After a long, expensive, occasionally ridiculous campaign, our national moment of truth has finally arrived. Of course, I'm referring to the midpoint of the NFL season. Which means it's time to assess the state of the league, and also speculate about what's to come.
In the spirit of the just-completed presidential election—I must admit, Stockholm Syndrome is going to make me miss hearing the same handful of attack ad voice actors every time I turn on my television—here are three politically-themed awards and a trio of predictions:
The Barack Obama Don't-Call-it-a-Comeback Award: Too old. New team. Bad neck. Zipless passes and a wobbly deep ball. Peyton Manning was supposed to be done, right? Yesterday's phenomenon. Saddled by a halting recovery. No match for the conservative, throwback force that took the country by storm in his seeming absence. So much for that. Now starring for the Denver Broncos—deliciously, the former squad of He Who Shall Not Be Named, lest Rex Ryan get a crazy idea and start playing him—Manning looks like his old self, on pace for career highs in yards and completion percentage and career second-bests in touchdowns and passer rating. Moreover, the Broncos are 5-3, trending in the right direction (four wins in their last five games) and play in the AFC West, a division with the worst combined record (13-9) in the league, a division so bad that both Norv Turner and Scott Pioli continue to be gainfully employed.
The Todd Akin "Wait, Did I Say That Out Loud?" Award: Following an upset home loss to struggling Carolina that left Washington 3-5, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said, "you lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come. ... Obviously, we're not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we've got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season." Translation? We're not trying to win anymore. Wait 'till next year. Shanahan's verbal white flag—the kind of comment usually uttered by losing coaches in, say, December—touched off a firestorm among Washington fans and players alike forcing the coach to walk matters back during a next-day press conference in which he also asked that reporters call him, maybe, before running with stories based on his comments.
The Dean Chambers/Joe Scarborough I-Was-Unaware-This-Exam-Would-Include-Actual-Mathematics Award: By locking out its regular referees in what can only be described as a petty management-labor power play—ostensibly, the dispute was over an amount of money smaller than league commissioner Roger Goodell's expected future yearly salary—the NFL calculated that the resulting damage to its product wouldn't be enough to drive fans away. The league was half-right. Fans did keep watching—but largely to mock, deride and otherwise work themselves into an apoplectic lather over a group of replacement officials so inept that they made Turner and Pioli look like the hyper-professional Neil McCauley in "Heat." In the wake of a game-deciding Monday Night Football debacle that became the lead story on the "Today Show" and in the country at large the next morning, the NFL had little choice but to cave in and give the regular officials most of what they wanted. Memo to league owners: When you lose Al Roker, you lose America.
Rookie Quarterbacks Will Continue to Impress: From Robert Griffin III to Russell Wilson to Manning's replacement in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, first-year signal-callers are lighting up the league. And why not? Football has evolved into a pass-happy game at every level, which benefits players who can ... pass.
The New York Jets' Backup Quarterback Will Continue to Not Impress: Remember what I just said about players who can actually throw a football? Yep, that part matters.
The NFL Will Continue to Peddle Brain Trauma Malarkey: While continuing to deny both fault and responsibility as concussion lawsuits pile up—a strategy I find both dubious and strategically dumb—the league has been pushing a "Heads Up" youth football initiative that purports to alleviate the sport's increasingly serious brain trauma crisis by ... altering Pee-Wee tackling technique. Which is not a sufficient answer, and more like a liability dodge. Quick explanation: Football-induced brain trauma comes from hitting. It comes from getting hit in the head—by other players' helmets; by assorted body parts; by the ground—and also from changes in angular momentum. The brain is like a piece of silly putty that floats inside the skull, the way a yolk floats inside an eggshell. It can move, stretch, shear, and endure damage regardless of tackling technique or James Harrison wearing a Kevlar helmet. As Joe Biden might say, there's a word for all of this.
Hampton, give me three awards and three predictions for the rest of NFL 2012.
The people have spoken. My mandate is clear: Offer three NFL midseason awards and three predictions for the season's second half. First, the prizes.
Let's start with the "Hey, Didn't You Used to be Karl Rove?" Erstwhile Genius Award. Presented annually to the former mastermind who has seen his reputation take the biggest fall, our choice this year, with apologies to everyone in Jacksonville, is the aforementioned Chiefs' general manager Scott Pioli.
During the Bush/Cheney era, Rove was as a ruthless kingmaker and brilliant media manipulator. A scant four years later, Rove is media tool, last seen on FOX News, whimpering about Ohio.
Pioli was also the secret power behind the throne while winning Super Bowls galore with Bill Belichick. Or was he? In the four years since he took office at Arrowhead, Pioli has hired two disastrous head coaches and presided over an unrelenting string of player-personnel flops.
Of course, in Boston Pioli had the Kraft family as owners. In KC, he has Clark Hunt. By all accounts a gracious man, the son of team founder Lamar nevertheless seems bent on milking every possible cent from the cash-cow franchise he inherited from dad. Forget the pathetic, under-the-salary cap team Hunt puts on the field. Even the damn field itself looks awful—patchy and thin. The great George Toma must rolling in his exquisitely manicured grave.
The second award this midseason, the Herman Cain "I'm not just in it for the chicks" Prize, goes to Vikings' QB Christian Ponder. He hasn't played well lately under center for the Vikings, and he's also dating ESPN sideline reporter Samantha Steele.
Wags in Minnesota, flapping tongues, claim Steele is sapping Ponder's strength, playing Delilah to his Sampson.
Owner Paul Allen scoffed. Last week he got on KFAN radio in Minneapolis and said Ponder should "tell everybody why having a hot girlfriend" isn't hurting his performance. Which is true. If dating a hot blonde was enough to keep a guy from being successful as a quarterback in the NFL, there would not be any such ting as a successful NFL quarterback.
As for my fearless prognostications about the rest of the year? We'll stay in KC and predict that, being as stubborn as his daddy sometimes was, Clark Hunt will not fire Scott Pioli. Romeo Crennel, however, will get the ax.
Letting Crennel keep his job as defensive coordinator despite being hired as head coach was absurd—like letting a new president act as his own secretary of state. Each coaching job is full-time gig more than most men can handle, let alone a man in his 60s who has never proven himself as a successful NFL head coach.
Sean Payton has done that. Last week, Payton essentially became a free agent when the league voided the remainder of his contract with the Saints. Super Bowl-winning coaches, scandal-tinged or not, aren't available in midseason all that often, and KC desperately needs someone who can restore fans' faith in the organization.
But wait. I owe you one more award. My bad, dudes. I totally spaced out. Let's give that one to Buccaneers safety Ahmad Black.
There's no good time for an NFL player get busted for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. But Black sure picked the least-bad time—immediately in the wake of Colorado and Washington passing landmark legislation legalizing the recreational use of pot. Which is why he wins, you see it coming, Most Likely to be Traded to the Broncos or Seahawks.
How about you, Jake? Give us your awards at the season's halfway point, and throw in a guess or two about the shape of things to come.
–HamptonGladly, Hampton. Let's start with the Jack Welch/Bill Simmons "CONSPIRACIES ABOUND" Award, which of course goes to the NFL. After a three-week replacement refs debacle that culminated in the Inaccurate Reception (or, if you prefer, the Fail Mary) on that infamous Monday night in Seattle, the regular refs came back and promptly got accused of quasi-fixing a game. The charge came after the Saints beat the Chargers 31-24 in a Sunday night game marred by questionable fourth-quarter calls that went New Orleans' way. San Diego fans fumed that the league was throwing the Saints a bone after suspending coach Sean Payton and defensive leader Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 season because of BountyGate.
The conspiracy theorists rabble-roused again after a questionable call went the Giants' way in their game last Sunday against the Steelers (this play was called a fumble). "The league just wants a New York team to win after Hurricane Sandy!" people moaned, though the whining subsided after the Steelers won the game 24-20. In my opinion, the conspiracy theorists give the regular refs far too much credit—in reality, bad calls are most likely just bad calls.
Next we have the Joe Biden "This is a big f-cking deal" Award, going to Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Patrick, you mentioned the strong play of all rookie quarterbacks this season, but I don't think you gave Luck and RGIII their full due. The last time the NFL had two great QBs come into the league at the same time was 2004 (Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger). And that duo didn't dominate in Year 1 the way Luck and Griffin have. Put it this way: RGIII is the most exciting player in the league by a wide margin, and I'd still rather have Luck as my QB for the long-term.
Finally, we have the Mitch McConnell Failed Bloviating Award, which to my delight goes to the Philadelphia Eagles. You'll recall that McConnell said in 2009 that his biggest legislative priority was "making Barack Obama a one-term president." Whoops. Back in August 2011, the Eagles boasted about their "Dream Team" after a busy offseason that brought elite defensive players Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie to the team. Since then, the Eagles are a combined 11-13 over two seasons, Michael Vick has cooled off from his sensational 2010 season, and Andy Reid is still Andy Reid. The Eagles are now a team in disarray, scapegoating defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and falling flat in a must-win Monday night game against the Saints. Dream Team? More like the 2004 U.S. men's basketball team.
Three quickie predictions: First, Texans defensive tackle J.J. Watt will finish in the top three of the MVP voting but will not win because of the voters' bias to pick a quarterback. Second, the Falcons will lose at least three games this season, including this Sunday against the Saints. Finally, the Texans will beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.–Jake
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