Fourth of an eight-part series
In PFW's midseason team reports, we focus on each team's biggest surprise and biggest disappointment, a fantasy football MVP, an assistant coach on the rise, and a fearless prediction for the second half of the season.
Biggest surprise: It has taken awhile, but DE Alan Branch is finally starting to show the ability that led the Cardinals to trade up to obtain him at the top of the second round in the 2007 draft. A slimmed-down Branch has earned more playing time at the expense of Calais Campbell, which is something nobody expected.
Biggest disappointment: It has to be the team's QB situation, which is definitely the biggest reason behind its five losses. Neither strong-armed but erratic Derek Anderson nor feisty but undersized undrafted rookie Max Hall has been able to consistently ignite an offense that has experienced a steep decline from last year's Kurt Warner-led unit.
Fantasy MVP: With a pair of touchdowns in Week Eight against Tampa Bay and seven receptions for 107 yards in Week Nine, the normally fantasy-friendly Larry Fitzgerald could be gearing up for a strong second half after registering only four TDs and one game with 100 yards receiving in the first eight games. But taking expectations and those subpar numbers into account, Fitzgerald must relinquish first-half fantasy MVP honors to fellow WR Steve Breaston. Breaston had two huge outings in the five games in which he played (he missed three games with a knee injury) — seven catches for 132 yards in the season-opening win over the Rams and eight catches for a career-high 147 yards in the Week Eight loss to Tampa Bay.
Assistant coach on the rise: The one Cardinal assistant who has really earned his money is special-teams coach Kevin Spencer. The electrifying LaRod Stephens-Howling spearheads a strong unit, with PK Jay Feely and P Ben Graham also contributing solid efforts.
Fearless prediction: The Cardinals' starting QB in 2011 will either be a free agent (Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick?) or the team's first pick in the '11 draft.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Biggest surprise: A defense that was among the worst in every major category last season has improved dramatically this season, especially in terms of pass rush. With veterans like DT Fred Robbins and DE James Hall leading the charge, Ken Flajole's unit has tightened considerably, allowing 17.6 points per game after surrendering a whopping 27.3 points per game last season.
Biggest disappointment: As was the case last year, the Rams' offense has been rocked by a rash of injuries to its receiving corps. After losing projected No. 1 WR Donnie Avery before the season even started, the team suffered a major blow when Mark Clayton suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week Five.
Fantasy MVP: Nobody comes close to RB Steven Jackson, even though he has only two touchdowns. On pace to gain 1,690 total yards, he is capable of getting on a big-time roll, as evidenced by the three consecutive 100-yard rushing games he registered in Weeks Five through Seven.
Assistant coach on the rise: Major props are in order for defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who has done a very underrated job. Starting DLE Chris Long spoke for his linemates when he commended Daly in a recent interview with PFW for Daly's ability to relate to his troops and willingness to accept input.
Fearless prediction: The Rams will finish 7-9, which would be a major step up from their one-win 2009 campaign, and QB Sam Bradford will be a runaway NFL Rookie of the Year selection.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Biggest surprise: Pressed into the starting role at center in place of Eric Heitmann, who was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury, former starting OLG David Baas has exceeded expectations. "It's been exceptional," head coach Mike Singletary said of Baas' first-half play. "Not only did he step up and do the job, but he's made great strides."
Biggest disappointment: QB Alex Smith had a track record of showing improvement every year until this season. While he continued to display impressive flashes, he was good for at least one really awful play per game before leaving the starting lineup with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. A lot more was expected from him with decent weapons such as TE Vernon Davis, WR Michael Crabtree and Gore out of the backfield.
Fantasy MVP: With four 100-yard rushing games (including his last three), one 100-yard receiving game and four TDs (two rushing and two receiving), RB Frank Gore is a no-brainer.
Assistant coach on the rise: Newly promoted offensive coordinator Mike Johnson has begun to open up an offense that was previously vanilla under the direction of former coordinator Jimmy Raye, and he figures to come up with more creative wrinkles with the mobile Troy Smith likely to remain under center for the foreseeable future.
Fearless prediction: Even though the Niners show improvement in the second half — which won't be hard considering how surprisingly bad they were in the first half of the season — head coach Mike Singletary is shown the door, but not until the season is mercifully over.
Biggest surprise: On a roster with its share of reclamation projects, former first-round WR Mike Williams has burst out of the woodwork in impressive fashion, becoming the big-bodied wideout with stretch-the-field ability that is considered a key cog in Pete Carroll's master offensive plan. The team's leading receiver after not playing for two years, Williams could gets lots of votes at the end of the season for Comeback Player of the Year honors if he can stay healthy.
Biggest disappointment: The offense's inability to pack a consistent punch, especially inside the red zone, has been a big problem. Things appeared to be looking up after the team acquired RB Marshawn Lynch to team up with good buddy Justin Forsett. But injuries to the offensive line — a recurring problem in recent years — are making it difficult to establish a cohesive attack.
Fantasy MVP: With no player having more than two touchdowns, this is a tough call. But the fact that Matt Hasselbeck is among those Seahawks with a pair of rushing scores probably makes the Seahawks' QB the best bet, if you also take into account his passing numbers.
Assistant coach on the rise: Special-teams coach Brian Schneider has done a good job directing the strength of the team. PK Olindo Mare was automatic before missing a pair of FGs in Week Eight, Jon Ryan has become one of the league's more reliable punters, and Leon Washington is a major force as a return specialist. Did we mention that the Hawks' coverage units were also among the league's best?
Fearless prediction: Seattle's offense continues to sputter, and Charlie Whitehurst takes over under center for good around Week 14.
You can read more midseason team analyses in the current print edition of PFW (cover date: Nov. 14, 2010) — including categories such as team MVP, player to watch and keys to the second half — on sale now at retail outlets. You can also purchase a print or electronic (PDF) copy of the issue at PFWstore.com.