NFC West: J.T. OSullivan

Good morning, NFC West.

I wanted to pass along a link to Jeff Chadiha's column on the Seattle Seahawks-San Francisco 49ers rivalry in case you hadn't seen it.

Rivalries have been pretty tame in the NFC West since divisional realignment in 2002. Rarely has the division featured more than one successful team at a time.

The Seahawks and St. Louis Rams went back and forth across the 2003 and 2004 seasons, when both teams were 8-8 or better (both were 8-8 or better in 2006 as well).

Back then, I recall Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren saying a rivalry isn't really a rivalry until a team wins on the home turf of the opponent.

The 49ers won in Seattle as recently as the 2011 season. The Seahawks haven't won in San Francisco since the 2008 season, when Seneca Wallace tossed two touchdown passes to beat a 49ers team led by J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill.

That seems like a long, long time ago.

Seattle's 42-13 home victory over the 49ers last season will have to suffice for now.

"This has always felt like an amped-up rivalry game for me," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley told Chadiha. "It's just that now there will be more attention paid to it by everybody else."
Alex Smith's winning 6-yard scoring pass to Delanie Walker at Detroit carried historical significance for the San Francisco 49ers.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, the play marked only the third time since the Steve Young era that a 49ers quarterback threw the game-winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes. It was the first for Smith during his seven-year career.

A quick look back at the other two:
  • 2008 Week 16, at St. Louis: Shaun Hill to Josh Morgan for 48 yards with 1:22 remaining. The play gave the 49ers a 17-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams. Receiver Jason Hill actually thought the pass was coming for him, but Morgan was running a route in the same vicinity. Coach Mike Singletary had come close to benching Hill earlier in the game. He told J.T. O'Sullivan to start warming up, then relented when Hill pleaded to remain in the game. Hill had thrown three interceptions.
  • 2002 Week 14, at Dallas: Jeff Garcia to Terrell Owens for 8 yards with 12 seconds remaining. The play gave the 49ers a 31-27 victory over the Cowboys and the NFC West title, thanks to a Rams defeat the same Day. Garcia threw three scoring passes and ran for another. Owens caught 12 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

The 49ers have now come from behind in the fourth quarter to win three road games this season.

48 NFC West starters since Manning debut

September, 8, 2011
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Cool note from ESPN Stats & Information: First-year San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the last quarterback other than Peyton Manning to start a regular-season game for the Indianapolis Colts.

That will change when Kerry Collins replaces an injured Manning in the Colts' lineup for Week 1.

The first preseason game I covered as an NFL beat reporter featured Manning making his first start against the Seattle Seahawks in the Kingdome. His very first pass found Marvin Harrison for a 49-yard touchdown. Preseason games are generally without much meaning, but could there have been a more fitting beginning for Manning?

For a fuller appreciation of Manning's durability and consistency in starting 227 consecutive games, I went through Pro Football Reference counting how many quarterbacks had started for current NFC West teams since Manning made his regular-season debut. There have been 48. That figure includes 14 for the St. Louis Rams, 13 for the 49ers, 11 for the Arizona Cardinals and 10 for the Seahawks.

A few notes on the 48 players to start for current NFC West teams since 1998:
  • There have been two Brocks (Berlin, Huard), two Charlies (Frye, Whitehurst), two named Chris (Chandler, Weinke), two Jeffs (Plummer, Martin), three Johns (Friesz, Navarre, Skelton), one Jon (Kitna), two Matts (Hasselbeck, Leinart), two Shauns (Hill, King), three Steves (Young, Bono, Stenstrom) and two Trents (Dilfer, Green).
  • Two, Young and Warren Moon, have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since Manning's streak began.
  • Dilfer and Warner started for more than one current NFC West team since Manning's streak began. Warner started 57 games for Arizona and 50 for St. Louis. Dilfer started 12 for Seattle and six for San Francisco.
  • Hasselbeck has the most total starts for current NFC West teams with 131, followed by Marc Bulger (95 for St. Louis), Jake Plummer (73 for the Cardinals) and Jeff Garcia (71 for the 49ers).
  • Smith -- Alex, not Troy -- owns the most starts among current NFC West players with 50, all for San Francisco.
  • Eight of the 48 were one-and-done as starters: Berlin, Scott Covington, Ty Detmer, Glenn Foley, Friesz, Frye, Navarre and Weinke. Nineteen have made at least 10 starts.

The NFC West will have two starters new to the division in Week 1: Tarvaris Jackson and Kevin Kolb.

The chart shows start totals by team for the 48. The NFC West changed membership with realignment in 2002. I'm going back to 1998 for the four teams currently in the division.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com updates Michael Crabtree's injury situation. Maiocco: "There were encouraging signs Monday, as Crabtree was seen walking briskly from the locker room to the parking lot and back without an orthopedic boot on his left foot. It's the first time Crabtree has been spotted wearing two athletic shoes -- and no orthopedic boot this summer. Crabtree, who had surgery to repair a stress fracture on his left foot after the 2009 college season, experienced problems with his left foot on June 6 in a 49ers players-organized workout at San Jose State during the lockout. He did not take part in any of the other on-field practice sessions that quarterback Alex Smith organized during the lockout."

Also from Maiocco: Smith is getting the vast majority of first-team reps as the 49ers' starting quarterback.

Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com calls Daunte Culpepper "the free couch on the front lawn" as a quarterback out of the NFL since 2009. The 49ers' interest in Culpepper for their No. 3 job had not yet resulted in a signing.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Crabtree has remained engaged during team meetings, according to 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Roman: "He's working very diligently to get back out there, and I think he's really on top of things mentally, which is a credit to him. ...Our meetings are very interactive, and he's very much a part of those meetings."

Also from Branch: Options for veteran quarterback help aren't very appealing. Branch: "The list includes Brodie Croyle (Chiefs), Charlie Frye (Raiders), J.P. Losman (Seahawks), J.T. O'Sullivan (Bengals) and Troy Smith, who started six games for the Niners last year. The Niners could also wait to pluck a quarterback from the waiver wire."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee passes along thoughts from Roman regarding Culpepper. Roman: "I believe that I guy like Daunte that's been around and seen everything he's seen can certainly offer the other quarterbacks a unique perspective on everything whether it be coverage, how to read a certain pass play protection and whatnot. He's got a lot of skins on his belt, so he'd be an interesting guy."

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Colin Kaepernick was exceptionally sharp during practice Monday, with Smith finishing strong following a slow start.

Mike Rosenberg of the San Jose Mercury News updates the 49ers' push for a new stadium. Rosenberg: "After months of trying to keep the state's hands off the millions of tax dollars needed to fund a new 49ers stadium, Santa Clara has finally found the answer -- albeit one with a hefty price tag. The new plan, expected to be approved Tuesday, would allow the city to keep its redevelopment agency after paying the state $11.2 million this year and $2.7 million each year after that. That should solidify what had been a squishy part of the plan to fund the stadium, but because the state will be taking its cut of the redevelopment agency's proceeds, the city may need more time to pay the 49ers its share of the project."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with Marshawn Lynch for thoughts on the Seahawks' running game. Williams: "All runners are instinctual, but Lynch is probably more than most. And sometimes the rigid nature of the zone blocking scheme can take away a running back’s ability to use his vision and feel for what is happening in front of him. But Lynch said he doesn’t feel like that will happen in Tom Cable’s system."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks kicker Brandon Coutu pleads ignorance regarding the team's unusual decision to keep two kickers on its 53-man roster a few years ago.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com offers practice notes, capped by a photo showing Russell Okung participating in a walk-through four days after suffering a sprained ankle.

Also from Farnsworth: Lynch and the art of the stiff-arm.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times thinks there's no way the Seahawks would part with second-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst going into the season. O'Neil: "The only real question about the exact shape of the roster is if Seattle has three quarterbacks on it to begin the season, which is not unprecedented recently." I would expect fewer teams to keep more than two quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters this season given rules changes involving third quarterbacks on game days.

Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times checks in with Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who is looking to tighten up his game. Brewer: "Thomas has been a standout in camp. He still makes highlight-reel plays, using his video-game speed. But just as impressive is the fact that the coaches aren't on him that much about being in the wrong place. Thomas is learning when to be aggressive and when to simply be there for his teammates. If he combines his natural instincts with better football savvy, then perhaps he will live up to those comparisons to all-everything Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic explains why the Cardinals don't feel pressure to add another receiver. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "Everybody is asking that question, but I don't ever recall saying we had an issue with our receivers. You look at the preseason game [against Oakland]. You tell me how many receivers had productive nights, made plays for us in the game. That doesn't mean if there's an availability to help make our team better, that we're not going to look at it." More on this subject in a bit.

Also from Somers: The Cardinals have $13.2 million in salary-cap space, ample room to re-sign Larry Fitzgerald. Somers: "It's possible that re-signing Fitzgerald could give the team additional cap space. Fitzgerald's cap figure for 2011 is $11.25 million. A new contract could lower that. The Cardinals also could choose to front load the contract to lighten the impact in the later years of the deal."

More from Somers: The Cardinals had one of their better practices in years.

More yet from Somers: salary-cap figures for Cardinals players. Cap figures include base salaries, roster bonuses and prorated portions of signing bonuses.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Deuce Lutui is spending extra time on conditioning after reporting to camp out of shape.

Also from Urban: Darnell Dockett says these Cardinals aren't complainers.

More from Urban: Kevin Kolb's mobility is an asset, but not necessarily a defining one.

More yet from Urban: a look at the competition for roster spots among backup quarterbacks, with a funny quote from Richard Bartel.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at what linebacker Brady Poppinga brings to the Rams. Poppinga: "They called me 'The Hammer' up in Green Bay and they did that for a reason. I'm a physical guy. I'm not one to tiptoe in any kind of situations where the run is coming at me. I'm extremely physical at the point of attack, and so I bring an element to this defense they haven't had for a couple years. Yeah, I'm a very sound run stopper. That is my strength." Just about every move the Rams made on defense in free agency was designed to upgrade the run defense.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com offers a Rams injury update. Also, Ben Leber worked in both outside linebacker spots.

Also from Wagoner: a look at the competition for starting spots at outside linebacker. Wagoner: "In Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Colts, the Rams started incumbent Na’il Diggs on the strong side with Bryan Kehl (who started a game last season) on the weak side. With Laurinaitis out, Josh Hull stepped in for the start in the middle. Diggs is a proven commodity and played just six snaps in an effort to help preserve him some for the season. Kehl played about 15 snaps. But the Rams made a concerted effort to get a look at two of their newest additions while the other watched from the sidelines."

More from Wagoner: injuries are affecting the Rams' depth at cornerback.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks rookie Mark LeGree worked manual labor during the lockout to help make ends meet. O'Neil: "LeGree did what he had done between his junior and senior seasons in college: He got a job working for a general contractor in Boone, N.C. He put up awnings and spread gravel and mulch. He knocked down a rock wall and built another one."

Also from O'Neil: He has a hard time believing the Seahawks have moved on from Matt Hasselbeck. O'Neil: "It's hard for me to believe that Seattle will not offer Hasselbeck the chance to re-sign. Now, it's possible the Seahawks won't increase their offer for Hasselbeck to re-sign, but that's something very different from stating Seattle won't even make a final offer to Hasselbeck. That would truly be a remarkable turn of events considering this offseason began with coach Pete Carroll's statement he considered Hasselbeck the team's starting quarterback and that re-signing him was the top priority. That was January. A lot of time has passed since then, and the two sides failed to reach an agreement in March. Seattle must prepare for the possibility Hasselbeck won't be back. After all, he's not under contract and he's going to be the top free-agent quarterback available. He very well may not be back. It's just hard for me to believe the door has been closed."

Bucky Brooks of NFL.com touches on several free agents from NFC West teams, suggesting where they would and would not fit in 2011. He likes Sidney Rice's prospects in St. Louis, but has this to say about Hasselbeck possibly returning to Seattle: "Hasselbeck has repeatedly stated his desire to return to Seattle, but the team is poised to transition at the position. The Seahawks paid a hefty sum to acquire Charlie Whitehurst a season ago, and they need to see if he has the goods to become a franchise quarterback. Also, the team's reluctance to get a deal done prior to the lockout suggests the front office isn't completely sold on Hasselbeck as their starter in 2011. Without a strong commitment from the team to remain on board, Hasselbeck would be better served to look for greener pastures."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com revisits Jack Patera's final season coaching the team (1982). The strike made this a strange season. Patera was fishing during the strike when he received word of his firing. Patera later said he expected to coach the team for years to come. He never coached again. Patera: "Who in the hell would get a hold of me with a truck parked in the woods on the river? They had to come about 16 miles and up the road another four or five, and at the time I thought, you know, there’s something wrong with my family, or my child, or whatever."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at the role Larry Fitzgerald will play in the Cardinals' coming quarterback acquisition. He points to Kevin Kolb as the leading candidate. Somers: "The Cardinals must be concerned about what impact signing a veteran such as Hasselbeck or the Ravens' Marc Bulger would have on their effort to re-sign Fitzgerald this fall. Will Fitzgerald be as anxious to sign another multi-year contract if the guy throwing him the ball has only a couple of years left, at most? The Cardinals have asked themselves that question. Their answer is one reason they will pursue Kolb." Adding Kolb would make the Cardinals more intriguing heading into the season. How well would he fit their offense? Would he succeed right away? Would he make the Cardinals more competitive right away? Would he justify whatever price Kolb would command for the Eagles?

Also from Somers: He has a hard time seeing how Arizona could open training camp at Northern Arizona University before Aug. 1 or Aug. 2.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers thoughts on what 46-man rosters could mean for the 49ers on game days. The expansion by one roster spot wipes out previous rules making it tougher for teams to use third-string quarterbacks. Maiocco: "Alex Smith is the clear favorite to win the starting job. I thought all along that Colin Kaepernick would be active as the No. 2 quarterback. That way, he could be used in specialty packages throughout a game to utilize his unique running and throwing skills. Veteran David Carr is the only other quarterback on the 49ers' roster, but his roster spot is not a sure thing. The 49ers could still add a veteran quarterback through free agency or a trade. They might also sign an undrafted rookie. If the 49ers go with another veteran quarterback on the roster, which seems likely, the 49ers might believe a player with experience would be in a better position than Kaepernick to play for long stretches." That thinking could come into play more strongly if Smith became unavailable early in the season. The team would have to think hard about turning over the job to Kaepernick for most of the season. Coach Jim Harbaugh has said the position will be competitive. I wouldn't rule out Kaepernick exceeding expectations in practice or exhibition games, based on his athletic ability.

Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com raises questions about the 49ers and Raiders possibly sharing a new stadium. Ratto: "For one, where does the stadium go? The 49ers would want it in Santa Clara, where they keep saying they are prepared to start construction. The Raiders would want it closer to Oakland, if not Oakland proper. Reason: The team that has to leave its fan base becomes a de facto tenant of the other, no matter how you draw up the partnership. In fact, the side that gave in would surely want monetary compensation for moving away from its fan base, and negotiation increases the possibility of impasse, rather than the other way around. For two, the NFL would have to solidly commit to the Bay Area as the next place for a league stadium loan, and there is no sense that the league is prepared to do that."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Boston College's Mark Herzlich could be a consideration for the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.

Also from Barrows: Justin Smith isn't worried about going through the offseason without the 49ers' defensive playbook. Players without much NFL experience are more vulnerable. Smith is right about team changing up game plans from week to week during the season, but younger players will need help with technique and broader concepts. They'll need to learn their coaches' language.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' rookies face challenges.

The San Francisco Chronicle has this to say about 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes: "Spikes has the full confidence of 49ers players as their union representative, and he keeps in touch with them through a steady stream of e-mails. He's also a free agent, and once this lockout is over, he might not be their teammate anymore. Spikes played well last year and said Friday he'd like to return, but with young players such as NaVorro Bowman and Scott McKillop behind him, he probably will not be a high priority for the 49ers when players can be signed."

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offers five 49ers storylines for training camp, including this one about the quarterbacks: "Can Alex Smith beat out rookie Colin Kaepernick for the starting quarterback job? Smith has never won a quarterback competition in his professional career -- he lost out to Shaun Hill in 2009 and J.T. O’Sullivan in 2008. Will Alex Smith actually win for once this August? Will he look better than mediocre in the process?"

Also from Cohn: A look at sure bets for the 49ers and an opinion suggesting Spikes is likely to re-sign.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on free agency and says the 49ers' Aubrayo Franklin could appeal to teams running 4-3 schemes, not just 3-4 schemes. Softli: "This big man takes up a ton of space on the interior. His size, athletic ability and production to consistently command a double team and create plays inside make him a force to be dealt with and a valuable commodity. While several 3-4 teams will be fighting over his services, don't be surprised if a 4-3 defensive team doesn't snap him up; he is athletic enough to play in a 3-technique and beat up offensive guards on the pass rush, and moves well laterally vs. the run to flatten down the line of scrimmage with production."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with agents for the Rams and other players regarding what awaits in free agency following the lockout. Thomas: "This year, teams won't necessarily be able to 'ice' lesser free agents for a couple of months, waiting for the price to go down. If they do, the player won't be ready to play at the start of the regular season. On the other hand, agents won't be able to shop players as much as usual. With such a highly condensed time frame this year, if an agent says "give me a day to decide on your offer, he may not find the offer there in a day or two. The team may have gone on to the next guy on their list."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams need to target a receiver in free agency to help out quarterback Sam Bradford. Miklasz: "If you need more convincing, all you have to do is go back to the final game of the 2010 regular season, when the Rams could have won the NFC West with a victory in Seattle. The Seahawks won by 10. The Rams scored six points and were held to 184 yards. The receivers couldn't get open. Jackson was often smothered. Bradford had nowhere to go with the football. It was an abysmal, futile performance. Do not forget that game. Get Sam some help."

Mailbag: Troubling reality on QB front

January, 21, 2011
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Chris from Houston writes: What free-agent quarterbacks do you expect Arizona to be looking at this offseason? I know of Marc Bulger, but who else is there for them to even consider that wouldn't require a trade? Thanks! Love the blog! Thanks for helping keep us all sane until next season.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Chris. This could be a rough offseason for signing or even acquiring quarterbacks from other teams.

One, the list of quarterbacks likely to hit the market is once against weak. Two, a lockout would prevent teams from trading for players -- even via draft-day trades involving picks. A lockout lasting past the draft would limit options further, in other words.

Peyton Manning and Michael Vick are scheduled to become free agents, but Manning is going nowhere, obviously, and the Eagles will presumably keep Vick, too. Brett Favre is retiring, it appears, so forget about him.

The next tier of quarterbacks with expiring contracts goes like this: Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington and Bulger. These are older, likely declining players -- not necessarily guys to build around. Pennington's health is a major issue. Vince Young is available.

Several highly drafted, not-yet-old quarterbacks could hit the market, but none has met expectations. That list will feature Kyle Boller, Patrick Ramsey, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Alex Smith and Matt Leinart. The Cardinals aren't bringing back Leinart, obviously, and the other guys on this list will not project as starters.

Tarvaris Jackson, Brodie Croyle and Matt Moore could be available, too.

Several career backups could become available: Todd Collins, Todd Bouman, Billy Volek, Bruce Gradkowski, Seneca Wallace, J.T. O'Sullivan, Chris Simms, Luke McCown, etc.

Still not sold?

The names get smaller from there. Brian St. Pierre, Jim Sorgi, Charlie Frye, Kellen Clemens, Drew Stanton, Troy Smith, Brian Brohm, Caleb Hanie, Jordan Palmer, Dennis Dixon ... we're not finding the Cardinals' next starter from that list, either.

Arizona should probably make a play for Bulger, consider drafting a quarterback and see how the trade market shakes out. The Cardinals have too many needs, in my view, to part with multiple picks of value for an unproven quarterback such as Kevin Kolb -- unless they're convinced that quarterback will become a very good player.

Whitehurst's first start in perspective

November, 7, 2010
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SEATTLE -- Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information passes along this note from Elias Sports Bureau:

The Seattle Seahawks' 28-year-old Charlie Whitehurst is scheduled to become the fifth quarterback since 2000 to make his first regular-season start at such a late age.

Whitehurst, 28 years and 93 days old, will start for Seattle against the New York Giants in Week 9. He joins a list featuring J.T. O'Sullivan (29 years, 13 days in 2008), Quinn Gray (28 years, 160 days in 2007), Todd Bouman (29 years, 130 days in 2001) and Chris Weinke (29 years, 40 days in 2001).

Most good quarterbacks find their way into starting lineups before reaching this age. Whitehurst wasn't going to get a chance playing behind Philip Rivers in San Diego, so perhaps he's an exception. But neither did the Chargers value him enough to make him their No. 2 quarterback, and the rest of the league wasn't willing to acquire him as a potential starter until Seattle traded for him this season.

Weinke (20), O'Sullivan (eight), Bouman (seven) and Gray (four) have combined for 39 career regular-season starts.

Final Word: NFC West

October, 29, 2010
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

Too early to sit down Hall. Kurt Warner generously said he saw a little of himself in new Arizona Cardinals quarterback Max Hall. That was before Hall played in a game. Hall hasn't led a touchdown drive in any of his 25 possessions. Warner, meanwhile, tossed 21 touchdown passes with only three interceptions in his first eight NFL starts. Even so, the Cardinals are right to stick with Hall in Week 8 amid negative reviews. Once the Cardinals made the decision to give Hall a chance, they needed to give him more than two games. Hall does own a 1-1 starting record. There's a decent chance that record will hit 2-1 after facing Tampa Bay. Plenty of time remains to bench Hall if he doesn't improve. It could happen Sunday if Hall falters.

[+] EnlargeChris Clemons
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonChris Clemons returned to Oakland, where he had his best season as a pass-rusher in 2007.
Oakland homecomings. The Seahawks' game at Oakland could mean a little more to three of Seattle's most significant players. Running back Marshawn Lynch, acquired from Buffalo, grew up in Oakland and sports an "OAKLAND" tattoo across his chest. Mike Williams, the Seahawks' leading receiver, started one of the six games he played for the Raiders in 2007. Defensive end Chris Clemons set a career season high with eight sacks for the Raiders, also in 2007. Clemons already has 5.5 sacks in six games since the Seahawks acquired him from Philadelphia. That puts Clemons on pace for 14.5 sacks. Oakland has allowed seven in its past two home games (and only four in its past two road games).

Troy Smith, come on down. Nine quarterbacks have started games for the San Francisco 49ers since the team last posted a winning record in 2002. Troy Smith becomes the 10th when the 49ers face the Denver Broncos in London. The others, ranked by most starts: Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, Tim Rattay, Jeff Garcia, Ken Dorsey, J.T. O'Sullivan, Trent Dilfer, Chris Weinke and Cody Pickett. Four threw more touchdowns than interceptions during that time: Hill (23-11), Rattay (22-18), Garcia (18-13) and Weinke (1-0). None owns a higher rating in those games than Hill (87.3). Carr is the only 49ers quarterback since 2003 to attempt passes for the team without starting a game, according to Pro Football Reference.

Saluting Isaac Bruce. The Rams are honoring one of their all-time greats, Isaac Bruce, during a ceremony before the game. Unfortunately for rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, Bruce might be good enough in retirement to help the Rams against Carolina in Week 8. Bradford badly missed injured receiver Mark Clayton when the Rams needed to make a play in the second half against Tampa Bay. Danario Alexander provided a short-term spark, but his knee is bothering him and he might not play Sunday. Danny Amendola has turned into a solid option from the slot, but Bradford needs more targets. With Bruce in the building and Steve Smith returning to the Panthers' lineup last week, top-flight receivers will be everywhere in the Edward Jones Dome except where the Rams need one most: in a St. Louis uniform.

Must-win for the Rams. Sure, it's only Week 8, but after squandering opportunities in close defeats to beatable opponents (Arizona, Oakland and Tampa Bay), the Rams are just about finished with the easier portion of their schedule. Losing at home to the 1-5 Panthers could send this team plummeting following its bye week. The Rams play four of five games on the road following their Week 9 bye. The lone home game falls against Atlanta, arguably the best team in the NFC.

Around the NFC West: Rams' WR options

October, 12, 2010
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Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams plan to sign Danario Alexander from their practice squad after losing Mark Clayton to a season-ending knee injury. Thomas: "Clayton is the third Rams wideout to go on injured reserve this season, joining Donnie Avery and undrafted rookie Dominique Curry -- both of whom also suffered season-ending knee injuries. Quarterback Sam Bradford quickly developed a chemistry with Clayton and Danny Amendola. Now that Clayton is out of the mix, some combination of Brandon Gibson, Mardy Gilyard and Laurent Robinson must step to the forefront." Trading for a receiver would probably mean parting with valuable draft capital, something the Rams probably should avoid. Their offensive scheme does not require elite talent at the receiver position. The scheme is similar to the one Mike Holmgren ran in Green Bay and Seattle. The Packers and Seahawks had some good receivers during those years, but the system succeeded without great ones.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are saying their 44-6 defeat at Detroit will not shake them. Coach Steve Spagnuolo: "I might be way off, but I don't think this team will do that. The mind-set of this team … I don't know, I like it. I like the look in their eye, I like the way they work."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Cardinals lead the NFC West in part because they've been able to move on from poor performances, something the Rams must now show they can do. Miklasz had this to say about the halfback pass the Lions called while leading the Rams by 28 points in the fourth quarter: "So, Scott Linehan called a halfback option pass with the Lions up by a bunch of points? Isn't that cute. Good for Scott. He's the man! What did it change exactly? Nothing. He's still among the five or 10 worst head coaches in NFL history. And no NFL team will ever entrust him to run a team again. That said: Linehan (seriously) called a masterful game. He found every weakness in the Rams defense. I can't take that away from him."

Dan Caesar of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says TV ratings took a hit during the Rams' blowout defeat.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says left guard Jacob Bell might not have a concussion, as had been feared.

Also from Wagoner: Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis downplays the Rams' blowout defeat to the Lions. Laurinaitis: "I don’t think it’s a setback. I am not going to go down that road at all. I think this team is better than the way we played. ... We will look at it and correct it. That’s all we can really do."

Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says the Rams' defeat Sunday was their third-worst since moving to St. Louis. The Lions outscored the Rams 21-3 and 20-0 in the third and fourth quarters, respectively.

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle checks in with 49ers president Jed York, who says he thinks the team can still make a Super Bowl run.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says York stands by his statement that the team will win the NFC West despite an 0-5 start. York: "I think more than anything, we are a good football team, but we just have to play a little more relaxed." The head coach sets the tone on that front.

Also from Maiocco: the cases for and against firing Mike Singletary.

More from Maiocco: Alex Smith thinks he needs to be more aggressive.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Smith is basically agreeing with what Steve Young said about the quarterback. Barrows: "There are times out there that I know I play too cautious, and I think that's when I find myself making those mistakes. It's funny -- it's counterproductive. You'd think playing cautious will lead the other way. ... I think you see times when I cut it loose and play more fearlessly, and I think the results have always been better." Players tend to cut it loose when the stakes are lower. For Smith, that time often comes after the 49ers fall behind. The 49ers need him to play better earlier in games.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Singletary thinks Smith plays well until he begins pressing. Branch: "Smith, who was booed incessantly by the Candlestick Park crowd, fought to stay in the game and nearly led the Niners to an improbable rally. On the 49ers' last three drives, he completed 12 of 16 passes for 123 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. With a chance to send the game into overtime, Smith, who was hit as he threw, fluttered a game-sealing interception on third-and-10 from the Eagles 44 with 36 seconds left."

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat describes York, Singletary and Smith as the 49ers' triangle of failure.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says this about the 49ers' quarterback situation: "When Singletary pulled J.T. O’Sullivan for Shaun Hill in his first game as interim coach in 2008, he never went back to JTO. When he pulled Hill for Smith midway through 2009, he never went back to Hill. Both former starters were dispatched at the end of those seasons. Which is an interesting way to look at it: The last two QBs to start the season for the 49ers… were ex-49ers by the end of those seasons. Smith started this season. Hmm."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Seattle's opponent in Week 6, Chicago, has contained some formidable running backs. Marshawn Lynch makes his Seahawks debut at Soldier Field.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Deion Branch had become somewhat redundant within the Seahawks' offense. O'Neil: "Branch was heavily involved in Seattle's offense, but the acquisition of Brandon Stokley gives the Seahawks a capable slot receiver, and Golden Tate and Deon Butler will undoubtedly get more opportunities. Mike Williams remains the starter at split end. He has caught 11 passes through four games despite playing through a thigh bruise and later a shoulder injury. Williams said Monday this is the first week since the season began that he really feels good."

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says Branch's career in Seattle never worked out as planned. Johns: "Even his best moment this season turned sour at the last second when he pulled in a 41-yard catch and appeared headed for a touchdown until the ball was knocked away at the goal line and resulted in a touchback against the Chargers."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks have a 5-16 record since 1990 in games immediately following bye weeks, with only two week-after-bye victories since 1998. The team has played 15 of its last 21 post-bye games on the road. The trend continues this season.

John Morgan of Field Gulls sizes up the Seahawks' defensive line after four games.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals cut down on their mistakes after a shaky first half against New Orleans.

Also from McManaman: Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt says the team's victory over the Saints was the type that can bring together a team.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offers notes from Whisenhunt's news conference, including one about the team avoiding significant injuries against the Saints. Also: "LB Gerald Hayes is eligible to start practicing next Monday. Hayes has been running and conditioning, and the Cardinals will take a look at where he is physically. If he's fine, they will work him in some sort of role for the Seattle game. Hayes could play snaps at the strong inside spot, with Paris Lenon moving to the weak. Hayes' return also allows Lenon to take some snaps off. As Whisenhunt noted, Lenon has played a ton already. Hayes' return also would allow the Cardinals to use Daryl Washington situationally."

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says Max Hall is a better story than he is a quarterback at this point. Bickley: "Ultimately, swagger can go only so far, and Hall must prove he can make plays and protect the football. But he's a great story, and clearly he possesses the requisite toughness. After watching film of Sunday's game, Whisenhunt still was shaking his head over the hit his quarterback endured near the goal line. The collision jarred Hall's helmet loose, and for one horrifying moment, viewers wondered if the poor kid had been decapitated."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Arizona became the second team in league history to reach 30 points without scoring a touchdown rushing or passing.

Also from Urban: Whisenhunt is happy to be 3-2 without playing all that well. Whisenhunt: "To think we have not played really good football and we’re at 3-2 is a really good sign because if we can continue to improve, we have a chance to be a really good football team."

Inactives: Ganther, Mathews will not play

September, 26, 2010
9/26/10
2:56
PM ET
SEATTLE -- The Seattle Seahawks have used multiple combinations at running back and fullback this season.

They'll have one fewer option at fullback after naming starter Quinton Ganther inactive Sunday. Ganther has a knee injury. Michael Robinson played fullback some against the Denver Broncos in Week 2.

Also inactive for Seattle against San Diego: Nate Ness, Leroy Hill, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Chester Pitts, Russell Okung, Anthony McCoy and E.J. Wilson. Pitts could become available on the offensive line in Week 4. He has not played since undergoing microfracture knee surgery last season.

Inactive for San Diego: Ryan Mathews, Larry English, Stephen Cooper, Cam Thomas, Adam Terry, Vaughn Martin and Jyles Tucker. J.T. O'Sullivan is the third quarterback. Matthews had not been expected to play after suffering an ankle injury against Jacksonville in Week 2.

Power Rankings revisited: Week 2

September, 20, 2010
9/20/10
12:24
PM ET
Five of the 10 highest-ranked teams in ESPN.com's most recent NFL Power Rankings lost in Week 2.

The San Francisco 49ers can make it six if they can upset the top-ranked New Orleans Saints on Monday night. Either way, the Power Rankings for Week 3 should feature changes near the top when it comes out Tuesday.

The chart shows how ESPN.com's four voters -- me, John Clayton, Paul Kuharsky and James Walker -- ranked teams last week. Red lettering reveals which teams lost in Week 2. Again, these are not new rankings. Those come out Tuesday.

The Chicago Bears' victory at Dallas came as a surprise to me, but this isn't the first time Mike Martz has breathed life into an offense early in a season. It happened in San Francisco, with J.T. O'Sullivan putting up good numbers for a while. O'Sullivan and the 49ers could not sustain their performance, however, and opposing defenses ultimately made San Francisco pay for favoring downfield passes without adequate pass protection.

The Bears have a better chance to sustain their offensive gains because Jay Cutler is more talented than O'Sullivan and, at least for a day, Martz seemed willing to settle for some shorter passes.

The reckoning: Seven games featured lower-ranked teams beating higher-ranked teams:
  • (28) Tampa Bay 20, (26) Carolina 7. The Bucs are 2-0 and the schedule was on their side.
  • (25) Denver 31, (21) Seattle 14. A couple bad throws by Matt Hasselbeck turned this game.
  • (22) Chicago 27, (8) Dallas 20. Martz has the Bears starting quickly, but will the early success last?
  • (17) Cincinnati 15, (3) Baltimore 10. I'm with Ray Lewis on the ticky-tack penalties protecting quarterbacks.
  • (15) Miami 14, (6) Minnesota 10. Brett Favre looks like a guy regretting his decision to return.
  • (10) Pittsburgh 19, (9) Tennessee 11. Giving Ben Roethlisberger a head start on October.
  • (11) New York Jets 28, (4) New England 14. Give the Jets credit for backing up Rex Ryan's bravado.
Still to play: "Monday Night Football" featuring the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints.

My early favorite for the No. 1 spot: New Orleans. Let's see if the Saints get past the 49ers. If not, would you go with Green Bay or Indianapolis?
Tim from Costa Mesa, Calif., writes: My question is more of an observation than a question. Nate Davis; I understand he plays against second- and third-team defenses, and we have all heard about his learning disability. He always looks so good, though! He throws such a clean ball, seems to have great accuracy -- in and especially out of the pocket. What am I missing? Why hasn't he commanded more respect as the No. 2 man or had other teams interested in him? Call me crazy, but he looks better than Alex Smith and David Carr, and Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan and Trent Dilfer! I could go on! What am I missing here Sando!?

Mike Sando: It is important to trust our eyes here and give Davis credit where it is deserved. That said, the exhibition season is not about game planning or making adjustments or reads. It's about going out and playing the game. Those circumstances probably play to Davis' natural abilities (and all players' natural abilities). When you throw in all the other aspects that go along with regular-season football, young quarterbacks have their hands full -- with or without additional challenges related to how they learn. Those are things to keep in mind when trying to project how a couple strong exhibition performances might translate to the regular season.


Jesper from Denmark writes: Hi Mike. Steve Spagnuolo has just named his starting offensive line, and Adam Goldberg is the right guard. I actually thought John Greco would have won that job, so what are your thoughts on Goldberg?

Mike Sando: Goldberg was the projected starting right guard all along, but the line has been out of whack while the team deals with injuries. The projected starting five are just now getting work together, and that means Goldberg is at right guard. Goldberg would ideally be the sixth lineman and a swing player, but the Rams do not have that kind of depth at the position right now. Also, they value the influence Goldberg has on right tackle Jason Smith. Goldberg helps Smith and mentors him.

I've written recently that the Rams miss Richie Incognito -- the player, not the sideshow -- but it's fair to point out that the Rams enjoyed some success on offense with Goldberg at right guard. They had 434 yards and 23 first downs during a 28-23 home defeat against the New Orleans Saints, for example. New Orleans wound up needing a kickoff return for a touchdown to win that game and stay undefeated.

Whoa, time's about up. Gotta board a flight. To be continued.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Thoughts and observations from the Rams' exhibition game against the Bengals on Thursday night:
  • Defense capitalizes. The Rams appeared much more active and alert defensively than they did last week. Rookie James Laurinaitis pounced on an unforced fumble early in the game. Chris Long or Jonathan Wade probably would have recovered if Laurinaitis had not. Later, Laurinaitis made Bengals guard Nate Livings whiff badly as the rookie swarmed toward running back Cedric Benson. Ball-hawking safety Oshiomogho Atogwe forced a fumble, setting up James Butler's touchdown return. Butler later missed badly in run support, letting Benson get into the secondary. James Hall pressured effectively up the middle. Victor Adeyanju and C.J. Ah You seemed to play well.
  • Asterisk duly noted. Former 49ers starter J.T. O'Sullivan was in the lineup at quarterback for the Bengals. Carson Palmer did not play.
  • Mixed reviews at receiver. Laurent Robinson continued to show he can be effective on quick slants, a staple of the West Coast offense. Robinson also had a rough start. He dropped the ball on third down to kill the Rams' first drive. His illegal block also negated a first-down conversion on a running play. Keenan Burton worked underneath to catch a short pass. The Rams used a dink-and-dunk approach to the passing game. There weren't many chances to make plays downfield.
  • Horrible special teams. The Bengals' return specialists found far too much room to run, gaining 104 yards on four punt returns. The Rams even had trouble executing an extra point, with Richie Incognito committing a false-start penalty on one of them. That was one of four special-teams penalties against the Rams. Josh Brown, a very good long-range kicker, missed from 50 and 51 yards. Quincy Butler fumbled after fielding a punt.
  • Butler steps up on 'D'. The cornerback continues to make a push for a roster spot. He made a tackle for loss in the flat, then picked off a Jordan Palmer pass on the next play. Butler turned his head early in the route while covering Chris Henry, allowing him to play the ball. Butler was one of the lesser-known players who stood out when I visited Rams training camp. He did fumble after fielding a punt, but that was the least of the Rams' worries on special teams.
  • Jason Brown sighting. Watching free-agent addition Jason Brown isn't particularly exciting. He's not a nimble, active center making plays in the run game 10 or 15 yards downfield. What Brown does seem to do is prevent immediate trouble up the middle. That is my initial impression of him and that is an improvement for the Rams.
  • Jason Smith update. The rookie tackle played both sides for the Rams. I didn't notice him as much this week and that's probably a good thing. Smith did not seem to miss badly on blocks. He plays to the whistle, seeks out defenders late in plays and helps up teammates. He remains a work in progress, but he clearly wants it.

I've watched the first three-plus quarters of this game. The Rams finally did throw deep, with Brock Berlin looking unsuccessfully for Tim Carter along the left sideline. Smith tied up his man and didn't let him get to the quarterback.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

One thing I like to do periodically is re-read past coverage to spot pitfalls that might be avoided in the future. The beginning of training camp offers an opportunity to revisit 2008 storylines to see which ones could have been handled more intelligently.

I'll link to our 2008 NFC West "Camp Confidential" items and offer initial thoughts on what we should have seen coming. What storylines deserve our skepticism this summer?

  • Arizona Cardinals. Matt Leinart was still the starting quarterback in mid-August, with little indication the team would turn to Kurt Warner. I think we analyzed this one the right way, although I did think the staff would give Leinart several regular-season games to prove himself.
  • San Francisco 49ers. Perhaps we should have sensed Mike Martz would strongly consider J.T. O'Sullivan as the starting quarterback. On defense, I had no idea coach Mike Nolan would leave Manny Lawson on the bench for such long stretches. One lesson might be to take nothing for granted with an unsettled quarterback situation.
  • Seattle Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck's sore back seemed like no big deal at first. I didn't even mention him in the Camp Confidential. Even the Seahawks misread this injury. The lesson might be to treat even minor-sounding back injuries more seriously.
  • St. Louis Rams. I knew the offensive line could be a problem again, but I completely underestimated how bad the Rams would be on defense. This team unraveled far more dramatically than anticipated.

Having one full season of experience covering the division leaves me feeling far more comfortable analyzing these teams. Watching every game for every NFC West team proved tedious given how poorly most of the division was playing, but the payoff was profound. The feel for these teams has improved exponentially over the last year.

Your feedback, insight and overall knowledge of the teams also proved valuable. With that in mind, I'd like to ask you to help make our 2009 analysis smarter. Which hidden storylines do you see emerging? Which current storylines appear overblown? Thanks in advance.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Mike Martz's recent chat for NFL.com featured a few starting points for conversation. Asked whether the 49ers' Vernon Davis could catch 80 passes, Martz replied: "He can, but there are so many other questions to answer in that offense before you try to get anybody 80 passes."

Quarterback is clearly one of those questions in Martz's mind. Asked to choose between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith last offseason, Martz chose J.T. O'Sullivan.

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