NFC West: Orlando Pace

ST. LOUIS -- On Saturday night, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced that former St. Louis Rams safety Aeneas Williams is part of this year's class of inductees. Williams isn't likely to be remembered as much for his time with the Rams as he was with the Arizona Cardinals, but for those wanting a player with a longer track record of playing for the Rams to get in, the time is coming soon.

The Greatest Show on Turf version of the Rams had no shortage of Hall of Fame candidates. Running back Marshall Faulk was the first to go in, but now the rest of the group is coming eligible. That should make for some tough decisions for the committee in the next couple of years but there are multiple Rams with a legitimate case to get in.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Pace
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesLeft tackle Orlando Pace played 12 years in St. Louis and earned seven Pro Bowl trips.
Over the next few days, we'll take a look at the likes of left tackle Orlando Pace, quarterback Kurt Warner and receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and try to offer an early read on each player's chances of making the Hall of Fame. Today, we start with Pace:

Aside from friends, family and Seattle offensive tackle Walter Jones himself, there might not have been a happier person to see Jones selected in his first year than Pace.

Pace, Jones and Jonathan Ogden are widely regarded as the three offensive tackles who set the stage for the "blind-side" era of dominant left tackles. In many ways, the three of them redefined what a left tackle could be and elevated the importance of the position to another level. They did it with a unique blend of size and athleticism that shifted the requirements of what a left tackle should look like to players who normally would be playing power forward in the NBA.

Ogden and Jones will already be in Canton by the time Pace comes up for selection later this year but there's no doubt in my mind that Pace should not only join that duo but should join them in his first year of eligibility.

Arguments abound about which player was the best out of the dominant offensive tackles but I would argue that Pace is the one who first really drew attention to all that one could be all the way back to his time at Ohio State.

Before Pace, I'd never heard of an offensive tackle being legitimately discussed as a possible Heisman Trophy winner. He finished fourth in 1996. The term "pancake" block might have preceded Pace but I'd never heard it as much as I did when Pace was a Buckeye. He became the only two-time winner of the Lombardi Award as the best college lineman or linebacker.

Of course, none of those college accomplishments mean anything when it comes to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But make no mistake, that work in college only set the stage for a pro career to match. While Warner, Bruce, Faulk and Holt were all huge parts of the Rams' record-setting offense, none of what they did would have been possible without Pace locking down the left side of the line.

Pace played 12 years in St. Louis, posting seven Pro Bowl trips, five All-Pro honors and landed a spot on the NFL's 2000s All-Decade team.

It's going to be difficult for all of the Rams from the Greatest Show era to make it into the Hall of Fame on the first try. But it says here Pace is the best bet to make it sooner than later.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Former Rams receiver Torry Holt has always had the gift of gab, a gift that he has considered turning into his post-career profession since he officially retired in 2012.

While Holt is unsure if that will ultimately be his next career move, he’s about to take the next step toward making that determination. When the Rams meet the Browns in Cleveland tonight at 8 E.T., Holt will step into the booth to provide color analysis for the team’s local broadcast.

[+] EnlargeTorry Holt
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTorry Holt will provide color analysis for the Rams' four preseason games.
“I’m excited,” Holt said. “It’s my first time so there will be some trial and error for me but I’m excited about it. Most importantly, I talked to quite a few guys leading up to this and they said ‘be yourself, talk football.’ That’s one thing I am familiar with and I know and that’s football.”

Holt will serve as the second color analyst alongside former teammate Marshall Faulk and play-by-play man Andrew Siciliano in the three-man booth. Faulk and Siciliano have handled those duties alone in recent years and Orlando Pace, another former teammate, has also contributed along the way.

Having Faulk by his side should help Holt feel at ease.

“Having Marshall there I think is going to be good,” Holt said. “He and I can share some stories and talk about the game. Just being there with him, picking his brain and learning on the fly, I am excited about all of that so it’s a great opportunity. I am thankful to the Rams for giving me the opportunity to get back in the booth and continue to improve on my craft.”

Working the preseason games will provide Holt his first extended opportunity to provide in-game analysis though it’s not his first crack at it, either. He worked a Carolina against Cleveland game for FOX Sports in 2010.

Holt actually got his first broadcasting opportunity as an active player when, in 2005, ESPN added him to its draft coverage. He was the first active player to sit on ESPN’s main set during the draft. Since his retirement, he has also provided analysis for NFL Network’s “NFL Total Access” show.

To Holt, working in the booth versus a studio show provides an array of challenges including the pace of the game. He said he hopes to provide passion and be more concise this time around than he was in his first go at broadcasting a live game.

“That was a very overwhelming experience,” Holt said. “There was a lot going on in the booth, it was very fast and then trying to call the game, it was tough. I had some good moments; I had a lot of bad moments so I learned from it. I am looking forward now to getting back in the booth and just working on those things that I didn’t do well and trying to improve on them.”

Holt is also scheduled to call the Rams’ three other preseason games and hopes that when he’s finished he’ll be a better broadcaster and have a better idea if it’s something he wants to pursue long term.

If nothing else, Holt should feel at home sitting next to a former teammate like Faulk and talking to an audience that adores him.

“It just gives me a chance to talk to the fans here in St. Louis, talk to the people that are familiar with me, people that respect what I did on the football field, that in itself makes me very comfortable,” Holt said. “So I’m looking forward to it and we’ll see how it goes and see what kind of responses we get.”
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title during the Rams' memorable run from 1999-2001.
Editor’s note: ESPN.com revisits the NFL’s most interesting teams since Y2K with a five-part “Most Compelling Teams of the Century” series. We begin with the Greatest Show on Turf -- the 2001 St. Louis Rams.

The Greatest Show on Turf won one Super Bowl, lost another and unraveled so furiously that its epitaph requires some reassembly.

Dramatic narratives have sought to explain why the St. Louis Rams fell so hard after a 1999-2001 run featuring three consecutive MVP awards, a 37-11 record and an average of 32.7 points per game.

Coach Mike Martz’s ego swallowed the team, some say. Front-office infighting poisoned the culture. Quarterback Kurt Warner’s deteriorating health precipitated a controversial and regrettable departure. Draft failures wrecked the roster. The team lost its soul when key role players departed in free agency.

Whatever the reasons, the Rams were never the same after Adam Vinatieri delivered an 48-yard field goal to put the underdog New England Patriots past St. Louis 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI, launching one NFL dynasty at the expense of another.

Throw in spying allegations against New England as a Super Bowl subplot -- more on that in a bit -- and those 2001 Rams easily qualify on ESPN.com’s short list for "Most Dynamic Teams of the Century." They're relevant for what they accomplished and for what happened next: a 7-9 record in 2002 and just one additional winning season for the Rams to this day.

About that epitaph ...

"It's one that escapes me as to how, one, we didn't stay together and, two, how things from that point forward did not continue to roll on," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said recently.

If only the Rams could have known then what has become apparent now.

"Success is something that you have to know how you are going to deal with it before it hits you," Faulk said. "We ran into that in a sense of people wanted credit for putting the team together. Guys on the team who had roles, they wanted to move on and become the actual guy."

So, while some of the Patriots’ core players stuck around instead of chasing more prominent roles elsewhere -- Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi come to mind -- the Rams watched Grant Wistrom, Kevin Carter, London Fletcher and others cash in elsewhere. And who could blame them? Certainly not Faulk, who had escaped Indianapolis via trade and became an MVP in St. Louis. Teams look out for their own interests, and players often must do the same. But free agency has proven over time that money doesn’t always buy the right fit.

"That core group of guys that might not be the highest paid, might not be the most visible guys, their roles and them understanding the roles is kind of what keeps it together," Faulk said. "They might not be the guys who make it into the Hall of Fame, but they are for more or less a lot of the reasons why a lot of games are won, multiple championships are won."

Defensive back Aeneas Williams, himself a Hall of Fame finalist in recent years, was new to the Rams in 2001. The team expected Williams to do for the defense what Faulk had done for the offense. That wasn't far from what happened.

Williams famously picked off Brett Favre twice in the playoffs that postseason, returning both for touchdowns. He clinched the Rams' Super Bowl berth by picking off Donovan McNabb late in the NFC Championship Game.

With Williams and first-year coordinator Lovie Smith, that Rams defense ranked among the NFL's statistical leaders almost across the board, a reversal from 2000. They were third in yards, fifth in yards per play, third in rushing yards, sixth in net yards per pass attempt, second in first downs, sixth in third-down conversion rate and seventh in scoring.

"It was one of the best seasons I had, not just the winning but the amount of talent and the amount of humility that was on the team," Williams said. "That team was special."

The Rams knew it, too. They were 3-0 and coming off a 42-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins when Smith, recently hired away from Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay, delivered just the right message. Players were reveling in the victory and newfound elite status of the defense when Smith stood up to address the team. He listed off the team's accomplishments and exulted in how good it all felt. Players exulted along with him.

Smith then delivered a message that resonates with Williams to this day.

"There are some of you who are still making the same mistakes, and I'm telling you that we are looking to replace you," Smith told the team.

Silence.

There was nothing condescending or demeaning about Smith's delivery or his message. He did not name names. But the message was clear.

"To have that sobering thought from your leader in such a respectful and honoring way, which was intentional as it relates to accountability, I'll never forget it," Williams said. "The teams that have coaches who hold the players accountable no matter how good they are will be the ones that consistently win."

And yet the way that 2001 Rams season ended, and what happened next, might always publicly define that team more than the 14-2 record or revitalized defense.

"That team was loaded," Faulk said. "But this is why we play the greatest sport. There is no Game 5. No Game 7. There is one game, and you have to get it right or it doesn't matter how great you were the rest of the year."

Williams, now a pastor in St. Louis, pointed to the Rams' relatively narrow 24-17 victory over the Patriots during the regular season in suggesting the fat Super Bowl point spread was more about perception than reality. He downplayed the Spygate angle while acknowledging that some teammates are more passionate about whatever advantages the Patriots might have gleaned through taping opponents' hand signals or worse.

"Without knowing, we can only speculate," Williams said. "I relish the moment and the other thing, once we played 16 games and two or three playoff games, rarely are you fooled by what a team does. In that game, it boils down to turnovers."

Faulk carries a different perspective as someone familiar with every aspect of the Rams' offensive plan. He questions whether the Patriots could have anticipated previously unused wrinkles without spying. He has alluded in the past to red zone and third-down plays. The Rams scored on their lone red zone possession. Pressed for specifics, Faulk cited the way New England adjusted to tweaks in the way Faulk went into motion, including on Warner's quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"It's extremely hard to tell you what it was, or what we did, but I will say this," Faulk explained. "The play that Kurt Warner scored on, Mike [Martz] drew that up in the dirt. The motion that I used on that play, I would love to show it to you and love to show you other plays how I went in motion and what I did so you could see it. It's just talk when you talk, but here is what we normally do and this is what we put into this game."

Related comments from Faulk made waves during Super Bowl week. Then as now, Faulk wearies of charges he's pushing conspiracy theories.

"I didn’t make the news, I didn’t make up the news about what happened, but it is what it is," he said. "You accept the loss. They beat us. It happens. You are going to lose games. Is Bill Belichick a great mind? Yes.

"But when a guy like Aeneas Williams sits at home and has to wonder whether he lost the Super Bowl or was cheated out of it, that is who I feel bad for."

Faulk, Warner, Fletcher, Wistrom, Carter, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little and others from that 2001 team can reflect knowing they won it all two years earlier. For some, that Super Bowl against New England would be as close as they came to football immortality. At least they can know the 2001 team will not be forgotten anytime soon.

One way to think of Rams' LT upgrade

March, 18, 2013
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PHOENIX -- Had the 2009 NFL draft gone as planned for the St. Louis Rams, the team would be thinking about a contract extension for tackle Jason Smith.

The 2009 draft did not go as planned for the Rams -- or for a long list of teams.

Smith struggled before St. Louis traded him to the New York Jets last year for journeyman Wayne Hunter. The Rams recovered Sunday. They reached agreement on a four-year contract with tackle Jake Long, the first player chosen in the 2008 draft.

Think of it as the Rams upgrading from Smith to Long at left tackle.

Smith played right tackle during his Rams career, but that was because the team realized he wasn't the answer on the left side, contrary to expectations on draft day. Smith was supposed to be the Rams' franchise left tackle. Long fills that role now.

The Rams are betting on Long to regain good health following two injury-shortened seasons. Their general manager, Les Snead, has said the team had no concerns about Long's health following biceps and triceps injuries.

The Rams' future at left tackle appears brighter than at any time since the Orlando Pace era.
St. Louis Rams executive Kevin Demoff has provided photographic evidence of contract negotiations with agents for Miami Dolphins unrestricted free agent tackle Jake Long.

I'll take that as a sign negotiations are heading toward a resolution.

The Rams have long sought resolution at left tackle. That remains the case even though Rodger Saffold has shown promise at the position when healthy.

Saffold, Alex Barron, Orlando Pace, Adam Goldberg, Wayne Hunter, Mark LeVoir and Joe Barksdale have started for the team at the position over the past five seasons. Pace was winding down when he gave the team 14 starts in 2008, his final year with the team. Saffold has been the best option since then, but injuries have limited him.

Long has been hurt, too, but with four Pro Bowls in five NFL seasons, he's got a left tackle pedigree unseen on the Rams since Pace locked down the position during the Greatest Show on Turf years.

Note: Thanks to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information for digging up the numbers for the chart. The Rams occasionally opened games with tight ends at left tackle in unbalanced lines. In those cases, we credited the player manning the left tackle position for the rest of the game as the starter.

Tony Gonzalez and what might have been

January, 22, 2013
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With Tony Gonzalez leaning toward retirement after 16 NFL seasons and 1,242 receptions, I turned back the clock in my mind to 1997, the year San Francisco tried to draft the tight end from California.

The 49ers were in a wheeling and dealing mode in that 1997 draft. They came away with three players -- Jim Druckenmiller, Marc Edwards and Greg Clark -- after trading away all picks in the fourth through seventh rounds.

"While they rated [Jim] Druckenmiller as the best player available at the 26th pick, the 49ers tried to trade up for Miami's No. 15 in order to take Cal tight end Tony Gonzalez," John Crumpacker wrote at the time in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Alas, Kansas City moved up to 13 in a trade with Houston and tabbed the Golden Bear."

Alas, indeed.

Druckenmiller would play in six NFL games, starting one. Edwards, a fullback the team envisioned in the Tom Rathman mold, started 82 of the 134 regular-season games he played. Clark, a tight end, started 39 of the 55 games he played.

As for Gonzalez? He has 237 starts in 254 games and ranks second to Jerry Rice on the NFL's list for all-time receptions. His total for receptions is 50 percent greater than the career total for any tight end. Shannon Sharpe is second with 815 receptions.

The chart ranks 1997 draft choices by most Pro Bowl appearances. Two NFC West players, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace, made the list. Also in 1997, the Arizona Cardinals drafted cornerback Tommy Knight with the ninth overall choice.

Chat wrap: Seeking answers in Arizona

November, 1, 2012
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The latest NFC West chat has come and gone.

One leftover question jumped out as one to explore here.

Eugene from Boston thinks it's clear the Arizona Cardinals will be in the market for a quarterback in the offseason. He suspects they won't be drafting early enough to select one of the highest-rated ones. Might they consider a trade? Would they draft one in the second or third round to develop behind Kevin Kolb or John Skelton?

This one stumped me, so I made a call to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

Williamson: "It surprised me Arizona was able to win as many games early in the year, but now they are falling back to earth and being who they really are. The defense is on the field too long, the offensive line is terrible and it's going to be tough.

"I really don't think Skelton is the guy. Kolb has been better than expected, actually. When the season is shot, I would like to see Ryan Lindley get some snaps, maybe start the last game or two. I'm not sure if that will happen, though. I don't think they have a quarterback. They are going to have to manufacture that position.

"I don't know how you fix that. You can use your first-rounder on a quarterback, then let him sit there for a year and figure it out. But you need to address the offensive line first. I know they get Levi Brown back, but he's not great. They signed Adam Snyder and he stinks. Maybe Bobby Massie gets better, but he was a fourth-round pick for a reason. He's not Orlando Pace.

"They are in no-man's land. You could try to bring back Kolb for less money, maybe $4 million to $5 million a year or else say goodbye to him. You could attack the position in the draft and try to sign a tackle. If you tread water with the guys you have, you'll be 6-10 for the next three years. Meanwhile, the other guys in the division could be getting better. Seattle is with Russell Wilson."

To be continued.
Jason SmithJeff Curry/US PresswireJason Smith has had his hands full working against Chris Long (91) during training camp.
The St. Louis Rams hired Paul T. Boudreau as offensive line coach in part because they hoped he could help 2009 first-round draft choice Jason Smith realize his potential.

That remains the plan even though veteran Barry Richardson has started siphoning off first-team snaps from Smith heading into the Rams' exhibition opener Sunday at Indianapolis. Richardson, 26, started Kansas City's last 32 games.

The move to get more snaps for Richardson so early in the evaluation process affirms Boudreau's commitment to putting the five best linemen on the field no matter what. It's a bad initial sign for Smith, who has had his hands full in camp against defensive end Chris Long in particular. But it's a good sign for the Rams that their line coach isn't going to prop up a highly drafted player at the expense of the team.

"We're going to play the best five," Boudreau said during an interview at Rams camp last week. "Don’t matter if you're a draft choice, doesn't matter if you’re a free agent, doesn't matter if you've been cut by four teams."

Boudreau, who was with Atlanta through last season, drove home that message early in his tenure with the Rams. He pointed to Rams guard Harvey Dahl, one of his former Falcons players, as proof. Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo became mainstay starters in Atlanta even though neither was drafted and both had been released repeatedly.

Smith's status as the second overall choice of the 2009 draft isn't going to get him anywhere. To win the starting job, Smith will have to improve in pass protection.

"His whole thing that he needs to work on the most is understanding angles in protection, understanding he has long arms but he doesn’t use them and try to get his length back in protection," Boudreau said. "Try to use his hands. He wants to hit a guy all the time and you don't have to hit a guy in pass protection. You just have to stay in front of him. When he does it right, you have to really emphasize it on the tape."

Smith, 26, started six games last season, missing the final 10 games after suffering a severe concussion while making a tackle following a turnover against Dallas in Week 7. He started 15 games the previous season and five as a rookie.

The Rams' previous leadership drafted Smith as a left tackle, but the right side is a better fit for players with limitations in pass protection.

Boudreau, who coached the Rams' line in 2006-2007 as well, put together an Orlando Pace highlight video for Smith to study. Pace, the first overall choice of the 1997 draft, was a seven-time Pro Bowl choice and five-time Associated Press All-Pro selection.

"I had a bunch of snaps of Orlando in one-on-one pass protection situations, showing him how patient Orlando was, and his angles, the things he did to just kind of ride a guy by the quarterback," Boudreau said. "He didn’t kill the guy. You don’t have to beat 'em up. It’s like playing basketball. Stay between your guy and the hoop. And so when I showed him Orlando and showed him how smooth he was, and it all was because of his patience, and I said we’ve got to slow this thing down for him. He's a work in progress."

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 2, 2012
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jeff Fisher experienced plenty during 16-plus seasons as an NFL head coach, but his initial team meeting in St. Louis represented a career first.

The Rams' new leader was addressing a room filled with players he didn't know.

"That was different, but you could tell within the first three minutes of him being up there, with his presence, that the team was his," assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said.

Fisher won over the Rams, and not with a fiery speech or with bold promises.

"It's something that you can't put your hand on and touch it, but it's palpable," McGinnis said.

It's called quiet confidence born of experience, and it's what the Rams needed from their next coach after posting a 15-65 record over their previous five seasons, all under less experienced leadership. There's an authenticity to Fisher that resonates. Quarterback Sam Bradford first saw it during a nearly two-hour meeting with Fisher, conducted before Fisher agreed to take the job.

"I think the biggest thing for me when we met was, there was no nonsense," Bradford said. "Everything that he has said has been valuable information. There is never that talk just to talk. That is what everyone really respects about him."

Thanks to Fisher, the feeling at Rams camp has shifted from "if" the team can right itself to "when" it will happen.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jeff Curry/US PresswireQB Sam Bradford has some new young talent to work with this season at the skill positions.
1. Can the Rams help Bradford? It's easy to forget that Bradford had two 300-yard passing games in his first five starts last season. The high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 6 changed the trajectory of his season. Bradford wasn't the only one hurting. The Rams suffered more losses to injury in a season than all but one NFL team since 2002, according to Football Outsiders. They had no chance.

The plan this season will be to take pressure off Bradford with a run-first offense. That approach represents a philosophical about-face from the thinking former coordinator Josh McDaniels promoted last season. McDaniels' offense would have worked better under different circumstances. In retrospect, the Rams lacked the personnel to make it work, particularly after losing key players to injury.

The offensive personnel could be better this season. Young prospects at running back (Isaiah Pead) and on the perimeter (Brian Quick, Chris Givens) give the team fresh options. But no one is quite sure what the team has at wide receiver. It's also unclear whether young tackles Rodger Saffold and especially Jason Smith can give Bradford the protection he needs when the Rams do put the ball in the quarterback's hands.

The Rams have additional first-round draft choices over the next couple seasons. There's a good chance they'll use them mostly to bolster the offense. In the meantime, they'll protect Bradford through the design of their offense.

2. Another year, another offensive scheme. The Rams are learning their third offensive system in three seasons. Last season, the idea was for Bradford to help get the Rams into the perfect offensive play for whatever defense the opponent was running. This season, Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer want the Rams to run the ball for the sake of running it, even against loaded fronts.

This could be the Rams' most run-oriented offense from a philosophical standpoint since the team moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season. Longer term, it's fair to wonder whether this is the best offense for a franchise quarterback to realize his full potential as a passer. For now, though, the philosophy will play to the team's offensive strength (Steven Jackson) while minimizing a primary weakness (pass protection).

"This offense is ground, pound and we’re in your face," Jackson said. "Regardless of how much a team studies about us, they are probably going to be able to tell, out of this formation, this is what they like to run. So now the mentality has gone from trying to be tricky or crafty to more so, 'This is my hole, this is where I’m going, stop me.' Completely different attitude."

3. Are the Rams OK at outside linebacker? St. Louis is set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, a player the organization wants to build around (expect a new contract for him soon). The question is whether the outside linebackers -- Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh -- represent much of an upgrade for a team seeking to improve its run defense.

Another question: How much does it really matter? The league isn't exactly brimming with elite outside linebackers in traditional 4-3 schemes. The position has been de-emphasized. The Rams will run their defense through Laurinaitis. Dunbar will remain on the field with him on passing downs.

The Rams could use ascending young talent on the outside. They had too many more important needs this offseason to justify throwing precious resources at a position of lesser value.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeChris Long
Jeff Curry/US PresswireLeft end Chris Long, coming off a 13-sack season, anchors a promising young defensive line.
Head coach and quarterback are the two most important figures in a football operation. The Rams have the right people in those positions. That gives them a chance.

The Rams also have the pass-rushing talent Fisher needs to run his aggressive defense. Left defensive end Chris Long is coming off a 13-sack season. On the right, 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn is serving notice, at least in practice, that he's the best pure pass-rusher on the team. His ability to close on the quarterback even when off-balance or falling sets him apart from most.

I wondered coming into camp whether last season inflicted irreparable damage to Bradford. That was not the case. There hasn't been a more impressive player on the practice field to this point. It's stunning, in retrospect, that a team with such a talented quarterback could suffer through a 2-14 season. So many things had to go wrong.

Day after day, play after play, Bradford impresses even the most seasoned observers. Receivers coach Ray Sherman, most recently with the Dallas Cowboys, has been around accomplished quarterbacks throughout his coaching career. The list includes Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Tony Romo. He used the word "special" to describe Bradford.

"His temperament is just so calm," Sherman said of Bradford. "He has a demeanor about him and Brett was like that -- when he spoke, guys listened. They tune in. They know, 'We take care of this guy, he's going to take us a long way. He's going to do some special things.'"

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Look at the schedule. Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks. Green Bay, New England and San Francisco during a three-game stretch at midseason. Four of the final six games on the road. Only seven true home games overall, the New England game having been moved to London.

No one said this job would be easy for Fisher and his veteran staff.

Danny Amendola looks like the best receiver on the team. He's a terrific slot receiver, but with an 8-yard career average per reception, he won't strike fear into opponents. Quick and Givens, though promising draft choices, are rookies nonetheless. It's an upset if either becomes a force right away and a bonus if veteran Steve Smith fights through recent knee troubles to become a factor.

Bradford has the talent to rack up yardage when healthy, but he might not have the weapons to finish drives with touchdowns. Think back to the game at Green Bay last season. Bradford threw for 328 yards with a 64.4 completion rate at Lambeau Field, but the Rams still lost, 24-3.

Also, the Rams are going to a run-first offense at a time when the passing game is king in the NFL.

"Sitting in our first offensive meeting, it was made clear that our identity as an offense, we’re going to be known as being a physical unit that can run the ball versus whatever," Bradford said. "It doesn’t matter if people put 8-9 in the box, we’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to pound them and we’re going to wear them out, and then we’re going to take our shots."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins might already be one of the three or four most talented players on the team. He's starting opposite free-agent newcomer Cortland Finnegan. "He is game-ready," Finnegan said. "I think he’s one of those special guys."
  • Brandon Gibson has been one of the better receivers in camp. That was the case a year ago, and it might have said something about the quality of the position overall. I'm looking at Gibson as a barometer for the position this season. It's good for the Rams if other receivers pass him on the depth chart.
  • The Rams won't know for sure until they put on the pads, but they're hopeful rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers can be more than just a run stuffer. They need him to factor as an inside pass-rusher as well. Having three relatively recent first-round picks on the defensive line -- Long, Brockers and Quinn -- gives Fisher and the defensive staff talent to work with.
  • Speaking of the defensive staff, I never heard Gregg Williams' name come up once during the first four days of camp. The NFL suspended Williams before he could get much work done as defensive coordinator. Fisher has never been one to panic. He's as cool as they come. The Rams moved on long ago. McGinnis: "I've been with Jeff when we were 10-0, and I’ve been with him when we were 0-6 and came back and won eight of our last 10. He doesn’t change. That type of self-confidence is transferable to a group. It’s transferable to individuals. That excites me."
  • Jackson, down to 235 pounds with 5.1 percent body fat, appears fresh in camp at age 29. Thomas Jones was that age when he rushed for 1,119 yards in Schottenheimer's offense with the Jets. Jones followed up that season with 1,312 yards at age 30, and 1,402 yards at age 31.
  • Rookie running back Pead stands out as an obvious talent. He's shifty. The question is whether he can pick up the offense quickly enough for the team to trust him in pass protection. The academic calendar at the University of Cincinnati prevented Pead from participating in organized team activities. He's behind from that standpoint, but he's got talent, and Schottenheimer likes using two backs. Those Jets teams referenced above had enough carries left over for secondary backs to gain 400-500 yards per season.
  • Long and Quinn had their way with the Rams' offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations. That could change some once players put on pads. Offensive linemen can become more aggressive at that point. I would expect the trend to continue, however. I'm expecting Long and Quinn to reach double-digit sacks.
  • Defensive end Eugene Sims played 25 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps last season. Look for that number to rise in 2012. The Rams' new staff likes his athleticism.
  • Jason Smith needs to become more patient as a pass protector at right tackle. He too frequently wants to bury the opponent. That's not necessary in pass protection. It's dangerous, in fact. Line coach Paul Boudreau went into the archives to produce a highlight reel showing former Rams great Orlando Pace letting opposing rushers come to him. Smith lacks Pace's talent, but if he can emulate Pace's patience, the Rams will have a better chance keeping Bradford upright.
  • "Gee-zee" would be rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. Some are calling him "Greg the Leg" as well, and for good reason. Zuerlein has been powering through field goal tries from the 60-yard range. He made 23 of 24 attempts at Missouri Western State last season, including all nine tries from 50-plus yards. We'll see how it translates to the NFL. For now, though, the Rams aren't missing veteran Josh Brown.
  • The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, including the youngest specialists. They could be counting on a rookie, Johnny Hekker, to punt away from Patrick Peterson. That sounds risky, and it is, but the results can only get better. Peterson returned two for touchdowns against the Rams last season.

Kalil shines, but Rams have other needs

February, 25, 2012
2/25/12
12:49
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INDIANAPOLIS -- USC tackle Matt Kalil validated his athletic credentials with a fast 40-yard time at the NFL scouting combine Saturday.

Kalil
Kalil
Kalil, listed by some as a candidate for St. Louis with the second choice in the 2012 draft, unofficially needed only 4.96 seconds to cover the standard testing distance, according to the NFL. Kalil has emphasized getting bigger and stronger to improve as a run blocker, but teams will value him primarily for his athletic ability. Any offensive lineman can take pride in a 40-yard time beneath five seconds.

Kalil weighed 306 pounds, heavier than his college playing weight.

Former NFC West mainstay tackles Walter Jones and Orlando Pace, first-round picks in 1997, beat the five-second threshold easily before becoming regular Pro Bowl players. Jones clocked in the 4.65-second range coming out of college. Pace ran in the 4.85-second range and averaged 4.9 during predraft workouts.

Jones was 301 pounds coming out of Florida State. He filled out to about 325 pounds. Kalil stands 6-foot-6 and appears capable of packing on additional weight without much trouble.

I question whether the Rams would use a high choice for an offensive tackle this year. They need playmakers to boost a scoring offense that ranked last in the NFL last season. They have Rodger Saffold at left tackle and could bring back right tackle Jason Smith, the second overall pick in 2009. Smith has had concussion problems. The Rams have not spoken with him about adjusting his salary, but that appears likely to happen if Smith does return.

Minnesota might be a more likely landing spot for Kalil. The Vikings pick third overall. Kevin Seifert has more on the NFC North blog.

Around the NFC West: Combine coin men

February, 24, 2012
2/24/12
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Among the lasting visuals from this Friday morning at the NFL scouting combine: West Coasters perched on their nightstands at 4 a.m. PT, eagerly awaiting coin-toss results for 2012 draft order.

I loved hearing from some of them via Twitter while the minutes counted down before Kansas City prevailed over Seattle for the 11th overall choice. The Seahawks will pick 12th, which some fans found appropriate in light of the 12th Man.

The difference between picking 11th or 12th should be relatively small, but it's a big deal to the teams and some of the die-hards. NFL officials tossed a special coin to break the draft-order tie. It was a fun way to begin the morning.

Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli arrived first. He ribbed his Seattle counterpart, John Schneider, by looking at his watch when Schneider arrived a few minutes before the scheduled 7:30 a.m. ET toss.

The ceremony took place behind closed doors. The parties dispersed after a few minutes and had little to say.

Also in the NFC West ...

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com sizes up the Cardinals' quarterback situation with Kevin Kolb and John Skelton competing. Urban: "I think John has earned the ability to be given consideration for the position, just because of what he did, his record and the way he played. But I also think we’ve got a lot invested in Kevin as well for that position. There is nothing wrong with competition. I think it makes both players, all players, better. If we can get somebody to beat Larry Fitzgerald out that guy will be a pretty good football player. There will be competition, absolutely."

Bob Young of the Arizona Republic recaps a wild week of reality television for Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson. Strange stuff. No idea what to make of it.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times updates the Seahawks' contract negotiations with various free agents. O'Neil: "Each NFL team has only one franchise tag, and the Seahawks could have two priority free agents in [Red] Bryant and [Marshawn] Lynch, which would seem to leave the Seahawks vulnerable to losing one. There's still time left, though, as the deadline for applying the franchise tag is March 5, and free agency doesn't begin until March 13."

Also from O'Neil: the Seahawks' quarterback outlook heading into the draft.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com offers notes on free agency, the draft and injuries for Seattle. Farnsworth: "Tarvaris Jackson did not need surgery to repair the pectoral he tore during the Week 5 upset of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, which John Schneider said surprised him. But he said that wide receiver Sidney Rice has had surgery on each of his shoulders -- one to repair the labrum he damaged during training camp and tried to play with, as well as an injury to the other that Rice had played with since entering the league in 2007 with the Minnesota Vikings."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers a transcript from Jim Harbaugh's media session Thursday. Harbaugh on the unsigned Alex Smith: "Yeah, Alex is our guy. That's well-documented. He had a tremendous season. Definitely as a coach, you worry about a lot of things. And when the quarterback's not signed and is a free agent, that leads to some lost sleep. But I'm excited to be back at work, very excited to be here and see what kind of improvement we can make from year 1 to year 2, and I hope all our guys feel the exact same way."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee asks whether the 49ers' can maintain their chemistry this offseason amid potential changes.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers general manager Trent Baalke remained in character after signing a contract extension.

Also from Branch: a look at the competition for veteran long-snapper Brian Jennings.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Browns could be a trading partner with the Rams for the No. 2 overall pick. Browns coach Pat Shurmur, formerly of the Rams' staff: "Yeah, we're willing. With two first-round picks we have flexibility. We can just stand pat and take two really fine players, guys that we would hope to be starters for us. (But) having two first-round picks, you have flexibility if you want to do something."

Also from Thomas: USC's Matt Kalil could be a fit for the Rams. Thomas: "He certainly will be a player the Rams study with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. True, in Jeff Fisher's 16 full seasons as head coach at Tennessee, the Titans never selected an offensive tackle in the first round. Then again, the Titans had an anchor at left tackle for 13 seasons in Brad Hopkins, including Fisher's first 11 seasons as head coach. It's not as if the Rams have gone nuts selecting offensive linemen in the first round, either. In 17 seasons in St. Louis, the Rams have had 20 first-round picks and used just three of them on offensive tackles. Orlando Pace, taken first overall in 1997, made seven Pro Bowls, was voted to the NFL's all-decade team for the 2000s, and is a potential Hall of Famer."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Thirteen modern-era NFL players were finalists for enshrinement Saturday in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Only one was named offensive or defensive player of the year during his career.

That was the Seattle Seahawks' Cortez Kennedy. His eight Pro Bowls, all-1990s selection and overall dominance made my job as his presenter quite simple. State the facts and let Kennedy's career do the talking. Picking the final five out of 15 modern-era finalists is always tough, however, because it usually requires leaving off worthy candidates.

[+] EnlargeCortez Kennedy
US PresswireNo doubt, Seattle's Cortez Kennedy was one of the most dominant defensive players of his era.
The 43 other selectors and I met for more than seven hours before identifying Kennedy, Chris Doleman, Dermontti Dawson, Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf as the class of 2012. Jack Butler made it as a seniors candidate.

A few thoughts on the process and the results:

  • This class made it through at a good time. Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Bryant Young, John Lynch and Steve McNair become eligible for the first time in 2013. Shaun Alexander, Derrick Brooks, Marvin Harrison, Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy and Mike Holmgren join the list in 2014. Isaac Bruce, Edgerrin James, Walter Jones, Junior Seau, Chris Samuels, Kurt Warner, Ty Law and Orlando Pace are among those eligible beginning in 2015.
  • Former St. Louis Rams
    and Arizona Cardinals
    cornerback Aeneas Williams should feel great about cracking the final 10 in his first year as a finalist. Williams had 55 career interceptions and scored nine touchdowns. He was a big-time playmaker for bad and good teams alike.
  • The situation at receiver remains a mess and it's not going to get easier with Harrison becoming eligible in a couple years. Voters are having a tough time deciding between Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Both made the final 10 this year. Reed made the final 10 last year as well. Having both crack the final 10 this year made it harder for one of them to break through. Voters were more likely to choose one wideout when forced to pick only five players.
  • Former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. did not make the reduction from 15 to 10. I think it's tougher for voters to quantify how owners and even coaches -- think Bill Parcells, who missed the cut from 10 to five -- contributed to their teams' success. The discussions for Parcells (55-plus minutes) and DeBartolo (42-plus minutes) were more than twice as long as the discussions for other candidates. Hall bylaws prevented voters from considering the legal troubles and suspension that preceded DeBartolo's exit from the game.
  • DeBartolo was a finalist in part because he hired Bill Walsh, promoted a winning culture, cared tremendously for his players and helped win five Super Bowls. He spent this weekend with former 49ers player Freddie Solomon, who is in the final days of a battle with cancer. The 49ers' renewed success this past season also reflected well on DeBartolo, who has become a tremendous resource for current team president Jed York, his nephew.
  • Electing one pass-rusher (Doleman, who spent part of his career with the 49ers) to the Hall could give former 49ers and Dallas Cowboys pass-rusher Charles Haley an easier time in the future. But with Strahan joining the conversation in 2013, Haley faces stiff competition again. Former Rams pass-rusher Kevin Greene did not make the final 10 despite 160 career sacks.

It's been a whirlwind day. Hall bylaws prevent me from sharing specifics about what was said in the room during the proceedings. The Hall also asked voters not to reveal their votes outright. I voted for five of the six players enshrined on the final cut and supported others. As always, however, reducing to only five in the end required leaving off candidates I hope will make it in the future.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Watching the St. Louis Rams practice Friday wasn't as good as watching Marshall Faulk and Orlando Pace watch the Rams practice Friday.

The retired Rams legends are teaming up on the organization's preseason TV broadcasts. Current Rams Steven Jackson, Donnie Avery, Jacob Bell and others stopped to pay their respects upon leaving the team's indoor practice facility.

I stood behind and to the right of Pace during practice to loosely simulate the sense of security quarterbacks must have felt lining up with him as their left tackle. He allowed no sacks on this day, either.

Faulk, recently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, stood with Pace while the Rams conducted their walk-through session in preparation for a Saturday night preseason game against Tennessee.

When the team made Faulk available to reporters, I had one question in mind: What should we expect from Bradford's pairing with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels? Faulk, known for his football smarts, came through with a detailed answer:
"I'm a fan of Josh McDaniels. I watched how he learned with Bill [Belichick], how he worked with Tom Brady, what he did with Matt Cassel. I am impressed with his abilities to work with quarterbacks.

"Another thing that impressed me was when he was in Denver and they had an opportunity to play New England. Bill Belichick is a great mind in this game. What [McDaniels] was able to do to their defense. Understand that Bill knew that Josh knew him. Bill knew Josh and I'm sure they went against each other many times in practice. How he took apart their defense, I sat there in awe. From that game on, people started attacking the New England Patriots in a different way. That kind of caused a youth movement in New England from the older players to, 'OK, we need to get some fresh new guys, we're rebuilding on defense the last couple years.'

"I'm eager to not only watch, but I'm going to get a chance to talk to Josh today. For me, I know the quarterbacks in this league that are successful, they play in one system, they play a long time in that system. The terminology, it doesn't change because you want that quarterback to grow. I want to see how much Josh has learned from the system that they had and how much of the new stuff did he put in, and did he tweak the terminology? And then from Sam, from last year to this year, where he is, is the kinds of things I want to find out."

I'd love to sit in on that Faulk-McDaniels conversation. Those with the right online/TV connections will have to settle for Faulk's thoughts on the Rams-Titans broadcast Saturday night. The game sold enough tickets to avoid a local blackout.
The latest NFC West chat came and went Thursday with fans looking forward to exhibition openers beginning Thursday night.

Check out the full chat transcript here. And because there were so many good questions left over, I'll address one more per team below instead of hitting on highlights.
Oz from Fort Lauderdale wants to reassess the "ceiling" for Kevin Kolb as the Arizona Cardinals progress through the exhibition season. While he sees Kolb in the Matt Schaub/Matt Cassel mode, he also sees some similarities to Aaron Rodgers. "I'm just worried sometimes he is too much of a gunslinger."

Mike Sando: There isn't enough evidence to brand Kolb one way or another, but if he were in the Rodgers mold, the Eagles never would have traded him. General managers I spoke with throughout the offseason thought Kolb was a good prospect, but not good enough to return a higher first-round draft choice. That seems debatable. Would you rather have a good starting quarterback or most of the players drafted early in the first round? The good starting quarterback has more value if your team does not have one. Kolb did complete 79.3 percent of his passes for 326 yards, three touchdowns and a 133.6 passer rating against Atlanta last season. He projects confidence the way a Pro Bowl quarterback does. It is possible that attitude reflects more of a gunslinger's mentality than an efficient quarterback's mentality. We cannot know yet and we're not likely to have a good idea until several games into the regular season.

John from St. Louis asks about the Rams' offensive line, specifically whether Jason Smith is poised for a breakout year and whether Rodger Saffold could suffer from a sophomore slump.

Mike Sando: The sophomore slump angle is more interesting this season because the lockout kept teams from working with players during the offseason. Saffold was good enough as a rookie to make me think he'll be at least as good this season. Smith has not seemed to be on a sharp upward trajectory. I'm not sure how much a right tackle can "break out" anyway. He should be a solid player for the Rams given his talent, but it's looking like he does not have the qualities that differentiate special tackles from merely solid or above-average ones. If Smith did have those characteristics, the Rams would be more apt to play him at left tackle. Saffold, while good, is not in the Orlando Pace mold either.

Steve from Morristown, N.J., keeps hearing about how Frank Gore feels great following recovery from a hip injury. He'd like another opinion.

Mike Sando: Gore did look very good when I was there at 49ers camp. He was bouncing around the practice field and appeared genuinely happy to be there. He hugged a fan, joked around with general manager Trent Baalke, plowed into middle linebacker Patrick Willis during drills (thunderous collisions, by the way) and spoke optimistically about the offense. He ran the ball well when asked to do so and did not appear to be favoring his hip.

Erik from Montana wants to know what stats to expect from Seattle Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson this season.

Mike Sando: He's had some injury problems in the past, so let's say he misses a few games. Let's give him 12 starts, matching his career-best total. The Seahawks will not ask him to carry their offense. They'll try to establish a running game and use Jackson's mobility. Jackson has 13 touchdowns and six interceptions over his past three seasons (20 games, including six starts). I'd guess he'll be around 12-15 touchdown passes with slightly fewer interceptions. Let's revisit this one after seeing how comfortable he appears, how well the offensive line is coming together, etc.

The Seahawks and Chargers will be kicking off at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Cardinals and Raiders kick off a couple hours later. I'll be offering thoughts following each game and am looking forward to discussing them on the blog.

Remember Faulk, but don't forget Pace

August, 1, 2011
8/01/11
10:15
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The ever-thoughtful Isaac Bruce departed from convention when answering questions about former St. Louis Rams teammate Marshall Faulk.

Pace
Pace
Bruce, answering questions about Faulk's Hall of Fame career while at Rams camp this week, set aside proper respect for another icon from the Greatest Show on Turf days.

Was Faulk the one irreplaceable part of that offense?

"You know what, I always said it would be hard to replace him, but I always thought Orlando Pace was the guy that we just couldn’t afford to lose at all," Bruce told reporters. "He was the anchor. If you look at the whole core, everything beginning and starting with the offensive line, he was that guy we couldn’t afford to lose, but Marshall was the engine and you can’t drive a car without the engine."

Bruce has been helping coaches at camp this week. He remains undecided about coaching on a full-time basis, citing the long hours that would take him away from his family, including his 19-month-old daughter.

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