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 1 here.
Who's your Comeback Player of the Year so far?
The Mighty MJD: Alex Smith. Before the season, we weren't even sure that he was going to be a starter, but I think everyone felt pretty sure that if he was a starter, that he'd suck at it. He's been a stud, though, completing over 63 percent of his passes, with a touchdown-to-interception ratio behind only Aaron Rodgers.
Chris Chase: Aaron Rodgers. Yes, I realize that this award is usually reserved for players who were hurt or imprisoned or passed over for younger talent, but nobody else has backed up their 2010 with a better 2011. Rodgers came back even better this season, with all the new pressures and trappings of being defending Super Bowl champs.
Maggie Hendricks: Though Steve Smith has had a fun-to-watch resurgence, my mind snaps back to Plaxico Burress. No, he hasn't had a huge game yet, but this time last year, he was in jail. Now he's averaging 14 yards a catch.
Doug Farrar: Maggie mentioned Steve Smith, and that's where I'll go. Carolina's passing game was so abysmal last year that you couldn't blame Smith for wanting out, especially if you went through the arduous process of watching 2010 Panthers tape. Only then would you realize that despite his poor numbers, Smith was still doing everything possible to make plays — it's just easier to do so when you're catching Cam Newton's scud lasers than when you're trying to adjust for Jimmy Clausen's floating marshmallows. Smith is as tough a player as there is in the NFL, and he burns to win like few others. It's great to see him back on top.
Are there any circumstances under which you see Tim Tebow succeeding in the NFL?
The Mighty MJD: Sure. If the NFL starts awarding points to people for being really nice.
But as a quarterback? It's just such a stretch to see that. A team has to modify its offensive game plan so heavily to let Tebow play to his strengths, and there's no indication that it's sustainable. All the bad things that people said about Cam Newton -- doesn't make good decisions with the football, doesn't make reads quickly, not well-suited to the NFL game -- are true of Tim Tebow. He's really, really far away. I wonder how much serious thought Denver has given to turning him into a tight end. I think that's his best chance to find a home in the NFL.
Chris Chase: Yes, right in between Mike Ditka and Keyshawn Johnson on the ESPN "Sunday NFL Countdown" set.
Maggie Hendricks: Nope. Between the pressure on him from his fans to his dearth of skills, it's unlikely that he will succeed.
Doug Farrar: Yes, but under very limited circumstances. He'd have to be a part of a team that was losing enough to give its entire game plan over to him. That team would have to be concerned enough with ticket sales and public face time to make him a starting quarterback regardless of his severe mechanical deficits. That team would have to be heavily invested in the option game at the expense of its further development in the pro-style offense Tebow is years away from being able to run at a competent level.
Basically, you either throw the serious version of your offense out the window, or you bench him for anything but red zone and turn your home city into an "Occupy Tebow" zone. Not something I'd want to take on. I think he could be a dominant fullback/H-back in the Peyton Hillis/Chris Cooley vein, but I don't see it ever happening.
If you were the GM of one of two teams going into the final week of the season at 1-14, and a loss would ensure your ability to pick Andrew Luck, and you desperately needed a quarterback to turn your team around … well, would you find a creative way to, shall we say, not win?
The Mighty MJD: No chance. I might be rooting for a loss, but you can't try to make it happen. Think about the guys you're trying to put on your team. As a GM, you only want guys who want to win -- need to win. Guys who will put in the extra gym time, run extra routes, sacrifice their bodies, sacrifice their health. You're going to look that guy in the eye, and ask him to lose, when a bitter hatred of losing is what got him to where he is in the first place? You'll lose your whole locker room.
If you're going to try to do something like that, it's got to be subtle. Maybe the night before the game, you tell your guys, "Listen, I know this year didn't go how you guys wanted it, but I appreciate everyone's hard work, and as a token of my gratitude, I'd like to take everyone to dinner tonight. At midnight. At the Spearmint Rhino. Drinks and private dances are on me. Curfew? Just try to show up before kickoff tomorrow."
Chris Chase: For shame! One must uphold the sanctity of a December game nobody cares about and not even think about the franchise-changing quarterback thou could draft! I'm if that GM, I'm tanking like Rommel.
Maggie Hendricks: Absolutely, but it's the kind of strategy that will blow up in a GM's face. Word would get out. NFL teams are simply too big, and players are too competitive to allow a GM to get away with it.
Doug Farrar: Apparently, Vontae Davis took MJD's suggestion to heart. The Dolphins weren't buying, though.
Personally, I don't see the outrage over the idea. You see teams tanking games at the end of the season every year because they're on the other end of the competitive spectrum and they don't want to get star players hurt for the playoffs in "meaningless" late-season games. If a team is allowed to start all its scrubs to preserve the health of its stars, why would it be wrong for a horrible team to put its even more horrible players on the field to ensure that once-in-a-generation quarterback? And could you really see enough difference in, say, this year's Indianapolis Colts to determine — "Hey, you guys stink even more now! Foul play!"
Plus, the very idea would terrify and infuriate Roger Goodell, and that's good enough for me.
What is your take on the ways in which the league's new contact rules have affected both officiating and game action in general?
The Mighty MJD: I think it's necessary for the future of the game, and I admire the intent of it, but man ... I'd really like to see more (that is to say, some) consistency in how things are called. I think statements like, "The game's been ruined" or "They're taking the hitting out of the game" are way, way over the top, because this has still been a fabulously entertaining season thus far, but yes, there are problems. Those problems aren't with what the league is trying to do, but its execution in implementing it. It's new to everyone. I suspect it will improve over time.
Chris Chase: Officials are too worried about not throwing flags on dangerous-looking hits, which means that clean ones are getting flagged too much. They're calling what they think they should see, not what they actually see. As for game action, all those "sky is falling" fears about how taking big hitting out of football would change everything was like Y2K. The bigger threats are four-minute replay reviews boring people and causing them to change the channel.
Maggie Hendricks: It's affected officiating in that the officials don't seem to know what's legal and what's not, creating a whole lot of confusion among players and fans alike. Because there is no consistency in penalties, players can't learn from previous flags.
Doug Farrar: The problem with the increased contact rules is that the officials aren't allowed to avail themselves of replay in those instances, and replay is supposed to be about getting these things right. As long as former VP of officiating Mike Pereira uses his position as a "rules analyst" to go on and on about how judgment calls shouldn't be reviewable, the NFL will be in no particular hurry to change the current system, and fans get the wrong idea about how long the process would take. I don't think it's so much that the officials don't know what's legal as it is the fact that they can't possibly designate what's happened and make an appropriate call based on an accurate replay.
There are times when a defensive player goes headhunting, and those instances are inexcusable. But there are other times when a quarterback throws a receiver into contact, and there's no way a defender can get out of the way in time. There are different degrees of infraction, and this is an issue that should have many more shades of gray than it currently does.