Friday, October 31, 2008

Whose impact was greatest during the NFL's first half?

The NFL has reached the halfway point, and the picture doesn't look much like we thought it would. The Titans are unbeaten, the Chargers and Colts are far from it and Tom Brady didn't make it past Week 1. A look at five who have made a major impact:

ALL-PRO TEAM: The best performers of the first half
WEEK 9 PICKS: Our analysts' projections
EARLY SHOCKS: The surprises and disappointments

RONNIE BROWN, Dolphins running back

The next great thing was the first great thing.

When the Miami Dolphins' unveiled their Wildcat formation in the third week of the season, it brought back a taste of the single wing offense, including a direct snap to tailback Ronnie Brown.

The combination of the Wildcat and Brown's return from last season's knee injury helped put a little zip in a Miami offense that ranked 28th in the NFL during a misery-laden 1-15 season.

"Coming into the season I felt pretty good physically and each week I continue to feel better, like I've been saying over the past few weeks," says Brown, the Dolphins' No. 1 pick in 2005.

In the Wildcat, Brown is lined up about 7 yards behind center. Quarterback Chad Pennington takes a receiver spot. Tight end Anthony Fasano becomes the left tackle and left tackle Jake Long moves to the right side. Brown has run, handoff and pass options.

He scored three times on runs and threw a pass for a score when the Dolphins unveiled the Wildcat and upset the New England Patriots 38-13, ending their regular-season winning streak at 21. He has rushed for 406 yards and scored seven touchdowns.

"The awkward set brings about a different (defensive) front," Pennington says. "You see defensive players displaced. They're not in their normal position. They're maybe outside or over-shifted or whatever. Our guys have done an excellent job of communicating that and making adjustments on the run."

Other backs of major impact:

• Clinton Portis, Washington: Has seven TDs; NFL leader with 944 yards.

• Michael Turner, Atlanta: Ran for a club-record 220 yards in the opener.

• Chris Johnson, Tennessee: Has gained 626 yards to lead all rookies.

BRETT FAVRE, Jets quarterback

One bumpy ride.

That's the only way to describe Brett Favre's first season with the New York Jets.

Late-game heroics and breathtaking plays remain as much a part of Favre's arsenal as they were when he built his legend with the Green Bay Packers. But costly interceptions and uneven play have also been part of the act that Brett took to Broadway.

Although Favre, 39, has the 4-3 Jets in position to fight for at least a playoff berth as they chase the upstart Buffalo Bills and Tom Brady-less New England Patriots in the AFC East, his transition has been anything but smooth.

"Brett is still in a brand new system," says wide receiver Laveranues Coles. "We are still adding plays week in and week out, and he is still trying to get a grasp. We are trying to turn some of the terminology into some of the stuff he understands. Once he gets that, then it's cool."

New York's come-from-behind 28-24 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday said much about how uncool it has been at times. Jets fans booed Favre in the fourth quarter after the Chiefs picked him off three times.

Just as quickly, boos turned to cheers after he led a game-winning drive that culminated in a 15-yard scoring strike to Coles, his 15th scoring pass to go with 11 interceptions.

"We are trying to find a balance," Favre says. "We have capable guys, not only in the passing game but obviously in the running game. How we mix the two is a work in progress." —Tom Pedulla

Other quarterbacks making an impact:

• Kerry Collins, Tennessee: Keeping the Titans unbeaten and Vince Young on the bench.

• Jake Delhomme, Carolina: He missed last season, and the Panthers went 7-9. This year, they're 6-2. He's the difference.

• Trent Edwards, Buffalo: Great poise for a second-year player.

LARRY FITZGERALD, Cardinals receiver

A nice snapshot of Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's season was developed this past weekend against the Carolina Panthers — albeit it a losing cause.

He didn't lead the team with catches. His seven receptions were two fewer than those of fellow wide-outs Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin.

But he nonetheless was such a presence that afterward, the Panthers spoke about Fitzgerald with nothing but respect.

His 115 receiving yards led the team, as did his 16-yard per-catch average and his longest haul of 30 yards.

"You watch Larry Fitzgerald, he's really their go-to guy," Carolina linebacker Joe Beason said. "He's going to get his. We just have to contain him and make sure the other guys don't beat you."

Move over, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. Step aside, Tony Romo and Terrell Owens.

We give you a rejuvenated Kurt Warner and the talented Fitzgerald, both of whom have helped fuel of on the NFL's more potent passing games thus far this season and are a primary reason the Cardinals lead the NFC West.

Boldin, for one, knows about what Beason says. His seven touchdown receptions are best in the league, and one reason is that Fitzgerald consumes so

Boldin, for one, knows about what Beason says. His seven touchdown receptions are best in the league, and one reason is that Fitzgerald consumes so much of the defense's attention. —Skip Wood

Other receivers of major impact:

• Eddie Royal, WR, Denver. The rookie has become one of the Broncos' most reliable receivers.

• Chris Cooley, TE, Washington. A big reason the Redskins are 6-2.

• Roddy White, WR, Atlanta. Has five TD catches for the Falcons.

ALBERT HAYNESWORTH, Titans defensive tackle

Tennessee has been the winningest team of the first half because of its defense. And while that unit has perhaps a half-dozen Pro Bowl candidates, its one lock for postseason honors is Albert Haynesworth.

"I don't know that there's anybody in the league playing better than he is right now," Colts coach Tony Dungy told the Indianapolis Star last week.

Haynesworth's dominance at defensive tackle continues a remarkable rise that began after his five-game suspension in 2006 for stomping an opponent's face. Last season he went to his first Pro Bowl after a six-sack campaign, and he already has matched that total this year while adding three other tackles for a loss.

The 6-2, 320-pound Haynesworth has literally vaulted over offensive linemen at times, but he had to perform without fellow Pro Bowler Kyle Vanden Bosch alongside him in Monday's win against the Colts.

He came up just short on two sacks, but took delight in rattling Peyton Manning with a pair of stops on fourth down.

Always a ready trash-talker, Haynesworth said, "You saw the classic Peyton with his 'Oh my God, I can't believe we missed that' (face). We want to frustrate him as much as possible and we love seeing that. That really took a little bit out of him." —Tom Weir

Other defenders of impact:

• John Abraham, Atlanta, DE: With seven sacks and two forced fumbles, helped restored faith in shaken team.

• Joey Porter, Miami, LB: Put reputation on the line, then backed it up: league-leading 10½ sacks, two forced fumbles.

• Charles Woodson, Green Bay, CB: Four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, while playing on a broken toe.

MIKE SMITH, Falcons coach

In a loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith saw a sign that his team could surprise people.

Trailing by 14 points at halftime, Atlanta didn't quit, pulled within a touchdown and two-point conversion of tying before ultimately losing.

"We saw and felt, on the sideline, the energy there," Smith said. "Even though we did not win the football game, we knew we were going to be all right. … The thing that has helped us early in the process is that we've gotten confirmation that we're doing things right."

The Falcons are 4-3 and two games behind Carolina in the competitive NFC South.

Smith, Jacksonville's defensive coordinator from 2003-2007, walked into a tough situation. In aftermath of the Michael Vick's dogfighting debacle and after last year's coach, Bobby Petrino, walked out on the team with three games remaining, the Falcons finished 4-12 in 2007.

Smith wanted to change a culture of losing, which meant: work harder, no excuses, trust the coaching staff.

In turn, Smith put his trust in rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick, and developed a running game (No. 3 in the NFL) led by Michael Turner.

"We know we have to do things methodically to get there," Smith said. "We're still early in this process. Even though we're young, we have a solid group of older veterans who have been able to disseminate the message. That has accelerated the process." —Jeff Zillgitt

Other coaches of major impact:

• Jim Zorn, Washington Redskins: Rookie surprising at 6-2.

• Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals: 4-3 and fifth in offense, second in passing and fourth in scoring.

• Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans: Is off to his best start at 7-0.

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