6 things we’ve learnt this season and the NFL Mid-Season Report cards

We’re now heading to the mid-season in the NFL. The Packers, Patriots and Saints are leading the way as expected but there are few other ‘preseason certainties’ living up to their billing. Mark Payne looks at the big shocks in the NFL.

1) The Colts

Ok we knew that Peyton Manning was more important to the Colts that probably any other quarterback is to their respective team but did anyone really expect a team with this depth of talent to be winless this far into the season? Kerry Collins was a bad fit and never looked like an NFL quarterback in his return performance but his replacement Curtis Painter has looked bright, scoring two touchdowns in his last ***3**** games. Aside from that this team has Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark and Robert Mathis on it’s books, there is more than enough talent there to be 0-7.

2) Cam Newton

It’s time to put your hands up people. It wasn’t very easy to buy into the Cam Newton game. After last years number one overall pick Sam Bradford smashed NFL records with ease on his way to an NFL rookie of the year prize it seemed illogical to have two in a row. Seen as a poor mans Tebow by the most critical and too raw to dominate by his supporters Cam surprised everyone by throwing 422 yards in his first game before throwing for 432 yards against the defending Champions, that’s more yards than anyone else has managed against Green Bay this year and the most by a rookie ever in the NFL. Yes, he has thrown a few picks but Cam has picked up 8 passing touchdowns, 7 rushing touchdowns and a passer rating of 82.8. That’s a pretty handy start… and he’s improving every week.

3) Sam Bradford & Philip Rivers

These two were set to join the highest echelons of the NFL’s passing corps in 2011. Instead both have stunk up the league. The Rams are winless while the Chargers have stumbled along to a 4-2 record. Bradford was inactive in the defeat against the Cowboys due to injury but he has already fumbled the ball 7 times this year, the same as last year, only making 3 touchdown passes with 2 picks. This is not the season we expected from him. Meanwhile Rivers, a man who has weapons like Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Ryan Matthews to take the burden away from him has managed to throw 9 picks this year.  That’s the second highest number in the league. What’s worse is the majority of these have been in clutch plays. Luckily for him Vincent Jackson is still capable of the incredible, his touchdown against the Dolphins would have been a lot easier to score had Rivers not overthrown the wide open receiver. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on Rivers, but it’s only because he has set the bar so high in his career thusfar. Sam, Phillip must do better.

4) San Francisco 49ers

For me they are the surprise package this season. The Lions were predicted to be a playoff team, the Bills have stuttered in recent weeks but the Niners have only lost one game this year picking up wins against the Lions and the out-of-sorts Eagles. They have tough tests against the Steelers, Ravens and Giants in the second half of the season but the red and gold are almost certain to secure the NFC West and as a result, playoff football. The Niners defence are looking much stronger, thanks in part to the emergence of rookie Aldon Smith, Alex Smith is finally running the offence while Gore is running everybody into the ground. Jim Harbaugh is really making a name for himself in San Francisco.

5) Kickoff Returns

When they moved the kickoff to the 35 I thought that would kill off return td’s. Coverage teams frequently swarmed all over the kickoff returner when the ball was kicked off at the 30, that extra 5 yards would surely mean that kickers would boot it out of the endzone or the coverage teams would force a touchback. Since then we’ve seen Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin, Joe McNight, Jacoby Ford, Tedd Ginn jnr and Devin Hestor (of course) returning them all the way to the house. That’s an average of 0.85 return TDs a week and while that’s significantly lower than the the 1.4 return TD’s per week we saw last year it shows it is still possible to do so.

6) Rookies

The NFL lockout was supposed to have scuppered rookie efforts this year. Those expected to star were due for slow starts and average performances. Instead they’ve been resurgent. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have firmly got their feet under the table as starting quarterback’s for their respective franchises, while Christian Ponder impressed in his first start. Demarco Murray tore up the record book in Dallas ousting Hall of famer Emmitt Smith with the franchise’s best single game rushing performance. Daniel Thomas has been a bright spark for the dismal Dolphins, the same can be said for Delone Carter for the Colts, while Stevan Ridley has helped to establish much needed balance for the Patriots. AJ Green has instant chemistry with fellow rookie Dalton in Cincinnati highlighting his incredible potential. In the defensive game Aldon Smith has starred, picking up two rookie of the week awards 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a safety. Second overall pick Von Miller has also shown top level quality with 18 tackles and six sacks (sixth best in the league) to his name. They weren’t fussed by the lack of practice time were they?

Mid-season grades

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

Made the transition from Palmer to Dalton with ease, added quality in the draft this season and have horded high picks in 2012 & 2013. This is a franchise to watch. Grade B

Cleveland Browns

Colt McCoy is following the Matt Shaub route to NFL success, quietly making a name for himself at an unfancied team. Aside from that the offence are offering very little. The ‘Madden Curse’ driven contract dispute with Peyton Hillis is really hurting morale though thankfully for the Browns their defence is on fire. D’Qwell Jackson, Mike Adams and TJ Ward are part of the reason the Browns are the hardest team to pass on in the NFL at the moment. Grade C+

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens shock defeat to the Jaguars has led to doubt and name calling in Baltimore with the quarterback taking the majority of the Flacco (sorry!). In my eyes poor play calling has cost the Ravens with Ray Rice being shockingly underused in the run game. The Ravens however, are built to stop their opponents scoring and Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and the rest are doing a great job. Grade B

Pittsburgh Steelers

Criticised after they were demolished on the opening dayby rival Ravens in Baltimore. Recovered well with Big Ben Roethlisberger putting in some very solid performances. Grade B

AFC East

Buffalo Bills

Fred Jackson has been very impressive on the ground for the Bills while Ryan Fitzpatrick has looked solid in the pocket. Opened 4-0 before a pair of losses dropped them to second in the AFC East. Grade A-

Miami Dolphins

It’s been a horror show in Miami right from the outset. Chad Henne nearly match Tom Brady in the opener, before his season collapsed and then ended on IR. An 0-6 start and the ‘Suck for Luck’ race is on. Grade D-

New York Jets

Rex Ryan’s charges are always a threat to take it to the playoffs and the resurgent Plaxico Burress showed against the Chargers that the Jets have threats on offence as well. Cromartie and Revis have kept the defence solid. The elements are there but they need to be more consistent if they want to improve on their 4-3 record, with a tough schedule ahead. Grade C+

New England Patriots

The Patriots look the only team capable of derailing the Packers at the moment. Brady is in the form of his life (barring the Bills game) and is set to break Marino’s passing record and finally BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Steven Ridley are giving the offence balance. Grade A

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

A Peyton Manning-less Colts side are an impotent force it appears. Rumours are beginning to circulate that the Colts may move to trade Manning for a rookie like Andrew Luck next year. This side should win games, the fact it’s not asks questions outside the quarterback position. Grade F

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars look better than last year but they are still a receiving corps upgrade away from making a run at the playoffs. Maurice Jones-Drew is always a threat in the run game and Blaine Gabbert has had a solid rookie season but needs to improve his accuracy if he wants to avoid being this years Jimmy Clausen while the defence is ranked in the top 10. 2-5 is not setting the world on fire but it is progress. Grade C

Houston Texans

Any team would miss Andre Johnson from their ranks and many, myself included, expected the Texans season to implode when he was ruled out against the Steelers. But following defeats to the Ravens and the Raiders the Texans ran all over the Titans in Tennessee. Their 4-3 record is unspectacular but they are ranked in the top 10 in every offensive and defensive measurable. Furthermore, their star isn’t far away from returning to the fray and the worst of their schedule is behind them. Grade B+

Tennessee Titans

When Matt Hasselbeck lost his position to Charlie Whitehurst in Seattle last season many wrote off the former Seahawk but the Titans have impressed under his leadership. A 3-3 record shows that this team still have work to do. None moreso than Chris Johnson, C2J has been very unproductive since signing his monster contract at the start of the year. Work needs to be done on the run defence as well but the elements are there for a playoff run. Grade B

AFC West
Denver Broncos

Orton out Tebow in, nobody saw that coming. OK everyone knew it was coming and so far Tebow has done what he does best; find a way to win. The Chargers were pushed close and last week’s win in Miami makes the upcoming fixture against Detroit will provide the acid test for the mk2 2011 Broncos. Decker has been superb in the receiving corps while Von Miller has shown Raw quality, though he will need to curb his enthusiasm to stop the run a little more. The team have rallied around Tebow now they need to show they can become a winning team. Grade C

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs looked hopeless in their opening fortnight annihilations against the Bills and Lions but they’ve rallied since then and three straight victories have put them back into playoff consideration. The offence is led by the running game, a torn ACL for featured back Jamaal Charles unexpectedly opened the door to Dexter McCluster and Jackie Battle who’ve piled on the runs at over five yards a carry. Dwayne Bowe has done a great job of improving Matt Cassell’s stats in the receiving game though the quarterback will need to improve if the Chiefs want to push the Raiders and Chargers. Grade C

San Diego Chargers

Previously Mr Underrated, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is having a season of bad decision making and poor picks. Having said that the Chargers have managed to move the ball well and the team are still 4-2. Ryan Matthews and Mike Tolbert have been solid in the run game and Vincent Jackson has built a reputation as the Rivers’ go to guy. Add into the mix the performances Eric Weddle, Takeo Spikes and the maturing second year star Donald Butler and it’s easy to see why the Chargers defence are leading this team. Grade B+

Oakland Raiders

An emotional year for the Raiders following the passing of Al Davis has lurched from dreams of going deep into the playoffs to potentially not making them at all. Jason Campbell’s season ending injury and the disappointing showing of replacements Kyle Boller and Carson Palmer have Raiders fans despairing. But the Raiders fans have a lot to look forward to, they are built to run and in McFadden they have a superstar. In the receiving corps they have playmakers like Kevin Boss, Darrius Heyward-Bay and rookie Denarius Moore having excellent years and Palmer will be much better once he’s up to speed with the offence. Grade B

NFC North
Chicago Bears

Jay Cutler seemed to have spent the entire year laying on the floor due to the ineptitude of his offensive line until they wrung changes for the Wembley game and finally gave Cutler the time in the pocket to throw the ball. Matt Forte has been unstoppable in the run game and if the Bears can keep Cutler upright in the pocket then the Bears will be able to provide a challenge to the Lions and Packers in the division. Grade B-

Detroit Lions

The Lions were predicted to be a playoff team heading into the season and opened 5-0. Despite back to back defeats I still expect the Lions to make the playoffs in a wildcard berth. Stafford has always looked solid under centre and the defence has been consistent again. However, We are yet to see first round pick Nick Fairley enter into the team yet due to injury. This is a team with a lot to offer and Calvin Johnson is always available to make the impossible happen should Stafford get desperate. Grade B 

Green Bay Packers

It’s tough to remember that the Packers were only 10-6 last season on their way to superbowl victory given their total dominance this season. Only really put under pressure against the Saints in the season curtain raiser the Packers have strolled to a 7-0 undefeated record prior to their bye week. Aaron Rodgers has had a passer rating in excess of 100 for every game and Starks has kept balance with the run game. For the defence Bishop, Woodson and Clay Matthews have made turnovers and sacks their mainstay though the team is ranked second worst in points given up. If the offence keeps scoring like it is though the Packers won’t be threatened. Grade A

Minnesota Vikings

When McNabb couldn’t keep the Vikings in front beyond two quarters they Vikings switched to rookie Ponder who threw well against the Packers. The Vikings are the prototypical side for a rookie quarterback, Adrian Peterson’s run game has once again eased the necessity to pass, though Jenkins and Harvin pose consistent threats in the pass game. All passers require quality tight ends and fellow rookie Kyle Rudolph has shown the ability to form a long term marriage with Rudolph. Finally McNabb seems to have taken to the role of backup quarterback with a fatherly, helpful benevolence. The season’s a right off but I expect week on week improvement and a much better 2012. Grade C-

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are another intriguing prospect, they stand 3-3 going into week 8 but the Cowboys have a top 10 offence and defence and most of their hardest games behind them. Watch DeMarco Murray, Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware to take the Cowboys to the next level. This is a franchise that is finally going forwards again. Grade B

New York Giants

Eli Manning is looking much more like his brother, if his brother were fit that is. His 11 touchdowns and seasonal passer rating of 101.1 highlight his revitalisation. Key to the improvement have been Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz while Ahmad Bradshaw has contributed 5 touchdowns in the running game giving the Giants a devastating duality on offence. Antrel Rolle and Aaron Ross have starred on the defence. Grade A

Philadelphia Eagles

The unfortunate moniker this team picked up prior to week one was a burden. A terrible start but, mistakes in clutch plays and injuries to Vick have cost them. They’re 2-4 but could easily be 4-2. They’ll be there or there abouts come playoff time. Grade C-

Washington Redskins

The Redskins had 12 draft selections in the 2011 draft, very few of these selections have flourished for the burgeoning ‘skins though a 3-3 record. A lack of consistency at the quarterback has still overshadowed a relatively positive season that promised little. This side must settle the quarterback position if they wish to progress. Grade B

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Last year this side were unbeaten at home with a 13-3 record. This year they’ve already lost three though a sole home defeat against the Packers suggests fortress Georgia Dome will still be a tough place to come. Michael Turner is proving he is one of the best running backs in the league but they need to improve. Grade C

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Like the Falcons the Buccs sit 4-3 through seven games. Unlike the Falcons, the Buccs struggle in red zone scoring with Josh Freeman developing a habit of throwing picks in clutch situtations. They’ve have an extremely tough schedule and I can’t see them making the playoffs. Grade C-

Carolina Panthers

Great Offensive coordinating in Carolina has seen Cam Newton and Steve Smith excel. Week by week this team looks stronger. Williams and Stewart have added a run game to this previously one dimensional offence. Last week even the defence got in on the act. They may be 2-5 so far but they could well finish with a winning record. Grade B+

New Orleans Saints

The 2009 World Champions have looked a formidable prospect in 2011. Drew Brees is torching defences all over the NFL, Ingram is developing a nice run game and Sproles is a great dual threat. Work on the defence in 2012 will be required if Shaun Payton wants to avoid every game turning into a shootout though. Grade B 

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals

Kevin Kolb was one of the highest pawns of free agency but he is yet to ignite the Cardinals. Furthermore, Larry Fitzgerald is understandably exasperated by the lack of a second receiver in Arizona with Fitzgerald fighting a seeming one man battle in the backfield. Beanie Wells’ injury may have made the Cards offensive even more one dimensional. If this carries on opponents might just throw  everybody at Larry and see what the Cards do next. Grade D

San Francisco 49ers

No division is as seemingly sealed as the NFC West. The Niners have shown drastic improvement. Alex Smith has run the offence with a maturity and consistency that he has lacked in previous years, Jim Harbaugh has reenergised the team, Gore looks solid and the defence is on top. Grade A

Seattle Seahawks

A quick look across to Tennessee from the Seahawks ownership would suggest they made the wrong call in moving Matt Hasselbeck out of Washington State. However the Tavaris Jackson experiment has begun to improve in recent weeks. Sidney Rice needs to up his game if the passing unit are to improve on their 3 touchdowns so far. Marshawn Lynch is a solid running back but the team lack the spark to make the playoffs. They’ll have to draft well in 2012. Grade C-

St Louis Rams

The Rams were supposed to be the team to hold down the NFC West for years to come, Steven Jackson can’t get the yards in the run, Bradford has picked up knocks and been largely ineffective when fit, while the defence is ranked in the bottom three in run defence, total defensive yards and points conceded. Grade D


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