Week 9 is upon us. It's time to wield the measuring stick.
Since this midseason report comes on such a special day, maybe it's appropriate to spin it with a little presidential prose. Think of it as an NFL State of the Union address – a chance to reflect, make excuses for problems and perhaps lob one last bad joke about Ricky Williams smoking weed. (We'll try our hardest to refrain from that last one. Promise.)
Before we start, let us say that we know there are still plenty of unforeseen twists ahead. After all, last season's second half was insanity. Really, who could have predicted that Janet Jackson's breast and Maurice Clarett would be properties the NFL didn't want?
But we digress.
Please, someone hand me Paul Tagliabue's glasses. The following is a fictional account. Any similarities to live individuals or real experiences are blind luck.
Cue the teleprompter.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you commissioner Tagliabue.
NFL colleagues, representatives of the NFLPA, esteemed front office owners, distinguished players and stinking cave-dwelling media hacks: It is time to consider the state of the union. We gather today to talk of the indecisive days of first-half parity, and the critical moments that lie ahead.
First let us begin with the promise offered in the NFL's first eight weeks.
In the realm of individual talents, nothing loomed larger than the growth of our young quarterbacks. Finally, it appears a group has arrived to fill the void created in the previous decade by the departures of Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway. On one hand, we have a promising core of young veterans entering their prime. Among them are Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, Daunte Culpepper in Minnesota, Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Tom Brady in New England and Chad Pennington in New York.
But it is the budding skills of the second wave that makes the NFL's current crop special. Indeed, we might be looking at the best group of 20-something quarterbacks in league history. Players like Houston's David Carr and Detroit's Joey Harrington have arrived right on schedule, showcasing maturing talents in their third seasons. Michael Vick is Michael Vick. If you are really into faith, then perhaps you would throw San Diego's Drew Brees into this group as well.
And of course, we have discovered Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich, who are showing us an uncommon flair for leadership. Roethlisberger has offered a rookie poise not seen since Marino's first season with the Dolphins, and Leftwich's fourth-quarter drives have been almost Elway-esque.
The first half of this season has proven one thing: The NFL is truly resting on a groundswell of gifted young arms. Brett Favre can retire in peace. Maybe he could even take Kerry Collins and Mark Brunell with him.
Where it concerns the strength of our teams, little has changed.
We have been defined by one buzzword in recent years, that being "parity." Once again we are seeing the full effects. While the New England Patriots have remained the droning monotone measure of success, injuries have decimated last season's other Super Bowl participant, the Carolina Panthers. Yet there needn't be despair. Of the league's 32 teams, 21 enter the second half of the season jockeying for 12 playoff spots.
In what has become custom for the league, many of last season's pitiful huddled masses have risen up. While Atlanta finished in last place in the NFC South in 2003, the Falcons now sit atop the division. San Diego rested at the bottom of the AFC West last season, but now shares a 5-3 record with the first-place Denver Broncos.
But to see the full scope, consider this wondrous transformation: Pittsburgh, Houston, Jacksonville, Detroit and both of the New York franchises combined to win an atrocious 32 pecent of their games in 2003. Midway through this season, that same group has won 70 percent of its games.
This means one thing: Our product is ever-changing, refreshing hopes on an annual basis. Annual regeneration is the lifeblood and No. 1 selling point of our league.
That, and Terrell Owens end-zone dances.
You go boy.
Now, we have seen our first-half successes and failures.
On the bright side, we've had some pleasant surprises to offset the doom and gloom. How about Brees and Antonio Gates in San Diego? Or Kurt Warner, Tiki Barber and Tom Coughlin in New York? And here's a shocker for the books – who would have thought Tennessee's Billy Volek and San Francisco's Ken Dorsey would get more starts by midseason than the Giants' Eli Manning and the Chargers' Philip Rivers?
On other fronts, we still have our share of ego-maniacal players. But please, just let it go. It's part of the league now. Though I have to admit, hearing Keyshawn Johnson threaten to spank someone is ironic, as is Chad Johnson sending Pepto Bismol to opponents. Then again, maybe Johnson was just trying to give away leftovers from the Sam Wyche era.
Moving on, you have all heard that injuries to star players are up, but we have to merely consider it a bump in the road. The overall injuries aren't rising. However, the fear-mongering press coverage of them certainly is.
Per other concerns, our franchises in Miami and San Francisco are a complete mess. But we're quite certain owner Wayne Huizenga will get it figured out with the Dolphins. On that note, advance condolences to coach Dave Wannstedt. Same for Jim Haslett in New Orleans. As for the 49ers and Dennis Erickson … well, whatever.
Meanwhile, Mike Tice's coaching ability seems to be tied to the elasticity of Randy Moss's hamstring. Go figure. In other quarters, things haven't really worked out for Joe Gibbs in Washington. But give Gibbs a one-year mulligan. Not everyone can be Bill Parcells, you know. Speaking of Parcells, we were a little disappointed to see Dallas take a step back. Cincinnati, too. Kind of makes you wonder about coaches who stake their reputations on one side of the football.
Marvin Lewis hasn't done squat for that Bengals defense. Chalk up Tony Dungy in that category, too, for his work in Indianapolis. And Jon Gruden, boy, all it took for him to find Brian Griese in Tampa was having no other alternative.
And since we're talking about Gruden, anyone wonder about his choice of Charlie Garner over Thomas Jones? Nice call. Those comparisons between Gruden and horror-movie icon Chucky are fitting.
He can massacre a roster with the best of them.
But have no doubts. Even with deficiencies, our league is strong.
It is a sobering time for many other professional sports leagues. The NBA saw a record number of high-school entrants and draft choices this year, while continuing its trend of giving skyrocketing contracts to marginal stars. And Major League Baseball, well, Barry Bonds isn't even in our league, but we're issuing him a suspension anyway. Thank goodness for those Boston Red Sox. Seize the moment, Bud Selig. As for the NHL, they are in a lockout and threatening to cancel their season. I'm guessing that means it was supposed to have started by now.
As for our league, we have enjoyed relative labor peace for over two decades, longest amongst all professional sports. To date, our television distribution rights remain the most highly sought and lucrative contract in all the land. And while we have been criticized for managing our game with an iron fist, our stance has kept the NFL healthy.
After initial difficulties, our teams are now managing their salary caps better than ever before. We also have the strongest substance abuse policies and detection methods in pro sports. And when everyone said it couldn't be done, we crushed Maurice Clarett's attempt to thwart our age restrictions in the draft.
Oh, and let's not forget our beer commercials. They are dead on.
I do love twins.
(APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE)
Finally, I would be remiss for not mentioning Ricky Williams. We've been through some tough times with you. And for the last time, no, you won't be back in uniform this season. However, I would just like to concede that it would be nice to see you back in 2005.
The NFL is a more colorful place with you in it. Yes, I'll admit it, I'm happy to hear that you're looking for reinstatement. Just stay vigilant and keep filing papers.
Rather than rolling them, that is.
(Awww, so close. We tried. Really, we did.)
- Maurice Clarett