Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Midseason Report: The Five Biggest Surprises of 2009

There are some reassuring certainties, in life and football, that will never change. The Lions will always suck, the Cowboys will always be a collection of the world's greatest douchenozzles and Peyton Manning will throw for 4,000 yards every year until they nail shut his coffin, just to name a few. However, every year there are a number of dazzling success stories and abysmal failures in the NFL, and luckily for fans of attempted football comedy I'm here to recount them. Let's go down the list, shall we:

No. 5: Darren Sharper seems to have a thing for proving his critics wrong in the most emphatic way possible. After he played eight years for the Packers and burned his name into many of the club record books (as well as heading to the Pro Bowl two times), Green Bay released him after the 2004 season, thinking he was all out of gas as a player. Sharper immediately turned around, signed with the Packers' archenemies, the Minnesota Vikings, and then proceeded to crap all over the Packers by playing so well he went to the '05 Pro Bowl. Sharper went on to play three more years for the Vikings until they, like the Packers before them, released him in the 2008 offseason. Why? What else: he was all washed up. Of course, Sharper signed with the New Orleans Saints and proceeded to tear shit up. As of this writing, he has picked off seven passes and leads the league with three of 'em returned for scores. Oh, yeah, and his Saints are 7-0 through seven games. Go you, Darren.

No. 4: The 1-6 Titans and the 3-4 Panthers. Combined into one entry because of both of their ridiculous light blue uniforms, these two teams were the class of their respective conferences last year. The Titans went into the playoffs with a 13-3 record, one of the best defenses in football and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Panthers, meanwhile, settled for the No. 2 seed and had the third-best rushing attack in the game. Collectively, the two of them had shit made. Unfortunately for them, the Titans were ejected in the first round of the playoffs by the Baltimore Ravens and the Panthers melted down in their first round, with quarterback Jake Delhomme throwing five interceptions (and losing a fumble) as the Cardinals stomped all over the unlucky Panthers.

This year: The Titans became the laughingstock of the league as they started out 0-6. Sure, their defensive coordinator had left to go coach another team with absurd blue uniforms (the Detroit Lions at least try for dignity by throwing in some black) and their star defensive tackle went to the Redskins in free agency. But never mind that, right? Everything's going to be okay, right? They have Kerry Collins at quarterback!

Well, since it happened to be Collins' fifteenth year, it's not much of a surprise that he folded in the first half of this year. Their excellent secondary was reduced to crap, their offense blew up under a bevy of Collins-led turnovers and they lost six games in a row, culminating in a 59-0 shellacking by the New England Patriots. After which they picked themselves up, won one game and then running back Chris Johnson (the only man who can look like a total badass wearing powder blue and white) declared that his team was going to the playoffs. Yeah. Okay.

Meanwhile, the Panthers were struggling with their own quarterback shitshow. Remember how Jake Delhomme had a total meltdown in the divisional playoffs last year? Well, the curse apparently carried over to this year, since he's thrown a league-leading 13 interceptions and lost two fumbles already. But since they just signed him to a five-year, $36 million (or something like that; they all get a little fuzzy for me once they pass twenty million freaking dollars) contract extension, they're basically stuck with him as the starter. You can guess how well that went as the Panthers started 0-3.

However, all is not lost: The Panthers have since picked themselves up to win three of four games. Sure, two of them were against some of the league's worst teams in Tampa Bay and Washington (don't even get me started on Washington), but a win's a win, right? Plus, much more importantly, guess who their other win (and the latest game) was against? Yep, the Arizona Cardinals. And not only that, but their grizzled, veteran quarterback (Delhomme's in his 11th season, so he's one too) Kurt Warner threw-guess what?-five interceptions and lost a fumble. Panthers fans can only hope that the curse has passed on to some other poor sap so they can get back to the business of winning.

No. 3: Cedric Benson. This guy was a total bust when he was first drafted, and I do mean bust. He was the fourth pick in the draft in 2005 (for those who don't know, the draft has some 276 picks each year. That makes Ced a big deal) to the Chicago Bears, and was expected to be basically the second coming of Walter Payton when they brought him in. Benson held out through all of training camp, argued with his coaches and was arrested twice in five weeks in 2007. After serving as a backup to Thomas Jones for two years, he was gifted the starting job in '07 when Jones was traded to the New York Jets. To no one's surprise, he turned out to suck and was released following the '07 season.

This being a considerable shock to Benson, I can only surmise what he might have thought. I'd imagine it'd be two things: One, "Hey, all of my problems have basically been inside my head. Nobody gets drafted No. 4 overall without the tools to play the game, so all I have to do is figure out my mental issues and I can be groovy!" Two, "Where in the league do talented fuckups always, ALWAYS get a second chance?" Yes, you guessed it, readers; the Cincinnati Bengals. Benson signed with the Bengals for one year in 2008 and performed so well that they gave him a two-year, $7 million contract shortly thereafter.

The rest is currently being written in the form of history. Benson is fourth in the NFL with 720 rushing yards and is also one of only two backs in football to currently be averaging over 100 rushing yards per game (The other is the aforementioned gigafuck, Chris Johnson.) and his Bengals are 5-2 and leading the AFC North (former Pro Bowl QB Carson Palmer having returned from a season-ending elbow injury doesn't hurt either). Best of all, he got to play the Bears two weeks ago and ran for a career-high 189 yards and one touchdown. As I can only say to a guy who gashes the shit out of a division rival: You go, sir.

No. 2: Brett Favre. Much as I wanted to bump him up the list to No. 4, Favre deserves to be down here as the second biggest surprise of the year. Admit it: You thought he was washed up. In the wake of a tumultous season with the Jets that culminated in a 1-4 meltdown and the Jets missing the playoffs, plus a major shoulder injury, people were questioning whether Favre still had the magic touch. Hell, we were full-on shouting it in the direction of Hattiesburg, Miss. When he signed with the Vikings, we all figured he'd just be handing it off to scary motherfucker Adrian Peterson forty times a game, throwing a lot of short, safe passes and a lot more picks.

Well, so much for that idea. Favre currently co-leads the league with 16 touchdown passes and his completion percentage is fourth in the NFL. Plus, he's only thrown three picks, the fourth fewest in the league after you strike two guys that are no longer starting for their teams. Hell, one of the guys above him missed a bunch of games (Donovan McNabb) and another threw his only pick on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, when it didn't mean shit (Kyle Orton). Oh, yeah, and the hated Vikings are now 7-1 and in position to run away with the NFC North. Sure, it's still early and Favre tends to wear down at the end of the year, but with a nice big heated dome to play in when the weather gets cold, you have to wonder just how far the Vikings can go.

No. 1: The 6-1 Broncos. Admit it, you're fucking shocked. I was, too, when the Broncos rocketed to 6-0 on the strength of their defense. Their defense! Hell, they were ranked 29th in the league a year ago! They were three teams away from giving up the most yards per game in the league (at a whopping 374.6 per)! This year, through seven games and a bye week, they are ranked first. Yes, you read that right. This year it's 266.7 yards per game, good enough to make them the best defense in football right now. What the hell changed?
Oh, and lest we forget, the Broncos endured perhaps the most tumultuous offseason in recent memory, up to and including the freaking Brett Favre shit-hurricane that hit Green Bay in 2008. In the 2009 offseason, it was the Broncos' turn. Understanding just what happened goes back to the last three games of the 2008 season, when the Broncos were leading the AFC North with an 8-5 record with three games to play and a three-game lead in their division over the 5-8 San Diego Chargers. All they needed was one win to clinch the division title and go to the playoffs. The Broncos then proceeded to choke it away by losing the last three games and allowing the Chargers to steal the title, thus becoming the first team in NFL history to fail that badly.

Just two days after that, the Broncos fired their two-time Super Bowl winning head coach, Mike Shanahan, and replaced him with a New England Patriots assistant coach named Josh McDaniels. Practically McDaniels' first move was to talk to the Patriots and the Chiefs about a possible three-team trade involving shipping the reigning franchise quarterback in Bronco-land, Jay Cutler, out of town. Cutler learned about it, got pissed and demanded to be shipped out of town, which after three weeks of media fuckstorm, he was. To the Chicago Bears. In return for draft picks and Kyle Orton, a middling Bears QB. Meanwhile, top receiver Brandon Marshall freaked out and started demanding a trade of his own. McDaniels and new GM Brian Xanders capped it off by drafting running back Knowshon Moreno with the No. 12 overall pick in the draft, eschewing badly needed defensive players, then went out and signed a shitton of random free agents to the point where reporters couldn't even keep track of the new guys.


So what the hell changed? Well, among those free agents were a ton of new defensive players, including veteran safety Brian Dawkins, who was let go by Philadelphia and is currently feeling his oats ala Darren Sharper. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen also went out and got the premier defensive coordinator talent on the market, ex-49ers head coach Mike Nolan. Put that together with two new cornerbacks and a linebacker from the first two rounds of the draft, add the fact that McDaniels was hired because he helped create the megafuck Patriots offense that set all kinds of records in 2007 and kept on rolling in 2008 with a backup QB, and the Broncos are suddenly dangerous bastards. They're leading the AFC West, in fact. Only the second half of the season will tell what'll happen, with them and with all of the above guys and teams, but if it's anything like this first half it will be interesting as all hell. I'll leave it to the football gods to apportion failure and success. Later, folks.

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