NFC West: Wendell Tyler
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
Sanders should get no sympathy from Steven Jackson.
Sanders' Lions reached the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons, posting between nine and 12 victories each time. They never won fewer than five games in a season.
Jackson's St. Louis Rams have never won more than eight games in a season. His teams have fared so poorly, in fact, that Jackson ranks last on a list of 87 top running backs ranked by team winning percentages. Chase Stuart, best known for his work at Pro Football Reference, published the list at his new site, Football Perspective.
Sanders ranked 68th.
The list considers runners with at least 5,000 yards rushing and 7,500 yards from scrimmage. The winning percentages were weighted to favor runners' most productive seasons.
"For example, if a player gained 10 percent of his [career] yards from scrimmage in 1999 and the team went 15-1 that season, then 10 percent of the running back’s weighted winning percentage would be 0.9375," Stuart explains. "This is designed to align a running back's best seasons with his team's records in those years.
"For example, Emmitt Smith played two of his 15 seasons with the Cardinals. But since he gained only 6.5 percent of his career yards from scrimmage in Arizona, the Cardinals' records those years count for only 6.5 percent -- and not 13.3 percent -- of his career weighted winning percentage."
The methodology is a little confusing at first glance, but the results make sense.
Jackson has played eight seasons, fighting off injuries and the malaise perpetual losing cultivates. He has played eight seasons without flinching. His bruising style naturally raises questions about how long Jackson might hold up physically. But it's also fair to wonder how much losing such a passionate player can withstand before deciding he's had enough.
The backs listed atop Stuart's list faced no such issues.
Former Los Angeles Rams great Lawrence McCutcheon, named to five consecutive Pro Bowls under coach Chuck Knox, tops the list with a .741 weighted winning percentage. Roger Craig, named to four Pro Bowls with San Francisco, ranks third at .723.
NFC West alums Garrison Hearst (20th), Shaun Alexander (22th), Ricky Watters (23rd) and Wendell Tyler (24th) are all at .585 and higher. But four of the six players at the bottom of the list also spent some of their careers with franchises currently aligned in the division. That includes Hall of Famers Ollie Matson and O.J. Simpson.
Arizona and Seattle have quickly emerged as teams with interest in the soon-to-be-released Colts quarterback.
Both teams have quite a bit to offer.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Manning's health will be pivotal to the Cardinals' interest. The team has until March 17 to make a decision on Kevin Kolb. Somers: "Numerous people already are handicapping where Manning will play. I think Arizona makes more sense than the Jets, for instance, because I doubt Manning wants to play in the same area as his brother, Eli. The Redskins have a need, but coach Mike Shanahan has a firm belief in his offense. He likes to control every facet of the football operations. And anyone signing Manning will have to show flexibility in adapting to his desires and strengths. The Seahawks have a need, too, and a very good defense. But to whom will Manning throw?" Noted: I think Manning would have little trouble taking on his brother or anyone else, just based on his competitive nature. But that is just a guess. Sidney Rice, Zach Miller and possibly Reggie Wayne would be receiving options for Manning in Seattle. Doug Baldwin would be another option. He led the NFC West in yards per target last season (9.3) and ranked among the NFL leaders in third-down receptions for first downs.
Also from Somers: Darnell Dockett explains why he would welcome Manning to Arizona. Noted: There should be absolutely no offense taken by the Cardinals' other quarterbacks. Manning is one of the all-time greats. Any team without an established quarterback should at least consider him. Supporting Kevin Kolb or John Skelton over Manning would be borderline disingenuous, in my view, based on those players' résumés.
Brian Nemhauser of hawkblogger.com lays out potential risks associated with bringing Manning to Seattle. Nemhauser: "The Seahawks are onto something great with the patient approach to building a roster through the draft. Patience has not even been all that necessary given the amount of talent added in just two drafts. Going big on Manning feels like it could put the entire process at risk without enough reward to justify that risk."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times has this to say about the Seahawks while handicapping where Manning might land: "It's hard to come up with a reason why Seattle wouldn't be interested. The Seahawks' proliferation of close losses last season showed just how close they might be to contending, and they don't have a long-term investment currently in place at quarterback. Also, it's not like signing Manning would preclude the possibility of developing a younger quarterback behind him. The bigger question is whether Manning would want to come and play in the NFL's most isolated outpost in a stadium that's outdoors in a city known for precipitation."
Michael Simeona of 710ESPN Seattle links to a fun Marshawn Lynch video that made the rounds Tuesday. Noted: Those wondering how a newly signed running back spends his discretionary income might learn something here.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch expects the NFL to suspend Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff: "Coach Williams has shown contrition for his actions and continues to cooperate with the NFL in this investigation. Out of respect for the NFL's ongoing process, we will refrain from commenting until the league has come to a final decision on all aspects of this matter." Noted: Williams did show contrition in the statement he released. He is presumably doing the same while meeting with league officials. I'm not sure sustained public contrition is in his nature. How he handles these allegations over the long term will shape perceptions about him.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch raises questions about criticisms of Williams. Miklasz: "I suppose I'm confused. Here you had this outlaw, renegade, out of control coach setting up bounties and sharpening a goon squad to wipe out helpless QBs with dirty hits ... and where was the NFL? Did the NFL miss all of the dirty deeds? Wouldn't you expect more fines than this? Did the folks in the NFL office miss all of these tawdry, disgusting 'kill shots' on QBs? Makes no sense. There seems to be an obvious disconnect between the Williams' reputation and the reality." Noted: Looks like the NFL will punish Williams for a bounty system that allegedly encouraged dirty hits, independent of whether that system produced an unusual number of such hits.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News explains why he thinks the 49ers will show no interest in Manning. Kawakami: "The 49ers of Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh aren’t in this for headline-grabbing media circus shows. They’re the far, far opposite of that–they love the blue-collar, no-frills attitude, which keeps the locker room calm and happy and everybody feeling like they’re equal parts of the machine. In this construction, nobody’s bigger than anybody else–theoretically. Crazy big free-agent signings would mess up that balance. If you need a reminder, just flick back to last year’s free-agency period, when 49ers Nation was going nuts while Baalke let the first week or so of F/A go by with nary a splashy move."
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers reject Dexter Manley's suggestion Bill Walsh's teams had a bounty out on him. Brown: "Craig Walsh said his father and Manley had a history but that 'it wasn't a vendetta.' He said Bill Walsh made a point of identifying the 49ers who would play pivotal roles in momentum-changing plays. And, on the eve of the game, Walsh would make those players stand up in front of the team and make them vow to fulfill their assignment. On Sept. 10, 1984, one of those key players was tight end Russ Francis, a top-notch blocker, whose crackback block on Manley would be crucial to opening up a running play for Wendell Tyler. ... Francis delivered as promised on "Monday Night Football" -- providing a crushing shot that Craig Walsh (who was on the sideline) said knocked Manley off his feet. The other 49ers players went nuts because they knew it was coming and because it was the key to the play -- just as the coach had drawn it up."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com thinks Saints receiver Robert Meachem could make sense for the 49ers.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee quotes Baalke as saying the team remains focused on re-signing Alex Smith and hasn't even discussed Manning internally. Baalke: "We haven't had Peyton in here nor are we even talking about those things internally right now. ... Is he going to play? I don't know. That's for the doctors to make the decision on and for him himself." Noted: Manning isn't even eligible to visit another team until the Colts release him. All signs point to the 49ers going with Smith and Kaepernick as their top two quarterbacks, but as long as Smith remains unsigned, other options have to be at least remotely in play. And the 49ers have presumably discussed those options internally.
The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says attempts to block the 49ers' new stadium project met defeat in court.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The greatest teams in NFL history exist in our memories. They certainly aren't participating in the playoffs this season.
Exhibit A, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: The Eagles-Cardinals NFC Championship will be the first conference championship game in a non-strike season to feature two teams who won fewer than 10 games in the regular season.
The chart shows how teams with fewer than 10 regular-season victories fared in championship games since 1970. We excluded the 1982 strike season because teams played only nine games.
The 1979 Rams were the last NFL team to win a conference championship game after finishing a regular season with fewer than 10 victories (they were 9-7). The Cardinals or Eagles will join them. Those 1979 Rams suffered a 31-19 defeat to the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV despite the efforts of Vince Ferragamo, Wendell Tyler, Cullen Bryant, Preston Dennard, Billy Waddy, Nolan Cromwell and Jack Youngblood.