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Sunday, December 5, 2010
Mailbag: Why the Cardinals are struggling

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Good morning from Arizona.

I'll be heading over to University of Phoenix Stadium to catch the San Francisco 49ers' game against Green Bay on TV before the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET.

Should be a fun Week 13.

And now, let's dive into the mailbag, as promised ...

Dylan from Phoenix writes: Hi Sando. I have heard quite a few reasons for the Cardinals' free fall. However, I was wondering if you believed the Bidwills' seemingly tight pockets have a played a bigger role than many have thought in the Cardinals' demise? Thanks.

Mike Sando: That subject demands some elaboration. Kurt Warner walking away from an eight-figure salary has hurt the Cardinals more than any other move has hurt them since last season. That move had nothing to do with anyone being cheap. The team also opened its wallet for safety Adrian Wilson (2009) and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett (2010).

The Cardinals did reduce their payroll this season. If I were to blame some of their struggles on tight pockets, I would take a longer-range view. For example, the Cardinals will tell you their offers for Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby were very competitive. That might be true, but Rolle hit the market only because the Cardinals backloaded his contract, as was their custom. You could say they backloaded deals to save up-front money.

The same thing happened, but more spectacularly, when Larry Fitzgerald's previous contract hit a crossroads for similar reasons. The Cardinals valued Fitzgerald more than they valued Rolle -- enough to meet his contract demands. Fitzgerald leveraged that situation into $40 million on a four-year deal. Paying $10 million per year to Fitzgerald complicated Anquan Boldin's situation, contributing to his departure from the team.

The way the Cardinals structured contracts for Fitzgerald and Rolle, two high draft choices, played a role in their struggles this season. But if Warner had decided to play out his contract, the team would probably find itself in the thick of the NFC West race anyway.


Doug from Washington, D.C., writes: Hey Mike, big fan of the blog and huge fan of the Seahawks. Watching them this year has definitely given me more hope than the past two seasons, but I'm pretty concerned about the future of this team. I want to say the team is rebuilding, but I feel like the team is too old to expect consistent improvement.

What kind of moves do you expect John Schneider and Pete Carroll to make in the offseason in terms of shipping out veterans for draft picks, etc? Will the end of their season ultimately govern this decision? Thanks!

Mike Sando: Thanks, Doug. Great question. How the team finishes will influence decisions.

I expect another busy offseason for the Seahawks in terms of overhauling the roster. The Seahawks made lots of changes, but they didn't become a young team through the roster. I expect them to get younger before next season.

You should expect additional sweeping changes across the offensive line. Some of the more familiar names up front -- Chris Spencer and Sean Locklear come to mind -- do not have contracts beyond this season. Veteran guards Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts do not have contracts beyond this season. They were stopgap players this season.

Additional players without contracts beyond this season include Matt Hasselbeck, Mike Williams, Ray Willis, Olindo Mare, Leroy Hill, Jordan Babineaux, Lawyer Milloy, Brandon Stokley, Raheem Brock, Michael Robinson, Matt McCoy, Junior Siavii, Craig Terrill and Brandon Mebane.

I would expect Seattle to re-sign Hasselbeck this offseason, but even that decision could hinge on what happens over the remaining games. Williams and Mebane look like obvious keepers. Some of the others have proven they have value, but their futures are less clear.


Sam from St. Louis writes: Sando, do you notice Chris Long being held a lot and the opposing offensive linemen not getting called for it? Seems like he's constantly being held, but it's almost like it happens on so many plays that the refs just stop noticing it or looking for it? I remember earlier in the year when he drew two consecutive holding calls and it almost seemed like the refs were too embarrassed to keep calling it or something. Long gets better the later the game goes on and many times it just seems like all the opposing offense can do to stop him is just hold him and hope the refs don't notice. He's gotten James Hall and Fred Robbins a handful of sacks this year.

Mike Sando: Looking at my notes, I saw the Seahawks' Locklear hold Long on a second-and-10 play in the fourth quarter back in Week 4. Long and Geoge Selvie got to the quarterback anyway, but there was no holding call.

Overall, yes, I have noticed Long getting held a few times without officials throwing flags. That's more a reflection of Long than a reflection of officiating. Good defensive ends get held. Long is now a good defensive end.


Jon from New York writes: I know it's easy to play the hindsight game with the draft, but I can't help myself.

In the last two years, the 49ers have taken two offensive linemen and a wide receiver in the first round. How much better would they be if they had taken Michael Oher instead of Michael Crabtree last year and then picked up Dez Bryant instead of Anthony Davis this year?

It seems like they would have been able to, and I heard that they were going to take Oher anyway until Crabtree fell to them.

Mike Sando: No doubt, it's tempting to entertain those thoughts. There is no way we can criticize the selection of Crabtree based on what might have been available to the team receiver-wise the next year. The 49ers made a value decision on Crabtree. I understood the decision and thought it was the right decision.

Moving up a couple spots to get Davis seemed unnecessary. Bryant is more of a big-play threat than Crabtree. He would have helped the return game. But if you look at their overall numbers this season, Crabtree and Bryant are pretty similar. Crabtree has 38 catches for 509 yards and five touchdowns. Bryant has an additional six receptions, 38 yards and one touchdown. Both have gone through multiple quarterbacks.

Crabtree is actually averaging an additional yard per reception this season (13.4 to 12.4). Both have three touchdowns in their last four games.


Dimitri from Boston writes: Sando, great blog. So, I played with the playoff calculator. If the Niners/Seahawks/Rams all end up 7-9 and if you assume the Niners lose at Green Bay and at San Diego, but win against the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals, the 49ers win the division.

With that being said, wouldn't you put the Niners as the favorite to win the division? Niners may not be consistent or reliable and they are without Frank Gore, but relatively, it is hard to argue that any team in West can beat them (Niners are 7-2 in division dating back to 2009)? And if you look back on the season, their "best" games were against better teams (Saints, Eagles, Falcons).

Therefore, if football luck balances out (Nate Clements holds onto a pick, Alex Smith doesn't fumble against the Eagles, deflected balls hit the ground and are not picked) and the Niners steal a win in Green Bay or San Diego, the Niners should win this division?

Mike Sando: Fun stuff.

On the luck front, remember that the 49ers were losing to the Eagles by a touchdown when Alex Smith lost that fumble. The fumble itself triggered a series of actions that laid the foundation for the subsequent rally. No fumble might have meant no rally.

I do not trust the 49ers to win at St. Louis. They barely beat the Rams at Candlestick even though the Rams' defense gave up far more big plays than they typically give up in a game. I think the Rams' pass rush will be a bigger factor in the Edward Jones Dome. And if luck evens out, the Rams won't suffer an interference penalty along the lines of the one Oshiomogho Atogwe drew while covering Delanie Walker late in the 49ers' overtime victory.

Circle that St. Louis game. I think it's hugely pivotal for the 49ers.