NFC West: Bill Belichick

Bill Walsh checks in at No. 2 on ESPN's list of Greatest Coaches in NFL History, leaving the as-yet-unnamed Vince Lombardi as the obvious No. 1.

Walsh, of course, led the San Francisco 49ers to three of their five Super Bowl victories. He revived the franchise with a blueprint that became standard operating procedure across the league. He blazed trails in minority hiring and produced a coaching tree with branches still growing in the game today.

I highly recommend checking out Seth Wickersham's piece on Walsh from January. Wickersham focused on the coaching guide Walsh wrote.

"[Bill] Belichick once referred to it as football 'literature,' but it's more like a textbook -- 550 pages, 1.8 inches thick, 3.2 pounds, loaded with charts, graphs and bullet points," Wickersham explained. "For example, Walsh includes 57 keys to negotiating contracts ('The negotiator's need for food and sleep can affect his/her ability to function effectively'), 13 pages of sample practices and 108 in-game scenarios."

The video above features Walsh's own thoughts on characteristics great coaches possess. Unpredictability on and off the field is one of them.

The chart below shows won-lost-tied records and number of championships won for the top 20 coaches on ESPN's list, courtesy of Pro Football Reference. The winning percentages listed reflect victories plus one-half ties, divided by total games. For Walsh, that works out to 92.5 victories divided by 152 games, or .609.

video Jim from Albany, Ore., had no beefs with the "Greatest Coaches" ballot I submitted for the ESPN project. He did question the project itself, however.

"It seems to me that a coach becomes 'great' only after he has a 'great' quarterback," Jim wrote in the NFC West mailbag. "The coaches at the very top of the list might be exceptions, but let's look at some of the others."

The way Jim sees things, Bill Belichick struggled in Cleveland before he had Tom Brady in New England. Mike Shanahan struggled without John Elway. Mike Holmgren was considered a great coach in Green Bay, but he had Brett Favre. Tom Landry struggled after Roger Staubach retired. Tom Coughlin was fired by Jacksonville, but once he had Eli Manning, he became a great coach. Tony Dungy became great when he had Peyton Manning. Bill Walsh was innovative, of course, but he also had Joe Montana and Steve Young.

"The voting is a fun exercise and I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a coach," Jim writes. "Some are certainly much better than others and some are great, but I think people are overlooking the role that a franchise quarterback plays in how 'great' a coach is considered to be."

There is no doubt quarterbacks make a tremendous difference. Head coaches sometimes play leading roles in acquiring and developing quarterbacks. Let's take a quick run through the coaches Jim mentioned in search of added perspective:
  • Belichick: We could say the Patriots lucked into Brady in the sixth round, but Belichick was ultimately responsible for drafting him and then sticking with him after Drew Bledsoe's return to health. Also, the Patriots had an 11-5 record when Matt Cassel was their primary quarterback in 2008.
  • Shanahan: Shanahan deserves credit for getting the most from an aging Elway. The Broncos had six winning seasons, one losing season and one 8-8 season in the eight years immediately following Elway's retirement. The post-Elway Broncos went 91-69 under Shanahan overall. That works out to a .569 winning percentage in Denver after Elway. Bill Parcells was at .570 for his entire career.
  • Holmgren: Even if we give Favre credit for the Packers' success in Green Bay, we still must account for Holmgren's winning with Matt Hasselbeck and a more run-oriented offense in Seattle. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick in Green Bay. Holmgren traded for him and eventually won with him. Hasselbeck went to three Pro Bowls. Holmgren didn't luck into Hasselbeck. He helped develop him.
  • Landry: The Cowboys enjoyed their greatest postseason success under Landry when Staubach was the quarterback through the 1970s. However, the Cowboys were 31-10 under Landry in the three seasons before Staubach arrived. They were 21-6-1 in Staubach's first two seasons even though Staubach started only three of those games, posting a 2-1 record in his starts. Dallas went 24-8 in its first two seasons after Staubach retired. The Cowboys posted five winning records in their first six seasons of the post-Staubach era, going 61-28 over that span.
  • Coughlin: Manning wasn't all that great for much of Coughlin's early run with the Giants. Players such as Michael Strahan have credited Coughlin for adapting his gruff personal style in a manner that allowed the Giants to become a championship team. That could be entirely true, or it could be convenient narrative. We can't really know. However, although the Giants might not have won titles without Manning, we can't ignore the role their defense played in defeating Brady's Patriots following the 2007 season in particular. They didn't win disproportionately because of their quarterback.
  • Dungy: I listed Dungy 20th on my ballot because he won with two completely different types of teams. However, I also think a case can be made that the Colts should have enjoyed greater playoff success during the Peyton Manning years. Ultimately, I point to the success Tampa Bay enjoyed beginning in 1997 with a team built to some degree in Dungy's defensive image. The Buccaneers went 48-32 in their final five seasons under Dungy. That franchise was floundering previously.

I left off Walsh because Jim wasn't challenging his credentials as a great coach. Hopefully, the information above provides some context. I do think it's tough knowing to what degree a coach has facilitated his team's success. We're left to look at success over time, plus whatever contributions a coach seemed to make in terms of strategy, team building, etc.

Joe Gibbs gets credit for winning three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks, none of them Hall of Famers. It's not as if Gibbs had horrible quarterbacks, however. Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien were both two-time Pro Bowl selections. Doug Williams obviously had talent. He was a first-round draft choice, after all.

Perhaps we'll find ways in the future to better measure a coach's contributions. Right now, there's a lot we do not know beyond the results on the field.
Any ranking for the 20 greatest coaches in NFL history would leave off at least two of the 22 enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The ballot I submitted for our "Greatest Coaches" project left off eight of them: Guy Chamberlin, Jimmy Conzelman, Weeb Ewbank, Ray Flaherty, Sid Gillman, Bud Grant, Greasy Neale and Hank Stram.

That seems outrageous. However, there were only 20 spots available, and many coaches appeared interchangeable to me outside the top 10 or 12. Current or recently retired head coaches such as Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and Marty Schottenheimer deserved consideration, in my view, but including them meant leaving out others. I also thought Chuck Knox should be in the discussion even though he's long retired and not a Hall of Famer.

Putting together a ballot was difficult. There's really no way to fully analyze the jobs head coaches have done. We must consider won-lost records over time, of course, but little separates some of the coaches further down the list. I figured most panelists would go with Lombardi in the No. 1 spot, but I'm not sure whether that was the case.

Herm Edwards revealed his ballot Insider previously. We agreed on George Halas at No. 1. He put Lombardi second. I went with Paul Brown and Curly Lambeau after Halas, followed by Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, Belichick and Chuck Noll to round out the top 10. The choices got tougher from there.

Edwards had Bud Grant, Dick Vermeil and Marty Schottenheimer in his top 20. He did not have Steve Owen, Holmgren or Cowher. I easily could have justified swapping out some of the coaches toward the bottom of my ballot for others not listed. Edwards and I both had Coughlin at No. 15. Our rankings for Lombardi, Landry, Walsh, Shula, Gibbs, Belichick, Madden and George Allen were within three spots one way or the other. I had Brown and Lambeau quite a bit higher than Edwards had them.

I tried to balance factors such as winning percentage, longevity, championships, team-building and impact on the game. The coaches I listed near the top of my ballot were strong in all those areas. There was room lower on my ballot for coaches whose achievements in some areas offset deficiencies in others.

Halas was a straightforward choice at No. 1 for me. He coached the Chicago Bears for 40 seasons, won six championships and had only six losing seasons. The Hall of Fame credits him as the first coach to use game films for preparation.

"Along with Ralph Jones, his coach from 1930 through 1932, and consultant Clark Shaughnessy, Halas perfected the T-formation attack with the man in motion," Halas' Hall of Fame bio reads. "It was this destructive force that propelled the Bears to their stunning 73-0 NFL title win over Washington in the 1940 NFL Championship Game and sent every other league team scurrying to copy the Halas system."

Brown was my choice at No. 2 because he won seven titles, four of them before the Cleveland Browns joined the NFL in 1950, and he revolutionized strategy while planting a massive coaching tree. Lambeau edged Lombardi in the No. 3 spot on my ballot. He founded the franchise and won with a prolific passing game before it was popular. His teams won six titles during his 31 seasons as coach.

ESPN has revealed the coaches ranking 13th through 20th based on ballots submitted by Chris Berman, Jeffri Chadiha, John Clayton, Colin Cowherd, Mike Ditka, Gregg Easterbrook, Edwards, David Fleming, Ashley Fox, Greg Garber, Mike Golic, Suzy Kolber, Eric Mangini, Chris Mortensen, Sal Paolantonio, Bill Polian, Rick Reilly, Adam Schefter, Ed Werder, Seth Wickersham, Trey Wingo and me.

The eight coaches, beginning at No. 13: Jimmy Johnson, Coughlin, Grant, Stram, Levy, Gillman, Shanahan and Dungy.

Gillman was an interesting one. He spent 10 of his 18 seasons in the AFL and had a 1-5 record in postseason, but there is no denying his impact on the passing game. Like other coaches rounding out the top 20, his case for inclusion was strong, but open for debate.
The St. Louis Rams posted a 4-26 record against NFC West opponents over the five seasons preceding Jeff Fisher's arrival as head coach.

They were 4-1-1 against the NFC West under Fisher in 2012.

The Rams from 2007 through 2011 lost by 11.1 points per game in division play. The final scores for those games were 25-14 on average. Those figures flipped to plus-five points per game with a 20-15 average final score under Fisher.

"Fisher is a heckuva coach," ESPN's Matt Williamson said, "but he is behind two of the top five in the league when it comes to ranking head coaches in the NFC West."

Williamson, who scouts the NFL for, ranked the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh first and the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll second as part of his predraft positional rankings for NFC West teams.

We pick up the conversation there.

[+] EnlargeJeff Fisher
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceDespite his 4-1-1 record against the rest of the NFC West last season, Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson ranks him as the third-best coach in the division.
Williamson: You have to put Bruce Arians fourth even though Arizona made a good hire. Fisher vs. Carroll is really the only conversation and I think Fisher has done a good job with the Rams, including the team building aspect. You look at the RGIII trade, building this defensive line. And yet I thought Carroll should have been coach of the year last season.

Sando: We could have made that call on the Russell Wilson move alone. General manager John Schneider was the driving force behind drafting Wilson, but Carroll was the one who decided Wilson should be the starter in Week 1 -- a move I'm not even sure Schneider would have made so quickly. Coaches are under so much scrutiny that it's sometimes easy to make the decisions perceived to be "safest" in the short term. Starting Matt Flynn would have been the "safe" decision last year. It also would have been the wrong one. Carroll trusted what he saw from Wilson and made the call.

Williamson: He also gets the most from his guys. His team building has been phenomenal, starting with all the changes they made as soon as he got there. And then he brought along Wilson extremely well -- just did a phenomenal job there.

Sando: Carroll has admitted some shortcomings in the game-management department. He's called it going "hormonal" with some of his decision making. That is one area where I think he can continue to improve. As far as ranking the best coach in the division, it's tough to argue with the results in San Francisco. Harbaugh and staff have gotten more than anyone could have expected they would get from two completely different quarterbacks. The team has won consecutive division titles, reached two NFC Championship Games and gone to a Super Bowl.

Williamson: I think Harbaugh is the second-best coach in the league behind Bill Belichick. He took over a bad team and was competitive immediately. His offensive mind is off the charts. He got so much from Alex Smith, who I don't think is a very good player. He brought along Colin Kaepernick. They have the most physical and diverse offense. His offensive mind rivals anyone's and meanwhile, they've had the best defense in the league. They've been fortunate with so few defensive injuries, but you can't knock him for that. He was in the Super Bowl last year. He saw that day coming with Kaepernick and he planned for that last season. Randy Moss and A.J. Jenkins and Mario Manningham were not for Alex Smith. Those were all for that day when Kaepernick would start. And meanwhile, he did not hurt himself in the short term until Kaepernick was ready.

Sando: Putting Harbaugh up there with Belichick is high praise. It's interesting, I think, that Belichick enjoyed tremendous success after moving away from Drew Bledsoe, who was the safe choice at quarterback, and moving forward with a less-proven Tom Brady.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Ben MargotJim Harbaugh (right) and Pete Carroll are arguably two of the top five coaches in the NFL right now.
Williamson: The biggest problem for Seattle and San Francisco is what happens when they have expensive quarterbacks. They have such an advantage right now with great quarterback play costing them nothing. The Patriots won the Super Bowl before Brady was making huge money. There are some parallels that way.

Sando: The Patriots have been awfully close to winning it all more recently, but there's no question it's tougher building a dominant team when the quarterback's contract is eating up considerable cap space. Kaepernick is under contract through 2014, with a chance to renegotiate his current deal following the 2013 season. Wilson is signed through 2015 and cannot renegotiate until after the 2014 season.

Williamson: You're really tested two years from now if you win the Super Bowl and get raided like the Baltimore Ravens did and then have to pay your quarterbacks.

Sando: Fisher inherited a quarterback earning $50 million guaranteed under the old labor deal. Arians inherited Kevin Kolb, whose old contract is eating up $6 million in cap space for 2013 even though Kolb is playing for the Buffalo Bills now. Those situations put Fisher and Arians at a disadvantage.

Williamson: No argument there.

Sando: Overall, I'd say the NFC West is in good hands with two head coaches arguably ranked among the top five in the league, plus Fisher and now Arians, who happens to be the reigning NFL Coach of the Year for his work on an interim basis with Indianapolis last season. We'll revisit this one again following the 2013 season.
The San Francisco 49ers probably are not going to overhaul their defensive scheme to accommodate newly added tackle Glenn Dorsey.

Initial reports suggest Dorsey will help fill the void created by nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga's departure to the Philadelphia Eagles. In that case, Dorsey would also provide insurance at defensive end in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme.

That could be the end of the story. But Dorsey's addition to an evolving line rotation invites a closer look at where the 49ers are headed on defense. It can serve as a launching point for a discussion I've been wanting to have for some time.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Dorsey
Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsDoes the signing of Glenn Dorsey signal a scheme change in San Francisco?
First, some background on why I think the 49ers have some decisions to make as they seek to sustain their recent success under coordinator Vic Fangio.

General manager Trent Baalke hinted at the subject when suggesting during the NFL scouting combine that the 49ers used a smaller rotation along their line for philosophical reasons, not depth reasons. In my view, the comments sounded like something a GM would say if he thought the defensive coordinator should be using a larger rotation.

Fangio has been known to favor veteran players. That is typical for coordinators running complex 3-4 schemes. Those schemes often function best with veteran players. Veteran players carry higher price tags. Higher price tags force tough personnel decisions as teams manage salary caps that aren't growing all that much from year to year.

That is where the 49ers are at right now. They knew they would have to let certain defensive veterans leave in free agency. Dashon Goldson was one of them. There has also been talk recently about how a scheme change could help the 49ers take better advantage of cheaper labor.

In some ways, the strength of the 49ers' front has allowed them to get by with a smaller rotation along the line. Last season proved they can't take for granted such an arrangement in the future.

A deeper, younger rotation on the line could be part of an evolution unless the 49ers are willing to make the tough choices associated with their current approach. The choices for 3-4 teams can include paying top dollar for a nose tackle and outside linebackers. Demand and prices for players best suited to the 3-4 has risen has more teams have adopted that scheme in recent seasons (perhaps to stay ahead of the curve, New England's Bill Belichick has gone away from the 3-4 over the past couple seasons).

Teams running 4-3 schemes still need to pay for pass-rushers, including at defensive tackle if they're fortunate enough to find one worthy of the investment. They can generally get by paying less for linebackers.

The 49ers are paying big money to defensive end Justin Smith through the 2013 season. They have invested heavily in inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. They committed to Bowman for the long term after deciding he could provide value to them even if San Francisco went away from its current scheme. The idea was that Bowman and Willis would remain among the very best players on the defense regardless. They would be worth the money no matter what.

Again, I don't think the 49ers are suddenly going to unveil a 4-3 base defense. But they do have flexibility with their personnel. They could be headed in that direction. As Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. noted when I reached out to him Wednesday, Smith was a 4-3 defensive end coming out of college. Ray McDonald was seen as an up-the-field lineman. The fact that Smith and McDonald have flourished in a 3-4 reflects well on them and on defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. There's precedent for Dorsey to make a transition, too.

On the other hand, Dorsey appears ideally suited for a 4-3 defense. That was the word on him as the fifth pick of the 2008 draft and that remained the word on him heading into free agency. And the 49ers do have the personnel to become more of a 4-3 team on defense should they choose to head in that direction.

"I could see McDonald as a three-technique type and maybe Dorsey as one-technique," Williamson said. "Ahmad Brooks could project as a 'SAM' linebacker pretty easily and Bowman would be great as the 'WILL'. Justin Smith could be a strong-side end, Aldon Smith could play the weak side. They do have the personnel."

To this point, San Francisco's defense under Fangio has relied upon a smaller number of players logging a higher number of snaps. San Francisco wore down on defense late last season, a factor in the team falling just short of a Super Bowl victory.

The 49ers are only getting started on implementing their offseason plan. Dorsey's arrival may or may not mean much in the bigger picture. But the comments Baalke made at the combine have lingered in my mind. They sounded significant. The subject will come up again as the 49ers navigate the draft and minicamps.

Back in 2001, the Indianapolis Colts loaded up on offensive players to support young quarterback Peyton Manning. As a result, they released veteran defensive players, putting the coordinator in a tough position. Fangio was that coordinator. Bill Polian, the GM back then, thought a simpler defensive scheme would help the team get more from a young defense. The head coach, Jim Mora, refused Polian's demand that he fire Fangio. Polian fired Mora and Fangio in response.

The 2013 49ers are not the Colts of a decade ago. Not even close. They have plenty of talent on offense and defense. They still have a very effective veteran core on defense. Their quarterback remains under contract on the cheap for another season at least, providing flexibility. Fangio just helped the 49ers get to the Super Bowl. Now is not the time to scrap what has gotten the 49ers to this point. But there are some tradeoffs to consider, at least, and the 49ers are well aware of them. I wonder to what degree the team will alter its defense with sustainability in mind.

Around the NFC West: Hurry up already?

January, 16, 2013

Sixteen days have passed since the Arizona Cardinals fired coach Ken Whisenhunt.

One of their declared candidates, Andy Reid, signed with Kansas City without visiting the Cardinals. Another candidate, Mike McCoy, signed with San Diego before conducting a second interview with the Cardinals.

The situation is naturally a little unnerving for Cardinals fans. Should the Cardinals have hired a coach by now?

The team's media relations director, Mark Dalton, notes via Twitter that the home teams in the upcoming championship round hired their coaches relatively late in the process: Mike Smith to Atlanta on Jan. 23 (2008) and Bill Belichick to New England on Jan. 27 (2000).

The NFL's Record & Fact Book lists hiring dates for all NFL head coaches.

The San Francisco 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh on Jan. 7, 2011. The Seattle Seahawks hired Pete Carroll on Jan. 11, 2010. The Cardinals hired their previous coach, Ken Whisenhunt, on Jan. 14, 2007. The St. Louis Rams hired Jeff Fisher on Jan. 17, 2012.

Those are official hiring dates. In some cases, the teams had singled in on a candidate or reached informal agreement with one in advance of those official dates.

Specific hiring dates provide context. Cardinals fans should be looking for signs Arizona has a clear plan for upgrading its coaching situation. From the outside, it's been tough to see whether such a plan exists. That makes the waiting tougher to take.

Only a select few outlasted Whisenhunt

December, 31, 2012
Ken Whisenhunt, hired by the Arizona Cardinals in 2007, had outlasted all but eight NFL head coaches when the team fired him Monday.

Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy, Gary Kubiak and Sean Payton were hired by their current teams no later than 2006. Lovie Smith and Andy Reid were also in place before 2007. Both were fired Monday.

Whisenhunt, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and San Diego's Norv Turner remained from the 2007 hiring class until Monday, when Turner joined Whisenhunt among the ranks of former coaches.

As Jerry Glanville put it years ago, NFL means, "Not For Long."
The visual might make St. Louis fans cringe, but running back Steven Jackson might fit nicely in New England if his Rams career ends following the 2012 season.

Take a deep breath, Rams fans. Jackson isn't going anywhere yet.

But the thought of him in a New England uniform next season came to mind Thursday upon reading through comments from Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The comments reflected a deep appreciation for Jackson's receiving skills. They brought together in my mind a set of circumstances to consider as Jackson and the Rams prepare to face the Patriots in London.

Jackson, still seeking his first winning season in the NFL, has said he wants to finish his career with the Rams. It's also clear he might not fit into the team's plans as prominently while the organization continues to rebuild through the draft under new leadership.

Unable to agree on a contract extension, Jackson recently negotiated into his contract an opt-out clause following the 2012 season. That clause would allow him to seek an opportunity with a team that might be a little closer to contending for a championship. A team like the Patriots. Otherwise, Jackson would be scheduled to earn $7 million in 2013.

New England has a history of using older running backs under Belichick. Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, Corey Dillon, Sammy Morris, Antowain Smith and LaMont Jordan were all in their 30s when they played for New England over the past decade or so.

Jackson, 29, already knows the Patriots' offense. He played in Josh McDaniels' system last season, before McDaniels left the Rams to coordinate the Patriots' offense. The Rams' 2011 season did not go as planned, but Jackson did like the way McDaniels' offense could, at its best, feature him as more than just a power runner. He was looking forward to running routes normally reserved for wideouts.

"That’s definitely part of my game that I've been missing the last couple of seasons," Jackson told reporters before the 2011 season. "I'm looking forward to having that challenge, proving to the rest of the league that I’m more than just a downhill, first- and second-down kind of running back. I think if anyone could help me re-establish myself as a franchise back, an all-around back, I think Josh will do that."

As noted, Belichick likes that part of Jackson's game as well.

"He has the quickness to be elusive on the second level, avoid guys, and he’s also got the power to put his shoulder down and run through guys," Belichick told reporters covering the Patriots this week. "He's a hard guy to tackle. As I said, his production in the passing game is very good too. Not just screens, but actual route running, going out there, getting open, beating linebackers and he’s a great target for the quarterback to throw to."

Belichick said he spent a full day with Jackson before the 2004 draft. The two got together in Las Vegas, where Jackson played high school football. Belichick said that was more convenient at the time than meeting at Oregon State, where Jackson played in college.

"He's a very impressive individual," Belichick said. "Obviously a big, strong kid that runs well, that catches the ball very well, very good in the passing game; I think he’s probably a little underrated in that area. Good in blitz pickup, smart guy, he’s really had an outstanding career. He definitely was a guy that we were very much interested in."

NFC West Stock Watch

October, 16, 2012

1. Alex Smith, 49ers QB. Three interceptions and four sacks marked a rough day for the 49ers quarterback. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. followed up Smith's performance with an Insider piece Insider pointing out Smith's limitations relative to other quarterbacks. Williamson: "Smith isn't a bum. He is a solid NFL quarterback and can make plays with his arm and his legs. But when comparing the 49ers to the other top teams in the NFC like New York, Chicago, Green Bay and Atlanta, forcing Smith to win games is the recipe for victory against the 49ers."

2. Jim Harbaugh, 49ers coach. The 49ers' 26-3 defeat to the New York Giants was their most lopsided at home since 2009. An occasional defeat generally wouldn't knock down a coach's stock, but there were extenuating circumstances surrounding this one. The statement Harbaugh released Friday might have come off as bold and brash if the 49ers would have backed it up with a fundamentally sound performance against the Giants. They did not.

3. Greg Zuerlein, Rams kicker. Zuerlein had been a team MVP candidate before missing 52- and 37-yard field goal tries that were well within his range during a 17-14 defeat to the Miami Dolphins. Zuerlein also missed a 66-yarder for a shot at forcing overtime. All three missed wide to the left. Coach Jeff Fisher: "The wind really took the last one. He clearly had the distance. It's just too bad for him. The other two, the short one, I think he probably pulled it a little bit and the other one the wind took it -- the longer one, the 50-plus yarder." There was plenty of special-teams blame to go around for the Rams. Zuerlein had made 15 consecutive field goal tries to begin his career, so his misses stood out.

4. Misguided fullbacks. The Rams' Brit Miller tried to return a kickoff and fumbled, setting up a Dolphins field goal in a game St. Louis would lose by three points. Reagan Maui'a, the Arizona Cardinals' backup fullback, incurred a delay penalty for spiking the ball following a 7-yard reception to the Buffalo 36-yard line in the fourth quarter. The drive died a few plays later as the Cardinals, down 16-13 at the time, missed a scoring opportunity. Arizona lost valuable field position and wound up suffering a turnover on its next possession.


1. Russell Wilson, Seahawks QB. Wilson played a leading role in Seattle's 24-23 victory over New England. He showed outstanding deep accuracy and poise under pressure in winning for the fourth time in his last five starts. Wilson completed five passes for 200 yards on throws traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. That included the winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice with 1:18 remaining. Wilson threw the ball 55 yards with a smooth delivery requiring no extra effort. A 50-yard strike to Doug Baldwin showcased everything that makes Wilson dangerous. He rolled left to avoid pressure. He quickly set up to throw along the yard-line number at the Seattle 12. With a defender rushing toward his front side, Wilson threw the ball 50 yards in the air and back to the middle of the field. Baldwin caught it inside the left hash.

2. Wide receivers. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald passed 10,000 career receiving yards, joining Randy Moss as the only players to reach the milestone before age 30. The leaping one-handed grab Fitzgerald made along the sideline didn't count because he was out of bounds. Still, it was worth a mention. Moss had a 55-yard reception for the San Francisco 49ers. St. Louis' Brandon Gibson had a seven-catch, 91-yard game. Teammate Chris Givens had a 65-yard reception for his third consecutive game with a catch longer than 50 yards. Rice caught the 46-yard game-winner against New England in the final two minutes. Fellow Seahawks receivers Golden Tate (66-yarder) and Doug Baldwin (50-yarder) had even longer receptions for the team.

3. William Powell, Cardinals RB. An undrafted free agent in 2011, Powell carried 13 times for 70 yards as Arizona set a season high with 182 yards rushing. Powell also had one reception for 8 yards. He was easily the Cardinals' most effective running back.

4. Pete Carroll, Seahawks coach. The team's ability to post a 4-2 record while developing a rookie quarterback provides some short-term validation for Carroll's plan. Conventional wisdom said the team should have gone with Matt Flynn. Conventional wisdom said starting a rookie quarterback would undermine efforts to outscore teams led by Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady. Seattle is 4-0 against those quarterbacks. The formula has worked most of the time so far. As for in-game coaching, Carroll came out fine. The Patriots' failure to get even a field goal attempt from deep in Seattle territory right before halftime recalled the time in 2010 when Carroll lost a similar gamble. Bill Belichick was on the wrong side this time.
Tom Brady was on injured reserve with a knee injury the last time his New England Patriots visited the Seattle Seahawks.

The year was 2008.

The Seahawks had a 2-10 record. Seneca Wallace was their starting quarterback. Mike Holmgren was their coach. Pete Carroll was at USC.

Now, for the really different part: The Seahawks' defense, currently ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, ranked 30th back then. It had allowed six total rushing and passing touchdowns in its previous two games, one more than the 2012 team has allowed in five games this season.

Brady is back and leading the NFL's top-ranked offense against Seattle's top-ranked defense in Week 6. The teams kick off Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, Brady's first road start against the Seahawks. The matchup has us talking already.

Mike Sando, NFC West blog: The last time an NFC West team drew New England, Arizona pulled off one of the more shocking upsets of the season, holding Brady to 18 points and leaving Gillette Stadium with a 20-18 victory. New England lost Aaron Hernandez to injury in that game. The Patriots have regrouped. They've scored 113 points in three subsequent games. Was that Arizona game an aberration, or should the Seahawks' defense expect similar results?

James Walker, AFC East: It feels like two different offenses since New England’s loss to the Cardinals, Mike. New England looked shell-shocked after losing Hernandez in that game. He's usually such a big part of the Patriots’ game plan that they had trouble adjusting on the fly. But New England made the proper changes. Tight ends no longer are the first option; now receiver Wes Welker is the top target. New England is no longer passing the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time; its run-to-pass ratio was 54-31 this past week against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots also used a no-huddle offense in all four quarters for the first time in that game. Can New England keep up that kind of pace, especially on the road? The Patriots are concerned about crowd noise in Seattle. Will the 12th man affect this game?

Sando: Yeah, the crowd will be a factor because the defense is good enough to make it one. Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for 19 points in Seattle. Brady and the Patriots are playing better offensively than Green Bay or Dallas, though. One key will be whether Brady can get the ball out to Welker quickly enough to avoid Seattle's pass-rushers. Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Jason Jones could have big games against the Patriots' offensive front if Brady holds the ball. But Welker should have a big advantage against nickel corner Marcus Trufant. Welker leads the NFL with 24 receptions from the slot over the past three games. Seattle's opponents haven't gone after Trufant all that much, but St. Louis slot receiver Danny Amendola did give him some problems. Welker is a tough matchup for everyone and should be a tough one for the Seahawks.

Walker: Seattle’s pass rush is the biggest concern for New England. Brady’s sack totals have gone up each of the past three seasons, and he already has been sacked 12 times in five games. Brady is not a young pup anymore and only has so many hits left in his 35-year-old body. New England’s pass protection hasn’t been the same after losing left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters in the offseason. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guard Logan Mankins also have played hurt this year. The Patriots have done things schematically to counter their shaky pass protection. New England is running the ball more, and the no-huddle has slowed down opponents. But you wonder whether the inconsistent pass protection eventually will catch up to New England this season, especially this weekend against a good Seattle defense.

Sando: Seattle's defense was good last season, and it's better in 2012. This is a legitimate top-five defense with big, pressing cornerbacks and the potential for a strong pass rush, particularly at home. The Seahawks are allowing 3.2 yards per carry overall and 3.0 when we remove quarterback scrambles (Brady isn't exactly a running threat). There's speed at every level of the defense. Holding the Patriots' offense to a reasonable level -- say, somewhere in the 20-point range -- should be realistic as long as Seattle fares OK against Welker. The bigger question is whether Seattle's offense can score enough points to win the game. Russell Wilson is coming off his best game, but the offense isn't putting up enough points.

Walker: New England’s defense has improved in a lot of areas. The front seven is more physical and the pass rush is better, specifically with the addition of first-round pick Chandler Jones. However, New England is still 30th against the pass and continues to give up chunks of yards through the air. The safety play has been horrific at times. I think Seattle’s best chance to win is using play-action over the top. Patriots coach Bill Belichick usually tries to take one thing away, and I assume the focus this week will be Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. There will be plenty of opportunities in the passing game if Wilson can take advantage. Speaking of taking advantage, your NFC West division has crushed the AFC East at nearly every turn. What is going on here? Is this a special year for the NFC West, and will Seattle repeat what the Cardinals did by knocking off the top dog in the AFC East?

Sando: I've gone into several of these nondivision games a little skeptical about whether the NFC West team would score enough to win. The offenses in Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis lag in the rankings. But the defenses and special teams have more than made up the difference. I think Seattle has a winning formula and a good shot at pulling it off, but I still think Brady is more likely than Wilson to reach 20-plus points.

I've had similar thoughts before and been wrong. I really thought some of these top opposing quarterbacks would enjoy greater success against the NFC West. Brady, Jay Cutler, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Romo, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford are a combined 2-8 against the division, and both victories were against St. Louis. Those quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes and nine picks against the division. Outside the division, NFC West teams have gone 10-0 at home and 11-3 regardless of venue.

I'll probably wind up picking the Patriots, but Seattle's defense gives the Seahawks a good chance.

Walker: It looks as if the AFC East is having a second consecutive down year, and the arrow is certainly pointing up for the NFC West. But the Patriots are a legit team. Barring significant injuries, I expect New England to carry the banner for the division all season. I’m 15-2 predicting AFC East games this year, so I feel pretty confident in my picks. I think New England will pull this one out. The Patriots’ offense is very balanced, and their tempo puts a lot of pressure on teams. If they score points early, it could put too much pressure on Wilson to answer. Wilson has beaten Rodgers, Romo and Newton this year. But I don’t think Wilson will add Brady to that list.

A coach's dilemma: To run (mouth) or pass

September, 19, 2012
Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton worked as a secondary coach in Pittsburgh for years before finally getting a chance to advance.

Horton wants people to know he was ready for the job long ago, that he did not suddenly materialize as worthy for the promotion.

Now, after his Cardinals shocked New England in Week 2, Horton wants people to know he was ready for the Patriots, too. His comments on the Doug & Wofl show on Arizona Sports 620 radio invite closer examination. First, though, the comments via Arizona Sports:
"We knew that whenever [Aaron] Hernandez was in tight, it was going to be a run, so we had a run check. But when he got hurt, it screwed that up because they went to three wide receivers. What they did, and we figured out real quick was, whenever Tom Brady was under the center, they were going to run the ball and whenever he was in the shotgun, they were going to pass the ball. We told our players, 'Hey, make the run check if Tom Brady's under the center. If he's in the gun, go to the pass check.'

"They handled it beautifully, and so we had dual calls that basically what we were telling them is, we know when they're going to run and pass, so our players put us in the best position to win the game and they did a flawless job of managing the game of getting inside New England's head."

Could it really be that simple? Could the Patriots really be so predictable? Mike Reiss of breaks out some of the numbers.

The key question is whether or not the Patriots were additionally likely to pass when under shotgun. They were.

I've put together a chart showing the Patriots' shotgun and conventional play selection on first and second downs, figuring third-down plays tend to be passes anyway. The chart excludes spike plays.

The Patriots passed 80 percent of the time from the shotgun formation and 44 percent of the time from under center on these early downs. The percentages were 75 percent from shotgun and 41 percent from under center for every other NFL team in Week 2, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

From that, we can say the run-pass disparity by formation was roughly the same for the Patriots as for other teams. The shotgun is a passing formation by definition. The plan Horton put together obviously went much deeper. He obviously had a great feel for the Patriots' offense. Good for him, but only to an extent.

Beating the Patriots should be enough for a coordinator secure in his position and worthiness for the job. What Horton said on the radio comes off as self-serving.

Those comments were consistent with the unapologetic attitude Horton has brought to the job. That attitude can be an asset for Horton's defense. But there are times when a coordinator can be best served sounding like a coordinator, not like a frustrated position coach.

Horton has done a fantastic job with the Cardinals' defense. He should be in line for a head coaching position if the trend continues. Of course, the team owners responsible for hiring head coaches are presumably watching how Horton handles himself in all areas, not just on the field. Do they hear a head coach when they listen to comments such as these?

Around the NFC West: Doubling up at TE

September, 13, 2012
This was looking like a year for NFC West teams to feature dynamic tight ends.

It didn't happen so much in Week 1.

Seattle released veteran Kellen Winslow on the reduction to the 53-man roster limit. Arizona found only six offensive snaps for Rob Housler in its opener.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are preparing to face one of the more dynamic tight end combinations anywhere. New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez play just about every snap. Bill Belichick: "Those (tight ends) are involved in most every play: run, pass, pass patterns, protection. It makes it harder for the defense to defend when you can run behind them or throw to them, get them down field as well as in shorter areas. A good, versatile tight end can present a lot of problems to the defense." Noted: Seattle's Zach Miller and San Francisco's Vernon Davis played most extensively among NFC West tight ends in Week 1. The Cardinals' Todd Heap and the Rams' Lance Kendricks were next, followed by the 49ers' Delanie Walker, the Cardinals' Jeff King and the Seahawks' Anthony McCoy. New England, Houston, Detroit, Denver and San Francisco played the most snaps with at least two tight ends in Week 1, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Darren Urban of looks at how the Cardinals use their tight ends. Urban: "The Cardinals don’t use the tight end as much in their scheme and Housler is still trying to find his niche. But on the Cardinals’ game-winning drive late in the season-opening win against Seattle, there was Heap making a couple of key catches, including the catch that gave the Cards a first-and-goal." Noted: Housler battled a hamstring injury recently and didn't get as many practice reps, perhaps setting him back. Also, the Cardinals are strong enough at wide receiver to merit using three at a time frequently, leaving less room for a second tight end.

Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has fun with the Rams' Jeff Fisher mustache campaign. O'Neill: "In the shadow of the world 's largest Fu Manchu, otherwise known as the Arch, the mustachioed masses are assured of setting a new mark for Guiness World Records. According to the Rams' marketing department, which has filed the necessary papers with Guiness, the record for fake mustaches worn in one place at one time is 227. The huge gathering emulating Fisher on Sunday can't do anything but help his award-winning chances."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates Rodger Saffold's neck situation. Thomas: "The big left tackle can laugh now, because amazingly, he was back on the practice field Wednesday at Rams Park. There's no way he'll play in Sunday's home opener against Washington; his neck remained stiff as he talked with reporters after practice. But he did get a little bit of work in during practice and was listed as limited participation on the team's official injury report."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams made the right move trading away the second overall choice in the 2012 draft at the expense of selecting Robert Griffin III.

Clare Farnsworth of checks in with receiver Doug Baldwin regarding the near-catch against Arizona in the end zone Sunday. Baldwin: "It was an opportunity that I had. I had the ball in my hands. Technically, according to NFL stats, it's not a drop. But for me, it's a drop. For what I want to do in my career and where I want to be, I need to make that play. I'm upbeat about it now, because there’s nowhere to go but up from here."

Also from Farnsworth: Playing John Moffitt at right guard could help improve communication on the line.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at how long-range thinking (releasing Winslow) clashed with short-term goals (repeated failures in the red zone Sunday) for the Seahawks. Noted: This was absolutely the case unless there was reason to think Winslow wouldn't have been available for the opener. Winslow does have knee troubles, but the termination of his contract did not carry a "failed physical" notation. He was presumably healthy enough to contribute. The price for keeping Winslow on the roster would have been $3.3 million in salary (guaranteed had he been on the roster for Week 1) and a conditional draft choice that would have been owed to Tampa Bay.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle looks at what the Seahawks should do differently in Week 2.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News previews the matchup between 49ers tackle Anthony Davis and Lions defensive end Cliff Avril. The two went after one another last season. Davis: "He doesn't like me, man. I don't know why. I don't need any new friends. It's cool. It's not about one person going against one guy."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at Tarell Brown's matchup against Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Lions coach Jim Schwartz on Johnson's role in the winning touchdown pass to running back Kevin Smith against the Rams: "If you look at the play, there were four people on (Johnson). The play was designed for Calvin. We make no mistake about that. We were trying to hit Calvin on the back line, but when they slough four guys off on him -- they had him doubled and also had two linebackers underneath -- when that happened, that freed our running back up to be wide open in the flat. That's the dynamic that Calvin brings. It’s very rare that he’s not doubled, some way, somehow."

Also from Branch: The 49ers can tie an NFL record for consecutive NFL games without a turnover if they avoid one against Detroit. New England has the record of seven games.
The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh, known to walk past the first-class cabin to his seat in coach, should be relieved to have missed Forbes' list of 10 highest-paid coaches.

Harbaugh's three NFC West contemporaries made the list, with the St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher and the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll earning a reported $7 million annually.

Coaches presumably do not make available their contracts or tax returns, so these listings qualify as unofficial. They are generally consistent with media reports, at least.

The Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt checks in at tied for eighth ($5.8 million).

Note that the listings include sports beyond football, but not including hockey. Five of the 10 highest-paid coaches have won championships: Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich and Mike Tomlin.

Harbaugh, who promoted a blue-collar culture complete with work shirts last season, reportedly earns $5 million per season. That would rank Harbaugh among the higher-paid coaches in the NFL, but with 14 regular-season and postseason victories last season, the price tag has been a bargain to this point.

Carroll and Fisher would have to produce 19.6 victories in a season to match the $357,142-per-victory average for Harbaugh. Whisenhunt would have to produce 16.2 victories.

News that the Pro Bowl is likely going away comes a couple months after commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to discontinue the game.

Television ratings for the annual all-star game have remained relatively strong, but the product does nothing to enhance the NFL's brand, in my view. The drama and strategy that make real games compelling cannot exist in a Pro Bowl context.

The NFL Players Association has promoted continuing the game, calling it an important tradition. I get it, but elite players worried about risking injuries unnecessarily should welcome the news.

"Guys play a full season, they play physical through a full season, and you get rewarded," the New England Patriots' Vince Wilfork said during Super Bowl week. "The last thing you want to do is go out in a game like that and hurt yourself. That is not good for the individual or for the organization."

Wilfork's coach, Bill Belichick, responded humorously when asked about Aaron Rodgers' complaints that the 2012 Pro Bowl had become even more farcical than its predecessors. It was clear Belichick thought poorly of what the game had become.

"I felt like some of the guys on the NFC side embarrassed themselves," Rodgers told ESPN 540 in Milwaukee. "I was just surprised that some of the guys either didn't want to play or when they were in there didn't put any effort into it."

There should be no faking tackle football. It's a game best played with emotion and with something at stake beyond the potential for injury.

Rams' Snead believes in Patriots' way

February, 24, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- A voice from above spoke to new St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead at the NFL scouting combine Friday.

The football gods? Not quite.

Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, Snead's boss until recently, was calling down his approval from a third-level balcony overlooking a Lucas Oil Stadium meeting room after Snead's first national news conference with the Rams.

Snead points to Dimitroff's roots with the New England Patriots as critical in shaping the approach he hopes to share with the Rams.

"I think the Patriots are a difference-making organization," Snead said, noting that the Patriots own more regular-season victories than any team over the past four seasons. "What you will find with them is they are going to believe that teams win championships, individuals don't. Everything they do, whether it's the type of plate that is in the cafeteria to the type of scouting grading scale you have, they want to have a competitive edge in that area. That is what you learn. There is a lot of innovative thought that goes into the logistics and processes of putting it all together."

Snead did not say if the Rams were considering Corelle dinnerware at their facility.

The Patriots would have approved his vagueness when asked to provide additional examples.

"I'd like to think that is content we would keep in the building and make us competitive," Snead said. "Over time, we'll figure it out and see if I was correct."

The Patriots' approach is indivisible from their coach, Bill Belichick.

Jeff Fisher will set the tone for St. Louis and serve as the face of the organization. I would expect Snead to borrow from Dimitroff and the Patriots' approach mostly when it comes to processes for evaluation.