Bouchette on the Steelers: So you expected this for the first half of the season?

A look at the teams that have come out of nowhere and those can't-miss playoff teams headed into oblivion


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At the midway point of the season, the Steelers don't rank among the most surprising teams at 6-2 because it's about what was expected of them at this point.

OK, maybe 5-3 was more realistic, so they've beaten the prognosis by one victory. Other NFL teams are bigger surprises halfway through the season.

First-half surprises

• The Miami Dolphins, who already quadrupled their victory total from last season's 1-15 to 4-4.

• The Tennessee Titans. Yes, they made the playoffs last season at 10-6, but they weren't on anyone's list as a possible unbeaten team halfway through this one. The Titans might be favored to win each of their remaining eight games; the biggest roadblocks are at Chicago today, the Steelers at home Dec. 21 and at Indianapolis Dec. 28.

• The New York Jets. I did not think that Brett Favre would make that much of a difference, like smearing lipstick on a pig, but the Jets are much improved over their 4-12 team of last season.

• Baltimore Ravens. Who thought a rookie quarterback from Delaware could help make such a difference? Plus, that defense we've called aging for the past two seasons does not look old at all.

• Atlanta Falcons. It appeared the Michael Vick fiasco would haunt this team for years. Turns out it was only one year, in part because another rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, has played so well.

• Carolina Panthers. Like the Steelers, they are 6-2, except they did not make the playoffs last season. This was supposed to be John Fox's swan song and perhaps Bill Cowher's next team. Fox instead should get a new contract out of it.

The disappointments

• Indianapolis Colts. They've gone from 13-3 to 4-4 and while they also are a team most believe will turn things around in the second half, this is a first-half analysis.

• Seattle Seahawks. Mike Holmgren's farewell tour can't go quickly enough for Seahawks fans. And, no, he's not a Hall of Famer.

• Cleveland Browns. They were supposed to compete for the AFC North title with the Steelers? They're on their third quarterback in 1 1/2 seasons and not because any of them were injured.

• San Diego Chargers. Please come back Marty Schottenheimer, all is forgiven.

• Jacksonville Jaguars. They looked to be a team ready to compete for a Super Bowl after beating the Steelers twice in a month and then giving the Patriots a game in the playoffs. Instead, they are 3-5 and coach Jack Del Rio is reduced to sending a linebacker home without supper and switching lockers like a third-grade teacher might to restore order.

• New Orleans Saints. The Saints are still riding the wave of their 2006 reputation when they won the NFC South. They slipped to 7-9 last season and many picked them to win the Super Bowl this year. They'll have to rise from the bottom of their division in the second half to have a chance.

• The Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots would be here based on their disappointing records except they both lost star quarterbacks and they still have winning records.

Odd (good) jobs

The Steelers opened the season as 18-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. Today, according to BodogLife.com, those odds are now 9-1, third-lowest after the New York Giants (9-2) and Tennessee Titans (5-1).

If it continues, Mike Tomlin deserves some coach of the year votes. Among the favorites for coach of the year at the moment would be the Titans' Jeff Fisher and various coaches of the aforementioned teams that have been pleasant surprises through the first half.

Tom Coughlin probably won't attract many votes, but if the Giants keep winning through the second half the way they've done it until now, he gets my vote. Plenty of people thought the Giants got lucky last year. Then, they lost two of their best defensive linemen, one to retirement and the other to season-ending injury. Plaxico Burress has been a pain in their butt and they've placed another wide receiver, Super Bowl hero David Tyree, on injured reserve.

They also play in the toughest division in the NFL and beat the Steelers in Heinz Field. Coughlin's done the best coaching job of them all -- through half the season. After all, halfway through last season, they wanted him fired.

Case study: Marvel Smith & The Gamble

The Steelers made one final, unsuccessful try to sign Marvel Smith to a long-term contract before the season began. Sometimes the moves you don't make are more important than the ones you do.

Smith is a good left tackle when he's healthy, but those three words can be the saddest uttered in sports: "when he's healthy." Smith has had back problems for a number of years, extending all the way from his lower back to his neck.

His back was supposed to be cured when he underwent a diskectomy in December. Indeed, Smith said he felt great in the spring and as he entered this season. But new back problems have developed and he's missed the past three games with them and is headed for a fourth. He'll be 31 before the start of next season.

It's possible the back problems could essentially end his career. Playing left tackle in this league is tough enough with a healthy back. Unless things improve over the second half of the season, Smith may have missed his big payday by waiting.

That's part of the gamble players take when they forego a contract extension from their own team before their final season. They don't think it's enough, then some get upset because they believe their own team lowballed them. Smith never showed any emotion about it one way or the other.

Players, though, must realize that they are not being offered a contract as a free agent by their own team when they are still under contract. It's a big difference, because a lot can happen over the course of that one season and Marvel Smith is proof of how it can go badly for the player.




Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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