Mailbag: Final four feature stellar safeties

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Ant from San Francisco writes: Sando, such a huge and understandable focus has been placed on the QBs throughout the playoffs but I noticed a familiar trend for all four teams still playing: they have great QBs on defense, their safeties. Reed, Polamula, Dawkins and Wilson are in the top five of play-making, turnover causing and experienced safeties in the NFL, along with Bob Sanders.

They're also all joined by athletic lesser named counterparts at the other safety spot. Having watched S.F. all year I can that when your safeties make zero game changing plays it costs a decent team perhaps two wins.

It stood out that the Carolina & San Diego safeties were slow in coverage and nonexistent in run support; the Tennessee safeties allowed two big pass plays right in front of them that could've been INTs and NY's made no plays of consequence. The QB battles in these playoffs have not been as one-sided as years past so perhaps this has been one of those small difference makers that turns a match up toward the lower seed. After all, other than health winning in the playoffs is all about match ups.

Mike Sando: Great observation. Other teams have won Super Bowls without great safeties. I think a strong pass rush can cover for the positions in the secondary. But the evidence you brought holds up very well in looking at the current playoff teams. One question: Were you wearing a Mark Roman jersey when you wrote this mailbag submission?

Mike from Phoenix writes: I would like to point out, as you probably already know, the Cardinals are the most deserving of the playoff spot they have been given.

Besides just being in a "weak division", they had the next best record. Anyone with a better record got into the playoffs. Anyone with the same record had an easier schedule than the cardinals but still came away with the same record. Only exception would be the Cowboys had a stronger schedule. But they lost to the cardinals and would therefore lose the playoff spot to the cardinals.

I think that people should be made aware that the next team in line just based on W-L-T would be the cardinals. So they were deserving to get the spot, and they have only proved it with their play.

Mike Sando: You are correct. The Cardinals would be the 12th-best team by record. At this point, there can be no questioning the Cardinals' deservingness. Two playoff victories end the debate.

Tony from Springfield, Ill., writes: Mike, I praise you for your detail in covering all of the NFC West without bias. Your attention to detail rocks.

My first Cardinal game was in October of 1976 I was 11 years old and we were playing the Cowboys. I was starry eyed with excitement. As the game progressed what I remember most was the excitement of the fans. Loud and screaming at the top of their voices, I happily joined in and from that point I was hooked.

Years have passed and I have to say that I have not had this starry eyed feeling for a long time. I am so happy to see the feeling spread through the BIG RED fans. It really makes me appreciate the effort and work the Cards are putting in for us. I will be watching from my favorite watering hole and rooting for the Cards to make history.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Tony. I love these little slices of life from Cardinals fans.

Chris from Brooklyn writes: Sando-- I wanted to ask you about the Cards discipline. You wrote in the blog that you thought that other sports writers didn't know the Cardinals like we do, as we've watched every game. Well, this year has proven to me that the Cards have some amazing playmakers on defense (Rolle, DRC, Dansby, A-Dub, Dockett, Antonio Smith, Berry, and even LaBoy).

That said-- despite that list being long, we've been blown out a few times, and I think it's because sometimes, those guys just gave up. Flat out, fell behind by 14 and didn't care (see Philly, Jets) -- or didn't show at all (see NE). The current Cards remind a lot of the 2006 Colts. Think about it -- all year, that Colts defense never showed up to play ... until one day, they were a top 5 NFL defense. Out of nowhere.

And throughout the playoffs, people doubted that defense, but game in and game out in the playoffs, they had tremendous stars making BIG plays. Side note-- all season, you've taken time to write about penalties-- could you do something like that about the first 2 playoff games? My guess is that the Cardinals showed some discipline...finally. Thanks, -Chris

Mike Sando: The Colts did get Bob Sanders back from injury that season, a big help.

I think the Cardinals are learning how to win and learning how to set high standards for consistent effort. They haven't proven they can do it regardless of the circumstances, but the urgency of the playoffs has helped them focus. They have appeared immature at times, but that could be changing now.

The Cardinals have 11 penalties for 112 yards in the playoffs. The Eagles have 15 penalties for 116 yards. The Ravens have 15 penalties for 99 yards. These are assessed penalties. The Steelers have seven penalties for 44 yards in one playoff game. That means the Cardinals have the fewest penalties assessed per game in the playoffs among the remaining teams.

Somebody please pass along that note to Ken Whisenhunt. He's been pleased with his team's improvement in that area even though the total penalty numbers remained high for the regular season. He pointed to the types of penalties being committed as evidence of improvement.

Mike from Los Angeles writes: Mike, As a Seahawks fan I'm alarmed because I think Ruskell and Mora are deluding themselves if they think Matt Hasselbeck will ever be fully healthy or effective again. That said, after Mora's news conference it's obvious that's what they're banking on. Given that as a QB Seneca Wallace makes a great slot receiver\Kick returner\slash, where will the Seahawks look for some insurance at QB?

The draft seems like a bare cupboard this year, so that only leaves free agency. Obviously Matt Cassel's not on the radar, but what about somebody like Rex Grossman? He has all the physical tools but has never been coached up or supported by the coaching staff in Chicago.

In spite of that he has led a team to the Super Bowl and throws a great deep ball, something Hasselbeck certainly doesn't. If not Grossman, what about a trade for a veteran player? Could guys like Derek Anderson or Chad Henne or John Beck be had for a 3rd round pick? What are the Seahawks thinking in terms of the QB spot 3-5 years from now?

Mike Sando: The Seahawks were highly quarterback dependent under Mike Holmgren. That's the way Holmgren wanted it. He set up the system in a way that demanded strong play from the position, or else the offense had trouble functioning, even in the short term.

Mora and Greg
Knapp are going to transition away from that a little bit. They'll emphasize the run more naturally. I look for them to experiment with Wildcat-type stuff and other tweaks that Holmgren considered sacrilegious.

I'm a little surprised you're discounting Wallace so profoundly. He seemed more capable than that.

I would look for the Seahawks to draft a quarterback, bank on Hasselbeck returning and modify the offense in ways that could leave them better prepared for an injury at the position.

James from Lincoln, U.K., writes: Rick Dennison's links with Mike Shanahan and Shanahan's with the 49ers, as well as Mike Singletary talking of Bill Walsh-style offense would seem to present Dennison as a good fit on the surface for the OC job. Digging a little deeper, his stint planning Denver's rushing attack and coaching the o-line with success would seem to be further evidence of this. Do you think that Dennison would be capable of running all facets of an offense? Specifically I haven't heard of him having experience with the passing game.

Mike Sando: I wouldn't know whether Dennison could do those things, and that might be the point. Can the 49ers afford to take a chance on their next coordinator without evidence that he could run every aspect of the offense? It's not like Mike Singletary is going to take over offensive play calling in a pinch.

Charlie from Lexington writes: I saw the 49ers interviewed a quarterbacks coach from Cleveland. Is this a sign that they are going to pick the OC from Cleveland?

Mike Sando: It's a sign the interview with Rob Chudzinski went well enough for them to consider Rip Scherer as quarterbacks coach.

Mark from El Cerrito, Calif., writes: Hi Mike, I'm curious about the difference in how the media has handled the retirements of Mike Holmgren and Tony Dungy. Specifically, I've noticed a lot more attention given to Dungy's retirement even though both coaches are credited with presiding over the most successful tenure's in their franshise's histories, established their own successful "coaching trees" and demonstrate a passion for contributing to their communities.

Obviously, the significance of Dungy being the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl as well as his better overall record may impact this difference in media coverage. However, I'm curious how other variables may influence media coverage, i.e. the possibility of Holmgren's return to the NFL after his one year "sabbatical", the fact that Holmgren's retirement was known in advance as well as possible East Coast media bias, influence how the retirements of these two coaches is covered by the media.

Mike Sando: I cannot quantify the coverage one way or another. Proceeding with your premise, we can note that Holmgren has said he will likely return to the NFL. Also, I think Dungy is a more sympathetic figure. His sideline personality plays into that. The way he handled his son's passing resonated with people.

Hyman from Rochester, N.Y., writes: Mike, No one is questioning Tony Dungy, but does ESPN know that Mike Holmgren retired as well? I have always found it odd how Dungy is treated in the media. He retired (as expected) and this is big news? I don't think I saw one story about Holmgren's retirement anywhere on ESPN. Last I checked, Holmgren has been to 3 Super Bowls with two different teams and Dungy was one Troy Brown third down conversion away from being the biggest choker of all time. Fair?

Mike Sando: Not entirely. Dungy's decision came with some drama because it wasn't known until recently. Holmgren never said he was going to retire for sure. He talked about taking a year off to assess his options. Big difference.

Larry from Sacramento writes: Most people and all the so-called experts didn't think the Cards would be in the position they're in now. In my humble opinion they're about to play a team not as good as the two they have beaten. The Eagles are on a roll but so are the cards. The cards have superior talent, they're at home, and they're on a mission. They will win big, in my humble opinion.

Mike Sando: None of us really knew the Cardinals would improve their play on defense so dramatically in the playoffs. Ken Whisenhunt didn't know it. I still think this should be a tough matchup against the Eagles, but the playoffs are full of surprises.

Kevin from Seattle writes: Hey Mike, Great coverage, I read your blog first thing when I get to work in the morning, and check back several times throughout the day in order to keep my mind fresh and where it should be - football.

Any chance the Seahawks will make a move on Julius Peppers if he is indeed done in Carolina, which many (and probably premature) reports and rumors are saying? He's only 28 and would make a huge impact. Patrick Kerney wouldn't have to play every down and would be able to stay fresh while splitting time with Darryl Tapp.

Unless the Seahawks are serious about pursuing TJ Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks have got to be thinking about throwing all kinds of money at Peppers.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Kevin. The problem is that Seattle is still throwing all kinds of money at Kerney, with first-day draft choices invested in Tapp and Lawrence Jackson. I get the feeling Seattle wants its new coaching staff to make a run at developing the younger players on the line.

Chris from Seattle writes: Hey Mike, the blog is great and it's always an informative read. I'd just like to make a note to the Arizona fans who are upset about the lack of respect: Welcome to the top of the NFC West. Seattle's won a bunch of playoff games, and is still often written off as not being a playoff contender. (I seem to recall Arizona being the trendy pick to win the West the last few years.) It'll take years and a bunch of wins for perceptions to change, Arizona fans. Don't worry what the others think, and just enjoy the ride.

Mike Sando: Great advice. Also, the Cardinals would have earned more respect if they had beaten good teams late in the season. Besides, the perceived disrespect has probably helped the Cardinals focus late in the season.

Craig from parts unknown writes: 2 things for you. 1)Everyone has said Jake Delhomme choked and played badly. Rewatch the game and tell me how many times a receiver was ever open! I mean his throws were to receivers that were covered like blankets but he was about to be sacked on 3 of them. ANd the other INT near the Endzone by DRC was because DRC went to play another man and then jumped the pass.

If the corners cover that well and get to McNabb he will make a few mistakes. One other thing...DRC plays the ball...which is so important ...Most corners don't turn and go for the INT....He is so fast and athletic...he lets us double or play are safety's for the medium passes!

2)And probably the biggest of them all. 2 weeks ago...If you asked any Sports writer and/or football fan. What would be harder...To beat Carolina on the road in wet weather..(where the Cards were 2 and 22 and 0-5 for the season) or To beat Philadelphia at home? I guarantee you everyone would h
ave said on the road at Carolina! So if we did it once this should be at least easier on paper. Great job.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Craig. The Cardinals have to like their chances at home. I think they should have some concerns matchup-wise, but so should the Eagles, particularly if Brian Westbrook's injury limits him.