NFC West: Seahawks Camp 2012
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
1. QB competition continued. Matt Flynn makes his second start in as many exhibition games for Seattle, an opportunity to build on a mostly efficient performance against Tennessee last week. The question is really if rookie Russell Wilson can upstage Flynn for the second week in a row. Wilson appears more dynamic in every way, but he’s also less experienced. I tend to think Wilson needs Flynn to stumble some for coach Pete Carroll to go with Wilson as the Week 1 starter. But few coaches appear as comfortable going young as Carroll has proven to be. Speaking of Carroll, he maintains that Tarvaris Jackson remains a candidate to start. That is a tough sell.
2. Terrell Owens’ debut. Carroll has said Owens will get into the game early. Owens has been gaining momentum in practice. He’s competing primarily with Braylon Edwards, who is coming off an impressive showing against the Titans. The Broncos counter with Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter at cornerback. Owens beat Bailey for a 91-yard touchdown in their most recent regular-season meeting. That was way back in 2005, when Owens was with the Philadelphia Eagles. Owens had three receptions for 154 yards in that game. He hasn’t played in an NFL game of any kind since 2010, however.
3. That other QB. The Seahawks practically begged Peyton Manning to consider Seattle as a free-agent destination this offseason. Manning showed no interest, even when the Seahawks’ leadership flew to Denver for a potential meeting. As a result, Seattle’s aggressive cornerbacks get a chance to measure themselves against an all-time great.
His top two quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, could use any extra work that comes their way.
E.J. from Redondo Beach, Calif., hit the NFC West mailbag with a request: "Whiz keeps talking about Kolb and Skelton needing to play better (staying in the pocket/finding the open man), but Kolb and Skelton only average about 5-6 attempts per game. How do their snaps/attempts compare around the NFL?"
The Cardinals have played two exhibition games. Most teams have played only one. An injury shortened Kolb's first start. Those and other factors complicate stat comparisons.
Instead, I've put together a chart showing percentages of team attempts for quarterbacks from the four teams with competitions at the position.
Kolb has indeed accounted for the smallest percentage of attempts (13.6) among quarterbacks competing for starting jobs. Tennessee's Nick Stephens has a lower percentage, but he's not a candidate to start. We should expect Kolb to play extensively against Oakland at University of Phoenix Stadium on Friday night, health permitting.
The third-quarter play broke a 6-6 tie, sending the Cowboys to a 23-13 victory.
Witten's availability for the rematch in Week 2 this season appears tenuous following news that the Pro Bowl tight end is recovering from a lacerated spleen.
Players can fight through some injuries without incurring risks associated with organ damage.
"It's different," Witten said. "It's not something you can just fight through and dig deep. But it's hard. It's the first time for me to be in this situation. I'm staying optimistic and staying positive. We're all hopeful to get the results we're looking for."
The Cowboys don't know when Witten will be healthy enough to play. They'll hold him out of the preseason. Witten could play in Week 1 against the New York Giants. But as he has said, there's no firm timetable.
Witten caught four passes for 71 yards and the one touchdown against Seattle last season.
Owens was two months shy of his 37th birthday when he accomplished the feat for Cincinnati against Cleveland on Nov. 3, 2010. Now 38, Owens is to make his 2012 exhibition debut for Seattle against Denver on Friday night.
A few thoughts on his prospects and on Owens in general:
- Forget about 10 receptions for 220 yards. We should instead watch to see how aggressively Owens plays, whether he's a willing blocker, whether he catches the ball well, and how much he plays.
- Owens has always been a competitor. He has responded well in practice after watching Braylon Edwards, his primary competition for a roster spot, score a touchdown and generally play well against Tennessee last week. Owens was not active for that game, but he knows the stakes. He was fortunate to get an opportunity from Seattle, and must capitalize on the chance.
- Edwards has responded to Owens' arrival. Competition is good.
- The Broncos allowed only 7.6 yards per reception to Chicago, which was playing without Jay Cutler, last week. Preseason stats aren't all that meaningful, of course, but that is an unusually low figure. Will Owens find room to operate? We saw Seattle's defensive backs perk up and defend Owens with abandon when the receiver initially reported. Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter are the Broncos' starters. Owens figures to get into the game early enough to face them. He's been playing primarily at flanker.
- Seahawks backup quarterback Russell Wilson showed against the Titans a willingness to trust a big receiver. The pass he threw to Edwards for a 39-yard touchdown comes to mind.
- Owens last caught a preseason touchdown pass in 2007.
- If Owens earns a roster spot, he could face one of his former teams, Dallas, in Week 2 at Seattle. But if Edwards plays at least as well until then, that would lengthen the odds for Owens, who is older. It's tough keeping two veteran wide receivers with similar skill sets when neither plays special teams.
Back in a bit with a couple thoughts on a San Francisco 49ers roster move (Nate Byham waived/injured).
- What's been reported: Seattle has spoken with teams regarding a potential trade, but nothing is imminent, according to PFT.
- Why a trade make senses for Seattle: Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson appear likely to emerge as the top two quarterbacks. Jackson has already given the Seahawks what they wanted from him: a quarterback whose familiarity with the offense helped the team get through a lockout-affected 2011 season. Seattle has no incentive to make a deal immediately. Jackson is insurance for now.
- Why a trade could be unlikely: Jackson is scheduled to earn $4 million in salary for 2012. Any team acquiring him would acquire that salary, which could be higher than other teams would want to pay. Any team seeking to rework the deal would have to work with Jackson. And if other teams know Jackson doesn't fit in Seattle, why not simply wait for the team to release him?
- Another consideration: Jackson has spent his career in the offensive system Darrell Bevell brought with him from Minnesota to Seattle as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator. He has conceivably maxed out in this system. He could be less valuable in a different scheme, particularly in the short term. Jackson's former head coach in Minnesota, Brad Childress, is offensive coordinator in Cleveland, where the Browns already have multiple backup quarterback options.
Quarterback competitions tend to get our attention.
ESPN's Damien Woody and Jerry Rice, featured in the video above, offered opinions for how things should, and might, go down in Seattle. Neither mentioned Tarvaris Jackson.
Woody cited Matt Flynn's experience in a West Coast offense in explaining why the free-agent addition from Green Bay should start. Rice questioned Flynn's credentials by asking why Flynn's former coordinator in Green Bay, Joe Philbin, failed to show much urgency in pursuing Flynn for the Miami Dolphins this offseason.
To Rice's point, the Dolphins did make a strong play for Flynn, at least according to comments Philbin made earlier this offseason:
"I think we made an aggressive push. We got him in here relatively quickly. Again, we had a great meeting. Matt and I had some conversations, a number of conversations prior to his arrival to Miami. We had some subsequent ones after. He'd probably be able to give you better answer as to why he chose to go elsewhere. All I know is when we were together the visit was excellent. I thought he got along very well with our offensive staff. He and I obviously have a relationship together. Excited for him and wish him all the best and I think he’ll do a fine job. ...
"Again, you need to ask Matt Flynn why he's in Seattle. There's a myriad factors that go into why people make decisions about their own future, which is their prerogative. And clubs have their own prerogative as to how they are going to decide to move forward. And so again, it always takes two people to get a marriage and so I wish him well. He's a great young man. But he's better to ask why he's in Seattle."
Rice's point holds, to a degree. The Dolphins presumably could have won over Flynn by offering him huge money. Perhaps they would have done that had Philbin thought more highly of his former quarterback. But it's also pretty clear Flynn wasn't all that eager to sign with Miami, for whatever reason. He sought out Seattle and accepted good, not great, money from the Seahawks. Of course, that was before the team used a third-round choice for Russell Wilson. Things change quickly in the NFL.
So much for developing the continuity offensive lines need to play their best.
The Rams hope to avoid a repeat this season, and they still might. But it'll be a while before this line comes together.
Knee surgery has kept new center Scott Wells from practicing. Centers can be critical for handling protection calls. The Rams are hoping Wells can get on the field next week. The line won't have its leader until Wells returns.
Quinn Ojinnaka is working at left guard after rookie Rokevious Watkins, a player the team wanted to groom for the position, reported to camp out of shape.
At right tackle, Barry Richardson has supplanted incumbent starter Jason Smith in the lineup.
For more on the Rams' line, check out Tony Softli's recent interview with line coach Paul T. Boudreau (video here).
The chart shows how many starters NFC West teams used at each position on the line last season. Some players started at more than one position. For example, nine players contributed to the 13-starter total for the Rams. Adam Goldberg, Jason Brown and Harvey Dahl started at multiple spots.
Colin Kaepernick has emerged as the clear-cut leader for the No. 2 role in San Francsico, coach Jim Harbaugh said Tuesday. Matt Flynn is leading the race for the No. 1 job in Seattle and will make his second start in two exhibition games.
The terrain is a bit trickier in Arizona, where Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt spent part of his media session addressing Adam Schefter's report for ESPN suggesting John Skelton was leading Kevin Kolb in the race to start for the Cardinals.
Whisenhunt said what he pretty much had to say, that the process has yet to play out. Neither quarterback in Arizona has made a strong move for the job. Skelton could be the favorite by default. And with three exhibition games remaining, the Cardinals have time.
I'm heading to Arizona for the close of Cardinals camp early next week. Looks like we'll have plenty to discuss at that time.
Arizona faces Oakland on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Raiders lost their exhibition opener to Dallas, 3-0. The Cowboys completed 15 of 27 passes for 165 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. That included 3-of-6 passing for 30 yards from Dallas starter Tony Romo.
The Cardinals' top two quarterbacks have not yet thrown a touchdown pass in the preseason. Rich Bartel has one.
Subsequent evidence suggests the team is positioning Flynn to win the starting job.
Flynn, who started the exhibition opener against Tennessee on Saturday night, will remain the starter when the team visits Denver this weekend, Carroll told reporters Tuesday. Wilson, who played the second half against the Titans, will play the same role against the Broncos.
"This is where they sit right now," Carroll said.
I had wondered whether Wilson might get a chance to work with the starters in this second exhibition game. That approach seemingly would have made sense strictly on the merits, given that Wilson has performed well to this point. He has arguably earned a chance with the starters. But there's big-picture logic in giving Flynn the best chance to win the starting job heading into the regular season. Wilson, as a rookie, has time on his side.
Carroll hasn't ruled out Jackson as the starter, but it's tough to win a job without playing. Jackson will need Flynn or Wilson to lose the job for a realistic shot at remaining in this race, it appears.
The early signs on Flynn and Wilson have been encouraging. Flynn was generally efficient working with the first-team offense against the Titans. He got rid of the ball quickly most of the time and appeared comfortable. Wilson played with greater flair, dazzling with a 32-yard touchdown run. He moved with purpose, threw with velocity and also appeared comfortable.
"I call him a baby Patrick Willis because I hadn't seen a linebacker move like that since Pat," said Robinson, who played with Willis, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, on the San Francisco 49ers.
Wagner, a rookie second-round draft choice, did not stand out to me during the Seahawks' exhibition opener Saturday night, but perhaps a certain fullback inflated my expectations beyond reason.
Dave Wyman of 710ESPN Seattle gave high marks for Wagner's performance. Wyman played the position in the NFL for nine seasons. He certainly knows what to look for in one. Wyman: "I'm always impressed when I see a rookie have poise and look like he's in control. It's almost like he's back in college. I don't know what's going through his mind, so maybe there were some things out there that kind of threw him off, but it certainly didn't look like it. Bobby Wagner looked like he fit right in with that defense. Really fast, he had a really nice tackle, took on some blocks really well, made some little mistakes that you see rookies do, but other than that, I thought he showed really well." Noted: This assessment should be very encouraging for Seahawks fans.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune runs through the Seahawks' roster by position. He has a hard time envisioning Tarvaris Jackson figuring into the team's plans.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com recaps the exhibition opener, raising a question: Why not start Russell Wilson against Denver in Seattle's next game?
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' approach to late-round draft choices -- going after players making position changes, in some cases -- has paid off under the team's current leadership, as the selection of J.R. Sweezy this year indicates. Noted: Former Seahawks president Tim Ruskell fared pretty well in seventh rounds especially. Doug Nienhuis, Ben Obomanu, Ryan Plackemeier, Steve Vallos, Justin Forsett, Courtney Greene and Cameron Morrah were among Seattle's seventh-rounders from 2005 through 2009. All played in the NFL. Obomanu, Vallos, Forsett, Greene and Morrah remain active.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals tight end Jeff King never missed a practice -- not even in junior high -- until sitting out with a quadriceps injury this offseason.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com saw a more spirited practice Monday as coach Ken Whisenhunt ramped up the intensity following two disappointing exhibition games. Also, the team is giving D'Anthony Batiste a shot at right tackle.
Also from Urban: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton thinks his players might be suffering from overconfidence.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coach Jeff Fisher found some positives in the team's 35-3 defeat to open the exhibition season. Also: "On the 63-yard screen pass for a touchdown to Donald Brown, television replays showed a Colts blocker clearly grabbing the jersey of Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis to keep him from tackling Brown near the line of scrimmage. It also showed Michael Brockers being held by another blocker a few yards down the line of scrimmage. After the game Sunday, Fisher pointed out the missed calls but didn't dwell on them. On Monday, he made it clear he wasn't piling on the replacement officials."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com lists Fisher's disappointments from the first game, and also this: "Fisher said his team was extremely vanilla while the Colts did quite a bit of scheming. That doesn’t mean there’s a right or wrong way to do but just different philosophies. Fisher said the Rams will steadily add more and more to the pregame schemes in each game though the final preseason contest will likely be fairly plain as well."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com saw good things from Mario Manningham in the 49ers' practice Monday.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee quotes 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on the team's defensive effort against Minnesota in the exhibition opener. Fangio: "I just think we got a little full of ourselves."
Taylor Price of 49ers.com saw good things from quarterback Alex Smith in practice. Price: "Smith displayed excellent downfield accuracy while completing three deep sideline throws in the same midfield team period. First, Smith found a familiar target, locating tight end Vernon Davis 30 yards down the field on a deep wheel route against the coverage of linebacker Michael Wilhoite. On the very next play, Smith attacked the left sideline again, this time on a 30-yard deep throw to veteran wideout Randy Moss. Smith completed his third deep sideline pass of the period to running back Kendall Hunter."
Quarterback: Tarvaris Jackson versus Matt Flynn versus Russell Wilson was the projected camp battle.
My take then: "Flynn, Wilson and Josh Portis are the quarterbacks they would ideally keep for the long term, but Jackson is the only one with meaningful experience. Jackson is the only one they know for sure they could trust to keep the team competitive right now. Flynn and Wilson will earn roster spots. Jackson could win one, too. He could even start, but so could Flynn or Wilson. Wilson made a spectacular first impression during organized team activities and minicamp practices. ... While it's natural to assume Flynn will emerge as the starter based on his salary and Wilson's inexperience, the Seahawks' excitement for Wilson has been palpable at every turn."
The update: Flynn and Wilson are getting the meaningful reps as the team works to determine which one, if either, represents an upgrade over Jackson. Both players helped their cause with their performances against Tennessee in the exhibition opener Saturday night. Flynn was efficient working against the Titans' starting defense. Wilson was dynamic working with -- and against -- backups.
The Seahawks will presumably want to see Wilson work with the starters in a game situation before making their decision. I have a hard time envisioning Seattle going into a season with a rookie third-round choice behind center. But if any coach would embrace such an opportunity, the unconventional Pete Carroll might be the one to do it -- especially since Wilson demonstrates more poise than many veterans.
If the competition remains close, going with Flynn as the starter heading into the season would be the easiest move.
Flynn, as a veteran earning more money, has more to lose entering the season as a backup after spending most of the offseason as the presumed starter. It might be tougher for him to bounce back from what would look like a benching. Wilson, as a rookie, came to Seattle amid lower expectations in the short term. The team could always turn to him if necessary.
That's what conventional wisdom says, at least. With Carroll, it might not apply.
It commanded the Seahawks' attention, as well, not just on the field but also in the meeting room, where coach Pete Carroll made Owens the leading man in an entertaining prank.
When the Seahawks' first exhibition game kicked off Saturday night against Tennessee, the focus returned to where it needed to be: quarterback. Although Owens might not even earn a roster spot, let alone an important role on the team, the situation behind center will determine whether Seattle breaks from its recent 7-9 form.
The way Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson played against the Titans showed that Seattle has a chance to do just that. It was only one game, with a meaningless outcome, but it affirmed some of the evidence collected to this point.
Flynn, nondescript through organized team activities and minicamps, had responded favorably when Carroll gave him the first-team practice reps last week. He was sharp in practice and efficient while completing his first eight passes against the Titans. Flynn's lone interception resulted from a rookie running back failing to sell the play fake, allowing linebacker Colin McCarthy to drop into coverage without concern for the run.
Wilson, sensational for a rookie in the offseason program, hadn't stood out as much in camp, but when the lights went on Saturday night, he looked like the best player on the field. He showed the pocket presence needed to move just the right distance at just the right times and extending plays. He scored on a 32-yard bootleg and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass from the pocket. Only an ill-advised interception over the middle prevented a full Wilson lovefest from breaking out. But it's early, and Wilson is just getting started.
Seattle has seen enough to think one of its new quarterbacks can provide an upgrade from Tarvaris Jackson, who remains on the roster as insurance.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Owens or Edwards? The Seahawks want a receiver with dominant size to fill the role Mike Williams played in the 2010 season. Owens is one candidate. Braylon Edwards is another. Second-year pro Kris Durham might still emerge as a third contender, but he has struggled to gain traction in camp.
Edwards was scrapping like an undrafted free agent against Tennessee. He was a willing blocker -- too willing at one point, drawing a penalty. He rewarded Wilson's trust by making a strong play for that 39-yard touchdown reception. Owens will get his chance in the coming weeks. This competition is only beginning.
2. What to do with Jackson. Carroll has shown sensitivity for Jackson after the veteran quarterback played through a torn pectoral muscle last season. The grit Jackson showed won respect in the locker room. As much as the team wanted to look at Flynn and Wilson this summer, Carroll gave Jackson an equal portion of the reps through the first week of training camp.
Carrying a three-man race through the exhibition schedule would have been impractical, which is why Flynn and Wilson took the meaningful reps in practice last week. It's also why Flynn and Wilson took all the snaps in the exhibition opener.
Jackson represents the known. He is the baseline for a team seeking improvement at the position. Jackson, for all his toughness, wasn't effective when it counted last season (zero touchdowns, six interceptions and nine sacks in the final two minutes of halves).
He is scheduled to earn $4 million for the 2012 season. Flynn and Wilson are going to be on the roster, most likely filling the top two spots. The team also likes developmental quarterback Josh Portis.
Something has to give, and logic says it'll be Jackson.
3. Health concerns at tight end. The Seahawks envision running quite a few personnel groupings with two tight ends. Assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable values H-backs. The expectation this season was for Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow to provide Seattle with a diverse duo at the position. That still might happen, but, with Miller suffering from his fourth concussion in less than three years, there are suddenly renewed health questions at tight end.
Winslow's chronic knee problems limit how frequently he can practice. Although he hasn't missed a game to injury in the past three seasons, Winslow is 29 years old and doesn't figure to gain durability.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Seahawks have upgraded at quarterback and in their ability to rush the passer. Those were the two areas most responsible for holding them back in the recent past. They're also more settled on the offensive line.
How much Seattle has upgraded at quarterback remains unknown, but even if Jackson were to somehow emerge as the starter in a sort of worst-case scenario, at least he would be healthy. The Seahawks aren't asking their quarterbacks to carry the team. They just want efficient play from the position. The early returns suggest that Flynn can provide that, and that Wilson might be able to provide more.
Newly acquired defensive tackle Jason Jones has already improved the pass rush. Rookie first-round choice Bruce Irvin has been the most difficult player to block in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He has the speed to beat tackles to the outside and better power than anticipated for a player weighing less than 250 pounds. The combination of Jones, Irvin and leading sacker Chris Clemons will be tough at home, in particular.
Seattle's defense already ranked among the NFL's top 10 in fewest points allowed, yards allowed and yards allowed per play. This was a mostly young defense on the rise even before Jones and Irvin arrived to address the pass rush.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
A year ago, division-rival Arizona was convinced that Kevin Kolb would fix its problems. At the very least, the Cardinals would become average at quarterback, it seemed, which surely would be enough to make them a playoff contender.
Flynn might be better than Kolb, but what if he's not? What if it becomes clear a month or two into the season that Flynn, with only two career regular-season starts, isn't ready to manage an NFL offense from week to week?
Wilson has appeal as an alternative, but how far can a team with a 5-foot-10 rookie quarterback go in an NFC featuring Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler and Cam Newton?
The Seahawks have a powerful ground game and a potentially dominant defense, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, right? The five most recent Super Bowls featured Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Brees, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner as the starting quarterbacks. No Super Bowl team was trying to decide between a player with two starts and a rookie third-round choice.
Even if Flynn or Wilson emerges as viable this season, Seattle could have the third-best quarterback in the division.
- The red noncontact jersey Sidney Rice wears in practice invites questions about his availability coming off two offseason shoulder surgeries. Rice seems to be moving and catching well. My read is that the team is being cautious and there are no pressing concerns.
- Rice needs to do a better job of protecting himself. He tends to land awkwardly, exposing himself to unnecessary contact. The plan was for the shoulder surgeries to enable more aggressive weightlifting, allowing Rice to strengthen his lithe frame. Although the shoulders are a concern, Rice also suffered two concussions last season.
- Seattle continues to show an uncanny ability to find important roles for obscure defensive players. Defensive end Red Bryant became a success story after converting from defensive tackle over the past couple of seasons. Clinton McDonald, a former college linebacker acquired from Cincinnati in the Kelly Jennings trade, is now a factor. McDonald stands ahead of Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch as the fourth defensive lineman in the nickel package. McDonald is backing up Mebane in the base defense.
- Bryant's outgoing personality makes him a natural leader on defense. Mebane, his quieter teammate on the line, emerged in that area last season after the team released veteran linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Said Leroy Hill: "A lot of times in the huddle, Mebane is the one talking. It's odd because he never did that role, but last year he stepped up and people fell in behind him. ... People listen to what he's got to say."
- Left guard John Moffitt could miss the next few weeks after requiring elbow surgery. My initial take was that his replacement, Deuce Lutui, would provide an upgrade, in pass protection especially. One question is whether Lutui fits the profile for Cable's zone-blocking scheme. Moffitt appears to be a better fit that way. Lutui might be best suited for center, but the team is set there with Max Unger, who signed a long-term extension.
- Seattle has apparently hit on two seventh-round choices this year. Greg Scruggs has a chance to stick on the defensive line, and J.R. Sweezy has improbably made a quick conversion from college defensive lineman to NFL guard. Seattle gave Sweezy time with its starting line against Tennessee, and he played surprisingly well. Sweezy projects as a good run-blocker for Cable's scheme. Rishaw Johnson is another obscure offensive lineman to watch.
- We've made it this far without mentioning Marshawn Lynch, the offensive player Seattle relied on most heavily last season. Rookie Robert Turbin has gotten more attention as the projected backup. The Seahawks haven't heard whether Lynch will face a suspension in relation to his pending DUI case. Teams wouldn't have to fear the ground game nearly as much if Lynch missed time.
- At middle linebacker, rookie Bobby Wagner remains the favorite to start in my view. He has outstanding speed and strong hands for taking on blocks when necessary. Veteran fullback Michael Robinson compared Wagner to a young Patrick Willis. Wagner's preseason debut was a bit of an adventure, however. He overran a few plays and didn't stand out.
- The offensive line should be fine as long as left tackle Russell Okung remains healthy. Okung was looking good early in camp one year ago, only to suffer an ankle injury in an Aug. 11 preseason game against San Diego. The torn pectoral he suffered late last season counts as a fluke. Philadelphia's Trent Cole, frustrated by Okung's edgy style, unleashed a judo move on him. The longer Okung can go without landing on the injury report, the better Seattle can feel about his long-term prospects.
- Cornerback Walter Thurmond and offensive lineman James Carpenter could make an impact later in the season. Both are coming off serious injuries, and neither will be a factor early in the season. Playing Carpenter at left guard has long-term appeal. He and Okung would form a massive combination on the left side. Carpenter is still limping around with a heavy brace on his surgically repaired knee, however.
- Carroll's commitment to competition shows up in his willingness to play young players at key positions, including middle linebacker and quarterback. The effect is felt throughout the roster. Lutui: "Rookies, first-year guys, he puts them in. I've never seen that on any level. That pushes the older guys. Everybody is not comfortable. Everybody is not complacent. It doesn't matter if you have a new contract. Everybody is on an edge. You know you have to better yourself, and that is good to see."
"Guys are more open to reporting them, and they know more about the effects and how dangerous they can be in the long term," Miller said in 2010. "Guys are making smarter decisions."
Miller had suffered two concussions in 2009, so the issue was personal for him. Miller has subsequently suffered two more concussions, both with Seattle. The latest, suffered Saturday night in the Seahawks' season opener, made it four concussions in 34 months for the 26-year-old Miller. This one was not believed to be severe, but with repeated concussions carrying long-term implications for some, Miller's history raises concerns.
SEATTLE -- Looking back on three things discussed here before the Seattle Seahawks' 27-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans in an exhibition opener at CenturyLink Field:
1. QB competition. Starter Matt Flynn was efficient early, but two sacks and an interception changed the complexion of his performance. At his best, Flynn rolled left and threw across his body for a 14-yard gain with a defender bearing down on him. The Seahawks did not ask much from Flynn overall. Most of his passes were safe ones, including when linebacker Colin McCarthy dropped into underneath coverage for an interception. I don't think Flynn hurt his cause, but neither was he the most exciting Seattle quarterback in this game. We need to see more.
Russell Wilson started the second half and moved outside the pocket on his first three dropbacks, including one negated by a Titans penalty. At this point, I was wondering how much we'd see Wilson throw within the context of a conventional offense. Wilson threw from the pocket on his next dropback, finding Braylon Edwards for a 39-yard touchdown on a deep pass up the left side. Wilson continued moving well. He threw effectively on the run, showing good accuracy and velocity. But he also threw into coverage for an interception in the end zone early in the fourth quarter. Wilson appeared to make a poor decision on this play, costing his team points. His 32-yard touchdown run in the final two minutes left a positive impression.
2. Three rookie draft choices. Defensive end Bruce Irvin, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and running back Robert Turbin were the ones I singled out.
Irvin played sparingly and did not get much pressure. Titans left tackle Michael Roos absorbed him. There were times Seattle left Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane on the field in its nickel package, with Irvin on the sideline. That will change when the games start counting. Regarding Irvin, Seattle looked like a team holding back in preseason. Coach Pete Carroll greeted Irvin excitedly on the sideline after Irvin and the second-team defense stopped the Titans on a fourth-down play. Quarterback Jake Locker rolled away from Irvin and threw incomplete.
Wagner stopped Javon Ringer following a 2-yard gain early when the Titans did not block him. He showed speed in running from between the hashes to the yard-line numbers to assist on a tackle following a quick pass to the perimeter. Titans guard Kyle DeVan got into Wagner pretty good on a third-quarter running play.
Turbin showed excellent hands as a receiver out of the backfield. A longtime scout watching from the press box marveled at the grab Turbin made over the middle on a hard, low pass that looked almost like it was thrown away. That would have been a difficult catch even for a wide receiver. Turbin appeared quick through the line on a 9-yard gain in the first half. His quickness was apparent again on a toss to the left. Turbin outran defensive end Keyunta Dawson on that one, gaining 10 yards. Turbin didn't have much room on other runs, including when linebacker Zach Brown chased him down for a 2-yard loss.
3. Receiver mix. Edwards, on alert since the Seahawks signed Terrell Owens, helped himself in this game. He made an aggressive play on the ball to haul in Wilson's 39-yard bomb up the left side. Seattle wants a receiver with size. Edwards put his size to use on that play. Edwards scuffled with a Titans defender early in the game. He drew a penalty for a block in the back after hustling to tag cornerback Tommie Campbell following a long run from Wilson. Once a top-10 overall draft choice, Edwards was out there battling when Charly Martin, Phil Bates and Kris Durham were the other wideouts.
Deon Butler was active early, drawing an interference penalty before making a 10-yard catch for a first down as Seattle moved to the Tennessee 30-yard line. Durham, a player the Seahawks hoped would develop into a faster version of Mike Williams, couldn't handle a pass Wilson zipped to him on the perimeter.