Who are we to, even with our contrarian leanings, quibble with popularity, right?
So we spent the last few days surveying general managers, personnel directors, pro scouts, head coaches and assistant coaches — a group of nearly 20 NFL executives — about the players who stuck out over the first half of the campaign. Typically, some of the choices were relatively easy: Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, probably on his way to Most Valuable Player honors, was a unanimous pick at quarterback, the lone player cited by every voter.
There were other positions, however — like running back (where Fred Jackson and Adrian Peterson were just behind Matt Forte), offensive left guard (Mike Iupati just edged out Rob Sims and Carl Nicks), 3-4 inside linebacker (Patrick Willis was nearly as popular as San Francisco teammate NaVorro Bowman), and both safety spots (perennial choices Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed had plenty of support) — that were difficult to parse.
The results might prompt plenty of debate, particularly at positions where statistics aren't necessarily available as a measuring stick, but the ballot recount has already been done.
So, for good or bad, The Sports Xchange midseason all-pro team:
WR: Calvin Johnson, Detroit
WR: Steve Smith, Carolina
TE: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans
LT: Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati
LG: Mike Iupati, San Francisco
C: Eric Wood, Buffalo
RG: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore
RT: Eric Winston, Houston
QB: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
RB: Matt Forte, Chicago
FB: Vonta Leach, Baltimore
LE: Jason Babin, Philadelphia
DT: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore
DT: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit
NT (3-4): Sione Pouha, New York Jets
RE: Jared Allen, Minnesota
SLB: Von Miller, Denver
MLB (4-3): Curtis Lofton, Atlanta
ILB (3-4): NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
WLB: Lance Briggs, Chicago
OLB (3-4): DeMarcus Ware, Dallas
CB: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets
CB: Corey Webster, New York Giants
FS: Eric Weddle, San Diego
SS: George Wilson, Buffalo
K: Josh Scobee, Jacksonville
P: Andy Lee, San Francisco
KR: Joe McKnight, New York Jets
PR: Patrick Peterson, Arizona
Around the league
Actually, the nickname hung on defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth this week, after his release by New England, probably is a misnomer. At least according to two Patriots coaches/officials involved with the defensive lineman and the decision to cut him loose. Apparently, and to the surprise of just about no one who knows him well, the deficiency with Haynesworth wasn't in his conditioning, but his lack of motivation. Haynesworth simply wasn't producing and, while Coach Bill Belichick could live with his paycheck, he couldn't reconcile the lack of plays — and more important, it seems, of effort — the veteran was offering.
The failures of Haynesworth in Washington and New England validates to some extent the notion of many observers a few years ago that the big tackle would never again be the same interior dominant defender he was before the Redskins awarded him a seven-year, $100 million contract in 2009. In Tampa Bay, where the Bucs were the line club to submit a waiver claim, Haynesworth will get what figures to be one last shot to resurrect his floundering career.
The Bucs, who added Haynesworth only because of a season-ending injury to Gerald McCoy, play a 4-3 and a technique style similar to the one in which Haynesworth thrived in Tennessee. Defensive line coach Keith Millard isn't quite the throwback to what Haynesworth had with the Titans, when Jim Washburn (now in Philadelphia) got the most out of him, but he definitely is a motivator with some ideas about what buttons to push. But Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik has conceded that the Bucs would not have claimed Haynesworth were McCoy not injured, and that the defensive tackle is on a very short leash.
The third time may be the charm in most cases. But for Haynesworth, a third team since the start of the 2009 season is probably the last chance. This summer, Haynesworth told Boston-area newspapers that he probably would not play for another franchise if the experiment with the Pats didn't work. The Bucs are hoping he becomes a better player than a prognosticator.
Given his performance in the last two outings, in which he rushed for 252 yards and a 5.2-yard average while filling in for the injured Darren McFadden, there is emerging buzz about Oakland tailback Michael Bush as scouts begin very preliminary work on assessing next spring's potential free agent class. "A pretty intriguing guy," one pro personnel director told The Sports Xchange late Thursday night, in the final moments of the Raiders' key divisional victory at San Diego. "He's starting to call attention to himself." The two potential disclaimers on Bush are his age, mentioned the scout, noting that the former Louisville star will be 28 next June, and that he has never carried more than 158 times in a season.
But the backup to McFadden demonstrated versus an overmanned Chargers' defense that he might have the potential to be a workhorse-type runner, with 30 attempts, and a guy with better all-around skills than some anticipated (three receptions for 85 yards). A fourth-round pick in 2007, Bush missed his entire rookie campaign as he continued to rehabilitate a broken right leg sustained after only two quarters of his senior season in college, an injury that might have kept him out of the first round. But he certainly seems fully recovered from the leg injury, has rushed for 100 yards or better in four of 12 career starts (including three of his last five), and could be tempting if he reaches unrestricted free agency next spring.
Bush is playing on a one-year, $2.6 million contract and, while Oakland officials could attempt to sign him to an extension before he hits the open market, there are rumblings that Bush might attempt to recoup some of the money the college injury cost him. Notable is that, since the start of the '08 season, he has rushed for more yards (2,155-1,371) than the more famous tailback with whom he shares a surname, Reggie Bush of the Dolphins, and might be considered a better every-down back. Granted, it's a long time until next spring, and Bush will surrender the starter's job once McFadden returns from the right foot sprain that has sidelined him recently, but Bush and the approach the Raiders take with him is definitely worth watching.
The players association made some news this week in announcing the new AstroTurf NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, to be played Jan. 21 at the Home Depot Center near San Diego, a game that supposedly will feature 100 prospects from the 2012 draft pool.
The game will be unique in that, unlike the Senior Bowl or the East-West game, it will permit the participation of underclass players, a prospect that definitely got the attention of league scouts. Some of those scouts questioned just how many draft-eligible prospects will play in the contest because of the potential for injuries, but the other all-star games fill out their rosters, so such a concern might be just a red herring. The bigger question might be: If players choose to play in just one game, will they opt for the NFLPA-sponsored contest over the other all-star games? The AstroTurf game, after all, will be played the same week as the East-West contest. Admirable, too, is the fact that the AstroTurf game, in which the teams will be coached by Dick Vermeil and Tom Flores, will offer an educational chance in counseling players on the transition to the NFL for several days in advance of the contest.
To suggest that the promoters of the other all-star games are concerned, and may step up efforts to secure commitments from players, is understatement at this point. The announcement of the game could be a public relations victory for the NFLPA, especially with the rookie symposium-style atmosphere created, and the opportunity to get some insights from former players. Of course, some of the P.R. bump is negated by the union's continuing and silly stance on HGH testing.
There were skeptics when the Denver offensive staff suggested a few weeks ago that the Broncos implement a "zone-option" or "read-option" package to accommodate the comfort level of second-year quarterback Tim Tebow and to play to his strengths. In fact, forget the rest of the league, some of those who questioned the move the most were in the Denver locker room and executive offices. But the unconventional offensive blueprint could have some promise, as demonstrated by last week's victory over Oakland, in which the Broncos ran roughshod for 299 yards, and it certainly presents a challenge to opposing defenses.
"It's kind of the sort of 'assignment football' you played in college against the option teams," said Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson, whose team faces the Broncos on Sunday. "You have to really mind your P's and Q's, you know?" Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who developed the tweak to the running game, watched plenty of tapes from Tebow's career at the University of Florida, and counseled more with the quarterback than he did former Gators coaches, to gain a handle on the option style, and much of the heavy lifting, sources told The Sports Xchange, was assumed by offensive line coach Dave Magazu, who had to make some adjustments to the blocking scheme.
Some Denver players haven't yet bought all the way in to the option game, and executive vice president John Elway allowed this week that Tebow has to throw the ball better (the second-year veteran has yet to complete 50 percent of his passes in any of his three starts), but the unusual attack is starting to gain some traction with players.
"It's different, and it takes some getting used to, but it can work," tailback Willis McGahee, who rushed for 163 yards last week, told The Sports Xchange. "It's more than just a one-game fluke thing, I think."
When new Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips announced that he was moving Mario Williams from end to outside linebacker and Brian Cushing from strong-side linebacker to inside linebacker as part of the Texans' conversion to a 3-4 team, there were plenty of skeptics. But the two switches, part of an overhaul that has the Texans suddenly rated as the No. 1 statistical defense in the league, have succeeded.
Before the injury that ended his season, Williams made solid and surprising strides at linebacker. And Cushing, some observers feel, has played even better than his inside partner, DeMeco Ryans, in the 3-4. The one-time Defensive Rookie of the Year has 61 tackles and two sacks, and has been more than just an inside run-stuffer. He definitely has benefited from the presence of Ryans — another guy who ostensibly was moved, from 4-3 middle linebacker to inside 3-4 'backer — but has done well on his own, too. Cushing could always take on blocks, but he's using his hands a lot better, and learning to play in compressed areas.
Second-year veteran Sean Weatherspoon, a first-round pick in 2010, is beginning to become a viable force for the Atlanta defense. Weatherspoon can still "wolf" with the best jaw-jacking players in the league, but in recent weeks, he's done more than just talk a good game.
"He's coming on, becoming the guy we felt we drafted," general manager Thomas Dimitroff told The Sports Xchange.
The Falcons have quietly developed what some consider to be the top 4-3 middle 'backer in the league, in four-year veteran Curtis Lofton, and strongside starter Stephen Nicholas is playing well, too. In fact, the improved play of the Atlanta defense in recent weeks is in large part attributable to the linebacker play in general. And the guy who seems to be leading the way —developing into an excellent combination blitz-cover force — is Weatherspoon. The Falcons will deploy Weatherspoon in some situations to help bracket New Orleans tight Jimmy Graham in Sunday's key NFC South matchup, and he'll have big responsibilities versus Darren Sproles out of the backfield and against the Saints' screen-pass game.
Said Weatherspoon: "Last year (as a rookie), I think I was just trying to play on talent. But like all guys after that first season, you understand it takes more than the physical stuff to play well in this league. I can still do all the stuff (physically) that I did, but I'm a much better student and all-around player now. I know what it takes to make that next step."
In reaction to a column by The Sports Xchange a few weeks ago, in which it was noted that Andrew Luck has another season of eligibility at Stanford, and could elect to stay in school rather than enter the 2012 draft: A person close to Luck told The Sports Xchange via e-mail this week that the stay-in-school option "remains on the table, but barely" for the man expected to win the Heisman Trophy and be the most coveted player in the '12 lottery. In the column, The Sports Xchange noted that it was probably preposterous for Luck to rebuff NFL overtures for another season. The e-mail termed such a possibility "crazy," but didn't totally disregard it. ... We've been hammering home this point the past few weeks, and we'll give it one more shot: The Raiders, despite the obvious clout provided first-year coach Hue Jackson, have been getting plenty of counseling from a former team executive with past Oakland ties. The executive actually spent the past 7-10 days on site with the club, observing its operation and various departments and consulting with new owner Mark Davis, the son of the late Al Davis. ... The nine-year veteran McGahee, cited above, has enjoyed a career resurgence of sorts in Denver after having been released by Baltimore this summer. McGahee, 30, has run for 100 yards in four of his six starts. He hadn't posted a 100-yard outing since the final game of the 2009 season, as a reserve. The four 100-yard performances are just one shy of the number of 100-yard games McGahee registered in his previous 24 starts. ... The Saints have already completed 93 passes to running backs, and Sproles is second overall in the league, with 56 receptions. Sproles is making the decision to trade Reggie Bush look pretty good. ... Look for Atlanta to make a push over the second half of the season to sign Lofton, a big-time defensive key and a player who in his fourth year is becoming polished against the pass as well as being a tackling machine, to a contract extension. The former second-round choice is in the final season of his original rookie contract. ... The extension so far rejected by Bears tailback Matt Forte is said to average about $6 million per year. Chicago may gag at the $8 million average Forte is allegedly seeking, and could end up using a franchise tag on him instead. ... People close to cornerback Leigh Bodden, who underwent surgery this week for a herniated disc, are considering whether to file an injury grievance against New England. The Patriots released the nine-year veteran last week and there is speculation the move may have some injury implications. ... After their success playing man-to-man in the win over New England on Oct. 30, the Steelers may have become a bit too enamored with single coverage, and it came back to bite the secondary late in last week's final-minute loss to Baltimore. Look for the Pittsburgh secondary to return to its zone tendencies on Sunday at Cincinnati, but Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has been very effective so far versus zones and blitzes. ... We're not big on "hot seat" speculation here, but there are rumblings that the four-game losing streak in San Diego, which has followed a 4-1 start, could land Norv Turner in some trouble. Turner is 48-31 with the Chargers, and took the team to the AFC title game in his first year in 2007, but hasn't been back since.