NFC West: Rush Limbaugh
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
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
News that Marshall Faulk might fill part of the void created by Rush Limbaugh's forced removal from a potential Rams ownership group sounded like good public relations.
Faulk's name as an all-time Rams great could be worth more than whatever his relative stake in an ownership group might be. Limbaugh signed a deal reportedly worth $38 million per year and $400 million overall. Faulk earned good money by NFL standards, but nowhere near those levels.
In 2000, when Faulk set a career high with 18 rushing touchdowns, the Rams' offense ran left 136 times, right 125 times and up the middle 110 times. Perhaps that makes him more of a centrist than the right-leaning Limbaugh.
ESPNews' Will Selva and I discussed the following issues on the regular Blogger's Blitz segment Wednesday:
- How the 49ers might use Michael Crabtree
- Rush Limbaugh's failed attempt to buy a stake in the Rams
- How close the Cardinals are to hitting stride
- What Matt Hasselbeck means to the Seahawks
- Owen Schmitt's pregame bloodletting and how teammates responded
These video segments generally feature the NFC West on Wednesdays.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks defensive end Darryl Tapp goes about his work with the playfulness of a child, sometimes even skipping from one drill to the next. Boling: "Tapp is earning even more opportunities with the quality and consistency of his play. Viewed as something of a pass-rush specialist when he was taken in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Virginia Tech, he’s no longer considered a liability on running downs, and has become a force at the point of attack."
Rod Mar of seahawks.com offers high-resolution photos from the Seahawks' 41-0 victory over the Jaguars. Nice shot of Matt Hasselbeck in the tunnel before warm-ups.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says reporters didn't even ask coach Jim Mora about Hasselbeck's injured ribs. Hasselbeck's performance in Week 5 seemed to answer any questions. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp: "What Matt went through last week in preparation -- to see him really make the effort Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday to get on the field to practice -- it showed a lot about Matt Hasselbeck and how he is a big-time leader of this team. And then for him to go through the pain -- not only during the game but after the game -- he really has shown a lot of toughness and the other players fed off that."
Also from Farnsworth: a Seahawks practice report with input from newly signed tackle Damion McIntosh. Farnsworth: "McIntosh has started 111 of 115 games -- 93 at left tackle, 16 at right tackle and two at right guard."
More from Farnsworth: Mora expresses confidence in new starting left tackle Kyle Williams, who has big-game experience from his days at USC. Knapp: "We're going to have to change things a little bit, because Kyle's experience isn't as much as some others. But not a lot. We’re going to do what we do."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Jack Del Rio's pregame antics amused Seahawks receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh: "It was just kind of crazy, man. Jon Ryan was out there punting, and I guess he may have been in Jacksonville's area. And he [Del Rio] just grabbed the ball and threw it and was like, 'Get the [expletive] on your side of the field.' "
Also from O'Neil: an update from Mora's midweek news conference. Brandon Frye's injury was more serious than first suspected.
More from O'Neil: "Two years ago Kyle Williams was undrafted, unemployed and living with his in-laws in Arizona."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' defense is having problems against the pass. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis: "We're very excited about the No. 1 ranking against the run and very aware and focused on the No. 32 ranking in the pass."
Also from Somers: Tight end Stephen Spach was the only Cardinals player to miss all of practice Wednesday.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner isn't happy with the team's offense to this point. McManaman also has a note on Seahawks fullback Owen Schmitt.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com puts into perspective Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's recent interception return for a touchdown. Good photo.
Also from Urban: Holding Frank Gore to 21 yards rushing was a key to Arizona's strong statistical showing against the run so far.
Revenge of the Birds' Andrew602 gives the Cardinals an edge over Seattle at quarterback in his positional preview.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune says only Tennessee is allowing fewer yards per carry than the Cardinals.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says prospective Rams owner Dave Checketts never saw coming the reaction that would lead to Rush Limbaugh's dismissal as a potential limited partner. Miklasz: "Limbaugh is a polarizing figure, and there is no way to get around that. You mention his name, and people begin choosing sides, drawing boundaries and selecting their weapon of choice. I've got nothing against Limbaugh personally. And that's because I don't take politics personally. Politics are a gladiator sport, a full-contact sport, and it's a rough arena. Limbaugh hits hard, but he's no more vicious than those who attack him from the opposite extreme of the political spectrum. I tend to tune it all out."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was "very, very, very" happy with the team's energy at practice Wednesday. Chris Long: "You don’t really have a choice but to keep grinding away,” Long said. “Continuing to work hard and try to keep going up, that’s the only way we can do it. Build on the little things that we’re doing well and try to make those things big things. It's no different than any other week. We're trying to get that win, just the same as if we were 5-0."
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat checks in with former Rams receiver Torry Holt, who faces his former team Sunday. Holt: "I'm most happy and proud that I was able to play in front of the fans there in St. Louis who treated myself and my family so well. St. Louis will always be dear to me. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Rams as well as the city of St. Louis and the fans there.''
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers held one final practice before dispersing for their bye week. Maiocco: "Tackle Adam Snyder (left thigh contusion), defensive end Ray McDonald (left ankle), cornerback Tarell Brown (groin), safety Michael Lewis (concussion), linebacker Jeff Ulbrich (concussion) and safety Reggie Smith (groin) did not see work during practice. It is not known which of those players will be available to play the week after the bye."
Also from Maiocco: Coach Mike Singletary says there's a "good chance" the 49ers will make a lineup change on the offensive line.
More from Maiocco: 49ers rookie Michael Crabtree says teammates are helping him get up to speed.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News quotes recently concussed 49ers safety Michael Lewis as saying he expects to play Oct. 25 against the Texans. Singletary: "Twenty years ago, they would have given him smelling salts and put him back in the game."
Also from Brown: Singletary says Crabtree will definitely play against the Texans.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Quick thoughts on Adam Schefter's report suggesting the potential Rams ownership group featuring Rush Limbaugh would dump the talk-show host:
- This is a wise move by Dave Checketts' ownership group because Limbaugh's presence was going to present a distraction. Reactions toward Limbaugh tend to be strongly positive or strongly negative. If you are the Rams' next owner, why deal with those reactions if it's not necessary? There's no benefit.
- Limbaugh had to know his presence as a potential limited partner would draw a strong reaction from some. He also had to know that reaction would make him more relevant whether he remained part of the group. Nothing said about him during the process was likely to change anyone's minds about him. But his brand did benefit from the notoriety. Limbaugh is the winner either way.
- I'll be curious to see how Limbaugh might proceed regarding quotes that might have been attributed to him incorrectly.
- Limbaugh's previous comments about Donovan McNabb personalized Limbaugh to some of the players who took public stances against him. I do not think players would have reacted so strongly without that element. Their opposition to Limbaugh probably wouldn't have been so personal.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
There's a risk here in overplaying this story, but I thought St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell's comments in response to Rush Limbaugh advanced the discussion enough to link to the audio.
To recap, Burwell ripped the talk-show host in a column deriding Limbaugh's involvement as a potential limited partner in the Rams. Limbaugh challenged the accuracy of a quote Burwell attributed to him. The original Burwell column now carries a clarification while the Post-Dispatch investigates.
The Rams haven't decided to sell the team to anyone, let alone the group that includes Limbaugh. It's a hot topic in the division, though, and I wanted to pass along the latest before heading to the Seahawks' locker room following their Wednesday practice.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch backtracks only slightly in his criticisms of potential Rams limited partner Rush Limbaugh after acknowledging that a quote attributed to the talk-show host might have been passed along inaccurately. Burwell: "There is still a huge pile of polarizing, bigoted debris stacked up on the deck of the good ship Limbaugh that he can't deny or even remotely distance himself from."
Reid Laymance of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the newspaper is researching the validity of the quote attributed to Limbaugh as relayed by Burwell.
Also from Laymance: He relays part of what Limbaugh said during an NBC interview. Limbaugh on critics: "They’re gonna go nuts. This is the kind of stuff they’ve been trying to make sure doesn’t happen with me. All this stuff is the mainstreaming of Rush Limbaugh from off this far-right fringe they’ve tried to put me [in]. I just keep tiptoeing into the mainstream. And it just irritates them." Limbaugh is clearly relishing the situation. The publicity generated by this controversy makes him a winner no matter how the situation plays out. If the NFL rejects him as a potential owner, he emerges as the man deemed too dangerous for the NFL, playing into the idea Limbaugh promoted during the NBC interview. If the NFL accepts Limbaugh as a limited partner, his profile rises accordingly.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams receiver Donnie Avery has apologized for his elaborate celebration during a blowout defeat.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says it's tough to see progress when a team loses by 28 points. Also during this chat, Thomas addresses Rams defensive end Chris Long: "When you draft a defensive end No. 2 overall, there is some expectation that he will sack the quarterback. Long is playing the run pretty well, but the sacks aren't there. Long realizes this. I do think when he came out the overall expectation was that he would be a very good player, but not a superstar. It's way too early to declare him a bust."
Lisa Goodwin of 49ers.com says 49ers defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga is raising awareness for tsunami relief in American Samoa.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle looks into the 49ers' problems on offense. The team hasn't scored more than two offensive touchdowns in a game this season. None of the seven wide receivers on the roster ranks among the NFL's top 90 in receptions.
Also from Crumpacker: Commissioner Roger Goodell has warned Deion Sanders about potential conflicts of interest in light of recent dealings with Michael Crabtree.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offers notes for every 49ers player following the team's defeat to the Falcons in Week 5. On Glen Coffee: "Made a mental mistake when he assumed Josh Morgan scored a touchdown. He went to the sideline and was late getting on the field when the 49ers got into the huddle to run a play from the 2-yard line. The 49ers spent a timeout, and the 49ers needed it later in the half. Instead, they were unable to challenge a fumble ruling that probably would've been overturned."
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers have plans for Crabtree and Frank Gore during the bye week.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Ben Patrick became emotional during his return from a four-game suspension. Patrick: "It sounds funny, but I'm glad it happened. It was a good learning experience in my life and it gave me a chance to appreciate my situation that much more after it was taken away from me. Do I have any regrets? If I have one, it would be not being here to help my teammates."
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are struggling with an identity crisis. Quarterback Kurt Warner: "A lot of it comes down to what personnel group is best for what we're trying to do. That's the big question mark for us. What do we want to do? Four wide receivers? Three wide receivers? What personnel group are we going to thrive in? What will allow us to build our passing game and our running game at the same time?"
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is trying to keep the team loose. Whisenhunt thinks the team can become too tight while trying to avoid mistakes.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com checks in with Gabe Watson, a big part of the Cardinals' defense.
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com revisits Owen Schmitt's head-splitting antics from Week 5. Seahawks coach Jim Mora joked that the team would have to introduce its defense in Week 6 just to make sure Schmitt didn't injure himself.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks are having success with a hurry-up offense. T.J. Houshmandzadeh: "Matt (Hasselbeck) feels comfortable operating in a hurry-up type of pace. Because for the most part, from the preseason until today, every time we were in a hurry-up type of mode, we went and scored."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune suggests newly signed tackle Damion McIntosh could start for Seattle in Week 6. Conditioning could be an issue, I would think.
John Morgan of Field Gulls thinks Schmitt has good potential as a fullback and the Seahawks should let him play.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
A beatnik who posed semi-nude for a newspaper and named John Lennon as his hero has come out against Rush Limbaugh as a potential NFL owner.
It's news because that beatnik who posed semi-nude and admires Lennon happens to own the Indianapolis Colts.
Jim Irsay's opposition, while no surprise, contributes to an overall climate that could at least in theory complicate Dave Checketts' efforts to keep the Rams in St. Louis. Limbaugh would be only a limited partner in the group Checketts is leading, but the relative size of Limbaugh's proposed ownership stake -- as yet undefined -- does not seem to be muting criticism proportionately. Limbaugh has defended himself.
Might Checketts ultimately seek another partner to avoid the headaches? Or will the current opposition settle down and pass?
On a side note, the most recent link included a clip showing Stephen A. Smith suggesting players were lying when they said they would never play for a Limbaugh-owned team. Rams running back Steven Jackson sidestepped the question during his weekly radio show.
"I would love to answer that question," Jackson said, "but when we have to cross that bridge, I'll make sure you guys are the first to know."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Tim Klutsarits of examiner.com takes issue with the Rams' approach and questions whether they're headed in the right direction. Klutsarits: "I don't question that Steve Spagnuolo is doing everything in his power to make this team better. I am beginning to question whether or not Spagnuolo is doing enough to reach the players and the team. He knows defense. There is no question about that. But there are too many mistakes again and again to accept. It comes down to he isn't either coaching the entire team properly or the players aren't listening and can't execute. Knowing that the team is talent deficient may be a reason but it can't be an excuse."
Brian Stull of 101ESPN Seattle says the Rams aren't interested in moral victories or silver linings. Too bad, guys. My usual Silver Linings file on the Rams is already finished and scheduled to appear on the blog in a bit.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams know it's bad when they can trail by two touchdowns at halftime despite holding the edge in widely cited statistical categories. Thomas: "Yes, Marc Bulger was seven for seven for St. Louis in the fourth quarter, including a 27-yard TD pass to Donnie Avery in relief of injured starter Kyle Boller. But by then, the Vikings were treating the game like a preseason contest in mid-August. Only one of their 11 defensive starters was on the field. So let's go to the tote board. The Rams remain winless for '09 at 0-5; their franchise-record losing streak has been extended to 15 games. And they have been outscored 146 points to 34 this season."
Also from Thomas: None of the Rams players he approached would go on the record with anything about the NFLPA's condemnation of Rush Limbaugh's potential ownership stake in the team. Thomas: "Limbaugh would be a limited partner -- not the controlling partner or lead investor -- in an ownership group that includes St. Louis Blues owner Dave Checketts. Because of that limited partner status, one league source believed that NFL club owners wouldn't object to Limbaugh's inclusion in a St. Louis ownership group."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams could have a decision to make at quarterback. Bulger: "I'm just glad we could go in and get some points and escape without hurting the shoulder again."
Also from Coats: The Rams' receivers enjoyed their best production of the season Sunday.
More from Coats: a report card featuring a "B" grade for the Rams' offensive line.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams made progress Sunday, but not without giant flashing disclaimers. Steven Jackson: "We know it's fundamental football that you have to hold on to the football. I'm not making light of that. But once we turn that around, I think we can play with any football team. That was a very competitive, talented football team we just played, and if we don't (give away) those 21 points it would be interesting to see how that ballgame would have turned out."
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com says the Rams should have played Keith Null instead of Bulger once Kyle Boller got hurt. Going that route would have ruled out Boller and Bulger for the rest of the game, however.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The item on Rush Limbaugh's potential Rams ownership stake generated relatively little heat on the blog.
NFL players Mathias Kiwanuka and Bart Scott left little doubt where they stand during interviews with the New York Daily News.
- Kiwaunuka: "He can do whatever he wants, it is a free country. But if it goes through, I can tell you where I am not going to play. ... I am not going to draw a conclusion from a person off of one comment, but when it is time after time after time and there's a consistent pattern of disrespect and just a complete misunderstanding of an entire culture that I am a part of, I can't respect him as a man."
- Scott: "What he said (about Donovan McNabb) was inappropriate and insensitive, totally off-base. He could offer me whatever he wanted, I wouldn't play for him. ... I wouldn't play for Rush Limbaugh. My principles are greater and I can't be bought."
This is all a little speculative because the Rams haven't been sold and we're not sure if the group featuring Limbaugh as a potential minority owner will emerge as the leading candidate. But if it does happen, the majority owner would be wise to tackle such perceptions directly.
The Rams will have a hard enough time attracting free agents without veteran players swearing off St. Louis based on resistance to one of the owners.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
News that Rush Limbaugh is part of a potential Rams ownership group leads to a natural question: To what extent does owner's identity positively or negatively affect the way you, as a fan, might feel about a team?
We know where Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stands.
Fans are already highly critical of ownership for decisions relating to football, but coaches and players generally become the faces of organizations.
I suspect people would say one thing and do another, that a winning organization would largely transcend personal feelings toward an individual owner, within reasonable limits. But if you felt the way Burwell feels about a potential owner, could you support the team anyway?
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals could suffer their first local television blackout since University of Phoenix Stadium opened for the 2006 season. Somers: "About 1,500 seats for Sunday's game were unsold as of Tuesday morning. The deadline to avoid a blackout is at 1:15 p.m. Thursday, unless the NFL grants a 24-hour extension, as it did for the Cardinals' season opener against the 49ers. Selling tickets for the Texans game has been problematic since the schedule was released in the spring. The Texans haven't had a winning season since entering the league in 2002, so they don't generate much interest."
Also from Somers: Ken Whisenhunt isn't the only person taking some criticism over play calling. Former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley has heard some boos as well.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team's slow start has bothered a few established veterans in particular, notably Adrian Wilson and Anquan Boldin.
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com links to items from Peter King and Charles McGrath detailing how the Seahawks once tried to lure Pat Tillman out of the military and into a Seattle uniform. Former Seahawks general manager Bob Ferguson confirmed the attempts. Johns: "Ultimately, Tillman told Ferguson and his agent that he'd stay in the Army through his full term in 2005 and pursue a return to the league after that. He'd turned down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Cardinals when he originally enlisted. Tillman wound up being killed on April 22, 2004 while on patrol with the Army Rangers near the border of Pakistan."
Also from Johns: The Seahawks are feeling a sense of urgency after three consecutive defeats.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks will not mix up the personnel at quarterback this season unless injuries intervene.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams would be worse for having Rush Limbaugh among their ownership group. Burwell: "I wonder how Roger Goodell, the no-nonsense NFL commissioner whose primary personal directive is to 'protect the (NFL) shield,' will cope with an owner as potentially combustible as Limbaugh. If Goodell has issues with the embarrassing antics of some of his players, what will he do when Limbaugh inevitably crosses the line of good conduct?"
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says there could be as many as six potential ownership groups for the Rams. "Interest now seems strong enough that earlier estimates that the team would sell based on an overall franchise value of $700 million to $750 million probably are low. League sources say Rosenbloom simply won't sell if he doesn't like the deal or is uncomfortable with the ownership group." The more potential owners, the better the situation becomes for the Rams. But until we have names, it's tough to know whether any of the other potential groups is serious. The Rams certainly want potential owners to think there's competition.
Also from Thomas: It's tough to forecast a Rams victory before the bye, or even after.
More from Thomas: He says during a chat that the Rams should attempt to throw deep more often. A big play to Donnie Avery would indeed help. And the way Steven Jackson is running the ball, the Rams should be able to get a favorable matchup.
More still from Thomas: The Rams added Lamar Myles and Adrian Grady to their practice squad.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says St. Louis Blues owner Dave Checketts has joined radio personality Rush Limbaugh in making a bid to purchase the Rams. Thomas: "According to league sources, there are multiple bidders for the Rams as the potential sale of the team has advanced to a second stage — from looking for potential buyers to evaluating the merits of bidders. It is not known who the other bidders are." Limbaugh released this a statement to KMOX radio: "Dave and I are part of a bid to buy the Rams, and we are continuing the process. But I can say no more because of a confidentiality clause in our agreement with Goldman Sachs. We cannot and will not talk about our partners. But if we prevail we will be the operators of the team."
Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Marc Bulger did some throwing in an attempt to return to the Rams' lineup.
Also from Nelson: Look for Alex Barron to return to the starting lineup for the Rams at left tackle.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Michael Crabtree's camp hasn't scheduled a meeting with the team despite reports suggesting pending renewal of negotiations. "It's all speculation," general manager Scot McCloughan said. The initial report said Crabtree and his agent, Eugene Parker, were heading to the Bay Area to meet with the team, not that a meeting had been scheduled. Maiocco: "McCloughan said the club has learned that Parker is coming to the Bay Area through other parties, but nobody with the 49ers has spoken with Parker or Crabtree."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers would welcome Crabtree if the receiver did decide to sign with the team. Shaun Hill's next pass to Crabtree will be his first, the quarterback said.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers had little to say about news of Crabtree's potential arrival in the Bay Area.
Also from Crumpacker: A return to simplicity has served the 49ers well. Linebacker Takeo Spikes: "This is probably the most fun I've had since my Buffalo days," said linebacker Takeo Spikes, who was with the Bills from 2003 through '06. "There's so much love in this locker room. It's not an environment where you're walking on eggshells. When it's time to work, it's time to work. When it's time to play, go play. As long as you know where the line is between the two, there's no problem."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie welcomes quarterbacks to keep throwing his way. Probably best that he waited until after the Indianapolis game before making that statement. Not so good to say it before facing Andre Johnson, however. Rodgers-Cromartie: "I'm loving it. When they come at me, it makes me focus even more, and that's what I want. I want that challenge, because only two things can happen from it. Either I go into the doghouse or I can get better from it."
Also from Somers: The Cardinals aren't saying much about injuries because NFL rules require no formal updates until Wednesday. Rodgers-Cromartie does have a wrap on his hand, however.
More from Somers: The Cardinals are 0-2 under Ken Whisenhunt immediately following bye weeks.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals appeared "fresher" at practice following their bye, according to Whisenhunt. Also, Whisenhunt indicated Rodgers-Cromartie had fallen back into some bad habits.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Matt Hasselbeck's potential return this week could restore "swagger" to the Seattle offense, according to coach Jim Mora.
Matt Pitman of 710ESPN Seattle provides a link to audio from Mora's news conference Monday.
Dave Wyman of 710ESPN Seattle defends Seneca Wallace's performance against the Colts, noting that Wallace played well in the fourth quarter. Wyman: "I know what you're going to say. 'Yeah, but that was against the Colts' backups.' SENECA IS A BACKUP! His offensive line is beyond backup!"
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says the Seahawks re-signed fullback Justin Griffith, as expected.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says cornerback Josh Wilson is expected to be full strength for the Seahawks in Week 5.
Also from O'Neil: The Seahawks haven't had much success in early October recently.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike SandoMatt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sorts through the quarterback situation with the 49ers. He struggles to see the logic in how the repetitions are distributed. Barrows: "Nolan said today that O'Sullivan has been in the quarterback competition all along. But because there aren't enough repetitions to go around in training camp, Smith and Hill have been getting all the snaps. Which is a little bit like saying there's a third-party candidate in this election, but there was no room to put him on the ballot."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat also tackles the 49ers' quarterback situation. Maiocco: "In all honesty, the offense could be further along with O'Sullivan at quarterback RIGHT NOW because he spent last season in the system. But the goal is to get the quarterback on the field who is going to be more productive during the regular season -- and not the first week of training camp."
Radio talker Rush Limbaugh confirms his interest in purchasing the Rams while acknowledging the team is not technically for sale. Limbaugh: "Look, of course I am serious. I have told people for many years I'd love to own or be a part of an ownership group of a National Football League team, and over the years I've gotten to know a whole lot of owners in the NFL. I've made no secret about it. So, sure. I can't believe the question."
Bob Baum of the Associated Press says Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart is trying to shake his party-boy image. The Leinart story angle -- specifically whether the photos of Leinart partying on his own time suggest he's not serious about his job -- strikes me as beyond overblown. Yes, image is important for a starting NFL quarterback. But it's not like someone snapped those photos the night before a game in Week 8. These were offseason pictures of Leinart enjoying himself. Big deal.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks center Chris Spencer is suffering from a sore back. Spencer did appear to wrench the back during the first practice. Spencer is also dealing with shoulder injuries.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shares a hilarious quote from Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, via fullback Leonard Weaver. Weaver was singing gospel songs during practice when Holmgren asked him to stop. Weaver: "I was back there singing a gospel song and he was like, 'Leonard, stop it. I don't want to feel good right now, I'm trying to be mean.'" Weaver is having a strong camp. Holmgren, who was with the 49ers for the Tom Rathman era, said Weaver is as talented as any fullback he has coached.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic reports on mounting injury concerns on the Cardinals' offensive line. That is one area Arizona cannot afford to take many hits. Third-team center Scott Peters left practice on a cart after injuring a knee. Starting center Al Johnson is already out with a knee injury, though the team thinks he'll be OK for the regular season. Somers also reports on contract offers to the team's assistant coaches.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com links to a YouTube video showing Anquan Boldin's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, hoping for a reconciliation between the team and his disgruntled client. Boldin has already said he plans to sign elsewhere once the final three years of his deal expire.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News reports on the 49ers' use of former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher to advise players on media relations. I applaud Brown's reference to Gore -- Frank, not Al -- early in the story. That was a must.
The Associated Press says former 49ers linebacker Derek Smith could start while Stephen Cooper serves a four-game suspension to open the season. The 49ers reaped salary-cap savings after parting with Smith this offseason. Smith, 33, had played the "Ted" linebacker position for the 49ers (the "Ted" does the dirty work, freeing up the "Mike" to tackle people and generally create mayhem). Jeff Ulbrich is the new "Ted" for San Francisco.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz plans to work games from the coaches' booth instead of the sideline. This seems like the smart decision. Martz is a strong personality. The 49ers probably need him to be at his analytical best during games. Quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner will be on the sideline to communicate directly with Alex Smith, Shaun Hill or whoever might be playing quarterback for the 49ers.
Also from Barrows, turns out recovering 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley wasn't bitten by a bug or spider or scorpion or vampire (to borrow from Barrows' previous tongue-in-cheek description). Staley was simply walking on the beach when he cut his foot. The foot became infected.
Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers was also in on the Martz interview. He provides a Martz quote that might offer encouragement to fans wondering if Vernon Davis and even fellow tight end Delanie Walker will become a go-to-threat in the offense. Martz: "What makes it hard on the defense is the fact that they're substantial blockers. If they weren't, it would have a different effect on the defense. If Frank Gore was not back there ... all those things with that inside receiver, you've got a blocker, you got a runner, you have different structures of defense where a vertical tight end now can become a serious threat."
Ross Tucker's column for SI.com calls quarterback camp battles a farce, pointing to the Alex Smith-Shaun Hill competition in San Francisco as one example. These are usually imbalanced and unfair competitions in which those making the decisions sometimes have a personal stake in the outcome, Tucker writes. The column is very well written and persuasive.
Jake Wagman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via the St. Louis Business Journal, quotes radio talker Rush Limbaugh as expressing potential interest in purchasing the Rams. Not that the Rams are for sale. They are simply monitoring offers as a courtesy, as ownership suggested recently.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune provides a detailed report from Seahawks practice today. Looks like Logan Payne is making a push to be the fourth receiver behind Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson and the injured Deion Branch. Something to keep in mind while Courtney Taylor deals with a tight hammy.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offers a concurring opinion on Payne as the player of the day for Seattle. Of course, we all remember the player of the day from one year ago (July 29, 2007, actually, as that was the first day of Seahawks camp last year). What, you've forgotten? It was cornerback Josh Wilson. Point being: It's early. Taylor and the other receivers have plenty of time to show.