Halfway Home: Seven Surprises at the Halfway Point of the 2011 NFL Season

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Halfway Home: Seven Surprises at the Halfway Point of the 2011 NFL Season
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I want to preface this article by stating that I realize the lockout contributes to this article greatly, and that I took that into consideration when factoring in the surprises. If anyone is offended or disagrees, I completely understand, so let's get into it:

7: Alex Smith Is Playing Like an NFL QB

A message board poster I'm friendly with hates Alex Smith. There's a reason for this.

Alex Smith was the number one overall pick in 2005. In 2005, the 49ers had the worst QB rating by team in the NFL. Alex Smith was the exact reason that this happened. Injured? Yes. Still, by interception number six, something's wrong with your rookie QB, and he has to sit down.

Rookie head coach Mike Nolan, however, couldn't figure that out.A 1/11 QB ratio is far beyond merely horrendous. There was talk that the Niners would draft Andrew Luck and send Smith back to Utah with the sagebrush. This, of course, did not happen.

The problem with Smith is that his head coaches put too much expectation on him while handing him a really average to poor WR corps. Playing under Mike Martz, who gets his QB's killed, in 2008 was a low, low point in Alex's career.

My problem with hiring Mike Singletary is that the only thing Singletary knew about quarterbacks was learned by watching them over Dan Hampton's shoulder.

Then came Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh, a first-time head coach—the third time in a row the 49ers have hired a rookie NFL head coach—would seem to have the same issues as Nolan and Singletary, except for one thing. Jim Harbaugh's nickname, "Captain Comeback", was earned the hard way.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
This man has looked like a top 15 NFL QB. That's right, him.

Why did he earn that name? Because he was the QB directly preceding Peyton Manning on the Indianapolis Colts. Jim Harbaugh knows quarterbacking. He also knows the fragile ego of a QB, well enough that he went out of his way to make Smith understand that he would be the starter, sink or swim.

Well, Smith swam like a guy finishing fifth behind Olympian Michael Phelps. Through nine games, Smith has completed 64% of his passes for a ratio of 11/17. Alex Smith has a QB rating of 95.6. To put it in perspective, I couldn't even get that accomplished editing Alex's ratings in Madden '06. I wait to see what happens, but thus far Alex has looked good—really good.

6: The Chargers Not Being "The Chargers"

We have all seen the Chargers as the third most powerful offense of the modern NFL. There's absolutely no disputing that fact. However, because of the ego of Charger sachem AJ Smith—also known as "The Man Who Destroyed a Super Bowl Contender"—who fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season (I'll repeat that: A 14-2 season).

Schottenheimer was fired over a difference of opinion! Ever since, the Chargers have looked suspiciously like they're the 40's Boston Red Sox of the 2011 NFL (...always a Bridesmaid...). There are multiple reasons to blame the Chargers for coming up short. But let's begin with the top reason—Norv Turner.

Harry How/Getty Images
Phil counts the days until Norv goes away and he can stop being Dan Fouts 2.0.

Norv Turner is, in my mind, the only thing that held the Chargers back. Turner, who failed with talent-laden teams in Oakland and Washington, had absolutely no reason to be hired to coach this team. Last season was the strangest season in Charger history.

Ranked 1st overall in both general categories (Offense and Defense), they were 29th in turnover ratio and were horrid in special-teams play. That will help you miss the postseason. How can I put it on Norv, you ask? Because this is what he does.

He's a poor coach who keeps getting chances because he's a good offensive coordinator. He destroys talented teams. He seems to ignore his defense. He runs offensive schemes that make very little sense considering the personnel he has available.

All of this brings me to this season. This year, watching the Chargers has been painful. Their "high-powered offense" has been compared to a cannon. This year, it's looked more like a water pistol. Comparatively, I mean. For example, until last week, they had scored 20 points in every game.

Last week, they came up short against a division rival (which also happens to be my second favorite team) and looked poor doing it. Not only that, they were booed by their own fans after a three-point half where they looked uninspired and uncaring.

But if you ever needed an illustration of how a team plays when they're undisciplined and poorly trained, check out that game against the Packers where they were down 21-7 at the end of the first quarter—at home! Phillip Rivers has looked a lot like Alex Smith used to. This situation may not get better unless Turner goes away.

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
This expression looks way too natural.

5: Joke Flacco

Back when I used to do Yahoo Chat, I remember an annoying troll named "El_Flacko." I remember him mainly because he was annoying, but I remember him also because the name was pronounced exactly like the Baltimore QB, who by the way has also been annoying, but in a much different way.

Joe Flacco has been inconsistent at best. He looks brilliant against the Steeler defense, then goes to Seattle and does his impression of Kyle Boller. He leads comebacks against the Cardinals (but honestly, a Pop Warner team could do that) and then decides that Jacksonville's defense is just too tough to overcome.

There were people prepared to anoint Flacco as an elite QB but there's something about being a Ravens QB that just lowers his stock. Steve McNair's last seasons were spent as a Raven. Not coincidentally...no, I can't make that joke.

But I want it understood: with an offensive line that good and that experienced, they should have about eight wins. They should be in the driver's seat in their division, considering they've beaten the Steelers twice. That just doesn't happen.

So they need Flacco to step up—or he'll be stepping out, replaced by a draft pick. Baltimore fans are no longer living on that Super Bowl win. They want more. If they don't get it, and allow the Steelers to remain the top guys in the division over the next few years, there will be hell to pay. It will start with QB Ravens No. 5.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
In the twilight of a brilliant career

4: Bear Down, Chicago Bears

I confess, I very rarely believe in my favorite team. They never give me any reason to believe in them. They have a shoddy offensive line and wide receivers who think they're great while being well past a prime that wasn't that good to begin with.

Combine those with an offensive coordinator who knows very little about schemes that don't get his QB "spinebustered" into the turf and a GM who, like the guy as I do, knows very little about college talent (Chris Williams as the LT of the future!!!).

When I consider a team north of us who may be the most talented team in the NFL, and one that is improving in Detroit, why should I believe in the Bears?

I believe in Jay Cutler. I've also been one of the few that has remained with him from the very beginning. I am afraid he'll get killed, though. I say it all the time: You cannot succeed without a good to great offensive line. You just cannot, end of story. So the Bears' success has caught me by surprise, especially after the disappointing play in the first part of the season.

I can't entirely say it's the coaching, even though I do think Lovie Smith gets a bad rap from the "fire & passion" dopes. One of the things I've noticed is that the Bears have thrown different attacks at their opponents. Let me tell you what I believe is the key to potential success for the rest of this season: Ignore Mike Martz.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
This happens a lot after a pick.

Since he is leaving after this season, Martz is a lame duck. His schemes aren't really relevant to their victory total, and have led more to offensive ineptitude then success. Quarterbacks cannot take seven step drops anymore.

Rodgers doesn't. Rodgers is number 2 in the NFL (not quite ready to put him at number one yet, the man has at least three WRs that would be number one on any other team). Cutler will be seriously injured soon. A lineman sits on his head at least once a game. It has to end.

It can only end when Martz has been removed from the equation. The next three weeks are critical, as all their games are against the AFC West. If they don't win at least two of the three, season's over and we can look forward to the horrible draft choices waiting for us.

3: Failure to Launch: The Jets

Everyone, and I mean everyone, picked the Jets to be the AFC East representative in the post-season. One wonders why they haven't quite lived up to it and I have a theory.

Looking at the Jets, I notice that their offensive line hasn't been nearly as excellent as last season. Of course, that could be because of Mangler's (Mangold's) injury earlier in the season, but let's be honest. Mark Sanchez has played horribly, and the Jets' defense hasn't been as good.

That's not the problem, though. The theory is this: sometimes a team begins to buy into their hype, to such an extent that they somehow play less intensely than they did the previous season. Last year, the Jets had something to prove, that the Patriots were not their superior, and they proved it powerfully.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
There isn't much I can say without being monstrously insulting.

This year, everyone believed they were on more or less equal footing. And the Jets not only haven't been on equal footing with them, they've crashed into the abyss. This was capped off by their loss to the Tim-Tebow led Broncos; the offense looked powerless and Mark Sanchez's passes looked like Dan McGwire's Super Tecmo Bowl performance.

If you've ever played as or against Dan McGwire on STB, you know exactly what I mean. The Jets might be finished, especially if Buffalo wins in Week 12. I do not want Rex Ryan fired, which could very well happen at the conclusion of this season. Consider how New York sports works, and that becomes a distinct possibility if the Jets end up out of the post-season.

2: Baby, If You've Ever Wondered...

The Cincinnati Bengals were predicted to be one of the worst teams in the AFC, willing to play Iron Mike Sharpe to Pittsburgh's Bret Hart and Baltimore's Shawn Michaels. Carson Palmer was so sure that would be the case that he demanded to be traded from the team that had nurtured and stood by him when he was playing horribly.

Even though Mike Brown is a clown, he made the right decision at first, telling Palmer to get stuffed and putting things into the hands of rookie QB Andy Dalton. Many thought this was a bad idea considering that, not only was Dalton a second-round pick, he was living down this "red-headed QB" crap.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
I have nothing bad to say about CJ. He'll destroy my teams if I make him angry.

Dalton has gotten the job done and then some, but the real surprise has been the fact that Cincy's defense has actually played well. Not good, just well.

What really should surprise us isn't that the Bengals, at 6-3 in the AFC North, are a major player at this point and in that position—it's that they lost a potential shutdown corner type in free agency to the Texans. The Texans are reaping the benefits of Jonathan Joseph.

What really sets the Bengals ahead of their previous prediction (that they'd be 3-13, at least from me) is that they fought hard with the Steelers, the strongmen of the division, and very nearly beat them in a game where they probably should have been stomped. The way things have gone with the Steelers, that's not as much of an upset as you might think.

They may not win the division. But they've looked good, even if their SOS isn't very good.

1: Blue Crushed

At the beginning of the season, the Detroit Lions looked to be one of the best teams in the conference. Those words have never escaped my lips outside of a video game. That is one of those things where a team is so horrible, and gets so many top picks that they eventually have to be good. The Lions looked great this season—until the 49ers came to town.

Before Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh decided to reenact "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out" at the conclusion of that game, however, the MCK were one of the best teams in the NFL. They have the top WR in the league, a DT that has morphed into the division's defensive Darth Vader and a QB that might actually stay healthy this season.

They have enough luck—and talent—to show a bunch of NFL teams that they mean business this time. They made Brian Urlacher look slow on MNF, crushing the Bear defense.

The surprise isn't that the Lions are good. It's that they've been decisively good. They may turn it into years of competitiveness. I sincerely hope they do.

Seeing the Packers own the division for the next five years (as they have the money and the draft prowess to make that happen) is a pretty grim prospect. And as I've said before, I have no faith in the ability of Jerry Angelo to match it.

A postscript: One might ask why the Colts aren't here. Well, it's mainly because they were expected to be horrid because of Peyton's injury. It's not a surprise they're the worst team in football.

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