Pleasant NFL Surprises

Most years my football obsession begins to lose a bit of its maniacal edge in the last few weeks of the season, especially as a Chicago Bears fan. However, the 2009 edition of the NFL still has kept me on edge and checking ESPN just about every day to look for more than just fantasy football advice for the weekend. What is so different about this year that I have remained tethered to the television for 10 hours every Sunday through Week 12?

Surprises, that’s what. The fact there is still something new to look for or simply something novel to behold and dissect has me trying to take a not-so-keen eye to the NFL and will most likely keep me busy until the Super Bowl. The list of the five biggest shockers, at least in my opinion, follows below.

Surprise 1: Chris Johnson is the best running back in football

I thought that last season’s 1,228 yard performance was heavily augmented by LenDale White’s 773, 15-touchdown year. I assumed that the Titans running game relied on this two-back split. I was terribly wrong…sort of. I was wrong in the sense that in Week 12 Chris Johnson is leading the NFL in rushing by more than 200 yards. He has demolished defenses for 1,396 yards and the closest back is 276 yards back in Stephen Jackson. Johnson’s athletic gifts, his speed and tremendous acceleration, have made him a nightmare. He leads the league with 19 carries of 20 yards or more and is receiving the bulk of the carries (64 percent to be exact). Johnson also leads the league in yards per carry at 6.4. He is simply exciting to watch on every carry.

I was not wrong on the count that the Titans relied on the two-back system. In fact, Johnson’s numbers did not explode and the Titans did not win a game until that other back entered the game plan. It just turns out that the back was a quarterback and not a running back, which brings us to surprise number two.

Surprise 2: The Redemption of Vince Young

Not too long ago I literally wrote Vince Young’s career off into the sunset of disappointing first round picks. Turns out I was incredibly mistaken. Since Young has replaced Kerry Collins as the starting quarterback the Tennessee Titans have gone 5-0.

They are still a long shot to make the playoffs this season, but can have Super Bowl dreams in a season or two. Young has a 90.2 QB Rating with 4 touchdowns to 2 picks and 1,010 yards passing. He has engineered huge fourth quarter comeback wins in the past two weeks, against the Houston Texans and the Arizona Cardinals. I have watched these games and suddenly see the second coming of Steve McNair (whose tragic passing surely shook the franchise to begin the season).

Young can scare the Bejebus out of opponents thanks to his equally dangerous legs and arm. The sudden threat from the pocket has helped Chris Johnson unleash a slew of 100-yard-plus games. Since Young took over he has not run for less than 132 yards and has scored 7 of his 9 touchdowns on the season. He also has not dipped under a 5.1 yard/carry average in any contest. Vince looks great and is helping the rest of his team look great in the process. This is no longer the man that once scared coaches with a suicide fear, now he has defensive coordinators considering it career suicide to play against him.

Surprise 3: The undefeated New Orleans Saints have struck a balance

Last season Drew Brees threw for an incredible 5,069 yards, but the New Orleans Saints season ended before the post season thanks to a 7-9 record. That year despite having the most prolific passing attack (311.1 yards per game) by nearly 20 yards per game over the next best team, the Saints had one of the worst running attacks. This year the Saints are fourth in the NFL in the air with 266.2 yards per game and fourth in the league running the football with 154.3 yards per game. Did I forget to mention that they are 10-0 so far? They also lead the league in scoring again, only this time New Orleans is averaging 36.9 points a game, a full eight points more than last season.

The Saints are running the ball with a three-headed monster. Running back Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Reggie Bush all average at least 4.6 yards per carry and have combined for 1,375 yards on the ground. With this sudden explosion in the run game, Brees is on pace for a pedestrian 4,394 yards (pedestrian only in the sense that it is not near breaking any record-book figures). He is even on pace to set a career high for touchdown passes, proving that the running game is a quarterback’s best friend. Meanwhile, the best pace for a running back to go to for a career year or for a chance at redeeming himself is Paul Brown Stadium.

Surprise 4: The AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been tripping over their own feet (and landing on the Injury List) and the Baltimore Ravens have not quite been able to make that jump to the next level of play. This has allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to suddenly enjoy a two-game lead in the division. The Bengals have not just fallen into first place though; they have earned this place in the standings.

The Bengals biggest strength has been their defense. They allowed 20 or more points just twice in the past five games and have gone 4-1 along the way. This negates any misconception football fans outside of Cincinnati may have about that 19th-ranked scoring defense. This is a very good defensive team that is building steam heading into the playoffs.

They also have been a great home for running backs like Cedric Benson and, now, Larry Johnson. Both these running back seemed like they were playing themselves out the league. In fact Benson had played himself out of the league before huge hole on the depth chart last season gave him another chance. The results have been amazing. Benson ran for 859 yards before being injured, setting a new career high and even competed for the league lead in rushing yards. Johnson was waived by the Chiefs and came to the Bengals to fill their hole at running back. In his first game starting he ran for 107 yards on 22 carries and showed glimpses of the Larry Johnson that ran for more than 1,700 yards in two consecutive seasons in 2005 and 2006. Who knew that Cincinnati was the Mayo Clinic of the NFL? Then again, this season has seen that kind of rejuvenation just about everywhere, even further north.

Surprise 5: Brett Favre for MVP

In 2008, the Green Bay Packers did everything they could to stop Brett Favre from signing with the division-rival Minnesota Vikings. In the end he went to the New York Jets and ended the season pathetically as his arm gave out. In the offseason he had surgery on his bicep and successfully signed with the Vikings. This season and Minnesota’s 10-1 record is exactly why the Packers did not want Favre in the Metrodome (sorry, I mean the Mall of America Field, what a ridiculous name).

Favre is enjoying the best season of his career at the age of 40. He is leading the league with a 112.1 quarterback rating and has thrown 24 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. He has never thrown less than 13 picks in an entire season in his career before this year. Favre has been the magic man, making Sidney Rice a marquee wide receiver, molding Percy Harvin into the rookie of the year, and setting new franchise records at the tight end position with Visanthe Shiancoe.

Of course, without the constant running threat posted by Adrian Peterson none of that would be possible. Teams are given two options: Drop back into coverage to stop Favre or put eight-men in the box to stop Peterson. More often than not teams are choosing to let Favre beat them. Favre is an MVP candidate because he has continued to make those throws when given the chance. His arm is far from falling off, as so many people expected despite the surgery, and the Vikings appear to be better than the two undefeated teams at times.

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