10 Players Facing the Most Pressure in the Second Half of the NFL Season
As teams open the second half of their schedules, there are some players facing a lot of pressure to perform well.
Some are newly-minted stars playing to prove they can belong. Others are barely hanging on to their jobs and need to prove themselves all over again.
Here's a look inside the NFL's second half at 10 players (and teams) facing heavy pressure.
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
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The choker label has dogged him ever since that snap went wild while he was holding for a field goal in Seattle. Lost in that memory is that he recovered the ball and almost ran for a touchdown.
But Romo has never been a crunch-time quarterback.
He’s the anti-Tom Brady or anti-Ben Roethlisberger. He can play great all through a game and then fall apart in the clutch.
It’s a bad label to have, and Romo has been trying to shake it. He got a playoff victory (finally), but followed that up with a poor season.
Now the Cowboys are alive in a wide open NFC East race. What Romo does during the second half of the season will say a lot about where Dallas finishes and how he is perceived going forward.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
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Can a player really be MVP and LVP of the same team?
Flacco has a case. He’s been a huge part of the team’s five wins, but he’s also been a major contributing factor in two losses and has forced some unnecessarily close games.
Flacco is having an off year in a way, but he’s still doing a lot of things right. That says a ton about what kind of talent he has and what kind of player he’s been.
The problem is that this is the year he was supposed to definitively step up, prove his elite status and carry the Ravens. To this point, that’s been missing.
I would never say he’s a bad player. As a Steelers fan, I think he’s been a fear factor since he was drafted. But right now, he’s not where he was supposed to be. That’s why he has to have a huge second half.
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers
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Isn’t this obvious? It’s a simple principle: win the Super Bowl, live with a target on your back.
Why am I naming Rodgers above any other player? He’s the quarterback. He makes this whole thing go. He was also MVP of the Super Bowl and has the inside track for NFL MVP through the first half of the year.
That’s got to continue. Plenty of Super Bowl teams start strong and falter. The Steelers did it most recently by starting 6-2 in 2009 and finishing 9-7 out of the playoffs.
The Packers don’t have that look, but neither did Pittsburgh (and I saw it first hand). It’s a lot of luck and a lot of skill.
The Packers have the skill, they just have to keep executing. The pressure is always on when you just won a title.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Buffalo Bills
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Congratulations, you’ve just been given the money to make you a franchise quarterback.
Now make Bills fans forget about four consecutive Super Bowl losses, lots of mediocrity after and some downright awful seasons recently.
Do that, and you’ll have earned your pay.
The pressure was on the minute he inked the extension. Up to that point, Fitzpatrick was the underpaid guy who surprised everyone. He's been very good at making the Bills a dangerous, scary offensive team in a way they haven’t been since Jim Kelly or Doug Flutie were calling the plays at the line.
With that contract, he’s now expected to win, and right away. The Bills and their fans have title hopes in 2011. Fitzpatrick is the guy who’s going to make that happen, at least in the eyes of the fans.
Kevin Kolb, QB, Arizona Cardinals
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Here’s another guy who got the money and now has to prove he was worth it.
The problem is that he’s in Arizona and that unlike the Bills, the Cardinals are nowhere near the playoffs. They are closer to Andrew Luck territory—a bad place to be when you just gave a ton of money to an unproven quarterback.
Kolb is a talented player, but he’s done nothing with great weapons around him. In fact, he’s been only a marginal upgrade over the nobodies he replaced.
He may not even be an upgrade. It’s inconclusive.
The second half of a lost season is when teams think about cleaning house. The guys with the most money are in the spotlight.
Welcome to the hot seat, Mr. Kolb. The heat only gets worse with every loss the Cardinals add to their total.
Tim Tebow, QB, Denver Broncos
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I feel for him. He’s an incredible athlete playing the toughest position in the game without the knowledge or background to do it. He’s also being asked to be incredible with weapons that would be on most practice squads.
Now that I painted that picture, do you realize why the pressure here is a bit unfair?
Okay, but it’s still there. Sorry, Tim, nothing I can do about that.
What does he do to lessen it? Well, it’s time for some more Tebow miracles. He has to learn how to be a mobile quarterback, not just a guy with a good arm and good running ability. He’s got to figure out how to make the junk around him look good.
In short, he has to make bricks without straw.
The Philadelphia Eagles Defense
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Yes, the whole defense is under pressure.
This is the “Dream Team.” They were expected to dominate everyone and be the best defense ever created. Instead, they’ve been middling, but better lately.
Now they have to put Philadelphia on top. The offense has done everything possible to iron out the issues. The line has blocked better and kept Michael Vick on his feet. They’ve moved the ball and have become dangerous there.
The second half will be about continuing that and getting even more from the defense. I’m of the opinion that all of those pieces in a new system had to gel. If that’s the case, they’ll be fine and the Eagles might just make that big run people expected of them.
If not, well, Juan Castillo is going to start sweating it out.
Pittsburgh's Offensive Line
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The Steelers began the season with aspirations of going back to the Super Bowl and circumventing the curse that seems to catch up with every Super Bowl loser by winning their seventh title.
And then they started 2-2 with possibly the worst offensive line in team history. They couldn’t keep Ben Roethlisberger alive and couldn’t open a hole with a cannon.
They, like the Eagles defense, have improved lately. They played almost flawlessly the last two weeks and will need to do so again this weekend to get past the Baltimore Ravens.
The key for this group has been health. It took the team almost a half season to start the same five guys two weeks in a row.
That’s rough. Now that they’ve done it, they have to keep doing it. If they can stay healthy and learn to play together, this line could be decent. It could at least get them through.
If it falls apart again, the Steelers go nowhere.
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions
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I point out these two trigger men as part of the reality that Detroit as a team is facing a lot of pressure. They’re 6-2 now. They’ve been very, very good thanks to health and improvement from Stafford and the star work of Johnson.
Now they have to complete the dream.
This is a team that could fall to 8-8 with the wrong turn of fortune. But with the right one? They could be there at the end.
This team has come so far. They’ve got a long road still ahead in 2011, however, and they’ve fallen apart from this spot before.
How they handle things will determine how they’re viewed in the future: This could be the team that turns around a sorry franchise.
Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland Raiders
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Talk about pressure. At least Kevin Kolb and Ryan Fitzpatrick were playing for their respective teams when the season began. Carson Palmer was sitting on his couch watching. Now he’s the Raiders great hope for 2011 and beyond.
The stakes are higher here than with the two guys I just mentioned. The Raiders didn’t just give Palmer some serious dough, they traded away most of their draft next year and even some of 2013 to get the guy on their team.
If Palmer fails, it will kill the Raiders. If he succeeds, they will go down as a team that executed a scary, risky, brilliant trade to bring a franchise passer to town for the first time since Rich Gannon left for retirement.
So far, there hasn’t been much to look at. He’s played about a half.
We’ll see more this weekend, but perhaps no one is under more stress right now than Palmer, who was vilified for his tantrum about wanting out of Cincinnati.
He now has the only chance he’ll ever get to vindicate himself.