NFC West: Eli Manning

49ers vs. Giants preview

November, 14, 2014
11/14/14
8:00
AM ET
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: MetLife Stadium, Meadowlands, N.J. TV: FOX

The 5-4 San Francisco 49ers travel to New Jersey this weekend to face the 3-6 New York Giants. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez are here with a preview:

Graziano: Paul, I see Aldon Smith is back from his suspension just in time to face the struggling Giants. What do the 49ers expect to be able to get out of Smith in his first game?

Gutierrez: Are we talking realistically or hopefully? For the purposes of this conversation, let’s go with a combo. Look, Smith has been able to work out at the Niners' facility during his nine-game suspension and attend team meetings, but he was banned from team practices and games. So there's no telling what kind of football shape he'll be in.

That being said, his skill set as a pass-rusher is needed badly in Santa Clara. The Niners have just 15 sacks, tied for 24th in the league, and all they need from Smith is for him to pin his ears back and rush Eli Manning. There's not much scheme involved there, really, especially if the other linebackers are coached up. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said a couple of weeks ago that he expected Smith to be full-go and without limitations when he returns. Jim Harbaugh was a little more hesitant. I’d lean toward Fangio on this one.

Do the Giants expect Smith to be back to his sack-happy self, meaning they’d have to go max protect for Manning, and if so, how does that affect what the Giants want to do offensively, particularly running the ball? And what is the latest on Rashad Jennings?

Graziano: Jennings returned to practice Wednesday, and barring a setback they expect him to play Sunday and resume his role as the bell cow in their offense. They're 0-4 without him, averaging 83 rush yards per game as opposed to the 121 they were averaging with him. He's a three-down back who can pick up the blitz and catch the ball out of the backfield as well as pick up those "dirty" yards (as he calls them) on first and second downs.

The Giants' offense will run much better with Jennings back in the lineup, assuming he's fully healthy. And that's a big part of their ability to contain Smith and the 49ers' pass rush -- forcing San Francisco to respect the Giants' ability and determination to run the ball. Leaving their tackles alone to handle Smith would be a bad idea at this point, as they are not playing well. The offensive line is one of many weak spots on this team, and the only time it's looked good was earlier in the season when the Giants were running their up-tempo, run-based offense with all of their weapons. They still won't have Victor Cruz, who's out for the year, but getting Jennings back will help in many ways.

Overall, how different is this 49ers defense from the dominating unit of the past couple of years, and what is the impact of losing Patrick Willis?

Gutierrez: It's a completely different unit. Not only is Willis gone for the season with that chronic injury to his left big toe, but nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is still working his way back after suffering a torn left biceps in camp and NaVorro Bowman is still recuperating from the devastating injury to his left knee from the NFC title game in January. Oh, and Aldon Smith has been out all season serving his nine-game suspension for general malfeasance, though, as you noted above, he's about to make his season debut.

Yet, the defense has not really been the Niners' problem this season; that would be an inconsistent offense that goes from being a pass-happy attack to a power-running attack and back again. Consider: Even with all of the attrition and injuries, the Niners' defense is the No. 2-ranked total defense in the NFL. The loss of Willis would seemingly be a crushing blow to a team with Super Bowl-or-bust aspirations, but it is cushioned with the inspired play of rookie Chris Borland, who has had 18 and 17 tackles in the past two games, and recovered the key fumble in OT Sunday that led to the game-winning field goal at New Orleans. Borland is no Willis, but then again, no one is.

The Giants gave up 350 yards rushing to the Seattle Seahawks last weekend, their most given up on the ground since the Carter administration. Why should the 49ers not run the ball in New Jersey?

Graziano: The only reason would be if they didn't want to win. What the Giants showed Sunday in Seattle was a complete inability to handle Seattle's basic zone-read run game. They bought the play fake every time, and the only time they stuck with the quarterback was when he did hand it off to Marshawn Lynch. If they'd gone into the game intentionally trying to make the wrong play on every zone-read play, they couldn't have done as good a job of it as they actually did. It was a fiasco.

The Giants are without three of their top four cornerbacks, a couple of whom were actually big helps in run support, and they're without middle linebacker Jon Beason. They'll also likely be without weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams this week, as he's struggling to work his way back from a concussion. So they're thin on defense, but the guys who are playing up front -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, Jameel McClain, Mike Patterson -- have to do a better job of stopping the run than they did last week, or it's going to be ultra-simple to control the clock and beat them.

Part of the success the Seahawks had running the ball was the 107 yards Russell Wilson had on the ground, including 64 on read-option runs. How similar is the 49ers' and Colin Kaepernick's run game to what the Seahawks do?

Gutierrez: Are we talking this season, or last? Because while there is no doubt that the read-option was a huge part of Kaepernick's arrival on the national consciousness, it has been virtually nonexistent as a play call this season. Sure, Kaepernick is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and is on pace to rush for a career-high 530 yards, but his running game has been more threat than design, if that makes sense. It's all part of the Niners' desire to keep him healthy, obviously, and to make him more of a pocket passer. Still, given the way the Seahawks shredded the Giants' run defense, I would be shocked -- shocked! -- if the Niners shied away from pounding the rock with Frank Gore to set up the read-option for Kaepernick.

OK, perhaps trite or maybe even a tired question at this stage of his career, but can you still spell "elite" without "Eli"?

Graziano: I never liked getting into the "elite" game, because I don't think there's more than three or four quarterbacks in the world who truly fit that word; otherwise, what does the word really mean? But Manning is the least of the Giants' problems. He's on pace to throw 30 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, which the Giants would have signed up for in a heartbeat after he threw 27 interceptions last year. He has thrown only two since Week 2, and he has clearly taken to a new offense designed to lean on the run game and the short, high-percentage passing game and limit turnovers.

The offense has fallen apart around Manning due to the Cruz and Jennings injuries, but he's got a really nice thing going with rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. right now, and he even got Preston Parker into the mix with a big game Sunday. I think the story of the Giants over the next couple of years will be about how well they can rebuild the team around Manning, who's holding up his end of the bargain as steward of the new offense under new coordinator Ben McAdoo.

Good stuff, Paul. I know you have another long flight coming this week, so travel safe and I look forward to seeing you Sunday in my home state.

ST. LOUIS -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will make his first career postseason start Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. In doing so, he will become the fifth quarterback taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft since 2004 to start a playoff game.

There are nine active quarterbacks that went first overall in the draft in the league right now. After Sunday, there will be just one who has yet to make a playoff appearance: the Rams' Sam Bradford.

Bradford
Bradford
Newton will join Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck as former No. 1 picks to start a playoff game. All but Stafford, Palmer and, obviously, Newton have won a playoff game.

It's worth noting that in that time, there are other No. 1 quarterbacks who flamed out. Tim Couch, David Carr and JaMarcus Russell are no longer in the league.

For Bradford, the closest he's come to a playoff appearance came in his rookie season. That year, Bradford helped the Rams to a 7-9 record with only a season-ending loss at Seattle keeping them from winning the NFC West division and landing in the postseason. In what amounted to a de facto playoff game, Bradford had one of the worst performances of his rookie season, going 19-of-36 for 155 yards with no touchdowns and an interception for an abysmal QBR of 8.4 as the Rams lost 16-6.

Since, the Rams haven't again sniffed a postseason appearance. Of course, the blame for the lack of playoff berths goes well beyond Bradford. It also pre-dates him to the team's last playoff appearance in 2004.

St. Louis has one of the league's longest streaks of seasons without a playoff bid. Bradford's tenure in St. Louis has mostly fallen in line with the team. In the lost 2011 season, Bradford dealt with an ankle injury and struggled when he was on the field. In 2012, Bradford managed to stay healthy and the Rams improved to 7-8-1.

This year, Bradford tore an ACL in Week 7 against Newton's Panthers and the Rams dipped slightly to finish 7-9 -- though Bradford had seemed to find himself some in the three games before his injury.

Of the quarterbacks on this list, Bradford's career trajectory most closely resembles Smith's to this point. Both players went through a number of coordinator and scheme changes and both had their share of self-inflicted struggles.

San Francisco drafted Smith first overall in 2005 but didn't make his playoff debut until 2011. If Bradford followed a similar timeline, his first postseason appearance would come in 2016. Although the Rams have made it clear they're committed to Bradford as the quarterback of the present and, potentially, the future, the 2016 season would coincide with the end of Bradford's rookie deal.

If Bradford hasn't led the Rams to the playoffs by then, chances are any hopes of doing it in St. Louis would decrease significantly.
Bruce Irvin, Hakeem NicksAP PhotoBruce Irvin and the Seahawks are beatable on the road. Can Hakeem Nicks and the Giants win?

The 11-2 Seattle Seahawks have had their playoff spot wrapped up for a couple of weeks already and have their eyes on the top seed in the NFC. The 5-8 New York Giants were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday and openly admit that they're playing for pride from this point forward. These two teams meet Sunday at MetLife Stadium -- a place the Seahawks hope to return to in early February for the Super Bowl.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break down the matchup between the league's best team and one of its most disappointing teams.

Graziano: Terry, let's start with Seattle's exciting young quarterback. The Giants this year have seen Terrelle Pryor, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, who are the only quarterbacks with more rushing yards than Russell Wilson has. From your standpoint, what sets Wilson apart from those other mobile quarterbacks?

Blount: Dan, there are so many intangibles about him that defy description. Some obvious ones are his character, his attention to every detail in his preparation and his underrated skills as a passer. But more than anything else, Wilson has the unusual ability to perform at his best when things appear to be at their worst. I've never seen him rattled, and he rarely makes a careless mistake. He has led the team to nine game-winning drives in his short career, and he almost did it again Sunday at San Francisco. As for his mobility, one thing that clearly sets him apart is his ability to make accurate throws downfield while he's running in either direction.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Eli Manning got off to a really rough start this season. What happened, and where is he now compared with seasons past when he was playing at a Pro Bowl level?

Graziano: Manning's biggest problem at the start of the season was his protection. The offensive line, never great to begin with, was hit with injuries to key starters and never got the kind of blocking help it received in past years from supplemental positions like running back and tight end. Manning has already taken more sacks (33) than he has ever taken in a full season, and there are three games to go. He also had no running game whatsoever for the first half of the season until Andre Brown got healthy. And top wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has had an awful season in the final year of his contract. Manning obviously could play better, and he'd admit he has missed his share of throws. But I think he's a quarterback who really needs to be comfortable with his surroundings, and this year that hasn't been possible for him.

The Seahawks are so dominant at home, but while they've been good on the road they are clearly not as good. We know about the home crowd and the advantage it gives them, but are there on-field things they don't do as well on the road?

Blount: One noticeable difference in the past three road games is that Wilson hasn't run much because defenses are trying to keep him in the pocket. Wilson had one carry for 2 yards last week at San Francisco, and only 38 yards on seven carries in the past three road games combined. They won two of those three games, however. Still, after Wilson ran for 102 yards at Indianapolis in Week 5 (ironically, one of Seattle's two road losses) teams have focused on not allowing him to beat them with his feet. He's running well at home (he rushed for 47 yards against New Orleans two weeks ago) but not so much on the road.

If the Giants pull off the upset Sunday, they'd send a message that despite a disappointing season, they still have the ability to get it done against the best of the best. Do you get the sense that they'll have a little added fire against a team that many people believe is Super Bowl-bound?

Graziano: I do. A few of the Giants have already talked about that in the wake of the loss Sunday that eliminated them from postseason contention. There's a lot of talk around East Rutherford about "playing for pride," and that's not hollow with this group. They held together after the 0-6 start and have been professional in their play and their preparation since. This isn't a team that has or will quit on its season. It's just a team that's not very good. I don't think they have the personnel to hang with the Seahawks on Sunday, but if they lose it won't be for a lack of effort.

They do have a tendency to seek and drum up external motivation, and Seattle's excellent record will provide some of that. Tom Coughlin said Monday that they looked forward to measuring themselves against a team like this. The only dissenter so far is wide receiver Victor Cruz, who said he'd be "even more disappointed" if the Giants won this game, since it would tell him they had the capability to play with top teams all year and just didn't.

San Francisco had a strong game on the ground Sunday, and the Giants' run game has been considerably better in the second half. Is it possible to run on the Seahawks, or was that a one-game fluke by Frank Gore?

Blount: Some Seattle fans might say it was a one-play fluke, the 51-yard run by Gore on the final drive that set up the game-wining field goal. Take that off the table and the Seahawks did OK against the 49ers' rushing game. However, one stat is a little scary. Of San Francisco's 163 yards on the ground, 137 were before contact, including Gore's big run. The Seahawks have been up and down on this all season. They held Adrian Peterson to 65 yards and allowed only 30 yards rushing at Arizona, but also had back-to-back games in which they allowed 200 yards rushing. Now they have to get it done without linebacker K.J. Wright, who had 80 tackles this season. He's out with a broken foot. It's hard to predict, but the Seahawks are so focused on the pass rush that they can get burned sometimes on the ground.

The Giants have struggled to stop the run, and Marshawn Lynch is one of the best backs in the league. I'm guessing the Seahawks are going to give him the ball early and often, especially if the weather is bad. Will the Giants load the box to try to stop Lynch?

Graziano: Actually, stopping the run is one of the few things the Giants have done well. They've held down some top backs, such as Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris and Eddie Lacy. Until the Chargers got 144 yards on 40 carries against them Sunday, this had been a fairly consistent strength. So they'll be keyed on Lynch for sure.

Before the Packers game a few weeks ago, I asked Justin Tuck if Lacy reminded him of anyone. He said, "a bigger Marshawn Lynch," and then complained that they had to deal with Lynch again a few weeks later. They stacked the box against Lacy that day, but they weren't scared of Scott Tolzien's ability to beat them downfield even if they used single coverage on his receivers. Wilson is likely to make them think twice about committing as much to the run as they did that day, and they'll likely rely on the guys in their strong defensive-tackle rotation to get off of blocks better than they did in San Diego.

Larry Fitzgerald and LeSean McCoyGetty ImagesLarry Fitzgerald and LeSean McCoy will look to keep their teams streaking on Sunday.
Bruce Arians and Chip Kelly come at their news jobs from very different places.

Kelly was the hot college head coach of the moment, hired by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to replace the institution that was Andy Reid. Arians was a college head coach, too, at Temple back in the 1980s. He got his job with the Arizona Cardinals, though, based upon years as an often-overlooked NFL assistant.

And now here they are. Arians’ Cardinals are 7-4 with a four-game winning streak, while Kelly’s Eagles are 6-5 after a three-game winning streak. Their teams meet at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday in a game with major NFC playoff implications.

ESPN.com reporters Josh Weinfuss, who covers the Cardinals, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, take a closer look at the matchup.

Phil Sheridan: Bruce Arians is best known in Philadelphia as one of the rare coaches to survive a stint at Temple University. Nationally, he’s known for winning the Coach of the Year Award after filling in for Chuck Pagano last year in Indianapolis. How has he conducted business and how much of this four-game winning streak results from that?

Josh Weinfuss: I think all of it. Arians is the ultimate players coach and from everything I’ve heard about him from former players and current Cardinals who were with him in other places, he hasn’t changed a bit. He’ll tell the players like it is and if they can’t handle it, they have to figure out a way to deal with it. He’s not big on the sugarcoating, and the players appreciate it. As a head coach, he’s taken a little bit from each of the coaches he worked for and put it into play in Arizona. He’s learned how to delegate and put together a staff that complements him very well. On top of it all, he’s an offensive genius who stayed patient with this team while they learned his scheme, and it’s paying off.

On the topic of schemes, is Kelly’s high-octane offense here to stay or will he need to adapt as the season progresses?

Sheridan: Probably a little of both. Kelly already has adjusted to some degree. The foundation of his approach seems to be figuring out how a defense is designed to stop his offense and then exploiting whatever weaknesses and mismatches created by that design. When teams played man coverage and pressed to eliminate his bubble screens, Kelly shrugged and started throwing deep. When the Giants and Cowboys found a weakness in his run-blocking scheme, Kelly adjusted and got LeSean McCoy back on track. Kelly seems to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game with opposing coaches. That said, the foundations of what he does -- creating mismatches and exploiting weaknesses -- are as old as football. He just has some intriguing ways of getting there.

While we’re on that side of the ball, how has Todd Bowles been able to win the hearts and minds of a defense that thrived under former coordinator Ray Horton? And how important is having Karlos Dansby back in the fold?

Weinfuss: Bowles made one minor change up front and he’s been the glimmer in the defensive line’s eyes ever since. He went from a multi-gap system to a one-gap scheme, which has taken out the thinking from football. Now, the Cardinals front line can just rear back and go, and the changes are obvious. Darnell Dockett is having his best season in a while, Calais Campbell has emerged as one of the toughest defensive ends in the league and nose tackle Dan Williams has plugged the holes in the middle, forcing plays out to the edges -- and right into the hands of guys like John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy, Daryl Washington and, of course, Dansby. He’s playing at the lowest weight of his career and he’s been able to fly around, going from sideline to sideline with relative ease for a guy who’s been in this league for 10 years. While everything for the Cardinals’ defense starts up front, each level has been benefiting from the line’s presence.

Let’s stay on defense. The Eagles have the worst pass defense in the league. How can they muster enough plays to slow the Cardinals' recently high-flying passing game under Carson Palmer?

Sheridan: Josh, that could be the question that determines the outcome of this game. The only answer I have is that, somehow, that’s just what the Eagles' defense has been doing in the seven games since Peyton Manning hung 52 points on them. They give up a lot of yards, but they haven’t given up more than 21 points in a game since then. They’ve been good in the red zone and have started generating pressure and, in turn, turnovers. Palmer provides a very good measuring stick. The Eagles have thrived against the Mike Glennons and Scott Tolziens of the world, although in fairness they played well against Eli Manning and Tony Romo, too. But Palmer and that Larry Fitzgerald fellow definitely represent the kind of test the Eagles must pass before being considered a good defense.

Speaking of Palmer, the NFC Offensive Player of the Week, there seems to be a Kurt Warner vibe at work here -- veteran guy getting one more shot to prove he still has it. Warner did -- does Palmer? What’s the ceiling on the offense with him at the helm?

Weinfuss: All the evidence from the past four games points to yes -- Palmer does have a Warner-esque resurgence in him, but that’s only because the Cardinals’ offense is finally working. If it was still struggling, we’d be talking about Palmer being replaced either now or after the season. Crazy how that works. Palmer is the perfect quarterback for a Bruce Arians scheme. He has a big arm and can make throws on a dime. And those two things will carry this offense as far as it can until Palmer makes bad decisions. Even though the bad decisions have been cut down during the Cards’ four-game winning streak, it would be na´ve of anybody to think they’re totally done with. Arizona is just getting lucky. Twice against the Colts, Palmer had probable interceptions dropped, and against Jacksonville two weeks ago, a well-timed timeout by Arians saved Palmer from a potentially costly interception. If Palmer can take chances without making ill-advised throws, the ceiling is quite high, especially with the depth at receiver, tight end and running back.

A lot of University of Arizona fans out this way are loving the fact that Nick Foles is starting and playing well. Is he Mr. Right for the Eagles in Kelly’s offense or Mr. Right Now?

Sheridan: That’s the question that will haunt the Eagles through the offseason. Foles has had some of the luck you described Palmer having. That seven-touchdown game against Oakland was partly the product of some of the worst defensive football I’ve ever seen (and I watched Nnamdi Asomugha jog through two years here). But Foles is smart, he’s accurate and you can see him gaining confidence and comfort with every game. Clearly, he is not the quarterback Chip Kelly would order from the factory. But as he continues having success and winning games, you have to wonder how far Kelly is willing to tailor his offense to Foles for the long haul. It’s the decision that will define the Kelly era, at least for the next few years. My gut says Foles is a good NFL quarterback, but Kelly will make a move to find his guy at the earliest possible convenience. If Foles keeps this up, though, my gut might be proven wrong.

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
11:40
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Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

NFL teams have played their most important snaps of the 2013 exhibition season now that every team has played at least three games.

This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.

Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.

A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
  • St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.

ESPN's Ron Jaworski ranked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick No. 11 when ranking the 32 projected NFL starting quarterbacks for 2013.

Jaworski now says he thinks Kaepernick can become an all-time great. Jaworski, speaking in the video atop this item, pointed to Kaepernick's arm strength, accuracy and mobility. He also pointed to the coaching Kaepernick is receiving from Jim Harbaugh and staff.


Early returns are indeed promising. Kaepernick ranked second to Peyton Manning in Total QBR as a starter for the regular season and playoffs. Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Eli Manning rounded out the top 10.

Smith's presence on that list stands out, because he hadn't produced at that level previously. I do think the offense in San Francisco forces teams to account for the run, setting up quarterbacks for success on early downs. That is when Smith in particular flourished. As Jaworski points out, there is no denying the physical ability Kaepernick brings to the position. Put him in the 49ers' system and the potential is there, no doubt.

Now that we've begun work on that Hall of Fame bust, let's revisit what Jaworski said when ranking Kaepernick 11th among starters earlier this offseason:
"Normally 10 NFL starts is not enough for me to evaluate a player so highly, but this kid has special talent, is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback with a power arm and outstanding athleticism.

"Remember this? It was a signature play of the 2012 season. It was Kaepernick’s first touchdown run against Green Bay that really caught my attention. You see the press man coverage with two deep safeties. It turned out the Packers doubled Michael Crabtree. But the point is the same. This is what mobile, athletic quarterbacks can do versus man-to-man coverage, especially on third down. It forces defenses to rethink their concepts, it limits their tactical options.

"I remember Kaepernick’s first start against the Bears. It was immediately evident that he gave the 49ers every dimension in the passing game. And I love the way Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman set up Kaepernick with defined reads through the use of shifts and formations.

"Watch what happened here from the coaching tape. All that pre-snap movement was designed to get Vernon Davis matched on linebacker Lance Briggs. As favorable as the matchup was, that was still not an easy throw.

"That’s why Kaepernick has a chance to be very special. He has a complete throwing skill-set with a powerful arm that I absolutely put at gun level. His ball comes out with a lot of energy and velocity. And Kaepernick can drive the ball down the field, on the move, with accuracy.

"Kaepernick is one of the four or five most physically talented quarterbacks in the entire NFL. It will be fascinating to see how he adjusts to the loss of Michael Crabtree, but the elite skill-set is still there."


ESPN's Trey Wingo, Mark Schlereth and Brian Dawkins recently offered thoughts on which current NFL quarterbacks will be setting the standard in 2016.

Cue the video atop this item for their thoughts.

I put together my own list Insider as part of our Future Power Rankings Insider package.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady didn't make my list because they'll be 40 and 39 years old, respectively, when the 2016 season rolls around. If they're still playing at a high level then, more power to them. Drew Brees and Eli Manning are a bit younger and figure to still be producing, but I nudged them to the side with an eye toward featuring younger players primed to rocket past them.

The age line had to be drawn somewhere. I drew it right around 35 even though Kurt Warner and some other quarterbacks have played well past that age. Ben Roethlisberger will be only 34 in 2016, but he has started 16 games in a season just once. His playing style could be tough to sustain as he ages.

I spent quite a bit of time tweaking my top 10 and never felt great about any particular order. There were so many tradeoffs to make and variables to consider. This was a projection, not simply a ranking of the 10 best quarterbacks right now. I tried to keep that in mind. The fact that more than 10 quarterbacks seemed worthy for inclusion on the list speaks well for the state of the position. The pool should only expand as players currently in college move to the NFL and exceed expectations in some cases.

NFC West quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Sam Bradford all earned spots on my list. I think there's a good chance those players will be among the 10 best quarterbacks in the league by 2016 even though it would have felt "safer" in the short term to project more established players.


Joe Montana recently listed Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Eli Manning as his five top active NFL quarterbacks, in no particular order.

No surprises there, although Eli Manning might not automatically qualify with the others if we polled a wider audience, in my view.

Montana withheld from consideration a younger group featuring Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck.

"Still too early, but they look great," Montana tweeted.

Montana apologized for leaving off Joe Flacco, but he didn't say which of the other five would leave the list to make room.

Montana's list featured the top four players in Total QBR over the past three seasons, with 1,000 pass attempts as the minimum for consideration. Eli Manning ranked eighth over that span. Kaepernick (76.8), Griffin (71.4), Wilson (69.6) and Luck (65.0) ranked among the NFL's top 11 in QBR last season, with Kaepernick at No. 3.

The chart below shows leaders since 2010. Check out the ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions for Rodgers and Brady. Both were in the 4.5-to-1 range, well above the others. Kaepernick was at 3.3-to-1 last season, compared to 2.6-to-1 for Wilson. Those figures ranked among the NFL's top seven last season.
video Jim from Albany, Ore., had no beefs with the "Greatest Coaches" ballot I submitted for the ESPN project. He did question the project itself, however.

"It seems to me that a coach becomes 'great' only after he has a 'great' quarterback," Jim wrote in the NFC West mailbag. "The coaches at the very top of the list might be exceptions, but let's look at some of the others."

The way Jim sees things, Bill Belichick struggled in Cleveland before he had Tom Brady in New England. Mike Shanahan struggled without John Elway. Mike Holmgren was considered a great coach in Green Bay, but he had Brett Favre. Tom Landry struggled after Roger Staubach retired. Tom Coughlin was fired by Jacksonville, but once he had Eli Manning, he became a great coach. Tony Dungy became great when he had Peyton Manning. Bill Walsh was innovative, of course, but he also had Joe Montana and Steve Young.

"The voting is a fun exercise and I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a coach," Jim writes. "Some are certainly much better than others and some are great, but I think people are overlooking the role that a franchise quarterback plays in how 'great' a coach is considered to be."

There is no doubt quarterbacks make a tremendous difference. Head coaches sometimes play leading roles in acquiring and developing quarterbacks. Let's take a quick run through the coaches Jim mentioned in search of added perspective:
  • Belichick: We could say the Patriots lucked into Brady in the sixth round, but Belichick was ultimately responsible for drafting him and then sticking with him after Drew Bledsoe's return to health. Also, the Patriots had an 11-5 record when Matt Cassel was their primary quarterback in 2008.
  • Shanahan: Shanahan deserves credit for getting the most from an aging Elway. The Broncos had six winning seasons, one losing season and one 8-8 season in the eight years immediately following Elway's retirement. The post-Elway Broncos went 91-69 under Shanahan overall. That works out to a .569 winning percentage in Denver after Elway. Bill Parcells was at .570 for his entire career.
  • Holmgren: Even if we give Favre credit for the Packers' success in Green Bay, we still must account for Holmgren's winning with Matt Hasselbeck and a more run-oriented offense in Seattle. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick in Green Bay. Holmgren traded for him and eventually won with him. Hasselbeck went to three Pro Bowls. Holmgren didn't luck into Hasselbeck. He helped develop him.
  • Landry: The Cowboys enjoyed their greatest postseason success under Landry when Staubach was the quarterback through the 1970s. However, the Cowboys were 31-10 under Landry in the three seasons before Staubach arrived. They were 21-6-1 in Staubach's first two seasons even though Staubach started only three of those games, posting a 2-1 record in his starts. Dallas went 24-8 in its first two seasons after Staubach retired. The Cowboys posted five winning records in their first six seasons of the post-Staubach era, going 61-28 over that span.
  • Coughlin: Manning wasn't all that great for much of Coughlin's early run with the Giants. Players such as Michael Strahan have credited Coughlin for adapting his gruff personal style in a manner that allowed the Giants to become a championship team. That could be entirely true, or it could be convenient narrative. We can't really know. However, although the Giants might not have won titles without Manning, we can't ignore the role their defense played in defeating Brady's Patriots following the 2007 season in particular. They didn't win disproportionately because of their quarterback.
  • Dungy: I listed Dungy 20th on my ballot because he won with two completely different types of teams. However, I also think a case can be made that the Colts should have enjoyed greater playoff success during the Peyton Manning years. Ultimately, I point to the success Tampa Bay enjoyed beginning in 1997 with a team built to some degree in Dungy's defensive image. The Buccaneers went 48-32 in their final five seasons under Dungy. That franchise was floundering previously.

I left off Walsh because Jim wasn't challenging his credentials as a great coach. Hopefully, the information above provides some context. I do think it's tough knowing to what degree a coach has facilitated his team's success. We're left to look at success over time, plus whatever contributions a coach seemed to make in terms of strategy, team building, etc.

Joe Gibbs gets credit for winning three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks, none of them Hall of Famers. It's not as if Gibbs had horrible quarterbacks, however. Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien were both two-time Pro Bowl selections. Doug Williams obviously had talent. He was a first-round draft choice, after all.

Perhaps we'll find ways in the future to better measure a coach's contributions. Right now, there's a lot we do not know beyond the results on the field.
Via the NFC West mailbag, Ryan from Montreal sees parallels between Eli Manning and Sam Bradford through their first three seasons.

Both quarterbacks were drafted No. 1 overall in their classes. Both endured criticism during some rocky stretches. Both also flashed the talent that made them highly drafted players.

We know how the story has played out for Manning. He moved past the early struggles, becoming a top starting quarterback (most of the time) and winning two Super Bowls.

"I could be wrong," Ryan writes, "but I feel like some of the rhetoric Bradford is experiencing existed with Manning. Though Manning had a better record, a quick look at their stats reveals they are not too dissimilar."

Good idea, Ryan. The chart shows statistical similarities. We do not yet have Total QBR figures before 2008, but the traditional stats line up pretty closely in areas such as yards per pass attempt.

Manning did enjoy one tremendous advantage. The New York Giants organization has been among the most stable in the league. Manning has had the same head coach, Tom Coughlin, and offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, for the duration of his career. Bradford has had two head coaches and three offensive coordinators in his first three seasons.

Manning and the Giants broke through with a Super Bowl victory in Manning's fourth season. Manning finished that 2007 regular season with 23 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. The ratio was 6-1 in the playoffs as the Giants won road games against Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay before upsetting New England in the Super Bowl.

The Giants went from 8-8 in Manning's third season to 10-6 in his fourth. Bradford and the Rams were 7-8-1 last season. Conventional wisdom says the Rams will be the third-best team in the NFC West. The 2007 Giants finished second to Philadelphia in the NFC East. Before that season, 16 of 16 ESPN analysts picked someone other than the Giants to win the NFC.
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians envisions new quarterback Carson Palmer using a strong arm to strike well down the field in 2013.

"Having seen him throw it downfield so many times over the years, as good as it gets," Arians told reporters during a news conference Tuesday. "I know Joe Flacco, as a young guy, has a reputation of being a great deep-ball thrower, but I don’t think there has been anyone better than Carson in the last few years throwing the ball down the football field. It's been his forte forever."

Arians was with the Pittsburgh Steelers when a young Palmer played for the AFC North-rival Cincinnati Bengals.

Palmer was indeed a special talent as the first overall choice in the 2003 draft. Palmer is 33 years old now. He has suffered knee and elbow injuries over the years. Arizona acquired him from the Oakland Raiders for late-round draft considerations. Can he still sling it?

"When I was a young scout with the Browns and watching in pregame warmups, I remember thinking that is what the first overall pick in the draft throws the ball like," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He doesn't do that anymore, but at times he thinks he can. His mind writes checks that his arm can't cash any more. He’s used to being the best player on the field, the first pick. I don't think he can put the franchise on his back and make Aaron Rodgers-type throws possession after possession."

Even so, Williamson said he thinks Palmer makes the Cardinals much better than they would have been otherwise. He expects Larry Fitzgerald's production to improve dramatically. And he thinks Palmer can throw the ball well enough to hit on some of the downfield throws Arians wants featured in the offense -- albeit at the risk of throwing 20-plus interceptions.

"I think he fits the Arians system," Williamson said. "I don't love him. He's not close to what he once was. At one point, I thought he was one of the four or five best quarterbacks in football. ... He is still an effective player."

The chart shows how many yards past the line of scrimmage quarterbacks' passes traveled on average.

The numbers are instructive when applied to the San Francisco 49ers. Colin Kaepernick ranked first and teammate Alex Smith ranked 34th in average pass length, affirming that the 49ers changed their offense for the stronger-armed Kaepernick.

Andrew Luck, who played in an Arians-coordinated offense with the Indianapolis Colts, ranked a close third behind Kaepernick and Jay Cutler. Palmer ranked 25th while playing for the Raiders. His passes traveled 8.07 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, nearly two full yards behind the average for Kaepernick. That number will presumably rise in Arians' offense.

"We're going to put a running game with it that will help him, and obviously we’ve got a fast, young receiving corps that is excellent," Arians said. "I'll echo about that offensive line -- it's not a problem and it won’t be a problem.

"Our guys went through a ton of injuries last year. Having walked into that room today, that’s as good a looking football team as I’ve seen in my 20 years of coaching, stepping in the first day. There’s not a bad body in the room. It’s a great looking bunch of athletes, and we will never use talent as an excuse."
What comes to mind after the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals agreed on a trade sending Carson Palmer to Arizona:
  • The price: The Cardinals are sending a 2013 sixth-round pick (176th overall) and a 2014 seventh-rounder (conditional on Palmer starting at least 13 games, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter) for Palmer and the Raiders' seventh-round pick (219th overall) in 2013. Palmer has started at least 13 games in three of the past four seasons and seven times since first becoming a starter in 2004. The price in draft-choice compensation was so low because the Cardinals knew Oakland would release Palmer in the absence of a trade. General manager Steve Keim and the Cardinals' front office deserve credit for getting a starting quarterback without giving up too much. Sometimes a team acts hastily in the presence of great need, particularly when there's a powerful head coach involved. That arguably happened to an extent with the Kansas City Chiefs when they acquired Alex Smith for a second-round choice. Smith might be more appealing than Palmer, but is he that much more appealing?

  • The salary: We'll revisit initial reports on financial compensation once the numbers can be verified and put into context. Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Palmer will get $16 million over two years, with $10 million guaranteed. That makes Palmer the obvious starter. And with backup Drew Stanton having received some guaranteed money as well, he becomes the clear No. 2.
  • The protection: Cardinals quarterbacks took a league-high 58 sacks last season. The team's new coach, Bruce Arians, favors a downfield passing attack. Arians' quarterback in Indianapolis last season, Andrew Luck, was put under duress and/or hit before throwing a league-high number of times, according to ESPN Stats & Information. What does this mean for the immobile, 33-year-old Palmer? Not as much as those numbers suggest. Palmer ranked seventh among qualifying quarterbacks last season in sacks per drop back. He was at 4.4 percent, below the 5.9 percent average for 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan were ahead of Palmer in this category. Offensive lines deserve some blame for sacks, but quarterbacks play a huge role in them. Mobility isn't the key variable, either. Palmer gets the ball out.
  • The INTs: Palmer throws interceptions at a high rate. Perhaps he'd be better off taking a few more sacks. Palmer ranks 25th among 29 qualifying quarterbacks over the past three seasons in touchdown-to-interception ratio. Palmer is at 1.22 in this category, ahead of only Mark Sanchez (1.14), Colt McCoy (1.05), Matt Hasselbeck (1.03) and Chad Henne (0.88).
  • The impact: Palmer has been an average quarterback in recent seasons as measured by Total QBR. I would expect the Cardinals to win a few more games as a result, perhaps getting into the 8-8 range, all else equal. Arizona posted a 5-11 record last season, but that was misleading. The Cardinals went 1-11 over their final 12 games. The quarterbacking was horrendous. Ryan Lindley, John Skelton and Sanchez were the only quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts to finish with a negative number in points above replacement. That suggests they were not just below average, but also worse than replacement-level players. Palmer finished the season at plus-44.7 in this category. That was 23rd in the NFL out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts -- not great, but so much better than Lindley or Skelton.

Back with more in a bit. I've revived Palmer-related charts that ran recently. The one below shows stats following the major injuries Palmer has suffered.
NEW ORLEANS -- The clock is ticking on visitors' Super Bowl stays in Louisiana, but those waiting in the airport security line wouldn't hear it over the music playing from a live band.

Culliver
That's right, there's a live band playing in the New Orleans airport. These folks know how to throw a party.

I'll be boarding a plane and then making a tight connection a few hours later, so it's possible there won't be an opportunity to keep up the usual day-after-game blogging pace. I'm hoping to post a few tidbits here before boarding.

Albert Larcada of ESPN Stats & Information has come through with evidence illustrating just how much the San Francisco 49ers' chances suffered when officials flagged cornerback Chris Culliver for a 14-yard interference penalty. Culliver and coach Jim Harbaugh strongly disputed the call. That single fourth-quarter play on third-and-9 from the Baltimore 22-yard line improved the Ravens' win probability from 54 percent to 64 percent, the largest single-play gain for the Ravens' offense all game.

The Ravens won, 34-31, to claim their second Super Bowl championship.

Here's the interesting part from Larcada: "Since Joe Flacco’s rookie season in 2008, he has drawn more defensive pass interference calls than any other quarterback. He has added 51 more points than an average quarterback on pass interference calls. Eli Manning, the next best QB, has added 36 points above average."

The Ravens' receivers obviously have something to do with that as well. But if Culliver and the 49ers are seeking a small measure of consolation, they should know they haven't been the only ones on the wrong end of interference calls against Baltimore.
NEW ORLEANS -- The Seattle Seahawks would have been thrilled before the 2012 season if someone had told them quarterback Russell Wilson would finish third in offensive rookie of the year balloting.

Wilson
They had reason to expect better after Wilson arguably outperformed Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck while leading the Seahawks within 31 seconds of the NFC Championship Game.

Griffin got 29 votes to win the award. Luck drew 11. Wilson finished with 10.

The chart shows regular-season stats for Wilson, Griffin and the other Pro Bowl quarterbacks from the NFC (Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers were the others).

Griffin was certainly a strong candidate even if Wilson was better by season's end. He was more productive than Wilson early in the season and played at a high level consistently before suffering a knee injury late in the year. Wilson was better over the second half of the season and in the playoffs.

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