NFC West: Gary Hogeboom
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
John Boyle of the Everett Herald looks at the Seahawks' recently improved ground game.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com offers notes from practice Wednesday, including one showing camaraderie among running backs.
Also from Farnsworth: a look at what Colin Cole's return could mean for the Seattle defense. The team has missed Cole and defensive end Red Bryant. Farnsworth: "Junior Siavii (for Cole) and Kentwan Balmer (for Bryant) have done admirable jobs filling in, but they’re lighter and a lot less experienced in the nuances of the Seahawks’ defense – since Balmer was acquired in a mid-August trade with the 49ers and Siavii was signed in early September. With Cole’s return, Siavii can slide out and help Balmer man the five-technique end spot, as well as rotate with Cole at nose tackle."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times checks in with Cole, who explains how he suffered an ankle injury against Oakland. Cole: "You want me to go into detail? All right. I was moving to my right, 3 minutes left in the game. They were on their goal line. Really a needless thing to happen. I was going to my right, and a guy basically to my left -- their right guard -- kind of jumped on the side of my leg. I'll say he jumped on the side of my leg. There's a proper way of cut blocks, and he just took it upon himself to kind of jump on the side of my leg. But there's nothing I can do about that now. The only thing I can do is concentrate on moving forward and trying to help the team with the next few games."
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says Lofa Tatupu is relishing the Seahawks' playoff relevance and exciting developments in his personal life. Tatupu: "It's everything you dream of. Not to sound cliché, but it is. It's magical. In the NFL, when you're in the hunt this time of year, every little thing matters — every practice, every game, every day. It's football at its most intense. I love it. I know it hasn't looked pretty for us this year. But, really, it doesn't matter. We're right there."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt sounds much happier with Dan Williams than with Calais Campbell. Whisenhunt offered specific reasons why he thought Williams was performing well. Here is what he said regarding Campbell: "First of all, I don't like to evaluate players in-season. I don't believe in doing that. I think that, right now, there are a lot of guys on this team who haven't played the way we all thought or expected. Probably a lot of coaches haven't coaches the way we expected. That's something we'll look at after the season and evaluate. The only thing I'll say is I'm not questioning anyone's effort."
Also from Somers: New Cardinals quarterback Richard Bartel was hunting wild hogs as recently as one week ago.
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic offers thoughts on John Skelton's emergence as the Cardinals' likely starting quarterback. Boivin: "What can Skelton do? How does Larry Fitzgerald feel? Leaving Derek Anderson in, if he's healthy, feels a little bit like pushing Fitzgerald toward the door. His contract expires after the 2011 season and the team would like to begin talks on a new deal no later than the spring. Why not Skelton? His 6-foot-5, 244-pound frame screams NFL prototype. At the combine, he ran a 4.85 40, seventh-best among all quarterbacks. His vertical jump was fourth best. The Cardinals liked him enough to trade cornerback Bryant McFadden and a sixth-round pick to move to the fifth round. We just don't know enough."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team appears on the verge of starting three quarterbacks in a season for the sixth time since the franchise moved to Arizona. Urban: "Assuming Anderson doesn’t start, the Cardinals will use a third starting quarterback in a season for the sixth time since the franchise moved to Arizona in 1988, although it has only happened once since the Cards’ playoff year of 1998. That’s when Denny Green, in his first season of 2004, briefly derailed the Josh McCown experiment with two starts for Shaun King and then one for rookie John Navarre before going back to McCown. The other four times were 1989 (Gary Hogeboom 13 starts, Tom Tupa 2; Timm Rosenbach 1), 1991 (Tupa 11, Stan Gelbaugh 3, Chris Chandler 2), 1994 (Steve Beuerlein 7, Jim McMahon 1, Jay Schroeder 8) and 1997 (Kent Graham 6, Stoney Case 1, Jake Plummer 9)."
Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders offers thoughts on Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. Analyst Greg Cosell: "Because of his accuracy, he will always make his receivers better in the long run. Because he's very compact, and he's very accurate. Believe me, I'm not comparing him to Tom Brady at this point in time, but I think he has attributes like that. Brady had Moss for a few years, and Moss was a certain type of player, but for the most part, Brady has not has what you would call elite receivers. And Bradford is the kind of guy -- because he's so compact and accurate, and he's exhibited such great timing and anticipation -- who can make receivers that you would not say are Top 10, better."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are scrambling at linebacker after losing Na'il Diggs for the remainder of the season. Thomas: "Rams coaches have two more practice days to sort through their options at the strongside and weakside positions. But at face value, the most logical starting combination would be David Vobora at strongside linebacker — where he started 10 times in '09 — and either Chris Chamberlain or Larry Grant at the weakside position. Chamberlain has better coverage skills than Grant, so he makes more sense against a pass-happy team such as the Saints. But complicating matters is the fact that Chamberlain suffered a right hand injury against Arizona."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with Rams linebacker David Nixon. Coats: "A former Eagle Scout, Nixon's road to the NFL was interrupted by a two-year Mormon mission to Quito, Ecuador, after his freshman season at BYU."
Also from Coats: Bradford got advice from Drew Brees regarding shoulder surgery. Bradford said Brees' shoulder injury was far worse, however.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says rookie left tackle Rodger Saffold has been playing well for the Rams. Saffold and the line face their toughest test of the season to this point when they visit the Superdome in Week 14. Miklasz: "How good is Saffold? Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, one of the best talent evaluators in NFL history, volunteered on his radio show Monday night that he made a mistake in not drafting Saffold at the end of the first round. The Rams picked Saffold at the top of the second round. Polian doesn't toss out compliments like that unless he's very, very, impressed. And it takes a lot to impress Polian."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com has this to say about the Rams' linebacker situation: "It appears that David Vobora will get the first shot at replacing Diggs at SLB and Chris Chamberlain will work at WIL. Chamberlain is wearing a small cast on his wrist but says no surgery will be required on small fracture. He practiced fully on Wednesday."
Brian Stull of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams' secondary is dealing with quite a few injuries.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers and Seahawks took differing approaches to working new running backs into their offenses. One key difference: The 49ers already had Frank Gore, so there was less incentive to work Brian Westbrook into the offense initially. Seattle did not have a physical running back. Lynch: "Running back is one of those positions where you can come in and make an impact almost immediately. Basically, the protections and the running plays are the same, just worded differently. Just change up the terminology and you have the same playbook."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Alex Smith knows he needs to be more aggressive. One limiting factor: Smith is not aggressive by nature.
Also from Barrows: answering questions about the 49ers' quarterback situation.
More from Barrows: Mike Singletary says the 49ers' offense was limited with Troy Smith at quarterback.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says it's fitting the 49ers' top two quarterbacks have the same last name. Cohn: "Tweedle Alex allegedly gives the Niners the best opportunity to win because he knows the playbook better than Tweedle Troy, and it's always helpful in the NFL to know the playbook. Of course, Tweedle Alex also knew the playbook better when the 49ers and Tweedle Troy got run out of Green Bay. Why didn't Singletary start Tweedle Alex then? You tell me." Not that the 49ers' floundering ways have invited cynicism.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the departure of longtime assistant coach Johnnie Lynn heading into Week 14 counts as par for the course in San Francisco.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Alex Smith feels as though he's a good quarterback. Smith: "Absolutely. I have the ability to make all the throws on the field. [I'm] athletic enough that I think I can make plays with my feet when I need to. I can handle I think any playbook out there, [any] adjustments you have to make. I think I can. Have I done that consistently? To be honest, no. That's what I need to do."
David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says Singletary was vague when discussing Lynn's departure. Singletary: "I visited with Johnnie before he left. All I'm going to say about that is that is something I will not comment on. But Johnnie and his family will deal with it, and I lose a good friend."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Branden from Scottsdale writes: Hey Mike, I wanted to get in on the Bolding discussion. I have read articles and comments from cities across the league that feel their team is "destined" to land Boldin.
A few thoughts …
1) The Cardinals are in the position of power. We can keep Boldin for two more years and let him play out his contract, or we can trade him for what we believe to be fair market value ... they are not going to trade him or cut him like the Cowboys with T.O.
2) Why would we trade him to ANY NFC team? I would trade him to an AFC team like the Titans who we play this year before I traded him to the Eagles where this season he isn't on our schedule, but we could meet them in the playoffs.
3) If I were the Cardinals, I would look to teams that have picks that we would want, but also maybe a starter in return...an OLB, DT, TE, LT, etc...Thoughts?
Mike Sando: First, great hearing from you, Branden. We'll have to get together again for some tailgating down there in Glendale once the season gets going.
On Boldin, some of this could hinge on whether the Cardinals think he can maintain a high level of performance for the long haul based on his playing style. He did miss games this past season.
It's looking like a given, I think, that the Cardinals are not going to satisfy Boldin's contract demands relative to what Larry Fitzgerald is making. Boldin's trade value might never be higher. If you're going to lose him after a couple years anyway, then you need to decide whether this is the time to get something in return.
Keeping Boldin would still make sense. He has meant a great deal to the team. At the same time, Fitzgerald has clearly passed him in importance to the Cardinals, so the team does have viable options beyond keeping Boldin.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
|Recognize him? Quarterback Tom Tupa started 13 games for the Cardinals, same as Gary Hogeboom and Jeff Blake -- and nearly as many as Matt Leinart.|
At the other end, we can safely declare Kurt Warner the best starting quarterback for two of the four NFC West teams -- the Cardinals and Rams -- since those franchises last relocated.
With an assist from information available at Pro Football Reference, I counted 22 starting quarterbacks for the Cardinals in the 21 seasons since the team moved to Arizona for the 1988 season. Only one has started more games for the Cardinals than Warner during that time. A quick recap, in order of most starts:
1. Jake Plummer (82 starts)
2. Warner (42)
3. Josh McCown (22)
4. Steve Beuerlein (21)
5. Timm Rosenbach (20)
6. Chris Chandler (17)
7. Dave Krieg (16)
7. Matt Leinart (16)
9. Neil Lomax (14)
9. Kent Graham (14)
11. Gary Hogeboom (13)
11. Tom Tupa (13)
11. Jeff Blake (13)
14. Jay Schroeder (8)
14. Boomer Esiason (8)
16. Dave Brown (7)
17. Stan Gelbaugh (3)
18. Cliff Stoudt (2)
18. Shaun King (2)
20. Jim McMahon (1)
20. Stoney Case (1)
20. John Navarre (1)
The list affirms, in my view, that Leinart hasn't started enough games for the Cardinals to make an informed decision about his future with the team. The way Warner is going, Leinart might never start enough games to sufficiently inform that decision.