NFC West: Rex Grossman

MNF preview: 49ers catching a QB break?

November, 17, 2012
Jason CampbellMike DiNovo/US PresswireBears backup Jason Campbell's career stats are similar in many ways to starter Jay Cutler's.
The San Francisco 49ers won't have to face Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on "Monday Night Football" in Week 11.

They'll draw backup Jason Campbell instead.

This would seem to increase the 49ers' chances for victory, but based on what? Cutler has a better won-lost record as a starter. He has greater experience running the Bears' offense. But if you're looking for additional evidence, you won't find it in the traditional or advanced stats used to evaluate quarterbacks over time.

You'll see a couple of quarterbacks who have produced similarly over the past five seasons. Cutler has played more and for better teams. But his NFL passer rating since 2008 is 83.0, compared with 85.1 for Campbell and 84.1 for every other NFL quarterback. Cutler's Total QBR score since 2008 checks in at 56.5 when 50 is about average and 65-plus represents Pro Bowl-caliber play. The figure was 50.9 for Campbell and 52.0 for all others.

The point is that the 49ers might not be catching a big break while Cutler sits out the game after suffering a concussion in a 13-6 home defeat to the Houston Texans in Week 10. The Bears paid a $3.5 million salary for Campbell to be their backup because they figured they could win with him.

"We feel like he is a starting quarterback in the NFL that we have being our backup, and we feel very comfortable with him leading us," Bears coach Lovie Smith told reporters.

NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and I discussed on a recent Inside Slant podcast how aggressive the Bears should be in re-signing Cutler after the season. I had some general impressions of Cutler but was curious to see how he stacked up against the highest-paid quarterbacks the past few seasons.

Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan all had QBR scores in the 70s among regular starters over that period. Cutler was at 56.5. The figure for Cutler is 50.3 since 2009, compared with 50.5 for former Bears starter Kyle Orton and 47.7 for Campbell. Again, all the top quarterbacks were closer to 65-plus.

Cutler does have a 31-19 starting record with the Bears. That is far better than the 31-39 mark Campbell has posted for his career. But the Bears were 30-20 in the 50-game period before Cutler arrived. Orton, Rex Grossman and Brian Griese were their starting quarterbacks in that span.

Campbell's former team, Washington, was 31-39 in the 70-game span before Campbell posted the same starting record for the Redskins and Oakland Raiders. Tony Banks, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Hasselbeck and Mark Brunell were the starting quarterbacks during that run.

Quarterback play matters a great deal. Teams with the higher QBR scores have won 86 percent of games since 2008. Teams with higher NFL passer ratings have won 79.7 percent of the time over the same period. Those figures outrank even the winning percentages for teams winning the turnover battle (78.5 percent, a figure related to the previous two in that QBs are leading contributors to turnover stats).

The Bears are most dangerous for their defense, however. They rank among the NFL's top five on defense in passer rating, QBR, yards, rushing yards, net yards per pass attempt, interception percentage, third-down conversion rate and points. They were built to win without great quarterback play.

So, if Cutler has been only slightly above average and Campbell plays an average game Monday night, the drop won't be as pronounced as it usually is when a journeyman replaces a big-name quarterback. And if Campbell plays poorly, well, Cutler has done that, too. He has thrown more than three picks in a game four times since 2008, a league high.
NFL quarterbacks play in different systems with different coaches under different circumstances.

Some are going to suffer additional turnovers for reasons beyond their control.

Alex Smith would know this better than most quarterbacks after changing head coaches and offensive coordinators frequently during his first six NFL seasons.

Smith seems to be the right player in the right place at the right time lately.

The San Francisco 49ers' quarterback, credited by coaches for managing risks expertly, has not thrown an interception since a Week 12 game at Baltimore last season. He heads into the 49ers' game Sunday night against Detroit as the only player with no interceptions since that time through Week 1 (min. 100 dropbacks).

The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, ranks these qualifying quarterbacks by lowest percentage of interceptions and would-be interceptions (passes dropped by defenders).

Smith is riding a franchise-record streak of passes without an interception. The 49ers have gone six consecutive games without a turnover. One more game and they would tie the 2010 New England Patriots for the longest streak in NFL history.

Gunther Cunningham, the Lions' defensive coordinator, says it's only a matter of time before the turnover odds even out. Smith suffered two turnovers, a lost fumble and an interception, during a 25-19 victory at Detroit last season.

The dropped interception stat is one we don't see too frequently. The Lions' Matthew Stafford has more of them since the 2011 opener (six) than any quarterback, including one against San Francisco. Matt Hasselbeck is second with four. Smith had two last season, both during a 48-3 victory against Tampa Bay.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 14, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

Cards' defense to the test: Arizona's defense is coming off a dominant performance against Seattle. The Patriots present a different challenge at quarterback and with their personnel packages featuring two tight ends. New England used at least two tight ends on every offensive play last week, becoming the second NFL team since 2008 to do so (New England also did it in Week 14 last season).

Defenses shift from base personnel into subpackages about 90 percent of the time when defending the Patriots' double-tight end offense. The Cardinals presumably will do the same, but that will mark a shift for them.

[+] EnlargeDarnell Dockett
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsArizona's defense, led by Darnell Dockett, right, and Adrian Wilson, 24, will have its hands full Sunday in New England.
Since Week 9 last season, when Arizona's defense came to life, the Cardinals have stayed in a base 3-4 defense 86 percent of the time when defending double-TE groupings. Arizona has allowed two touchdowns on 103 pass attempts on these plays. New England has 19 touchdowns on 311 pass attempts from its double-TE offense over the same span. One difference this year: Against Tennessee last week, the Patriots ran the ball more from their double-TE package, striking a 27-27 balance in run-pass ratio. Twenty-four of those rushes gained 135 yards against Tennessee's subpackages.

Rough road: The Cardinals head to Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots have a 67-13 (.838) record. That's the best home winning percentage at any stadium since 1970 (minimum 25 games), according to the NFL. New England is 10-0 in home openers at Gillette.

Streaking Stafford: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford heads to San Francisco riding a streak of four consecutive games with at least 350 yards passing. He and Drew Brees are the only players in NFL history with a 350-yard streak that long. Brees set the record last season. The 49ers shouldn't be all that concerned about passing yards allowed (Alex Smith could tell us that). Four quarterbacks topped 300 yards against the 49ers last season. Tony Romo was the only one to emerge a winner, overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to lead Dallas' overtime victory in Week 2. Philadelphia's Michael Vick was the most recent quarterback to top 350 yards against the 49ers. He passed for 416 last season, but the 49ers prevailed 24-23.

Seahawks' pass rush: The Seahawks expect new pass-rushers Bruce Irvin and Jason Jones to help contain opposing quarterbacks. Results were generally positive in Week 1, but Seattle managed only one sack against a Cardinals offensive line featuring two unproven tackles. Against Dallas in Week 2, Seattle needs its rush to combine with home crowd noise to prevent Romo from extending his streak of strong performances on the road. Romo has completed 71.4 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 3-2 record in his past five road games. Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton, Smith and even Rex Grossman made big plays at times during road victories against the Seahawks last season. Has anything changed?

Containing RG3: The St. Louis Rams need to beware the play-action fake when trying to contain Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin used play-action 16 times during a victory against New Orleans, tied for the Redskins' second-highest total since Mike Shanahan became head coach. Griffin completed 11 of 14 passes for 237 yards on these plays, averaging 16.9 yards per attempt (up from 6.9 on his other 12 attempts). The Rams didn't have to worry about the play-action game at Detroit last week. Stafford completed one of his four attempts, gaining 8 yards, while using the tactic.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this post.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 7, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Pressure situation. The San Francisco 49ers must pressure Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, of course. They'll be counting on second-year linebacker Aldon Smith to pick up where he left off last season. Smith, who set a 49ers rookie record with 14 sacks, goes from situational rusher to every-down player this season. Can he remain as effective over the course of a full game? The 49ers averaged one sack per 12.3 drop-backs with Smith on the field last season. The average fell to one sack per 23.2 drop-backs when Smith was on the sideline. Smith played not quite half of the defensive snaps. Side note: Rodgers took only 13 sacks at Lambeau Field last season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiThe 49ers may have been 6-2 away from Candlestick Park last season, but Alex Smith did not perform very well on the road.
Road worrier. The 49ers went 6-2 on the road last season. Quarterback Alex Smith made key plays in road victories over Detroit, Seattle and Philadelphia in particular. Smith tossed only five touchdown passes in eight road games, however. He was one of only five qualifying quarterbacks whose contributions resulted in negative expected points, according to the Total QBR metric unveiled last season. John Skelton, Mark Sanchez and Blaine Gabbert were the only ones with lower QBR scores on the road (Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady were the three best).

Although Smith tossed only two interceptions on the road, he took a league-high 31 sacks. I'll be watching to see whether Smith and the 49ers can reduce the negative plays in their first road game. By the way, Smith was terrific at home in 2011. He trailed only Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan in home QBR.

Run, run, run. The NFC West was the NFL's only division with four 1,000-yard rushers last season. All four return as starters in 2012. The St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson opens in Detroit, where the Lions surrendered 100-yard rushing games to running backs Frank Gore, Michael Turner and Matt Forte last season. The Rams have built their offense around Jackson. They expect to be more run-oriented than at any previous time in Jackson's career. "We're going to use the run to set up the pass, the play-action, settle Sam [Bradford] down in the games. I have to set the tempo initially for each and every game," Jackson said. Bradford completed 50.6 percent of his play-action attempts last season. That ranked 32nd out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks.

Rookie QB rules. Conventional wisdom says Matt Flynn, not rookie Russell Wilson, should be starting at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Conventional wisdom says rookie quarterbacks should struggle, particularly on the road. Can Wilson, thus far exceptional for a rookie, be the exception to conventional wisdom at Arizona? Wilson's relatively short stature hasn't held him back so far. Conventional wisdom says he could be vulnerable to having passes batted down. If it happens, though, the Cardinals might deserve more credit than Wilson deserves blame. Arizona batted down 18 passes last season, third-most in the NFL. The rest of the league averaged 10.1 per team. The Cardinals batted six passes from 6-foot-4 Alex Smith, four from 6-1 Rex Grossman, two from 6-6 Joe Flacco, one from 6-2 Tony Romo and one from 6-2 Donovan McNabb. Wilson stands 5-foot-10 5/8.

Mismatch ... or not? The Seahawks invested heavily in upgrading their pass rush this offseason. They drafted defensive end Bruce Irvin in the first round and signed veteran interior pass-rusher Jason Jones. There will be cause for concern in Seattle -- and celebration in Arizona -- if the Seahawks' revamped pass rush can't generate pressure against the Cardinals' vulnerable offensive line. Arizona heads into this game with two unproven tackles. D'Anthony Batiste, 30, replaces injured Levi Brown on the left side. Batiste has never started at left tackle. He owns four career starts at guard, all in 2007. Five teams have cut him. Rookie fourth-round choice Bobby Massie starts on the right side.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Little precedent for Seahawks' Wilson

August, 27, 2012
Five rookies are scheduled to start at quarterback in Week 1 this season.

The NFL has previously had no more than two rookie starters at QB on opening day since the 1970 merger, ESPN Stats & Information notes.

Seattle's Russell Wilson isn't quite the same as the other rookies scheduled to start in 2012. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden were drafted in the first two rounds. Wilson lasted until the third, presumably because teams were skeptical about his relative lack of height.

Wilson will become only the sixth rookie since the merger to make an opening-day start at quarterback after entering the NFL as a draft choice taken in the third round or later. That note comes from Elias Sports Bureau. Wilson stands out from that list as well in that he won the job outright, unlike most of the others.

A quick look at Wilson and the other rookie quarterbacks since 1970 to start in Week 1 as third-round-and-later picks:
  • 2012 Seahawks: The team appeared most likely to start free-agent addition Matt Flynn, but Wilson kept exceeding expectations. Their competition was close most of the way, particularly when viewed through the filter that tends to suppress expectations for rookie quarterbacks. The way Wilson performed in the preseason, especially against Kansas City, validated what the Seahawks were seeing behind the scenes. At that point, Wilson won the job decisively.
  • 2005 Chicago Bears: Fourth-rounder Kyle Orton became the starter by default after Rex Grossman suffered a broken ankle and backup Chad Hutchinson failed to impress. The Bears, with a defense that allowed an NFL-low 12.6 points per game, went 10-5 in games Orton started. Thomas Jones carried 314 times for 1,335 yards. Orton tossed nine scoring passes with 13 interceptions, completing 51.6 percent of his passes. The Bears attempted the third-fewest passes in the NFL that season.
  • 2001 Carolina Panthers: Fourth-rounder Chris Weinke became the starter after Jeff Lewis struggled during the preseason. This would be George Seifert's final season as an NFL head coach. Matt Lytle and Dameyune Craig were the other quarterbacks on the roster. Carolina ranked fourth in pass attempts that season. Weinke had 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions while going 1-14 as the starter. Jim Harbaugh was on the roster that season, but did not play.
  • 1982 Baltimore Colts: First-round pick Art Schlichter's out-of-control gambling had to play a role in another rookie, Mike Pagel, emerging as the starter that year. The Colts went 0-8-1 during that strike-shortened season, all with Pagel as the starter. Pagel went 7-8 as a starter the following season.
  • 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Eighth-round choice Randy Hedberg opened the expansion Bucs' second season as the starter. Gary Huff and Jeb Blount also started that season. Tampa Bay went 2-12, then used the 17th pick of the 1978 draft for Doug Williams.
  • 1973 Buffalo Bills: Joe Ferguson started as a rookie and held the job for 12 consecutive seasons. He won four of his first six starts and went 26-16 as a starter over his first three seasons. Ferguson beat out incumbent Dennis Shaw for the job. The Bills leaned heavily on a ground game featuring O.J. Simpson and future Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure.

The chart breaks out Wilson and the five others for a quick look at their combined 20-36-1 record as rookie starters

Mailbag: All eyes on Peyton Manning

January, 26, 2012
Filippo from Windsor, Canada, thinks Alex Smith, not Kyle Williams, was the 49ers' biggest problem in the NFC Championship Game. He wondered whether the team could trade for Peyton Manning this offseason.

Mike Sando: There will almost certainly be no trade for Manning. The Colts could not trade Manning without first paying a $28 million bonus to him. Failing to pay that bonus by March 8 would make Manning a free agent when the trading period opened five days later.

My early take on Manning was that the Colts would keep him as long as he were healthy. Sweeping changes in the organization have created the impression Indianapolis anticipates making a clean break at the position. Indianapolis appears increasingly likely to part with Manning unless the sides adjust that bonus to buy time. Manning will not want to do that, most likely, if he knows the Colts are going to draft his replacement, Andrew Luck.

This has become a perfect storm. Manning's injury was worse than anticipated. He missed the entire season, longer than expected. The Colts were worse than anticipated without him, so bad they secured the top pick. Manning's health did not improve as anticipated. One of the brightest college quarterback prospects in years happened to be available in the next draft. And then Manning had that $28 million lever in his contract.

Those are all extreme circumstances. Throw them together and it's tough to envision the Colts keeping Manning. That $28 million price tag is too high amid questions about Manning's health.

We're in a holding pattern until the March 8 bonus date. Perceptions could change by then. If Manning does become a free agent, his health will remain the key variable. It's too early to know where he might land.

I suspect the 49ers will re-sign Alex Smith before or around the March 13 start to free agency. Arizona has until March 17 to pay a $7 million bonus to keep Kevin Kolb. The gap could give the Cardinals a chance to at least consider Manning. Lots of other teams would have interest as well.

Manning's recent comments to Bob Kravitz were illuminating. Manning said he felt as though sweeping changes in the Colts' organization had left people there "walking on eggshells." But Manning is the one with reason to feel that way. He's no longer in control of his immediate future.

Dan from Portland asks why few people seem to be connecting Manning to the Seattle Seahawks. He thinks Kolb should get another chance in Arizona. He thinks Alex Smith should be the starter in San Francisco. And he sees Sam Bradford as the quarterback in St. Louis. Doesn't that leave Seattle as the most logical destination among NFC West teams?

Mike Sando: Yeah, I've wondered why Arizona has been mentioned in so many of the reports. It is possible people close to Manning are pushing Arizona as a possible destination because, one, Manning might see that as an appealing place to land and, two, the Cardinals do have that $7 million decision to make on Kolb. I see no reason for the Cardinals to push the Manning angle in the news, unless they hope to pressure Kolb into an adjusted contract.

I agree with you on Seattle making the most sense from a quarterback-need perspective. The fit from a system standpoint would take some adjusting. I also wonder how much the Seahawks would want to commit financially to such a high-profile player with clear health concerns. Would they see this as a risky two-year rental, or as a chance to become a championship contender quickly?

Manning's health is the No. 1 variable. If he hits the market in good physical condition, lots of teams will be interested.

Jeremiah from Germany thinks 49ers fans should be clamoring for Dwayne Bowe, not Marques Colston, in free agency this offseason.

Mike Sando: It's tough for me to envision the Chiefs letting Bowe get away. Smart teams re-sign their best players, especially when those players are young. I would also favor Bowe over Colston, all else being equal. But I also think the 49ers would be more likely to address the position in the draft and with a lower-priced free agent. That is how they believe in putting their team together. They have been averse to overpaying for players other teams have let hit the market. That was the case last offseason when the 49ers showed no interest in Nnamdi Asomugha and other top free agents.

Scott from Epsom, N.H., thinks I've failed to pay the New York Giants their proper respects and have instead sought to diminish their victory by branding them as concussion-inflicting cheaters. "Grow up," he writes. "It's a game."

Mike Sando: The stories about the Giants trying to inflict a concussion upon Kyle Williams originated in the Newark Star-Ledger and New York Magazine. I simply linked to them, which was pretty much a no-brainer from an NFC West perspective. These were direct quotes from Giants players speaking on the record in well-established publications.

On the game itself, the 49ers blew a prime opportunity to reach the Super Bowl, giving up 10 points on uncharacteristic special-teams turnovers. That was my focus from a 49ers/NFC West standpoint coming out of the game. There's no shortage of favorable Giants coverage out there. I just thought the 49ers did more to lose the game than their opponent did to win it. This being the NFC West blog, the 49ers were going to be my focus.

Adam from El Paso noticed that the last quarterbacks drafted in first rounds tend to struggle. He pointed to Patrick Ramsey (2002), Rex Grossman (2003), J.P. Losman (2004), Jason Campbell (2005), Jay Cutler (2006) and Brady Quinn (2007) as examples. He pointed to Joe Flacco (2008) and possibly Cutler as exceptions, but wondered if there was something to it.

Mike Sando: Interesting observation. There is nothing dooming these players. Overall, though, the quarterbacks with the most obvious skills tend to get drafted earlier. If you've reached the late first round and are thinking about a quarterback, you're probably gambling more than teams selecting them earlier. Perhaps you're more apt to be reaching for a prospect because you need one and fear missing out.

Joe from Phoenix sees Jeff Fisher delivering credible coordinators and asks whether we should expect him to land top free agents as well. He points to Cortland Finnegan as a possibility and wants to know if there are others with ties to Fisher or the current Rams coordinators.

Mike Sando: Yes, we should expect the Rams to have interest in free-agent players Fisher and his coordinators coached in the past. Finnegan is one of them.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer spent the last six seasons with New York, but the Jets do not have many potential offensive free agents of note. The list includes quarterback Mark Brunell, receiver Plaxico Burress, tight end Matthew Mulligan, quarterback Kevin O'Connell, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tackle Robert Turner.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams spent the last three seasons with New Orleans.

The Saints' potential defensive free agents include linebacker Jonathan Casillas, defensive end Jeff Charleston, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, linebacker Ramon Humber, defensive end Turk McBride, cornerback Tracy Porter, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and cornerback Leigh Torrance.

Williams was also with 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers, another potential free agent, years ago in Washington.

Fisher's roots as head coach in Tennessee provide additional connections. The Titans' potential free agents include snapper Ken Amato, safety Jordan Babineaux, linebacker Patrick Bailey, defensive end Dave Ball, Finnegan, safety Michael Griffin, running back Ahmard Hall, receiver Lavelle Hawkins, defensive end William Hayes, safety Chris Hope, defensive end/tackle Jason Jones, tackle Mike Otto, guard Jake Scott, linebacker Tim Shaw and safety Anthony Smith.
The San Francisco 49ers' fourth-quarter comeback victories at Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and Seattle obscured an important part of quarterback Alex Smith's game this season. He was actually much better at home.

That came into focus for an NFC West blog regular, Crimsoncrew, upon reading an earlier item about Smith and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees. Smith's NFL passer rating at home is 99.8 (82.7 road). His Total QBR, which also takes into account sacks and game situations, stands at 71.6 out of 100 -- a league-high 42.3 points higher than his 29.3 QBR on the road.

"Other than the Cowboys game in Week 2, which was still a decent QBR performance, Smith has been at or above Pro Bowl level in every home game," Crimsoncrew wrote. "While I'm still a bit skeptical of the mysterious formula that is the QBR, in Smith's case I absolutely believe it's more accurate than passer rating because of the number of sacks he takes rather than taking chances with the ball. Despite that, Smith has more than twice as many TDs (12 to 5), only one more INT (3 to 2), and takes less than half as many sacks (13 to 31) at home as he does on the road."

Crimsoncrew's comments initiated a call to John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, who did the research appearing in the chart. I then asked Smith about the disparity during the 49ers' media availability session Tuesday.

"It's a great question," Smith said, unaware that Crimsoncrew was the source behind it. "Obviously, crowd noise plays into that, especially on third down, when you’re trying to throw the ball on the road. Anywhere you go, you're going to be dealing with crowd noise. So, at home, to be able to use the cadence and be able to communicate a little easier verbally, obviously helps. I think that might play into it."

The 49ers are home against New Orleans in the divisional playoffs Saturday. Thank you, Crimsoncrew, for advancing the conversation.

2011 Gridiron Challenge: Crabtree's value

December, 11, 2011
Inside the 2011 NFC West Gridiron Challenge heading into Week 14:
  • Leader: msclemons67, again, after getting 24 point from Rob Gronkowski, 23 from the San Francisco defense and 19 from 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. msclemons67 had to adjust at quarterback after losing Jay Cutler to injury earlier in the season.
  • High score of the week: Marino's FF&S and Dan E. Bones are coming off 180-point weeks. Both had Aaron Rodgers, Arian Foster, Gronkowski and the 49ers' defense.
  • Lowest score on first page of leaderboard: 90 points, by Go Get Me a Juicebox!. Five total points at running back and a six-point game from Joe Flacco proved costly.
  • My team: tied for 425th place (77.5 percentile) after an 118-point week featuring only seven points from the very pricey Frank Gore. Michael Crabtree proved to be a bargain, scoring 15 points despite a modest price tag.
  • My wife's team: tied for 815th place (54.6 percentile) after getting only 27 total points from her running backs, wide receivers, tight end and kicker. My heartfelt sympathies.
  • Dan Graziano's team: tied for 521st place (73.1 percentile) after a 116-point week featuring 24 point from Maurice Jones-Drew.
  • Note of the week: I'm sticking with Crabtree at receiver and betting on Miles Austin to produce in his first game back from injury. Neither is a sure bet to produce at receiver, but with Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton eating up $16.1 million of my weekly $50 million allotment, prospecting at other positions is a necessity. Crabtree has 17 receptions for 270 yards and a touchdown over the past three weeks. He had 7-120-0 against the Cardinals three weeks ago.

Tom Carpenter's latest Gridiron Challenge advice column points to Rex Grossman as a possible budget pickup at quarterback against the New England defense. The column closes by pointing to the Patriots' defense as a potential value because Grossman is the opposing quarterback. Such are the tradeoffs in a league allowing owners to choose from all players each week.

Reading between lines on NFL fines

December, 2, 2011
A few thoughts on fine-related revelations from Friday:
  • Gore's chop unpunished: Coach Jim Harbaugh was right when he used the word "unlucky" to describe the chop-block penalty against Frank Gore during the San Francisco 49ers' 16-6 defeat at Baltimore. This was the first time Gore had been penalized for a chop block. The league did not fine him. That was the right call. Gore blocked low before guard Chilo Rachal made contact with the defender's upper body. This penalty flag was thrown unnecessarily. The absence of a fine supports that line of thinking. The penalty wiped out a 75-yard touchdown reception that would have changed how the game unfolded, at least to some degree.
  • Wright docked heavily: Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright received a $15,000 fine for striking Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman in the neck area. This was a tough call for Wright. Nothing about the hit appeared dirty. I thought WRight shoved Grossman in the upper chest area. The league had access to additional views of the play.
  • Giacomini, Tate pay price: The $7,500 fines against Seahawks tackle Breno Giacomini for a late hit and receiver Golden Tate for excessive celebration appear to have gotten a message across. Giacomini walked away from a confrontation against Philadelphia on Thursday night. Tate celebrated his latest touchdown without incident.

The league will wait until next week before reviewing plays from the Thursday night game between Seattle and Philadelphia.

2011 Seahawks Week 12: Five observations

December, 1, 2011
Five things I noticed while watching the Seattle Seahawks' most recent game, a 23-17 home defeat to the Washington Redskins:
  • About those young safeties. The Redskins enjoyed early success against Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor when Rex Grossman found Fred Davis for a 31-yard gain to the 2-yard line on Washington's first drive. Thomas blitzed and got into the backfield quickly, only to chase a ghost. Grossman faked a handoff inside, then faked one to Jabar Gaffney on an end-around. Thomas followed Gaffney long enough for Grossman to find Davis. Chancellor, having already leveled Santana Moss earlier in the drive, whiffed on Davis when trying to hit him instead of wrapping up. These were errors of aggression.
  • Competitive battles on the lines. The Seahawks' left tackle, Russell Okung, continues to play better as his ankle injuries fade from memory. He faced difficult matchups against the Redskins' Stephen Bowen and Brian Orakpo. All parties made positive plays. Okung stood out early when the Seahawks got the Redskins' front flowing to the offensive right, setting up Marshawn Lynch's cutback for a big gain. Okung drove Bowen across the formation and landed on him. Okung took an awkward hit from teammate Breno Giacomini late in the game and was limping. Trent Williams, the Redskins' left tackle, was jabbering at various Seahawks throughout the game. He was the aggressor and seemed to get the better of his matchups. Two young Seattle linemen, center Max Unger and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, looked good.
  • Guards were hustling. Robert Gallery and Paul McQuistan made excellent blocks well downfield to spring Lynch's 20-yard scoring reception.
  • Redskins' trippy field-goal team. Red Bryant's power was part of the story behind the field-goal attempt he blocked in the second quarter. The Seahawks bunched defenders over the right side of the Redskins' protection. A twist left the Redskins' Will Montgomery trying to block two players at once, including Bryant. He had no chance. The tighter splits linemen use when blocking for field goals prevents them from moving backward freely without tripping over teammates' legs. Montgomery tumbled over backward as Bryant rushed through.
  • Sprinting through the whistle can help. The Seahawks allowed their first rushing touchdown since Week 4 when Roy Helu sprinted around the left side for a critical 28-yard run with 9:57 left in the fourth quarter. It's unrealistic to expect every player on defense to run his absolute hardest throughout every moment of every play. The Seahawks would have been better off her if Leroy Hill had done that on this play, however. Hill let up when Chancellor appeared likely to make a tackle near the line of scrimmage (after Helu hurdled Roy Lewis). Hill accelerated when Helu broke free, but he let up again when Helu reached the 10-yard line. Hill was a couple yards behind and to the inside. He wasn't going to catch Helu, most likely. This was the signature play in a poor tackling game for Seattle.

That's it for now. I'm heading to Qwest Field early for the Thursday night game.

Bringing pressure? Some QBs simply shrug

November, 29, 2011
The best NFL quarterbacks are good against standard and added pressure alike.

Aaron Rodgers comes to mind. The Green Bay Packers' quarterback leads the NFL in Total QBR when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers, and also when they send five or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Alex Smith's stronger production against five or more pass-rushers has stood out all season.
  • Smith vs. four or fewer rushers: six touchdowns, four interceptions and 16 sacks in 222 dropbacks, with a 47.7 QBR (50 is average) and an 84.7 NFL passer rating.
  • Smith vs. five or more: seven touchdowns, one interception and 14 sacks in 106 dropbacks, with a 57.2 QBR and 105.9 NFL rating.

Multiple factors can produce such a disparity. A quick-thinking quarterback armed with a strong game plan and a solid protection scheme can have an advantage against added pressure. Quarterbacks working behind weaker offensive lines could suffer against standard pressure if opponents got to them without sacrificing coverage. Having additional players in coverage affords defenses with additional combinations in coverage, another consideration.

The chart immediately below ranks quarterbacks by the largest QBR disparity when facing five or more pass-rushers vs. four or fewer. Smith and Arizona's Kevin Kolb are among 11 quarterbacks with higher QBR scores against five or more rushers. They have done better against pressure, in theory. Ranking higher on the list isn't necessarily desirable; like Rodgers, a top quarterback should produce in both areas.

Fifty is an average score, with 100 as the limit.

QBR differential is an imperfect measure because point differentials nearer the margins (zero and 100) carry more significance than they do nearer the middle of the range. But the disparities are still helpful in showing how quarterbacks perform, in general, across these situations.

Rex Grossman, who heads the first chart, completed 9 of 12 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions and one sack when the Seahawks sent five or more rushers against him Sunday. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and no sacks against standard pressure.

The final chart shows the 22 qualifying quarterbacks with better QBR numbers when facing four or fewer pass-rushers, again ranked by percentage difference.

Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson and St. Louis' Sam Bradford show up on this list. There is Rodgers, down at the bottom, nearly equally strong in each situation.

QBR ranks: Should Seahawks try Portis?

November, 28, 2011
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has gamely battled through a torn pectoral muscle suffered during an Oct. 9 victory over the New York Giants.

Taking a closer look at Jackson's performance during a 23-17 defeat to Washington in Week 12 brought to mind a question for our consideration: Should the Seahawks shut down Jackson and use the remaining games to see what third-stringer Josh Portis has to offer?

A few factors entering into such a decision:
  • Health: The pectoral injury seemed to affect Jackson's throwing ability to a degree it had not previously. The team has already said Jackson might require surgery. Jackson has had trouble practicing on consecutive days. His performance has declined over the last few weeks. What is there to gain by leaving him in the lineup at well less than full strength?
  • What's at stake: The playoffs aren't a realistic option. Official elimination from the postseason will come with the Seahawks' next defeat or the San Francisco 49ers' next win or tie. Trying to squeeze out an extra victory or two while exposing Jackson to more serious injury makes little sense. The team needs Jackson to be ready for training camp. The defeat to Washington called into question whether Jackson can squeeze out another victory or two, anyway.
  • The process: This season was about discovery at the quarterback position and building other positions before drafting a QB in 2012. The Seahawks have seen enough from backup Charlie Whitehurst, who likely will not be back next season. Jackson proved he's tough and capable enough to serve as a bridge to the team's next starter. Portis' talents have intrigued the coaching staff. When else will the team have a chance to give Portis a look in real games?

Health permitting, Jackson probably needs to start against Philadelphia on Thursday night. His experience will help during a short work week. If Jackson were to enjoy a strong game, Seattle could reevaluate. Otherwise, the team could consider starting Portis at home against St. Louis in Week 14. In the meantime, make him the No. 2 option against Philadelphia.

Your thoughts? I did not raise draft order as a primary consideration because tanking the season shouldn't be a primary motivation. But if the team could protect Jackson from more serious injury, find out more about Portis and gain a few spots in the 2012 draft, that would be OK, too.

The chart shows Total QBR scores for NFC West quarterbacks each week this season. League-wide scores for the season are available here. All were well below the 50-point average on a 100-point scale.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 12 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
  • Sam Bradford, Rams (39.3 QBR, 85.8 NFL rating): Bradford completed 17 of 31 passwes for 203 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions and two sacks during a 23-20 home defeat to Arizona. He did not carry the ball as a runner. He fumbled once and the Cardinals recovered. Decent passing stats gave Bradford a relatively high NFL passer rating. The fumble he lost and the Rams' overall ineffectiveness, particularly on third down, worked against him.
  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks (24.7 QBR, 69.3 NFL rating): Jackson completed 14 of 30 passes for 144 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and two sacks during a 23-17 home defeat to Washington. He did not carry the ball as a runner. He did not fumble. Jackson got little help from his wide receivers. Mike Williams dropped passes and failed to come back to the ball when Jackson was scrambling early in the game. Zach Miller also had a drop. Jackson has been willing to hold onto the ball in an effort to make plays. His injury hasn't allowed him to make enough of those plays.
  • Alex Smith, 49ers (15.8 QBR, 61.1 NFL rating): Smith completed 15 of 24 passes for 140 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and nine sacks during a 16-6 road defeat to Baltimore. He gained 12 yards on two rushes. The 49ers recovered his lone fumble. Smith's teammates shared responsibility for some of the sacks Smith took against Baltimore. The QBR formula places some of the blame for sacks on quarterbacks. Smith's minus-7.3 expected points for sacks stands as the lowest score for that category in Week 12.
  • John Skelton, Cardinals (18.1 QBR, 30.0 NFL rating): Skelton completed 12 of 23 passes for 114 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and three sacks. He gained 18 yards on three rushes. Skelton did not fumble. His QBR for the season has now dipped below that of injured starter Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals have won three of their last four game, all with Skelton as the starter. They needed punt returns for touchdowns in both victories over St. Louis. Beanie Wells' 228-yard rushing performance was another key Sunday.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 12.

Carroll's players the ones going 'hormonal'

November, 27, 2011
Tarvaris JacksonAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonTarvaris Jackson and the Seahawks showed a lack of discipline in a sloppy loss to Washington.
SEATTLE -- Long-term plans are a tough sell for sports fans shelling out thousands to buy tickets right now.

The Seattle Seahawks, owners of the NFL's third-youngest roster entering Week 12, have sought to tide over their faithful with a hard-hitting defense and physical running game. They were doing a decent job of it, too, until a fourth-quarter implosion Sunday reminded them how far away they remain in the process.

"The lessons are hard, really hard," coach Pete Carroll said.

Losing 23-17 at home to Rex Grossman, Roy Helu and a Washington Redskins team riding a six-game losing streak made this one of the least satisfying performances of the season for 4-7 Seattle. The defense gave up 400-plus yards for the fifth time in eight games outside the NFC West, and the overall play was sloppy.

A month ago, Carroll took the blame for going "hormonal" during a 34-12 home defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals. The wild swings trickled down to Carroll's players this time. Let us count the ways:

  • Pregame coin-toss tiff: Seattle seemed off its game right from the start. Smack talk during the coin toss led Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson to lose his cool. What should have been a mundane pregame ritual turned into a shouting match, for which Robinson later apologized.
  • Inattentiveness: The Seahawks, locked in a 7-7 tie early in the third quarter, had to burn a timeout after only nine players ran onto the field for a field-goal try. Tight ends Anthony McCoy and Zach Miller mistakenly thought the Seahawks were punting, so they stayed on the sideline. Kicker Steven Hauschka, sufficiently iced, missed wide right from 51 yards.
  • Excessive celebration: Golden Tate went to the ground while celebrating a 15-yard scoring reception, leading Carroll to say Tate, a disappointment to this point in his career, hadn't found the end zone often enough to know how to act. A youthful indiscretion? Sure. But also an undisciplined one. Carroll might call it hormonal.
  • Thirteen accepted and declined penalties: That would be three for cornerback Brandon Browner, the league leader in penalties this season. There were three more against right tackle Breno Giacomini, including one for a chop block that also cut down teammate Russell Okung and left Okung limping around the field. Tate and K.J. Wright had two apiece. Ten of the penalties were pinned on players with limited NFL experience.
  • Biting on play-action fakes: Grossman entered the game ranked eighth in total QB rating for play-action passing. He had averaged 9.9 yards per attempt on these throws, taking only two sacks in 60 dropbacks. The Seahawks fell victim to his play fakes early, one reason they allowed 172 yards in the first quarter alone.
[+] EnlargeGolden Tate
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenGolden Tate's end zone celebration cost Seattle 15 yards and showed his lack of discipline.
The final five games of the season should help us figure out to what degree such issues reflect youthful aggression. Carroll's occasional lapses in game management -- lapses even Carroll anticipated -- suggest coaching is also playing a role. There is room for improvement all the way around.

Watching Grossman ultimately outplay Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson brought to mind strong comparisons between the Seahawks and Redskins, teams with older coaches, journeyman quarterbacks and, in some ways, similar approaches.

Carroll, like Washington's Mike Shanahan, took his current job in 2010. Neither man has drafted a quarterback. Both have used top-six draft choices for left tackles. Both have used top-15 choices to bolster their defenses. Both have sought to build their offenses around zone running schemes. And both will presumably be looking for QBs in the 2012 draft.

Which brings us to draft order, a primary concern for those Seattle fans fearful the team might finish just strong enough to miss selecting one of the top college prospects.

The Redskins would pick seventh and the Seahawks would pick 11th or 12th if the current draft order held.

Jeremy Mills of ESPN Stats & Information passed along the order through the top 11, noting that a Pittsburgh victory over Kansas City in the late game Sunday would drop the Rams to third and the Seahawks to 12th. The order for NFC West teams would remain unchanged if the Chiefs won. Pending the Chiefs-Steelers outcome, the order reads this way:

  • 1. Indianapolis: Peyton Manning's age and injury situation would compel the Colts to strongly consider drafting a QB.
  • 2. St. Louis: The Rams' current leadership loves Sam Bradford. Question is, will the Rams' current leadership survive the season?
  • 3. Minnesota: The Vikings selected Christian Ponder with the 12th overall choice in 2011.
  • 4. Jacksonville: Blaine Gabbert is just getting started.
  • 5. Carolina: Suffice to say, the Panthers are pleased with Cam Newton.
  • 6. Miami: The Dolphins have needed a franchise quarterback for years.
  • 7. Washington: Shanahan has young pass rushers and a young left tackle. He needs a quarterback.
  • 8. Arizona: The Cardinals made a huge financial commitment to Kevin Kolb.
  • 9. Philadelphia: Michael Vick's contract and presence would steer the Eagles toward other positions.
  • 10. Cleveland: Colt McCoy hasn't done enough to deter the Browns from considering a QB early.
  • 11. Seattle: The Seahawks haven't drafted a QB since using a 2009 sixth-rounder for Mike Teel.

There was some thought entering Sunday that Seattle, having won two in a row, could extend that streak to five by winning three consecutive home games against teams with losing records.

Watching Grossman complete 16 of his first 19 passes on his way to a 314-yard passing performance -- the fourth-highest total for his career-- changed perceptions. So did watching Helu rush for a career-high 108 yards and the first rushing touchdown against Seattle since Week 4. Seattle, after building a 17-7 lead with 10 minutes remaining, surrendered Helu's 28-yard touchdown run on third-and-3 and Grossman's 50-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Armstrong on third-and-19. Elapsed time: less than four minutes.

It's now easier to envision this team suffering through more of the hard lessons Carroll lamented Sunday night.

There were also positive signs for the Seahawks. They got another 100-yard game from Marshawn Lynch. Both starting corners, Browner and Richard Sherman, picked off passes. Leon Washington changed field position with 51- and 35-yard kickoff returns.

But the Seahawks still lost at home to Rex Grossman. That's harsh on the eyes, even when one of them remains focused on the horizon.

Perspective on Skelton, Kolb and options

November, 14, 2011
The Arizona Cardinals' 2-0 record this season and 4-2 overall mark with John Skelton starting at quarterback has stirred debate over how the team should proceed once Kevin Kolb is healthy.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt announced no decision Monday. There would have been no advantage in doing so.

Kolb's toe and foot may or may not be healthy enough for him to play against San Francisco in Week 11. Either way, the team isn't likely to give up on Kolb after only seven games. Two inconsistent, but ultimately victorious, starts from Skelton do not compel a change. Skelton has shown enough to remain a factor in Arizona.

The Cardinals will be facing a 49ers defense more formidable than the ones Arizona faced in beating St. Louis and Philadelphia over the last two weeks.

Whisenhunt could always use Kolb's injury to give Skelton another start, letting the organization gather additional information on Skelton while Kolb's condition improves. Kolb could serve as the backup, coming off the bench only if needed. And if the Cardinals were to upset the 49ers with Skelton behind center, Whisenhunt would have a good "problem" to solve next week.

I've thought Skelton has appeared more comfortable than Kolb has appeared. He's been slightly better than Kolb, in my view, and his fourth-quarter touchdown passes have given him traction in the debate. But just as it's too soon to write off Kolb, it's too soon to suggest Skelton is the answer. But if you're really serious about arguing for Skelton, here's a gift from ESPN Stats & Information: Skelton has four touchdowns in seven attempts with no sacks in the red zone, while Kolb has three touchdowns in 19 attempts with four sacks.

For perspective, I've used Pro Football Reference to create a chart showing where Skelton fits among quarterbacks with similar experience since 1995. Each quarterback was in his first or second season of playing. Each was 22-24 years old at season's end. Each has started at least four games and attempted between 150-250 passes. Each has played 10 or fewer total games.

2011 Cardinals Week 9: Five observations

November, 10, 2011
Five things I noticed while watching the Arizona Cardinals during their 19-13 overtime victory against the St. Louis Rams in Week 9:
  • Still no Fitzgerald on third down. The Cardinals targeted Larry Fitzgerald for passes 12 times in 35 attempts. That included eight of 17 times on first down, three of 11 times on second down and only once in seven chances on third down. Fitzgerald had no yardage on third down. He has four receptions for 60 yards on third down all season. Early Doucet has accounted for 248 of the team's 467 third-down receiving yardage. Even Andre Roberts has more third-down yardage (65) than Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has generally finished past seasons with closer to 20 receptions on third down. The team's overall third-down struggles could be to blame. Arizona's third-down conversion rate over the past two seasons has fallen to levels the team has not seen since 2001.
  • Too many missed tackles. On one play, Adrian Wilson threw his body at Steven Jackson without wrapping up. On another, Rashad Johnson bounced off Jackson. Linebacker Paris Lenon couldn't bring down receiver Greg Salas. Plays such as those helped the Rams possess the ball for more than 20 minutes of the first half.
  • About that running game. The Cardinals' running backs rushed for 32 yards, including only four yards on first down from starter Beanie Wells. That was probably the most disappointing aspect of the game from a Cardinals standpoint. Arizona is a vastly different team from a temperament standpoint when Wells is healthy enough to run hard. Wells, slowed by knee trouble, had been more productive playing hurt the week before.
  • General thoughts on Skelton. Coach Ken Whisenhunt qualified praise for John Skelton by saying the Cardinals' backup quarterback missed some basic plays. Whisenhunt would know all the particulars. my general feel watching the game was that Skelton seemed more comfortable than injured starter Kevin Kolb. A second-and-9 play early in the third quarter stood out. The Cardinals lined up in an offset-I formation with base personnel. The Rams rushed six and got immediate pressure with safety Quintin Mikell. Skelton dodged Mikell, moved purposefully to his left and threw a perfect touch pass to Roberts between defenders. Roberts dropped the ball or else this would have been a first down. A delay penalty set up third-and-14, but Skelton kept his poise, firing another perfect pass, this one to Doucet for a first down. Skelton has 48 yards on three attempts when facing third-and-11 or longer. Kolb has 95 yards on 19 such attempts.
  • Daryl Washington on the cusp. The second-year inside linebacker often looks like one of the better young defensive players in the league. He's exceptionally active against run and pass alike. He had a chance to make a game-changing play with four minutes left in the third quarter. Arizona trailed, 11-6, when Sam Bradford threw a pass to Salas underneath the coverage. Washington recognized the pass right away, accelerated into position and should have scored a touchdown on the play. Washington did everything but catch the pass. This was a good play that should have been a great one -- emblematic of the team's missed chances this season.

Time ran out on last week before I could finish five observations from the Cardinals' game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8. I'll pass along the notes I did take:
  • Humble beginnings. The first offensive play of a road game can be a tough one. The opposing crowd is at its loudest. I've wondered more than once why coaches don't run the ball a little more frequently on first plays, particularly in hostile conditions. The San Francisco 49ers took a sack on their first play at Detroit, for example. Why invite trouble? In this case, the Cardinals came out passing and gave up pressure right away. Terrell Suggs bull-rushed left tackle Levi Brown into Kolb's face before Kolb had time to react. Kolb had room if he would have stepped forward to his right, but in turning back to his left, he ran right into Suggs and fumbled. After a penalty gave the Cardinals a first down, the Cardinals ran the ball three times in a row, moving the chains. Much safer, smarter football under the circumstances.
  • Low man wins. Even the greatest players relearn tough lessons. That seemed to be the case when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis absorbed a big hit from Cardinals right tackle Brandon Keith, forcing Lewis from the game with a stinger. Lewis was standing a little too upright near the line of scrimmage when Keith blasted him on a Beanie Wells running play to the right side. How much did the Ravens miss Lewis? It's tough to say, but Kolb completed a 66-yard pass over the middle to Fitzgerald on the first play Lewis missed.
  • Missed chance for Wilson. Wilson nearly picked off a pass in the end zone before Baltimore kicked a field goal to tie the game, 3-3. This would have been a difficult play to make because the ball was on Wilson quickly. Wilson, who made an athletic play to pick off Rex Grossman at Washington in Week 2, missed chances against Seattle, the New York Giants and now Baltimore. The Cardinals lost to the Seahawks by three, the Giants by four and the Ravens by three. They were a play or two away.