NFC West: Walt Anderson
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
Twenty-two words near the end sum up the spirit:
"If in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic on the quarterback, the referee should always call roughing the passer."
That sentence pretty much absolves referees from blame for penalizing acts that seem to be borderline infractions.
We discussed one such penalty against the Arizona Cardinals' Calais Campbell earlier.
Campbell leads the NFC West in roughing-the-passer penalties since 2009 with three. Teammate Clark Haggans, the San Francisco 49ers' Ahmad Brooks, the Seattle Seahawks' Raheem Brock and ex-Seahawk Patrick Kerney have two apiece since then.
Instead of focusing on players, I've put together a chart showing how many roughing calls each of the 17 current referees has called since 2009. Note that Clete Blakeman was not a referee until 2010. Officiating crews change members from time to time, but the referees are the ones responsible for most roughing calls, so these numbers hold up better.
Some referees call more penalties than others overall. Some have surely encountered more instances of roughing than others. But if you're a defensive end eager to mete out some old-school punishment on the opposing quarterback, it wouldn't hurt to know which referee was working the game that day.
The second chart breaks down defensive pass-interference numbers by crew for the last three seasons.
The next chart breaks down offensive pass interference by crew for the 2010 season only.
Note that Coleman's crew has called only one such penalty this season, second-fewest in the league behind Seattle favorite Bill Leavy.
The next chart breaks down the offensive pass-interference calls by crew for the last three seasons.
The final chart shows three-year totals for roughing the passer, by crew.
Seattle fans might remember the controversial roughing penalty against Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock during the team's defeat at New Orleans in Week 11.
The pivotal play did not draw a fine, tacit admission that referee Mike Carey's crew erred on the call.
Coleman's crews have only four roughing calls over the last three seasons, fewest in the league among referees working continuously since 2008.
Note: All info from ESPN Stats & Information and includes declined penalties.
Referee Ed Hochuli's crew worked the Rams' game in Week 10. His crews have called the most penalties of any kind over the last three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His crews rank tied for the most defensive pass interference calls.
The Rams might have picked the wrong officiating crew to tempt with a close call on interference. They might have had a better chance if, say, John Parry's crew were working their game. Parry's crew was off in Week 10, but it has called 15 defensive pass interference penalties since the 2009 opener, compared to 14 for Hochuli's crew this season alone.
Officials are calling more penalties per game overall and more for defensive pass interference, as the final row of the chart indicates.
Sometimes that concern makes it tough for a defensive player to carry out his job aggressively. Sometimes a borderline roughing-the-passer penalty can influence a game's outcome.
When the St. Louis Rams' Oshiomogho Atogwe and Fred Robbins drew roughing-the-passer penalties during a 16-14 defeat at Oakland in Week 2, the plays wound up factoring into the outcome significantly. The foul against Atogwe sustained a Raiders drive to a field goal. The foul against Robbins, which seemed like a borderline call from the Rams' perspective, allowed Oakland to run out the clock.
What if Robbins in particular had known that the referee that day, Tony Corrente, called far more roughing penalties than some of his peers? Might Robbins have backed off instead of giving Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski a little shove? I'll try to ask Robbins Sunday following the Rams' game against Seattle.
It's entirely possible the referees with more roughing calls witnessed more cases of roughing. It's also reasonable to think referees apply slightly different standards when determining whether to call roughing the passer. Crews associated with Corrente and Ed Hochuli call more non-roughing penalties than other referees, so it's no surprise to see them near the top of the list for roughing, too. Al Riveron ranks tied for first in roughing calls and 10th in non-roughing penalties since 2008.
The chart, put together with information provided by Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, shows how many roughing-the-passer penalties each referee's crew has called (including declined penalties) over the last three seasons. Note that Clete Blakeman is a first-year referee. The others listed have worked as referees since at least 2008.
Mike Sando: I have personally tracked assessed penalties and replay challenges since Mike Holmgren complained about officiating in Super Bowl XL. I also went back through records to include data since 2001. ESPN Stats & Information also tracks this information. My replay information is more detailed because it counts booth challenges, but its referee information is superior because it counts declined penalties, not just accepted ones. Its information also breaks down penalty types by crew.
Based on my records, Ron Winter's crews have assessed more penalties per game since 2003 than those headed by any of the 16 other current referees. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Winter's crew is calling more total penalties per game -- accepted plus declined -- than any other crew in 2009.
Scott Green is working the 49ers-Packers game in Week 11. Ed Hochuli is working the Seahawks-Vikings game. I'll check on the Cardinals-Rams referee once I get to the Edward Jones Dome a little later.
NFL officiating director Mike Pereira made no mention during his "Official Review" show of the dubious tripping penalty called against the Vikings in Week 7.
I'll try to pick up the slack.
Referee Ron Winter and his crew are almost never wrong, apparently.
Head coaches and the replay official assigned to Winter have challenged his crew 16 times this season, a league high. Winter has reversed only two of those calls. The other referees have reversed 41.1 percent of calls put under review.
The 17 officiating crews have worked between five and seven games this season. Winter's crew has worked six. His crew has faced 2.7 challenges per game. The other crews have faced 1.4 challenges per game.
Winter's crew is calling 16.8 penalties per game, including declined penalties. Only the crews of Jerome Boger (17.7), Ed Hochuli (17.2) and Walt Coleman (also 16.8) are calling as many. Winter's crew has previously ranked among the most prolific in calling penalties.
The tripping call against the Vikings' Jeff Dugan was one of only 13 tripping penalties called in the NFL this season. The Vikings thought it was a horrible call and I thought it was horrible as well.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
joe_cool585 sized up the referee breakdowns from Week 5 and said, "The real question is, how many of each referee's challenged calls have been overturned?"
Rookie referee Don Carey still holds the league lead for reversals, but the field is gaining on him. Carey suffered two reversals in Week 1, three in Week 2, one in Week 3 and none in Weeks 4 or 5. He is one of eight referees -- there are 17 -- to work each week this season.
Carey, second-year ref Al Riveron and veteran Ron Winter have faced a combined 35 coach- and booth-initiated challenges this season. Veteran Walt Anderson has faced none. Winter's stat line stands out for its unusually low reversal rate. Winter has reversed only one of the league-high 14 challenges he has faced while working only four games. Weird.
I've asked officiating director Mike Pereira about these sorts of disparities in past seasons. He has basically said he doesn't care about the numbers as long as officials are making the correct calls. I like replay stats because reversals document those errors referees acknowledge.
Pereira covered a few controversial plays from Week 5 in his weekly Official Review segment. I thought his explanation for the weird taunting call in the Patriots-Broncos game held up better than expected. It sure looked "fishy" (Pereria's words).
I've been tracking replay stats for years. ESPN Stats & Information also tracks penalty stats by crew. Terry McAulay's crew has flagged offensive linemen only six times this season. The crews of Jerome Boger, Anderson, Winter, Walt Coleman, Ed Hochuli and Scott Green have each called at least 23 penalties against offensive lines. That's an aspect of officiating I'll explore in the coming weeks.
The crews of Coleman and Hochuli have each called 10 penalties for offensive holding against offensive linemen. The crews of McAulay (3), Don Carey (3), Riveron (3) and Peter Morelli (2) have combined to call just 11.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Someone should market a Coaches Gone Wild video.
Coaches' cardiologists might disagree, but there's something utterly amusing about a grown man spewing steam toward an unsympathetic referee.
With those visuals in mind, I made an initial stab at putting together a referee satisfaction index for this season. The chart shows how many times head coaches have challenged each NFL referee through Week 4.
Challenges are subjective. Most are futile. Some seem to represent emotional, even petty overreactions by teed off coaches. It's interesting to me that coaches issue more wasted challenges during home games, when throwing the red flag can appease the locals, if only temporarily.
The Vikings' Brad Childress, for example, has a 9-8 challenge record on the road and a 5-14 challenge record at home, based on my records. His predecessor, Mike Tice, was even worse (5-7 road, 1-10 home). The Jaguars' Jack Del Rio (8-13 road, 8-20 home), the Titans' Jeff Fisher (7-6 road, 6-13 home) and the Bears' Lovie Smith (11-14 road, 5-17 home) are similarly futile home challenges. Former 49ers coach Mike Nolan (6-4 road, 6-13 home) was another futile home challenger.
Coaches have focused their challenges disproportionately.
Four of 17 NFL referees account for half of the 56 coach-initiated replay challenges through Week 4. Head coaches have challenged three refs -- Don Carey, Ron Winter and Al Riveron -- 23 times already. Carey is a first-year ref. Riveron is a second-year ref. Winter denied four challenges in Week 4, including two raised by the Ravens. Winter's satisfaction rating among the Ravens could use a little restoration.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Based on Jim Mora's general postgame comportment Sunday, the Seahawks' coach is probably fortunate no one asked what role officiating played in the game.
Referee Don Carey, who accounted for five of 19 replay reversals through Week 2, made his league-leading sixth reversal a memorable one when he returned possession to the Bears following Matt Forte's fumble at the Seattle 1-yard line. Linebacker David Hawthorne had recovered for the Seahawks, who held a 13-0 lead at the time.
"A decision will be reversed only when the referee has indisputable visual evidence available to him," the rule book states.
This one appeared inconclusive at best.
Mora's postgame rant against kicker Olindo Mare might have read differently had anyone pressed for his thoughts on Carey's reversal. I doubt he would have the ruling, uh, acceptable.
"If you’re a kicker in the National Football League you should make those kicks -- bottom line," Mora said of Mare. "End of story. Period. No excuses. No wind, doesn’t matter. You’ve gotta makes those kicks. Especially in a game like this, where you’re kicking and fighting and scratching your tail off and you miss those kicks, it’s not acceptable. Not acceptable. Absolutely not acceptable."
Carey suffered two reversals -- and Mike Singletary's ire -- while working the 49ers-Cardinals game in Week 1. He suffered three more reversals in Week 2. The NFL's 17 referees have suffered 26 replay reversals in 48 games this season. More than a third involved calls made by Carey, a rookie referee, and second-year ref Al Riveron.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Let's just say the Cardinals and 49ers will not be petitioning the NFL to have rookie referee Don Carey work more of their games this season.
Carey was the only NFL referee to suffer more than one replay reversal in Week 1 (he had two). He repeatedly left open his microphone, allowing fans to hear private conversations. And when he was speaking for the record, he bungled explanations.
Niners coach Mike Singletary apparently didn't hear enough from Carey, so he spoke with the new ref during halftime of the team's 20-16 victory at Arizona. The subject?
"You don’t want to know what it was, but it was very positive," said Singletary."He may not say that. Really, what it came down to was, when you are making calls out there, have someone over there near me that can relay some kind of information and I’ll be fine and that’s basically what we talked about and it happened in the second half. It worked out a lot better."
Also on the officiating front in Week 1, the NFL assigned veteran referee Jeff Triplette to work an Eagles game for the first time since Oct. 23, 2001. On that day, Triplette took away an Eagles first down on a fake punt when he ruled, after some delay, that Jeff Thomason had been an ineligible receiver on the play. The fourth-quarter call was correct, but Triplette had already announced that the 7-yard gain was legal because Thomason had lined up on the wing. He changed the call after consulting a card showing the Eagles' special-teams alignments. Philadelphia won, 10-9.
From that game until Sunday, Triplette had worked games for every NFL team but the Eagles and his home-state Panthers. The league seems to be ending some of these referee-team droughts after I pointed them out before last season. The fact that Triplette worked an Eagles-Panthers game -- at Carolina -- jumped out to me.
A year ago, the NFL assigned Ed Hochuli to work a Broncos game for the first time since 2000. Hochuli had worked at least three games for every other team in the league since his crew assessed nine penalties against the Broncos -- three for defensive pass interference and others against the offensive line -- during an Oct. 8, 2000 game.
Walt Coleman still hasn't worked a Raiders game since he correctly -- but controversially -- implemented the tuck rule during a 2002 divisional playoff game between New England and Oakland. Bill Leavy hasn't worked a Seahawks game since Mike Holmgren complained about officiating in Super Bowl XL. Perhaps we'll see that change now that Holmgren is gone and the league is making what appears to be a concerted effort to move past some of these disputes.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Officials were correct in not calling pass interference against the Cardinals on the Eagles' penultimate drive in the NFC Championship Game. They erred in ruling that the ball landed out of bounds on a Cardinals kickoff in the second quarter.
Those were the points league officiating director Mike Pereira's drove home during his weekly in-season show Wednesday night on NFL Network.
The non-call for pass interference hurt the Eagles. Cornerback Rod Hood and receiver Kevin Curtis were looking back for the ball when they appeared to become entangled. Hood fell and brought down Curtis while the ball was in the air. Pereira called the contact "incidental" because both were looking back at the ball. Tough call for the Eagles.
The other call in question was clearly made in error. Officials said Neil Rackers' short kickoff touched the Eagles' Victor Abiamiri before landing out of bounds. Replays left unresolved whether the ball touched Abiamiri on the fingers before bouncing or on whether the ball touched him on the arm after bouncing. Replays left no doubt about whether the ball landed out of bounds. It did not.
If referee Walt Anderson and crew thought the ball touched Abiamiri on the left arm after Abiamiri stepped out of bounds, they should have awarded possession to the Eagles at the 40-yard line, standard procedure for a kickoff out of bounds.
If they thought the ball touched Abiamiri only on the fingers before Abiamiri stepped out of bounds, they should have honored the Cardinals' subsequent recovery. Instead, officials gave possession to the Eagles where they thought the ball went out (at the 27).
Pereira: "He ruled it touched this player and hit out of bounds. Did it? I don't know. I don't think it did. Did it hit out of bounds? No it didn't. That is one thing clear. But here is what you have to remember. The fact that we ruled that it did [touch out of bounds] killed the play. so nothing beyond this point is reviewable. It should be Philly's ball at the 40 or Arizona's ball where they recovered. Either way, we were not right in the end result."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kolbe from Scottsdale writes: Do you think this NFC Championship puts Kurt Warner in the Hall or does he have to win the Super Bowl (again)? Also, has Warner given any hints lately as to whether he still wants to play for another couple years? Do you think he might retire, as some have suggested, and go out in a blaze of glory if the Cardinals somehow win it all?
Lastly, had a 9-7 team ever been to the Super Bowl before? What was the worst regular season record for a team to go to the Super Bowl? and what to win? I know the NFL as a corporation probably likes the story lines of a Cinderella like the Cards but from a business standpoint, do they like having a team that was so mediocre in the regular season and does not represent a big East Coast market representing the league in the Championship?
Mike Sando: Tough to say on Warner. If Arizona loses, one more strong statistical season would certainly help. Warner is one more strong season from having numbers similar to those Steve Young amassed during a Hall of Fame career featuring one Super Bowl title as a starter. If Arizona wins, Warner's resume might not need those stats. That is just my feeling. The process will be slightly more involved than that, of course.
The 1979 Rams went 9-7 during the regular season before advancing to the Super Bowl. I remember it well. Frank Corrall's three field goals provided all the scoring in a 9-0 Rams victory at Tampa in the NFC Championship Game. Those Rams lost to the Steelers, 31-19, in the Super Bowl. I'll pass along something more definitive as I get the information.
Julian from Tempe writes: Mike, longtime reader, but just finally registered on ESPN.com for posting. Huge Cards fan and long time follower. Can't begin to tell you how much the win means for the franchise. It used to be me and my dad's favorite activity to listen to KTAR sports radio talk after cardinal losses back in the day and hear disgruntled fans call in and talk about their drinking (football) problems.
Now it's a total 360! Everyone is buzzing with excitement already for the game (never high fived so many random strangers in my life until after the game outside the stadium). I think we showed we are who we thought we were.
I have one major concern though going into the game with Pittsburgh. I think Francisco is a major MAJOR liability at Free Safety. He always gets to the play way to late and is pretty bad in helping coverages down the field. Was wondering if you had any stats to prove my point or quell my fears? Maybe the numbers won't show it, but I am super worried about Ward/Holmes down field and arriving late to outside runs to make big tackles. Thanks for making the NFC West a respectable column in a year that the NFC wasn't so respectable...
Mike Sando: Thanks, and you're welcome. Antrel Rolle is the starting free safety. Aaron Francisco would factor into the nickel and dime defenses. If he is your biggest concern entering this game, the Cardinals must be in pretty good shape. Arizona should have an outstanding defensive plan for this game based on what the Cardinals' offensive staff knows about the Steelers' personnel, including Ben Roethlisberger.
Colton from Scranton, Pa., writes: Hey Mike, how come there's been little to no interest shown in Todd Haley or Clancy Pendergast for the various head coach vacancies around the NFL? All the attention is on Rex Ryan and Steve Spagnuolo. I just don't get why nobody is interviewing these guys. Haley you would think would garner some attention because of his pedigree and this season's high production level. Pendergast because of his exotic use of schemes, which you would believe would make him desirable as a head coach (meaning he could fit in to any existing scheme and gradually change it.)
Mike Sando: The Cardinals haven't won enough until the playoffs to make their assistant coaches hot candidates. Arizona lost four of its final six regular-season games. That hurt those coaches' standing in the short term. If Arizona posted a 13-3 record during the regular season, more teams probably would have called. That would be one theory. Making it to the Super Bowl should help those coaches command stronger consideration.
Haley's stock is definitely rising. His handling of the play calling has worked out very well for Arizona. His emotional nature is something Haley might want to control better on the sideline. Camera shots of him jawing with key players might not endear him to all owners.
The subject reminds me of what Jim Mora said at his news conference in Seattle last week. Like Haley, Mora is an emotional coach. Mora said he needed to be himself. Haley needs to do the same. But Mora he also said he learned much from watching how Mike Holmgren handled situations. Like Holmgren, Ken Whisenhunt also seems to handle situations well. He projects control and authority on the sideline and when speaking after games. That can be important for a head coach.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A few tidbits on referee Walt Anderson and crew with about 30 remaining until the NFC Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium:
- Anderson and crew assessed 12.6 penalties per game during the regular season, third-most in the league.
- Coaches initiated 15 replay challenges against Anderson, resulting in three reversals. Only one referee, John Parry, had a lower reversal rate on such challenges.
- Anderson faced five booth-initiated challenges, resulting in three reversals. Those figures were unremarkable compared to league averages.
- Games Anderson officiated during the 2008 regular season averaged 41.21 total points, fifth-fewest out of 17 referees. The range was between 50.27 (Peter Morelli) and 39.25 (Bill Carollo).
- The Cardinals are 0-1 under coach Ken Whisenhunt when Anderson works their games, falling 25-10 against the Panthers in Week 6 of the 2007 season. Anderson assessed 20 penalties in that game, including nine against the Cardinals.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Tracking referee statistics this season told us which one assessed the most penalties (Ron Winter), which ones suffered the most replay reversals (Bill Leavy) and which ones almost never faced booth-initiated challeenges (Mike Carey, Bill Carollo).
I've also been looking at which referees tend to assess the most and fewest penalties against certain teams.
The chart shows how many penalties per game each current referee has assessed, on average, against the Cardinals and Panthers since 2003. To avoid aberrations, I considered statistics only for referees who worked at least four gam
es involving each team during that span.
Jeff Triplette never works Panthers games because he's from North Carolina. Arizona resident Ed Hochuli rarely works Cardinals games. Al Riveron and Carl Cheffers were first-year referees, so they did not have enough games to qualify.
Using the stated criteria. Peter Morelli has assessed the fewest penalties per game against the Cardinals (4.8). Winter (9.2) and Carollo have assessed the most (9.0).
For the Panthers, Gene Steratore has assessed the fewest penalties per game over that span (4.3), while Hochuli has assessed the most (8.8).
The league generally does not announce referee assignments in advance, except for the Super Bowl. For a detailed look at officiating stats by referee, please sample my 2008 NFL officiating download. This covers all 256 regular-season games.