The season's midway point is always a glorious point of the year, as the trees are full of color, the sunlight rarer and more treasured, and the amber air as crisp and cool as a freshly opened bottle of beer. I'd like to say that we, the writers of This Given Sunday, were all gathered in the rolling hills of a leaf-strewn park, cold beers in hand and meat on the grill, as we talked over our picks for these midseason awards.
But no. We're a bunch of nerds sitting in fluorescent-lit windowless cubicles, stealing time away from work to type hasty thoughts into a series of group emails. Why? Because talking football is our way of bringing that crisp fall air back into our dreary lives.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
The unanimous winner, of course, is Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the unbeaten Green Bay Packers. Says Tom Gower: "Rodgers is playing the most important position on the field at a ridiculously, insanely high level for the team with the league's best record."
Rodgers has thrown for 2,619 yards, on pace to shatter the single-season record (5,084 yards) set by Dan Marino in 1984. He also has 24 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions at the halfway point, a pace that fits right along side Tom Brady's insane 50-TD, 8-INT season in 2007. Brady just happened to go undefeated in that regular season, another mark Rodgers and his team are closing in on, but they won't be satisfied unless they get that last one, the one Brady couldn't.
- Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
- Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Buffalo Bills
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
Unofficially, we appended "besides Aaron Rodgers" to this award's title. It was hard to come to consensus here, but in keeping with our theme of threatening historical marks, the nod goes to Calvin Johnson. With 11 TDs through 8 games, he is just off the pace of Jerry Rice's record-setting 23 scores in a season. 22 would tie him with Randy Moss. "Megatron, indeed" adds Derek Pease.
Johnson has shown flashes of eliteness, but had always mixed that in with boneheaded plays, nagging injuries, or just allowing himself to be erased in a given week. Not this year. With Matthew Stafford's help (and with apologies to Wes Welker), Johnson stands alone as the best receiver in the game.
- Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots
- Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
- Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
It's hard to look away from the Hair here. Says Tom: "Troy Polamalu may seem like a trendy pick, but even on a very good defense like the Steelers, he regularly stands out as the player with the biggest impact."
Add in the number of injuries that Pittsburgh has suffered, and Polamalu's contributions to the #3 overall defense in the league stand out that much more.
- Demarcus Ware, DE/LB, Dallas Cowboys
- George Wilson, S, Buffalo Bills
- Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
COACH OF THE FIRST HALF
This topic produced the most focused dissent from our group, with choices boiling down to essentially two finalists, and each of our panelists taking sides.
On one hand, you have the Buffalo Bills' Chan Gailey, winner of our 1/4 Season award, leading his die-hards to the top of the AFC East before falling back into a three-way tie last weekend. Says Derek Pease: "In the uber-competitive AFC East he has the Bills believing and better yet playing at their highest level in years."
On the other, you have the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh, who might be the greatest magician in the league. He took a huge gamble on Alex Smith, giving him a playbook in the offseason before the Niners had even re-signed him as their starter, and it has paid off. Says Tom: "The 49ers can clinch the NFC West by Thanksgiving and seem destined for a top 2 seed in the NFC. Credit Jim Harbaugh for bigger, faster improvement than pretty much anybody predicted."
If you look at strength of schedule, you could lean toward Gailey. But if you look at charting a path to the playoffs, at this point you have to go Harbaugh.
- Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE FIRST HALF
No surprises here: it's Cam Newton in a landslide, as it was at the quarter pole. He hasn't wowed us with any more 400-yard games as he did in the first two weeks of the season, but he has become more efficient with three consecutive weeks of 60% completion rates.
With 18 total touchdowns and 11 turnovers (including two lost fumbles last week), he makes every game more exciting than it would be without him. Lawrence Dushenski is not shy with his praise: "Could go down as the best dual threat player to ever play the game. Simply amazing what he is able to do on the field."
If we allowed rookie tandem awards, though, the honors would have to go to Andy Dalton and AJ Green in Cincinnati. Just saying.
- Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
- AJ Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE FIRST HALF
Von Miller has gotten accolades in Denver among those who have been watching their whole season, and not just Tim Tebow highlights. But another rookie surpasses him, barely, in our midseason awards: San Francisco's pass-rushing demon Aldon Smith.
The Niners' defense has excelled against the run for years, led by Patrick Willis, but defending efficient quarterbacks has been a problem for that same period of time. They've lacked a Grade A pass-rusher in what seems like forever. Enter Aldon Smith, whose 6.5 sacks lead the team despite only being on the field for 173 snaps. The rookie is on pace to finish with the best team sack total since Andre Carter's 12.5 in 2002. That's impressive.
- Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
- JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans
OFFENSIVE BUST OF THE FIRST HALF
Lawrence submits a worthy vote for Peyton Hilllis, who is the latest victim of the Madden Curse. "After bursting onto the scene last year, Hillis has been hampered by a mixture of hamstring issues and dreams of getting paid."
But Chris Johnson's abject failure to produce anything resembling CJ2K performance after getting paid makes him the easy pick this season. Johnson is doing little to make us forget Tom Gower's comparison to Larry Johnson. Maybe 2K now refers to his age?
DEFENSIVE BUST OF THE FIRST HALF
After considering votes for Brian Cushing (still pretty productive) and "the entire Patriots defense," we're going to go with ex-Seahawk linebacker Aaron Curry. Says Derek: "Only three years in and the former top 5 pick has already been shipped out of Seattle. Even Lawrence Phillips lasted longer with St. Louis once upon a time."
HOTTEST SEAT (COACHING) OF THE FIRST HALF
The group didn't stray too far from our Week 9 Hot Seat rankings, selecting Jim Caldwell for these, err.. "honors." But dishonorable mentions were given to Tony Sparano ("dead coach walking") and Norv Turner ("can't end well").
However, in a good read, Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star makes a strong case that firing Caldwell would miss the point in Indy, when GM Chris Polian is largely to blame for the franchise's woes.
HOTTEST SEAT (QUARTERBACK) OF THE FIRST HALF
This one generated a lot of discussion. Tim Tebow was mentioned prominently, before his coach ripped up his playbook and installed Urban Meyer's instead for a monster win last week. Kevin Kolb gets 30 million reasons for being on this list, especially after his backup ended a 7-game losing streak. Even Rex Grossman, who has already been burned and might find even the backup's spot on this hellacious team too warm for his comfort, got a nod.
But the quarterback with the most riding on his shoulders, and showing the least so far in response, is Oakland's Carson Palmer. Granted, the Raiders really don't have another option to turn to. But the inherent heat of sacrificing an entire draft to make something happen with this team should keep him anything but comfortable.
UNDER THE RADAR PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
I'll let Lawrence take the podium here:
"LeSean McCoy. How can you be under the radar, but be leading the league in rushing? Well how many people would consider McCoy amongst the top five backs in the league? That is how you get to be under the radar. Rarely mentioned amongst Peterson, Forte, Jones-Drew and Turner, McCoy has scored at least one touchdown every week this year, and he is finally breaking out of his shell."
- George Wilson, S, Buffalo Bills
- Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders
- Chris Houston, CB, Detroit Lions
BIGGEST SINGLE PLAY OF THE FIRST HALF
Hard to select just one play, but our brain trust settled around two that had the biggest impact on the league's narratives. Rather than try to split the vote, we'll honor them both.
1. Drayton Florence's interception (off a Marcel Dareus tip) of Tom Brady, returned for a touchdown. It gave the Bills a 31-24 lead, and snuffed a dangerous Patriots rally. They would rally again to tie the game anyway, but lost on a last-second field goal. That win for Buffalo toppled a giant in a game that sent shock waves through the AFC's power structure.
2. Tim Tebow's TD run and 2-point conversion against the Miami Dolphins. His final five minutes of play erased a 15-point deficit and poured jet fuel onto an already fiery debate over his future in the NFL. His throwback mix of skills have remade the Broncos into the Bronko Nagurskis of the league.
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