NFC West: Jimmy Clausen

Thoughts after noting that the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick has gone from undisputed No. 2 quarterback as a rookie in 2011 to fighting for the role on equal footing with two others:
  • Going from second to third on the depth chart would look like a regression for Kaepernick, but it might not mean much for the long term. Circumstances have changed. Alex Smith outperformed expectations last season, earning a new contract and tightening his grip on the starting position. The team signed Josh Johnson, Jim Harbaugh's former quarterback at the University of San Diego. Scott Tolzien, another passer the 49ers liked coming out of college, has gained some seasoning.
  • Kaepernick was facing a significant transition from the system he ran in college. His development was going to take time. It'll be good for him to get extensive reps in the preseason, but Johnson will need playing time, too. The goal, of course, is to upgrade the quarterback position, not to make sure Kaepernick appears instantly worthy of the second-round choice San Francisco used to select him. As coach Jim Harbaugh said on the day the 49ers drafted Kaepernick: "We believe in competition. We believe in earning positions around here."
  • The 49ers ideally would have found competition for Kaepernick last offseason. A lockout-shortened signing period complicated those efforts. That cleared the way for Kaepernick to land the No. 2 job unopposed. The 49ers got away with having an inexperienced backup when Smith started all 16 games, plus two playoff games, without encountering the injury problems that sidelined him in past seasons.
  • There's no precedent for developing quarterbacks drafted in second rounds. Each situation has its own dynamics. A year ago, developing Kaepernick on a fast schedule seemed important. Those still skeptical of Smith might feel that way yet. But Johnson, with more experience than Kaepernick, might be better prepared to take over a playoff-caliber team on short notice should Smith struggle or suffer an injury. It's up to Kaepernick to prove otherwise.

As the chart shows, five of the nine second-round quarterbacks drafted from 2007 to 2011 were third-stringers or had been released heading into their second regular seasons. Chad Henne and Kevin Kolb were second string. Andy Dalton remains a starter heading into his second year. Brock Osweiler, a second-rounder in Denver this year, hasn't had a second season, obviously.


NFC West teams landed the second (Michael Floyd), fourth (A.J. Jenkins) and fifth (Brian Quick) wide receivers selected in the 2012 NFL draft.

ESPN's fantasy analysts, gathered in the video above, mentioned Floyd just long enough to dismiss his rookie prospects based on the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback situation. They mentioned nothing of the others, instead focusing on what production Jenkins' teammate in San Francisco, Randy Moss, might provide this season.

I wondered, however, to what extent our perceptions about quarterbacks match up with the production rookie receivers actually provide. Eleven rookie receivers caught at least 27 passes last season. Several, including undrafted Seahawk Doug Baldwin, fared well without benefiting from what anyone would have called an ideal quarterback situation.

A year ago, we might have downgraded Cincinnati's A.J. Green based on the Bengals decision to go with a rookie quarterback. Baldwin was largely unknown, and critics were questioning Seattle's decision to go with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. In Cleveland, Greg Little caught 61 passes despite the Browns' obviously deficient quarterback situation.

In 2010, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, among rookies in receptions despite playing in Carolina, where Jimmy Clausen and David Moore were the starting quarterbacks.

Receivers benefit from solid quarterback play, obviously, but they don't always need it to produce.

Jesse Reynolds, an Arizona Cardinals fan deadlocked in a debate over quarterbacks, turned this way for a resolution.

"I have searched everywhere but haven't been able to find the data that supports (or contradicts) my argument that the Cardinals were one of the most-blitzed teams last year because no one feared our quarterbacks," Jesse wrote to me via Facebook. "Could you help find the numbers? I'm sure other NFC West teams' fans would love to know their numbers, too."

Blitz numbers usually tell us which defenses were more aggressive. But if we flipped our perspective, as Jesse suggested, we could find out which quarterbacks commanded the most respect, at least by this measure. Where to turn? Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information put me in touch with colleague Jason Starrett, who came through with numbers for all 32 teams and for 40 individual quarterbacks.

Thanks to Jason, Jesse is going to win his argument by a knockout.

Opponents blitzed the Cardnials 37.2 percent of the time overall, the sixth-highest percentage in the league. Oakland (39.8), St. Louis (39.4), Chicago (38.4), Carolina (37.5) and Baltimore (37.5) faced blitzes more frequently.

We defined blitzes as plays when defenses rushed five or more defenders.

As the first chart shows, Max Hall, John Skelton, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford -- all rookies playing for losing teams season -- faced blitzes most frequently.

As the second chart shows, five highly experienced quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Jake Delhomme, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck and Tom Brady -- faced blitzes least frequently.

Hall and Skelton combined to start seven games for Arizona. Teammate Derek Anderson ranked 17th among the 40 players listed in terms of being blitzed most frequently.

In looking at the charts, a few names showed up in surprising places.

The San Francisco 49ers' Smith ranked higher than expected on the list of quarterbacks facing blitzes less frequently. Was he really "commanding respect" the way Brady commanded respect? Of course not. Does he really qualify as a wily veteran such as Delhomme or Hasselbeck? The answer is "no" on that front as well.

Likewise, quarterbacks such as Hill and Henne wouldn't provide a strong deterrent to blitzing, would they? Why would Green Bay's Rodgers face blitzes more frequently than them?

Other variables come into play. Some teams blitz more frequently than others regardless of opponent. A quarterback facing these teams more frequently would see his numbers shift accordingly.

How well an offensive line picks up blitzes could influence how a defense attacks. How well receivers adjust to blitzes could matter, as could the confidence a defensive coordinator has in his secondary during a given week. A quarterback's running ability and ability to read defenses accurately could factor.

Overall, I'd say it's telling to see the Cardinals' Hall and Skelton blitzed so frequently, particularly relative to the numbers for the more experienced Anderson. It's also telling to see some highly experienced quarterbacks blitzed so infrequently by comparison.
A potentially embarrassing confession: I spent a good chunk of my Sunday night taking a closer look at the Arizona Cardinals' forgettable, regrettable 19-12 defeat at Carolina in Week 15 last season.

The seemingly dreary experience beat just about anything this NFL offseason has offered up since the draft.

Watching football is fun. Watching bad football is more fun than watching a lockout.

Enduring this particular matchup made sense for me because it was the one Arizona game I hadn't yet charted from last season. The takeaway: While fixing the quarterback situation would do more for the Cardinals than any other single move the team could make this offseason, watching Arizona against Carolina served as a reminder that the team's problems do not end with the man behind center.

Beanie Wells, Early Doucet, Stephen Spach, Tim Hightower and Steve Breaston dropped passes in that game. The Arizona defense watched Jimmy Clausen post a career-best 107.6 rating while ending a seven-game losing streak as a starter to open his career (he is 1-9).

More consistency at quarterback should be enough for Arizona to contend again within an NFC West that remains in transition. The Cardinals will naturally exhale in relief when they finally do acquire a veteran quarterback this offseason. They aren't likely to find another Kurt Warner, however, and that means the supporting cast must carry more of the load.

Skelton will return, presumably in the No. 2 role. He showed enough athleticism and playmaking ability to factor into the longer-term equation. The comeback he led against Dallas in particular helps his cause. In general, Skelton was not ready to function when forced into obvious passing situations.

The chart breaks down Skelton's 2010 production by down and personnel group, based on information I track for NFC West teams.

Skelton completed 75 percent of his passes with a 119.8 rating when the Cardinals used pass-oriented personnel (four receivers) on a run-oriented down (first). He averaged only 2.7 yards per attempt with a 54.7 rating when Arizona used the same personnel on third down, when opponents knew the Cardinals would pass.

The Cardinals' new look on offense will go beyond quarterback in 2011. Using early draft choices for running back Ryan Williams and tight end Rob Housler was telling. The Cardinals know they need more than quarterback help on offense.

 Josh Johnson and Andrew LuckUS PresswireCoach Jim Harbaugh (not pictured) is likely to seek brainy, athletic QBs such as Josh Johnson, left, and Andrew Luck, whom he coached in the college ranks.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Less than a week before the 2011 NFL draft, no team in the league has a greater need at quarterback than the San Francisco 49ers.

No amount of pre-draft smoke can obscure that reality, so why even try?

"It is a need here with the 49ers," general manager Trent Baalke said Wednesday.

David Carr, who fell behind Troy Smith on the depth chart in 2010, is the only 49ers quarterback under contract. And no one expects him to return.

Three questions persist. What type of quarterback will the 49ers seek for new coach Jim Harbaugh? What is the likelihood they'll find a future starter in this draft? And where does 2010 starter Alex Smith fit into the picture?

The profile

Any prospect Harbaugh likes for the position will be smart, athletic enough to move well and wired like a quarterback as opposed to being just a raw athlete.

That is the word from some of the people who would know best, including Harbaugh himself. Harbaugh sought those qualities when he recruited current Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Josh Johnson to the University of San Diego. More recently, Harbaugh sought them in the quarterbacks he brought to Stanford, where the relative smarts were pretty much required, anyway.

"You have to be able to learn, taking what you learned in the meeting room on the field the next day or that day and being a quick learner," former Stanford quarterback Alex Loukas said. "We call it a 'one-rep guy' -- taking one rep and getting that rep correct the first time. Being focused every rep, attention to detail is very big. If somebody is lined up wrong, you have to make sure they are right."

Loukas was among 15 former Stanford players attending the 49ers' pro day Wednesday for athletes with Bay Area ties. Receiver Ryan Whalen was another.

"I do think they will make the right decision in what they do," Whalen said, "and it’s going to need to be a smart quarterback, a quarterback that can stay in the pocket and can move, and a tough guy who is a good leader."

Harbaugh, who started 140 regular-season games and won twice in the playoffs during a 14-year NFL career, is bringing a run-heavy West Coast system to the 49ers from Stanford. It's a pro-style offense all the way, but Harbaugh says he's open to certain quarterbacks from spread-oriented offenses.

"If they have it in their DNA to be a quarterback, they’ll figure out how to go from the shotgun to under center," Harbaugh said. "I hope that paints a picture. If you got the DNA to be a quarterback, you have the ability to figure things out [in general]."

Drafting a quarterback

Pre-draft expectations can be notoriously off-base.

A year ago, Jimmy Clausen was supposedly the hot prospect and even a consideration for the Seattle Seahawks with the sixth overall pick. He went 48th to Carolina.

It's tough to know, then, which quarterbacks will be available to the 49ers in the first two rounds. But if conventional wisdom is even remotely accurate, Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert will not be considerations for San Francisco with the seventh overall choice. Taking another quarterback that early would also defy expectations.

What about the second round?

Even if we set aside the second round's status as a quarterback wasteland, there is this: The 49ers, though picking seventh in the first round, are scheduled to select only 13th in the second. The gap stems from the NFL's system of rotating selections by round among teams with identical records the previous season.

Eight teams with potential quarterback needs select before the 49ers in the second round.

Throw in the 49ers' confidence in Harbaugh's ability to coach quarterbacks and it's easier to fathom San Francisco fighting off the urge to address such an obvious and critical need in the first two rounds. And if they draft one later than that, they're investing in more of a developmental player, not a near-term starter.

"You can't, because you need something, misevaluate, or you are back to square one," said Baalke, who was not yet with the 49ers when they arguably did just that in selecting Smith first overall.

Baalke then pointed to the draft, free agency and the not-yet-open trade market as options the team will consider.

"I am confident our plan is such that we will figure it out, and I've got tremendous confidence in Jim and the coaching staff to win football games with whoever we bring in here," he said.

Re-evaluating Alex Smith

The 49ers have told Smith they want him back and are awaiting word from him on a decision once the lockout ends and communication is restored.

All the qualities that Harbaugh wants in a quarterback line up with the advertised traits that attracted the 49ers' previous leadership to Smith in the first place.

At the very least, those traits weren't strong enough to transcend the well-documented coaching- and injury-related issues Smith has encountered as a professional. At most, they did not exist. But it's obvious Harbaugh, a coach with few other viable options at the moment, wouldn't mind finding out for himself.

As Harbaugh told KNBR radio in February, "I like Alex and I like being around him and I like what I see on tape. ... I’m not going to hide my feelings. I like Alex Smith. I like him as a football player, as a person. ... Some people say Alex Smith needs a fresh start, needs a new place to be. I say, 'Let that place be here.' "

The ultimate decision

Baalke holds the power over personnel decisions in the 49ers' power structure. His teams over the years have drafted five quarterbacks: Chad Pennington and Patrick Ramsey in the first round, Sage Rosenfels in the fourth, Nate Davis in the fifth and Gibran Hamdan in the seventh.

While this is the first time Baalke has entered a draft with the GM title, Harbaugh's background as a quarterback will influence the team's thinking significantly.

"It's a critical decision," Baalke said. "Jim and I had a great conversation about it [Tuesday]. ... We feel we have it evaluated right and placed on the board accordingly."

Sam Bradford's place among NFL QBs

April, 22, 2011
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Sam Bradford went through a six-game stretch last season featuring 11 touchdowns, one interception and the St. Louis Rams' first road victory.

The rookie then tossed one touchdown pass with six interceptions over the Rams' final five games, a reminder that even the most promising young NFL quarterbacks will hit rough patches along the way.

Bradford was the NFL's 25th-rated passer by season's end. Only Carolina's Jimmy Clausen, another rookie, ranked lower than Bradford in yards per attempt among 32 quarterback with enough passes to qualify.

Overall, Bradford showed toughness in taking every snap from center despite absorbing hard hits. He set rookie records for completions, attempts and most victories by a quarterback drafted first overall since the 1970 merger. Only Peyton Manning has thrown for more yards as a rookie. Only Manning (26), Charlie Conerly (22), Dan Marino (20) and Jim Plunkett (19) threw more touchdown passes than Bradford (18) as a rookie.

All of this made Bradford a driving force behind the Rams' six-game improvement in the standings. His presence in St. Louis lets the Rams, more than any NFC West team, point to a bright future.

How bright is the future for Bradford? It's an upset if he makes ESPN.com's list of 10 best quarterbacks, set to be released Tuesday. It's also an upset, in my view, if he's not pushing for a spot on the list in the not-to-distant future.

What say you? I'll revisit the poll and comments section when the quarterback power rankings run Tuesday.
Facebook friend Barrett was on the right track when he said NFL teams have struggled finding quarterbacks in the second and third rounds.

Teams tend to overvalue quarterbacks in the draft, which means the most promising ones rarely escape the first round. Teams tend to focus on other positions in the rounds immediately following the first round before "taking flyers" on the position later in the draft.

We see this when looking at the number of quarterbacks drafted by round since 2000. There have been 31 in the first round, 16 in the second, 17 in the third, 20 in the fourth, 24 in the fifth, 36 in the six and 32 in the seventh.

The chart, updated since it ran in February 2010, ranks second-round quarterbacks since 1995 by number of games played.

While we're on a hot streak, let's take a quick look at third-round quarterbacks drafted since 1995, arranged by team:
Count Schaub and Whitehurst among those who were more valuable to their teams as trade bait than as quarterbacks.
Adam Schefter's Insider piece explains why the San Francisco 49ers' coaching vacancy might not interest Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. The reasoning overlaps some of the thinking I outlined on the blog.

My earlier logic did not compute for one 49ers fan. Dan, reaching out via Facebook, offered this counterpoint:
Mike, this has been bugging me. Why is the 49ers' GM and head coaching job being seen as undesirable? They have a lot of good players in place -- better than, let's say, the Broncos or Panthers. Analysts make it seem like no high-profile head coach will want to go to SF and it's a complete Dumpster fire. I don't get it. The team just seems like it's a coach and quarterback away. Why do the other head coaching jobs appeal more than SF appeals?

Some of the other vacancies and potential vacancies do not come with some of the potential concerns Adam and I outlined. You are right in saying we shouldn't pretend the 49ers' job has no appeal. Among the reasons a coaching candidate, high-profile or otherwise, should strongly consider the 49ers' opening:
  • The team already has playmakers on both sides of the ball. Patrick Willis is arguably the best inside linebacker in the game. The front seven is tough overall. Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis give the offense talented building blocks. All the players mentioned in this paragraph were high draft choices. All remain young. A lot of the heavy lifting has already been done in San Francisco.
  • A coach with impressive credentials should be strong enough to navigate whatever issues might arise internally. An established coaching candidate should not fear a potentially impressionable 29-year-old team president, should he?
  • The new coach would not inherit someone else's quarterback project. Mike Singletary had to give it a go with Alex Smith. The new coach could start over at the position. That is more appealing, in some ways, than inheriting projects such as Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy or Tim Tebow. The new coach would have time to find his own quarterback and the clock wouldn't start ticking loudly until one was aboard.
  • The new coach would walk into a winnable division. Sure, the St. Louis Rams have a franchise quarterback, but no other team in the division seems to have one. The 49ers have more talent than the other teams in the NFC West.

The more relevant question might be whether the 49ers are interested in high-profile candidates. Multiple reports have suggested they'll go with a less glamorous choice.
Larry from Las Vegas writes: What would it take for the Cardinals to get the No. 1 overall choice in the 2011 NFL draft? With as many holes as the Panthers have -- and with quarterback not being one of them -- they would want to trade down. Would the Cardinals' first- and second-rounders be too much? How bout possible player/pick combinations. My whole point is, this team is only a franchise QB away from dominating the NFC West for years to come. I wholeheartedly believe our defense would be better if the scheme were better and the offense helped them out by converting on third down.

Mike Sando: I do not see how the Panthers could pass over a true franchise quarterback if one were available. Sure, they drafted Jimmy Clausen, but we haven't seen enough from Clausen to think he's definitely going to solve the position for years to come.

The Panthers drafted Clausen one pick after Arizona took Daryl Washington and one pick before San Francisco took Taylor Mays. That tells you how much perceived value Clausen had in the 2010 draft. If the Panthers had drafted him among the top 10 instead of 48th overall, they might not be in the market for a quarterback at No. 1. But if they pass over a true franchise-caliber prospect because they have Clausen, they'll set back their franchise far more than if they doubled up at the position.

Larry Fitzgerald is the Cardinals' best player, but I would not envision him waiving the no-trade clause in his contract for a chance to join Clausen in Carolina.


Unnamed from parts unknown writes: Sando, maybe you can give the Niners a little more love. Looking at your post about NFC West scenarios, I noticed there are four different scenarios in which the Niners win out. They make the playoffs in three of them. The only one in which they don't make it is if the Seahawks also win out. Don't you think that the Niners have a better chance of beating both St. Louis and Arizona than Seattle does at beating both Tampa Bay and St. Louis? Just a thought.

Mike Sando: I'm not sure what I think anymore. The Rams are the most consistent team in the division. The 49ers are the most talented team. The Seahawks are the most inconsistent team.

Seattle has a decent shot at going 2-0 to close the season because Tampa Bay is so beat up and the Seahawks will get St. Louis at Qwest Field. But there is also a real chance the Seahawks will not have to go 2-0 for a playoff berth. It all depends upon whether the Rams beat the 49ers.

If the 49ers beat the Rams, they probably become division favorites. If the Rams beat the 49ers, the Seahawks probably become division favorites.

Where does that leave the Rams? Atop the division, for now, but with arguably the toughest road of the three. Does that make any sense?


Jason from Bellingham, Wash., writes: Has the NFL fan's memory just gotten too short or is there another reason the NFC West is bashed regularly?

In this decade, the Rams were one of the premier teams in the league before falling on hard times like most teams do. But they are obviously rising. In the last five years, two teams from the division have been in the Super Bowl. How many divisions can say that?

Yes, the NFC West is weak now and it will be an embarrassment if we have a sub-.500 division winner, but these things are just part of the cycle of football, in my opinion. Sorry to rant. Just tired of the disdain piled on my Seahawks and their division.

Mike Sando: I walk a fine line on this one. Yes, it's true the division has produced some very good teams over the past decade. But there almost never has been more than one really good team at a time. The Seahawks were rising when the Rams were still holding on back in about 2004, but that did not last long.

The Cardinals' recent success probably looks like an aberration from afar now that the team is 4-10. The 49ers haven't won anything of significance in nearly a decade.

It's tough to argue with the standings.


Dave from Orlando writes: Mike, everyone is so down on the NFC West and a potential winner with a 7-9 record, and rightfully so, in my opinion. However, I have not heard a peep that the AFC South winner could finish with a 8-8 record. What's the story?

Mike Sando: Peyton Manning is part of the story. He's earned the benefit of the doubt.

Also, I'd be much more surprised if Indianapolis and Jacksonville both lost out to finish 8-8 than if one of the NFC West teams won the division at 7-9. But if both division produce an 8-8 champion, I'll jump right in and have some fun with it.

I'm skeptical about changing how the NFL seeds the playoffs based on one unusual season.

Imagine if you had a 7-9 division champion that won its final six or seven games. Then let's imagine you had a 9-7 wild-card team that lost its final five. Which team should the seeding process reward? I'd rather just keep the current system and live with the consequences.

How I See It: NFC West Stock Watch

December, 22, 2010
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks QB. Three turnovers in the third quarter against Atlanta nearly cost Hasselbeck his starting job heading into Week 16. Barring a stunning reversal over the final two games, Hasselbeck will finish with his fourth subpar season in five years. Only Jimmy Clausen, Derek Anderson and Brett Favre have lower ratings this season among qualifying passers (those with at least 15 attempts per game).

2. NFC West head coaches. Let's single out Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and San Francisco's Mike Singletary. Both coaches' teams have underachieved. Whisenhunt's record as Cardinals coach has slipped to 31-31 in the regular season. Singletary's already shaky job prospects took another hit when the 49ers were not competitive against San Diego.

[+] EnlargeJosh Morgan
AP Photo/Denis PoroyWide receiver Josh Morgan caught seven passes for 106 yards last week against the Chargers.
3. Sam Bradford, Rams QB. The leading candidate for NFL rookie of the year has five interceptions without a touchdown pass in his past three games. Bradford is taking more punishment from opposing pass-rushers in part because his receivers are having a hard time getting open quickly enough.

RISING

1. Josh Morgan, 49ers WR. Seven receptions for 106 yards amounted to a career night for Morgan even though San Francisco suffered an embarrassing defeat at San Diego.

2. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks RB. The running game was there for Seattle against Atlanta. Lynch carried 12 times for 60 yards. He gained 17 yards on his only reception. Turnovers in the passing game prevented Lynch from putting up more impressive numbers.

3. Young Cardinals defenders. Yes, the Cardinals allowed another 100-yard rusher. Yes, they lost to the Carolina Panthers. But there were positive signs from third-year defensive end Calais Campbell and rookie linebacker Daryl Washington. Campbell had 11 tackles, four for losses and a sack. Washington had six tackles, two for losses, a week after picking off a pass.

Power Rankings revisited: Week 15

December, 20, 2010
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A weekly review of how teams performed in relation to last week’s Power Rankings (with new rankings scheduled for Tuesday):

ESPN.com's Power Rankings panelists seek each week to bring order and meaning to an unpredictable NFL world.

We'll attempt to do the same after the league veered past unpredictable into the bizarre during a wild Week 15 featuring:
The top two teams from last week, New England and Atlanta, won in less-than-impressive fashion against teams with quarterback issues. The third and fourth teams -- Pittsburgh and New Orleans -- both lost. Four of the five lowest-ranked teams from last week won.

The chart shows how we voted last week, with red lettering identifying teams that lost in Week 15.

The reckoning: Eight games featured lower-ranked teams beating higher-ranked teams. Let's take a closer look at them ...
  • (32) Carolina 19, (27) Arizona 12: Jonathan Stewart became the seventh running back to rush for at least 100 yards against the Cardinals this season.
  • (31) Cincinnati 19, (21) Cleveland 17: Would two more Browns defeats be enough to get Mike Holmgren onto the sideline?
  • (29) Detroit 23, (13) Tampa Bay 20: The Bucs are limping toward the finish line and looking like a team that could lose to anyone, including Seattle in Week 16.
  • (28) Buffalo 17, (16) Miami 14: The Dolphins, more than any team, move up and down wildly on my weekly ballots.
  • (22) Tennessee 31, (19) Houston 17: The Texans have the same record through 14 games as they had in 2003, their second season.
  • (15) Indianapolis 34, (11) Jacksonville 24: Peyton Manning has four touchdowns without an interception over his last two games after throwing 11 picks in his previous three.
  • (9) New York Jets 22, (3) Pittsburgh Steelers 17: The Jets allowed only 76 return yards.
  • (5) Baltimore 30, (4) New Orleans 24: Ravens reach double-digit victories for the second time in three seasons under John Harbaugh.
Still to play: Chicago and Minnesota on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:20 p.m. ET).

My early favorite for the No. 1 spot: New England.

Around the NFC West: Cards drop ball

December, 20, 2010
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Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Arizona will not secure the No. 1 overall choice in the 2011 NFL draft despite losing to Carolina. Urban: "The Cardinals are not going to be in the 'race' for the No. 1 overall draft pick and a chance to pick up quarterback Andrew Luck. After their visit to Carolina Sunday, it’s possible they could cost the Panthers a Lucky opportunity as well." I believe it is unlikely, but possible, for Arizona to land the No. 1 overall choice. Carolina would have to beat Atlanta and Pittsburgh over the final two weeks. The Cardinals would have to lose their final two games. Several other outcomes would also have to fall into place. It's not worth running through all the possibilities at this point. According to Alok Pattani of ESPN Stats & Information, the top six picks at this point would belong to Carolina, Denver, Cincinnati, Arizona, Detroit and Buffalo, respectively.

Also from Urban: Larry Fitzgerald is on pace for 89 receptions and 1,127 yards this season. Also: "The Cardinals’ extended their own franchise record Sunday with a 10th return for a touchdown. Amazingly, three have been 'returns' of their own fumbles – such a play does count as a return -- including Sunday, when Tim Hightower caught a screen but fumbled inside the 10-yard line, only to see wide receiver Steve Breaston jump on it for six points. That’s two weeks in a row, after defensive tackle Darnell Dockett grabbed linebacker Daryl Washington’s goal line fumble against Denver last week. Tackle Levi Brown pulled it off earlier this season when he grabbed quarterback Max Hall’s fumble and fell into the end zone."

More from Urban: postgame notes, including one about Calais Campbell playing what appeared to be his best game of the season for Arizona. Urban: "He was credited with 11 tackles, a sack and four tackles for loss."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals self-destructed again. Somers: "Rookie quarterback John Skelton struggled throughout the afternoon, completing 17 of 33 for 196 yards. He was the victim of three dropped passes and occasional poor protection, but like his team, Skelton was usually his worst enemy. His lone interception was a result of a horrible decision, and he missed a handful of open receivers, including Early Doucet for a potential touchdown."

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals hit a new low this season when Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen offered postgame advice to Arizona's quarterback. Clausen: "I told him after the game, 'Everything will start slowing down for you. Keep watching film. Keep working.' "

Also from Boivin and Somers: postgame notes, including an item about Arizona's efforts to stop the run.

More from Boivin: Skelton's interception was the pivotal play for Arizona.

Around the NFC West: 49ers gearing up

December, 16, 2010
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Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers face a tough matchup against the Chargers on Thursday night. Maiocco on the matchup between 49ers left tackle Barry Sims and Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips: "Sims will make his fifth start after taking over for Joe Staley, who is out with a broken fibula. Sims has generally fared well in pass protection, but he has yet to face a threat like Phillips, who has recorded 10 sacks on the season. Sims has some experience going up against Phillips, as Sims spent nine seasons in the AFC West prior to signing with the 49ers three seasons ago. The 49ers' running backs will also face a big challenge in blitz pickup. Both Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon did their parts last week, as they picked up blitzes to allow Smith to make plays to burn the aggressive Seattle defense last week."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee previews the 49ers' matchup against San Diego. Barrows: "No quarterback likes to throw deep as much as Philip Rivers, and the San Diego signal caller has several big-bodied targets. San Francisco's defense usually handles big receivers well, but the secondary is susceptible to the long ball."

Also from Barrows: thoughts on Mike Singletary's job security in relation to how the 49ers finish. Barrows: "At this point, the 49ers are a long shot to win the division, and the best they can finish is 8-8. Strong, or at least solid, finishes have become a 49ers trademark in recent seasons. Mike Nolan did it in 2006 and 2007. Singletary went 3-1 in 2008 and 2009. But those rallies, in my opinion, only helped mask the stench of the season and provided false hope for the year ahead."

More from Barrows: Alex Smith looks back fondly on his time with Norv Turner as 49ers offensive coordinator.

Sam Good of 49ers.com says the 49ers got strong play from nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin against Seattle.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Smith hadn't even thought about playing a homecoming game against San Diego. Smith: "San Diego (7-6) boats the league's top-ranked pass defense (173.4 yards a game) and is three weeks removed from flummoxing Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, who tossed four interceptions in a 36-14 loss to the visiting Chargers on Nov. 28. Opposing quarterbacks have a 72.9 rating against San Diego, the second-lowest figure in the NFL."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Smith misses Turner. Brown: "Of all the 49ers offensive coordinators to come and go, Turner's departure stings most for Smith. The quarterback describes 2006, his lone year with Turner, as the best of his career. Smith threw for a career-high 2,890 yards that season as his passer rating improved from the 40.8 he posted as a rookie to 74.8. A year after throwing one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions, the numbers jumped to 16 and 16. That's not exactly Joe Montana-type stuff, but Smith felt as if he was trending upward."

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts as 49ers defensive end Justin Smith prepares to make his 153rd consecutive start, this one on a short week.

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle offers more on Alex Smith's reunion with Turner.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Ron Bartell is eager to get back on the field as the Rams fight for a playoff spot. Bartell was a rookie in 2006 when the Rams had a shot at the playoffs late in the season. Bartell: "At this point, it's now or never. I've been here six years, and I haven't been in this situation before. The excitement that everybody has, I want to be a part of that. Sitting out last weekend was tough enough. So there's no way in the world I'll be sitting out again. I'm going to play regardless."

Also from Coats: The Rams say they are preparing more for the Chiefs' offensive system than for a specific quarterback.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams need to shore up their perimeter run defense and become more efficient on offense in the red zone.

Also from Miklasz: where Sam Bradford stands heading into Week 15. Miklasz: "Bradford has had his moments, including the two-minute drill to tie the game at San Francisco at the end of the fourth quarter. He's made other money throws to put opponents away late in games. But if you want to go by the raw numbers, there's this. In the fourth quarter of games this season, Bradford has two touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 59.3."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Saints' blitzes against the Rams worked well enough for upcoming opponents to copy them. Thomas: "The Saints got after Bradford like nobody else has this season, with the possible exception of Arizona in the season opener. According to Post-Dispatch count, New Orleans blitzed Bradford 25 times. Overall, including plays where the Saints got to him with just a four-man rush, they sacked him three times and hit him seven additional times. Even on plays when Bradford wasn't hit, the pressure was enough to disrupt several other pass plays, forcing Bradford to throw the ball away or throw it with less accuracy, preventing him from stepping into the throw or leading to a tipped pass."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says Bradford is re-growing the beard he wore while playing well in November.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Seattle receivers Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu caught passes in practice Wednesday. Both are returning from injuries. Williams on his foot/ankle situation: "It feels OK, I feel OK. I’m excited. It’s been a very frustrating last few weeks. I was trying to get into my groove, but then had a couple of bumps. I’m excited to get back out here and bring the energy and try to be a shot in the arm for our group and for our offense."

Also from Farnsworth: Seattle's Jordan Babineaux faces a Falcons team featuring brother Jonathan Babineaux.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Obomanu is not yet catching the ball naturally. Obomanu: "You just have to adapt a little bit. The thing about receiver is you want to be able to catch the ball naturally. But at the same time, I'm trying to adjust and figure out some things. It's a day-by-day thing, and hopefully by the end of the week, I'll be comfortable with some kind of way to make it work to help the team out Sunday."

Also from O'Neil: Seahawks veteran Lawyer Milloy is happy to be in the playoff race.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune points to Red Bryant's knee injury as a turning point for Seattle this season. Boling: "Chris Clemons continues to be the most consistently dependable defender, having upped his sacks total to 10 with admirable energy and effort. But it is in keeping with the theme of irony that on one play in the Oakland game, when Clemons was hustling in to make a play, that he accidentally struck Bryant and caused the injury that seemingly triggered the defense’s downfall. It’s been that kind of a season."

Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle says Falcons receiver Roddy White credits Jim Mora for helping him develop into a top player.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says two years and multiple quarterbacks separate Arizona and Carolina from the NFC postseason game they played following the 2008 season. Somers: "Since August, the Cardinals have gone from Matt Leinart to Derek Anderson to rookie Max Hall, back to Anderson and now to rookie John Skelton. The Panthers have gone from Matt Moore to rookie Jimmy Clausen, back to Moore, back to Clausen, to Brian St. Pierre, and back to Clausen."

Also from Somers: Skelton wants to improve his completion percentage.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com touches on Skelton's development before noting that Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wants to make measured use of LaRod Stephens-Howling on offense. Whisenhunt: "You’ve got to make sure to track how many plays he’s been getting. You don’t want to lose him."

Sam Bradford, master of the hard count?

December, 10, 2010
12/10/10
11:15
AM ET
One of the biggest St. Louis Rams fans I know raised the possibility nearly a month ago.

The San Francisco 49ers had held on for a 23-20 overtime victory over the Rams despite having five players commit six penalties for offside or encroachment. Were the 49ers really that undisciplined? Or was Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford really that persuasive with his cadence? Yes, and yes.

"Maybe Bradford has a better hard count than we thought," Rams fan Brian wrote via Facebook page Nov. 14.

The comment came to mind Thursday during the NFC West chat.

"Do you think you could run an analysis on how many offsides, neutral-zone infractions, etc., that have been caused by the different QBs across the league?" MG from Portland asked. "I swear I've seen Bradford create more of those than Marc Bulger ever did, and I am curious how he ranks within the division, conference, league, etc."

I loved the idea and reached out to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information. Hank put together a file linking starting quarterbacks with opposing penalties for offside, encroachment and neutral-zone infractions. The file was not perfect; a starting quarterback would get "credit" for penalties committed after he left the game. But the overall numbers would still tell us what we wanted to know. Starting quarterbacks tend to finish as well.

Turns out Bradford was the starting quarterback in games when opponents committed 27 such penalties. The number was no higher than 19 for any other quarterback in the league.

The first chart breaks down the penalties by opponent. Note that the Rams' three most recent opponents have committed none. Their first nine opponents committed at least one in every game. Is the word on Bradford getting around? Might his totals plateau as opponents become more familiar with his cadence?

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The second chart breaks down totals for quarterbacks around the league. I made four penalties the cutoff. Again, counts tie starting quarterbacks to opponents' penalties committed for offside, encroachment and neutral-zone infractions.

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NFC West High Energy Player of the Week

December, 7, 2010
12/07/10
3:00
PM ET
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 13.

The Seattle Seahawks needed someone to put them over the top following a lackluster start against previously 1-10 Carolina.

[+] EnlargeSeattle Seahawks Lofa Tatupu
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenLofa Tatupu's interception for a touchdown sparked the Seahawks to a a 31-14 victory against Carolina.
Lofa Tatupu was that someone.

The Seahawks' middle linebacker picked off Jimmy Clausen's pass intended for fullback Tony Fiammetta and returned the interception 26 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Seattle never trailed again, cruising to a 31-14 victory that kept the Seahawks tied for the NFC West lead.

"I was fortunate enough to be the man with man coverage on the fullback at the time," Tatupu told reporters after the game. "It was kind of like a pick-route, which usually allows the fullback to get over out into the flat, usually by himself or with a man trailing. I just got over clean enough where I said, 'If the quarterback throws this ball and I turn around, I’m going. And I'm just going to take my shot.' And so I did."

Playing hurt and behind a depleted defensive line, Tatupu hasn't played to his three-time Pro Bowl form this season. He almost appeared to jog into the end zone on his interception return, but that might not have been intentional. Tatupu is that beat up. He finished the game Sunday with only two tackles.

But when the Seahawks needed him to make a difference, Tatupu delivered.

"That’s just a classic for him to make, and it couldn’t happen to a better guy," coach Pete Carroll said. "It was a big statement."

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