NFC West: 101ESPN St. Louis

The latest turn in the St. Louis Rams' push for an improved stadium situation shortened the existing Edward Jones Dome lease by a decade to 2015. The team is now freer to leave town following the 2014 season, a subject brought to the table Tuesday during my weekly conversation with 101ESPN St. Louis.

I think the Rams are probably more likely to secure a new stadium in St. Louis than to leave town. The team appears to be building equity with fans following a disastrous five-year run featuring a 15-65 record from 2007 through 2011. There isn't a new stadium awaiting the Rams in Los Angeles, which remains a frequently mentioned and overrated suitor.

Neil deMause, who criticizes professional teams' stadium leverage tactics on his "Field of Schemes" blog, summed up the situation in part as an opportunity for St. Louis to test Rams owner Stan Kroenke.

"The NFL is the toughest league for cities to exert leverage with, since media market size doesn't matter nearly so much as a lucrative stadium deal," deMause writes. "That’s how St. Louis ended up grabbing the Rams from much-larger Los Angeles in the first place. But with few other cities even potentially offering new stadiums at the moment, and with Kroenke a local boy, this seems like an opportune time to test exactly how much leverage St. Louis has here."
After some initial discussion regarding Russell Wilson, my weekly "Fast Lane" discussion on 101ESPN St. Louis turned to the Arizona Cardinals' offensive line.

Co-host Randy Karraker has been paying attention to what has been a shifting conversation this offseason.

The line was widely considered a disaster area immediately following the season even though the injury-ravaged unit had made significant strides.

First-year coach Bruce Arians expressed confidence in the group, even calling left tackle Levi Brown an "elite" player at the position. The Cardinals then used the seventh overall choice in the 2013 draft for guard Jonathan Cooper. They used a fourth-round choice for another guard, Earl Watford.

Now, there's a growing sense the Cardinals' line should be vastly improved. Karraker, co-host D'Marco Farr and I pick up the conversation from there. Here's the audio .

Chart key: The San Francisco 49ers had five offensive linemen start all 16 regular-season games. The Cardinals had two start 16 games, three start between 10 and 15 games and three start between one and nine games.
Two substance-abuse suspsensions, one DUI arrest and two one-game benchings have negatively branded the St. Louis Rams' 2012 draft class.

All off-field troubles are not the same, however. This situation lends itself to exaggeration, a subject I discussed Tuesday during my latest conversation with Randy Karraker and D'Marco Farr on 101ESPN St. Louis.

Of course, coach Jeff Fisher has long been known for taking chances on players in the draft. Someone somewhere asks him about Pacman Jones before every draft. And with the team selecting the previously troubled Alec Ogletree in the first-round this year, those questions are fair. Not fair: equating the various issues affecting the Rams' 2012 choices to this point.

Second-round choice Isaiah Pead and fifth-rounder Rokevious Watkins will indeed serve substance-abuse suspensions in 2013. These were one-game bans instead of the usual four-game ones, indicating neither player failed a drug test. Fisher's unusual public comments contesting the suspension against Watkins suggests additional mitigating circumstances at work.

And while Fisher did bench second-round choice Janoris Jenkins and fourth-rounder Chris Givens for one game last season, it's misleading to say either was suspended. They missed curfew one night on the road. Fisher decided to make an example of them. Neither player violated league policy. For that reason, it's a stretch to lump them in with Pead or Watkins as players who have faced suspensions.

Trumaine Johnson's DUI arrest is the most serious situation involving a 2012 Rams draft choice, in my view. Johnson, a cornerback the Rams selected in the third round last year, had been in trouble while at the University of Montana. He was back in Montana when authorities arrested him on suspicion of DUI.

There is zero correlation between alleged DUI and missing curfew.
101ESPN St. Louis hosts Randy Karraker and D'Marco Farr followed up Tuesday regarding various NFC West subjects, including our recent look at the St. Louis Rams' search for explosive running plays.


The basic idea: Steven Jackson was an outstanding running back and leader for the Rams, but the team would trade some of his power and determination for longer gains. Jackson, though still effective at age 30, wasn't going to be gaining in the speed department. And so the Rams are moving forward with younger backs.

NFL teams often define explosive running plays as those covering at least 16 yards. The chart shows Jackson producing such runs on 3.9 percent of his carries while with the Rams, including a career-low 2.7 percent last season. I've included for reference annual and career percentages for NFC West backs Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore.

Jackson had seven such carries in 2012. Backup Daryl Richardson had five on 98 carries, or 5.1 percent. Isaiah Pead had one on 19 carries. Different backs face different opportunities based on blocking and to what degree defenses must respect other potential threats on the field. Jackson hasn't had much to work with on those fronts over the years.

Karraker, Farr and I pick up the discussion here.
The St. Louis Rams entered their first season under coach Jeff Fisher with a starting lineup averaging 26.7 years old. That was eight months ago. At least eight of the starting spots figure to change over this offseason. The new starters are almost invariably younger.

As a result, the current projected starters average about one year younger overall even though 14 of them are eight months older than they were entering last season.

Some of the positions remain open for competition, but the trend is unmistakeable. One of the NFL's youngest teams has gotten younger in lots of places. Seven of the 10 oldest players entering last season are no longer with the team (Mario Haggan, Quintin Mikell, Wayne Hunter, Rocky McIntosh, Steven Jackson, Robert Turner and Matthew Mulligan).

We can easily see the Rams' leadership putting its stamp on the organization in ways that make sense for the long term. It's tough to know in some cases whether the benefits will be immediate. There figure to be growing pains and a few disappointments along with the excitement that comes with developing dynamic young talent.

D'Marco Farr, Randy Karraker and I discussed expectations surrounding the Rams in relation to their NFC West rivals during our conversation Tuesday on 101ESPN St. Louis. We'll be talking Rams and the NFC West on Tuesday afternoons from this point forward. This will replace my Tuesday conversations with Bernie Miklasz on the same station. Bernie recently vacated his show. I'm looking forward to the new arrangement and to reconnecting with Bernie as he takes on an expanded role at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its website.
Chatting with Bernie Miklasz about the NFC West in general and the St. Louis Rams in particular has become a staple each Tuesday.

The run is ending this week after Bernie hosted his final show on 101ESPN St. Louis. Bernie isn't leaving, fortunately. He's recommitting to his main job at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The paper has created an expanded role for him through its website. We'll stay in touch and collaborate in new ways, I'm sure.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the audio link to our conversation Tuesday. This was a Rams-only conversation primarily about their draft, specifically how the team has changed on offense.

The chart below shows key receivers, tight ends and running backs for the Rams in their final game before coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived. It also shows key players at those positions now. Some of the players from the 2011 regular-season finale were on injured reserve at the time. The last two receivers listed in the right column aren't key players at the position. I included their names to even up the chart.
 
Bernie Miklasz tricked his 101ESPN St. Louis guest -- me -- into saying the St. Louis Rams have had the worst offseason to date among NFC West teams.

We laughed about it Tuesday during our weekly conversation .

Let's just call the Rams' offseason the fourth-best in the division based on what we know. The Rams' move away from established players on offense has naturally raised short-term questions about whether the team will be better right away. Sometimes, though, the unknown is better.

The Rams made two high-profile additions, signing tight end Jared Cook and left tackle Jake Long. They're scheduled to make two high-profile acquisitions Thursday night when they use the 16th and 22nd choices in the 2013 draft.

St. Louis has parted with four players who participated in at least 95 percent of the Rams' offensive or defensive snaps last season. No other team has subtracted as many. Robert Turner, Barry Richardson, Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell left the team for varying reasons. Brandon Gibson, Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola played fewer snaps, but they were arguably more valuable to the team that the others, with the possible exception of Mikell.

Those players represented the known, which can sometimes be more comfortable.

I'm interested in see what the unknown holds for St. Louis. It's also clear the team needs additional reinforcements, beginning with whatever players St. Louis adds in the draft.
Fred Robbins and James Hall combined to start 31 games on the St. Louis Rams' defensive line in 2011.

Rod Hood, Al Harris, Ben Leber and C.J. Ah You combined to make another 14 starts for the Rams' defense that year.

None of the six was on an NFL roster during the 2012 season. The Rams moved on at the right time, in other words.

I bring up those older players and their 2012 fates to frame the Rams' current plan to go with younger players when feasible. Not every coach has the kind of job security Jeff Fisher enjoys with the Rams right now, so we shouldn't automatically criticize past regimes for plugging holes with older players. Robbins and especially Hall were very good players for the Rams at one time. The other vets played roles.

But as the Rams put together a relatively inexperienced roster, the context can be helpful. Bernie Miklasz and I discussed that and other subjects around the NFC West during our conversation Tuesday on 101ESPN St. Louis. Hope you enjoy.
PHOENIX -- There are a couple sides to the Jake Long story this offseason.

Version one: The St. Louis Rams added a four-time Pro Bowl left tackle when Long agreed to a four-year contract with the team.

Version two: The Miami Dolphins let Long hit the market and sign elsewhere because they weren't convinced he could regain the Pro Bowl form he'd shown before injuries affected his play over the past couple seasons.

Bernie Miklasz and I sought the truth during our Tuesday conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

I separately caught up with Rams coach Jeff Fisher for comment on Long from the NFL owners meeting at the Arizona Biltmore. The Rams faced Long and the Dolphins last season. They studied him at length subsequently.

"Saw a really consistent player," Fisher said. "We played him in the middle part of the season and he had been playing real good. He struggled through some injuries late in the year, but there are no indications for us that we don't think he can get right back to his Pro Bowl production."
The recently shot photos from inside the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium got me thinking about another NFC West team with stadium ambitions. The St. Louis Rams have to hope they're snapping similar shots at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Bernie Miklasz and I touched upon the Rams' stadium situation Tuesday in light of Jason Cole's piece dismissing as unworkable the leading efforts to build a stadium in Los Angeles.

As Rams fans know, Los Angeles remains a perceived threat to lure the Rams away from St. Louis once the team's lease with the Edward Jones Dome goes year-to-year in 2015. Cole's report highlights the gap between the perceived and actual threat, at least the way things stand at present.

There was much more for Bernie and I to discuss during our latest conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

Potential free-agent fates for Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola were among the subjects we covered. We kicked off the discussion by following up my Sunday piece from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference focusing on the Rams' and 49ers' outlooks.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
5:12
PM ET
We've been heavy on the Steven Jackson discussion following news of the running back's expected free agency. That will continue here as I pass along audio from my my Tuesday conversation with Bernie Miklasz of 101ESPN St. Louis.

Bernie and I touched on a few other mostly Rams-related subjects. Bernie has subsequently filed thoughts on what Jackson's departure might mean to the Rams. He notes that Jackson's touches and production suffered year-over-year declines recently.

The chart compares Jackson's rushing yards per season by age to NFL averages since 2000 for running backs with at least 150 carries in four or more seasons.

Jackson has outperformed the averages, but the rate of decline in recent seasons matches league averages for running backs of the same age. Those other running backs suffered a 23.9 percent decline from age 29 to age 30, the second-largest percentage decline in the chart. That percentage represented the difference from a 719-yard average at age 29 to a 547-yard average at age 30.

Jackson would fall short of 800 yards in 2013 if he followed a similar course. His yardage totals have declined by 12.9, 7.7 and 9.0 percent over the past three seasons.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
7:00
PM ET
Bernie Miklasz asked for an opinion on Steven Jackson's future during our conversation Tuesday on 101ESPN St. Louis.

Jackson is the Rams' career rushing leader. If any one player represents the soul of the Rams, Jackson would be the one. He's put together a string of eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for a team that hasn't given him near enough help most of the time.

The Rams had nine players start on their offensive line last season. That total ranked tied for fourth-highest in the NFL. The team had nine starters on its line in 2011 as well. Seven of those nine did not start for the team in 2012. That's 16 different starters on the line over two seasons. The 2012 Rams got eight combined starts at three positions on the line from Shelley Smith and Joe Barksdale, players the team claimed off waivers in September.

Back to Jackson. What does his future hold? The odds seem in favor of the Rams and Jackson parting amicably. The Rams are getting younger and building through the draft. Jackson is scheduled to earn $7 million in salary this season. He can opt out of his contract, a stipulation the Rams granted him when the sides failed to reach agreement on a contract extension last year.

Jackson turns 30 in July. Running backs generally begin declining by about age 27. However, players 30 and older have reached 1,000 yards rushing in a season 44 times. Willis McGahee was the most recent to do it, gaining 1,199 yards for Denver in 2011.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
6:44
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Quarterbacks are supposed to earn their money on third down. Some aren't willing to wait that long.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick took note of this after his team lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed 11 passes for 141 yards and two scores on second down in that game. He has thrown five of his eight postseason touchdown passes on second down over the Ravens' three playoff games.

Slowing Flacco on second down could be a key for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. That was among the subjects Bernie Miklasz and I discussed from radio row during our recent conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

First, we had to get past just how uncool it sounded to be singling out second-down production from all the potential Super Bowl story lines. That didn't take long, but it got worse Thursday: While hundreds of reporters were crowding into the Beyonce news conference, I was crunching second-down playoff numbers for Anquan Boldin (six receptions for 113 yards and two scores).

Boldin over Beyonce? Belichick, too.

"It felt like defensively we didn’t do a good enough job on second down," the Patriots coach said after losing to the Ravens. "We had them in a number of second-down situations, second-and-10s and those kind of things, and they got off the hook there with a couple passes to [Ray] Rice, [Dennis] Pitta, [Torrey] Smith, a run by [Bernard] Pierce."

Flacco completed only 2 of 7 passes for 43 yards on third down against the Patriots. He has completed 9 of 26 passes (albiet for an impressive 232 yards) on third down in these playoffs. His third-down Total QBR score in the playoffs (42.5) lags far behind his 93.0 mark on second down.

What is at work here? Balanced offenses should be less predictable on second down relative to third down, when defenses often can play the pass.

"Second down, they'll put it in three-wide and throw the ball," 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said.

The numbers bear this out. Flacco's second-down numbers from three-receiver personnel have been outstanding since Week 15. He has completed 22 of 30 passes (73.3 percent) for 355 yards (11.8 per attempt) with six touchdowns and no interceptions on those plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"When you are playing a really good offenses, everyone thinks third down is the key down," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Well, you've got to get them to third down to make third down the key down. These guys have been able to make some money on second down either with the throw or the running game.

"They have the balance that keeps you on edge a little bit on defense as far as where you want to lay your eggs."

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

January, 27, 2013
1/27/13
5:10
PM ET
Passing along: the link to my weekly NFC West conversation with Bernie Miklasz of 101 ESPN St. Louis. We covered coaching changes in Arizona, what a bye week could mean for the San Francisco 49ers, whether Jim Harbaugh is too up-tight as a coach for Super Bowl week and what Rob Ryan's addition to the St. Louis Rams could mean for the team.

The Harbaugh question was not one I had considered in the context of this upcoming Super Bowl matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.

Bernie said he thought Mike Martz and some other Super Bowl coaches were too up-tight heading into the big game, and that their teams were affected negatively as a result. He wondered whether Harbaugh could fall into that category.

Harbaugh is intense. He can be abrasive. I'm not sure I would consider him to be up-tight. We'll get a better feel for this one as Harbaugh conducts his daily media appearances during Super Bowl week.

101ESPN St. Louis audio: Miklasz Show

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
7:30
PM ET
Bernie Miklasz and I couldn't shut up during our latest conversation on 101ESPN St. Louis.

No surprise there.

We wound up adding a second segment to continue discussing Seattle's victory over Washington in the wild-card round and the upcoming matchups involving the Seahawks (at Atlanta) and San Francisco 49ers (vs. Green Bay).

Here's the audio , and here are some of the subjects we discussed:
  • Why an offensive-minded head coach makes sense for Arizona
  • Perspective on Chris Clemons' season-ending injury
  • Robert Griffin III's injury and St. Louis' trade with Washington
  • Why the Green Bay-San Francisco game is tough to handicap

While I've got you here, I'll pass along a chart I had intended to run separately. Seattle has had some troubles against the blitz recently, taking eight sacks over its past two games when opponents rushed five or more defenders. This chart shows how quarterbacks have fared against the Falcons' added pressure on third down this season. I filtered for third down after Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Atlanta generally saved its pressure tactics for third down.

We're talking about relatively few plays per game, but some of the numbers are interesting. So is this one: Seattle allowed a league-low 27.0 NFL passer rating and collected nine sacks, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, when sending five-plus pass-rushers on third down. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan ranks 14th in passer rating (84.8) and 19th in Total QBR (37.0) in these situations. I wonder if we'll see more pressure tactics from Seattle as the team plays minus Clemons, its top pass-rusher.

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