The time for midseason awards is almost upon us, when writers like me are called upon to inform you that Peyton Manning, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Robert Mathis are having great years.
Of course, you know all of that.
What about the players making smaller contributions? Role-players, super subs and unsung heroes are people too! Anyone can make a midseason All-Pro team, but Sports on Earth is your only source for the All-Support Team, a celebration of the little guys who have made a big difference in the first half of the season.
Best Game-Manager Quarterback: Russell Wilson, Seahawks
Game manager? Wilson? THAT'S AN INSULT. Not so fast: "game manager" is not always a polite euphemism like "blind date with a nice personality." Game management is a real NFL skill, one which Wilson uses to augment his big-play ability and keep the Seahawks out of jams.
Next time you watch a Seahawks game, take note of how often Wilson throws the football at a running back's feet to kill a botched screen pass, or throws out of bounds after a rollout to nowhere. That's effective game management at work. Wilson is blessed with a great defense but must cope with an obliterated offensive line; the smartest decision he can sometimes make is to bail on a play and let Richard Sherman and company take a crack at things. Wilson also wisely runs out of bounds or slides at the end of scrambles and option runs: his health is worth much more than an extra yard or two.
Of course, a quarterback who throws the ball away at the first sign of trouble is a check-down artist, not a true game manager. Wilson averages 8.0 yards per pass attempt, sixth in the NFL, and has displayed his usual knack for the deep dagger pass that blows a game open. He has led three fourth-quarter game-winning drives this season, remarkable for a team that we think of as always having a comfortable lead.
One other game management note about Wilson: he has been sacked 20 times. That is a high total, tied for sixth in the NFL, though the patchwork offensive line deserves much of the blame. But Wilson has lost just 119 yards on those sacks, whereas quarterbacks with similar totals have lost 140-150 yards. Wilson was sacked twice by the Colts but lost just five yards. He was sacked twice by the Titans but lost just four yards. Wilson is often scrambling toward the line of scrimmage when he is sacked, minimizing the impact of the play. It's another way of minimizing negative plays and putting his teammates in position to do good work.
If you were expecting Alex Smith to win the game management award, he gets Honorable Mention, and may start angling for a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Best Veteran Running Back Off the Bench: Fred Jackson, Bills
Jackson is doing what he has done for the Bills since 2007: coming off the bench in relief of more famous running backs and doing everything he can to win games. Jackson entered Week Seven with the highest Success Rate in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. "Success Rate" is like a batting average for running backs; six-yard runs on first down are success, six-yard runs on third-and-25 are not, two-yard runs on third-and-one are successes but on first-and-10 are not, and so on. Jackson had a Success Rate of 56%, making him the ultimate get-the-job-done running back.
Jackson erased all doubts about this award in the Bills' win over the Dolphins on Sunday. He churned out 36 tough rushing yards, 49 receiving yards and one touchdown in a game where C.J. Spiller hobbled around for a few snaps, then disappeared. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Bills trying to burn clock while setting up a game-winning chip shot, Jackson plowed 10 yards on 3rd-and-4, placing the ball on the 18-yard line, forcing the Dolphins to use their last timeout, and providing a fresh set of downs to whittle away two more precious minutes. What more can you ask for from a veteran who starts every season second on the depth chart?
Best Backfield Receiver: Danny Woodhead, Chargers
Woodhead has caught 40 of the 45 passes thrown to him, a remarkable percentage (89%) even for a screen-catching running back. What Woodhead does with his receptions is as significant as his catch rate: he has produced three receiving touchdowns and 14 first downs, including six third down conversions. Twenty-seven of Woodhead's receptions this season have netted six yards or more. He is second to Antonio Gates on the Chargers in times targeted, which is a heck of a burden for a change-up running back. The Chargers' winning record and productive offense tell us as much about Woodhead's importance as his individual stats.
Best Fullback: Mike Tolbert, Panthers
With four touchdowns in less than half a season, Tolbert is a cinch to make the NFC Pro Bowl roster at fullback. For once, it won't be an honorary appointment left over from the Moose Johnston era. Tolbert may be redefining the fullback position for the shotgun-option age. He is not a situational I-formation blocker or just a bigger halfback. He is a real fullback, who plays a lot of snaps, run blocks, pass protects, and mixes short catches with power runs. He is a natural fit in shotgun two-back sets, and option-flavored teams like the Seahawks and 49ers have their own Spencer Ware and Bruce Miller types who can provide all-purpose thump. Tolbert is the most established and successful of the bunch, but he does get docked a point for getting dumped for a safety against the Rams. Miller is gaining on you, big guy.
Best Third Wide Receiver (non-Broncos Edition): Doug Baldwin, Seahawks
Eric Decker is the best No. 3 receiver in the NFL right now, but the Broncos offense requires an asterisk, even after Sunday night's loss. Baldwin has more receptions than teammate Sidney Rice, though he is targeted less often and plays fewer snaps in most games. The best third receivers are monsters on third down, and Baldwin fits the bill: 11 catches on 14 targets, 188 yards, nine first downs, four receptions over 20 yards.
Best Fourth Receiver: Cole Beasley, Cowboys
I know, I know: we are not supposed to compare all skinny white receivers to Wes Welker. But Beasley, a 5-foot-8, 178-pound sophomore, is just asking for it. He hides in the slot, catches little flips in the flat, and turns upfield in a distinctly Welker-like manner. Beasley has caught 18 of the 20 passes thrown to him by Tony Romo this year, and every single one of them travelled 10 yards or less through the air. But those tiny passes have yielded significant production, including 10 first downs. So the stats and the role are Welker-ish. Beasley is a Texan who went to SMU. Welker is an Oklahoman who went to Texas Tech. That's close enough for an East Coast type. Can I please make the comparison? After all, Beasley is the one living up to it.
Best No. 2 Tight End: Ben Watson, Saints
The NFL is full of great second tight ends right now, from veterans like Jermaine Gresham to newcomers like Joseph Fauria. But Watson is everything a team could hope for in a second tight end. He blocks, for one thing. He does not need many touches to be effective. And he makes the most of the opportunities he gets: six of Watson's eight catches have resulted in first downs or touchdowns, including 25 and 32-yarders. If the defense has Jimmy Graham, Marcus Colston, and the other Saints receivers covered, Watson can step up -- or he can seal the edge so one of the running backs can have the glory.
Best Offensive Line Stabilizer: Nick Hardwick, Chargers
The Chargers offensive line should be terrible. They have gone through three left tackles, and putting King Dunlap at the position is like giving up and planting an oak tree next to the left guard. Rookie D.J. Fluker is at right tackle, and he is the offensive line equivalent of a low-batting average baseball slugger: a few smashes, but lots of whiffs.
But the Chargers line is holding its own, and Hardwick is a big reason. The veteran center works in tandem with Philip Rivers the way Jeff Saturday once worked with Peyton Manning. Hardwick adjusts blocking assignments at the line, then plays (mostly) mistake-free football after the snap. Rivers has been sacked just 11 times, and the Chargers running game has been able to churn out yardage despite a complete lack of big play ability. Hardwick, a holdover from the Drew Brees/Marty Schottenheimer era, could help Rivers bridge the Chargers' last era as contenders with an all-new one.
Best Situational Run Defender: Damon Harrison, Jets
The 350-pound geological formation named "Harrison" is listed as the Jets starting nose tackle, but he typically plays less than half their snaps. If it's first-and-10 or third-and-inches, Harrison is on the field. In most other situations, Rex Ryan would rather use someone a little quicker.
Still, Harrison makes the most of his opportunities. He recorded 16 solo tackles before Sunday's Patriots game, and opponents gained just 19 total yards on those plays. All but one of Harrison's tackles were on rushes, but he has proven useful on first-down passes as well. He recorded his first sack on Sunday against Tom Brady, and he managed to chase down Bills receiver Robert Woods after a catch in Week Three. A man Harrison's size only has to land on quarterbacks and receivers once in a while to make an impact.
Best Situational Pass Rusher: Shaun Phillips, Broncos
The "situation" was a six-game suspension for Von Miller, which left the Broncos with no true pass rush threat. Phillips arrived as a low-risk free agent from San Diego, played 40-60% of Broncos defensive snaps (opponents spend a lot of time in "obvious passing downs" against the Broncos) and produced 6.5 sacks, two passes defensed, a forced fumble, and eight hits on quarterbacks. Now that Miller is back, Phillips can play a little less often but get pressure a little more often.
Best Coverage Linebacker: DeAndre Levy, Lions
Levy was the beneficiary of Brandon Weeden's game-killing underhand lob two weeks ago and a Christian Ponder head-scratcher in Week One, but gift interceptions do not make someone a great coverage linebacker. Levy has been stepping up and stopping the likes of Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings and Matt Forte well before the sticks on third down plays. On Sunday, he broke up one pass, held Giovani Bernard to minimal gains twice, and stopped Tyler Eifert after a two-yard gain. Levy has made 34 plays in the passing game, from passes defensed to clean-up tackles down the field. Levy allows the Lions to use their base defensive personnel against all kinds of opponents. And of course, he can cherry pick interceptions from bad quarterbacks.
There are plenty of honorable mentions in this category: Daryl Smith of the Ravens, Kiko Alonso of the Bills, and lifetime achievers Lance Briggs (Bears, injured) and D'Qwell Jackson (Browns). Strategic changes have brought a Renaissance for the coverage linebacker, who used to leave the field at the drop of a hat for dime cornerback but must now guard against pistol formations and read-option play action.
Best Run Support Safety: T.J. Ward, Browns
Remember Adrian Wilson? Ward is Wilson Junior. Like the former Cardinals Pro Bowler, Ward plays close to the line of scrimmage and attacks vertically. He has three tackles for losses on running plays -- one on Eddie Lacy on Sunday -- but Ward is just as effective when acting as a de-factor linebacker and holding ballcarriers to short gains.
Running backs and scrambling quarterbacks averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on plays finished by Ward, an incredibly low average for a member of the secondary. The ballcarriers Ward has dumped for minimal gains this year include Reggie Bush (five times), Adrian Peterson, and Fred Jackson. When not penetrating the backfield, Ward has also found time for two interceptions. Ward plays for defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Wilson's former coach in Arizona. That may explain his sudden improvement.
Best Nickel Cornerback: Marcus Cooper, Chiefs
With Darrelle Revis recovering from an injury and playing in an insane asylum, Alterraun Verner has emerged as the best starting cornerback in the NFL. There are plenty of contenders for second best: Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Brandon Flowers and others. But Cooper has the best nickel corner title locked up. Cooper is tied for second in the NFL with 11 passes defensed; he actually has more passes defensed than tackles (eight).
When not blanketing the likes of Nate Washington and Denarius Moore, Cooper has filled in for Flowers and Sean Smith while they battled injuries. His versatility has allowed Bob Sutton to get creative in the secondary, sliding Smith or Flowers into deep coverage or blitzing them while Cooper jams outside receivers on the line. The Chiefs secondary is so deep that opponents must try to pick on Cooper, a rookie seventh-round pick. Cooper is not so easily picked upon.
Cooper has two interceptions and a fumble recovery for a touchdown this season. Not bad for a part-timer who was cut by the 49ers in training camp.
Best Return Man: Trindon Holliday, Broncos
You knew that.
Best Kickoff Specialist: Graham Gano, Panthers
Just three of Gano's 30 kickoffs have been returned this season, two in Sunday's win against the Rams. The rest were touchbacks, a 90% rate that is even astounding in this age of kicking off from the 40-yard line. When the Panthers score, they have confidence that their opponent will start the next drive at the 20-yard line. That is good news for a team that is starting to score more regularly.
Best Special Teams Gunner: Marcus Easley, Bills
Easley leads the NFL by a wide margin with 10 special teams tackles. He had three of them on Sunday, stopping Dolphins return man Marcus Thigpen on the 16-yard line after the opening kickoff and holding him to zero and four yards on two punt returns. Special teams gunners do not get much attention, except in Buffalo, the home of Steve Tasker's Hall of Fame campaign. Easley may soon start getting some of that Tasker love, and more: gunners, unlike nickel corners and second tight ends, get to go to the real Pro Bowl.