NFC West: Al Saunders

Former St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil spent a recent three-day stretch in California with one of his close friends, former assistant Mike White.

[+] EnlargeDick Vermeil
John Rieger/US PresswireFormer NFL coach Dick Vermeil, left, being congratulated by longtime assistant Mike White, says quality assistants impact the product fans see on Sundays.
The occasion: Vermeil's induction into the California Sports Hall of Fame.

"The whole essence of my acceptance was, I am a 'because of' guy," Vermeil said during a recent phone conversation. "Because I've had good coaches, because I've had good players, I'm now in three different state halls of fame. Because of Al Saunders, because of Mike Martz, because of Jim Hanifan, because of Mike White, because of Pete Giunta, because of John Bunting --"

Vermeil reeled off several more former assistants in rapid succession -- too many for me to write down all their names. All played a role in Vermeil's success with UCLA, the Philadelphia Eagles, Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. Some rank among his closest friends.

It is no surprise, then, that Vermeil is lending his name to the cause of assistants during an uncertain time for NFL employees at all levels. He envisions a day when assistants regain some of the ground they've lost even while salaries have risen in recent years.

"I hope somewhere down the road the owners do not create a problem they do not need to create," Vermeil said. "Right now, they are in deep negotiations with the Players Association. Those players are of very little value without coaches coaching them. If the coaches ever really solidified, there would be one more negotiation that they would have to go through to keep things running smoothly."

Right, I thought, but owners would have little trouble finding eager replacements. Hundreds of college coaches would jump at the chance to coach in the NFL, just as many current pro assistants did in years past. And they would likely accept whatever terms NFL teams offered, just as current assistants agreed to clauses that would reduce and/or suspend significant chunks of pay during a lockout.

Vermeil flatly rejected this line of thinking. The fire and intensity he brought to the sideline resonated in his response.

"Yeah, you know something?" he said. "You only have to lose a few good ones on your staff and you are losing your ass and you are still charging the same amount of money for the season ticket. You've got great coaches and some of those guys make a difference. They make a difference in winning and losing. A lot of people in the league have found out it's not easy to replace those guys."

Finding assistants is easy. Finding the best ones can be difficult. It's one reason teams replace them regularly. NFC West teams willfully replaced four coordinators this offseason alone. A fifth, Pat Shurmer, left the Rams to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Other assistants also came and went, as they always do.

Josh McDaniels (St. Louis), Ray Horton (Arizona), Vic Fangio (San Francisco), Tom Cable (Seattle) and Darrell Bevell (Seattle) stand out as the most significant hires to NFC West staffs this offseason.

"These guys to me are the guys that touch the product you put on the field -- more than the head coach, more than the owner, more than the president, more than the general manager, more than the personnel department, more than anybody else," Vermeil said. "I just have always felt the better frame of mind they are in, the better impression and the better communication and the better contact they make with the player that plays on Sunday. Therefore, the better the team plays."

As the offensive coordinators turn

January, 20, 2011
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NFC West teams have had 14 coaches serving in offensive coordinator roles over the last three-plus seasons.

That's a lot of turnover.

Seattle and San Francisco each will have had four coordinators in four seasons, with the 49ers' Mike Johnson having taken over for Jimmy Raye during the 2010 season.

Darrell Bevell is the favorite for the Seahawks' job after the team offered him the position.

All four teams turned over offensive coordinators from the 2008 to 2009 seasons.

Arizona's Russ Grimm (running game) and Mike Miller (passing game) share responsibilities, with head coach Ken Whisenhunt usually calling the plays.

Around the NFC West: Vick, Martz, more

January, 27, 2010
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Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says during a chat that he thinks the Rams are "seriously considering" making a play for Michael Vick this offseason. Vick would already know the Rams' offense, which Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur brought from Philadelphia. Vick would sell tickets, a challenge for any team coming off a 1-15 record and lacking star power. Shurmur's relationship with Eagles coach Andy Reid could give the Rams access to more reliable information as to how Vick would fit into a new team. Vick would probably be better than any other quarterback on the Rams' roster. General manager Billy Devaney knows Vick from when both were with the Falcons. Those are all reasons for the Rams to consider Vick if the Eagles make the quarterback available.

Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com says former Rams and 49ers coach Mike Martz could be losing interest in coordinating the Bears' offense after the team has reached out to lots of candidates, but not him. Martz: "It sounds like there's something they want to do. I just want to move on. I just worry about Lovie (Smith). I just want to see him do well. That was the reason for my interest."

Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times says the Bears will hear about it if their offense struggles with someone other than Martz as coordinator. Hayes: "Maybe (Jay) Cutler is nixing Martz because Martz was critical of Cutler's demeanor during a news conference earlier this season. Should the quarterback be making this call? Former Lions coach and current Bears assistant Rod Marinelli butted heads with Martz when they both were in Detroit. Are the Bears going to let their defensive line coach scuttle this hire?"

ESPN's Adam Schefter says former NFC West assistants Al Saunders and Jim Zorn are candidates to interview with the Ravens.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says former 49ers punter Tom Wittum, who passed away recently, still followed the team and attended games periodically.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee passes along comments from 49ers president Jed York. York on playing the Broncos in London: "It's a tough trip, and hopefully we'll be able to have an East Coast road game the week before and be able to cut that trip in half and have a 6-hour flight to London as opposed to a 12-hour flight from San Francisco, which I think the San Diego Chargers did a few years ago."

Scott Kegley of 49ers.com checks in with linebacker Patrick Willis and punter Andy Lee as both arrived at the Pro Bowl.

Greg Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel checks in with new Seahawks general manager John Schneider, focusing on how the Packers will adjust without him. Ted Thompson, Reggie McKenzie and John Dorsey will pick up the slack. However, the Packers were admittedly a bit top-heavy after replacing former coach Mike Sherman, who had doubled as GM. Bedard: "McKenzie will become more involved with college scouting leading up to the draft, while Dorsey will be asked to contribute more to pro personnel during the season. Dorsey will deal more with agents, which was a major component of Schneider's duties. Also, Thompson will become more personally involved in trade talks. He often left McKenzie and Schneider to find deals and bring them to his attention."

John Morgan of Field Gulls links to an item with background information on new Seahawks strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle says former Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp is the new quarterbacks coach for the Texans. McClain: "Knapp and new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison are replacing Kyle Shanahan. He was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Shanahan’s contract expired, and he went to Washington to become the offensive coordinator under his father, new Redskins coach Mike Shanahan."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times checks in with new Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., who wanted to coach in Seattle or San Francisco if he couldn't remain at USC. He is reunited with Lofa Tatupu. Norton: "Lofa has always been a very special guy to my heart. He was a guy I coached at USC, one of my first years at coaching. It was unfortunate to see him go down last year with the injury, but I'm expecting him to get this defense back to where it was before."

Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle says he thinks Kurt Warner will retire. Rolle: "Judging from conversations that I've had with him I think he understands that he's had a great, Hall of Fame career. I think football has taken its course. But he's the best teammate I've ever had. He's been a leader on and off the field." Warner has said he wants to feel good about retiring. Can he walk away and feel good about it? That is the key question.

Revenge of the Birds' Andrew602 passes along thoughts from Cardinals safety Hamza Abdullah, who played extensively in the divisional-round playoff game after Arizona lost Rolle to injury. Playing with Adrian Wilson was a highlight for Abdullah. Abdullah: "Oh, man, did I learn anything? I could talk to you about two or three hours just strictly on that. Adrian Wilson is a great safety, obviously. ... It's just a privilege. I really believe that God has blessed me to not only be with a great organization but to learn from a veteran like Adrian Wilson. To be honest with you, it doesn't get better than Adrian Wilson."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch catches up with former Rams coach Jim Haslett, who kept his job with the team long enough to miss out on opportunities elsewhere. He's coaching in the UFL. Thomas: "Haslett said the hand of John Shaw was in his dismissal, even though Shaw had stepped down from team president to club adviser just a few weeks earlier. He said the Rams might have won a couple of more games had he been allowed to fire some assistants after taking over for Scott Linehan. Haslett wouldn't name names, but he said Shaw and owner Chip Rosenbloom wouldn't let him make staff changes, one of which almost certainly would have been the firing of offensive coordinator Al Saunders during the bye week that preceded Haslett's first game as interim had coach." Haslett pointed to Steven Jackson's injury as the turning point in the season.

VanRam of Turf Show Times says the Rams' future in St. Louis depends largely on minority owner Stan Kroenke.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers and first-round choice Michael Crabtree are "far apart" in negotiations. One thing I wondered was whether Crabtree might see himself as the best receiver in the draft, even though he was the second one taken. Maiocco: "There are indications that it will be a challenge for the 49ers to get Crabtree signed before the start of training camp. Again, there is still a lot of time to get something accomplished -- and only two first-round picks have signed deals -- but the 49ers and Crabtree are currently far apart in their negotiations."

49ers scout Ethan Waugh explains what scouts have been doing since the draft. Waugh: "After having time with family, we quickly jumped right back into our duties with the 49ers. The starting point is the NFS (National Football Scouting) spring meeting that is held each year in Florida. This scouting 'combine' shares information among its member clubs on each of the players in the 2010 draft class. Essentially, they have a team of scouts that spends all of spring 2009 working on the 2010 class while we are still concerned with the current year's draft." I have covered the NFL since 1998 and do not recall ever knowing that. Thanks for sharing.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic sizes up the Cardinals' wide receivers -- pretty good group -- and tight ends. He doesn't expect much from Early Doucet. Somers: "Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban give the Cardinals great depth. Both proved they could make plays when called upon. Early Doucet, a third-round pick in 2008, is going to have a hard time getting on the field. Sean Morey, an excellent special teams player, takes one receiver's spot on game day. Urban is a contributor on special teams, while Doucet hasn't proven he can do that. That's five receivers ahead of Doucet on game day."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com expects Anquan Boldin to report to training camp on time despite contractual dissatisfaction.

Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind breaks down the Cardinals' running backs.

John Morgan of Field Gulls gives the Seahawks an A-plus at linebacker while rallying to Lofa Tatupu's defense. This is part of a broader package on NFC West linebackers. Morgan: "What makes Tatupu special though is his leadership. I shy from celebrating what is often a media creation, but Tatupu isn't a presence or a legend, he's player that smartly audibles stunts, picks out routes and points out plays before they happen. That is, he isn't the kind of leader that contributes swagger, he's the kind that teaches, directs and maximizes the talent around him. Kind of like Mike Singletary. Mike Singletary the player, that is."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch implores Rams fans to continue buying tickets while majority owner Chip Rosenbloom tries to sell the team. Miklasz: "That way, no Rams owner will have an excuse to pull the team out of here because of a lack of support. And with sellout crowds filing into home games, perhaps this will rally the business community and motivate potential buyers from the St. Louis area." Miklasz defends Rosenbloom's decision to sell the team based on financial pressures wrought by estate taxes.

Also from Miklasz: a question-and-answer session covering key issues relating to a potential Rams sale. Miklasz: "Now that Rosenbloom and [sister Lucia] Rodriguez have enlisted Goldman Sachs to find a buyer, it's obvious they're serious about selling the team. But that realization should be helpful to the St. Louis cause. With the Rams on the block, I believe it will motivate a local buyer [or group] to mobilize and come forward to save the team."

Howard Balzer of insidestl.com checks in with Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, who longs for stability in the organization. Balzer: "It has been a whirlwind for Bulger since the 2005 season, when head coach Mike Martz became ill and Steve Fairchild took over as offensive coordinator. Since then, the coordinating and play-calling has gone from Scott Linehan to Greg Olson, back to Linehan, and then Al Saunders. For those counting, including this year, that's seven changes in five seasons."

Larry Weisman of USA Today takes a comprehensive look at the 49ers and concludes that they can contend for the NFC West title in 2009. Weisman: "The NFC West is hardly a powerhouse division, so the 49ers will look to make a rapid move upward, just as the Arizona Cardinals did a year ago. The 49ers need to settle on a quarterback, open up their passing game a bit with Crabtree and force more turnovers on defense."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News recognizes former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross for his service through Ronald McDonald House at Stanford. Cross: "I've met 10-year-old patients at the house that are more mature than a lot of NFL players. They have had to deal with real severe, serious life-and-death situations. It makes you smile and tears your heart out at the same time. And that's the reason I have stayed involved."

Doug Farrar of Smarter Stats on washingtonpost.com sizes up first-round choices in the NFC West, concluding that the Cardinals' Chris Wells fits the profile of a physical back. Farrar: "The problem is the amount of time Wells spent in the trainer's room, especially in his last two seasons, due to a variety of ankle, hamstring, foot, and thumb injuries."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic expects the Cardinals to reach agreement on a contract extension for Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson. Somers: "He's attending the voluntary workouts and says and does all the right things in the organization's view. The Cardinals would send a strong message to other players by re-signing Wilson soon. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the guy is pretty good and in his prime."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with new Seahawks fullback Justin Griffith. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp: "Justin has a good feel for the fullback position in our offense, especially in the run game." Griffith says he has recovered from the knee injury he suffered with the Raiders. Griffith sees himself as a mentor for second-year fullback Owen Schmitt and others who are new to Knapp's offense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers want Isaac Bruce to make a decision on his future by April 1. Also, Ray McDonald underwent knee surgery. Alex Smith has gained weight and weighs 221 pounds. Perhaps that will help him stay healthier. Finally, Patrick Willis might be the one to wear the raido headset now that Mark Roman isn't projected to start.

Niners general manager Scot McCloughan, writing for 49ers.com, says Reggie Smith will make the conversion from cornerback to safety. McCloughan: "Our plan right now is to move him to safety knowing that he has background from college playing both corner and safety. The best position for him on our roster, not just this year but in the future, is safety. Can he play free or strong safety? I think it can be either one. I think he'll line up at the position that gives us the best depth and competition. He will be at safety this year, but we still know that he has played corner and he can play corner so it's nice to have that versatility."

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says Manny Lawson is up to 250 pounds from 235. Other players also looked bigger at this camp.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat quotes Shaun Hill as saying he's more comfortable with Jimmy Raye's offense than Mike Martz's offense. That makes sense. The new approach should better suit most of the 49ers' offensive players.

Also from Maiocco: Smith has been cleared to practice with the 49ers after rehabbing a shoulder injury that sidelined him last season.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News quotes 49ers coach Mike Singletary as downplaying the reported rift between assistant coaches and the personnel department. Singletary: "At the end of the day, we'll make sure everybody is on the same page."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams like Missouri's Jeremy Maclin and Ziggy Hood. Thomas: "If Hood is still available early in the second round, it looks like he will be one of the players in consideration for St. Louis at No. 35 overall. But the Rams had plenty of company at Mizzou's pro day. A majority of NFL teams sent representatives to Columbia for Thursday's proceedings, including Carolina, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New England, New Orleans, the New York Giants, New York Jets and Tennessee."

Also from Thomas and other Post-Dispatchers: a discussion on whether Marc Bulger can get his career back on track. Bill Coats: "Bulger had several things working against him last year: an injury-riddled offensive line, young receivers trying to adapt to the NFL, a disconnect with head coach Scott Linehan and offensive coordinator Al Saunders, and the cumulative effect of getting pounded over the last few seasons. Working behind a decent line in a system he believes in would do wonders for Bulger."

More from Thomas: The Rams weren't interested in meeting Leonard Weaver's demands.

Bryn Swartz of Bleacher Report ranks Kurt Warner's 1999 performance with the Rams among the 10 greatest seasons by an NFL quarterback. The analysis uses a formula comparing each quarterback's performance against the averages for all quarterbacks in a season.

Jim Corbett of USA Today calls the Seahawks' signing of T.J. Houshmandzadeh one of the boldest in the NFL this offseason. Houshmandzadeh again singles out Matt Hasselbeck as a primary reason he signed with the Seahawks instead of the Vikings. Houshmandzadeh: "It was just the fact when you look at both teams, Minnesota and Seattle, Seattle had the more steady quarterback play. That's obvious. They just had the better situation at the quarterback spot. And Matt will affect the outcome of many, many games. I felt more comfortable playing with Matt. He's a real smart quarterback. He's one of the most intelligent quarterbacks in the game."

Michael Steffes of Seahawk Addicts thinks the Seahawks have a chance to pocket 2010 compensatory draft choices now that Weaver has become the league-leading seventh unrestricted free agent to leave Seattle for another team this offseason.

LantermanC of Field Gulls shows how many draft choices from each position and each draft round have reached various milestones. Right up my alley. Bravo. One thing I'd like to account for would be the number of Pro Bowl spots available at each position and the average career length for each position. If we could adjust for those things, I think we'd be even better off. Either way, this is good stuff.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at the Cardinals' roster with an eye toward areas that still need to be addressed. Urban: "You would expect a pass rusher/outside linebacker, given the age of some of their current players. A center is needed, with no proven players behind starter Lyle Sendlein. Given the struggles of Alan Branch, the Cards may need to look at nose tackle. Obviously, this all can morph based on grades and how the draft plays out."

Around the NFC West: State of the 49ers

February, 17, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat summarizes the 49ers' comments from the team's meeting with season-ticket holders. President Jed York again stresses Mike Singletary's intensity as reason for fans to have hope.

Also from Maiocco: Alex Smith would compete for the starting job if he signed a revised contract with the team. The 49ers also would not rule out taking a look at Michael Vick, although the likelihood seemed remote. Maiocco: "One possibility is free agent Jeff Garcia, who has been told he will not return to the Buccaneers next season. But Singletary said the question is how much of an improvement Garcia would be over Hill. Singletary: "When I look at Shaun Hill, I think he did a great job last year. I'm not sure how much better we get by bringing a Jeff Garcia in and adding to the mix when you have a guy like Shaun Hill."

Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle attended the meeting and came away impressed. Knapp: "Singletary and the rest of the cast thanked everyone for coming there in the bad weather, even though the audience was well below the expected full house of 1,600. The weather wasn't really all that bad, either. The rain had stopped, and with Singletary's sizzle in the air, it was impossible to imagine how anyone could prefer Detroit."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee expects Hill and Smith to compete for the 49ers' starting job in 2009.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News quotes 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan as saying he "fully believes" Smith will become a good quarterback for someone, whether it's the 49ers or another team.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation provides blow-by-blow coverage of the 49ers' meeting with season-ticket holders. His entry from 7:53 p.m. PT: "Great intro video for Singletary. This seems like something you'd see in professional wrestling!"

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic provides a quick update to the Cardinals' search for coordinators.  He expects the team to hire from within. Offensive assistant Dedric Ward could be headed to the Chiefs as receivers coach.

Also from Somers: "Former Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders interviewed for the receivers job last week. According to Mike Jurecki at XTRA-910, [Ken] Whisenhunt also has interviewed Rutgers offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach John McNulty. Jurecki also says former NFL quarterback Chris Miller could be the new quarterbacks coach."

Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind breaks down the Cardinals' outside linebackers and pass-rushing defensive ends. Travis LaBoy started quickly but had a hard time finishing.

John Morgan of Field Gulls thinks the Seahawks will probably draft quarterback Matt Stafford, although Tim Ruskell's teams sometimes target quarterbacks in the third round.

Also from Morgan: Why he thinks Stafford will be available at No. 4.

More from Morgan: While one projection suggests Stafford will fail in the NFL, but the quarterback could compare favorably to Matt Ryan.

Shaun Dolence of 12th Man Rising spotted familiar names on the Broncos' cut list. Niko Koutouvides and Marquand Manuel are former Seahawks. The Broncos paid a $2 million signing bonus to Koutouvides last offseason. They seemed to think he projected as a starting middle linebacker.

VanRam of Turf Show Times lists offensive players Rams fans should keep in mind heading into the combine. VanRam: "Keep an eye on Cal center Alex Mack and Oregon center Max Unger. Both of these guys are great prospects at that all important position, a position the Rams desperately need to address if they have any intention of competing this year. Both of those guys could potential, arguably be drafted with the Rams second round pick, third pick overall in the second round."

Around the NFC West: Rams' staff grows

January, 21, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have hired Pat Shurmur as their offensive coordinator. He also expects Ken Flajole to become defensive coordinator. The Rams have requested permission to speak with Vikings special-teams coach Paul Ferraro. Also, outgoing Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders has an interview with the Raiders.

Also from Thomas: He checks in with USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, the type of player who could help the Rams become more physical.

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com revisits what Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom said about Scott Linehan, Jay Zygmunt and John Shaw last offseason. Things change.

Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat profiles new Rams coach Steve Spanguolo, who leans heavily on his Catholic faith. Spagnuolo recounts what it took to get married at the Vatican after initially planning to exchange vows in Rome.

VanRam of Turf Show Times expects the Rams to run more than the Eagles did when Shurmur was with Philadelphia.

Niners scout Todd Brunner checks in from the Senior Bowl. He likes quarterback Pat White.

Lisa Goodwin of 49ers.com relays players' thoughts about the King holiday and the presidential inauguration.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says Jeff Jagodzinski's grounding in zone blocking schemes could make him a good fit for the 49ers as offensive coordinator.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates the 49ers' search for an offensive coordinator. Barrows: "The 49ers also have interviewed Indianapolis Colts wide receivers coach Clyde Christensen and former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski for the job. The fact that neither candidate has been called in for a second interview -- as Linehan was last Thursday -- is telling."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' search for an offensive coordinator appears stuck in neutral.

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic has some advice for Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin. She thinks he needs to strike a conciliatory tone.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says NBC's Cris Collinsworth backed off comments about the Cardinals being the worst team in postseason history.

The East Valley Tribune outlines 10 key moments in the Cardinals' season.

Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind breaks down the Eagles' final two offensive plays against Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks could have a hard time keeping linebacker Leroy Hill. Farnsworth: "The club already has talked to Hill and his agent about signing a long-term deal, but all that did was show just how far apart the two sides are. And any time Hill has discussed the situation, he has sounded like a player who is eager to test free agency."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times revisits the Seahawks' and Steelers' Super Bowl lineups from after the 2005 season. 

More from O'Neil: a statistical comparison between the Steelers and Seahawks, then and now.

Mailbag: In defense of Cardinals fans

January, 1, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Paul from Phoenix writes: Sando, I think you need to give the AZ fans another 5 years to build a loyal ticket buying fan base and I want to emphasis that there is a difference between a loyal ticket buying fan base and a plain old fan base.

I am 25 years old and probably at the old edge of Arizona natives who grew up with the Cardinals in the Phoenix area. Anyone much older than me probably had time to develop a fondness for another team outside of the state, and the Cardinals haven't been good enough over the last 20 years to steal any fans from other teams.

Anyone younger is probably feeling the economic crunch just as bad as I am. (25 year olds as a rule do not have a lot of money to spend on playoff tickets.) I am a loyal Cardinal fan and I hope to make it to the game but I can understand how anyone in my position or in even a slightly tougher economic spot would be smart to cut a luxury item (I don't care how much of a bargain everyone says Cardinal tickets are) out of the budget.

Give me 5-7 years to start earning a salary worthy of season and playoff tickets and Ill be there every week. Right now Im going to focus on buying Christmas presents and meeting essential needs for my family while I watch the games on tv with my jersey on.

When the Arizona-native Cardinal fans like me hit their 30s and 40s, you can start looking for a serious increase in ticket buying diehard fans. Ill probably even bring my son and start a whole new generation of Redbirds.

Mike Sando: That makes a lot of sense. The Cardinals moved to Arizona for the 1988 season. You were roughly 5 years old at that time. Anyone even 5 years older than you would have had time to develop an allegiance to another team. And with the Cardinals struggling so profoundly, Arizona natives had little reason to latch on. The area also features quite a few transplanted residents who developed allegiances elsewhere.

I was 25 years old when the Raiders moved back to Oakland. I had grown up in Northern California. I naively bought into the initial hype predicting long waiting lists if fans didn't act quickly to purchase tickets. I could not afford two tickets. I could not really afford one ticket, but my former neighbor and I each purchased one ticket costing about $50 per game to sit near the front of the third deck. I watched a lot of bad football from that seat.

(Read full post)

NFC West team evaluations

December, 29, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Arizona Cardinals (9-7)
Winning a division title for the first time since 1975 stands as progress, but the last few weeks have reminded the Cardinals that their work is only beginning. The Cardinals need to address their future at quarterback. They will have to navigate choppy waters once receiver Anquan Boldin inevitably renews complaints about his contract. They have a decision to make on franchise player Karlos Dansby. The coming offseason will be pivotal for the Cardinals. The organization has much to prove. Grade: B

Biggest surprise: Kurt Warner went from Matt Leinart's backup to legitimate MVP candidate in two months. Warner's production late last season went largely unnoticed because the Cardinals weren't winning regularly and they recommitted to Leinart entering camp. Warner surprised just about everyone by passing for more yards than during his 1999 MVP season.

Biggest disappointment: The Cardinals' inability to keep their focus after clinching the division title cost them momentum on and off the field. The schedule stiffened to the point that Arizona was going to lose some late-season games no matter what. But in collapsing so profoundly, the Cardinals invited self-doubt. They have raised questions about their ability to sustain success. Celebrating the NFC West championship with champagne and hats seemed justified given how long the organization had gone between division titles. In retrospect, a more serious approach might have been more appropriate.

Biggest need: Bolstering the ground game has to stand as a top priority. To do that, the Cardinals need to strengthen their offensive line from the inside out. They need to consider other options at running back, perhaps early in the draft. And they need to upgrade at tight end. The Cardinals also need to acknowledge that their ground game died partially from neglect. That should never happen with Russ Grimm coaching the offensive line. A stronger commitment to the ground game is essential.

Saying goodbye: Edgerrin James' diminished role this season suggests the Cardinals might release him during the offseason. While James wants to continue playing as part of a Hall of Fame push, Warner has yet to decide on his future beyond this season.

San Francisco 49ers (7-9)
The last several games proved the 49ers were wrong when they retained Mike Nolan and installed J.T. O'Sullivan as quarterback heading into the season. The 49ers appear closer to establishing a sustainable on-field identity with Mike Singletary and Shaun Hill in those roles. Singletary deserves credit for helping the 49ers match their personnel to their schemes. If offensive coordinator Mike Martz departs, the organization must hire a top-flight offensive staff. Grade: C

Biggest surprise: Isaac Bruce proved he can remain a productive receiver at age 36. His overall numbers aren't dramatically better than they were last season. But with 35 receptions in his last six games, and with seven touchdown receptions overall, Bruce showed staying power. He finished last season with 23 receptions in his final six games. Looking ahead, it's unclear how Bruce might adapt if the 49ers went away from a Martz-type offense.

Biggest disappointment: The 49ers appear likely to make another change at offensive coordinator, and they still cannot know if they have the right quarterback. It's hard to make progress when every forward step follows one or two steps backward. Frequent turnover at offensive coordinator has doomed the 49ers in recent seasons, diminishing their ability to develop Alex Smith or any other quarterback.

Biggest need: The 49ers need a starting right tackle to solidify their offensive line. Jonas Jennings, Barry Sims and Adam Snyder have taken turns at the spot this season. Jennings' release appears likely. Sims is a solid backup and swing tackle. Snyder is more guard than tackle. The 49ers appear solid at left tackle and center. Improved play at right tackle would give the 49ers more flexibility in using their tight ends as receivers. The 49ers also need another pass rusher, but those are harder to find and every team wants one.

Words of caution: "It says a lot about the direction of the team." That's what Nolan said after the 49ers closed the 2006 season with two upset road victories in their final three games. The team went 7-16 over the next 23 games before firing Nolan. The 49ers needed to hire Singletary because he's the right man for the job, not because the team won a few games and felt good about itself.

Seattle Seahawks (4-12)
Mike Holmgren's final season as Seahawks coach stands as a failure on almost every front. The team failed to learn the severity of Matt Hasselbeck's back injury until it was too late. The team failed to develop young receivers fast enough to compensate adequately once injuries wiped out the position. The defense failed to meet expectations, appearing exposed once the offense failed to do its part. While the Seahawks can accurately point to an unusual number of injuries, they could have fought through them better. Grade: F

Biggest surprise: The Seahawks knew rookie John Carlson would provide an upgrade at tight end. No one could be sure Carlson he would become this good so quickly, particularly with instability at quarterback. While Carlson has been a productive receiver since early in the season, he has become a more complete player in recent weeks. Carlson is catching the ball more consistently, getting his assignments correct more frequently and blocking effectively. He has Pro Bowl potential.

Biggest disappointment: With the exception of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, the defensive line has fallen far short of expectations. The problems go beyond losing top pass rusher Patrick Kerney to a season-ending shoulder injury. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard dropped off even though this was a contract year. Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson produced only sporadically, if at all.

Biggest need: Wide receiver is the obvious answer after injuries wiped out the position, but the Seahawks also need help on their defensive line. Kerney's long-term health is in question. Bernard could leave in free agency. The Seahawks' weak pass rush too often exposed their linebackers and especially their secondary. Upgrading the defensive line would help Seattle realize more return on substantial investments in the back seven.

Transition watch: Incoming head coach Jim Mora will bring energy and a more aggressive approach to the defense. He also needs to bring more victories. Holmgren's larger-than-life presence and Super Bowl credentials allowed him to weather tough times better than other Seattle head coaches. Mora will have a harder time if the Seahawks start poorly next season.

St. Louis Rams (2-14)
The Rams' victories over the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in consecutive weeks showed how badly they underperformed in the 14 remaining games. The team changed head coaches and briefly changed starting quarterbacks, but the Rams' problems ran deeper than they realized. New owner Chip Rosenbloom appears determined to shake up the organization, but will he put the right pieces in place? Grade: F

Biggest surprise: Rookie receivers from college programs with unsophisticated offensive schemes aren't supposed to flourish in coordinator Al Saunders' offense. Donnie Avery, the Rams' second-round choice from Houston, became one of the most productive rookie receivers in Rams history. Injuries slowed Avery at times, but he demonstrated starting-caliber talent and an ability to stretch defenses.

Biggest disappointment: It's hard to single out just one, but the Rams' offensive line failed to meet expectations even when Orlando Pace was in the lineup. Keeping Pace healthy stood as arguably the Rams' top priority heading into the season. By December, coach Jim Haslett was calling guard Richie Incognito his best offensive lineman. The Rams were overmatched at center. Right tackle Alex Barron proved unreliable. Left guard Jacob Bell failed to make the desired impact. As a result, quarterback Marc Bulger never got comfortable.

Biggest need: The Rams needs to become a tougher, more physical team on both sides of the ball. That means upgrading their offensive line and strengthening the middle of their defense. The Rams will once again hold the second overall pick in the draft. They could do worse than using that choice to find the next cornerstone for their offensive line, even if they think Pace has a couple more seasons.

Search time: The Rams' nosedive probably removes Haslett from serious consideration for the coaching job beyond this season. Newly appointed general manager Billy Devaney is leading the search. The sooner the Rams can name their next coach, the sooner they can move forward and out of their current mess.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Thanks for dropping by the chat. Heart-felt apologies accepted from those who had better things to do. Full transcript here. Highlights as determined by me:

Burwell (Addison, PA): should the Cards give Warner a new deal after the season? he's been playing like a Pro Bowler, but giving an injury-prone 38 year old QB a big deal scares me. Any chance that some sort of cap-friendly deal can be reached?

Mike Sando: Yes, the Cardinals should keep Warner. But they must structure the deal to protect themselves from what you are talking about. They can't give him a Tony Romo deal or a Marc Bulger deal. They need to give him something shorter-term and incentive-based.

steve (issaquah, wa): Mike, During last years draft I heard Donnie Avery was the biggest reach of the entire draft and he is having a good year so far...did they know something we didn't or did they get lucky, is he having the biggest impact of any rookie in the NFC West so far? thanks!

Mike Sando: It's a credit to the Rams and Avery that Avery is doing this well. The "reach" criticisms seemed fair based on how raw Avery seemed to be. Also, quite a few "speed" receivers have never panned out. I give credit to Al Saunders for being flexible enough within the offense to tailor routes for Avery. Saunders has simplified some things and Avery is responding. I do think the Rams need to have a running game for Avery to sustain that big-play production against most teams.

Liam (Houston): Looking at the Niners schedule, I don't see them doing much better than 4-12. That won't cut it for Singletary. Who do you see as HC candidates? Is Carol realistic? Offensive or defensive minded?

Mike Sando: If the team makes a change for next season, I think we need to ask ourselves how the organization can head off the problems that doomed them under Mike Nolan. Turnover at offensive coordinator was huge. Mishandling of the quarterback was huge. If I'm the 49ers, I go for an offensive-minded head coach who calls the plays. That way it's not such a big deal if the offensive coordinator leaves to become a head coach, the way McCarthy and Turner did. I would also want a head coach with some credibility in the league. The guy I'm describing sounds a lot like Mike Holmgren, I know, but that wasn't the intention.

Matt (WI): I see Hasselbeck is slated to return in Week 11. Do you see him being effective at all the rest of the way?

Mike Sando: I'll believe it when I see it. Mike Holmgren thought Hasselbeck would return a couple weeks ago. I don't see any reason to assume Hasselbeck will hit the timetable this time. And I do not think he'll hit the ground running at peak efficiency. I don't see him being entirely comfortable.

These chats are scheduled for noon ET each Thursday. Thanks again for contributing.

Personnel report: Rams finding way

October, 31, 2008
10/31/08
11:08
AM ET
TeamVs.DownDist.PersonnelPlay TypeBall CarrierYards
RamsPats2
6
Pittman, 2WR, 2TE
RunPittman5
Rams
Pats
2
1
Pittman, 2WR, 2TERunPittman0
RamsPats
2
11
Pittman, 2WR, 2TEPassHolt9
RamsPats
2
6
Pittman, 2WR, 2TEPass
Avery69
RamsPats
2
10
Pittman, 2WR, 2TEPass
N/A
0
RamsPats
2
10
Pittman, 2WR, 2TERunPittman
18
RamsPats
2
8
Pittman, 2WR, 2TE
PassHolt
8
RamsPats
2
8
Pittman, 2WR, 2TERunPittman
2






Avg.13.9

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Rams seem to be getting more comfortable offensively under new coordinator Al Saunders. Scoring 16 points against the Patriots in Week 8 wasn't going to be enough, but the Rams have to feel pretty good about their progress given the state of the offense a month ago.

St. Louis functioned relatively well against New England despite missing two of the key players in any Saunders offense: the running back and tight end.

Steven Jackson could return Sunday. Randy McMichael remains out for the season. The Rams miss McMichael, but they used double-tight end groupings effectively in certain situations against the Patriots. The chart singles out second-down plays when Antonio Pittman was the lone running back with two wide receivers and two tight ends. We saw an effective mix of runs and passes, including Donnie Avery's 69-yard touchdown reception when Patritos safety James Sanders followed Torry Holt to the inside, leaving Avery in single coverage.

The Rams got away from that personnel grouping on second down as the game progressed. They used it six times in their first seven second-down chances, but only twice in their next 10 opportunities (before shifting into a four-receiver package for obvious reasons late in the game). I'm not sure of the thinking, but I'll ask if I get a chance.

Overall, the Rams used two or fewer wide receivers more than half the time, but their three- and four-receiver packages produced quite a few big plays.

The Rams had 13 plays covering at least 10 yards. They had three or more receivers on the field for 11 of these plays. Avery's role cannot be understated. The Rams had three plays of 30 yards or longer. Avery caught the ball on each of these plays. He had first-down receptions of 44 and 35 yards from three-receiver packages with one tight end, plus the 69-yarder from the group highlighted in the chart.

For a breakdown of the Rams' production across personnel groups, download a copy of my latest Excel-based report. This has one sheet showing production and another sheet with play-by-play information sortable by quarter, drive number, down, distance, yard line, personnel, play type, ball carrier, yards gained and more.

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

October, 24, 2008
10/24/08
1:52
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Arizona: Tight ends Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick are hurting. Both could miss the game. Jerame Tuman could be the only healthy tight end. A shortage of tight ends could lead the Cardinals to use three or four receivers more often. That's fine by quarterback Kurt Warner, who likes spreading the field. The Cardinals won't say whether Anquan Boldin will return this week, but there's no reason to expect him to miss the game after doctors cleared the receiver. Travis LaBoy's groin injury is a concern. The pass rush isn't as good without him and the Cardinals need him to help limit Bert Berry's reps.

St. Louis: The Rams have hedged on whether Steven Jackson will play against the Patriots, but coach Jim Haslett sounded confident Monday. That general feeling should stand given the nature of the injury. If Jackson misses the game, the Rams are in better position to run their offense now that Antonio Pittman is healthy. Getting Orlando Pace back helps the offensive line, giving coordinator Al Saunders greater flexibility in the passing game.

San Francisco: The 49ers were healthy for most of the season so far, but that is changing. They will miss defensive end Ray McDonald. Safety Mark Roman is hurting and his backup, Dashon Goldson, will miss the game. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer is already on injured reserve. As a result, the 49ers' secondary isn't quite so deep, but the Seahawks aren't in position to pick apart a secondary.

Seattle: Matt Hasselbeck will miss another start. His absence is always significant, but even his return might not be enough to salvage the passing game. Backup Seneca Wallace is better than he appeared against the Bucs. He could continue to suffer from the depleted situation at receiver. The injury situation at receiver and quarterback continue to affect Mike Holmgren's confidence as a playcaller. Holmgren's lack of confidence affects the quarterback. It's just a bad situation overall and one that could continue to drag down the offense.

Closer look at Rams' offense

October, 18, 2008
10/18/08
11:52
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Rams were a different team under Jim Haslett in Week 6, no question. Some of those differences merely coincided with the coaching change, notably personnel issues that reflected Randy McMichael's season-ending injury.

I also saw a team playing with an edge. This was refreshing to watch after seeing the Rams' previous efforts this season.

Here are a few things I noticed when breaking down the Rams' offensive personnel use against the Redskins in Week 6:

  • McMichael's injury means the Rams no longer have the personnel to run the two- and three-tight-end groupings offensive coordinator Al Saunders wanted to run. Receiver Torry Holt didn't even start the season opener because Saunders opened with multiple tight ends and Dane Looker as part of an unconventional grouping.
  • The Rams used three receivers on nearly 55 percent of offensive snaps (not counting quarterback kneeldowns and quarterback spikes). I counted more than one tight end on the field 10 times, or 18.9 percent of snaps. Those 10 plays produced only one first down. The two-back, two-tight-end grouping produced four carries averaging minus-0.8 yards with no first downs, plus one incomplete pass and one sack. Bad, bad, bad.
  • The Rams ran 24 of the 53 snaps I charted with Steven Jackson, three receivers and one tight end. These groupings produced 10 carries and a 5-yard rushing average, but only one first down. Jackson picked up yards running in longer-yardage situations, when the Redskins might have been playing the pass. The 14 pass plays from this group averaged 7 yards per attempt with four first downs. This included the 43-yard pass to Donnie Avery on third-and-13 late in the game.
  • Saunders is making significant efforts to get Avery involved in the offense. The Rams threw five passes to Avery and ran him once. These plays netted 68 yards.
  • Holt was more effective in the game than his stats indicated. This still would not qualify as a good game by his standards, but he did make key short-yardage receptions to convert on third and fourth downs. Overall, the Rams threw to him 11 times. These plays netted 23 yards, one reason the Rams had only eight first downs.
  • The Redskins had success getting pressure through the right side of the Rams' line. I didn't necessarily see the Rams losing one-on-one pass-rush battles, but the Redskins were able to free up blitzers for free shots at Marc Bulger. Right tackle Alex Barron might commit outside, only to have a blitzer come free inside. Either the quarterback needs to account for this blitzer of the Rams need to have a back help out.
  • Bulger showed more obvious signs of toughness than we have seen in the past. He took a hard shot on a scramble and fought through it. His offensive teammates rallied around the display. This must continue.
  • Center Nick Leckey had problems with shotgun snaps. He put a few low and risked throwing Bulger off his rhythm.
I'm taking those observations with me to St. Louis on a flight that arrives Saturday night. In the meantime, here's an Excel file with two sheets: one showing the Rams' production by personnel group, the other featuring a play-by-play log sortable by drive, down, distance, personnel, play type, yards gained/lost and more.

Five quick thoughts on the Rams

October, 13, 2008
10/13/08
12:13
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Five thoughts on the Rams' stunning upset against the Redskins in Week 6:

  • A coaching change really can produce immediate results. Scott Linehan surely wasn't to blame for all that ailed the Rams, but this team clearly had lost its way. The Rams had the talent to compete in the division this season. They had lost confidence. As an unproven head coach, Linehan wasn't in position to pull the team together. New coach Jim Haslett restored optimism right away. The Rams looked like they were having fun.
  • Josh Brown was worth the money St. Louis paid him in free agency. The 49-yard field goal he made to win the game would have tested the mettle of any kicker. Brown faced a mental hurdle when a 15-yard penalty turned a potential chip-shot attempt into a long one. He faced another mental hurdle in the form of his own history at FedEx Field. While with Seattle in 2005, Brown missed a 47-yard attempt at the game winner in the same stadium. The Redskins won in overtime.
  • News that Haslett's contract allows him to remain the Rams' head coach by meeting incentives raises questions about the Rooney Rule. I looked into a similar situation in February, when the Seahawks named Jim Mora their head coach for 2009 without opening the process to minority candidates. The Rooney Rule did not apply to that situation because rules allow teams to promote from within.
Is Haslett's situation different? Howard Balzer tried to find out as early as Oct. 2. Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing under the screen name BernieM on a Post-Dispatch forum, wrote: "If terms were negotiated in advance that would keep him in place for 2009, as a continuation of the job he already has, I have no idea why the Rooney Rule would come into play."
  • Donnie Avery's emergence as a big-play receiver was a very good development for the Rams. Offensive coordinator Al Saunders wasn't expecting much from Avery this season because he knew what rookies faced trying to learn this offense. Avery is defying those expectations. He caught four passes for 73 yards against the Redskins, including a clutch 43-yarder to set up the winning field goal. A poorly thrown pass prevented him from catching a long touchdown pass against Seattle in Week 3. Avery has 10 catches for 119 yards over the last three games.
  • Anthony Brown, who writes about the Redskins for MVN.com, looks very smart for pretty much predicting a Rams victory. The case he made had nothing to do with Xs and Os. It had everything to do with a hunch. I liked it enough to link to it before the game, but I'd be lying to say I expected this outcome.

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