NFC West: Jon Gruden

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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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.

First Down

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

 
Jim HarbaughChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh has reached the NFC title game in each of his three seasons, so why would the 49ers look elsewhere?

Coach Jim Harbaugh's situation in San Francisco has been one of the most talked-about stories in the league in recent weeks.

If a resolution on his contract isn't reached, it will likely hover over the franchise all season and would be a major story next January, when Harbaugh could leave the team, although Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated this week he is happy with all aspects of his job and doesn’t see any way he will leave the team before the end of his contract. Still, getting the contract done would ease a lot of issues.

We all know the backdrop: Harbaugh has led the 49ers to the NFC title game in all three of his seasons as coach. He got them to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. He is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract that pays him $5 million per year. Harbaugh and the 49ers have been in discussion about a new deal for about a year, but are not close to an extension. Team owner Jed York recently told the Sacramento Bee he thinks contract talks will resume after the NFL draft in early May.

Things got interesting when the Cleveland Browns pursued a trade for Harbaugh. The 49ers were not interested, but that could change next year.

There have been rampant reports that Harbaugh has had trouble with some in the 49ers' front office, including general manager Trent Baalke. York, Harbaugh and Baalke have long downplayed the friction, indicating that they can coexist.

However, there is enough smoke here to think this situation go could south if a contract isn't agreed upon this year. Let's look at some issues that may be part of this story as it further develops:

The history: While it would be stunning to see the 49ers-Harbaugh marriage disintegrate after such a stellar start, similar breakups have happened before.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones
AP Photo/Ron HeflinJim Harbaugh would not be the first successful coach to leave during a team's prime. Jimmy Johnson left the Cowboys after winning two Super Bowls because of fighting with owner Jerry Jones.
After winning two straight Super Bowls, Jimmy Johnson famously left the Cowboys in 1994 after fighting with owner Jerry Jones. Following the 1998 season, Mike Holmgren shocked the NFL when he left quarterback Brett Favre and a Green Bay Packers team in its prime after a seven-year run that included a Super Bowl win. Holmgren left for more power and much more money in Seattle. In 2002, the Raiders traded coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for a massive amount of draft picks. The Raiders were burned as Gruden led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win against Oakland in his first season. In 2007, the Chargers sided with general manager A.J. Smith in his feud with coach Marty Schottenheimer even though the Chargers went 14-2 the season before.

If Harbaugh leaves the 49ers, it wouldn't be the first time a coach and team split despite success.

The highest-paid coaches: Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated he is not unhappy with his pay, but the man is underpaid considering his massive NFL success. Nine of the 32 NFL coaches in 2013 made at least $7 million. Only five of them had won a Super Bowl.

I'd think it has to bother Harbaugh that Chip Kelly earned $6.5 million in his first NFL season and NFC West rival Jeff Fisher made $7 million in St. Louis. Coaches' salaries are at a premium and, by NFL standards, Harbaugh is underpaid.

The best coaches without power: He is hypercompetitive and likes to be in control. So, Harbaugh probably isn't always thrilled to defer personnel decisions to Baalke. But I don't sense Harbaugh wanting to be the general manager and making every decision as he said. He is a coach.

I don't see this as a deal-breaker.

There are plenty of great NFL coaches who don't have total power, including Harbaugh's brother, John, in Baltimore. There's also Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Pete Carroll in Seattle. So, a lack of total power in the NFL really isn't a big deal anymore for coaches.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkWould Stanford coach David Shaw be a candidate to follow Jim Harbaugh again?
Where could Harbaugh land? Harbaugh's situation could cause teams to adjust their plans late in the season. I could see many owners prematurely firing a coach to get a shot at Harbaugh if he goes into January unsigned.

But right now, the list of teams that may be making a change next year and may make sense for Harbaugh isn't very long.

Miami and Dallas would be among the biggest suitors. Miami tried to hire Harbaugh before he went to San Francisco. The team has deep pockets, a need for good public relations, and the Dolphins have a good young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Dallas has big bucks and Tony Romo. Harbaugh could like both places.

Other possibilities could include both New York teams and Atlanta (coaching Matt Ryan would surely be intriguing). A potential long shot could be Oakland. Harbaugh was an assistant in Oakland and he could stay in the Bay Area. But the Raiders have to find a quarterback and ownership would have to be willing to shell out financially to make it work. Plus, the 49ers would need to get a haul from the Raiders to trade him to their Bay Area rival.

If I had to give odds on the early favorite, I'd look toward Miami.

Who could replace Harbaugh? It's only logical to think that San Francisco ownership, in the back of its mind, is thinking post-Harbaugh just in case.

The chance of getting draft picks for a coach the 49ers can't come to an agreement with could interest the team next offseason. Also, the idea of front-office peace could be at the forefront as well, especially if things go haywire the rest of this year.

The first place the 49ers would likely look to replace Harbaugh is on the current staff. Because the team has been so successful, I could see the 49ers having interest in staying close to home. Offensive and defensive coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, respectively, would likely be on the 49ers' list. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is a favorite of the front office. He was a candidate when Harbaugh was hired and his players love him.

Here's another name the 49ers could look at -- David Shaw. He replaced Harbaugh at Stanford. I'm sure he wouldn't be afraid to do it again.

Shaw has been steadfast in his desire to stay at Stanford. But if he were ever to leave for the NFL, this would likely be an appealing situation. He and his family could stay in their house and he'd go to a near perfect NFL situation with a franchise quarterback in Colin Kaepernick.

There is plenty to unfold in this situation in the next several months. Harbaugh and the 49ers could end it all by coming to a contract extension. But as we have realized early this offseason, it's not that simple.
Candlestick Park StadiumHoberman Collection/UIG/Getty ImagesOn Monday night, San Francisco 49ers fans will empty out of Candlestick Park for likely the final time.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The odds are strong that Monday night will see the final game at Candlestick Park when the San Francisco 49ers host the Atlanta Falcons.

Barring a complete breakdown by first-place Seattle, the best the 49ers can do as a playoff seed is No. 5. In that scenario, the only way there could be another game at Candlestick – the 49ers move to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara in 2014 – is if they host the No. 6 seed in the NFC Championship Game.

Don’t count on it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 1990, a No. 5 seed has never hosted the No. 6 seed in a title game. So prepare to say goodbye to Candlestick on Monday night.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some remembrances of the historic but uncomfortable hunk of cement by the bay, as compiled by ESPN:

[+] EnlargeChris Berman
ESPNChris Berman reported from the field after "The Catch" game in 1982 at Candlestick Park.
“It was not the greatest-played game, but you couldn't have had more exciting a game. … The ball looks like it’s going into the stands and Dwight Clark leapt like a basketball player, made the catch. But the game wasn’t over. There was still a minute to go almost. … It caught even the city by surprise. It was fresh and it was fun, and who knew what they were building at the time. The whole thing sends shivers down my spine, that I was fortunate enough to be there and see it. It’s an iconic game in pro football history, let alone Candlestick. That’s what Candlestick will be remembered for more than anything else: that play, that game, even though there were some unbelievably great games, all the playoff games the 49ers have had there.”

-- ESPN's Chris Berman, who covered “The Catch” from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship Game

“I have a plethora of memories, phenomenal memories of championship games won and lost, Monday night games, big games, December games, games that decided the home-field advantage almost every year it seemed like. The locker room dripping down from condensation. The high tide would come in and you’d get that smell on the field, really soggy when it started to rain. The infield, when the Giants were playing there, with crushed rock, you’d get skinned up all through September and early October. The wind, obviously, early in the season, was always a factor. The stadium needs to close. She’s gone as far as she can go, it needs to be done. But for me, obviously it’s hard to see her go, it’s hard to see it end, and I’ll always miss playing at Candlestick Park. I missed it the second I left the 49ers, and I still miss being in that park. It will be fun to be there Monday night and see the last game.”

-- ESPN NFL analyst and Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback Steve Young

“When the 49ers beat the Giants on 'Monday Night Football' at Candlestick in 1990, I had this old, beat-up car, a Delta ’88. I bought it for $500. It was the worst car you’ve ever seen. The players all made fun of me. They called me ‘Uncle Buck.’ This Giants game is huge, and before we leave for the stadium from the team hotel Charles Haley says to me, ‘I need to ride over with you in that car to the stadium. I’ve got to get in the right state of mind.’ I told him my car might not make it – it was that bad a car. He insisted on riding with me. So he didn’t take the team bus. It’s the biggest game in my life, and my car’s going to break down on the way to the stadium. I don’t have a parking pass or anything. So Haley is out the window yelling at security to let us in. I am a nervous wreck. I think Mike Holmgren and George Seifert are going to fire me – my coaching career is over. Even when we got to the stadium, I was scared to go in the locker room. Fortunately, we won 7-3 and Haley played his tail off.”

-- ESPN MNF analyst and Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden, who started his NFL coaching career as a 49ers assistant in 1990

[+] EnlargeSteve Young
George Rose/Getty Images"I'll always miss playing at Candlestick Park," Steve Young said. "I missed it the second I left the 49ers."
“My first NFL start was at Candlestick against Steve Young’s 1994 49ers team -- and I was pathetic. But it was going home to the Bay Area, close to where I grew up, buying 75 tickets for family and friends. At the time, you try not to get caught up in the nostalgia, the history and who you are playing because they were just awesome. Though I didn’t play well, it’s still a great memory that I was able to have my first NFL start there.”

-- ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, a Northern California native and resident who played his first NFL game with Tampa Bay at Candlestick in 1994

“I remember going onto the field at Candlestick and warming up. I would go to every corner of the field and throw the football because the wind was different in every area of the stadium. You think it would go right, and it would go left. Some areas you think it would knock the ball down, it would take the ball up. You wanted to know what the wind was going to do to the football, and I always felt that was to the quarterback’s advantage, knowing the wind current in Candlestick Park.”

--ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski, who played at Candlestick as a member of the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles

“The Eagles played the 49ers the last game in the final week of the 1993 season on 'Monday Night Football.' So we play the game and it ends up tied. They played a full 15 minutes of overtime, and with four seconds left Philadelphia was going to try a field goal. The kicker hooks it. He’s going to miss the field goal but the defender came in and roughed the kicker. So the game is over, the overtime period is over, but with a foul on the last play of a period, you extend the period. The Eagles re-kicked and won the game 37-34. It was the longest regular-season game in NFL history -- a full game, a full overtime, plus one play.”

--MNF rules consultant and former NFL official Gerry Austin, who refereed the longest regular-season game in NFL history at Candlestick on Jan. 3, 1994

Video: Gruden, Tirico check in from 'MNF'

November, 19, 2012
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ESPN's Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico have been camped out in the San Francisco Bay Area advancing the 49ers' appearance on "Monday Night Football" in Week 11.

They offer their thoughts in the accompanying video.

Gruden focuses on both teams' defenses.

Meanwhile, Tirico's podcast also previews the game. He speaks with Gruden, Merrill Hoge and Robbie Gould.

Sizing up Russell Wilson with Jon Gruden

September, 3, 2012
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The final teams to name starting quarterbacks for the 2012 NFL season went to extremes in doing so.

The Arizona Cardinals went with the 6-foot-6 John Skelton. No current starter is taller.

The Seattle Seahawks went with the 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson. No current starter is shorter.

Quarterback height probably isn't going to decide the Seahawks-Cardinals matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 1.

But as ESPN's Jon Gruden pointed out in the "2012 QB Camp" pre-draft installment above, Wilson's stature serves as a convenient explanation for any on-field failures Wilson might suffer. Wilson's height will be an issue until he proves it's not one.

The chart, provided by Jon Kramer of ESPN Stats & Information, breaks down starters by height. The listings reflect rounded heights in some cases. Wilson, for example, stands 5-10 and 5/8 inches. Drew Brees and Michael Vick are both 6 feet tall. They join Wilson as the only starters shorter than 6-2.

Gruden, speaking recently during a "Monday Night Football" media conference call, offered additional thoughts Wilson:
"I think the surprising thing that goes along with Russell Wilson being a starter, is they went out and gave Matt Flynn a big contract, where some people probably felt Flynn was the guaranteed starter, given the money he was given. But if you look at the body of work, what Russell Wilson did in college and what Matt Flynn did in college, it's to me not even close.

"I haven't met anybody who has been a team captain at quarterback on two major college teams in backtoback seasons and taken their teams to Bowl games. When Russell Wilson walks in the room, you feel his presence. He has an incredible vibe about him that's outstanding for an offensive football team and a team. And I think he can play it.

"The only downside to this kid is he's just not tall in some people's eyes, and I'm just happy that he's proved the critics wrong so far and I'm pulling for him. I really like this guy."

Convention says Wilson will struggle because he's a rookie, perhaps even imperiling Pete Carroll's coaching tenure following consecutive 7-9 seasons. Others think Wilson can put Seattle over the top in the division.

We can say this pretty safely: Wilson enters the 2012 season as the most pivotal unproven player in the NFC West.

Gruden QB Camp: Brandon Weeden's turn

April, 18, 2012
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NFL teams covet players whose passion for the game makes them put football first.

Brandon Weeden, one of the top quarterbacks in the 2012 NFL draft, put baseball first -- for good reason. The New York Yankees made him a second-round pick in 2002, in part because Weeden, a shortstop-turned-pitcher, could throw a baseball in the 90s consistently (as in 90-plus miles per hour, as opposed to the 1990s).

Now 28, Weeden continually faces questions about his age, a subject ESPN's Jon Gruden raised during his latest conversation with a top quarterback prospect. That video is available above and is the latest installment in a series that has already covered quite a few college prospects at the position.

Mel Kiper jr. sent Weeden to Cleveland at No. 37 in a recent mock draft Insider. Todd McShay agreed Insider, as did Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com. Which can only mean the Browns will not take Weeden. Kidding. Unless I'm right.

One dissenting opinion: Rob Rang has Weeden going to Miami at No. 42, with the Browns taking Ryan Tannehill fourth.


Former Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler says he's hoping to leave a "very respectful, cherished, loving legacy" during his time here on Planet Earth.

The tattoo on his right arm reminds him of this.

"Leave your legacy," it says.

Osweiler's left arm is less relevant to whatever success he enjoys in the NFL -- or in any English classes he might have taken as a political science major at Arizona State.

"Live life to it's fullest," reads the tattoo on that arm, complete with the unwelcome apostrophe.

Osweiler, speaking to ESPN's Jon Gruden in the continuing "QB Camp" draft series, says that tattoo dates to his high school days.

Perhaps most impressively, Osweiler has enough room on his long arms to fit those sentences, additional punctuation and all. At Gruden's prompting, Osweiler addressed the positives and negatives associated with his 6-foot-7 height and with his length overall.

The point Gruden made about taller quarterbacks -- how they use their eyes to mask their intentions becomes critical because defenders can see them easier -- stood out. Osweiler is two inches taller than any NFC West quarterback. Arizona's John Skelton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick are both 6-5.

The last time we considered Osweiler, he was at the combine and recovering from a foot injury. The Seattle Seahawks were looking for a quarterback, a search that led them to Matt Flynn in free agency. Osweiler subsequently worked out for scouts.

Analysts are projecting Osweiler for the second round or later.

I'm having a tougher time envisioning an NFC West team drafting him in that range now that Flynn is a starting candidate for Seattle. The Cardinals do not have a second-round choice, and they appear mostly set for 2012 with Kevin Kolb and Skelton. The San Francisco 49ers are set at quarterback for this season. The St. Louis Rams could use a veteran backup more than they could use a developmental player at the position.

Gruden's QB Camp: 'Spider 3 Y banana'

March, 30, 2012
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NFC West teams do not face the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, meaning presumed No. 1 overall draft choice Andrew Luck will not be on the schedule in this division.

I thought Luck's interview with ESPN's Jon Gruden was interesting anyway. Luck seemed comfortable talking football and laughing at his mistakes, including that memorable interception he threw during Stanford's game against USC.

The "Spider 3 Y banana" reference refers to a staple play from Stanford's offense, one featuring the fullback as the No. 1 option. Turns out Luck should have thrown to the fullback in that USC game.
There are good reasons relatively few prominent NFL players transition into coaching.

Salaries are much lower for coaches, especially at the entry level. Hours are much longer. There is very little glory compared to the rush players experience routinely on the field.

Any highly-paid player making the transition probably loves the work.

Former Seattle Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram comes to mind. He's joining the Pitt staff as receivers coach after spending 2011 as an offensive quality control coach for the San Francisco 49ers.

Quality control coaches often do the dirty work, including recording detailed play-by-play information for use with video systems. It is tedious work. Hours are long. Salaries are far lower than what other assistants earn. But as Jon Gruden, Steve Spagnuolo and others have proven, starting out at the bottom can result in getting the top job eventually.

Engram, 39, grew up in South Carolina and played at Penn State. He's obviously serious about coaching.

Playing for Joe Paterno in college and Mike Holmgren in the NFL gave Engram a strong coaching pedigree during his playing days. Working under Jim Harbaugh with the 49ers added more seasoning.

Engram will work under Paul Chryst at Pitt. Chryst's brother, Geep, is the 49ers' quarterbacks coach.
While the St. Louis Rams wait for Jeff Fisher, the team is lining up interviews with additional candidates.

Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals and brother to Jon, is apparently on the interview schedule for Thursday, Bernie Miklasz notes. Denver Broncos assistant Dennis Allen is also interviewing.

This could be a case of the Rams simply doing their diligence. It could also indicate the Rams feel as though Fisher is slipping away. Or, they simply do not know what to think.

The father-son relationship between Fisher's agent, Marvin Demoff, and Rams executive Kevin Demoff hardly guarantees Fisher will land in St. Louis. It's reasonable to think that relationship would help the Rams have an accurate feel for Fisher's intentions, however.

If the Rams were confident in landing Fisher, they would have less reason to speak with other candidates -- particularly coordinators, who could not join the organization in any capacity other than as head coaches.

There's a danger in overthinking what still could be a straightforward situation. The longer Fisher takes to decide, however, the more our minds wander.

We know Fisher is the Rams' top choice. The team has said so. Landing a secondary candidate would feel like settling.

The irony, in my view, is that even Fisher would have a hard time improving upon a Steve Spagnuolo-Josh McDaniels pairing purely from a scheme standpoint. What kind of staff could Gruden, Allen or the other backup candidates put together?

Around the NFC West: Pro Bowl surprises

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
9:31
AM ET
A single tweet from a Philadelphia reporter trumped all the others I ran across after the NFL announced its Pro Bowl teams for the 2011 season.

"I have to say this one more time before I go to bed," Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote. "49ers have more Pro Bowlers (8) than the entire NFC East (7). Not how I saw it in August."

The situation at cornerback was particularly illustrative. Carlos Rogers, a relatively cheap pickup by the San Francisco 49ers in free agency, is a Pro Bowl starter. Nnamdi Asomugha, the Philadelphia Eagles' prized offseason acquisition, is only a second alternate -- behind first-alternate Brandon Browner, a player the Seattle Seahawks signed from the CFL amid zero fanfare.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle provides perspective by noting that the 2011 49ers tied a franchise record with six Pro Bowl starters. Branch: "They also had six starters in 1971. San Francisco and New England, which also had eight players selected, have the most Pro Bowlers of any NFL team this season and the Niners' eight Pro Bowlers are their most since they had 10 in 1995."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com passes along reaction from 49ers players following their selection to the Pro Bowl.

Also from Maiocco: player-by-player review for the 49ers' defensive players from Week 16.

More from Maiocco: a look at the offensive players.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and the team's other Pro Bowl selections/alternates earned their standing on the strength of votes from coaches and players. Coach Pete Carroll on Chancellor and Browner: "As first-time starters, the fans wouldn’t really know them. But their peers have recognized the impact that they’ve had."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times takes a closer look at the range where the Seahawks figure to draft in the first round.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle passes along Carroll's thoughts on what Tarvaris Jackson could do better late in games. Henderson: "Specifically, Carroll pointed to a third-and-2 play on the final possession in which Jackson threw incomplete deep down the middle of the field. Carroll said throwing a check-down pass instead would have gained about 15 yards."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with the Cardinals' Pro Bowlers, including Adrian Wilson. Somers: "This is Wilson's fourth consecutive Pro Bowl selection and fifth overall. In early August, it didn't seem possible that he would play this season, much less make the Pro Bowl. Wilson suffered a torn right biceps muscle in training camp and missed the preseason. He didn't play well in the first month or so of the season, but then settled into coordinator Ray Horton's new scheme. Wilson thanked his teammates, the coaching staff and the rest of the organization for being patient while he returned from the injury."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals plan to bring back quarterback Kevin Kolb even though they could get out of his contract by declining to pay a $7 million bonus. Somers: "He's not going anywhere. The Cardinals traded away too much (cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, second-round pick in 2012) and committed to a five-year contract worth as much as $63 million. Kolb has missed six starts and most of a seventh game this season due to injury, but the Cardinals are too deep in this relationship to sever it after one year. And just as important, who takes over if Kolb is gone?" Noted: That last part is a key consideration. It's a little early to bail on such a significant investment under unusual circumstances.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com has this to say about John Skelton's slow starts and fast finishes: "It’s so odd, not that Skelton plays better at the end of games but that there is such a discrepancy on how much better he plays. Is it inexperience, or a lack of a full offseason of reps (since he got little as a rookie in his non-lockout offseason), as coach Ken Whisenhunt suggests? Maybe. But it’s hard to tell why Skelton suddenly gets all Brady in the final 15 minutes (yes, he is compared to Tebow, but Skelton usually is passing the ball better than Tebow late) when he can be very John Navarre before then."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Chris Long, Steven Jackson and James Laurinaitis have played well enough to receive Pro Bowl consideration. Thomas: "Laurinaitis is enjoying arguably his best NFL season, with 131 tackles, three sacks, and two interceptions. But only two middle linebackers per conference earn Pro Bowl berths, and San Francisco's Patrick Willis and Chicago's Brian Urlacher -- this year's NFC Pro Bowlers -- are tough competition." Noted: I hadn't considered Laurinaitis seriously given the Rams' struggles on defense, particularly against the run. The Cardinals blocked him well while springing Beanie Wells for 228 yards. Some of the other inside linebackers in the NFC West -- Daryl Washington, NaVorro Bowman and K.J. Wright -- have sometimes stood out.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers thoughts on a report from San Diego suggesting Jon Gruden and A.J. Smith could come to St. Louis in leadership roles with the Rams. Miklasz: "My best guess is that the speculation is most likely originating from Los Angeles, home of off-the-books Rams adviser John Shaw, who is tight with Chargers' president/owner Dean Spanos."

Gruden and the Rams' plans for a coach

December, 27, 2011
12/27/11
2:48
PM ET
A few thoughts on the San Diego Union-Tribune report connecting ESPN's Jon Gruden to the St. Louis Rams:
  • Gruden
    ESPN issued a statement saying Gruden remains committed to "Monday Night Football" for many years to come. Of course, people sometimes change their minds, particularly when vast sums of cash are involved. Stan Kroenke, the Rams' owner, has vast sums of cash to offer. He also has a young franchise quarterback and a power running back suited for the offense Gruden has run in the past.
  • Landing Gruden would be a great get for the Rams. Critics will correctly note that Gruden won in Tampa Bay largely with Tony Dungy's players. The bottom line, though, is that he won. Gruden also won in Oakland, something no one had done since Art Shell's run as coach there. Gruden's track record would give the Rams welcome profile in St. Louis and beyond. His offense bears similarities to the one Sam Bradford and the Rams ran in 2010, so that would help in the short term.
  • Gruden and Kevin Demoff, the Rams' executive vice president of football operations/chief operating officer, worked together in Tampa Bay from 2005-08. That gives Gruden a direct connection to the Rams' current power structure. Demoff's father, longtime agent Marvin Demoff, represents another potential coaching candidate, Jeff Fisher. There's another name to keep in mind if the Rams change coaches.
  • There is no opening in St. Louis just yet. Steve Spagnuolo's run as head coach could be ending, but no decision has been announced. Kroenke has been called "Silent Stan" because he doesn't volunteer information freely. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that those informing reporters on these matters are connecting dots more than they are relaying hard facts.
  • The Union-Tribune report suggests Chargers general manager A.J. Smith would land in the same capacity with the Rams, and that Smith would be the key to bringing Gruden to St. Louis. This paints Smith in a flattering light. It suggests the Chargers might want to think twice before letting such a power broker slip away. I am not sure what would make Smith the key to landing Gruden. Kevin Acee notes that Gruden and former Raiders/Bucs executive Bruce Allen are close friends.
  • Smith has been a polarizing figure, especially with players. Does his personality lend itself to connecting with a rightfully skeptical fan base in St. Louis? It wouldn't really matter if Gruden were head coach. Gruden would be the face of the franchise in that case. His personality would set the tone for the organization. Smith would remain in the background. His track record in personnel is mixed. The Chargers have enjoyed a run of relative success in recent seasons, but they'll be watching their former quarterback, Drew Brees, in the upcoming playoffs.
  • Acee's story mentioned Spagnuolo as a possible candidate to become defensive coordinator in Philadelphia if the Rams make a change. That makes sense on multiple levels. Spagnuolo has coached under Andy Reid previously and would, at least in theory, be a candidate to replace him at some point down the line.

That's it for now. I just finished discussing this and other NFC West matters with Bernie Miklasz on our weekly conversation via 101ESPN St. Louis. I'll post that audio in a bit.

Video: Behind the scenes with Tirico

December, 12, 2011
12/12/11
5:00
PM ET
ESPN's Mike Tirico takes us behind the scenes for a closer look at the logistics associated with a "Monday Night Football" production.

The color-coded chart Tirico uses during games looks like something an offensive coordinator or head coach would use.

Tirico and his partners in the booth actually emerge from games with that night's broadcasts recorded onto their iPads and personal media for "film review" of their own performances. I'll be charting Jon Gruden on third down tonight.

Video: Gruden QB camp - Newton sequel

April, 17, 2011
4/17/11
2:03
PM ET

Jon Gruden discusses NFL verbiage with the NFL prospect and puts the former Auburn star through some passing drills.
In the spirit of draft analysis, surely we can overanalyze Cam Newton's performance during this video clip from the Auburn quarterback's session with ESPN's Jon Gruden.

I'll lead off by noting that Newton pulled out a 244-202 victory in total words spoken, impressive against someone with Gruden's syllabic range. Gruden built a 162-59 word-count lead halfway through the clip, punctuated with a 65-word flurry in which the former NFL coach noted that Peyton Manning was preparing to beat Newton even as they spoke -- a harrowing thought for any rookie.

Newton kept his composure, providing answers spanning 106 and 79 words in the second half of this video. He mixed in some seemingly genuine smiles while outscoring Gruden by a 185-40 margin over final 1:16.

Overall, Newton averaged 1.58 words per second on a relatively slow track. I'd say he's ready for the NFL.

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