NFC West: Ricky Watters
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
Dan from Toledo, Ohio, has a problem with the implication that running back Steven Jackson would have a better shot of winning a championship by leaving the St. Louis Rams.
"Nobody knows who is going to the Super Bowl, so Steven better make a good choice," Dan writes. "Who says the Rams can't win the Super Bowl this year? Who thought the Rams were going to be that good in 1999?"
Sando: The Rams are improving, but even they would likely acknowledge other teams are closer to championship form at this time. The bottom line is that Jackson would remain in St. Louis if the Rams were willing to pay him $7 million in salary. They weren't willing to pay him that much. That is why they gave him the ability to void his contract.
What Jackson thinks of the Rams is less interesting than what the market thinks of Jackson. Players seeking to discover their value sometimes do not like what they find.
Jackson is 29 years old, and his production has slipped in recent seasons. He finished last season with numbers nearly identical to the ones he posted in 2008. The difference was that he played only 12 games in 2008 and 16 games last season.
However, some accomplished backs, such as Curtis Martin, Tony Dorsett, Ricky Watters and Warrick Dunn, remained productive at that age. Each topped 1,000 yards rushing for the final two times at ages 30 and 31. Jackson might be able to do the same if given the opportunity.
Back to the original comment from Dan regarding St. Louis possibly contending in 2013. There is every reason to expect continued improvement the Rams, even though improving from 7-8-1, their record in 2012, is tougher than improving from 2-14, their 2011 record.
Would Jackson, uninterested in a reduced role with St. Louis, accept one for a team he perceives as closer to contending for a title?
"I'm definitely going to have to [have] open ears and be open to all talks, but I don't know what teams want unless I made myself available," Jackson told "SportsCenter" on Friday. "Doing so, it was a very tough decision to leave St. Louis, but when we started talking about reduced roles and what they see me in the future with the organization, it has to fit and make sure that I could fit in the locker room as well as other players."
That is both good and bad for the Rams' career rushing leader.
Jackson, who plans to void his contract to become a free agent March 12, has accomplished a great deal since entering the NFL as the 24th player chosen in the 2004 draft. He also has high miles as his 30th birthday approaches in July, raising questions about how much longer he can produce.
The two charts show where Jackson ranks in scrimmage yards and rushing yards over the course of his career. Note that NFC West rivals Frank Gore and Larry Fitzgerald also rank among the top five in scrimmage yards over the same period.
Separately, Jackson's rushing total (10,135) is easily best among players who also entered the NFL in 2004. Michael Turner (7,338), Willie Parker (5,378), Julius Jones (5,068) and Kevin Jones (3,176) trail him on that list.
Jackson ranks 26th on the NFL's all-time rushing list after posting his eighth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing. He needs 509 yards to overtake Ricky Watters for 20th. He needs 1,561 yards to overtake Fred Taylor for 15th. He needs 2,145 yards to overtake former teammate and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk for 10th on the list.
Jackson would need 3,550 yards to overtake LaDainian Tomlinson for fifth.
Nothing unusual there. Back then, before concussion awareness would become part of the public discussion and Watters would join the growing list of retirees suing the league, players returned to games following head injuries more freely.
"As he was falling to the ground, Watters was hit in the head by the right knee of Colts linebacker Trev Alberts," the Philadelphia Inquire reported following that 1996 game. "Watters stayed on his knees, clinging to tight end Jimmy Johnson. After staying on the field briefly, Watters was helped to the sideline, his legs wobbling noticeably."
Watters, who began his career with the San Francisco 49ers and ended it with the Seattle Seahawks, reportedly suffered the injury late in the first quarter. A team doctor and trainer "hovered" over him in the bench area.
"Two minutes later, Watters jumped up and hopped around the sideline," the Inquirer reported.
Watters returned to the game with nine minutes left in the second quarter.
Snapshots such as this one do not necessariliy prove wrongdoing by the NFL or its teams. They do take on new meaning in retrospect. Then as now, players want to tough it out.
Watters did embrace the warrior's mentality. He was one of the most demonstrably passionate players I can recall covering. He was tough and durable, playing through painful injuries, including turf toe, while starting 116 consecutive regular-season and playoff games, a streak that trailed only Walter Payton's 170 games at the time.
Sanders should get no sympathy from Steven Jackson.
Sanders' Lions reached the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons, posting between nine and 12 victories each time. They never won fewer than five games in a season.
Jackson's St. Louis Rams have never won more than eight games in a season. His teams have fared so poorly, in fact, that Jackson ranks last on a list of 87 top running backs ranked by team winning percentages. Chase Stuart, best known for his work at Pro Football Reference, published the list at his new site, Football Perspective.
Sanders ranked 68th.
The list considers runners with at least 5,000 yards rushing and 7,500 yards from scrimmage. The winning percentages were weighted to favor runners' most productive seasons.
"For example, if a player gained 10 percent of his [career] yards from scrimmage in 1999 and the team went 15-1 that season, then 10 percent of the running back’s weighted winning percentage would be 0.9375," Stuart explains. "This is designed to align a running back's best seasons with his team's records in those years.
"For example, Emmitt Smith played two of his 15 seasons with the Cardinals. But since he gained only 6.5 percent of his career yards from scrimmage in Arizona, the Cardinals' records those years count for only 6.5 percent -- and not 13.3 percent -- of his career weighted winning percentage."
The methodology is a little confusing at first glance, but the results make sense.
Jackson has played eight seasons, fighting off injuries and the malaise perpetual losing cultivates. He has played eight seasons without flinching. His bruising style naturally raises questions about how long Jackson might hold up physically. But it's also fair to wonder how much losing such a passionate player can withstand before deciding he's had enough.
The backs listed atop Stuart's list faced no such issues.
Former Los Angeles Rams great Lawrence McCutcheon, named to five consecutive Pro Bowls under coach Chuck Knox, tops the list with a .741 weighted winning percentage. Roger Craig, named to four Pro Bowls with San Francisco, ranks third at .723.
NFC West alums Garrison Hearst (20th), Shaun Alexander (22th), Ricky Watters (23rd) and Wendell Tyler (24th) are all at .585 and higher. But four of the six players at the bottom of the list also spent some of their careers with franchises currently aligned in the division. That includes Hall of Famers Ollie Matson and O.J. Simpson.
They are not everything in every case, of course, but if you're the the NFL's all-time rushing leader at this point in league history, the case for consideration might not require going much deeper.
As promised, I've broken out where Shaun Alexander and other notable backs from current NFC West franchises stand in relation to 2012 finalists Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis.
Martin was one of the five players selected for enshrinement. Bettis did not make it this time; he could in the future. It's tempting to evaluate each Hall class as though it reflects a definitive assessment of which players do or do not belong in Canton. But with only five spots for 15 annual modern-era finalists, the process actually plays out over many years.
The best usually candidates get enshrined, and when they do not, they qualify for special consideration by the seniors committee.
Back to the backs. How a runner runs also counts for something. Earl Campbell, one of the most punishing runners in NFL history, earned enshrinement with stats virtually identical to those for Alexander. I was not yet a Hall selector when Campbell was enshrined, but his running style and how it affected his longevity presumably worked in his favor.
Alexander becomes eligible for consideration in 2014.
The chart ranks backs by where they rank on the all-time rushing yardage list. I've also included information for receptions and, in the final column, the number of Pro Bowls and first-team Associated Press All-Pro selections, available on Pro Football Reference. Other factors -- impact as a receiver, postseason success, etc. -- also come into play.
Brown was 29 when he played his final snap, then retired while still dominant. He had the right idea.
Very few backs have remained productive into their 30s. The chart below shows running backs from current NFC West franchises who carried at least 50 times in a season past age 31, according to Pro Football Reference. I limited the search to the past 35 seasons (the newest current NFC West franchise, Seattle, entered the NFL in 1976).
It's a short list featuring seven players, including three legends finishing their careers wearing unfamiliar uniforms (Emmitt Smith in Arizona, O.J. Simpson in San Francisco and Franco Harris in Seattle).
None gained 1,000 yards in a season even though all played in the 16-game schedule era -- an era Brown ridiculed for this marvelous 1983 Sports Illustrated piece discussing his comeback threat. In it, Brown said Harris might break his record if he kept running out of bounds frequently enough to prolong his career. The best quote from Brown, by far, makes me wonder what Brown must think of the current NFL game:
"Where has the danger in the game gone? I can't accept quarterbacks sliding and running backs running out of bounds. Ever since the merger in 1966 and the creation of the Super Bowl, the owners have been more concerned with ratings than the level of the game. Coaches put up with players waving into TV cameras, giving high fives and spiking the ball. That sells. The Monday Night Football broadcasters have become bigger than the game. Who is kidding whom? Who's to say a 47-year-old can't do it? I'm not talking about being Jim Brown of 1965. I'm talking about being Jim Brown of 1984. If Franco Harris is gonna creep to my record, I might as well come back and creep, too."
Barber, for the record, ranks 22nd on the NFL's all-time rushing list. He's within 200 yards of passing Watters for the 20th spot. Watters rushed for 1,242 yards at age 31 and still appeared to have quite a bit left, but the Seahawks had drafted Shaun Alexander and Watters wasn't interested in a situational role.
Young's answer was something I wanted to pass along now that I've had a chance to review some notes:
"(Haley) was the tipping point in my mind for a number of Super Bowls. We let him go after the '91 season and in '92 and '93, we lost against him. I'm not saying that was all it was, but that was a significant shift for a guy wreaking havoc for us and then wreaking havoc on us. It's a painful reminder of some of the mistakes we made.
"There are two things in the '90s that cost us. That was one, and letting Ricky Watters go was two. We suffered running the football and having a threat out of the backfield for the second half of the '90s, where we got to championship games, we got deep in the playoffs every year and I think it really hurt us.
"Ricky was a very good player. People did not appreciate him as much as they should have. We won the Super Bowl (after the 1994 season) and whenever you win the Super Bowl, you get too smart for yourself. 'Oh, we don't really need him.' Well, you know what? We do. You say, 'We'll just plug some guys in and we'll be fine.' Big mistake.
That last thought from Young stands out. We've seen other teams pay for letting key players get away following Super Bowl appearances, including when Seattle did not use the franchise tag for guard Steve Hutchinson. The Arizona Cardinals also expected to maintain recent successes better amid personnel losses.
Rams: Orlando Pace, LT
Claim to fame: Seven Pro Bowl appearances and three first-team All-Pro selections affirm Pace's standing as one of the elite offensive linemen of his era. Pace started two Super Bowls for the St. Louis Rams, winning one, and he was one of the best players for the Greatest Show on Turf.
"The thing Orlando does so well is that he can get caught off balance on the pass rush and recover and finish the block, which is very difficult to do," then-Rams coach Mike Martz told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2002, when Pace was in his prime.
The Rams' offense put pressure on its tackles to hold up in protection. Receivers ran deeper routes, forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer. The Rams were willing to risk sacks for the big play. They gave up more than most teams by design, not because Pace had trouble protecting.
"Orlando is the cornerstone of everything we're trying to do on offense," teammate Isaac Bruce told the Post-Dispatch in 2004.
Case against enshrinement: Pace's conditioning wasn't always the best and he battled injuries throughout his career, at the expense of consistency.
Pace managed to play through the injuries for most of his first nine seasons, but he missed 23 of 32 games over the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Pace was never the same thereafter and he was below average last season for the Chicago Bears.
Parting shot: The final five or six seasons of Pace's career shouldn't overshadow what he accomplished in earning those seven trips to the Pro Bowl. Pace deserves strong consideration for the Hall of Fame even though he'll likely rank a couple notches below Jones and Ogden.
Cardinals: Kurt Warner, QB
Claim to fame: Warner authored a legacy unique to the NFL in going from virtual anonymity to superstar status when the Rams lost Trent Green to injury before the 1999 season. He was a four-time Pro Bowl choice and two-time MVP. He was also Super Bowl MVP. Warner helped turn two floundering franchises into Super Bowl teams quickly.
Case for enshrinement: None of the 14 quarterbacks enshrined in the Hall of Fame since 1985 can match Warner in completion percentage (65.5) or yards per game (260.8). Of the 14, only Steve Young had a higher passer rating and more yards per attempt. Only Dan Marino had more 300-yard games.
Warner reached 10,000 yards passing in fewer games than anyone in NFL history. Only Marino reached 20,000 and 30,000 yards as fast (they tied by reaching 30,000 yards in 114 games). Warner and Peyton Manning are the only players with a perfect passer rating in three games.
Warner was also about winning. He has a 9-4 starting record in the playoffs and has posted the three highest passing yardage totals in Super Bowl history. Only Bart Starr has a higher career postseason passer rating. Warner averaged 66.5 percent completions, 304 yards and 8.55 yards per attempt in the playoffs. Warner has 31 postseason touchdown passes in only 13 games (the three players ahead of him own between 18 and 24 playoff appearances).
Case against enshrinement: Warner started more than 11 games in a season only four times. He started between nine and 11 games four times and didn't accomplish much for a five-season period beginning in 2002.
Any argument against enshrinement for Warner will focus on the disjointed nature of his career and the fact that he produced sporadically as a result. The consistency simply wasn't as good with Warner as it was with the typical Hall of Fame quarterback.
Parting shot: Warner's candidacy improved significantly when he led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl following the 2008 season. I thought it was also important for his Hall credentials to follow up with another strong effort in 2009. Warner did that, leading the Cardinals to another division title. Tossing five touchdown passes with only four incompletions during a wild-card victory over the Green Bay Packers might have pushed him over the top.
Claim to fame: Craig was among the more versatile running backs in league history, earning Pro Bowl honors at running back and fullback. He was a three-time Super Bowl champion and four-time Pro Bowl choice.
Case for enshrinement: Craig was the first player in NFL history to top 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. He led the NFL in receptions with 92 in 1985 and set the 49ers' season rushing record with 1,502 yards three years later.
It's tough to measure players across eras, but Craig ranked 13th on the all-time rushing list when he retired even though he did so much more than simply run the ball. His three touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins helped the 49ers win the Super Bowl after the 1984 season.
Craig was one of three players in NFL history with 8,000 yards rushing, 4,900 yards receiving, 70 total touchdowns and four Pro Bowls. Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk are the others.
Case against enshrinement: Craig's versatility meant he usually wasn't exceptional in any one category. He generally wasn't a threat to rank among the league rushing leaders. While he did play fullback, he wasn't a great one in the traditional sense.
Craig was a four-time Pro Bowl choice with 8,189 yards rushing, 4,911 yards receiving, 73 total touchdowns and a 4.1-yard rushing average. Ricky Watters was a five-time Pro Bowl choice with 10,643 yards rushing, 4,248 yards receiving, 91 total touchdowns and a 4.1-yard rushing average.
Parting shot: Craig has good Hall of Fame credentials, not great ones, and he'll have a hard time breaking through given the quality of candidates and limited spaces.
Seahawks: Kenny Easley, SS
Claim to fame: Easley was a game-changing force while earning five Pro Bowl berths in seven seasons. He was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 1984.
Case for enshrinement: All-time Seahawks sack leader Jacob Green called Easley the best athlete his Seattle teams ever had. Tight end Todd Christensen of the division-rival Los Angeles Raiders said Easley, at his best, was even better than Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. Bill Walsh said Easley would be a Hall of Famer if Easley had played longer and, in his words, "maybe he still is -- he was that good." Lott said he knows the 49ers would have drafted Easley over himself if Seattle hadn't taken Easley first, and he blamed the Seahawks' failure to appear in a Super Bowl for keeping Easley out of Canton.
"Kenny could do what Jack Tatum could do, but he also could do what corners could do -- he could do what Mike Haynes could do," Lott said several years ago. "He was not only a great hitter and great intimidator on the field, but he was a great athlete. In that day, what made him so special -- him, Lawrence Taylor, those guys changed the game of football on the defensive side because they were not just guys that were big hitters. Now, all of sudden, you were seeing guys who were big hitters but also as athletic as anyone on offense."
Easley's outstanding ball skills helped him pick off 17 passes over a two-year period. He was indeed part of a trend toward greater athleticism on defense.
Case against enshrinement: Even if Easley were, at his best, better than Lott, there was no comparison between each man's careers. Easley, forced into early retirement after suffering from kidney failure attributed to excessive use of ibuprofen, simply didn't play long enough to solidify his Hall of Fame credentials. That wasn't his fault, but it was reality and it's tough to judge candidates on what might have been.
Parting shot: Easley becomes eligible for consideration by the Hall of Fame's Senior Selection Committee in 2012. His case deserves careful consideration and I think his chances for enshrinement will improve once the Senior Committee takes a harder look at his career. Easley was better than a lot of people realize. The respect he commands from all-time greats will help his cause.
My thoughts Tuesday: "I'm always a little surprised to hear NFL players talk about getting out on the basketball court. The risk for a serious ankle or knee injury would seemingly be too great, particularly playing against lesser athletes. Sounds like the Rams don't have to worry about (Sam) Bradford tearing up his knee on the hardwood."
Appearing on ESPN.com Wednesday: "Denver Broncos All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady tore his patella tendon playing basketball, two league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Clady has told people he will miss three months, according to the sources."
Seems like there's enough risk in football without taking chances playing another sport in the offseason. If you've played much basketball at any level, you've probably injured an ankle or knee, or had your teeth knocked out or a nose broken. It just happens. This is a tough break for Clady and the Broncos, but no surprise under the circumstances.
Former Bills and Seahawks cornerback Nate Odomes famously suffered a severe knee during a charity basketball game in 1994. He missed the next two seasons and played only seven more games the rest of his career. A Bengals player suffered a torn Achilles' tendon playing basketball this offseason.
As Ricky Watters once said, "For who? For what?"
Eight of the 15 current and former players on the stage spent all or part of their careers with the Rams, Seahawks, Cardinals or 49ers. Each is actively representing the NFLPA as the league and its players head toward an uncapped year and possible lockout.
"More than anything, what I feel my role can be is educating some of these younger players," former 49ers and Seahawks running back Ricky Watters said. "I was able to do a good job of keeping my money. I have a good life and a great family. When I talk to a lot of the younger guys, they look at me as kind of the tough guy, the rebel guy, but I want them to know I was always tough and all that, but at the same time, intelligence is the whole thing."
Watters thinks too many players are living beyond their means without knowing it. As the NFL and the NFLPA head toward a possible lockout, Watters said it's important for the union to make sure players are prepared for what awaits if the league shuts down.
A quick look at the eight players and the current NFC West teams for which they play or played:
- Walt Harris, CB (49ers). Rehabbing from knee surgery and hoping to re-sign with the 49ers or play for another team.
- Watters, RB (49ers, Seahawks). Retired and living in Orlando with his wife and their 8-year-old son.
- Kevin Carter, DE (Rams). Retired.
- Ernie Conwell, TE (Rams). Retired and living in Tennessee.
- Kevin Mawae, C (Seahawks). Titans starter.
- Pete Kendall, G (Seahawks, Cardinals). Retired unless a team calls and requests his services.
- Leonard Weaver, FB (Seahawks). Eagles starter.
- Dwayne White, OL (Rams). Retired.
Former players Barry Sanders, Nolan Harrison, Ki-Jana Carter, Mike McBath, Ben Utt and Mark Bruener joined current Texans guard Chester Pitts among the 15 players.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Adam from Seattle writes: Nice Hall of Fame article. Cortez Kennedy deserves a spot by the way he dominated. What current players, such as Shaun Alexander, Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Julian Peterson (no longer in the NFC West, but spent most of his career here), Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Patrick Kerney, Matt Hasselbeck, etc., do you think will make the Hall of Fame? I believe that Warner, Pace, Jones and Holt will make it, but Im uncertain about what other players may have a shot. What do you think?
Mike Sando: Bruce needs to make it. Jones, Pace and Holt are easy choices. Warner probably belongs. He can help himself with another good season. Alexander? I'm not sure. A couple more good years really would have helped him.
The retiring La'Roi Glover didn't spend much time in the division, but I think he deserves strong consideration. Larry Fitzgerald is headed in the right direction and is young enough to have a good chance. Anquan Boldin has a chance if he can play long enough. Enshrinement obviously awaits Jerry Rice. Steve Hutchinson has a good chance. Roger Craig's candidacy is worth discussing. Same for Ricky Watters.
Ryan from Denver writes: I have a question about Brian Dawkins. I know this is outside of your division of expertise, but your recent post on Cortez Kennedy inspired me to ask: Is Brian Dawkins a Hall of Fame player? I say likely, a friend of mine is positive he's not. I'd appreciate your take.
Mike Sando: He brought so much to the Eagles during his career -- enough for me to consider him a Hall of Fame player. He did not earn a spot on our all-decade team only because Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu needed to be on there, in our view. But he has been playing at a high level since 1996. Seven Pro Bowls. Five times All-Pro. He is on the Eagles' 75th anniversary team. I just love what he represents on the field. Tough player. Receivers can definitely feel his presence out there. I thought Boldin felt it last season at Philly.
James from Alberta, Canada writes: The Cardinals' successful run last year was obviously thanks in large part to Kurt Warner's season. But he's 38 years old. I'm wondering what the odds are of a 38 year old QB playing the entire season? Any chance you could whip together some stats on the average number of games played in a season by starting QBs based upon age, or age range? Or maybe games missed due to injury based upon age/age range, since 'starting' QB might be difficult to capture?
Mike Sando: There is always a chance. Thanks for asking. Brett Favre, Warren Moon, Phil Simms, Vinny Testaverde and Doug Flutie all started 16 games in a season at age 38 or older. Moon had another season with 15 starts and one at 14, all past age 37. Joe Montana made it 14 starts at that age, as did Brad Johnson and Ken Stabler.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren shouldn't be dropping hints about rejoining the organization. Boling: "[General manager Tim Ruskell] doesn't deserve the specter of Holmgren circling the headquarters in case of a bad season. And Holmgren should be above any appearance that he's lobbying for it. ... He is a fine and charitable man who has been a value to the region in so many ways. But as for openings with the Seahawks, it would be most appropriate to just silently watch that play out from a distance." Totally agree. It's bad form to fuel speculation about possibly rejoining the team when everyone knows a return would come at Ruskell's expense.
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says there's enough credit to go around for Ruskell and Holmgren following the best run in Seahawks history.
John Morgan of Field Gulls revisits Leroy Hill's 2008 season. Morgan on Hill's outlook: "He has a handful of exceptional skills: He wrap-tackles. He's super-quick. He negotiates garbage. He's agile. He tracks running plays. He's a punishing hitter. [New defensive coordinator] Gus Bradley shouldn't have trouble finding uses for his skill-set, but then neither should have John Marshall."
Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times says Seahawks sixth-round choice Mike Teel showed resilience at Rutgers, one reason Seattle liked him. Kelley: "The Seahawks saw enough in Teel to make him the ninth quarterback chosen in last month's draft. In an intense predraft interview, he impressed new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp with how quickly he picked up the Hawks' offense."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks have reached a contract agreement with free-agent center David Washington.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee expects strong attendance for the 49ers' next organized team activities. Former Fresno State tight end Bear Pascoe graduated in December, allowing him to rejoin the team beginning May 16.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat raises questions about the inaugural class for the 49ers' new Hall of Fame. I also wondered why the team wouldn't include Jerry Rice among its inaugural class. The guy was pretty good. As Maiocco notes, "The first class of enshrinees consists of those individuals who already have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame or whose jersey numbers have been retired by the 49ers."
The 49ers' Web site provides an interview transcript featuring tackle Alex Boone. How did the conditioning drills go at the post-draft camp? Boone: "Terrible, absolutely. [Laughs] That's why I need my hand right here [against the locker] to post me up. It's alright, though."
John Ryan of the San Jose Mercury News wonders whether Terrell Owens, Ricky Watters and Charles Haley will land in the 49ers' Hall of Fame. Ryan considers other potential candidates. This is a good read for any 49ers fan.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation sizes up the 49ers' situation at running back. Fucillo: "I think the biggest potential for controversy is probably listing Glen Coffee as a lock to make the 53-man roster. There are plenty of folks here who are probably still steaming over the Coffee selection. However, given that the team has invested a third round pick in Coffee, I really can't see him being held off the 53-man roster. Please feel free to correct me if you think I've erred." You have not erred, David. Third-round picks are virtual locks to earn roster spots. Only in very rare cases do they fail to earn spots as rookies.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with 2002 Cardinals first-round choice Wendell Bryant, who wants back into the NFL. Somers: "Bryant knows the odds are against him. He's a recovering addict who hasn't played a down of football in five years. Even when he did play, he was far from a Pro Bowler. He turns 29 this September and knows he spent his prime getting drunk and high." Great quote from Bryant's personal trainer: "He actually has a physique [again]. He's not going to be on the cover of Men's Fitness, but he's much better than he was."
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind caught up with Cardinals third-round choice Rashad Johnson. Johnson: "I think my biggest strength, as a safety, are my instincts. I understand the game pretty well and the coverages that we play, including the weaknesses in them, kind of like a quarterback who pre-reads the defense. Also, my range in the middle of the field as far as getting over the top and filling the run alleys. As far as my weaknesses, I'd say that in this league you just need to be bigger, stronger and faster. ... Another thing is bringing my legs with me when I tackle because I know when I was watching tape of last year I didn't do that as much as I would have liked."
Tim Klutsarits of examiner.com thinks the Rams need to sign a veteran receiver. He expects Steven Jackson to get lots of catches out of the backfield.
Seth Doria of bleacherreport.com thinks the Rams' receiver situation isn't reason for panic given the Eagles' receivers when Pat Shurmur was in Philadelphia. Doria: "Maybe I'm going out on a bit of a limb here, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see [Donnie] Avery make his first Pro Bowl in the next two or three years. As for the rest of the receiver corps, it's a list of maybes." Avery faces stiff competition even within his own division. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin will make it tough for Avery to achieve that status. Terrell Owens has left the NFC, but T.J. Houshmandzadeh has joined it.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kurt from parts unknown writes: I like Matt Williamson's analysis of our nose tackles. In fact, he might have been a bit too kind to Alan Branch. But I have a serious problem with his statement about the running backs -- that Edge and Tim Hightower are both "backups at best" and "a dime a dozen." I won't get into Edge's Hall of Fame candidacy [past accomplishments] or Hightower's starting-eight-games-as-a-rookie stuff [since the logical starting point for sports enthusiasts, paid professionals or not, is "Cardinals suck anyway."] That said --
|Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images|
|Running back Edgerrin James proved in the postseason that he still has value.|
Edge averaged 3.9 yards a carry in the playoffs. Hightower averaged 3.8. By comparison, Willie Parker averaged 3.5, Brian Westbrook 2.4, and Willis Mcgahee 3.9. In the wild-card game, Edge outrushed Michael Turner 73 yards to 42 on two less rushes. Hightower scored in all three NFC playoff games. He touched the ball 8 times in the Cardinals final 14 plays in the NFC Championship, scoring the winning TD. Not a bad rookie effort for a guy who'll be lucky to make a team somewhere.
I agree that our running game needs an upgrade this season. The Texas Tech offense wasn't pretty in games 10-16. But these players deserve fair credit given their performances once we put the ball in their hands. 40-yard-dash times hold nothing over results on the field.
Mike Sando: The term "dime a dozen" is a relative one, of course. James and Hightower are NFL-caliber running backs. They simply aren't special, in Williamson's analysis. The Cardinals confirmed as much by removing both players from the starting lineup at various points last season.
As you noted, James proved during the postseason that he still has value. This was something I discussed Monday with Williamson's colleague, Jeremy Green.
Green: I don't think Edgerrin James is done. What about Tampa Bay? Tampa is a great fit for him. Cadillac [Williams] is coming off another knee injury. Edge would love to go home to Florida. I think Edge still has the value.
The thing about Shaun Alexander is that he was a horrible blocker and didn't catch the ball well. Edge doesn't have it as a runner, but there is a fit for him in an offense. He is a good route runner, good blocker, catches the ball well.
That is what Edge has to decide, whether he can play as a situational player. Can he still give you 20 [carries] for 95 [yards] every once in a while? Probably. Every once in a while, but not on a weekly basis. I definitely think he has strong value because he catches the ball well.
Quite a few running backs have extended their careers by becoming situational players. Marcus Allen is probably the most extreme example. He played from 1982 to 1997 and never had a 1,000-yard season after 1985. He played himself into the Hall of Fame with a productive five-year run in Kansas City to end his career.
I always thought Ricky Watters could have played three or four more years in a situational role. He wouldn't do it. Did it cost him the Hall of Fame?
Allen was 32 when he finished with the Raiders. He had 8,545 yards rushing and 97 total touchdowns, plus 446 receptions for 4,258 yards. Watters was 32 when he retired. He had 10,643 yards rushing and 91 total touchdowns, plus 467 receptions for 4,248 yards.
Allen added 3,698 yards rushing and 47 touchdowns in Kansas City. He caught an additional 141 passes for 1,153 yards. The Hall of Fame welcomed him in 2003.
James is younger now -- 30 -- than Allen was when he left the Raiders. He keeps himself in top condition. He has 12,121 yards rushing and 91 touchdowns, plus 430 receptions for 3,335 yards. His days as a featured back appear finished, but more teams are using two primary backs, anyway. That would seemingly give James additional opportunities to continue his career, provided he's willing to accept a situational role.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Edgerrin James might get a chuckle from the idea. He left the Colts for the Cardinals and he'll almost certainly be leaving the Cardinals this offseason. James and Taylor were both scheduled to earn $5 million salaries in 2009.
Even if Taylor isn't finished, the Cardinals might have a hard time justifying getting older at running back.
Some of these older, established backs are also realizing that the NFL has changed. I do think James has more left to give. Taylor probably does as well, although I have not seen him as much. But teams are dividing significant carries among multiple backs. Smart teams will not enter the 2009 season with Taylor, James or another older back as the only starting-caliber option.
The league discards older backs routinely. Ricky Watters couldn't get what he considered starting-caliber money after Seattle replaced him with Shaun Alexander. Watters retired. And when the Seahawks decided Alexander was finished, the rest of the league agreed.