NFC West: Billy Devaney
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
On Monday afternoon’s edition of ESPN's "NFL Insiders," Devaney cut to the heart of the matter on why Barron never lived up to his potential.
"He does not like anything about the game except getting paid,” Devaney said.
Coming out of Florida State in 2005, nobody questioned Barron’s physical abilities. He was 6-foot-7, 320 pounds with the wingspan of a condor and a two-time All-American.
Offensive tackles with that size and résumé rarely fall out of the top five of the NFL draft let along the top 10. Questions about Barron’s effort level were enough to push him to No. 19, where the Rams grabbed him in hopes that he could be the bookend for Orlando Pace and become his long-term successor.
Barron proved durable in the sense that he started 74 games in his five seasons with the Rams. But most in St. Louis remember him for his ability to consistently earn penalties. He drew 43 flags for false starts and 13 holding penalties while with the Rams.
Devaney was two seasons into his tenure as Rams general manager when he dealt Barron to Dallas for linebacker Bobby Carpenter only a couple weeks after drafting current right tackle Rodger Saffold in the second round of the 2010 draft. The Rams drafted Jason Smith in the first round in 2009.
Fisher has been on the job less than eight months. Spagnuolo was head coach for the previous three years.
That should give you a feel for the degree to which St. Louis is remaking its roster under new leadership.
The 11 players drafted under Fisher include nine members of the Rams' 2012 class, plus two of Fisher's former players in Tennessee: cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive end William Hayes. The 12th member of the Rams' latest draft class, seventh-round linebacker Aaron Brown, has signed to the practice squad.
Starters Sam Bradford, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Lance Kendricks and Robert Quinn remain from the Rams' drafts under Spagnuolo and former general manager Billy Devaney.
Backups Bradley Fletcher, Josh Hull, Michael Hoomanawanui, Eugene Sims and Darell Scott also remain as picks from the previous leadership.
Pettis, a third-round choice in 2011, becomes eligible to join the roster after Week 2. He would also be a backup.
The Rams have recently traded 2009 first-rounder Jason Smith and 2011 fourth-rounder Greg Salas. They released 2010 third-rounder Jerome Murphy. Those three players once figured prominently into the Rams' plans. They are now footnotes.
As the chart shows, St. Louis has four tight ends, a high number reflecting the team's offensive philosophy. The Rams have one fewer offensive lineman than usual. They simply did not have nine worth keeping, in my view. It's debatable if they have even eight, but teams keep seven active on game days, making eight a low number. Injuries on the defensive line, specifically to rookie first-round draft choice Michael Brockers, account for the Rams keeping 10 at that position, a relatively high number.
For download: This Rams roster features 27 columns of info on all active and practice-squad players, plus every player on the roster since roughly 2007.
That changed Saturday when Devaney, now living in Atlanta, checked in with Doug Farrar and Rob Rang on Sports Radio 950 AM KJR.
Devaney revisited some of the issues that led to the Rams' demise: losing offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, changing the offense with no offseason, suffering too many injuries at cornerback and then facing a tough schedule.
There was no mention of anything the general manager could have done better, but in truth, there were lots of troubles beyond his control.
Devaney did lament the talent at receiver last season even before the Rams lost Danny Amendola to injury, and especially after Amendola was out. He thinks the Rams' new offensive philosophy will be better for quarterback Sam Bradford.
Brian McIntyre of NFL.com transcribed some of Devaney's comments, including this one: "We lose Pat Shurmur to the Cleveland Browns, he's our offensive coordinator. And the decision was made to bring in Josh McDaniels and change the whole offense. And it kind of completely blew up on us. It was the perfect storm, Doug and Rob. When you look at it, we had a ton of injuries, no offseason. It was just one thing after another. I could tell in training camp -- I mean early on, I don't even know if we started playing a preseason game -- things just, especially on offense, things just looked really ... nobody looked comfortable." Noted: Devaney's wording was interesting. "The decision was made" puts distance between Devaney and the Rams' decision to hire McDaniels. Devaney would be more apt to favor a traditional offense, one that emphasizes the ground game. That was the Rams' stated approach previously. It's the Rams' approach now, and Devaney said it would help Bradford.
Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at the Rams' situation at tight end.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com explains why he said the San Francisco 49ers' current receiving corps is the deepest and most talented in team history. Maiocco: "I was referring to depth -- a combination of looking at the 11 receivers on the 49ers' 90-man roster from the bottom up, as well as from the top down. Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn and A.J. Jenkins were first-round draft picks. Ginn is only 27. His best season came in his second year, 2008 with the Miami Dolphins, when he caught 56 passes for 790 yards. He'll have a difficult time getting on the field for action other than special teams this season. Jenkins' talent is undeniable. And, likewise, it will not be easy for him to work his way onto the field early in his career because of the fierce competition within this position group." Noted: No other team in the NFL has as many first-round receivers on its roster.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has no problem with Vernon Davis saying he expects to become the greatest tight end in NFL history. Noted: The postseason Davis put together shows he can be that type of player at the position, especially if he continues to refine his route running, improve his feel for the game and improve in other areas that go beyond his obvious physical gifts.
Mike Rosenberg of the San Jose Mercury News says lawsuits could arise after Santa Clara County redirected $30 million in stadium funding to education. Noted: That amount of money isn't enough to scuttle plans to build the stadium. The fact that the county has declared plans to spend the money on education instead of for "little televisions in the back of stadium seats" makes this look like a political play, in my view.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with receiver Sidney Rice for an injury update. Rice is rehabbing from surgery on each shoulder, but problems with those joints weren't behind his move to the injured reserve list last season. Rice: "The shoulder wasn’t really the problem, I was battling through that concussion thing. That’s a league policy, and I can’t argue with that. But I could have played through the shoulders the whole season, no doubt."
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune offers thoughts on a few Seahawks-related issues, including expectations for Chris Clemons: "He’s under contract, and I can’t imagine him just throwing away a year by not showing up at all. If he doesn’t get the deal he wants, I’m not sure that would affect him the way it might some other players … because he seems disgruntled pretty much all the time anyway. He plays as if he’s angry all the time, anyway; that might be what puts the edge in his game. This might make him better than ever."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team has a "reasonable" amount of salary-cap space heading toward training camp, based on figures published by Pro Football Talk. Urban: "Even if the Cards don’t make another move, the cap space will change depending on their final roster. Right now the number is the top 51 cap numbers on the roster; when the regular season starts that will include all 53 on the roster as well as anyone on injured reserve and the practice squad." Noted: Teams will do more subtracting from rosters than adding to them. Having several million in cap spaces provides a measure of flexibility.
» AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
Examining who faces the most challenging season for the St. Louis Rams and why.
Jason Smith should be hitting his prime years as an offensive tackle for the Rams. There's a chance that will be the case, unlikely as it seems after three underwhelming seasons marked by injuries. The Rams reworked Smith's contract and will find out whether new line coach Paul Boudreau can help Smith, still only 26, fulfill more of his potential. Smith, limited to six games last season after suffering a concussion during a freak collision, will need better luck with injuries for that to happen.
It's instructive to recall the Rams' thinking when they made Smith the second player chosen in the 2009 draft. The feeling then was that Smith remained in the early stages of a transition from tight end to tackle, and that Eugene Monroe, selected eighth overall that year by Jacksonville, was more polished coming out of college.
"The way we look at it, he has played at a high level with only three years at the position," Billy Devaney, then the Rams' general manager, said of Smith at the time. "So you try to project a year or two down the road with that kind of development that we see, he’ll be that much better. If you take Monroe, he comes in and lines up on Sunday, if we're playing, at left tackle and plays. He's been there longer. Jason has been a right tackle and that’s what gives us flexibility. ... His production is good now and his potential is outstanding."
The Rams are envisioning more of a run-oriented offense this year. That could help Smith, their projected starter at right tackle, find his bearings. The schedule presents challenges, however. Smith opens the season on the road against Detroit and the Lions' franchise player, Cliff Avril. The Washington Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan is on the schedule in Week 2, followed by matchups against rookie first-round picks Shea McClellin (Chicago) and Bruce Irvin (Seattle). Green Bay's Clay Matthews is also on the schedule in the first seven games.
Teams visit with players they hope to select. Teams also visit with players they're unlikely to select. Sometimes they select players who never once came through their facilities before the draft.
The St. Louis Rams are picking high enough, sixth overall, to almost ensure they'll wind up with one of the 30 players scheduled to visit.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are beginning to hold those meetings as they head toward the 2012 draft. Thomas: "Under former general manager Billy Devaney, the Rams brought in all of the so-called 'top 30' visits over a two- or three-day period. But under new general manager Les Snead, the visits are being staggered over a two-week period. Tackle Mike Adams, receiver Justin Blackmon, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and cornerback Janoris Jenkins visited Monday. Thomas lists 10 other players among those scheduled to visit, including cornerback Morris Claiborne, defensive end Quinton Coples, running back Trent Richardson, receiver Michael Floyd and receiver Rueben Randle.
Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic says the NFL and the Cardinals have issues with the city of Glendale over allocation of parking spots. Harris: "The Arizona Cardinals are accusing cash-strapped Glendale of financial mismanagement and could sue the city over the loss of parking for roughly 9,000 of the team's ticket holders at Westgate City Center near University of Phoenix Stadium. Glendale, which has spent heavily to try to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in neighboring Jobing.com Arena, is working with the team on a solution to the dispute, Mayor Elaine Scruggs said. The Cardinals and the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority, which manages the stadium, sent Glendale a four-page demand letter Monday seeking written assurances the parking problem would be addressed by May 1. If not, the letter said, legal action may follow. Representatives from the National Football League, the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee, which landed the 2015 NFL title game in Glendale, and the Fiesta Bowl, a fellow stadium tenant, also signed the letter asking the city to keep past promises to tenants not to take away any nearby parking."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals' final practices before training camp will be June 12-14.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Marcus Trufant's re-signing with the Seahawks makes sense in part because another cornerback, Walter Thurmond, apparently suffered a setback in his return from a broken leg. O'Neil: "Thurmond is expected to begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which would indicate a setback in his recovery from the injury. If a player is on the PUP list after the final roster cuts, he must miss at least the first six games before being activated."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com has this to say about Trufant's return: "Where he fits in a defense that ranked ninth in the league last season remains to be seen. In his absence in 2011, rookie Richard Sherman stepped in and played well on the left side. On the right side, Brandon Browner finished his first NFL season by playing in the Pro Bowl. And the coaches remain high on Walter Thurmond, a third-year corner who missed 10 games last season with a broken ankle that required surgery. But coach Pete Carroll is all about competition, and Trufant definitely has been a competitor during his career with the Seahawks."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com recaps the past week for the San Francisco 49ers. Maiocco: "Safety Reggie Smith, an unrestricted free agent, signed with the Carolina Panthers. Smith was the 49ers' No. 3 safety last season. In his season-ending meeting with general manager Trent Baalke, the sides agreed it was in the best interest of both sides for Smith to look for a better opportunity elsewhere. Currently, C.J. Spillman is the 49ers' third safety behind starters Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. The club will look for another veteran safety and/or add at the position in the draft."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Randle and Floyd are among the college receivers who have met or plan to meet with the 49ers before the draft.
Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel Les Snead, who accepted the job Saturday, has worked with four head coaches and two interim coaches during a Falcons tenure dating to 1998. Dan Reeves, Bobby Petrino, Jim Mora and Mike Smith were the head coaches. Wade Phillips and Emmitt Thomas were the interim coaches.
Snead's ability to rise through the ranks with the Falcons across multiple regimes and an ownership change suggests he's adaptable. The Rams hired Fisher to remake the team. They wanted a GM to provide the personnel expertise to facilitate the transformation.
Snead worked under Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff most recently. He replaces former Rams general manager Billy Devaney, who had also come to St. Louis from the Falcons' front office.
Snead, listed by the Falcons as 37 years old entering the 2011 season, is about 15 years younger than Fisher. He was a tight end at Auburn from 1992-93, where he played with NFC West alums Chris Gray and Frank Sanders.
The Rams did not immediately announce the hiring. Snead interviewed over the phone for the San Francisco 49ers' GM job a year ago, but the team hired Trent Baalke instead.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the 10-38 record was simply unacceptable, and the main reason firing Spagnuolo (along with general manager Billy Devaney) was an easy call. Miklasz backs former Titans coach Jeff Fisher as a strong candidate. Miklasz: "Even when the Titans had losing seasons, they were not a team that opponents enjoyed facing. Over Fisher's 16 full years, the Titans ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing, and were No. 4 in stopping the run. They were 4th in sacking the QB and allowed the third-fewest number of sacks. The Titans passed the ball better than they were generally given credit for; over 16 seasons they had the league's 10th-best touchdown/interception ratio. Just very solid, tough and fundamentally sound football." Noted: Welcoming Fisher into a division already featuring Jim Harbaugh, Ken Whisenhunt and Pete Carroll would up the ante. The NFC West is already becoming a tougher, more physical division. Fisher would amplify that.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' next coach will likely have experience leading a team.
Also from Thomas: The Rams' record was the reason behind the firings because owner Stan Kroenke is concerned with the bottom line.
Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis suggests former Rams executive John Shaw could still be steering the franchise to some degree. Balzer: "The Rams had a chance to keep a good thing going a decade ago, but instead, dysfunction became the rule. Kroenke was a part-owner then and John Shaw was the club president. Shaw ostensibly 'retired' after the 2010 season and there was supposed to be a new direction for the franchise. But Shaw never went totally away. ... Now, Kroenke will be putting his true imprint on the franchise, perhaps with Shaw’s recommendations. Hopefully, he gets it right."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has again stated his desire to keep Alex Smith with the team beyond this season. Harbaugh: "I've told Alex that. I wouldn't tell you [the media] something I wouldn't tell Alex. I told Alex, 'Hey, we're going to want you to come back here next year.' He's focused on the season, and that's where his mindset wants to be. And I totally respect that, and we'll talk about it and address it once the season is over. That's the way I understand it right now."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers will reassess Delanie Walker's injury Wednesday.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat thinks Harbaugh goes too far in being uncooperative. Cohn: "Many football coaches act like this, like they are planning the invasion of Normandy, and life as we know it depends on keeping silent. It’s just that most coaches are more subtle than Harbaugh and most are willing to compromise just a little in safe areas -- there are safe areas, believe me. Most coaches certainly have better manners and even a sense of humor or a shred of warmth and charm. Harbaugh may eventually learn these things."
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News updates 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman's candidacy at Penn State.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Kevin Kolb faces a crossroads season in 2012 after struggling on the field and with injuries during his first year in Arizona. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "One thing that’s been consistent is we’re always going to play the best player. As far as how those guys stack up or where they are, that’s all part of the evaluations we do in the offseason. … I’m excited about all three of our quarterbacks."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals anticipate few changes this offseason.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with Marshawn Lynch for thoughts on potentially hitting free agency. Williams: "Lynch would like to stay in Seattle, but when asked about the possibility of reaching free agency if the two sides do not come to an agreement, he didn’t sound like someone willing to give in to a hometown discount either."
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times has this to say about Tarvaris Jackson and the Seahawks' quarterback situation: "Jackson did his job. He became a more efficient quarterback, especially after the run game emerged. You don't really have to worry about Jackson losing games. The Seahawks still don't have a quarterback who can win games regularly, however. And so the pursuit continues. Or maybe, because they haven't made a significant investment in a quarterback yet, the pursuit begins. Will general manager John Schneider go after Matt Flynn? Or move up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III if he declares? Or make an unpredictable pick in a later round? Or sign Charlie Whitehurst's clone? It's hard to tell where the Seahawks are in this drama."
"No one individual is to blame for this disappointing season and we all must hold ourselves accountable," Kroenke said. "However, we believe it's in the best interest of the St. Louis Rams to make these changes as we continue our quest to build a team that consistently competes for playoffs and championships."
Carolina went from 2-14 in 2010 to 6-10 this season after firing head coach John Fox. It's impossible to know whether the Panthers would have improved by as much or more by staying the course. They could not have gotten much worse.
Three teams went 4-12 in 2010. Cincinnati improved five games after keeping Marvin Lewis. Denver improved four games after firing Josh McDaniels. Buffalo improved two games after keeping Chan Gailey. How did coaching moves play into those changes? Again, it's tough to know.
Two teams went 5-11 in 2010. Cleveland lost ground in the standings by one game after hiring a new coach, Pat Shurmur. Arizona improved three games after keeping Ken Whisenhunt.
The Rams can easily justify the changes they are making by pointing to the bottom line. The team went 10-38 with Spagnuolo as its head coach. Nothing more needs to be said in justifying the move.
Kroenke has been with the Rams for years, but he is relatively new to the position of majority owner. The situation is perfect for him to set a new course with his own people. The team has a young franchise quarterback. Chris Long and James Laurinaitis give the next coach two young defensive players to build around. Robert Quinn could be another.
The team's salary-cap situation has improved. Most of the veterans signed to make a push in 2010 are easily expendable from a financial standpoint. The Rams are in position to become one of the NFL's younger teams with an offseason roster overhaul. They will have to acquire and develop starters throughout most of their offense. They need help at outside linebacker and throughout their secondary, depending to some degree on health-related issues.
In the accompanying video, ESPN's Adam Schefter points to Jeff Fisher as one potential candidate. That would make some sense, given Fisher's experience as a head coach. Spagnuolo was a first-timer. Hiring a more experienced coach would be one way to set a new course. Someone with credibility on a national level might initially help to win over skeptical Rams public.
The weight of 10-38 prevented the Rams from credibly pointing to a long list of injuries that obviously affected their chances in 2011. No one cares much why teams lose. They want winners. All parties understand that, making Kroenke's announcement no surprise to anyone.
That is typical in these situations. The what becomes more reliable than the when, but for the most part, teams wait at least one day before acting.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says ownership is the problem if the Rams stay the course following a 2-14 season. Miklasz: "I remember 'Mad' Mike Martz going 51-29 as the Rams' head coach from 2000 through 2004. He had an offense that averaged nearly 27 points a game. But people in this town went berserk in their opposition to Martz and couldn't wait to push him out. And now we've come to this: The 10-38 head coach is all but offering to take his players to Dairy Queen for a postseason treat to cheer 'em up. What's next, trophies for participation?" Noted: This offseason provides Rams owner Stan Kroenke with the first real opportunity to remake the franchise since he became majority owner. He's had plenty of time to line up contingency plans. I would expect the Rams to move decisively. There was nothing more to learn from the last couple weeks of the season.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Kroenke needs to quickly and clearly enunciate his plan for the future of the team. Burwell: "Whether Kroenke intends to re-tool his football operation or blow the entire thing up, the best move is to hop to the front of the hiring line as quickly as possible if you're going to shop for new front-office personnel or new assistant coaches. Today a lot of teams are going to be firing coaches and sweeping out their football operations. A lot of very competent coaches are going to be out of a job by the end of Black Monday, and many of them could be considered upgrades on some of the folks who are currently employed at Rams Park."
Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis expects change at Rams Park, but he also says the team's injury situation played a leading role in its struggles. Balzer: "There are many that don’t want to hear any of the reasons that led to what happened this season. And yes, coaching issues contributed to it. But to ignore the obvious facts of the extent that this team was decimated by injuries is simply being close-minded. Yes, all teams have injuries, but to varying degrees. And not to the level where the Rams started five players on offense Sunday that weren’t in training camp, with three being on the offensive line and one at quarterback."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates Kellen Clemens' injury situation. X-rays were negative.
Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams players expressed support for Spagnuolo.
The team has made no announcement, but this outcome was widely anticipated. The Rams now have a 10-38 record in three seasons under Spagnuolo. Unlike some other teams, notably the division-rival Seattle Seahawks, the Rams lacked the young depth to overcome a long list of injuries this season.
The cumulative weight of Spagnuolo's record and the team's personnel shortcomings made change appear imminent.
Successes enjoyed elsewhere in the division also worked against the Rams' current leadership.
Ken Whisenhunt has led the Arizona Cardinals to a .500 or better record four times in five seasons after taking over a franchise that had achieved laughingstock status. Pete Carroll has gotten the Seattle Seahawks to 7-9 twice while blowing up the roster and rebuilding with young talent. Jim Harbaugh has taken the San Francisco 49ers to a 13-3 record in his first season, producing the team's first playoff appearance in a decade.
The injuries St. Louis suffered this season bought some slack for Spagnuolo and Devaney, in my view. But finishing 0-6 in the division was unacceptable given what the Rams' rivals were working with at quarterback. St. Louis went 0-2 against John Skelton and 0-2 against Tarvaris Jackson. The Rams lucked into a victory at Cleveland when the Rams botched the snap on a chip-shot field goal.
There simply wasn't enough evidence things were headed in the right direction to warrant staying the course. Spagnuolo's defensive scheming was never in question. His game management came under fire at times, however, and the Rams struggled to win when games were close in fourth quarters. The 49ers' ability to fool the Rams with a fake field goal Sunday strengthened the impression that Spagnuolo could not make the difference in close games.
The Rams were 1-10 under Spagnuolo when tied or trailing by no more than seven points after three quarters. They were 4-5 when leading by 1-7 points after three quarters.
If the Rams were going to fire Devaney, they also were probably best off replacing Spagnuolo, in my view. Changing both positions allows the next leadership regime to start fresh together and on the same page. That gives the team a better chance to avoid infighting that can occur when a new GM inherits an established head coach.
That will be the case after the Saints defeated Atlanta on Monday night to keep pace with the 49ers in the conference standings. Both teams are 12-3, but San Francisco would win a tiebreaker based on superior conference record. The Saints lost to Green Bay, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. The 49ers lost to Dallas, Baltimore and Arizona.
If the 49ers can do what the Saints could not -- beat the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome -- they'll get a free pass into the divisional round of the playoffs. And if the Saints lose to Carolina in their regular-season finale, the 49ers will get a bye no matter what happens in St. Louis. But the team can no longer coast into Week 17.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee notes that the 49ers-Rams and Panthers-Saints games both begin at 1 p.m. ET. Barrows: "The No. 3 seed will host a wild-card round game against either the Lions or Falcons depending on the Week 17 results. The Lions visit Green Bay in the finale; the Falcons host the Buccaneers. The Packers, 49ers, Saints, Lions and Falcons have wrapped up spots in the NFC playoffs. The remaining spot will go to the winner of Sunday's game between the Giants and Cowboys."
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' Trent Baalke should be named the NFL's top executive this season. Cohn: "Before Baalke took over, the Niners already had Justin Smith and Patrick Willis. Very good defense. Baalke added NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, the new Charles Haley. And now the 49ers have a great defense. That upgrade to greatness is on Baalke. He brought in Ted Ginn Jr. and Blake Costanzo and he's made the special teams superb and dangerous. He remade the secondary with Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Chris Culliver. He signed center Jonathan Goodwin to anchor the offensive line. He drafted Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati and sometimes they are terrific offensive linemen. And they are improving. He drafted Kendall Hunter -- amazing running back. He drafted Bruce Miller. He drafted Kyle Williams, a big surprise at wide receiver, a real find, and Williams has filled in when others faltered."
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Jim Harbaugh made little of Scot McCloughan's comments last week.
Keith Goldner of Advanced NFL Stats explains why average starting field position correlates so strongly with winning, specifically for the 49ers. While special teams play a role in the averages, turnovers are the key variable.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Steve Spagnuolo could be heading into his final game as the Rams' head coach. Thomas: "This season began with the Rams considered a favorite by many to win the NFC West. But injuries, historically bad offense and run defense, plus one of the league's toughest schedules have resulted in a 2-13 disaster. Spagnuolo, considered one of the hottest coordinators in the game when hired in January 2009, has one year left on his contract. In late November, league sources told the Post-Dispatch that (owner Stan) Kroenke almost certainly hadn't made up his mind about what to do with both Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney, who also has one year left on his contract."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com runs through Rams injuries and says cornerback Justin King is headed for surgery.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says coach Ken Whisenhunt sees significance in getting to 8-8 following a 1-6 start to the season. Urban: "With both the Seahawks and Cards losing over the weekend, the only thing at stake Sunday will be that .500 mark – Seattle is also 7-8 – and second place in the NFC West. Considering all the momentum gained by the winning streak and the playoff possibilities, losing to the Bengals could deflate the locker room. Whisenhunt, however, doesn’t see that, not after the players were able to rally from a six-game losing streak."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb continues to fight through concussion symptoms. McManaman: "Whisenhunt said Kolb handled the plane ride in from Phoenix all right, but that once the quarterback got to the stadium, the sun and the noise from the crowd began to get to him."
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic expects improvement from the Cardinals in 2012.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks have done a good job finding starting-caliber talent from unexpected places. Williams: "The Seahawks appear to have their corners of the future in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Sherman, a fifth-round selection in this year’s draft out of Stanford, took over at left corner when Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond went down with season-ending injuries. Sherman has three interceptions in nine games, and he plays with a swagger that fits in perfectly with the rest of the defense. And with three of the team’s projected starting five on the offensive line -- rookies James Carpenter and John Moffitt, and second-year pro Russell Okung -- out with injuries, the Seahawks continue to churn out the yards on the ground."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times runs through what he learned from the Seahawks' game against San Francisco. He also points to the team's continued strength in blocking kicks. O'Neil: "For that, special-teams coach Brian Schneider deserves some recognition. Seattle's Red Bryant has blocked three field-goal attempts, one point-after try and on Saturday the Seahawks blocked a punt for the second time this year. That is a tribute to Schneider's attention to detail, pin-pointing and targeting weaknesses in opponents' formations. Last year, his units were the single biggest strength of the team, and while Seattle's kick coverage was a problem the first half of this season, the other units have shown his imprint."
With Pettis out through the first two games in 2011, the Rams have only two of their own rookie draft choice on their 53-man roster.
First-round choice Robert Quinn and second-rounder Lance Kendricks remain active for the Rams from a group that included Pettis (suspended), Greg Salas (injured reserve), Jermale Hines (released, now with Indianapolis), Mikhail Baker (released), Jabara Williams (released, now with Chicago) and Jonathan Nelson (released, now with Carolina).
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offered details on what the suspension means for Pettis. Thomas: "Pettis is eligible to participate in all offseason and preseason practices and games following the conclusion of this season. But regardless of whether there's a head-coaching change or not, missing the first two contests of the 2012 season will put him behind the other wideouts on the depth chart and in his quest for playing time."
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney do not deserve much sympathy. Miklasz: "In a league of parity and close games, the Rams have been outscored 1,110 to 630 overall in Spags' time as head coach, with an average loss of 16 points. This team isn't competitive. Here's the odd thing: The more the Rams lose, the more we seem inclined to make excuses on their behalf or attempt to rationalize their failures. We've become enablers. And I'm not bashing the fans; the media is at fault as much as anyone. ... This isn't high school football. Spagnuolo was hired to win football games. If a coach can't win games, he's fired. He could be a saint or a sinner, but he needs to be a winner. Besides, Spagnuolo has fired trainers, an equipment manager and other employees at Rams Park. A big part of his job is terminating players. It's nothing personal. So why are we so sensitive about Spagnuolo's future?"
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Paul McQuistan's use across the Seahawks' offensive line tells a story. Farnsworth: "The trials and tribulations of the Seahawks’ injury-ravaged offensive line can he traced by following McQuistan’s progression from being a backup; to starting at left guard; to returning to his backup role; to starting at right guard; to starting at left tackle. McQuistan stepped in at left guard because Robert Gallery was out with a groin injury. He moved in at right guard after rookie John Moffitt went down with a season-ending knee injury. He slid over to left tackle when Russell Okung needed season-ending surgery to repair a torn pectoral."
Also from Farnsworth: Tarvaris Jackson has stepped up his game in second halves recently.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says injuries haven't stopped the Seahawks' offensive line from succeeding.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who laments not drafting receiver Doug Baldwin. Baldwin and cornerback Richard Sherman are two Seattle players with roots on Harbaugh's former Stanford teams. Harbaugh: "Yeah, I’m kicking myself for not doing that. And at the same time I’m really, really happy for Doug. I’ve watched him this whole year whenever we’re watching crossover tape. Or I’ve sometimes put on the tape, just to watch him and Richard. And I’ve seen him really grow the whole season."
Also from Williams: Marshawn Lynch has become the Seahawks' face.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic updates the Cardinals' quarterback situation heading into Week 16. Sounds like John Skelton might get another start over Kevin Kolb, who remains limited following a concussion. Somers: "On Monday, Whisenhunt said the fairest way to prepare one of the quarterbacks was to give him most of the work in practice. Judging by Wednesday's events, that appears to be Skelton. Kolb was listed as limited in practice, while Skelton is healthy. The Cardinals are 5-1 in games Skelton has either started or taken the majority of the snaps. Skelton has a tendency to start slowly and finish strongly. In four of Skelton's past eight games, the Cardinals have made game-winning drives in the fourth quarter."
Also from Somers, with Jim Gintonio: Deuce Lutui professes to be a changed man after nearly landing with the Cincinnati Bengals during the offseason. Lutui: "Where I was and where I'm at now, I could have seen it as frustration or I could have seen it as a problem or stated it as an opportunity. I've taken it as an opportunity. I've taken all the help that I can get. I've stuck in with John Lott (strength and conditioning coach), really a credit to him in helping me get in the best shape that I can. ... I also worked with my head, off the field, and went in with a mental coach. I've got a mental coach that's helped me elevate my game and alter the way I think for the next offseason, and so I've put a lot in my mind and body this year.""
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com has this to say about the quarterback situation in Arizona: "The way the defense has been performing for the Cards would help any quarterback. Skelton has had plenty of rough patches, but Whisenhunt acknowledged he’d rather have a quarterback that can finish than one who starts fast and fades. Skelton, whose beginnings to games have been almost as unimpressive as his finishes impressive, certainly falls into that category."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Braylon Edwards is anxious to get back on the field for the 49ers. Tight end Vernon Davis tweeted words of support to Edwards, who has struggled and was not active Monday night. Davis: "Just the look on his face is he wants to be out there bad. But I don't know the reason he's not. That's up to the coaches and him and Ferg (head trainer Jeff Ferguson) and the trainers. ... Just saying kind words like that keeps a guy like that level-headed and keeps him hungry and keeps him ready to go at any time. And I just felt that upon my spirit to lay that out there. And he is -- he's a guy that I'm grateful to have on the team. He's a true playmaker, and if given the opportunity I'm sure he'll take advantage of it."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com has this to say about Justin Smith in his defensive player review from Week 15: "Started at right defensive end and had an outstanding all-around game. He had three tackles, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery, but he also set up Aldon Smith for a couple of sacks ... Left guard Trai Essex held him for a 10-yard penalty to wipe out a 6-yard gain in the second quarter ... Fought through left side of Steelers line and Rashard Mendenhall to pressure Ben Roethlisberger into second-quarter incompletion. ... Recovered fourth-quarter fumble that directly led to 49ers touchdown ... Generously gave himself up to tie up Essex so that Aldon Smith could record a 6-yard sack ... Justin Smith did the same thing on the next series, resulting in another Aldon Smith sack."
Also from Maiocco: an offensive player review. On Frank Gore: "Dropped a pass out of the backfield on the first drive ... Missed Cameron Heyward in blitz pickup as Smith was rushed into incompletion on first drive ... Dropped another pass on third-and-7, though it was unlikely he would've picked up first down with defensive lineman Brett Keisel standing between him and the sticks ... Called for chop block on defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, as center Jonathan Goodwin had his left hand on Hood as Gore went low to block Hood. Did not play the final nine minutes after scoring on 5-yard TD."
Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat passes along Steve Young's thoughts on Aldon Smith, expressed recently on KNBR radio. Young compared Smith to a young Charles Haley. Young: "I’ve got to be honest with you. I’ve got to apologize to Aldon Smith because I hadn’t really seen him in person all year. And I apologize, because I had no idea how great he really was until I saw him in person. And that’s what matters. Hearing about it, watching it on TV and then seeing in person -- all different visceral relationships you have with something, and it matters. So around the league when everyone watched the 49ers kind of beat up on Ben Roethlisberger, don’t let him score, call a couple big touchdown drives, and they hear about the defense, they’ve watched Aldon Smith play and (laughs) whoever doesn’t think these guys are for real is kidding themselves."
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News examines Andy Lee's contributions to the 49ers. Lee was the NFC's player of the week for special teams.
The St. Louis Rams' coach was trying to explain some of the team's curious play calling near the goal line during a 30-13 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks. Spagnuolo pointed to the clock being a factor behind three consecutive pass plays from the Seattle 1-yard line.
I considered asking why the team had run twice to open the goal-to-go portion of the drive, once with backup running back Cadillac Williams and again with injured quarterback Sam Bradford on an ill-fated sneak, but there was really no reason to follow up. What could Spagnuolo say? Did it really matter at this point?
The cumulative effect of losing outweighed the need to examine in minute detail every aspect of this particular defeat.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it this way: "In St. Louis, we've seen this loss many times before; they all look the same by now. The players seemed to care. Running back Steven Jackson ran wildly and effectively, once again giving his all for a lost cause. The Rams defense played hard, putting up a fight until finally succumbing to fatigue and frustration. But the futile Rams offense failed to score enough points. With quarterback Sam Bradford playing on a gimpy left ankle and unable to consistently step into his throws, it was a challenge for the Rams to reach the end zone. ... What will (owner Stan) Kroenke do with his coach? I don't know. He could blow up the entire football operation and fire everyone. Or he could fire GM Billy Devaney and keep Spagnuolo. Or he could build another Wal-Mart."
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com offers a Rams report card with an "F" grade for coaching. Gordon: "Where do you start with that offense? A late offensive line substitution led to a broken red-zone play. That turned a first-and-goal scenario into a field-goal try. Josh McDaniels steered away from Jackson on several short-yardage calls near the goal line. He also ordered too many slow-developing play-action passing plays that seldom drew so much as a nibble from the Seattle secondary. Coaches must adapt their playcalling to the circumstances, and the Rams did a dreadful job of that on offense."
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune put the Seahawks' victory in perspective. Boling: "Yes, it was just the Rams. But the Seahawks also were without three starting offensive linemen and their big-ticket free-agent receiver – all out for the season with injuries. Yes, it was just the Rams. But Marshawn Lynch put together his fifth 100-yard rushing effort (23 for 115 yards) in the past six games. He unleashed another “Beast Mode” run in the third quarter when he pounded out a 12-yard gain despite being hit by a half-dozen defenders. He’s scored touchdowns in nine straight games. Yes, it was just the Rams. But the Seahawks’ young players had another impressive outing."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with the NFL's leading consumer of Skittles candy. Lynch rushed for 115 yards against the Rams. Fans showered him with Skittles when he scored a touchdown for the ninth consecutive game he has played. Lynch: "It really took off in college, when they gave me a pack of Skittles on the sideline at Cal. But it didn’t blow up the way it has like this."
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times sizes up Doug Baldwin's contributions for Seattle. Brewer: "His underdog tale continues to get better. He has evolved from undrafted free agent to rookie surprise to flat-out impact player. It's not a shock when Baldwin does great things anymore. He is, in the absence of Sidney Rice, the Seahawks' best wide receiver. He is, without a doubt, an essential part of the Seahawks' present and future."
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle offers postgame Seahawks notes, including one about Brandon Browner's up-and-down night. Browner on the big reception he allowed to Brandon Lloyd: "That double-move that he gave me, that should never happen. That's like what happened to me [against] Washington towards the end of the game. We're up, man. I've got to play off. I've got to play for the deep route."
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic thinks the Cardinals should bring back Todd Haley to help their offense after Ray Horton has helped turn around the defense. Bickley on the defense: "They've yielded six touchdowns in their past six games, the third-lowest total in the NFL during that span. They rank third in third-down defense behind the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, a stunning turnaround for veteran birdwatchers. For the second consecutive week, they amassed five sacks from five players. That creates a powerful force inside the locker room."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals aren't talking playoffs just yet. McManaman: "If the Cardinals win out -- beating Cleveland, Cincinnati and Seattle -- they would finish 9-7. If that happens and the teams above them in the NFC wild-card race lose two of their final three games -- namely Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas -- then Arizona is in. It's a long shot, but it's true. And even coach Ken Whisenhunt is a little apprehensive talking about it." Noted: The Cardinals could get into the playoffs even if they lost at home to Cleveland. Here is how.
Also from McManaman: The Cardinals say they aren't sure whether Kevin Kolb will play against the Browns. McManaman: "This couldn't have been how Kevin Kolb envisioned his first year as the Cardinals' starting quarterback would play out. In addition to taking a beating the first two months of the season, he missed four consecutive games because of a complicated right-foot injury. Then, just a week after returning, he suffered a concussion on the third play of Arizona's 21-19 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who gives the current 49ers an edge over the 1981 version. DeBartolo on the current team's defeat to Arizona: "What happened yesterday is the same thing that happened to me, Bill (Walsh), Steve (Young) and Joe (Montana) -- just exactly like that. That happened to us so many times in Phoenix, it's unbelievable. We'd go down there, and we had the better team, and they'd just pop up and come up with games." Noted: Not so fast. This team does not have Young or Montana. The 49ers have hit a rougher patch in the past three weeks and did not look good during the first half of their lone victory during that stretch, over the Rams. Writing off the defeat to Arizona as a fluke ignores broader struggles and limitations on offense. This team isn't playing with the efficiency it showed several weeks ago. It feels as though it's getting tougher to overcome some of the offensive limitations.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' Frank Gore is not 100 percent. Branch: "Gore is presumably dealing with knee and ankle injuries that he suffered in back-to-back games last month. During a win against the Redskins on Nov. 6, Gore hurt his ankle and, after the game, needed assistance stepping down from an elevated platform on which he’d addressed reporters. Gore played the following week -- collecting zero yards on six carries -- but didn’t finish a 27-20 win against the Giants after suffering a knee injury in the first half. Gore hasn’t missed a game since, but his production has dipped dramatically since he ripped off a franchise-record five straight 100-yard games, a streak that ended against the Giants."
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch landed a 1,641-word uppercut through his "Monday Morning Backup Quarterback" column. Among the words and phrases Miklasz uses: irresponsible, foolish, silliness, epic fail, incompetent, mismanagement, inexcusable, utterly incapable and failing. Miklasz: "I feel bad for the fans who pay to watch this junk. The fans have hung in there better than the Rams deserve. The bottom line is this: the Rams are 10-32 under Spagnuolo. They are 12-46 since Billy Devaney came aboard in 2008. They've made no progress with Stan Kroenke as owner. The leadership is failing the team, the franchise, and the fan base." Noted: And there are still six games to play. Buckle up, Rams.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com runs through the team's lengthy injury list.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com runs through three things he thought worked well for Seattle against the Rams, plus three things that need improving. Farnsworth: "Steven Jackson was coming off consecutive rushing performances of 159, 130 and 128 yards, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry as the Rams had won two of those games. Sunday, Jackson averaged 2.8 yards on 15 carries -- and without his 19-yarder in the second quarter on the one run where the Seahawks allowed him to get his 6-foot-2, 240-pound body going in a positive direction, that average dipped to 1.6 yards on his other 14 attempts."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times saw good things from Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner against Brandon Lloyd and the Rams. O'Neil: "Yes, he had another penalty, but that was just 5 yards. The Rams clearly wanted to test him, and Browner showed he was ready. Brandon Lloyd played in the Pro Bowl last season, and he's exactly the kind of smaller, quick wideout that could give Browner trouble. But Browner's physical style clearly affected him Sunday. Lloyd was targeted 14 times, and caught only five passes. Seattle's defense has ranked in the bottom six teams in the league in passing yards allowed in each of the past three seasons. That is changing this season thanks in part to the physical style of Browner."
Dave Wyman and Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle discuss how fines could affect Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. Wyman suggests Chancellor has a chance to become a Steve Atwater-type safety unless modern rules prevent him from doing so. Wyman and Atwater played together in Denver years ago.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic has this to say about the Cardinals' offensive struggles: "There was hope with a new starting quarterback, Kevin Kolb, and what looked to be an improved running back, Beanie Wells. But Kolb stumbled out of the blocks and has missed the past three games because of a right-foot injury. Wells, looking bigger and bolder, started the season strong. He was averaging 103 yards (including 138 against the Giants) after the Cardinals' first three games. But after missing a game at Seattle because of a hamstring problem and then suffering an injury to his right knee against the Steelers, the threat of a running game is almost nonexistent."
Also from McManaman, with Kent Somers: Kolb sounds more optimistic about playing in Week 12. Kolb: "I think we're at the point now, with the tape job they're doing on it, and the rehab, hopefully I can't hurt it enough to have a huge setback. My mentality and our mentality is I'm going to push it as hard as it can go and try to be out there. ... I pushed it hard all [last] week, and it just wasn't there. I think I would have been hurting my team if I went out there and tried to play on it. I would have been limping around everywhere and definitely would not have been up to par."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com covers the Cardinals' quarterback situation and says the team is not sure when rookie running back Ryan Williams will return from a serious knee injury.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says there's no reason to make the 49ers' game against Baltimore into a battle between the Harbaugh brothers. Cohn: "We want to think of it as deep with psychological layers. We want to think Jim staring at John is Jim staring at himself. And we want to think the 49ers and Ravens are extensions of the brothers -- a blood feud between the sons of Jack and Jackie Harbaugh played out on grass. It is tempting to view this game as drama. Don’t. The Harbaugh brothers sure don’t." Noted: Totally agree. The brothers angle appeals much less than the football angle, at least to me.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says Jim and John Harbaugh, now well into their 40s, haven't brawled since they were probably 25, according to John.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers never brought added pressure -- more than four pass-rushers -- against the Cardinals in Week 11. Noted: That suggests the 49ers were not worried about getting pressure and also thought John Skelton would struggle reading coverages.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Jim Harbaugh's ties to the Ravens include a nearly 30-year connection to Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.