As the NFL regular season hits the halfway point, a bit of good news to the 18 teams that enter Sunday’s Week 9 games at .500 or worse: Your season is far from over.
Since 2000, 32 teams have made the playoffs after sitting at .500 or worse at the season’s midpoint, including at least one team each season. Most recently, the 3-6 Redskins pulled off seven straight victories to win the NFC East last year. In 2011, Tebow mania helped Denver overcome a 3-5 start to win the AFC West. And who can forget the 2001 Patriots, who won seven of their last eight games after starting 4-4, and then kept on rolling to a Super Bowl championship?
The winless Jaguars and Buccaneers are toast, the Vikings probably aren’t going anywhere with that 1-6 record, and the Steelers, Falcons, Redskins, Giants, and Texans need to go on serious winning streaks to erase their horrible first halves. But the 10 other teams with three or four wins are still right in the mix — before Sunday’s games, the final playoff spots belong to the 4-3 Chargers and 5-3 Lions.
Conversely, several teams that started well better not rest easy: History says that at least one team among the Lions, Bears, Panthers, Chargers, Bengals, Patriots, and Colts will slide out of playoff contention in the second half. The only teams that look like safe bets for the playoffs are the undefeated Chiefs and one-loss Broncos, Saints, and Seahawks, although last year’s Bears proved that starting 7-1 doesn’t always guarantee a playoff berth.
How did the first half of the season play out? Who were the biggest surprises and disappointments? Our NFL 2013 Midseason Report:
Offensive Player of the Year — Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos. Drew Brees is back with a vengeance, Andrew Luck has the Colts back on top, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles are yardage monsters, and Jimmy Graham is a touchdown machine. But it’s hard not to pick Manning, who is on pace to obliterate several passing marks with 2,919 yards, 29 touchdowns, and only six interceptions as the Broncos raced to a 7-1 record.
Other candidates: Brees, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Luck, McCoy, Charles, Reggie Bush, Frank Gore, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Graham, Dez Bryant.
Defensive Player of the Year — Robert Mathis, DE, Colts. Luck has taken most of the headlines, but Mathis, an 11-year veteran, is quietly having a career year at 32. He leads the NFL with 11½ sacks (tying his career high) and has added three forced fumbles and a safety as the leader of a defense that is No. 8 in points allowed.
Other candidates: Justin Houston, Mario Williams, Robert Quinn, Tamba Hali, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kiko Alonzo, Sean Lee, Aqib Talib, Richard Sherman, Mike Mitchell.
Offensive Rookie of the Year — Geno Smith, QB, Jets. Eddie Lacy is coming on strong with 395 yards and two touchdowns in his last four games, and a handful of rookie receivers contributed immediately, including the two in New England. But Smith, a second-round pick, has been far better than anyone expected (the 13 interceptions notwithstanding) and he is a big reason the Jets are a surprising 4-4.
Other candidates: Lacy, DeAndre Hopkins, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Zac Stacy, Keenan Allen, Giovani Bernard, Robert Woods.
Defensive Rookie of the Year — Kiko Alonso, LB, Bills. Tyrann Mathieu has been outstanding in Arizona, Star Lotulelei is the plug in the middle of the Panthers’ No. 3-ranked defense, and Chris Jones has come out of nowhere to compile five sacks as the fill-in for Vince Wilfork. But Alonso, who has 81 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, four passes defended, and a league-high four interceptions, is the easy choice.
Other candidates: Jones, Sheldon Richardson, Mathieu, Lotulelei, Alec Ogletree.
Coach of the Year — Andy Reid, Chiefs. Most pundits expected the Chiefs to show improvement after ditching Romeo Crennel and Matt Cassel for Reid and Alex Smith this offseason. But no one expected the Chiefs to be the last undefeated team — probably not even Reid.
Other candidates: Ron Rivera, Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, Sean Payton, Pete Carroll, Mike McCoy, Rex Ryan.
Coach on the hot seat — Greg Schiano, Buccaneers. An 0-7 start, overbearing authority, undisciplined penalties, and a fractured locker room have put Schiano’s job in jeopardy. A nasty MRSA infection in the team facility, and the belief by many that Schiano was the source on a number of leaks about Josh Freeman hasn’t helped him win over his players, either.
Other candidates: Leslie Frazier, Gary Kubiak, Joe Philbin, Gus Bradley, Tom Coughlin.
Most surprising team — Jets. The Chiefs obviously have been a big surprise, but they still have two games left each against the Broncos and Chargers. The Panthers have been unexpectedly stout on defense, while the Chargers and Lions are among the surprise offensive teams. But who thought the Jets, mostly devoid of talent on offense, would be 4-4? Ryan deserves a lot of credit for building a nasty defense.
Most disappointing team — Giants. Several teams with preseason playoff hopes have disappointed, such as the Falcons, Texans, Vikings, Redskins, Steelers, and Dolphins. But none has been more disappointing than Eli Manning and the Giants, who have 25 turnovers. No other team has more than 18.
Best free agent signing — Reggie Bush, RB, Lions. He’s been the perfect fit for that offense, compiling 853 total yards and four touchdowns, all for a modest four years and $16 million. Why did the Dolphins let him walk away again?
Other candidates: Wes Welker, Talib, Brent Grimes, Ted Ginn, Jake Long, Michael Johnson, Wallace Gilberry.
Worst free agent signing — Ed Reed, S, Texans. Free agency once again proved to be fool’s gold for most players and teams, but no one has been a bigger bust than Reed, who signed for three years and $15 million but has just 14 tackles and no impact plays in five games.
Other candidates: Steven Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace, Danny Amendola, Andy Levitre, Cliff Avril, Elvis Dumervil, Paul Kruger, William Moore, Greg Jennings.
Comeback player — Lee, LB, Cowboys. This one is tough since the only obvious candidate, Robert Griffin III, isn’t playing very well. But Lee, who played just six games last year after suffering a season-ending toe injury, has 81 tackles, four interceptions, and a touchdown.
Other candidates: Grimes, Griffin, Antonio Brown.
Breakout star — Luck, QB, Colts. RG3 and Russell Wilson were the talk of 2012, but Luck has taken the league by storm in his second season, including impressive wins over the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos.
Other candidates: Alshon Jeffery, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Cameron Jordan, Josh Gordon, Cecil Shorts, Geno Smith, Lacy, Joseph Fauria.
AFC playoff prediction — Patriots, Bengals, Colts, Broncos, Chiefs (WC), Ravens (WC).
NFC playoff prediction — Cowboys, Packers, Saints, Seahawks, 49ers (WC), Panthers (WC).
Gronkowski’s team not playing it right
The Rob Gronkowski saga finally — mercifully — concluded a couple weeks ago when he returned to the field after sitting out the first six games following offseason forearm and back surgeries. Tom Brady certainly is happy to have his star tight end back — he targeted him 22 times in the first two games, connecting on 10 passes — and Gronkowski should return to his dominant ways before long.
But there’s something about the way Gronkowski and his team of people have handled his return that leaves a bit of a sour taste, and probably has produced more than a little eye-rolling around the Patriots’ football offices.
No one should blame Gronkowski for taking his time coming back from four offseason surgeries, which are physically and emotionally draining. He’s only 24, could have a lot of great football ahead of him, and has almost $15 million on the line in the 2015 season. After rushing back twice from injuries to poor results, Gronkowski was right for taking his time, even after the Patriots’ medical staff cleared him to play earlier this season. And by all accounts, Gronkowski wanted to be back sooner — he was set to play against Atlanta in Week 4 before his father and agent intervened at the last minute, according to two sources.
But Gronkowski’s return wasn’t just about getting back on the field. It’s been as much about selling the “Gronk” brand.
When his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, announced on Oct. 18 that Gronkowski was cleared to play two days later against the Jets, Team Gronk used the occasion to hawk merchandise.
On Nov. 11, Gronkowski will be hosting his Football 101 Women’s Clinic at Harvard Stadium, where campers can sip on “Gronk-tinis.” And now Gronkowski is trying to go Hollywood — the website Deadspin got its hands on a video last week of an animated television show “The Gronks,” a whimsical show about the crazy, R-rated adventures of Papa Gronk and his five boys that their managers are shopping. This, of course, after the book tour last summer to promote “Growing Up Gronk,” the authorized biography about Gordie Gronkowski and his sons, three of whom have played in the NFL.
There’s nothing wrong with Gronkowski’s people protecting their investment and trying to make a buck, as his window as a marketable star may be small. And as long as Gronkowski catches touchdown passes and draws triple teams, the Patriots and their fans can’t really complain. But it’s also fair to wonder if Gronk the brand is becoming too much of a priority over Gronk the football player.
Players being put in difficult position
The NFL has been cracking down on violent hits in recent years — those to the head and shots against defenseless receivers — and no position may be more impacted than safety. Being a fearless, big-hitting safety once was endearing — players such as Ronnie Lott and Rodney Harrison made endless highlight reels with their ferocious hits and epitomized the “warrior” mentality of the NFL — but now it only gets you in trouble, as former Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather has learned with his repeated fines and recent one-game suspension.
“Bill Parcells told me years ago, ‘The day of the big-hitting strong safety is going to be extinct,’ ” former Cowboys All-Pro safety Darren Woodson, now an ESPN analyst, said last week on “Mike and Mike.” “What you’re going to see in this league are corners now playing safety, because a big-hitting strong safety becomes a detriment to your football team, he’s going to cause some type of harm and he’s basically going to cost you somewhere down the line.”
Sure enough, the Patriots are ahead of this curve, with former cornerback Devin McCourty excelling this year in his full-time switch to free safety.
With tight ends becoming increasingly more athletic and active in the passing game, having a cover safety, as opposed to an in-the-box physical safety, has become more important.
“Hard hitting isn’t as important when you’ve got some tight ends that are closer to being receivers than they are to being blockers,” said McCourty, who according to ProFootballFocus.com leads all safeties with five passes defended this year. “In some situations where I’m asked to cover more and do different things, just having a wide skill set, I think, has helped me and helped us out a lot as a defense.”
McCourty said the NFL has made it difficult for safeties to avoid penalties and fines.
“The biggest thing is they ask guys to almost be perfect now,” he said. “That’s tough in this game when you’re playing at a high speed, and the target is moving all the time.”
This doctor is in, especially on Sundays
An interesting name has popped up on Twitter over the past few Sundays: @ProFootballDoc, a.k.a. Dr. David Chao, the San Diego Chargers’ doctor for 17 seasons before he resigned last summer for health reasons.
Chao, 49, now watches games from his couch and tweets during the games, dispensing opinions and predictions on player injuries. Then he expands on his thoughts in a “Monday Morning MD” column for the website National Football Post, in which he recaps the weekend’s injuries and hits on topics such as the medical implications of playing NFL games in London.
Chao, who still has an orthopedic practice in the San Diego area, said he could tell Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo tore a pectoral muscle when it looked like a shoulder injury, and that the swelling seen on the back of Tom Brady’s right hand last Sunday may not be a big deal, though he has no knowledge of Brady’s injury.
“It’s just an area that swells easily,” Chao said of the back of the hand. “It does indicate that there’s an injury. If you really smack it hard on the back of a helmet, it can swell like a monster, but it’s not really important.”
Chao said he left the Chargers this summer because of lingering back issues and to spend more time with his infant twins, not because of the NFLPA investigation into his practices, after which he was cleared. He just wants to enjoy football and provide fans with a unique view of the game.
“One-third of NFL stories are injury-related,” Chao said. “I’m just trying to apply insider knowledge based on real-time video and just knowing how the league works.”
When Patriots wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins takes the field Sunday against the Steelers, he can personally thank one of the mentors who helped make his NFL career a reality.
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and Thompkins are both 25 and hail from Miami, but Thompkins took a more circuitous route to the NFL, while Brown was drafted in 2010.
When Thompkins got to the NFL this spring, he texted Brown, asking him what he needed to do to succeed.
“You already know,” Brown texted back.
Thompkins, who has 334 yards and four touchdowns, took the message to heart.
“It put me at ease,” Thompkins said. “Let me know that I already know what to do — just have to keep doing what got me here.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.