Around the NFC West: Rams and Horton

Ray Horton's first season in the NFC West started poorly and ended with a flourish. The Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator gained more momentum Friday with news the division-rival St. Louis Rams plan to interview him as a head-coaching candidate.

This is a welcome development for Horton, in my view, even if the Rams are targeting him at least in part to satisfy Rooney Rule requirements for interviewing minorities. The process draws attention to the fact that Arizona's defense made significant strides under Horton as the 2011 season progressed.

The way things were going in September, Horton wasn't looking like much of a candidate for anything beyond harsh criticism. But with Arizona allowing 18.3 points per game over its final nine games, down from 26.1 previously, Horton showed he could keep things together.

The Cardinals allowed 52 fourth-quarter points over a six-game stretch beginning in Week 2. They allowed 13 fourth-quarter points over their next eight games. The team also began getting more from young players such as Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield and Patrick Peterson. That was critical for the future.

Even with Horton in the picture for St. Louis, the focus remained on the Rams' ability to land former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says team owner Stan Kroenke spent Thursday meeting with Fisher in Denver. Thomas: "This will be Kroenke's first coaching hire as Rams controlling owner, and for better or worse, it will help define his ownership style to his competitors in the NFL. But it's not only outsiders in the league who are taking notice. So are Rams players, many of whom are hoping their next boss is someone with prior head-coaching experience, and are excited about the possibility of working with Fisher."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals will speak with former Chiefs coach Todd Haley about returning to Arizona, where Haley was once offensive coordinator. Somers: "The Cardinals have not been nearly as good on offense since Haley left, but his departure also coincided with the retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner. The Cardinals have had four different starting quarterbacks since Warner retired. When Haley left, Mike Miller was promoted from receivers coach to passing game coordinator. Russ Grimm was assistant head coach/offensive line and run game coordinator. After that season, Miller was promoted to offensive coordinator, while Grimm remained assistant head coach. He continued to have a strong influence on the offensive game plan. Whisenhunt would have to create a position for Haley, which would mean either re-organizing his existing coaching staff or adding a coach."

Also from Somers: more thoughts on Haley's possible return.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com hands out postseason team honors. Farnsworth on Brandon Browner, his top free-agent addition: "The 6-foot-4 cornerback wasn’t even your typical free agent. He was signed to a future contract in January after playing the past four seasons in the CFL. He stepped in on the right side during training camp because Walter Thurmond was out with a sprained ankle and stayed there. Browner led the team with six interceptions; and the conference in secondary intimidation. His 94-yard interception return for a TD in Week 5 not only iced the upset of the Giants, it broke a team record that had lasted since 1979 (91 yards by Sammy Green). Browner added a 42-yarder for a score against the Bears and a 68-yarder against the Eagles in racking up 220 return yards to demolish the team record (179 by Dave Brown in 1984)."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers welcomed back Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn Jr. to practice, restoring depth at wide receiver.

Also from Maiocco: Delanie Walker's jaw injury is healing, but he still might not return to the team for the playoffs. Maiocco: "Teammates said Walker has made good progress from a week ago, when he was on a liquid diet and unable to talk. Walker now is able to talk with more ease and he is eating solid food."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers safety Donte Whitner will be watching wild-card games as a fan. Branch: "You can only scout once you come in and watch the coach’s copy and the players’ copy. You have to be a fan at that point and just really watch. You don’t really know what coverage they’re playing. You don’ really what know what’s going on as far as techniques they’re playing. You become a fan."