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NFL Coach of the Year, MVP candidates and biggest surprises at midseason: Sando’s Pick Six

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Cover 7 | Monday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Monday, Mike Sando breaks down the six most impactful takeaways from the week.

Just as no one predicted, the NFL season neared its midpoint Sunday with the Minnesota Vikings presenting a game ball to Joshua Dobbs in a locker room packed with people Dobbs barely knew.

The NFL, scripted? You can’t script what is beyond comprehension, but with 135 of 272 regular-season games in the books pending the Monday night matchup, the Super Bowl teams from last season, the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, do sit atop their respective conferences.

It’s a great time to size up the league.

The Pick Six column for Week 9 sorts through my midseason choices for Coach of the Year, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and more. There’s an appreciation for Dobbs and his injured predecessor, Kirk Cousins, plus quick hits on the Giants, Raiders, Seahawks, Eagles and Cowboys. The full menu:

Coach of Year: McDaniel, Campbell, Harbaugh?
MVP race: Quarterback streak in jeopardy
Defensive Player of the Year and more
Seven biggest surprises of the season
Tanking? Dobbs, Vikings deliver memories
Two-minute drill: Giants and the top pick

Now, on to the awards. Please hold your applause til the end.

1. Mike McDaniel is my Coach of the (Half) Year, edging out Dan Campbell and John Harbaugh.

My choice:

Mike McDaniel, Miami Dolphins: McDaniel is sure to celebrate his selection here the way he celebrated his team setting an NFL record for yards through five games.

“Mission accomplished,” McDaniel joked then. “We had the whole time, the whole off-season, that was our goal, was output after five games.”

The Dolphins are 0-3 against the only contenders they’ve faced, falling 48-20 to Buffalo, 31-17 to Philadelphia and 21-14 to Kansas City on Sunday. That doesn’t disqualify McDaniel here because he’s done such a great job leveraging his personnel to get record-setting production from an accurate but limited quarterback.

“The offensive numbers and production speak for themselves,” a defensive coach from another team said. “He is calling the offense, he is designing the offense, he’s creating the motions we haven’t seen in the NFL before. They look Canadian to us.”

The Dolphins have great speed at wide receiver, but without McDaniel scheming open those players with creative motions, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa would have a harder time delivering the ball on time. Tagovailoa’s limitations become obvious when opponents disrupt that timing. That is why coaches and execs voted Tagovailoa into Tier 3 before the season.

“Mike does an outstanding job in terms of schematics and looks and optics of things,” another defensive coach said. “It allows Tua to play fast, and Tyreek has space to run his routes. People can’t just roll to him all the time. He doesn’t just have to be a vertical guy or catch shallows and catch-and-runs. He can do it all. The offense showcases all that for him.”

McDaniel’s humility serves him well. Hiring senior assistants can feel threatening for younger coaches, but not McDaniel. He embraced adding defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was calling defensive plays before McDaniel was born.

“To me, McDaniel is the smartest man in the room, but won’t let you think he thinks it,” an exec said.

Close behind:

Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions: The Lions are playing with expectations for the first time and are living up to them. The team and city have embraced Cambpell’s leadership, reviving a dormant franchise. The Lions are minus-1,000 favorites to win the NFC North and return to the playoffs, a major accomplishment for the franchise.

“Campbell gets credit for overcoming the perception of him from ‘Hard Knocks’ a year ago and believing in his methods,” a team exec said.

Campbell’s candidacy is a continuation from last season when he overcame a 1-6 start. His staff management over the past couple seasons — promoting Ben Johnson to offensive coordinator, staying the course with Aaron Glenn on defense, making an in-season change of the defensive backs coach — seem to have been the right ones.

“These were great moves,” a rival coach said. “He makes sure his vision for playing style is fulfilled, but he is not just old-school Bill Parcells. They are one of the more aggressive fourth-down teams, for example. It’s a nice combination.”

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GO DEEPER

NFL Power Rankings Week 10: Midseason report cards, and we have a new No. 1

John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens: There were times last offseason when it seemed possible Harbaugh had reached his shelf life in Baltimore, which can happen to even the best coaches after so many years in one place. His quarterback was estranged, he was installing a new offense and his team hadn’t advanced past the divisional round since the 2012 season.

The potential for implosion was there. Instead, the Ravens are 7-2 after hammering Seattle 37-3 in Week 9. They rank eighth in offensive EPA per play while establishing a new identity with increased use of three wide receivers and more measured usage of Lamar Jackson as a runner. The defense ranks second in EPA per play. It has allowed nine touchdowns through nine games, matching the historic 2000 Ravens defense.

“I think it’s interesting that two of the three coaches here (Harbaugh and Campbell) do not call plays,” a veteran coach noted. “So much goes into the game plan, in-game decisions and everything else that you really have to be a top coach to do it all effectively.”

2. Quarterbacks have won MVP honors for 10 years running. The streak could end this season.

This season has been far from a showcase for the quarterback-driven passing game.

Tagovailoa and the San Francisco 49ers’ Brock Purdy rank 1-2 in EPA per pass play. It might be a little harsh to call them point guards for highly schemed offenses, but there’s some truth to the description. Patrick Mahomes might be the NFL’s best player, but his Chiefs are winning largely with defense. The same goes for the Ravens.

My choice:

Tyreek Hill, Dolphins: Hill’s 1,076 yards rank sixth in NFL history through the first nine games of a season. Though no receiver poses a greater vertical threat, Hill also excels turning shorter routes into big gains. His willingness to consistently execute presnap motions at maximum speed elevates his offense. Below we see how his nine-game yardage total ranks.

Rank WR Yards

1

Don Hutson [1942]

1,166

2

Elroy Hirsch [1951]

1,162

3

Raymond Berry (1960)

1,147

4

Tyreek Hill (2022)

1,104

5

Calvin Johnson (2013)

1,083

6

Tyreek Hill (2023)

1,076

7

Isaac Bruce (1995)

1,073

8

Jim Benton (1945)

1,067

9

Justin Jefferson (2022)

1,060

10

Julio Jones (2018)

1,040

Close behind:

A.J. Brown, Eagles: Brown’s 1,005 yards through nine games rank 20th in league history, falling a single yard behind the career-best pace for Jerry Rice, set in 1990. His record streak of six consecutive games with at least 127 yards ended with a seven-catch, 66-yard game against the Cowboys in Week 9.

Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns: No defensive player has won MVP honors from the Associated Press or Pro Football Writers of America since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Could this be the year with defenses having their way? Garrett ranks second in sacks (9.5), fifth in pressure rate (minimum 100 pass-rush snaps) and is tied for first in forced fumbles (four). He is the dominant player on the NFL’s runaway No. 1 defense by EPA and success rate.

3. Defensive Player of the Year, Rookies of the Year and the runaway winner for Comeback Player of the Year.

Defensive Player of the Year: Garrett. Garrett’s next-level work is without rival. He leap-frogged an Indianapolis lineman cleanly to block a field-goal try in a tie game. He also induced Tennessee into a delay penalty by repeatedly running across the formation after realizing the Titans were shadowing his movements. See both plays below.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans. His five-touchdown performance during a 39-37 victory against Tampa Bay pushed him past Los Angeles Rams receiver Puka Nacua at the midpoint. Nacua has been the more consistent producer; he trails only Hill and Brown in receiving yards. Stroud has the Texans at 4-4 and filled with hope.

When Stroud and the Texans took possession for the final time Sunday, they trailed Tampa Bay 37-33 with 46 seconds remaining. Seventy-five yards separated them from the end zone. Stroud completed all five pass attempts (minus one spike) for 75 yards and the winning touchdown to Tank Dell.

Teams in similar situations — needing a touchdown to tie or win, having at least 75 yards to go, having 30-60 seconds left in regulation — lose almost every time. The Texans were in better shape than most, having preserved two timeouts. Still, the odds against them were steep.

Since 2000, teams facing that situation had been 0-74 with fewer than two timeouts and 2-20 otherwise, per TruMedia. Stroud helped Houston claim the third victory from those dire circumstances (teams with less than 30 seconds were 0-130).

Houston won despite finishing the game minus-15.6 EPA on defense and special teams, worst in the league for Week 9. Since 2000, teams finishing games with between minus-17 and minus-14 combined EPA on defense and special teams have won just 18 percent of the time (95-432-3). Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers account for 28 of the 95 victories since 2000.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jalen Carter, Philadelphia Eagles. Seattle’s Devon Witherspoon was the other leading candidate here, but with Seattle allowing 515 yards at Baltimore on Sunday, there will be a better time to revisit his candidacy.

Comeback Player of the Year: Damar Hamlin, Buffalo Bills. In any other year, the New York Jets’ Breece Hall might be an easy choice. What Hamlin overcame is without precedent. His move to establish scholarships named for the 10 medical professionals who helped save his life in Cincinnati last season was the perfect gesture.

4. In a season without true surprise teams, there have nonetheless been surprising developments. Here are seven that stand out to me.

The Joshua Dobbs Experience: From Cleveland to Arizona to Minnesota and into Vikings lore with the winning touchdown pass five days after joining the team, without meaningful practice reps. See item No. 5 for more on this one.

An NFL owner grooving to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares”: Wait, it was the Colts’ Jim Irsay. Not surprising at all.

Bill Belichick Job Watch by Week 5: Arguably the most successful coach in NFL history lost by a combined 72-3 margin in successive weeks, including 34-0 at home to the mediocre New Orleans Saints. The team is 1-3 since then, 2-7 overall and facing big questions.

Browns’ unusual path: The Cleveland Browns are 5-3 despite Deshaun Watson missing more than half the offensive plays and Nick Chubb suffering a season-ending knee injury after only 28 carries. Their offense ranks 29th in EPA per play. Credit a dominant defense.

Colts’ reversal: The Colts have jumped from 32nd in offensive points per game last season to eighth this season, four spots ahead of the Chiefs, despite quarterback instability. Zack Moss ranks second to Christian McCaffrey in rushing yards. Josh Downs, the 5-foot-9, 172-pound receiver Indy selected in the 2023 third round, has more receiving yards than similarly sized Ravens rookie first-rounder Zay Flowers.

Kansas City’s defense: The Chiefs own the same 7-2 record they had last season, with a nearly identical point differential, despite scoring 6.7 fewer points per game. Mahomes vowed the offense would find its way. If that happens, look out. Come to think of it, look out regardless. The Chiefs are a tough out.

Carolina’s offense trails Arizona’s offense: The Panthers rank 28th in offensive EPA per play, one spot below the Cardinals, despite polar opposite approaches to the quarterback position.

Carolina hired a veteran offensive head coach in Frank Reich and surrounded him with big-name assistants, including Jim Caldwell. The Panthers also used the first pick in the 2023 draft for quarterback Bryce Young. All the offseason focus was on preparing Young for success.

Arizona hired a first-time head coach with a defensive background, then cut its journeyman projected starting quarterback, Colt McCoy, a couple weeks before the season. The Cardinals then acquired Dobbs, started Dobbs, benched Dobbs, traded Dobbs and turned to Clayton Tune this week while awaiting Kyler Murray’s debut following offseason knee surgery.

5. Kirk Cousins to Justin Jefferson? Try Joshua Dobbs to Brandon Powell for one of the most memorable Minnesota Vikings victories.

Think of all the arguments put forth encouraging teams to tank for improved draft status, and then consider what the Vikings’ 31-28 victory meant for all who experienced it, including fans. There’s no way Minnesota would trade Sunday to pick one slot higher in 2024.

Dobbs passed for two touchdowns and rushed for another on a day when coach Kevin O’Connell was explaining things to him through the coach-to-quarterback headset, with teammates filling in details during their conferences in the huddle.

The day began with Vikings players honoring Cousins by wearing tribute T-shirts in pregame warmups. It ended with Hall of Famers such as Warren Moon and Kurt Warner saluting Dobbs on social media.

The time will come for the Vikings to make big decisions regarding their future at the position. Cousins is unsigned past this season (as is Dobbs). As the chart below shows, the Vikings’ offensive production spiked dramatically with Cousins’ arrival in 2018.

The future can wait. The Vikings’ immediate focus should be on producing a commemorative game ball with Dobbs’ name and pertinent details from his sweetest victory.

6. Two-minute drill: Giants in position to snag top pick in 2024

The Giants already had one eye on next season when they traded defensive tackle Leonard Williams to Seattle last week. Losing quarterback Daniel Jones to a potential torn ACL during a 30-6 defeat at Las Vegas delivered an emotional blow that will linger. Longer term, the team will need to consider its options in the draft, especially with a top-five pick all but assured.

The current 2024 draft order slots the Giants at No. 4, with upward mobility:

1. Arizona (1-8): Murray’s return could drop Arizona in the order.
2. Carolina (1-7): This pick belongs to Chicago, but the order is determined by Carolina, which plays the seventh-easiest remaining schedule.
3. Chicago (2-7): The Bears play the Panthers on Thursday night and might or might not improve once Justin Fields returns.
4. Giants (2-7): The Giants play the seventh-toughest remaining schedule.
5. New England (2-7): The Patriots face the Giants in Week 12.

The contract Jones signed during the offseason offers some flexibility if and when the time comes for such a discussion to occur.

Eagles at the bye: The Philadelphia Eagles head into their bye week with an 8-1 record after holding off the Dallas Cowboys 28-23. The break comes at a good time for quarterback Jalen Hurts, who stayed in the game Sunday after aggravating a knee injury and sold out on a quarterback sneak while backed up, among other plays that surely stressed the joint.

The Eagles’ 8-1 start is the best for a team coming off a Super Bowl loss since the 2000 Titans also won eight of their first nine. It’s much better than the most recent Super Bowl losers started, as seen in the table below.

Last 10 SB Losers: How They Started

State of the Cowboys: As for the Cowboys, their schedule eases up with games against the Giants, Panthers and Commanders the next three weeks. They will likely win big, which usually leads to championship talk from owner Jerry Jones, followed by a big letdown.

As for championships, the number of Texas-based pro sports teams to win titles more recently than the Cowboys grew when the Texas Rangers won the World Series last week.

Texas Team Champs Since Cowboys Won SB

Season Champion League

2023

Texas Rangers

MLB

2022

Houston Astros

MLB

2022

FC San Antonio

USL

2017

Houston Astros

MLB

2014

San Antonio Spurs

NBA

2011

Dallas Mavericks

NBA

2007

San Antonio Spurs

NBA

2003

San Antonio Spurs

NBA

2000

Houston Comets

WNBA

1999

San Antonio Spurs

NBA

1999

Houston Comets

WNBA

1999

Dallas Stars

NHL

1998

Houston Comets

WNBA

1997

Houston Comets

WNBA

1995

Dallas Cowboys

NFL

1995

Houston Rockets

NBA

Party time in Vegas: The Raiders firing up stogies to celebrate victory over the Giants in their first game since Antonio Pierce replaced Josh McDaniels as coach seemed like great fun.

How the Raiders got into this situation could be more important for the long-term outlook. Reports suggested players lobbied owner Mark Davis to make a coaching change.

The record on the field suggests McDaniels was ineffective as head coach. Davis’ processes do not seem better, with or without a victory over the Tommy DeVito-quarterbacked Giants.

The Colts won Jeff Saturday’s debut last season (over the Raiders), then dropped their seven remaining games. The Raiders have the Jets, Dolphins and Chiefs next. Let’s see how many stogies they go through after those games.

Seattle rocked: The Seahawks allowed 515 yards, including 298 rushing, to Baltimore in the Seahawks’ first game since acquiring Williams from the Giants to fortify their defensive front. Their offense was three times as bad from an EPA standpoint.

That’s a bad combination for a team trying to establish a new tradition with a younger roster.

The Seahawks under Pete Carroll once went 65 consecutive regular-season and playoff games without losing by double digits, the second-longest streak since the 1920s Bears, per Pro Football Reference. Their 37-3 defeat in Baltimore tied for second-worst of the Carroll era in Seattle, nearly matching a 42-7 blowout vs. the Rams in 2017.

Seattle is now averaging 19.6 offensive points per game, its lowest average this late in a season since 2021, when the Russell Wilson era was unraveling.

What does such a lopsided defeat mean for a team that sees itself on the rise?

This was the 10th time in the past decade a team at least two games above .500 lost by 30-plus points during roughly the same point in a season (Weeks 7-10).

It happened last month when the Ravens blew out Detroit, 38-6.

Two teams rebounded nicely.

The 2017 Buffalo Bills fell 47-10 to the Saints in November of that season, then finished 4-3 to reach the playoffs. The 2020 Buccaneers lost 38-3, also to the Saints, before closing with a 5-2 mark and winning the Super Bowl.

The other six teams combined to finish 11-37 over the remainder of their seasons. That record counts the 2018 Bengals two times, as they were blown out by 30-plus points twice in a three-game stretch, ultimately falling from 5-3 to 6-10.

(Top photo of Mike McDaniel and Tyreek Hill: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)


“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, is on sale now. Order it here.

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