That's right ladies and gentlemen. It's that time of year when I step back and take an extended view of everything that has transpired over the course of the first half of the NFL season to give you, dear readers, my thoughts on the various contenders for the NFL's annual awards.
It's an interesting field this year, with some familiar faces mingling with new and, frankly, surprising ones. This, of course, goes along with the fact that every year there are teams that perform high above our expectations (nods in the direction of the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins) along with teams we thought would perform at their customary high level that have fallen on their faces (I'm not naming any names but their initials are "New Orleans Saints").
So, without further ado, here's my take on the players who would be holding some shiny new hardware if awards were handed out halfway through the season...
Mike Smith and the Atlanta Falcons entered 2012 with plenty of questions after yet another early playoff exit followed by an overhaul on the coaching staff. Losing both his offensive and defensive coordinators and replacing them with a refugee from the Jacksonville Jaguars and a coaching nomad, respectively, didn't exactly inspire confidence.
While it hasn't been pretty at times, the Falcons' 7-0 record is no mirage. Yes, they have had issues protecting their quarterback and said quarterback, Matt Ryan, has had issues throwing the ball to the wrong team.
But there isn't an NFL team without issues. Indeed, that's part of the head coach's job, to mitigate the problem areas on his team while accentuating what he knows it does well.
Smith has done all that and more.
While some may point to the quality of opponents the Falcons have faced, Smith doesn't get to pick the schedule. He can only prepare and coach his team for the games the NFL directs it to play.
The Falcons' one big regular-season test will come in Week 15 when they take on the team that embarrassed them in the playoffs last year, the New York Giants. In the meantime, Smith has simply done what every coach in the NFL sets out to do: win them all.
Runner-up: Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
With apologies to Peyton Manning, Peterson's return not only to the football field but to the dominant style of play he's been known for his entire career, nine months after tearing both the ACL and MCL in his left knee, is nothing short of miraculous.
Yes, Manning's ascendant play and the importance of the position he plays will probably get the votes when the AP awards are given out at the end of the year, but for my money what Peterson is doing and the position he is doing it at, along with the attendant punishment that goes with it, is simply incredible.
Peterson currently leads the league in rushing yards to go along with four touchdowns. The Vikings are 5-3 in large part because of the team's ability to lean on the star running back that most observers felt certain would start the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Runner-up: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
The Patriots were in desperate need of an overhaul on the defensive side of the ball after a 2011 campaign that featured Bill Belichick's crew give up an alarming amount of real estate through the air.
To try to fix the problem, Belichick and Co. concentrated on improving the pass rush, and the play up front overall, by drafting Jones 21st overall in the draft. While the selection caught some pundits by surprise, it's pretty clear that the Patriots' brain trust nailed this one.
Jones has been everything the Patriots needed and more, registering six sacks through eight games and helping spearhead an impressive improvement against the run. While the Pats secondary has continued to struggle, Jones has done everything asked of him (and much, much more) to improve the play up front in the Patriots' hybrid scheme.
Runner-up: Casey Hayward, Green Bay Packers
When Robert Griffin III isn't popping up on our television screens in his bid to outdo Peyton Manning in the endorsement department, he's popping up on our televisions as NFL fans switch to the RedZone channel and watch him orchestrate another touchdown for the Washington Redskins.
It's nearly impossible to overstate how RGIII's presence has elevated a Redskins offense from what was one of the league's worst in 2011 into one of the most dynamic attacks in the NFL. Sure, head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan deserve kudos for tailoring their program to RGIII's strengths, but the rookie signal-caller out of Baylor has been the engine behind the team's offensive output.
From operating the offense to making things happen when everything around him is breaking down, RGIII is seemingly at his best when the pressure is on. The bigger the moment, the bigger his play. Redskins fans have to be thrilled at the prospect of watching his career play out for the next decade and beyond—not to mention the rest of the 2012 season.
Runner-up: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Watt has eaten burritos bigger than Ray Rice, but no one has played bigger than Watt on the defensive side of the ball in 2012.
The second-year defensive end out of Wisconsin has been an absolute force along Wade Phillips' defensive front. When not getting to the quarterback, which he does with alarming regularity for a 3-4 defensive end, Watt has seemingly perfected the art of swatting down passes, frustrating nearly every quarterback he faces and creating big play after big play in the process.
If he continues his stellar level of play, especially without offensive lines having to worry about identifying linebacker Brian Cushing pre-snap for the rest of the year, not only will he be the run away winner of this award, he will be in line to become the first defender since Lawrence Taylor to win the league's Most Valuable Player award. Yes, that's how disruptive Watt has been.
Runner-up: Tim Jennings, Chicago Bears
Throughout the first month of the 2012 NFL season, NFL pundits were tripping over themselves trying to be the one to crack the code of "what was wrong" with Rodgers, the reigning league MVP.
An offense that had set franchise scoring records and had carried the Packers to a 15-1 regular-season record in 2011 was flailing and lacking an identity. For every exciting touchdown pass, there were seemingly multiple snaps that ended with Rodgers being thrown to the ground by defenses that had apparently "figured out" the Packers offense.
Rodgers responded as he often does when faced with public criticism—by shutting up everyone who was questioning him with a brilliant performance in prime time against a team that many had been labeling one of the best in the NFL in the Houston Texans. He followed that up with another brilliant performance in St. Louis against a Rams team that had been undefeated at home until they faced Rodgers and the Packers.
Rodgers has thrown 21 TD passes, tops in the league, and only four interceptions, and sits at No. 2 with a 107.9 passer rating to go along with a 69 percent completion rate. That's incredible for a player whose play many were questioning at the beginning of the year.
Runner-up: Arian Foster, Houston Texans
While the shocking three-interception, first-quarter performance in Atlanta on Monday Night Football back in Week 2 is probably burned into the minds of people who think Manning doesn't deserve this award, his performance throughout the rest of 2012 more than merits the accolade.
Outside of that one (admittedly horrific) quarter of football, Manning has thrown 17 touchdowns and only one interception and is currently riding a streak of five consecutive games of 300 passing yards or more. Not to mention, his 109.0 passer rating is tops in the NFL through the first eight weeks of the year.
Of course, numbers aren't the whole story when it comes to the Most Valuable Player award, and they certainly don't tell the whole story about Manning's value to the Broncos. Just remember where this team was offensively last year, exactly how limited it was under both Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow.
While there has certainly been an adjustment period, the prospect of Manning and the Broncos offense continuing to jell and improve over the course of the second half of the season is a scary one for the rest of the AFC and indeed the rest of the NFL. Right now, Manning and Co. are playing excellent football.
Runner-up: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons