NFC West: John Elway

49ers vs. Broncos preview

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Prime time is the right time for a game between teams that entered the season at the front of the Super Bowl conversation.

At least that is how Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sees it.

"You face any other top teams in the league, you always want to get up for them," Harris Jr. said. "It’s Sunday night prime time, so we want to have a good showing. We want to go out there and show we’re definitely a contender, definitely one of the top teams. ... They have a great team; they’ve been together for a while, so they know how to play together in these big games."

The San Francisco 49ers will be the fifth team the Broncos (4-1) have played this season that won at least 10 games in 2013 -- "we’ve had a salty schedule," is how Broncos coach John Fox has put it -- and the 49ers (4-2) own the only win against the Dallas Cowboys this season and have won three in a row.

ESPN's 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup:

Legwold: Paul, it seems, at least from the outside, like there has been plenty of turmoil this season with reports 49ers players are tuning Jim Harbaugh out and that Harbaugh won’t return after this season. What’s the mood in the locker room? And how do you think Harbaugh interacts with the team?

Gutierrez: It’s important to note that most, if not all, of these reports have come from national reporters, particularly from a certain league-owned media outlet. And to the conspiracy theorist in me, that means the leaks are coming from within the 49ers and above Harbaugh’s pay grade. As I’ve said before, Harbaugh likes to make his players uncomfortable because he believes that brings out the best in them. I wonder if that same mentality is being thrust upon Harbaugh’s coaching skills. As far as the locker room goes, to a man and on the record, the players say they have Harbaugh’s back, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick saying he would go to "war" with his coach. And technically, Harbaugh still has a year left on his deal. It’s just that talks of extension have been tabled until after the season. It has made for a wild ride thus far, no doubt, and Harbaugh has made a point to wander through the locker room to chat with players during media access periods during the week.

Speaking of bedside manner, Fox has been seen as a folksy players' coach from yesteryear, at least, to the outsider. How much of his personality has rubbed off on the players, and is that a reason the Broncos have been able to shake off the sting of last February’s Super Bowl disaster?

Legwold: When Fox missed four games last season because of heart valve surgery, the word most of the players, as well as the coaches on Fox’s staff, used to describe what was missing while Fox was away was "energy." Those who have worked with him say Fox’s greatest attribute, beyond the on-field work, is giving those in the organization the belief their job is an important part of the process, no matter where the job fits within the organization. Yes, the Broncos have won plenty of games along the way, and having Peyton Manning at quarterback is a spectacular starting point for any head coach, but Fox has support in the locker room, in the executive offices, and a contract extension signed this past offseason. That said, he has also been the guy in charge when the Broncos have come up short, and in the case of the Super Bowl, 35 points short.

Moving toward the field, how have the 49ers' wide receivers helped Kaepernick?

Gutierrez: At first, it was a hot mess. The 49ers seemed to forget they were a team built on a power running game, and Kaepernick looked out of sorts with all of the shiny toys at his disposal, with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd joining Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as wideouts, and tight end Vernon Davis. Then, about Week 4, the 49ers rediscovered their identity behind running back Frank Gore and, voila, the passing game blossomed. This past week, Kaepernick threw three touchdown passes to three different wideouts without an interception. Crabtree might be his favorite receiver, and Lloyd has become his most explosive down the left sideline, but Boldin is his Mr. Dependable underneath. It is, without a doubt, helping Kaepernick’s maturation process. Especially since there does not seem to be any selfishness going on with the receivers. Just healthy competition. At least, that’s how it looks when the team is winning.

Manning, meanwhile, does not seem to have missed a beat after losing receivers Eric Decker to the New York Jets and Wes Welker to injury. Is Manning simply so good that he elevates the play of those around him, or is it a scheme thing in Denver?

Legwold: In all that Manning has done in his career, the fact he has lifted his play to its current level following spinal fusion surgery in 2011 -- his fourth neck surgery -- is a remarkable achievement. The guy has started 37 games for the Broncos and thrown 107 touchdown passes in those games. The offense was built for him; he runs it with complete freedom to change any call to any play at any time. And at this stage of his career, with his work habits, he might think the game better than anyone who has played the position. But all of that said, there is a perfect-storm effect in Denver as well. Adam Gase is an innovative risk-taker as an offensive coordinator who paid his coaching dues to earn his spot. Receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are elite players, Welker is routinely called the best slot receiver in the NFL by opposing coaches, and in his time with Manning, Emmanuel Sanders will go from a player folks thought was pretty good to Pro Bowl worthy. So Manning has been very good for the Broncos, and the Broncos, with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway calling the personnel shots for the team, have built a quality landing spot for Manning.

Some teams have been aggressive coming after Manning with the blitz, like the Cardinals, while the Jets consistently dropped eight into coverage last weekend. How do you think the 49ers will approach it?

Gutierrez: Let’s just say, both ways. Yes, the 49ers brought the house against the St. Louis Rams’ Austin Davis, sacking him five times (the total doubled the 49ers’ season sack total to 10) and pressuring him on 44 percent of his dropbacks (a season high for the 49ers), but, as you know, Manning loves it when teams blitz him. His 2.25-second release is the second best in the league, again, per our friends at ESPN Stats & Info. Yet, his 92.8 total rating when not pressured since joining Denver in 2012 is the league’s best, and the 49ers rank 23rd in pressure percentage. So yeah, the best way to affect Manning is by bringing pressure. Just pick your poison in doses, I guess, right? What might make it all a moot point is the potential loss of All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who injured a toe Monday night. We’re talking about a linebacker corps already missing the suspended Aldon Smith and the recuperating NaVorro Bowman.

Manning, who needs two touchdown passes to tie Brett Favre's career record (508), always comes across as disinterested in records and his legacy. But surely, holding the passing touchdown record would mean something to him, right? How important do you think holding the mark would be to him?

Legwold: This is all something he will have to get used to as many of these records approach, especially if he plays one or two more seasons following this one. Certainly his legacy is important to him, but it gets lost sometimes because he is so competitive. People talk about his intellect and his ability to digest information and recall things he has seen in his career. But it would be impossible to play as many consecutive games as he played before his spinal fusion surgery kept him out of the 2011 season (208 consecutive regular-season games) and to push himself as hard as he does if he were not one of the most competitive people in the game. So, in that vein he wants Super Bowls and knows his career clock is winding down. So, though the records will be something he respects, and at some point enjoys, his desire to play for a Super Bowl champion trumps everything right now, including the touchdown mark.

There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.

From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.

The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.

It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right. Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:

Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?

Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.

Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?

Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.

Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.

For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?

Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.

Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?

Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.

Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?

Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.

Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?

Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.

In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?

Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.

Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?

Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.

They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.

Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?

Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.

Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?

Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Colin Kaepernick finally has a full season as an NFL starting quarterback on his resume.

Kaepernick is in his first full season as a starter after being a second-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. He came into the season with 10 starts under his belt. He started the final seven regular season game last season and played in three postseason games, including the Super Bowl. After six games this season, Kaepernick has now started 16 games in the NFL.

His bottom line -- wins and losses -- is strong. The 49ers are 11-5 with Kaepernick as the starting quarterback. They were 5-2 in the regular season last year, 2-1 in the postseason and they are 4-2 this season.

Kaepernick, who played parts of seven games in his career before becoming a starter, has solid overall numbers in his first 16 starts.

Kaepernick has completed 259 of 433 pass attempts as a starter for 3,627 yards. He has thrown 22 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He has run for 750 yards on 98 carries with six touchdowns.

His numbers compare favorably to two Hall of Famers -- John Elway and Steve Young -- in their first 16 games. Elway threw for 2,448 yards, 10 touchdown passes and was intercepted 21 times in his first 16 games. Young threw for 2,722 yards, nine touchdown passes and had 16 interceptions in that span.
The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, among others, tried to maneuver in the 1983 NFL draft for a shot at selecting John Elway.

So did the Los Angeles Raiders.

Now, former Raiders coach Hue Jackson says via Peter King that the team also badly wanted Colin Kaepernick, another strong-armed quarterback whose athletic background included baseball.

King's piece has plenty of detail, including a captivating visual: Raiders owner Al Davis throwing a glass across the room when San Francisco traded up to select Kaepernick with the 36th choice of the 2011 draft.

Of course, teams miss out on players they wanted in every draft. Some of those players wind up leading their teams to the Super Bowl, as Kaepernick did last season. Other players fail to make much of an impact.

Since 1983, when Elway landed in Denver via the Baltimore Colts, the Raiders have drafted the following 13 quarterbacks: Tyler Wilson, JaMarcus Russell, Andrew Walter, Marques Tuiasosopo, Billy Joe Hobert, Todd Marinovich, Major Harris, Jeff Francis, David Weber, Steve Beuerlein, Rusty Hilger, Randy Essington and Scott Lindquist.

Those players were, by definition, quarterbacks the Raiders really wanted. To hear selectively about the ones that got away makes me wonder how many other forgettable ones the team also wanted at various points. We're unlikely to hear about those.

We should also acknowledge the role an organization plays in developing quarterbacks. Kaepernick had more than one season of seasoning in the 49ers' system before joining a talented, superbly coached offense, one that was backed by a strong defense. He gets credit for doing his part, but the situation obviously would have been tougher in Oakland.

The 49ers deserve tremendous credit for landing Kaepernick in the second round. They went into that 2011 draft without knowing how well Alex Smith would perform. They had the seventh overall choice and could have taken Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder. Instead, they used that pick for Aldon Smith, who has already set their franchise single-season record for sacks. Kaepernick, meanwhile, is looking far more dynamic than every other quarterback the 49ers were in position to select in that draft.

Note: The headline refers to JaMarcus Russell. Some in the comments section thought "Russell" referred to Russell Wilson. I'm sure the Raiders would like to have him, too, but they'll have to settle for Matt Flynn.

Grigson, not Schneider, named top exec

January, 28, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- Executives throughout the NFL would happily trade places with Super Bowl general managers Trent Baalke (San Francisco) and Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore).

Neither prevailed in voting among peers for the Sporting News' award honoring the top executive for the 2012 season. That distinction went to Indianapolis Colts GM Ryan Grigson, who turned over most of the team's roster and went 11-5 with a rookie quarterback.

AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and I were among those voting for Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider in a separate poll. Schneider narrowly prevailed in that one.

My thinking at the time:
"I voted for Schneider because I thought the moves Seattle made required more skill and foresight. [Denver's John] Elway and Grigson did more than simply acquire Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, of course. But without those moves, neither would factor into the discussion. Those were moves 99 percent of fantasy football general managers would have made.

"Schneider and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll found quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round and started him when conventional wisdom called for going with Matt Flynn. They bucked convention again when using a first-round choice for pass-rusher Bruce Irvin (eight sacks). They found a defensive rookie of the year candidate in second-round linebacker Bobby Wagner. One starting guard is seventh-round choice J.R. Sweezy, a player line coach Tom Cable converted from the defensive line.

"Schneider and Carroll pulled off the personnel equivalent of Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard run through New Orleans' defense in the playoffs a couple years ago. Elway and Grigson made moves equating to 20-yard touchdown passes. All three plays would net six points, but some touchdowns are more impressive than others."
Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider has edged a strong field of candidates for NFL executive of the year in voting by ESPN staffers.

Paul Kuharsky of the AFC South blog has the breakdown with comments from voters and his own thoughts. Schneider received eight votes, one more than Denver's John Elway. Indianapolis' Ryan Grigson was third with four votes. Three other execs, including the San Francisco 49ers' Trent Baalke, received votes.

I voted for Schneider because I thought the moves Seattle made required more skill and foresight. Elway and Grigson did more than simply acquire Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, of course. But without those moves, neither would factor into the discussion. Those were moves 99 percent of fantasy football general managers would have made.

Schneider and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll found quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round and started him when conventional wisdom called for going with Matt Flynn. They bucked convention again when using a first-round choice for pass-rusher Bruce Irvin (eight sacks). They found a defensive rookie of the year candidate in second-round linebacker Bobby Wagner. One starting guard is seventh-round choice J.R. Sweezy, a player line coach Tom Cable converted from the defensive line.

Schneider and Carroll pulled off the personnel equivalent of Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard run through New Orleans' defense in the playoffs a couple years ago. Elway and Grigson made moves equating to 20-yard touchdown passes. All three plays would net six points, but some touchdowns are more impressive than others.

Note: I also think St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead should get a mention, based in part on what we discussed here Friday.

Around the NFC West: Cards' new lows

December, 10, 2012
The Arizona Cardinals should have expected some dropoff at quarterback following Kurt Warner's retirement.

Total bankruptcy at the position wasn't a reasonable expectation.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt naturally wasn't filled with life after watching his team suffer a 58-0 defeat at Seattle in Week 14. He did respond quickly and in the affirmative when asked whether this performance reflected the cumulative effects of sustained offensive futility.

"There’s no question," Whisenhunt said.

Arizona has now converted 16 of its last 87 third-down opportunities, or 18.4 percent. The team has gone four games without a passing touchdown and two games without a touchdown of any kind. The Cardinals have lost their last four NFC West games by a 130-23 score.

Whisenhunt has regularly suggested that lots of teams have had trouble replacing legendary quarterbacks. Miami has spent years searching for Dan Marino's replacement. Denver had trouble replacing John Elway.

"It's a hard position to play," Whisenhunt said Sunday. "I have seen a lot of teams struggle. Ours is documented because we had a player that played very well at that position a couple of years ago. We haven’t had a player like that approach that level in the last couple of years."

The Cardinals have gone from ranking among the NFL's top six in passer rating and Total QBR over the 2008 and 2009 seasons to ranking dead last by a wide margin in both categories from 2010 to present. And they appear to be getting worse almost exponentially.

John Skelton finished the game Sunday with a 0.4 QBR score, the second-lowest for any player in an NFL game this season. That was the lowest single-game mark for a Cardinals quarterback since at least 2008, which is as far back as ESPN's charting data reaches.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

November, 7, 2012
How nice of Peyton Manning to throw a couple of interceptions last week, just to change up things.

The Denver Broncos quarterback had posted a 14-1 ratio of touchdowns to INTs over his previous five games. His odds for winning a fifth MVP award now appear considerably shorter.

Manning, in leading the Broncos to their third consecutive victory, became the first player all season to toss more than one INT and still emerge from a game with an NFL passer rating north of 105.

This is his fourth consecutive week atop the MVP Watch list.

We're 10 weeks into this and have listed 32 players at various points. Tom Brady is the only player to appear on the list every week. Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan have made it nine times. Eli Manning (eight), Peyton Manning (eight) and J.J. Watt (seven) are the only other players to appear more than five times.

Forty percent of the list turned over from last week.

Eli Manning, Tim Jennings, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith get the week off. Andrew Luck and Josh Freeman make their first appearances. Charles Tillman and Marshawn Lynch are back after one-week absences.

The top four spots remain unchanged.

The St. Louis Rams' ongoing front-office shuffling brings to mind a name for consideration: Brian Xanders.

Xanders, out this week as the Denver Broncos' general manager, worked with new Rams GM Les Snead in Atlanta. He would fit well with Snead in St. Louis as the Rams reconfigure their personnel department.

It's not yet clear whether Xanders is a consideration for St. Louis, but Snead has already hired a couple scouts from the Falcons. The moves are consistent with post-draft changes teams tend to make as they complete the transition to new leadership.

Xanders' departure from the Broncos would seem to say more about John Elway's tightening grip over personnel matters in Denver than it says about Xanders, who left on good terms with the organization.
Peter King has the play-by-play from Peyton Manning's wild tour through free agency.

I'll mix in some color commentary for portions reaching into the NFC West.

King notes that the teams Manning considered the strongest featured former NFL players as point men. That included John Elway in Denver, Mike Munchak in Tennessee, Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, and Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona.

Wait, Manning didn't know Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was an all-conference safety at University of the Pacific? He didn't know Seahawks GM John Schneider played a year at University of St. Thomas? Ha. Ha.

King says Manning was thrown off when Carroll and Schneider flew to Denver "unannounced" for a shot at meeting before Manning left for Arizona.

"Peyton Manning does not like surprises," King writes. "He said no thanks. Carroll flew home."

The decade Carroll spent away from the NFL made him even more of a Manning outsider. Neither was there sufficient connection between Seattle and Manning's former teammate, Brandon Stokley, for that relationship to work for Seattle. Stokley played for Carroll in 2010, but King pointed to Stokely's connections to Manning and Denver as helping make Manning more comfortable with the Broncos.

And so Manning was off to Arizona for a meeting with the Cardinals. What happened there? What did Manning think of Arizona? How serious was he about the Cardinals? Those questions remain unanswered.

Within a couple days, Harbaugh and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman were scouting a Manning workout in North Carolina.

"First they watched from a car by the side of the field, then, to get a better view, they came onto the field, hoodies pulled over their heads so as not to be recognized by some nosy iPhoner," King writes.

The 49ers' interest in Manning had not yet become known publicly. Still, the drama and secrecy seems silly. Manning and Stokley took similar precautions while throwing together in Denver.

Manning's tour was all about Manning and what made him comfortable. As Carroll found out, if you had to ask what made Manning comfortable, you didn't have a chance.

Five considerations now that Peyton Manning has told the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans he plans to sign with the Denver Broncos:
  • Big sighs of relief: Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis no longer must worry about defending against a Manning-led 49ers offense. A healthy Manning would have made the 49ers even more formidable than they were while going 5-1 against the division last season. It's looking like the Seahawks will be the team in the division with the best shot at upgrading their quarterback situation.
  • Harbaugh must take lead: The seemingly special bond between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and 2011 starter Alex Smith could need some repairing. That should not be too difficult if Harbaugh has been forthright with Smith throughout the process. The 49ers, like the Cardinals, will want to define their interest in Manning as a special case unrelated to their incumbent quarterback. Re-signing Smith should be a no-brainer now.
  • Smith's only logical option. Smith has made it known he wants to continue playing for the 49ers. Hurt feelings suffered during negotiations and the Manning diversion should not be grounds for divorce. Unless Smith acts hastily out of anger, which seems unlikely given his temperament, the 49ers should now be able to re-sign Smith to a deal that gives them the flexibility to hand things over to Colin Kaepernick in the next couple years if Smith falters. The 49ers did lose some leverage, however, when Manning picked Denver over Tennessee. A deal with the Titans would have pushed Matt Hasselbeck onto the market.
  • Forget about Tim Tebow. The Broncos wanted Manning not only because Manning is a great quarterback when healthy, but also because the organization was seeking a Tebow exit strategy. Manning's acquisition provides the perfect cover for Broncos executive John Elway, who has made clear his feelings that Tebow's playing style is not sustainable. I would not anticipate NFC West teams having interest in Tebow if the Broncos tried to trade him.
  • Manning not on schedule. NFC West teams do not play the Broncos in 2012. They still face a lengthy list of talented quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler. Every NFC West team does face the Miami Dolphins, who lost out on Manning, did not sign Flynn and could have a tougher time signing Smith now that the 49ers have lost out on Manning.

It's a relief to have the Manning situation resolved. I was looking forward to the possibility of having him in the division, however, whether with Arizona or San Francisco.
Tracking NFL free agency has sometimes meant tracking aircraft.

A flight enthusiast once helped me follow the plane Kurt Warner took from Arizona to San Francisco for a 2009 free-agent meeting with the 49ers.

Peyton Manning is the big story this week. News helicopters showed him arriving in Miami, where he has a home, following his release from the Indianapolis Colts. On Thursday night, a local Arizona sportscaster suggested a plane associated with Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill might have visited Miami, but others suggested that was improbable.

All of this led me to check out online flight records for planes associated with NFL owners.

An aircraft enthusiasts have linked to Denver's Pat Bowlen traveled Thursday from Denver to Stillwater, Okla., site of the Oklahoma State pro day. The Broncos' John Elway and other NFL talent evaluators were expected to attend that workout.

Here's where things get interesting. That same plane left Stillwater for Miami at 7:01 a.m. ET on Friday. The plane spent 72 minutes on the ground before heading back to Stillwater, where it was scheduled to land at 2:11 p.m. ET.

What does it mean? Hard to tell. We cannot prove even whether that plane was transporting Broncos personnel, let alone picking up Manning or another passenger. But an FAA search referencing the tail number lists the owner's address on "Broncos Parkway" in Englewood, Colo. This is very likely a Broncos plane.

With Elway spotted in Stillwater and the plane spending so little time in Miami, it's natural to wonder whether that aircraft was picking up Manning, then stopping in Stillwater to pick up Elway and the Broncos' brass before heading to Denver.

That would certainly match up with Peter King's tweet suggesting the Broncos "desperately" want to sign Manning.

All things to consider as the search for clues on Manning's future shifts from ground to air.

Update: The Denver Post is now reporting Manning will visit the Broncos, and ESPN has a story on the site now. The Post's report also suggests Manning could visit with Arizona and Miami.

Warner, Moon, Young paved Manning's way

February, 29, 2012
The Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have some experience with highly successful older quarterbacks.

Peyton Manning will be 36 if and when he resumes his career with a still-unknown team.

With Mike Greenberg steering the Manning conversation this way, I visited Pro Football Reference for precedent. A search for the most productive seasons from quarterbacks at least 36 years old turned up memorable ones from NFC West alums Steve Young, Kurt Warner and Warren Moon.

The chart shows quarterbacks meeting that age criteria. Each passed for at least 25 touchdowns in a season. I've sorted them by NFL passer rating.

Manning is in another category while recovering from neck problems that sidelined him for the 2011 season. He also would be switching teams for the purposes of this discussion. Brett Favre (2009) and Warren Moon (1997) appear in the chart for their work in debut seasons with new franchises.

None of the players listed was coming off a career-threatening neck injury, however. Rich Gannon's career ended following one.

Elway, Aikman and the concussion issue

February, 24, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- Two pieces at and Troy Aikman's subsequent comments played into a theory suggesting concussion problems could threaten the NFL's long-term popularity.

Aikman does not have a son, but said he would have reservations about one playing.

I asked one of Aikman's contemporaries about the subject Friday from the NFL scouting combine. John Elway, speaking as the Denver Broncos' general manager, said he has no second thoughts about having allowed his son to play.

Elway's son, Jack, quit playing after enrolling at Arizona State.

"To me, I guess I look at the game of football and realize that that is part of football," Elway said. "I think the NFL is doing everything they possibly can to keep the integrity of the game and also protect the players. ...

"As a football player, to me, we can't go too far. When you put that helmet on, you know it's a risk. My son played football, and if he wanted to play again now, I'd let him play just because I know what I think of the game of football and to me what the game of football teaches you, not only while you are playing it but also when you are done playing and you are out in the business world."

Writing off a QB after three NFL starts

October, 25, 2011
Charlie Whitehurst was, by all accounts, horrible as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback during a 6-3 defeat at Cleveland in Week 7.

"It was a hard go," coach Pete Carroll told reporters Monday. "I think that's the toughest time Charlie's had in the games he's played in."

Whitehurst has shown little evidence he can be the long-term answer at quarterback. He has also hardly played. In sizing up where he stands, I often flash back to how poorly Matt Hasselbeck played during his early starts with Seattle a decade ago. His numbers through three starts resemble very closely those for Whitehurst's first three starts.

My notes from 2001 included this quote from then-coach Mike Holmgren after Hasselbeck completed 9 of 24 passes during a defeat to Philadelphia: "We hit rock bottom a little bit yesterday and now you get knocked down and you get up and we’ll be better and we’ll continue to get better and I haven’t lost confidence in him one little bit, and neither have his teammates, and he hasn’t lost confidence in his ability to play, either."

The chart shows stats for Hasselbeck, Whitehurst and two NFL legends, John Elway and Joe Montana, in each player's first three regular-season starts. I've ordered them by NFL passer rating. Sacks weren't an official stat when Montana made his first three starts.

I'm not saying Whitehurst is going to be the next successful starter for Seattle. I'm not even saying the team should give him an extended period to prove himself. I'm just saying it's tough to definitively evaluate a quarterback after three starts.

Update: The ages of these players is a variable I should have mentioned. Whitehurst is 29. Hasselbeck was 26 in 2001 and had been in Holmgren's offense for for a few years, whereas Whitehurst, though older, is learning a new system. The bottom line is that Seattle needs to address the quarterback position after this season anyway. I just think it's important to remember how little starting experience Whitehurst possesses, particularly in this offense.