Thursday, June 30, 2011
Best of NFL: NFC West teams
By Mike Sando
As part of Best of the NFL Week on ESPN.com, here are five bests for the NFC West:
The Arizona Cardinals boast having the first fully retractable field in the country.
Best stadium innovation: I'm all for downtown stadiums with open roofs and cityscape views. That wasn't practical in Arizona, where temperatures exceed even Kurt Warner's sizzling playoff passer rating. The Cardinals made the most of their climatic predicament by going with a retractable roof and, remarkably, what they hail as the first fully retractable field in the country. The natural-grass surface spends about 150 days each year basking in the Arizona sunshine, requiring only about an hour to slide back inside on a massive tray weighing 17 million pounds (the rough equivalent of 47,200 Deuce Lutuis). Cardinals players get to escape the heat on game days while playing on a natural-grass surface that ranks among the very best in biannual player surveys.
Best alumni assimilation: This one isn't close. Keena Turner is the 49ers' vice president of football affairs. Guy McIntyre serves as director of alumni. Jesse Sapolu, Steve Bono and Eric Wright are alumni coordinators. Dwight Clark is a business consultant. Team president Jed York grew up around the team during its 1980s glory days. He was a fan first and it shows in how eagerly the 49ers embrace their past. The other NFC West teams also employ former players, but not to the same degree. Retired Rams great Jack Youngblood has even accused that organization of failing to adequately embrace its alumni.
Best team facility: Few team headquarters in any sport can compete with the $75 million facility Seahawks owner Paul Allen constructed on Lake Washington, south of Seattle. The practice fields overlook the water, with swank homes staring back from the opposite shore. Giant doors slide up for an open-air experience in the players' weight room, offering views of the practice field and, nearby, the water. The team has flown in free agents via seaplane, docking right at the facility. Square footage is right around 200,000 -- second highest in the NFL, according to the team -- and includes an indoor practice facility adjacent to the locker room. No other facility in the division comes close.
Best billionaire owner: Allen has the clear edge for now based on the Seahawks' success over the past decade, but Stan Kroenke's prospects deserve our attention. Kroenke has proven himself as a capable owner in other sports. He has also engaged his fellow NFL owners in ways Allen simply refuses to do. That gives Kroenke the ability to make the Rams more relevant at the league level. Seattle's profile has suffered with Mike Holmgren and Tod Leiweke leaving the organization in recent years.
Best training camp venue: The Seahawks have it nice on Lake Washington, but there's something special about going away to camp if the venue is right. Northern Arizona University fits the profile for the Cardinals. It's far enough from Phoenix to escape the blistering heat, but close enough for fans to turn out in large numbers. The high-desert scenery and nearly 7,000-foot elevation combine to set apart NAU from other camp venues in the division and the league overall.