product. The game's first 59-plus minutes had produced a 3-3 tie. Cleveland's Derek Anderson(notes) completed his first pass of the game with 46 seconds left in the first half, then finished 2 of 17 for 23 yards … and won. This one was pretty much an utter failure from every angle, unless your goal was a combination of drinking and depression.
Best coach: Sean Payton, Saints
He has balanced an array of offensive pieces while still finding ways to develop the New Orleans Saints' rich depth. He is a vastly underrated play-caller, and is known to hold a mean grudge, a la Bill Belichick. But Payton showed an impressive willingness to share the spotlight when he brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whom Payton helped land by giving up $250,000 of his own money.
Williams has been a huge difference-maker while shaping the defensive scheme, but he also carries with him a fairly large ego. In the past, some coaches have chafed while dealing with Williams' need for glory, but Payton turned the defense over to him and hasn't looked back. Now the Saints are on the verge of what looks like a 13-3 record or better, and what should be a sustained playoff run.
Anti-award: Eric Mangini, Browns In 10 months, he has traded away talent, alienated the fan base and driven the franchise further into the ground. He beats out the Oakland Raiders' Tom Cable and the Washington Redskins' Jim Zorn because he threw his friend and general manager George Kokinis under the bus. By January, Mangini's last remaining confidant in the franchise will be a Chia Pet.
Manning spent the first half of the season operating without his No. 2 wideout, Anthony Gonzalez(notes), and with a running game that ranks 29th in the NFL in yardage produced. His offensive line is comprised of two undrafted players, along with second-, fourth- and sixth-round NFL draft picks. And his two previously unknown wideout reserves sounded more like a French waiter (Pierre Garcon(notes)) and a Wyoming cattle rancher (Austin Collie(notes)).
In spite of it all, Manning has arguably never looked better, starting the season with an NFL-record five straight 300-yard games and seven in his first eight. He's on pace for career highs in accuracy, near a career low for interceptions, and could threaten Dan Marino's single-season mark for passing yardage. Oh, and the Indianapolis Colts are off to an 8-0 start and have extended their regular-season winning streak to 17 games. With all apologies to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes), there isn't a player more important to an NFL team than Manning.
Anti-award: Derek Anderson, Browns
He has a 36.2 quarterback rating, a 42.9 completion rate and is making an eyelash under $7 million this season. He's due another $9.45 million in 2010. Raise your hand if you think he'll see a dime of that money. Now slap yourself.
I thought about Saints quarterback Drew Brees(notes) for this spot, but it's hard to do that when he passed for one total touchdown in wins over Buffalo, Carolina and the New York Jets. Meanwhile, Schaub has been vastly overlooked in all the quarterback love that has been going around. Through nine games, he has already set a career high in touchdown passes (17). And with an NFL-leading 2,653 passing yards, he should also set a career high in that stat in his next six quarters.
More importantly, Schaub has finally stayed healthy and is keeping the Houston Texans in the AFC wild-card race. And he's doing it without the wealth of offensive pieces that other "elite" quarterbacks have around them. Indeed, other than wideout Andre Johnson(notes) and tight end Owen Daniels(notes), there may not be another Pro Bowl-caliber player on Houston's offense this season. After years of unmet expectations, Schaub has finally emerged as one of the NFL's best and most consistent players.
I can't name Anderson twice, so I'll go with this season's other epic disaster. I'm pretty sure Russell's performance in 2009 was the other cataclysmic disaster predicted by the Mayan calendar.
With apologies to Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen(notes), Sharper has been the biggest momentum changer this season. His seven interceptions are tied for the league lead, while his three defensive touchdowns lead the NFL. And he really should have eight picks and four touchdowns – a roughing-the-passer penalty against the New York Giants negated one of his interceptions. Combine the playmaking with Sharper's hitting ability and bottomless emotion, and there hasn't been a more dynamic defensive player in the first half of 2009.
In seven games, he has recorded nine tackles and zero sacks. He was also a healthy scratch for one game, and was ejected early in the first quarter for another. But he still has a mean reputation for guarding the Gatorade during practices.
Already a devastating kick returner, his receiving skills have begun to improve dramatically in recent weeks. He has five touchdowns in eight games, including a 51-yard score against Green Bay in which three Packers defenders ran into each other on the play. One opposing NFC North coach said recently that he believes Harvin has the skill set to eventually become as feared as Vikings running back Adrian Peterson when the ball is in his hands. There may not be a bigger compliment.
First came his long holdout, then came his fractured foot. Half his rookie season has passed and he still hasn't played a single down. But if you watch his 40-yard dash side-by-side with Percy Harvin's, it sort of reminds you of the "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley as Chippendales dancers.
Personnel men loved his ability to track the ball and make a play when he was coming out of Oregon. Now we know why. His seven interceptions put him on pace to break the rookie record of 10 picks in a season, and tie the post-merger record of 14. He also tied an NFL record with two interceptions in three straight games. Four of those turnovers played prominently in wins over the Jets and Carolina Panthers, while Byrd has also shown a knack for playing center field and breaking up passes.
Unlike Byrd, the Buffalo Bills have gotten virtually nothing out of Maybin. The defensive end has six tackles and no sacks in eight games, and has been almost non-existent in his pass-rushing opportunities. I hate to make the comparison this early, but he kind of reminds me of former Packers bust Jamal Reynolds. If you don't remember Reynolds, then, well, that's kind of the point.
Comeback player: Brett Favre, Vikings
Favre could have fit under any number of categories, but I'm going to stretch a little and give him the benefit of the doubt for last season's shoulder problems. You couldn't possibly find two eight-game stretches that look more different than how Favre ended 2008 and began '09. I have to believe health has played a part in it. Favre's most impressive element this season has been his patience: He's creating when he needs to and still avoiding the mistakes that have plagued him in past seasons. He's on pace for a career high completion percentage and a career low in interceptions – a statistical combination that showcases just how perfect his play has been this season. Factor in the way he has commandeered a leadership role and helped some of the Vikings players grow, and this has the potential to be the finest season of Favre's career.
Most comeback players try to rebound from injuries. Walker has been trying to bounce back from, well, being Javon Walker. He hasn't caught a football in more than a year, let alone the first half of this season. The only way he's playing in the NFL in 2010 is if he agrees to be paid in Applebee's coupons.
Best offseason move: Vikings signing Favre
Minnesota coach Brad Childress really hung himself out there on this move. Not only with the veterans in his own locker room, but among some of his coaching brethren, who smirked a bit when seeing the footage of Childress picking Favre up on the airport tarmac and shuttling him to the practice facility. In the egotistical world of coaches, that wouldn't have happened in many other NFL cities. But Childress was never bashful in his pursuit, and often toed the line of fracturing both his locker room and his own front office.
In hindsight, it was the move that brought the entire team together – and in almost every possible way. On the field, the offense has never been as balanced and diverse. From an emotional standpoint, the Vikings have developed a consistent swagger the Childress era has never known. And not only does the success of a 7-1 start earn Childress currency in the eyes of his players, he also gets some grudging respect from personnel departments that have never been all that impressed with his management of the team.
It's not just that Galloway was ineffective and was released after playing in three games: He also arguably was a major reason the offense struggled so much early in the season. He turns 38 later this month but he's still absurdly fast, so there's a chance the Oakland Raiders select him in the first round of next year's draft.
- Sean Payton