NFC West: Doug Flutie
The decision facing the 49ers, who have yet to name a starter for Week 13, bears loose resemblance to the decision Buffalo faced in replacing Doug Flutie for the playoffs following the 1999 season.
The Bills had gone 17-8 with Flutie as their starter over the 1998 and 1999 seasons. When they rested Flutie for a meaningless Week 17 game against Indianapolis, backup Rob Johnson lit up the Colts for 287 yards and two touchdowns during a 31-6 victory.
Johnson had posted a 102.9 NFL passer rating as a part-time starter in 1998. There was a sense in Buffalo at the time, at least among some, that Johnson might give the Bills' offense a better shot at winning in the playoffs. Johnson got the call for the postseason, a decision that became notorious when he completed only 10 of 22 passes for 131 yards during a 22-16 defeat to Tennessee in the wild-card round.
The 49ers' circumstances are different. Smith missed time because of a concussion.
There are still some similarities. Kaepernick, like Johnson, has played well in relief. The offense has in some ways appeared more dynamic with him in the lineup.
While the Bills were 17-8 with Flutie starting, the 49ers have gone 19-5-1 with Smith in the lineup since the start of last season. Their offense has improved in 2012, but advocates for Kaepernick see greater potential with the second-year pro behind center.
The charts compare basic passing stats for the relevant Bills and 49ers quarterbacks.
New England's situation with Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady in 2001 also comes to mind.
Bledsoe, sidelined for an extended period when Brady emerged as the Patriots' long-term starter, shared some thoughts on the 49ers' situation during a conversation with "Mike & Mike in the Morning" Tuesday.
According to Bledsoe, Smith hasn't been sidelined long enough for the 49ers to disregard all the evidence the team weighed before naming Smith the starter over Kaepernick out of training camp. He also thinks the two defensive touchdowns San Francisco scored against New Orleans make it tough to emphasize Kaepernick's 2-0 starting record.
Veteran quarterbacks tend to sympathize with other veteran quarterbacks. We've seen Steve Young suggest the 49ers should stick with Smith, for example.
Every situation is different. They're all captivating.
About one year ago, our AFC East blog featured an item leading this way: "Brian Schottenheimer's prospects for being a head coach never have been higher."
That item noted that Schottenheimer had worked with Tony Banks, Jeff George, Drew Brees, Doug Flutie, Philip Rivers, Chad Pennington, Kellen Clemens, Brett Favre and Mark Sanchez over the years -- quite a varied group.
Clemens' presence on the Rams' roster right now could mean the team already has its top two quarterbacks for 2012, with Sam Bradford as the starter. Clemens would presumably know Schottenheimer's offense. That would enable him to assist Bradford and other players as the Rams learn a new system.
Opinions on Schottenheimer are mixed. Some think he became too predictable as a play caller and contributed to Sanchez's stunted development. A case could also be made that Schottenheimer did the best he could with a limited quarterback.
It's possible neither of those things is true. Those seeking context should check out this Newark Star-Ledger piece on Schottenheimer and the Jets from earlier in the 2011 season.
The Rams also interviewed former Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson for the role. They are also working on additional staff hires.
Big deal? Not really.
Kaepernick, the 36th overall choice in his draft class, is one of five quarterbacks since 2001 drafted between the 30th and 39th picks. Three of the four others spent at least some of their rookie seasons higher than third on their teams' depth charts.
A quick review:
- 2011 Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton, chosen one spot before Kaepernick this year, enters his rookie season as the starter.
- 2007 Philadelphia Eagles: Kevin Kolb, chosen 36th overall, entered the regular season second on the depth chart behind Donovan McNabb after veteran backup A.J. Feeley suffered a broken hand in the final game of preseason. Feeley returned to the No. 2 role, but Kolb overtook him late in the season.
- 2002 Washington Redskins: Patrick Ramsey, chosen 32nd overall, opened the regular season third on the depth chart behind Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel. Ramsey missed 16 days of training camp during a contract dispute, setting back his efforts to beat out Mathews and Wuerffel, who had played for then-Redskins coach Steve Spurrier at Florida. Ramsey wound up starting later in his rookie season.
- 2001 San Diego Chargers: Drew Brees, chosen 32nd overall, entered the regular season as the backup to starter Doug Flutie. He backed up Flutie all season, becoming the starter in 2002.
Every situation is different. Kaepernick did not put up impressive numbers during the preseason. Starter Alex Smith has not been durable or consistently productive to this point in his career. It's fair to question whether the 49ers should have done more to bolster the position, but there is precedent for slotting a player drafted as early as Kaepernick in the No. 2 role.
Also from Farnsworth: Russell Okung worked at left tackle for Seattle again, with Tyler Polumbus moving to the right side while Sean Locklear rested a sore knee. I could see Polumbus staying at right tackle because Locklear is not yet established there in the Seahawks' eyes (the team already reduced his salary and wiped out remaining years on his deal).
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times revisits Leon Washington's high school days and finds out the Seattle kick returner once scored a 99-yard touchdown as a punter, not as a returner. Not bad.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks added pass-rusher Chris Clemons to their injury report.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at LaRod Stephens-Howling and the impact kickoff returns for touchdowns can have on a game. A stat Stephens-Howling will not want to discuss come contract time: "According to Footballoutsiders.com, teams that returned a kickoff for a touchdown were only 33-43 from 2005 through 2009."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals' 2-1 record is helping receiver Larry Fitzgerald work through some personal frustrations. Fitzgerald's numbers through two games were similar to or better than the ones he posted through two games last season, but a two-catch outing against Oakland in Week 3 did not go over well. Fitzgerald: "I just want to double my catch performance from Sunday and I’ll be a happy man. If I can just get four, I’ll be … We are 2-1 and that’s what it is all about. If we were 0-3, I might pull my hair out but I’m good right now."
Also from Urban: He breaks down Stephens-Howling's kickoff return for a touchdown against Oakland.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with Rams running back Steven Jackson. Kenneth Darby would likely get most of the carries if Jackson's groin injury prevents him from playing. Keith Toston would get some carries, too.
Also from Thomas: Migraines continue to sideline Clifton Ryan. I spoke with Ryan in the Rams' locker room one day after the team's Week 1 game against Arizona. He seemed fine. The migraines became a problem later in the week and Ryan has not played since the opener.
More from Thomas: The Rams hope corporate sponsors can help them avoid a local television blackout Sunday.
More yet from Thomas: Safety Craig Dahl should be able to return Sunday. He suffered a concussion at Oakland during a violent collision that rocked his head. I saw the collision clearly from the pressbox and knew immediately Dahl would be hurting. His head rocked as though hit by a punch he never saw coming.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have not joined the list of teams leaning on more than one running back when all are healthy. That is because they have an elite back. Teams with elite backs have no incentive to put someone else in the game. The 49ers have faced similar circumstances with Frank Gore. When's a good time to take your best player off the field? Rams general manager Billy Devaney: "We've got one of the best backs, if not the best back, in the NFL ... that loves staying on the field. It's hard to get the guy off the field. When he's playing, he wants the ball. ... That's not a knock on Darby or Toston, either. We don't view it as that, that we have one back and we don't have any other back on the roster."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says Darby is ready to carry more of the load. The Rams had surprising success running the ball after Jackson left the game against Washington. They stuck with the run and it worked.
Also from Wagoner: The Rams brace for the Seahawks' improved return units.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Johnson has been called upon in relief previously. He took over play calling under Wade Phillips with the Falcons after the team fired Dan Reeves. Johnson: "He asked me to call the plays for the last two weeks. I had go in there on Monday and come together with staff and go into Tampa and play against a very good defense. We had Michael Vick at quarterback, and the one stipulation I had was, 'Don't run him.' So go play a football game with Michael Vick and don't let him run."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Vick finished with his highest passer ratings of the season when Johnson took over. Johnson on the perception that Alex Smith has missed high: "Maybe one high pass, but a couple of tipped balls have been situations where we've got a guy rushing and he's backed off and batted a ball and things like that. But I think for a quarterback, you have to find throwing lanes. That's why Doug Flutie could be 5-9 and be an effective passer. Because you don't throw over defensive linemen. You throw through throwing lanes. And that's where we do our fundamental football drills and we slide and we reset and we do certain things that we get him to the proper throwing lanes so the balls don't get tipped ... But I don't think the tipped balls or balls sailing on him have been problems."
Also from Barrows: Eric Heitmann's return would give the 49ers additional options on the offensive line.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at Smith's passer ratings when throwing to various targets. The number for Michael Crabtree: 6.6. That will obviously improve over the course of the season.
Also from Branch: The 49ers will adjust how they get the ball to Vernon Davis after opponents have taken away the seam route. Little-known fact: Davis is on pace for a career-high 80 receptions. He hasn't found the end zone yet, however.
More from Branch: Johnson wasn't sure whether he would call plays from the sideline or the coaches' booth.
Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers will not make wholesale changes on offense.
David White of the San Francisco Chronicle takes a closer look at Johnson. White: "Take one look at Johnson's life story, and this task may be the easiest of his career. He played quarterback for three colleges and three pro leagues. When none of that stuck, (Mike) Riley made an Oregon State assistant coach out of his former quarterback in 1997. Riley brought him to his Chargers staff in 2000, knowing Johnson would get further coaching than he ever did playing."
It was that good.
"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."
The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.
No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.
Not that making the cut was good enough for some.
"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.
The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.
The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project . The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:
- Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
- MVP awards (8)
- Player of the year awards (6)
- All-Pro first-team awards (4)
- All-Pro second-team awards (3)
- Super Bowl victories (3)
- Pro Bowls (2)
- Rookie of the year awards (2)
- Super Bowl defeats (1)
I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.
From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.
I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.
Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.
The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.
"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."
Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.
A few key variables changed along the way.
Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.
NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.
My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.
The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?
Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.
Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.
Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)
Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)
Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).
Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.
Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.
"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."
Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.
"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."
Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.
Hall of Famers: none yet.
Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.
Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).
Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).
Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.
Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.
"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."
Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.
"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."
Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.
Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).
Hall of Fame finalists: none.
Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).
Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.
Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.
"You are going to Seattle?"
"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.
Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.
"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."
The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.
"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."
Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.
Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).
Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).
Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).
Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.
Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.
"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."
Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.
"You never really trained for it back then," he said.
Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.
Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).
Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).
Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).
Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.
Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.
Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.
The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.
Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.
Here's a quick look at how those four other 1-15 teams responded (I might expand on this down the road):
- 2007 Dolphins: Fired coach Cam Cameron after one season. Hired Tony Sparano. Used the first overall choice in the 2008 draft on tackle Jake Long. Signed veteran free-agent quarterback Chad Pennington from the Jets. Posted 11-5 record in 2008.
- 2001 Panthers: Fired coach George Seifert. Hired John Fox. Used second overall choice in 2002 draft for defensive end Julius Peppers. Signed veteran free-agent quarterback Rodney Peete from the Raiders. Posted 7-9 record in 2002, then signed Jake Delhomme before the 2003 season.
- 2000 Chargers: Traded first overall choice of 2001 draft to Falcons for package including the fifth pick, which San Diego used for LaDainian Tomlinson. Signed veteran quarterback Doug Flutie and used the first pick of the 2001 draft's second round for quarterback Drew Brees. Improved to 5-11 in 2001, then hired Marty Schottenheimer before the 20o2 season.
- 1996 Jets: Fired coach Rich Kotite. Hired Bill Parcells. Traded the first overall choice in the 1997 draft to the Rams, who drafted Orlando Pace. Traded the sixth overall choice (acquired from Rams) to Tampa Bay for a package including the eighth overall choice, which the Jets used for linebacker James Farrior. Stuck with veteran Neil O'Donnell at quarterback in 1997 (O'Donnell had missed the final 10 games of 1996). Improved to 9-7 in 1997.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Adam from Seattle writes: Nice Hall of Fame article. Cortez Kennedy deserves a spot by the way he dominated. What current players, such as Shaun Alexander, Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Julian Peterson (no longer in the NFC West, but spent most of his career here), Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Patrick Kerney, Matt Hasselbeck, etc., do you think will make the Hall of Fame? I believe that Warner, Pace, Jones and Holt will make it, but Im uncertain about what other players may have a shot. What do you think?
Mike Sando: Bruce needs to make it. Jones, Pace and Holt are easy choices. Warner probably belongs. He can help himself with another good season. Alexander? I'm not sure. A couple more good years really would have helped him.
The retiring La'Roi Glover didn't spend much time in the division, but I think he deserves strong consideration. Larry Fitzgerald is headed in the right direction and is young enough to have a good chance. Anquan Boldin has a chance if he can play long enough. Enshrinement obviously awaits Jerry Rice. Steve Hutchinson has a good chance. Roger Craig's candidacy is worth discussing. Same for Ricky Watters.
Ryan from Denver writes: I have a question about Brian Dawkins. I know this is outside of your division of expertise, but your recent post on Cortez Kennedy inspired me to ask: Is Brian Dawkins a Hall of Fame player? I say likely, a friend of mine is positive he's not. I'd appreciate your take.
Mike Sando: He brought so much to the Eagles during his career -- enough for me to consider him a Hall of Fame player. He did not earn a spot on our all-decade team only because Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu needed to be on there, in our view. But he has been playing at a high level since 1996. Seven Pro Bowls. Five times All-Pro. He is on the Eagles' 75th anniversary team. I just love what he represents on the field. Tough player. Receivers can definitely feel his presence out there. I thought Boldin felt it last season at Philly.
James from Alberta, Canada writes: The Cardinals' successful run last year was obviously thanks in large part to Kurt Warner's season. But he's 38 years old. I'm wondering what the odds are of a 38 year old QB playing the entire season? Any chance you could whip together some stats on the average number of games played in a season by starting QBs based upon age, or age range? Or maybe games missed due to injury based upon age/age range, since 'starting' QB might be difficult to capture?
Mike Sando: There is always a chance. Thanks for asking. Brett Favre, Warren Moon, Phil Simms, Vinny Testaverde and Doug Flutie all started 16 games in a season at age 38 or older. Moon had another season with 15 starts and one at 14, all past age 37. Joe Montana made it 14 starts at that age, as did Brad Johnson and Ken Stabler.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jim from Tucson writes: Your predictions have the Cardinals with 9 wins, the 49ers with 8, the Seahawks with 7, and the Rams with 6. We all know last year the NFC West was not exactly a closely contested division. If your predictions ring true, 2009 will be a radical change in that regard. Does this mean you expect these four teams to be that closely matched in the coming season?
Mike Sando: This mostly means we don't have enough information to make sweeping declarations about these teams. The projections reflected schedules as much as they reflected perceived team strengths.
The Cardinals' schedule seemed to set up favorably for a quick start and a much better finish than last season. Kurt Warner won't face many cold-weather games, which helps. Arizona will have to work its way through Todd Haley's departure, but most key players return.
The 49ers are tougher to figure because they haven't named a starting quarterback. A year ago, Alex Smith was supposedly the favorite to start. No one was focusing on J.T. O'Sullivan. We all know what happened there. The coaching changes should help San Francisco become a more efficient team. We saw that happen late last season as Mike Singletary benched O'Sullivan for Shaun Hill while reining in the offense.
I thought the schedule makers were less kind to the Seahawks and Rams. Seattle's season also hinges on three older players getting healthy and staying that way. Based on 2008, what are the odds Patrick Kerney, Matt Hasselbeck and Walter Jones will make it through the season? Seattle's record could spike if they do.
The Rams got no breaks with the schedule. I could see them winning fewer than six games, but I also think the 2008 team went in the tank to a large degree. The coaching change and expected improvements on the offensive line -- some of which are pending in the draft -- could help the Rams become more respectable.
We have plenty of time to adjust the projections as we learn more about these teams. I thought it was fun to make projections based on an early look at the schedule.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
No question, the Cardinals had to bring back Warner. Warner's mostly sensational 2008 season commanded a deal that makes him the starter for 2009 and probably 2010. The question I have is whether the Cardinals can realistically expect Warner to continue performing at a similar level at age 38 and 39.
I flash back to early 2006 when the Seahawks felt compelled to reward Shaun Alexander for his MVP season. Letting Alexander walk after that season would have been politically inconceivable, but such a move would have been prescient.
Like Alexander, Warner is nearing the end of the expected shelf life for players at his position. Unlike Alexander, Warner has quite a few ascending young players around him on offense. That should help him. Also, my perception is that quarterbacks generally do not fall off as quickly as running backs once they hit a certain age.
A few quarterbacks over the past 25 or so years have exceeded 3,000 yards passing past age 37. Warren Moon, Brett Favre, Vinny Testaverde, Doug Flutie, Joe Montana and Phil Simms did it. Several others managed the feat at age 37 -- Rich Gannon, Steve Young, John Elway, Dave Krieg, Dan Marino -- for the final time.
I'm reasonably sure Warner can put up impressive numbers for at least one more season. And if I were the Cardinals, I would rather take my chances with Warner than with any of the other options that were available to them. But to assume Warner will remain atop his game for another year or two? Perhaps we shouldn't go quite that far.