NFC West: Ray Malavasi

Conventional wisdom says quarterback Alex Smith held back the San Francisco 49ers' offense last season. It's also possible coach Jim Harbaugh held back Smith simply because Harbaugh prefers to run an offense that way.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee makes that case in responding to Ron Jaworski's recent analysis of Smith. Barrows: "Harbaugh did virtually the same thing at Stanford with Andrew Luck, whom the NFL deemed the top quarterback in the draft this year. That is, the approach is more Harbaugh-related than it is Smith-related. Only one team -- the Tim Tebow-led Broncos -- threw the ball less than San Francisco in 2011. Only two teams -- the Broncos and Texans -- ran the ball more. That run-pass ratio may change slightly in 2012 with the addition of high-profile wideouts Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins. But with Harbaugh, a lover of power-based offenses at the helm, it's very unlikely to change dramatically." Noted: Agreed.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers should forget about forcing the restoration of $30 million in stadium funds.

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' receivers have impressed this offseason.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says undrafted free-agent guard Rishaw Johnson caught the coaching staff's attention this offseason. Johnson went undrafted after his alleged involvement in credit-card fraud precipitated his dismissal from the Mississippi football team. Johnson: "Going into the combine, I thought I was going in the second or third round,. But all my off-field stuff kind of caught up with me."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team has more in common with the Pittsburgh Steelers than coach roots linking Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, Ray Horton and others to the Steel City. A sponsorship with Hyundai is the latest commonality. Urban: "The team announced Tuesday a multi-year partnership with car manufacturer Hyundai, a deal that includes Hyundai as presenter of training camp. It will also mean Cardinals players will wear a Hyundai logo patch on practice jerseys throughout the season, a first for the team."

Kelsey Vaughan of stlouisrams.com checks in with rookies participating in a charity bowling event. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers: "I’m losing to a 3-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old."

Chase Stuart of Football Perspective lists former Rams and Seahawks coach Chuck Knox high on a chart showing coaches with the best won-lost records in close games. Knox was right between Vince Lombardi and Marv Levy, both Hall of Fame coaches. Ray Malavasi and Dennis Erickson ranked toward the bottom.
Rich Saul's former Los Angeles Rams teammates recalled his Pro Bowl talent, scary toughness and, humorously, a legendary appetite that waned only in the retired center's final days.

Early in Saul's career, when he was putting on weight to fulfill George Allen's vision for him as a center, the former middle linebacker from Michigan State would slip a bag of coins under his cap for weigh-ins, fearful the team would cut him if the scale revealed his actual poundage.

That was not all.

"When we would go through the [cafeteria] line in camp, most would put a plate on a tray and then food on plate," recalled former Rams defensive tackle Phil Olsen. "Rich had to eat so much, he would load the food on his tray. He would skip the plate. I'll tell you, up until a few days before he died, we were stuffing him full of food in the hospital."

Olsen and Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood joined the Rams in 1971, a year after Saul. The three bonded quickly, as did their families. Olsen and Youngblood shared a few laughs Monday when remembering Saul, who died Sunday from leukemia at age 64. But they kept coming back to the impact Saul made outside football.

[+] EnlargeRich Saul
AP Photo/NFL PhotosRich Saul was a six-time Pro Bowler for the Los Angeles Rams.
"I can't express what Richie meant to us," Youngblood said.

Evidence of Saul's impact remains visible in the passages his grown son, Josh, and others shared through a website chronicling the family's recent journey.

"The best was the way he looked at my mom tonight," Josh wrote in an April 6 entry after his father watched the Masters and continued to engage those close to him.

"I have never seen 'I love you' so clearly spoken without words," Josh continued. "Theirs is a bond that will live on forever. I am so thankful to have had such an amazing example of marriage and family leadership to follow."

One of a kind

Saul finished his Rams career with six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl during a seven-year run as their starting center. That he played mostly special teams for his first five seasons, then emerged as a perennial Pro Bowl choice, seems incomprehensible in a modern context. There was no free agency at the time, however. A team could more easily stockpile and develop talent.

The Rams were stacked on the offensive line under coach Chuck Knox, with Hall of Famer Tom Mack at one guard spot and veterans elsewhere on the line. Saul had never played center in college, putting him at a significant disadvantage. The Rams also made Saul their long-snapper, forcing him to learn another skill that was previously foreign to him. Not that he had much choice in the matter.

And so Saul played special teams with a vengeance, earning the nickname "Super Saul" -- shortened to "Soup" with an eye toward his prodigious appetite. His contract was for $12,500, the minimum at the time, but an incentive clause tied to special-teams tackles allowed Saul to collect additional income.

"He made like 100 tackles on special teams that first year," Olsen said. "He just ran down the field and knocked everybody down."

They still called special-teams units "suicide squads" back then, as reflected in a 1971 Life Magazine cover story featuring Saul and others around the league.

"The injury rate is eight times higher on suicide squads than for any other position," a caption in the magazine read.

Saul was undaunted. He'd already overcome a catastrophic knee injury at Michigan State, where Saul and his twin brother, Ron, had earned All-America honors, Rich as a linebacker and Ron as an offensive linemen. That the two would combine to play 318 regular-season games came as an upset following Rich's injury.

"The only thing holding the upper leg to the lower leg was the skin," Olsen said. "It is amazing he got to play in the NFL. He would describe that as a miracle surgery performed by Dr. Lanny Johnson."

Tough guy

Youngblood went to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and set a standard for grit by playing through the 1979 postseason, including the Super Bowl, with a broken fibula.

Former Rams guard Dennis Harrah aptly called Youngblood the "John Wayne" of professional football. Even John Wayne knew to pick his spots in practice.

"I was a defensive end and Richie was a center, and I knew that I should not go in there because Rich Saul will hurt you if you go into his territory," Youngblood said. "There was many a linebacker in the league who did not like to see the schedule knowing they had to go see Rich Saul. That was going to be an all-day affair."

Former Rams video director Mickey Dukich once recounted for the Los Angeles Times a story of Saul, a former wrestler, applying a choke hold on teammate Butch Robertson, a six-time Pro Bowl choice at linebacker.

"Butch passed out," Dukich told the Times for the 1987 piece. "Rich thought he had killed Butch."

Youngblood confirmed the basic details.

"Rich, there was a little conflict in the locker room and it resulted in, he didin't hurt the guy, but he did show that you didn't mess with Rich Saul," Youngblood said. "That was the message. Message was well received."

On the line

The Rams led the NFL in rushing with 2,799 yards during the 1980 season, a total surpassed just twice in subsequent years, by the 1984 Chicago Bears and 2006 Atlanta Falcons. The Rams ranked among the league leaders in that category throughout most of the 1970s, before and after Saul succeeded Ken Iman as the full-time center in 1975.

"[Saul] became an extremely proficient blocker on a team that still used primarily man-to-man blocking on defensive line stunts -- you never see this any more! -- and did a multitude of blocking combinations on running plays," Mack, an 11-time Pro Bowl choice with the Rams from 1966-1978, wrote in an email. "We could slip, slide, fold and cut block defenses as effectively as any team in football and we led the league in rushing. That alone proved he was both smart and a great athlete!"

Saul played 176 regular-season games and 12 playoff games, including the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh following the 1979 season, all for the Rams under four head coaches: Allen, Tommy Prothro, Knox and Ray Malavasi. He was one of three NFL players -- Jack Lambert and Robert Brazile were the others -- to earn Pro Bowl honors every season from 1976 through 1981.

Legacy

Olsen recalled the famous quote from Jackie Robinson about a life lacking import except to the extent it has impacted the lives of others. He said Saul, who succeeded in finance and real estate following football, lived that ethic and cared more about what people thought of him off the field than on it.

"We used to talk about that a lot," Olsen said.

"He took great pride in being a father and a husband and a grandfather. ... He was always going to the hospital to talk to kids with cancer or to send a note or a card or a picture or go to speak to a group that needed something done. He was a very strong advocate for abused and battered children, very active with the Cancer Society and all those organizations that needed someone to stand up and speak on their behalf.

"That is how people will remember him, as a humanitarian, a good father, a good friend."
The late St. Louis Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, astrologically inclined as she was, might have said the planets aligned for this blog entry.

How else to explain such freakish timing?

With ESPN.com's ongoing power rankings series focusing on helmets later Tuesday, I decided to visit the UniWatch blog to see whether those concerned with "the obsessive study of uniform aesthetics" might have anything to say on the matter.

By dumb luck, the blog was currently leading with an interview featuring helmet- and uniform-related reflections from longtime Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt. The interview, which originally appeared at helmethut.com, is a fascinating read for any Rams fan or anyone interested in football lore.

I'll break out a few highlights below, but please do check out the full transcript. Great stuff. Among the revelations:

    [+] EnlargeMerlin Olsen
    Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesMerlin Olsen and the Rams used to sport blue-and-white uniforms since they showed better on black-and-white TV.
  • The team used only Riddell helmets for years because Hewitt's father knew John Riddell. But Dennis Harrah had other ideas.
  • At one point, the Rams settled on a certain shade of yellow they liked, but then-owner Dan Reeves forced a change upon learning the color carried a sissified name -- "buttercup" yellow.
  • The Rams considered 15-20 color combinations when changing uniforms in 2000. Frontiere went with "new century gold" and "millennium blue" because the combination "made cosmic sense" entering the 21st century, even though she thought other colors looked better.
  • The team favored blue-and-white uniforms, without gold, beginning in the 1960s because the combination reproduced better on black-and-white TV.
  • Carroll Rosenbloom had an eye toward Hollywood when pushing to incorporate gold after taking over the team in 1972.
  • The team has never, ever considered removing the iconic horns from its helmets. Hewitt and his father had been the only ones to apply the helmet decals since the team went away from painted horns nearly 40 years ago. That is changing now that Hewitt no longer works for the team.
  • Former coach Ray Malavasi favored white jerseys at home because he thought they made players look bigger. Comfortable pants were a higher priority for former coach John Robinson. Mike Martz loved white uniform pants, but team exec John Shaw hated them (not that the Rams went through any front-office turmoil during those years).

I listed the Rams' helmets among the top five in the NFL in balloting for the power rankings, which ran on Bill Williamson's AFC West blog Tuesday.

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