NFC West: Shane Lechler
Johnny Hekker's scoring pass for the Rams against Seattle provided St. Louis with its only touchdown during a 19-13 victory in Week 4. Hekker completed two more passes Sunday, including one for a fourth-and-8 conversion during a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, to help the Rams force a 24-24 tie against San Francisco.
According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, Hekker now has a chance to join Bob Parsons (1977) and Tom Skladany (1981) as the only players listed as punters to finish a season with at least three completed passes and a 100 percent completion rate. Parsons completed all four attempts for the Chicago Bears. Skladny completed all three for the Detroit Lions.
While Hekker was going 2-for-2 against San Francisco, the Seattle Seahawks were getting completed passes from receivers Golden Tate and Sidney Rice during a 28-7 victory against the New York Jets.
The left-handed Tate's pass to Rice produced a 23-yard touchdown even though the receiver's throwing motion made it look like he was throwing a javelin.
"After it left his hands, I give him a 10," Rice said. "It was a spiral, and I scored. Before that, I give him a two. His throwing motion was the worst. I thought we traded for [Tim] Tebow for a second."
Hekker looked more like a quarterback when he threw. That was the plan all along.
1. Signing Steve Smith. The former Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants receiver is three seasons removed from a career year featuring 107 receptions for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns. Microfracture knee surgery imperiled his career and made him available to the Rams on the cheap. Smith has been healthy to this point in the offseason. He could be an under-the-radar difference maker for the Rams.
2. Special-teams overhaul. This one could work out well or backfire. Either way, the Rams have remade their special teams in dramatic fashion. Their kickers, punters and snappers are the youngest in the NFL on average. Josh Brown and Donnie Jones are out after mostly successful runs with the team. Jones was not the best directional punter and that seemed to hurt the Rams at times last season (including on one of the punts Patrick Peterson returned for a touchdown). New special-teams coach John Fassel had his ups and downs with Oakland. He doesn't get to bring Shane Lechler, Sebastian Janikowski or Jacoby Ford with him. Sixth-round pick Greg Zuerlein is the new kicker. Tom Malone and Johnny Hekker are the punters.
3. Signing Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The Rams were desperate for linebackers. Dunbar, signed from New Orleans at modest cost, appears likely to start this season. His value goes beyond whatever Dunbar contributes on the field. His knowledge of the system should benefit the Rams' other linebackers, especially defensive leader James Laurinaitis. That seemed even more important after the NFL suspended coordinator Gregg Williams, who coached Dunbar in New Orleans.
The Cardinals' Adrian Wilson and the 49ers' Patrick Willis made the team, as did former Seahawks Steve Hutchinson and Leonard Weaver.
Niners tight end Vernon Davis appears capable of making a serious run at the tight end spot next season.
Also from Urban: Brian St. Pierre cherished the first regular-season touchdown pass of his career.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Larry Fitzgerald's contract does not include incentives for additional receptions, yardage or touchdowns. Fitzgerald was padding his stats against Green Bay in Week 17.
Also from Somers: Matt Leinart's spotty play in spot duty should concern the Cardinals. Somers: "Kurt Warner, 38, presumably will retire after the 2010 season, his last year under contract. That plan could change, of course, but that's the timeframe under which the Cardinals are operating. The club has to find out whether Leinart can play. And the fact that the question remains is troubling."
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' agitation extends to how coach Ken Whisenhunt feels about Packers counterpart Mike McCarthy. Bickley: "Whisenhunt has been agitated by McCarthy tactics in the past. He felt the Packers' coach game-planned for an exhibition contest against the Cardinals in August, a game in which the Packers went deep and led 38-10 at halftime. A needless embarrassment, in other words. After sleeping on Sunday's loss, Whisenhunt's attitude hadn't changed much. He reiterated his regret for playing Anquan Boldin too long. He made it clear that he was rewarding Fitzgerald, ceding to a player who is (thankfully) driven by great personal ambition (fame and money). And then he struck back at the Packers. He made it clear that McCarthy was doing nothing different on the other sideline, allowing Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball continually on the opening drive of the second half, even though the Packers led 26-0."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams will evaluate their own players before determining which college prospect to draft first overall. Also, linebacker James Laurinaitis received no votes as the defensive rookie of the year. Brian Cushing won the award with 39 of 50 votes.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Ndamukong Suh appears to be the clear-cut choice with the first overall pick.
Also from Thomas: a chat transcript featuring thoughts on the draft. Thomas: "I think Suh would help the run defense and the pass defense. Just with his inside push, he should force the QB out of the pocket more often, leading to more sacks by Chris Long and whoever the other DEs are. The Rams definitely need a starting weakside LB. And it would be nice to see another pass rusher added to the mix. I'd feel better about CB if I knew for sure that Bradley Fletcher would be ready for opening day. (The early assessments at Rams Park are optimistic on Fletcher.)"
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers thoughts on the Rams' offense: "Over the past three seasons the Rams have averaged only 14 points per game, which ranks them dead last in the NFL among the 32 teams. I’m not saying Spagnuolo or offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur can be counted on to rebuild this offense and make it terrific again; we don’t know enough, either way. But you’d have to be fairly fruit loops to believe that the coaches should have gotten a lot more points out of the talent they had to work with at WR and QB in 2009."
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com wonders whether the Giants' collapse on defense could help the Rams by making available players familiar with Steve Spagnuolo's defense.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says all was quiet in the locker room after players dispersed for the offseason.
Also from Farnsworth: awards for the Seahawks' most impressive players this season. Bruce DeHaven emerges as assistant coach of the year. Farnsworth: "The Seahawks’ special teams really were this season, so the nod goes to the coach in charge of those units. Getting record-setting seasons from Ryan and Olindo Mare was enough, but the Seahawks also ranked among the best in the league in opponents’ average starting spot after kickoffs (24.2 yard line) and punt return average allowed (7.5)."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks could be competing with Mike Holmgren's Cleveland Browns if they hope to hire the Eagles' Tom Heckert as general manager. The perception that Holmgren beat the Seahawks to a favored candidate would not make the Seahawks look good.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' struggles in the return game factored into Al Everest's dismissal as special-teams coordinator.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Everest was in the final year of his contract. A team spokesman confirmed Everest's firing.
Also from Barrows: a look at college prospects from Georgia Tech and Iowa, with insights from draft analyst Rob Rang.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers were mostly solid on special teams except for that punt return game. Crumpacker: "Otherwise, the 49ers were solid on special teams, especially up the middle with flawless long snapper Brian Jennings, holder/punter Andy Lee and kicker Joe Nedney. Lee finished second in the league to the Raiders' Shane Lechler in gross punting average. Nedney converted 17 of 21 field-goal attempts."
David Fucillo of Niners Nation offers thoughts on Alex Smith as the 49ers' quarterback. Fucillo: "The number some folks like to point to is his career high QB rating and the fact that is surpasses that of QBs like Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler. I think that, combined with the fact that he had two of his best rating performances the last two games of the season, would hopefully rope in the last few folks who think it's some kind of phenomenal statistic. I remain stuck on two things (some might say excuses/reasons for optimism) when it comes to Alex Smith. The first is the issue of his offensive line and the second is the idea of having an OC for two straight seasons."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Josh from North Dakota writes: Sando, I don't see how Kurt Warner is not on your [Ultimate Building Blocks] list! This is one of the top QBs in the NFL last year returning from an excellent postseason, with the same receiving corps. Let's not forget he's a two-time league MVP. He threw for 4,583 yards and 30 TD's last regular season. And to top that off he threw for 1,147 yards and 11 TDs in the post season. He posted a postseason passer rating of 112.2. He was third in the NFL in passer rating last year, secnd in yards and third in touchdowns. I find it asinine that he doesn't make your top 10!
Mike Sando: I questioned myself on that one after filing the Ultimate Building Blocks piece. My original thinking remains defensible. Warner might not play for the entire three-year window in question. His contract runs two seasons and he has already considered retirement. It's tough to build around a player unlikely to stick around.
On the other hand, if I were building a team, I would want a quarterback, and that would mean drafting Warner. I probably could have justified drafting Warner and Matt Hasselbeck as insurance against one another, figuring at least one of them will likely produce all season.
Jake from Lebanon, Pa., writes: You're an idiot for not including Anquan Boldin. Repeat, idiot.
Mike Sando: Boldin isn't even under contract for all of the three-year window in question and I'd be surprised if he remained with Arizona for the full term. That makes it tough to build around him. Also, Larry Fitzgerald is a better player at this point. Once I "drafted" him, there wasn't as much need for another wideout.
George from San Francisco writes: Hey Sando, in regard to your Ultimate Building Block piece, shouldn't it matter if the team were to run a 4-3 versus a 3-4 scheme on defense? I assumed you were in a 4-3 due to the two defensive linemen and only one linebacker [Patrick Willis], but I think you would need to choose a coach to lead the team because it would solidify which system the team would run.
Mike Sando: I didn't really settle on a scheme in part because this division lacks pass-rushers to build around, both at outside linebacker and defensive end.