NFC West: Simeon Rice
Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Cardinals in 2012:
Dream scenario (11-5): A full offseason of healing and playbook study lets Kevin Kolb prove the Cardinals knew what they were doing when they acquired him from Philadelphia in the offseason. There's plenty of credit to go around. The team's decision to reassign assistant coach John McNulty from receivers to quarterbacks becomes a popular storyline. There's no doubt Kolb's mechanics have improved, but talent and good health are what win football games.
Michael Floyd's addition through the draft makes the Cardinals' passing game nearly impossible to defend, particularly with second-year back Ryan Williams emerging as the game-breaking runner Arizona was convinced it had drafted. Adding young linemen for Russ Grimm to develop also pays off, particularly as the season progresses. Bobby Massie looks like a keeper at right tackle. On the other side, Levi Brown picks up where he left off last season, proving Arizona was right in re-signing him to a five-year contract.
The transformation on defense surprises even the Cardinals. Yes, Arizona made strides on that side of the ball while winning seven of its final nine games in 2011. But there was no way anyone could have expected Sam Acho to challenge Simeon Rice's season franchise record for sacks since 1982 (Rice had 16.5 in 1999). With a healthy Dan Williams at nose tackle and Acho pumping up an already-underrated pass rush, cornerback Patrick Peterson takes the next logical step in his development: picking off passes and returning them for touchdowns.
Winning at San Francisco in Week 17 delivers an 11-5 record and the NFC West title to Arizona, the team's third division crown in five years.
Nightmare scenario (5-11): No one can blame Gregg Williams or Jonathan Vilma for the concussion Kolb suffers in the Hall of Fame game against New Orleans to open the exhibition season. Some in the Cardinals' organization welcome the switch to John Skelton, but with Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells predictably battling knee problems, the offense becomes one-dimensional. That's tough for a team with Brown and a rookie starting at tackle. Kolb's return after a few weeks means as much as it did last season -- nothing.
By October, it's clear the Cardinals didn't do enough at tackle or outside linebacker to take the next step. Those offseason stories about a full offseason helping Kolb seemed justified at the time, but we should have known better. McNulty's coaching helps, but players revert to form under pressure, and Kolb is no exception. He wasn't going to develop instincts all of a sudden, was he? Aldon Smith's three-sack game against Arizona on Monday night in Week 8 doesn't seem so bad when Clay Matthews collects four of them the following week.
For the second time in three seasons, the Cards finish 5-11 after getting blown out at San Francisco in Week 17. The quarterback questions persisting upon Kurt Warner's retirement continue to linger. Watching Peyton Manning in the playoffs doesn't help.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are focused on themselves, not the 49ers. Steve Breaston: "They need to watch us, basically. We're ahead. We're in the position that as long as we win games, it doesn't matter what anyone else does."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune lists 11 potential candidates to become the Seahawks' next general manager: Mike Holmgren, Randy Mueller, Tom Heckert, Ruston Webster, Steve Keim, Bill Kuharich, Ted Sundquist, Reggie McKenzie, Les Snead, Jimmy Raye III and Eric DeCosta.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the 49ers appear more talented than the Seahawks heading into their matchup Sunday. Boling: "The Niners even lose better than the Hawks. They lost close at Minnesota (27-24) and at Indianapolis (18-14), sites of two extreme defeats for the Seahawks (35-9 at the Vikings and 34-17 at Indy). I would still suggest the Seahawks have the advantage at quarterback, although the Niners’ Alex Smith (84.7) currently has a better passer rating than Matt Hasselbeck (81.0)."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Tim Ruskell's resignation reminds the Seahawks that jobs are on the line down the stretch. Hasselbeck: "We all know what's at stake. Every single guy in that locker room realizes that just like every other year, how you play will determine your status for the next year. Whether you're in this league or not, whether you're starting or not, whether you're on this team or not. That's unchanged."
Taylor Price of 49ers.com says the 49ers' Delanie Walker is happy for all of the attention Vernon Davis is getting these days.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers coach Mike Singletary wants his defense to improve its tackling. There's no excuse for the 49ers to be a poor tackling team given how much hitting they did during the offseason. Takeo Spikes: "Tackling is a mindset. I don't care how much you work on it in practice, at the end of the day, it's getting 'em down. What can you change in a week's time?"
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says how the Seahawks defend Walker could be a key variable Sunday. Much depends on whether the 49ers continue to shy away from their base offense featuring two backs. Jim Mora: "I've always had a lot of respect for him, and he's developed into a tenacious player. The combination of him and Vernon and [Josh] Morgan and Michael [Crabtree], and [Frank] Gore in the backfield, that's a lot of weapons. They've done a nice job of making you defend the whole field. Walker is a fine player. He might get overshadowed a little bit, but we have a lot of respect for him." More here.
Also from Maiocco: catching up with Nate Davis.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the playoffs are a realistic goal for the 49ers.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams remain unsettled in key areas heading into the final five games. Thomas: "Even if he recovers from his fractured shin bone in time to play a couple of games, quarterback Marc Bulger probably won't have enough time to reinvent himself in the eyes of the coaching staff and front office. Any decision on retaining him, or moving in another direction, will largely be based on what already has transpired."
Also from Thomas: Oshiomogho Atogwe's matchup with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is a key one.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says former Rams coach Mike Martz should be working in the NFL. Miklasz: "Martz's innovations in the passing game inspired a new generation of younger NFL coaches and coordinators. NFL teams are combining to average 66 passes and 471 yards passing per game this season, the second-highest averages since the 1970 merger. Even traditional smash-mouth teams (Pittsburgh) are airing it out and bombing away."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with the Rams' first-year coordinators. Coats: "(Steve) Spagnuolo never had served as a head coach at any level when the Rams tapped him to take over a franchise that had lost 27 of 32 games the previous two seasons. In turn, Spagnuolo hired two men who never had served as coordinators in the NFL: Ken Flajole and, on offense, Pat Shurmur. Toss in a rookie special-teams coordinator, Tom McMahon, and the expression 'starting from scratch' had real meaning."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Ken from Scottsdale, responding to my note about having received no Cardinals-related mailbag submissions recently, reminds me he did send a Cardinals-related item via e-mail:
At some point could you enlighten your readers to the fact that the Cardinals have never really been cheap when it comes to paying their players? The one area they had a history of problems with was getting first-rounders signed on time. That issue seems to be history.
The fact is, the Cardinals have always had a history of making their players one of the top paid at their position: Lomas Brown, Rob Moore, Aeneas Williams, Eric Swann, Jake Plummer, Larry Fitzgerald, Edgerrin James and now Adrian Wilson.
Compared to other teams, they have let few Pro Bowl players go [granted, they haven't had many Pro Bowlers over the years]. Tim McDonald [left for San Francisco partly because of his family] and Simeon Rice [who most Cards fans were happy to see leave]. I guess if guys in the media say the Cards are cheap over and over, people just take it as fact.
Mike Sando: Please don't include me among those dreaded "guys in the media" when it comes to this issue. As I wrote April 28 after the Cardinals released Travis LaBoy: "Don't call the Cardinals cheap. They took a high-stakes risk on LaBoy and paid the price when it didn't work out. They shelled out $41 million for James, LaBoy and Hood over the last three seasons. Such can be the price of becoming players in free agency."
The Cardinals are paying $40 million over four years to Larry Fitzgerald. They are paying $23 million over two years to Kurt Warner. They are paying $9.678 million to Karlos Dansby this season. And their new deal with Wilson includes a guaranteed $8.5 million salary in 2009, plus a $1 million signing bonus and another $6.5 million in salary next season.
We'll revisit this subject in greater depth. Consider this a starting point.