JUDGE: Time for mid-term examination

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Clark Judge

The only thing better than getting halfway through an NFL season is recognizing those who made it worth watching ... and, no, it¿s not Jimmy Kimmel or Jillian Barberie I have in mind. It¿s people like and and ... oh, yeah, . In a year where the scoring is up and wide receivers are down (and out) it¿s memories of Rudd and those God-awful Seattle uniforms that won¿t quit. We salute them, along with the rest of our mid-term winners. The roll call, please:

Most valuable player

QB , Green Bay
You heard what the crowd chanted Monday night. ¿MVP! MVP! MVP¿ I¿d like to second the nomination. Then, again, I voted Favre as my MVP a year ago. The guy is special, playing when he shouldn¿t; throwing when he shouldn¿t; winning when he shouldn¿t. Heck, last month he and the Pack went into New England, played without three of their starting four defensive backs and beat the defending Super Bowl champs ... easily. Favre is tough. He¿s charismatic. He¿s the only quarterback with a 100 passer rating. And he makes his teammates better. Plus, he¿s murder on the road, where it¿s hard to win. In his four games away from Lambeau this season he has 11 touchdown passes and two interceptions — one reason nobody is better than Green Bay this year. Runner-Up: RB , San Diego.
The are off to their best start since 1994, and look no farther than Tomlinson. He has a team-high nine touchdowns, is responsible for 42 percent of the offense and is on target to break the club rushing record set by in 1994. I know, I know, the defense was solid until Herman Edwards brought his team to town, but don¿t give me or . They¿ve been hurt. And I know looks good behind center, but his greatest asset is that he¿s not screwing up ... and he¿s completing perfect handoffs to Tomlinson. Tomlinson is ideal for Marty Schottenheimer¿s conservative offense — a steady, rugged back who can gain the tough yards and carry a club. At the rate he¿s going he¿ll carry 372 times — and, yes, that would be another San Diego first.

Coach of the year

Marty Schottenheimer, San Diego
One man¿s ceiling is another man¿s floor, and here¿s an example. A year ago he was 8-3 down the stretch with as his quarterback, but that wasn¿t good enough for Washington. So Daniel Snyder stuffed a check in Marty¿s pocket and dismissed him ¿ much to the relief of San Diego. The responded immediately to Schotteheimer, winning six of their first eight and ascending to the top of their division basically because he stopped their stupid mistakes. Two years ago they committed 50 turnovers en route to a 1-15 finish; now they¿ve surrendered the ball 14 times. One word of caution: Enjoy the view while you can, Marty. The road ahead is full of potholes. Of San Diego¿s next eight opponents, only two have losing records — and one is red-hot St. Louis, where they travel on Sunday. Runner-Up: Dave McGinnis, Arizona
Sure, others won more games, but not this way. Coach Mac lost his starting safety before the season opener. He lost his right tackle before the season opener, too. Then he lost his starting running back ¿ and his backup running back ¿ and his starting cornerback ¿ and one wide receiver, then another wide receiver. Still, the Cards stayed with San Francisco and St. Louis, fading only at the wire. Let¿s be honest here: McGinnis doesn¿t have the talent of, say, a Green Bay, Philadelphia or St. Louis, but he¿s working on the next-best thing — a chemistry that can pull an ordinary club to extraordinary accomplishments. It won¿t be easy. Like Schottenheimer, the schedule ahead is brutal.

Offensive player of the year

RB , Kansas City
Once I thought the best thing about Kansas City was an afternoon at ¿Arthur Bryant¿s.¿ Then I got a load of this guy. He leads the league in rushing; he leads the league in total yardage; he leads the league in touchdowns; he leads his team in pass receptions and nobody is better inside or outside the locker room. Sure, the are 4-4, but can you imagine where they¿d be without Holmes? In one game he scores four touchdowns; in two others he scores three. Only once has he been blanked, and that was nearly two months ago. Holmes tied Marcus Allen for the team record in touchdowns with 15, and he still has eight games to go. Yep, he¿s on pace to set an NFL record for TDs, and with Buffalo and Seattle on the schedule in the next three weeks he may set it before December. Runner-up: QB , Buffalo
When New England shopped its backup quarterback earlier this year there were almost no takers. I say, ¿almost,¿ because Buffalo stepped forward with next year¿s first-round pick in exchange for a quarterback who did virtually nothing for three seasons. Well, those days of nothing are over, folks. Bledsoe is a touchdown machine again, throwing 17 touchdowns, an NFL-best 2,802 yards and displaying the leadership that New England coach Bill Belchick thought he lacked when he drove him out of town. Coaches love him. Teammates love him. Fans love him. And why not? He has as many scoring passes and victories through nine games with Buffalo as he had with the all season two years ago.

Defensive player of the year

DE , Denver
It doesn¿t matter if he plays inside or out; he¿s trouble. When Kansas City played the earlier this year it sometimes kept tight end in to block him and other times had the fullback chip him. The result? Pryce still wound up with two sacks. ¿You have to account for him at all times,¿ said an AFC pro personnel scout. ¿The guy¿s probably more active outside, but he¿s trouble wherever he lines up.¿ The numbers prove it: Pryce is tied with for the AFC lead in sacks with seven, and he¿s been almost as overwhelming at the point of attack as Defensive Player of the Year was a year ago. ¿The guy¿s playing at the highest level in the league,¿ said an AFC executive. ¿He¿s so big and long he¿s hard to handle. He¿s the kind of guy who can take a game over, and if you don¿t have a good right tackle you¿re in trouble.¿ Runner-up: S , Philadelphia
The have the best secondary in the business, and Dawkins is a big reason why. He¿s the best safety out there, able to play the run as effectively as the pass. ¿He¿s a playmaker in all phases,¿ said an AFC scout. ¿He has great range. He is solid in run support. And you¿re not afraid to leave him in space. I guess what I¿m saying is that he¿s not one-dimensional. He¿s the truest pure safety in the game.¿ The two-time Pro Bowler became the first player in league history to have a sack, interception, fumble recovery and TD reception in a single game when he touched all the bases in a September win over Houston ... and that was after he had a sack and interception in a win over Washington. Sure, Dawkins hammered ¿ receiver , but the guy¿s not dirty; he¿s one of the game¿s surest tacklers and hardest hitters, and he deserves to be recognized by something other than a $50,000 fine.

Rookie of the year

DE , Carolina
When Coach John Fox was asked if he wished he¿d taken with the second pick of this year¿s draft he looked at his questioner as if to say, ¿Are you crazy?¿ Here¿s why: Peppers has a league-high nine sacks, tying the club record for a defensive lineman ¿ in one season. Maybe that¿s why lowly Carolina, considered the dregs of the league prior to the season, is so much better on defense and why nobody is better getting to the quarterback. Peppers looks better as the season grows longer, with six sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles and 25 tackles over the past four games. Do the math, and you¿re looking at an all-expenses-paid week in Hawaii after the season. Oh, just in case you wondered: The sack record for rookies is 14.5, set by in 1999. Color that endangered. Runner-up: RB , Denver
There is someone within the who knows running backs. Let¿s see, ¿ ¿ . Now it¿s Portis who¿s the steal, with the former University of Miami star lasting until the 51st choice — or, after , and were long gone. Add them up and you have 509 yards, a 3.3-yard rushing average and four touchdowns. That¿s not all that good, but this is: Portis has a team-high 562 yards, a 4.9-yard rushing average and five TDs. And to think: Butch Davis, the coach who recruited him to the University of Miami, passed when he had the chance to take Portis.

Comeback player of the year

QB , Pittsburgh
Once upon a time nobody but an insurance company wanted to employ the former first-round draft choice. Then, the Arena League ¿ and the XFL ¿ and Pittsburgh¿s Bill Cowher came knocking, and the next thing you know Maddox is quarterbacking one of the AFC¿s premier teams. Until Oct. 6, his last NFL start was in 1994 when he was 0-4. Now he¿s 4-1 with the and the biggest thing to hit that town since The Terrible Towel. Maddox is a class act, keeping a low profile while radio talk shows demanded the benching of — who, they conveniently forget, was the team¿s MVP last season. They got their wish, and so did Maddox. He¿s a starter again, and the not only are winning, they¿re solidly entrenched in first place in the AFC North. Runner-up: QB , Buffalo
The guy was hurt seriously a year ago, recovered, then couldn¿t win back a job that was his since he broke into the league. He appeared once in New England¿s last 17 games, throwing a touchdown pass in the ¿ AFC championship game victory over Pittsburgh. Then he vanished again, banished to Buffalo after the decided on . The acquired him for a future first-rounder, which looked steep until the season began. Then Bledsoe looked like the Bledsoe of 1997 when he threw a career-best 28 touchdown passes. What he¿s done this year is remarkable, throwing for 17 touchdowns, 2,802 yards and leading the once hapless to a 5-4 record. Good for him. The guy¿s another class act. After the ¿ 38-7 victory last weekend, he sought out New England Coach Bill Belichick to shake his hand. Belichick didn¿t go looking for Bledsoe; it was the other way around.

Biggest surprise

QB , N.Y.
The club had such little conviction about him that, before the season, Coach Herman Edwards hedged on his pledge to play him this year. It¿s not as if the didn¿t have a book on Pennington; this is his (begin itl) third year (end ital). It¿s that they didn¿t have a whole lot of faith in him until¿until the roof caved in, began to look his age and critics wondered how they could salvage a season going nowhere. Well, they¿re trying, and Pennington is a big reason why. In four starts he¿s 2-2 and completed an AFC-best 70 percent of his passes. Good young quarterbacks are hard to find, and the just uncovered one. Lucky for them. Runner-Up: Coach John Fox, Carolina
The former defensive coordinator had to play with NFL rejects at quarterback and at running back, yet somehow he squeezed three victories out of the first three weeks. OK, so the are 3-5; they¿ve lost only one game by more than three points. Remember, now, Fox took over a club that, entering the season, had the league¿s worst talent ¿ and already he¿s tripled their victories from last year. He¿s doing a remarkable job of keeping the competitive, and he¿s doing it the only way he knows how: with defense. The envelope, please: The league¿s worst-ranked unit a year ago now is in the top five of 10 categories — including overall defense (4th) and sacks (1st). John Fox, take a bow.

Biggest disappointment

Mike Holmgren, Coach, Seattle
I¿m not sure which is worse: Holmgren¿s record or Seattle¿s wardrobe. When Paul Allen backed up the Brink¿s truck for Holmgren, he hired a winner. Holmgren proved it in Green Bay when he took the to the Super Bowl in successive years, and he proved it his first season in Seattle when he had an ordinary team in the playoffs. But that was then, and this is now, and now the are bad and getting worse. Not only did they get drilled by Washington, failing to score a touchdown for the second time this year, they just lost quarterback and linebacker for the season. Holmgren was supposed to enliven Seattle¿s offense, but look where it is now — in the bottom third of the NFL in nine offensive categories, including scoring (26). Not only is Mike off to the second-worst start of his career; he¿s building a case for the once unimaginable — his dismissal. In four seasons with the he¿s 26-30, and, just a hunch, but I bet that comes up when he and Mr. Allen sit down to discuss the future. Runner-Up: RB , Cleveland
The made him the 16th pick of the draft, largely because they believed he would resuscitate the league¿s 31st-ranked rushing offense. Well, he hasn¿t. In fact, last time I checked the were stuck at 32nd, averaging 12 yards a game fewer than last year when they couldn¿t run a stop sign. I know the offensive line isn¿t what it should be, but how come can rush for 100 yards and Green can¿t? No, let¿s make that a little more to the point: Why hasn¿t Green run for more than 36 yards in any game? Coach Butch Davis pledged to use him more the second half of the season, but why? The guy looks as tentative hitting a hole as .

Best play of the year

That would be the ¿15 lead¿ call that carried through Seattle¿s defense for 11 yards, breaking Walter Payton¿s career rushing record. For one glorious afternoon, Emmitt turned back the clock — running harder, cutting more quickly and breaking tackles as he did five years ago. So the didn¿t win. You think anyone will remember when they review the videotape 10 years from now? No, they'll remember Emmitt collecting himself at the end of the play, spreading his arms in joy and the entire NFL stopping for one brief moment to salute one of its greatest backs.

Worst play of the year

You¿ll have to go back decades to find a dumber or more costly move than what Cleveland linebacker pulled in the season-opening loss to Kansas City. Rudd didn¿t lose his head; he lost his helmet, and that was worse. By throwing it in exultation during what should have been the game-ending play, Rudd incurred a 15-yard penalty that set up Kansas City for the winning field goal. Afterward, he was cursed and taunted by ¿ crazies as he left the field. ¿I thought the game was over,¿ he said later. ¿My decision wasn¿t good. It broke my heart to lose, but I don¿t think I let the guys down.¿ He might reconsider if Cleveland misses the playoffs by a game.

Best game of the year

Some people said it was Miami¿s last-second defeat of Denver on Oct. 13, and one TV analyst called it the best regular-season game ever played. Huh? How about Kansas City¿s 31-28 win over Denver in 1994 when Joe Montana found Willie Davis with seconds left? Or what about that Monday night game in 2000 when the New York rallied from a 30-7 fourth-quarter deficit to hang an unforgettable 40-37 overtime defeat of Miami? Not only don¿t I think the -Broncos game was the best of the last few years; I don¿t think it was the best this season. Buffalo¿s 45-39 overtime defeat of Minnesota was. You remember, right? The scored the go-ahead touchdown with 26 seconds left in regulation, yet still lost. Blame . All he did was throw for a career-record 463 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to .

Worst game of the year

Any of Cincinnati¿s first four games when the were outscored,119-23. Think that¿s wrong? OK, then, I offer Detroit¿s 9-7 win over Dallas — last weekend¿s Sominex of sport when two teams combined for 829 yards in punts, or 454 more than they produced passing, running and catching. ¿We¿re struggling on offense,¿ said Detroit¿s Marty Mornhinweg. ¿We have a lot of work to do.¿ And that was the winning coach. Dallas averaged an embarrassing 3.2 yards per play, which is dreadful. But the looked like ¿Air Coryell¿ next to Detroit¿s 2.6. Memo to Bill Ford: Next time, don¿t recall the cars; recall the game plans. Senior writer Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,
Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Titans, Chiefs, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Giants, Jets, Eagles, Seahawks, Panthers, Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Jamel White, Tony Banks, Trevor Pryce, Brett Favre, Jevon Kearse, Tony Gonzalez, Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe, Ike Hilliard, Chad Pennington, Brian Dawkins, Kordell Stewart, Junior Seau, LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, T.J. Duckett, Clinton Portis, William Green, Julius Peppers, Tommy Maddox, Joey Harrington

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