As much as it goes against the nature of football, there are always a handful of players who impact their teams in more substantial ways than others. With half a season to go, here are five such players – players who could have a huge impact on the race for the playoffs, and perhaps help their team win the Super Bowl.
It is obvious that if a team was to lose a significant player, such as Tom Brady in New England or Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, those losses could crush that team's playoff hopes. However, the five players on the following list are players who have either been inconsistent over the first half of the season or whose presence impacts the style of how their team plays.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals
To anyone who has watched the Bengals for more than a game or two, it is clear that Palmer is not confident in his offensive line and isn't confident with the condition of his surgically repaired left knee. Some of that is simply human reaction and should fade with time. However, because the offensive line has been banged up all season, Palmer has taken more hits than last season and has had more defensive players around him – some taking obvious shots at his legs to test his confidence. But if the Bengals are hoping to start a playoff run after a 4-4 first half, Palmer is the guy who triggers everything. If he plays well, receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will calm down and also be productive. Through the first half of the season, Palmer's anxiety has led to him having a quarterback rating of 89.3 after the eighth game, the first time his rating has dropped below 90 in the past two seasons. With 12 touchdown passes and six interceptions, Palmer is still effective, but not nearly what he was last season. For the Bengals to be anything more than a reasonable playoff contender, Palmer has to get better.
Wide receiver Terrell Owens, Dallas Cowboys
Owens may be a human lightning rod for controversy, but the real issue is what he can do on the field. Last Sunday, Owens proved how vital he can be on a play in which he failed. In the second half of the dramatic 22-19 loss to Washington, Owens got open deep against the Washington secondary. Quarterback Tony Romo threw a beautiful pass to Owens, who dropped it. If Owens catches that ball, the Cowboys likely would have won. Instead, Dallas is now 4-4 and in the middle of a brutal run for the division with the Giants and Philadelphia. If Owens is right over the second half of the season, the Cowboys have a chance to win the division because the Giants (6-2) are reeling with injuries and Philadelphia (4-4) lacks a solid running game. Moreover, the next eight games of the season could go a long way in shaping the limited future Owens has in the NFL. If he shows he can still be a game changer – which appears to be the case – then Owens likely will see much of the rest of the three-year, $25 million contract he signed with Dallas this offseason. If not, Owens will find the going to be much rougher, and will likely have to play out the rest of his career on a series of one-year deals.
Fullback Ovie Mughelli, Baltimore Ravens
Talk about going from the obvious to the subtle. Look, Mughelli is clearly not in the Palmer-Owens stratosphere of important players. Heck, the guy has just one catch for three yards this season and most of his stats are generated on special teams. But what the 6-foot-1, 255-pound Mughelli represents for the Ravens is the development of the power running game that Ravens players demanded when coach Brian Billick took over the offense following the dismissal of offensive coordinator Jim Fassel. Specifically, running back Jamal Lewis asked Billick to have a fullback in the game more often so that he could have a moving lead blocker. That's vital to Lewis, who still has great power in his game as long as he's able to get started and doesn't have to make a tough cut before hitting the line of scrimmage. Mughelli also helps make up for some of the injuries the Ravens have had in their offensive line. In the past two games with Mughelli in the lineup, the Ravens have rushed 39 and 38 times in victories over New Orleans and Cincinnati, respectively. Considering that Baltimore will likely have to go through Indianapolis if it wants to get to the Super Bowl, having that type of power running game will be vital. If things go right for Baltimore, they have a chance to be this year's version of last year's Steelers.
Defensive lineman Luis Castillo, San Diego Chargers
With linebacker Shawne Merriman out for four games because of a suspension for using steroids, Castillo has both a huge opportunity and responsibility. Castillo, who was a first-round pick in 2005 with Merriman, is a very good pass rusher despite playing in the Chargers 3-4 scheme. He has five sacks already. But the book on Castillo is that while he's a good player, he hasn't shown the type of breakout star ability that some people were expecting. If the Chargers' pass rush is to remain good even with Merriman and his 8&nfrac12; sacks on the shelf, Castillo is going to have to step up. San Diego is tied for the AFC West lead with Denver at 6-2 and will face the Broncos twice over a critical four-game stretch. The Chargers, who have lost twice on the road, desperately need to stay in contention for a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game if they're going to have a reasonable chance of making the Super Bowl. They are confident they can beat Indianapolis, even on the road. They just have to get there.
Cornerback Marcus Trufant, Seattle Seahawks
Trufant, a former first-round pick, is an enigma. He can run and he can be physical, and he's also pretty bright. But he hurts himself with a lack of concentration. Furthermore, once he gets beat early in a game, he often goes into a shell. Before the season started, Seahawks management felt Trufant was on his way to elevating his game. Instead, his overall play has regressed after poor performances against Chicago and St. Louis. He will get tested again on Sunday by Rams receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and has come to symbolize the problems that the Seahawks have had with their secondary all season. While injuries to running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck have been devastating for the Seahawks, the reality is that the secondary has to get better if Seattle is going to make another run for the Super Bowl. Trufant is the most gifted and experienced defensive back the Seahawks have right now. The secondary can take a turn for the better if Trufant plays well.
People close to quarterback Byron Leftwich are trying to get the message to the former first-round pick and one-time hope for the franchise's future: You're done with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The problem is, Leftwich is living in a state of denial – as his recent public comments prove.
Leftwich got into a public snit with coach Jack Del Rio after Del Rio said that Leftwich's left ankle is not healing quickly. Del Rio said Leftwich's ankle is 85-90 percent healthy. Leftwich, in a demonstration of the absurd, said it was more like 90-95 percent healthy, as if such things could be accurately measured.
Del Rio said in a press conference that Leftwich's ankle needs extended rest and possibly surgery.
"The doctor didn't tell me that," Leftwich told the Associated Press in response. "It can go away. Maybe it's gone away. Maybe it's going away. Every time you sprain your ankle, stuff like this happens. It's not anything that's major.
"Everybody keeps talking about ankle surgery and this and that. To me, it's irrelevant at this point. I'm feeling good right now. I'm feeling healthy. I want to go out on it and continuously do back-to-back-to-back-to-back days to see how it feels."
This is all part of the bigger issue for the Jaguars. When Leftwich thinks things are going well, the Jaguars see it differently. That is why it appears that backup quarterback David Garrard will be the starting not just this weekend, but likely for the rest of the season.
The Jaguars have grown frustrated with Leftwich's continuing health problems. While they were happy to see him lose weight this offseason in hopes of avoiding more leg injuries, the question remains whether Leftwich will ever be healthy on a consistent basis.
Since his rookie year in 2003, Leftwich has never played a full season. Furthermore, his mobility has become an issue. While he has run more often this year (25 carries in the first six games), he has been less effective doing so (he's averaging a career-low 1.6 yards per carry).
More important, Leftwich still hasn't made strides with his passing. He is completing 59 percent of his passes this season and has a mediocre seven touchdown passes and five interceptions. While Leftwich has been hurt by the retirement of wide receiver Jimmy Smith and the injury problems for Matt Jones, he just hasn't taken the steps toward improvement that the Jaguars felt were necessary.
Finally, there is also the contract factor. Leftwich has one more year left on his contract before he becomes a free agent. Expect that agent Tom Condon, who represents many of the starting quarterbacks in the league (Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Chad Pennington and Alex Smith, among many), to press for a huge extension after this season if the Jaguars change their mind and want to keep him long term.
For what they have gotten so far, the Jaguars don't think Leftwich is worth the investment.
Defensive end Jason Taylor's interception and subsequent return for a touchdown at Chicago on Sunday wasn't just a key play in the Miami Dolphins' surprising victory over the Bears, it was proof that even at age 32 Taylor is among the elite athletes in the league.
It was the sixth time that Taylor has returned a turnover for a score during his 10-year career. The Dolphins have won all six games in which he has had a touchdown return. In fact, they have won all of them in pretty convincing fashion. The following is a list of those six games:
Sept. 13, 1999: Four-yard return of a Brian Grieve fumble in Dolphins' 38-21 win over Denver.
Oct. 1, 2000: 29-yard return of an Akili Smith fumble in Dolphins' 31-16 victory over Cincinnati.
Oct. 7, 2001: One-yard return of a Tom Brady fumble in Dolphins' 30-10 win over the Patriots.
Nov. 27, 2003: 34-yard return of a Quincy Carter fumble in Dolphins' 40-21 win over Dallas.
Sept. 11, 2005: 85-yard return of a Jake Plummer fumble in Dolphins' 34-10 victory over Denver.
Nov. 5, 2006: 20-yard return of a Rex Grossman interception in Dolphins' 31-13 win over Chicago.
RUN, RICKY, RUN
Running back Ricky Williams will try to help Toronto advance to the Grey Cup on Sunday when the Argonauts face the Montreal Alouettes for the East Championship.
Williams caused a bit of a stir this week when he said he might not apply for reinstatement to the NFL after the season. Agent Leigh Steinberg cleared that up by saying Williams will be released by Toronto per the agreement between the Dolphins and the Argonauts that let him play in the CFL. Once that's done, Williams, who has been taking regular drug tests since being banned by the NFL for one year, will apply for reinstatement to the NFL.
But the biggest issue that Williams faces in all of this is that he has to make significant money over the next few years if he ever hopes to live the Bohemian lifestyle he craves. Williams has four children by three women. Two of those women have binding agreements for Williams to provide significant support for the children and he can't easily get a reduction on the support payments under Florida law, where the agreements were made.
Of course, this is all on top of the fact that the Dolphins still hold a federal court judgment against Williams for repayment of bonus money he was paid during his NFL career.
Chicago begins a tough stretch of four road games in the next five weeks, all against teams that are currently .500 or better. The Bears are at the Giants on Sunday, then return to play the Jets in New York the following week. Then they go to New England, host Minnesota and finish the swing at St. Louis. This run of games could very well speak to whether the Bears are indeed a legitimate Super Bowl favorite.
Having mentioned New England, the broken shoulder blade suffered by strong safety Rodney Harrison is a big blow to its defense. Last season, Harrison played in the first three games before being lost to a knee injury. In the first five games after Harrison was out, the Patriots allowed 28 or more points four times, including two games of at least 40.
Kansas City coach Herm Edwards is understandably waffling on whether to keep playing backup quarterback Damon Huard as starter Trent Green returns from a concussion. Huard has the hot hand right now, having led the Chiefs to a 5-2 mark so far. The surprising part about Huard, who is one of the classiest players in the NFL, is that he has been able to compensate for his lack of ability to throw to the sidelines on a consistent basis.
Speaking of Huard, he returns to Miami this weekend. In 1999, Huard went 5-1 as a sub for Dan Marino. He also developed an incredibly strong relationship with Marino and owner Wayne Huizenga, even traveling to Ireland on more than one occasion to golf with the Pro Football Hall of Famer and the billionaire owner. At the recent NFL owners meetings in New Orleans, Huizenga talked about how much he likes Huard personally. Despite that, Huard wasn't able to win the starting job in 2000 over Jay Fiedler after Marino retired and then left in 2001.