NFC West: Curtis Painter

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Michael Crabtree caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns with the San Francisco 49ers last season. Before that, his three-year career totals lined up with those for a player the 49ers signed amid injury concerns Friday.

Austin Collie, who missed the 2012 season following knee surgery and has a history of concussions, joins the roster along with Lavelle Hawkins. Those two prevailed over a third receiver, Laurent Robinson, during a tryout at team headquarters, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.

The chart at right shows 2009-2011 totals for Crabtree and Collie. Collie played a supporting role in the Indianapolis Colts' pass-oriented offense featuring Peyton Manning behind center during the first two seasons of that three-year window. He had 54 receptions for 514 yards and one touchdown in 2010, when Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins were the Colts' quarterbacks.

Collie had suffered four concussions since 2010 when he suffered a torn patella tendon during the 2011 season.

The 49ers have sought receiver depth after losing Crabtree to a torn Achilles' tendon. Their need at the position has grown critical during camp with five other receivers either limited or unavailable, including veteran Mario Manningham and 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins.

Collie also tried out with the 49ers in June.
Kevin Kolb will emerge from the 2011 NFL season with an incomplete grade, whether or not he plays for the Arizona Cardinals in their Week 17 game against Seattle.

The reviews have been mostly negative. Kolb was the starter when the Cardinals were opening the season with a 1-6 record. The team won six of its next seven games, but Kolb was the primary quarterback for only one of them. Backup John Skelton hasn't shined in relief, but he did play well enough late in a few victories for the Cardinals to capitalize on defensive improvements and big plays on special teams.

Kolb suffered injuries from head (concussion) to toe (and foot) this season. Durability was a problem for him previously in Philadelphia. Upon seeing Kolb at Cardinals camp, his demeanor and rapport with teammates instantly impressed me. But he also appeared less sturdy looking than I had anticipated. He will benefit from a full offseason working under the Cardinals' noted strength and conditioning coach John Lott.

A full offseason in Arizona should also help Kolb make a smoother transition into an offense that was new to him.

The highlight for Kolb this season was probably the 73-yard touchdown pass he threw to Larry Fitzgerald at Washington in Week 2. Kolb knew he was going to take a crushing hit on the play. He waited long enough for Fitzgerald to get deep, sacrificing his body to deliver in the clutch. The play gave the Cardinals a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.

With and without Kolb, the Cardinals have struck for far more big plays this season than last. They have more pass plays covering 40-plus yards (14) than ever team but the New York Giants and Detroit Lions. Even the Green Bay Packers (13), New England Patriots (12) and New Orleans Saint (10) have fewer. Arizona had only three such plays last season, tied for the NFL low. Larry Fitzgerald's yards per reception has spiked from career-low levels in 2009 (11.3) and 2010 (12.6) to a career-best 17.8. Those are encouraging signs.

But it's also clear the team needs to improve its pass protection. Kolb needs to gain a better feel for the pocket and when to get rid of the football. He need to improve dramatically on third down, as the chart indicates. A deeper knowledge and comfort with the offense should help in those areas, but there are no guarantees. The Cardinals could be back in the market for another starting quarterback one year from now.

As Kent Somers noted Wednesday, the team plans to pay a $7 million bonus to Kolb this offseason, assuring Kolb's return to the team for a second season. That makes sense given what the Cardinals have invested and the alternatives likely available to them. It's also worth pointing out that other quarterbacks acquired by trade enjoyed success after inauspicious debuts with their new teams. The chart below shows stats for Kolb and future Pro Bowlers Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Schaub in their first seasons with new teams.

Hasselbeck in particular struggled during an injury-marred first season with Seattle after the Seahawks acquired him from Green Bay. He was 26 years old in 2001, his first year with the team. Kolb is 27. Unlike Kolb this season, Hasselbeck in 2001 was running the same offense he had learned from the same head coach, Mike Holmgren. But the Seahawks benched him after one year and nearly gave up on him altogether before a season-ending injury to Trent Dilfer gave Hasselbeck another chance.

There is still time for Kolb, in other words.

Bringing pressure? Some QBs simply shrug

November, 29, 2011
The best NFL quarterbacks are good against standard and added pressure alike.

Aaron Rodgers comes to mind. The Green Bay Packers' quarterback leads the NFL in Total QBR when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers, and also when they send five or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Alex Smith's stronger production against five or more pass-rushers has stood out all season.
  • Smith vs. four or fewer rushers: six touchdowns, four interceptions and 16 sacks in 222 dropbacks, with a 47.7 QBR (50 is average) and an 84.7 NFL passer rating.
  • Smith vs. five or more: seven touchdowns, one interception and 14 sacks in 106 dropbacks, with a 57.2 QBR and 105.9 NFL rating.

Multiple factors can produce such a disparity. A quick-thinking quarterback armed with a strong game plan and a solid protection scheme can have an advantage against added pressure. Quarterbacks working behind weaker offensive lines could suffer against standard pressure if opponents got to them without sacrificing coverage. Having additional players in coverage affords defenses with additional combinations in coverage, another consideration.

The chart immediately below ranks quarterbacks by the largest QBR disparity when facing five or more pass-rushers vs. four or fewer. Smith and Arizona's Kevin Kolb are among 11 quarterbacks with higher QBR scores against five or more rushers. They have done better against pressure, in theory. Ranking higher on the list isn't necessarily desirable; like Rodgers, a top quarterback should produce in both areas.

Fifty is an average score, with 100 as the limit.

QBR differential is an imperfect measure because point differentials nearer the margins (zero and 100) carry more significance than they do nearer the middle of the range. But the disparities are still helpful in showing how quarterbacks perform, in general, across these situations.

Rex Grossman, who heads the first chart, completed 9 of 12 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions and one sack when the Seahawks sent five or more rushers against him Sunday. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and no sacks against standard pressure.

The final chart shows the 22 qualifying quarterbacks with better QBR numbers when facing four or fewer pass-rushers, again ranked by percentage difference.

Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson and St. Louis' Sam Bradford show up on this list. There is Rodgers, down at the bottom, nearly equally strong in each situation.

Around the NFC West: Big Rams questions

November, 21, 2011
The St. Louis Rams' futility Sunday and in general does not sit well with anyone in the organization.

I'd be interested in knowing what owner Stan Kroenke is thinking about the team's leadership following a the Rams' 24-7 home defeat to the previously 3-6 Seattle Seahawks.

The team is now averaging 9.9 points per game when Sam Bradford starts at quarterback. For reference, consider that Indianapolis has averaged 12.1 points per game with Curtis Painter starting. The Jacksonville Jaguars have averaged 13.3 points per game with Blaine Gabbert starting.

The Rams have not exceeded 16 points in a game with their starting quarterback in the lineup. That is troubling even though St. Louis has played a tough schedule and suffered quite a few injuries.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams fans cannot even muster anger at this point. Burwell: "There was a time in the darkest days of this franchise's decade-long slide into NFL irrelevance when the fans would linger around the end zone tunnel after losses and belch out the worst kind of public frustration at the Rams' failures. But now? Now they just leave. Quietly. It's not with a whimper, but with a disturbing numbness and a conditioned resignation to another lost season." Noted: Apathy is worse than anger for a sports franchise.

Jeff Gordon of says the beatings could be taking a toll on Bradford's psyche. Gordon: "Bradford’s difficult game also included five sacks, two lost fumbles, an interception off another tipped pass and 20 incomplete passes in 40 tries. Working behind a makeshift offensive line, the franchise’s prized asset suffered more physical and emotional torment. Bradford appears perilously close to succumbing to Battered Quarterback Syndrome."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' frustrations have reached new highs.

Also from Thomas: The Rams played much of Sunday with Kevin Hughes at left tackle.

Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' defense played pretty well against Seattle. Noted: The Seahawks aren't very good on offense. Their quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, appears limited by a pectoral injury and isn't a Pro Bowl passer, anyway. Their offensive line was missing two starters. Entering the season, the Rams would have expected their defense to dominate at home against such an opponent.

Nick Wagoner of says the team must find ways to score more points. Also from Wagoner: "Bradford discussed what the offense saw on tape of the Seahawks and noted that teams had great success going empty backfield and deploying four and five wide receiver sets. Unfortunately for the Rams, they couldn’t take advantage." Noted: The Rams' injury- and personnel-related problems on the offensive line and at tight end made any strategy risky. The team had been generating yardage on the ground more through scheming than blocking. The Seahawks knew this and felt good about their ability to stop Jackson.

What is the matter with Rams' Bradford?

November, 17, 2011
The St. Louis Rams are averaging an NFL-low 12.6 points per game this season.

The figure is 10.25 when Sam Bradford starts at quarterback.

Something isn't right with that picture. Bradford knows it. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz took an in-depth look at some of the numbers and criticized the Rams for failing to hire a quarterbacks coach.

I spent part of Wednesday going through every available statistical measure looking for one area where Bradford appeared to be shining, or even above average. I'm still looking.

A quick look at where Bradford ranks in NFL passer rating for categories, according to ESPN Stats & Information:
  • 12th in passes from outside the pocket.
  • 17th in third-down passing.
  • 18th in passes against pressure featuring at least one defensive back.
  • 19th on deeper passes.
  • 20th on play-action passes.
  • 22nd on shotgun passes.
  • 23rd on screen passes.
  • 23rd against four or fewer pass-rushers.
  • 25th on second down.
  • 28th on perimeter throws (outside the yard-line numbers).
  • 28th against five or more pass-rushers.
  • 28th on shorter throws.
  • 29th on first down.
  • 30th from inside the pocket.
  • 30th on passes inside the yard-line numbers.
  • 31st in the red zone.
  • 42nd in goal-to-go passing.
The ranking for passes thrown form outside the pocket was the highest I could find for Bradford. However, enjoying moderate success in this area means little. Quarterbacks must prove they can make plays within the pocket. Bradford hasn't been able to do that.

The final two categories listed -- red zone and goal-to-go passing -- most directly affect the first number discussed here, points per game.

Bradford actually emerged from the Rams' 13-12 victory over Cleveland with the first fourth-quarter comeback victory of his career. The game was feeling like another defeat, however, until the Browns inexplicably botched a 22-yard field goal in the final minutes. Bradford led one touchdown drive.

To be fair, the Browns had allowed only two scoring passes in their previous four games. They have allowed more than one scoring pass in a game just twice this season, both in the first four weeks.

But the Rams should be getting better production from Bradford at this point. Total QBR, which measures how quarterbacks affect win probability, showed Bradford with a 41.0 score last season. Fifty is average. His QBR has fallen to 31.6 this season. Opponents returned some early turnovers for momentum-turning touchdowns.

Only John Beck, Curtis Painter, Tim Tebow and Blaine Gabbert rank lower than Bradford this season in QBR, which lists Aaron Rodgers (87.8), Drew Brees (77.6) and Tom Brady (75.5) as best in the league.

My take on Bradford's season: Bradford quickly won over Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Their excitement over the possibilities was palpable during training camp. They were excited about Bradford taking over the protection calls. They were excited about Bradford running an offense that would make significant changes to game plans based on the opponent from week to week, a change from the West Coast mindset.

In retrospect, McDaniels might have overestimated Bradford's ability to handle these things all at once following a shortened offseason. Week 1 injuries to Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola and others compounded the problems.

Still, Bradford was not the problem early in the season. Injuries at running back and wide receiver made his job nearly impossible while the Rams were playing tough opponents week after week. The Rams' tackles also regressed in protection, and their situation at tight end has been in flux.

Bradford was showing significant improvement when he suffered a high-ankle sprain on the final play of an Oct. 16 game at Green Bay. The Rams' lack of firepower hurt them in that game, but Bradford's best game of the season helped them roll up 424 yards, a season high. The team then went out and added Brandon Lloyd, but with Bradford unable to practice or play, their rapport suffered in the immediate term.

Bradford still is not healthy. The ankle is probably going to affect him for the remainder of the season. However, the injury is to his left ankle. He plants on his right ankle when throwing. That means Bradford should be able to make the necessary throws unless there are additional undisclosed injuries affecting his play. Bradford has missed open receivers too frequently in recent weeks.

The next two games, against Seattle and Arizona, provide an opportunity Bradford must seize. Both games are at home against teams with losing records. After those games, Bradford faces the 49ers and Seahawks on the road. He then faces Cincinnati at home, Pittsburgh on the road and the 49ers at home. Some of those defenses and/or venues can make life miserable for quarterbacks.