NFC West: Brett Favre

Jim HarbaughChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh has reached the NFC title game in each of his three seasons, so why would the 49ers look elsewhere?

Coach Jim Harbaugh's situation in San Francisco has been one of the most talked-about stories in the league in recent weeks.

If a resolution on his contract isn't reached, it will likely hover over the franchise all season and would be a major story next January, when Harbaugh could leave the team, although Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated this week he is happy with all aspects of his job and doesn’t see any way he will leave the team before the end of his contract. Still, getting the contract done would ease a lot of issues.

We all know the backdrop: Harbaugh has led the 49ers to the NFC title game in all three of his seasons as coach. He got them to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. He is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract that pays him $5 million per year. Harbaugh and the 49ers have been in discussion about a new deal for about a year, but are not close to an extension. Team owner Jed York recently told the Sacramento Bee he thinks contract talks will resume after the NFL draft in early May.

Things got interesting when the Cleveland Browns pursued a trade for Harbaugh. The 49ers were not interested, but that could change next year.

There have been rampant reports that Harbaugh has had trouble with some in the 49ers' front office, including general manager Trent Baalke. York, Harbaugh and Baalke have long downplayed the friction, indicating that they can coexist.

However, there is enough smoke here to think this situation go could south if a contract isn't agreed upon this year. Let's look at some issues that may be part of this story as it further develops:

The history: While it would be stunning to see the 49ers-Harbaugh marriage disintegrate after such a stellar start, similar breakups have happened before.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones
AP Photo/Ron HeflinJim Harbaugh would not be the first successful coach to leave during a team's prime. Jimmy Johnson left the Cowboys after winning two Super Bowls because of fighting with owner Jerry Jones.
After winning two straight Super Bowls, Jimmy Johnson famously left the Cowboys in 1994 after fighting with owner Jerry Jones. Following the 1998 season, Mike Holmgren shocked the NFL when he left quarterback Brett Favre and a Green Bay Packers team in its prime after a seven-year run that included a Super Bowl win. Holmgren left for more power and much more money in Seattle. In 2002, the Raiders traded coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for a massive amount of draft picks. The Raiders were burned as Gruden led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win against Oakland in his first season. In 2007, the Chargers sided with general manager A.J. Smith in his feud with coach Marty Schottenheimer even though the Chargers went 14-2 the season before.

If Harbaugh leaves the 49ers, it wouldn't be the first time a coach and team split despite success.

The highest-paid coaches: Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated he is not unhappy with his pay, but the man is underpaid considering his massive NFL success. Nine of the 32 NFL coaches in 2013 made at least $7 million. Only five of them had won a Super Bowl.

I'd think it has to bother Harbaugh that Chip Kelly earned $6.5 million in his first NFL season and NFC West rival Jeff Fisher made $7 million in St. Louis. Coaches' salaries are at a premium and, by NFL standards, Harbaugh is underpaid.

The best coaches without power: He is hypercompetitive and likes to be in control. So, Harbaugh probably isn't always thrilled to defer personnel decisions to Baalke. But I don't sense Harbaugh wanting to be the general manager and making every decision as he said. He is a coach.

I don't see this as a deal-breaker.

There are plenty of great NFL coaches who don't have total power, including Harbaugh's brother, John, in Baltimore. There's also Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Pete Carroll in Seattle. So, a lack of total power in the NFL really isn't a big deal anymore for coaches.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkWould Stanford coach David Shaw be a candidate to follow Jim Harbaugh again?
Where could Harbaugh land? Harbaugh's situation could cause teams to adjust their plans late in the season. I could see many owners prematurely firing a coach to get a shot at Harbaugh if he goes into January unsigned.

But right now, the list of teams that may be making a change next year and may make sense for Harbaugh isn't very long.

Miami and Dallas would be among the biggest suitors. Miami tried to hire Harbaugh before he went to San Francisco. The team has deep pockets, a need for good public relations, and the Dolphins have a good young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Dallas has big bucks and Tony Romo. Harbaugh could like both places.

Other possibilities could include both New York teams and Atlanta (coaching Matt Ryan would surely be intriguing). A potential long shot could be Oakland. Harbaugh was an assistant in Oakland and he could stay in the Bay Area. But the Raiders have to find a quarterback and ownership would have to be willing to shell out financially to make it work. Plus, the 49ers would need to get a haul from the Raiders to trade him to their Bay Area rival.

If I had to give odds on the early favorite, I'd look toward Miami.

Who could replace Harbaugh? It's only logical to think that San Francisco ownership, in the back of its mind, is thinking post-Harbaugh just in case.

The chance of getting draft picks for a coach the 49ers can't come to an agreement with could interest the team next offseason. Also, the idea of front-office peace could be at the forefront as well, especially if things go haywire the rest of this year.

The first place the 49ers would likely look to replace Harbaugh is on the current staff. Because the team has been so successful, I could see the 49ers having interest in staying close to home. Offensive and defensive coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, respectively, would likely be on the 49ers' list. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is a favorite of the front office. He was a candidate when Harbaugh was hired and his players love him.

Here's another name the 49ers could look at -- David Shaw. He replaced Harbaugh at Stanford. I'm sure he wouldn't be afraid to do it again.

Shaw has been steadfast in his desire to stay at Stanford. But if he were ever to leave for the NFL, this would likely be an appealing situation. He and his family could stay in their house and he'd go to a near perfect NFL situation with a franchise quarterback in Colin Kaepernick.

There is plenty to unfold in this situation in the next several months. Harbaugh and the 49ers could end it all by coming to a contract extension. But as we have realized early this offseason, it's not that simple.

Morning Ram-blings: What about Young?

October, 25, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams have already made their decision on which quarterback to bring in as backups to Kellen Clemens. They signed Austin Davis and Brady Quinn earlier this week to handle those duties.

In the time since starter Sam Bradford went down for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, plenty of names have been thrown around, including Tim Tebow and the addition of Brett Favre yesterday. The only names we know the Rams had at least a modicum of interest in were Davis, Quinn, Favre and Tyler Thigpen. Another popular name that was thrown out by those wanting to speculate was Vince Young, who played for Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee.

The Rams never had interest in Young and that should be no surprise given that he and Fisher didn't exactly get along famously with the Titans. But Young joined ESPN's Prim Siripipat for an interview Thursday to discuss his current status. He told Siripipat that he hasn't been getting much action on the free-agent market but also expressed a desire for a reunion with Fisher.

"Knowing the history that me and coach Fisher have, I would love to have the opportunity to train or workout for him," Young said. "And have the opportunity to go out there and play for the Rams. It's all in the air. I have no grudge or no beef or nothing like that with coach Fisher and if we could reunite, if something like that would happen I think that would be pretty cool."

Of course, since Young is a free agent, he'd probably happy to get a call from any team whether the Rams or Fisher are involved or not.

I.C.Y.M.I.

All of Thursday's Rams' stories appearing here on ESPN. com on a busy day: ... The day started off with a bang with the news that the Rams called Brett Favre's agent and checked on his desire to return. It was another example of the Rams' getting caught scrambling to replace the injured Sam Bradford. ... From there, we took a look at NFL Nation columnist Kevin Seifert's take on the Favre situation and how the Rams reaching out to Favre is a larger commentary on the state of quarterbacks in the NFL. ... Next, we offered a look at Favre's comments to a Washington D.C. radio show. ... We continued the quarterback theme with a look at the two signal callers the Rams actually did sign. ... Finally, it was all about cornerback Cortland Finnegan's desire to return this week against Seattle and how he's looking to get back to being himself after a rough start.

Elsewhere:

The NFL Live crew makes its predictions for Monday night's game between the Rams and Seattle Seahawks.

Adam Schefter discusses the Favre situation and if it was a move born of desperation for the Rams.

Mike Sando offers the "Inside Edge" on Monday night's game.

At stltoday.com, Jim Thomas provides Rams guard Harvey Dahl's thoughts on the events that transpired last week in Carolina.

Seattle defense won't face Brett Favre

October, 24, 2013
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Had Brett Favre said yes, the Seattle Seahawks probably would have faced the famous 44-year old quarterback Monday night at St. Louis.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Rams reached out to Favre about coming out of retirement one more time to fill in for injured starter Sam Bradford, but Favre said no.

The Rams did sign Brady Quinn, who spent all of training camp and the preseason with the Seahawks. So Quinn might add a little knowledge about Seattle's offensive system. The Rams also re-signed Austin Davis, who was released at the end of the preseason.

But the starting assignment goes to 30-year-old Kellen Clemens, the former Oregon quarterback who hasn’t started an NFL game since 2011.

“Kellen is a smart guy and we’re going to cut him loose,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher said on a conference call Thursday. “He has a real good understanding of what we’re doing and he’s been in the system for a long time. He’s been great in the building here and on the practice field, especially with the younger guys.”

But the Rams still were hoping to talk an old pro out of retirement one more time.

“When you lose your starting quarterback, everybody has to step up and do a little more,” Fisher said. “That where our focus is."

Why did Brett Favre intrigue the Rams?

October, 24, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Just when it seemed all the discussion about the St. Louis Rams and quarterbacks was about to settle down, our Adam Schefter reported this morning that the team reached out this week to 44-year old Brett Favre as a potential replacement for injured starter Sam Bradford.

Per the report, Favre declined the offer and made it clear that he has no plans to return to football. He hasn't played since 2010.

Perhaps the hardest part to figure out is what's most surprising about this news. Is it that the Rams attempted to sign a 44-year-old who hasn't played in three years and struggled to an 11-touchdown, 18-interception season when we last saw him? Or is it that Favre, he of the perpetual "Indecision" -- the anti-LeBron James -- not only declined the offer, but did so without spending some of his free time pondering the possibility?

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP File Photo/Rogelio V. SolisBrett Favre might have appealed to the Rams because of his ability to mentor their young receivers and running backs.
It's no surprise that Favre didn't want to return. One would think the situation would have to be much better -- a potential championship situation -- for Favre to consider it. The Rams don't offer that.

From the Rams' perspective, it's somewhat shocking to hear that Favre was a potential target. There was plenty of caterwauling from fans and media alike about finding a "big name" who could help sell some tickets during the back half of the schedule. But even for those hoping to find a quarterback solely on name basis, Tim Tebow and Vince Young came up.

The Rams made it pretty clear that Tebow and Young weren't options. Even when I attempted to sort through the (ugly) list of names of potential replacements Monday afternoon, Favre wasn't one of them. Maybe he should have been.

While at this point in his life, Favre probably wouldn't have been much of an upgrade over Kellen Clemens, there are a couple of reasons why he would be a person of interest for the Rams. First, he has at least a little bit of experience working with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who held the same position for the New York Jets when Favre played there in 2008. Although it's been more than five years since they worked together, it stands to reason Favre would at least have enough working knowledge of the offense to pick things up quickly.

The other, more important reason it could've made some sense is that Favre's experience working with young skill-position players might have been a net positive. To my thinking, one of the biggest things lost with Bradford's injury was a steady hand capable of helping the league's youngest group of receivers and running backs develop. Favre has no shortage of experience, and though his completion percentage dipped to 61 percent in his most recent season, that's still more accurate than Clemens has ever been, and right in line with what Bradford was throwing this season.

On the other hand, that the Rams even called Favre only further exposes the team's lack of foresight on how they would handle things if something happened to Bradford. They missed out on adding a young quarterback named Ryan Griffin (whom New Orleans liked enough to promote to its active roster from the practice squad to prevent him from going to St. Louis) who might have actually provided them with a young player with some upside, and an eventual upgrade as a possible long-term backup or better. The Rams probably should have had someone like Griffin already on the practice squad.

The Rams opted to bring in Austin Davis and Brady Quinn as backups to Clemens -- sensible, but it doesn't move the needle much. From the list of names the team apparently considered, only Favre would have been a likely starter. You don't call Brett Favre to be a backup. This only reinforces that the Rams aren't completely comfortable with Clemens as the starter.

It also makes it clear the team failed to ever really sit down and figure out exactly what it would do if something happened to Bradford.
We have rightfully focused at times over the years on coordinator continuity for NFC West quarterbacks.

Alex Smith famously played with coordinators Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye, Mike Johnson and Greg Roman while with the San Francisco 49ers from 2005 through last season.

Sam Bradford has bounced from Pat Shurmur to Josh McDaniels to Brian Schottenheimer during three seasons with the St. Louis Rams.

The dynamic works both ways. Some coordinators have bounced from one quarterback to another, preventing them from getting the best feel for their players. Playcallers and quarterbacks are most comfortable -- and presumably most effective -- when they've had time to figure out one another. Coordinators get a better feel for players' strengths, weaknesses and preferences. Quarterbacks more fully understand how their coordinators are approaching specific situations.

That line of thinking came to mind this week while watching Schottenheimer coach Bradford during the Rams' organized team activities. Schottenheimer has worked for only two teams since 2006 and he was offensive coordinator both times. But he has run through five primary quarterbacks during that time: Chad Pennington, Kellen Clemens, Brett Favre and Mark Sanchez before joining Bradford in St. Louis.

"The things we are able to do starting this offseason, we are 1,000 years ahead of where we were last year," Schottenheimer said following a recent practice. "It's been fun to push Sam and have Sam push me, too, in terms of, 'Hey, I can take more.' We're both enjoying having some stability."

The chart associates current NFC West offensive playcallers with their primary quarterbacks since 2006, the first year any of the four was a coordinator. I've listed Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians instead of coordinator Harold Goodwin because Arians plans to call the plays. Arians has also called plays continuously since 2007.

Quarterbacks are the most important pieces for any team, but I thought it would be interesting to view these situations from the playcallers' perspectives. Every NFC West team but Arizona returns the same coordinator-quarterback combination from the end of last season.

Patrick from Alameda, Calif., sees a parallel between the 2013 San Francisco 49ers and the 1995 Green Bay Packers. Both teams featured young, strong-armed quarterbacks. Both teams lost their leading receivers to injury.



The Packers would have to play without Sterling Sharpe, who was coming off a 94-catch, 18-touchdown season when he suffered a career-ending neck injury. The current 49ers will be without Michael Crabtree, who suffered a torn Achilles' tendon after setting career highs with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

The Packers went 11-5 in their first season without Sharpe, a two-game improvement. Quarterback Brett Favre won MVP honors. How did they do it? That was the question Patrick raised through the NFC West mailbag as he sought to chart a course for quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers without Crabtree.

"Can you analyze how Favre diversified who he passed to after losing his favorite target," Patrick asked, "and how that compares to what Colin Kaepernick needs to do for the 49ers this year?"

Sharpe was such a dominant player physically. Mike Holmgren called Sharpe one of the three best receivers he'd ever seen, labeling him "virtually unstoppable" over a three-year span in which Sharpe caught 314 passes.



Crabtree isn't in that category and there are other differences between the teams. However, I think the 49ers can come out OK because they have what the Packers had back then: a very capable quarterback.

Just as Favre was the key for the Packers, who got 102 receptions from Robert Brooks in 1995, Kaepernick will be the key for the 49ers. Anquan Boldin will fill some of the receiving void. Vernon Davis will probably have a greater number of receptions. LaMichael James could factor out of the backfield. Receivers A.J. Jenkins and Mario Manningham are wild cards.

The 1995 Packers got 131 additional receptions from running back Dorsey Levens (plus-47), Brooks (plus-44) and tight end Mark Chmura (plus-40) relative to what those players provided one season earlier. Sharpe, running back Reggie Cobb and tight end Ed West were no longer part of the offense. They had combined for 160 receptions in 1994.

As the first chart shows, the positional distribution for receptions remained pretty similar, especially at wide receiver.

Looking back on 1995, Favre did surprise himself by surpassing what he'd accomplished the year before.

"I really thought it was going to be hard to top what I did, especially without Sterling and a couple of changes with our offensive line," Favre said then. "It's hard to go out and throw 38 touchdowns. You got to start from scratch on offense. We had a new flanker, a new 'X' receiver, a new tight end. That's tough."
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.
The new contracts for Darrelle Revis in Tampa Bay and Kam Chancellor in Seattle will be interesting to analyze once the figures can be confirmed.

Initial reports tend to focus on maximum payouts, which can be misleading. Sometimes the new money available through an extension produces a misleading new average per year.

For context, John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information recently put together charts showing how much money players received after signing deals reportedly worth at least $100 million. The answer was less than 50 percent in most cases.

The first chart examines the numbers for contracts that are no longer active.

The second chart shows how much money players have received on active contracts with maximum values of at least $100 million. It counts the $29 million signing bonus associated with Joe Flacco's deal as money already paid.

NEW ORLEANS -- San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick throws the football with tremendous velocity, as Randy Moss' dislocated finger can testify.

Baltimore Ravens cornerback Corey Graham provided independent witness testimony Tuesday during Super Bowl media day at the Superdome.

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Colin Kaepernick
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsColin Kaepernick's spiral is fast enough to break the fingers of Randy Moss.
"It's funny you say that," Graham said. "I didn't know if I was seeing things or not, but when I watched him on film, the ball got there very fast."

Moss picked it up from there.

"For him to dislocate my finger and for the doctor to pull it out, I've never had no problems with my fingers before," Moss said. "You have a shoulder here, an ankle here, a knee here and that comes with the territory. For me to be catching balls my whole life and then all of a sudden my finger pops out of place, man, I've never experienced that and it hurt like hell."

Moss suffered the finger injury while catching a pass from Kaepernick during the quarterback's first NFL start, a 32-7 victory over Chicago in Week 11. With that play in mind, I asked Moss if he cranked up the 'Jugs' machine to simulate Kaepernick's velocity. He said it's no use because the machine can't deliver the ball as hard as Kaepernick throws even on its highest setting.

"I mean, it's hard to really explain, man," Moss said. "I really think the only way you can experience how hard he throws is if you put a pair of gloves on and go out here and play catch with him."

Kaepernick played baseball competitively and could throw a fastball 90 mph, and then some.

"One of our equipment managers, Doc, sometimes he doesn't even wear gloves and he catches 'Kap' to warm him up," Moss said. "And then sometimes I feel sorry for him that I'll go up and catch a few balls just to let his hands rest. And then once he heat mine up, 'All right, Doc, it's all yours.'

"I mean, Kaepernick is an incredible talent, man. I remember early in Brett Favre's career when he broke a couple fingers, but he broke them out in the tundra, I think, because it was cold. 'Kap' breaking fingers in 60- and 70-degre weather. I'm a big fan of Kaepernick's and it's fun to play with him."

Randy Moss the greatest? Let's discuss

January, 29, 2013
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Randy MossDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe 49ers' Randy Moss doesn't lack self-confidence during Tuesday's Super Bowl media day.
NEW ORLEANS -- One day after San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took on President Barack Obama, receiver Randy Moss challenged Jerry Rice's status as the NFL's greatest receiver.

Wait, weren't the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens supposed to be the big talkers during Super Bowl week? They're multiple-syllable underdogs at this point.

Moss stole the show at Super Bowl media day by declaring himself the greatest receiver of all time.

"I think I'm the greatest receiver to ever do it," Moss said. "Because I think back when Jerry was playing -- and no disrespect to Jerry Rice, because he's arguably the greatest -- but for me to be able to go out here and change and revolutionize the game from a single safety to a Cover 2 safety and dropping three guys deep and dropping four guys deep and still be able to make it happen? That is why I really hold my hat on that, that I really feel in my heart and in my mind that I am the greatest receiver to ever play this game."

If Rice had the greatest career of any receiver in NFL history, which seems indisputable based on longevity and raw numbers, Moss at his best was arguably the most feared.

Moss was faster. I think he was more athletic. If both receivers were to line up on opposite sides of the formation while in their prime, defenses would face a dilemma. I think they would fear Rice more on shorter and intermediate routes. I think they would fear Moss more on deeper routes.

Rice benefited from beginning his career under Bill Walsh and spending most of it with either Joe Montana or Steve Young throwing passes to him. That doesn't diminish his achievements, in my view.

Rice dominated. He reached 1,000 yards receiving 14 times. Moss did it 10 times. Rice scored at least nine touchdowns in a season 12 times. Moss did it nine times. Each had nine seasons with at least 10 touchdowns. Rice had four seasons with at least 1,500 yards. Moss had one. Rice had six seasons with at least 1,400 yards. Moss had four.

Moss also played with a couple of Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Brett Favre, but the years he spent with them were exceptions, not the norm. Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper, Todd Bouman, Spergon Wynn, Gus Frerotte, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Aaron Brooks, Matt Cassel, Vince Young, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have also thrown passes his way.

To this point, Rice's status as the greatest has been pretty much assumed. Those with a strong grasp of league history might acknowledge Don Hutson's achievements as unique. However, Rice is an overwhelming choice as the best receiver in NFL history.

An ESPN.com panel featuring Raymond Berry, Boyd Dowler, Mike Holmgren, Ken Houston, Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johnson and Ted Thompson voted Rice first and Moss second in anonymous voting five years ago.

"Jerry Rice, he's so obvious, it scares me," Dowler said at the time.


The Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars might not be the only NFL teams considering Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for head coaching vacancies.

Seattle's division rivals from Arizona could also consider him, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

Bevell enjoyed success with an older quarterback in Minnesota (Brett Favre) and with a young one in Seattle (Russell Wilson). The Seahawks tailored their offense to Wilson's strengths and ranked second to New England in touchdowns from Week 10 through the end of the regular season.

Losing Bevell would send Seattle into the market for a coordinator.

My NFC West orientation made me wonder whether former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt would make sense as a coordinator in Seattle should Bevell find work elsewhere.

Whisenhunt appears likely to get another head coaching chance at some point in the future, in my view. Spending a couple seasons working with someone as promising as Wilson would only seem to enhance his chances. Whisenhunt was a player with the New York Jets when Carroll was their defensive coordinator in the early 1990s.

I don't know whether either party would have interest or if the fit would be right. It was just something that came to mind.

Seahawks assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable is heavily involved in the offensive planning for Seattle, particularly when it comes to the running game. Bevell is more involved in the passing game. Any replacement for Bevell would presumably carry a similar profile.

The Seahawks will want to stick with their zone blocking scheme. They will presumably be looking to build upon the success they enjoyed this season, not convert to a new playbook. That could affect the fit for candidates, particularly higher-profile ones.

Of course, Bevell remains the coordinator until further notice.

Bevell is from Arizona. His father was a longtime high school football coach there.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jerome Boger is the referee assigned to the San Francisco 49ers' divisional-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.

Boger is working with an all-star crew, customary for the playoffs. Regular-season crew tendencies might not apply as much.

With an assist from ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together a chart showing 49ers games Boger has worked over the years.

Boger worked the 49ers' memorable 27-24 defeat at Minnesota in 2009. Brett Favre's late touchdown pass, not the officiating, made that one memorable.

Last season, Boger's crew negated a Michael Crabtree touchdown at Cincinnati, ruling that the receiver had stepped out of bounds. The call was questionable, in my view, and former officiating director Mike Pereira agreed. Also in that game, Boger called a false-start penalty against "the entire offensive line" of the 49ers.

More recently, Boger was the ref for the 49ers' 45-3 victory against Buffalo.

After appearing on MVP Watch and before visiting the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9, Adrian Peterson dominated much of the "Inside Slant" podcast discussion Wednesday.

The Minnesota Vikings running back is challenging what we've thought about serious knee injuries by disregarding standard timetables for rehabilitation.

Peyton Manning, another player thriving improbably following career-altering surgery, also stars in this podcast. Russell Wilson, Romeo Crennel, Brett Favre, Jamal Lewis, Terry Allen, Norv Turner, Leslie Frazier, Titus Young, Richard Sherman, Alex Smith, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas surface at various points.

Listeners also receive special Halloween access to a photo showing a certain NFC West blogger in costume as though right off the set for that John Clayton commercial.

MNF Preview: Seahawks' keys vs. Packers

September, 22, 2012
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Russell WilsonMatt Kartozian/US PresswireThe Seahawks expect Russell Wilson to make big plays on the move as his career progresses.

SEATTLE -- Sixty-five quarterbacks combined to throw 92 touchdowns and 51 interceptions from outside the pocket last season.

Two others, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers, achieved a higher level. Each finished 2011 with 10 TDs and zero INTs on these largely improvisational throws.

That approximates what Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll envisions from his quarterback, Russell Wilson. He hasn't seen much of it during the team's 1-1 start. Wilson has 25 yards passing on 5-of-7 completions outside the pocket.

"I think it's just a matter of time that he really makes things happen on the move, because we know that he can and he will," Carroll said. "I'm hoping that will show up a little bit more."

Monday night against Green Bay, perhaps?

That would be an optimistic timetable for a rookie quarterback making only his third regular-season start. Not that Wilson has much use for timetables. Four months was all he needed to convert veteran acquisition Matt Flynn from presumed starter to a special consultant for strategy against the Packers, Flynn's former team.

Along those lines, I've put together a look at three keys for Wilson and the Seahawks against Green Bay:

Handling added pressure

Wilson appeared tentative against Arizona's pressure packages in Week 1. His accuracy suffered. A couple times, he held the ball as if unwilling to trust his receivers.

Wilson completed only 6-of-18 passes for 47 yards against Arizona when the Cardinals rushed him with five or more defenders. He completed 12-of-16 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown the rest of the time.

The pressure was off during Seattle's 27-7 victory against Dallas in Week 2. The Cowboys attacked Wilson with five or more rushers only six times. Wilson completed 12-of-15 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown when they sent four or fewer.

The Packers presumably will pattern their plan more closely after Arizona's approach than Dallas'. Playing at home should help Wilson and the Seattle offensive line communicate protection calls more effectively than they did at Arizona, where the Cardinals fooled the Seahawks with inside blitz combinations.

But Wilson still must show he can make opponents pay for coming after him. Green Bay has sent five-plus rushers on 37.1 percent of its defensive plays this season. That is the 10th-highest rate in the NFL, and above the 29.3 percent average for the 31 other teams heading into Week 3.

The chart shows how San Francisco's Alex Smith and Chicago's Jay Cutler fared against Green Bay this season when the Packers sent more than four pass-rushers.

"We have wishes and expectations," Carroll said, "but right now, I just want to see him play really smart."

Russell Okung versus Clay Matthews

Seattle had games such as this one in mind when it made left tackle a priority in the 2010 draft.

Okung, selected sixth overall that year, will match up primarily against Packers outside linebacker Matthews. Okung has the talent to contain Matthews, but he hasn't been playing to Matthews' level lately.

Matthews has six sacks through two games, matching his 15-game total from last season. He has 35.5 sacks in 48 career games, and dominated his Week 2 matchup with Chicago Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb. That mismatch produced Cutler's notorious sideline outburst during the nationally televised game at Lambeau Field.

Seattle doesn't have to worry about its quarterback reacting that way. Wilson seems much more reserved and under control. But Okung is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him against Dallas, and blindside protection could be a concern Monday night.

Okung has missed 11 of 34 regular-season games to this point in his career. He was becoming a force late last season until suffering a torn pectoral muscle when Philadelphia's Trent Cole, acting out of frustration, yanked Okung to the ground. Okung struggled some against Arizona's Sam Acho in the opener before the knee injury knocked him from the game.

Rodgers versus Seattle safeties

Seattle sent three-fourths of its starting secondary to the Pro Bowl last season. The one player not invited, cornerback Richard Sherman, has arguably been the best of the four in 2012.

The question this season was how well the group would hold up against a long list of top quarterbacks. So far, so good.

Romo, who lit up the New York Giants in Week 1, left Seattle with his sixth-lowest Total QBR score (38.8) for a single game in his past 33 starts (minimum two attempts).

Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Cutler remain on the 2012 schedule. And with NFC West quarterbacks Smith and Sam Bradford playing at a high level so far, four divisional games are looking tougher as well.

This game marks the first time Seattle has faced an MVP-caliber quarterback in prime time since ... when? The team faced Drew Brees on a Sunday night in 2007 and Brett Favre in a memorable Monday night snowstorm a year earlier.

Containing Rodgers seemed impossible for so much of last season. But as the chart shows, Rodgers' production on longer passes has plummeted over his past five games, counting playoffs. Green Bay has a 2-3 record in those games.

Seattle has the personnel to keep the trend going. Sherman (6-foot-3) and fellow corner Brandon Browner (6-4) play press coverage on the outside. Free safety Earl Thomas roams sideline to sideline, helping out where needed. Kam Chancellor, the NFL's biggest strong safety at 6-3 and 232 pounds, plays the role of enforcer.

Thomas is the one to watch.

"His range reminds me of a guy we had here a long time -- Nick Collins, who played at a Pro Bowl level his entire career," Rodgers said. "He was an integral part of our Super Bowl run, his ability to make up if anybody outside gets beat, or react to a ball deep down the field. Earl has that ability. ... He's a big-time player."

Kevin Kolb's big chance against Patriots

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
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The New England Patriots famously listed Tom Brady on their injury report for years without the quarterback missing a start during that span.

Kolb
Might the Patriots' Week 2 opponent, Arizona, be engaging in some injury-related gamesmanship?

Coach Ken Whisenhunt has not declared Kevin Kolb his starter against New England even though John Skelton appears "doubtful" and Kolb took the meaningful practice reps this week. ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported Kolb will start. It's been difficult to realistically envision any other scenario under the circumstances.

Kolb led the winning drive against Seattle in the opener after Skelton departed the field on a cart, having suffered a sprained ankle. This game against New England provides the Cardinals an opportunity to watch Kolb perform over an extended period without deciding on him as the longer-term starter. It's a good situation for Arizona after Skelton struggled in the opener.

Among the things I'll be watching for from Kolb against the Patriots:
  • Protection: The Cardinals' offensive line appears vulnerable in this area, particularly on the road. How will Kolb respond? Will he revert to bad habits? In the past, he has sometimes bailed from the pocket too quickly and without a clear plan. Arizona likes its quarterbacks to set up deep in the pocket and throw from there.
  • Secondary targets: Arizona runs its passing game through Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will get targets regularly, most likely. The Cardinals think secondary receivers, notably Andre Roberts, have been running open without getting the ball frequently enough (last season in particular). Let's see how well Kolb gets other players involved. He did well in finding Roberts for the winning touchdown reception last week. Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley subsequently lamented making an aggressive defensive call on the play.
  • Fun factor. No one expects Kolb to skip around the field like Brett Favre, but body language matters. Can the success Kolb enjoyed against Seattle propel him forward? Will he look like he's having fun out there? Will he look like the leader of the offense? Some success would help, of course

The chart, compiled with data from ESPN Stats & Information, shows Kolb's production by game during his Arizona tenure. I've included one row showing Brady's production in the same weeks. The final row shows how all other NFL quarterbacks -- all but Kolb and Brady -- have produced over the same span.

The second-to-last column shows success rate, defined by ESPN's analytics department as those plays improving a team's expected points. The final column shows QBR scores (100 maximum, 50 average). By that measure, Kolb has been at his best during season openers. He was also above average in Week 2 last season, a narrow defeat at Washington.

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