NFC West: LaRod Stephens-Howling

Michael Adams' 30-yard fumble return for a touchdown during a Minnesota Vikings kickoff return has given the Arizona Cardinals a 21-10 lead in the Metrodome.

Arizona kick returner LaRod Stephens-Howling already has a kickoff return for a touchdown.

When was the last time a team scored touchdowns on its own return and during an opponent's return in the same game?

The Cardinals should have had an interception return for a touchdown in this game, but the Vikings forced Kerry Rhodes to fumble just as Rhodes was approaching the goal line.

From the Cardinals: "Adams' fumble recovery for a TD gives the Cardinals four opponent fumble recoveries for TDs this season, tying the NFL all-time single season record. The Cardinals become just the 14th team in NFL history to record four opponent fumble recoveries for TDs in a season and the first team to do so since Kansas City in 1999. Including the Stephens-Howling KOR TD earlier in the game, the Cards have eight return TDs in eight games this year."

Losing Antrel Rolle in free agency was supposed to make the Cardinals less dynamic along those lines. Not the case.

Silver linings: Cardinals vs. Bucs

November, 1, 2010
11/01/10
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The facts: The Cardinals fell to 3-4 with a 38-35 home defeat to the Tampa Bay Bucs in Week 8.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
  • The Cardinals scored 14 points in a 23-second span late in the third quarter, the beginning of a scoring spree that turned a 31-14 deficit into a 35-31 lead.
  • Larry Fitzgerald caught two touchdown passes for the first time in 14 consecutive regular-season games. He caught two against Green Bay in a wild-card playoff game last season.
  • Inside linebacker Gerald Hayes scored a touchdown in his first game off the physically unable to perform list.
  • Steve Breaston caught eight passes for 147 yards in his first game back from knee surgery. He had receptions for 37, 36 and 33 yards, an indication the knee has healed well enough for Breaston to provide a deep threat. The Cardinals have ranked at the bottom of the league in pass plays of at least 30 yards.
  • LaRod Stephens-Howling had a 35-yard kickoff and a 30-yard touchdown run.
  • The Cardinals lost no fumbles after losing four against Seattle the previous week.
  • Arizona finished with 396 yards, scoring touchdowns on three of four red-zone possessions.
  • The Cardinals have been penalized heavily this season, but officials assessed only three against them Sunday.
  • First-place Seattle also lost.
Looking ahead: The Cardinals visit the Minnesota Vikings in Week 9.

Around the NFC West: Missing Leinart?

November, 1, 2010
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Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says he "flinched" on Derek Anderson's final, game-turning interception Sunday. Urban: "I know everyone wants to talk about the end of the game. First down, on the Tampa 20. Cards are without LaRod Stephens-Howling, whose ribs just took a shot. Beanie Wells wasn’t in the game after hurting his back, and besides, he doesn’t play in the two-minute package. So the Cards have Tim Hightower, who already lost his starting role after having fumbling issues. Did that affect the play call, why it wasn’t a run? Perhaps. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the package had been moving the ball down the field through the air. You can’t argue that. And on the play in which Anderson threw the pick, the Cards ran double slants against the Bucs’ zone and Early Doucet was open on the play on the inner slant. The problem is Anderson decided to throw to Larry Fitzgerald. Interception. Game over."

Also from Urban: Whisenhunt says the Cardinals plan to take a "hard look" at the quarterback position. Matt Leinart is looking better every week. I realize he wasn't the franchise quarterback Arizona wanted him to be, but the Cardinals would be in better position if he remained among their options at the position. The team has basically exhausted its options at quarterback with nine games remaining. Nine games is a long, long time when Anderson and Max Hall are throwing interceptions. Leinart continues to sit the bench for Houston. The Cardinals got nothing in return for him.

More from Urban: Gerald Hayes and Steve Breaston came up big for Arizona in their first game back from injuries.

More yet from Urban: The Cardinals suffered consecutive defeats for the first time this season. The team pretty much bounced back from its defeat against Seattle, but horrible quarterback play can nullify what a team is getting from every other position.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic sizes up the Cardinals' defeat and closes by saying the team could not improve its quarterback situation by signing a UFL player unfamiliar with the team's offense. On the other hand, what are the odds another quarterback would throw four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, in a single home game?

Also from Somers: "Whisenhunt might have to take as much of the game out of the QB's hands as he can. That means kicking a field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-2 from the 3. Or running the ball and settling for a field goal, instead of throwing it on first down at the opponent's 20. With Kurt Warner at QB, those risks were worth taking. With Anderson or Hall, not so much."

More from Somers: Wells gets the start and Hightower's role diminishes.

More yet from Somers, with Bob McManaman: O'Brien Schofield made his debut on special teams.

Also from McManaman: The Cardinals' defense took its share of the blame Sunday.

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals will have a hard time convincing players they have a chance with Anderson or Hall under center. Boivin: "The Cardinals, if they can get their act together, still are in decent shape. Of their nine remaining games, seven are against opponents with losing records. The group left on the schedule is a combined 23-44. They must resolve this quarterback mess first. It has to be Anderson. Hall might have a nice career ahead of him, but it's not now. He threw two interceptions in the first half that were returned for touchdowns. It canceled out all the positives, which included a nice play fake in the first quarter that ended up in the hands of Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown."

Also from Boivin: a look at the key play Sunday in a game filled with them.

Silver linings: Cardinals at Seahawks

October, 25, 2010
10/25/10
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The facts: The Cardinals fell to 3-3 with a 22-10 road defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.

  • Defensive end Alan Branch collected two sacks among four quarterback hits in what qualifies as a breakout game.
  • Rookie linebacker Daryl Washington had 11 tackles and a sack.
  • The Cardinals ran the ball effectively from the beginning of the game and after it became clear Arizona posed little threat in the passing game.
  • Derek Anderson led a quick touchdown drive upon entering the game in relief of Max Hall, giving the Cardinals a chance despite a performance marked by turnovers.
  • LaRod Stephens-Howling had a 71-yard kickoff return when Arizona needed a spark late in the third quarter.
  • Arizona allowed only one touchdown in Seattle's seven red zone possessions.
  • The Cardinals held Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to a rating in the 70s or lower for the fourth consecutive time.
  • Starting receiver Steve Breaston should be healthier after sitting out this game in a mild surprise.
Looking ahead: The Cardinals face the Tampa Bay Bucs at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 8.

Around the NFC West: Hall must improve

October, 11, 2010
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Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic passes along this quote from Kurt Warner regarding Cardinals quarterback Max Hall: "I heard coming into this game that there was a lot of confidence in the locker room about him. I saw some toughness and personality this team's been missing." Hall turned to a Cardinals official before addressing reporters Sunday and asked whether his hair looked good. The bye week comes at a good time for Hall and the Cardinals. Hall got some experience, and now he gets some time to settle down. The Cardinals will probably need steadier play from Hall as they head onto the road for their next game (Oct. 24 at Qwest Field). They fumbled four times and lost none against the Saints. Hall suffered two of those fumbles. He tossed one interception and needed a receiver to break up another potential pick. His young receivers appeared confused at times.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says defense and special teams carried the Cardinals past the Saints in Week 5. Somers: "LaRod Stephens-Howling set up a field goal with a long kick return. Jay Feely made all three of his field-goal attempts. Safety Kerry Rhodes returned a fumble for a touchdown. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie returned an interception for a touchdown. Linebacker Paris Lenon intercepted a pass at the Saints 2."

Also from Somers: Rookie linebacker Daryl Washington showed improvement from a rough Week 4. Also: "Max Hall was not the reason the Cardinals won. If not for some fortunate bounces, he could have contributed mightily if they had lost. He fumbled twice and was intercepted once. But there is something intriguing about Hall, a quality that's hard to define. In talking to his teammates after the game, they all spoke with admiration of his toughness and resiliency. They seem to have faith in him, as does the head coach. I thought it was interesting Whisenhunt had Hall working out of the shotgun so much. I'm sure it was to help him cope with the pass rush and also to counter the Saints' intent to stop the run. Hall improved as the game progressed, and I think he will continue that arc, as long as he doesn't get maimed trying to run the football."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' defense finally showed up.

Also from McManaman and Somers: the Cardinals' special teams stepped up.

More from McManaman: Darnell Dockett's forced fumble and Kerry Rhodes touchdown return comprised the key play for Arizona.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team is 3-2 for a fourth consecutive season under Whisenhunt. Also: "Larry Fitzgerald had his best game today of the season (seven catches for 93 yards, including a spectacular grab over the middle while being facemasked) but take away the catches and Fitz was just as clutch. Fitz was the one who broke up the near-interception by Malcolm Jenkins in the first half to give Levi his chance, Fitz grabbed the Saints’ try at an onside kick, and he also saved the Cards when Ben Patrick fumbled in the last few moments and the Saints managed to keep it from going out of bounds."

Also from Urban: The Cardinals' defense took an "enough was enough" approach Sunday.

More from Urban: Fitzgerald uses the term "ultimate competitor" to describe Hall.

More yet from Urban: The Cardinals took an unconventional route to victory.
Erik from Madison, Wis., writes: Hey Mike, longtime 49ers fan and follower of your blog, stuck here in Packer Country. I was wondering if you knew where Mike Johnson will be calling the plays this weekend. Will he stay on the sideline for his play calling or will he make a transition to the booth? It seems to me that keeping Johnson on the sideline might help alleviate some communication problems the 49ers have had in the past. It may also give him greater opportunity to interact with offensive players on the field, something I felt Jimmy Raye may have been lacking in the past. What are your thoughts?

Mike Sando: Johnson plans to call the game from the booth, not from the sideline. The trade-off here can be significant. While it's nice to have a feel for the sideline, offensive coordinators in particular can benefit from putting some distance between themselves and the chaotic environment that exists during games at ground level.

Defense is more about emotion and aggressiveness. Offense is more about the quarterback keeping his cool and running things with precision. The offensive coordinator needs that mindset as well and I think it can be helpful for some to see the whole field from upstairs. Calling offensive plays from the sideline would be more difficult from a logistics standpoint, particularly for a new coordinator. Johnson will be able to spread out his notes in the coaches' booth and have a better view of the big picture.


Stetson from Burlington, Vt., writes: Tremendous piece on the State of the Niners and the Mike Singletary Saga. Absolutely not time to panic, but the time is now to steer this ship in the right direction. Obviously, we don't have any history of Johnson as a play caller. Any insight on what we can expect from him?

Mike Sando: Thanks, Stetson. We can probably expect Johnson to favor some of the spread looks San Francisco showed after making the change to Alex Smith last season. By spread looks, I'm not talking about adopting a true college spread offense. For the 49ers last season, it meant using more one-back sets with Delanie Walker, Vernon Davis and two wide receivers. It meant putting Smith in the shotgun. The challenge for stretches last season became finding ways to feature Frank Gore. My thoughts at that time were that Smith needed to become more comfortable and effective within traditional personnel. I still feel that way.

Johnson should have considerable latitude here. I mean, what is Singletary going to do, fire him? This is Johnson's big chance to take over an offense that was probably going to show improvement anyway. We know Johnson spent a year away from the NFL studying the college spread game. We know Smith ran that type of offense in college. We should expect Johnson and Smith to be closer than were Raye and Smith, based on the fact that Johnson has been Smith's position coach and the two are closer in age.

All signs point to an offense set up more favorably for Smith. Let's watch to see whether fullback Moran Norris gets fewer reps. That was a key indicator last season. We will also want to make sure we're not confusing situation-based changes with philosophic shifts. If the 49ers fall behind Sunday, they are going to open it up and spread the field more. Raye sometimes did the same thing.


Unofficial Voice from Bothell, Wash., writes: What I am curious about is the rule on two-point conversions. Isn't it kinda like that extra throw in the 10th frame of bowling where you get the one shot and if you botch it, then you lose the opportunity? Specifically, in the Chargers-Seahawks game last weekend, Philip Rivers went for the two-point conversion, but the receiver blew the play by going out of the end-zone then coming back in. Doesn't the penalty negate the try? I was a little confused. Obviously, this is not the case, but can you clarify this for me? Thanks.

Mike Sando: Former NFL referee Jerry Markbreit addressed this concept in the Chicago Tribune several years ago when he wrote, "The defender's choice is to accept the penalty ... or decline, which, of course, would give the offense two points." They key variable in the Seattle game was the fact that the receiver made the catch after stepping out of bounds. He scored a touchdown pending acceptance of the penalty. I'm with you on this one, though. Why should the violating team get a second chance?


Stephen from North Carolina writes: Would it not have been better for the Seahawks to put Chester Pitts on the PUP list before the season? This would have given them the needed roster spot (which is Pete Carroll's reason for the cut) and still given Pitts and the Hawks time to see how the knee would heal? Seems like this was handled wrong to me.

Mike Sando: Fair point. It was a little bit of a guessing game as to when Pitts might be ready, and the Seahawks felt as though he would beat the six-game PUP window by enough to make it worth their while. And he still might beat that window. In Seattle's defense, the team did place Pitts on the PUP list to begin training camp. Russell Okung then suffered his ankle injury during the Aug. 21 exhibition game. At this point, the Seahawks thought Pitts might have to help them at offensive tackle. And so they activated him from PUP on Aug. 24 with the idea that Pitts would play tackle when ready. They wanted to work him into practice and could not do so while he was on the PUP list.


Mike from Costa Mesa, Calif., writes: Everybody says they love your blog, but that really doesn't convey how much those that follow you appreciate your efforts. No matter which NFC West team a reader follows, he can depend on getting in-depth and completely unbiased coverage on that team here. From your background, I would have guessed that you couldn't help but be somewhat partial to the Seahawks, but I haven't noticed a single incident where you did so (and believe me I've been looking for it).

Anyway, my question/comment is about Derek Anderson. I think he needs a big game against either the Chargers or the Saints to keep the confidence of his coach and stop him from thinking about Max Hall as a viable alternative. By "big game" I mean 60 percent passing on at least 25 attempts, a minimum of 220 yards passing, at least two touchdowns and no more than one interception. Do you agree?

Mike Sando: Thanks for the kind words. I grew up in Northern California rooting for the Rams as a young kid in the 1970s and then adopting the Raiders as my favorite team all the way through the mid-1990s. Covering the NFL beginning in 1998 left me no time or incentive to continue as a fan in the rooting sense. I quickly lost touch with that aspect of following teams. And then I got married, had kids, those sorts of things. Life changed and I very much wanted to be the type of reporter I valued when I was a fan thirsting for information -- one that was fair, valued the fan's perspective and did not take cheap shots.

Great friends sometimes drift apart, lose that connection and love their new lives enough to have no regrets or emotional longings. That's how I feel about my former life as an NFL fan. It was great and I loved it, but this new thing came along and it's pretty cool, too.

On Derek Anderson, those are some pretty specific parameters. I get what you're saying in the broader sense and agree that Anderson must improve. But if the Cardinals find ways to win games, that will ultimately help Anderson remain in the role. That's one reason I passed along the stat last week about Anderson ranking among the NFL leaders in fourth-quarter passing this season. He has done just enough, particularly in the game at St. Louis, to help the Cardinals win two of their first three games (with an assist from Sebastian Janikowski, of course).


Allan from Santa Fe, N.M., writes: Hi Mike, enjoy your blog and your level-headed take on things. I have a question: Given the NFC West teams' relative inability to win 10 a.m. PT games, I wondered if any of them start practices at 10 a.m. the week prior to such games. I bring this up because the 49ers are practicing Thursday afternoon with a 10 a.m. game in Atlanta on Sunday, and it just seems to make more sense that they would want to get used to practicing early in preparation for an early start game. My apologies if you've covered this ground before. Keep up the fine work.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Allan. I do know of cases when Western teams held earlier practices in anticipation of earlier kickoffs, and it makes sense. But I do not know of any evidence suggesting this approach helps. In the end, a team winds up throwing off its entire schedule for the week, making a bigger deal of the early start. There's some thought that a team should do whatever it is that allows itself to become best prepared for the upcoming game, then adjust late in the week (sometimes by flying into the next opponent's city on Friday instead of Saturday, giving players time to adjust).


Jeff from Hermiston, Ore., writes: Mike, I think you got it all wrong about Jim Mora. I listened to the interview, and I thought that Doug Gottleib's questions were a little off, but can you blame Jim Mora for having his guard up? I mean, the guy lost his job once before because of a radio interview. Love the blog Mike, you do a great job and I enjoy reading you everyday. But can we cut Mora a little slack here?

Mike Sando: Thanks for your level-headed note. The civility is always appreciated.

On Mora, there's a difference between keeping up one's guard and losing one's edge. The fact that Mora lost the Falcons job at least in part because of a radio interview means he should be even more careful. Instead, he continually handles interviews in ways inconsistent with his best interests (assuming those interests include becoming a head coach in the NFL). It's like he just can't help but fire back.

We can debate whether Gottleib could have taken a different tone or line of questioning, but the bottom line is that Mora once again veered off-course without much prompting. If a coach is going to get chippy over something so minor, how is he going to handle the day-to-day pressures of his job as head coach? That is the type of question an NFL owner might ask.


Patrick from San Jose, Calif., writes: Can you tell me what is so different about punt returns and kick returns that teams typically don't use the same guy? I ask this cause I've wondered with the Cardinals needing a punt return and them having a good kick returner in LaRod Stephens-Howling, why don't they use him on punts?

Mike Sando: Teams usually want sturdier guys on kickoff returns because kickoff returns are more violent and the returners do not have the option of signaling for a fair catch. Teams usually want niftier players with more natural catching ability returning punts because those balls are harder to field and the returner often has less room to operate once he catches the ball. A team would therefore want more of a straight-line runner on kickoff returns and a more nimble player on punt returns.


Mark from Atlanta writes: Thank you Mike for finally giving us an article that speaks of the truths involving Michael Vick's on-field performance. There are plenty of reporters who are still trying to argue that very case against Vick that you are talking about in your article. And it is refreshing to finally read an article that takes a stand for his performance. Once again, Thank you.

Mike Sando: Vick comes with baggage and sometimes that baggage can unfairly influence how we view players. I've tried to separate perceptions of Vick with what he's doing on the field right now. If we do that, it takes quite a bit of effort to discount the success he is enjoying. I'm trying to call it as I see it, and so far, Vick has been terrific.


Erik from Walnut Creek, Calif., writes: Mike, is it really fair to assume Glen Coffee's retirement is because of him not being a fan of Mike Singletary? Glen made it pretty clear his retirement was for religious reasons, and if he didn't really like Singletary, he too could've demanded a trade.

Mike Sando: I would not assume a link between Coffee's decision and what Coffee thought of Singletary. Here's how I worded it in my recent Singletary column: "Singletary's run as head coach has also featured Scot McCloughan's abrupt departure as general manager, the sudden retirement of backup running back Glen Coffee and the uncomfortable departure of 2008 first-round choice Kentwan Balmer. I think it's a stretch to weave those items into the meaningful paragraphs of a circumstantial accounting of any current or future 49ers' implosion, but they're convenient."

It's reasonable to mention the Coffee situation in the broader context of unusual circumstances, then use our judgment in determining how much weight to assign it individually.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are looking for their first victory over Seattle since the 2004 season. Chris Massey and Steven Jackson are the only current St. Louis players to experience victory over the Seahawks as members of the Rams. Thomas on that 2004 victory: "The entire Rams rookie class was in high school. The Rams were the defending NFC West champions. And sellouts, the kind where every ticket actually gets sold, happened every Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome." Shaun Alexander rushed for 176 yards in that 2004 game, but Matt Hasselbeck completed only 15 of 36 attempts with one interception and a 45.1 rating. Marshall Faulk carried 18 times for 139 yards. Jackson, a rookie, had 10 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown. Chike Okeafor (Seattle) and Adam Archuleta (St. Louis) were the leading tacklers for each team.

Also from Thomas: thoughts on whether James Laurinaitis is approaching elite status.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with new Rams running back Chauncey Washington, who considers himself famous even without "Hard Knocks." Washington: "I think I was famous before that. Just maybe you guys didn't know about me. But on the West Coast, I'm famous."

Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat passes along this comment from Washington: "I got drafted by Jacksonville and I was there with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, and then I got the opportunity to go to the Cowboys with Marion Barber and Julius Jones, and then I got the opportunity to go to the Jets and be with Thomas Jones and L.T. (LaDainian Tomlinson). I think everywhere I have been I have been blessed to be able to learn from the great backs. I think here I am going to continue to learn from Steven Jackson." He was with Reggie Bush and LenDale White at USC.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says John Greco gave the Rams' running game a boost when he got reps at right guard against the Redskins.

Also from Wagoner: The Rams sought to move on from their 30-16 victory over Washington even though victories have been scarce.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says the team practiced in full pads for 100 minutes Wednesday. Also: "Rookie Walter Thurmond worked at left cornerback for (Marcus) Trufant, Will Herring was at strong-side linebacker for (Aaron) Curry and Junior Siavii and Kentwan Balmer got work at tackle for (Brandon) Mebane."

Also from Farnsworth: a look at changing dynamics on the Seahawks' offensive line.

John Morgan of Field Gulls offers thoughts on the Seahawks' blitzes against San Diego. Morgan: "Maybe not all of the blitzes worked, but quite a few did, and while San Diego was chewing yards, they were playing snap after snap on the verge of turnover."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers an interview transcript featuring comments from Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Bradley on Rams quarterback Sam Bradford: "Even if he does get sacked or throws a bad ball, he bounces back and will come back and throw a nice ball. One stat that impressed me, I think he's like third in the league with passes over 30 yards. So he has done a nice job for their team, and doesn't make many mistakes. He's real impressive."

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says the Seahawks were happy to have Russell Okung and Chester Pitts practicing Wednesday. Ben Hamilton and Sean Locklear rested knee injuries.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Okung wore a brace on his heavily wrapped ankle.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says newly acquired Seahawks receiver Brandon Stokley could give the Seahawks what Bobby Engram once gave them. Stokley on what he can offer: "Veteran leadership … a guy who is willing to do whatever it takes to help win football games. … I just love to compete. I’m a guy who’s not worried about stats or individual accolades, I just try to do whatever it takes to win games."

Todd Fredrickson of the Everett Herald says Seahawks safety Earl Thomas felt like he was back at Texas Tech when defending the Chargers' all-out passing attack.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at the challenges Arizona faces at receiver with Steve Breaston and Early Doucet unavailable. Somers: "Playing with inexperienced receivers is not ideal, however, and the Cardinals could make adjustments in scheme and personnel to compensate. They could go to more to formations using two tight ends, or use a running back as a slot receiver."

Also from Somers: Philip Rivers once served as Adrian Wilson's chauffeur.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says LaRod Stephens-Howling met with the couple for whom his return touchdown secured a new home as part of a promotion. Said the husband: "He's got a place to stay forever."

Also from Urban: why it's tough to add a new quarterback during the season.

More from Urban: The Cardinals liked their young receivers better than any they might have signed off the street.

More still from Urban: Arizona could have an edge on special teams against the Chargers in Week 4.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com passes along these thoughts from Mike Singletary regarding 49ers quarterback Alex Smith: "I don't think I've ever underestimated the quarterback situation. I think the quarterback is very important. Do I think he's the most important? No, I don't. A great example is the game we played on Sunday. I think (Chiefs quarterback) Matt Cassel is a good quarterback. Do I think he's a great quarterback? Do I think he's the most important part of that offense? No, I do not. But they won the game. If I'm a passing team, if I'm the Indianapolis Colts, yes, I think the quarterback is the most important part of the team. If I'm the New England Patriots, I think the quarterback is the most important part of that offense. The 49ers right now, I feel the quarterback is very important. But I don't think he's the most important part of our offense. I think there are 11 guys, and on this offense I want 11 guys to know that each and every one of them on every play is important." Quarterback is the most important position on any team, and if he is just one of 11 equals, the team will have a harder time beating the best teams.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Singletary went with Mike Johnson at offensive coordinator after Johnson provided Singletary a list, upon request, of things he would do differently. Smith: "I do think there will be more variation. I think personnel and formations and things like that, there will be some different things. I think we'll find out how they're going to play certain personnel, find out how they're going to play certain formations and then go from there."

Also from Barrows: Singletary lost his cool and got into a shouting match with Falcons guard Harvey Dahl the last time the 49ers faced Atlanta. Almost forgot about that one.

Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' offense will strive to be more flexible. Barber: "Smith conceded the offense hasn't been 'real dynamic' this season and suggested that its inability to adjust to opposing defenses was part of the problem. Smith stressed the importance of being flexible and said Johnson shares his beliefs."

Cam Inman of Bay Area News Group says the 49ers' defense shouldn't get a free pass with all the focus on the team's new offensive coordinator.

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers are not considering a quarterback change. They don't appear to have a viable alternative.

Around the NFC West: Cardinals escape

September, 27, 2010
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Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals fans are going to be in for a tough season even if things go right. Somers: "The Cardinals have done it in an ugly way, but isn't 2-1 where most of us thought they would be after three games? They will be ahead of my predicted pace if they win one of the next two and go into the off weekend at least 3-2. Only two of the final 11 opponents made the playoffs last year. Of course, the Cardinals aren't scaring anyone with the way they're playing." Beanie Wells' performance gives the Cardinals some hope. Perhaps the team can build an offensive identity around him.

Also from Somers, with Bob McManaman: An Arizona man won a free home thanks in part to the Raiders' decision to defer possession.

Also from McManaman: Sebastian Janikowski's missed field goal try -- the last one -- shocked the Raiders.

More from Somers: Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt says the team will be "pretty good" at some point this season after working through some of its current issues. Whisenhunt on having Wells back: "It was definitely a little bit of a different tempo when Beanie was in there. When the big guy gets rolling, you can definitely feel it down there."

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals must fix their offense to contend. On Larry Fitzgerald: "It's clear he is frustrated. After catching (Derek) Anderson's 8-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, Fitzgerald charged over to Whisenhunt and bear-hugged him. The strain of the quarterback failing to capitalize on the talents of an All-Pro receiver has lingered, and many have wondered what it would become. Not much, apparently. After the game, Fitzgerald's dad, Larry Sr., enjoyed a light conversation with Anderson in the locker room and a few minutes later, the coach and Anderson seemed to be engaged in a thoughtful rehash of the day's events."

Also from Boivin: a look at the Raiders' final missed field goal try, set up by the pass Steve Breaston dropped.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says LaRod Stephens-Howling's kickoff return for a touchdown was critical for Arizona. But there were some shaky moments on special teams for the Cardinals.

Also from Urban: The Cardinals will be in "great shape" if Beanie Wells runs the way he did Sunday. Urban: "Is it enough to offset Anderson’s issues? Hopefully."

More from Urban: The Cardinals' defense was at its best in the red zone. Joey Porter: "The guys played with a lot of emotion today. That can take us a long way. I think we’ve been missing that the last couple of weeks."

More yet from Urban: Fitzgerald summed up the Cardinals' victory this way: "We escaped and we got lucky, but a win is a win."

In-depth look at Cardinals' offensive line

September, 23, 2010
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Ben Muth grew up in Phoenix, played offensive tackle at Stanford and signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent. That makes him a good resource for assessing line play -- something Muth does in detail for Football Outsiders in this report on the Arizona Cardinals' front five in Week 2.

[+] EnlargeDerek Anderson
Jerry Lai/US PresswireThe Cardinals' offensive line is still adjusting to quarterback Derek Anderson.
The points he makes affirm some of the things I did and did not notice. I didn't notice center Lyle Sendlein or right guard Deuce Lutui all that much. Both played well, Muth reported, and that would explain why they did not stand out unless one was watching them specifically. Both Arizona tackles struggled. Left guard Alan Faneca struggled some, particularly early, but improved as the game went along.

Muth makes interesting points on the roots of the Cardinals' problems in pass protection. He sees them as scheme-related, not just personnel related, and this jibes with one of the points coach Ken Whisenhunt has made after each of the first two games. The Cardinals are still adjusting to new quarterback Derek Anderson. Anderson doesn't get rid of the football as quickly as Kurt Warner did, putting additional pressure on protection schemes. Arizona probably has not found the right combinations yet. It's also true that Arizona's offensive tackles are not particularly good in protection -- especially in a tough environment on the road.

In charting personnel, I noticed the Cardinals using some unconventional groupings. They went with three running backs and two tight ends (running back LaRod Stephens-Howling would line up as a wide receiver). They went with two tight ends and three wide receivers. These are combinations rarely seen in the NFL and I've seen virtually no evidence, including from previous seasons, that the Cardinals are going to make them work. These account for only a few plays. There were bigger problems elsewhere.

Anderson must be able to trust his receiving targets against the blitz. Stephens-Howling was late turning back to the ball on one incomplete pass. When Stephens-Howling did look back against a different blitz, Anderson found him quickly. Stephens-Howling made a linebacker miss, gaining 8 yards on second-and-6. The Cardinals have also been playing with rookie wideouts.

This offense is a work in progress. Getting a home game against a shaky Oakland team will help.

Around the NFC West: Faneca shows value

September, 15, 2010
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Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic credits Alan Faneca for much of the Cardinals' success running the ball against the Rams in Week 1. Somers: "At 33, he proved he's still agile enough to pull and be an effective lead blocker. By my count, Faneca pulled on 9 of the 20 called runs (Derek Anderson scrambled once). He pulled both right and left. When he pulled left, the tight end and tackle Levi Brown blocked down. On those nine plays, the Cardinals gained 78 yards and scored a touchdown. A disclaimer: I'm not saying Faneca was responsible for all those yards. Other good blocks were made, and running backs Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling made good reads. But Faneca hit someone on almost every one of those plays." Meanwhile, right tackle Brandon Keith struggled against Chris Long.

Also from Somers: Arizona is vastly different at receiver. How different? Practice-squad wideout Tim Brown occupies Anquan Boldin's old locker.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic offers a Q-and-A transcript featuring Steve Breaston. Breaston on the Cardinals' sharpest dresser: "Adrian Wilson. He looks like he's in a Grey Poupon commercial every time he walks into a place. . . . He can pull off the suit thing and still style it up in a T-shirt. He looks fresh." Breaston on pregame meals: "In the morning, I go with the sausage-egg McMuffin from McDonald's. If we have a later game, I go with the double cheeseburger meal. It's not on the menu, but it's there. It's about $4.58."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com explains the origins of Breaston's inclusion in the "Backpack Boys" club.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have had trade talks in their efforts to acquire a backup running back. Also: "The Rams signed former New York Giants tight end Darcy Johnson to the active roster, releasing defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo to free up a roster spot."

Dan Caesar of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says ratings were up for the Rams' opener, presumably thanks to Sam Bradford. Looks like attendance was down, however.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch puts Bradford's 55-attempt debut in perspective by pointing out that 21 of those attempts came during two-minute situations.

Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports says the 49ers' communication problems stem from procedural changes the team made since last season. Cole: "In Singletary’s first full season last year, offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, one of the more respected veteran coaches in the league, was calling plays from the coach’s box upstairs. Raye would call plays down to offensive assistant Jason Michael, who would then send the play into the quarterback. That system worked effectively even at times when Raye struggled to find exactly the right play or say it exactly the right way. Michael, who worked closely with Raye, was good at filling the gaps in communication. However, one of the problems created by the Raye-Michael relationship was that it began to alienate quarterback coach Mike Johnson, whose involvement in building the game plan had diminished. In addition, some players began to resent Raye’s tendency to blame them if things went wrong. As a result, several players went to Singletary this offseason to complain about Raye and the overall situation. Singletary’s solution was to change the mechanics of how the plays were sent in. He replaced Michael, who is still on staff, with Johnson in the play-calling process. On Sunday, that became a problem because Johnson couldn’t decipher what Raye was saying during tense moments when the Seattle crowd was making noise. Singletary was seen several times yelling at Johnson on the sideline when plays didn’t get relayed in a timely fashion." There's no excuse for having the sorts of problems the 49ers are having. This is basic stuff. Either the 49ers fix this problem by Week 2 or the coaching staff is going to have a hard time recouping credibility.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee looks at the 49ers' receiver situation now that Ted Ginn Jr. is injured.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says coach Pete Carroll is looking forward to the challenge of performing in a hostile environment. Carroll on playing at Denver: "It will be very difficult for us. The thing that we want to learn how to do is how to carry our game on the road. That’s important for us. We need a game like this at this time. We need to figure this part out. And it might as well be as tough as it gets, like it is in Denver."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Max Unger finished the regular-season opener despite a toe injury, but he's finished for the season. O'Neil: "Mansfield Wrotto took Unger's spot on the roster. Wrotto was re-signed Tuesday a little more than one week after Seattle cut him. Wrotto was a fourth-round draft choice of Seattle in 2007, and though he played tackle in training camp, he is expected to be a guard." Losing Unger hurts depth, but it's not a crushing blow, in my view. Getting Chester Pitts back from knee surgery remains important for the long term, however.

Also from O'Neil: Raheem Brock is still finding his bearings in Seattle (the former Colts lineman couldn't find the team hotel Saturday night).

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says Brock was a factor against the 49ers.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks are plus-one in turnover differential. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: "It’s a huge emphasis. I'm really just following Pete’s lead on that. That’s what is most sacred to him. So all of us that get to touch the ball, that’s got to be what’s most sacred to us."

Post-camp roster analysis: Cardinals

August, 30, 2010
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Matt Leinart apparently has no idea where he stands with the Arizona Cardinals. That makes it tough for the rest of us to predict exactly what might happen.

Will Leinart start at quarterback for the Cardinals in Week 1? Will he serve as the backup? Will the Cardinals release him? Might they trade him?

The next week to 10 days should provide answers. NFL teams have until Saturday to reduce their rosters to 53-man limits, with the 75-man deadline passing Tuesday.

After looking at the Seahawks' roster earlier Monday, here's a quick run through the Cardinals:

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.0

Keepers: Derek Anderson

Looking safe: Max Hall

On the bubble: Leinart, John Skelton

Comment: Coach Ken Whisenhunt's handling of Leinart suggests there's more than tough love at work here. It's fair to question whether Leinart fits into the team's plans at all this season. The smart move, it seems, would be to keep Anderson, Leinart and the winner of the Hall-Skelton competition. But it's clear Whisenhunt isn't convinced Leinart has what it takes to be a starting quarterback.

Running backs (8)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.3

Keepers: Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Jason Wright

On the bubble: Reagan Maui'a, Charles Scott

Also: Alfonso Smith, Nehemiah Broughton

Comment: Scott arrived via trade this week after Broughton suffered a season-ending knee injury. Maui'a could be the choice heading into the regular season. Scott provides depth for the final exhibition game, but it's unlikely he would be refined enough as a blocker to factor into the offense in a meaningful way. Smith's speed caught my attention early in camp.

Wide receivers (11)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.1

Keepers: Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet

Looking safe: Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams

On the bubble: Onrea Jones, Max Komar

Also: Isaiah Williams, Darren Mougey, Mike Jones, Ed Gant

Comment: Gant serves a suspension to open the season. Roberts will make the team as a third-round pick. Williams pretty much wrapped up a spot with his latest strong performance (at Chicago). Jones and Komar could be competing for a sixth and final spot at the position.

Tight ends (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Keepers: Ben Patrick, Anthony Becht, Stephen Spach

Also: Jim Dray

Comment: The team released Dominique Byrd on Monday. The top three appear set. Not much drama here. Dray looks like practice-squad material.

Offensive linemen (12)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Lyle Sendlein, Alan Faneca, Brandon Keith, Reggie Wells, Levi Brown, Deuce Lutui, Rex Hadnot, Jeremy Bridges

Looking safe: Herman Johnson

Also: Ben Claxton, Tom Pestock, Jonathan Palmer

Comment: Lutui could be trending toward a spot back in the starting lineup despite reporting to camp overweight. Johnson also reported overweight. He isn't a starter, and that's why I listed him separately from the keepers (even though it's an upset, most likely, if Johnson does not stick).

Defensive line (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.4

Keepers: Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, Bryan Robinson

Looking safe: Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Kenny Iwebema

Also: John Fletcher, Jeremy Clark

Comment: This position appears pretty much set. I would expect seven to earn roster spots.

Linebackers (14)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.1

Keepers: Gerald Hayes, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington

Looking safe: Will Davis, Cody Brown

Bubble: Monty Beisel, Reggie Walker

Also: O'Brien Schofield, Steve Baggs, Mark Washington, Chris Johnson, Pago Togafau

Comment: Hayes and Schofield could open the season on reserve/physically unable to perform, opening two roster spots. Beisel and Walker could be competing for the final spot at this position.

Defensive backs (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Kerry Rhodes, Greg Toler, Trumaine McBride, Matt Ware

Looking safe: Michael Adams, Hamza Abdullah, Rashad Johnson

On the bubble: Marshay Green

Also: A.J. Jefferson, Trevor Ford, Justin Miller

Comment: Toler could be passing McBride on the depth chart as the starting right cornerback, fulfilling expectations. Johnson appeared more physical early in camp. Haven't heard much about him lately, though.

Specialists (3)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Keepers: Jay Feely, Ben Graham, Mike Leach

Comment: Arizona has three on the roster and that's how many the team will keep. Simple enough.

Observation deck: Cardinals-Titans

August, 23, 2010
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Matt LeinartJim Brown/US PresswireMatt Leinart struggled against the Titans on Monday, going three-and-out three times.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt and the Arizona Cardinals gave quarterback Matt Leinart little help Monday night during a 24-10 loss. The Tennessee Titans did Leinart no favors by blitzing against an offensive line that wasn't game-planning, this being preseason.

The Cardinals needed to see Leinart persevere anyway, or at least provide a spark, and it did not happen -- again. Three three-and-out possessions against the Tennessee Titans was not good enough given how much Leinart still must prove.

By my count, Arizona has scored two touchdowns -- wait, make that one -- in 39 possessions with Leinart at quarterback since the 2009 regular-season opener. That figure counts playoff games last season and two exhibition games this summer. Both Arizona touchdowns came during Leinart's only 2009 regular-season start, a game the Cardinals nearly won at Tennessee (and one was on a kickoff return). Some of those 39 possessions fell during clock-killing situations when the Cardinals weren't even trying to score, so the number is misleading without the right context.

Still, Leinart hasn't really earned the right to say it's only preseason -- exactly what he told ESPN's Michele Tafoya on the sideline -- even though this really is only preseason.

More on Leinart to come. Let's jump into seven observations before the Titans dial up another blitz:

[+] EnlargeDerek Anderson
AP Photo/Frederick BreedonDerek Anderson completed 11 of 19 passes for 105 yards against Tennessee.
1. Leinart has a big target on his back. Fortunately for him, backup Derek Anderson hasn't shown the accuracy to hit it. Anderson brings some swagger to the Cardinals' offense. The team perked up once Anderson entered the huddle. Leinart managed no first downs in his only three drives. Anderson converted one on his first play. Watching Anderson badly miss Steve Breaston wide open in the end zone had to make Whisenhunt cringe, however. Leinart has a better grasp of the offense, too.

2. Whisenhunt could have helped Leinart more. Whisenhunt could have shown some confidence in Leinart by going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 41 on the opening drive. He opted for a punt instead -- an easy call if the game had counted, but a missed opportunity under the circumstances. Leinart needed help. The Cardinals' pass protection struggled against the Titans' blitzes, typical for preseason. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald wasn't playing and at least one other receiver, rookie Stephen Williams, seemed to surprise Leinart with the route he ran on a third-and-1 play. Leinart gets the benefit of the doubt on that one. He knows the offense. Williams is an undrafted free agent.

3. The defense brings an attitude. Joey Porter drilled Titans running back Chris Johnson early. Clark Haggans brought down Johnson hard. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell tagged Titans quarterback Vince Young to force an incompletion. These were some early signs that Arizona can play with attitude on defense. On the periphery, Stevie Baggs might have helped himself.

4. Trumaine McBride had a rough night. The race between McBride and Greg Toler to start at right cornerback should end with Toler winning the job. That was the expectation entering camp, anyway. McBride didn't help himself Monday night. He gave up one play over the middle, got away with interference after getting beat deep, then gave up a third-down reception. McBride even hit teammate Adrian Wilson while trying to make a tackle well downfield. I didn't see Toler as much, so it'll be interesting to hear Whisenhunt's take once the staff breaks down the game.

5. Arizona might have the divison's best special-teamer. LaRod Stephens-Howling plays special teams at a Pro Bowl level. He was bouncing off defenders during an early return. The MNF crew replayed some of Stephens-Howling's efforts against the Titans during the 2009 regular season, another reminder that Stephens-Howling dominates in coverage. The San Francisco 49ers' Michael Robinson is terrific on special teams, too -- check out his brutal block during the opening kickoff Sunday night -- but Stephens-Howling is right up there among the best.

6. Beanie Wells has to earn his place. What was Wells doing in the game well into the second half? He was doing what backups do. Yes, Wells is still a backup. Whisenhunt isn't going to hand starting status job to him. Makes sense on one level, but if Wells had suffered an injury carrying the ball with less than 5 minutes remaining in the third quarter? He didn't, so all is well.

7. It's not too late for Leinart. A strong showing from Leinart in the third exhibition game could make the Cardinals feel better about their offense in the post-Warner era. The 49ers' Alex Smith stepped up Sunday night despite playing without Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis. The Seattle Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck made a positive statement Saturday night. The St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford will try to do so Thursday night. There's still time for Leinart. Remember, he completed 24 of 38 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns against Green Bay in the third exhibition game last season.
The question in the headline seems misplaced given popular perceptions about the team that subtracted Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and others.

But all is not lost for the two-time defending NFC West champion Cardinals.

It'll take a team effort for Arizona to pull off another division title, just as it took one to complete this blog entry -- the fourth and final one in our series asking whether NFC West teams have improved this offseason. Facebook friend Barrett came through with the portion of our analysis focusing on offense. Branden, a Facebook friend I've tailgated with before Cardinals games, joined fellow Cardinals fans Jack and Jacob in filling out the remaining categories. I'm pleased by the final result and hope you find it thought-provoking.

Thanks to all the others who answered the call. My only regret was not being able to use them all.

Quarterback

Barrett: It's Matt Leinart's time to prove capable of leading an NFL team from behind center. If he falters, Derek Anderson will be waiting to show that he can return to his Pro Bowl form from 2007 -- when he had targets such as Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards. Fifth-round rookie John Skelton may have the physical attributes Ken Whisenhunt looks for in a quarterback, but he remains a project. Verdict: worse.

Sando: Max Hall is another rookie quarterback to watch on the Cardinals' roster. I hear they like what they've seen so far. I also think Leinart can outperform the low expectations his critics have set for him. But there's no getting around the obvious here. The Cardinals were better at quarterback when they had Warner.

Running back

[+] EnlargeBeanie Wells
Fernando Medina/US PresswireBeanie Wells should have a larger role in the offense this season.
Barrett: In a pass-oriented offense, Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower combined to rush for 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns, but they also fumbled the ball nine times and lost six of those. Both backs are looking to get even more carries this season, with Jason Wright and LaRod Stephens-Howling perhaps having an increased opportunity to get touches over last season (combined nine attempts for 32 yards last season). Verdict: same.

Sando: This group should only improve as Wells gets more seasoning and the Cardinals give him more opportunities. The knock on him coming out of college was that he was soft. Cardinals players challenged Wells to prove doubters wrong. Wells responded by running tough and running hard. The prime-time game against the New York Giants comes to mind. I think Wells can take it to another level.

Wide receiver

Barrett: Even with Boldin being traded away to the Ravens, Larry Fitzgerald will still be a top receiver. Steve Breaston is no stranger to lining up as the No. 2 in Boldin's absence. Early Doucet showed what he is capable of during last season's playoff run. Now, let's see if he can produce similarly over the course of a full season. Andre Roberts is an excellent draft pick for depth to compete with Onrea Jones at the No. 4 spot and I expect him to spell Breaston for punt-return duties. However formidable this receiving corps still seems, the Cardinals will miss what No. 81 brought as a player, competitor, teammate and leader. Verdict: worse.

Sando: The Cardinals somehow won a higher percentage of games recently when Boldin did not play. I agree they'll miss the toughness he brought. Boldin might have helped an inexperienced quarterback such as Leinart more than he helped Warner. Breaston brings more speed to the offense. Depth is certainly worse without Boldin, but it was also apparent Boldin might be declining some. I'll agree with your general assessment.

Tight end

Barrett: Anthony Becht, Ben Patrick and Stephen Spach are all back from last season, plus Dominique Byrd. Tight ends caught a whopping 23 passes for the Cardinals last season. It seems their primary function in Whisenhunt's offense is to offer run blocking and an occasional check-down. However, this may change ever so slightly as the focus shifts to a more balanced attack. Verdict: same.

Sando: If there's an upgrade, it comes from having Patrick for a full 16 games. He missed the first four last season while serving an NFL suspension. Once Patrick returned, the Cardinals felt more comfortable using two tight ends. Wells had good success running from some of these double-tight personnel groupings. I think we could see more of those now that Warner is gone and the team has fewer front-line options at wide receiver.

Offensive line

[+] EnlargeAlan Faneca
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Jets released Alan Faneca this offseason after just two seasons in New York.
Barrett: With the free-agent additions of Alan Faneca and Rex Hadnot, starting quality and depth are already improved on a unit that has seen more postseason action in the past two seasons than any other offensive line in the NFL. This lessens any blow the line might take if an overweight Deuce Lutui does not return. There's also a second-year man by the name of Herman Johnson who just might be big enough to take over his spot. Verdict: better.

Sando: Faneca is a huge name and I think he's got something to prove after the New York Jets dumped him. The word among NFL people is that Faneca has fallen off significantly and he could be a liability. The leadership and toughness he brings will have value, but how well can he play at this stage? I do not know. The Cardinals have in recent seasons stressed the importance of continuity on the offensive line. They'll have new people in three or four of the five starting spots, so the continuity is gone. Throw in a new starting quarterback and there's a lot of work to do. This group is better on paper based on the additions, but I'm not sure it'll be more effective (although the shift to more of a power running game could play to the strength of these linemen, something to keep in mind).

Offense overall

Barrett: Whisenhunt has always geared his offenses to the players' strengths. With key losses in Warner and Boldin and the acquisition of Faneca, it sure looks like the Cardinals are shifting toward a more balanced attack. But one thing is for certain, and that is the quarterback cannot be expected to produce the way Warner did. Verdict: worse.

Sando: You're right about Whisenhunt and his staff. They'll rise to the challenge and give the Cardinals their best chance to succeed on offense. The running game should be strong. They'll play to Leinart's strengths as well. But the points will be harder to come by and that'll make it tougher for the Cardinals to win games. The offense will be different and less prolific.

Defensive line

Branden: The line up front starts and ends with the performance of Darnell Dockett. He has become more of a leader this offseason and his play on the field already speaks for itself. Calais Campbell has made many lists as one of the breakout players in the league. Whisenhunt has brought many of his rookies along slowly, so Bryan Robinson will most likely start at nose tackle, but rookie Dan Williams should get plenty of time and I expect him to take over the starting role by midseason. Depth-wise, Alan Branch and Gabe Watson are in make-or-break seasons, and while Branch showed more ability and versatility last year in his time at defensive end, they will have to step up to strengthen depth at the position. Kenny Iwebema is a serviceable backup and special-teamer. Verdict: better.

Sando: It'll take a while for Williams to hit stride, but his addition can only improve what was already a pretty good situation for Arizona. Having the pressure on Watson and Branch can only help. It's tough for 3-4 defensive ends to get much notice, but Arizona has two of them worth our praise.

Outside linebackers

[+] EnlargeJoey Porter
Kim Klement/US PresswireJoey Porter has 92 career sacks.
Branden: There has been talk about the age of Clark Haggans and Joey Porter. Both are 33. While they will start, expect to see plenty of others in special situations -- including Will Davis, who played well last year as a rookie until suffering a knee injury. Cody Brown is practically a rookie and needs to contribute to help this position. Others at the position include Mark Washington and CFL star Stevie "Shakespeare" Baggs. Are they better as a unit than last year? Questionable. Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor performed average last year, and I'm not sure how much Porter has left. Verdict: same, but young guys need to step up.

Sando: Someone pointed out to me that Porter and Haggans are younger than Berry, but it's small consolation for Arizona. You're right about the young guys needing to step forward. I could see Porter getting close to double-digit sacks even though Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thinks Porter has declined dramatically. Others have said Porter collected "cheap" sacks in recent seasons. Cheap ones are better than none at all. This group probably isn't going to decline dramatically. It wasn't all that great last season. Okeafor is out of the league, after all, and Berry retired.

Inside linebacker

Branden: Losing Karlos Dansby will be difficult to overcome because he was a jack of all trades. However, I'm not as high on him as many others were -- Dansby had no Pro Bowls -- and I'm glad the Cardinals did not overpay for him. The addition of Paris Lenon as a stopgap and the drafting of Daryl Washington should help somewhat, but the injury to Gerald Hayes is a major issue. This group is thin and I believe the Cardinals will look to add a veteran when cuts are made. Verdict: worse.

Sando: There's little getting around the problems Arizona faces at this position. We can talk about the defensive line being strong enough to cover somewhat, and that might be the case once Williams develops at nose tackle, but we're not fooling anyone in the meantime. The Cardinals tried to sign Keith Bulluck, but they lost him to the New York Giants. They also claimed Alex Hall off waivers, but the Giants beat them to the punch on that one, too, thanks to a higher waiver priority. Expect Arizona to keep monitoring the waiver wire here.

Cornerback

Branden: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a Pro Bowler, so that helps with one side of the field. Bryant McFadden, traded back to Pittsburgh this offseason, was not much help on the other side last year, but he fared well in run situations. Greg Toler has the physical tools to be a good corner, but he is raw and needs to show his ability this preseason. Michael Adams is a special-teamer and the others, including Trumaine McBride, are OK backups. The Cardinals generally bring multiple safeties on the field in passing situations, so depth isn't a huge concern, but it's a valid question. The performance of this group hinges on DRC's ability to stay healthy and Toler's performance. Verdict: same or better if Toler steps up.

Sando: The Cardinals aren't afraid to make changes, that's for sure. They could have stuck with McFadden, but his contract was a little steep for what they were getting in return. Whisenhunt seemed quite strong in his praise for Toler and he generally isn't wrong on these things. There's potential for this group to drop off, though. At least McFadden was a known quantity. The Cardinals take pride in developing young players and they'll need to be right on Toler to justify their decisions at the position.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Wilson
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinAdrian Wilson is a three-time Pro Bowler.
Safety

Branden: Adrian Wilson is one of the five best safeties in the league, and it is a shame more people don't realize that. I think Kerry Rhodes will actually be an upgrade over Rolle as he knows where he is supposed to be, while Rolle was just learning the free safety position. I think Rolle has the potential to be better in the long run, but the starting tandem should be fine. Second-year man Rashad Johnson needs to step up and perform to the high praise from college coach Nick Saban. He just seemed lost last year. Matt Ware is a solid backup and plays well in passing situations. Hamza Abdullah is also a decent backup. Verdict: same, with the ability to be better in passing situations.

Sando: I've found informed fans to be a bit overly critical of safeties. I'm not saying that's the case with Branden, but there's definitely a feeling among some Arizona fans that Rolle was overrated and Rhodes will actually provide an upgrade. I don't really see it athletically or for the long term, but acquiring Rhodes showed the Cardinals had a plan once Rolle's contract forced their hand. The Cardinals seem encouraged by what they're seeing from Johnson recently. I heard nothing positive about him last season. Re-signing Ware stood out as an underrated move. He's had some value as one of the first defensive backs off the bench.

Defense overall

Branden: The Cardinals had more than 40 sacks last season and I think they can achieve that number again this year with their defensive line and some contribution from the outside linebacker position. I'm concerned about their inside linebackers' ability to stop the run, but again, I think much of that hinges on their ability to penetrate up front. The secondary has a chance to be very good, but I'm not sold. This was not a spectacular unit last year as evidenced by their giving up 90 points in two playoff games. They are more acquainted with the scheme and I think Billy Davis is a good defensive coordinator, but he will have to get creative again this year. The offense will not be scoring 50-plus points this year, so this unit will have to perform well for ...

Sando: Branden's evaluation cut off there for some reason, but that's OK. We've got a deep roster of contributors and I'll lean on them for the rest of this exercise. The last point Branden raised was the one I wanted to touch upon in this space. It'll be tougher getting to 40 sacks again with fewer points on the board. It'll be easier, in theory, for the other team to stick with its running game. That appears problematic for Arizona given the issues at inside linebacker. But if Hayes can return in September, perhaps the Cardinals can stabilize the middle of their defense. They're fortunate to have such a terrific box safety in Wilson. I'll now turn to Cardinals fan Jack for the section on special teams.

Special teams

Jack: I'm very excited about the special teams of the Cardinals, actually. Stephens-Howling performed quite well as a rookie returning kicks, and he should do even better this year now that he has his feet wet. Breaston didn't do well returning punts last season, so the Cardinals need to make a change, particularly with Breaston as the No. 2 receiver. I hope Andre Roberts gets a shot. As for the kickers, I hope that Jay Feely will be more consistent than Neil Rackers. Ben Graham was great last season, and I expect the same from him this year. Verdict: better.

Sando: Rackers did some great things during his tenure in Arizona, but seeing him line up in the clutch was enough to make even non-fans nervous for him. Kicker is one position where teams can plug in free agents pretty easily, so Arizona could be fine with Feely. Stephens-Howling is already one of the best special-teams players in the league. He deserves Pro Bowl consideration. Cards fan Jacob is on deck with a look at the coaching.

Coaching

Jacob: What more can be done by Whisenhunt? He is a proven winner and has taken this Cardinals franchise to heights never before imagined. Russ Grimm is widely considered one of the best head-coaching candidates. People will bang on the fact that the cardinals play in the NFC West and have been inconsistent at times throughout the year. However, they are 4-2 in the playoffs under Whisenhunt with both losses to the Super Bowl champions. Winning in the playoffs comes down to game plans, managing the emotions of the game and players -- and that is where Whisenhunt excels. His best coaching job will be showcased this year if the Cardinals can capture another division title. Verdict: same or better.

Sando: I'm sure Whisenhunt is relishing the challenge. The Cardinals are being counted out prematurely. Whisenhunt will probably get the most from them. The coaching staff will deserve high praise if Leinart develops into a winning quarterback. Whisenhunt's Arizona legacy is largely established. He can only help it this season. With that, we go back to Jack for the final two sections.

Schedule

Jack: I'd love to see the Cardinals take advantage of playing the AFC West this season. They still do have some tough games, though, most notably against Dallas, San Diego, Minnesota and New Orleans. Still, if they don't get eight or nine victories out of this schedule, it will be a disappointment.

Sando: Three of the first four games are on the road. The fifth game is at home -- against the Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints. Welcome back to the lineup, Matt Leinart. Finishing the season against Dallas and San Francisco gives the Cardinals an opportunity to gain ground in the NFC, but neither game will be easy.

Final thoughts

Jack: I want so badly to say the Cardinals are better than the 49ers. They can be, but they'll have to prove it. Perhaps the Cardinals' best chance is to take advantage of an easy schedule and snag a wild-card spot. I believe they'll get eight or nine victories, though. I hope for more.

Sando: The Cardinals won 10 games last season with more talent. It's reasonable to expect them to slip back into the 8-8 range. That's where I see the Cardinals finishing and it'll be no shock if they fail to reach .500 for the first time under Whisenhunt. This is a transition year. They'll find out whether Leinart is their quarterback and if they win more than eight games along the way, or even if they avoid a losing season, I'd consider 2010 a success.
Ten NFC West draft choices combined for 76 starts as rookies last season. Five of the 10 played for the rebuilding St. Louis Rams. An eleventh, Beanie Wells, made significant contributions despite never cracking the lineup.

The 2010 draft class will command more immediate attention when teams open training camps, but the 2009 class figures to contribute more after a year of seasoning.

Here's my look at the NFC West's 2009 choices heading into their second season:

Crabtree
Best choice

Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers. The Cardinals' Wells and the Rams' James Laurinaitis made more immediate impacts. They reported to camp on time. But Crabtree commanded a starting job right away once he finally signed, and he immediately justified his starting status. Crabtree was surprisingly consistent and polished. Given a chance to select any other 2009 NFC West draft choices, I think the 49ers would stick with Crabtree.

Best immediate contributor

Laurinaitis, MLB, Rams. Laurinaitis became an immediate starter and didn't seem to fall off the way No. 4 overall choice Aaron Curry did in Seattle. Laurinaitis wasn't a star, but he stepped into a position requiring knowledge of the defense. Laurinaitis finished the season with 2.0 sacks, five passes defensed, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He and Seahawks second-rounder Max Unger were the only 2009 NFC West draft choices to start 16 games last season.

Stephens-Howling
Best value

LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, Cardinals. The Cardinals found one of the best special-teams players in the division with the 240th overall choice. Stephens-Howling was outstanding on coverage teams. He provided a threat in the return game, too, scoring a critical touchdown at Tennessee. The Cardinals also found ways to work Stephens-Howling into the offense. He caught 10 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown, though he didn't provide much as a rushing threat.

Most to prove

Jason Smith, LT, Rams. Curry finished a close second in this category. Smith started only five games and did not stand out when he was on the field (not that offensive linemen always have to stand out). A serious concussion and subsequent toe injury have raised questions about Smith's durability. The Rams will be investing heavily in No. 1 overall choice Sam Bradford and they'll need Smith to protect him. Smith works hard and the Rams have surrounded him with veteran mentors.

A team-by-team look at the 2009 class:

Arizona Cardinals
2009 picks: 8

Total 2009 starts: 2

Projected 2010 starters (2): first-rounder Beanie Wells, RB, Ohio State; fourth-rounder Greg Toler, CB, St. Paul's.

Other potential starters (1): Wells could have wound up here, but I'll stick with my projection that he'll start this season.

On the hot seat: Cody Brown, OLB, Connecticut. The Cardinals could use one of their young pass-rushers to emerge. A serious wrist injury prevented Brown from contributing last season. He was a second-round choice, though, so expectations are relatively high. Arizona needs him.

No longer with team (1): seventh-rounder Trevor Canfield, Cincinnati (Detroit Lions)

Keep an eye out for: sixth-rounder Will Davis. He showed promise last season and was improving until a knee injury sidelined him.

Forgotten man: We've seen little evidence suggesting third-round choice Rashad Johnson will become a factor anytime soon, if at all.
San Francisco 49ers
2009 picks: 7

Total 2009 starts: 13

Projected 2010 starters (1): Crabtree

Other potential starters (0): None.

On the hot seat: Scott McKillop, LB, Pitt. The 49ers hoped McKillop might develop into a successor to inside linebacker Takeo Spikes. It could still happen, but coaches quickly replaced McKillop with veteran Matt Wilhelm when Spikes was out.

No longer with team (1): sixth-rounder Bear Pascoe, TE, Fresno State (New York Giants)

Keep an eye out for: seventh-rounder Ricky Jean-Francois, NT, LSU. Jean-Francois worked at nose tackle during minicamps and organized team activities while franchise player Aubrayo Franklin remained unsigned. Franklin will likely sign and he'll become the starter again when he does.

Forgotten man: Glen Coffee, RB, Alabama. Frank Gore's return to health means Coffee will not be needed much, if at all. The 49ers used a sixth-round choice for Anthony Dixon, a running back from Mississippi State. The buzz on Coffee went away when he struggled to gain yardage running behind a struggling line early last season.
Seattle Seahawks
2009 picks: 7

Total 2009 starts: 28

Projected 2010 starters (2): first-rounder Curry, LB, Wake Forest; second-rounder Unger, G, Oregon.

Other potential starters (0): None.

On the hot seat: Curry. His rookie season went from promising to disappointing after the Seahawks lost their defensive quarterback, middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, to season-ending injury. Curry said he tried to do too much from that point forward. The Seahawks hope Curry can become an effective pass-rusher in nickel situations. To fulfill his potential, though, Curry must become a good strongside linebacker, too.

No longer with team (2): sixth-rounder Mike Teel, QB, Rutgers (Chicago Bears); seventh-rounder Courtney Greene, S, Rutgers (Jacksonville Jaguars).

Keep an eye out for: third-rounder Deon Butler, WR, Penn St. Butler has good straight-line speed, but he lacks the size Seattle wants in its receivers. Coach Pete Carroll called Butler one of the team's most improved players this offseason, but it's unclear whether the team will find a role for him.
St. Louis Rams
2009 picks: 7

Total 2009 starts: 33

Projected 2010 starters (2): first-rounder Smith, LT, Baylor; second-rounder Laurinaitis, MLB, Ohio St.

Other potential starters (2): third-rounder Bradley Fletcher, CB, Iowa; fourth-rounder Darell Scott, DT, Clemson.

On the hot seat: fifth-rounder Brooks Foster, WR, North Carolina. The Rams like other young receivers, including rookie free agents Dominique Curry and Brandon McRae. They also used a fourth-round choice for Mardy Gilyard. Brandon Gibson should play a role. There's pressure on Foster to make a strong comeback from the ankle injury that ended his rookie season.

No longer with team (0): All seven choices remain on the roster.

Keep an eye out for: Fletcher, the third-round corner from Iowa. Torn knee ligaments ended Fletcher's rookie season in October after the promising rookie started three games. The Rams hope Fletcher can come back to win the starting job.
Earlier: Winners, losers from 2008 class.
Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders lists the Seattle Seahawks' Justin Forsett and the Arizona Cardinals' Early Doucet among his top 10 prospects for 2010.

By prospects, Barnwell is talking about young NFL backups who appear close to assuming more prominent roles. As he explains in the piece, available to Insider subscribers, all prospects were in their second, third or fourth NFL seasons. All were drafted in the third through seventh rounds, or they were undrafted. All have started fewer than five NFL games. All are still playing under their rookie contracts.

Forsett and Doucet are solid choices. They are probably the best choices among NFC West players. Defensive end Nick Reed (Seattle Seahawks), receiver Brandon Gibson (St. Louis Rams), cornerback Greg Toler (Arizona Cardinals) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (Cardinals) also fit the profile.

Any others you'd like to see considered? Remember, no rookies allowed. A few young players -- the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown comes to mind -- have already started at least five games.

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