Mailbag: Re-evaluating the NFC West race

Kelphelper from Anchorage writes: The Niners were your pick to win the division, and they are not only in last place at 0-4, but seem ready to implode. The Cardinals were your pick to be the runner-up, and there may not be a worse 2-2 club in the history of time. Your assessment of the mediocre Seahawks seems like your only correct pick, as they have indeed been tough at home while struggling mightily on the road.

The Rams have defied everyone's predictions, including yours. They are no longer the weakest link, and in fact look to be the most complete team in the division. Four games into the season, and the division is almost turned upside down. Are you ready to concede that the landscape is changing much quicker than you anticipated?

Mike Sando: The landscape is definitely changing faster than anticipated and the Rams could have the best team in the division as early as next season -- and even sooner -- just because they have Sam Bradford. But my predictions have held up pretty well.

I've predicted every Rams and Cardinals outcome correctly to this point in the season (see all predictions here). I predicted the Rams would get to 4-4 before losing seven of their final eight games. That could still happen, although Bradford has looked good enough for the Rams to expect more, provided their depth holds up well enough over the course of the season (something that did not happen last season).

The Cardinals have indeed been worse than anticipated even though my game-by-game predictions for them remain correct to this point. I had them losing to New Orleans in Week 5, then beating the Seahawks in Seattle. Let's see how they perform over the next couple of games.

On the 49ers, there's no question I thought this team should perform better than it has performed. I stand by that; it's not my fault they're not meeting reasonable expectations. I did warn that this team could struggle some early in the season because three of the first four games were on the road.

If the 49ers do not implode, I still give them a good chance to win the division. They've shown some very good things in games against New Orleans and Atlanta. They simply haven't been able to put things together or finish games, but with a victory over Philadelphia, it's not a huge stretch to think San Francisco could gain ground on every team in the division. That implosion still could happen, though. I do not trust Mike Singletary's coaching or Alex Smith's quarterbacking, and those two areas are hugely important.

Alex from San Francisco writes: Do they keep stats on YAC? When I watch the 49ers play this season, it seems like all of the completed passes are stopped almost as soon as they are caught. Is this an issue of not getting wide receivers into open space, or are opposing defenses scheming this way? It would seem that with big wide receivers and tight ends, the 49ers should be stronger in this area.

Mike Sando: The 49ers lead the NFL in percentage of yards gained after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This doesn't mean you're on the wrong track. YAC stats include yards gained by running backs after screens and other dump passes, and we all recall Frank Gore racking up lots of ultimately meaningless yardage this way in the Kansas City game specifically.

The 49ers have 920 yards receiving, with 566 of those gained after the catch. That means 61.5 percent of receiving yards were gained after the catch. This is the highest percentage in the league. As noted, though, this has more to do with Gore leading the NFL in YAC (279 yards) than with the 49ers' wide receivers making plays down the field.

Twenty-two of the NFL's top 50 players in total YAC this season are wide receivers. The rest are running backs and tight ends, which makes sense given that they're going to catch underneath passes, then get extra yardage. None of the 49ers' wide receivers made the top 50. Austin Collie (199), Eddie Royal (167), Terrell Owens (152), Wes Welker (131), Santana Moss (126), Lance Moore (126), Miles Austin (120), DeSean Jackson (115), Reggie Wayne (112), Anquan Boldin (110), Danny Amendola (106) and Mark Clayton (100) are the only wide receivers with at least 100 yards after the catch this season.

Brian from Frederick, Md., writes: Mike, is there anyway you can do a piece on budget cuts for the NFC West to show us how much money teams have cut from the team from either trades or releasing players. And also see how much they have spent on players? I know that might take some time, but it would be really interesting to see how well some teams have done so far. Thanks.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals in particular have slashed projected payroll. This has not always been intentional. They happily would have paid Kurt Warner what remained on his contract. They tried to keep Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby. Keeping Warner, Rolle, Dansby and Anquan Boldin would have cost tens of millions. Arizona did funnel some money Darnell Dockett's way, but overall, the Cardinals have reduced payroll more significantly than the other teams in the division. It is a subject I'd like to explore in more detail.

Arlan from San Francisco writes: Hey Mike, I was wondering why more teams don't tap into their former greats as position coaches or at least hire them as mentors to teach them how to watch film or read defenses. Is it because great players aren't always great teachers or because they just dont want to do it? It would seem beneficial, especially in the Niners' case, to get someone like Jerry Rice to teach receivers or Steve Young to teach quarterbacks. Maybe even be coordinators. They should understand the flow of a game right, when plays should work and when they shouldn't, right?

Mike Sando: Sounds good in theory, but coaching is a grind and the great players you mentioned have enough money to go on about their lives without working 16-hour days. Also, great players are not always the best teachers.

Mike from Seattle writes: Sando, with all this talk about Deion Branch possibly being traded back to the Patriots, what do you think the chances are of getting Logan Mankins in the deal? The value might not match up, but throw in a draft pick and there might be an outside shot, at least. What do you think?

Mike Sando: That would surprise me for a couple reasons. One, Seattle has already parted with its third- and fourth-round choices for 2011. The team doesn't have much draft capital remaining, and what it does possess should be precious for a rebuilding team. Two, Seahawks general manager John Schneider comes from the Ron Wolf/Ted Thompson personnel tree. That personnel tree generally hasn't valued guards at the going rate for elite ones. That thinking was at least partially in play when Seattle named Steve Hutchinson its transition player. Giving up picks and then huge money for Mankins would not fit that philosophy.

Joel from Seattle writes: I'm a big Seahawks fan. Do you see this team as a possible playoff team this year and future Super Bowl contender in the next three years?

Mike Sando: The state of the division makes every NFC West team a possible playoff team this season. Too much work lies ahead to say Seattle will be a Super Bowl contender anytime soon. The Seahawks probably still need to find their next quarterback. They need to improve their offensive line. They will try to find a dynamic receiver. They need pass-rush help.

The current regime has made some good moves. The only really shaky one, in my view, was trading guard Rob Sims to Detroit. That was clearly an Alex Gibbs-type move, and now Gibbs is gone and Seattle could use Sims. The Charlie Whitehurst move might have been a stretch, although Seattle still wound up getting a good player, Golden Tate, with the second-round pick it acquired from San Diego as part of the deal.

Brady from Port Hadlock, Wash., writes: What do you think the NFC West Standings will be at the end of October? Seahawks 4-3, Rams 4-4, Cardinals 3-4 and 49ers 3-5? Of course, I am a Seahawks fan. It would cool to hear what you think.

Mike Sando: I've got the Rams at 4-4 through October, followed by the Seahawks and Cardinals at 3-4. The 49ers would be 3-5. Seattle would have to win at Chicago or at Oakland (while beating Arizona at home) to reach 4-3. I do think Seattle should beat the Cardinals at Qwest Field. I'm not quite ready to trust this team on the road, but at least the Oakland game is on the West Coast and against a flawed team.

Chris from Portland, Ore., writes: As a Seattle fan, it seems like every year our bye week is really early in the season? Is this true and if so, can you comment on how the NFL determines which week a team will take their bye? It seems like it would be more of an advantage to have the bye later in the year as the wear and tear of the season really becomes an issue.

Mike Sando: I'm not sure what specifically determines bye placements. You are right about Seattle, though. Seattle's bye has fallen in Week 5 or earlier six times in the last nine seasons.

Tim from parts unknown writes: Just like to say you do a great job covering the Rams. We appreciate it, sir.

Mike Sando: Thanks. They're more fun to cover now that they're more competitive.

Nick from Salt Lake City writes: Hey Sando! As always, love the blog and I'm jealous that you got to witness my Rams give it to the Hawks. Guess I'll have to wait til they travel to Denver, but that's neither here or there. My question: How do you think the Rams truly feel about Kenneth Darby and Keith Toston? In a week where the Rams obviously needed my hero, Steven Jackson, don't you think they should have tried to lighten his load at least a little bit with their number No. 2 and No. 3 backs? Any other rumors for prospective signings in the coming weeks? Thanks again for all you do!

Mike Sando: Thanks, Nick. The Rams have to feel better about the situation behind Jackson after watching Darby score touchdowns in the last couple of games. Darby has exceeded my expectations. I would have expected St. Louis to make a move for a Julius Jones type. At this point, it's possible Jones is biding his time and looking for a situation that might offer more carries. The Rams have wanted to upgrade their depth at that position, though.