NFC West: John Randle

HOF12: The experience of a lifetime

August, 4, 2012
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CANTON, Ohio -- Sights and sounds from a magical first 30 hours in Canton for festivities relating to the upcoming 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony:

Batting 1.000


[+] EnlargeCortez Kennedy
US PresswireNo doubt, Seattle's Cortez Kennedy was one of the most dominant defensive players of his era.
Cortez Kennedy was the person I hoped to see first Thursday night after unloading bags for check-in at the McKinley Grand Hotel. He was the 2012 enshrinee I'd covered years ago and gotten to know while presenting his case to the other Hall selectors. Having the retired Seattle Seahawks great step out from the hotel's entrance before I could get my bags to the curb foreshadowed good fortune.

A trip to the hotel bar a couple of hours later found the place mostly empty except for a couple of reporters from Minnesota. I sat down with them and soon discovered Hall of Famer John Randle, Kennedy's teammate on the 1990s All-Decade team, seated across the way. Two-for-two and three full days in Canton still to come.

I'm not much of a drinker -- a six-pack lasts a year in our house -- so when tequila shots appeared unexpectedly on our side of the bar, visions of "Frank the Tank" from Old School came to mind.

My hesitance must have been easy to spot. Randle rose from his chair and looked my way.

"Hey, you in?"

Enjoying the ride(s)

Trip 1 to the elevator produces a five-story ride with Thurman Thomas and his wife, Patti.

Leroy Kelly, Elvin Bethea and Roger Wehrli are along for the ride on a subsequent trip.

By then, my wife, Kim, and our two sons, Derek (10) and Cade (7), have arrived via red-eye flight from Seattle to Cleveland. We'd decided to make this a family trip, a mini-vacation for them, upon learning months earlier that Kennedy had earned enshrinement.

"We were just in the elevator with Gale Sayers!" Derek announced upon entering our room.

Heading to the Hall

The lobby was packed with Hall of Famers, most wearing their gold jackets, as they assemble for bus rides (police escorts included) to the Hall for a dedication ceremony. Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. will be there when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Hall officials cut red ribbon for the new Pro Football Research and Preservation Center in Wilson's name.

Another chance meeting with Kennedy produces a lucky break. He graciously invites me to ride along in his car, along with Mark, an off-duty police officer from Las Vegas and Kennedy's friend since 1994.

The weather is already sizzling when we arrive, but it doesn't get much cooler than this: Hall of Fame corner Lem Barney, who averaged five picks per season for 11 years with the Detroit Lions, practically intercepts us as we get out of the car. He shakes Kennedy's hand. Mark and I get handshakes, too. Kennedy follows the red carpet to the special seating area for Hall of Famers.

All in the family

Mark and I wind up sitting next to Patti Thomas, Thurman's wife, in the front row of the general-seating area. Sayers and Joe Greene sit across the rope divider about 6 feet away. She's moved when Wilson, 93 and a World War II veteran, delivers a speech marked by self-deprecating humor after initially needing assistance to stand.

The Hall experience can be as much for the families as for the enshrinees themselves.

"I'm his wife and I'm blown away," Patti Thomas said. "These guys that you grow up watching ... my brothers come. They are huge sports fans. They're like kids in a candy shop. They've met 'em all and they're still like that, over and over again. Ninety-five percent of the guys are very outgoing. It's been an amazing thing. What a huge blessing."

Ray Nitschke Luncheon

From the Hall, it's off to the annual initiation luncheon, a chance for the new class to socialize with existing Hall of Famers in a private setting. Goodell is there, as are Hall officials, Class of 2012 presenters and some selection committee members. There are no wives or family members. And when lunch is served, enshrinees head into their own private room. No one else is allowed inside.

A microphone gets passed around, but the current class only listens. What happens beyond that, no one can say for certain.

"Thurman has so much fun when we come," Patti Thomas said. "He tells me his favorite thing of all is the Ray Nitschke Luncheon because it's only Hall of Famers, just the guys in there. And he said that is the coolest event because 'it's just us.' Nobody else is allowed to come in there and he loves it."

A Butler and a dentist

Former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Jack Butler waited 50 years for enshrinement, a record. His son and presenter, John, would give a guy the shirt off his back. John Butler did just that Friday. When one of the Hall of Famers showed up with the wrong shirt -- all were supposed to wear official blue Hall polos -- the younger Butler gave up his.

While the Hall of Famers were enjoying their privacy and camaraderie at the Nitschke luncheon, John Butler and Willie Roaf's father, Clifton, a retired dentist, sat down at the table I'd chosen in our less exclusive luncheon room.

What an honor it was for me, a first-time visitor to Canton, and the two other Hall selectors seated at our table.

I'd approached Jack Butler in the hotel lobby earlier in the day, congratulating him on his enshrinement. With Ted Hendricks, James Lofton and several other Hall of Famers gathering nearby, the elder Butler said, "it's starting to have a meaning to it all."

"It's amazing, just incredible," John Butler said. "You think about it in the past, we would look at his numbers, ever since I was a kid, and say, 'Wow, his numbers match up.' But it's not like an expectation he'll get in. When it happens, it's overwhelming."

Gold Jacket Dinner

[+] EnlargeCurtis Martin
Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesBeing steady in his career and patient with his rushing attack earned Curtis Martin a Hall of Fame induction.
Kennedy, Roaf, Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman and Curtis Martin received their gold jackets during an emotional ceremony at the local civic center Friday night.

Our family purchased tickets and arrived with a group featuring Greene, Dave Casper, Tom Mack and others.

"Is that the ghost-to-the-post guy?" Cade, our youngest, asked later.

That was him. Of course, Casper accomplished much more for the Oakland Raiders than his famed overhead grab for a 42-yard gain against Baltimore on Christmas Eve 1977. A 7-year-old raised on NFL Films drama might not know that yet.

Dozens of previously enshrined Hall of Famers took their turn walking an aisle through guest tables before greeting the 2012 class on stage. My wife heard our oldest, Derek, gasp when Marshall Faulk's name was called.

The boys craned to see Warren Moon make his entrance.

The video highlight packages are what got me.

Dawson pulling from his center position and flattening the same defender twice on one play. Doleman forcing fumble after fumble with blind-side hits on quarterbacks. Kennedy beating the center and then dragging the guard into the backfield to stop a runner in his tracks. Roaf collapsing one side of the formation with devastating power. Martin setting up his runs with patience and accelerating away from trouble. Butler picking off passes, scoring as a receiver and lighting up opponents (I feared Goodell might fine him retroactively).

There were poignant moments, too. The elder Roaf hugged his son and wouldn't let go. When he finally walked away, leaving his son to sport his new jacket alone on the stage, Clifton Roaf squeezed the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb, as if to stop the tears.

The after party

Once the Gold Jacket Dinner broke, Hall of Famers and their families returned to the hotel for a reception.

My kids headed straight for the ice cream sundae bar, of course.

Not to worry, a nearby bartender offered. Bill Parcells, presenter for Martin, had done the same thing. A weekend such as this one makes all of us feel like kids.
Similarities between Matt Flynn and Matt Hasselbeck border on eery.

Flynn, like Hasselbeck in 2001, came to the Seattle Seahawks from the Green Bay Packers. Both were reunited in Seattle with personnel people they knew in Green Bay (John Schneider for Flynn, Ted Thompson for Hasselbeck).

Matt Flynn
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Seahawks believe they have a strong supporting cast in place for Matt Flynn.
Flynn is 25 years old. Hasselbeck was 26. Both quarterbacks, though unproven, appeared close to joining the Miami Dolphins before landing in Seattle.

Flynn's new coach, Pete Carroll, has a 14-18 record and one playoff appearance with the Seahawks. He has been on the job for 26 months. Hasselbeck's coach in 2001, Mike Holmgren, had a 15-17 record and one playoff appearance with Seattle. He had been on the job for 26 months when the Seahawks landed Hasselbeck.

For all the striking circumstantial parallels, three differences give Flynn an opportunity to enjoy early success, something that eluded Hasselbeck and nearly derailed his career with the team. All three factors are a direct reflection of Carroll and, to an extent, Schneider:

  • Realistic expectations: Carroll has tempered expectations by declaring publicly that Flynn must compete for the job with Tarvaris Jackson. Holmgren anointed Hasselbeck, went on about the importance of the position, and suggested his own job security hinged on his new quarterback's performance. There's always pressure on quarterbacks, but Carroll isn't adding to the pressure on Flynn by suggesting he's their savior.
  • Support system: Carroll and Schneider are further along rebuilding the roster, particularly on defense, than was Holmgren in 2001. This allows the current Seahawks to better support all their quarterbacks. This was by design and carried risk when the team opted to use its 2011 first-round choice for guard James Carpenter instead of quarterback Andy Dalton, figuring the line needed reinforcing before welcoming a young passer.
    .
    But the upside is that Carroll and Schneider have put together the NFL's youngest defense, one that ranked ninth last season and should only improve. When Hasselbeck arrived in 2001, Holmgren was patching the NFL's last-ranked defense with veterans John Randle, Chad Eaton, Marcus Robertson and Levon Kirkland. There wasn't a young talent base to build around on that side of the ball.
    .
    "Matt (Flynn) comes in at a time when our sights are set on a strong running game, a young offensive line we're excited about with depth, an attitude that plays off the defense-and-special-teams-style that we play, and that we all can feel," Carroll said Monday.
  • Overall philosophy. Carroll wants to win with a strong defense and running game, whereas Holmgren was all about the quarterback.
    "We have never asked the quarterback to carry the whole show," Carroll said. "We want him to be part of this offense and part of this football team, and be the point guard and spread the ball around."

Questions remain regarding the current Seahawks' ability to develop a quarterback for the long term. That was Holmgren's strength, and one reason Hasselbeck eventually developed into a Pro Bowl player.

The NFL has become more of a passing league since then, opening for debate whether Carroll's philosophy is best for the current NFL landscape.

Those are subjects for another day. Improving the short-term chances for Flynn has to be the top priority. The Seahawks have done that. The rest is up to Flynn.
The San Francisco 49ers embraced Alex Smith as their starting quarterback one year ago, when most viewed Smith as a first-round draft bust.

Embracing him has only become easier after the team went 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game with Smith taking all the important snaps from center.

"We're all in lockstep as an organization that Alex Smith is our guy," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It's well-documented. You saw the way he played this year. [He is a] tremendous leader on our football team.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the next step for Smith includes reducing the number of sacks he takes. Maiocco: "On Tuesday, Smith said on 'Chronicle Live' that in the coming weeks he will analyze where he needs to get better and be honest with himself. That's where I see Smith can get better -- a lot better. Perhaps with a full offseason to fully comprehend the offense, Smith will have a greater understanding of the angles he can exploit against certain defenses to get rid of the ball quicker and allow his receivers to make more plays."

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle offers thoughts on various 49ers other than Harbaugh coming up short for awards recently.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says it's way too early for anyone in Seattle to get excited about a Super Bowl coming to the Northwest. Williams: "The Seahawks aren’t the only northern city to show interest, as Washington, Denver, New England, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit are other northern markets that would likely want to be in the conversation for hosting a Super Bowl. Add to that group the fact San Francisco, San Diego and Minnesota are working on securing funding to build new or remodeled stadiums -- along with the NFL's recent tradition of offering Super Bowls to cities that build new stadiums -- and Seattle likely has an uphill climb of hosting a Super Bowl in the foreseeable future." Noted: The Seahawks have not submitted a formal bid for a Super Bowl. Seattle probably could have secured one years ago had the team's stadium, which opened in 2002, included a roof.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks would be wise to pursue Peyton Manning this offseason. Boling: "Risks? Sure, they’re numerous and obvious. But if there weren’t risks, he would never hit the market. And if he turns out to be even close to the Peyton Manning who was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, it’s likely that no other single move could put the Seahawks in contention quicker than landing him."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with new Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy, who visited Seahawks headquarters Wednesday and went to lunch with several reporters who covered him during his playing days. Kennedy: "It hit me that I’m a Hall of Famer, but you still can't believe it because of the magnitude of the situation being in the Hall of Fame. When you get a call from Steve Largent congratulating you; you get a call from John Randle saying congratulations; Michael Irvin; Marshall Faulk; guys that I played with. That was very special."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with the Cardinals' new quarterbacks coach, John McNulty. McNulty: "I don't think the job is to replace Kurt Warner any more. It's not to go win the game every week, but I think it's to be more productive, to certainly not lose the game, and to make sure every time they're on the field we're in tune with exactly what needs to be done, from play to play. We have to know what these QBs are in tune with and what they'll be able to handle, mentally and physically, and gear it toward them. In the end, they need to perform better, so that will fall on me, that will really fall on all of us. But it ultimately falls on them."

Also from Somers: Hiring former Indianapolis assistant Frank Reich as receivers coach reinforces the idea Arizona could pursue Manning this offseason. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "I hired Frank because he's a good coach."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team was close to hiring Todd Haley, but the lack of an opening for an offensive coordinator was a complicating factor.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Dave McGinnis' hiring in St. Louis was inevitable once Jeff Fisher became head coach. McGinnis: "Coaches in this league want to work for Jeff Fisher. The environment that you work in is very, very conducive to doing good things. He's very professional, but you have fun doing it."

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com says Fisher must build a program, not just a team. Gordon: "The task will be daunting, but Fisher inspires confidence within the football industry. This is why top assistant coaches are lining up to join this project."
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks NFC West defensive lines in this Insider piece posted Monday. I've listed the teams alphabetically while offering a few thoughts of my own, each punctuated with what to watch for from Williamson:

Arizona Cardinals: They have the best young talent across the board with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and the emerging Dan Williams projected to start in 2011. I'm with Williamson in thinking the 2010 season was an aberration for this group. Dockett played hurt. Williams, as a rookie, faced an adjustment period. The Cardinals should expect improvement up front. Dockett expressed frustration during the season when his injured shoulder would not let him fight through double teams as effectively. He's a hard worker and should come back strong. New coordinator Ray Horton is adapting his system to fit some of the Cardinals' existing terminology, but the key is whether Williams builds on a strong finish to 2010 and whether Campbell bounces back from a down season. What to watch for from Williamson: strong thoughts regarding what's in store for Campbell.

St. Louis Rams: Chris Long's development has accelerated since moving to the left side. Some other key members of the line will decline in the near future. Will it happen in 2011? That is not known. Fred Robbins and James Hall defied their age last season. Robbins had a career-high six sacks last season at age 33. Steve McMichael, John Randle and Warren Sapp are the only defensive tackles since 1990 to hit that number in a season at 34 or older. It's a bonus if the Rams' older linemen continue to defy the odds, but it's not something the team should bank on. What to watch for from Williamson: how he sees George Selvie and Gary Gibson fitting into the rotation.

San Francisco 49ers: Williamson graded them lower than I would have anticipated, based mostly on Aubrayo Franklin's uncertain status. Using the franchise tag for Franklin last season allowed the team to keep him at a palatable salary number. I see some parallels between Franklin's situation and the situation the Rams encountered with Oshiomogho Atogwe. Both have been franchise players, but neither was a Pro Bowl performer. Their teams used franchise tags on them out of convenience, not because they viewed either player as indispensable. Replacing a solid safety such as Atogwe is easier than replacing a solid nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. The 49ers might need to draft one. What to watch for from Williamson: where he ranks Justin Smith among linemen in the division, and what might be in store for Ray McDonald.

Seattle Seahawks: Health will be a key variable after Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons battled through or succumbed to injuries last season. There is also the detail of re-signing Mebane, who could become a free agent. Williamson ranks the Seahawks' defensive line higher than I would have anticipated, to the point that he sees no reason for the team to address the position in the first round of the draft. I could see the team looking to use one of its choices for another player in Bryant's mold -- a big, top-heavy defensive tackle with the ability to serve as a run-stuffing defensive end opposite Clemons. Bryant, a fourth-round choice in 2008, is coming off his second ACL surgery since 2006. What to watch for from Williamson: where he sees Clemons fitting among the top pass-rushers in the NFL.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.

Rams' vets Robbins, Hall getting it done

December, 27, 2010
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ST. LOUIS -- Fred Robbins' sixth sack of the season Sunday gave the St. Louis Rams' veteran defensive tackle a career high at age 32.

It also highlighted the significant contributions St. Louis is getting from two defensive linemen thought to be past their primes.

Defensive end James Hall, 33, collected 1.5 sacks Sunday, giving him 10.0 for the season.

Hall joins a short list of players to reach double-digit sacks at that age since sacks became an official stat for the 1982 season. The others: Trace Armstrong, Rob Burnett, Richard Dent, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Leslie O'Neal, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan, Jason Taylor and Reggie White.

Robbins, signed in free agency from the New York Giants, joins Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and former Ram Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993). The Rams are not particularly deep at defensive tackle. Their defense would have a hard time holding up without Robbins, in my view.

The team needs to draft fresh talent at the position. In the meantime, Robbins is providing the steady play Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo sought when he reconnected with Robbins, a player he coached with the Giants.

Robbins has also set a career high with seven passes defensed.

Clemons joins exclusive NFC West list

December, 15, 2010
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A scorekeeper's change from Week 14 has made Chris Clemons the 11th player in Seattle Seahawks history to reach at least 10 sacks in a single NFL season.

The change turned Aaron Curry's sack on the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith into a half-sack for Curry and Clemons. I watched replays and also thought Clemons deserved at least some credit for the sack.

Clemons now has 10 sacks in 13 games with Seattle. He becomes the first Seahawks player since Patrick Kerney in 2007 to have at least 10 in a season. Kerney had 14.5.

Clemons becomes the eighth player from a current NFC West team to record at least 10 sacks in a season since 2000. The list:
The Rams' James Hall ranks second to Clemons in sacks among NFC West players this season. He has 8.5. Teammate Chris Long is next with 6.5, followed by the 49ers' Justin Smith (5.5) and four players with five sacks (Travis LaBoy, Patrick Willis, Raheem Brock and Joey Porter).

Clemons joins a Seattle double-digit sacks list featuring Jacob Green (five times), Michael Sinclair (three), Rufus Porter (two), Jeff Bryant (two), Cortez Kennedy (one), Michael McCrary (one), John Randle (one), Randy Edwards (one), Kerney (one) and Peterson (one).

Sizing up Rams with Fred Robbins

August, 12, 2010
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NFC West teams made a few under-the-radar veteran signings that could pay off this season.

The Arizona Cardinals signed veteran linebacker Paris Lenon, whose value has increased with Gerald Hayes recovering from back surgery. The Seattle Seahawks added veteran offensive linemen Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts, players experienced in their new offense and potentially valuable mentors for first-round choice Russell Okung. And in St. Louis, the Rams brought in defensive tackle Fred Robbins from the New York Giants in an effort to bolster their run defense and provide veteran leadership.

"They had a bunch of young guys who had never played the game in the NFL before," Robbins said via phone this week in sizing up the 2009 Rams. "They had a lot of lineup changes, different guys playing different spots, injuries, this and that. But when you bring in some core veteran guys, you bring in some other key guys and you get guys with a better feel for what is going on and understand the game a lot better -- not just running to the football, but technique and learning your plays and keys. That is the part that carries over and makes teams better."

The Rams have added 13 veterans to their roster since Week 17 last season. Four of them -- Robbins, quarterback A.J. Feeley, center Hank Fraley and linebacker Na'il Diggs -- are 32 or 33 years old. A few others -- safety Kevin Payne and cornerback Kevin Dockery come to mind -- have starting experience. Like Dockery, Robbins was with Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo on the Giants. Diggs played for Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole in Carolina. Fraley and Feeley were with Spagnuolo and Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in Philadelphia.

"We're able to make the guys be aware of how to play the defense [or offense], what to expect, what to look for," Robbins said. "These guys know how to perform, how to practice and you look forward to games. When you bring in some veteran guys, we've been through it. This is a young team and a young team brings energy. We are just trying to show them how to exert their energy in the right way. Once guys learn how to get that feel, good things are going to happen for us."

Former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren took similar (if more aggressive) measures after a 6-10 season in 2000. He was even more aggressive by bringing in veterans Levon Kirkland, Chad Eaton, Marcus Robertson, John Randle and Trent Dilfer. Seattle finished 9-7 the next season.

Robbins singled out Chris Long and James Laurinaitis as defensive players who could exceed expectations in St. Louis this season. I also asked him about rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. Robbins was with the Giants when Eli Manning was a rookie, so he knows what it's like to break in a young quarterback.

"What has surprised me was just how quick he is picking up to the NFL tempo, the NFL speed and everything that way," Robbins said of Bradford. "He's stepping in and doing a good job and the things he does on the practice field make it seem like he is not a rookie."
Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle conducts a Q-and-A with 49ers tight end Vernon Davis regarding an art program benefiting kids. Davis: "My favorite artist is Claude Clark, an African American painter. I also like some of the Renaissance art -- Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo. ... I'm thinking about going to the Sistine Chapel. I'll let you know all about it once I get over there. I see it in the books, but I can't wait to see it in person."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Eddie DeBartolo Jr. will present Jerry Rice at the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer. DeBartolo, as quoted by the Hall of Fame: "It’s truly a great honor to present my dear friend Jerry Rice into the Hall of Fame. No player in pro football history dominated his position the way Jerry did, and it’s a privilege to be his presenter." Joe Bugel will present Russ Grimm. John Teerlinck will present John Randle.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com has the latest from Darnell Dockett regarding the Cardinals' rivalry with the 49ers. Dockett: "I just feel like we are the best two teams in the division, a lot of people say they are going to win the division, we won it the last two years … I know what type of games they will be. I’m not crazy. I think if they played every game like they played us, they’d be undefeated. I feel if we played every game with a certain intensity that we play (against) them, we’d be undefeated." Dockett also elaborated on his dealings with Davis regarding safety Adrian Wilson: "Vernon, you see the trash he is talking, he and Adrian, they have their own vendetta against each other. But me? I’m cool with Vernon. I see him all the time. We’re from the same area (in Maryland), I just saw him this weekend. But I’m going to ride-or-die for my teammates too. I am as loyal as they come. I’m going to have my boy’s back, because he’s not on Twitter and I know if Adrian had been on Twitter he would have spoken up. Adrian was in the weight room the other day and I told him what Vernon said and all of a sudden, he’s got 525 pounds on the squat with no hesitation."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times provides a tweet-by-tweet of an exchange between Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and former coach Jim Mora. The exchange makes Mora appear bitter and insecure even though I'm quite confident he would not see it that way. This subject has come up previously since the Seahawks abruptly fired Mora after only one season as head coach. The fact that Mora would be monitoring a Twitter conversation between Hasselbeck and ESPN's Adam Schefter, and that Mora would feel compelled to challenge a small point about how the new staff plans to use tight end John Carlson, fits the profile that has emerged.

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com offers what he thinks must be going through Shahid Khan's mind while Stan Kroenke tries to upstage his bid to purcahse control of the Rams. Gordon: "This is really big business. Such negotiations often take twists and turns. Could Khan have satisfied Kroenke monetarily and gained his support? Perhaps – and that might come back to haunt him if he can’t make the deal happen. I’m sure he is also pondering his legal options to stop Stan’s attempted end-around play. It must be frustrating as an outsider trying to get into that very exclusive club, a club that already regards Stan as a member."

Kennedy gracious after making final 10

February, 6, 2010
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Cortez Kennedy made the final 10 for the first time in voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kennedy
Kennedy
He should feel good about that, and he did. I spoke with him Saturday night and he expressed no complaints with the process, showing respect for what appears to be one of the strongest classes of finalists in recent memory.

Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith were obvious choices. That left only three spots for the remaining 13 modern candidates.

Kennedy and another ex-Seahawk, John Randle, were the only defensive tackles among the 15 finalists. Kennedy commanded enough respect in the room to earn a place among the final 10. If some voters were split on Randle and Kennedy, Randle's enshrinement could conceivably give Kennedy a clearer path next year.

Of course, it's tough to predict the dynamics that will come into play. I was privileged to participate in the process for the first time this year and look forward to participating in the future.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Five of the seven members of the 2010 Pro Football Hall of Fame class have ties to current NFC West teams:
  • 49ers receiver Jerry Rice was an obvious choice. There wasn't much discussion in the room because Rice's credentials spoke so loudly.
  • Cowboys mainstay Emmitt Smith, who finished his career with the Cardinals, was another obvious choice. Again, there wasn't much discussion here.
  • Former Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson, who finished his career with two strong seasons in San Francisco, broke through as a less obvious choice, beating out several other outside pass-rushers with strong credentials. Jackson started 14 games for the 49ers' 1994 Super Bowl team. He then collected 9.5 sacks in 1995 in his final season. Jackson missed only two games to injury during his 15-year career, and one of those missed games came only after a car wreck. Jackson never wore knee pads or thigh pads and he didn't even tape his ankles. I have no idea how he held up and produced at such a high level for so long.
  • Defensive tackle John Randle, who earned Pro Bowl honors with Seattle after a long career in Minnesota, earned enshrinement. Randle was arguably one of the most dominant inside pass rushers in NFL history and I suspect voters couldn't ignore his staggering sack numbers in the end.
  • Cardinals assistant coach Russ Grimm earned enshrinement for his work as the Redskins' best offensive lineman on the teams that won three Super Bowls under Joe Gibbs. Grimm has come close to earning enshrinement in the past. He becomes the first member of the fabled "Hogs" to earn enshrinement.

Seniors-committee nominees Floyd Little and Dick LeBeau also earned enshrinement.

Logjams at certain positions might have split votes for some candidates, particularly among wide receivers and outside pass-rushers.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jerry Rice, Russ Grimm, John Randle, Emmitt Smith and Rickey Jackson made the list of five final candidates for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Of the five, only those receiving 80 percent approval from the committee will qualify for enshrinement. Those results are scheduled to be announced on NFL Network about 25 minutes into a program that begins at 5 p.m. ET.

Cortez Kennedy, Richard Dent, Dermontti Dawson, Andre Reed and Shannon Sharpe survived the cut from 15 to 10 finalists. Charles Haley, Roger Craig, Cris Carter, Don Coryell and Tim Brown were eliminated in the cut from 15 to 10 finalists.

The status of the two seniors-committee candidates, Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little, will be announced with the other enshrinees.

This was my first year as a voter. Rules prevent me from revealing which candidates received my votes. Rules also prevent me from disclosing specifics of conversations.

Kennedy, arguably the best defensive player in Seahawks history, took a step forward in the process by making the cut to 10. And if Randle is enshrined, Kennedy could emerge next year as the top defensive tackle eligible for consideration.

Rice's selection was a formality. Grimm's inclusion among the final five candidates marks a big step forward for him. Harry Carson once made the cut to five, but failed to receive the necessary 80 percent support, so nothing is final until the announcement is made. But it is looking pretty good for Grimm.

Carter took a step back by missing the cut to 10. Look for Kennedy, Dent, Dawson, Reed and Sharpe to receive strong consideration in 2011.

Discussing Hall of Fame credentials

February, 1, 2010
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MIAMI -- Hall of Fame voters will consider nine 2010 finalists with ties to current NFC West teams.

I'll be presenting the case for Cortez Kennedy during the proceedings Saturday as the geographic representative for the Seattle market.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesFormer Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy is a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.



Two things about Kennedy have jumped out during my research:
  • Kennedy was a great every-down player. Kennedy played at least 90 percent of the defensive snaps from 1991 to 1996, including 97.22 percent in 1994. He was a force against run and pass alike, not just a situational player or one-dimensional player.
  • Kennedy and Hall of Famer Randy White are the only defensive tackles in NFL history with at least 150 starts, 50 sacks and eight Pro Bowls.

I'd like to use this forum to solicit your thoughts on Kennedy and the eight other finalists with ties to current NFC West teams. I'll single out a note or two on each player here to help get the conversation going (while fully recognizing that some of these players enjoyed most of their success for teams outside the division):
  • Jerry Rice, 49ers WR. Arguably the greatest player in NFL history.
  • Roger Craig, 49ers RB. One of three players in NFL history with 8,000 yards rushing, 4,900 yards receiving, 70 total touchdowns and four Pro Bowls. Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk are the others.
  • Richard Dent, 49ers DL. One of three players in NFL history with at least 135 sacks and 35 forced fumbles. Bruce Smith and Chris Doleman are the others.
  • Charles Haley, 49ers OLB/DE. One of 10 players in NFL history with 100 sacks, 25 forced fumbles and five Pro Bowls.
  • Rickey Jackson, 49ers linebacker. One of five players in NFL history with at least 125 sacks and 40 forced fumbles. Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, Doleman and Jason Taylor are the others.
  • John Randle, Seahawks DT. One of five players in NFL history with185 starts, 135 sacks and seven Pro Bowls.
  • Don Coryell, Cardinals coach. Helped change the way teams played offense in the passing game, which helped revolutionize how defenses responded.
  • Emmitt Smith, Cardinals RB. All-time NFL rushing leader.
  • Russ Grimm, Redskins guard (and current Cardinals assistant coach). Arguably the best player on the most famous offensive line in NFL history.

On the ground in Miami

January, 30, 2010
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MIAMI -- The NFC West blog has temporarily relocated to South Florida.

The Pro Bowl is first on the agenda, followed by a week of Super Bowl buildup, followed by Hall of Fame voting Saturday, followed by the Super Bowl itself.

Jerry Rice, Cortez Kennedy, Roger Craig, Richard Dent, Charles Haley, John Randle and Rickey Jackson are among the Hall of Fame finalists with ties to current NFC West franchises.

A few Super Bowl participants also have ties to the division, including Colts safety Aaron Francisco (Arizona) and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis (Seattle), among others.

The focus here will remain mostly on the NFC West, with some South Florida flavor.

And if you've got ideas or suggestions, please fire away. It's appreciated.

By the decade: NFC West defensive line

January, 22, 2010
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Defensive end Leonard Little and defensive tackle Bryant Young stood out to me as the NFC West's best defensive linemen at their positions in the first decade of the 2000s.

The word "character" applies to both, though in different ways.

Little, his off-field legacy damaged by his role in a drunken-driving crash that killed a woman, showed what scouts and coaches call "football character" -- passion, determination, toughness, etc. Young, held up as a model citizen and all-around good guy, also possessed those on-field traits.

Both were extremely productive and, at their best, dominant and inspirational players. Both played hard regardless of how well their teams played.

The interception and diving touchdown return Little provided in the closing minutes against Jacksonville this past season stands out as one example. Young always commanded the highest compliments from opposing offensive linemen. They admired his production and the way he conducted himself. Former Seahawks guard Chris Gray once said he thought Young would have kept going to Pro Bowls if the 49ers had left him at defensive tackle in a 4-3 instead of transitioning him to end in a 3-4.

There were other very good defensive linemen in the NFC West during the decade.

The Cardinals' Darnell Dockett, now playing end in a 3-4, ranked second on my list of defensive tackles. Ranking second to Young, a potential future Hall of Famer, should stand as an honor. A few other defensive linemen -- Chike Okeafor, Grant Wistrom and Bryce Fisher -- played well for multiple teams within the division.

The charts below draw information from Pro Football Reference (Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks).

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