Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
It's that time of year again. Yes, we're well aware that the Redskins and Cowboys are past the midway point, but we hated to jump the gun on the Giants and Eagles. To this point in the season, the NFC East has been both brilliant and baffling. Just when you think you know the Redskins, they go and crater on national TV.
The Eagles (5-3) cratered early, but have gained momentum heading into Sunday's game against the Giants. A victory would vault them into a second-place tie with the Redskins (6-3), who will play the Cowboys (5-4) after the bye.
It's hard to decide which has been the bigger story line: The meteoric rise of Jim Zorn or the fall from preseason grace by the Cowboys. But in the interest of your attention span, let's roll out the 2008 NFC Beast Middies -- or the NFCBMs.
The halfway coach of the year: And our first Middie goes to Redskins first-year head coach Jim "Z Man" Zorn. Tom Coughlin has done a phenomenal job of guiding his players through some adversity (Osi Umenyiora, Plaxico Burress), but Zorn is the one who's caught everyone by surprise. When I talked to Joe Gibbs on Monday (you like how I did that?), he couldn't stop talking about the job Zorn has done. Zorn had the good sense not to blow up everything and make a bunch of changes. He's secure enough to surround himself with Gibbs holdovers, and he does a great job of empowering his staff. If you thought this team could be 6-3 after that opening game in the Meadowlands, meet me in Vegas next weekend. Zorn is the rare head coach who doesn't try to act like he has all the answers. His postgame news conferences feel like brainstorming sessions. I'm pretty sure he asked a reporter Sunday how he liked the Redskins' burgundy on burgundy look. That alone makes him worthy of a Middie.
Rookie of the (half) year: Before the season, you thought Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Cowboys running back Felix Jones were the best candidates for a Middie. Neither of those players has disappointed, although Jones has missed three games with a hamstring injury. But for my money, no rookie has had a bigger impact than Redskins seventh-round draft pick Chris Horton. Fortunately for executive vice president of Danny Snyder's football team, Vinny Cerrato, Horton has helped take the attention away from those three second-round picks. If anyone spots Malcolm Kelly, send him back to Redskins Park. But the seventh-rounder Horton has been the team's best playmaker on defense -- outside of maybe London Fletcher. A scout told me recently that Horton was a "poor man's Troy Polamalu," which was definitely meant as a compliment. Horton is not particularly fast, but he always ends up near the ball. Watching him throw his body at Willie Parker on Monday was pretty entertaining.
Offensive player of the "year" award: We're going with Giants running back Brandon Jacobs here. Quarterback Eli Manning has been solid for the most part, but it is Jacobs who helps give the offense its smash-mouth identity. He may not have the raw power of Marion Barber, but he's more nimble and capable of making defenders miss. It also helps that Derrick Ward has been an excellent complement. And before you (Redskins fans) start firing off comments, remember that we have an MVP award coming up.
Most improved: This one's always a little awkward. It sort of sheds light on the fact that a player may have struggled in the past. For instance, we've eliminated Clinton Portis and DeMarcus Ware from the "Most Improved" category. And our winner is: Jason Campbell of the Redskins. Despite his poor performance Monday against the Steelers, Campbell has been rock solid for much of the season. He makes plays when the game is on the line and he has embraced Zorn's West Coast offense. Campbell's biggest strength is his knack for remaining calm at all times. You can't tell by his demeanor whether he's won or lost -- and that's a good thing.
The Rudy Ruettiger Award: We're pleased to announce that Jerry Jones will be installing a digital Hustle Board in his new stadium to honor Terrell Owens. The wide receiver can no longer beat press coverage, but he runs players down from behind after interceptions and blocks for teammates downfield. To be fair, Brad Johnson could turn Jerry Rice into Arnaz Battle, but we thought it was important to salute T.O. for giving that old college try while jousting with stalwarts Leon Hall and Rod Hood.
Defensive player of the "year" award: The Beast will take the easy way out and select co-defensive players of the year in Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Tuck might not have the numbers Ware has, but his sacks and forced fumbles seem to come at crucial times. Ware has piled up some of his numbers after games have been decided. Tuck has gone from a shrinking locker room violet to a go-to quote for the leering New York press -- and at least one fledgling ESPN.com blog. Coughlin gets a lot of credit for how the team responded to the Umenyiora injury, but i
t was Tuck who set the tone in the locker room. He never flinched, and now the Giants are sitting at 7-1.
The MVP after nine weeks: Clinton Portis is a no-brainer. A running back can set the tone for a team, and Portis' rugged style resonates throughout the organization. He committed himself to getting in better shape this past offseason and it's paying huge dividends. If the season ended today, Portis would be the odds-on favorite for league MVP. Who else are you going to pick? Albert Haynesworth? Nope, Portis is the man and he's poised to take home the MVP hardware.
The defining moment at the midway point: I thought Manning's pass to Amani Toomer on fourth down against the Steelers in Week 9 was brilliant. He took a penalty when things didn't look right to him at the line of scrimmage and then he lofted a perfect pass to Toomer. Manning is still capable of making poor decisions, but when the stakes are high, who would you rather have at quarterback? You don't have to answer that.
The Moving Van award: Cowboys coach Wade Phillips has lost key players to injury, but the slide began before Tony Romo went down with a broken pinkie. Phillips' refusal to hold anyone accountable in public has helped create a locker room of thin-skinned players. With the exception of Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton, it doesn't seem like players are truly bothered by losing. That's a reflection of a head coach who would rather coddle huge egos than hold their feet to the fire. If the Cowboys fail to secure a wild-card spot, Phillips will be gone.
Best under-the-radar player: The Giants player who benefits the most from Plaxico Burress' antics is Domenik Hixon. Eli Manning and Hixon bonded while Burress was injured during training camp. And when Burress was suspended against the Seahawks, Hixon replaced him and had a 100-yard receiving day before being sidelined with a concussion. Hixon has excellent speed and he did a great job of working on body control during the preseason. I sense that Manning takes a great deal of pride in the fact that the Giants have succeeded when Burress hasn't been available.
The NFC East punting award goes Down Under *: Step right up, Eagles punter Sav Rocca. Your mighty Australian leg has bailed the Eagles' offense out numerous times this season. Following in Mat McBriar's footsteps, Rocca combines a powerful leg with a cunning ability to make balls stay out of the end zone. The young Rocca will join the Beast soon for an exclusive interview. If you have any questions for him, please utilize the comments section. McBriar is out with a broken foot -- hence the asterisk.
Most compelling story line for the second half: Can Tony Romo overcome his injury and breathe life back into the Cowboys? Is this a sleeping giant or a collection of individuals that will never be on the same page? My guess is the latter. We'll be here to document all of it for you.