NFC West: fines
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
A few NFC West notes wrapping up this Friday heading into Week 14:
- On the Dockett: Mike Jurecki of XTRA Sports 910 AM is hearing Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett could face a six-figure fine and limited playing time against Seattle as punishment for his actions during a 7-6 defeat to the New York Jets. Dockett and safety Kerry Rhodes denied a report that Dockett had spit in Rhodes' face late in the game. Dockett has acknowledged he disagreed with coaches' late-game orders to let the Jets score a touchdown so that the Arizona offense could get the ball back with a chance to tie the game. Players obviously cannot defy in-game coaching orders. Arizona must make that clear through its actions. This incident strengthens perceptions some of the Cardinals' defensive leaders, notably Dockett, are much better equipped to lead the team when winning than when things are going poorly. However, the defense has continued to play well despite the team's eight-game losing streak. That counts for something too.
- No fine for Wright: The NFL did not fine Chicago Bears safety Major Wright for hitting Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice in the back of the helmet on the final play of overtime in Week 13. Rice had caught the ball, turned upfield and was moving across the goal line when Wright lowered his head and shoulder. Wright's shoulder struck Rice's helmet as both went low. Rules prohibit such hits on defenseless players. The NFL defines defenseless players as, among other things, "a receiver attempting to catch a pass or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner." Rice was not a defenseless player by those standards, in my view. Also, this was not a helmet-to-helmet hit. I think that explains why there was no fine.
- Another non-fine: St. Louis disputed a roughing-the-passer penalty against the Rams' Robert Quinn. The NFL agreed with the Rams. There was no fine levied in this case.
- A few fines: The NFL fined Brian Urlacher ($21,000), NaVorro Bowman ($10,000) and Dashon Goldson ($7,875) for penalties involving roughness. The fine amounts are collectively bargained. All fine money goes to charities.
- Late injury news: The 49ers expect to be without receiver Mario Manningham on Sunday. Manningham has a shoulder injury. Rookie first-round pick A.J. Jenkins figures to become relevant on game day for the first time in the NFL. Rookie second-round choice LaMichael James also appears closer to contributing.
Here's hoping the rest of your Friday treats you well.
It was the right call, too.
Fitzgerald grabbed St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins by the facemask while preventing Jenkins from picking off a pass in Week 5. It was a smart move by Fitzgerald, but he'll have to pay the minimum $7,875 fine amount for first-time violators, Darren Urban of azcardinals.com notes.
Also fined from the Cardinals-Rams game: Robert Quinn ($15,750) for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, and Jermelle Cudjo ($7,875) for pulling off Kolb's helmet.
The low number was telling.
Commissioner Roger Goodell usually metes out fines for such penalties when the league feels as though the flags were thrown for good reason.
In this case, Seattle's Brandon Browner was the only player receiving a fine for Week 4 flags from NFC West teams' games. He'll pay $7,875 for unnecessary roughness committed against Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings. Officials flagged Jennings, too, but they did not fine him.
The chart shows all Week 4 personal fouls against individual NFC West players or their opponents, sorted by team and shaded for your viewing pleasure.
The NFL did levy a $15,750 fine against Philadelphia's Jason Babin for a horse-collar tackle against Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling. Officials did not flag Babin on the play, although the penalty appeared to be blatant.
- No surprise: The rules are relatively clear if you've got enough time to study them and keep pace with periodic changes to them. I'll admit to needing a refresher periodically. In this case, Tate was delivering a blindside block on Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee. That qualified Lee for protections covering defenseless players. In general, those protections prohibit the blocker from hitting the defenseless player in the head/neck area. They also prohibit the blocker from using his own head to hit the defenseless player anywhere. In my view, Tate did lower his head so that his helmet impacted Lee. He also might have hit Lee in the neck area. Easy call for the league.
- Lee uninjured: Lee got back up pretty quickly and returned to the game following an examination. That was the most important detail relating to this play.
- Chunk of change: Tate was scheduled to earn $540,000 in salary this season. The $21,000 represents about 1.2 percent of his career earnings through Week 1. That amount is also the minimum fine for first-time violators of NFL policies on blindside blocks, hitting defenseless players and impermissible use of the helmet.
- Tate's return big: This play involving Tate has overshadowed the difference he makes for Seattle on offense. The team needs a big season from him. The receiver position hasn't worked out the way Seattle would have drawn it up. Sidney Rice has had injury problems. Kris Durham never developed. Ricardo Lockette has not taken the next step. The more Seattle has to rely on receivers such as Mike Williams (since released) and Braylon Edwards, the clearer it is that the Seahawks need to address that position in the offseason. With Tate back from a knee injury Sunday, Edwards played sparingly. Tate caught three passes for 38 yards.
- $30,000 against Dockett: The league levied two $15,000 fines against Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett. One was for striking Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton below the knee area. The other was for a horse-collar tackle.
- $15,000 against Sherman: Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was penalized for a horse-collar tackle when bringing down 49ers running back Frank Gore.
- $10,000 against Lynch: Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch wore specially designed Skittles cleats. The league protested, according to Brian McIntyre.
- $10,000 against Davis: The 49ers' Anthony Davis was not penalized by game officials for blocking Seattle's Anthony Hargrove across the back of the legs during Kendall Hunter's 24-yard run. The league fined him, determining Davis had unnecessarily rolled up on Hargrove's legs.
There was no fine against the 49ers' Ahmad Brooks or Seahawks right tackle Breno Giacomini for scuffling after a play I noticed when watching the game on replay.
The most memorable play from that game involved referee Jerome Boger's microphone relaying Rams guard Harvey Dahl's profane protest over loudspeakers in the Edward Jones Dome. Boger called Dahl for holding, then added a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after the microphone mixup.
Other personal fouls against the Rams -- two against Chris Chamberlain, one against James Butler and one against Eugene Sims -- did not draw fines. Failing to levy fines for personal fouls can indicate the league did not see violations.
Boger and crew called five personal fouls against the Rams and one against the Bengals. Boger was back at work Thursday night and was particularly active in flagging the Houston Texans during the final minutes of their defeat to Indianapolis.
@kylekinzie read my tweet about the $15,000 fine against the San Francisco 49ers' Ahmad Brooks' for roughing the passer and wondered why that fine doubled what the league assessed against Philadelphia's Trent Cole.
A couple reasons come to mind.
One, Brooks was previously fined $10,000 for a 2010 hit on Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton. That fine, like this one, was for hitting a quarterback in the head/neck area. Fines escalate with each new offense. That explains why this fine against Brooks was so substantial. Two, the $7,500 fine against Cole was for throwing Seattle's Russell Okung to the ground, not for the season-ending injury Okung suffered in the process.
Separately, the league fined St. Louis Rams running back Jerious Norwood $7,500 for a chop block against the 49ers' Parys Haralson. The NFL had not fined the 49ers' Frank Gore for the chop block committed against Baltimore earlier in the season. Norwood's actions were more consistent with those the league wants to eliminate. Gore committed a chop block only in the technical sense; at no point did his actions put an opposing player at heightened risk.
- Gore's chop unpunished: Coach Jim Harbaugh was right when he used the word "unlucky" to describe the chop-block penalty against Frank Gore during the San Francisco 49ers' 16-6 defeat at Baltimore. This was the first time Gore had been penalized for a chop block. The league did not fine him. That was the right call. Gore blocked low before guard Chilo Rachal made contact with the defender's upper body. This penalty flag was thrown unnecessarily. The absence of a fine supports that line of thinking. The penalty wiped out a 75-yard touchdown reception that would have changed how the game unfolded, at least to some degree.
- Wright docked heavily: Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright received a $15,000 fine for striking Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman in the neck area. This was a tough call for Wright. Nothing about the hit appeared dirty. I thought WRight shoved Grossman in the upper chest area. The league had access to additional views of the play.
- Giacomini, Tate pay price: The $7,500 fines against Seahawks tackle Breno Giacomini for a late hit and receiver Golden Tate for excessive celebration appear to have gotten a message across. Giacomini walked away from a confrontation against Philadelphia on Thursday night. Tate celebrated his latest touchdown without incident.
The league will wait until next week before reviewing plays from the Thursday night game between Seattle and Philadelphia.
Why would the league fine Goldson $25,000 and Doucet only $10,000 when Doucet started their fight? The answer lies in how those players' actions were classified.
Doucet's fine was for unnecessary roughness. Goldson's fine was for fighting. Those violations carry different consequences.
Fighting carries a minimum $25,000 fine for first-time offenders, according to rules agreed upon by the NFL and its player. Roughness penalties carry lower minimums.
Doucet might have started the incident, but it wasn't a fight in the NFL's eyes until Goldson went after him.
Chancellor could be subject to another fine after a helmet-to-helmet hit on St. Louis Rams tight end Lance Kendricks during Seattle's victory at St. Louis in Week 11. If the league determines Chancellor committed the same penalty in back-to-back weeks, a fine of at least $40,000 would seem likely, in my view.
I've put together a chart showing the NFL's schedule of fines for the 2011 season. Fine amounts are minimums. Players and owners agreed upon the fine schedule as part of their latest labor agreement. Per that agreement, the league reserves the right to issue larger fines and also to suspend players, depending on the circumstances.
"This will include a determination of whether the infraction occurred 'during the normal course of the game' (e.g., was consistent with the competitive tempo, pace and situation) or 'outside the normal course of the game' (e.g., was flagrant, unnecessary, avoidable or gratuitous)," the league wrote in explaining its fine schedule.
Fine information usually becomes available on Fridays unless players disclose the information earlier.
Beyond Chancellor's case, I'll be interested in finding out whether Arizona's Early Doucet and/or San Francisco's Dashon Goldson face fines for fighting. First-time offenders can incur fines of at least $25,000 for fighting.
The NFL made Smith pay, too,
Smith, who has 5.5 sacks over the 49ers' past three games, drew a $15,000 fine from the NFL for hitting the Detroit Lions' quarterback below the knee area as Stafford threw incomplete. The play drew a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer.
The league also fined the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew for a chop block. That fine was for $7,500.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Seahawks rookie Aaron Curry seemed to transform the Seattle defense with his edgy play against the Rams in Week 1.
The league fined him $5,000 for hitting Rams tackle Jason Smith in the knee area after a play.
Robbie Tobeck, Brock Huard and Mike Salk spoke with Curry on 710ESPN Seattle. Turns out Week 1 was not the only time Curry incurred a fine this season. The details came out after Salk asked Curry whether he had toned down his game since the opener.
Curry: I think I have taken one step out of my game as far as the whistle goes. I like to play to or through the whistle, but I guess playing through the whistle gets you dings in your pockets.
Salk: Did you get a ding in your pocket?
Curry: Yeah, I've had one every week except for last week.
Tobeck: I don't have problems with it. I love it. One of the things I really enjoyed watching was that first game of the year against the Rams and you and Steven Jackson were going at it. He was trying to take you out and you were taking your shots on him and I love it. That's football and that is what is so fun about football is being able to take a shot on a guy.
Salk: That's why you are going to pay his fines.
Tobeck: Remember, I was an undrafted free agent as a rookie. There is a big difference between the 108 grand I made as a rookie.
Curry said he's become more selective as to when he can "go into the pile" as plays are ending.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Lutui's facemask penalty resulted in a 15-yard penalty. The league said he grabbed facemask while attempting to make a block. Rodgers-Cromartie slammed Rams receiver Torry Holt to the ground well out of bounds. Rodgers-Cromartie, whose actions also resulted in a 15-yard penalty, said he thought Holt was still inbounds.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Gandy delivered a late hit near the goal line, drawing a penalty for unnecessary roughness. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has cracked down on penalties, but this one did not seem to bother him as much. It was an aggressive play near the goal line, though obviously late.
Wells' fine stemmed from a clipping penalty he incurred during Edgerrin James' third-quarter run on first-and-goal from the 8. The Cardinals settled for a field goal on the drive. Wells thought the block was legal. Whisenhunt said he would seek clarification from the league.