NFC West: Garrison Hearst
Sanders should get no sympathy from Steven Jackson.
Sanders' Lions reached the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons, posting between nine and 12 victories each time. They never won fewer than five games in a season.
Jackson's St. Louis Rams have never won more than eight games in a season. His teams have fared so poorly, in fact, that Jackson ranks last on a list of 87 top running backs ranked by team winning percentages. Chase Stuart, best known for his work at Pro Football Reference, published the list at his new site, Football Perspective.
Sanders ranked 68th.
The list considers runners with at least 5,000 yards rushing and 7,500 yards from scrimmage. The winning percentages were weighted to favor runners' most productive seasons.
"For example, if a player gained 10 percent of his [career] yards from scrimmage in 1999 and the team went 15-1 that season, then 10 percent of the running back’s weighted winning percentage would be 0.9375," Stuart explains. "This is designed to align a running back's best seasons with his team's records in those years.
"For example, Emmitt Smith played two of his 15 seasons with the Cardinals. But since he gained only 6.5 percent of his career yards from scrimmage in Arizona, the Cardinals' records those years count for only 6.5 percent -- and not 13.3 percent -- of his career weighted winning percentage."
The methodology is a little confusing at first glance, but the results make sense.
Jackson has played eight seasons, fighting off injuries and the malaise perpetual losing cultivates. He has played eight seasons without flinching. His bruising style naturally raises questions about how long Jackson might hold up physically. But it's also fair to wonder how much losing such a passionate player can withstand before deciding he's had enough.
The backs listed atop Stuart's list faced no such issues.
Former Los Angeles Rams great Lawrence McCutcheon, named to five consecutive Pro Bowls under coach Chuck Knox, tops the list with a .741 weighted winning percentage. Roger Craig, named to four Pro Bowls with San Francisco, ranks third at .723.
NFC West alums Garrison Hearst (20th), Shaun Alexander (22th), Ricky Watters (23rd) and Wendell Tyler (24th) are all at .585 and higher. But four of the six players at the bottom of the list also spent some of their careers with franchises currently aligned in the division. That includes Hall of Famers Ollie Matson and O.J. Simpson.
That was way back in Week 11 of 2002, when Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens and Garrison Hearst defined the 49ers' identity.
The 2011 team is gaining ground quickly. Four consecutive victories, three of them on the road, have vaulted the 49ers of Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis to a 5-1 record and No. 4 standing in our rankings entering Week 7.
That is the 49ers' highest ranking since ranking tied for fourth in Week 12 of the 2002 season. They rose five spots this week, moving past New Orleans, Detroit, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Oakland.
"They are the real deal this year and have won more QUALITY games than any team playing," 81sanfranman wrote.
The 49ers have beaten three teams that currently have winning records (Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Detroit). They also won on the road against preseason NFC favorite Philadelphia.
"There will be some very hard words if the NFC West guy doesn't place the 49ers either No. 2 or No. 3," Hypchucky9 wrote. "We lost to the Cowboys, the Patriots lost to the Bills and the Ravens lost to the Titans. If the rankings are usually about power with regard to talent and efficiency, you would be hard bent to put us lower than No. 3."
The NFC West guy (that would be me) ranked the 49ers fourth. No one else ranked them higher. The Packers are the obvious No. 1 team. New England is more firmly established as a top team, and the Patriots have the better quarterback. Baltimore has won convincingly over teams that have periodically appeared among the top 10 this season (Pittsburgh, Houston and the New York Jets).
The 49ers are on the rise. They opened the regular season at No. 26 and have climbed from 16th to ninth to fourth over the past three weeks. They visit Baltimore in Week 12 and play a Monday night home game against the Steelers in Week 15. They'll have opportunities to move up even more.
Before taking a closer look at the rankings heading into Week 7, I'll pass along comments from our voters covering issues that stood out to me from their ballots.
- Kuharsky downs San Diego: Paul Kuharsky ranked San Diego only 16th, 10 spots lower than anyone else ranked them. He pointed to the teams the Chargers have beaten while acknowledging San Diego cannot control its schedule. Kuharsky: "San Diego is definitely due for a big jump from me. I had them 12th before the bye and felt I needed to move up Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, the Giants and San Francisco. So, the Chargers suffered for it. Generally, I am reluctant to move a team up off a bye. Tennessee was also off and also suffered -- dropping from 10th to 15th."
- Walker has Chargers' back: James Walker ranked the Chargers fourth, higher than anyone ranked them. Walker: "The Chargers aren't elite, but they are beating the teams on their schedule. I also like the fact they're starting fast this season, because the Chargers are notoriously slow starters."
- Clayton on the Bengals: John Clayton, on why he has the Bengals only 21st, nine spots lower than Kuharsky has them: "Even though they are 4-2, the Bengals have won games against teams that are 7-16. They have been helped by the schedule."
OK, here we go ...
Rising (11): San Francisco 49ers (+5), Chicago Bears (+4), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+4), New York Giants (+3), Arizona Cardinals (+2), Baltimore Ravens (+2), Cincinnati Bengals (+2), Oakland Raiders (+2), Kansas City Chiefs (+1), New York Jets (+1), Philadelphia Eagles (+1).
Falling (8): Dallas Cowboys (-6), Houston Texans (-5), Washington Redskins (-5), Buffalo Bills (-4), Detroit Lions (-2), Minnesota Vikings (-2), New Orleans Saints (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1).
Unchanged (13): Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans.
Deadlocked: We broke one tie this week. San Diego prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 7 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record.
Like minds: All five voters ranked the Packers first and the Patriots second. Four ranked the Ravens third.
Agree to disagree: Twelve spots separated high and low votes for the Chargers. Five other teams produced high-low disparities of at least eight places. Let's take a look:
- Chargers (12): Walker ranked them fourth, higher than anyone else ranked them. Kuharsky ranked them 16th, lower than anyone else ranked them.
- Jets (9): Walker and Fox 13th, Sando 22nd.
- Bengals (9): Kuharsky 12th, Clayton 21st.
- Giants (8): Kuharsky eighth, Walker 20th.
- Bears (8): Sando 10th, Kuharsky 18th.
- Redskins (8): Fox 12th, Sando 20th.
Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC North rank 12.3 on average, ahead of teams from the runner-up AFC North (13.0). The chart below shows how each voter ranked each division on average. Highest votes in red. Lowest votes in blue.
A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since last week:
- Sando: Redskins (-8), Giants (+5), 49ers (+5), Bucs (+7).
- Clayton: Redskins (-5), Giants (+5).
- Kuharsky: Texans (-6), Titans (-5), Bengals (+6), Giants (+7), 49ers (+8).
- Walker: Texans (-7), Redskins (-7), 49ers (+5), Bucs (+7).
- Fox: Texans (-7).
The file includes a "powerflaws" sheet pointing out potential flaws in voters' thinking by showing how many higher-ranked opponents each team defeated this season. None of the top nine teams this week has defeated a team ranked higher in the standings. Buffalo, ranked No. 10, has defeated two teams ranked higher, New England and Oakland.
A quick primer on the "powerflaws" sheet:
- Column Y features team rankings.
- Column Z shows how many times a team has defeated higher-ranked teams.
- Change the rankings in Column Y as you see fit.
- Re-sort Column Y in ascending order (1 to 32) using the standard Excel pull-down menu atop the column.
- The information in Column Z, which reflects potential ranking errors, will change (with the adjusted total highlighted in yellow atop the column).
- The lower the figure in that yellow box, the fewer conflicts.
Mike Sando: Having a division winner with a losing record cannot overcome a one-game upset. The NFC South went 13-3 against the NFC West last season. I won't be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys exceed expectations this season in part because they're paired against this division. The NFC West needs to win non-division games more regularly to change perceptions.
This division should improve in 2011.
The St. Louis Rams were already improving. They should be better as Sam Bradford grows as a quarterback. Their defense appears solid again, and improved. Kevin Kolb improves the Arizona Cardinals even if he's only average. There's a good chance he'll be better than average with Larry Fitzgerald on his side.
The Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have made easy targets this offseason because neither did much, if anything, to upgrade at quarterback. I think both teams have improved their rosters overall, however. And neither team was particularly strong at quarterback last season. It's unlikely either team will be significantly worse off at the position despite perceptions.
Matt Hasselbeck accomplished many admirable things during his time with the Seahawks, but almost none recently. His performance against New Orleans in the wild-card round was a fitting way for him to perform during his final home game as a Seahawk, but it wasn't consistent with his body of work since 2008 or an indicator of what was to come. His passer rating over the past three seasons was the lowest in the NFL by more than 10 points among the 19 quarterbacks with at least 35 starts during that span.
In San Francisco, Alex Smith will never live up to draft-day hopes, but it's reasonable to expect improvement from him under Jim Harbaugh. A significant regression would come as a surprise.
So, if the Seahawks and 49ers have upgraded their rosters overall while staying roughly the same at quarterback, how much worse will they be?
Clemster from Fort Worth wants to know which wide receivers will start for the St. Louis Rams, and what Danario Alexander's role will be.
Mike Sando: Brandon Gibson and Mike Sims-Walker are the starters, with Danny Amendola expected to see significant playing time. The Rams want their receivers to be largely interchangeable, which means we could see quite a few combinations.
Alexander survived the cut to 53 players, but I don't get the sense he enjoys much roster security, particularly if his knee continues to limit him periodically.
A reporter asked coach Steve Spagnuolo about Alexander on Monday. Spagnuolo tends to choose his words with care anyway, but his answer to this question was particularly conservative.
"He is one of the six receivers that we have right now," Spagnuolo said. "We all know what he has to overcome and battle every week, and he toughs it out. So, he is one of the guys right now."
Nolan from Bakersfield, Calif., wasn't alone in hitting the NFC West mailbag with questions about Colin Kaepernick's status with the 49ers. They thought the 49ers' newest quarterback, third-string rookie Scott Tolzien, might threaten Kaepernick based on what they showed during preseason.
Mike Sando: There were reasons Kaepernick was a second-round pick and Tolzien was not drafted. Those reasons have not changed. Kaepernick is far superior physically in just about every way. If he and Tolzien both reach their potentials, Kaepernick will be the better player. The 49ers hired Harbaugh largely because they trusted his expertise with quarterbacks. Harbaugh played a leading role in selecting Kaepernick. Picking up Tolzien off waivers should have no bearing on the team's approach with Kaepernick.
Andrew from Seattle says he's hearing more Carson Palmer comeback rumors and he wants to know what are the chances Seattle might make a move for him. Andrew sees a talented group of receivers in Seattle, including tight end Zach Miller, and he thinks Palmer could help get the most from them.
Mike Sando: At no point have I heard anything to substantiate those rumors, but they are definitely there, and not just among fans. One NFL executive I spoke with during training camps said he expected the Seahawks to make a move for Palmer, one way or another, in time for the regular season.
My sense is that people outside the organization (and probably a few inside it, as well) cannot believe a team would go into a season with Tarvaris Jackson as its starter by design. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has repeatedly said this is what he plans to do. Carroll also values mobility in a quarterback. Palmer doesn't move well.
This is something we'll hear about until something happens or the trading deadlines passes. But if you're looking for real evidence that a move is likely, there is none to be found.
Casey from Phoenix asks whether Chester Taylor projects as a good compliment to Beanie Wells in Arizona.
Mike Sando: Taylor gives the Cardinals experience at the position and someone they could trust in small doses. I just see no reason to expect much from him at this stage of his career.
Age and recent production seem like reliable indicators for running backs. Taylor turns 32 this month. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry last season, the lowest single-season mark in the NFL since 1970 among players with at least 100 carries in a season.
Thirteen running backs since 2000 have rushed for at least 500 yards in a season after age 31: Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor, Lamar Smith, Curtis Martin, Antowain Smith, Garrison Hearst, Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis, Mike Anderson and Terry Allen. Williams, Anderson and Smith (Emmitt) are the only ones to reach 1,000 yards.
Ryan Williams' season-ending knee injury forced the Cardinals to get older at a position where youth is served. It's clearer than ever the Cardinals need a strong season from Wells. An injury to Wells or poor play from him would leave Arizona in a difficult position.
There's already enough pressure on Kolb without adding more.
Brown was 29 when he played his final snap, then retired while still dominant. He had the right idea.
Very few backs have remained productive into their 30s. The chart below shows running backs from current NFC West franchises who carried at least 50 times in a season past age 31, according to Pro Football Reference. I limited the search to the past 35 seasons (the newest current NFC West franchise, Seattle, entered the NFL in 1976).
It's a short list featuring seven players, including three legends finishing their careers wearing unfamiliar uniforms (Emmitt Smith in Arizona, O.J. Simpson in San Francisco and Franco Harris in Seattle).
None gained 1,000 yards in a season even though all played in the 16-game schedule era -- an era Brown ridiculed for this marvelous 1983 Sports Illustrated piece discussing his comeback threat. In it, Brown said Harris might break his record if he kept running out of bounds frequently enough to prolong his career. The best quote from Brown, by far, makes me wonder what Brown must think of the current NFL game:
"Where has the danger in the game gone? I can't accept quarterbacks sliding and running backs running out of bounds. Ever since the merger in 1966 and the creation of the Super Bowl, the owners have been more concerned with ratings than the level of the game. Coaches put up with players waving into TV cameras, giving high fives and spiking the ball. That sells. The Monday Night Football broadcasters have become bigger than the game. Who is kidding whom? Who's to say a 47-year-old can't do it? I'm not talking about being Jim Brown of 1965. I'm talking about being Jim Brown of 1984. If Franco Harris is gonna creep to my record, I might as well come back and creep, too."
Barber, for the record, ranks 22nd on the NFL's all-time rushing list. He's within 200 yards of passing Watters for the 20th spot. Watters rushed for 1,242 yards at age 31 and still appeared to have quite a bit left, but the Seahawks had drafted Shaun Alexander and Watters wasn't interested in a situational role.
That audio is right here.
Among the topics we covered:
- At what point it appeared Seattle had a great chance to upset New Orleans in the wild-card round. I pointed to that lob pass from an about-to-be-hit Matt Hasselbeck to second-year tight end Cameron Morrah.
- The idea that Seattle is "playing with house money" and could be dangerous.
- Nate Davis' prospects in Seattle after leaving San Francisco.
- The offensive coordinator situations in San Francisco and St. Louis.
- Marshawn Lynch's run against the Saints and where it ranks.
Thanks to @LATERALsprewell for recalling Garrison Hearst's 96-yard run to beat the New York Jets in overtime years ago. I do remember that one now. It also featured a memorable stiff-arm. Relive that one here.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Receiver Dominique Zeigler made an impressive grab for a 19-yard gain on third-and-15 when the game was still close in the third quarter.
- Inside linebacker Takeo Spikes was able to play despite concerns about a knee injury.
- Frank Gore finished with a career-high 102 yards receiving. He's the 49ers' first running back with at least 100 yards receiving since Garrison Hearst caught four passes for 105 yards against Chicago in 2001.
- Joe Nedney made a 51-yard field goal to prevent the 49ers from entering halftime without points.
- Shawntae Spencer picked off a pass early in the second quarter, before either team had scored.
- The 49ers called plays quickly enough to avoid delay penalties or wasted timeouts, an improvement from their previous road game this season.
- San Francisco appeared to avoid serious injuries, although Josh Morgan hurt a knee late in the game.
- The 49ers converted on two of their first three third-down opportunities. Alex Smith found Vernon Davis for 10 yards on third-and-4. He found Gore for a 31-yard gain on third-and-3.
Finishing with a non-losing record was important for San Francisco because it showed progress in the big picture. The 49ers had posted losing records every season since the 2002 team went 10-6 with Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Terrell Owens.
They are not losers any longer. The culture has officially changed.
Still, this game against the now 1-15 Rams was a struggle offensively for much of the game. Alex Smith passed for 23 yards in the first half and the 49ers had some problems in protection. They broke open the game late -- almost an inevitability given the state of the Rams -- but there should have been enough rough edges to get the 49ers' attention.
That can be a good thing for the 49ers. They do need to improve across the board on offense. That was clear in the first half Sunday and previously this season.
The Rams, meanwhile, can finally move past this season. They were ascending through the season's first half until injuries destroyed their already tenuous depth. They generally played hard and fought through the season's second half, but there wasn't much left to give. They'll have the No. 1 overall choice in the 2010 draft. They'll need to decide how to find their next quarterback. Will they take one first overall? Might they find a reasonably priced veteran stopgap?
It's tough to envision Marc Bulger returning under a contract scheduled to pay him $8.5 million.
The team must figure out a plan at quarterback while focusing on adding playmakers at wide receiver and even tight end. They also need help on every level of the defense.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat profiles 49ers coach Mike Singletary. Cohn: "He is a man who sees his life as a moral life -- as a moral tale, and he is the protagonist of that tale. He wears that large cross (he laughingly disputes that it’s large) as a reminder of whom he serves and what kind of man he was called on to be. He represents an approach to life, and the cross is a symbol of that approach."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says several 49ers players could be playing their final game with the team. Beyond Isaac Bruce, "other 49ers who will enter the offseason not knowing if they'll be back include cornerbacks Dre' Bly and Walt Harris, safety Mark Roman and offensive tackles Barry Sims and Tony Pashos."
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers are forcing more turnovers. They have more athleticism on the field now that Ahmad Brooks and Dashon Goldson are getting significant playing time.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation says several 49ers players are nearing statistical milestones. On Frank Gore: "Gore needs one more 100-yard game to tie Joe Perry for the most in 49ers history (19). He's also 82 yards from passing Garrison Hearst for fourth on the 49ers all-time rushing list. We've seen his solid receiving skills in play over the years, and he continues climbing the ranks. He's currently 29th in receiving yards and 15th in receptions. I doubt he'll match Roger Craig's career receiving numbers, but he's certainly doing well for himself."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals think they are in rhythm offensively and close to hitting on all cylinders. That could make their game against Green Bay even less important, particularly if the Vikings beat the Giants. Somers: "It's questionable how much of their offensive skills the Cardinals (10-5) and Packers (10-5) will choose to display Sunday. The teams probably will meet in the first round of the playoffs next weekend at University of Phoenix Stadium, so much of their game-planning this week has been geared toward that game. The season finale means little to the Packers, who are going to be the fifth or sixth seed. It will be significant for the Cardinals only if the Giants beat the Vikings earlier in the day. That would give the Cardinals a shot at the No. 2 seed and a bye, provided the Cowboys beat the Eagles, a game that will start at 2:15, the same time as the Cardinals and Packers contest."
Also from Somers: The Cardinals are getting to the quarterback by committee. Twelve players have sacks this season.
More from Somers: Antrel Rolle will not play for the Cardinals if the No. 2 seed is not within reach.
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times wonders what's at stake for the Seahawks in their final game of a lost season. Brewer: "This is a team full of people with uncertain futures. With the Seahawks searching for a new general manager, coach Jim Mora doesn't want to end his first season with four straight losses and a perception that he lost this team. After throwing eight interceptions in the past two weeks, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck doesn't want to end this season with even more question marks. With an expected roster overhaul looming, the reality is a lot of Seahawks are auditioning for their next jobs."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks' ground game has shown signs of life in recent weeks. Williams: "After twice setting franchise-worst records for rushing yards in a game this season, Seattle has averaged 121.5 yards a contest and 4.58 yards a carry in the past, two games. However, most of those yards were accumulated in first halves, with Seattle having to abandon the run because of falling behind and needing to score quickly to get back into the games."
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune asks whether the Seahawks' poor season should have been expected. Situations involving Walter Jones, Mike Wahle, Marcus Trufant, T.J. Duckett, Edgerrin James, Aaron Curry and a new offensive playbook might have foreshadowed problems.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says the team is focused on preventing Chris Johnson from topping 2,000 yards rushing for the season.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have reached a crossroads with their fans. Executive Kevin Demoff: "This organization for too long has taken fans for granted, has not paid enough attention to sponsors in the community and to making sure that people were invested in the club. If people are invested in the club, winning will help. But I think it's easy to throw your hands up and say, 'Well, if the club was winning, people would go.' It's our challenge to make sure that people want to go, win or lose. They may have a better time if we win."
Also from Thomas: New starting Rams guard Roger Allen III lines up against a strong 49ers defensive front.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Bruce's return to the Edward Jones Dome recalls the Rams' glory days. Burwell: "Bruce will be on the field before the game as an honorary captain. Of course, there will be cheers. Probably polite and passionate, long enough to recognize that the 45,000 diehards who braved the frigid weather to watch an otherwise uneventful game still remember how good it used to be, and how big a deal Bruce was in his heyday here. The sad thing is, it just won't be the same."
B.J. Rains of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat checks in with Allen before the rookie's first NFL start. Rains: "The rookie, who said he likely would have gone to either Illinois, Kansas or Missouri out of high school had his ACT scores been higher, graduated as the best lineman ever to play at Missouri Western. He started all 12 games as a freshman at offensive guard and became the first -- and only -- offensive lineman to be named Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association Freshman of the Year."
Jim Rodenbush of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat says the Rams need to beat the 49ers to avoid the worst record in franchise history. Defensive coordinator Ken Flajole sees a 49ers team that has improved since beating the Rams 35-0 earlier in the season. Flajole: "It is for three reasons -- the back [Gore] being back and healthy. The wide receiver [Crabtree] gives them another added dimension, and the quarterback is playing good, too. They are little bit different, so we’ve got our hands full. They have gotten better."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Josh from Fontana, Calif., writes: Hey Mr. Sando, my Rams have some needs but have been doing a great job filling them. Now we have the 2nd pick and we should have the two best players in the draft available to us then (Aaron Curry and Michael Crabtree).
I know there are some teams that would do some trading for these guys, giving my Rams some additional picks (hopefully a 1st and an additional 2nd). Now, what teams do you see attempting to do this. Your comments please.
Mike Sando: This question provides an opportunity for a little draft history lesson, courtesy of some research I conducted before the 2008 draft.
Three teams have traded into the top 10 picks since 2003. The moves proved costly in more ways than one.
"Trades are a unique thing in the first round anymore because of the cost of the top 10 picks financially," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said. "To take on that cost, then to give up something to do so, it is almost counterintuitive, and that's clearly not what the draft was designed to be."
In 2003, the Saints sent the 17th and 18th choices as part of a package to Arizona for a package that included the sixth pick. New Orleans drafted Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, who was out of the league after 16 starts and three NFL seasons.
Also in 2003, the Jets traded the 13th and 22nd picks as part of a package to Chicago for the fourth overall choice. The Jets drafted defensive lineman Dewayne Robertson, a durable starter who hasn't become an impact player.
In other words, the Rams might not find anyone eager to take that second overall choice off their hands. This draft doesn't feature anyone perceived to be a Peyton Manning-type player. For that reason, I'd be a little surprised if someone swooped into that No. 2 spot.
No team since 2003 has traded into the top five picks from lower in the round. I had thought this was the case since 1999. Thanks to Damon Moffa for setting me straight (ever so politely, of course) via Facebook.