NFC West: Paul Allen

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Nineteen years before his confetti shower Sunday night at Super Bowl XLVIII, Pete Carroll was a guy without a job. It was early January 1995, and he walked into his owner’s office, carrying a binder that included his offseason plan for the New York Jets.

Carroll had gone 6-10 in his first season as head coach, but he had worked a week of 15-hour days when the season ended. Now he was looking forward to presenting his strategy to 80-year-old Leon Hess, best known for his expertise in oil, not football. Carroll sat in an anteroom with colleagues; it was like being outside the curtain, waiting to see the Great Oz.

His meeting with Hess lasted only 45 seconds, according to a person who was there -- a dark chapter Carroll has refused to discuss.

"I'm done," a stunned Carroll told a friend as he walked out.

Rock, meet bottom.

Carroll rebounded from that low point, reaching the top of his profession on the same plot of swamp land in New Jersey on which he failed in his first head-coaching gig. The Super Bowl was over almost as quickly as his meeting with Hess all those years ago, as the Seattle Seahawks jumped Peyton Manning and cruised to a 43-8 rout of the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium.

A nice guy finished first.

Afterward, Carroll stood at an interview podium, with two pieces of green confetti shimmering in his silver hair. At 62, he was the third-oldest coach in history to win a Super Bowl, a twice-fired NFL head coach who bolted his USC dynasty before the NCAA posse arrived in town.

Now, he's a Super Bowl champion.

"Is this vindication for the 'spike' play?" he asked, alluding to Dan Marino’s legendary fake spike in November 1994 -- the play that doomed Carroll.

Looking into the cameras, Carroll said, "Hey, Marino, you got a lucky freaking play, all right? It happened. That was a long time ago."

Carroll never got a chance to use that meticulously prepared plan in New York, but he saved it and -- with help from general manager John Schneider -- rebuilt the Seahawks with that very blueprint. It was on display on the sport's biggest stage. To say the Seahawks dominated would be like saying their owner, Paul Allen, is rich.

The Seahawks captured their first Super Bowl with a performance that reflected Carroll's personality. They were loose and confident, energetic and California cool -- not bad for a team that had no players with previous Super Bowl experience.

Carroll set an early tone with trickeration, an end around for Percy Harvin and a throwback pass to quarterback Russell Wilson. The latter didn’t work, but it sent a message.

Carroll, all about having fun, was going to play this game the same way. Hey, maybe he learned something from funny man Robin Williams, an old high school classmate. In contrast, the Broncos were tight, and it showed on the first play -- a miscommunication that resulted in an errant shotgun snap and a safety.

Twelve seconds into the game, the score was 2-0.

It felt like 22-0.

Before it was over, the Seahawks had scored almost every way imaginable -- a safety, an interception return and a kickoff return. All three phases contributed to a monster performance.

"That’s exactly how we try to play," Carroll said. "We’ve put that up pretty consistently for a lot of years -- not just [in Seattle], but for a lot of years. I'm thrilled that it came out so clearly, so obviously, because that's how we wanted to put a stamp on a world championship."

Throughout the blowout, Carroll never stopped being Carroll, bouncing around, patting rears and slapping shoulder pads. Back in the day, he was mocked for his player-friendly style, and critics claimed he was too nice to be a leader of men.

The criticism resurfaced in 1999, when he was fired by the New England Patriots after three seasons. The daunting challenge of succeeding Bill Parcells proved too great for Carroll. It ended with another owner, another meeting and another pink slip.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
AP Photo/Matt SlocumSeahawks coach Pete Carroll stayed true to his coaching beliefs -- despite a couple of NFL pink slips -- to earn his first Super Bowl title Sunday night.
Carroll never changed his ways. He just became an older version of himself. He wore a badge of that enthusiasm on his left cheek, a three-inch scratch. He revealed that it occurred in Friday’s practice, when he volunteered to return a kickoff in a drill. He stepped in because he wanted to give Harvin a rest, and -- sans helmet -- he received a glancing blow from Derrick Coleman.

He laughed about it. Why not? Carroll became the third coach in history to win a Super Bowl and an Associated Press national title in college. He joined Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson in that small fraternity.

"It feels very much the same," said Carroll, comparing a bowl win with a Super Bowl win.

Carroll put the Seahawks in the right frame of mind by balancing fun and X's and O's. Not known as a micromanager, he actually practiced halftime in Friday’s practice. That’s right, they orchestrated the entire thing, minute by minute, familiarizing the players and staff with the longer-than-usual halftime for the Super Bowl.

"I think Pete does a great job of making every day seem like a championship," cornerback Byron Maxwell said.

The "score" was 14-14 when they did it in practice. On Sunday, the halftime score was 22-0, which became 29-0 when Harvin returned the second-half kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. That came with 12 seconds gone, same as the safety at the start of the game.

It truly was a testament to the 12th Man, Seattle's home crowd.

"He's the most forward-thinking coach for the players of today that I've ever seen," said Allen, marveling at Carroll's halftime prep.

Carroll was thinking that way in 1994, when the Jets -- a backward franchise at the time -- took their forward-thinking coach and sent him packing with a "You’re fired!" that was so quick and cold that it would've made Donald Trump blush.

Camp Confidential: Seattle Seahawks

July, 30, 2013
RENTON, Wash. -- This training camp marks the Seattle Seahawks' first since 2009 without some form of a starting quarterback competition. So comfortable, mature and in command is Russell Wilson this summer that you'd swear he's been the starter for a decade.

It's sometimes as though Wilson is 24 years old going on 42.

Wilson naturally took the driver's seat in the van Seattle players used when shuttling to the offseason practices Wilson organized in Los Angeles. While teammates joked around in the back like kids on a field trip, Wilson was their chaperone.

Asked during this camp what he knew of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick from their time together shooting a commercial and appearing at the ESPYS, Wilson, nearly 13 months Kaepernick's junior, described his rival as someone who loves football and is a good person to be around.

"Great kid," Wilson added.

Reporters can forget about prying a colorful quote from the player teammates have nicknamed "the robot" for his methodical approach to the job. Wilson has been known to favor coachspeak even inside Seattle's quarterback meeting room.

"We joke around all the time," backup Brady Quinn said. "There are some times when he'll state the obvious. We try to make sure he realizes that is a given. Like, for example, 'Hey man, guys gotta stay healthy this year.' Well, yeah. They always need to stay healthy. That's a big part of a team doing well, people not getting hurt. Times like that, you've gotta keep him on his toes, make him laugh a little bit, give him a hard time."

One year after Wilson won a three-way competition against Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson, the player receiver Sidney Rice sometimes calls "the president" is running unopposed at this Seahawks camp.

"He's a champion when he steps out there on that field, even in practice," Rice said. "I’ve seen him run, I believe, 80 yards on one play on a scramble to try to get away and get us a first down. He is going to do whatever it takes. You have seen him running down the sideline blocking for Marshawn [Lynch] numerous times. That is the kind of guy you want leading your team."


[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Vikings aren't sure what to expect from their former receiver, Percy Harvin, who is expected to be in Seattle's lineup on Sunday.
1. Percy Harvin's health. The Seahawks were already a good team before they acquired Harvin. They became a popular pick for the Super Bowl once the versatile receiver and return specialist joined their roster in March. Now, with Harvin seeking a second opinion that could lead to season-altering surgery on his sore hip, those projections seem a little more tenuous.

How Harvin will proceed from here is not clear. His sometimes rocky past in Minnesota invites questions and fuels his critics. Is he smartly erring on the side of caution, as coach Pete Carroll seemed to suggest in initial remarks about the injury? Or, is this another one of those tough-to-explain Harvin plot twists like the ones that seemed to pop up regularly during his Minnesota tenure? With Harvin set to seek that second opinion Tuesday, Carroll noted that safety Kam Chancellor played through a similar injury last season. Was he saying Harvin should do the same?

"Guys around here trust [Harvin] and believe in him," Rice said. "It's nothing like coming out here and taking days off and doing his own thing. I don’t think he’s that type of person. You get that perception from people that don’t really know what's going on, and they just hear stuff and they just create their own [impression]."

Harvin is, by all accounts, plenty tough and competitive. If this is an injury Harvin can manage, it appears he'll do so on his terms, not on the Seahawks' terms. That surely wouldn't surprise the Vikings, even though Rice, himself an ex-Viking, said his teammate is misunderstood.

2. Bruce Irvin's position. There has been some confusion, at least on my end, regarding the role Seattle envisions for 2012 first-round draft choice Irvin. The team drafted Irvin with plans to use him initially as a situational pass-rusher, and later as the successor to Chris Clemons in the "Leo" position as a stand-up rusher in Carroll's defense.

Irvin collected eight sacks as a rookie in the situational role, as planned. He'll continue to play that role within the nickel defense while adding responsibilities as an outside linebacker in base packages. It's not so much that Irvin will be playing the strong side or weak side. Rather, he'll be one of two outside linebackers positioned on the line of scrimmage in what will look like a 3-4 scheme. He'll be asked to set the edge in the running game, rush the passer, match up man-to-man or cover the flat.

First, though, Irvin will have to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on anabolic steroids and related substances.

3. Depth on the offensive line. The Seahawks drafted offensive lineman James Carpenter 25th overall in 2011 when they could have taken a quarterback such as Andy Dalton or Kaepernick. Finding Wilson a year later absolved the team from second-guessing on the quarterback front, but the Carpenter selection was still looking like a regrettable one heading into this camp. Injuries were threatening Carpenter's career, and he wasn't exactly dominant even when healthy in his rookie season.

Perceptions are beginning to change after Carpenter reported to camp in good enough shape to participate fully from the beginning. I noticed Carpenter running from one drill to the next when he could have jogged. It seemed like evidence Carpenter was feeling good and was eager to salvage his career. He's been working with the starting unit at left guard between Pro Bowlers Russell Okung and Max Unger. Adding a healthy Carpenter to the mix would upgrade the line's longer-term prospects.


Seattle has one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, best running backs and best defenses. That's a winning combination just about every time. Last season, Wilson struggled through his first few games while hamstrung by remedial game plans. He did not start to hit his stride until Week 8 at Detroit. Wilson did not break out all the way until leading 97- and 80-yard touchdown drives to win at Chicago in Week 13. That's the quarterback Seattle will have behind center from the beginning this season. That is why the Seahawks like their chances.


Potential depth issues at tight end, offensive tackle, weakside linebacker and defensive end (for now, while Clemons rehabs and Irvin faces a suspension) probably aren't serious enough to send the Seahawks plummeting into mediocrity. However, the margin for error within the NFC West figures to be small. Harvin, at his best, was supposed to put Seattle over the top. Now, the Seahawks can't be sure they'll have him for the regular season.

    [+] EnlargeRed Bryant
    Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsRed Bryant, who had treatment for sleep apnea this offseason, says he has better stamina in practices.

  • Defensive end Red Bryant appears more comfortable, for good reason. Bryant had treatment for sleep apnea this offseason after former trainer Sam Ramsden, now the Seahawks' director of player health and performance, recommended testing for larger players. Bryant, who wears a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask when he sleeps, says he's feeling refreshed and has better stamina later in practices. This is a pivotal season for Bryant, who struggled with a foot injury last season after signing a $35 million extension. At Carroll's suggestion, Bryant has recommitted to his identity as a dominant run-stuffer after feeling pressure to improve as a pass-rusher upon signing his new contract.
  • Rookie fourth-round receiver Chris Harper didn't seem to be a factor in the first couple days of camp. The first time I really noticed him was when he caught a touchdown pass on the third day of practice. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also the first day this summer that the Seahawks practiced in pads. Harper, oddly proportioned for a receiver at 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, relishes the physical part of the game. Some young receivers flourish in shorts and struggle in pads. Harper might have it the other way around.
  • The Seahawks claimed off waivers former Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield despite a $1.3 million salary and a history of injuries. Seattle had a middle-rounds grade on Schofield entering the 2010 draft even though Schofield was rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered in Senior Bowl practices. The Cardinals used a fourth-round pick on Schofield just ahead of the range where Seattle was considering taking him. The Seahawks are continually looking for "Leo" defensive ends in the 6-3 and 245-pound mold. Schofield, 26, fits the profile and has a chance to earn playing time in a rotational capacity while Clemons recovers from knee surgery and Irvin serves a suspension.
  • Irvin's speed showed up in practice when he chased down rookie running back Christine Michael to force a fumble some 40 yards past the line of scrimmage. Michael ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the combine. He has appeared to be one of the more explosive players in camp. Irvin caught him despite outweighing Michael by about 25 pounds, 245 to 220. Raw speed isn't the question for Irvin. He has plenty. The question is whether he can handle some of the coverage and run-stopping responsibilities associated with his evolving role.
  • Remember those offseason stories about Lynch skipping chunks of the voluntary offseason conditioning program? They're pretty much irrelevant now, as anticipated.
  • Nothing has changed the perception that Jackson will beat out Quinn for the No. 2 job behind Wilson. Trading Jackson a year ago was tough in some respects because Jackson was so popular among teammates. I see no reason for the Seahawks to make the same decision again unless Quinn vastly outplays Jackson.
  • Between the practice field and the locker room sits a cart with a laptop connected to a sensor atop a stand. The setup from GPSports allows teams to monitor player performance in real time. Team owner Paul Allen's other professional Seattle sports team, Sounders FC, has used the technology. The GPSports website says systems include a GPS, accelerometer, magnetometer, heart rate sensor and a wireless transmitter. The company says its product can "accurately measure distance, speed, acceleration, heart rate, bodyload and impacts all in real time."
  • Former Cardinals receiver Stephen Williams is doing what he sometimes did while with Arizona: impressing during camp by making spectacular leaping catches. Williams has the talent, but he has been unable to make it transfer to the regular season. Working with a top NFL quarterback cannot hurt. Williams arrived in Arizona the year after Kurt Warner retired.
  • Linebacker K.J. Wright has stood out in past camps, but not so much in this one, except for the big hit he delivered on rookie fullback Spencer Ware.
  • Speaking of Ware, he has some work to do before making veteran fullback Michael Robinson expendable, at least from early indications. The offense didn't look the same or as good with Robinson and tight end Zach Miller sitting out. Robinson and Lynch have a special feel for one another. Ware, more of a halfback type for most of his college career, has dropped a few passes and is still adjusting to the physical nature of the position.
  • The offseason buzz about rookie Jesse Williams possibly starting at defensive tackle seems to have subsided for the time being. Veteran Tony McDaniel and 2012 fourth-rounder Jaye Howard have stood out more.
  • Is that really assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable? He has dropped a significant amount of weight since having back surgery, and he said after one practice, "You can’t imagine how nothing hurts on me. It’s awesome."
  • Richard Sherman, although sometimes combative when facing receivers, projects unfiltered joy other times. He is the player most likely to groove along to the music Carroll plays at practice. Sherman thrilled the crowd during one practice when he picked off a pass and lateraled to Earl Thomas during the return. Football is fun to Sherman, and it shows.
  • There aren't many open passing lanes in practice against the Seattle defense. This team is stacked at cornerback. If this keeps up in preseason, and there's enough depth that it should, Seattle could be in position to trade one of its backups.

Around the NFC West: Where's urgency?

September, 26, 2012
Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen rarely makes himself available to discuss the NFL, his team or much of anything.

Allen was unexpectedly available following the Seahawks' controversial victory over Green Bay on Monday night. He even discussed the NFL's ongoing lockouts of game officials.

Art Thiel of Sportspress Northwest caught up with Allen following Seattle's 14-12 victory. Allen on the officiating stalemate: "It's an unfortunate situation we have to work through. I know the league is working hard in negotiations. I know it will get resolved. These things always do. I think we’d all prefer it would be sooner than later. But we have to let the people negotiating at the league level do their work." Noted: One wouldn't expect much urgency from Allen following an outcome such as this one. I'm a little surprised the league and team owners haven't tried to discredit the regular officials by leaking information that could put the officials in a bad light. For example, they could paint the officials as wanting it both ways by seeking to continue their pensions without being willing to become full-time employees. Perhaps the league feels confident the officials will capitulate, or unconcerned about continuing on the current course. Recent events would seem to put pressure on the NFL to find a resolution.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times breaks down what happened from start to finish during the final play from the Seahawks' game against Green Bay. O'Neil: "Did (M.D.) Jennings establish possession of the ball before (Golden) Tate? If so, simultaneous possession does not apply. But establishing possession requires more than catching the ball with both hands. It requires the player to catch it, establish position inbounds and maintain control of the ball throughout contact with the ground."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune weaves into his officiating column a few Seahawks-related notes. Boling: "While the Packers made effective adjustments at halftime, the Seahawks went depressingly one-dimensional in the second half. And they also relapsed into the undisciplined play that was such a problem last season, with any number of inexcusable procedure penalties. (I mean, will somebody check Russell Okung’s hearing? It’s obvious the man can no longer hear the snap count.)"

Chris Brown of takes a detailed look at Larry Fitzgerald's 37-yard scoring reception against the Eagles in Week 3. Nnamdi Asomugha was left alone in coverage after safety Kurt Coleman bit on a run fake. Smith: "While bursting upfield and keeping his shoulders ahead of Asomugha's to maintain his inside position, he also leans into the defender, pushing them both back toward the sideline. He does this for two reasons. First, it creates more space between Asomugha and the opposite safety, which leaves Kevin Kolb with a place to fit the ball. Second, it sets up Fitzgerald's move to get open. The old coaching adage is that to 'be covered early is to be open late,' and by pushing Asomugha to the outside, Fitzgerald is able to set up his own burst to the end zone."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic notes that many of the players Arizona has paid the greatest sums are producing at a high level for the team. Coach Ken Whisenhunt on the recently re-signed Daryl Washington: "I tell you what, signing him to an extension is looking better and better every week."

Darren Urban of suspects Cardinals fullback Anthony Sherman, an important role player responsible for forcing a fumble on special teams Sunday, could have an injury. Urban: "Apparently something happened, because the Cardinals added fullback Korey Hall to the roster. Reserve guard Rich Ohrnberger played a snap at fullback at the end of Sunday’s win, so it makes sense something is up with Sherman. I'm sure it will be addressed Wednesday. Hall spent four years with the Packers and last season with the Saints before the Saints cut him at the end of camp this season. Hall not only played with guard Daryn Colledge in Green Bay, but also at Boise State."

Bill Barnwell of leads his Week 3 review with a look at the 49ers' defeat at Minnesota. He also explains why he remains skeptical regarding Arizona. Barnwell: "If you want to know why the Cardinals have been 10-2 over the last 12 games, there is a simple explanation: They've won virtually all their close games. Ten of those 12 games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and Arizona has won nine of them. They've basically been the Baltimore Orioles of football over the past 12 games. If you want to count on that happening over the next 12 games, be my guest."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers thoughts on James Laurinaitis, among other subjects, during a recent Rams chat. Thomas: "Is he playing as well overall as he has in the past? Probably not. Is playing at the lighter weight making him less stout at the point of attack? Maybe. Did he look bad on the Cutler scramble? Sure. But again, he is not THE problem. He is not A problem. I saw him make several tackles at or near the line of scrimmage against Chicago. Apparently you missed those. He's had more coverage responsibilities in this defense, deeper drops in the Cover 2 scheme. So at times he's more off the line of scrimmage than he's been in the past."

Paul Petruska of Rams Herd says the Rams lost to the Bears even though they seemed to accomplish many worthwhile objectives during the game. The offensive line was simply overmatched. Petruska: "To emphasize how bad the line was, let’s look at Sam Bradford’s performance in the first half. The second half is its own story. In the first half, Bradford dropped back 19 times. He scrambled twice and was sacked three times. Two of the sacks were a result of quick pressure due to the Bears’ defender man-handling our offensive lineman. The other sack was caused by our own offensive lineman tripping Bradford. Thus, the sacks were not on Bradford."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee checks out the 49ers' presence at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also made some finds during a special tour. Barrows: "On one of the shelves is a folded up piece of green carpet. Oh, that's the section of turf from Three Rivers Stadium on which Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception. What's the significance of the dark green tote bag hanging just a few feet away? That? That's the bag that Pat Tillman used on road trips while with the Cardinals. On it is a tag with his name and his address, New Almaden, Ca. If that doesn't squeeze your heart and send a rush of blood to your head, you need to go to the doctor toute suite."

Also from Barrows: thoughts on the 49ers facing the Darrelle Revis-less Jets. Randy Moss has nice things to say about Revis, who once called Moss a "slouch" and said this about him: "In the second half, you could tell he was kind of like putting his foot on the brake. But everybody knows that's Randy -- sometimes he plays 100 percent, sometimes he doesn't."
Alex Smith's commitment to improving his throwing mechanics promises to turn analysts into amateur position coaches during the upcoming NFL season.

Every touchdown pass or interception will invite questions about whether Smith's shoulders were square or whether his front knee was bent sufficiently at delivery.

Matt Maiocco of explains the changes Smith has made to his mechanics by incorporating more of his body into the throw. Maiocco: "The most noticeable difference is that Smith also has greater flex in his left knee. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, speaking in December, repeated what he has said since 2007: Smith's knee lock was a major issue."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Smith's work with pitching coach Tom House also addressed the psychological aspect of the game. Branch: "Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who recommended the pitching coach to Smith, credits his meeting with House after the 2003 season for transforming his previous nice-guy style of leadership."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Dashon Goldson played well last season with minimal offseason preparation, something to keep in mind as Goldson remains unsigned this year. Barrows: "Furthermore, Goldson's absence gives the younger players more exposure. As of now, C.J. Spillman is filling in at free safety when the first-team defense takes the field. The 49ers signed Spillman to a three-year extension this offseason. Spillman may be the most physically gifted of all of the team's safeties -- he's certainly one of the more aggressive -- but he lacks experience. Newcomers Mark LeGree and Trenton Robinson, a sixth-round draft pick, also get a bit more action with Goldson's absence."

Clare Farnsworth of says the team's emphasis on speed in the draft should help the special teams, which were already pretty good. Farnsworth: "Red Bryant set franchise records by blocking two field goals in a game and four kicks during the season. Jon Ryan led the NFL and tied a club record with 34 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, broke his club single-season records for average (46.6 yards) and net average (39.3) and also got off the longest punt (77 yards) in franchise history. Steven Hauschka tied club records by kicking five field goals in the upset victory over the Ravens and converting at least one three-pointer in 12 consecutive games. Doug Baldwin blocked a punt that Michael Robinson returned for a touchdown, while Farwell also had a blocked punt to set up a TD."

Also from Farnsworth: Why Jeremy Lane appealed to Seattle in the draft.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks owner Paul Allen has denied rumors his sports empire could be for sale.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says no one is quite sure why Marshawn Lynch calls teammate Matt Flynn by the name "Antonio" -- that's just Lynch.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Landon Cohen's addition to the Cardinals' roster gives the team 90 players. Somers: "The Cardinals had one spot open on the roster and obviously needed some depth at defensive end. Signing Cohen doesn't preclude them from reaching agreement with defensive end Vonnie Holliday or outside linebacker Clark Haggans. Whenever that happens, the club will make a corresponding roster move."

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on the Rams' proposed stadium upgrades. Softli: "While there may seem to be a short-term downside, there is also a huge potential for economic growth that all Missourians can be very proud of once a top-flight facility is built. The bottom line is that this current stadium needs a major facelift, or else another one needs to be built, because this community can’t afford to lose another NFL team and millions of dollars in future revenue."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with new Rams linebacker Mario Haggan, the oldest player on the team at 32. Haggan: "Fresh start for me. Fresh opportunity. This is a young team with an established quarterback. I've heard so many good things about Coach [Jeff] Fisher; you talk to guys across the league and they all wish they could play for him. And it's close to home. Maybe my family can come see me play more in St. Louis."

Also from Thomas: a report from Fisher's first full-squad practice as Rams coach. Fisher: "We added a bunch of things today. We've got a lot of 'base' in, we've got third down, and red zone. Friday, we'll probably do some 2-minute. So we're throwing a lot at 'em. But they've responded very well and they're practicing well together."
The Seattle Seahawks owned the NFC West for years because their owner, Paul Allen, was so clearly superior to his peers in the division.

It was Allen who pushed through a stadium referendum precipitating his purchase of the team in the late 1990s. It was Allen's ownership that enabled the team to hire Mike Holmgren in 1999, another watershed moment for the franchise.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bidwill
Kyle Terada/US PresswireLanding QB Peyton Manning would be a huge victory for Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, front, and coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Those two owner-driven events set up the team for seven division titles during a 12-year period, including five in a row beginning in 2003.

Visions of Allen's Seahawks squirming while Peyton Manning visited the Arizona Cardinals over the weekend might not mean much if Manning signs outside the NFC West or agrees to visit Seattle after all. But with Arizona holding a clear edge over the Seahawks at this point in the process, the shrinking ownership gap in the division is worth our attention.

Allen hasn't necessarily slipped even though his fortune, once estimated to exceed $30 billion, has reportedly shrunk to less than half that amount. He remains the wealthiest NFL owner by a wide margin. He helped finance a state-of-the-art waterfront facility that opened in 2008. He gives football decision makers wide latitude and ample resources.

But with the Cardinals' Michael Bidwill and the San Francisco 49ers' Jed York securing new stadiums and winning division titles recently, the Seahawks' competitors have gained ground. Stan Kroenke's ascent in St. Louis has brightened the Rams' outlook as well.

For Arizona, getting Manning to visit was nice. Getting him to sign with the team would more emphatically validate the the Cardinals' progress as an organization.

Bidwill, like York, has a familial reputation to live down.

"(Bidwill) is hugely aware of our fan base and how his dad is viewed," a team source told ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter over the weekend. "He came to work with this team to get the stadium built. It took him a long time to get that done, but he did. He is a driven young owner that wants to totally change this franchise's image."

Winning back-to-back division titles while making a Super Bowl appearance affirmed Bidwill's long-held stance that stadium revenue would change how the team could operate. But the Cardinals' 13-19 record over the past two seasons has lent credence to the idea that the team basically lucked into Kurt Warner's career revival.

Beating out John Elway and others for Manning would be another game-changer, comparable to the day Seattle landed Holmgren and, to an extent, when the 49ers secured Jim Harbaugh. Holmgren and Harbaugh were the hottest coaching candidates at the time. Manning, though coming off neck surgeries that might still threaten his career, outranks both in NFL history.

The Cardinals need him. They bet big on Kevin Kolb last offseason, and are running a fat deficit on the investment, with few promising signs. John Clayton's recent report about the team losing confidence in Kolb sounded ominous. Coach Ken Whisenhunt might still need to win the bet on Kolb, but the cost of losing it would disappear if Manning signed with the team.

Finding a quarterback requires taking chances. Manning would be the safest bet in NFL history without the neck surgeries. He still appears to be a safer gamble than putting down another $7 million to continue the relationship with Kolb, a payment that comes due at week's end. Paying Kolb in the absence of Manning would not necessarily prevent John Skelton from winning the starting job.

A year ago, the Kolb experiment gave the Cardinals an opportunity to find out whether Whisenhunt could identify and develop quarterbacks. To what degree had he shaped Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and, later, Warner in Arizona? That question becomes far less relevant if the Cardinals can close a deal with Manning.

Bidwill's father made a run at Joe Montana in 1993. This time, the Cardinals appear to have a legitimate chance. Times have changed, but by how much? Manning's decision will provide one measure.
Aaron Levine's report about the Seattle Seahawks hoping to bring a Super Bowl to the Northwest sent me back through notes to a 2002 interview with team owner Paul Allen.

The Seahawks were about to open their new stadium at the time, so it was natural to ask Allen whether the organization could bring a Super Bowl to Seattle.

"It is certainly do-able," Allen said at the time. "The league, there hasn’t been one in a northern city for some time. There is some talk of New York and Washington. Certainly, our hat is in the ring if they decide to look beyond cities like that."

The recent positive Super Bowl experience in Indianapolis would seem to help.

"I think probably it will be in another Northern city first," Allen said during that 2002 interview, "and if it’s a positive experience, hopefully some momentum will build."

CenturyLink Field is an open-air facility, however, and that could be a problem. The NFL sent the Super Bowl to Indianapolis knowing Lucas Oil Stadium would shield fans and players from inclement weather. Indianapolis is also a major-league destination for conventions. Skywalks connect downtown hotels.

Steve Rudman of Sports Press Northwest looks at Shaun Alexander's Hall of Fame credentials following Cortez Kennedy's induction. He compares Alexander's production to that for Curtis Martin, something I'll break out later on the blog.

Darren Urban of breaks out pertinent NFL dates and makes this notation about the Cardinals regarding free agency: "The Cards have four restricted free agents (guys who could leave, but the Cards, if they tender an offer, have right of first refusal): running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, linebacker Reggie Walker, safety Rashad Johnson and cornerback Greg Toler." Note: Re-signing unrestricted free agent Calais Campbell has to be the top priority as far as addressing players already on the roster.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates the Rams' search for a general manager. The 49ers' Tom Gamble is next up, with Minnesota's George Paton up for a second interview. Thomas: "Gamble will be the ninth candidate to interview for the job. The others: Paton; Joey Clinkscales, vice president of college for the New York Jets; Lake Dawson, vice president of player personnel for Tennessee; Brian Gaine, director of player personnel for Miami; Ryan Grigson, director of player personnel for Philadelphia; Ron Hill, vice president of football operations for the NFL; Steve Keim, director of player personnel for Arizona; and Les Snead, director of player personnel for Atlanta. Grigson has since been hired as general manager by Indianapolis."

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams have signed an offensive lineman from the CFL.

Matt Maiocco of takes a look at how the 49ers' receivers performed in 2011. On Josh Morgan: "Morgan's rehab is ahead of schedule, and he should be able to participate in the entire offseason program. He is scheduled to be a free agent, and it would seem to make sense for the sides to agree on a contract for next season. In five games, Morgan caught 15 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco 49ers looks at which draft choices the 49ers hold for 2012.
This was supposed to be the first day of the rest of our NFL lives, offering a clean break from the 2011 lockout and our first weekend free from the various projects and top 10 lists that have occupied our time since March.

Instead, here we are, suspended in the same sorry locked out state.

We've analyzed helmets, ranked the best players in the game today and even projected which ones would dominate three years from now.

If the longest NFL offseason continues much longer, I fear we'll resort to ranking the 10 best top 10 lists. Come to think of it, let's get it out of the way now, as a pre-emptive strike against someone actually assigning it to me. That would never happen, would it? Hey, we ranked helmets. Anything is possible.

Speaking of those helmet rankings, you apparently liked them. A lot. Users recommended them to Facebook friends more than they recommended any of the other 15 -- that's right, 15 -- offseason power rankings. And so it's with your input that I've assembled the 10 most socially networked NFL offseason power rankings (number of Facebook recommendations in parenthesis):
  1. Ten best helmets (4,000+). I'll admit to participating in a May 4 email discussion with a colleague in which he lamented and I agreed that we were bottoming out with the decision to rank helmets, of all things. We were flat-out wrong. Bill Williamson had fun with the project, even consulting fashion experts, and the resulting May 17 item has been recommended more than 4,000 times on Facebook.
  2. Ten best running backs (2,000+). Steven Jackson ranked seventh and Frank Gore was tied for 10th, with Chris Johnson edging Adrian Peterson for the top spot. I thought standing up for Gore was important and explained why for the piece: "He's produced across systems for a team that has had a different offensive coordinator every season of his career. He's never had a quarterback to take pressure off him. Defenses have known what was coming, and Gore has kept coming anyway."
  3. Ten best linebackers (1,000+). Patrick Willis topped this list, showing that a great player at a less glamorous position can still command appropriate respect levels. "Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He has no weaknesses."
  4. Ten best safeties (995). Our panelists felt guilty after this one. The position was difficult to grade and without a clearly established order outside the top couple of selections. Adrian Wilson was fourth.
  5. Ten toughest venues (960). The venue formerly known as Qwest Field ranked third. Lambeau and Heinz were the only other NFL stadiums appearing on every voter's ballot. Candlestick Park, with its tricky winds and slippery grass, could rank among the toughest if the 49ers had remained a playoff team over the last decade.
  6. Ten best head coaches (764). Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt just missed the cut. No other NFC West head coach received a vote. Bill Belichick was the overall winner in a runaway.
  7. Ten best quarterbacks (693). The NFC West was shut out here. Where will Sam Bradford rank one year from now?
  8. Ten best defensive players (614). Willis was fourth overall and second on my ballot. Teammate Justin Smith missed the top 10. He was tied for 13th with votes from me and Kevin Seifert.
  9. Ten best owners (558). Seattle's Paul Allen missed the cut despite getting votes on four ballots.
  10. Ten best receivers (549). Larry Fitzgerald was second only to Andre Johnson. A little help at quarterback would have helped Fitzgerald make a stronger case for the top spot. He drew two first-place votes.

Here's hoping your Saturday ranks among your very best. Bring on free agency and training camps. Please.
The NFL cannot take for granted Paul Allen's presence at league functions.

I've attended the NFL's annual spring owners meeting roughly 10 times and cannot recall seeing Allen at them. He has typically authorized others to cast votes on the organization's behalf. But with owners and players working toward a labor deal, Allen is in Atlanta for a potential vote.

"How important is this?" Judy Battista of The New York Times tweeted. "Seattle owner Paul Allen is here."

Allen isn't much for the spotlight, to say the least, and his business interests extend far beyond the NFL. He has occasionally expressed strong views on the labor situation, however.

When talks broke down in March, Allen used his Twitter account to blame players.

"NFL players bailed on deal worth billions, sacked collective bargaining & sued, which could take years to play out," he wrote.

Two months later, Allen weighed in again with, "Giants President John Mara says NFLPA’s offer would be great for their lawyers, but not for players, teams, or fans."

With a few exceptions, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has taken much of the criticism that otherwise might have hit individual owners during the lockout.

Best of NFL: NFC West teams

June, 30, 2011
Best of NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

As part of Best of the NFL Week on, here are five bests for the NFC West:

[+] EnlargeCardinals field
AP Photo/Roy DabnerThe Arizona Cardinals boast having the first fully retractable field in the country.
Best stadium innovation: I'm all for downtown stadiums with open roofs and cityscape views. That wasn't practical in Arizona, where temperatures exceed even Kurt Warner's sizzling playoff passer rating. The Cardinals made the most of their climatic predicament by going with a retractable roof and, remarkably, what they hail as the first fully retractable field in the country. The natural-grass surface spends about 150 days each year basking in the Arizona sunshine, requiring only about an hour to slide back inside on a massive tray weighing 17 million pounds (the rough equivalent of 47,200 Deuce Lutuis). Cardinals players get to escape the heat on game days while playing on a natural-grass surface that ranks among the very best in biannual player surveys.

Best alumni assimilation: This one isn't close. Keena Turner is the 49ers' vice president of football affairs. Guy McIntyre serves as director of alumni. Jesse Sapolu, Steve Bono and Eric Wright are alumni coordinators. Dwight Clark is a business consultant. Team president Jed York grew up around the team during its 1980s glory days. He was a fan first and it shows in how eagerly the 49ers embrace their past. The other NFC West teams also employ former players, but not to the same degree. Retired Rams great Jack Youngblood has even accused that organization of failing to adequately embrace its alumni.

Best team facility: Few team headquarters in any sport can compete with the $75 million facility Seahawks owner Paul Allen constructed on Lake Washington, south of Seattle. The practice fields overlook the water, with swank homes staring back from the opposite shore. Giant doors slide up for an open-air experience in the players' weight room, offering views of the practice field and, nearby, the water. The team has flown in free agents via seaplane, docking right at the facility. Square footage is right around 200,000 -- second highest in the NFL, according to the team -- and includes an indoor practice facility adjacent to the locker room. No other facility in the division comes close.

Best billionaire owner: Allen has the clear edge for now based on the Seahawks' success over the past decade, but Stan Kroenke's prospects deserve our attention. Kroenke has proven himself as a capable owner in other sports. He has also engaged his fellow NFL owners in ways Allen simply refuses to do. That gives Kroenke the ability to make the Rams more relevant at the league level. Seattle's profile has suffered with Mike Holmgren and Tod Leiweke leaving the organization in recent years.

Best training camp venue: The Seahawks have it nice on Lake Washington, but there's something special about going away to camp if the venue is right. Northern Arizona University fits the profile for the Cardinals. It's far enough from Phoenix to escape the blistering heat, but close enough for fans to turn out in large numbers. The high-desert scenery and nearly 7,000-foot elevation combine to set apart NAU from other camp venues in the division and the league overall.
The St. Louis Rams are surging. The Seattle Seahawks are moving up, too.

The Arizona Cardinals are plummeting. The San Francisco 49ers are slipping to a much smaller degree.

Those were the conclusions offered up by ESPN's Ultimate Team Rankings for 2011.

The rankings evaluate 122 professional franchises across the following categories: bang for the buck, fan relations, ownership, affordability, stadium experience, players, coaching and to what degree teams have won or are likely to win championships during their fans' lifetimes. Teams from the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball comprised the rankings.

Notes in relation to the NFC West:
  • The Cardinals, playing without Kurt Warner, dropped 52 spots to No. 71 in the rankings, the third-largest drop among NFL teams. Tennessee fell 61 spots. Carolina fell 58 spots.
  • The Rams, transformed with Sam Bradford under center and an improving defense at his back, climbed 31 spots from last year. Only Kansas City (plus-48) and Tampa Bay (plus-40) improved by more places. The Seahawks' 22-spot improvement was fifth-largest among NFL teams.
  • The Rams climbed 84 spots in bang for the buck. No NFL team improved more in this category. Arizona fell 50 spots in this category. Only Carolina (minus-93) suffered a bigger drop.
  • The Rams climbed 42 spots in fan relations. Only Pittsburgh (plus-50) improved more among NFL teams. The Rams also improved 43 spots in players, second to Tampa Bay (plus-44). But their ranking in the "title track" category remained unchanged at No. 37. Green Bay (plus-15), Kansas City (plus-14) and Detroit (plus-13) enjoyed the biggest gains in title track.
  • Arizona dropped 33 places in title track, the third-largest NFL drop behind Cincinnati (minus-36) and Miami (minus-34).
  • With Stan Kroenke in place, the Rams jumped a league-high 34 places in ownership to No. 80, but the Seahawks' Paul Allen remained the highest-ranked owner in the division at No. 48. The Cardinals' ownership did not change, but perceptions of its effectiveness appear on the decline. Arizona dropped 29 spots in this category, the fourth-largest fall in the league.
  • Seattle improved a division-best 26 spots in coaching. Only Tampa Bay (plus-65) and Pittsburgh (plus-33) improved more among NFL teams.
  • The rankings justify the 49ers' push for a new stadium. The team ranked 117th in stadium experience, third worst in the league behind Oakland (No. 119) and Minnesota (No. 121). Seattle's stadium experience ranked 13th overall, best in the division and second only to Green Bay among NFL teams. The Packers ranked first overall.

The first chart shows where NFC West teams rank in relation to the other 118 franchises across baseball, hockey and basketball.

The second chart ranks NFC West teams by how many places they changed in the rankings from 2010 to 2011. The Rams are listed first because they improved a division-high 31 places in the rankings.

Adam Schein of Sirius NFL Radio and is back with his third annual NFL organizational rankings.

The Seattle Seahawks have overtaken the Arizona Cardinals for the top spot in the division based on ownership, quarterback, coach, front office, coaching staff and intangibles. Schein values each of those categories the same for the purposes of his evaluation, scoring teams on a 10-point scale and allowing, in some cases, for expected moves to influence rankings.

I had fun breaking down his second annual rankings a year ago.

The division has welcomed one new owner since last offseason. Quarterback situations remain unsettled. The Seahawks' playoff success lent credibility to coach Pete Carroll even though the team finished with a 7-9 record during the regular season. The lockout has subsequently made it tougher for teams to help themselves. Some of these grades could change based on how teams proceed during free agency, particularly in relation to the quarterback position.

A look at Schein's rankings and comments for NFC West teams, followed by my own thoughts:

12. Seattle Seahawks (37.5 of 60 points)

Schein: The facilities are state of the art. The home-field advantage with the '12th man' is significant. Coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider inherited a total mess. They were super-active last season, bringing in different combinations of players, leading to a street free-agent gem like Mike Williams. Hiring Tom Cable to coach the offensive line was a great move. Seattle, finally, has a good structure in place.

Sando's thoughts: The Seahawks' ability to resolve the quarterback situation will determine whether they remain on an upward trajectory. Paul Allen is an owner with plenty of resources. He stays out of the way on football decisions. The team would benefit if Allen were more involved at the league level, but that is not his style. Qwest Field provides one of the strongest home-field advantages in sports when there's something to cheer about. Schneider seems to work well with Carroll, creating a positive front-office culture. They fared well in patching holes with Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock and Leon Washington, among others. Replacing the retired Alex Gibbs with Cable stands out as a strong recovery.

16. Arizona Cardinals (36 of 60 points)

Schein: The Cards cut pay for employees across the board during the lockout. That smells of the Cardinals in the past. But Arizona’s track record of churning out excellent drafts under Rod Graves and Steve Keim is sensational. Ken Whisenhunt is the perfect coach for the Cardinals. The stadium is beautiful. The Arizona public relations staff knows how to promote the product and is regarded as top-notch. I give the Cards only a 4 at quarterback because right now Kevin Kolb is a very educated guess. If it wasn’t for that potential, it would be a minus-4.

Sando's thoughts: Ken Whisenhunt scored eight points from Schein, more than any other coach in the division commanded. That is fair based upon the Cardinals' playoff success alone. The Cardinals have a beautiful stadium, but they're in a market heavy on transplants, making it tougher to develop the loyalty other teams enjoy. Schein's nine-point score for the Cardinals' front office reflects his high opinion of the team's recent draft classes. There have been successes, no question, but the grade appears generous. Seven of the nine players Arizona drafted in the first three rounds from 2007-09 have arguably failed to meet expectations (Beanie Wells, Cody Brown, Rashad Johnson, Early Doucet, Levi Brown, Alan Branch and Buster Davis). Other teams in the division haven't fared appreciably better, but nine points on a 10-point scale seems high under the circumstances.

19. St. Louis Rams (33.5 of 60 points)

Schein: Finally, optimism! Coach Steve Spagnuolo and QB Sam Bradford changed the culture in St. Louis. The ownership issue has become a back-burner topic.

Sando's thoughts: The Rams scored only three points from Schein for ownership. I would give the Rams the benefit of the doubt in that category based on Stan Kroenke's record as a franchise owner in other sports. Kroenke gives the Rams an experienced billionaire owner with a long history in the NFL. The other NFL owners were quick to welcome Kroenke as majority owner, a positive sign for the Rams. The front office scored only five points from Schein, but it's looking like that ranking will rise in the future. Bradford, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Rodger Saffold have become impact players as high draft choices. The team scored big in free agency with Fred Robbins last season. Long-term stadium questions persist and the Rams need to maintain their recent improvement to climb the rankings.

24. San Francisco 49ers (28 of 60 points)

Schein: It appears that the Niners have cleared redevelopment hurdles in preparation of their move to Santa Clara in 2015. And not a moment too soon. Jim Harbaugh, Jed York and Bob Lange are major upgrades for head coach, owner and PR director in recent years. The Niners have done a nice job this year with social media. Mike Singletary was a train wreck, more punchline than coach, and Harbaugh will live up to the hype.

Sando's thoughts: The 49ers scored only one point for quarterback and four for their front office in this survey. That is a bit surprising on the quarterback front given the hope San Francisco holds for rookie Colin Kaepernick. In courting Alex Smith, the 49ers might be betting too heavily on Harbaugh's coaching powers. The improvement from Singletary to Harbaugh in dealing with quarterbacks and establishing a modern offensive philosophy has to pay off. Schein gave five points to York for ownership. That score will hinge on whether York was right about Harbaugh and whether the team secures a new stadium as desired. Silicon Valley player Gideon Yu's addition to the front office seemed like an enterprising move.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with former Rams receiver Torry Holt, who is helping out at player-organized practices. Holt says he hasn't retired, but isn't sure whether he'll have another opportunity to sign with a team. Holt, on the Rams' receivers: "They want to learn. They want to be challenged. And that's what I was trying to do to them in these past couple days. I thought (Brandon) Gibson looked really good. (Danny) Amendola looked good. Plays really fast. Runs good routes. Austin Pettis, for a big guy, can really transition in and out of his breaks. He's a big target. I think he'll be an excellent target for Sam (Bradford). Greg Salas looked good. He's got some quick-twitch fibers. He's got to change some of his running motion. The tight end, (Lance) Kendricks, man, he is put together. He looks good. Very athletic."

Also from Thomas: He says during a chat that longtime team employees are on edge after coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney dismissed multiple employees with ties to the team's distant past. Thomas: "In my opinion, it's not a good situation. A lot of the rank-and-file here at Rams Park feel if they worked with the team in L.A., or were part of the move to St. Louis, etc., that there's a bull's eye on their back. It's not good for morale."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams receiver Danario Alexander is looking healthier. Bradford: "Watching him go through wide receiver drills and just getting off the line, he looks much quicker, looks much faster, much more explosive than he did in the (2010) season."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune explains why he thinks the Seahawks could be leaning toward going with Charlie Whitehurst as their starter in 2010. Williams: "While Matt Hasselbeck possesses more playmaking ability and would allow Seattle to do more in new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's scheme because of his quick thinking at the line of scrimmage, I think Pete Carroll could be leaning toward handing over the reins to Whitehurst for a couple reasons. First, Whitehurst will not take as many risks, can move a little better outside the pocket, and still possesses a strong enough arm to keep defenses honest with the deep ball. He’s basically the game manager that Carroll is looking for, allowing the Seahawks to become more run-oriented offensively and to play from a defensive mindset by limiting turnovers and controlling field position -- something all defensive-minded head coaches want to do." The longer the lockout drags on, the easier it becomes for organizations to take the bigger-picture view. In this case, the bigger-picture view does not include Hasselbeck. I suspect the team would have re-signed Hasselbeck by now if there had been no lockout. The team could still bring him back, but making a clean break with the past becomes more likely as the lockout continues.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle passes along thoughts from Seahawks receiver Mike Williams, who had this to say about Whitehurst: "I think Charlie has a big-time arm, he can make all the throws. I think people were very critical of him this year but I don't think people take into consideration what repetitions do in this league and the looks and the more time that you have under center in practice and how it carries over to the game. So, I still think the judgment on Charlie definitely has to be out until he's had a full year of work under his belt to really assess where he's at."

Sam Wyche of says longtime line coach Larry Beightol's endorsement played some role in the Seahawks' decision to draft Alabama tackle James Carpenter. Beightol, who helped train Carpenter before the draft, was the Packers' offensive line coach from 1999 to 2005. Wyche: "Carpenter trains where roughly 30 Raiders players will be training for three days this week as part of a 'minicamp' organized by veteran defensive end Richard Seymour. Carpenter said he'll be asking those players about Tom Cable, his style and gathering any information that could help him make the transition to the NFL quicker."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune offers thoughts on Seahawks owner Paul Allen after reading Allen's memoir. Boling: "One of the early surprises in the recently published book is that Allen’s love of sports initially arose as a participant. Well, sort of a participant. He said he sat on the end of the bench for his peewee church league basketball team. At Washington State, he played hours of H-O-R-S-E in the frat house driveway where his 'notorious matador' shot was hard to beat.' He claims he rarely dropped a pass on his frat intramural football team."

Clare Farnsworth of looks back at 1985, one of the more disappointing seasons in team history. Seattle was coming off a 12-4 season that suggested even better things ahead. Farnsworth: "What the Seahawks did, however, was finish 8-8. And not just any old 8-8, mind you. There was a sinister symmetry to their .500-ness, as they won two games, lost two games, won two games and so on from promising start to disappointing finish. They never lost more than two in a row, nor won more than two in a row."

Matt Maiocco of expects Aldon Smith and Kendall Hunter to have the greatest immediate impact among the 49ers' 2011 draft choices. Maiocco: "Aldon Smith will be asked to rush the passer, first and foremost. During his two college seasons, Smith showed an ability to get to the quarterback. It's a skill that transitions well to the NFL, as I wrote about over the weekend. A good pass-rusher can step into the professional ranks and immediately begin harassing quarterbacks."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers' player-organized practices have not been as extensive as those being put together by the Rams and some other teams. Barrows: "One of the obstacles is that the Bay Area is an expensive place to live and that many of the players choose to live elsewhere in the offseason. Another is that the two players in the most prominent leadership positions -- the starting quarterback and the players' representative -- technically aren't part of the team. Alex Smith and Takeo Spikes are both likely to re-sign with the 49ers when the lockout is lifted, but both are currently unrestricted free agents. Furthermore, Spikes lives in the Atlanta area."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says 49ers veterans will have to pick up the slack after the NFL canceled its rookie symposium.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says it's possible players could form bad habits during coach-free practices, according to general manager Trent Baalke.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat explains why Dom Capers' meticulous approach could influence the 49ers' current coaches.

Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News says Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick valued Arizona workout sessions and a chance to train with Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzpatrick: "The Arizona workouts were awesome. Everybody was willing and ready to work. It was basically a business trip. We had some fun. But when we were on the field, it was just us guys from the Bills. There was a lot of grinding out there. ... The good thing too was the very last day we were able to go work out with the Cardinals. Comparing yourself to some of those guys, I know our receivers like looking at that. And even just learning some stuff from Larry Fitzgerald, a guy like that. We got a lot of good stuff out of that."
Clare Farnsworth of asks whether the team has had a free-agent signing better than the one that landed linebacker Chad Brown, who went to two Pro Bowls over an eight-season span with the organization. Brown was an outstanding linebacker. But the franchise often struggled during his tenure, never winning a playoff game. Other players the team signed through free agency weren't as physically talented, but they played key roles for teams that enjoyed postseason success. Center Robbie Tobeck and receiver Bobby Engram would have to rank high on the list. Brown was, at his best, a better player. But Tobeck and Engram made significant impacts as well, helping the team enjoy sustained success that included a Super Bowl appearance.

Also from Farnsworth: a look back at the Seahawks' 1984 season. The team went 12-4 despite losing running back Curt Warner to injury.

Michael Kanellos of says the solar panels Seahawks owner Paul Allen has approved for facilities associated with his sports franchises have stirred controversy within the industry. Kanellos: "Solyndra is easily the most controversial company in solar and rivals Better Place and Bloom Energy for the overall title in green technology. Critics contend that its CIGS solar panels will never economically compete with crystalline panels and that the DOE loan guarantee and over $1 billion in equity investments will go swirling down the S-bend. Solyndra, on the other hand, says its products will dramatically decrease in price over the next few years. ... To top it off, the IRS has ruled that companies that install Solyndra solar systems can also get a tax credit for a new roof. Maybe Paul Allen's tax lawyer is sharper than yours."

Matt Maiocco of says it's fair to question whether Michael Crabtree could be doing more to prepare this offseason. Crabtree has not been participating in player-organized practices sessions. Maiocco: "There are about a dozen players who are taking part regularly in the workouts. How much benefit are the players getting from meeting four days a week? It's difficult to gauge. But I understand the fans' concerns about Crabtree. After all, he has yet to play in an exhibition game with the 49ers. With it now apparent that Alex Smith will be back at quarterback, both Crabtree and Smith have a lot to gain from spending more time together and talking about the new playbook." Would this be yet another item leading with or featuring the 49ers? Yes, it would. This makes it eight blog entries in a row. Look, I tried to break the streak and mix it up a little, but at this precise point in the NFL lockout, we're reduced to stories about solar panels and clothing lines. On Crabtree, he's become an enigmatic figure. Smith's expected return adds another layer to the story.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee checks in with former 49ers running back Glen Coffee. Coffee on the gun that was discovered in his car: "In Tuscaloosa, I had two instances where pretty much -- in one instance, a guy pretended he had a gun and in another instance, a guy attempted to rob me. That happened my sophomore year in college. So I purchased a gun. I put it in my car for safety reasons. So then we go ahead on the timeline: I find Christ, but it's almost like, I already had the gun in my car. I'm already riding around with a gun in my car. And just because I found Christ, I didn't think in my head, 'Ok, I don't need to have a gun in my car anymore.' You know what I'm saying? It's almost it wasn't as a big of a deal. It didn't cross my mind to say, 'I need to take the gun out of my car.' If I had it in my car, I didn't feel I needed to take it out of my car."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman worked extensively with quarterback David Carr in Houston under then-coach Dom Capers. This profile is more about Roman than about Carr, who is not expected back with the team. Barrows: "In two seasons with Roman as his quarterbacks coach, Carr had 30 touchdowns, 25 interceptions and an 80.5 passer rating. In his three other seasons as Houston’s starter, Carr had 29 touchdowns, 40 interceptions and a 71.7 rating." Capers: "He understood the total concept so well that I ended up making him the quarterbacks coach. That was just because I felt he was the best guy for the job and he understood defense. He understood how to attack things. He not only knew the protections in the pass game, but he knew the route concepts."

Darren Urban of profiles team administrator Justin Casey. Urban: "He helps negotiate contracts. He’s the go-to man in the organization when it comes to rules – be it about the collective bargaining agreement, player personnel or salary cap. He’s the liaison for rookies when they first come to the Cardinals, lining up their new NFL lives. During the draft, he’s one of the few who stays in the war room, organizing all the information flowing around the league. On game days, the 35-year-old Casey helps out in the coaches’ booth in the press box. And in his spare time -- infrequent as it is -- he watches video, of both pro players and potential college draftees."

Mark Clayton of the St. Louis Rams is promoting his faith-based clothing line during the lockout. Says the promotional release: "Clayton's perseverance and faith have played a large role in his career and in his life. While this talented wide receiver has set and broken records time after time, his focus has always been on a higher purpose: his relationship with God. Now, Clayton is using his entrepreneurial skills to bring spirituality into the fashion world, creating a place where faith meets fashion in the form of T-shirts and a complementary online community that fosters acceptance and brings a spiritual message to a new audience."
Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

A longtime Cincinnati Bengals assistant named Bill Walsh was having a hard time convincing NFL teams to hire him as a head coach.

The Bengals had promoted another assistant, Bill "Tiger" Johnson, when Paul Brown retired after the 1975 season. Walsh spent 1976 as offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers before leaving the NFL entirely for the best head-coaching job he could get. Years later, Walsh accused Brown of conspiring to keep him from advancing.

Bill Walsh
Malcolm Emmons/.US PresswireThe 49ers won three Super Bowls under coach Bill Walsh.
While Walsh was building a winner at Stanford, the sputtering San Francisco 49ers were running through four head coaches in less than two calendar years. Young owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. made Walsh the fifth in 1979.

"Caution should be exercised in proclaiming Bill Walsh the savior of the 49er franchise," Bay Area columnist Ed Jacoubowsky wrote at the time. "But the selection of Walsh as director of the club's football operations probably is the best step the young owner could have taken."

Probably? Let's make that a "definitely" in hindsight.

The organization would never be the same. Offensive football would never be the same. The balance of power in the league itself would shift for a decade, and then some. This was the most crucial event in 49ers history and more significant than any the team's current division rivals have experienced.

That message came through clearly at the SportsNation ballot box, where Walsh's hiring received significantly more votes than any other NFC West Flash Point among the more than 129,000 ballots cast across the division. The 49ers' Flash Points drew more than 44,000 votes, most in the NFC West, and Walsh's hiring commanded better than half of them.

"If the 49ers never hired Bill Walsh, they would not have changed the organizational structure of the team, how players are graded and drafted, how to prepare those players for the season and utilize them on the field of play," razzberry80 wrote. "Bill changed EVERYTHING. Joe Montana was the best, but without Bill Walsh, Joe is probably not drafted by the 49ers."

Another 49ers fan, servegmo, credited Walsh for drawing him in as a fan living in Costa Rica.

"He is the reason people from all over the world started watching football," servegmo wrote. "He put the 49ers in a position where they changed football as a whole -- the offseason preparation, the inclusion of black coaches, the practices, the West Coast offense, how he managed the draft (drafting the best players EVER at quarterback, wide receiver and safety). How many coaches can say that?"

The 49ers won three Super Bowls in 10 seasons under Walsh, who qualified as a football visionary in strategy, philosophy and personnel evaluation. Walsh became famous for scripting plays to separate in-game emotions from the decision-making process. His personnel moves and broader philosophy scripted more lasting success: five Super Bowls, including two won after Walsh retired from the sideline.

With full support from DeBartolo, who had learned from past mistakes, Walsh showed an exceptional eye for talent. Has any coach possessed a superior vision?

"When he drafted Ronnie Lott, he thought, 'He's a corner now, but he'll be a longtime All-Pro safety,'" former Walsh assistant and two-time NFL head coach Dennis Green said for this project. "When he drafted Roger Craig, he saw him as a fullback now, but a little small for the fullback we really needed, so we would draft a fullback and Craig would make the transition to running back.

Trent Green
AP Photo/Harold JenkinsTrent Green's knee injury paved the way for Kurt Warner to step in at quarterback.
"Bill did that sort of thing constantly when he thought players could fit in a certain way and be very unique players."

Walsh's hiring commanded 53 percent of votes cast for the 49ers' Flash Points, with "The Catch" ranking second at 37 percent. Of course, there never would have been such a signature play if Walsh hadn't put together a 1979 draft class featuring Montana in the third round and Dwight Clark in the 10th.

RAMS: Trent Green's injury pivotal

The Kurt Warner story might never have been told if the San Diego Chargers' Rodney Harrison hadn't knocked out Green with a severe knee injury during the 1999 preseason.

Fans voted that moment supreme with 49 percent of more than 28,000 votes. Only Mike Jones' Super Bowl-saving tackle against Kevin Dyson (36 percent) came close to challenging.

The comments section of the Rams-related item drew barely more than a dozen contributions, however. So much for exit polling.

[+] EnlargePaul Allen
Robert Giroux/Getty ImagesPaul Allen helped bring an NFC title to Seattle.
"The ownership change [in 1972] precipitated everything that has happened to the Rams in 'modern' times," patdpenguin wrote. "The true answer to the question would be the ownership change, but as a lifelong fan, speaking with my heart, I would choose the Trent Green injury. Prior to that, the team had not proven anything, and was spinning its wheels."

SEAHAWKS: Paul Allen trumps all

The Seahawks were planning a move to Los Angeles during their darkest days of the 1990s, at one point even conducting free agency from an elementary school parking lot in Southern California.

Allen wasn't much of an NFL fan at the time, but he rallied to the cause of keeping the team in Seattle. Allen led a push to secure a new stadium, contributing $130 million of his own money in exchange for $300 million in public funding, as part of a deal to purchase the team.

Within a couple years, the team had landed Mike Holmgren as coach and general manager. Multiple division titles and the first Super Bowl in franchise history followed.

"I went with Allen buying the team," DiLune2 wrote. "It is hard to point to any one of those [other] moments as the one point where it all changed. They were part of a long, ugly slide. Allen buying the team, though, was the one point in time where you can look and say, 'It all changed right there.'"

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images Larry Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 152 yards and three TDs in the NFC Championship Game.
CARDINALS: Beating Eagles to reach Super Bowl

Sixty-eight percent of more than 26,000 Cardinals voters pointed to the team's victory over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. No option for any team drew a higher percentage.

The runner-up for the Cardinals -- securing a new stadium in 2006 -- lagged with only 16 percent. But some felt strongly it should have prevailed.

"Wow, this is a slam dunk," longtime blog contributor Leesters wrote. "The stadium changed this team overnight. It went from the least competitive financial situation in the league to one of the best, in one year. Free agents could be afforded, better coaches, better home-field advantage. If it wasn't for this stadium, there would be no NFC Championship win."
Where the NFC West stands in Flash Points balloting, which continues into Wednesday afternoon and seeks to identify key events in franchise history:

Votes so far: 125,896

Votes by team: San Francisco 49ers 42,066; Seattle Seahawks 29,750; St. Louis Rams 28,232; Arizona Cardinals 25,848.

Closest race: Eleven percentage point separate the top three Seahawks moments. Thirty-six percent pointed to Paul Allen purchasing the team and keeping it in Seattle. Twenty-eight percent singled out the victory against Carolina to reach Super Bowl XL. Twenty-five percent pointed to the team's decision to select Dan McGwire in the first round of the 1991 draft, even though coach Chuck Knox preferred Brett Favre.

Flashiest Flash Point: The 49ers' hiring of Bill Walsh has commanded more than 22,000 votes, easily the most among all NFC West options.

Biggest blowout: The Arizona Cardinals' victory against Philadelphia to reach Super Bowl XLIII has drawn the highest percentage of any team's votes (68 percent). Getting a new stadium in Glendale ranks a distant second with 16 percent. That is easily the widest gap between first- and second-place options.

Weakest Flash Point: With all due respect to 49ers legend R.C. Owens, his alley-oop reception to beat the Detroit Lions in 1957 hasn't measured up among voters, drawing only 1 percent. The top two options -- Walsh's hiring and "The Catch" -- combined for 90 percent, with 6 percent selecting Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s forced exit as owner.

My favorite suggestions: For the Rams, their 30-3 defeat to the 49ers in the NFC title game following the 1989 season. EmsDucks offered that one, noting that the Rams went into quick decline and wound up moving the franchise. That game also negatively impacted perceptions of quarterback Jim Everett. ...

For the 49ers, the hit Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams put on quarterback Steve Young in 1999, precipitating Young's retirement. ...

For the Seahawks, hiring Mike Holmgren away from Green Bay. We can informally roll this one into Allen's purchasing of the team, which cleared the way for the hiring. ...

For the Cardinals, there were a few, but none more entertaining than visions of coaches past. Buddy Ryan's proclamation about there being a winner in town was up there with Dennis Green's memorable postgame meltdown.

Scheduling note: NFL West polls close Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET. I'll break out winners and single out one for elaboration in a piece scheduled for Thursday.

Closing question: What about Walsh's hiring with the 49ers stands out to you all these years later? The success San Francisco enjoyed thereafter speaks for itself. In retrospect, it's easy to say the 49ers made a no-brainer hiring. In truth, however, Walsh was the team's fifth head coach in less than two years, and the organization was floundering at that time.