NFC West: Jim Schwartz

Schwartz: Rams' new DC future head coach

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
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Coaches tend to say nice things about their friends in the business. Our job is to identify what's meaningful or at least noteworthy.

Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz's comments from the NFL scouting combine regarding new St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton fall into the noteworthy category, I think. Schwartz extended his praise for Walton, who coached the secondary in Detroit last season, beyond what we might consider to be an obligatory level.

"In a couple of years, he's going to be standing up on this podium [as a head coach] also," Schwartz predicted. "Tim's a sharp guy, a charismatic guy. He's been a little bit of an under-the-radar guy, but not for long."

The Rams instantly became competitive under coach Jeff Fisher last season. They have very good young talent along their defensive line in particular. Their secondary is taking shape. They have a middle linebacker to build around. The team also has four first-round picks over the next two years.

Walton is in a good spot, in other words. He could have the potential to parlay this job into something bigger.
Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz appeared to call out San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh before their postgame flap last season.

"Know the rules, Harbaugh!" Schwartz appeared to yell after Harbaugh threw his red challenge flag for a play that could not be reviewed.

When the game finally ended and the 49ers had won, Harbaugh's aggressive handshake sent Schwartz into a furor.

Looks like Schwartz needs to brush up on those rules, also. His attempt to challenge a play that he could not challenge allowed a questionable Houston Texans touchdown to stand during the Lions' 34-31 overtime defeat Thursday.

"Like them or not, rules are rules," the NFC North blog headline reads.

Harbaugh and 49ers fans might prefer our headline here on the NFC West blog.

Around the NFC West: 49ers' line revels

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
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Head coaches Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh handled pregame and postgame handshakes without incident Sunday.

Some players weren't so diplomatic after Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers defeated Schwartz's Detroit Lions by a 27-19 score at Candlestick Park.

The Lions have a reputation for getting in the extra push. The 49ers were aware of that reputation. Their offense appeared intent on making sure the Lions weren't the only ones setting an edgy tone.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says 49ers offensive tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis reveled in coming out ahead against the Lions' defensive front. Staley: "They didn't want any part of us up front. Look at the game. We killed them. Every single pressure they got was cheap. ... They weren't beating us one on one. We ran for about 200 yards (148 yards) on the so-called best D-line in all of football." Noted: The comments from Staley and Davis offer a window into just how personal and competitive competition can be. Davis said he particularly enjoyed kneeling on the ball late in the game because it forced the Lions to "stare at us for 50 seconds and know it's over." Of course, the Lions, though talented along their line, did not have the best defensive line in this game.

Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com looks at Michael Crabtree's evolving identity. Ratto: "Now he is the team’s second most important receiver behind Vernon Davis, and if he isn’t Jerry Rice-esque, he does a pretty decent early career imitation of Fred Biletnikoff. Not so much stylistically, as Biletnikoff was stealthier, but as the solution to some bad down-and-distance predicaments. In short, he moves chains -– five of his six catches went for first downs, and while he still fretted about the one he dropped on a third-and-five early in the second quarter, he more than made his bones on a cranky night with cranky opponents."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says the threat of Frank Gore and the 49ers' ground game opened up Vernon Davis for a touchdown reception.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee asks whether the Lions' Cliff Avril poked Davis in the eye as a followup to a confrontation featuring Avril, Davis and Delanie Walker. Also: The 49ers' top two rookie draft choices, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, were among the players San Francisco listed as inactive.

Earlier: Harbaugh and Schwartz share nothing close to the animosity that has existed between coaches previously.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 27, Lions 19

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
11:36
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 27-19 victory over the Detroit Lions at Candlestick Park on Sunday night:

What it means: The 49ers are 2-0 and own victories over potential rivals in the NFC playoff seeding race. They are the only NFC playoff team from last season with a 2-0 record to open 2012 (Atlanta has a chance to join the 49ers with a victory over Denver on Monday night). The 49ers again proved their ability to beat a playoff team without functioning well consistently. They did it at Detroit last season and at home against the Lions in this game. Strength on defense (for most of the game) and in the running game provided the 49ers with a capable insurance policy. Alex Smith and the offense showed up in the clutch, continuing a trend from last season.

What I liked: The fast start on offense. The 49ers caught the Lions off guard, it appeared, on their second offensive play when they flipped the ball to Mario Manningham for a 29-yard gain on an end-around. That sparked the 49ers' offense and led to a 21-yard scoring pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis. San Francisco couldn't have started any better offensively. Last year, the 49ers opened their game at Detroit in an empty set, inviting pressure and conceding a sack/fumble. They opened in an empty set this time, as well, but the Lions didn't get any pressure.

San Francisco went after safety John Wendling, who was subbing for the injured Louis Delmas, on the touchdown to Davis. That was smart and it worked beautifully. Davis was wide open and running toward the end zone uncontested.

Frank Gore's fresh legs stood out. His quickness and power gave the Lions problems. The way San Francisco blocks down the field, including at the receiver position, makes Gore even more dangerous. Gore returned the favor with an effective block to help spring Michael Crabtree for a first down on a third-and-long when the 49ers were trying to run time off the clock with a 20-12 lead. Crabtree converted a third-and-9 later in the drive.

The 49ers put together a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive -- Smith to Davis, again -- to put away the game in the fourth quarter. That drive atoned for some of the sloppiness that crept into the 49ers' game for stretches. The 49ers are a good team in the clutch. They showed it again.

What I didn’t like: Hunter lost a fumble during a first-quarter kickoff return, setting up the Lions for a 33-yard field goal. The 49ers had gone nine full regular-season games without losing a fumble. They had gone 26 regular-season quarters without suffering a turnover of any kind. Their last one had been against Baltimore on Thanksgiving.

The 49ers suffered a couple of third-down miscues. That included an aborted play after a snap from center Jonathan Goodwin flew past Smith. Another time, Crabtree could not handle a hard, low pass -- not a blatant drop, but a play unbecoming of the player with the best hands Jim Harbaugh has seen. That type of play has been the exception for Crabtree, who continues to play well overall.

The replacement officials struggled. They initially missed Aldon Smith's sack on Matthew Stafford, allowing Ahmad Brooks to get a second shot at the Lions' quarterback. Lions coach Jim Schwartz issued a replay challenge to save his team yardage, setting up a field goal try. No coach should have to challenge a sack against his own quarterback at a time when the NFL is emphasizing player safety. That was one of at least two plays when officials appeared out of position and unable to maintain vision of a play. Another time, officials missed potential pass interference.

Bruce Miller, Delanie Walker and Manningham dropped passes during an ugly drive early in the fourth quarter. Manningham's wasn't a drop in the purest sense. He appeared to short-arm a ball over the middle.

The 49ers' defense, so strong most of the time, seemed to relent late in the game. The Lions drove for a touchdown with 1:29 remaining to pull within 27-19. The Lions gained big chunks of yardage during the drive.

West milestone: All four NFC West teams won Sunday. That's the second time Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis and Arizona have won in the same week since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. All four won in Week 10 last season.

Northern dominance: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh now has a 3-0 record against NFC North teams. He can make it 4-0 with a victory over Minnesota next week.

QB streak: Smith extended his franchise-record streak of pass attempts without an interception. He also entered Week 2 with the NFL's highest completion percentage. Smith played well enough to complete a high percentage in this game, but he needed more help from his receivers in this game. In addition to the drops listed above, Hunter also let one go through his grasp.

Limited role for Moss: Randy Moss drew an interference penalty in the end zone to set up one 49ers touchdown. He played sparingly, however. The 49ers didn't really need him. Perhaps they're saving him. Age is a factor for Moss. The 49ers want to keep him fresh.

What's next: The 49ers visit Minnesota in Week 3.

Around the NFC West: Doubling up at TE

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
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This was looking like a year for NFC West teams to feature dynamic tight ends.

It didn't happen so much in Week 1.

Seattle released veteran Kellen Winslow on the reduction to the 53-man roster limit. Arizona found only six offensive snaps for Rob Housler in its opener.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are preparing to face one of the more dynamic tight end combinations anywhere. New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez play just about every snap. Bill Belichick: "Those (tight ends) are involved in most every play: run, pass, pass patterns, protection. It makes it harder for the defense to defend when you can run behind them or throw to them, get them down field as well as in shorter areas. A good, versatile tight end can present a lot of problems to the defense." Noted: Seattle's Zach Miller and San Francisco's Vernon Davis played most extensively among NFC West tight ends in Week 1. The Cardinals' Todd Heap and the Rams' Lance Kendricks were next, followed by the 49ers' Delanie Walker, the Cardinals' Jeff King and the Seahawks' Anthony McCoy. New England, Houston, Detroit, Denver and San Francisco played the most snaps with at least two tight ends in Week 1, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at how the Cardinals use their tight ends. Urban: "The Cardinals don’t use the tight end as much in their scheme and Housler is still trying to find his niche. But on the Cardinals’ game-winning drive late in the season-opening win against Seattle, there was Heap making a couple of key catches, including the catch that gave the Cards a first-and-goal." Noted: Housler battled a hamstring injury recently and didn't get as many practice reps, perhaps setting him back. Also, the Cardinals are strong enough at wide receiver to merit using three at a time frequently, leaving less room for a second tight end.

Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has fun with the Rams' Jeff Fisher mustache campaign. O'Neill: "In the shadow of the world 's largest Fu Manchu, otherwise known as the Arch, the mustachioed masses are assured of setting a new mark for Guiness World Records. According to the Rams' marketing department, which has filed the necessary papers with Guiness, the record for fake mustaches worn in one place at one time is 227. The huge gathering emulating Fisher on Sunday can't do anything but help his award-winning chances."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates Rodger Saffold's neck situation. Thomas: "The big left tackle can laugh now, because amazingly, he was back on the practice field Wednesday at Rams Park. There's no way he'll play in Sunday's home opener against Washington; his neck remained stiff as he talked with reporters after practice. But he did get a little bit of work in during practice and was listed as limited participation on the team's official injury report."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams made the right move trading away the second overall choice in the 2012 draft at the expense of selecting Robert Griffin III.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with receiver Doug Baldwin regarding the near-catch against Arizona in the end zone Sunday. Baldwin: "It was an opportunity that I had. I had the ball in my hands. Technically, according to NFL stats, it's not a drop. But for me, it's a drop. For what I want to do in my career and where I want to be, I need to make that play. I'm upbeat about it now, because there’s nowhere to go but up from here."

Also from Farnsworth: Playing John Moffitt at right guard could help improve communication on the line.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at how long-range thinking (releasing Winslow) clashed with short-term goals (repeated failures in the red zone Sunday) for the Seahawks. Noted: This was absolutely the case unless there was reason to think Winslow wouldn't have been available for the opener. Winslow does have knee troubles, but the termination of his contract did not carry a "failed physical" notation. He was presumably healthy enough to contribute. The price for keeping Winslow on the roster would have been $3.3 million in salary (guaranteed had he been on the roster for Week 1) and a conditional draft choice that would have been owed to Tampa Bay.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle looks at what the Seahawks should do differently in Week 2.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News previews the matchup between 49ers tackle Anthony Davis and Lions defensive end Cliff Avril. The two went after one another last season. Davis: "He doesn't like me, man. I don't know why. I don't need any new friends. It's cool. It's not about one person going against one guy."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at Tarell Brown's matchup against Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Lions coach Jim Schwartz on Johnson's role in the winning touchdown pass to running back Kevin Smith against the Rams: "If you look at the play, there were four people on (Johnson). The play was designed for Calvin. We make no mistake about that. We were trying to hit Calvin on the back line, but when they slough four guys off on him -- they had him doubled and also had two linebackers underneath -- when that happened, that freed our running back up to be wide open in the flat. That's the dynamic that Calvin brings. It’s very rare that he’s not doubled, some way, somehow."

Also from Branch: The 49ers can tie an NFL record for consecutive NFL games without a turnover if they avoid one against Detroit. New England has the record of seven games.
 

The Jim Harbaugh-Jim Schwartz postgame coaching handshake angle feels so inevitable, so predictable, so cliché heading into their teams' rematch Sunday.

It's cringe-worthy for some of us more interested in actual football.

For me, the value in revisiting what went down following the Harbaugh-coached San Francisco 49ers' 25-19 victory over the Schwartz-coached Detroit Lions last season lies in revisiting what that game meant to the victors. That game affirmed the 49ers' status as an emerging NFC power. It marked the moment when Harbaugh, six games into his 49ers coaching tenure, went from thinking his team had something special to knowing it did.

"I feel like something special is really brewing here," Harbaugh said after that game at Ford Field left the 49ers and Lions both at 5-1.

Harbaugh was fired up afterward. For him, that moment wasn't about Schwartz or the Lions or postgame protocol. It was about the 49ers arriving.

Sure, I'll be watching to see how Harbaugh handles his postgame meeting with Schwartz at Candlestick Park. In the absence of a truly miraculous finish, we should expect Harbaugh to go the conventional route. When he does, we shouldn't mistake his comportment for social progress. We should see it as a reflection of how far his team has come.

Around the NFC West: Saffold's outlook

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
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Watching medical personnel transport left tackle Rodger Saffold off the field on a stretcher board had to be tough on a personal level for the St. Louis Rams.

The football implications, though dire, mattered less.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the news on Saffold has been positive following the Rams' 27-23 defeat at Detroit. Coach Jeff Fisher: "What I can report to you is that is that he's conscious, he's alert, he had strength and movement in his arms and legs. So it's more of a precautionary deal, and we'll get information to you as soon as we can." Noted: Teams generally keep seven offensive linemen active for game days. The Rams had only five available to them after Saffold and center Scott Wells (foot) left the game. Their left tackle, left guard and center changed over the course of the game.

Also from Thomas: The Rams lost when Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford found his absolute last option, running back Kevin Smith, for the winning touchdown. Lions coach Jim Schwartz: "Kevin's the last option on that play, probably behind throwing it away."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch saw positive signs for the Rams despite the defeat. Miklasz: "Last season the Rams broke down and gave way as soon as the injuries hit them, but they shook off the adversity in Detroit. When the Rams lost starting offensive linemen Scott Wells and Rodger Saffold to injuries, they plugged in two unproven backups and shoved their way to a fourth-quarter lead. Quarterback Sam Bradford missed connecting on two long passes with poor throws. The Lions got to Bradford a few times, and put a hurt on him, but Bradford stayed strong. He rallied the Rams offense with two fourth-quarter scoring drives and put his team in position to win."

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com gives Bradford a "B" grade on his Rams report card. Gordon: "He demonstrated excellent touch on his 23-yard TD strike to Brandon Gibson. He marched his team for the go-ahead field goal inside the last two minutes. But he caught a break when teammates scrambled after his fumble and prevented a disastrous turnover; Harvey Dahl ended up with the ball. Had he put some more oomph! into his early bomb to Chris Givens, he could have had an epic statistical game."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com offers postgame notes, calling it a bad sign Wells could not return to the game.
As promised, I'm back from the eye doctor and ready to bring the far horizon into clearer focus, or something like that.

Having covered the Arizona Cardinals in the above-linked item, let's wrap up this NFC West chat followup with items for the other teams in the division.

Tony from Richmond, Calif., asks whether I see the San Francisco 49ers reaching another NFC Championship Game anytime soon, or if they "wasted their golden opportunity to make it to the Super Bowl."

They did blow a golden opportunity. That doesn't mean it will be their only chance with the current core of players.

The Philadelphia Eagles lost the NFC title game following the 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons before reaching the Super Bowl a year later. The New Orleans Saints lost the NFC title game following the 2006 season, then reached the Super Bowl three years later with some of the same players.

The Eagles are the best example recently from the NFC. They had first-round byes and home-field advantage when losing those conference championship games following the 2002 and 2003 seasons. They combined for 13 points in those two defeats, a huge disappointment. The Eagles did not panic. They earned a first-round bye again in 2004 and finally claimed a Super Bowl berth.

The Eagles took a disciplined approach to building their roster. They promoted stability. They developed a highly drafted quarterback. The 49ers appear on their way to doing those things as well, so they have a chance.

David from Medway, Mo., thinks the St. Louis Rams might be in position to surprise opponents, stealing a few victories from superior teams.

"I think having Jeff Fisher will make the biggest difference," David writes, "and will allow the Rams to take advantage of opportunities that Martz, Linehan, and Spags would have squandered."

Coaches too often arrive as saviors and leave as inept buffoons, when in fact they were neither. So, I'm not going to take shots at Mike Martz, Scott Linehan or Steve Spagnuolo. Each dealt with different circumstances.

But if you're going to circle one game to test your theory, David, let's go with the season opener against Detroit. Fisher will have the inside track on Lions coach Jim Schwartz, his former assistant in Tennessee. That will work both ways, of course, but Fisher will have one advantage. He will have multiple seasons of Lions tape to analyze. Schwartz won't have anything on Fisher since 2010, and nothing on Fisher with St. Louis beyond exhibition games.

Beating the Lions in Detroit will not be easy, but you can bet Fisher will be eager to make a strong first impression against his old friend. The Lions went 5-3 at home last season, losing to San Francisco, Atlanta and Green Bay. The Lions ran up big scores against quite a few other teams in Detroit, including when they pounded Kansas City 48-3 in Week 2. Like I said, it's no sure thing.

Curtis from Seattle couldn't resist making a 7-9 reference with a question about the Seahawks. It was worded cleverly enough to catch my attention.

"Hey Sando," he writes, "do you think that Pete Carroll, now entering his seventh season as an NFL head coach, will be able to get the nine or more wins that Seahawk fans are hoping for?"

I do think Seattle will reach that level this season, for a couple reasons. The roster appears improved and healthier, for one. Having additional options at quarterbacks is the primary difference in my view.

Tarvaris Jackson played much of last season with a torn right pectoral muscle. He's a right-handed quarterback who relies on arm strength more than anticipation to complete passes. The team got to 7-9 with Jackson playing hurt and his backup, Charlie Whitehurst, offering very little in defeats to Cincinnati and Cleveland.

I don't know where Jackson will fit into the equation this season, but if he remains in the team's plans, he's going to be healthier, most likely. If Jackson doesn't remain in the team's plans, it will be because the team feels so good about Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson. And if the team feels that much better about those players, we have to figure the position will be improved.

So, by those estimations, the quarterback position appears to be looking up in Seattle. That should be enough for the team to get a couple more victories this season, I would think.

Saints' bounty system and the Rams

March, 2, 2012
3/02/12
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St. Louis Rams fans can expect coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to field a defense with a nasty demeanor.

It's looking like a formal bounty system for opposing players might be out of the question.

The NFL appears ready to come down hard on Williams' former team, the New Orleans Saints, for rewarding hits that left opposing players with injuries. ESPN's Adam Schefter has the details, including a quote of interest for Arizona Cardinals fans.

"Our investigation began in early 2010 when allegations were first made that Saints players had targeted opposing players, including Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings," commissioner Roger Goodell said.

These allegations are not new, but the league says it has stronger evidence.

Warner appeared headed for retirement even before the Saints knocked him from their playoff game with a devastating blindside block while Warner was trying to make a tackle. That play wound up being the final one of his career.

The first chart, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, shows the Saints ranking third from 2009 to 2011 in penalties for unnecessary roughness, facemasking, roughing the passer, personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct. The Titans were fourth. Williams, like Lions coach Jim Schwartz, spent much of his career under Fisher in Tennessee.

The chart below shows where Fisher's teams have ranked in various over-the-line penalties from 2001 until 2010, his final season with the Titans.

Goodell sounds determined to stamp out bounty systems and the overall culture of them. Concussions and other injuries with post-football implications are threatening the league. I suspect the Saints aren't the only team with bounty-type setups. I also think these revelations do not diminish what the Saints have accomplished on the field, primarily because the alleged transgressions took place during games, in plain view of officials.

The Saints have already been subject to penalties and fines for every hit they've ever made, legal or otherwise.

Can't wait to hear what Williams has to say.
The two weeks remaining before NFL free agency will feel like two months at the current pace of activity.

Don't bother with the disclaimers, either.

Yes, history says the best teams build through the draft over time, that free agency can be a fool's errand and bad money gets spent this time of year. We still want action.

I hadn't even arrived home from the combine Monday when free-agent hunger pangs led me to call Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. with an idea: singling out for discussion one potential free agent for each NFC West team, with the Houston Texans' Mario Williams in the spotlight.

Williamson was game. He's here with a quick free-agency fix to get us through another day.

Seattle Seahawks

Free agent to consider: Mario Williams, OLB/DE, Houston Texans

Quick primer: Williams, barely 27, could hit the market while the Texans focus their limited salary-cap resources elsewhere. He has 48.5 sacks in his last 66 games and would, at least in theory, help the Seahawks address their most glaring deficiency beyond quarterback.

Williamson's first take: Jacksonville has a chance and New England will be really involved. Seattle is a good one, but I'm not sure exactly where Williams fits. The way they play their scheme, they have Chris Clemons as that 'Leo' guy, the tweener type, and the other end is like a Red Bryant, a big guy. But they clearly need more pass rush. Clemons is fine. Williams is really versatile and that is why he is a great fit in New England. They play so much 3-4. Seattle is a goofy scheme because they do not have two perimeter guys.

Sando's counter: Clemons' contract runs through the 2012 season only. He is 30 years old and probably has some good years left, but Williams could project as their next Leo. In the meantime, the staff would find a way to get the best 11 players on the field. Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley have shown an ability to adapt. They converted Bryant from top-heavy defensive tackle to a pretty much immovable player at the five-technique.

Williamson's followup: The Leo would be a great role for Williams. You could play more base 3-4 stuff. They do need pass-rush help, but right now I do not see a wonderful fit for Williams. Where does he start?

San Francisco 49ers

Free agent to consider: Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans Saints

Quick primer: Meachem, 27, has a 16.1-yard average per reception and would, in theory, give the 49ers a needed speed element at wide receiver. The 49ers ran low on healthy wideouts last season. They have acknowledged needing help at the position.

Williamson's first take: Quite a few of the top free-agent receivers could become franchise players. All of a sudden, Meachem and Mario Manningham could move up the list. All these receivers have warts. Marques Colston is a free agent, but he has had multiple knee surgeries. DeSean Jackson is fast, but he is little and a pain. Vincent Jackson has been suspended. I think Meachem moves on and winds up being a starter for somebody. His skill set would be real opposite Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is a big, physical, move-the-chains guy. Meachem can run. He gets deep. Even though Alex Smith is not a big-arm guy, Meachem is the type of wideout they should pursue.

Sando's counter: Meachem fits the profile also because the 49ers would rather target middle-tier free agents than spend huge sums on the big names. That is why I don't really see them paying what it would take for Mike Wallace, particularly if a trade were involved. The 49ers are picking only 30th in the draft, so they cannot be certain a top wideout will be there for them. They will be best off addressing the position in free agency, then considering their options in the draft without feeling pressure to find an immediate contributor.

Williamson's followup: The draft also sets up well for them at the position. They have to say, 'We are a contender, let's make a move in free agency.' Mike Wallace would make sense, too. They have to add a receiver of some sort, maybe in free agency and the draft.

St. Louis Rams

Free agent to consider: Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans

Quick primer: Finnegan, 28 last month, has given the Titans' secondary a tough edge in recent seasons. Finnegan played for Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. He has started 16 games in four of the last five seasons. He has 14 interceptions, six sacks, one Pro Bowl (2008) and a reputation for nastiness.

Williamson's first take: They are obviously familiar with Finnegan. They do need wideouts and playmakers, but they could add Justin Blackmon after trading back from No. 2 overall. They have quantity at wideout. They need a stud. There is no use in getting Joe Blow C-plus free agent at that position. Corner is a huge need, too. I think Finnegan goes with St. Louis or Detroit. The Lions are a dirty team and Finnegan fits that persona. The Rams have more money to spend and I'm sure they would like to get Morris Claiborne, but not with the top pick. It would be nice to add a solid corner you can count on.

Sando's counter: The Rams liked the top of their depth chart at this position heading into last season, but things have changed. Ron Bartell is coming off a career-altering neck injury. His salary is $6.2 million this season, more than I would anticipate the Rams paying under the circumstances. Bradley Fletcher is a good player when healthy, but he's coming off ACL surgery. Adding Finnegan or another free-agent corner would make sense. The Saints' Tracy Porter played for Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in New Orleans. I doubt the Atlanta Falcons would let Brent Grimes get away, but he's someone the Rams would through their new general manager, Les Snead. The team needs a starting corner.

Williamson's followup: After Jim Schwartz left Fisher's staff for Detroit, he went out and signed Kyle Vanden Bosch. Fisher could sign Finnegan and essentially say, 'This is what I expect. This is how we are going to play defense around here. Watch Cortland.' They will bring in some of their own guys. This is clearly a need position.

Arizona Cardinals

Free-agent to consider: Jared Gaither, LT, San Diego Chargers

Quick primer: Gaither, 25, has all the physical qualities a team would want in a left tackle. He is also 6-foot-9 and 340 pounds. Gaither played well in five starts with San Diego last season, but he has been a tease throughout his career. Baltimore and Kansas City gave up on him.

Williamson's first take: The Cardinals' needs aren't crazy. They could add another outside linebacker type to the mix, but the two youngsters played pretty well. They will get Ryan Williams back at running back. Quarterback is the problem, but I just don't know if they will do anything about it. Their line needs to be rebuilt. Levi Brown, as much as I dislike him, did play better late in the season. I still think he is one of the worst starters in all of football when you look at every game he has started in the NFL. He is not a starting-caliber player. Russ Grimm is a good line coach. Gaither is the most volatile guy out there, but when he is right, he is a top-10 left tackle. Maybe Grimm can harness that. Gaither played well late and should not be overly expensive.

Sando's counter: The Cardinals haven't gotten much from Deuce Lutui or Brown, two players with talent. I'm not sure there's any evidence to suggest Arizona would suddenly get maximum value from another offensive lineman with question marks. Brown's return appears likely, but he will have to take a pay cut. The team doesn't really have another starting tackle, in my view. Brandon Keith's injury situation is a concern. The Cardinals basically have no young talent to draw from at the position because they have loaded up on older vets, largely ignoring offensive linemen in the draft. But they cannot be sure a starting-caliber tackle will be there for them with the 13th overall choice, either.

Williamson's followup: Gaither has some issues, but look, Joe Thomas is not available. They are not going to get Jake Long. They could use a first-round pick on one, too. I don’t know what Gaither's issues are, if he is a bad guy or just unmotivated or what. He was a very good left tackle in Baltimore and they cut him. The last tape of Gaither we saw was good. San Diego might want to keep him. Maybe he turns the corner after being cut by a couple teams. There will be a market for him. Another good tackle who may never leave his current team is Demetrius Bell from Buffalo. He was drafted as a project and is gradually getting better. Last year, he showed he can be an NFL left tackle. His best football might be ahead of him, too.

Common thread ties Rams' new leadership

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The St. Louis Rams pointed to Les Snead's wide-ranging experiences in Atlanta when explaining why they hired him as general manager.

"The one thing that stood out to me in time as we talked with Les is, in his time with the Falcons, he's seen everything," chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said at the time.

The Rams are getting the same qualities in even greater abundance from coach Jeff Fisher.

Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who worked with Fisher in Tennessee, showed impressive recall in running through his former boss' résumé.

"You go through some of the things he has experienced, taking over on an interim basis in Houston, seeing the team move from Houston to Nashville, playing their home games in Memphis and getting on a plane 16 games a year, then transition to Vanderbilt and having facilities in trailers, just going through the salary-cap purge and all those different things, that experience is something that you just can't get unless you live through it all," Schwartz said from the scouting combine Thursday.

Schwartz then said of Fisher almost exactly what Demoff had said of Snead: "Jeff has seen just about everything there is to see in the NFL."

Fisher and Snead figure to see a few more things in St. Louis. The uncertainties St. Louis faces in rebuilding the roster, all while navigating stadium issues, led the organization to coaching and GM candidates with varied backgrounds.

"He is not a guy that panics," Schwartz said of Fisher. "He is not a guy that changes course without reason. That kind of perspective he has from all the things he has gone through will serve that franchise very well."

The Rams have been vague in describing where Fisher and Snead rank in the decision-making process. The setup is similar to the one Seattle has in place with coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider. Both head coaches wanted and got enough control over personnel to shape the roster. Neither was interested in becoming a GM, however.

Thoughts on 2012 NFC West opponents

January, 2, 2012
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The New York Giants' victory over the Dallas Cowboys affected 2012 schedules in the NFC West.

The Giants won the NFC East. The Cowboys dropped to third, behind Philadelphia. That means the Eagles will visit the Arizona Cardinals in 2012. The Giants will visit San Francisco once again. Dallas will visit Seattle.

Those were among the revelations Sunday.

Your thoughts? Here are a few of mine relating to NFC West non-division opponents:

San Francisco 49ers

Home: Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Miami and the New York Giants.

Road: Green Bay, Minnesota, New England, the New York Jets and New Orleans.

Thoughts: Finishing first in the NFC West meant the 49ers drew the champs from the NFC East (Giants) and NFC South (Saints). The 49ers already beat the Lions and Giants at home this season. They could face the Saints and/or Packers in the NFC playoffs. They'll be familiar with some of these opponents. Facing Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees on the road will not be easy. Can the 49ers keep pace offensively? Can their defense hold up? The next few weeks could provide some answers. Jim Harbaugh gets a chance to shake Jim Schwartz's hand at Candlestick.

Arizona Cardinals

Home: Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Miami and Philadelphia.

Road: Green Bay, Minnesota, New England, Jets and Atlanta.

Thoughts: I could see the Cardinals winning most or all of those home games, but perhaps only one of the road games. That is just an early feel. These things are tough to predict. If the Cardinals can go 5-5 in those non-division games, a winning record in the division would get them to 9-7, at least.

Seattle Seahawks

Home: Green Bay, Minnesota, New England, the Jets and Dallas.

Road: Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Miami and Carolina.

Thoughts: Another season, another trip to Chicago. The Seahawks will have played the Bears eight times since 2006, counting playoffs. The scheduling rotation sent the third-place team from the NFC East (Dallas) to the third-place team from the NFC West (Seattle). The Seahawks also drew the third-place team from the NFC South, which means they'll be facing Cam Newton on the road. Also, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are coming to CenturyLink Field. Will the Seahawks have a new quarterback? Marshawn Lynch gets to face his old team, Buffalo, on the road.

St. Louis Rams

Home: Green Bay, Minnesota, New England, the Jets and Washington.

Road: Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Miami and Tampa Bay.

Thoughs: The Redskins are on the schedule for a fifth consecutive season and third in a row in St. Louis. That is because the scheduling rotation called for the fourth-place team from the NFC East to visit the fourth-place team from the NFC West.

Uh, wait: 49ers overcame more laundry

October, 18, 2011
10/18/11
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Focusing on the San Francisco 49ers' performance, not the postgame tiff between head coaches, was a priority following the team's 25-19 victory over the Detroit Lions.

Since then, every person I've spoke with about the game, inside the NFL and out, has steered the conversation toward coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz.

It's a hot topic.

A couple officiating calls that went against the Lions have also come up, but the 49ers were the ones who fought an uphill fight on the penalty front.

Officials called 17 penalties against the 49ers and only six against the Lions (Detroit declined two of the calls against San Francisco). Both Lions touchdowns went under review amid some uncertainty over their legitimacy, and in both cases, the calls came out in Detroit's favor.

Suffice to say, some 49ers fans have heard enough from Schwartz on judgments favoring San Francisco, including a non-call on a potential illegal block during Ted Ginn Jr.'s return.

"The referees were killing the Niners all game," jhamm9782 wrote in protest. "My screaming epithets ... probably scared my neighbors. We got a penalty every other play. For Schwartz to complain over one missed call, which turned out not to be a missed call, is just further proof that he is a sore loser."

Case closed? I think so.

Around the NFC West: Bad officiating?

October, 18, 2011
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The San Francisco 49ers' game over the Detroit Lions in Week 6 featured more high-impact, controversial officiating decisions than usual.

I listed several of them following the game, but did not notice a biggie. Turns out officials gave the 49ers a 5-yard head start on their go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minutes.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers felt as though they got the short end of several officiating calls Sunday, but with the game on the line, referee Mike Carey and crew made a mistake in San Francisco's favor. The crew spotted the ball at the Detroit 35 following Ted Ginn Jr.'s 40-yard punt return in the fourth quarter even though Ginn had gone out of bounds at the 40. Noted: I went back and watched this sequence this morning. Sure enough, the 49ers got the ball at the 35 even though Ginn clearly went out of bounds at the 40.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee runs through the 49ers' winning drive against the Lions.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat finds fault with Jim Harbaugh's description of postgame handshakes as something he can improve upon, and the coach's reasoning for not offering an apology, notably that apologies seem like excuses to him. Cohn: "Oh boy, this is a whopper. Harbaugh sees the handshake as a task he can improve at like putting in golf. He does not see it as a courtesy or an issue of manners. Someone needs to help him with this. ... Apologies are excuses? This is an extraordinary point of view which contradicts everything we’ve learned about human behavior from the Bible to the ancient Greeks through Shakespeare up to the modern day. Someone in the Niners organization needs to explain to Jim Harbaugh the function of an apology in civilized society. And Harbaugh and (Jim) Schwartz need to apologize to each other and the world for acting like 2-year-olds."

Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams gave no timetable for when Sam Bradford might return from the high-ankle sprain he suffered against Green Bay. It is possible Bradford could play against Dallas in Week 7. Receiver Mark Clayton, coming off the physically unable to perform list, might have unwittingly put pressure on Bradford to play this week. Clayton: "Bradford's tough. He'll be able to rough it out. Ben Roethlisberger goes out there and plays with a broken ankle, broken ribs, broken neck."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' newest receiver, Brandon Lloyd, produced about as much in 2010 as all the Rams' receivers active in Week 6 have produced for their careers. Coach Steve Spagnuolo: "Anybody that you go into a game as a defensive coach and say that you have to adjust things or change things defensively because of this person, that's pretty good. And I remember last year when we did game plan against (Lloyd) that we had to be aware of where he was and change some things coverage-wise. So that probably speaks volumes right there."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Roy Lewis, Deon Butler and Cameron Morrah will resume practicing for the team Wednesday after opening the season on the physically unable to perform list. Noted: Rules allow players to return from the PUP list after the first six weeks of the season, not necessarily the first six games.

Also from Farnsworth: Walter Thurmond says he's more than ready to start at cornerback for Seattle after Marcus Trufant landed on injured reserve.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says there's a chance Tarvaris Jackson could play for the Seahawks against Cleveland in Week 7. Coach Pete Carroll: "He’s thrown the ball a little bit, and so we’ll just take it one day at a time and see how he tolerates. He was running around here a little bit. He’s way ahead of any schedule that anybody would have thought of at this point, and we’ll see just where that takes us -- we don’t know."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says getting better play from Kevin Kolb stands as the top priority for the Cardinals coming out of their bye. Somers: "At this stage of the season, one performance, good or bad, can skew statistics. But those of us who have watched the Cardinals can trust our eyes, and what we've seen from Kolb lately hasn't been good. He looks uncomfortable in the pocket and he's not making plays when he's on the move. But If I'm a Cardinals coach or player, what's most troubling to me is that Kolb is missing open receivers. In Minnesota, he missed tight end Rob Housler twice: once wide open in the end zone and another time down the seam. (The Cardinals have tried hard to hit that tight end seam pass all year. Doing so a few times might make opponents think twice about keeping a safety over the top on Fitzgerald.) He's thrown behind and ahead of receivers."

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic quotes Larry Fitzgerald as saying Cardinals players need to step up more than coaches at this point.

Hey, at least Harbaugh threw no punches

October, 17, 2011
10/17/11
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When San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh challenged a first-quarter play that was not subject for review Sunday, cameras caught Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz mouthing what appeared to be, "Know the rules, Harbaugh!"

Good thing Schwartz didn't call Harbaugh a baby or question his toughness, as former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly did back when Harbaugh was playing.

Back then, Harbaugh reportedly tracked down and punched Kelly, suffering a hand injury that sidelined him for weeks. Kelly denied punches were thrown, but clearly something happened.

"I regret throwing the punch, but I felt I had to do something since my toughness was being questioned," Harbaugh said at the time. "I regret that I have a crack in one of my bones in my hand."

The admittedly over-the-top handshake/back slap combo Harbaugh unleashed on Schwartz following the 49ers' 25-19 victory Sunday did not seem particularly calculated, even if it did violate unwritten rules for postgame comportment among competing coaches.

The 49ers' first-year head coach has a certain, uh, competitive zeal, shall we say. Niners fans have to love the guy. He's passionate, bright, capable and leading the team's revival well ahead of any realistic schedule.

Regarding the postgame incident Sunday, I contend Harbaugh handled the situation without sufficient grace, but Schwartz handled it worse -- much worse. Those keeping score should add this Harbaugh encounter to the list Ernest Tolden of ESPN Stats & Information put together.

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