NFL Nation: Ronnie Lott

It seems appropriate to give the final word on the T.J. Ward hit that demolished the right knee of Rob Gronkowski to a Hall of Famer.

Former San Franisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott appeared on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland on Wednesday and defended the Cleveland Browns safety. Ward had said after Sunday's game that he made a choice to tackle Gronkowski low because there was no other way to get the 265-pound tight end down.

Ward
Lott did not disagree.

“Had he hit him in the head he would have been fined,” Lott said in the radio interview. “Had he hit him in the shoulder it would have been a tough collision. It would have been hard for him to bring him down.

“The way we’re taught as a defensive back, when you’re hitting someone that’s bigger than you, you’re gonna cut him, you’re gonna find a way to hit him in the legs.

“Unfortunately in this case it was right on the knee.”

Lott admitted that former and present players might look at the play and wonder how Ward could hit Gronkowski in the knee, but he said he did not believe Ward was trying to hurt Gronkowski, just to tackle him.

“You’re going to cut the guys, and the way you’re going to cut them is you’re going to go low and you’re going to hit them around the knee area or below the knee area,” Lott said, adding: “I think it’s a case of guys knowing that’s the only way to bring big guys down.”

One thing Lott said present-day players can do to avoid such hits is to work on tackling to make sure they are doing it as the rules are written. Lott said he often stayed on the field for an hour after practice ended, working on the right way to tackle.

“You have to work at the art of tacking,” Lott said.

That is something that is not done nowadays in practice, in part because of limits on hitting. Even in training camp few coaches allow players to go full-speed and tackle.

For his part, Ward isn’t discussing the hit anymore. Which is wise.

“I spoke my piece after the game and it is what it is,” Ward said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the game.”


TAMPA, Fla. -- Before he was even asked a question about his first pick as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Greg Schiano was painting a portrait that probably still is invisible to most Tampa Bay fans.

Schiano had just stunned his fan base -- and probably the rest of the world -- by taking Alabama safety Mark Barron at No. 7. A safety at No. 7? This guy had better be the second coming of Ronnie Lott and Ed Reed put together or, at very least, John Lynch Jr. You don’t take a safety at No. 7, and say you gladly would have taken him at No. 5, unless you think he’s special. Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik definitely thought Barron was special.

“I think he fits into what we do defensively perfectly,’’ Schiano said. “You couldn’t draw it up any better.’’

That probably doesn’t excite you, especially if you wanted the Bucs to stay put at No. 5 and draft LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. And I know there was a contingent of Tampa Bay fans who thought Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly would be a perfect fit after the Bucs traded out of No. 5 and Claiborne went to Dallas at No. 6.

Either of those would have fit the profile of what we’ve come to expect from the Buccaneers, stretching back to Tony Dungy, running through the Jon Gruden era (with Monte Kiffin as the bridge) and right through the ugly final days of Raheem Morris.

But here’s the thing: Those days are over. This is Schiano’s team now.

Unless you’re a die-hard Rutgers fan, you don’t have any clue what a Schiano team looks like. Even if all your Knights are scarlet, you might see some changes as Schiano adjusts to the NFL. He’s not about to publicly share his X's and O's, but he certainly has implied this team is going to look a lot different in a lot of ways. Believe it or not, that might start at safety because Barron is going to be tied to Schiano forever, for better or worse.

“I think our safeties have to be more dynamic than in most schemes,’’ Schiano said.

At 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, Barron is big enough to play in the box and make an impact on a run defense that needs improvement. With 12 career interceptions, Barron also has shown the ability to make plays in coverage.

“He needs to be able to do a lot of things, and he is capable of them,’’ Schiano said.

He’s going to have to cover wide receivers man to man, Schiano said. That’s a change from the days of Kiffin’s Cover 2, when safeties picked up wide receivers only after they got past the cornerbacks and Lynch often played the role of a linebacker. That may not be enough in an NFC South in which Drew Brees has thrown for 5,000 yards in a season and Cam Newton and Matt Ryan can put up big numbers. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s not just an NFC South trend. All around the league, teams are throwing the heck out of the ball.

“Safety has become an extremely important position now,’’ Dominik said.

More important than cornerback? Where the Bucs have Eric Wright, an aging Ronde Barber and a question mark in Aqib Talib?

Obviously, the Bucs think so. Dominik said the Bucs would have chosen Barron at No. 5 if they had stayed put. That means they would have chosen him over Claiborne, who was widely considered the best cornerback in this draft.

That’s a pretty strong statement from a team that has chosen only two defensive backs in the first round in its history and both of those were cornerbacks. There’s even a bit more pure football logic about this pick.

The Bucs had a big need at safety after releasing Tanard Jackson. They were left with Cody Grimm, a possible move to safety by Barber and not much else. Barron fills that need.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron and Jarrett Lee
Marvin Gentry/US Presswire"You couldn't draw it up any better," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of getting safety Mark Barron.
But I don’t think this pick was completely about X's and O's and pure football ability.

I think the selection of Barron was another sign that Schiano is going to do things much differently than in the past. Something obviously cooled the Bucs on Claiborne. Maybe it was that he reportedly had a low Wonderlic score or maybe it was something else.

Schiano said he and Dominik saw sparks the first time they watched film of Barron. By the time they interviewed him at the combine, there was a flame. As they talked about Barron, Schiano and Dominik both mentioned that he was a two-time captain for a team that won two national championships during his stint.

“He fits who we are and what we are,’’ Schiano said.

I get the impression Schiano cares a lot about what guys bring as players, but I’m getting an even stronger sense he cares about what they bring as people and how that can translate into winning. That’s sort of a new concept around here, at least since the Dungy days.

“He fits who we are and what we are,’’ Schiano said.

In other words, the Bucs think Barron can step right in and be a leader on a team that desperately lacked leadership and personality in the Morris days.

“Our coaches are excited to get their hands on him and mold him into a Buccaneer Man,’’ Dominik said.

We’ve heard the phrase “Buccaneer Man’’ a lot since Schiano took over. The problem is we have no idea what the new Buccaneer Man is supposed to be. But now we’re starting to get a bit of a portrait.

With Barron, there’s a face and maybe an outline of a body and a personality. Looks a little like a good athlete, a natural leader and a guy who was asking if there was a way to get his hands on a playbook Thursday night, even though he’s scheduled to fly to Tampa first thing Friday morning.

Maybe the Barron pick doesn’t look so bad -- or blank -- after all.
Ed ReedMitch Stringer/US Presswire"I don't think there is a weakness that he has," Tom Brady says of Ed Reed.


OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- All the talk surrounding the Ravens this week has been about Ed Reed's critical comments regarding quarterback Joe Flacco and how they will affect the team's heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

In reality, Reed is a bigger problem for the Patriots than he'll ever be for the Ravens. No one draws more respect from the Patriots than Reed and no one gives them more reasons to worry than the eight-time Pro Bowl safety.

The Patriots know they can slow down Terrell Suggs by putting a couple of blockers on him. They know Ray Lewis is always going to be in the middle of the defense before they line up.

There's no certainty when it comes to Reed. He can be anywhere on the field. Reed can even make it look like he'll be on one side and end up on the other before the ball gets there.

When it comes to stopping the Patriots' passing game, the Ravens have to keep an eye on Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch. When it comes to having success against the Ravens' pass defense, all eyes are on Reed.

Having Reed playing center field in the secondary is the biggest reason that the Ravens allowed an NFL-low 11 passing touchdowns this season (four fewer than any other team). He's also the biggest reason that no quarterback has thrown more than one touchdown pass against the Ravens in any game this season.

The biggest compliment that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can give Reed is that the free safety is always at the forefront of his mind.

"When you break the huddle, you find where he's at and you make sure you're not lobbing the ball up in his zones, because as you saw in the Houston game, he's going to go up there and make the plays," Brady said. "He's just an exceptional player. I don't think there is a weakness that he has."

Reed is coming off one of the worst regular seasons of his career, at least statistically. His three interceptions and eight passes defended are his lowest in a full 16-game season.

But the postseason has always been Reed's best season. His eight interceptions is one shy of tying Ronnie Lott, Bill Simpson and Charlie Waters for the most in NFL playoff history.

Reed's latest came last Sunday with 1:51 left in the game and the Ravens ahead by a touchdown. Knowing the Texans would look deep to wide receiver Andre Johnson, Reed held his ground in the middle of the field even though quarterback T.J. Yates was trying to make the safety move left by staring in that direction.

When Yates cocked his arm back, Reed jumped to the right side toward Johnson before Yates even released the ball. Reed was there in time to intercept the pass in front of Johnson at the Baltimore 4-yard line.

Reed's instincts and awareness have led to 57 interceptions, the most among active players.

"I've just been playing football for a long time," Reed said of having a nose for the ball. "I've been playing football since I was a little kid, so it's just some natural blessings that God has blessed me with to get to the ball and understand what I've been doing over the years."

With 11 seconds left in last Sunday's playoff game, Reed made the play that allowed the Ravens to advance to the AFC Championship Game. On that play, Reed was playing over the top against Johnson on the left side, which forced the Texans to throw the Hail Mary to the right. Reed raced all the way across the field to knock down the pass, preserving a 20-13 victory.

"I’m not sure that if he hadn’t made it, I don’t know what would have happened there," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Those are the kinds of plays he makes. He probably covers more field back there as a single safety than most teams can cover with two. He’s got great instincts; he’s a tremendous player.”

Belichick's affection for Reed is well-known. He called Reed one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Last year, Brady joked that Belichick wanted to adopt Ed Reed and change his name to "Ed Belichick."

"He has said that to us before, and then constantly threw the ball back there at him," linebacker Suggs said. "I don't know how much that holds weight."

Suggs is right that the Patriots' adoration doesn't mean they fear Reed, who has broken up five passes in four career games against New England and intercepted Brady in the 2009 wild-card playoff game.

While the Patriots were praising Reed all week, the Ravens had to answer questions about his comments every day. Reed went on national radio this week to say Flacco was "rattled" in last Sunday's playoff game and "just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense." He doesn't believe those comments will distract the team leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

"It's about the Ravens and New England playing football," Reed said. "All that other stuff is to the side. That was about the last game. It's irrelevant to what we're doing right now, getting ready for the Patriots. What was said was something I said about the whole team, and it wasn't just about Joe. We were critical about ourselves in that game. That's every teammate of mine talking about the game we watched on film. We weren't satisfied with our effort."

Reed won't be satisfied until he wins a Super Bowl, and the years to capture one are starting to dwindle for him. He'll turn 34 less than a week into next season, and he's contemplated retirement before because of a nerve impingement between his neck and shoulder.

Does Reed sense the window of opportunity closing?

"We'll cross that bridge when that happens," Reed said. "Right now, we're focused on playing football and winning this game. That's what it's about at the end of the day. It's about us going out and trying to win this game to the best of our ability, and that's what we're going out there to do."
Ronnie Lott witnessed one of the greatest coaching jobs in NFL history during the Bill Walsh years in San Francisco three decades ago.

The Hall of Famer thinks the 49ers' current coach, Jim Harbaugh, might be doing something more spectacular in leading the team to an 8-1 record against all expectations.

"This might be the greatest coaching that I've ever seen in the history of the game of professional football," Lott told Sirius NFL Radio recently. "It's his first [season as an NFL head coach] and not only is he hitting it out of the park but, man, he's hitting all the notes. Everything that you can think of, he's done."

Lott pointed to the 49ers' ability to play well and win under a first-time NFL head coach following a lockout-shortened offseason. The turnaround from eight consecutive non-winning seasons has been striking. Kenton Wong of ESPN Stats & Information put together a Harbaugh-related packet with the following key points:
  • Stanford went from 1-11 the year before Harbaugh arrived as head coach to 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1 over his four seasons at the university.
  • The 49ers brought back most key players, notably Alex Smith, from a team that went 6-10 last season. Their eight victories this season match the rest of the NFC West combined. The 49ers have a .889 winning percentage, compared to .296 for the rest of the division. They are plus-95 in points. The rest of the NFC West is minus-198. The 49ers have one more road win (four) than the rest of the division combined.
  • Smith is on pace for career bests in yards per attempt (7.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.7).
  • Harbaugh's seven-game winning streak is tied for second longest by a rookie head coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Ted Marchibroda's Colts won nine in a row in 1975. Bobby Ross' Chargers won seven straight in 1992. Chuck Knox's Rams (1972) and Nick Saban's Dolphins (2005) each enjoyed six-game streaks. Update: Steve Mariucci won 11 in a row during the 1997 season, his first with the 49ers. We'll notify Elias on that one.

This is the best start for a rookie NFC West coach since Mariucci's 49ers opened the 1997 season with an 11-1 record. They finished 13-3.

Mike Martz's St. Louis Rams went 8-2 to open the 2000 season. Mike Holmgren's Seahawks opened the 1999 season with an 8-2 record.

I've put together a chart showing NFC West head coaches' first-year records since 1997, excluding interim coaches.
.
Examining the most crucial event in the history of every team in the division.

A longtime Cincinnati Bengals assistant named Bill Walsh was having a hard time convincing NFL teams to hire him as a head coach.

The Bengals had promoted another assistant, Bill "Tiger" Johnson, when Paul Brown retired after the 1975 season. Walsh spent 1976 as offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers before leaving the NFL entirely for the best head-coaching job he could get. Years later, Walsh accused Brown of conspiring to keep him from advancing.

Bill Walsh
Malcolm Emmons/.US PresswireThe 49ers won three Super Bowls under coach Bill Walsh.
While Walsh was building a winner at Stanford, the sputtering San Francisco 49ers were running through four head coaches in less than two calendar years. Young owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. made Walsh the fifth in 1979.

"Caution should be exercised in proclaiming Bill Walsh the savior of the 49er franchise," Bay Area columnist Ed Jacoubowsky wrote at the time. "But the selection of Walsh as director of the club's football operations probably is the best step the young owner could have taken."

Probably? Let's make that a "definitely" in hindsight.

The organization would never be the same. Offensive football would never be the same. The balance of power in the league itself would shift for a decade, and then some. This was the most crucial event in 49ers history and more significant than any the team's current division rivals have experienced.

That message came through clearly at the SportsNation ballot box, where Walsh's hiring received significantly more votes than any other NFC West Flash Point among the more than 129,000 ballots cast across the division. The 49ers' Flash Points drew more than 44,000 votes, most in the NFC West, and Walsh's hiring commanded better than half of them.

"If the 49ers never hired Bill Walsh, they would not have changed the organizational structure of the team, how players are graded and drafted, how to prepare those players for the season and utilize them on the field of play," razzberry80 wrote. "Bill changed EVERYTHING. Joe Montana was the best, but without Bill Walsh, Joe is probably not drafted by the 49ers."

Another 49ers fan, servegmo, credited Walsh for drawing him in as a fan living in Costa Rica.

"He is the reason people from all over the world started watching football," servegmo wrote. "He put the 49ers in a position where they changed football as a whole -- the offseason preparation, the inclusion of black coaches, the practices, the West Coast offense, how he managed the draft (drafting the best players EVER at quarterback, wide receiver and safety). How many coaches can say that?"

The 49ers won three Super Bowls in 10 seasons under Walsh, who qualified as a football visionary in strategy, philosophy and personnel evaluation. Walsh became famous for scripting plays to separate in-game emotions from the decision-making process. His personnel moves and broader philosophy scripted more lasting success: five Super Bowls, including two won after Walsh retired from the sideline.

With full support from DeBartolo, who had learned from past mistakes, Walsh showed an exceptional eye for talent. Has any coach possessed a superior vision?

"When he drafted Ronnie Lott, he thought, 'He's a corner now, but he'll be a longtime All-Pro safety,'" former Walsh assistant and two-time NFL head coach Dennis Green said for this project. "When he drafted Roger Craig, he saw him as a fullback now, but a little small for the fullback we really needed, so we would draft a fullback and Craig would make the transition to running back.

Trent Green
AP Photo/Harold JenkinsTrent Green's knee injury paved the way for Kurt Warner to step in at quarterback.
"Bill did that sort of thing constantly when he thought players could fit in a certain way and be very unique players."

Walsh's hiring commanded 53 percent of votes cast for the 49ers' Flash Points, with "The Catch" ranking second at 37 percent. Of course, there never would have been such a signature play if Walsh hadn't put together a 1979 draft class featuring Montana in the third round and Dwight Clark in the 10th.

RAMS: Trent Green's injury pivotal

The Kurt Warner story might never have been told if the San Diego Chargers' Rodney Harrison hadn't knocked out Green with a severe knee injury during the 1999 preseason.

Fans voted that moment supreme with 49 percent of more than 28,000 votes. Only Mike Jones' Super Bowl-saving tackle against Kevin Dyson (36 percent) came close to challenging.

The comments section of the Rams-related item drew barely more than a dozen contributions, however. So much for exit polling.

[+] EnlargePaul Allen
Robert Giroux/Getty ImagesPaul Allen helped bring an NFC title to Seattle.
"The ownership change [in 1972] precipitated everything that has happened to the Rams in 'modern' times," patdpenguin wrote. "The true answer to the question would be the ownership change, but as a lifelong fan, speaking with my heart, I would choose the Trent Green injury. Prior to that, the team had not proven anything, and was spinning its wheels."

SEAHAWKS: Paul Allen trumps all

The Seahawks were planning a move to Los Angeles during their darkest days of the 1990s, at one point even conducting free agency from an elementary school parking lot in Southern California.

Allen wasn't much of an NFL fan at the time, but he rallied to the cause of keeping the team in Seattle. Allen led a push to secure a new stadium, contributing $130 million of his own money in exchange for $300 million in public funding, as part of a deal to purchase the team.

Within a couple years, the team had landed Mike Holmgren as coach and general manager. Multiple division titles and the first Super Bowl in franchise history followed.

"I went with Allen buying the team," DiLune2 wrote. "It is hard to point to any one of those [other] moments as the one point where it all changed. They were part of a long, ugly slide. Allen buying the team, though, was the one point in time where you can look and say, 'It all changed right there.'"

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images Larry Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 152 yards and three TDs in the NFC Championship Game.
CARDINALS: Beating Eagles to reach Super Bowl

Sixty-eight percent of more than 26,000 Cardinals voters pointed to the team's victory over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. No option for any team drew a higher percentage.

The runner-up for the Cardinals -- securing a new stadium in 2006 -- lagged with only 16 percent. But some felt strongly it should have prevailed.

"Wow, this is a slam dunk," longtime blog contributor Leesters wrote. "The stadium changed this team overnight. It went from the least competitive financial situation in the league to one of the best, in one year. Free agents could be afforded, better coaches, better home-field advantage. If it wasn't for this stadium, there would be no NFC Championship win."

Draft Watch: NFC West

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Dream Scenario/Plan B.

Arizona Cardinals

Dream scenario: Having Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller available at No. 5 would qualify as a dream scenario based on what we know about Arizona this offseason. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton has vowed to turn the Cardinals into more of a pressure-oriented team. The Cardinals have an obvious need to get more dynamic at outside linebacker to a degree that probably would not happen even if O'Brien Schofield and Will Davis emerged as factors.

Granted, the Cardinals need a quarterback more than they need anything else, but there's no sense to this point that Arizona would select one fifth in this draft. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has said he doesn't see a Sam Bradford or Matt Ryan type among the current college prospects. Personnel director Steve Keim has said a team cannot have any reservations about a quarterback selected that early. Perhaps they are blowing smoke.

Plan B: Or, Whisenhunt might be right about not seeing a Bradford or Ryan in this draft. The Cardinals' need for a quarterback is great enough, however, for them to select one as Plan B should the pass-rusher scenario fall through. Let's assume Miller is off the board when Arizona chooses. Drafting receiver A.J. Green or cornerback Patrick Peterson would upgrade the roster, to be sure, but if a top pass-rusher were unavailable and Gabbert slipped unexpectedly, could Arizona really turn its back on a promising if imperfect passer?

San Francisco 49ers

Dream scenario: Having Miller or one of the top quarterbacks fall to the 49ers at No. 7 would surely tempt them, but that seems unrealistic even as a dream scenario.

A more realistic dream scenario would have the 49ers on the clock with a choice between top cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara. The team could then draft the one it likes best, filling an obvious need, or consider trading out of the selection if another team showed strong interest in moving up the board for, say, one of the top wideouts.

The 49ers' problems in pass coverage last season were team-related and not just corner-specific. The safety play wasn't exactly stellar. As ESPN Stats & Information notes, the 49ers allowed 66.7 percent completions, 18.2 yards per attempt and a 130.1 rating on passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield between the yard-line numbers -- right where top coverage safeties are expected to make their mark. The league averages were 48.8 percent completions and 12.3 yards per attempt with a 79.9 rating.

But with cornerback Nate Clements' contract becoming untenable, there's no denying the team's need for a top corner. Adding one with the seventh overall choice would provide a needed talent upgrade in the secondary. And if Peterson eventually transitioned into becoming a top safety, as former 49ers cornerback Eric Davis suggested the case might be, the 49ers could use him there as well. Ronnie Lott made that transition famously as the eighth pick of the 1981 draft.

Plan B: It would probably entail seeking out one of the top pass-rushers after Miller. I've penciled in Robert Quinn as a possibility, but the 49ers would have to weigh risks. Quinn underwent surgery in 2007 to alleviate pressure caused by a benign tumor that remains in Quinn's brain and could affect his status.

St. Louis Rams

Dream scenario: Landing a playmaking wideout with the 14th overall selection stands as the dream scenario for the only NFC West organization that has found its long-term answer at quarterback. Conventional wisdom says there's no chance Green will be available this late, and most mock drafts seem to have Alabama receiver Julio Jones coming off the board before the 14th selection as well. The Rams can dream for the purposes of this exercise. Jones would certainly add promise to a receiving corps with quite a few injury-related question marks.

Quarterback Sam Bradford completed 59.1 percent of his passes to wide receivers last season, right at the league average. But he managed only 6.2 yards per attempt on those passes, well off the 7.8-yard NFL average. Arming Bradford with ample weapons, particularly on the outside, makes too much sense for the Rams to head in another direction unnecessarily.

Plan B: If one of the top two wideouts isn't available at No. 14, the Rams can feel good about building their depth along the defensive line. Coach Steve Spagnuolo wants to build a deep rotation of linemen along the lines of what he had when running the New York Giants' defense. While the Rams got more than expected from their defensive line last season -- Fred Robbins and James Hall were outstanding -- they could use an infusion of young talent. Auburn's Nick Fairley has the talent to go much higher than No. 14, but if he or even Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget were available, the Rams could do worse.

Seattle Seahawks

Dream scenario: General manager John Schneider came right out and said he hopes to move out of the 25th overall choice. Trading down generally would not qualify as a very exciting dream scenario, but the Seahawks need more selections. They lack a third-round choice and remain in what Schneider called the "infancy" of the building process. More picks, please.

While Seattle obviously needs a quarterback, this draft does not appear to offer slam-dunk prospects at the position, and Seattle is selecting too late for a realistic shot at one of the top ones, anyway. Trading out of the spot would allow Seattle to gain the additional picks necessary to address multiple deficiencies. Remember, Schneider came to Seattle from Green Bay, where the Packers used more draft selections than any team in the league -- 51 -- over a five-year period beginning in 2005.

Plan B: Of course, lots of teams talk about trading down and acquiring additional selections. It's easier said than done, in some cases. Plan B could entail standing pat at No. 25 and selecting the best lineman available on either side of the ball. The Seahawks need building blocks. They selected high enough in 2010 to target elite prospects at left tackle (Russell Okung) and free safety (Earl Thomas). They're in position to take a less exciting approach this year, but they can still strengthen their foundation.

Final Word: AFC North

October, 29, 2010
10/29/10
4:01
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliBen Roethlisberger is not afraid to stay in the pocket even when under pressure.
Big-play Ben: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to make a lot of big plays in Sunday's prime-time matchup against the New Orleans Saints. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, Roethlisberger leads the NFL in passer rating (140.1) and yards per attempt (11.1) against the blitz, which consists of five or more rushers. Roethlisberger is not afraid to hold the ball an extra second or two against pressure to allow his receivers to get downfield. Four of Roethlisberger's five touchdowns passes this year have come against the blitz. The Saints and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams are a blitz-heavy team, which could play into Roethlisberger's hands Sunday.

Winning the turnover battle: It's no secret why the New York Jets (5-1) and the Steelers (5-1) are two of three teams tied for the NFL's best record. They are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in turnover ratio. The Jets are plus-10 in six games and the Steelers are plus-9. Pittsburgh adopted a conservative offense, which took care of the football in Roethlisberger's absence while wreaking havoc on defense. The Steelers are plus-2 in turnover ratio in Roethlisberger's two starts.

Banged-up Bengals: The Cincinnati Bengals are hurting entering their must-win game against the Miami Dolphins, most notably in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (ankle) and Leon Hall (hamstring) both missed practice time this week, as did safeties Chinedum Ndukwe (knee) and Roy L. Williams (knee). Adam Jones (neck) also was put on injured reserve. Quarterback Carson Palmer missed Thursday's practice with a hip injury, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says he expects Palmer to play Sunday.

Red zone woes: The Bengals have been gaining yards but have stalled in the red zone. Cincinnati is ranked No. 8 in total offense but in the bottom third (No. 24) in red zone efficiency, which has made a huge difference in its 2-4 start. The no-huddle has helped between the 20s, but the unit has to toughen up and stop settling for field goals. During Cincinnati's three-game losing streak, the team converted touchdowns on only four of 10 trips to the red zone.

Bye-week thoughts: As the Baltimore Ravens enter the bye week, star safety Ed Reed (hip) will continue to get healthy after an impressive return in last week's win over the Buffalo Bills. Reed recorded two interceptions against Buffalo, and according to ESPN's Stats and Information, only two players have more multi-interception games (nine) than Reed: Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Paul Krause. The Cleveland Browns must find a way to score more points before taking the field Nov. 7 against the New England Patriots. The Browns are No. 28 in scoring at 16.9 points per game. The defense has played hard, and Cleveland is 2-0 when scoring 23 points or more.
The blog feels a bit like a radio station lately with several recent entries dedicated to audio.

Here's another one: San Francisco 49ers great Ronnie Lott on KNBR in San Francisco, paying tribute to former Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum, who died Tuesday.

A clearly emotional Lott credited Tatum for establishing a style and level of play for younger safeties to emulate. NFL.com has made available this video ranking Tatum as one of the most feared tacklers (Lott was fourth and that video is here, complete with the collision that cost him his pinkie finger).

The Arizona Cardinals' Adrian Wilson is the one current NFC West safety with some of the same characteristics in terms of physical play and hitting ability (hits on Vernon Davis and Trent Edwards come to mind).

My all-time list of big-hitting NFC West safeties -- those who played for teams currently aligned with the division -- would feature Lott, Wilson, Cardinals Hall of Famer Larry Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks' Kenny Easley. Chuck Cecil played only one season for the Cardinals, but he also deserves mention.

There have certainly been others. Who's missing?

There's more to playing the position than hitting, of course. Lott has pointed to his understanding of the game as his most important attribute. He touched on that aspect during the KNBR interview when recalling what made Tatum an excellent player. Delivering crushing hits frequently requires getting in position to make those hits, which requires understanding situations.

Lott and Tatum did that better than most.

Best 49ers Team Ever: 1989

June, 24, 2010
6/24/10
9:30
AM ET
Notable players: QB Joe Montana, QB Steve Young, WR Jerry Rice, WR John Taylor, RB Roger Craig, FB Tom Rathman, TE Brent Jones, G Guy McIntyre, FS Ronnie Lott, OLB Charles Haley, DE Pierce Holt, DE Kevin Fagan, OLB Keena Turner, LB Matt Millen.

[+] EnlargeJoe Montana
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesJoe Montana and the 49ers were at the height of their success during the 1989 season.
Analysis: The San Francisco 49ers had multiple teams worthy of consideration as the best in franchise history. I'll take the one that outscored its opponents 126-26 during the postseason, including 55-10 over the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Denver led the NFL in scoring defense that season.

The 1989 team featured the 49ers' offense at the peak of its powers.

Joe Montana averaged 9.1 yards per attempt with 13 starts that season. The figure for three-game starter Steve Young -- 10.9 yards per attempt -- was even more ridiculous. Drew Brees set a career high at 8.5 yards per attempt last season. Tom Brady's average was 8.3 during his historic 2007 season. Dan Marino was at 9.0 in his 1984 career season. None could match the 49ers' top two quarterbacks during this special season.

This was the first 49ers team of the 1980s without Bill Walsh, but offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren was still there, as were nearly all of the team's iconic offensive players from the decade. Tight end Brent Jones emerged as a starter. Roger Craig topped 1,000 yards rushing. Fullback Tom Rathman caught 73 passes. Montana set a career high for passer rating at 112.1, completing 70.2 percent with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Rice caught 17 touchdown passes while averaging 18.1 yards per reception.

The defense was typically overlooked except by those forced to play against it. John Elway completed only 10 of 26 passes for 108 yards and two interceptions against the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

"Their defense doesn't get enough credit," Broncos coach Dan Reeves said afterward. ''I can't say enough about them.''

Walsh later regretted retiring. This team made it easy to see why.

Most impressive win: Having already touched on the Super Bowl victory, let's focus on the victory that delivered the NFC West title to San Francisco that season. Montana passed for 458 yards, including 286 to receiver John Taylor, and the 49ers twice overcame 17-point deficits to edge the division-rival Rams, 30-27, on the road.

Transcending Walsh: This 49ers team became the only one in NFL history to win back-to-back Super Bowls with different head coaches. The change from Walsh to George Seifert might have actually helped this team, at least for a season. The offensive-minded Walsh left the defensive-minded Seifert with a veteran offense trained to function at a high level without much big-picture help. Holmgren took the best of what Walsh taught him and made it even better with his own tweaking. In that sense, the 1989 team might have gotten the best of what Walsh and Holmgren had to offer. Montana was also at his best. He never enjoyed a finer season.

Honorable mention

1984: This was the team that knocked off Marino in the Super Bowl after the quarterback shredded defenses for a then-record 48 touchdown passes. This was a great 49ers team with a franchise-best 15-1 record, but the best group in 49ers history needed to include Rice, I thought. He arrived the next year.

1994: Proponents of this team will point to a defense featuring Deion Sanders, Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton, Merton Hanks, Eric Davis, Tim McDonald, Bryant Young and others. They'll point to Young's record six touchdown passes against the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl.

1948: Let's save some recognition for one of the early 49ers teams. This one outscored opponents by more than 17 points per game on its way to a 12-2 record. Frankie Albert put up modern-day numbers with 29 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a 102.9 rating.
John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan MarinoUS PresswireJohn Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino are a part of a draft class that may be the best in NFL history.
The 1983 NFL draft might have been the best of the modern era even without Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino.

It was that good.

"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."

The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.

No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.

Not that making the cut was good enough for some.

"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.

The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.

The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project Insider. The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:

  • Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
  • MVP awards (8)
  • Player of the year awards (6)
  • All-Pro first-team awards (4)
  • All-Pro second-team awards (3)
  • Super Bowl victories (3)
  • Pro Bowls (2)
  • Rookie of the year awards (2)
  • Super Bowl defeats (1)

I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.

From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.

I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.

Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.

The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.

"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."

Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.

A few key variables changed along the way.

Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.

NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.

My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.

The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?

Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.


[+] EnlargeDarrell Green
US PresswireDarrell Green was the last pick of the first round in the 1983 draft.
1983

Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.

Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)

Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)

Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).

Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.

Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.

"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."

Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.

"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."


Ray Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Lewis could be one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL.
1996

Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.

Hall of Famers: none yet.

Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.

Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).

Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).

Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.

Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.

"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."

Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.

"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."


[+] EnlargeLT
US PresswireLawrence Taylor helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls.
1981

Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.

Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).

Hall of Fame finalists: none.

Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).

Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.

Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.

"You are going to Seattle?"

"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.

Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.

"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."

The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.

"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."


Joe Greene
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJoe Greene is one of five Hall of Fame inductees from the 1969 draft class.
1969

Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.

Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).

Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).

Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).

Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.

Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.

"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."

Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.

"You never really trained for it back then," he said.


[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
US PresswireJerry Rice, the best receiver in NFL history, helped San Francisco win three Super Bowls.
1985

Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.

Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).

Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).

Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).

Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.

Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.

Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.

The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.

Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.

The case for Rice as the greatest ever

February, 3, 2010
2/03/10
11:17
AM ET
RiceGeorge Rose/Getty ImagesWide receiver Jerry Rice retired with his name all over the National Football League record book.
MIAMI -- Anyone advocating Jerry Rice as the greatest player in NFL history can bury the opposition in statistics.

Rice averaged 1,145 yards receiving and more than 10 total touchdowns per season -- for 20 NFL seasons.

Rice caught 69 touchdown passes -- more than the career totals for Art Monk, Michael Irvin, Charlie Joiner, John Stallworth and numerous other Hall of Fame receivers -- during a five-season span ending in 1993. Rice then caught 28 touchdown passes over the next two seasons, more than half the career total for Hall of Famer Lynn Swann.

He retired holding NFL records for:

  • Touchdowns (208), receiving TDs (197), receiving TDs in a season (22), consecutive games with a TD reception (13), TDs in Super Bowls (8), receiving TDs in a single Super Bowl (3) and postseason TDs (22).
  • Receptions (1,549), consecutive games with a reception (274), receptions in Super Bowls (33) and postseason receptions (151).
  • Receiving yards (22,895), receiving yards in a season (1,848), receiving yards in Super Bowls (589), receiving yards in a Super Bowl (215), postseason receiving yards (2,245) and seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving (14).
Rice, whose selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a formality Saturday, probably enjoyed the greatest NFL career. He was probably the greatest wide receiver despite some arguments for Don Hutson. But was he the greatest player, period?

"Oh, yeah," Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said almost reflexively during Super Bowl media day.

Woodson, perhaps mindful of history as a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary team, then showed he could still backpedal a bit.

Brown
Getty ImagesWhen talking about the greatest players ever, Jim Brown needs to be in the conversation.
"I mean, he is definitely up there," he said. "I don't think one player is the greatest player ever, but he is in that water-cooler conversation. Now, if you say greatest receiver, absolutely. But the greatest player, to make him the most dominant player ever in NFL history or just say pro football history, that is a profound statement. But I can say that he will be in that argument time in and time out."

The conversation might include Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Sammy Baugh, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Hutson, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders among players no longer active. And that list is probably shortchanging defensive greats such as Deacon Jones and Dick Butkus.

But Ray Lewis, arguably the greatest defensive player of the current era, didn't hesitate in singling out Rice.

"I don't know what argument you are going to make why he is not," Lewis said.

And that might be what separates Rice from the rest. There really isn't a great case against him. No one played at such a high level for as long with such grace.

"Jerry Rice doesn't rank in the all-time greats," said Saints safety Darren Sharper, a five-time Pro Bowl choice and member of the 2000s All-Decade team. "He is the greatest receiver and maybe the greatest football player of all time."

Maybe?

"I can't comment on eras that I didn't perform in," retired cornerback Deion Sanders said, "but the era I performed in, Jerry Rice is the best football player to play in that era."

On what grounds beyond the numbers?

"Work ethic, precision, routes, physical toughness, awareness, that hunger," Sanders said. "Jerry stayed hungry until the day he retired."

(Read full post)

NEW ORLEANS -- Apparently Brett Favre’s rendition of “Pants on the Ground” last Sunday wasn’t good enough. Minnesota officials flew in the original American Idol singer, a man by the name of General Larry Platt, to perform the song in a team meeting Sunday.

Don’t believe me? Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie, currently the best beat reporter covering the team, revealed it in his Twitter page. Follow this link, which takes you to another link of McKinnie’s grainy cell phone video of the performance. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, meanwhile, tweeted this picture. Finally, here is another twitpic from receiver Bernard Berrian.

I hate to read too much into this, but I think it’s at least marginally interesting that the Vikings brought in Platt for their meeting while New Orleans had Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott speak at theirs, according to ESPN's Rachel Nichols. A slightly disparate approach, to say the least.

Sharper breaks INT return record

December, 27, 2009
12/27/09
1:41
PM ET
Sharper
NEW ORLEANS -- Darren Sharper just broke the NFL record for return yards on interceptions in a season.

Sharper just had his ninth interception of the season, picking off a Josh Freeman pass and returning it 21 yards. That gives Sharper 376 return yards this season. The previous record (358 yards) was set by Ed Reed in 2004.

Sharper now has 63 career interceptions. That times him for sixth place on the all-time list with Ronnie Lott.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Blues chairman Dave Checketts is a contender to help keep the Rams in St. Louis. Wrote Checketts in an e-mail to the Post-Dispatch: "We have the ability to get this done and we have communicated this to the Rams. We approached this with the Rams months ago and have since that time put together a partnership of both concerned St. Louisans and outside capital. Last week, we communicated to Chip Rosenbloom in no uncertain terms, that he now has a clear St. Louis buyer. We are that buyer. We have reason to believe the NFL would approve our group as we have carefully explored their ownership requirements."

Earlier from Miklasz: Minority Rams owner Stan Kroenke offers the best hope for the team remaining in St. Louis. Miklasz: "He has the right of first refusal and can match any offer made to [Chip] Rosenbloom for that 60 percent [stake owned by Rosenbloom and sister Lucia Rodriguez]." Miklasz says the St. Louis community has five or six years to prevent a move. What happens if an outsider purchases the team with clear intent to relocate? Staying becomes untenable at that point, no?

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com says keeping the Rams could depend on whether the St. Louis economy can recover.

VanRam of Turf Show Times asks whether the Rams' potential sale could become a distraction for players and coaches. Absolutely it could.

Taylor Price of 49ers.com checks in with new 49ers cornerback Dre Bly. Competition between Bly and Tarell Brown for the starting job will apparently be waged on friendly terms. Brown: "It's a wonderful feeling having a veteran come out here. He's a Pro Bowl-caliber player and it's great to have the opportunity to learn from him and watch him work."

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider takes issue with the 49ers' decision to let Isaac Bruce wear No. 80 during practice. Lynch: "Bruce said last year he wears it because it makes him feel comfortable and because he can spot himself more readily on film. Lame excuses both, and it's bad form the 49ers allow Bruce to wear Rice's number anywhere but in the privacy of Bruce's own home. What about tradition, about legacy, about preserving a uniform number for the best receiver to ever play the game?" On the other hand, Rice didn't have much trouble borrowing Steve Largent's No. 80 during his lone season with the Seahawks.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle quotes Bly as expressing supreme confidence in his abilities. Bly: "It's always been easy for me. I'm not trying to be arrogant. I've been consistently making plays. I haven't lost much quickness. I ain't no 4.3 guy [in the 40-yard dash], but I have football speed. My instincts make up for it. Everything is converted to football speed, and I have football speed."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Bly worked with the starters in practice Monday, but so did Brown. Nate Clements wasn't feeling well.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News updates Ronnie Lott's charitable interests.

Also from Brown: Bly listed among his career highlights the time in 1999 when Bruce first spoke to him. They were teammates with the Rams. Bruce made Bly wait two months.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation sizes up the 49ers' situation in the return game. Not much clarity at this point.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals were relieved when Larry Fitzgerald avoided injury during an awkward practice fall. This might be a good time to stop writing about how the Cardinals avoided key injuries last season and how such things tend to even out. It doesn't take a Cardinals fan to appreciate what Fitzgerald brings to the game. Also, only Anquan Boldin, Darnell Dockett and Bertrand Berry have stayed away from practice.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals aren't yet sure what position Boldin will take in negotiations now that Tom Condon has taken over as the receiver's agent.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks fullback Owen Schmitt is appearing in an acclaimed documentary about a small-town football agent and three prospects. Did Leonard Weaver have that kind of range?

Also from Williams: Answers to a few Seahawks-related questions and a picture of his 110-pound black Russian terrier. 

John Morgan of Field Gulls revisits Lofa Tatupu's difficult 2008 season. Morgan: "This is the Tatupu scouts warned us about and it's likely the Tatupu we'll see again if his wheels get busted out. He lost enough quickness that he could no longer cut downhill and towards the ball carrier. Attempting tackles from the side or rear, Tatupu failed to wrap and was cut away from or dropped. It led to a lot of missed tackles, a lot of broken tackles and some tackles where that extra few yards gained turned a stop into a good gain." No question, Tatupu needs better health in 2009. He also played through a thumb injury that required surgery.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Most Postseason Interceptions
Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel is now tied with former teammate Rodney Harrison for most postseason interceptions among current players.
Player INT Games
Charlie Waters 9 25
Bill Simpson 9 11
Ronnie Lott 9 20
Lester Hayes 8 13
Asante Samuel 7 16
Willie Brown 7 17
Dennis Thurman 7 14
Rodney Harrison 7 13
Source: ESPN Stats & Information

As we talked about recently, Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel needs just two more interceptions to tie the all-time record for most postseason picks, which is shared by the immortal Charlie Waters, the lesser known Bill Simpson and the great Ronnie Lott. Pretty remarkable that Simpson, an ex-Ram and Bill, had nine interceptions in only 11 postseason games.

Waters needed 25 games and Lott 20. Samuel has seven in 16 games. He's had an interception in each of the Eagles' playoff wins, so there's a chance he ties or breaks the record in this postseason. I put in a request to visit with him via phone today, but he doesn't do a lot of one-on-ones -- unless he's on the field. The chart shows how Samuel stacks up against some of the great ones. You'll find three players who spent time with the Raiders, two who spent the majority of their careers with the Cowboys and two players who combined to spend 11 years with the Patriots.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Roster Advisor

NFL SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 12/18
Saturday, 12/20
Sunday, 12/21
Monday, 12/22
WEEKLY LEADERS