Monday, September 5, 2011
Mailbag: Underrating the NFC West?
By Mike Sando
Greg from Spring, Texas gets tired of hearing analysts rip the NFC West. "Is it me," he writes, "or did I not watch the Seattle Seahawks beat the defending Super Bowl champs in the playoffs last year?"
Mike Sando: Having a division winner with a losing record cannot overcome a one-game upset. The NFC South went 13-3 against the NFC West last season. I won't be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys exceed expectations this season in part because they're paired against this division. The NFC West needs to win non-division games more regularly to change perceptions.
This division should improve in 2011.
The St. Louis Rams were already improving. They should be better as Sam Bradford grows as a quarterback. Their defense appears solid again, and improved. Kevin Kolb improves the Arizona Cardinals even if he's only average. There's a good chance he'll be better than average with Larry Fitzgerald on his side.
The Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have made easy targets this offseason because neither did much, if anything, to upgrade at quarterback. I think both teams have improved their rosters overall, however. And neither team was particularly strong at quarterback last season. It's unlikely either team will be significantly worse off at the position despite perceptions.
Matt Hasselbeck accomplished many admirable things during his time with the Seahawks, but almost none recently. His performance against New Orleans in the wild-card round was a fitting way for him to perform during his final home game as a Seahawk, but it wasn't consistent with his body of work since 2008 or an indicator of what was to come. His passer rating over the past three seasons was the lowest in the NFL by more than 10 points among the 19 quarterbacks with at least 35 starts during that span.
In San Francisco, Alex Smith will never live up to draft-day hopes, but it's reasonable to expect improvement from him under Jim Harbaugh. A significant regression would come as a surprise.
So, if the Seahawks and 49ers have upgraded their rosters overall while staying roughly the same at quarterback, how much worse will they be?
Clemster from Fort Worth wants to know which wide receivers will start for the St. Louis Rams, and what Danario Alexander's role will be.
Mike Sando: Brandon Gibson and Mike Sims-Walker are the starters, with Danny Amendola expected to see significant playing time. The Rams want their receivers to be largely interchangeable, which means we could see quite a few combinations.
Alexander survived the cut to 53 players, but I don't get the sense he enjoys much roster security, particularly if his knee continues to limit him periodically.
A reporter asked coach Steve Spagnuolo about Alexander on Monday. Spagnuolo tends to choose his words with care anyway, but his answer to this question was particularly conservative.
"He is one of the six receivers that we have right now," Spagnuolo said. "We all know what he has to overcome and battle every week, and he toughs it out. So, he is one of the guys right now."
Nolan from Bakersfield, Calif., wasn't alone in hitting the NFC West mailbag with questions about Colin Kaepernick's status with the 49ers. They thought the 49ers' newest quarterback, third-string rookie Scott Tolzien, might threaten Kaepernick based on what they showed during preseason.
Mike Sando: There were reasons Kaepernick was a second-round pick and Tolzien was not drafted. Those reasons have not changed. Kaepernick is far superior physically in just about every way. If he and Tolzien both reach their potentials, Kaepernick will be the better player. The 49ers hired Harbaugh largely because they trusted his expertise with quarterbacks. Harbaugh played a leading role in selecting Kaepernick. Picking up Tolzien off waivers should have no bearing on the team's approach with Kaepernick.
Andrew from Seattle says he's hearing more Carson Palmer comeback rumors and he wants to know what are the chances Seattle might make a move for him. Andrew sees a talented group of receivers in Seattle, including tight end Zach Miller, and he thinks Palmer could help get the most from them.
Mike Sando: At no point have I heard anything to substantiate those rumors, but they are definitely there, and not just among fans. One NFL executive I spoke with during training camps said he expected the Seahawks to make a move for Palmer, one way or another, in time for the regular season.
My sense is that people outside the organization (and probably a few inside it, as well) cannot believe a team would go into a season with Tarvaris Jackson as its starter by design. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has repeatedly said this is what he plans to do. Carroll also values mobility in a quarterback. Palmer doesn't move well.
This is something we'll hear about until something happens or the trading deadlines passes. But if you're looking for real evidence that a move is likely, there is none to be found.
Casey from Phoenix asks whether Chester Taylor projects as a good compliment to Beanie Wells in Arizona.
Mike Sando: Taylor gives the Cardinals experience at the position and someone they could trust in small doses. I just see no reason to expect much from him at this stage of his career.
Age and recent production seem like reliable indicators for running backs. Taylor turns 32 this month. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry last season, the lowest single-season mark in the NFL since 1970 among players with at least 100 carries in a season.
Thirteen running backs since 2000 have rushed for at least 500 yards in a season after age 31: Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor, Lamar Smith, Curtis Martin, Antowain Smith, Garrison Hearst, Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis, Mike Anderson and Terry Allen. Williams, Anderson and Smith (Emmitt) are the only ones to reach 1,000 yards.
Ryan Williams' season-ending knee injury forced the Cardinals to get older at a position where youth is served. It's clearer than ever the Cardinals need a strong season from Wells. An injury to Wells or poor play from him would leave Arizona in a difficult position.
There's already enough pressure on Kolb without adding more.