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NFC midseason report cards
AFC grades | NFC grades
This type of report card won’t get special attention on the NFL’s refrigerator door.
For the first time since 1959 — a period when 20 of the league’s current 32 franchises didn’t even exist — there isn’t an undefeated or one-loss team nine weeks into the regular season. That means no clubs are worthy of receiving an “A” in my FOXSports.com midseason report card.
What we have instead are some Bs, a bunch of Cs and Ds, and Fs for the three teams in their division basements — Buffalo, Carolina and Dallas.
Summary: The fact Arizona has even three wins considering their quarterback problems speaks volumes for Ken Whisenhunt’s head coaching acumen. But not even the "Whiz" can work enough magic to get Arizona into the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
MVP: Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. I shudder to think where Arizona’s sputtering offense would stand without Fitzgerald (42 catches for 510 yards and four touchdowns).
Biggest disappointment: The quarterback position. Arizona’s front office and coaches badly erred when making the offseason evaluation that Matt Leinart could replace the retired Kurt Warner. Leinart was cut at the end of the preseason, leaving Derek Anderson and Max Hall under center. Anderson is too erratic a passer; Hall is too inexperienced and doesn’t have a big-time arm.
Outlook: Have I written enough yet about Arizona’s quarterbacking? The Cardinals need to find an answer at the position during the offseason or risk Fitzgerald leaving elsewhere in free agency after the 2011 season.
Summary: The Falcons are the team to beat in the NFC South after last Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay and an earlier victory at New Orleans. But there are too many suspect areas for Atlanta to pull a Raheem Morris and declare itself the NFC’s best team.
MVP: Wide receiver Roddy White. He has a legitimate shot of finishing as the NFL leader in catches and receiving yards. White ranks near the top of both lists with 58 receptions for 796 yards and five touchdowns.
Biggest disappointment: Jacksonville (6.3) and Houston (6.2) field the lone defenses giving up more yardage per play than Atlanta at 5.8. The Falcons also must show more of a killer instinct. Atlanta needed late heroics to secure its past two wins against Cincinnati and the Bucs after almost squandering double-digit leads.
Outlook: The postseason picture will be much brighter if the Falcons can secure home-field advantage. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has a 17-1 starting record inside the Georgia Dome.
Summary: The Panthers rank last in six of 17 major NFL offensive categories and from No. 26 to No. 31 in four others.
MVP: Outside linebacker James Anderson. He’s the most productive member of a defense that is being put in far too many negative situations. Anderson is credited with a team-high 77 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five passes defensed, a forced fumble and an interception.
Biggest disappointment: Quarterback Matt Moore. He was 3-1 as a starter in Carolina’s final four games last year but bad enough in 2010 to get yanked during a Week Two home loss to Tampa Bay. Moore later regained his starting spot but is now out for the season with a shoulder injury.
Outlook: With the NFL’s lowest player payroll (roughly $78 million at the start of the season), Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is getting what he paid for. The best the Panthers can hope for is Jimmy Clausen or fellow rookie quarterback Tony Pike emerging as a bona fide starter before head coach John Fox leaves elsewhere at season’s end.
Summary: Bears head coach Lovie Smith said the negative media vibe surrounding his team makes you think Chicago was 2-6. Unfortunately for the Bears, a 2-6 conclusion is conceivable if Chicago doesn’t shore pass protection that has already allowed a league-high 32 sacks.
MVP: Quarterback Jay Cutler. No doubt, Cutler has significant flaws to his game that need correcting. But the guy deserves a medal for posting a 4-3 record when healthy enough to start behind a leaky offensive line.
Biggest disappointment: Defensive tackle Tommy Harris is a prime example of a player whose performance plummeted after being rewarded with a lucrative contract extension. Inked to a four-year, $40 million extension in the 2008 offseason, Harris’ effort and productivity plummeted to the point he was a healthy scratch for a key Week 3 matchup against Green Bay that Chicago won anyway.
Outlook: Despite a strong front seven and superior special teams, I have no faith that coordinator Mike Martz can field an effective offense both schematically and talent-wise.
Summary: The only celebration waiting for Cowboys players when Super Bowl XLV is held in North Texas is the fact their miserable season will be long over. A veteran squad with this many Pro Bowl-caliber players has shown a startling lack of discipline and fortitude. This reflected so terribly upon head coach Wade Phillips that he was fired earlier this week and replaced by offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
MVP: Punter Mat McBriar. With a 47.1-yard gross average, McBriar is the only Cowboys player to lead the conference in an official NFL statistical category.
Biggest disappointment: Too many people -- from players to coaches to the front office -- have screwed up this season to name just one.
Outlook: The Cowboys may respond better to Garrett’s coaching, but this season is lost with quarterback Tony Romo out indefinitely with a broken collarbone.
Summary: Although their record doesn’t show it, the Lions are a far better club with more promise than any Detroit squad in the past decade.
MVP: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. At this rate, Suh will become the first defensive tackle to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors since Miami’s Tim Bowens in 1994. With 6.5 sacks in eight games, Suh already has become the dominating inside pass-rush presence Detroit had envisioned when making him the NFL’s No. 2 overall draft pick.
Biggest disappointment: Quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford displays plenty of potential when he plays. The problem: He has proven far too injury-prone since being the first player taken in the 2009 draft. A right (throwing) shoulder separation -- the second in his young career -- could sideline Stafford for the rest of this season.
Outlook: Even if capable backup Shaun Hill (forearm) can return to replace Stafford by Nov. 21 against Dallas, the Lions don’t have enough defensive talent to make a serious postseason push. Look for the secondary to become a major offseason focus for a team that should soon be primed to break a playoff drought that dates to 1999.
Green Bay (6-3)
MVP: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews. On almost any other team, quarterback Aaron Rodgers would run away with this award. But even as Rodgers continued to evolve toward Manning/Brady/Brees status, Matthews is the lynchpin to overall defensive success as the team’s top pass rusher. He has notched a team-high 10.5 sacks while creating opportunities for others like emerging linebacker Desmond Bishop.
Biggest disappointment: The list of players on injured reserve. Green Bay has lost key members at running back (Ryan Grant), tight end (Jermichael Finley) and linebacker (Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga). Further blows may eventually be too difficult for Green Bay to overcome, although Bishop and running back Brandon Jackson deserve credit for taking advantage of their newfound playing time.
Outlook: The pokey of pigskin prognosticators who picked the Packers for postseason props should still be peppy (say that three times fast). Green Bay can take a huge step toward securing the NFC North crown with a Nov. 21 victory at Minnesota.
Summary: Head coach Brad Childress saved his team’s playoff hopes -- and his own job -- with last Sunday’s 27-24 overtime victory over Arizona. The comeback win was one of the few highlights in a season with more off-field drama that on-field success.
MVP: Running back Adrian Peterson. He is the one constant on a club with an erratic passing game. Peterson ranks seven yards behind Houston’s Arian Foster (864) in the NFL’s rushing race and has eliminated the fumbling problem that marred his 2009 campaign.
Biggest disappointment: The ill-fated trade with New England for wide receiver Randy Moss. Childress and Moss are both at fault for the failure of this working relationship after just one month. But regardless of who should bear the brunt of the blame, Minnesota is still without a 2011 third-round draft choice. That’s a significant blow to a team needing to overhaul its aged roster in the offseason.
Outlook: If the win over the Cardinals marked a true watershed moment, Minnesota could still make an NFC North title run even after its disastrous start. The next two games (at Chicago and home against Green Bay) will determine whether the Vikings are contenders or pretenders.
New Orleans (6-3)
Summary: As the old saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Drew Brees and Co. are learning that lesson firsthand. The Saints have clocked as many losses by midseason as during the entire 2009 Super Bowl-winning campaign.
Biggest disappointment: Kicker Garrett Hartley. The Saints thought Hartley had entrenched himself as a clutch kicker following his game-winning overtime field goal in last season’s NFC title game against Minnesota. But he slumped so badly that New Orleans sent Hartley to the bench and briefly used his kicking mentor (John Carney). The demotion may have done Hartley good. He has made five straight field-goal attempts.
Outlook: A 20-10 victory over Pittsburgh was the first sign of the 2010 Saints playing championship-caliber football. Bush’s imminent return should bolster the offense, but the Saints will be challenged by a season-ending stretch against Baltimore, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
New York Giants (6-2)
Summary: After a 1-2 start, the Giants rallied to win five consecutive games and take sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
MVP: Quarterback Eli Manning. In his excellent midseason breakdown, my FOXSports.com cohort Adam Schein states his case for Manning as the NFL Most Valuable Player frontrunner. The Scheiner raises a valid point. Manning has led the way in New York’s winning streak. He’s also getting help from running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who has a legitimate crack at the NFL rushing title with 765 yards.
Biggest disappointment: The lopsided losses to Indianapolis (38-14) and Tennessee (29-10) in Weeks 2 and 3 raised questions about head coach Tom Coughlin’s job security. Those red flags quickly went away as the Giants regrouped and began fielding one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers under new coordinator Perry Fewell.
Outlook: The Giants opened last season 5-0 and were widely considered the NFL’s best team until a disastrous 3-8 finish. New York should be able to avoid a similar swoon and make the playoffs.
MVP: Head coach Andy Reid. Philadelphia’s offensive play-calling struggles in key situations reflect poorly upon Reid. But the guy deserves credit for successfully juggling a touchy quarterback carousel between Kolb and Vick.
Biggest disappointment: Some media outlets have reported the defensive coordinator position could come open in 2011 with the offensive-minded Reid now spending more time with Sean McDermott’s unit. My two cents: The Eagles don’t have a scary defense, but the group can hold up if Philadelphia’s offense steps up.
Outlook: Neutralizing a dual run/pass threat like Vick will provide a challenge for slow-footed defenses should the Eagles return to the playoffs.
St. Louis (4-4)
Summary: This season already can be considered a success with more victories so far than the past two years combined.
MVP: Running back Steven Jackson. Quarterback Sam Bradford is becoming everything the Rams dreamed as this year’s No. 1 overall pick. But he wouldn’t be developing so quickly without the support provided by Jackson, who is bulling his way to a sixth straight 1,000-yard rushing season.
Biggest disappointment: Injuries at the wide receiver position have contributed to Bradford averaging 5.7 yards a completion, which ranks 32nd among NFL quarterbacks with at least 14 attempts. Randy Moss would have provided a much-needed deep threat, but head coach Steve Spagnuolo didn’t want to risk disrupting his team’s locker-room chemistry by placing a waiver claim on the temperamental wideout following his recent release by Minnesota.
Outlook: The next step in Spagnuolo’s rebuilding process is winning on the road where the Rams are 0-3. Four of St. Louis’ next five contests are away from home. How the Rams fare could very well determine whether St. Louis joins the 2008 Dolphins as the only teams to ever rebound from a one-win season to claim a division title.
San Francisco (2-6)
Summary: The consensus preseason favorite to win the NFC West has stumbled from the get-go. Embattled head coach Mike Singletary already has fired his offensive coordinator (Jimmy Raye) and changed starting quarterbacks (from Alex Smith to Troy Smith) in hopes of salvaging one of the NFL’s most disappointing seasons.
MVP: Inside linebacker Patrick Willis. He is on pace for a career-low 134 tackles and has yet to force a turnover this season. Willis, though, is still the best player on a unit put under duress because of San Francisco’s offensive woes.
Biggest disappointment: Alex Smith. Although sidelined in Week 8 by a shoulder injury, a now-healthy Smith didn’t do enough in his first seven starts to regain the starting position from relative newcomer Troy Smith. Alex Smith seems destined for a backup role elsewhere next season — something the 49ers never envisioned when making him the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft.
Outlook: Coming off a bye, the 49ers have the chance to make an NFC West run with five of their remaining eight games against division opponents. Should the 49ers continue to underachieve, don’t expect Singletary back in 2011.
Summary: After a 4-2 start, the Seahawks have gotten spanked by a 74-10 margin in consecutive losses to Oakland and the New York Giants.
MVP: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. His steady play has helped Seattle to a .500 record despite the lack of continuity that comes with more than 200 roster moves since the offseason.
Biggest disappointment: Left tackle Russell Okung. The sixth-overall pick in April’s draft has missed five of eight starts because of two separate ankle sprains. Other injuries along the line are crippling the offense.
Outlook: With no NFC West squads above .500, the Seahawks should remain in contention for a division crown until at least December. An 8-8 finish will be considered successful considering the massive roster facelift needed when head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took charge.
Tampa Bay (5-3)
Summary: The Bucs can’t legitimately claim NFC supremacy like Raheem Morris did during a 5-2 start. But there is no question that Morris is under consideration for NFL Coach of the Year if Tampa Bay continues its surprising start.
MVP: Quarterback Josh Freeman. The comparisons to Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger are apt. Freeman already is exhibiting the same caliber of pocket poise and scrambling ability for a rawboned 6-foot-6 moose of an athlete.
Biggest disappointment: Know why the Bucs don’t have to worry about fines for late hits on opposing quarterbacks? Because their pressure doesn’t get close enough to draw a flag. I kid!!! Try the veal!!! Bad jokes aside, the Bucs must better a league-low six sacks after eight games.
Outlook: Expecting a playoff push for such a young squad is too ambitious. However, Morris and general manager Mark Dominik deserve major props for resurrecting a roster saddled by penny-pinching ownership.
Summary: What was initially considering an overachieving team is coming back to earth because of a quarterback controversy and leaky defense.
MVP: Cornerback DeAngelo Hall. With all due respect to Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets, Hall was the NFL’s top cornerback during the first half of the season. Hall almost single-handedly led Washington to a 17-14 victory over Chicago with four interceptions, including one he returned for a score. Hall also posted Washington’s only touchdown in a 13-7 season-opening victory over Dallas.
Biggest disappointment: Donovan McNabb. McNabb’s up-and-down play and practice habits were two of the reasons the Shanahans (head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle) benched McNabb late in their last loss to Detroit. Just as disturbing: Washington surrendered a 2010 second-round draft choice for a fading quarterback who may depart in free agency and leave a gaping hole at the position.
Outlook: The Redskins must survive a brutal four-game stretch against Philadelphia, Tennessee, Minnesota and the New York Giants to keep their playoff hopes viable. Unlike when Mike Shanahan assumed the managerial reins in Denver during the mid-1990s, there will be no quick fix personnel-wise in Washington.
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