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Sunday, January 18, 2009
Mailbag: Arizona fan's excitement palpable

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Shane from Tempe writes: My first Cardinals game was their last game of their first season in Arizona in 1988, when they lost to a 3-12 Packers team led by Don Majkowski. I was eight years old. The Cardinals started the season 7-4, but after Neil Lomax's career-ending injury, they lost their last five games to set the tone for 19 of the next 20 years.

I went to four games during Buddy Ryan's first season in Arizona in 1994. They made a playoff run that year but finished 8-8, including a brutal OT loss late in the season to a Bears team led by Steve Walsh.

I went to the Cards' second-to-last game of their 1998 playoff season, when Jake Plummer led the team on a last-minute drive vs. the Kerry Collins-led New Orleans Saints. Chris Jacke's field goal as time ran out gave Arizona the win and put them in position to beat the Chargers in similar fashion the following week to make the playoffs.

I've been to a few games since then, including a couple at UOP Stadium this season ... but I'm sure those won't compare to the game I'll be attending Sunday. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, I'm so excited for this freakin' game.

Mike Sando: You've got two playoff victories in the bank, so you're attending this game from a position of emotional strength. That's a good thing.


Ezra from Las Vegas writes: Mike, I am a Cards fan and have had lots of time to watch trends in football over the last few years, due to the Cards making playoff exits early and because I live in Vegas and played parlays for a few years. I have tried to look at outside things some time when thinking about who will win a game.

We all know that some time a team come out of nowhere and beats a good team. What I am looking at with the Philly AZ game is that I think AZ had an easier first two games in terms of playing teams that beat you up. Philly just played a tough physical game against the giants and should be a little more beat up than the AZ, especially with the way that AZ was picking off CAR.

Second, I look at teams that previously lost to the other teams. Often I find that the team that lost will win or be closer the next match up as pay back of some sort. This trend is not true when considering teams with focus that play every game one at a time, like the Pats traditionally do, when they play an underachiever.

With that said, I feel that if AZ brings it with focus like they have been, AZ can win this one. Also a note, I don't think that Warner has had a really big game yet (300+ yards?) in the play offs. He seems to be doing just enough to win. Do you expect this trend to continue?

I am thinking that this is part of the game plan to reduce the turnovers that cost the Cards games this year and that they will only call on Kurt to throw for big yards if necessary. If the D holds it together, I don't think he will have to. (The D play surprises me in terms of consistency only. I have seen the AZ D play very well in certain spurts and games, I don't know wh

Mike Sando: The Cardinals have evolved to a point where Warner's yardage numbers shouldn't skyrocket unless the Cardinals are playing from behind or the other team is loading up against the run.

Your theories on picking winners make sense. Like you, I would not view a Cardinals victory as an upset.


Steve from Napa writes: I sent you an email earlier in the year about JTO and the Niners and forgot to put where I am from. Napa. If you ever get up this way, let me know as I have a nice wine cellar with some vintages you might enjoy. I am enthused that the West has the Cards still playing. I am an old Pac 10 guy, so even though I went to Cal I stil root for USC, Oregon, etc during the bowls.

Same way with the NFC west as long as they are not playing the Niners. I have gone to all 5 superbowls and last year suffered through paying more money for my season tickets after a losing year. You may want to look into that at some point. When do you have an inferior product and raise prices?

Anyway, what does the cap situation look like for the NFC West? I know the Niners have a $9 or $10 million decision to make with A Smith. J Peppers is now available and wants to play in a 3 4 defense. Any chance the Niners can flush Smith and apply the money to Peppers?

Mike Sando: Thanks, Steve. Some teams have frozen season-ticket prices. I do wonder how many NFL fans will cite economic concerns in deciding not to renew season tickets for 2009. So far, the NFL has been playing to mostly full stadiums, so the market is supporting the prices.

Julius Peppers is an immense talent. If he wanted to play for the 49ers, certainly the team would have to consider making the investment. I tend to think Peppers might have some other options with more established teams.

The 49ers would have the salary-cap flexibility to make that sort of move. Like quite a few teams, the 49ers have created additional cap space for 2009 by writing unrealistic incentives into the 2008 contracts of certain players. The approach makes use of 2008 cap room that would have otherwise gone unused. When the incentives go unfulfilled, the teams gain back the space in the following season.

The 49ers did this with DeShaun Foster, jacking up his 2008 cap number north of $9 million. He did not receive that money, but the 49ers will get the salary-cap space for this coming season.


Rob from San Francisco writes: Mike, Thanks for your thoughts following up on my Peppers question. I just heard from two friends in Arizona during a morning sports talk show (the name is escaping me) there was a 5 minute discussion on rumors from a source "close to Kurt Warner" who said Warner is interested in moving to another team after this season, but would prefer to stay out west.

Given the makeup of teams, it seems only Seattle and S.F. would fit. Have you heard or seen anything that would provide even an ounce of credibility? Thanks for all your efforts.

Mike Sando: You're welcome, Rob. I haven't heard anything along those lines. When I hear those sorts of things and they are unattributed, the first thing I do is think about who might benefit from such a story. Warner and the Cardinals have not made much progress on talks about a new contract. If the Cardinals had to worry about Warner moving to another team -- and a team in the West, no less -- that might provide some leverage for Warner.


Ted from France writes: Hi Mike, Yes, Niners fans can hope for Peppers. On the same topic, I think Housh and Boldin are both entering free agency. What do you think: would they would want to play for the Niners; are they are healthy enough; financials; is WR a priority to go out and grab a top guy? Who are some other FA's we might get excited about? Thanks for your work. As a Niners fan, I have felt slighted by national sports media for too many years now. Your blog is a daily recognition that we are still in the league. Ted

Mike Sando: Glad to help, Ted! Anquan Boldin has two additional seasons remaining on his contract. He is scheduled to become a free agent in 2011. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is eligible for free agency beginning Feb. 27. I do not yet know what kind of interest the 49ers might have in him. They want to be a run-oriented team.


Hannan from Hershey, Pa., writes: I've heard people raving on how they want Nnamdi Asomugha on their teams since he is a free agent and all, but I've been mull over the whole free agent party. But, when I saw Julius Peppers wanted out of CAR, I thought the Seahawks could REALLY use him. What do you think?

Mike Sando: I think the Seahawks could definitely use Peppers. I also know Peppers says he would prefer to play in a 3-4 system. As I have mentioned to others, the Seahawks are already on the hook for huge money on the Patrick Kerney deal. They expect their new defensive staff to get more from their existing prospects on the defensive line, notably Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson. For those reasons, I'm a little skeptical about the Seahawks making that type of move. If they did, they could feel better about throwing their draft-day weight into upgrading the offense.


RBrown from Des Moines writes: Hey Mike I was wondering if you could tell me how the 49ers are sitting as far as salary cap room for the offseason and if you see them signing a big name in free agency

Mike Sando: I do not know their plans. They will have the cap flexibility to sign a "big name" in free agency.


Rob from parts unknown writes: Mike, With the news of J. Peppers wanting out of Carolina, do you think: a.) he would consider playing in SF, and b.) would he help the 49ers solve their pass rush question? No doubt he has the skills, but would he work with J. Smith, Willis and Haralson? It would at least make the question of who to take with the #10 pick easier, and allow the team to go with a S or CB.

Mike Sando: He would help the 49ers in a big way. Having Peppers, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis on the field together might send that front seven over the top. I think we'd be hearing less about problems at safety.

I have no information about where Peppers might want to play. If you were Peppers, though, would you put the 49ers atop your wish list? Do you think Peppers even knows whether the 49ers have run a 3-4? When I hear him talk about joining a 3-4 team, I'm having visions of Baltimore or Pittsburgh or San Diego or Dallas or Miami.


Rich from Bellevue writes: Hey, Mr. Mike. If I might be permitted to beat a dead horse, let me ask you about your recently-clarified comments to the effect that the Cardinals might be better off without Boldin this week.

While I agree that it would be detrimental to them if they use his return as an excuse to go bombs-away and get away from the balance they've been showing, I fail to see why you would think that they'd be likely (or even slightly inclined) to do that.

Has Whisenhunt and his staff given you reason to think they're such dumb-dumbs that they'd deliberately move away from what's working (well)?

Whiz has always wanted to run the ball, the only reason they got away from it was because it's working. If it continues to work, I'm dead-on sure they'll stick with it, with Boldin's presence/absence having no bearing. Frankly, it seems vaguely insulting to a coaching staff that's been doing a pretty impressive job this year for you to insinuate that they'd be that empty-headed. I'm just saying... :)

Mike Sando: Arizona's offensive staff has done a great job this season. Russ Grimm and Todd Haley are already being mentioned as possible future head coaches, and for good reason. I have pointed out their skill even after the Cardinals lost games in which they were pass happy. Here is an excerpt from my column following their Week 8 defeat at Carolina:

The Cardinals are not a very good running team. They do have a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.

Arizona took into account these factors from the beginning. The Cardinals trusted Warner to make the right decisions in the short passing game. They also found ways to manufacture yards on the ground, notably with a deftly conceived end-around that sprung Boldin for a 30-yard gain.

Boldin's big play began with receiver Steve Breaston running right to left in the backfield as if to take a handoff. Warner faked the handoff. Instead of Warner handing to Boldin in the opposite direction, which would have been standard fare, Boldin took the handoff in the same direction Breaston was heading.

The play made vulnerable any defenders who "stayed home" in anticipation of a reverse. Boldin ran into the open field and nearly scored a touchdown.

That is great play calling.

Warner was incredible during that game. However, the style of play Arizona used wound up being less sustainable than the current style, in my view.

During an eight-game stretch beginning with Boldin's return from injury in Week 8, the Cardinals used four wide receivers an average of 26 snaps per game. That average has fallen to eight snaps per game over the last four games. Boldin has missed most of the last four games.

What does the four-receiver offense have to do with any of this? Overall this season, the Cardinals have run the ball on 9.4 percent of plays when they have used four wide receivers. They are more apt to run the ball when they have fewer than four receivers on the field, and they are more apt to have fewer than four receivers on the field if one of their receivers is not available.

I explicitly said the Cardinals would be better off with Boldin. That is a given. I just wondered how much their style of play might change if all their wide receivers were healthy. In the end, I do not think it will change a great deal. The current approach has worked too well.


Kevin from San Diego writes: I'm looking at a lot of 'Hawks blogs regarding FA and the Draft, can you explain why all the talk with Albert Haynesworth when the real dilemma is on the pass rush side? Peppers seem to make the most sense to me, and from what I've read, that he doesn't want to even stay with the Panthers.

If you were in the room with Ruskell and Mora, who do you choose: Haynesworth or Peppers (assuming both test FA)?

Mike Sando: Choosing between Haynesworth and Peppers would be some luxury. Can a team really shell out huge money for Kerney, then use a first-round choice on Jackson, then shell out even bigger money for Peppers? I'll believe it when I see it.

Haynesworth would give Seattle an incredible inside tandem with Brandon Mebane.