With the 2004 NFL season half over, about the only thing that is the same as a year ago is the league’s main story line:
How quickly things in the league can change, thanks to an environment of parity fueled by a salary cap and unrestricted free agency.
Success — or struggles — can be right around the corner. Consider:
• Success — the Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers and Atlanta Falcons, last-place finishers last year, sit atop their divisions.
• Struggles, NFC edition — only two of six conference playoff teams from 2003 are above .500, with the defending champion Carolina Panthers at 1-7.
• Struggles, AFC edition — the Kansas City Chiefs, who had three losses all of last year, have already lost five times in 2004. The Tennessee Titans, 12-4 a year ago, are 3-5.
"Clearly, the NFL has what it wants," Cardinals coach Dennis Green said. "They’re not interested in Arizona fans helping pay $400 million (for a new stadium) and not have a good team on the field. They don’t think it’s a good idea for the Chicago Bears to shell out for a (remodeled) stadium, which is good for the league, and not be competitive.
"It’s the best system going. . . . I think that’s what makes the league so great now. Even before free agency, you had upsets, but now, you cannot take any thing for granted."
Here is a look back at the top individuals and moments of the first half of the 2004 season, and a look ahead to a stretch run that is likely to provide another healthy dose of the unexpected:
Tiki Barber: The New York Giants are probably not 5-3 and pressing for a playoff berth without the production of Barber, a running back who has rushed for 820 yards and caught passes for 411 yards.
Barber has amassed 45.8 percent of the team’s total offense, the most of any offensive player in the league.
The presence of Barber in the backfield took much of the pressure off quarterback Kurt Warner. Without the urge to force things, Warner kept mistakes to a minimum — until Sunday’s loss to Chicago, at least.
The other guys: Drew Brees, QB, San Diego; Daunte Culpepper, QB, Minnesota; Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis; Curtis Martin, RB, N.Y. Jets; Terrell Owens, WR, Philadelphia.
Ben Roethlisberger: Let’s see. Six wins in six starts for the Pittsburgh quarterback, who has been nearly mistake-free while running the offense for what is currently the league’s best team.
Yep, that should do it.
While Eli Manning and David Rivers sit, Roethlisberger is displaying why many thought that, among the three QB prizes at this year’s draft, he was most ready to play in the NFL immediately.
The other guys: Michael Clayton, WR, Tampa Bay; Mewelde Moore, RB, Minnesota; Vince Wilfork, DT, New England; Roy Williams, WR, Detroit; Gibril Wilson, S, N.Y. Giants.
Marty Schottenheimer: Before the season, everyone suggested the San Diego Chargers would do no better than fourth in the Western Division — of the Canadian Football League.
But the young Chargers have bought what Schottenheimer, a good teacher and motivator, is selling. San Diego is playing with tremendous confidence, leading the league in points scored despite the groin strain nagging one of the NFL’s best players, running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
The other guys: Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants; Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh; Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville; Steve Mariucci, Detroit; Andy Reid, Philadelphia.
Drew Brees: The quarterback the front office did not want has been at the
heart of the Chargers’ revival, as he has thrown 18 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
Willis McGahee: The running back is rewarding the Buffalo Bills for the faith they had in him.
Buffalo did not let a gruesome knee injury keep it from taking the Miami product in the first round of the 2003 draft. After a year for the leg to heal, McGahee has run for 100-plus yards in the last three games — all Bills wins — and sent Travis Henry to the bench.
Detroit Lions: They set a record by losing 24 straight road games, then win three out of four games away from the Motor City this season. Joey Harrington to Roy Williams could be a fun pitch-and-catch duo to watch during the next years.
Emmitt Smith: The NFL’s alltime leading rusher is on pace to pass 1,000 yards, silencing the doubters who insisted he had little or nothing left in the tank when he signed with the Cardinals before last season.
Carolina Panthers: They have experienced a Super Bowl hangover of maximum-strength-Excedrin proportions. Their top three running backs have been injured, and they have made many critical mistakes en route to six straight defeats.
Joe Gibbs: The Hall-of-Fame coach’s second stint with the Washington Redskins started with promise, thanks to an opening-week win against Tampa Bay. Since then, it’s been more 2003 than 1982, ’87 or ’91.
Miami Dolphins: Ricky Williams bolted the team before training camp. Coach Dave Wannstedt could not decide on a quarterback. The offense was pitiful en route to a 1-8 mark.
Best game: Philadelphia at Cleveland, Oct. 24. In classic football weather — chilly and overcast — the Eagles and Browns went back and forth for more than 64 minutes before Philadelphia kicker David Akers navigated a 50-yard field goal through the winds off Lake Erie for a 34-31 overtime victory.
Worst game: Arizona at Atlanta, Sept. 26. Watching the Falcons’ 6-3 win on television was an endurance test, as both offenses combined for eight turnovers and lurched around the field like constipated water buffaloes.
Top performance: On Oct. 17 against New Orleans, Culpepper — with his top target, Randy Moss, on the sidelines for half the game — completed 26-of-37 passes for 425 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-31 Minnesota victory.
Best luck: After losing in the final minute three times last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars have experienced — or created — better late-game fortune in 2004. In four wins, Jacksonville has put its winning points on the board in the last 45 seconds.
Worst luck: Detroit receiver Charles Rogers, a first-round draft choice in 2003, has his career in jeopardy after suffering two broken collarbones in just six games. His first break caused him to miss the last 11 weeks a year ago, and in the opening game of this season at Chicago, Rogers broke the bone again.
In the AFC, San Diego and Jacksonville have looked good but both are
unproven and not postseason candidates just yet.
And what to make of the NFC, where you have Philadelphia and . . . somebody, anybody? It is likely that one of its wild-card teams will sport an 8-8 record.
AFC playoff teams: New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Denver, N.Y. Jets (wild card), Baltimore (wild card).
NFC playoff teams: Philadelphia, Minnesota, Atlanta, Seattle, N.Y. Giants (wild card), St. Louis (wild card).
AFC championship game: New England over Pittsburgh. Expect Bill Belichick and the Patriots to have learned from their mistakes in the first meeting.
NFC championship game: Philadelphia over Minnesota. Some argue that the Eagles should be given the conference crown by default.
Super Bowl: New England over Philadelphia. It was my prediction before the season, and — despite how superb the Steelers have looked — there’s little reason to change now.
• Antonio Gates: The athletic San Diego tight end caught three touchdown passes against New Orleans, giving him eight for the season and putting him on pace to break the NFL record for TDs by a TE in a year. Wesley Walls had 12 for Carolina in 1999.
• Troy Brown: Thanks to injuries, the New England wide receiver was forced to play on defense (at dime back) for much of the game at St. Louis — and he held his own. "He’s probably better than a lot of DBs in this league," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said.
• Rod Smith: The undrafted, 10-year veteran now holds all of Denver’s significant career receiving records. Like Andre Reed before him, Smith shows amazing production and consistency with very little fanfare.
• Terrell Owens: We’ll take the Philadelphia Eagles’ word that the star receiver was trying to encourage quarterback Donovan McNabb on the sidelines at the Pittsburgh debacle. But you can safely bet the mortgage that T.O. knew getting in McNabb’s face would result in lots of airtime on the highlight shows.
• Kansas City Chiefs: Is the team’s productive offense finally starting to lose patience with the porous defense? "My thoughts?" wide receiver Eddie Kennison said after a 34-31 defeat at Tampa Bay. "I’ve got a few thoughts, but I’ll keep them to myself."
• "Monday Night Football" winners: Evidently, those who win on ABC in prime time are not ready for some football the next time they take the field. This year, seven of the eight "MNF" winners have followed up with a loss.
• Baltimore at N.Y. Jets:
The Jets’ bid to stay stepfor-step with New England in the AFC East hit a roadblock at Buffalo. The Bills’ Willis McGahee gave New York trouble with the run, and the going will get no easier against the Ravens’ Jamal Lewis, who should be back in full stride after returning from his twogame suspension this past weekend.
THE LAST WORD
"He ran out there. I could see it from the sidelines. That wasn’t the trickiest thing in the world. Where was he going? To the john? . . . I’m running to call a timeout, because (the players) obviously did not see it. That’s ridiculous. We have to pay more attention than that. " — Mike Martz, St. Louis coach, on a fake field goal by New England, in which receiver Troy Brown ran toward the sidelines, stopped and caught a pass from kicker Adam Vinatieri for a touchdown.
- This report includes information collected from other media sources.