NFC West: John Marshall
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch cites sources as saying Rams receiver Donnie Avery suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. He suggests stress fractures can be slow to heal. The Rams set the timetable at four to six weeks. Thomas: "The Rams worked out two free agents Sunday: defensive end Shaun Smith [most recently with Cleveland] and safety Anthony Scirrotto [most recently with Carolina]. But no wide receivers. That could change this week."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says injuries are slowly mounting for the Rams. Adam Carriker could miss two weeks after spraining an ankle. In other news, rookie James Laurinaitis is getting work with the starting defense for the first time.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch profiles Laurinaitis, who explains his neck -- or lack thereof -- as something beyond his control. Laurinaitis: "Yeah, yeah, I know. Believe it or not, I didn't do anything to get it like this. No special exercises. That's all genetics. When your dad is a pro wrestler and your mom is a power lifter, this is the kind of neck you get. I had no choice, really."
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says Laurinaitis is catching on quickly.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals like their mix of tight ends even though the position carries some uncertainty for the team. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "It's great we have competition, and it's making those guys perform at a high level. We still have four [preseason] games to play and that's going to go a ways in determining how it does shake out."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson would like to become the 10th player in NFL history with 20 sacks and 20 interceptions during a career. He needs two interceptions and 1.5 sacks to get there. I'd be surprised if he fell short while playing in a full season.
Also from Urban: thoughts after the first week of training camp. Avoiding injuries in the defensive front seven is key. Also, Tim Hightower has a clear edge on Beanie Wells after Wells suffered an ankle injury during his first practice.
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com quotes Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp as saying the competition at receiver is the best he has seen in 15 years of coaching.
John Morgan of Field Gulls offers his take on how the Seahawks might play defense this season after watching them in practice Sunday. Morgan: "Ends will drop into coverage. The Seahawks will use [John] Marshall-style stunts and zone blitzes. Josh Wilson will be an active player and Seattle will not be shy to go nickel. Tweener ends like [Darryl] Tapp and Nick Reed (should he make the squad) might rush from the second level. The secondary will play underneath the receiver and play for the ball. Tweener tackles like Cory Redding and Lawrence Jackson will slide inside. And defenders will get their hands up and attempt to tip the ball. Leroy Hill and Lawrence Jackson each got a piece of one and the resulting wounded duck could've fallen anywhere and to anyone."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune also focuses on the Seahawks' competition at receiver. He also notes that center Chris Spencer could return from an ankle injury this week.
John Boyle of the Everett Herald recaps Seahawks practice Sunday and includes a list of players who did not practice. Lofa Tatupu received a day off. Boyle: "Here's the rest of the list of players who didn't practice today: LT Walter Jones (back), CB Marcus Trufant (back), G/C Grey Ruegamer (elbow), C Chris Spencer (ankle), LB D.D. Lewis (knee), and LB Will Herring (groin). Lewis didn't suffer a recent injury, but rather is getting some periodic time off in camp to rest his knee, which was scoped in the offseason."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat takes a player-by-player look at the 49ers on offense. Maiocco on Shaun Hill: "He has done nothing to lose the starting job. It's important in this offense that the quarterback be able to pose a threat down the field to keep the defense honest. After the first few days, there were some questions. But Hill seems to have focused on showing that aspect of his game. He connected on several deep passes Saturday. The first week of training camp was the best he's looked at this time of year. In my mind, he's still the front-runner to win the starting job Week 1, but a lot can happen in the first two exhibition games before Mike Singletary makes the call."
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle provides a timeline for the 49ers' practice Thursday.
Also from Crumpacker: a look at how 49ers players prepared for training camp. Crumpacker on Patrick Willis: "The team's star linebacker spent three weeks in Las Vegas doing mixed martial arts training at the gym owned by MMA star Randy Couture. He boxed, dabbled in jujitsu and sparred with trainers and fighters."
The 49ers' Web site poses 20 offbeat questions to guard Chilo Rachal. We find out he likes to sing "Billy Jean" in the shower.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Ahmad Brooks are having good camps for the 49ers. Jason Hill, Bear Pascoe and Thomas Clayton haven't impressed him quite so much.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers have high hopes for Davis -- still.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
RENTON, Wash. -- T.J. Houshmandzadeh's introductory Seahawks news conference provided an opportunity to ask general manager Tim Ruskell about other subjects.
Defensive tackle Colin Cole, signed from Green Bay in free agency, will become a pure nose tackle in Seattle. While former defensive coordinator John Marshall would slide linemen from one spot to another on the line, the new defensive staff -- led by coordinator Gus Bradley and line coach Dan Quinn -- plans to keep Cole on the nose.
Brandon Mebane will become more of a 3-technique defensive tackle, which means he'll focus more on getting upfield and disrupting plays. Red Bryant will play both positions as part of an interior rotation (Craig Terrell would be the fourth defensive tackle).
Here is what Ruskell said when I asked if the change might detract from some of what Mebane has been doing well for Seattle:
"No, I think based on what he did at Cal and what he did that first year here. John Marshall would slide the guys. With Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley, the nose is the nose. He might slant one way or the other, but he is the nose. And so this really is going to allow Brandon to do some of the other things we like from him, which is disrupt the run. He gets across the line very quickly with his first step. The guys are excited about how that works."
Ruskell also said Bryant is "having a great offseason" and possesses the versatility to provide insurance for Cole and Mebane should either become injured.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Ken from parts unknown writes: What do you think about this "Steelers West" stuff? It's flattering, but I think the Cardinals instead are the Colts West. Classic pocket QB, deadly passing game, pragmatic regular season approach, fast undersized defense, a great safety, and who do we hand the ball to but Edgerrin James himself?
Mike Sando: I like the comparison. Cris Collinsworth took it another step by comparing the Cardinals' postseason improvement to what the 2006 Colts accomplished when they won the Super Bowl. I would not necessarily say the Cardinals were pragmatic about their regular-season approach, but Arizona would certainly accept the same result in a Super Bowl, minus the rain and Devin Hester's kickoff return.
Blake from Moraga, Calif., writes: Do you think that if the 49ers didn't lose by a yard to kurt warner's team (bring back any memories?) that he would even be in this position, much less the playoffs?
Mike Sando: I'm not sure. If the Cardinals had lost that game and gone in the tank, no. If they had lost that game, then bounced back with a vengeance to beat good teams down the stretch, yes. The Cardinals did what they had to do to win the division. And now they have proven they belong in the playoffs. The 49ers haven't even committed to a starting quarterback, so I think they have some ground to make up.
Mike from Seattle writes: Mike, Tim Ruskell kind of addressed the wide receiver position. How serious of a run do you think Seattle will make at TJ Houshmandzadeh? And, if not him, who would be other FA candidates at WR? Thanks!
Mike Sando: Ruskell has said the Seahawks will protect themselves from a repeat of what happened to them at receiver in 2008. I do not know how seriously the Seahawks would consider a potentially expensive free agent at the position. Potential free agents include Amani Toomer, Bryant Johnson, Justin McCareins, Jabar Gaffney and a handful of lesser-known players. It's not a position of strength in free agency, for sure.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
1. Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals. Though Boldin has been the epitome of a team player during his career, he left the opposite impression by feuding with offensive coordinator Todd Haley during the NFC Championship Game and then reportedly skipping the postgame celebration. The Cardinals won't feel pressure to rework Boldin's contract if these perceptions linger.
2. Mike Holmgren's Seattle staff. The Seahawks flushed out both of Holmgren's coordinators, Gil Haskell and John Marshall, plus position coaches Keith Gilbertson and Dwaine Board.
3. Mike Singletary, head coach, 49ers. Scott Linehan turned down his offer to become offensive coordinator, and it's unclear whether Singletary has a viable backup plan.
4. Jim Haslett, former interim coach, Rams. The Rams left the impression Haslett would be a serious candidate to keep the job, but they clearly wanted to hire Steve Spagnuolo or Leslie Frazier. In the meantime, the Packers hired Dom Capers over Haslett as their defensive coordinator.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin hopes to play against the Eagles after a hamstring injury sidelined him in the divisional round.
Also from Somers: A force greater than the Cardinals seems to be at work in what is becoming a magical season for Arizona.
Bob Young of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are at their best when critics show them no love.
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic anticipates a cathartic experience for Cardinals fans when the team faces the Eagles in the NFC title game. Bickley: "The road to a Super Bowl goes through Glendale, where you are free to influence the outcome. You will channel 20-plus years of torture into a single voice, and it will be the most powerful sporting event this state has ever seen."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves mingled with fans waiting in line to purchase tickets to the NFC title game.
Also from Urban: A surge of traffic to the team's Web site prevented him from blogging for a time Sunday. A good problem to have.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune says the Phoenix area has rarely seen a team such as the Cardinals. The 1996 Arizona State team, which went from 6-5 the previous season to 11-1 and on the verge of a national title, might come close.
The 49ers' Web site carries a statement addressing speculation about the team's inability to secure a new stadium. The statement reads, in part: "Although our opening day target may need to be adjusted as part of the term sheet, the 49ers ownership group continues to remain committed to building a new NFL stadium in Santa Clara and is spending significant resources to make this goal a reality."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat describes Rob Chudzinski as an up-and-coming offensive coach while questioning whether he would fit into Mike Singletary's plans for the 49ers' offense.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says only two teams -- Denver and Jacksonville -- forced fewer turnovers than the 49ers during the regular season. Barrows: "The common denominator among the teams that are advancing [in the playoffs] is not that they can consistently run the ball but that they have been excellent on defense and are forcing timely turnovers."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Giants' loss clears the way for teams to interview defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as a head coaching candidate. It remains unclear where Spagnuolo might fit in the Rams' coaching search. Rex Ryan interviewed Sunday. Meanwhile, the team will interview the 49ers' Mike Williams as a candidate for director of pro personnel.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat gives the Rams' specialists an A-minus grade for their performance during the 2008 season.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says John Marshall and Dwaine Board likely will not return to the Seahawks' defensive staff after the team hired Casey "Gus" Bradley and Joe Barry. The Seahawks advised Marshall, Board and other assistants to consider options elsewhere.
William Tomisser of Seahawk Addicts summarizes his recent positional breakdown of the Seahawks.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Steve from Bellingham, Wash., writes: I read something in your column that frightened me. You suggested that the Seahawks are going to let their best RB go and keep the grossly overpaid, unproductive ones. Please say it ain't so. Julius Jones produced very little in games and game situations that mattered, just like in Dallas. TJ Duckett made several million dollars to touch the ball twice a game. Please, please tell me that the Seahawks have learned from their mistakes and will move to improve, not mediocritize, the running game.
Mike Sando: Maurice Morris is eligible for free agency. The Seahawks moved to sign Jones and Duckett even before they released Shaun Alexander. They even brought in Duckett for a visit a year earlier, when they had no spot for him. General manager Tim Ruskell was clearly angling to change up the running game.
Morris lost his most important supporter when Mike Holmgren left the team. Holmgren was GM when the Seahawks drafted Morris. Holmgren played Morris extensively down the stretch. Holmgren did not immediately find a role for Duckett. With Holmgren gone, the Seahawks appear less likely to re-sign Morris.
We also must consider the financial picture at running back.
Duckett's contract carries $800,000 in salary proration for each of the next four seasons after the Seahawks exercised an option to treat a guaranteed roster bonus as a signing bonus (a common tactic that allows teams to avoid initial salary cap consequences). Duckett has a $2.5 million salary in 2009. He will very likely be on the team.
The Seahawks made a similar move with Jones in November. His contract now carries more than $1 million in proration for each of the next three seasons. His base salary in 2009 is nearly $2 million. He will very likely be on the team.
It's tough to see Morris fitting into that financial landscape, particularly if Seattle is open to selecting a running back with the fourth overall choice in the draft.
That's how I see it, based on the evidence.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals have yet to dispel negative perceptions despite a 7-5 record and imminent division title.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals made their punting change with East Coast weather in mind. Field position could be key when the Cardinals visit the Patriots in Week 16 or if they face a road game in the playoffs.
Also from Somers: The Cardinals are trying not to focus on the big picture.
Bob Young of the Arizona Republic would rather see the Cardinals claim a division title by beating the Rams than by having the 49ers lose.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says the Cardinals are hoping to jump-start their pass rush against the Rams, who allowed zero sacks in Week 13.
Also from Tulumello: Neil Rackers adjusts to a new holder on field goals and extra points.
John Morgan of Field Gulls thought Seahawks rookie Lawrence Jackson showed signs of improvement against the Cowboys. I would love to know how many times Jackson maintains run containment to his side. Seems like not enough.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times counters perceptions about Patriots coach Bill Belichick. I've always thought Belichick needed better questions more than he needed better answers.
Also from O'Neil: Mike Holmgren says the Seahawks' decision to name Jim Mora the next head coach hasn't affected performance on the field, even though Holmgren would have preferred the arrangement to have remained a private matter.
Frank Hughes of Seahawks Insider disputes Deon Grant's contention that reporters took the Seattle safety's postgame comments out of context. Grant seemingly criticized defensive coordinator John Marshall after the 34-9 defeat at Dallas.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the NFL's 30th-ranked defense "got defensive" about what Grant meant by his comments.
Jose Romero of the Seattle Times says Seahawks center Chris Spencer lost feeling in his toes thanks to a herniated disk.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says 49ers safety Mark Roman is looking for his first interception in two years.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says 49ers coach Mike Singletary has improved his approach since a rough first week on the job.
Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle says Frank Gore deserves better than what the 49ers have to offer.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle polled 49ers players on gun ownership. Ten said they owned guns. Six declined to answer. Twenty-seven said they did not own a firearm.
Also from Crumpacker: The 49ers plan to honor Fred Dean at halftime Sunday.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers cornerback Nate Clements is playing with a broken thumb. The injury could limit Clements' availability as a return specialist while complicating efforts to play press coverage.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Cardinals can clinch a home playoff game for the first time since the Truman Administration. Thomas: "For many St. Louis football fans over the age of 35, this could be a tough day. Our old team, with our old quarterback, winning our division."
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls Rams running back Steven Jackson "235 pounds of paradox" while saying there isn't a more complex athlete in St. Louis. Since Jackson became a starter, the Rams are 21-33 when he plays and 1-10 when he does not play. They average an additional 59 yards rushing per game when Jackson plays.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says the Rams hope to move veteran Chris Draft into the starting lineup at middle linebacker. Usual starter Will Witherspoon is hurting. Rookie David Vobora got the start in Week 13. Also, coach Jim Haslett says he has never owned guns, but cornerback Ron Bartell does pack a firearm.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers players are backing Mike Singletary's bid to become head coach beyond this season.
Also from FitzGerald: Singletary singles out Donald Strickland for having a strong game against the Bills in Week 13.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers have hired former NFL referee Ron Blum to assist with game-day operations. Blum also helps officiate practices.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sizes up the Seahawks' injury situation before checking in with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Meanwhile, coach Mike Holmgren downplays Deon Grant's criticism toward defensive coordinator John Marshall.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says D.D. Lewis would start at linebacker for the Seahawks if a stinger sidelines Leroy Hill.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones will start against the Patriots despite a leg injury that prevents him from practicing.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' offensive struggles only intensify once the team reaches the red zone. The Rams have only 19 red-zone trips this season, less than half the average for the other 31 teams.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat provides an extensive injury update relating to the Rams. Also, rookie guard John Greco was more effective blocking for pass than run, while Oshiomogho Atogwe continued his ball-hawking ways.
Also from Korte: Rams coach Jim Haslett absolves quarterback Marc Bulger from blame on two of three second-half interceptions against the Dolphins.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals, fresh off defeats to the Giants and Eagles, hope to regain confidence playing at home against the Rams.
KTAR.com says Tom Dillon, former radio voice of the Cardinals and a 17-time honoree as Arizona Sportscaster of the Year, has died at age 65. Dillon also spent 20 years as the voice of Arizona State University sports.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
1. Anquan Boldin, WR, Cardinals. Two dropped passes and a critical fumble. Was that really Boldin out there Thursday night?
2. Julius Jones, RB, Seahawks. Jones spent six months calling out the Cowboys for letting him leave in free agency. He then lost a fumble after the Seahawks took their opening drive well into Cowboys territory.
3. Marc Bulger, QB, Rams. Three second-half interceptions hurt the Rams badly during a 16-12 defeat to the Dolphins.
4. Tim Hightower, RB, Cardinals. Seven carries for 7 yards against the Eagles.
5. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals. His MVP credentials took a hit with a three-interception game against the Eagles.
6. John Marshall, defensive coordinator, Seahawks. His starting safety, Deon Grant, questioned the Seahawks' approach on defense after a 34-9 defeat in Dallas.
7. Frank Gore, RB, 49ers. The 49ers' best offensive player had trouble holding onto the football. At least his fumbling didn't change the outcome.
9. Donnie Avery, WR, Rams. The rookie receiver finished without a reception for the first time since Week 2.10. Clancy Pendergast, defensive coordinator, Cardinals. Arizona has allowed 85 points in its last two games and 313 for the season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Grant: "I think with our defense this year, we knew what we had coming back and we didn't know how to play to our strengths. And we are still figuring out what is our strength. Some of the players know what the strength is. Some of the coaches know what the strength is. We just haven't put it together."
Grant included himself as one of the players who knew the Seahawks' strengths on defense. He declined to discuss specifics, but linebacker Julian Peterson suggested the Seahawks could do a better job using their speed to pressure quarterbacks.
Grant's line about "some of the coaches" knowing the strengths was a pretty obvious reference to secondary coach and future head coach Jim Mora.
The Seahawks' frustrations on defense are understandable. The team has allowed 311 points in 12 games this season. Here is what you might not know: The Cardinals have allowed 313 points in 12 games. That includes 85 points allowed in the last two games.
We can point to special teams and turnovers and field position as mitigating factors, but every team deals with those issues. In Arizona, the Cardinals' offense has ranked among the league leaders in time of possession, protection the Seattle defense certainly hasn't enjoyed. As we focus on the Cardinals' inability to run the ball, does the defense deserve more scrutiny?
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The facts: The Seahawks fell to 2-10 following a 34-9 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- John Carlson validated the faith coach Mike Holmgren showed in him from the moment Seattle selected the Notre Dame tight end in the second round. Carlson caught six passes for 105 yards.
- Seattle pressured Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo at times once coordinator John Marshall decided to blitz more frequently. It was too little, too late, but that beats never.
- Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck played his best game of the season despite absorbing seven sacks, reestablishing himself as easily the best option at the position.
- Cornerback Marcus Trufant intercepted a pass for the first time this season.
- The Cowboys didn't need third down most of the time, but when they did, the Seahawks played them well. Dallas converted twice in nine chances.
- Punter Jon Ryan had a 43.5-yard net average with two punts downed inside the 20.
- Olindo Mare made all three field-goal tries. He has made 19 of 21 attempts this season, or 90.5 percent.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Deric from Twin Falls, Idaho, writes: I've had it, as a Seahawks fan I'm sick and tired of Mike Holmgren and John Marshall, their play calling consists of the most predictable, lame duck style to ever grace the NFL.
Mike needs to leave now, instead of driving our starters into the ground for the meaningless continuance of the season. At this point I only see mike trying to add to his all-time coaching win total, so instead of resting starters and getting 2nd and 3rd stringers more action he's going to risk the health of our starters for his ego.
Holmgren is why the Seahawks have failed this year, other teams still manage to scrape by with injuries, but Mike can't do it, when you have players out you need to focus on game planning, and all this season has shown is that Mike is washed up. Mike needs to leave now and take that joke of an assistant Marshall with him.
Mike Sando: Not going to happen. I do think the 2-8 record has exposed the downside of this coaching transition. Setting aside all egos and personal concerns, I think the best move for the Seahawks' future right now would be for Jim Mora to at least take control of the defense. Let's see what he has in store. What more can the Seahawks get from these remaining six games by sticking to the status quo?
At the same time, I understand why this might not be practical. Holmgren can't be expected to make that type of move at the expense of a loyal assistant, no matter what Deric from Twin Falls or Mike from ESPN.com might think of the situation.
As for playing starters to pad victory totals, I don't think that's happening at all. Who would you put into the starting lineup? The Courtney Taylors of the world have already played. John Carlson, Lawrence Jackson, Owen Schmitt -- they're all playing and playing extensively.
Note: Based on comments for this mailbag, some might have thought I was agreeing with Deric in suggesting Holmgren should step aside before the end of the season. That was not my intention at all. The intent was to say that installing Mora to run the defense would give fans something to get excited about heading into next season. But, at the same time, that might not be practical for obvious reasons.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The facts: The Seahawks committed five false-start penalties while dropping about that many passes during a 21-19 loss to the Dolphins in Week 10.
The upside: Even the best defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two ...
- The Seahawks got the running game going with Julius Jones, even after rookie fullback Owen Schmitt replaced the injured Leonard Weaver. They ran the ball well enough to gain a first down on a third-and-4 play when the Dolphins expected pass.
- Center Chris Spencer made key blocks, including one on a screen to tight end John Carlson that gained 20 yards deep in Dolphins territory.
- Ray Willis stepped in at right guard and seemed to perform ably. The Seahawks are more physical up front when Willis is part of the starting five.
- Left tackle Walter Jones isn't as nimble at age 34 and it showed when he missed a block or two, but the Seahawks didn't have to worry about the Dolphins' Joey Porter most of the day. Jones showed he can still get the job done against a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
- The Seahawks called a blitz or two that actually worked, no small feat for this team. Leroy Hill had 7.5 sacks for Seattle as a rookie in 2005. Defensive coordinator John Marshall talked before the season about using Hill as a pass rusher this season. He did it Sunday and Hill collected his first sack of the season.
- Justin Forsett averaged 16.3 yards on three punt returns. Josh Wilson averaged 33 yards on two kick returns.
- Seattle's defensive backs continued a recent trend of making plays on the ball. Jordan Babineaux's interception return for a touchdown was a key play.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jay from parts unknown writes: Mike I can't believe you said Patrick Willis has not been as dominant as he was last year. This just shows me you haven't watched him play but just saw the stats because he has played better than he did last year. His stats were inflated last year because the defense was on the field for almost 40 minutes a game.
He has improved tremendously from last year he has been better in coverage and understands the game better. I really want you to watch the game on Monday and then tell me what you think because it's obvious you don't know what your talking about. This is no surprise though you work for ESPN and hardly anyone knows what they are talking about all you guys do is start the hype machine.
Mike Sando: Willis has certainly played at a high level. Anyone who saw his 86-yard interception return for a touchdown saw that he's still a Pro Bowl-caliber player. I thought he was better last season. Are you saying he has maintained the exact same level as last season, or that he is better than last season?
The feeling internally at 49ers headquarters is that the defense hasn't played as well this season, collectively or individually, and that no one is quite sure why.
I've watched every snap of every game involving every NFC West team this season. Willis hasn't jumped out at me the way he did last season. He seemed so violent last season. His tackles made you wince just watching them. I haven't had that feeling as much this season. Opponents are certainly more aware of him.
The stick Willis put on the Cardinals' Leonard Pope in the season opener was the type of hit I'm talking about. Very violent. Let's see if he can deliver more of those in the second half of the season.
Willis benefited from the "wow" factor as a rookie. He's not surprising anyone this season. That could affect perceptions. My observation was that Willis simply wasn't as dominant. He's still a top-flight player. That's why there was no debate when we placed Willis on the all-division team at midseason.
I generally do not put stock into tackle stats. They tend to be subjective. I did look at them for Willis after you brought them up. The 49ers' defense has been on the field about 2 minutes fewer per game this season compared to last. NFL.com lists Willis with 57 tackles through eight games this season and 135 for all games last season. Adjusting for time of possession (to the second), Willis averaged more tackles per minute last season than this season. I would not rely on that for analysis, however.