First-quarter awards

Eric Allen hands out awards for the first quarter of the season.

Updated: October 5, 2006, 4:05 PM ET
By Eric Allen | ESPN Insider
When I played for Jon Gruden in Oakland, he had a great way of making sure his players didn't look too far ahead in the season. He broke the season into four quarters. This was a perfect way to keep our minds on the games immediately ahead of us and not worry about teams in Week 13 when it was Week 2.

That idea is being used by more and more teams in the NFL now, and I've decided to appropriate it for some awards. Every quarter I will take a look at the top team, offensive player, defensive player and disappointment.

Top team

This one is easy. The Chicago Bears have proven to be the cream of the crop in the first quarter of the season. The knock on this team is that they haven't played top-notch competition yet, but the teams they've played they've dominated, culminating in a lopsided win over the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.

They're doing it with a surprising combination of offense and defense. Everyone knew this defense would be stout coming into the season. They have a great defensive philosophy and execute it extremely well. That's not to take away from the tremendous amount of talent they have on that side of the ball with Tommie Harris, Mike Brown, Brian Urlacher and Ricky Manning Jr., just to name a few of their defensive studs.

What's catching people off guard is the way this offense is playing. QB Rex Grossman has already thrown for 1,061 yards and eight touchdowns and his passer rating is 100.8. Nobody expected this team to be this proficient in the passing game. If anything, the running game was thought to be the only way this team would be able to consistently garner offense, but instead they are doing it through the air.

They have a good set of receivers who understand their roles. Also, they've done a great job of taking shots downfield when defenses are playing to stop the run. That's resulted in some big plays because these receivers have the ability to exploit single coverage.

Top offensive player

Something tells me this award is probably going to go to Steve Smith in the second quarter. He takes over games in ways that I've never seen from a wide receiver. But this quarter's winner is Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

He's played at an extremely high level every game this season, and if not for some defensive setbacks, this team would be undefeated. He's playing without a consistent No. 1 receiver, but you wouldn't know that by looking at his numbers. That's a testament to the way he's spreading the ball around to everyone. He's doing a great job of getting the ball to L.J. Smith in the middle of the field, Brian Westbrook on the edge and Donte' Stallworth and Greg Lewis downfield.

The biggest difference in this season is his level of confidence, which is higher than at any time I've seen him play alongside Terrell Owens. Every time he drops back, he's confident he can make a play either with his legs or his arm, and that's why the Eagles are such a dangerous team offensively. So much of this game is about confidence and believing that you can make a big play, and McNabb believes he's due a big play every time he steps on the field.

Top defensive player

Young players can often start to read their own newspaper clippings and see themselves on the highlights and start to loaf. The first quarter's top defensive player is bucking that trend.

San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman had a great first season with 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and 41 solo tackles in 15 games. But that wasn't enough for "Lights Out," because during the offseason he fired his agent so he wouldn't have any distractions in becoming the best defensive player in the league. Not the best linebacker or best defensive player in the AFC, but the best defensive player in the NFL.

He's come a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Already this season he has four sacks and an interception, but the numbers don't show how many times he's forced a quarterback into a bad throw or intimidated a receiver or running back with a big hit. It's a pleasure watching a guy with this much talent doing everything in his power to embrace it and better himself. Something tells me he's going to be named top defensive player a couple more times before his career is over.

Top disappointment

This is a tough one to have to pick, but it's Miami Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper, hands down. He was deemed the missing piece to the puzzle for the Dolphins, despite missing most of last season with a major knee injury. He still looks to be injured and has looked terrible out there trying to run this offense.

Having a porous offensive line doesn't help things much, but Culpepper simply doesn't have the elusiveness that once was the hallmark of his game. It's almost a disservice to expect him to be 100 percent merely a season after his knee injury, but that's what is expected of him and he has to find a way to rise to the challenge. That may involve him sitting with the offensive coordinator and explaining his limitations and finding a way they can work around them. Whatever they can do to turn this situation around needs to be done quickly because this season is starting to slip away.

Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders. He's a regular contributor to Insider.


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Eric Allen

NFL studio analyst
Eric Allen, a 14-year NFL veteran and was one of the NFL's premier defensive backs, joined ESPN in August 2002 as an NFL studio analyst. His primary role is providing analysis for ESPNEWS' Monday Quarterback.