NFC West: 2012 HOF Game

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
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Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 
CANTON, Ohio -- The protection for quarterback Kevin Kolb was much better following the Arizona Cardinals' exhibition opener than during it Sunday night.

What it all means for the team's ongoing quarterback race hinges on how well Kolb responds to the chest injury he suffered only four dropbacks into a 17-10 defeat to the New Orleans Saints in the Hall of Fame Game at Fawcett Stadium.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt stood up for Kolb while downplaying backup John Skelton's efforts.

"I think it's a little bit unfair to Kevin because we weren't doing as good a job up front early in the game," Whisenhunt said. "Then we settled down and played a little bit better. But he'll get his opportunities when we go forward. That's why you don't, it's careful to make judgments on that first experience."

[+] EnlargeArizona's Kevin Kolb
David Richard/US PRESSWIREKevin Kolb suffered a chest injury during the first quarter against the Saints.
There's no sense in a head coach amplifying the negative with four preseason games left to play. But at some point soon, Kolb will need to stay on the field and produce. Toe, head and chest injuries have knocked him from games with Arizona. A thigh injury suffered in practice last week turned out to be a non-factor.

Whisenhunt described the latest injury, initially announced as a rib contusion, as a bruised chest muscle. He suggested Kolb might not miss much time.

"It's going to all depend on how sore he is," Whisenhunt said. "I don't anticipate it being a problem. Whenever you get one of those, it's hard to torque, so we'll see how he responds. There's a chance he'll practice this week."

Player safety is a legitimate concern, but some hard NFL truths remain. Players cannot earn their peers' respect from the sideline. They must prove they can play through injuries. Quarterbacks especially must do this if they're going to win over a locker room. We saw Tarvaris Jackson do that last season in Seattle by playing through a torn pectoral muscle. We saw Sam Bradford do that for the St. Louis Rams, limping through a Monday night game at Seattle despite a high-ankle sprain that easily could have sidelined him.

It's impossible to know whether Kolb could have played through the toe injury that sidelined him last season. It would be irresponsible to suggest Kolb should have returned more quickly from the concussion that kept him off the field for the final three games. There was obviously no sense in Kolb gutting it out in a meaningless preseason game Sunday night, of course.

We just know this: Kolb keeps getting hurt, and he hasn't fared well enough when healthy.

"He's done a good job [in camp practices]," receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "He's done a really good job competing. He's accurate. His ball's on time and he's having fun. That is important. He is out here with the guys enjoying football. That is really what you want to see. We have a lot of training camp left to go and a lot more games in preseason. I know he'll continue to improve."

The Saints picked off Kolb's first pass. They knocked him from the game not long after that, the fourth consecutive preseason and/or regular season that an injury has knocked out Kolb.

Kolb completed one of his four attempts for four yards and the one interception. He wasn't on the field long enough for anyone to read much into his 0.0 NFL passer rating. Skelton completed four of six attempts for 32 yards. He was the quarterback during a 14-play, 90-yard drive to Alfonso Smith's 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Skelton completed four consecutive passes during the drive. Arizona ran for 60 of the 90 yards on the drive.

"[Skelton] did a nice job," Whisenhunt said. "He made a couple good throws, moved in the pocket. Like I said, I think the line settled down a little bit by the time John got in there. He had a little bit more time. But to his credit, I think he did a nice job."

The Cardinals will remain on the road, heading to Missouri for one practice with the Kansas City Chiefs, followed by a game against them Friday at Arrowhead Stadium.

Kolb's availability was a leading storyline for the Cardinals last season. That will be the case again this week.

CANTON, Ohio -- Looking back upon three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' exhibition opener against New Orleans, a 17-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the Hall of Fame Game at Fawcett Stadium on Sunday night:

1. Kevin Kolb's performance. The first item linked above included two questions for the Cardinals' quarterback. One, can he command the offense and finally appear comfortable running it? Two, can he make it through the game healthy after injuries derailed his 2011 season? Unfortunately, "no" and "definitely not" were the respective answers against the Saints. Kolb tossed an interception on his first pass attempt. Kolb, dropping back for his fourth pass attempt, suffered a rib contusion when New Orleans' Sedrick Ellis hit him. Kolb's night was finished, the latest damaging blow to his starting candidacy in Arizona. Injuries have knocked Kolb from preseason and/or regular-season games in four consecutive seasons.

2. Right side of the OL. Rookie right tackle Bobby Massie played extensively. He matched up against third-year Saints defensive end Junior Galette and seemed to do well enough. New Orleans did get pressure against Massie a few times, including once when Massie might have allowed a sack (I did not see the play clearly). Massie cleared out Galette to spring running back William Powell into the clear. Another time, Galette wanted a holding call, but did not get one, when Massie appeared to hook Galette around the collar. Massie disengaged and held up his hands as if to show officials he wasn't holding. Update: Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he thought Massie struggled some while getting needed reps. The team is working with Massie to adjust his setup. The goal is to make Massie less mechanical, Whisenhunt said. That won't happen overnight or after a week of practices, but we should see progress as the preseason continues.

3. Cornerback competition. William Gay started opposite left cornerback Patrick Peterson, as expected. Michael Adams was the nickel corner with the starting group. Tackling was a problem for the defense overall, including at corner. Gay missed one tackle on running back Mark Ingram early. Adams was the left corner and A.J. Jefferson the right corner with the second unit. Greg Toler also worked with the second unit. He missed a tackle in the third quarter. Teams aren't getting as much contact work in training camps under the current labor deal. That makes it tougher to simulate timing and work on the fundamentals of tackling. Saints quarterback Drew Brees played little, so the Cardinals' secondary didn't get an extended look against top competition. Update: Whisenhunt liked the way his corners played the ball. He thought they were physical. He thought the Cardinals needed to do a better job tackling on check-down plays.
CANTON, Ohio -- The rib contusion Kevin Kolb suffered in the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday night was the latest injury setback for the Arizona Cardinals' potential starting quarterback.

It's not yet clear if Kolb will miss an extended period. The injury did knock him from the game against New Orleans, inviting a quick review of the oft-injured quarterback's medical file.

Kolb missed four starts last season after suffering a toe injury against Baltimore in Week 8. He missed the final three games of the season after suffering a concussion against San Francisco in Week 14.

With Philadelphia in 2010, Kolb suffered a concussion in Week 1 against Green Bay, missing two-plus games.

In 2009, also with the Eagles, a knee injury sidelined Kolb for the first two exhibition games.

Some injuries are unavoidable or close to it. Others can be avoided if a quarterback gets rid of the ball quickly.

It's tough to know initially if Kolb held the ball too long Sunday night. Kolb was running away from New Orleans' Sedrick Ellis when he threw a hurried pass to fullback Anthony Sherman for a 4-yard gain. Ellis caught Kolb and landed on him.

Kolb completed 1 of 4 passes for 4 yards and an interception.
CANTON, Ohio -- Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb couldn't have scripted his 2012 exhibition opener much worse than this:
  • Kolb
    First pass, interception.
  • Second pass, well behind receiver Andre Roberts.
  • Third pass, thrown away while Kolb was on the run from pressure.
  • Fourth pass, completed under duress to fullback Anthony Sherman, but with a price. New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis tackled Kolb and landed on him, driving Kolb's throwing shoulder into the ground. Kolb left the game with what the team called a rib contusion.

Overall, Kolb completed 1 of 4 pass attempts for 4 yards. He was ineffective while playing and unable to break the streak of injuries that have marked his Arizona career to this point.

John Skelton has taken over for Kolb. His chances for winning the job have obviously improved, pending an injury update on Kolb from the Cardinals.

Rib injuries tend to be extremely painful. Players can often play through them, but only if they're willing to endure the excruciating pain. Some take pain injections, which themselves can be extremely painful when applied to the rib cage.
CANTON, Ohio -- The Hanover Township website representing Bartlett, Ill., describes highway commissioner Craig Ochoa as, among other things, "a 26-year veteran professional football and basketball referee working mostly in the Big 10 Football Conference and the Arena League."

This normally wouldn't interest visitors to the NFC West blog, and it still might not, but with the NFL's regular officials battling the league for a new contract, Ochoa will head up a replacement crew in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game between the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints.

The crew also features umpire Tim Morris, head linesman Kevin Akin, line judge Esteban Garza, field judge Rusty Spindel, side judge Dwayne Strozier and back judge Mark Wetzel.

NFL athletes play much faster than those at the college level. Adjusting to that speed can be a challenge. The field here at Fawcette Stadium could present some challenges, too. It has six sets of hash marks and a giant Hall of Fame commemorative logo painted between the 40-yard lines, extending to the outside hashes.

A few players from each team are warming up. I haven't seen the game officials yet.

Three things: Cardinals-Saints

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
12:34
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Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Kevin Kolb's performance. The Cardinals' quarterback competition includes John Skelton as well, so his performance also matters. But Kolb is the most intriguing variable on the team's roster this summer. Can he command the offense and finally appear comfortable running it? Can he make it through the game healthy after injuries derailed his 2011 season? We shouldn't expect an all-world performance right out of the gates. We shouldn't read too much into a seemingly shaky one, either. Quarterbacks and offenses in general can struggle during preseason if opponents decide to crank up the pressure or get creative. But perceptions matter for Kolb or any highly paid player trying to prove his worth. In a best-case scenario, Kolb connects with Larry Fitzgerald and rookie first-round choice Michael Floyd for meaningful gains. For reference, Kolb completed 4 of 7 passes for 68 yards in his 2011 Cardinals preseason debut. Skelton completed 6-of-10 for 94 yards and a touchdown in that game.

2. Right side of the OL. The Cardinals have a new look on that side of their offensive line. Right guard Adam Snyder signed from San Francisco in free agency. Veteran Jeremy Bridges remains at right tackle for now after replacing Brandon Keith during the 2011 season. The team hopes rookie Brian Massey can grow into the starting role and take over for Bridges at some point in the near future. This game against New Orleans provides a first look. The Saints have been working with left defensive end Cameron Jordan to drop into coverage in zone-blitz packages, a change for him. We should still see Jordan, a 2011 first-round choice, get some pass-rushing reps against the right side of the Cardinals' line.

3. Cornerback competition. The Cardinals know Patrick Peterson will be starting at left corner this season. They feel great about the likelihood of him emerging as a Pro Bowl-caliber force at that position. Arizona also likes the possibilities on the other side, but it's unclear how that race will settle out. Free-agent addition William Gay represents the known. Greg Toler, coming off ACL surgery, has starting potential. So does A.J. Jefferson, who made seven starts last season after Toler was injured. Throw in third-round choice Jamell Fleming, the team's most impressive rookie during minicamps, and the Cardinals have a genuine camp competition on their hands. The assumption is that Michael Adams would project more in a nickel role, not as a starter. He's as competitive as anyone in the Cardinals' corner mix.

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