NFL Nation: Kurt Warner

Kevin DysonAP Photo/Michael Conroy
We have a winner. The voters picked Mike Jones' game-saving tackle as time expired in Super Bowl XXXIV as the Rams' most memorable play.

While I can certainly understand why The Tackle emerged victorious, I would cast my vote in a different direction. To me, the most memorable play in franchise history came moments before Jones brought Tennessee receiver Kevin Dyson down at the 1-yard line. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce's 73-yard touchdown catch to give the Rams the lead in that game is my choice for the top play in Rams history, narrowly edging Jones' tackle and Ricky Proehl's 30-yard touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.

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Really, you can't go wrong with any of the three plays that were nominated here. All of them were integral in the Rams' pursuit of a Super Bowl title. To differentiate is difficult, but I would argue for Bruce's catch because it's the one play of the three where I can argue that without it, the Rams wouldn't have won the world title.

Proehl's catch, as great as it was, came with the Rams in reasonable field goal range. If Proehl doesn't make the play, the Rams can line up for a 47-yard field goal and still take the lead. That's no chip shot or guarantee, but there was still a way for the Rams to win the game. And while Jones' tackle saved the victory for the Rams, many forget that if Dyson had slipped past him, the Titans would have had to kick an extra point to tie the game (or if coach Jeff Fisher wanted to get crazy, go for two and the win). Theoretically, the Rams still could have won the game in overtime, though momentum clearly was swinging in the Titans' direction.

But ultimately, Bruce's play stands above the rest to me because it most properly defines the greatest era in team history. The "Greatest Show on Turf" was known for its quick-strike ability to score from anywhere on the field at any moment.

After blowing a 16-point lead in the second half, the Rams were on the ropes. The personality of that team came directly from its no-fear approach to offense and coordinator Mike Martz's propensity for keeping the gas pedal pressed down for 60 minutes.

With the Rams reeling, it was fitting that Kurt Warner, the supernova quarterback who came from nowhere, connected with Bruce, the mainstay superstar who had been through all the bad times, to give the Rams a lead they would not relinquish and a championship they'd forever cherish.
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title with the Rams.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- On Wednesday afternoon, the Arizona Cardinals announced that quarterback Kurt Warner's name will be added to the team's Ring of Honor at halftime of the team's Sept. 8 game against San Diego. Warner will be the 14th player to receive the honor for the Cardinals, a franchise that, of course, once made its home in St. Louis.

Though Warner retired as a Cardinal, the St. Louis Rams should follow suit and do something similar for the quarterback who made his name in the NFL as the trigger man for the most successful era in the organization's history.

Like the Cardinals, there is no better time for the Rams to make the move than this season.

This year is the 15th anniversary of the Warner-led Rams team that surged to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. By now, most of the world knows Warner's rags to riches story from former grocery bagger to league MVP. But it's not just Warner's story that makes him worthy of receiving a similar honor with the Rams, be it in their version of a Ring of Fame or even going the step further to retire his No. 13 jersey.

Warner gave St. Louis football fans a reason to love the game, a reason to believe that just about anything could happen on a football field. His story is absolutely integral in any re-telling of the team's history.

I've been told the Rams plan to celebrate the 15th anniversary of that 1999 team this year and hope to have Warner back in town to be feted as part of the group, but as of now there aren't any apparent plans for anything Warner-specific. The quarterback has made his way back to St. Louis the past two seasons for the team's "Thursday Night Football" appearances.

Asked Wednesday about where his loyalties lie between his time in Arizona and his time in St. Louis, Warner again emphasized that it's a battle that need not take place.

"People are always asking me 'well if you were going to go in the Hall of Fame would you be a Cardinal or would you be a Ram?'" Warner said. "My only answer is I wouldn’t be going in the Hall of Fame, if I get in, without both parts. Both parts to me are equally as important, equally special. And probably the thing I'm most proud of in my career was being able to help two organizations go someplace that they’d never been before. Not many people get that opportunity to do it with one.

"To have the chance to do it with two, that to me was fun. To me, I take great pride in that and being a part of that."

It's only natural for both fan bases to want to claim Warner as their own and, frankly, both can make good arguments for it. But as Warner points out, the part of his story that makes it complete is that he was able to elevate two franchises to the game's biggest stage.

More to the point, the question of whether Warner would go into the Hall of Fame as a Cardinal or Ram doesn't matter. The NFL isn't like Major League Baseball where a player can be inducted wearing the hat (or in this case helmet) of the team he chooses.

Warner's accomplishments in St. Louis are certainly every bit as deserving of being honored as what he did in Arizona. He led the Rams to a pair of Super Bowls, including a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. He won two league MVPs. He was the leader for one of the most dangerous and entertaining offenses in league history.

Like Arizona, the Rams have a Ring of Fame of their own. It includes 11 former greats such as Eric Dickerson and Deacon Jones. They even have a separate section for former St. Louis football Cardinals, a list that includes the quartet of Dan Dierdorf, Roger Wehrli, Jackie Smith and Larry Wilson. All are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is apparently a requirement to earn the honor.

But the Rams have made past exceptions to honor former greats, honoring some coaches and executives who haven't made it to Canton. Receiver Isaac Bruce had his No. 80 retired by the team and, like Warner, will be first-time eligible for induction this year. Perhaps the Rams are waiting for Warner to land in Canton before he joins the ranks, but why wait?

It can be hard to draw the line between players for honors such as these. Setting a hard and fast standard for having a jersey retired or landing in a ring of honor makes sense. I'm sure Warner will someday have his name amongst the other Rams legends. But Warner's legacy in St. Louis will always supersede any award that can be bestowed upon him elsewhere. And because of that, there is no reason to wait any longer.
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner is a two-time MVP and a Super Bowl champion. Is that enough to get him into the Hall of Fame on his first try?

ST. LOUIS -- On Saturday night, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced that former St. Louis Rams safety Aeneas Williams is part of this year's class of inductees. Williams isn't likely to be remembered as much for his time with the Rams as he was with the Arizona Cardinals, but for those wanting a player with a longer track record of playing for the Rams to get in, the time is coming soon.

The Greatest Show on Turf version of the Rams had no shortage of Hall of Fame candidates. Running back Marshall Faulk was the first to go in, but now the rest of the group is coming eligible. That should make for some tough decisions for the committee in the next couple of years but there are multiple Rams with a legitimate case to get in.

On Tuesday, we took a look at the case for left tackle Orlando Pace. Now it’s time for maybe the ultimate St. Louis fan favorite, quarterback Kurt Warner:

Amongst the many legends to play in the NFL over the years, there have been many great stories. Some of the game’s true greats overcame incredible hardships and obstacles to reach the pinnacle of the sport. But it’s not overstating it to assert that St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner’s rags to riches story is the greatest of them all.

Before the 1999 NFL season, the Rams signed quarterback Trent Green to a lucrative contract, hoping to install him as the starter of a revamped offense that featured running back Marshall Faulk, left tackle Orlando Pace and receiver Isaac Bruce.

When Green suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, then Rams coach Dick Vermeil uttered the now famous line ‘We will rally around Kurt Warner and we will play good football’ with his trademark tears streaming down his face.

The reaction of most was to ask ‘Who’s Kurt Warner?’ Rams fans and football fans alike found out pretty quickly who Warner was and soon his story became something of a legend.

By now, you’ve heard the story about the grocery shelf stocker turned NFL and Super Bowl MVP so we won’t recount it again here. By the time Warner’s six years in St. Louis were through, he’d thrown for 14,447 yards and 102 touchdowns for a passer rating of 97.2. Along the way, Warner won two MVPs and led the Rams to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV and a trip to Super Bowl XXXVI.

When Warner’s time in St. Louis ended in 2003, his magical run with the Rams almost certainly would have left him as one of the most hotly debated Hall of Fame candidates of all time. His numbers were spectacular but the sample size was small and overall, his body of work didn’t compare to many others.

Had Warner’s career ended there, his best chance to make the Hall of Fame would have rested more on the mythology of his story than the cold, hard numbers.

That was all before Warner’s desert revival in Arizona where he turned a maybe into a yes. That Warner added a final dominant chapter to his career with the moribund Cardinals should be more than enough to ensure him induction into the Hall of Fame.

Warner spent a lone season with the Giants in New York and just as all seemed lost, got another chance in Arizona. He promptly led the Cardinals; yes the Cardinals, to a Super Bowl appearance in 2008 behind one of his greatest seasons.

In five years in Arizona, Warner’s statistics match up pretty evenly to his five seasons as a starter in St. Louis. He threw for 15,843 yards and 100 touchdowns for a passer rating of 91.9 while starting 57 games, seven more than he did with the Rams.

All told, Warner ranks 33rd in league history with 32,344 passing yards, 31st in touchdown passes with 208 and eighth in passer rating at 93.7. He also led two teams to Super Bowl appearances, winning one with the Rams.

On the surface, many of Warner’s numbers may still fall short of some of the game’s greats. However, his second act in Arizona should more than enough to earn him enshrinement in Canton.

Whether Warner makes it next year when he’s eligible for the first time remains to be seen. But the guess here is that Warner’s immense production in a relatively short period combined with the romanticism of his story will be enough to get him in on the first try right next to the man who protected his blindside in St. Louis.

Welcome to the 30s, Aaron Rodgers

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Brett Favre won all three of his NFL Most Valuable Player awards before the age of 30.

The former Green Bay Packers quarterback was 26 when he won the first one in January of 1996. He won his three MVPs in consecutive years, meaning his last one came at the age of 28.

Aaron Rodgers was 28 he was named the NFL’s MVP on Feb. 4, 2012.

The Packers' current quarterback turned 30 today. So does that mean his best years are behind him?

Probably not.

That Favre’s MVP seasons all came in his 20s has not been the norm for award-winning quarterbacks in recent years.

Dating to the 2001 season, for which St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner was the MVP, 10 quarterbacks have won the award. Seven of them, including Warner, were in their 30s.

Rodgers is under contract through the 2019 season thanks to the extension he signed in April. He will be 36 years old when that deal expires.

How many more MVP-type seasons would be it reasonable to expect? This season, even if Rodgers returns this week from his broken collarbone -- which is still a big if -- is lost in terms of his MVP candidacy. However, based on the past winners, the answer to that question would seem to be several.

An NFL scout told me last week he thought Rodgers had four more “great seasons” in him.

Three non-quarterbacks have won the MVP since 2001. All were running backs, and all were in their 20s -- Shaun Alexander (28), LaDainian Tomlinson (27) and Adrian Peterson (27). That’s not surprising considering the shelf life for running backs is much shorter than for quarterbacks.
DETROIT -- Matthew Stafford is in the NFL record books.

The Detroit Lions quarterback set two NFL records in the first half against Chicago. Stafford became the first quarterback in league history to complete more than 1,200 passes in his first 50 games.

Through the end of the first half, he has 16 in the game and 1,207 for his career.

He also broke Kurt Warner’s NFL record for most yards thrown in his first 50 games. Warner threw for 13,864.

At the half, Stafford has 13,976.

Detroit leads Chicago at the half, 30-13.
Kurt WarnerAl Pereira/Getty ImagesKurt Warner won two league MVPs and a Super Bowl title during the Rams' memorable run from 1999-2001.
Editor’s note: ESPN.com revisits the NFL’s most compelling teams since Y2K with a five-part “Most Dynamic Teams of the Century” series. We begin with the Greatest Show on Turf -- the 2001 St. Louis Rams.

The Greatest Show on Turf won one Super Bowl, lost another and unraveled so furiously that its epitaph requires some reassembly.

Dramatic narratives have sought to explain why the St. Louis Rams fell so hard after a 1999-2001 run featuring three consecutive MVP awards, a 37-11 record and an average of 32.7 points per game.

Coach Mike Martz’s ego swallowed the team, some say. Front-office infighting poisoned the culture. Quarterback Kurt Warner’s deteriorating health precipitated a controversial and regrettable departure. Draft failures wrecked the roster. The team lost its soul when key role players departed in free agency.

Whatever the reasons, the Rams were never the same after Adam Vinatieri delivered an 48-yard field goal to put the underdog New England Patriots past St. Louis 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI, launching one NFL dynasty at the expense of another.

Throw in spying allegations against New England as a Super Bowl subplot -- more on that in a bit -- and those 2001 Rams easily qualify on ESPN.com’s short list for "Most Dynamic Teams of the Century." They're relevant for what they accomplished and for what happened next: a 7-9 record in 2002 and just one additional winning season for the Rams to this day.

About that epitaph ...

"It's one that escapes me as to how, one, we didn't stay together and, two, how things from that point forward did not continue to roll on," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said recently.

If only the Rams could have known then what has become apparent now.

"Success is something that you have to know how you are going to deal with it before it hits you," Faulk said. "We ran into that in a sense of people wanted credit for putting the team together. Guys on the team who had roles, they wanted to move on and become the actual guy."

So, while some of the Patriots’ core players stuck around instead of chasing more prominent roles elsewhere -- Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi come to mind -- the Rams watched Grant Wistrom, Kevin Carter, London Fletcher and others cash in elsewhere. And who could blame them? Certainly not Faulk, who had escaped Indianapolis via trade and became an MVP in St. Louis. Teams look out for their own interests, and players often must do the same. But free agency has proven over time that money doesn’t always buy the right fit.

"That core group of guys that might not be the highest paid, might not be the most visible guys, their roles and them understanding the roles is kind of what keeps it together," Faulk said. "They might not be the guys who make it into the Hall of Fame, but they are for more or less a lot of the reasons why a lot of games are won, multiple championships are won."

Defensive back Aeneas Williams, himself a Hall of Fame finalist in recent years, was new to the Rams in 2001. The team expected Williams to do for the defense what Faulk had done for the offense. That wasn't far from what happened.

Williams famously picked off Brett Favre twice in the playoffs that postseason, returning both for touchdowns. He clinched the Rams' Super Bowl berth by picking off Donovan McNabb late in the NFC Championship Game.

With Williams and first-year coordinator Lovie Smith, that Rams defense ranked among the NFL's statistical leaders almost across the board, a reversal from 2000. They were third in yards, fifth in yards per play, third in rushing yards, sixth in net yards per pass attempt, second in first downs, sixth in third-down conversion rate and seventh in scoring.

"It was one of the best seasons I had, not just the winning but the amount of talent and the amount of humility that was on the team," Williams said. "That team was special."

The Rams knew it, too. They were 3-0 and coming off a 42-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins when Smith, recently hired away from Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay, delivered just the right message. Players were reveling in the victory and newfound elite status of the defense when Smith stood up to address the team. He listed off the team's accomplishments and exulted in how good it all felt. Players exulted along with him.

Smith then delivered a message that resonates with Williams to this day.

"There are some of you who are still making the same mistakes, and I'm telling you that we are looking to replace you," Smith told the team.

Silence.

There was nothing condescending or demeaning about Smith's delivery or his message. He did not name names. But the message was clear.

"To have that sobering thought from your leader in such a respectful and honoring way, which was intentional as it relates to accountability, I'll never forget it," Williams said. "The teams that have coaches who hold the players accountable no matter how good they are will be the ones that consistently win."

And yet the way that 2001 Rams season ended, and what happened next, might always publicly define that team more than the 14-2 record or revitalized defense.

"That team was loaded," Faulk said. "But this is why we play the greatest sport. There is no Game 5. No Game 7. There is one game, and you have to get it right or it doesn't matter how great you were the rest of the year."

Williams, now a pastor in St. Louis, pointed to the Rams' relatively narrow 24-17 victory over the Patriots during the regular season in suggesting the fat Super Bowl point spread was more about perception than reality. He downplayed the Spygate angle while acknowledging that some teammates are more passionate about whatever advantages the Patriots might have gleaned through taping opponents' hand signals or worse.

"Without knowing, we can only speculate," Williams said. "I relish the moment and the other thing, once we played 16 games and two or three playoff games, rarely are you fooled by what a team does. In that game, it boils down to turnovers."

Faulk carries a different perspective as someone familiar with every aspect of the Rams' offensive plan. He questions whether the Patriots could have anticipated previously unused wrinkles without spying. He has alluded in the past to red zone and third-down plays. The Rams scored on their lone red zone possession. Pressed for specifics, Faulk cited the way New England adjusted to tweaks in the way Faulk went into motion, including on Warner's quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"It's extremely hard to tell you what it was, or what we did, but I will say this," Faulk explained. "The play that Kurt Warner scored on, Mike [Martz] drew that up in the dirt. The motion that I used on that play, I would love to show it to you and love to show you other plays how I went in motion and what I did so you could see it. It's just talk when you talk, but here is what we normally do and this is what we put into this game."

Related comments from Faulk made waves during Super Bowl week. Then as now, Faulk wearies of charges he's pushing conspiracy theories.

"I didn’t make the news, I didn’t make up the news about what happened, but it is what it is," he said. "You accept the loss. They beat us. It happens. You are going to lose games. Is Bill Belichick a great mind? Yes.

"But when a guy like Aeneas Williams sits at home and has to wonder whether he lost the Super Bowl or was cheated out of it, that is who I feel bad for."

Faulk, Warner, Fletcher, Wistrom, Carter, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little and others from that 2001 team can reflect knowing they won it all two years earlier. For some, that Super Bowl against New England would be as close as they came to football immortality. At least they can know the 2001 team will not be forgotten anytime soon.

Count ESPN's Matthew Berry among those expecting a 2013 statistical rebound for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.



Berry makes his case in the video above. Not everyone on the ESPN fantasy panel is sold, but Berry's reasoning is sound.

Just about everything fell apart for the Cardinals' offense last season. Before then, Fitzgerald had remained highly productive even when the team's quarterback play suffered, including when he finished the 2010 season with 90 receptions for 1,137 yards.

However, Fitzgerald's total for receiving touchdowns fell off pretty quickly once Kurt Warner retired following the 2009 season. Fitzgerald had 25 touchdowns over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He has 18 touchdowns over the subsequent three seasons, including a career-low four last season.

We should expect Fitzgerald's total for touchdowns to grow almost by default. Improved quarterback play and better overall health on offense should also contribute to a statistical rebound for Fitzgerald.
The Arizona Cardinals have parted with five of the seven quarterbacks to drop back for the team since Kurt Warner's retirement following the 2009 season.

John Skelton's release Monday made him the latest post-Warner quarterback cast aside.

The Cardinals announced that move and Brian Hoyer's signing to a one-year deal amid speculation the team would add Carson Palmer via trade with the Oakland Raiders.

The chart ranks Arizona quarterbacks since 2010 by number of pass drop backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those numbers include plays when the quarterback dropped back to pass, then ran with the ball.

Skelton, a fifth-round pick in 2010, had 12 touchdown passes with 22 interceptions and 45 sacks in 17 starts. The Cardinals posted an 8-9 record in those games. That included 5-2 during the 2011 season, results that contributed to then-coach Ken Whisenhunt's decision to name Skelton the starter over Kevin Kolb entering the 2012 season.

Whisenhunt thought the team could win with Skelton as long as the quarterback had help from a strong ground game, talented receivers and a stout defense.

Injuries claimed the Cardinals' top two running backs and multiple starting offensive linemen. Skelton struggled and lost his job to rookie Ryan Lindley during a defeat at Atlanta. Lindley finished the season with zero touchdowns and seven interceptions. Skelton and Lindley combined for two touchdowns with 15 picks in the 10 games they started last season. Arizona went 2-8 in those games.
NFC West teams have drafted five quarterbacks, acquired two by trade, shipped off four others for draft choices and spent roughly $130 million on the position -- all since 2010.

It's been a wild ride.



In 2012 alone, every team in the division but the St. Louis Rams benched a quarterback earning at least $6.5 million per season for ones earning between $490,000 and $1.3 million annually. Two of the three displaced starters have already been released (Kevin Kolb) or traded (Alex Smith). The third, Matt Flynn, appears on his way from the Seattle Seahawks to the Oakland Raiders in a trade that is reportedly imminent.

Signs of progress abound. Consider this juxtaposition: Two current NFC West starters finished their 2012 seasons in the Pro Bowl (Russell Wilson) or Super Bowl (Colin Kaepernick). Two castoffs from the division, Kolb and 2012 trade subject Tarvaris Jackson, are competing to start for the Buffalo Bills in 2013.

So much has changed since Matt Hasselbeck, Derek Anderson, Sam Bradford and Smith opened the 2010 season as starting quarterbacks for NFC West teams. Only Bradford remains. Though firmly established as the Rams' starter, his long-range career trajectory appears less defined. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals are still searching for Kurt Warner's worthy heir, a process that has led them to Drew Stanton until further notice.

The following team-by-team accounting shows what's been ventured and gained at quarterback for NFC West teams over the past three years. The period dates to Warner's retirement, Pete Carroll's hiring as Seahawks coach and Bradford's selection as a No. 1 overall draft choice. I've ordered the teams by cash spent.

St. Louis Rams

Cash spent on QBs: $48.4 million

Top earners: Bradford ($42.05 million), A.J. Feeley ($4.95 million), Kellen Clemens ($863,087), Austin Davis ($395,000) and Tom Brandstater ($132,352).

Draft capital invested: The Rams used the first pick of the 2010 draft for Bradford. They have not drafted a quarterback subsequently.

QBs added by trade: None.

QBs subtracted by trade: None.

Comment: The current collective bargaining agreement came along too late for the Rams. They're stuck paying Bradford $50 million in guaranteed money because the old wage scale was so much more generous for high draft choices. Last year, Andrew Luck got $22.1 million in guarantees as the first overall pick. So, while the Rams drafted Bradford to rescue their franchise, the financial obligation is making it tougher for the team to build its roster in a fundamentally different economic environment. Of course, it's all good if Bradford produces the way the Rams think he can produce.

Arizona Cardinals

Cash spent on QBs: $28.7 million

Top earners: Kolb ($20.5 million), Anderson ($3.25 million), Stanton ($2 million), John Skelton ($1.5 million), Rich Bartel ($920,000), Max Hall ($325,000), Brian Hoyer ($108,529), Ryan Lindley ($105,698). Releasing Matt Leinart right before the 2010 season spared the team from paying him.

Draft capital invested: The Cardinals drafted Skelton in the fifth round and Lindley in the sixth. Arizona also parted with a second-round choice when acquiring Kolb.

QBs added by trade: Kolb. The Cardinals sent a second-round choice and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia Eagles for Kolb.

QBs subtracted by trade: none.

Comment: Signing Kolb to a deal averaging better than $12 million per season appears foolish in hindsight. Other unproven quarterbacks haven't gotten that much since the Kolb trade went down right before training camps opened in 2011. However, the Cardinals badly needed a quarterback at the time. They paid what they felt was necessary to get the quarterback they wanted. Arizona needed Kolb to cooperate on a contract extension to facilitate the trade. That meant paying a premium. New coach Bruce Arians has said the team can win with Stanton, but this situation appears fluid. Carson Palmer's name has come up as a potential alternative. Arizona holds the seventh overall pick in the draft. It's still early.

Seattle Seahawks

Cash spent on QBs: $28.4 million

Top earners: Matt Flynn ($8 million), Charlie Whitehurst ($8 million), Hasselbeck ($6.75 million), Jackson ($4 million), Wilson ($1 million), Josh Portis ($375,000), J.P. Losman ($296,470). The team traded Seneca Wallace before Wallace was due to receive salary compensation for 2010.

Draft capital invested: The Seahawks used a third-round choice to select Wilson. They used another third-rounder in the Whitehurst deal, which also included a swap of second-round choices.

QBs added by trade: Whitehurst. The third-round pick sent to San Diego in the Whitehurst deal was for one year in the future. The exchange of second-round picks involved choices that year.

QBs subtracted by trade: Wallace and Jackson. Seattle traded Wallace and Jackson for seventh-round picks. The team figures to get something in return for Flynn.

Comment: Landing Wilson in the third round and daring to start him as a rookie turned the Whitehurst, Jackson and Flynn experiments into footnotes. Seattle has done a good job getting something in return for its castoff quarterbacks despite failing to draft players at the position in 2010 or 2011. The Rams and Cardinals haven't been able to do that in recent seasons. What the Seahawks get in return for Flynn will factor into this analysis as well. Whitehurst returned a seventh-round compensatory choice from the NFL after leaving Seattle to re-sign with the Chargers.

San Francisco 49ers

Cash spent on QBs: $24.7 million

Top earners: Alex Smith ($15.9 million), David Carr ($3.9 million), Kaepernick ($3.2 million), Scott Tolzien ($844,960), Troy Smith ($545,000), Josh Johnson ($350,000). The 49ers released Johnson before he played for the team, but by then the team had paid a $350,000 signing bonus to him. Shaun Hill was traded before the 49ers had to pay any of his 2010 salary. Nate Davis was on the practice squad in 2010.

Draft capital invested: The 49ers used a second-round choice for Kaepernick after using fourth- and fifth-rounders to trade up. They have drafted no other quarterbacks over the past three years.

QBs added by trade: None.

QBs subtracted by trade: Alex Smith and Hill. The 49ers fared well in landing a high second-round choice from Kansas City in the Smith trade. Trading Hill returned a seventh-round pick from the Detroit Lions.

Comment: San Francisco would have considered releasing Alex Smith for salary-cap reasons if no trade had come together. Getting a premium pick in return was commendable. Put another way, Smith's departure armed the 49ers with a pick roughly equivalent to the one used for selecting Kaepernick. The Hill trade wasn't as fortunate because it meant proceeding with Carr as the backup. Overall, though, the 49ers put themselves in prime position at quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh's push to retain Smith in 2011 worked out well. So did the decision to replace Smith with Kaepernick.
PHOENIX -- The Arizona Cardinals could usually count on a quarterback competition under former coach Ken Whisenhunt.

That sometimes reflected the absence of a franchise quarterback. Whisenhunt also believed in making all players earn their starting jobs, even if it meant going deep into training camp and the preseason without a clearly defined starting quarterback.

Those days are over.

First-year Cardinals coach Bruce Arians plans to name the Cardinals' starter for 2013 well before training camp. That is his philosophy.

"I don't think there's any doubt when you have an established quarterback, it is much better than when someone is competing for a job," Arians said Tuesday from the NFL owners meeting. "Guys' friendships get involved and their own evaluations are made in the locker room because of friendships, and it's not always in the best interests of the ball club."

Whisenhunt and coaches such as the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll aren't willing to exempt quarterbacks from having to compete for their jobs. Whisenhunt in particular felt credibility in the locker room was at stake when a coach supported one quarterback as the starter in the absence of clear evidence the job had been earned outright.

Arians isn't going to name a starter randomly, of course, but he does treat the position differently. Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid and others lean toward this method of quarterback treatment. They feel as though the position deserves special treatment for the way its handling impacts the locker room.

"It's better to have one and he is your guy and let's rally around that guy," Arians said. "That is just my opinion. I have never been a two-quarterback guy."

Arians was responding to questions about his philosophy independent of what came before him in Arizona. I never brought up Whisenhunt or past quarterback battles featuring Matt Leinart, Kurt Warner, Derek Anderson, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, etc.

It was with that history in mind, however, when I asked Arians whether he would be more apt to have a starting quarterback named during the earlier stages of training camp.

"Oh yeah, ours will be done before we get to camp," Arians said. "Our quarterback will be named quickly. We'll just see what is all there when we start practicing."

The recently signed Drew Stanton should have a head start on Brian Hoyer and Skelton when the Cardinals begin practicing. He played under Arians in Indianapolis and knows the offense.

Rules adopted last offseason allow teams with first-year head coaches to begin on-field work early next month. The Cardinals and other teams will not hold offense-against-defense sessions until after the draft.
Sure, there was a spike in injuries, but bad quarterback play and evaluation doomed Ken Whisenhunt's tenure as Arizona Cardinals head coach. There is no way around it.

"Every quarterback he acquired and developed seemed to get worse, not better," was how I put it when the Cardinals announced Bruce Arians' hiring Thursday night.

That was a little harsh, in retrospect, and so I've rephrased it.

Semantics? Perhaps. But the way we characterize what happened matters. Outcomes too frequently influence our analysis of process.

The quarterback situation in Arizona provides a good case in point.

When the Cardinals were a Super Bowl team, Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley got credit for the roles they played in reviving Kurt Warner's career. Whisenhunt got credit for naming Warner the starter back when the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a far-fetched dream for the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback -- back when Cardinals fans booed Warner.

Once Warner retired, however, his achievements in Arizona became the measuring stick for future Cardinals quarterbacks -- independent of the role Whisenhunt or anyone else played in helping Warner set the bar so high.

It's now easy to say Whisenhunt won because he had a potential Hall of Fame quarterback. But Warner wasn't Hall of Fame material after throwing 23 touchdowns with 18 interceptions over the three-year period before Whisenhunt's arrival.

Warner deserves much of the credit for his revival, of course. But the credit Whisenhunt and the coaching staff received at the time should be valid now as well.

Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Ryan Lindley left the Cardinals no better and arguably worse than when they arrived, in my view.

They deserve much of the blame, but Whisenhunt thought he could win with some of them.

Kevin Kolb arguably made strides under Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach John McNulty from 2011 to 2012. His touchdown-to-interception ratio improved from 9-8 to 8-3, but his passer rating rose only marginally (81.1 to 86.1). His Total QBR score rose marginally (34.4 to 38.0).

Injuries at running back and the offensive line complicated efforts to evaluate Kolb.

In the end, Kolb failed to meet expectations, the quarterback situation deteriorated to an unacceptable level and people lost their jobs.

That is the bottom line, but it's not the whole story.
Ryan/SmithWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesFalcons coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan are 0-3 in the playoffs together.

The question has become so prevalent that the answer has gotten lost in the shuffle.

“When will the Atlanta Falcons win a playoff game?’’ is the question that’s been building since soon after coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in town.

There are all sorts of theories floating out there on why Smith, Ryan and the Falcons keep making early exits in January, but I don’t buy them.

I’ve got the answer right here: The Falcons will win a playoff game when they should win a playoff game.

That’s Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in the Georgia Dome.

The logic is simple: It’s the first time in the Smith-Ryan era you can unequivocally say the Falcons should win in the postseason.

Everybody likes to talk about how this Atlanta team is different from previous ones.

“We’re a much more mature team because of our experiences,’’ Smith said this week. “I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs.’’

There’s some truth in saying this team is different, but I don’t think that’s going to be the difference Sunday.

What’s different now compared to the 2008, 2010 and 2011 postseasons -- which all ended in early exits for the Falcons -- is the circumstances. Think about it for a second.

Did anybody really expect the Falcons to go up to MetLife Stadium last January and beat the New York Giants? I sure didn’t. I mean, I thought Atlanta at least had a chance, but I think the realistic expectation was for them to lose by a score of something like 24-17. The Falcons lost 24-2 on a day when their offense forgot to show up, and that only made the two previous playoff losses seem worse than they were.

And we're going to go out of order here, so bear with me, but think about those other two losses for a second.

Did anybody really expect the Falcons to go to Arizona and knock off the Cardinals at the end of the 2008 season, when Ryan was just a rookie? I’m not saying the word “dynasty’’ should ever be used in the same sentence as the Arizona Cardinals, but that Arizona team had Kurt Warner and was playing at home. Just like last year’s Giants, those Cardinals knocked off the Falcons and strolled to the Super Bowl.

Speaking of Super Bowl teams, think for a second about the other team the Falcons have lost to in their last three playoff tries.

Yep, that was the Green Bay Packers back in a 2010 season during which Atlanta went 13-3 and had the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But, even then, you couldn’t look at things objectively and say Atlanta was the overwhelming favorite. The Packers had playoff mystique and they also had Aaron Rodgers, and you knew Green Bay had a chance to come into the Georgia Dome and win.

Like last year’s Giants, those Packers thumped the Falcons and went on to win the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsRookie Russell Wilson will be leading his team into a hostile playoff environment for the second straight week.
But let’s not go comparing the current Seahawks to the 2010 Packers, because they’re not. Yes, Seattle is red-hot after winning its final five games of the regular season and knocking off the Washington Redskins in its playoff opener last week. Yes, the Seahawks have a very good defense and an excellent running back in Marshawn Lynch.

But the Seahawks are not the Packers. They’re not the Giants or the Cardinals. They don’t have Rodgers, Eli Manning or Warner.

They have Russell Wilson.

Don’t get me wrong, Wilson has had a marvelous season and he’s going to have a very long and prosperous career. But he’s a rookie coming into a noisy and hostile dome.

The Seahawks are what the Falcons were back on that day they went into Arizona -- a team with a rookie quarterback, happy just to be in the playoffs, making a cross-country trip.

Wilson won’t be the best quarterback in Atlanta on Sunday. That honor belongs to Ryan, who has continued to mature and has produced the best statistical season of his career.

In his three previous playoff games, Ryan wasn’t the best quarterback on the field. This time he is, at least on paper.

If Ryan goes out and plays the way he should (and Smith doesn’t try to slow down his offense by force-feeding the ball to aging running back Michael Turner), then Ryan will be the best quarterback on the field in reality as well. Once he wins a playoff game, Ryan finally will be knighted with that “elite’’ title everyone likes to toss around, and the Falcons no longer will have to hear about their postseason woes.

All Ryan has to do is play his game and get the ball to Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. All the Falcons -- who now have a defense with swagger thanks to cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon -- have to do is play their game.

Just go out and be the best team on the field.

If that happens, the Falcons will win -- because, for the first time in the postseason in this era, they should win.

NFC West wrap: All-division team

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know, and my 2012 all-division team:

Division MVP: Russell Wilson. Raise your hand if you thought the Seattle Seahawks rookie would become the best quarterback in the NFC West and the No. 1 reason Seattle would challenge for the NFC West title. OK, you can put your hand down now, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. You were perhaps the only analyst I can recall being bullish enough to go all-in for Wilson entering the regular season.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsRussell Wilson has surprised draft day pundits and has become the best quarterback in the NFC West.
"I think Russell Wilson is going to be great," Williamson said back on Aug. 30. "I very much believe Russell Wilson will have the best year of any quarterback in the division. ... Wilson puts up a ton of points at every level -- NC State, Wisconsin, the preseason with Seattle. There is no down side to him, except he’s short. But he knows how to get around that."

Wilson enters Week 17 with 25 touchdown passes, three rushing touchdowns and a Total QBR score (70.0) that ranks higher than than the score for any other NFC West quarterback with at least 10 starts in the history of the ESPN metric, which dates to 2008. Kurt Warner is second at 68.7. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (76.2) has set a similar pace through six starts, further brightening the future of the position in the NFC West.

Biggest disappointment: Injuries and horrendous quarterback play prevented the Arizona Cardinals from building on their 4-0 start to the season.

We knew their quarterbacks had issues. We knew the offensive line would be a problem, particularly after the team lost left tackle Levi Brown to injury. We knew there was risk associated with banking on a couple of recently injured running backs. We did not know everything that could go wrong would go wrong to such a degree.

Arizona's mismanagement of the quarterback position has been epic. The team's move to replace quarterbacks coach Chris Miller with John McNulty was supposed to pay off through renewed attention to fundamentals. There is no substitute for talent at the position, of course, but when was the last time a young Cardinals quarterback made meaningful progress over time? It hasn't happened in six seasons under coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Coach of the year: Check back Sunday. St. Louis Rams first-year coach Jeff Fisher gets the call if his team knocks off Seattle in Week 17.

Fisher has outcoached San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Seattle's Pete Carroll in particular while posting a 4-0-1 record in division play. Fisher has posted a 7-7-1 record without a single player voted to the Pro Bowl. (San Francisco had nine and Seattle five.) The Rams don't even have a first or second alternate.

But if the Seahawks close out the season with an 8-0 record at home and an 11-5 record overall, Carroll will get my vote as top coach in the division.

Carroll risked public ridicule and perhaps even his job by going with Wilson, a third-round rookie, when free-agent addition Matt Flynn had recently signed a three-year deal for $19.5 million. The move was subjecting Carroll to criticism as late as Week 4, when the Rams picked off Wilson three times during a 19-13 Seahawks defeat. Carroll trusted what he knew to be true about Wilson, and he has been proved right.

Executive of the year: Seahawks general manager John Schneider gets the call over St. Louis Rams counterpart Les Snead largely because he was the driving force behind the team's decision to draft Wilson in the third round. Schneider took some heat for failing to resolve the quarterback situation more quickly. He has repeatedly made fools of draft day critics, however, and that is happening in a big way this year.

Schneider and the Seahawks emerged from the 2012 draft with Wilson, pass-rusher Bruce Irvin (eight sacks), middle linebacker and defensive rookie of the year candidate Bobby Wagner, running back Robert Turbin, cornerback Jeremy Lane, guard J.R. Sweezy and defensive tackle Greg Scruggs. Wagner, Wilson, Lane and Sweezy started for Seattle during its 42-13 victory over the 49ers in Week 16.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh and Alex Smith
AP Photo/Matt YorkThis may be Alex Smith's final season in San Francisco after Colin Kaepernick's emergence.
Vets to watch this offseason: Steven Jackson (Rams), Alex Smith (49ers), Flynn (Seahawks), Adrian Wilson (Cardinals) and Beanie Wells (Cardinals) are veterans with cloudy futures.

Jackson can void his contract after what figures to be his eighth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing. His 2013 salary would be $7 million. Will the team want to pay that much for an older running back with injury concerns? Might Jackson want to sign with a team closer to championship form?

Smith's run in San Francisco could be nearing its end. His contract calls for an April bonus payment that would make his 2013 salary guaranteed. The 49ers might not want to pay that much for a backup. Smith might not want to stick around after Harbaugh surprisingly benched him.

Then again, Smith surprised us previously when he decided to stay with the team in 2011. Harbaugh surprised us previously by backing Smith and winning with him.

In Seattle, Flynn has become expendable after Wilson's emergence as a franchise quarterback. The Seahawks could consider trading him.

In Arizona, Wilson lost his job in the nickel defense. He is 33 years old and might not project as a starter in the future. Wells, meanwhile, might not figure into the Cardinals' plans after his second disappointing season in three years. The team might want a more consistent, durable and hard-nosed back.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

There were some tough calls when putting together the all-NFC West team for 2012.

I wasn't going to go with name players just because they were name players.

Vernon Davis made it at tight end even though Lance Kendricks and Zach Miller closed the gap at the position.

Larry Fitzgerald wasn't able to overcome bad quarterback play the way he had in the past. His inability to make a key catch at Atlanta stood out in my mind when putting together this team. Had we gone with three receivers, I would have strongly considered St. Louis Rams rookie Chris Givens after his string of five consecutive games with a 50-yard reception. No player had done that since Detroit's Pat Studstill did it in 1966. Givens also had 11 receptions to help the Rams upset the San Francisco 49ers.

Another Rams rookie, Michael Brockers, made the cut at defensive tackle. Seattle's Brandon Mebane would have been a worthy choice as well. Mebane would have been the clear choice earlier in the season. Brockers has put together some dominant performances more recently, however. He was particularly good against 49ers guard Mike Iupati during the Rams' victory over San Francisco. He has four sacks and a deflection for a pick.

Update: Aldon Smith of course needs to be on this all-division team. The intial format of the team -- four defensive linemen, three traditional linebackers -- did not leave room for an outside linebacker type. My oversight there. With apologies to Brockers, I've subbed him out and created a DE/OLB spot for Smith, who just happens to have a franchise-record 19.5 sacks heading into Week 17.

Seattle's Russell Okung and San Francisco's Joe Staley both would have been worthy choices at left tackle. Okung has come on strong lately. His team has been flourishing offensively. That is why Okung got the call.

Competition was fierce at safety. Seattle’s Earl Thomas edged the 49ers’ Donte Whitner mostly for his range. Whitner is the bigger hitter. Both are very good. You take one and I'll take the other. Whitner’s big-hitting teammate, Dashon Goldson, was the choice for the other spot.

Fullback is a strength in the NFC West. The Seahawks' Michael Robinson and the 49ers' Bruce Miller were the leading candidates. Arizona's Anthony Sherman probably has the most potential among the three. If only he had a running back worthy of his blocking.

Joe Flacco produced a 0.4 Total QBR in Sunday's loss to the Broncos, which was tied for the second-lowest this season.

Flacco
Who has the worst QBR in a single game this season? That also belongs to Flacco, who posted a 0.3 QBR against the Texans in Week 7.

Flacco also joined Mark Sanchez and John Skelton as the only players with multiple sub-1.0 QBR games over the past five seasons. If you're Flacco, those aren't the names you want to be linked to as a quarterback.

What made Flacco's performance one of the worst of the season was his struggles on third down (he converted 1-of-11 third-down pass attempts into first downs) and his momentum-crushing interception late in the first half. Trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, Flacco was picked off on an out route at the Broncos 2-yard line that was returned for a touchdown.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, that cost the Ravens 11.9 expected points when taking into account Baltimore’s lost goal-to-go opportunity and the resulting touchdown for the Broncos. That is the second-worst single play in terms of expected points added (EPA) over the past five seasons.

The only play worse was the interception thrown by Arizona’s Kurt Warner that was returned for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII against the Steelers. In both instances, the throws by Flacco and Warner were intended for Anquan Boldin.

Goodell's letter to Jonathan Vilma

October, 9, 2012
10/09/12
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We already shared with you part of a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, explaining the decision to uphold his four-game suspension.

Goodell also decided to uphold the season-long suspension of New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, although Vilma will be allowed to keep his weekly checks for six weeks on the physically unable to perform list.

Goodell’s letter to Vilma is much longer than the one he sent to Smith, so I’ll do my best to trim it up and include the most important items.

Here’s some of what Goodell wrote to Vilma:
“You confirmed that cart-offs and knockouts were part of a broader program in place among the Saints’ defensive players. You confirmed that these terms referred to plays in which an opposing player has to leave the game for one or more plays. You confirmed that, as (assistant head coach Joe) Vitt testified, an opposing player’s need for smelling salts under a trainer’s care was a consequence of the kind that the program sought to achieve and for which players were offered cash rewards from the incentive pool.’’

Goodell also went into detail and said a bounty system was in place during the playoffs at the end of the 2009 season.
“I also find that you engaged in conduct detrimental by offering a substantial financial incentive to any member of the defensive unit who knocked Brett Favre out of the Saints’ 2009 NFC playoff game against the Vikings.’’

Goodell also wrote that there was credible evidence Vilma made a similar pledge about Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, but said he didn’t need to go into further detail because he already had evidence of one pledge of a reward to hurt an opponent.

Many New Orleans fans have labeled former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely, and former assistant coach Mike Cerullo, as "snitches,'' although maybe they were simply telling the truth. Goodell acknowledged both men provided details of the bounty program and said he found their versions credible.
“I am not persuaded by any suggestion that either Mr. Williams or Mr. Cerullo had an incentive to testify falsely, under penalty of perjury, about such conduct by you or by any other player. With respect to Coach Williams, you and he have repeatedly spoken highly of each other, and nobody has identified any reason why he would make false charges against the Saints or you in particular. In that respect, it is telling that even though he had already left the Saints and signed a contract to be the defensive coordinator for the Rams, coach Williams continued to deny the existence of the program in its entirety, and acknowledged the program and his role in it only after detailed questioning by our investigators. Equally important, neither Mr. Williams nor Mr. Cerullo was made aware of the substance of the information provided by the other in the investigation; as one example, each independently volunteered to investigators that the bounty that you pledged with respect to Mr. Favre was in the specific amount of $10,000.’’

Aside from the statements from Williams and Cerullo, Goodell also said others, including Vitt, former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, talked about a meeting in which things got “out of hand’’ and pledges were made for big plays.
“Those statements support the written declarations, made under penalty of perjury, by Coach Williams and Mr. Cerullo about the events of that evening. In contrast, your statement that nothing out of the ordinary happened and that no pledges were made by anyone at that meeting is inconsistent with the information provided by other players and is simply not persuasive.

“I find, based on all of these facts and the entire record described above, that you did, in fact, pledge money to any teammate who injured or disabled Mr. Favre to an extent that he would not be able to continue playing in the playoff game. I recognize that you and some of your teammates have denied that you made such a pledge or claim not to recall your doing so, but I am persuaded, based on the entirety of the record before me, that you did so. And I find that such a pledge or any similar incentive is conduct detrimental.”

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