NFC West: Matt Hasselbeck

After judging a quarterback by the company he keeps, I've expanded the field to show additional names with recent ties to the NFC West.

The chart below ranks these QBs by most starts since 2010 with at least 15 action plays and a Total QBR score in the 90s.

For additional context and to avoid implying any similarities between emerging star Colin Kaepernick and journeyman backup Brady Quinn, I've included an additional column showing cumulative QBR figures for all starts since 2010, regardless of how many action plays (all QB plays except kneel-downs, spikes and handoffs).

The information reflects negatively on St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who has just one 90-plus game out of 42 qualifying starts and a cumulative QBR score of 42.3, well below the 50-point mark indicating average play.

Some context is in order. QBR assumes an average supporting cast. Some quarterbacks on the list have played with exceptionally weak supporting casts. Bradford has arguably played with the weakest of the group, especially when factoring for the injury problems that wiped out Bradford and the Rams in 2011 in particular, when St. Louis led the NFL in adjusted games lost.

The Rams think Bradford's production will improve significantly in 2013 and especially beyond now that the team has acquired fresh, fast talent on offense. So, while we might reasonably have expected Bradford to have provided a few more exceptional performances to this point in his career, a case can be made that he has too often found himself in survival mode.

video Jim from Albany, Ore., had no beefs with the "Greatest Coaches" ballot I submitted for the ESPN project. He did question the project itself, however.

"It seems to me that a coach becomes 'great' only after he has a 'great' quarterback," Jim wrote in the NFC West mailbag. "The coaches at the very top of the list might be exceptions, but let's look at some of the others."

The way Jim sees things, Bill Belichick struggled in Cleveland before he had Tom Brady in New England. Mike Shanahan struggled without John Elway. Mike Holmgren was considered a great coach in Green Bay, but he had Brett Favre. Tom Landry struggled after Roger Staubach retired. Tom Coughlin was fired by Jacksonville, but once he had Eli Manning, he became a great coach. Tony Dungy became great when he had Peyton Manning. Bill Walsh was innovative, of course, but he also had Joe Montana and Steve Young.

"The voting is a fun exercise and I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a coach," Jim writes. "Some are certainly much better than others and some are great, but I think people are overlooking the role that a franchise quarterback plays in how 'great' a coach is considered to be."

There is no doubt quarterbacks make a tremendous difference. Head coaches sometimes play leading roles in acquiring and developing quarterbacks. Let's take a quick run through the coaches Jim mentioned in search of added perspective:
  • Belichick: We could say the Patriots lucked into Brady in the sixth round, but Belichick was ultimately responsible for drafting him and then sticking with him after Drew Bledsoe's return to health. Also, the Patriots had an 11-5 record when Matt Cassel was their primary quarterback in 2008.
  • Shanahan: Shanahan deserves credit for getting the most from an aging Elway. The Broncos had six winning seasons, one losing season and one 8-8 season in the eight years immediately following Elway's retirement. The post-Elway Broncos went 91-69 under Shanahan overall. That works out to a .569 winning percentage in Denver after Elway. Bill Parcells was at .570 for his entire career.
  • Holmgren: Even if we give Favre credit for the Packers' success in Green Bay, we still must account for Holmgren's winning with Matt Hasselbeck and a more run-oriented offense in Seattle. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick in Green Bay. Holmgren traded for him and eventually won with him. Hasselbeck went to three Pro Bowls. Holmgren didn't luck into Hasselbeck. He helped develop him.
  • Landry: The Cowboys enjoyed their greatest postseason success under Landry when Staubach was the quarterback through the 1970s. However, the Cowboys were 31-10 under Landry in the three seasons before Staubach arrived. They were 21-6-1 in Staubach's first two seasons even though Staubach started only three of those games, posting a 2-1 record in his starts. Dallas went 24-8 in its first two seasons after Staubach retired. The Cowboys posted five winning records in their first six seasons of the post-Staubach era, going 61-28 over that span.
  • Coughlin: Manning wasn't all that great for much of Coughlin's early run with the Giants. Players such as Michael Strahan have credited Coughlin for adapting his gruff personal style in a manner that allowed the Giants to become a championship team. That could be entirely true, or it could be convenient narrative. We can't really know. However, although the Giants might not have won titles without Manning, we can't ignore the role their defense played in defeating Brady's Patriots following the 2007 season in particular. They didn't win disproportionately because of their quarterback.
  • Dungy: I listed Dungy 20th on my ballot because he won with two completely different types of teams. However, I also think a case can be made that the Colts should have enjoyed greater playoff success during the Peyton Manning years. Ultimately, I point to the success Tampa Bay enjoyed beginning in 1997 with a team built to some degree in Dungy's defensive image. The Buccaneers went 48-32 in their final five seasons under Dungy. That franchise was floundering previously.

I left off Walsh because Jim wasn't challenging his credentials as a great coach. Hopefully, the information above provides some context. I do think it's tough knowing to what degree a coach has facilitated his team's success. We're left to look at success over time, plus whatever contributions a coach seemed to make in terms of strategy, team building, etc.

Joe Gibbs gets credit for winning three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks, none of them Hall of Famers. It's not as if Gibbs had horrible quarterbacks, however. Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien were both two-time Pro Bowl selections. Doug Williams obviously had talent. He was a first-round draft choice, after all.

Perhaps we'll find ways in the future to better measure a coach's contributions. Right now, there's a lot we do not know beyond the results on the field.
What comes to mind after the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals agreed on a trade sending Carson Palmer to Arizona:
  • The price: The Cardinals are sending a 2013 sixth-round pick (176th overall) and a 2014 seventh-rounder (conditional on Palmer starting at least 13 games, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter) for Palmer and the Raiders' seventh-round pick (219th overall) in 2013. Palmer has started at least 13 games in three of the past four seasons and seven times since first becoming a starter in 2004. The price in draft-choice compensation was so low because the Cardinals knew Oakland would release Palmer in the absence of a trade. General manager Steve Keim and the Cardinals' front office deserve credit for getting a starting quarterback without giving up too much. Sometimes a team acts hastily in the presence of great need, particularly when there's a powerful head coach involved. That arguably happened to an extent with the Kansas City Chiefs when they acquired Alex Smith for a second-round choice. Smith might be more appealing than Palmer, but is he that much more appealing?

  • The salary: We'll revisit initial reports on financial compensation once the numbers can be verified and put into context. Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Palmer will get $16 million over two years, with $10 million guaranteed. That makes Palmer the obvious starter. And with backup Drew Stanton having received some guaranteed money as well, he becomes the clear No. 2.
  • The protection: Cardinals quarterbacks took a league-high 58 sacks last season. The team's new coach, Bruce Arians, favors a downfield passing attack. Arians' quarterback in Indianapolis last season, Andrew Luck, was put under duress and/or hit before throwing a league-high number of times, according to ESPN Stats & Information. What does this mean for the immobile, 33-year-old Palmer? Not as much as those numbers suggest. Palmer ranked seventh among qualifying quarterbacks last season in sacks per drop back. He was at 4.4 percent, below the 5.9 percent average for 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan were ahead of Palmer in this category. Offensive lines deserve some blame for sacks, but quarterbacks play a huge role in them. Mobility isn't the key variable, either. Palmer gets the ball out.
  • The INTs: Palmer throws interceptions at a high rate. Perhaps he'd be better off taking a few more sacks. Palmer ranks 25th among 29 qualifying quarterbacks over the past three seasons in touchdown-to-interception ratio. Palmer is at 1.22 in this category, ahead of only Mark Sanchez (1.14), Colt McCoy (1.05), Matt Hasselbeck (1.03) and Chad Henne (0.88).
  • The impact: Palmer has been an average quarterback in recent seasons as measured by Total QBR. I would expect the Cardinals to win a few more games as a result, perhaps getting into the 8-8 range, all else equal. Arizona posted a 5-11 record last season, but that was misleading. The Cardinals went 1-11 over their final 12 games. The quarterbacking was horrendous. Ryan Lindley, John Skelton and Sanchez were the only quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts to finish with a negative number in points above replacement. That suggests they were not just below average, but also worse than replacement-level players. Palmer finished the season at plus-44.7 in this category. That was 23rd in the NFL out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts -- not great, but so much better than Lindley or Skelton.

Back with more in a bit. I've revived Palmer-related charts that ran recently. The one below shows stats following the major injuries Palmer has suffered.
NFC West teams have drafted five quarterbacks, acquired two by trade, shipped off four others for draft choices and spent roughly $130 million on the position -- all since 2010.

It's been a wild ride.

In 2012 alone, every team in the division but the St. Louis Rams benched a quarterback earning at least $6.5 million per season for ones earning between $490,000 and $1.3 million annually. Two of the three displaced starters have already been released (Kevin Kolb) or traded (Alex Smith). The third, Matt Flynn, appears on his way from the Seattle Seahawks to the Oakland Raiders in a trade that is reportedly imminent.



Signs of progress abound. Consider this juxtaposition: Two current NFC West starters finished their 2012 seasons in the Pro Bowl (Russell Wilson) or Super Bowl (Colin Kaepernick). Two castoffs from the division, Kolb and 2012 trade subject Tarvaris Jackson, are competing to start for the Buffalo Bills in 2013.

So much has changed since Matt Hasselbeck, Derek Anderson, Sam Bradford and Smith opened the 2010 season as starting quarterbacks for NFC West teams. Only Bradford remains. Though firmly established as the Rams' starter, his long-range career trajectory appears less defined. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals are still searching for Kurt Warner's worthy heir, a process that has led them to Drew Stanton until further notice.

The following team-by-team accounting shows what's been ventured and gained at quarterback for NFC West teams over the past three years. The period dates to Warner's retirement, Pete Carroll's hiring as Seahawks coach and Bradford's selection as a No. 1 overall draft choice. I've ordered the teams by cash spent.

St. Louis Rams

Cash spent on QBs: $48.4 million

Top earners: Bradford ($42.05 million), A.J. Feeley ($4.95 million), Kellen Clemens ($863,087), Austin Davis ($395,000) and Tom Brandstater ($132,352).

Draft capital invested: The Rams used the first pick of the 2010 draft for Bradford. They have not drafted a quarterback subsequently.

QBs added by trade: None.

QBs subtracted by trade: None.

Comment: The current collective bargaining agreement came along too late for the Rams. They're stuck paying Bradford $50 million in guaranteed money because the old wage scale was so much more generous for high draft choices. Last year, Andrew Luck got $22.1 million in guarantees as the first overall pick. So, while the Rams drafted Bradford to rescue their franchise, the financial obligation is making it tougher for the team to build its roster in a fundamentally different economic environment. Of course, it's all good if Bradford produces the way the Rams think he can produce.

Arizona Cardinals

Cash spent on QBs: $28.7 million

Top earners: Kolb ($20.5 million), Anderson ($3.25 million), Stanton ($2 million), John Skelton ($1.5 million), Rich Bartel ($920,000), Max Hall ($325,000), Brian Hoyer ($108,529), Ryan Lindley ($105,698). Releasing Matt Leinart right before the 2010 season spared the team from paying him.

Draft capital invested: The Cardinals drafted Skelton in the fifth round and Lindley in the sixth. Arizona also parted with a second-round choice when acquiring Kolb.

QBs added by trade: Kolb. The Cardinals sent a second-round choice and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia Eagles for Kolb.

QBs subtracted by trade: none.

Comment: Signing Kolb to a deal averaging better than $12 million per season appears foolish in hindsight. Other unproven quarterbacks haven't gotten that much since the Kolb trade went down right before training camps opened in 2011. However, the Cardinals badly needed a quarterback at the time. They paid what they felt was necessary to get the quarterback they wanted. Arizona needed Kolb to cooperate on a contract extension to facilitate the trade. That meant paying a premium. New coach Bruce Arians has said the team can win with Stanton, but this situation appears fluid. Carson Palmer's name has come up as a potential alternative. Arizona holds the seventh overall pick in the draft. It's still early.

Seattle Seahawks

Cash spent on QBs: $28.4 million

Top earners: Matt Flynn ($8 million), Charlie Whitehurst ($8 million), Hasselbeck ($6.75 million), Jackson ($4 million), Wilson ($1 million), Josh Portis ($375,000), J.P. Losman ($296,470). The team traded Seneca Wallace before Wallace was due to receive salary compensation for 2010.

Draft capital invested: The Seahawks used a third-round choice to select Wilson. They used another third-rounder in the Whitehurst deal, which also included a swap of second-round choices.

QBs added by trade: Whitehurst. The third-round pick sent to San Diego in the Whitehurst deal was for one year in the future. The exchange of second-round picks involved choices that year.

QBs subtracted by trade: Wallace and Jackson. Seattle traded Wallace and Jackson for seventh-round picks. The team figures to get something in return for Flynn.

Comment: Landing Wilson in the third round and daring to start him as a rookie turned the Whitehurst, Jackson and Flynn experiments into footnotes. Seattle has done a good job getting something in return for its castoff quarterbacks despite failing to draft players at the position in 2010 or 2011. The Rams and Cardinals haven't been able to do that in recent seasons. What the Seahawks get in return for Flynn will factor into this analysis as well. Whitehurst returned a seventh-round compensatory choice from the NFL after leaving Seattle to re-sign with the Chargers.

San Francisco 49ers

Cash spent on QBs: $24.7 million

Top earners: Alex Smith ($15.9 million), David Carr ($3.9 million), Kaepernick ($3.2 million), Scott Tolzien ($844,960), Troy Smith ($545,000), Josh Johnson ($350,000). The 49ers released Johnson before he played for the team, but by then the team had paid a $350,000 signing bonus to him. Shaun Hill was traded before the 49ers had to pay any of his 2010 salary. Nate Davis was on the practice squad in 2010.

Draft capital invested: The 49ers used a second-round choice for Kaepernick after using fourth- and fifth-rounders to trade up. They have drafted no other quarterbacks over the past three years.

QBs added by trade: None.

QBs subtracted by trade: Alex Smith and Hill. The 49ers fared well in landing a high second-round choice from Kansas City in the Smith trade. Trading Hill returned a seventh-round pick from the Detroit Lions.

Comment: San Francisco would have considered releasing Alex Smith for salary-cap reasons if no trade had come together. Getting a premium pick in return was commendable. Put another way, Smith's departure armed the 49ers with a pick roughly equivalent to the one used for selecting Kaepernick. The Hill trade wasn't as fortunate because it meant proceeding with Carr as the backup. Overall, though, the 49ers put themselves in prime position at quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh's push to retain Smith in 2011 worked out well. So did the decision to replace Smith with Kaepernick.
Carson Palmer could become available to the Arizona Cardinals and other teams with unsettled quarterback situations.

A few thoughts on the possibilities:
  • The situation: Palmer is scheduled to earn $13 million in 2013 salary from the Oakland Raiders under a deal inherited from the team's former leadership and renegotiated by its current one last year. Palmer could become available for trade or through release if the sides cannot workout a deal that makes more sense from a salary-cap standpoint. Palmer appears unwilling to rework his contract, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. A timetable for Palmer remains unclear.
  • Forget about a trade: Acquiring Palmer would mean acquiring his contract. I cannot imagine the Cardinals acquiring a $13 million salary for a 33-year-old quarterback who ranked 29th in Total QBR last season at 44.7. That would make no sense, especially if the Raiders were going to release Palmer anyway. Arizona has been freeing itself from cumbersome contracts recently, not seeking them out. The team would have more than $20 million in 2013 cap space committed to Palmer, Drew Stanton and Kevin Kolb's old contract if the team acquired Palmer's current deal.
  • Palmer would help: Palmer has a 12-28 starting record with a 48.1 QBR score and 83.1 NFL passer rating over the past three seasons. He would still upgrade the Cardinals' quarterback situation. Palmer is close to an average starter, in my view. His reputation is better than that, but even if he's merely average, Arizona could use him. The Cardinals got sub-backup play from the position much of last season. They rank last in QBR (26.8) and passer rating (65.7) over the past three seasons. They have zero or one viable starter on the roster right now, depending upon your opinion of Stanton. They need more than that, obviously. Adding Palmer would, in theory, give the Cardinals an average starter and a backup with potential in Stanton. Arizona could then feel better about the position heading into the draft.
  • Cap considerations: The Cardinals released Kolb, but the quarterback's contract is counting $6 million against the Cardinals' salary cap in 2013. Stanton, Brian Hoyer, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley are scheduled to count about $4.9 million against the cap. Any deal with Palmer would be signed in that context. Stanton has guaranteed money in his deal. Hoyer has a $2 million salary that is not guaranteed. The Cardinals have scrambled to fix their salary cap, cutting veterans before signing or re-signing 10 unrestricted free agents for less than $15 million in total cap charges. They would have the flexibility to sign Palmer on a shorter-term deal worth somewhere north of the $5 million per year Matt Hasselbeck recently got as a backup in Indianapolis.
  • Getting ahead of ourselves: If Palmer left the Raiders, Oakland could be in the market for a quarterback such as ... Seattle's Matt Flynn? Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was in Green Bay when Flynn was there. It's something to keep in mind.
Patrick Willis, Adrian Wilson and Steven Jackson defined toughness, physical play and intimidation in the NFC West when the division was known for none of those things.

It's only fitting Wilson and Jackson are leaving together.

While it's possible one or both could return to the division in some capacity, Wilson's release Friday and Jackson's decision to void his contract signal significant changes.

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck and Adrian Wilson
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenArizona safety Adrian Wilson terrorized NFC West foes like Matt Hasselbeck for 12 seasons.
The timing feels right in both cases, even though it's tough to wave goodbye. Wilson is 33 years old, lost playing time last season and was scheduled to earn a $1 million roster bonus this offseason. The Cardinals have a new coaching staff and a plan to rely more heavily on younger players. Now is the time to move on from Wilson.

"Decisions like this are never easy, but it’s especially tough with someone like Adrian because he’s been such a special player and important part of this organization for the last 12 years," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said in a news release.

Wilson and Keim played at NC State at different times. Keim was with the Cardinals when the team drafted Wilson in 2001. If anyone would push for the Cardinals to keep Wilson, Keim would be the one. But he had to realize the move was coming sooner, not later, and that this was the right time to make a break.

"He and I have a long history, as many know," Keim said in the statement. "I had the privilege of meeting Adrian at North Carolina State when he was a 17-year-old freshman. It was obvious even then that his infectious smile and imposing stature could make him a star. His disruptive style meant opponents always had to know where No. 24 lined up, and the statistics illustrate all that he accomplished through his play on the field. Just as impressive, though, has been the leadership, discipline and determination he brought day in and day out, year in and year out."

I'll remember Wilson for putting huge, message-sending hits on Vernon Davis, Todd Heap, Trent Edwards and others. I'll remember him for delivering punishing hits to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck during a 2008 game in Seattle. Hasselbeck appeared especially drained after the game. He accused Wilson of dirty tactics, then later apologized.

Five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro honors define Wilson as one of the most accomplished safeties of his era. Wilson played 181 games, fifth most in franchise history. He leaves the Cardinals having picked off 27 passes and collected 25.5 sacks. The latter total is the fourth most by a defensive back since sacks became a stat in 1982.

We can debate how effective Wilson was playing the run versus playing the pass, but that misses what Wilson represented in his essence. He was a 6-foot-3, 230-pound strong safety and a threat to injure anyone in his path. The hit he put on Edwards drew a $25,000 fine and would have been more appropriate in a 1976 game between Pittsburgh and Oakland. That was the point. Cardinals opponents had to fear Wilson. No more.

Setting a price for 49ers' Alex Smith

February, 25, 2013
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Recent updates regarding Alex Smith's trade status do not include a couple key details: which team would acquire the San Francisco 49ers quarterback and at what price.

The Kansas City Chiefs have been mentioned consistently as a potential trade partner. That provides us with a starting point for projecting value.

Andy Reid is the Chiefs' new head coach. John Dorsey is their new general manager. Both were previously with organizations that participated in quarterback trades.

In 2011, Reid's Philadelphia Eagles sent Kevin Kolb to Arizona for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round draft choice.

In 2010, the Eagles sent quarterback Donovan McNabb to Washington for a 2010 second-round choice and a 2011 fourth-rounder.

In 2004, the Eagles traded A.J. Feeley to Miami for a 2005 second-round choice.

Those trades involved Reid's team parting with a quarterback. The Eagles did not acquire prominent quarterbacks by trade during his tenure with the team.

Those trades suggest Reid might value a viable quarterback as being worth a second-round choice, at least.

Other factors can affect the price, of course. In this case, the 49ers face an April 1 deadline for paying a $1 million bonus to Smith and guaranteeing his $7.5 million salary for 2013. That could make the 49ers a little more eager to complete a deal. It could empower the Chiefs or other teams to wait out San Francisco. However, teams serious about acquiring quarterbacks might prefer getting a deal done to risking the player for what could be a small gain in the end.

Dorsey, meanwhile, was with the Green Bay Packers for most of the past two decades. He also spent a short time with Seattle under Mike Holmgren. Dorsey was with the Packers when Green Bay traded quarterbacks Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks.

In 1995, the Packers got third- and fifth-round picks from Jacksonville for Brunell.

In 2001, the Packers sent Hasselbeck and the 17th overall choice in the draft to Seattle for the 10th overall choice and a third-round pick. Seattle spent the equivalent of a high second-round choice for Hasselbeck.

The 2000 trade involving Brooks netted a 2001 third-round choice from New Orleans. The teams also traded additional players. Green Bay landed linebacker K.D. Williams. The Saints got tight end Lamont Hall.

Based on precedent, the 49ers should be looking to get a second- or third-round choice from the Chiefs for Smith, should they do a deal with Kansas City.

San Francisco already owns a league-high 11 choices in the 2013 draft. The team figures to gain compensatory choices as well.

For those reasons, and because Smith has a mixed record in the NFL, a deal involving a conditional choice could make the most sense. In that case, the 49ers would be looking at a higher 2014 choice if Smith played well for his new team.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, frustrated over the absence of a late pass-interference call in Super Bowl XLVII, might not embrace a stat ESPN's John Clayton dug up for his latest "Inside the Huddle" video (above). I can help on that front, however.

"In the past 110 playoff games," Clayton reports, "there have been only one defensive holding call and two pass interference calls in the final two minutes."

Good note, and as Clayton reveals, one of those defensive pass interference calls went against the 49ers' Tarell Brown in the divisional playoffs this season.

What about the other one? Glad I asked.

The other pass-interference penalty during the final two minutes of a playoff game helped the Seattle Seahawks force overtime against Green Bay in a wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field following the 2003 season. Referee Bernie Kukar's crew flagged Packers linebacker Nick Barnett for interfering with Seahawks tight end Itula Mili on a third-and-goal play from the 6-yard line. Fifty-nine seconds remained in regulation. The pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Mili had fallen incomplete. The Packers led, 27-20.

The penalty against Barnett gave the Seahawks first-and-goal from the 1. Shaun Alexander scored on the next play and the game went to overtime, where the Packers won on Al Harris' interception return.

So, there is at least some precedent for officials to call pass interference in a goal-to-go situation during the final minutes of a tightly-contested playoff game.

"I would say it exactly like Bill Polian," Harbaugh told 95.7 The Game in San Francisco. "A penalty is a penalty no matter when it occurs in a game. It could occur in the first play of the game. It could occur on the last play of the game, or any play in between. That's the rules of football."

Final Word: NFC West

December, 28, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Three of a kind. Not since 1991 have three NFC West teams finished a season with winning records. It could happen in 2012 if the St. Louis Rams upset the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The Rams would finish 8-7-1 with a victory. Seattle and San Francisco already have 10 victories apiece. The 1991 NFC West race finished with New Orleans (11-5), Atlanta (10-6) and San Francisco (10-6) ahead of the Los Angeles Rams (3-13). Also with a victory, the Rams would become the second team since the merger to post an undefeated division record without qualifying for postseason.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports Steven Jackson is nearing another milestone. closing in on his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Making history. The Seahawks have never finished a season ranked first in fewest points allowed. Seattle enters Week 17 having allowed 232 points, fewest in the NFL by 21 points. Chicago has allowed 253. The 49ers have allowed 260. Seattle has allowed 17 or fewer points in its past four games, the Seahawks' longest streak since 2003 and 2004.

Milestone weekend. Steven Jackson, Russell Wilson and Aldon Smith are chasing milestones as the regular season wraps up.

The Rams' Jackson needs 10 yards rushing for his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season, which would tie LaDainian Tomlinson and Thurman Thomas for fourth behind Emmitt Smith (11), Curtis Martin (10) and Barry Sanders (10).

Seattle's Wilson has 25 touchdown passes, within one of Peyton Manning's rookie record. Wilson, with a 98.0 NFL passer rating, also has a shot at breaking Matt Hasselbeck's single-season franchise record (98.2).

Smith, with 19.5 sacks, needs three to break Michael Strahan's single-season record for sacks. Houston's J.J. Watt (20.5) is nearer the record, however.

Stopping the bleeding. The 49ers have been outscored by 50 points and allowed more than 700 yards over their past five-plus quarters. That is nearly as much yardage as the 49ers allowed over a 12-quarter stretch of games against Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis. The trend is about to end. The 49ers' Week 17 opponent, Arizona, has 735 yards in its past four games. The Cardinals' Brian Hoyer is making his first NFL start at quarterback.

Crabtree's time. The NFC West is in danger of finishing without a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002. The 49ers' Michael Crabtree needs 67 yards against Arizona to become the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald needs 215 yards to reach 1,000 for the sixth consecutive season. Seattle's Sidney Rice needs 252 yards for 1,000. Crabtree is averaging 91.5 yards per game since Week 13, sixth-most in the NFL.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

New variables, same formula for Seahawks

November, 29, 2012
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Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks scored what I saw as a signature victory over the 4-1 Chicago Bears at Soldier Field back in 2010.

"This is very reminiscent of the formula I have become accustomed to -- the big back hitting it hard and the flashy guy and the big receiver and the quarterback getting the ball to every guy," Carroll said following that 23-20 victory. "That is what we have come in here to do."

Some of the leading characters have changed as the Seahawks prepare to visit the Bears in Week 13 this season. Marshawn Lynch, who was making his Seattle debut in that Week 6 game two years ago, remains the big back Carroll referenced. The flashy guy, Justin Forsett, is long gone, as are the big receiver, Mike Williams, and the quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck.

The vision and preferred formula remain the same. That isn't likely to change.

"We're not New England and we're not going to turn into them unless we're down by 20 points where you have to throw it 20 times in a row," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told reporters this week.

The subject arose this week after the Seahawks stuck with their ground game against Miami when it wasn't working. Seattle will presumably emphasize the run against the Bears. Chicago has allowed 128 yards rushing per game and 4.6 per carry over its past five games, up from 71 yards per game and 3.9 per carry through Week 7. Lynch had topped 100 yards rushing in four consecutive games before the Dolphins held him to 46 yards and 2.4 per rush.

"To have Marshawn Lynch and to be able to hand him the ball, it helps a lot of things, rather than just having Russell Wilson drop back three, five or seven steps and have our guys just stand there and protect," Bevell said. "That brings up other issues. When you establish the run or you’re known for a running game, now we have all of the play-action passes where we put the ball in front of Marshawn and try to get them to react to the run, and then take shots and things over their heads."

This game Sunday marks Seattle's fourth against the NFC North this season. Bevell coached with the Vikings for years, so he's familiar with that division. The chart shows Seattle's offensive production against the Bears' division rivals this season.

Early signs point to Alex Smith starting

November, 14, 2012
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Starting 16 consecutive games in one season can be tough enough for NFL quarterbacks.

Stacking multiple 16-start seasons atop one another requires durability and, of course, the ability to hold the job on merit.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has encountered hurdles on both fronts over the years. The latest news suggests he'll remain on course, at least for now, to push toward a second consecutive 16-start regular season.

Smith, who suffered a concussion against St. Louis on Sunday, has been cleared to participate in non-contact drills. That suggests Smith will likely start against the Chicago Bears on "Monday Night Football" in Week 11.

Smith started all 16 games for the 49ers last season, his first 16-start season since 2006 and the second of his career. He started the first nine games this season.

Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco were the only NFL quarterbacks to enter the 2012 season coming off successive seasons with 16 regular-season starts. Smith, Cam Newton, Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo and Andy Dalton started 16 games last season.
Good morning. I'll kick off this day-after-game glance at the Seattle Seahawks with a tweet from @joshohair.

He notes that Seattle's first three draft choices in 2012 include the team leader in sacks (first-rounder Bruce Irvin), the team leader in tackles (second-rounder Bobby Wagner) and the NFL's rookie leader in touchdown passes (third-rounder Russell Wilson).

That's a good note. Thanks for sharing, Josh.

Irvin also leads all NFL rookies in sacks with seven after collecting two during a 28-7 victory over the New York Jets in Week 10. That is one more than New England's Chandler Jones has to this point in the season.

The Seahawks' fourth-round choice, running back Robert Turbin, has also contributed. He's serving as Marshawn Lynch's backup. Turbin recovered a Seahawks fumble at the Seattle 7-yard line Sunday when the score was tied 7-7 early in the second quarter.

Wilson, with two more long touchdown strikes, now has 15 touchdown passes in 10 games for a team with a 6-4 record. He struggled more Sunday than his 131.0 NFL passer rating would indicate. We'll take a closer look at his play in our "QBR ranks" item a bit later.

Despite some issues against the Jets, Wilson continues to hurt opponents on longer throws, particularly at home. Wilson has completed 17 of 29 passes for seven touchdowns and no picks at CenturyLink Field on throws traveling at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has completed 13 of 28 such passes with one touchdown and five picks on the road.

Wilson beat the Jets for touchdown passes of 38 and 23 yards. His 15 scoring passes on the season rank tied for 10th in the NFL. His 90.5 NFL passer rating ranks tied for 12th and would be the highest single-season mark for a Seahawks starting quarterback since Matt Hasselbeck posted a 91.4 rating in 2007.

QBR ranks: Russell Wilson stands tallest

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
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At least one NFC West game from Week 6 followed its expected course.

The Seattle Seahawks indeed had problems against New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker. And the Patriots were indeed vulnerable on deep passes.

The Seahawks prevailed, 24-23, largely because quarterback Russell Wilson and his receivers exploited those vulnerabilities down the field.

Wilson completed 5 of 9 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns on passes traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Patriots had given up 11 such completions for 340 yards and three TDs through Week 5. Only Buffalo (11) had allowed as many heading into Week 6. The other 30 NFL teams had allowed 5.8 on average.

Wilson's deep strikes stood out for a few reasons:
  • Accuracy: Wilson never seemed to be taking chances with his deep throws. The Patriots' coverage problems contributed, but still, Wilson hit receivers in stride. That was impressive.
  • Ease of delivery: The winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice traveled farther than that in the air, obviously. Wilson delivered the ball with ease. He wasn't stepping into it the way a quarterback would deliver a desperation heave. Wilson played minor league baseball. He has ample arm strength. The Seahawks gave him very good protection on this play, too.
  • Coordination: Wilson and his receivers showed improved rapport, especially after Wilson left the pocket. Even the 10-yard scoring pass to Braylon Edwards looked like something resulting from red zone work in practice. The two had failed to connect in the clutch at Arizona in Week 1 even though Edwards was open.
  • Timing: Wilson continues to perform well in the clutch. The 46-yarder to Rice came with 1:18 remaining. Wilson has led the Seahawks into scoring range during the final two minutes of games against Arizona, Green Bay, St. Louis and New England.

Those are a few observations. This performance from Wilson keeps him on track to remain the starter without grumbling from those thinking the team would have been better off with Matt Flynn. He'll face a tougher test at San Francisco on Thursday night.

With that, let's take a look at how NFC West passers graded out for Week 6 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):
  • Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (133.7 NFL rating, 91.4 QBR): Wilson completed 16 of 27 passes (59.3 percent) for 293 yards with three TDs, no INTs and one fumble, which New England recovered. He took two sacks and rushed five times for 17 yards, gaining one first down. Wilson completed 12 of 20 passes for 206 yards with two TDs from inside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He hurt the Patriots outside the pocket as well, completing four of those seven attempts for 87 yards and a score. Last week, Wilson improved on third down. This week, he improved in his ability to strike downfield after escaping the pocket. What's next for Wilson? He could stand to step up in the pocket more regularly, it seems. Wilson put right tackle Breno Giacomini in a tough spot on one play Sunday, a big reason behind the holding penalty Giacomini incurred. Wilson might have been better off stepping forward on such a play. Wilson would have run into a sack, most likely, had Giacomini not held his man while Wilson ran toward the pressure. Giacomini was better off holding than allowing the sack. He prevented a loss of down.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (91.3 NFL rating, 77.3 QBR): Bradford completed 26 of 39 passes (66.7 percent) for 315 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no fumbles. He took three sacks. Bradford rushed four times for 34 yards and a TD. He also completed a pass for a two-point conversion to pull the Rams within a three-point deficit late in the game. Bradford is playing with great energy. So are the Rams. They know they're competitive each week and it's making a difference in how they carry themselves. The way Bradford scrambled and threw for a critical two-point conversion was impressive. It was even more impressive given the torque applied to Bradford's body in multiple places when he scored on a 1-yard keeper for the Rams' final TD. Bradford continues to connect on deep passes with rookie fourth-round choice Chris Givens. Their 65-yard connection was the third in three games longer than 50 yards.
  • Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals (64.3 NFL rating, 26.1 QBR): Kolb completed 14 of 26 passes (53.8 percent) for 128 yards with one TD, one INT and no fumbles. He took five sacks, one of them for a safety, before leaving the game with injured ribs. Backup John Skelton completed 2 of 10 passes for 45 yards with no TDs and one INT. His QBR score was 2.4. QBR is a rate stat. Suffering a critical turnover as part of an abbreviated performance contributed to the low score. Injury issues are dramatically affecting the Cardinals' offense. Kolb isn't transcending those. He completed only 10 of 19 passes for 57 yards with one TD and one pick on short passes (those traveling no more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage). Andre Roberts dropped one of those on third-and-5.
  • Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (43.1 NFL passer rating, 24.8 QBR): Smith completed 19 of 30 passes (63.3 percent) for 200 yards with no TDs, three INTs and one fumble, which the 49ers recovered. He took four sacks. Backup Colin Kaepernick completed 4 of 7 passes for 82 yards with no TDs, no INTs and two sacks. His QBR score was 70.8. Smith had gone 26 consecutive starts without throwing more than one INT in a game. His two third-quarter picks gave the Giants possession deep in 49ers territory. Smith had ample time to throw early in the game, but he appeared tentative and late with throws. The Giants presumably had something to do with that. They took away Vernon Davis and seemed to play more man coverage. Smith has played well enough to earn a pass for the occasional bad game. Will the coaching staff become more conservative, turning Smith back into game-manager mode?

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 6, provided they played enough to qualify for inclusion.

The column showing point above average reveals the "number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback."
NFL quarterbacks play in different systems with different coaches under different circumstances.

Some are going to suffer additional turnovers for reasons beyond their control.

Alex Smith would know this better than most quarterbacks after changing head coaches and offensive coordinators frequently during his first six NFL seasons.

Smith seems to be the right player in the right place at the right time lately.

The San Francisco 49ers' quarterback, credited by coaches for managing risks expertly, has not thrown an interception since a Week 12 game at Baltimore last season. He heads into the 49ers' game Sunday night against Detroit as the only player with no interceptions since that time through Week 1 (min. 100 dropbacks).

The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, ranks these qualifying quarterbacks by lowest percentage of interceptions and would-be interceptions (passes dropped by defenders).

Smith is riding a franchise-record streak of passes without an interception. The 49ers have gone six consecutive games without a turnover. One more game and they would tie the 2010 New England Patriots for the longest streak in NFL history.

Gunther Cunningham, the Lions' defensive coordinator, says it's only a matter of time before the turnover odds even out. Smith suffered two turnovers, a lost fumble and an interception, during a 25-19 victory at Detroit last season.

The dropped interception stat is one we don't see too frequently. The Lions' Matthew Stafford has more of them since the 2011 opener (six) than any quarterback, including one against San Francisco. Matt Hasselbeck is second with four. Smith had two last season, both during a 48-3 victory against Tampa Bay.

Awaiting a breakout from Sam Bradford

September, 13, 2012
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bradfordJay Drowns/Getty ImagesAfter a successful rookie campaign, Sam Bradford has been largely ineffective as the Rams struggled with the lockout and injuries.
The stat line for Robert Griffin III seemed too good for a rookie making his first NFL start: 19-of-26 passing for 320 yards with two touchdowns, no turnovers and just one sack.

It was the third time in the past 50 seasons a Washington Redskins quarterback completed at least 70 percent of his passes for at least 310 yards with at least two touchdowns and no picks. Mark Rypien and Joe Theismann each hit all those baselines once.

NFC West baselines

Kurt Warner did it three times for the Arizona Cardinals and five times for the St. Louis Rams. Marc Bulger and Jim Everett each managed one such game for the Rams.

Matt Hasselbeck (twice) and Jim Zorn (once) are the only Seattle Seahawks to post games with at least 70 percent completions, 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Steve Young (five times), Jeff Garcia (three), Elvis Grbac (once) and John Brodie (once) have done it for the San Francisco 49ers. In a bit of a surprise, Joe Montana never did.

Griffin and Bradford

The most relevant comparison this week: Griffin to Rams starter Sam Bradford.

Their teams face one another Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. The Redskins selected Griffin with a draft choice acquired from the Rams once St. Louis determined Bradford would remain its starter. Both players were very high draft choices, Bradford first overall in 2010 and Griffin second overall this year.

The scheduling rotation called for the Redskins and Rams to play one another this season regardless of the trade. That part was coincidental. Scheduling Griffin against Bradford in Week 2 gave fans something to anticipate early in the season. Bradford nearly led the Rams to an upset at Detroit last week. Griffin helped the Redskins knock off New Orleans in the Superdome.

Few great games

A note from ESPN Stats & Information, displayed in the first chart, revived a point I've heard recently from a source I can't recall.

The point is that Bradford has never had a truly great statistical performance in two-plus seasons with the Rams.

The chart at right shows players with the fewest games featuring a Total QBR score of at least 70 out of 100, counting only games with at least 25 action plays for the quarterback. Bradford has the fewest.

Matthew Stafford and Alex Smith are on the list, but both have made strides. Smith's QBR was at 83.5 during the 49ers' victory over Green Bay in Week 1. Stafford tossed three picks and struggled, but he led the winning touchdown drive after Bradford had helped rally the Rams into the lead.

Top offensive rookie

Bradford was most productive in 2010, when he was healthy and won offensive rookie of the year honors. Injuries to him and a long list of teammates affected Bradford last season. Learning a new offense on short notice -- we all recall the lockout -- had to be tough.

Bradford completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 308 yards, three touchdowns and no picks during a victory over Denver as a rookie. His Total QBR score for that game was 94.7, a career high by a wide margin. That was one of three 300-yard games for him. It was the only time Bradford tossed more than two touchdown passes. He has five games with two, 12 games with one and nine games with none.

The nine games with no scoring passes are the most since 2010 for quarterbacks with at least 20 pass attempts in a game.

Anyone familiar with the Rams' offense over the past three seasons -- its linemen, wide receivers and changing schemes in particular -- realizes Bradford isn't the primary problem in St. Louis. Still, the best quarterbacks and even a few average ones hit the statistical jackpot every so often. Bradford's time will presumably come.

Closing thoughts

QBR measures how quarterbacks affect win probability for their teams. It correlates to winning more closely than even turnover differential. The Rams haven't won much at all.

So, have the Rams dragged down Bradford more than Bradford has held back the Rams? I think so. We'll have a better idea as the Rams improve around Bradford. We shouldn't expect Bradford to produce the way Griffin did last week. We shouldn't even expect Griffin to do so. That game was the exception. But it's reasonable to expect progress.

The biggest concern from the Rams' perspective is how Bradford will perform behind an offensive line that has already lost center Scott Wells and left tackle Rodger Saffold to injuries. That angle is getting tiresome, but it's real. It's at least a threat to cloud the Rams' quarterback evaluation until those players return.

At a certain point, the Rams need Bradford to transcend the challenges around him. Having it happen against Griffin and the Redskins would come as a welcome bonus.

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