NFC West: Troy Aikman
"He did not have a great year statistically, but he had a great year," Troy Aikman said. "As someone who played that kind of game when I was playing, I can certainly appreciate what he was able to do last year. His remarks this offseason were very well put in the fact that, 'Hey, it doesn't matter how many yards I threw for (because) I played in the NFC Championship game."
"You're right, Troy," Terry Bradshaw said. "When you were in Dallas, it wasn't about throwing for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdown passes. It was about running the football, playing great defense and converting third down. That is what you did and that is what Alex Smith did last year."
Almost. The third-down conversions were too infrequent for the 49ers last season, but Smith did put up Aikman-like numbers for a highly successful team.
Aikman won three Super Bowls and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but his raw passing stats -- what 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh would call "low-hanging fruit" -- were never all that impressive. Aikman exceeded Smith's 2011 total for touchdown passes (17) just twice in 12 seasons. Smith's NFL passer rating over the past three seasons exceeds Aikman's career mark (81.6).
Aikman, like Smith, was a No. 1 overall draft choice. Both endured brutal rookie seasons. Aikman benefited from organizational continuity early in his career. The Cowboys surrounded Aikman with elite players. They had coaching stability.
All of this came to mind Monday upon reading Chris Mortensen's rationale for predicting San Francisco would reach the Super Bowl this season (he has them losing to Houston).
"Everyone seems to forget what Alex Smith did against the Saints in the final minute in the divisional playoffs last season," Mortensen wrote. "He's not going to be Drew Brees, but he will be better than last season.
"San Francisco's great defense, superior running game and an improved passing game give it the look of a team that can make it all the way to New Orleans."
The chart compares Mortensen's picks with those made by other ESPN analysts.
"How concerned 49ers fans should be after Denver game?" he asks. "IMO, not much, but wanted to get your take."
Sando: The 49ers have a well-coached defense stocked with front-line talent. They'll be fine as long as their key players remain available to them. Aldon Smith's health is one variable to watch.
The 49ers are not going to dominate on defense from wire to wire this season. They open at Green Bay. They play road games against New Orleans and New England. Even last season, the 49ers gave up yardage in huge chunks against the best offenses they faced.
To review, "The 49ers allowed 422.5 yards per game last season when facing Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Tony Romo, up from 270.1 yards per game against all other quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Jay Cutler join Manning and Stafford on the schedule this season."
The 49ers should be better on defense even if their final stats aren't as good. They'll be more familiar with the scheme. They should be better at cornerback. The front seven remains fearsome.
But it's also possible the defense will find itself in tougher situations. The offense was sensational in avoiding turnovers last season. A few more turnovers would put opponents in better position to score points. The special teams were similarly dominant last season. A less dominant performance in that area would put additional stress on the defense.
I'm guessing the 49ers will take a couple steps backward from a statistical standpoint. But their defense should again be a strength and something that helps their chances in the postseason.
Some of the most dominant defenses in NFL history feasted on weak quarterbacks. As we discussed, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens faced Jay Fiedler, Brad Johnson, Kordell Stewart, Steve McNair, Mark Brunell, Vinny Testaverde, Jake Plummer, Kent Graham, Tim Couch, Scott Mitchell, Akili Smith, Doug Pederson, Ryan Leaf and a declining Troy Aikman.
How the 49ers' schedule shapes up will hinge, in part, on how well several less-proven quarterbacks fare this season. That list includes Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick, John Skelton/Kevin Kolb, Russell Wilson, Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill.
One play changed Joe Montana's perception regarding Alex Smith.
Montana discussed that play, one in which Smith trusted his intended receiver in a clutch situation, while in studio with Jerry Rice and ESPN's Trey Wingo on NFL Live OT.
The play was one San Francisco 49ers fans will not forget: Smith to Vernon Davis for the winning touchdown against New Orleans in the playoffs last season.
"You look from behind, you watch the ball come out, the guy is just clearing the 'backer and he is throwing the ball dead straight at the safety and just trusting that Vernon is going to come in front," Montana said. "And he comes in front of the safety and he scores a TD. That play right there, confidence. That showed me confidence in his ability to throw the ball. He can make those throws and now it's just about managing the game."
Wingo asked Montana and Rice about the current team. Montana's comments regarding Smith had the highest nutritional value.
The pregame show is already under way.
Saints linebacker Scott Shanle blasted 49ers safety Donte Whitner after Whitner suggested his team's character would prevent San Francisco from engaging in the bounty tactics that landed New Orleans in trouble this offseason.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has the play-by-play. Shanle via Twitter: "Guy needs to shut his mouth and mind his own business. Don't remember them winning the superbowl. U still ringless. We got one and working on two now. Try to keep up." Noted: Now, now. Both guys are out of line here. Whitner suggested over-the-line comments from former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams reflected the character of Saints players. That wasn't fair. But the fact that Shanle, not Whitner, has a Super Bowl ring has more to do with Drew Brees and the Saints' team than it has to do with a linebacker such as Shanle. The fact that Whitner does not have a Super Bowl ring has more to do with the quarterbacks and teams Whitner has played with throughout his career, not anything Whitner has done wrong.
Also from Barrows: a chat transcript in which he says Colin Kaepernick appears in good position to win the No. 2 job behind Alex Smith. Barrows: "I think it's Kaepernick's job to lose. He's looked a lot more accurate in [training camp] than he did in the spring. It may have been that that he was working on weaknesses in the spring -- hey, that's what spring ball is for -- which skewed the perception of him. Johnson has by far the sweetest delivery and mechanics. But despite that, the ball doesn't always end up where it should."
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers tight end Delanie Walker deserves credit for returning so quickly from a broken jaw last season. Walker also comments on his future with the team and how he played last season. Walker: "I had a great year blocking. And that was a big concern people had about me. Can he block? And I showed it last year. So I think everyone knows that I can catch the ball and I can make things happen once I have it in my hands. I’m playing for the Niners. When that time (free agency) comes, we’ll see what happens."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says defense dominated the Seahawks' fourth day of training camp. O'Neil: "The defense had the upper hand in Tuesday's practice with three notable interceptions (two of them on passes thrown by rookie Russell Wilson). Rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner picked off a pass thrown by Wilson. So did rookie safety Winston Guy. The play of the day in the eyes of Pete Carroll, however, was when rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin chased down a reverse from behind, knocking the ball out."
Brian McIntyre of NFL.com breaks down the Seahawks' new contract with defensive end Chris Clemons. McIntyre: "Clemons received a $6.5 million signing bonus and his $2 million base salary in 2012 is fully guaranteed. The $8.5 million more than doubles the $3.85 million in base salary and incentives Clemons could have made this season. ... Clemons is slated to earn $6 million in base salary in 2013, but just $1.5 million of that is fully guaranteed, bringing the official guarantee in the new contract to $10 million." Noted: Clemons was not in optimum position to maximize this deal because of his age (30) and the fact that a season remained on his previous deal.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals expect Kevin Kolb to start the team's exhibition opener Sunday if the quarterback resumes practicing Wednesday, as expected.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com analyzes the numbers at cornerback, where five players on the roster have started more than one regular-season game. Mike Adams is working in the nickel role at present. William Gay: "Everyone wants to compete and start, but that’s not the main focus. You want a good group, so if a team comes at us with more than two or three receivers, we have quality corners that can match that. Out of a whole game, say there are 70 defensive plays, your third corner is going to play 30 to 45 plays. Everybody’s goal in the league is to be a starter as soon as you get to the league, but the way the game has evolved, there are a lot of ways to be involved."
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sees good things from Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. Burwell: "He's relatively healthy again, and with an additional 10 pounds of muscle added during the offseason, he intends to stay healthy. And if he does, we should see more than flashes of his potential. We should see the full realization of every prediction that he can be as good and dangerous as a young Troy Aikman. That's the sort of ability he displays as he strong-arms balls into ridiculously tight windows in heavy coverage. That's the sort of ability he flashes when he lofts splendid spirals on 50-yard bombs down the sidelines."
Also from Burwell: Rams players are eager to put on the pads. Defensive tackle Kendall Langford, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 309 pounds, higher than his listed weight of 295: "Big, tough and physical? Yeah, I'm all of the above. I'm a big, tough guy. I'm a physical player. I'm ready to get this thing going. I can't emphasize enough how much I'm ready to get the pads on."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Chris Long's new deal with the Rams includes $50 million in new money, to be paid beginning in 2013. Long's salary for 2012 remains unchanged at $10.3 million. Thomas: "Because nothing was done to Long’s 2012 salary, he still counts $18.3 million against the salary cap this year -- the extension creates no cap relief in '12. But that is indicative of how the Rams have handled contracts under executive vice president Kevin Demoff. He doesn’t like back-loading contracts. As much as possible, it’s a pay-as-you-go approach."
Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has the latest on overweight Rams rookie Rokevious Watkins.
Aikman does not have a son, but said he would have reservations about one playing.
I asked one of Aikman's contemporaries about the subject Friday from the NFL scouting combine. John Elway, speaking as the Denver Broncos' general manager, said he has no second thoughts about having allowed his son to play.
Elway's son, Jack, quit playing after enrolling at Arizona State.
"To me, I guess I look at the game of football and realize that that is part of football," Elway said. "I think the NFL is doing everything they possibly can to keep the integrity of the game and also protect the players. ...
"As a football player, to me, we can't go too far. When you put that helmet on, you know it's a risk. My son played football, and if he wanted to play again now, I'd let him play just because I know what I think of the game of football and to me what the game of football teaches you, not only while you are playing it but also when you are done playing and you are out in the business world."
Mike Sando: Yes, that is definitely the case. The Hall of Fame lists them by round. I also track this information. By my count, 143 of 188 drafted Hall of Famers were chosen in the first three rounds. That is 76.1 percent. That includes 94 first-round selections, 29 second-rounders and 20 third-rounders.
No players drafted after 1995 have been enshrined to this point.
Curtis Martin, named as part of the 2012 class, was a third-round choice in 1995. The previous six drafts have produced eight Hall of Famers, and all eight were first-round choices: Marshall Faulk, Willie Roaf, Cortez Kennedy, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.
Later-round picks fared better long ago, when the draft had many more rounds. The NFL went from 17 to 12 rounds in 1977, then to eight in 1993 and seven the following year.
The chart below shows round-by-round distribution for drafted Hall of Famers since the 1983 class produced six Hall of Famers in the first round, the most for any first round.
Players drafted in first rounds tend to have more talent. They also tend to get every opportunity to succeed. The combination of those factors explains why more of them have found their way to Canton, in my view.
Let's just say it was a good time to go 13-3 and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Mike Rosenberg of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' playoff push should help them sell season-ticket packages that stand as a big part of the funding equation. Finding a naming-rights sponsor for the new stadium should also become much easier. Rosenberg: "The final piece to the funding puzzle is securing $150 million to $200 million in league financing. With the NFL owners slated to vote on the funds Feb. 2, it didn't hurt to shine the national playoff spotlight on dilapidated Candlestick Park for consecutive weeks, particularly after two embarrassing blackouts during a Monday Night Football game this season. But success on the field is not a guaranteed cash cow, even in rich markets. When the New York Giants, Jets and Yankees sold seat packages for their new stadiums, it wasn't so easy. The Giants were fresh off a Super Bowl title, the Jets had just made it to the AFC Championship and the Yankees were a perennial power. Yet all three teams failed to sell out the priciest tickets when their home fields opened in 2009 and 2010."
Alex Espinoza of 49ers.com says Patrick Willis relishes playing on a winning team for the first time since his freshman year of college.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the next challenge for Alex Smith is to come up big again -- and again after that. Cohn: "Smith is good, promising, and people believe in him. We see all that. One great performance doesn't make anybody great, and a failure on Sunday will plunge Smith once again into a netherworld of uncertainty. I am not saying he will plunge. I don't think he will. I am saying he must make more great throws against the Giants. I'm saying the game almost surely will come down to him. He has to do it again -- and then again."
Jerry McDonald of Bay Area News Group takes a closer look at the 49ers' secondary.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle gets Troy Aikman's thoughts on Smith.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers aren't going to talk trash before their game against the Giants on Sunday.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch examines where Sam Bradford fits in a Jeff Fisher-prioritized Rams offense. Miklasz: "Some of what Fisher likes to do is, indeed, old-fashioned when compared to the recent high-scoring trend that's turning NFL games into sessions of 'Madden 12' on the Xbox. Fisher does like to run the football and control the game. He does believe in having competitive, somewhat unruly men doing the blocking up front. He would like to see his guys punish opponents. He does not object to seeing opponents limping away in pain. It's the kind of "outdated" football that has the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants in the four-team field for Sunday's conference championship games." Noted: Quarterback troubles with the unpredictable Vince Young marked Fisher's final seasons in Tennessee. Bradford will be much easier to coach.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch passes along these comments from Fisher regarding who will have ultimate authority on personnel decisions: "There's too much that needs to be done in this building for one person to do it all. It's like anything else, you've got to surround yourself with good people and trust the people to get their jobs done. It's no different than when you're putting together a coaching staff. The head coach is not calling offense, defense, and making special teams decisions in the game. You let your coordinators do those things. It's all about surrounding yourself with the best people you can."
Also from Thomas: Hue Jackson interviewed for the offensive coordinator's job under Fisher.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic does not expect the Cardinals to re-hire Todd Haley to their offensive staff. Somers: "Talks between the two sides have been amicable, as far as I know, but coming to agreement on a position that meets the Cardinals' needs and matches Haley's career goals has been elusive. It's become clear that coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't want to make a major shake-up on his offensive staff. He believes in coordiantor Mike Miller, who is not going to be demoted. The only open position, then, is the quarterbacks job, and Haley would fit perfectly into that role. But Haley is a former coordinator and head coach. It's understandable he would want more responsibility than that. Haley also likes Miller, and both sides are sensitive to the possibility of hiring someone who would be perceived as looking over Miller's shoulder."
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle summarizes a recent conversation between Brock Huard and Mike Salk asking whether the Seattle Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson could follow the path Alex Smith has taken this season. Henderson: "Smith learned a new offense (Greg Roman is his seventh coordinator in as many seasons) in the same lockout-shortened offseason. Jackson, meanwhile, has run the same offense since he entered the league in 2006. As former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon said last week, 'If anyone should have known the offense it's Tarvaris Jackson.' If Smith can thrive in a new offense after a lockout-shortened offseason, why didn't Jackson do so in a familiar offense under the same circumstances?"
John Boyle of the Everett Herald says the Seahawks' approach to winning follows the ones San Francisco and Baltimore have taken to the championship round. Noted: Every team would be much better off with a quarterback capable of the things Tom Brady or Drew Brees could do. That doesn't mean a team absolutely has to have one in order to win playoff games. It's just that teams should not aspire to advance in the absence of a top quarterback. That should not be the blueprint.
Dilfer was the "game manager" at quarterback for that Ravens team. He finds quite a few similarities and a few important differences. Dilfer also explains how both teams played to their strengths even when it meant sacrificing big plays on offense.
My initial reaction to the Ravens-49ers premise: Baltimore was better on defense. Those Ravens also struggled to find their identity early in the season, winning only five of their first nine games before closing the regular season with seven consecutive victories. The current 49ers are who they thought they were -- a team that could win with defense, special teams, the running game and efficient quarterback play.
That Baltimore team faced relatively weak quarterbacks at a time when defenses could get away with more menacing play. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick addressed this during an NFL.com column addressing the Ravens-49ers comparisons.
"When we won our championship, there was a void of great quarterback play in the league," Billick wrote. "Running the ball well, and not turning it over, was enough to augment our great defense. At the time, the Elways, Marinos, Montanas and Aikmans of the world were transitioning out of the game, and we were a few years away from the emergence of the great quarterbacks of today."
Those Ravens lost games against Jay Fiedler, Brad Johnson and Kordell Stewart. They went 1-1 against Steve McNair and 2-0 against Mark Brunell. They beat Vinny Testaverde and a young Jake Plummer. They also collected victories against an over-the-hill Troy Aikman, plus Kent Graham, Tim Couch, Scott Mitchell, Akili Smith, Doug Pederson and Ryan Leaf.
The current 49ers have gone 8-1 against a mix of opposing quarterbacks. They lost in overtime to Tony Romo, but also defeated Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford when those quarterbacks were at their best. They beat Michael Vick and Josh Freeman, who have subsequently struggled. They beat Andy Dalton, who appears promising, and also collected victories against Tarvaris Jackson, Colt McCoy and John Beck.
How these 49ers finish will ultimately determine whether the comparison holds up. My favorite line from Dilfer's column: "When I was asked this week if the San Francisco 49ers of 2011 reminded me of that 2000 Ravens team, I wasn't offended. I get it: great defense, good coaching, quarterback you hope doesn't ruin it."
Smith is playing better than that, and Dilfer says so. But that line captures the feeling quite a few 49ers fans had early in the season, if not as much lately.
Their quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, has nonetheless taken only two sacks in 147 drop backs.
I ran across this improbable stat when researching for the next MVP Watch item. It reinforced the idea that sacks, which are often drive killers, reflect so much more than a line's ability to prevent them.
The list of players with the fewest sacks in a season (minimum 300 pass attempts) features almost exclusively players lacking the raw speed or athletic ability to avoid defenders. Dan Marino, Mark Rypien, Kerry Collins, Joey Harrington and Troy Aikman are the only players in the sack era (since 1982) with at least 300 attempts and fewer than 10 sacks in a season.
The system a team runs, the receivers a team has and the decisions a quarterback makes also play prominently into the totals.
We're seeing that in the NFC West through four games.
The St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford is on pace for 72 sacks, which would tie Randall Cunningham for the second-highest total in a season since sacks became an official stat in 1982. He's learning a new system featuring deeper drop backs and slower-developing routes, all while playing without his most dependable receiver. Bad combination.
San Francisco's Alex Smith (14 sacks), Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson (14) and Arizona's Kevin Kolb (12) rank among the seven most-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL this season. NFC West starters have taken 58 sacks, with Rams backup A.J. Feeley also taking one. Line issues have played larger roles for Smith and Jackson, in my view. Kolb's feel for the pocket hasn't seemed strong enough, possibly a reflection of his inexperience and learning a new offense.
Sacks were down for Smith (three in 36 drop backs) and Jackson (zero in 38, against an Atlanta defense that now has no sacks in its past three games) in Week 4. The Rams are off this week, but the other NFC West teams rank among the 15 teams with at least 10 sacks so far this season. This will be a theme for the division in Week 5.
Skip Bayless and Dan Graziano took up the case for Charles Haley as a Pro Football Hall of Famer on ESPN's First Take.
Bayless thought Haley should have qualified on the first ballot as a key championship variable for the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. Bayless and Graziano also touched upon to what degree Haley's sometimes disagreeable and disruptive behavior affected his candidacy. Those are relevant factors, but this discussion is incomplete without acknowledging what role the process plays in enshrinement.
To say that Haley or another player should have earned enshrinement in a given year usually suggests another player wasn't as deserving. The Hall accepts no more than seven candidates per year, including a maximum of two seniors candidates, meaning even deserving candidates must be more deserving than those actually enshrined to raise a serious beef.
Haley was first eligible in 2005. Steve Young and Dan Marino were the only modern-era candidates elected that year. Michael Irvin and Harry Carson were also finalists that year, but neither received the 80 percent approval rating required for enshrinement. Both became Hall of Famers later. Was Haley obviously more deserving than those four?
Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Reggie White and Carson comprised the 2006 modern-era class. Irvin, Bruce Matthews, Thurman Thomas and Roger Wehrli comprised the 2007 modern-era class. Fred Dean, Darrell Green, Art Monk and Gary Zimmerman made it in 2008. Randall McDaniel, Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, Rod Woodson and Ralph Wilson made it in 2009. The 2010 class featured Rickey Jackson, John Randle, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith.
The current class includes Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe and Ed Sabol.
We could argue that he was more deserving than a candidate here or there, but only a very few elite candidates -- Rice, White, Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith, etc. -- have credentials strong enough to transcend any Hall class.
Tim Brown, Roger Craig, Dermontti Dawson, Andre Reed, Cris Carter, Cortez Kennedy, Bob Kuechenberg, Randy Gradishar, L.C. Greenwood and several of the above-mentioned Hall of Famers have also been finalists since Haley became eligible.
Was Haley obvious more deserving than each of them? It's a debate worth having, but also one that goes beyond whether Haley should get in at all.
- Teams drafted quarterbacks first overall 14 times in the last 24 drafts. The list: Sam Bradford (2010), Matthew Stafford (2009), JaMarcus Russell (2007), Alex Smith (2005), Eli Manning (2004), Carson Palmer (2003), David Carr (2002), Michael Vick (2001), Tim Couch (1999), Peyton Manning (1998), Drew Bledsoe (1993), Jeff George (1990), Troy Aikman (1989) and Vinny Testaverde (1987).
- Teams drafted quarterbacks second overall three times in the last 37 drafts. The list: Donovan McNabb (1999), Ryan Leaf (1998) and Rick Mirer (1993).
When teams sense an elite quarterback is available in a draft, that quarterback often doesn't make it past the first overall choice. Further evidence: All three quarterbacks taken second overall were the second quarterbacks taken in their draft classes.
Would you rather pull those names out of a hat at random, knowing you would get those players' careers as they played out, or would you rather use one of the top two choices -- or even one of the top seven, given where NFC West teams select -- to select a quarterback in the 2011 draft?
I'll continue with a look at his plans for the San Francisco 49ers, who hold the No. 7 overall choice.
7. San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Kiper's give: There were a lot of comments questioning why I could see my No. 1 overall Big Board player dropping this far on draft day. But consider the history: in 1987, I had Rod Woodson rated similarly, and he fell to No. 10 overall. In 1989, Deion Sanders was far and away the best athlete on the board -- he fell to No. 5. Champ Bailey was my best athlete and the top corner available in the 1999 draft, and he fell to No. 7. At this position, it simply happens, and San Fran should be happy if it does. Peterson is an immense talent. He checked in at 219 pounds and ran a 4.34 40-time in Indy. Enough said.
Sando's take: Yes, elite cornerbacks do tend last longer on draft day. I recall Mike Holmgren once saying his former defensive coordinator, Fritz Shurmur, only cared about front-seven players when drafting for defense. The drafts Kiper singled out -- 1987, 1989 and 1999 -- featured consensus No. 1 overall quarterbacks at the top. Vinny Testaverde went first in 1987. Troy Aikman followed in 1989. Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith went 1-2-3 in 1999. The current draft class does not yet have a consensus No. 1 overall choice. That could make it easier for a non-quarterback to threaten for the top choice. The 49ers would be thrilled, in my view, if Peterson were there for them at No. 7.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says the 49ers' search for a GM will be a 'sham' if current team executive Trent Baalke gets the job quickly. Lynch: "The 49ers are either creating a huge smoke screen to conceal their true desire to hire someone other than Trent Baalke as their general manager, or their GM search is a sham. Yet another league source said Baalke's hire was a done deal. Not only that, reports and sources say his hiring has been in the works for several weeks." Hiring from within isn't necessarily a bad thing. It would be puzzling, however, for the 49ers to hire Baalke quickly without following through on team president Jed York's pledge to consider as many people as possible.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist is the latest candidate to interview for the 49ers' GM job.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News offers details on Willis' hand injury. Brown: "Willis provided new details about the second hand surgery that will keep him out of Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals. He said X-rays after last week's game revealed that bones in his hand had moved, despite a pin that had been surgically inserted to keep it in place. Willis said he thought the X-ray was just a formality and was laughing right up until the moment the doctor gave him a serious look."
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat wonders how the 49ers will approach a meaningless game after coming out flat with the playoffs on the line.
Also from Branch: checking in with Nate Davis.
David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers want to interview at least one GM candidate who will not be available before next week, but Trent Baalke remains the overwhelming favorite to become GM.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com takes a closer look at Craig Terrill's almost accidental development into a kick-blocking machine. Terrill has three blocked field-goal tries this season and eight for his career, tied with Joe Nash for most in franchise history.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times passes along this comment from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll regarding quarterback Charlie Whitehurst: "It's all on him. I've talked about that. This is the big opportunity. This is the big challenge. This is the big spotlight. This is all of that for him." No pressure, Charlie.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says containing Steven Jackson remains the key to beating the Rams. Jackson has never reached 100 yards rushing against Seattle. Nose tackle Colin Cole: "It always starts with Steven Jackson. They’re not going to put the whole offense on Bradford’s shoulders and expect him to win the game for them. It’s not going to happen. They’ve got one of the top-five running backs in the game in their backfield, and he makes that team better. And he’s going to be the No. 1 threat that we have to take away from them as best as we can."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' John Skelton has shown an ability to make plays, at least on occasion, without ideal mechanics. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: ""The one thing that I've been really impressed with John is, at that position, you have to be able to throw the football in all kinds of different physical positions, and I've seen him do that."
Also from Somers: Guard Alan Faneca considers retirement. Faneca proved this season he was not washed up after the New York Jets released him, but suffering through a 5-10 season surely has taken away some of the enjoyment. Faneca: "You know you are getting closer to the end than you are to the beginning, so you just appreciate the moment and treat it as if it is the last time. I've seen guys that haven't known (it was ending)."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals rookie receiver Andre Roberts is making strides. Larry Fitzgerald: "He had a rough start and that's been well noted, but you really have to tip your hat for the way he's bounced back. It really makes you proud to see a guy so resilient and dealing with controversy and things not going his way. I told him after the (Cowboys) game how happy I was for him. . . . He's getting better every single week. He can get a lot better and he is getting better."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says unusual weather has forced the Cardinals to brave the elements this week. Whisenhunt even wore sweatpants instead of shorts to one practice.
Also from Urban: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did not earn a Pro Bowl berth this season, but all was not lost. Urban: "The ironic part is that defensive coordinator Bill Davis actually sees this as Rodgers-Cromartie’s most consistent season of his three. DRC’s work in the film room has greatly improved, and Davis said Rodgers-Cromartie’s mistakes have been minimized. On that point, Rodgers-Cromartie doesn’t disagree, saying that he has learned a lot and has been consistent in practice."
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' last few seasons have made the more appreciative of their current opportunity. Burwell: "Don't tell them they ought to be embarrassed for still being alive and kicking in the NFL playoff hunt with a 7-8 record. Don't tell them that winning the NFC West title is an insult to everyone's football sensibilities, because they just might tell you something you don't want to hear, such as what it has been like to have endured the pain and suffering through one of the most moribund eras in NFL history."
Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks colleagues to compare Sam Bradford to other quarterbacks in style and approach. Burwell: "He reminds me a little of Joe Montana for his nimbleness out of the pocket, and Troy Aikman as a big man in the pocket with great accuracy." That's a combination the Rams could live with.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch compares Bradford to other quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall. Miklasz: "You'd have to go back to John Elway (1983) to find the last time a team made the playoffs after drafting and starting a QB chosen No. 1 overall. But even then, Elway had some help; he started 10 games for Denver, with Steve DeBerg making the other six starts."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Mike Hoomanawanui returned to practice for the Rams. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur: "Mike did a good job today. He got a limited amount of reps, and the stuff that we did with him he seemed to be able to function. Obviously, Coach (Steve Spagnuolo) will make the final decision on what happens with Mike, but as far as today goes, it's promising."
Also from Wagoner: The Rams' defensive front has been key this season. Wagoner: "Led by the talented trio of James Hall, Chris Long and Fred Robbins and deploying a rotation that sometimes goes as many as nine deep, the Rams front four has become the lead force behind a defensive resurgence that’s seen them make tremendous strides this season."
More from Wagoner: Rams veterans are savoring a chance to earn a playoff berth.
Note that previous reports had associated that record with the 2003 Seattle team; the Cardinals have subsequently updated their note. It was definitely the 1998 team. I covered that Seahawks team and remember it struggling to an 8-8 finish in Dennis Erickson's final season as head coach.
One of the more memorable returns that season: Sam Adams batting Troy Aikman's pass to himself and returning the ball 25 yards for a touchdown.
The chart shows the teams with at least 11 return touchdowns. I've added a column for season records. Arizona and Seattle are the only teams on the list that failed to finish with a winning record despite all those unconventional points.
Fox's top-ranked crew hasn't worked a Seattle game since Week 13 of the 2008 season, when the Seahawks faced Dallas in Walter Jones' final game.
CBS has eight crews. Fox has seven. The networks rank their crews, with higher-ranked ones drawing more attractive assignments such as Super Bowls, playoff games and marquee matchups.
Earlier: 2008, 2009.