NFC West: Ray Sherman
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Surrounded by a group of wideouts not much older than himself with no clear-cut top target for quarterback Sam Bradford under contract beyond the 2012 season, Givens realized that one of the most important roles in the offense was there for the taking.
“I really have been waiting on an opportunity like this since I can remember,” Givens said. “I am really just excited to be able to go out and perform on a stage like this with an opportunity like this because it’s something I have always wanted.”
To get what he’s always wanted, Givens has had to give up things he’s always known.
By his own admission, Givens wasn’t much different from most 22-year-olds entering the NFL. He was immature and not quite ready to take on the responsibilities that go with the profile of the job.
“Really I just worked on things off the field and really just tried to simplify my life as much as possible so that I could focus on football,” Givens said. “I felt like if I could improve myself as a person then my football game would just fall right in line.”
It wasn’t just lip service. Givens began leaning on a mentor, former Rams defensive back Aeneas Williams, who is now a pastor at a local church. Williams helped show him how to focus on his spiritual side and let the pieces fall into place.
Givens also took it upon himself to begin using the word "no" on a regular basis, perhaps the hardest lesson to learn for any young person coming into sudden wealth and fame.
As Givens explains it, he said it took a bit to realize that it’s impossible to please everyone and he had reached his NFL dream by putting in the hard work needed. The way he sees it, anyone asking for a handout could simply do the same thing and then wouldn’t need to ask for help.
“It’s definitely a hard thing to do because you love those people so much and you care about them. But when you get to a certain age, it was time for me to start thinking about me and what was best for me,” Givens said.
Upon his return to Rams Park for the offseason program, Givens’ offseason maturity was quickly evident to the coaching staff.
Givens’ focus for improvement wasn’t limited to what he could do off the field. He also put in work to make himself a more complete receiver.
As a rookie, Givens put together a solid season, emerging as a dangerous deep threat and showing the ability to work in the short areas with good catch-and-run skills. His biggest deficiency came in the intermediate areas, running what Isaac Bruce would call “herky jerky” routes that made it hard for Givens to consistently get separation.
Givens, who also added some muscle to his 198-pound frame, set about correcting that with the help of guys like Bruce, Torry Holt and receivers coach Ray Sherman. He even worked out with his fellow receivers and Terrell Owens in Los Angeles once or twice over the summer.
All of those things led to a strong preseason and training camp that have many believing Givens is a breakout candidate in 2013 and a potential No. 1 wideout for an offense that hasn’t had one since the days of Holt and Bruce.
“I think he’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s faster,” Sherman said. “He’s a little more aware of what’s going on around him. He’s got a better idea of how to run certain routes whereas before he was just kind of feeling his way and finding his way now he has a better understanding.”
Sherman has put Givens to work on refining the smaller details of the game during the summer, things like techniques for coming out of breaks, how to release from the line against certain coverages, taking the proper number of steps in a certain route or staying straight in his stem on others.
“I’m a lot more crisp, tighter,” Givens said. “My breaks could be a little wild because I wasn’t used to the speed and having to come out of my breaks as fast as I did so I just kind of rushed. I am taking my time, understanding my talents and knowing what I need to do to get open.”
The way the Rams have rebuilt the offense into what figures to be a more pass-first philosophy should serve Givens well and help him build on the 42 catches, 698 yards and three touchdowns he posted as a rookie.
In an ideal world for St. Louis, Bradford will be able to spread the ball around to all of his receiving options. But any quarterback likes having one or two guys he can always count on. It’s a role Givens has long yearned to have.
Entering his second year in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s scheme and with a strong preseason in his rear view, Givens’ chance is here. His time is now.
“I’m a lot further ahead than I was last year at this point,” Givens said. “I have a better grasp of what’s going on, so that made it easier for me to come out here and be comfortable. I have stepped my game up this year.”
- The Rams are not listing suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on their staff. They did not mention him in the news release. They did not list a defensive coordinator. Coach Jeff Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis will presumably take the lead. Secondary coach Chuck Cecil has also been a coordinator.
- Williams' son, Blake, coaches the Rams' linebackers.
- The Cardinals have 3-4 fewer assistants than the other teams in the division. I've noticed that to be the case in recent seasons. Staff sizes can vary. Arizona has one more than the NFL listed for New England heading into the most recent Super Bowl.
- Every team in the division has an assistant head coach. Two serve as offensive line coaches. Another coaches special teams. Assistant head coaches might earn more money than they otherwise would, but the title does not distinguish them from other assistants in relation to hiring protocol. The title affords no additional protections against losing an assistant to another team, in other words.
- Paul Boudreau is the Rams' offensive line coach. His son, also named Paul, is assistant special teams coach. They are not Paul Sr. and Paul Jr., however. It's not yet clear how the Rams intend to differentiate between the two. Middle initials?
- Niners offensive assistant Michael Christianson is also coordinator of football technology.
The chart lists full-time assistants, not interns or administrative assistants. Strength-and-conditioning coaches aren't involved in football strategy, but I have listed them.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks back at opportunities the Cardinals missed the last time they faced the Panthers.
Also from Somers: The Cardinals are embracing the underdog role heading to Carolina.
More from Somers: Anquan Boldin's injury status remains unclear.
Still more from Somers: Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum is headed to Arizona to interview Cardinals assistant coach Russ Grimm.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com revisits the Cardinals' final possession against the Falcons. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley had long since decided against a conservative approach in that situation.
Chrissy Mauck of 49ers.com wonders what lies ahead for 49ers receiver Bryant Johnson, who is scheduled to become a free agent. A hamstring injury derailed Johnson in 2008.
Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle says Ted Robinson is eager to become the 49ers' radio play-by-play announcer in part because the job requires less travel. Known for his versatility, Robinson will have a chance to dive deeper into the NFL than he has in the past.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers have benefited from coaching at the Senior Bowl in past years, but they won't get the chance in 2009.
Also from Maiocco: Robinson appreciates the fact that radio play-by-play announcers connect with fans of a team.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee takes a closer look at Scott Linehan as a candidate to become the 49ers' offensive coordinator. The fit appears right on the surface.
Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers need to hire Tom Rathman for their offensive staff. She says Rathman makes sense for the 49ers because he represents a smashmouth style with ties to the Bill Walsh era.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks expect to receive permission from the Bucs to interview Tampa Bay linebackers coach Gus Bradley.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Bradley came to the Bucs more than two years after current Seahawks president Tim Ruskell left the organization.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune wonders if the Seahawks can regain their edge in the NFC West. Arizona has won four of the last five games between the teams.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's candidacy to become Rams coach. He also checks in with Cowboys assistant Ray Sherman, who says the Rams are in position for a quick turnaround.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams will conduct a respectable coaching search now that they have football people asking the tough questions. But with big-name candidates apparently unavailable, the Rams are likely to hire a lesser-known coach.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic emphasizes the positive in looking at the Cardinals heading into their divisional-round game at Carolina.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Panthers surprised the Cardinals in Week 8 by loading up against the run. Arizona enjoyed a big day in the passing game.
Also from Somers: Recent history gives the Cardinals hope going on the road for the divisional round. Wild-card teams have made it to Super Bowls recently.
More from Somers: Anquan Boldin's injury could affect a chunk of the Cardinals' game plan.
Bob Young of the Arizona Republic wonders why the Cardinals tend to leave their retractable roof closed even when the weather is perfect. I can think of two reasons. One, Kurt Warner prefers the roof closed, and he let team president Michael Bidwill know about it. Two, bright sunshine can blind a small number of fans in part of the stadium.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic takes a quick look at the Panthers.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals prefer the underdog role.
Billy Witz of the New York Times checks in with the most disrespected Cardinal of them all, Edgerrin James.
Brian McIntyre of Scout.com breaks down the Seahawks' defensive participation by scheme and player. Brian Russell played all but one snap on defense, by his count. And there were several plays when Seattle had only 10 defenders on the field. Oops.
Also from McIntyre: A look at offensive participation and personnel use. Ironman Floyd Womack played a higher percentage of offensive snaps than any Seattle player.
John Morgan of Field Gulls says poor quality at the top of the 2009 NFL draft means the Seahawks are less likely to find an impact player there. I had this conversation with a scout Sunday. He couldn't think of a dynamic pass-rusher worthy of the fourth overall pick, unles the Seahawks took a chance on Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks could hire Rod Marinelli. Meanwhile, longtime tight ends coach Jim Lind is expected to retire.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks tried to hire Marinelli twice when Mike Holmgren was head coach, but the Bucs denied permission each time.
William Tomisser of Seahawk Addicts breaks down the Seahawks' situation at running back. Maurice Morris, Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett combined for solid numbers, even if the perception was that Seattle didn't get top production from the position.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have shown "at least some level of interest" in Jim Fassel, Russ Grimm, Jim Schwartz, Mike Munchak, Steve Spagnuolo and Jason Garrett. Winston Moss has already interviewed. The team has received formal permission to interview Todd Bowles, Leslie Frazier, Rex Ryan and Ray Sherman.
Drew Olson of onmilwaukee.com lists Mike Nolan and Jim Haslett as potential candidates to become defensive coordinator for the Packers. Both worked with current Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
Chrissy Mauck of 49ers.com lists the team's players scheduled to become free agents.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at the 49ers' rushing production by play direction. The team ranked fifth among NFL teams in yards per carry up the middle.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says a power running game can help a team succeed without having a top-flight quarterback.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
PHOENIX -- Jim Mora's first scheduled staff meeting as Seahawks head coach was scheduled for Monday, according to outgoing coach Mike Holmgren.
We should expect to learn more about Mora's plans for his staff in the coming days. Some have asked about former Lions coach Rod Marinelli possibly landing in Seattle. Adam Schefter thinks it could happen. Marinelli has ties to the Seahawks' front office.
In St. Louis, the Rams are expected to interview former Giants coach Jim Fassel on Thursday, according to Chris Mortensen. The team has received permission to speak with Todd Bowles, Ray Sherman, Rex Ryan and Leslie Frazier, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Winston Moss already interviewed, and there are no plans for a follow up at this time.
I'll be monitoring the coaching situations in the division from Arizona before returning home Monday night. I'm booked for Carolina and looking forward to the divisional round.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams' list of coaching candidates now includes Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Dolphins secondary coach Todd Bowles, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, former Giants coach Jim Fassel, Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman, interim Rams coach Jim Haslett and Packers linebackers coach Winston Moss.
That is the latest from Chris Mortensen via James Walker's recent report. Five of the seven candidates listed above have defensive backgrounds. Haslett and Fassel are the only ones with NFL head-coaching experience.
Organizations often look for head coaches whose approaches differ significantly from that of the previous head coach. Former Rams coach Scott Linehan was a former offensive coordinator with no previous experience as an NFL head coach. We're now seeing the Rams look at candidates primarily with defensive backgrounds.
The Rams anticipate making significant changes even if they retain Haslett, who continues to work as interim coach under a contract that expires in mid-February.