NFC West: Chuck Knox

Deacon JonesLong Photography/USA TODAY SportsDeacon Jones, a Hall of Fame defensive end, was the leader of the L.A. Rams' left side from 1961-71.
Quarterback Johnny Unitas and receiver Raymond Berry had been tormenting NFL Western Conference defenses with the deep ball when along came David "Deacon" Jones and a new wave of defensive linemen to spoil the fun.

"The main pattern we were using took three and a half seconds to throw it," Berry recalled during a 2008 interview. "I could run down 10 yards and break square in and three steps and I'd plant and take off back to the corner."

Unitas-to-Berry had set apart the Baltimore Colts for years. But life was changing for them in the early 1960s. Vince Lombardi began assembling the Green Bay Packers' championship defense. Jones, who died Monday at age 74, combined with Merlin Olsen to give the Los Angeles Rams arguably the most dominant left side in NFL history. In Detroit, meanwhile, the Lions had the great Alex Karras.

"What happened in our division is those three-and-a-half-second routes became history," Berry said. "In order to get the ball off when we played those people, and it represented six games, we would throw the ball in 1.8, 1.9 or 2.1 seconds at the most. Get it out of there. Because you couldn't keep people out of there."

At the time, rules governing holding prevented offensive linemen from slowing the rush by grabbing onto opponents' jerseys. Defensive linemen could slap offensive linemen on the side of the helmet to facilitate their rushes.

Jones, at 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds, refined the head-slap to a martial art.

"The head-slap was not my invention, but Rembrandt, of course, did not invent painting," Jones once said.

The NFL would eventually legislate some of Jones' preferred tactics out of the game to promote passing and spare quarterbacks.

"Deacon Jones was a game changer."

-- Rams DE Chris Long
"The league has legalized what was considered holding when we played," Berry said. "I did a several-years study on how much time you had against a great pass-rush team. You had to get that ball out of there. Today, that has totally changed, giving quarterbacks one or two seconds of additional time."

Jack Patera played on the Baltimore Colts' defense with Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti before serving as a defensive line coach for the Rams beginning in 1963, Jones' second season. Patera coached the Rams' famed "Fearsome Foursome" line for five seasons. He later coached the "Purple People Eaters" line under Bud Grant in Minnesota.

Patera, now 79, knows defensive linemen, in other words. He's also honest and direct in his assessments. Carl Eller was as talented as they came, but didn't apply himself consistently. Jim Marshall was stronger, pound for pound, than just about anyone, and more consistent, too. Olsen was nearly perfect in everything he did -- an "A" student at his craft.

Then there was Deacon Jones.

"Gino Marchetti was the superb defensive end of my playing time and for David Jones, he was probably the best I had ever seen, consistently," Patera said Tuesday. "Jim Marshall was the most consistent player, but Deacon had him by a step or two in his overall performance."

Patera recalled Jones as a raw 14th-round draft choice and a player the Rams had initially considered at offensive tackle.

"He had all the speed and strength, but he had a stance like those 1920 pictures you see, guys squatting like a frog with their hand between their legs," Patera recalled with a laugh. "He didn't know anything about playing defense, but all he had to do was get his butt up in the air and let him take off. Once we got him in a stance where he could get off the ball, there wasn't a whole lot to teach him. Everything was very simple to him."

Jones played a great game and talked one, too. Former Dallas Cowboys tackle Rayfield Wright, a Hall of Famer, shared a classic story with Sports Illustrated about a 1969 matchup against Jones.

"As an offensive lineman, you're taught only to hear the quarterback's voice, nothing else," Wright told the magazine. "I'm listening in case there's an audible, and in the pause between 'Huts!' I hear a deep, heavy voice say, 'Does yo' mama know you're out here?' It was Deacon Jones."

Jones, an eight-time Pro Bowl choice, coined and popularized the term "sack" before the NFL tracked the stat officially. He laid the foundation for a rich tradition of Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams defensive ends and outside pass-rushers. Jack Youngblood, Kevin Greene, Kevin Carter, Leonard Little, Chris Long and all the others know the history and know Jones' founding role in it.

"Yes, there is a fairly strong brotherhood, especially Deacon and I and when Merlin was still with us -- a real strong bond," Youngblood said in an interview last year.

Youngblood and Jones were on the Rams together before the team traded Jones, clearing the way for Youngblood.

"Those were awfully big shoes to fill," Youngblood said. "Deacon had been All-Pro and the sack leader and the whole nine yards for so many years. I’m thinking, this is going to be a leap here."

Chuck Knox, the Rams' steely head coach, called Youngblood into his office.

"He looked me down and gave me that Chuck Knox look and said, 'All right, it's your job, don't let me down.' It's my second year in the business and he's going, 'Don't let me down.' That was significant for me. That said he thought enough of my ability that I was going to be able to do the job for him."

Jones went into the Hall of Fame with the 1980 class. Youngblood followed in 2001.

"All those guys are awesome," Long said last season. "I was lucky enough to play with Leonard Little, who was just a great player. And when I changed my number to 91, I told him I was just renting the number. Greene was a 100-plus sack guy, Kevin Carter a 100-plus sack guy. Jack Youngblood and his legacy is his toughness along with his skill. I mean, it’s just legendary. And Deacon Jones was a game changer.

"All those guys, just to be playing left end for the St. Louis Rams is a pretty cool history, especially when you put all the names together. It’s impressive."

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The "Ground Chuck" nickname for Chuck Knox fit the former NFL coach's old-school reputation even if it sometimes misrepresented his approach to offensive football.

Quarterbacks John Hadl and Dave Krieg went to Pro Bowls with Knox as their head coach. Steve Largent retired as the NFL's all-time receiver and landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame largely for what he accomplished under Knox.

Not that I would question Knox's conservative reputation entirely. Football Outsiders ranked the former Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks coach 84th out of 84 qualifying coaches on its "Aggressiveness Index" showing fourth-down tendencies from 1991 through last season. Knox was least likely to go for it on fourth down outside situations when teams were obviously playing from behind.

Football Outsiders also produced a chart showing where coaches ranked in 2012 alone. The St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher and the Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt fell on the more aggressive side. The Seahawks' Pete Carroll, ranked 13th out of 84 coaches from 1991 to present, appeared to be less aggressive last season even though his team famously executed a fake punt while leading the Bills by 30 points.

The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh was slightly less aggressive than average while Bruce Arians, now in his first season with Arizona, was further down the list while serving as the Indianapolis Colts' interim coach.

Sample size is key in these studies and I'm not sure one season tell us how these NFC West coaches approach fourth down.

Seattle went for it twice on fourth down while leading the Minnesota Vikings by 10 points in the final 3:09. The Seahawks converted on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32 a few plays before converting on fourth-and-4 from the 15. Were those aggressive plays?

I have some ideas on this front and will pursue them in the future.

Research suggests coaches too frequently mistake punting or kicking field goals as "safer" decisions when going for it would actually make more sense. It can be a tough sell, like convincing a card player to disregard hunches no matter how much money is at stake or what happened in a similar situation previously.

These discussions will become more prevalent in football as the percentages become more commonly known. Coaches could have more direct access to that information as the NFL incorporates technology into its game-day experience. The NFL already plans for coaches to have playbooks on tablets beginning in 2014. How long before coaches have access to fourth-down calculators or other tools to aid in the decision-making process?

Aaron Schatz, who wrote the Football Outsiders piece, suggests there is considerable progress to be made on that front:
"One thing I have learned in talking to a lot of front office people who are interested in analytics is that there is very little correlation between how much analytical work is being done in a front office and how much the head coach's on-field decisions seem to reflect the general precepts that have developed in the football analytics community over the last decade.

"For most teams doing analytics, the impact is coming in draft and free-agency decisions, and the difference that analytics can make between one free-agent signing and another can be very subtle. Eventually we'll get to the point where a lot of head coaches have buy-in, but we aren't there yet, even on teams where the salary cap analyst is regularly reading Football Outsiders and fully understands Brian Burke's fourth-down calculator."
Conventional wisdom says quarterback Alex Smith held back the San Francisco 49ers' offense last season. It's also possible coach Jim Harbaugh held back Smith simply because Harbaugh prefers to run an offense that way.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee makes that case in responding to Ron Jaworski's recent analysis of Smith. Barrows: "Harbaugh did virtually the same thing at Stanford with Andrew Luck, whom the NFL deemed the top quarterback in the draft this year. That is, the approach is more Harbaugh-related than it is Smith-related. Only one team -- the Tim Tebow-led Broncos -- threw the ball less than San Francisco in 2011. Only two teams -- the Broncos and Texans -- ran the ball more. That run-pass ratio may change slightly in 2012 with the addition of high-profile wideouts Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins. But with Harbaugh, a lover of power-based offenses at the helm, it's very unlikely to change dramatically." Noted: Agreed.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers should forget about forcing the restoration of $30 million in stadium funds.

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' receivers have impressed this offseason.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says undrafted free-agent guard Rishaw Johnson caught the coaching staff's attention this offseason. Johnson went undrafted after his alleged involvement in credit-card fraud precipitated his dismissal from the Mississippi football team. Johnson: "Going into the combine, I thought I was going in the second or third round,. But all my off-field stuff kind of caught up with me."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team has more in common with the Pittsburgh Steelers than coach roots linking Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, Ray Horton and others to the Steel City. A sponsorship with Hyundai is the latest commonality. Urban: "The team announced Tuesday a multi-year partnership with car manufacturer Hyundai, a deal that includes Hyundai as presenter of training camp. It will also mean Cardinals players will wear a Hyundai logo patch on practice jerseys throughout the season, a first for the team."

Kelsey Vaughan of stlouisrams.com checks in with rookies participating in a charity bowling event. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers: "I’m losing to a 3-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old."

Chase Stuart of Football Perspective lists former Rams and Seahawks coach Chuck Knox high on a chart showing coaches with the best won-lost records in close games. Knox was right between Vince Lombardi and Marv Levy, both Hall of Fame coaches. Ray Malavasi and Dennis Erickson ranked toward the bottom.
Hall of Famer Barry Sanders will forever be known as an all-time great running back driven into premature retirement by his team's losing culture.

Sanders should get no sympathy from Steven Jackson.

Sanders' Lions reached the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons, posting between nine and 12 victories each time. They never won fewer than five games in a season.

Jackson's St. Louis Rams have never won more than eight games in a season. His teams have fared so poorly, in fact, that Jackson ranks last on a list of 87 top running backs ranked by team winning percentages. Chase Stuart, best known for his work at Pro Football Reference, published the list at his new site, Football Perspective.

Sanders ranked 68th.

The list considers runners with at least 5,000 yards rushing and 7,500 yards from scrimmage. The winning percentages were weighted to favor runners' most productive seasons.

"For example, if a player gained 10 percent of his [career] yards from scrimmage in 1999 and the team went 15-1 that season, then 10 percent of the running back’s weighted winning percentage would be 0.9375," Stuart explains. "This is designed to align a running back's best seasons with his team's records in those years.

"For example, Emmitt Smith played two of his 15 seasons with the Cardinals. But since he gained only 6.5 percent of his career yards from scrimmage in Arizona, the Cardinals' records those years count for only 6.5 percent -- and not 13.3 percent -- of his career weighted winning percentage."

The methodology is a little confusing at first glance, but the results make sense.

Jackson has played eight seasons, fighting off injuries and the malaise perpetual losing cultivates. He has played eight seasons without flinching. His bruising style naturally raises questions about how long Jackson might hold up physically. But it's also fair to wonder how much losing such a passionate player can withstand before deciding he's had enough.

The backs listed atop Stuart's list faced no such issues.

Former Los Angeles Rams great Lawrence McCutcheon, named to five consecutive Pro Bowls under coach Chuck Knox, tops the list with a .741 weighted winning percentage. Roger Craig, named to four Pro Bowls with San Francisco, ranks third at .723.

NFC West alums Garrison Hearst (20th), Shaun Alexander (22th), Ricky Watters (23rd) and Wendell Tyler (24th) are all at .585 and higher. But four of the six players at the bottom of the list also spent some of their careers with franchises currently aligned in the division. That includes Hall of Famers Ollie Matson and O.J. Simpson.
Rich Saul's former Los Angeles Rams teammates recalled his Pro Bowl talent, scary toughness and, humorously, a legendary appetite that waned only in the retired center's final days.

Early in Saul's career, when he was putting on weight to fulfill George Allen's vision for him as a center, the former middle linebacker from Michigan State would slip a bag of coins under his cap for weigh-ins, fearful the team would cut him if the scale revealed his actual poundage.

That was not all.

"When we would go through the [cafeteria] line in camp, most would put a plate on a tray and then food on plate," recalled former Rams defensive tackle Phil Olsen. "Rich had to eat so much, he would load the food on his tray. He would skip the plate. I'll tell you, up until a few days before he died, we were stuffing him full of food in the hospital."

Olsen and Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood joined the Rams in 1971, a year after Saul. The three bonded quickly, as did their families. Olsen and Youngblood shared a few laughs Monday when remembering Saul, who died Sunday from leukemia at age 64. But they kept coming back to the impact Saul made outside football.

[+] EnlargeRich Saul
AP Photo/NFL PhotosRich Saul was a six-time Pro Bowler for the Los Angeles Rams.
"I can't express what Richie meant to us," Youngblood said.

Evidence of Saul's impact remains visible in the passages his grown son, Josh, and others shared through a website chronicling the family's recent journey.

"The best was the way he looked at my mom tonight," Josh wrote in an April 6 entry after his father watched the Masters and continued to engage those close to him.

"I have never seen 'I love you' so clearly spoken without words," Josh continued. "Theirs is a bond that will live on forever. I am so thankful to have had such an amazing example of marriage and family leadership to follow."

One of a kind

Saul finished his Rams career with six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl during a seven-year run as their starting center. That he played mostly special teams for his first five seasons, then emerged as a perennial Pro Bowl choice, seems incomprehensible in a modern context. There was no free agency at the time, however. A team could more easily stockpile and develop talent.

The Rams were stacked on the offensive line under coach Chuck Knox, with Hall of Famer Tom Mack at one guard spot and veterans elsewhere on the line. Saul had never played center in college, putting him at a significant disadvantage. The Rams also made Saul their long-snapper, forcing him to learn another skill that was previously foreign to him. Not that he had much choice in the matter.

And so Saul played special teams with a vengeance, earning the nickname "Super Saul" -- shortened to "Soup" with an eye toward his prodigious appetite. His contract was for $12,500, the minimum at the time, but an incentive clause tied to special-teams tackles allowed Saul to collect additional income.

"He made like 100 tackles on special teams that first year," Olsen said. "He just ran down the field and knocked everybody down."

They still called special-teams units "suicide squads" back then, as reflected in a 1971 Life Magazine cover story featuring Saul and others around the league.

"The injury rate is eight times higher on suicide squads than for any other position," a caption in the magazine read.

Saul was undaunted. He'd already overcome a catastrophic knee injury at Michigan State, where Saul and his twin brother, Ron, had earned All-America honors, Rich as a linebacker and Ron as an offensive linemen. That the two would combine to play 318 regular-season games came as an upset following Rich's injury.

"The only thing holding the upper leg to the lower leg was the skin," Olsen said. "It is amazing he got to play in the NFL. He would describe that as a miracle surgery performed by Dr. Lanny Johnson."

Tough guy

Youngblood went to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and set a standard for grit by playing through the 1979 postseason, including the Super Bowl, with a broken fibula.

Former Rams guard Dennis Harrah aptly called Youngblood the "John Wayne" of professional football. Even John Wayne knew to pick his spots in practice.

"I was a defensive end and Richie was a center, and I knew that I should not go in there because Rich Saul will hurt you if you go into his territory," Youngblood said. "There was many a linebacker in the league who did not like to see the schedule knowing they had to go see Rich Saul. That was going to be an all-day affair."

Former Rams video director Mickey Dukich once recounted for the Los Angeles Times a story of Saul, a former wrestler, applying a choke hold on teammate Butch Robertson, a six-time Pro Bowl choice at linebacker.

"Butch passed out," Dukich told the Times for the 1987 piece. "Rich thought he had killed Butch."

Youngblood confirmed the basic details.

"Rich, there was a little conflict in the locker room and it resulted in, he didin't hurt the guy, but he did show that you didn't mess with Rich Saul," Youngblood said. "That was the message. Message was well received."

On the line

The Rams led the NFL in rushing with 2,799 yards during the 1980 season, a total surpassed just twice in subsequent years, by the 1984 Chicago Bears and 2006 Atlanta Falcons. The Rams ranked among the league leaders in that category throughout most of the 1970s, before and after Saul succeeded Ken Iman as the full-time center in 1975.

"[Saul] became an extremely proficient blocker on a team that still used primarily man-to-man blocking on defensive line stunts -- you never see this any more! -- and did a multitude of blocking combinations on running plays," Mack, an 11-time Pro Bowl choice with the Rams from 1966-1978, wrote in an email. "We could slip, slide, fold and cut block defenses as effectively as any team in football and we led the league in rushing. That alone proved he was both smart and a great athlete!"

Saul played 176 regular-season games and 12 playoff games, including the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh following the 1979 season, all for the Rams under four head coaches: Allen, Tommy Prothro, Knox and Ray Malavasi. He was one of three NFL players -- Jack Lambert and Robert Brazile were the others -- to earn Pro Bowl honors every season from 1976 through 1981.

Legacy

Olsen recalled the famous quote from Jackie Robinson about a life lacking import except to the extent it has impacted the lives of others. He said Saul, who succeeded in finance and real estate following football, lived that ethic and cared more about what people thought of him off the field than on it.

"We used to talk about that a lot," Olsen said.

"He took great pride in being a father and a husband and a grandfather. ... He was always going to the hospital to talk to kids with cancer or to send a note or a card or a picture or go to speak to a group that needed something done. He was a very strong advocate for abused and battered children, very active with the Cancer Society and all those organizations that needed someone to stand up and speak on their behalf.

"That is how people will remember him, as a humanitarian, a good father, a good friend."

Jim Harbaugh joins NFC West short list

February, 7, 2012
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One of our blog regulars, joe_cool585, correctly points out an omission from the NFC West blog recently.

Jim Harbaugh's naming as the NFL's top coach, as declared by Associated Press voters, got insufficient play here during Pro Football Hall of Fame fallout Saturday night. Time for every coach's favorite, the makeup call.

Harbaugh becomes the first NFC West coach since realignment in 2002 to earn the AP honor. Harbaugh and former St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil are the only coaches for current NFC West teams to win the award in the last two decades.

Winning the award requires not only faring well, but also faring better than your peers in a given season, sometimes relative to expectations. The chart does not necessarily rank the best jobs head coaches have done for current NFC West franchises since the AP established the award in 1957. This wouldn't be a bad list to work from, however.

The chart's final column shows the difference between winning percentages from the previous season. For example, the 1999 Rams went 13-3, up from 4-12 the previous season. The difference between those winning percentages -- .813 minus .333, basically -- works out to plus .563.

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Greg from Seattle thought Victor Cruz's first-quarter non-fumble in the Super Bowl, rendered irrelevant by a penalty for 12 men on the field, resembled the forward-progress call involving Ahmad Bradshaw that hurt San Francisco during the 49ers' game against the Giants two weeks ago.

"The only discernible difference I saw was that there were two men involved on Bradshaw's fumble two weeks ago," Greg wrote. "If this week's play had been ruled a fumble while the Niners were not permitted even to challenge, I would have been outraged. Curious to hear your perspective."

Mike Sando: I had the exact same thought, but it was a fleeting one because of the penalty. The 49ers weren't necessarily victimized by a horrible call, in my view. It seemed like one of those unlucky ones, along the lines of the chop-block call against Frank Gore in Baltimore. I disagreed with the call against Gore and thought the 49ers caught a bad break on the Bradshaw ruling. The Cruz play looked similar when watching the game live. (Update: Gore chop block was obviously at Baltimore; I mistakenly wrote Philadelphia originally).

Former NFL officiating boss Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, offered this take: "Without this penalty, fans would have been left wondering why the play in San Francisco was ruled forward progress and this one wasn’t. In my opinion, both plays should have been ruled forward progress and not fumbles."

I dislike the forward-progress ruling when it's close. Rules require players making receptions to hold onto the ball through the conclusion of the play. Why not enforce the same standard for players running with the ball? If officials think forward progress has been stopped, then they should blow the whistle. Had the whistle blown when Bradshaw lost the ball? How about when Cruz lost the ball? If not, the play was live, right?

I'm open-minded on this, but that's how it looks from this angle.


Bruce from Port Angeles, Wash., was among several writing to express satisfaction after seeing Cortez Kennedy become the second longtime Seattle Seahawks player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He appreciated whatever work was done in presenting Kennedy's credentials to the selectors.

Mike Sando: The Mount Rushmore of Seahawks history would include Steve Largent, Kenny Easley, Kennedy and Walter Jones, in my view. Shaun Alexander deserves consideration as well, but I think those other guys were the elite of the elite in the pure ability to dominate their opponents.

Easley, Kennedy and Jones played extremely physical positions, too, so their dominance was a cut above simply by the nature of their jobs. I tend to favor candidates who flat-out dominated even when two or three opponents at a time matched up against them. Kennedy fit that criteria.

Kennedy's candidacy suffered some from the Seahawks' struggles during the 1990s. The team kept hiring offensive-minded head coaches in an effort to fix that side of the ball, going from Chuck Knox to Tom Flores to Dennis Erickson to Mike Holmgren during Kennedy's tenure.

Holmgren's arrival in 1999 led to an 8-2 start and playoff appearance that season. Kennedy had 6.5 sacks and two interceptions that year, with three of those sacks during Holmgren's return to Green Bay on the Monday night stage. Overall, Kennedy appeared in prime time only five times during his career. For that reason, many of the selectors rarely saw him play.

One key to Kennedy's enshrinement was making sure the selectors had the relevant facts and testimonials before them. Presenting Kennedy was straightforward. His credentials made it so.


Ted from San Carlos thought Wes Welker was taking far too much criticism for the pass he failed to catch with four minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLVI. He questioned whether I had even watched the game. "How could you blame Welker for that 'drop' when the pass was terrible? Brady had a wide-open Welker and made a bad pass. It would have been a GREAT catch had he caught it. This is on Brady."

Mike Sando: Welker blamed Welker. He is a credible source on the subject. The ball hit both of his hands.


Suzy from Dallas says Welker "manned up" and took the blame for missing what would have been a "miracle" catch. "When you review the tape," she wrote, "please retract your entire story (like a man)."

Mike Sando: David Tyree made a miracle catch in Super Bowl XLII. Welker has a clear opportunity to make this catch. He is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Many sources, including the Boston Globe, have described this pass for what it was, a bit behind Welker, but catchable. If Welker had made that catch, people would not be talking about it in the vein they discuss Tyree's catch. Not even close.


Andy from Syracuse was among several fans asking whether the 49ers' move to Santa Clara on game days will result in a name change.

Mike Sando: They will still be the San Francisco 49ers. Their headquarters have been in Santa Clara for years. The team's history and heritage is very important to team persident Jed York. Santa Clara is not that far away.


Darren from Vacaville, Calif., did not like reading in our recent Super Bowl losers story the word "outclassed" to describe the Los Angeles Rams during their Super Bowl defeat to Pittsburgh following the 1979 season. "This team had the feared Steelers on the ropes," he wrote.

Mike Sando: I'm going to grant you this one. I actually did not write that part of the item. Jamison Hensley and I worked on that together. He wrote the part on the Rams. I saw it and did not disagree strongly enough to talk to him about adjusting it. It was a reasonable take given the Rams' status that season as a 9-7 team without its starting quarterback, Pat Haden.

Sorry, no Arizona Cardinals questions this time. There weren't any fresh ones atop the mailbag. My flight is making its way across the country. Figured I'd better file this while the laptop battery was strong, the wireless was working, etc.
Ronnie Lott witnessed one of the greatest coaching jobs in NFL history during the Bill Walsh years in San Francisco three decades ago.

The Hall of Famer thinks the 49ers' current coach, Jim Harbaugh, might be doing something more spectacular in leading the team to an 8-1 record against all expectations.

"This might be the greatest coaching that I've ever seen in the history of the game of professional football," Lott told Sirius NFL Radio recently. "It's his first [season as an NFL head coach] and not only is he hitting it out of the park but, man, he's hitting all the notes. Everything that you can think of, he's done."

Lott pointed to the 49ers' ability to play well and win under a first-time NFL head coach following a lockout-shortened offseason. The turnaround from eight consecutive non-winning seasons has been striking. Kenton Wong of ESPN Stats & Information put together a Harbaugh-related packet with the following key points:
  • Stanford went from 1-11 the year before Harbaugh arrived as head coach to 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1 over his four seasons at the university.
  • The 49ers brought back most key players, notably Alex Smith, from a team that went 6-10 last season. Their eight victories this season match the rest of the NFC West combined. The 49ers have a .889 winning percentage, compared to .296 for the rest of the division. They are plus-95 in points. The rest of the NFC West is minus-198. The 49ers have one more road win (four) than the rest of the division combined.
  • Smith is on pace for career bests in yards per attempt (7.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.7).
  • Harbaugh's seven-game winning streak is tied for second longest by a rookie head coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Ted Marchibroda's Colts won nine in a row in 1975. Bobby Ross' Chargers won seven straight in 1992. Chuck Knox's Rams (1973) and Nick Saban's Dolphins (2005) each enjoyed six-game streaks. Corrected info from Elias: Steve Mariucci won 11 in a row during the 1997 season, his first with the 49ers. And Jim Caldwell went 14-0 with the Colts in his first season. Those are the two longest streaks.

This is the best start for a rookie NFC West coach since Mariucci's 49ers opened the 1997 season with an 11-1 record. They finished 13-3.

Mike Martz's St. Louis Rams went 8-2 to open the 2000 season. Mike Holmgren's Seahawks opened the 1999 season with an 8-2 record.

I've put together a chart showing NFC West head coaches' first-year records since 1997, excluding interim coaches.
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Camp Confidential: Seattle Seahawks

August, 3, 2011
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RENTON, Wash. -- NFL training camps aren't what they used to be now that players have secured day-spa treatment from coaches under the new labor agreement.

Still, teams aren't practicing in slippers and robes ... yet.

Earl Thomas, the Seattle Seahawks' second-year safety, did go through a recent practice -- make that a walk-through, just to be safe -- wearing a visor that also would have served him well standing over a Titleist. Several teammates wore ball caps.

None of this shocks the system for Seattle.

Coach Pete Carroll ran a player-friendly camp last year as well, giving the team full days off from practice. But the veterans who lauded Carroll's approach in 2010 aren't around to celebrate it this year. And therein lies the biggest difference for the Seahawks this summer.

For the first time since 2000, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn't around to offer the insights and asides that made him mandatory viewing at Seahawks camp. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, leader of the defense since 2005, also is gone. Other veterans I polled during the inaugural Camp Carroll are also elsewhere -- Lawyer Milloy, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Olindo Mare among them.

This day has been coming for a while. The Seahawks are getting on with their lives, untethered from what came before.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeTarvaris Jackson
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonTarvaris Jackson should be familiar with the Seahawks' offense since he spent five seasons with new coordinator Darrell Bevell.
1. Why Tarvaris Jackson? The Seahawks decided it was time to move on from Hasselbeck before they had a long-term replacement lined up. Once that decision was made, the team targeted Jackson because he and the Seahawks' new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, had spent five years together. Once Jackson was signed, Carroll wasted little time endorsing him as the starter. Three possible explanations come to mind. One, Jackson knew the offense. Two, Charlie Whitehurst hadn't asserted himself as a leader during offseason workouts when Hasselbeck was without a contract for 2011. Three, a quick endorsement gave Jackson a confidence boost following a rough run in Minnesota. There's a feeling that maybe, just maybe, Brad Childress did not give Jackson the best chance to succeed with the Vikings.

2. Who will lead the defense? Tatupu's release following six seasons with the team leaves the defense in transition. Tatupu was instinctive and adept at getting teammates lined up properly. His play had deteriorated through injuries, but Tatupu had three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl on his résumé. He was the defensive leader. Carroll pointed to linebacker David Hawthorne, pass-rusher Chris Clemons and defensive end Red Bryant as heirs. He named Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor as well. "I'm not worried about it," Carroll said. "There’s a lot of very strong character kids on that side of the ball, particularly."

3. Does Whitehurst have a future? It's tough to see him emerging in Seattle. The decision to go with Jackson even though rules prevented him from practicing right away said plenty about Whitehurst's status on the team. Whitehurst has been running the first-team offense while Jackson waits to become eligible under rules for players with new contracts. Everyone knows he's the backup even though there was never any competition. It's a tough situation for Whitehurst. Still, getting to work with the starters provided an opportunity to impress. It has not happened. Whitehurst's contract runs through the 2011 season. If Whitehurst doesn't show more as camp progresses, it's fair to wonder whether the team would consider bringing in a cheaper veteran.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Signing Zach Miller in free agency. Miller was on the Seahawks' radar when free agency opened. Assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable had high praise for Miller from their days together in Oakland. But the Seahawks never expected Miller to remain available so deep into the signing period. After a while, the Seahawks began to view Miller the way they would view a talented prospect falling to them in the draft. They felt compelled to pursue Miller with a strong offer. The Raiders made a push to keep Miller, but Seattle came through with a five-year, $34 million contract featuring $17 million in guarantees. Having Cable and former Raiders guard Robert Gallery in Seattle helped the Seahawks get this deal done. The team emerged from free agency with a 25-year-old Pro Bowl player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Extending the lockout (sort of). Carroll has bristled every day over the rules preventing newly signed players from practicing before Aug. 4, only one week before Seattle's exhibition opener at San Diego. Jackson, Sidney Rice and Gallery are among the key additions who were forbidden from participating in practices or even workouts with the team. The situation was tough for teams throughout the league, but Seattle felt challenged more than most because the team has undergone so much roster turnover. Seattle also has quite a few new coaches on the offensive side of the ball, including Bevell, Cable and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith. Going a week without getting key starters onto the field didn't make any sense from a football standpoint.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeRussell Okung
    AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonRussell Okung has shown no signs of the injuries that nagged him last season.
    The ankle injuries that slowed left tackle Russell Okung as a rookie last season haven't been a problem so far. Okung appears exceedingly smooth. He rides out defenders effectively during pass-rush drills, sometimes even driving them to the ground. He's a threat to flatten defenders in the running game. Another recent first-round pick on the line, James Carpenter, has made a positive first impression at right tackle early in camp. He's thick and massive. He plays with an edge. He's going to start in Week 1.
  • Rookie right guard John Moffitt projects as a starter, but he could need time to develop. That was my impression watching Moffitt in drills. Of course, it's not fair comparing Moffitt to Okung or Carpenter. Those guys were first-round picks. Moffitt was a third-rounder. Having youth on the line is a good thing overall. Getting the 31-year-old Gallery into the lineup is critical, however. Gallery has been serving as a coach on the field during practices. He knows Cable's blocking schemes and is already proving valuable as a resource. Durability is a concern for him.
  • Seattle is finished with the big-ticket purchases in free agency. The team could still add veterans at linebacker and kicker. The team lacks experience in the secondary as well. Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings are the only cornerbacks on the team with more than one start. Going young sounds great during the offseason, but throwing untested corners onto the field against veteran quarterbacks isn't very appealing when the games start counting. The Seahawks face Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning in the first five weeks of the regular season.
  • Strong safety Jeron Johnson and three linebackers -- Mike Morgan, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith -- are among the rookies impressing Seattle early in camp. Another rookie, safety Mark LeGree, is getting a chance to play safety when Thomas, the starter at free, shifts to cornerback against slot receivers. Carroll alluded to such an arrangement during the draft. One more rookie, Pep Levingston, has impressed in early one-on-one pass-rush drills. A defensive tackle at LSU, Levingston projects as an end with Seattle. He's leaner than I had anticipated, an advantage in pass-rush drills.
  • Seven of the 11 cornerbacks on the roster are at least 6 feet tall. Three are 5-foot-11 and one is 5-10. The biggest, Brandon Browner, goes 6-4 and 221 pounds. Impressive? Perhaps, but only three of the 11 have started an NFL game, and none of the three with starting experience stands taller than 5-11.
  • Size is a theme throughout the roster. Mike Williams, Rice and fellow receiver Kris Durham are at least 6-4.
  • The Seahawks might need to find more touches for Leon Washington if they hope to get sufficient return on their investment in him. New rules governing kickoffs figure to diminish the value of Washington and other top returners.
  • Seattle's front office trusted its coaches during free agency. Just about every free-agent addition has ties to a Seahawks staff member. Miller and Gallery played for Cable in Oakland. Jackson and Rice played for Bevell in Minnesota. Defensive tackle Alan Branch was an exception. Seattle added him after failing to land a defensive tackle in the draft. Ideally, Branch would be a backup. He could start for Seattle at three-technique, with Brandon Mebane moving to nose tackle. Branch will also back up Bryant at five-technique.
  • For the second year in a row under Carroll, the Seahawks are piping hip-hop beats and mixes into practices. A disc jockey stands behind two turntables near the front corner of the practices fields. "Halfway home and my pager still blowin' up, today I didn't even have to use my A.K. I got to say it was a good day ..." Hearing those lyrics from Ice Cube during a recent practice, I couldn't help but wonder what Chuck Knox would think of the arrangement. Did I mention times have changed in the NFL? Just a little.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at the unsettled nature of the Cardinals' offensive line. Center Lyle Sendlein and guard Deuce Lutui do not have contracts for 2011. Urban: "Free agency will determine the path of the line. Sendlein remains a favorite of the coaching staff and figures to stay in the spot he has had since 2008. Lutui is a much bigger wild card, given his disappointment in the past to not have his contract extended and his desire for a large payday. [Brandon] Keith is a work-in-progress, but the Cards think he can still develop into a solid tackle (and he spent the 2009 season as a backup guard, so he is able to play both positions if necessary). That flexibility could help depending on who the Cards sign and/or re-sign." There were signs Keith was improving before an injury ended his 2010 season. Overall, however, the Cardinals simply haven't invested much in young offensive linemen since selecting Levi Brown fifth overall in 2007. They have not drafted one in the first three rounds of the past four drafts.

Also from Urban: Cardinals staffer Rolando Cantu recently assisted at the scene of a car accident that left a young man with serious injuries.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com revisits Chuck Knox's final season as head coach, explaining why Knox fell out of favor with ownership despite a successful run. Farnsworth: "Call it a clash of strong personalities between Knox -- who was old school, yet still cool -- and owner Ken Behring. After the Seahawks’ early success under Knox, the team never won more than nine games in his final five seasons. His philosophy had morphed into keeping games as close as possible and then trying to make a play to win them in the fourth quarter. Behring wanted more bang for his buck, not bang the drum slowly." That led Behring to push for selecting Dan McGwire in the first round of the 1991 draft, a move that never sat well with Knox.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy, who is putting on a football camp for kids in the Tacoma area. Williams: "Partnering with Sports International Football Camps, Milloy hosted his first camp in Parkland this week, with Seahawks teammates Deon Butler and Marshawn Lynch chipping in to make appearances in order to teach kids the ins and outs of the game. But Milloy didn’t just pop in to show his face and talk for five minutes. He spent quality time working with kids in individual drills." Butler and Lynch also helped out. Butler has recovered from his season-ending knee injury well enough to run routes and catch passes.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says quarterback Alex Smith is taking a stronger leadership role than ever as the San Francisco 49ers hold player-organized practices. Tight end Vernon Davis: "He's more of a leader than he's ever been at this point. I've never seen Alex like this, 'taking charge' is what I call it. It's Alex taking charge. He's in the classroom walking us through everything, talking about all the plays. He's taking all the snaps. And he's really being a leader out there. That's what Alex should've been doing. But it takes time for some guys to get to where you need to be." My thoughts.

The 49ers' website catches up with former player Gordy Soltau, a candidate for the team's Hall of Fame. Soltau: "I was excited when I got traded out here in 1950. I was with Cleveland at the time when Coach Paul Brown told me, 'You can stay here, but Buck Shaw wants you so badly. I’m going to let you go if you want to go.' Then he said, 'You know you probably won’t play much for us this year, but if you go to San Francisco, you can play right now.' So I said, 'I’ll go.' "

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts on the 49ers' practices.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says draft-day stories about Colin Kaepernick using Andrew Luck as a resource never really panned out.

Eric Branch of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with undrafted center Chase Beeler, who played for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Beeler: "I can tell them what my experience was at Stanford in terms of pairings of plays, particular packages that you might see -- a power paired with a particular pass or what have you. But still I have to assume the circumstances in which they’re implementing the playbook are a little different at the next level in the NFL. So there’s going to be some variance there. I’m sure a certain percentage of whatever I’m able to tell them is ultimately going to be useful, but I don’t know that I’m able to give them some kind of grand insight that’s going to bring the whole offense together."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says finding a center must be a priority for the 49ers after Eric Heitmann's neck surgery. Barrows: "David Baas, who played guard his first five seasons in the league, filled in last year at center and remains the team's top option at the position. Baas, an unrestricted free agent, attended one day of the 49ers' previous player-run minicamp -- a good indication he plans to re-sign with the team -- but has not attended the current camp. The 49ers, who have known since last year that Heitmann's status was uncertain, drafted accordingly. They selected Appalachian State's Daniel Kilgore in the fifth round and Montana State's Mike Person in the seventh round, and they plan to see what each can do at both center and guard."

VanRam of Turf Show Times notes that ESPN.com has made Steven Jackson the Rams' highest-ranked player for fantasy purposes. We've spent a fair amount of time this offseason discussing whether Jackson has lost a step and what he might offer for the future. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. put it this way earlier in the offseason: "He struggles to run away from tacklers and break long runs. And he just isn't as nifty as he once was. This sounds like I am a Jackson 'Hater,' which I am not. In fact, I think that the new offense being installed by Josh McDaniels could do Jackson a world of good, as could the maturation of Sam Bradford."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree remains limited after aggravating a foot injury during a June 6 workout session. Maiocco: "Crabtree attended the Alex Smith-led classroom session Tuesday morning at San Jose State. He joined his teammates on the field at Spartan Stadium, and caught some warm-up passes from the team's three quarterbacks. But Crabtree did not run any full-speed pass routes. Instead, he remained close to the 49ers' quarterbacks and referred repeatedly to a copy of the practice script he held in his hands." That level of engagement beats the alternative. Crabtree previously appeared somewhat indifferent to the 49ers' practice sessions when he continued working out on his own, missing a chance to learn more about the offense while engaging his teammates. The stress fracture Crabtree brought into the NFL wasn't considered serious. What to make of his current foot trouble? It's tough to say without information coming from the 49ers' team doctors.

Also from Maiocco: play-by-play coverage from the 49ers' practice session Tuesday.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers players, led by Alex Smith, are checking out video from previous versions of West Coast offenses. Barrows: "Smith's classroom work includes film cups of an array of West Coast offenses, including college (Stanford) and pro clubs. The NFL clips include Steve Young and the 49ers, Rich Gannon and the Raiders and recent Philadelphia Eagles footage. Players said it was helpful to get a bird's eye view of the plays they are running on the practice field."

Also from Barrows: Colin Kaepernick can get the football to its target in a hurry. Left tackle Joe Staley: "He doesn't have that rookie, deer-in-the-headlights mentality. I think he's going to be a good quarterback. The ball comes off his arm pretty fast. He's a real, real intelligent kid. I think he'll pick up this offense pretty quickly."

The 49ers' website catches up with former coach George Seifert, who has this to say about his fondest fan-related recollections: "I was there when San Francisco lost to Detroit in 1957, when it appeared they were going to win the game and go on to the championship. That was certainly a downturn, but to be there when Dwight Clark made 'The Catch' and Eric Wright made the tackle to help us beat Dallas to put us in the Super Bowl was such a high. Having had my background, I’ve been very fortunate to appreciate those moments like our fans."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' receivers will have to adjust the velocity Kaepernick puts on his throws. Branch: "The bad news for Niners receivers is they might need to place their hands in ice baths this week. But the good news for Kaepernick is that he was able to participate fully in the first day of the four-day camp at San Jose State. Kaepernick was limited at the first camp -- only tossing warm-up throws -- in early June after undergoing a minor surgical procedure on his lower left leg following the NFL draft."

Also from Branch: One pass from Kaepernick seemed to knock down receiver Lance Long.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says 49ers tackle Alex Boone has been working with former NFL center LeCharles Bentley in Ohio.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says 49ers players have bonded during their offseason camps.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com considers whether Joey Galloway had the most impressive rookie season in franchise history. I might go with Galloway or Curt Warner. Farnsworth on Warner: "Coach Chuck Knox traded the team’s first-, second- and third-round draft choices to move into the third spot so he could select the back needed for his Ground Chuck offense. Warner did not disappoint, rushing for 1,449 yards (on 335 carries), catching 42 passes and scoring 14 touchdowns to earn AFC offensive player of the year honors."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune takes a closer look at the Seahawks on third down last season. Williams: "Seattle might be looking to take more chances on third down this year after drafting players like linebackers K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith, corners Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell and safety Mark LeGree, in addition to Kam Chancellor, Walter Thurmond and Roy Lewis -- all fast, explosive players who can tackle and cover. Specifically, the Seahawks will look to free up safety Earl Thomas more and allow him to use his play-making ability, as they did against St. Louis in the final game of the year."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com traces the roots of Dennis Green's famous they-are-who-we-thought-they-were outburst back to training camp that season. Urban: "Bears coach Lovie Smith was asked about Leinart’s good game in the preseason and talked about that game meaning nothing, as a 'glorified practice.' Green, hearing this, clearly didn’t agree and said as much, although it wasn’t exactly 'who takes the third game of the preseason like it’s bull.' At least, not yet. Then came the game. The Cards dominated, and they lost. Green calmly answered most of the questions and then the one hit him the wrong way, especially with the leftover irritation with Smith’s comments percolating all week and the frustration of the season building (for instance, kicker Neil Rackers missing what should have been a game-winning field goal that night)."

Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World says Rams receiver Mark Clayton is eager to resume contract negotiations with the team. Clayton: "I would love to stay. I love playing with Sam [Bradford]. The organization is great. Coach 'Spags' [Steve Spagnuolo], I love him. I love his passion. He's a real fiery dude. He's a defensive guy and I play offense. Opposites attract, I guess." Getting a deal done with Clayton shouldn't be too difficult. The team has improved its depth at the position, but with Clayton and several other receivers coming off injuries, the Rams need numbers. Clayton developed an instant rapport with Bradford last season. He's coming off surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon suffered at Detroit in Week 6 last season.
Where the NFC West stands in Flash Points balloting, which continues into Wednesday afternoon and seeks to identify key events in franchise history:

Votes so far: 125,896

Votes by team: San Francisco 49ers 42,066; Seattle Seahawks 29,750; St. Louis Rams 28,232; Arizona Cardinals 25,848.

Closest race: Eleven percentage point separate the top three Seahawks moments. Thirty-six percent pointed to Paul Allen purchasing the team and keeping it in Seattle. Twenty-eight percent singled out the victory against Carolina to reach Super Bowl XL. Twenty-five percent pointed to the team's decision to select Dan McGwire in the first round of the 1991 draft, even though coach Chuck Knox preferred Brett Favre.

Flashiest Flash Point: The 49ers' hiring of Bill Walsh has commanded more than 22,000 votes, easily the most among all NFC West options.

Biggest blowout: The Arizona Cardinals' victory against Philadelphia to reach Super Bowl XLIII has drawn the highest percentage of any team's votes (68 percent). Getting a new stadium in Glendale ranks a distant second with 16 percent. That is easily the widest gap between first- and second-place options.

Weakest Flash Point: With all due respect to 49ers legend R.C. Owens, his alley-oop reception to beat the Detroit Lions in 1957 hasn't measured up among voters, drawing only 1 percent. The top two options -- Walsh's hiring and "The Catch" -- combined for 90 percent, with 6 percent selecting Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s forced exit as owner.

My favorite suggestions: For the Rams, their 30-3 defeat to the 49ers in the NFC title game following the 1989 season. EmsDucks offered that one, noting that the Rams went into quick decline and wound up moving the franchise. That game also negatively impacted perceptions of quarterback Jim Everett. ...

For the 49ers, the hit Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams put on quarterback Steve Young in 1999, precipitating Young's retirement. ...

For the Seahawks, hiring Mike Holmgren away from Green Bay. We can informally roll this one into Allen's purchasing of the team, which cleared the way for the hiring. ...

For the Cardinals, there were a few, but none more entertaining than visions of coaches past. Buddy Ryan's proclamation about there being a winner in town was up there with Dennis Green's memorable postgame meltdown.

Scheduling note: NFL West polls close Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET. I'll break out winners and single out one for elaboration in a piece scheduled for Thursday.

Closing question: What about Walsh's hiring with the 49ers stands out to you all these years later? The success San Francisco enjoyed thereafter speaks for itself. In retrospect, it's easy to say the 49ers made a no-brainer hiring. In truth, however, Walsh was the team's fifth head coach in less than two years, and the organization was floundering at that time.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com checks in with 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell. Unable to work with players, Donatell and the other 49ers coaches are working with one another. Donatell: "We'll watch tons of tape together. That's how you grow together -- just getting tuned up together. We do it a bunch of hours and weekends because we like it." Donatell also offered thoughts on second-year safety Taylor Mays: "This is a young player, going into Year 2. That's when a lot of guys spike, especially when you're a high-profile guy like he was. If you think about that first year, it's a whirlwind. He got some valuable playing time. I see a lot of traits. He should spike in this system." That seems to be the most optimistic assessment on Mays I've heard coming from the 49ers in quite a while.

The 49ers' announced Tim Ryan's addition to their preseason TV broadcast team. Ryan has worked 12 of the 49ers' last 48 regular-season games for Fox. He grew up in San Jose, lives there currently and played with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh when both were with the Chicago Bears. Ryan: "I grew up loving the 49ers."

Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle offers a primer on new 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Ostler: "Kaepernick is adopted. First Rick and Teresa had a son, Kyle, now 33. They had two more sons who died in early infancy because of heart defects. Doctors told the Kaepernicks, 'No more.' Too late; Teresa was pregnant and had a healthy daughter, Devon, now 29. But there was a void left by the two sons who died, so six years later, the Kaepernicks adopted Colin."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Kaepernick could play as a rookie even though he's unlikely to start.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Packers receiver Greg Jennings joined Cardinals players at the workouts Larry Fitzgerald has organized. Meanwhile, Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein laments the absence of organized team activities this offseason. Sendlein: "No matter what, the team is different every year. Minicamps and OTAs (organized team activities) are when you really build together as a team. Thankfully, some of us are still out here, building on that."

Also from Somers: Thoughts on Alan Faneca's retirement following one season with the Cardinals. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "He summed it up exactly right when he said going into camp that he wasn't going to be the player he was six years ago, but he was good enough. He played at a level that we thought was still very good. ... He was a powerful man, a big man for a guard. But the thing that was most impressive was his ability to think on the move and make assessments in a situation where it happens so fast. He had such a great feel for the game."

More from Somers: Faneca's retirement was no surprise, but the Cardinals do not have young players on the roster to replace him.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Faneca's leadership and toughness set him apart. Urban: "For the time being, veteran Rex Hadnot would figure to plug into Faneca’s left guard spot, although with so much left to be sorted in the offseason, depth charts don’t mean much right now. Fellow 2010 interior starters, center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui, also have contracts that are expiring."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Pete Carroll and Mike Holmgren are the only Seahawks coaches to win a division title in their first season with the team. Holmgren and Chuck Knox were the only ones with winning records during their first seasons.

Also from Farnsworth: a look back at Carroll's first season with Seattle.

More from Farnsworth: Carroll's recent speech to Associated Press Sports Editors.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says there was "no malice" intended when Chester Pitts and Raheem Brock put together a video mocking commissioner Roger Goodell. I'm sure players would feel the same way if Goodell put together a video mocking them.

Also from O'Neil: a more expansive look at the video from Pitts and Brock. Pitts' impersonation of Barack Obama was spot-on, by the way.

Michael Lombardi of NFL.com suggests Darren Sproles as a possible free-agent target for the Rams as the team searches for a backup running back. Lombardi: "Sproles would be to the Rams what Danny Woodhead has been to the Patriots. He would allow Sam Bradford to have an effective check-down option, is a great screen runner, and his talents would force teams to defend the middle of the field, thus taking pressure off the outside receivers. Think of St. Louis being like the 2010 New England offense. With new Rams tight end Lance Kendricks being like Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, Danny Amendola being similar and as effective as Wes Welker, and Sproles being Woodhead, the Rams would be explosive. One third-down back, and the Rams are on their way to being a top-five scoring offense."

David Kvidahl of stlhighschoolsports.com says former Rams assistant strength and conditioning coach Chuck Faucette has taken a job as head coach at the high school level.
What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Seattle Seahawks -- for better or worse? Give us your take and we’ll give you our definitive moment on May 19.

The first two decades of Seahawks history had more to do with what could have been than what actually became.

Imagine if Seattle had only firmed up its 1984 offer to Warren Moon, who signed a two-year, $5.5 million deal with the Houston Oilers in part because the Seahawks weren't willing to guarantee as much of an otherwise similar deal.

Imagine, seven years later, if ownership hadn't forced then-coach Chuck Knox to draft quarterback Dan McGwire with the 16th overall choice when Knox preferred Brett Favre.

Such mistakes threatened to drive the Seahawks from Seattle altogether until Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen intervened by purchasing the team in 1997. That moment might stand above all others. Allen made so many other things possible -- landing Mike Holmgren from Green Bay, for starters. With Holmgren on the sideline, the Seahawks advanced further than ever before, defeating Carolina in the NFC Championship Game for a berth in Super Bowl XL.

These were among the moments that stood out to me when putting together this ballot. Quite a few others -- acquiring Steve Largent, hiring Knox, upsetting the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs at the Orange Bowl, getting Qwest Field built, hiring Holmgren, losing Steve Hutchinson -- also deserve consideration. You'll be the judge ultimately.

If you vote Other, give us your suggestion in the comments area below.

Final Word: Seahawks at Bears

January, 14, 2011
1/14/11
4:00
PM ET
Divisional Final Word: Ravens-Steelers | Jets-Patriots | Packers-Falcons | Seahawks-Bears

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Seahawks-Bears divisional game at Soldier Field:


[+] EnlargeCurt Warner
AP PhotoSeattle's Curt Warner scored the game-winning touchdown in the Seahawks' last road playoff victory, a 27-20 win against the Dolphins in 1983.
It's been a long road for Seattle. The Seahawks will be looking for their first postseason road victory since upsetting the Miami Dolphins following the 1983 season. They are 1-7 on the road during the postseason and 0-1 at a neutral site (Detroit, Super Bowl XL). Seattle won that divisional-round game at Miami by committing only one turnover and forcing five. That Seattle team, like this one, was breaking in a new head coach (Chuck Knox then, Pete Carroll now). That Seattle team, like this one, was the fourth seed in its conference. That team, like this one, beat the No. 5 seed in the wild-card round. Those Dolphins, like these Bears, were the No. 2 seed.

Matt Hasselbeck, the week after. Seattle's veteran quarterback is coming off the fifth game of his career with at least four touchdown passes. He played well the following week in three of the previous five opportunities. One notable exception: the time in 2006 when Hasselbeck, having picked apart the New York Giants' defense during a 42-30 victory a week earlier, struggled in defeat at Chicago. Seattle's inability to block Tommie Harris was pivotal to that outcome. Containing defensive end Julius Peppers, something Seattle did better than anticipated in Week 6, stands out as a key this time.

Emphasis on turnovers. Every coach talks about them. Carroll sets aside one day each week to focus on them. Turnovers are a greater threat to Seattle this week. Chicago has forced more of them than any team in the league since Lovie Smith arrived as head coach before the 2004 season. The Bears tied for third in the NFL this season with 35 forced turnovers (21 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries), according to the team and the NFL. Seattle lost 32 turnovers this season (17 at home and 15 on the road, counting playoffs). The Seahawks have lost only two in their past three games, however, after suffering 13 in their previous four.

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