With the season halfway gone (already!?!?!), we thought it was time to put out a few landmark pieces so that we could get a handle on who's doing what in the NFL. To that end, we rounded up all the regular Shutdown Corner contributors for the first in a two-part roundtable on some of the NFL's burning questions halfway through the 2011 campaign. You can find Part 2 here.
Who or what has been your most positive surprise in the NFL this year, and who or what's been the most negative?
The Mighty MJD: Cam Newton's been the best surprise. When's the last time a rookie quarterback stepped in and immediately made the entire league a better place? Watching Carolina last year was like watching a Lifetime movie about a gifted quilter and her battle with dementia. This year, watching Carolina never seems like a bad option. If you've got Cam on your TV, you've got a show.
On that same subject, I feel like I was lied to about Cam Newton. There were so many people pushing the idea that the Auburn offense was too simple, that he couldn't read a defense, that he'd struggle with the speed of the NFL game -- in short, that he was dumb. And I bought into it. I was suckered. I should've known better.
The worst surprise for me is the regression of Sam Bradford and the Rams in general. I didn't need them to be Super Bowl contenders or anything, but they'd been so bad for so long, it hurts to see them fall back so quickly. For Steven Jackson, it's got to feel like he spent six months in the hospital, was finally discharged with a clean bill of health, and then run over by a van on his way home.
Chris Chase: The Cincinnati Bengals get my vote for most positive. Everyone saw the Lions coming and the Niners have finally fulfilled what feels like a decade's worth of preseason hype. Cincy came out of nowhere. Even knowing the team is 6-2, it's still stunning to see them atop the AFC North standings. Most negative: Donovan McNabb. Remember him?
Maggie Hendricks: The Bengals and Bills winning has been fun because the fan bases have not had much to cheer about, and it showed how the size of a market doesn't matter in the NFL. The negative has been Chris Johnson. His poor showing after getting a contract gives ammunition for GMs not to reward running backs that have performed.
Doug Farrar: The most positive surprise to me has been the influx of rookie quarterbacks — especially Cam Newton — performing at a high level. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton will each hit their walls in the NFL — that's inevitable — but especially in Newton's case, the ability to take on the next level from a schematic perspective is absolutely revelatory. I have never seen a rookie quarterback develop as quickly as Newton has, from scouting combine to first NFL throw.
To me, the biggest negative surprise is Bill Belichick's year-after-year inability to get consistent secondary play and pass rush in the draft — especially when the prominence of the cornerback and "endbacker" positions has risen so much in recent drafts. Belichick helped invent the hybrid defense with Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor 30 years ago, and sometimes I wonder if he's the same guy. There's no excuse for a defense run by a man with his level of defensive brilliance to perform this way, and it's all about personnel.
Which team(s) do you see blowing up the second half in a good way, and which team(s) do you see falling off the map?
The Mighty MJD: I think Philadelphia's going to come on strong. For all of Andy Reid's flaws, the man has consistently built winning teams, and his guys love him. They'll play for him, and I think they'll come together with some kind of "Hey, we're like the Miami Heat, we'll show everybody!" mentality, which is ridiculous, but seems to be effective. There's too much talent there for them to not at least be in the wild-card chase.
Falling off the map, I've got Tennessee. That kind of feels like cheating, since they started 3-1 and are currently 4-4, so it's kind of already started. There's got to be some friction in that locker room, right? Chris Johnson got $50 million, is running like Cloris Leachman, and insists it's not his fault. He's not blaming anyone else, but it's kind of implied. That, plus the inevitable locker room resentment of his giant contact makes for an explosive situation.
Chris Chase: San Francisco could blow up like something in a Michael Bay movie and still make the playoffs, so maybe they're not the right fit here. I think they come back to earth a bit in the second half, put up a respectable 12-4 record, get a bye and then become an easy out for a loaded wild-card team.
Maggie Hendricks: Atlanta is in the sweet position of playing well going into an easy stretch on its schedule, and they are just a half game behind the Saints. The Bengals have a tough second half of the season, with the Steelers and the Ravens twice plus the Texans coming up.
Doug Farrar: The Eagles have finally discovered a couple of very important things about defensive football: First, that you can't splay your defensive linemen 10 yards apart on every play. Second, that Nnamdi Asomugha is the best man cover corner of his generation. He is NOT a freakin' safety. Now that Juan Castillo has those couple of simple truths in place, I think the Eagles will come on to the point where they might actually take a very winnable NFC East.
Getting back to the Patriots, I'm starting to wonder if they even make the playoffs this season. The Bills are more for real than most expect, and the Jets seem to be turning it around by realizing that you can't put the whole thing on Mark Sanchez just yet (or maybe ever). That New England defense is a disaster, and the Steelers gave the rest of the NFL a template on how to deal with the Patriots' speed-impaired passing game. A real tumble down wouldn't surprise me at all.
Given the recent stories of running backs showing a very short shelf life after a big contract, how would you handle the Matt Forte and Arian Foster situations?
The Mighty MJD: I'll cut a running back a check for franchise quarterback money around the same time I'll ask CBS to develop a groundbreaking new sitcom that revolutionizes comedy. You just can't do it. Everyone says, "Well, what if you've got an amazing running back like Adrian Peterson?" I say it's the perfect case study. Peterson's the best runner in the game, and when Minnesota took the field with him paired up with a bargain-basement Donovan McNabb at quarterback, how good were they? Now, with the 12th-overall pick in the draft at quarterback, they've got hope. You just can't invest that heavily in the position. It doesn't make sense.
Chris Chase: Like the NBA owners are handling the labor negotiations: Not budging.
Maggie Hendricks: Given that both have overperformed on terrible rookie contracts, I would give them the big number contract that they wanted, but would fill it with incentives and bonuses.
Doug Farrar: I think you have to do what the Titans actually did with Chris Johnson — there are performance incentives in his contract that do allow the Titans to cut bait at different intervals of the deal if he's not doing what's expected. Forte is the one who really needs to get paid, as he's the back of all the underpaid backs who has really become the centerpiece of his offense. Foster is a product of the system to a point (Ben Tate actually has more long runs this season behind that same outstanding offensive line), and Ray Rice is an interesting case all his own.
The question you have to ask yourself with backs is, "With the system I have in place, could this guy be replaced by a bench-level back without a decline in production?" Forte or Rice transcend their surroundings. With Foster, I'm less sure.
What's wrong with Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco?
The Mighty MJD: I don't think there's anything wrong with Joe Flacco. I think there's something wrong with anyone who expects him to be among the best six or eight quarterbacks in the league. He's just not that guy, and I'm not sure where that expectation came from. He's still very young, and he may eventually be in that group, but I haven't seen it from him yet. I'm not holding my breath for it, either.
As for Rivers, I think he's trying to do too much. I think he knows he's got to carry this Chargers team, and it's tough for him. His receivers are constantly banged up, the Chargers don't pass block that well, and he feels like everything is on his shoulders. He's pretty much right, too. I think his second half will be better. He's still in the top 10 in the league in both passing yards and completion percentage.
Chris Chase: I assume this was written before Sunday night's game? (Editor's note: Yes it was, smart guy.) Flacco is a decent quarterback on an excellent team, so we like to think he's better than he is. As for Rivers, he is trying to be a great quarterback when all he is, is a very, very good one. He's doing too much.
Maggie Hendricks: They're absolutely in their own heads. Rivers, particularly, has been tough on himself in losses, so when he makes a mistake, it blows up into much bigger mistakes.
Doug Farrar: Rivers was trying to do too much last year when injuries took away Antonio Gates and GM A.J. Smith took away Vincent Jackson, and it didn't affect him — in 2010, he was a borderline MVP candidate. This season, I think he has real mechanical issues that may or may not be related to a sternum injury he suffered early in the year — he's throwing with his upper body too much, sailing easy throws, and failing to get proper velocity by throwing from the ground up.
With Flacco, I think it's a matter of development — he's still developing the ability to make touch throws, and he's still too logey in the pocket a lot of the time. That last drive against the Steelers showed the Flacco that could be. We'll just have to see how much of that version we get over time.
Who has been more valuable to his team: Cam Newton or Andy Dalton?
The Mighty MJD: Since the Bengals are 6-2 and the Panthers are 2-6, I think the answer has to be Dalton. But it's important to consider that less is asked of him, too. Cincinnati's often in the lead, whereas Carolina is not, and Newton's got to throw all day long to keep his team in games.
Chris Chase: Dalton is the easy answer because he's led Cincinnati to a 6-2 record. The always-murky "most valuable" distinction goes to Newton, though. Without him, the Panthers would be an unwatchable team threatening the Colts and Dolphins for Luck sucking. With him, they're a dangerous team no contender wants to play in the last two months of the season.
Maggie Hendricks: Newton, because of what he has done for the receivers on his team. Steve Smith has already surpassed his 2010 receiving yards, and is just 64 yards short of his 2009 total.
Doug Farrar: It's an interesting point of order on the whole "Quarterback Wins" argument, but to me, there's no question. Andy Dalton has exceeded my expectations, but Cam Newton may be among the handful of most valuable rookie quarterbacks in NFL history.
Using the sabermetric concept of Value Over Replacement Player, what Newton's done is astonishing. We first have to remember that the 2010 Panthers had one of the worst offenses … well, ever. Carolina's gone from 31st in Football Outsiders' passing DVOA metrics in 2010, to ninth in 2011 and 32nd to third in rushing DVOA. Both stats are key, because Newton's such an integral part of the Panthers' run game now. And I don't want to hear about Newton's "losses." Not when the Panthers rank sixth in total offense, 31st in total defense, and 31st in special teams.
The Bengals actually ranked higher in passing DVOA last year, and a great deal of their success can be attributed to their defense. Dalton's coming along well, but he'd have to perform at an Aaron Rodgers level in the season's second half to be as valuable as Newton.