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Rookie quarterbacks making believers out of doubters

It is time to make the turn at the half-way mark of the season and look at some mid-term exam results along with some second half projections.

The rookie quarterbacks are better than they were advertised last spring at the draft. There's a real chance for a 20-sack season from at least one player, maybe two. A few teams have really started to fade, and if they don't turn it around soon all is lost. Opportunity knocks for a few players lost on the sidelines. Overtime games and all the returns for touchdowns are just a couple of the subjects on my mind, along with the assistant coaches who did great work this week.

The Ryan-Flacco express

Week 9 unsung heroes

Cam Cameron

Offensive coordinator
Baltimore Ravens
Cameron developed Philip Rivers in San Diego and now he is doing a masterful job with Joe Flacco in Baltimore. He is in his 10th year in the NFL after a fine college coaching career.

Richard Bisaccia

Special teams
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa had their longest kick return for a touchdown in club history when Clifton Smith went 97 yards on the road, with the Buccaneers losing 24-3 at the time. Rich's special teams finished up the day with 281 return yards and did its part in helping win the overtime game. Bisaccia is in his seventh year with the Bucs and has become one of the best special teams coaches in the NFL.

Todd Bowles

Miami Dolphins
Miami goes into a tough Denver home-field situation against a rising star at quarterback in Jay Cutler. At the other end of Cutler passes is Brandon Marshall. Bowles' defensive backs answered with three interceptions and one touchdown. Bowles played eight years in the NFL before getting into coaching and followed the Dallas group to the Dolphins.

Brian Schottenheimer

Offensive coordinator
New York Jets
Brian takes a lot of heat when the Jets' offense struggles, but in a key division road game his offense came through with flying colors. Brian called a 15-play drive, a 9-play drive and finally a 14-play drive to ice the win in Buffalo.

Todd Haley

*Note: For nine years, Pat Kirwan has been writing about Unsung Heroes during the season to bring attention to the people behind the scenes that help make some of the extraordinary things happen in the NFL on any given weekend.

At the end of the year, the Unsung Hero of the Year is presented a trophy made in the name of Chip Myers, a longtime NFL assistant coach and former player who passed away just days after he was elevated to his first coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings in 1999. Chip was well respected by everyone in the coaching ranks and embodied all the virtues assistant coaches need to be successful. He was humble, a good teacher, a loyal friend and a tireless worker.*

Last spring, there were constant debates about the quarterbacks in the draft. People poked holes in Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco and proclaimed buyer beware. Well, the NFL season is half over, both guys have played every snap and their teams are both 5-3 and in the playoff hunt. Both players won on the road this week with very similar numbers and continue to improve with each game.

Ryan went 17-of-22 for 220 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Flacco went 17-of-29 for 248 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. In the last three weeks Flacco has led his team to a 3-0 record while throwing 4 TDs, 0 interceptions and being sacked only 4 times. Ryan has only turned the ball over six times in eight games. Both players are on course to lead their teams to 10 wins and throw for over 3,000 yards.

The Porter-Abraham express

It seems like it gets harder and harder to get sacks in the NFL. The surface area that a pass rusher can actually contact on a QB is so small that a penalty is waiting for every rusher on every play. But that's not stopping Miami's Joey Porter (11.5 sacks) or Atlanta's John Abraham (10 sacks). Both guys got to the quarterback this week, and as they finish up the first half of the season they are both on course for 20-plus sacks. Keep your eye on this race as the second half of the season unfolds. Porter represents the 3-4 philosophy while Abraham stands tall for the 4-3 defense.

Four playoff dreams are falling like leaves off trees

Every year, most teams come into the season with the playoffs as a goal. The preseason reports put the Cowboys, Broncos, Bills and Jaguars right in the thick of the race for the postseason. The month of September and early October more than kept those dreams alive. Dallas was 4-1, Denver was 3-0, Buffalo was on fire at 4-0, while Jacksonville was off to a shaky 2-2 start but hoping to get some injured players back. As the leaves started to fall off the trees so did the performance of these teams.

Dallas has injuries, especially Tony Romo, but their offensive line and secondary leave questions to be answered. Denver's defense wasn't very good even when the wins were rolling in, but the offense has scored just 76 points in the last five games and has produced 17 turnovers. Buffalo's young QB Trent Edwards is not making the plays he made earlier in the year and the five sacks by the Jets this week may be a hint as to where the problems lie. Jacksonville just doesn't run the ball they way they did last year. When they only get 68 yards on the ground against the Bengals' defense, there are problems.

One minute standing cold on the sideline, the next saving a career

Rex Grossman's career looked lost a week ago, but he gets another chance with Kyle Orton down with an ankle injury. With so many teams in need of a quarterback in 2009 and Grossman on a one-year contract, this next month could save his career. Tyler Thigpen was Kansas City's third option at QB but he has at least made the Chiefs competitive for the last few weeks and could be a decent answer to the future of their quarterback situation.

Houston's Sage Rosenfels had to once again come off the bench for the injured Matt Schaub, continuing to remind other teams that he may be better than what they have themselves under center. Finally, even though the Patriots lost to the Colts, there is little doubt that Bill Belichick is developing Matt Cassel into a QB who can win in this league. His street value has tripled in the last month.

Can we talk about overtime?

During Week 9 action, two games went to overtime and the teams that won the coin toss (Tampa Bay and Tennessee) scored on their first possession with field goals. I would still love to see a system where each team is guaranteed one possession before sudden death. I would have liked to see if either team would kick a field goal when they knew their opponent had a possession coming to them, and I definitely would have liked to see Aaron Rodgers get a shot at winning that game.

Lots of returns this week

Did you notice there were 10 touchdowns scored on returns this past weekend. Seven interception returns, two kickoffs and one punt return. We usually see a few special teams scores every week, but seven picks for scores seems high. We're seeing lots of passes thrown into the flats. When a DB gets a jump on the ball in that situation, there is no one left to stop the run for the end zone.

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