NFC West: Roger Craig

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Eddie DeBartolo is a happy man.

Charles Haley is a finalist again for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yes, DeBartolo is one of the 15 finalists again, but he said last month Haley's candidacy is more important to him.

Last month, I asked DeBartolo, the 49ers' former owner, about being a semifinalist. He said he'd be thrilled to be inducted, but his focus is on getting Haley, a pass-rush star, voted into the Canton, Ohio, museum. Haley has asked DeBartolo to present him if he gets inducted. They were both finalists last year.

According to some members of the voting committee, Haley probably has a better chance than DeBartolo of getting in when the vote is made Feb. 1. In addition to the 15 finalists, there are two senior committee nominations. No more than seven and no less than four of the 17 nominees will be elected.

Linebacker Kevin Greene is also a finalist. He spent some time with the 49ers at the end of his career.

Former 49ers star running back Roger Craig did not make the transition from the semifinalist list to the final 15 Thursday night.

Three 49ers are HOF semifinalists

November, 20, 2013
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Three key figures from the San Francisco 49ers’ Super Bowl era are among the 25 semifinalists up for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014: former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., running back Roger Craig and pass-rusher Charles Haley.

Linebacker Kevin Greene, who played his last season with the 49ers, also is on the list.

The list will be pared down in January to 15, plus two nominees from the Seniors Committee. The final vote will be revealed in February, on the day before the Super Bowl. At least four and no more then seven new members will be elected.

If I had to guess, I’d think Haley has the best chance among the 49ers' group to be elected in 2014. DeBartolo is one of several league contributors on the semifinal list, so that may be difficult.

Football Today: Hall of Fame snubs

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ESPN's Robert Flores, Jay Soderberg and I used the latest "Football Today" podcast to consider two subjects: Hall of Fame snubs and NFL teams whose championship windows are closing.

Flores pointed to Ray Guy and asked about another former Raider, ex-coach Tom Flores. Soderberg stumped for a Canadian Football League legend. I offered thoughts from my perspective as a Hall of Fame voter.

One key point: Selectors do not vote "against" candidates. We vote for them, and some miss the cut because only five modern-era players can qualify in a given year. The very best candidates get in quickly, while others get in eventually.

The bar for enshrinement rises and falls depending upon the strength of the field. In that way, the process resembles a golf tournament. Shooting even par would have won the Masters in 2007. It would have fallen short by 19 strokes in 1997.

Still, there are some valid questions surrounding Hall of Fame candidates repeatedly considered as finalists before fading from the conversation. We discussed some of the considerations during this podcast.

The chart ranks candidates by most appearances as finalists without being enshrined to this point. Thirty-one others have been finalists up to three times, including NFC West favorites Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Roger Craig and Aeneas Williams.
Retired San Francisco 49ers great Roger Craig, previously an outspoken supporter of coach Jim Harbaugh, has gotten more specific in his predictions for greatness.

This was Craig to the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2012: "I see these guys doing some wonderful things this decade -- I think (coach) Jim (Harbaugh) will do a great job of creating another dynasty and winning some Super Bowls. I foresee us winning some Super Bowls in the next decade."

Here is Craig more recently, speaking to ESPN's Ashley Fox for a column published Monday: "I'm going on the record saying the 49ers win two Super Bowls in the next eight years. They'll be the winningest team in the next decade."

There's a lot to like about the 49ers. They're on a major roll and should be included on any short list for teams likely to dominate over the next decade. They're not the only NFC West team to consider, either.

The Seahawks are already similarly competitive and set up well for the future. The St. Louis Rams have a shot if their young draft choices develop and quarterback Sam Bradford continues to improve. The Arizona Cardinals are less settled for the long term at quarterback, but that's to be expected. Their coach and GM are just getting started.

First look at Hall of Fame semifinalists

December, 1, 2012
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Seven of 27 recently announced semifinalists for the 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame class have ties to current NFC West franchises.

The full list is available here. A few resources on the seven in question:
  • Roger Craig: The San Francisco 49ers great has lived by advice Bill Walsh gave him regarding the Hall. KGO-TV's Mike Shumann has the details in this 2010 item.
  • Eddie DeBartolo Jr.: This 1990 piece by Rick Reilly for Sports Illustrated captures the essence of the 49ers' former owner.
  • Kevin Greene: The former Los Angeles Rams and (briefly) 49ers outside linebacker has been a finalist previously. Jason Lisk's 2010 item for Pro Football Reference looked at Greene, Chris Doleman and the next man listed.
  • Charles Haley: ESPN's Jean-Jacques Taylor made the Hall case for Haley this year. Haley won Super Bowls with the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
  • Aeneas Williams: Williams made the final 10 last year. Hall selector Kent Somers profiled the former Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams defensive back this year.
  • Larry Allen: Allen finished his career with the 49ers after spending his best years with the Cowboys. Back in 2006, Dr. Z chose Allen as the most likely offensive linemen of the era to win quick enshrinement.
  • Jerome Bettis: Bettis began his career with the Rams before spending his prime years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Our AFC North blogger, Jamison Hensley, thinks Bettis has a better shot at enshrinement this year.

I'm one of the Hall selectors and feel privileged to be one. We'll gather in New Orleans one day before the Super Bowl to narrow the list from 15 finalists to no more than five modern-era enshrinees. To simulate the process, reduce from 27 to 15. From there, cut to 10 and then five. There are always tough choices with the bar set so high.
Hall of Famer Barry Sanders will forever be known as an all-time great running back driven into premature retirement by his team's losing culture.

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.
The Arizona Cardinals addressed primary needs at receiver and offensive tackle in the NFL draft last month.

They did not address every need, however. Arizona was the only team not to use at least one draft choice for a defensive lineman or linebacker, one reason Vonnie Holliday and Clark Haggans are expected to return for another season.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says there's no rush to bring back either player. Somers: "Haggans, 35, started all 16 games last season but, if he returns, it will be as a backup. Holliday, 36, backed up Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett last season. He played in all 16 games and finished with 16 tackles, 15 of them solo. The coaches were pleased with his production and think he could provide a similar level of play this season." Noted: Re-signing Haggans in particular would buy time for the Cardinals at outside linebacker, a position where the team has promising young players, but few established options.

Also from Somers: catching up with Matt Ware.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com revisits defensive coordinator Ray Horton's philosophy on cornerbacks. Horton: "Covering is the main job, but you want the physicality, get guys out of their game and let them know they will get it every play. As a defense, you have to have the tough guy mentality regardless. We don’t want an offense pushing us around, and if they get some calls, we have to live with that sometimes."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com sizes up the team's wide receivers and says competition is running high. Farnsworth: "In fact, Ben Obomanu, Doug Baldwin and Ricardo Lockette were so hungry during the players’ extended break following the season that they traveled to Alabama to work out with Tarvaris Jackson."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune takes a position-by-position look at the Seahawks' roster and has this to say about letting linebacker David Hawthorne leave in free agency: "Even with a nasty front that does a nice job of keeping the linebackers clean, someone has to scrape, fill the right gap and make the tackles. Along with doing that the past three seasons, Hawthorne was considered one of the more cerebral players on the team. And he also made game-changing plays, evidenced by his seven interceptions and six sacks in three years as a starter. Second-round draft choice Bobby Wagner has some big shoes to fill." Noted: Hawthorne's health had to be a key variable. The injury he played through last season affected his ability to move effectively.

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks colleagues what Rams coach Jeff Fisher will be watching most closely during the upcoming rookie camp. Jim Thomas: "About two-thirds of the players on the field will be undrafted rookies, but Fisher obviously will have his eyes on the 10 draft picks, particularly cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Are both capable of competing for a starting job right away? That seems to be the expectation. Ditto for wide receivers Brian Quick and Chris Givens. The sooner they get the playbook down, the sooner they help QB Sam Bradford. This will be their first taste of NFL football, albeit in a minicamp setting."

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch supports Kurt Warner's recent comments about player safety.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says Frank Gore is anxious to see new 49ers running back LaMichael James in action. Maiocco on Gore: "Gore, who turns 29 on Monday, enters his eighth professional season. He has 7,625 rushing yards -- the most for any 49ers player since the club became a member of the NFL in 1950. And he is just 33 rushing attempts behind the club's all-time leader Roger Craig."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee checks in with 49ers archivist Jerry Walker, who is collecting memorabilia for display in the team's Hall of Fame, set to open at the new stadium in Santa Clara. Barrows: "The hall of fame will be at least 15,000 square feet, and the team wants items from ticket stubs all the way up to big-ticket items like a trolley car or even perhaps a portion of the 'Niner Liner' aircraft that flew Montana and teammates to their first Super Bowl in Pontiac, Mich. The hall of fame is sure to be popular on game days. But, like recent hall of fames built in Green Bay, Foxboro, Ma. and elsewhere, the intent is to make a year-round destination, especially one for school field trips."

Taylor Price of 49ers.com says safety Donte Whitner expects the defense to play faster this season. Whitner: "This year you can expect guys to fly around a lot faster without hesitation and really understand what the scheme is and what we’re trying to do to offensive football teams. And I believe that we’re going to be the No. 1 defense in the National Football League this year. The guys believe it and we just have to go out there, work and prove it."

Monte Poole of Bay Area News Group says Alex Smith and the 49ers' offense are trying to close the gap with the team's defense.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle takes a closer look at 49ers first-round draft choice A.J. Jenkins. Branch: "Jenkins had 90 catches as a senior. The Illini’s second-leading receiver had 26. The disparity had something to do with the trust quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had in Jenkins, an exacting route-runner."

Alexander and beyond: Considering RBs

February, 7, 2012
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Statistics can vault a running back into consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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.

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Kyle WilliamsAP Photo/Julie JacobsonKyle Williams' two turnovers during punt returns led to 10 points for the Giants in the 49ers' loss.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Surely it could not end this way for the San Francisco 49ers.

A fumble during a punt return, in overtime? The New York Giants recovering the ball and kicking a gift 31-yard field goal to reach Super Bowl XLVI against New England?

Never in a hundred years could Jim Harbaugh's mighty men let it end this way: 20-17 at Candlestick Park, their usually impeccable special teams letting them down twice.

"It's tough, real tough," running back Frank Gore said.

Imagine how Kyle Williams feels. The 49ers' second-year backup receiver muffed one punt before his killer fumble. Those mistakes led to 10 points for the Giants.

"You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it up that way in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude," Williams said. "It is what it is."

Coach Jim Harbaugh used the word "cruel" to describe the Giants last week. The adjective applies more succinctly to the postseason rivalry between these teams.

Roger Craig's late fumble doomed the 49ers to a 15-13 defeat in the NFC title game 21 years ago. More than a decade passed before Trey Junkin's unfortunate field-goal snap for the Giants delivered a 39-38 victory to the 49ers in the wild-card round. And now, Williams.

Cruel, indeed.

"It's hard to swallow," 49ers defensive end Justin Smith said, "but what else are you going to do?"

Upgrade at wide receiver, for starters.

Williams, Michael Crabtree, Ginn and Brett Swain combined to catch eight passes for 51 yards on 29 targets in two playoff games. That is unacceptable.

Williams and Swain get a pass. They're young. They're backups. Ginn gets a pass. He was injured. That leaves Crabtree, the 10th player chosen in the 2009 draft. He was invisible in two playoff games, erased completely on Sunday by Giants cornerback Corey Webster.

It's tough to blame quarterback Alex Smith for Crabtree's irrelevance when Smith was completing game-changing passes to tight end Vernon Davis throughout the playoffs.

Smith targeted Crabtree 10 times in the divisional round against New Orleans. Crabtree turned those chances into four receptions for 25 yards. He lost at the ball more than once.

Crabtree caught one pass for 3 yards Sunday. A postgame interview wasn't productive, either.

"Sometimes you just gotta move the ball, man," Crabtree said. "You gotta make plays. You gotta give people a chance to make plays. You gotta make plays."

Give people a chance to make plays? Crabtree did not appear to be running wide open through the secondary in either of these playoff games.

Smith had problems, too. After completing 2 of 7 passes for 79 yards in the rain-soaked first half, he struggled with windy conditions thereafter.

"I felt great in the first half going either direction," Smith said. "I personally struggled with going from soaking wet in the first half and then in the second half, it dried out and your hands dried out and you're licking them the whole time in the second half, trying to get some of that tack."

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireAlex Smith struggled against the Giants completing just 12 of 26 passes for 196 yards.
Mother Nature wasn't the only one mixing it up on Smith. When these teams played in Week 10, the Giants gave the 49ers opportunities downfield by playing single-high safety looks designed to stop the run. That led to more one-on-one matchups outside.

"They just mixed it up a lot more, played a lot of two-high (safety) this game on first and second down, a lot of third down, especially those third-and-longs that we could not convert," Smith said.

On the surface, this season would end how it began, with the 49ers realizing just how much Ted Ginn Jr. meant to them. Ginn's two return touchdowns in Week 1 held off a late Seattle rally only days after the team had pressured him into accepting a pay reduction. Ginn's injury-related absence Sunday forced the less accomplished, less seasoned Williams into punt-return duty.

The results were disastrous, the lessons simple.

The 49ers were horrible on third down most of the season. They were worse against the Giants, converting one time in 13 chances. Touchdown passes to Davis covering 73 and 28 yards should have been enough on a day when the 49ers held Eli Manning and the Giants to 3.9 yards per play -- the lowest figure for a Giants offense since a Dec. 14, 2008 meeting with Dallas, a span of 52 games, counting playoffs.

Under less cruel and less unusual circumstances, the 49ers would have made up for their third-down issues by hawking the ball and forcing turnovers. But a secondary that had picked off 24 passes in 17 games fell all over itself trying to collect passes Manning threw right to them. Dashon Goldson collided with Carlos Rogers to foil one sure pick. Goldson and Tarell Brown collided to wreck another freebie.

Even when the 49ers appeared to force and recover an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble, head linesman Mark Hittner ruled San Francisco had stopped Bradshaw's forward progress before the ball came out.

"Every play that happened in the game, except that one, was played out to the completion of the play," Harbaugh said.

That was as close as the 49ers came to complaining about factors beyond their control. They lost this one more than the Giants won it. That is what hurt them the most.

A successful first season under Harbaugh guarantees nothing for the future. The rest of the NFC West appears to be gaining. The offseason will give the 49ers' future opponents time to figure out what this coaching staff sprung on the NFL so impressively this season.

The 49ers are unlikely to encounter a lower Super Bowl bar than the one they tripped over Sunday. All they had to do was beat a 9-7 team at home.

Pregame talk casting the Giants as a red-hot team amounted to nothing. The 49ers jumped to a 7-0 lead in the first nine minutes. They led 14-10 late in the third quarter and tied it late in the fourth without making a third-down conversion until the final play of regulation. The Giants did little to win the game late until forcing that fumble and centering the ball for Lawrence Tynes' winning kick.

"This is the hardest loss of my career in football, especially with it being so close, being in it the whole game," left tackle Joe Staley said. "A lot of missed opportunities."

Vernon Davis was honest during his nationally televised interview Sunday. He wanted the New York Giants to beat the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, the only scenario producing another home game for his San Francisco 49ers.

I wondered how long it would take for that interview, or others like it, to repackage itself as disrespect for the Giants. Three days was the answer.

Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.com has the details, including this quote from Giants safety and NFC West alum Antrel Rolle: "If he said that, I can only hope that he was saying just because they wanted to get a home game. You know, they better be careful for what they ask for because their wish has been granted and we will see those boys come Sunday." Noted: The 49ers naturally wanted to play at home. The Giants naturally did not want to play in the Superdome, a brutally tough environment for opposing offenses.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says a couple 49ers took the talk to Twitter. Anthony Davis: "Are the Giants doing drunk interviews? Lol." Inman also revisited comments from the Giants heading into Week 10, specifically one by Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who had called 49ers quarterback Alex Smith a game manager, in a bad way.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers his offensive player review from the divisional round against New Orleans. On Michael Crabtree: "Started at played 56 plays in the game. He caught four passes for 25 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown on a quick slant in the first quarter. He made a crucial block on Alex Smith's TD run. He had one flat-out drop and did not secure catches on two other passes that hit his hands."

Also from Maiocco: his defensive player review. On Patrick Willis: "He played the entire game and had the difficult assignment of trying to keep up with 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham in coverage. Willis recorded 10 tackles and recovered a fumble in the first quarter after Donte Whitner's big hit on running back Pierre Thomas. Graham twice elevated over Willis for receptions that turned into touchdowns. The first was on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Brees in the second quarter. On the second touchdown, Willis ran with Graham down the field but didn't find the ball on the back-shoulder throw. Willis was then taken out of the play, as Donte Whitner arrived and Graham turned it into a 66-yard touchdown."

Jim Trotter of SI.com takes a closer look at Smith's redemption this season, noting that friends and family had urged the 49ers' quarterback to start fresh elsewhere.

Monte Poole of Bay Area News Group checks in with Vernon Davis, who remains thankful for all he went through under former coach Mike Singletary.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Roger Craig expects the 49ers to win multiple Super Bowls.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com passes along thoughts from Rams players regarding Jeff Fisher's hiring as head coach. Steven Jackson: "I'm very excited. I think what Jeff brings is that he's been a head coach and he has been successful in this league. The other coaches that I've had after Mike Martz were all successful at the time and trendy and hot, but Jeff brings stability, he brings credibility. He's played in the league. He was 1-yard away from winning the Super Bowl."

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Fisher brings a strong presence.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams owner Stan Kroenke would not commit to keeping the team in St. Louis for the long term. Kroenke: "I think this is all out there. The chronology of what occurs with the lease is public knowledge. I think for me to comment on that process is particularly (un)timely. The city, or the (stadium) authority, they're dealing with their side of it. And they present a proposal to us by Feb. 1. So there's a team in place that deals with all that. So we'll see how that process sorts itself out. But it's a thing that takes place over time."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says this marks the first time since 2001 that the Seahawks have gone into an offseason without appearing in the postseason or making a significant front-office change. O'Neil: "It's good for the Seahawks in terms of continuity. The franchise has had four different offensive coordinators the past four seasons. There are no indications that Tom Cable, the team's offensive-line coach and associate head coach, is headed elsewhere. Seattle lost assistant offensive line coach Luke Butkus, who went to his alma mater at Illinois. Assistant special teams coach Jeff Ulbrich took a spot on Jim Mora's coaching staff at UCLA. Those are minor changes, though."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Seattle or its division rivals have won a playoff game every year since 2004. No other division can make that claim.

Also from Farnsworth: Seattle rookies K.J. Wright and Ricardo Lockette reflect on the Seahawks' home-field advantage.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals have re-signed members of their coaching staff, ending speculation that Russ Grimm, Freddie Kitchens and others might find opportunities elsewhere. Somers: "Meanwhile, the Cardinals are said to still be interested in bringing former offensive coordinator Todd Haley back to the coaching staff. It remains to be seen what position he might be offered and how head coach Ken Whisenhunt might shuffle his staff. The team has only its quarterbacks-coach vacancy to fill following the dismissal of Chris Miller. The team was expected to interview candidates this week at its Tempe training facility. No names have surfaced publicly. It is doubtful Haley, fired this past season as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, would return to coach the quarterbacks."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with former Cardinals tackle Lomas Brown.


Skip Bayless and Dan Graziano took up the case for Charles Haley as a Pro Football Hall of Famer on ESPN's First Take.

Bayless thought Haley should have qualified on the first ballot as a key championship variable for the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. Bayless and Graziano also touched upon to what degree Haley's sometimes disagreeable and disruptive behavior affected his candidacy. Those are relevant factors, but this discussion is incomplete without acknowledging what role the process plays in enshrinement.

To say that Haley or another player should have earned enshrinement in a given year usually suggests another player wasn't as deserving. The Hall accepts no more than seven candidates per year, including a maximum of two seniors candidates, meaning even deserving candidates must be more deserving than those actually enshrined to raise a serious beef.

Haley was first eligible in 2005. Steve Young and Dan Marino were the only modern-era candidates elected that year. Michael Irvin and Harry Carson were also finalists that year, but neither received the 80 percent approval rating required for enshrinement. Both became Hall of Famers later. Was Haley obviously more deserving than those four?

Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Reggie White and Carson comprised the 2006 modern-era class. Irvin, Bruce Matthews, Thurman Thomas and Roger Wehrli comprised the 2007 modern-era class. Fred Dean, Darrell Green, Art Monk and Gary Zimmerman made it in 2008. Randall McDaniel, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, Rod Woodson and Ralph Wilson made it in 2009. The 2010 class featured Rickey Jackson, John Randle, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith.

The current class includes Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe and Ed Sabol.

We could argue that he was more deserving than a candidate here or there, but only a very few elite candidates -- Rice, White, Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith, etc. -- have credentials strong enough to transcend any Hall class.

Tim Brown, Roger Craig, Dermontti Dawson, Andre Reed, Cris Carter, Cortez Kennedy, Bob Kuechenberg, Randy Gradishar, L.C. Greenwood and several of the above-mentioned Hall of Famers have also been finalists since Haley became eligible.

Was Haley obvious more deserving than each of them? It's a debate worth having, but also one that goes beyond whether Haley should get in at all.
Sammy Batten of the Fayetteville Observer checks in with Seahawks offensive lineman Sean Locklear. Locklear: "Anywhere I go, whether that's Seattle or somewhere else, I hope to go to a team that wants to win," Locklear said. "I love Seattle. I've been there my whole career. It's the only team I know. I want to be there. But that decision is not up to me now. It's up to the guys in the front office, or another team. Where ever I go, I'm hoping to help them win." Locklear has extensive starting experience and should have value on the market. However, he appears less likely to return after Seattle chopped off the final year of his contract and used a first-round draft choice on his replacement. Locklear will be eligible for free agency once the signing period opens.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks hope rookie Malcolm Smith can make an impact right away. Coach Pete Carroll: "He’s not built like a linebacker, he’s built like a skilled athlete,” Carroll said. “So, in nickel situations, he’ll be able to match up with anybody that we see. Hopefully, we’ll be able to develop him more. He’s played in our system, so we know that he can do those things, and that’s why to us he is maybe more valuable than he is to anybody else."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com revisits the impact Joey Galloway made with Seattle during a relatively short stay with the team. I do not recall covering a faster NFL player. Farnsworth: "As a rookie, he broke an 86-yard touchdown run on a reverse off of a reverse; added a 59-yard TD catch; and capped it all with an 89-yard punt return for a TD. Galloway also became only the 10th rookie in NFL history (at the time) to surpass 1,000 receiving yards (1,039), and the first since 1986. He also set club rookie records for receptions (67), yards and 100-yard games (three). Before Galloway called it a Seahawks career, he had added punt returns for touchdowns of 88 and 74 yards; TD catches of 81, 70, 65 and 53 yards; and also broke non-scoring runs of 51 and 44 yards."

Also from Farnsworth: a look at Dennis Erickson's first season as Seahawks coach. The team immediately improved to 8-8, but would get no better during Erickson's tenure. Erickson, like successor Mike Holmgren, had a 31-33 record after four seasons with the team. Erickson, unlike Holmgren, did not have the clout to keep his job at that point.

Len Pasquarelli of the Sports Xchange thinks Texans running back Steve Slaton could provide value for a team such as the Rams. Pasquarelli: "Slaton is only 25 years old, doesn't have a lot of tread rubbed off the tires yet, and is a good receiver, so he could be an attractive No. 2 back for some team seeking to bolster the position. Rumors have linked him to St. Louis, where the Rams could use a reliable back capable of getting 6-8 touches per game, to reduce the workload for Steven Jackson, but the talk has been unsubstantiated. Slaton is under contract for 2011 at the league-minimum base salary, then would be eligible for free agency next spring. For the right price, though, he would provide a solid, experienced back for a year."

Bill Vilona of pnj.com says the Rams' defensive linemen are training in Florida. George Selvie: "I haven't seen these guys in four months, so it's just great seeing everybody again. It makes it more of ... this is what we're supposed to be doing."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com sees Mike Singletary's departure from the 49ers having no adverse effect on linebacker Patrick Willis. Maiocco: "Singletary seemed to emphasize focus and getting in the right frame of mind. I have no doubt that Willis benefited from being around a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on a regular basis. ... Willis is at the stage of his career that he knows what it takes to be successful in the NFL. He's a highly motivated player, and Singletary -- with his long daily post-practice talks -- was all about providing motivation to his players. ... Now, it's more of a matter of how defensive coordinator Vic Fangio decides to utilize Willis' immense skills."

Also from Maiocco: The 49ers have been ready for free agency since March, so a sudden opening for business would not catch anyone off-guard.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sizes up the 49ers' situation at receiver with special attention toward Kevin Jurovich and Kyle Williams. San Francisco opened last season with five wide receivers on its 53-man roster, down from six in 2009.

Also from Barrows: Some rookies will miss the 49ers' player-organized practices this week.

The 49ers' website catches up with Roger Craig, a finalist for induction into the team's Hall of Fame. Craig: "We have the best fans on the planet. They’ve always been supportive, through good and through bad. They’re faithful and I feel they deserve to get back in the playoffs, do some damage and win some more Super Bowls. I would love to see that happen very soon, because the fans were cheering us when we played and were a big part of the dynasty. The 49ers have the tools to make that happen with Jim Harbaugh now as their head coach. He reminds me of Bill Walsh and I think it’s in his DNA to make this happen because of his background. He’s seasoned and knows what it takes to take a team to the next level."

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider looks at Harbaugh's involvement in the offense at Stanford.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com notes, per ESPN's John Clayton, that cap space will not be a problem for the Cardinals once the free-agent signing period opens. Urban: "It’s impossible to know what is 'aggressive' and how the plan will play out (and part of that includes the moving parts once everything is able to begin; for instance, a trade for a quarterback complicates/affects things more than a straight free-agent signing of a QB would)."
Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

A longtime Cincinnati Bengals assistant named Bill Walsh was having a hard time convincing NFL teams to hire him as a head coach.

The Bengals had promoted another assistant, Bill "Tiger" Johnson, when Paul Brown retired after the 1975 season. Walsh spent 1976 as offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers before leaving the NFL entirely for the best head-coaching job he could get. Years later, Walsh accused Brown of conspiring to keep him from advancing.

Bill Walsh
Malcolm Emmons/.US PresswireThe 49ers won three Super Bowls under coach Bill Walsh.
While Walsh was building a winner at Stanford, the sputtering San Francisco 49ers were running through four head coaches in less than two calendar years. Young owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. made Walsh the fifth in 1979.

"Caution should be exercised in proclaiming Bill Walsh the savior of the 49er franchise," Bay Area columnist Ed Jacoubowsky wrote at the time. "But the selection of Walsh as director of the club's football operations probably is the best step the young owner could have taken."

Probably? Let's make that a "definitely" in hindsight.

The organization would never be the same. Offensive football would never be the same. The balance of power in the league itself would shift for a decade, and then some. This was the most crucial event in 49ers history and more significant than any the team's current division rivals have experienced.

That message came through clearly at the SportsNation ballot box, where Walsh's hiring received significantly more votes than any other NFC West Flash Point among the more than 129,000 ballots cast across the division. The 49ers' Flash Points drew more than 44,000 votes, most in the NFC West, and Walsh's hiring commanded better than half of them.

"If the 49ers never hired Bill Walsh, they would not have changed the organizational structure of the team, how players are graded and drafted, how to prepare those players for the season and utilize them on the field of play," razzberry80 wrote. "Bill changed EVERYTHING. Joe Montana was the best, but without Bill Walsh, Joe is probably not drafted by the 49ers."

Another 49ers fan, servegmo, credited Walsh for drawing him in as a fan living in Costa Rica.

"He is the reason people from all over the world started watching football," servegmo wrote. "He put the 49ers in a position where they changed football as a whole -- the offseason preparation, the inclusion of black coaches, the practices, the West Coast offense, how he managed the draft (drafting the best players EVER at quarterback, wide receiver and safety). How many coaches can say that?"

The 49ers won three Super Bowls in 10 seasons under Walsh, who qualified as a football visionary in strategy, philosophy and personnel evaluation. Walsh became famous for scripting plays to separate in-game emotions from the decision-making process. His personnel moves and broader philosophy scripted more lasting success: five Super Bowls, including two won after Walsh retired from the sideline.

With full support from DeBartolo, who had learned from past mistakes, Walsh showed an exceptional eye for talent. Has any coach possessed a superior vision?

"When he drafted Ronnie Lott, he thought, 'He's a corner now, but he'll be a longtime All-Pro safety,'" former Walsh assistant and two-time NFL head coach Dennis Green said for this project. "When he drafted Roger Craig, he saw him as a fullback now, but a little small for the fullback we really needed, so we would draft a fullback and Craig would make the transition to running back.

Trent Green
AP Photo/Harold JenkinsTrent Green's knee injury paved the way for Kurt Warner to step in at quarterback.
"Bill did that sort of thing constantly when he thought players could fit in a certain way and be very unique players."

Walsh's hiring commanded 53 percent of votes cast for the 49ers' Flash Points, with "The Catch" ranking second at 37 percent. Of course, there never would have been such a signature play if Walsh hadn't put together a 1979 draft class featuring Montana in the third round and Dwight Clark in the 10th.

RAMS: Trent Green's injury pivotal

The Kurt Warner story might never have been told if the San Diego Chargers' Rodney Harrison hadn't knocked out Green with a severe knee injury during the 1999 preseason.

Fans voted that moment supreme with 49 percent of more than 28,000 votes. Only Mike Jones' Super Bowl-saving tackle against Kevin Dyson (36 percent) came close to challenging.

The comments section of the Rams-related item drew barely more than a dozen contributions, however. So much for exit polling.

[+] EnlargePaul Allen
Robert Giroux/Getty ImagesPaul Allen helped bring an NFC title to Seattle.
"The ownership change [in 1972] precipitated everything that has happened to the Rams in 'modern' times," patdpenguin wrote. "The true answer to the question would be the ownership change, but as a lifelong fan, speaking with my heart, I would choose the Trent Green injury. Prior to that, the team had not proven anything, and was spinning its wheels."

SEAHAWKS: Paul Allen trumps all

The Seahawks were planning a move to Los Angeles during their darkest days of the 1990s, at one point even conducting free agency from an elementary school parking lot in Southern California.

Allen wasn't much of an NFL fan at the time, but he rallied to the cause of keeping the team in Seattle. Allen led a push to secure a new stadium, contributing $130 million of his own money in exchange for $300 million in public funding, as part of a deal to purchase the team.

Within a couple years, the team had landed Mike Holmgren as coach and general manager. Multiple division titles and the first Super Bowl in franchise history followed.

"I went with Allen buying the team," DiLune2 wrote. "It is hard to point to any one of those [other] moments as the one point where it all changed. They were part of a long, ugly slide. Allen buying the team, though, was the one point in time where you can look and say, 'It all changed right there.'"

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images Larry Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 152 yards and three TDs in the NFC Championship Game.
CARDINALS: Beating Eagles to reach Super Bowl

Sixty-eight percent of more than 26,000 Cardinals voters pointed to the team's victory over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. No option for any team drew a higher percentage.

The runner-up for the Cardinals -- securing a new stadium in 2006 -- lagged with only 16 percent. But some felt strongly it should have prevailed.

"Wow, this is a slam dunk," longtime blog contributor Leesters wrote. "The stadium changed this team overnight. It went from the least competitive financial situation in the league to one of the best, in one year. Free agents could be afforded, better coaches, better home-field advantage. If it wasn't for this stadium, there would be no NFC Championship win."
Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Roger Craig, Sean Morey, Sam Bradford and Takeo Spikes are among the NFC West players and alumni scheduled to appear at the NFL Players Association's draft-related festivities in New York beginning April 28.

Hall of Famer and current Seattle Seahawks radio analyst Warren Moon, who played for Seattle before the team's move back to the NFC West in 2002, is also on the guest list revealed Monday.

The NFLPA took criticism when news broke that it planned to discourage players from attending the draft itself, but these events have been scheduled to give players flexibility should they choose to attend both.

"The series of events is a celebration of legacy -- of past, present and future football players coming together to honor those making the journey from prospect to professional," the NFLPA said in a news release.

The NFLPA has scheduled a welcome meeting and dinner with families for 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, the first day of the draft, which begins at 8 p.m. ET. Draft prospects attending would then have time to appear at the draft, should they choose to do so, as both will be headquartered in New York.

The NFLPA has scheduled media access for Friday from 8 a.m. to noon, followed by a lunch and dinner with reception at 4:30 p.m. A fitness and skills clinic is set for Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in Harlem, followed by lunch and a party beginning at 9 p.m.

NFL teams generally fly first-round choices to their facilities in the day or two following the first round. Rules will allow that to happen again, despite the lockout. Players heading to their new teams' facilities for news conferences could miss NFLPA-sponsored events for Friday and/or Saturday.

The initial guest list, subject to change, features the following current and former NFL players: Charlie Batch, Cornelius Bennett, Dwayne Bowe, Bradford, Ahmad Bradshaw, Craig, Zak DeOssie, Dickerson, Eddie George, Faulk, Felix Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, Dustin Keller, Brandon Marshall, Kevin Mawae, Willie McGinest, Brian Mitchell, Moon, Morey, Shaun O'Hara, Ray Rice, Tony Richardson, Spikes and Mike Vrabel.

The list of draft prospects includes Prince Amukamara, Marvin Austin, Adrian Clayborn, Marcell Dareus, Nick Fairley, Blaine Gabbert, A.J. Green, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Cameron Jordan, Ryan Kerrigan, Corey Liuget, Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Cam Newton, Patrick Peterson, Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith, Daniel Thomas and J.J. Watt.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com checks in with former 49ers receiver Dwight Clark for thoughts on how players handled the NFL work stoppage in 1987. Clark: "We had organized practices, 7-on-7, with no pads, of course. We were running to stay in shape and we'd run routes vs. DBs and linebackers." That situation was different from a timing standpoint. Those practices would have taken place in September. Clark cited a fondness for 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. in explaining why he joined Joe Montana and Roger Craig in crossing the picket line back then. Clark said he expected 1987 to be his final season, and the decision gave him ulcers.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers have a predraft visit set up with LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Also from Barrows: University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker generally had a tough time against Jim Harbaugh's Stanford team.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com recalls the late Dave Brown for his latest piece on the 35th anniversary team. Eugene Robinson: "I had some really good role models and mentors in front of him to teach me how to play. ... No one knows, but I was at Dave Brown’s house every Wednesday watching film. And that was before it was cut up like it is now into third downs, first downs, mixed downs and all the different ways they prepare film for the players. Guess what? I had to do that by myself, with Dave Brown. Every Wednesday. Without exception. Talk about an education."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says draft analyst Rob Rang is now projecting Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi as the Seahawks' first-round draft choice for 2011. Rang: "Carimi, a four-year starter at left tackle, lacks the elite athleticism to remain there in the NFL, which could push him into the second portion of the round. The 2010 Outland Trophy winner has the bulk, strength and physicality in the running game to star on the right side." Coach Pete Carroll recently said Stacy Andrews would compete for the starting job on the right side. Drafting Carimi would make Andrews' salary pretty much prohibitive. It's on the high side, anyway.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic does not expect Cardinals players to gather for informal practice sessions this offseason. Somers: "The Cardinals seem among the least likely teams to organize such off-season workouts. Many of their key players -- receiver Steve Breaston, center Lyle Sendlein, guards Alan Faneca and Deuce Lutui -- have no contract for 2011. Why would Breaston, Lutui and Sendlein, for instance, risk injury for a team that has not seriously tried yet to sign them to long-term deals? Many Cardinals players are working out under the supervision of personal trainers, or on their own. Some, such as Larry Fitzgerald, have [spent] the off-season traveling."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com sent LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson to the Cardinals at No. 5 in a mock draft after Cam Newton, Marcell Dareus, Von Miller and A.J. Green came off the board in the top four spots.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sends defensive end Robert Quinn to the Rams with the 14th overall choice in his mock draft. He has Miller going to Arizona at No. 5, Peterson going to San Francisco at No. 7 and quarterback Christian Ponder heading to Seattle at No. 25. Will Quinn be available? He was not on the five other mock drafts listed along with the one Thomas submitted. Not that anyone knows for sure.

Tim Klutsarits of examiner.com thinks the NFL's new rules for kickoff returns will help the Rams. His reasoning: The Rams do not have a great returner, their kicker hasn't produced many touchbacks and the team should have an easier time avoiding injuries now.

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