NFC West: Reggie White.Lofa Tatupu
May, 23, 2011
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com
US PresswireThe Cardinals are still searching for Kurt Warner's replacement, while the Rams hope a coordinator change doesn't stunt Sam Bradford's growth in St. Louis.The usual NFL offseason narratives aren't so alluring now that the league has locked out players and banned roster transactions. That is bad for the NFL and a downer for those dependent upon the hope each offseason sells.
Quite a bit of that hope turns out to be misplaced, however.
Free agency no longer commands widespread appeal as a primary route to improvement. The two most recent Super Bowl teams, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, have had little use for the unrestricted market. Both have built largely through the draft.
The draft is part of the offseason, of course, but relatively few choices make significant contributions right away. Most enter the league as long-term investments.
Rookies were not going to shape the 2011 season, either, lockout or no lockout.
What are we really missing as a sleepy May sets up what could be a comatose June? Well, the prevailing NFC West storylines from last offseason stand as cautionary tales:
Delusional 2010 storyline: Matt Leinart's time had come. As the thinking went, Kurt Warner's retirement cleared the way for Leinart to realize the potential Arizona had seen in him when the Cardinals drafted him 10th overall in 2006. I wasn't entirely sold on the idea, but neither was it reasonable to think the Cardinals would demote Leinart during the exhibition season and then cut him when making the mandatory reduction to 53 players. Leinart signed with Houston, but did not attempt a regular-season pass in 2010. He can become an unrestricted free agent once the lockout ends, provided players with five accrued seasons qualify. It's doubtful any team would sign him as a starter. So much for the thought that Leinart would blossom once freed from Warner's shadow.
Post-lockout storyline to resist: A new quarterback fixes everything. The Cardinals will presumably move aggressively to upgrade at quarterback once the signing period opens. The move will restore hope. While even moderate improvement at quarterback could get Arizona back into NFC West contention, it will be premature to recast the Cardinals as Super Bowl contenders again. Warner was a special player. He covered for weaknesses elsewhere on the roster. His stellar record in postseason play made the Cardinals viable in ways the team's next quarterback likely will not.
San Francisco 49ers
Delusional 2010 storyline: Having the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back seasons will be key. Quarterback Alex Smith and his offensive teammates were working from the same playbook in consecutive years for the first time. The 49ers loved the way Smith was "taking ownership" of the offense during camps. There were reasons to expect improvement upon the 8-8 record San Francisco posted in 2009. Instead, Smith and the 49ers fell apart during the season opener against a Seattle team with none of the continuity San Francisco spent all offseason talking about. The 49ers' offense was worse against Kansas City a couple weeks later, leading coach Mike Singletary to obliterate continuity as a viable offseason storyline by firing coordinator Jimmy Raye.
Post-lockout storyline to resist: Smith will suddenly shine now that he's finally working under a sharp offensive-minded head coach. New coach Jim Harbaugh has repeatedly praised Smith this offseason, making it clear the 49ers want Smith to return. Smith has said he expects to return, and I understand the 49ers' thinking. They need a veteran quarterback to get them by while rookie Colin Kaepernick develops, and Smith will handle the situation with grace. Harbaugh's feel for quarterbacks does make his pairing with Smith more appealing, but if Smith had the "it" factor, we would have seen more evidence by now.
Delusional 2010 storyline: Alex Gibbs' addition as offensive line coach will help Seattle build an identity through the running game. The thinking had some merit because Gibbs had been the master of zone-blocking schemes for years, helping teams get solid production without investing heavily in linemen through free agency or with high draft choices. The plan blew up, though, when Gibbs abruptly retired just before the regular season. Guard Ben Hamilton later indicated Gibbs had clashed with management over personnel moves. In retrospect, the pairing of two headstrong offensive assistants -- Gibbs and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who was subsequently fired -- might not have been the best fit.
Post-lockout storyline to resist: The return of Red Bryant from injury will fix the run defense. No doubt, the season-ending knee injury Bryant suffered against Oakland dealt a significant blow to the Seahawks' run defense. Still, we're talking about Red Bryant here, not Reggie White. Seattle's issues against the run went beyond a single player. Having middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu hobbling through the season on two injured knees also hurt. And without more support from the offense, Seattle became more vulnerable to opponents' rushing attacks.
St. Louis Rams
Delusional 2010 storyline: Sam Bradford is brittle and will not hold up physically. Bradford missed time at Oklahoma, so injuries were a legitimate concern. But anyone who saw Bradford in person at the NFL combine and thereafter realized he was built solidly. And when Bradford stood up to big hits during the exhibition season, the Rams were reasonably confident he could last a full season. Bradford did better than that. He joined Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and David Carr as the only rookie quarterbacks to take every snap during a 16-game NFL season.
Post-lockout storyline to resist: The lockout and a coordinator change will threaten to send Bradford down the same path Smith's career took with the 49ers. Ideally, Bradford would have continued in the same offensive system he learned as a rookie, spending this offseason working on the finer points of that scheme. Bradford does face additional challenges this offseason, but that does not justify comparisons to Smith. Bradford finished his rookie season with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, while Smith finished his first year with one touchdown and 11 interceptions. Both inherited bad teams, but Bradford walked into a tougher situation: the Rams were 1-15 the year before he arrived.