NFC West: Chad Ochocinco
In the meantime, consider this an appreciation.
Holt was the NFC West wide receiver opponents feared most during the first five or six years following divisional realignment in 2002. He could beat defenses with his speed and then make spectacular, seemingly impossible plays on the ball against coverage.
Terrell Owens left the division following the 2003 season. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin were still ascending. Holt's teammate in St. Louis, Isaac Bruce, remained formidable, but Holt was increasingly the dominant force.
From 2000 through 2007, Holt strung together eight consecutive seasons with at least 81 receptions and 1,188 yards. That included two 1,600-yard seasons and four others with at least 1,300 yards. He averaged 19.9 yards per reception in 2000 and 106 yards per game in 2003, figures that led the NFL in those seasons.
My previous job as a Seattle Seahawks beat reporter provided a first-hand view for some of Holt's finest moments. His eight catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns against Seattle during a 2006 shootout at the Edward Jones Dome stands out. The Rams trailed 27-21 with three minutes remaining when Leonard Little forced a Maurice Morris fumble. Less than a minute later, Holt's 67-yard touchdown catch had the Rams in the lead.
Safety Michael Boulware had deflected the pass and nearly intercepted it. Holt somehow gathered the ball, a deep heave from Marc Bulger, and ran into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
"Until he caught it, I thought I was catching it," Boulware said at the time. "I'm still kind of ... I can't believe that he caught it."
Holt was a Seahawk killer in those days. He finished his career with 91 receptions for 1,247 yards and eight touchdowns in 16 games against Seattle. But Holt did not discriminate. He lit up Arizona with 101 receptions for 1,417 yards and nine scores in 15 games. Holt had 116 receptions for 1,542 yards and seven touchdowns in 21 games against San Francisco, a team he faced in the NFC West before and after realignment.
Purely by coincidence, I cued up that 2006 Seahawks-Rams game on Tuesday night when my kids asked if they could watch an old game on their DVD player before bedtime.
We watched Holt dominate, at one point catching a 9-yard scoring pass against Marcus Trufant before Trufant could even turn to locate the ball. After a while, my youngest son, 7, asked whether Holt was in the Hall of Fame. The question was premature, as Holt will not be eligible for another five years. But the case for him is a strong one.
Holt had more receptions and receiving yards than any player from 2000 to 2009. He was fifth in receiving touchdowns during that time, a respectable total that suffered because the Rams had other options. He won one Super Bowl and played in another.
The Rams have struggled to replace Holt in recent seasons. They hold the sixth pick in the 2012 draft and could select Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, if available. Holt, the sixth player chosen in 1999, set the bar high.
They even secured a No. 1 ranking on one ballot as perceptions hardened that New England, not so much Philadelphia, posed the greatest threat to the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
"I think the Patriots' additions of Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth, Brian Waters and Shaun Ellis should make them the favorites," panelist James Walker said in explaining why he put New England atop his ballot. "The Packers were the best team in February, but that doesn't automatically make them the best team in September. Super Bowl champions usually do not repeat."
The Patriots were the last team to do it, but their championship victories over Carolina and Philadelphia are fading memories. The NFL has crowned six champions since New England last won a title. But Tom Brady's excellence and the Patriots' offseason maneuvering caught voters' attention.
Four of five panelists ranked the Packers first and Patriots second on their ballots. Walker previously ranked the Eagles first, but he dropped them to third this time. Paul Kuharsky and I dropped Philadelphia one spot apiece.
Kuharsky has been higher than most on the Detroit Lions all along. He had them 18th in the final regular-season balloting from 2010, higher than anyone else had them. He's got them 12th this time, five to six spots higher than most other voters ranked them. And he's got them a full seven spots higher than Chicago.
"I'm just not a huge believer in the way the Bears are doing things," Kuharsky said. "You have to find a way to use Greg Olsen, not give him away for next to nothing. That offensive line isn't fixed. They won't get away with it two years in a row."
Walker was also among those shaking up things within a division. He has Baltimore beating out defending AFC champion Pittsburgh for the AFC North title. He moved up the Steelers one spot to seventh on his ballot, but he moved up the Ravens one spot as well, to sixth.
"I picked the Ravens to win the AFC North back in July, so I'm staying loyal to my prediction and keeping Baltimore one spot higher," Walker said. "Sunday's game will determine if I made the right call."
The Indianapolis Colts, ranked ninth, could be the most volatile team heading into Week 1. Peyton Manning's shaky status is everything for that team.
"If they look bad with Kerry Collins in Houston, certainly my vote will reflect it in a major way," Kuharsky said.
Voters are already downgrading Seattle. The Seahawks fell six spots from our previous rankings, the biggest drop, as voters realized the team was serious about heading into the 2011 season with Tarvaris Jackson behind an offensive line that has not yet found its bearings.
And now, a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 1 ...
Rising (10): Houston Texans (+6), Minnesota Vikings (+5), Jacksonville Jaguars (+3), Pittsburgh Steelers (+2), Dallas Cowboys (+2), Lions (+2), Baltimore Ravens (+1), Oakland Raiders (+1), Washington Redskins (+1), Buffalo Bills (+1).
Falling (10): Seattle Seahawks (-6), Kansas City Chiefs (-4), New York Giants (-4), Tennessee Titans (-3), St. Louis Rams (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1), Cleveland Browns (-1), Colts (-1), New Orleans Saints (-1), Philadelphia Eagles (-1).
Unchanged (12) Packers, Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals.
Deadlocked: We broke three ties this week. San Diego prevailed over Houston at No. 10, Chicago prevailed over Dallas at No. 13 and Oakland prevailed over Tennessee for No. 22. The tiebreakers are, in order, head-to-head results, overall record, which team won most recently and previous ranking. Since no games have been played in this regular season, we used 2010 records to break ties.
Like minds: Every voter but Walker had the Packers first and the Patriots second. Four of five voters had the Ravens eighth.
Agree to disagree: The Raiders generated the largest disparity between highest and lowest votes. The gap between highest and lowest votes was at least seven spots for five teams:
- Raiders (14): Ashley Fox ranked them 15th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Walker ranked them 29th, lower than any other voter ranked them.
- Chargers (12): Sando and John Clayton seventh, Fox 19th.
- Bears (10): Fox ninth, Kuharsky 19th.
- Dolphins (7): Clayton 21st, Sando 28th.
- Giants (7): Fox 11th, Clayton 18th.
Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC North ranked highest with a 12.7 average ranking. The chart below shows how each voter ranked each division on average. Highest votes in red. Lowest votes in blue.
For download: An Excel file -- available here -- showing how each voter voted, high and low votes for each team, correlation between voters and divisional rankings. This file will expand in future weeks to include week-to-week comparisons and a "powerflaws" sheet showing potential inconsistencies on voters' ballots.
The digital timers commonly used to break practices into periods do not exist there. The air horns NFL teams traditionally fire to signal transitions between periods never sound. Staffers generally responsible for managing such things can focus their attention elsewhere.
Harbaugh tracks it all himself, keeping the time in his head, sometimes without even consulting a watch. The only whistle at practice belongs to him. Harbaugh blows it when he's ready for a new period to begin. If there's a bad snap or miscue, too bad. It's on to the next play. Corrections can wait until the end of practice.
The devices teams have traditionally used to ensure practices move along on schedule would actually make it tougher for Harbaugh to push the tempo to his liking. In interviews right after practice, Harbaugh sometimes comes off as distracted, as though his mind is racing through the two-minute scenarios that helped him earn the nickname "Captain Comeback" as a player. Practice ended 12 minutes early Wednesday.
"There is no wasted time," said left tackle Joe Staley, a first-round draft choice in 2007. "I think that is carrying over to the mindset. This isn't just fun. This is our job."
Players accustomed to two-hour camp breaks at midday under other coaches now scarcely have any down time at all. They're in the building by 6:30 each morning and out by 9:30 each night. They do not leave the premises in the interim.
There's no more whining to a wife or girlfriend over lunch about the rigors of camp. Cupcaking, as Harbaugh calls it.
"You are always thinking football," said tight end Delanie Walker, who has been with the team since 2006. "That is what we needed. We needed to think football because we have a young team and they don't understand that this league is tough and if you lose focus on what we have to accomplish, that can hurt you."
THREE HOT ISSUES
2. Why so many changes on defense? The 49ers absorbed criticism early in free agency as players departed and the organization took a measured approach to lining up replacements. Defensive starters Takeo Spikes, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson and Nate Clements did not return. Another defensive starter, Dashon Goldson, lingered on the market before taking a one-year deal to return. Where was the urgency? It's helpful to remember the team's general manager, Trent Baalke, experienced firsthand the risks associated with aggressive free-agent spending while working for the Washington Redskins from 2001-04. And with a new defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio, priorities changed. Franklin was a pure two-gapping nose tackle. His replacement, Isaac Sopoaga, might be better suited for Fangio's slanting 3-4 scheme featuring fire-zone tactics in doses. The 49ers see the middle of their defense as even stronger following free agency. They love their depth at safety and are expecting a breakout year from NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker next to Patrick Willis.
3. Can the 49ers 'buy in' yet again? The 49ers are on their third head coach and seventh offensive coordinator since 2005. Most recent seasons have begun with fresh promise, followed by disappointment and even disillusionment. Here comes Harbaugh, full of energy, pumping up hopes once again. I wondered whether players would be too jaded to invest fully from the beginning. "It's not about Harbaugh getting me to buy in again," Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis said. "It's not about him. It's about the team wanting to win games. ... There is nothing anybody can do to get me to be involved. I am going to be involved whether they like it or not, because that is what I do. You go through adversity, but you have to keep believing."
Michael Crabtree's injury. This marks the third lost offseason in three years for the player San Francisco drafted 10th overall in 2009. Crabtree missed camp and the first six regular-season weeks of his rookie season during a contract dispute. A neck injury prevented him from playing in a single exhibition game last summer. A foot injury has prevented Crabtree from practicing even once at camp this season. The 49ers protected themselves by signing Braylon Edwards to a one-year deal, but they need more in return from their investment in Crabtree.
- As much as the 49ers valued Spikes, they were ready to go with Bowman next to Willis on the inside. Bowman came on strong late last season, particularly in a Week 17 game against Arizona. The 49ers hope he can become a Jon Beason type. If that happens, they'll have one of the best inside linebacker combinations in the league.
- Right guard Chilo Rachal has been inconsistent to this point in his career. His weight is down from the 330 range to about 310 and has dipped closer to 300 after practices. Has Rachal matured and become more serious about his craft? It's too early to say, but at least he reported to camp at a promising weight.
- Increasing roster limits from 80 to 90 players has helped Harbaugh transition from college, where programs can bring 105 players to camp. It's common for Harbaugh to send the starting offense against the No. 2 defense on one field, with the backup offense and starting defense on another. That would be unusual in the NFL in the age of 80-man rosters.
- In retrospect, it's pretty clear the 49ers were never serious about adding Nnamdi Asomugha, Chad Ochocinco or other big names in free agency. They've given great weight to dynamics within the locker room when deciding which players to pay handsomely.
- Running back Frank Gore's brief holdout quickly became a non-story when the team promised to revisit his deal in good faith as the season progresses. Gore appeared in terrific spirits during my visit to camp. At one point during practice, Gore spotted ESPN analyst and former 49ers teammate Trent Dilfer standing near the sideline. He came over to greet Dilfer and then noticed Baalke, the GM, standing nearby. After embracing Dilfer, Gore turned to Baalke and extended a hand. They shook hands and shared a few laughs before Gore returned to his teammates. Gore, upon hearing adoring cries from a fan attending the same practice, broke away to hug her.
- The 49ers are banking on a strong relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke. The two became close during the lockout. They are also competitors on the racquetball court, where Harbaugh's competitive edge comes through. Harbaugh has come back from 13-0 and 18-7 deficits to beat his GM. The coach typically begins his comebacks by dropping subtle comments designed to unnerve his opponent. He then changes up his approach, becoming less predictable. Consider it a metaphor for his coaching style. Gone are the days when lining up in a certain formation precipitated running a certain play.
- The 49ers are fortunate Harbaugh agreed to retain defensive line coach Jim Tomsula from the previous staff. The bond between Tomsula and players at the position is uncommonly strong. Defensive end Ray McDonald re-signed without even testing free agency. The team made bringing back McDonald a priority, given the premium teams place on defensive linemen in the draft. Losing McDonald might have forced the team to more strongly consider drafting one early.
- Edwards' addition at receiver gives the team needed size at the position while Crabtree is unavailable. "The first time I saw him work out here, I thought he was a tight end," safety Curtis Taylor said.
- Rookie second-round choice Colin Kaepernick is getting high marks from Harbaugh to this point in camp. Kaepernick's mobility and arm strength stand out during practices. He also has a longer delivery, as advertised. I watched closely to see whether the delivery allowed defensive backs to jump pass routes more ably. That did not appear to be the case in practice. Kaepernick's lean frame made me wonder about his ability to take a hit to the legs. At Harbaugh's direction, quarterbacks are wearing braces on their left knees, which tend to be most vulnerable when right-handed quarterbacks deliver the ball.
- Kaepernick will likely get on the field one way or another even if Smith remains the starter. There are no indications Kaepernick will start in Week 1, but Harbaugh isn't making any public declarations.
- Fangio has been pushing first-round pick Aldon Smith hard in practice even though Smith flashed plenty of ability early in camp. Smith is grinding a bit while absorbing the defense. He seems to be taking Fangio's criticism in stride.
- Harbaugh strongly emphasizes practicing within the context of situations, more so than I would have expected during the early stages of installing the playbook. Some fans attending a recent practice laughed when they saw punter Andy Lee take a snap from center and spike the ball to stop the clock. Count Harbaugh as one of the coaches, Bill Belichick among them, who favor sending on the punt team following third-down plays during two-minute situations when it's not clear whether the offense got a first down. If the offense gets a new set of downs, the punter spikes the ball. If not, the regular punt call remains.
- It's not unusual for the 49ers' first-team offense to execute four or more two-minute drills in one day, up from one in the past. Harbaugh frames most practice reps within down, distance and time. Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith: "Things are a lot more detailed. Every coach at their position is pretty well near the top. Everything we've heard from them has been right on point."
- The quote of camp so far came from another Smith, Alex, when asked about changes on offense: "Obviously, what we were doing wasn't working -- all of us, me included. That is the definition of insanity, right? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result."
Coach Jim Harbaugh wants it that way for what he cited as competitive reasons.
I'm not sure what competitive edge would be lost if Harbaugh admitted the obvious, such as the team's need for help at receiver with Michael Crabtree injured, or the need for cornerback help following Nate Clements' release.
It's tough to know how seriously the 49ers were about trade talks for veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco, who wound up in New England. It's tough to say whether the 49ers were serious about Nnamdi Asomugha before the cornerback signed with Philadelphia. And it's tough to know how strong the 49ers' reported interest in Plaxico Burress might be.
It's easier to see why those players would land elsewhere. Given a choice, established veterans often first seek opportunities with teams better positioned for championship success.
The 49ers' long-term plan is apparent: groom Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and continue to build through the draft. It's tougher to know whether the 49ers have a valid short-term plan without the team acknowledging one. While it's premature to harshly criticize a team for inactivity barely 24 hours into the free-agent signing period, it's natural to wonder in the absence of evidence whether the 49ers feel the same urgency their fans feel when watching other teams attempt to upgrade their rosters.
Michael Crabtree's foot injury will leave the 49ers short-handed through camp and possibly into the regular season. The team will have to consider adding a veteran wideout in free agency, in my view.
I still think adding Ochocinco would have been a curious move for a team with so many younger players on offense. Former 49ers running back Michael Robinson, who recently agreed to terms on a new contract with Seattle, was also among those chuckling at the possibilities.
"Chad and Vernon [Davis] would have been hilarious!" Robinson tweeted.
Indeed. If Davis had problems with Crabtree's approach last summer, and he famously did, imagine the possibilities with Ochocinco.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says this has been a rough week for the 49ers. Maiocco: "I spoke with a source close to Nnamdi Asomugha early Friday and he said that Asomugha was still going through his options. There are some reports that the Cowboys are getting involved, too. If the 49ers do not sign Asomugha, they will be forced to turn to Plan B, which could include Richard Marshall (Carolina), Chris Carr (Baltimore), Carlos Rogers (Washington) and Antonio Cromartie (Jets). Also, if Clements remains on the market, the 49ers could bring him back. And, remember, the 49ers weren't completely satisfied with the play last season of the other starting cornerback, Shawntae Spencer, either."
Also from Maiocco: Joe Nedney plans to retire.
Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Crabtree's injury explains why the 49ers considered adding Chad Ochocinco.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News sees the 49ers as a fallback for Asomugha, with the Jets as front-runners.
Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle says Colin Kaepernick is eager for camp.
Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle has advice for Charlie Whitehurst heading into Seahawks camp. Huard: "Whitehurst has a longer delivery which can be harder to repeat and cause inaccuracy when a pocket collapses on top of him. He can spin it and throw a beautiful deep ball, but to gain the trust of his coaches and his huddle he will have to refine his ball placement, critical in the timing/West Coast system Darrell Bevell is installing."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com offers highlights from Seahawks practice, including one about Red Bryant being back on the field following knee surgery.
Also from Farnsworth: Marcus Trufant is the longest-tenured current Seahawk. Farnsworth: "In fact, 33 of the players on the practice field Thursday were going through their initial workouts with the team."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times provides a Whitehurst interview transcript. On the offense: "Well, it's definitely new. We're just diving in the playbook now, but I like some of the things we do. We're going to try and run the football here, there's no doubt about it. We will be able to do that, play-action some drop-back, all that stuff. I think we're going to throw it short, throw it long, do a bunch of stuff. I'm confident that I can fit anything he asks me to do."
Also from O'Neil: a camp preview.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with receiver Mike Williams for thoughts on Whitehurst. Williams: "Just from last night when Coach [Tom] Cable got up and talked about the attitude he wanted from the offense, and I’m sure the same thing was said over in the other room. It was good to get out here today. Guys were running around, and you could tell guys been working. You could tell Charlie’s been working."
Also from Williams: Seattle receiver Ben Obomanu grew up with Tarvaris Jackson in Alabama. Obomanu: "We shared some of the same friends when he transferred to Alabama State. A lot of my good friends played on his team and were classmates of his. So he’s a good friend of mine, so I’m looking forward to him coming in and seeing what he can do in this offense."
Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle says new Seahawks coordinator Darrell Bevell could be a better fit for the team's younger players. Williams: "We’re going to win new guys over. Different personalities, a lot different than coach [Jeremy] Bates -- with all respect to coach Bates -- it's just a different approach with coach [Darrell] Bevell and his staff. With the young group we have, they like this group better I can already tell. We’ll all learn it. We’ll make mistakes together and then minimize those mistakes as much as we can. But everyone is learning and that’s the exciting part."
Mike Salk of 710ESPN Seattle offers thoughts on the Seahawks, including this one: "Yes, the team filled major holes along their offensive line (Robert Gallery and maybe James Carpenter etc.), wide receiver (Sidney Rice) and defensive line (Alan Branch provides depth). But they still have holes in their defensive backfield and at linebacker. And oh yeah, they need a quarterback!"
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at how the Cardinals are addressing their offensive line.
Also from Somers: a quick look at the Cardinals' activity to this point in the week.
More from Somers: questions and answers on Kevin Kolb's acquisition. Somers: "They clearly are going all in on Kolb. As former Packers' executive Andrew Brandt, now with ESPN, pointed out via twitter, it's a similar deal to the one Aaron Rodgers' signed in 2008. Like Kolb, Rodgers had seven starts when he signed it. The Packers, however, had watched Rodgers in practice and he knew their system. The Cardinals don't have that advantage."
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are betting big on Kolb. Boivin: "Management will take heat for spending this much, when in reality, it should be applauded. An organization that for decades was dinged for being cheap was anything but on Thursday. Team president Michael Bidwill supported the quest to fill the team's biggest hole and pulled out his checkbook to do so. If you want to find fault, it is with the team for putting itself in this situation. It shouldn't have been so desperate for a quarterback."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com has this to say about trading Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: "Losing Rodgers-Cromartie does weaken what looked like a very strong cornerback corps. First-round pick Patrick Peterson seems a lock to start now with Greg Toler; asked if the Cardinals would be acquiring a cornerback Whisenhunt just referenced the young corners already on the roster."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have been mostly quiet in free agency so far. Thomas: "The Rams have expressed some interest in Brandon Mebane of Seattle, but aren't considered a frontrunner for his services. Barry Cofield of the New York Giants seemed like a no-brainer at one time because of his past association with coach Steve Spagnuolo, but Cofield agreed to a contract in Washington worth a reported $36 million over six years."
Also from Thomas: Four Rams draft choices agree to terms.
More from Thomas: He counts Seattle among the teams with interest in Rams tight end Daniel Fells.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says Josh McDaniels and Sam Bradford are working hard to prepare for camp.
Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis looks at the curious case of Rams rookie Robert Quinn, who might not have an agent.
Reporter Ian Rapoport mentioned the 49ers and Raiders as potential suitors, noting that the Patriots had spent considerable time reworking the wide receiver's contract.
New England acquired Ochocinco in a move that made more sense for a team with a strong head coach and established leaders.
As much as the 49ers could use another wideout, how seriously would they consider holding up the flamboyant, free-spirited Ochocinco as a veteran example for Michael Crabtree to follow? It just wouldn't make sense, in my view, especially with a first-year head coach, unestablished quarterbacks and an offense that remains very young overall.
This will be a fun one to ask Jim Harbaugh about once he's available for interviews.
He veered into trickier waters Tuesday with a provocative question via Twitter:
Any Bengals player becomes a more sympathetic figure simply because the team's ownership carries such a negative reputation. Palmer's own history also comes into play. He hasn't caused trouble off the field. He has not drawn attention to himself the way, say, receiver Chad Ochocinco has done.
Palmer would get, and has earned, more sympathy than he would get if he had previously shown himself to be selfish or a problem. It's tough removing Bengals ownership and Palmer's history with the team from the equation. Those factors positively affect perceptions of Palmer.
Ochocinco and Corey Dillon previously asked for trades from the Bengals. Takeo Spikes did, too.
I'll sympathize with just about anyone seeking to separate himself from an organization with the Bengals' recent history. The team hasn't won a playoff game since 1991.
How would he fit in the NFC West?
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. has studied Palmer closely. I caught up with him since the previous post and wanted to pass along highlights from our conversation.
Mike Sando: That changed in 2010. The team added Terrell Owens, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham. But the Bengals struggled. How did your opinion on Palmer evolve?
Matt Williamson: He pretty much failed every test. He really struggled. His decision-making was poor. The ball doesn’t come out of his hand half as well as it did in his prime. There were very few who could throw as well as Palmer could throw, so he had some room for error. But all the things that went right for the Bengals two years ago -- the defense and running game -- those things all evaporated, too. He was asked to do a lot more, and he was exposed.
Mike Sando: And yet it was still easy to point to other factors. Owens and Chad Ochocinco weren't the most precise route runners. Shipley and Gresham were rookies.
Matt Williamson: There is some of that. That organization is dysfunctional. But in the end, he doesn’t throw the ball as well as he has in the past. I am pretty comfortable with the evaluation of the guy that he is more the problem than the answer. His decision making was bad. If there was a stat for near-interceptions or dropped interceptions, he would have been near the top of the league this year. He had a ton of them. But then, against San Diego in Week 16, he looked like the 2005 version of Palmer.
Mike Sando: I remember the game. The Chargers were playing for a postseason berth. We kept hearing about Philip Rivers' great record in December. Owens and Ochocinco sat out, and it was as though Palmer were liberated. He had a monster game with four touchdowns and no picks. The Bengals won.
Matt Williamson: The Bengals had nothing to play for and Palmer was throwing lasers all over the field. Now I’m like, 'Maybe the guy has just battled a lot of injuries over the last couple years and that was he first time he was healthy in the last two years.' Those are things we would never know. All of a sudden, that late in the year, slinging the ball like that, I'm back to the drawing board. But he doesn't generate power from his legs like he used to. His lower body has failed him and maybe he just happened to feel good one day.
Mike Sando: Seattle could find itself in a more exaggerated version of the same dilemma. Matt Hasselbeck was lights-out in the playoffs. What should we make of it? One game for Palmer, it's not much to go on.
Matt Williamson: If I had to put a grade on any player in the league, Palmer is the one that would be most difficult to grade. There are a lot of extenuating things there. If you put him in Arizona or San Francisco, it would not shock me if he came back strong. He might be a massive upgrade for those teams. He is not old. He is a high-character guy, he is smart, he is from the West Coast. If he is healthy, he can sling it and get it to Larry Fitzgerald or Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.
Mike Sando: The Bengals have said they aren't trading him. That probably means they are not trading him. But Palmer's contract calls for him to earn $11.5 million in salary for 2011. That's a lot for a struggling team to pay a 31-year-old quarterback who wants out.
Matt Williamson: If you are the Bengals and you look so far behind the Ravens and Steelers in the AFC North, I would not condone giving Palmer that money for a repeat performance from last year. He was a much better fantasy quarterback than real quarterback. They fell behind and he threw against prevent defenses a lot of the time. If you are Arizona or San Francisco, maybe you could buy it. You are not going to give a first-round pick for the guy. He has shown a glimpse lately. I would probably take Palmer over Hasselbeck, too. But that should not eliminate the idea of drafting a quarterback.
Though impressive overall, the San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree scored only two touchdowns during his 11-game rookie season.
That makes him a potentially curious choice to outproduce the Cincinnati Bengals' Chad Ochocinco from a fantasy perspective, but ESPN's Matthew Berry made some strong points in debating the issue with Eric Karabell. A couple of highlights:
Karabell: I have Chad at 15 and Crabtree at 20. While I understand Crabtree has great upside -- Alex Smith scares me a little bit -- Ochocinco is still productive and I don't think the presence of Terrell Owens is really going to hurt him all that much. And as bad as you might think Ochocinco was last year, he still had over 1,000 yards, scored nine touchdowns. I don't see why he can't do that again, even with Owens on the other side of the field.
Berry: The thing about Crabtree last year, it's hard to base it on. He did not come into camp until after game five and then it was a bye week, so Week 7 was the first week we saw Michael Crabtree. And remember, the 49ers last year, a team in transition, that whole offense. Frank Gore was out for a little while. Joe Staley, their best offensive tackle, he missed seven games. Vernon Davis didn't really emerge (right away). Alex Smith didn't start until Week 8. Now, coming into the season, they have got all those pieces together. Last year, after Week 8, which is when Alex Smith became the starting quarterback, Michael Crabtree, among wide receivers, 14th in the NFL in targets.
Crabtree hasn't played in an exhibition game this year -- or ever -- and he most recently made news for his role in a spat with Davis. I'll pass along a couple comments about Crabtree gathered from training camp, one from Davis and another from veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes.
Davis compared Crabtree to "a cat in the night" and explained that Crabtree "just runs his routes so well". Spikes said Crabtree needs to guard against a sophomore slump.
"We all going to push Crabtree," Spikes said. "He only played 12 games last year and he ended up with almost 800 yards receiving. ... He can get a lot better. The reason why is when people don’t have any film on you, when you step in, it's like, 'We know he was good in college, OK, let’s go.' His challenge to me is, can you get over the sophomore struggle? Everybody knows about you now. Now we’re about to start game-planning. What can you do? It may not be catching the ball. Sometimes it may have to be as a decoy. He understands that."
That qualifies as impressive company for Houshmandzadeh, but past accomplishments matter little at Seattle Seahawks training camp, where jobs are on the line and a rookie receiver -- Golden Tate, for instance -- can get more reps than an established veteran if he earns them.
"The only reason I am here is because of competition," Houshmandzadeh said after practice Wednesday, pointing to his humble beginnings as a seventh-round draft choice.
Three days earlier, I marked down Houshmandzadeh for appearing to sulk after quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw incomplete on a deep ball for Deion Branch, never looking toward Houshmandzadeh on the other side of the field. Houshmandzadeh has reacted similarly in past seasons -- he took his time jogging back to the team in this instance -- but with new Seahawks coach Pete Carroll emphasizing competition, and with other receivers commanding more attention this summer, I wondered how Houshmandzadeh was handling the new environment. Most days it seems as though two or three catches in practice are carrying more weight than the 586 career receptions on Houshmandzadeh's resume.
About that play Sunday?
"I know exactly what you are talking about," Houshmandzadeh said. "But see, the thing about that is, like, and I probably do, not knowingly, but I don't try to show the quarterback up."
Houshmandzadeh pointed to his friendship with his former quarterback in Cincinnati, Carson Palmer. He said the two speak weekly and exchanged text messages as recently as Tuesday night. And we all know Houshmandzadeh wanted the ball in Cincinnati, too.
"I don't have problems with guys," Houshmandzadeh said. "I don't start (stuff). I don't have problems. I wanted the ball (on the play Sunday), but he didn't throw it to me -- OK. I felt like I was open. There was no guarantee I would have caught the ball."
The 10th-year receiver again pointed to his days with the Bengals, noting that he and former teammate Chad Ochocinco pushed one another, and coach Marvin Lewis was always telling each man not to let the other one outwork him.
The situation in Seattle is less defined. Tate, Deon Butler and Mike Williams are having strong camps to this point. Branch is a factor as long as he's healthy. Houshmandzadeh appears to be working hard, as usual, even though his body language occasionally suggests a disconnect.
"I had to fight for everything in my life -- I lived with no food before," Houshmandzadeh said. "People will say I act like this, I act like that. I act like that because I know how far I've come. When you are a seventh-round pick and fighting to make the team, they appreciate the toughness and the competitiveness, but if they think you have arrived, all of a sudden it's a bad thing now. I don't get it, but I'm going to calm down a little bit because I think it rubs people the wrong way."
The instinctive reaction to T.J. Houshmandzadeh's most recent pleas for the football goes something like this:
"Your team just won, 41-0, and you caught two touchdown passes. Only six receivers in the league have had more balls come their way this season. The team you left, a perennial loser, is suddenly 4-1 without you. It's a team game."
That's how I feel when I read quotes like this one, attributed to Houshmandzadeh on Friday: "I just got to get these coaches to realize, throw me the ball. Maybe I've said it too much. I just got to show them now."
Context and tone mean quite a bit in these situations.
I wasn't there to hear Houshmandzadeh's comments. Greg Johns of seattlepi.com ran a fuller account, noting that Houshmandzadeh was taking extra reps with the scout team: "I've just got to get these coaches to realize, like, throw me the ball. That's why I'm out here practicing the way I'm practicing. Because maybe I've said it too much. I'm just going to show 'em now. And if that doesn't work, I don't think nothing will."
Update: As noted, context and tone mean everything here. Thanks to Pete Reggio for passing along a link to audio of this conversation.
Chart credit: ESPN Stats & Information
|Best of the best: Michael Strahan, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Randy Moss.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Ranking the 25 best NFL players of the decade seemed easy.
AFC West blogger Bill Williamson sent an initial list to me for review. The list appeared strong. I suggested a couple minor tweaks.
The hard part came when we considered those who fell just short of the list.
Guard Alan Faneca has gone to eight Pro Bowls this decade. John Lynch and Will Shields went to seven. Brian Dawkins, La'Roi Glover, Kevin Mawae, Olin Kreutz, Matt Birk, Larry Allen, Chris Samuels and Zach Thomas went to six. Ronde Barber, Keith Brooking, Al Wilson, Julian Peterson, Donovan McNabb, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Chad Ochocinco were among those with five.
None of them made the top 25 list. Had all of them made it, only six spots would have remained for the 25 players you see in the chart.
We settled on five quarterbacks, four receivers, four offensive linemen, three linebackers, three defensive ends, two running backs, two safeties, one cornerback, one tight end and zero defensive tackles (few dominated consistently for extended periods).
Seven of 10 league MVPs this decade made the top 25. Marshall Faulk, Rich Gannon and 2003 co-MVP Steve McNair were the exceptions.
Ben Roethlisberger made the list despite only one career Pro Bowl appearance. It's not his fault Manning and Brady play in the same conference.