NFL Nation: Sage Rosenfels

Rick SpielmanAP Photo/Jim MoneThe success of the next Minnesota Vikings quarterback may determine the legacy of general manager Rick Spielman.

MINNEAPOLIS -- In his 17 years as a member of NFL front offices, through a career that's spanned three teams and taken him through two convoluted power structures, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman might never have had more influence over a team than he does right now.

Vikings ownership scrapped its disjointed "triangle of authority" structure in 2012, elevating Spielman from vice president of player personnel to general manager and giving him full control over personnel decisions. The Wilf family decided not to give coach Leslie Frazier a contract extension after a surprising 10-6 season in 2012 and fired him after a 5-10-1 season in 2013. Spielman got to pick his own coach for the first time in his career, hiring well-respected former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and heads into the 2014 draft with four of the top 100 picks, including the No. 8 overall selection.

Spielman could use that pick to take the highest-drafted quarterback in Vikings history. If he does, he could also be making the selection that defines the rest of his tenure as the Vikings' GM.

The biggest hole in Spielman's résumé with the Vikings -- which includes an otherwise commendable record on first-round picks, a shrewd trade for DE Jared Allen, and what appears to be a good return on dealing WR Percy Harvin -- is his inability to find a long-term solution at quarterback. Spielman came to the Vikings shortly after the team had used a second-round pick on Tarvaris Jackson, and didn't have to devote a high pick in the draft to a QB until the end of Brett Favre's two-year run triggered a youth movement in 2011. And now the Vikings appear to be acknowledging that the decision to pick Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011 was a mistake.

"I haven't got it right yet. We've worked as hard as we could to try to get that right," Spielman said after the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30. "I wish that you could get a quarterback [easily], and it's not. It's maybe the most difficult position to fill, but we're going to do everything and use every resource we can to try to get that corrected."

Spielman will have veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner helping him this time, and the GM might rightly conclude that the best decision is to take a defensive player in the first round, come back to draft a quarterback later and let him develop without the expectations (and guaranteed money) that often drive a first-round pick into action right away. But the Vikings would have to bring Matt Cassel back on a new deal or go another route if they want to have a veteran quarterback on their roster next year, and trading for a player like Kirk Cousins or Ryan Mallett would cost the Vikings at least a midround pick while offering few guarantees. More than ever, it's incumbent upon Spielman to get it right at a position he's struggled to fill since his days in Miami.

During his five seasons with the Dolphins, Spielman initiated the first of his two trades for Sage Rosenfels, a move he'd repeat with the Vikings. Spielman had a hand in the acquisitions of Ray Lucas and Brian Griese, and in 2004 -- his only season as the Dolphins' full-fledged GM -- Spielman dealt a second-round pick to Philadelphia for A.J. Feeley, only to watch the quarterback fail to hold the starting job as the Dolphins slipped from 10-6 to 4-12.

The Dolphins' 2004 season went awry in part because running back Ricky Williams went AWOL before the season, but a clear direction at quarterback might have helped the offense weather the loss of its best player. And for all of the Vikings' defensive issues -- and running back Adrian Peterson's nagging injuries -- along the way in their fall from 10-6 to 5-10-1 in 2013, there's a convincing argument to be made that the team could have won a mediocre NFC North if it had stability at quarterback. Frazier seemed to be making that point on his way out of town, leaving some strong hints that responsibility for the quarterback situation -- and who started games there in 2013 -- should be borne by more people than just him.

Frazier, of course, is gone now, and Spielman got his chance to build a more seamless football department by picking his own coach. He has outlived his gaffe on Ponder, and he has more than $20 million of cap space with which to mold the roster this spring. Ownership seems firmly behind him, and as the Vikings move toward the opening of their new stadium in 2016, their direction is firmly under Spielman's control.

But the stigma of his misses at quarterback still follows him around, and if he can't get the position right this time around -- especially if he makes what turns out to be a bad investment with the eighth overall pick -- he likely won't get another chance to change his reputation. General managers can often survive at least one coaching change, but the best ones extend their careers by finding quarterbacks.

To his credit, Spielman seems to know he needs to fix the position. All that's on the line is all he's built for himself in his time with the Vikings.

"I have confidence we'll get this quarterback situation resolved. I really do," he said on Dec. 30. "What that answer is right now, I'm not going to have those answers until we get the coach in place. And when we sit down and delve into what we have at this position -- what is potentially out there in free agency? What is the draft class? Those answers will all come in time."

Wrap-up: Texans 43, Jaguars 37 (OT)

November, 18, 2012

Thoughts on the Texans’ 43-37 win over the Jaguars at Reliant Stadium:

What it means: The Texans posted a remarkable rally from a late two-touchdown deficit and pulled to 9-1 with an improbable overtime victory. It took everything they had to beat the 1-9 Jaguars, who played what ranked as their best game of the season, setting the tone early and fighting like crazy but ultimately coming up short against a team with an awful lot of firepower.

Back in form: Questions about the age and leg condition of Andre Johnson should be about gone by now. He’s been playing better and better and finished this one with 14 catches for a career-high 273 yards. His 35-yard catch on the last possession was crucial for setting up Shayne Graham’s field goal attempt at the end of regulation, but Graham missed it badly. So Johnson took a bubble screen 48 yards for the game-winning touchdown in overtime.

What I liked, Texans: Matt Schaub hit on 43 of 55 passes for 527 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He had a stretch of 17 consecutive completions end on the second play from scrimmage in overtime. The yardage was the second most in NFL history.

What I liked, Jaguars: Chad Henne stepped in for Blaine Gabbert early after the starting quarterback hurt his throwing elbow when his arm was hit by Danieal Manning on a blitz that forced a fumble. Henne was an excellent reliever, finishing 16-of-33 for 354 yards and four touchdowns. No other quarterback since Sage Rosenfels for Houston in 2007 has come off the bench to throw four touchdowns.

What I didn’t like, Texans: There were all sorts of problems defensively. But as the Jaguars connected on a bunch of big pass plays, Houston’s safeties had plays made on them, had receivers bounce off them and generally had a bad day. Manning had a big game last week in Chicago against his old team and Glover Quin has also been steady this season. But whether they just had a bad day or Jacksonville had a sense they were guys who could be attacked, they hurt Houston today.

Overtime: The Texans marched to a field goal on the opening possession of OT. The Jaguars converted a fourth-and-10 with a 15-yard Henne-to-Justin Blackmon pass and managed to get a field goal of their own to extend the game and set up a next-score-wins scenario. That next score was Johnson.

Breakout games: Blackmon was fantastic with seven catches for 236 yards and a touchdown. The rookie receiver showed the combination of physical presence and speed that prompted the Jaguars to trade up for him back in April. On the other side, Keshawn Martin was very productive in the return game, an area where Houston has struggled this season. He had a 71-yard kickoff return and a 54-yard punt return. He also had a 9-yard touchdown catch.

Silly stat: It was just the second game in NFL history with two 200-yard receivers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The only other game in NFL history in which multiple receivers had 200 or more yards was Sept. 23, 2007, when Detroit's Roy Williams (204) and Philadelphia's Kevin Curtis (221) pulled it off in an Eagles win over the Lions.

Defensive standouts: Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny got that blood running from the bridge of his nose dripping down his face from delivering some big hits, and defensive tackle C.J. Mosley was frequently disruptive.

Mixed results: In his first game after roughly a year missed with injuries, Texans inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton had mixed results. He broke through the line for a great tackle for a loss on running back Rashad Jennings but also bit on a run fake and left Marcedes Lewis open for a touchdown pass from Henne.

What’s next: The Texans have a quick turnaround, heading to Detroit for a game on Thanksgiving Day. The Jaguars host Tennessee at EverBank Field.

Minnesota Vikings cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
Most significant move: Following the lead of other teams around the NFL, the Vikings decided to go young at quarterback. The plan all along was to have Christian Ponder as the starter, but the surprise was letting veteran backup Sage Rosenfels go, leaving Joe Webb and McLeod Bethel-Thompson on the roster. Webb is making the transition from wide receiver to quarterback. Thompson is only 23 and hasn’t thrown a pass in the regular season. Webb has three starts and 152 pass attempts during his NFL career. The Bears and Colts found out last year it can be tough to go young at quarterback. The Bears lost Jay Cutler and their season was over. The Colts were without Peyton Manning and the season was lost with Curtis Painter.

Onward and upward: Starting wide receiver Jerome Simpson went on the three-game suspension list, so Leslie Frazier has to make sure he doesn’t have to look for receiver help during his absence. Veteran possession receiver Michael Jenkins was retained after a contract reduction and should fill the void. Keeping Devin Aromashodu gives Ponder a solid option in the slot. Percy Harvin is the team’s No. 1 receiver, but is sure to draw double coverage. The concern is what happens if there is an injury. Jarius Wright, the team’s fourth-round pick, is raw. Stephen Burton, a seventh-round pick from last year, is the fifth option.

What's next: Protecting Ponder is the key to the season. Right guard Geoff Schwartz has fought off a lot of injuries during camp. The backup corps of Brandon Fusco, Joe Berger and Patrick Brown isn’t the most distinguished. The significant improvement is having rookie Matt Kalil at left tackle and moving Charlie Johnson from left tackle to left guard. John Sullivan, a journeyman, needs to have a career year to make it all work. The Vikings also need a big year from right tackle Phil Loadholt.

Say farewell to the 2012 preseason

August, 30, 2012
I didn't have all four NFC North preseason games playing simultaneously in front of me Thursday night. But I'll be darned if the very first thing that happened Thursday night wasn't Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji's ankle injury on the first play from scrimmage at Lambeau Field.

The injury is not believed to be serious, but it underscored the worst fears of the most meaningless night of live-action games on the NFL calendar. A review of the highs and lows from Thursday night is below. And good riddance to you, Mr. Preseason you. ...

Chicago Bears 28, Cleveland Browns 20

Final preseason record: 3-1
Of interest: The Raji injury made the Bears look awfully smart for sitting all 22 starters for this game. And in some cases, second-team players rested as well. … Third-string quarterback Josh McCown started and looked sharp enough to quell any questions about whether the Bears should hold a roster spot for him, at least in my opinion. He played the entire game, completing 20 of 29 passes. ... In a Super Bowl-or-bust year, why take a roster risk at quarterback? … Tailback Lorenzo Booker (81 yards on 15 carries) was having a more productive night than the player he's competing with for the No. 3 running back job, Armando Allen, before he departed because of a head injury and Allen ripped off a 49-yard run. … Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher put a nice exclamation point on his bid for a roster spot with a 30-yard touchdown reception.

Detroit Lions 38, Buffalo Bills 32
Final preseason record: 2-2
Of interest: The Lions played many of their starters for the first series and were up 28-10 at halftime of this affair. That included a crisp seven-play drive by the first-team offense, ending in Matthew Stafford's 24-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson. Stafford finished the preseason with 26 completions in 37 attempts for 360 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 116.9 passer rating. … Johnson had nine receptions for 178 yards and two scores in the preseason. … Tailback Mikel Leshoure gave the Lions something to look forward to when his two-game suspension ends, rushing for 43 yards, catching a 33-yard pass and scoring on a 2-yard run. … Quarterback Kellen Moore, fighting for a roster spot, rebounded from a number of early drops to complete 17 of 30 passes and also score the game-winner on a 1-yard run.

Green Bay Packers 24, Kansas City Chiefs 3
Final preseason record: 2-2
Of interest: Coach Mike McCarthy said after the game that he did not have "a high level of concern" for Raji's ankle injury. … Thank you, Graham Harrell, for ending the drama -- real or imagined -- around the Packers' decision to name you their No. 2 quarterback. In about two full quarters of play, Harrell compiled a perfect 158.3 passer rating: 13 completions in 15 attempts for 223 yards and two touchdowns. His 27-yard pass to tight end Jermichael Finley was crisp, his 54-yard completion to Tori Gurley had plenty of arm and overall everyone should feel much better about the Packers' depth behind starter Aaron Rodgers. … Running back Alex Green displayed his open-field running skills by turning a short pass into a 17-yard scoring play. … Cedric Benson's first-play fumble, recovered by the Packers, will make a few people nervous.

Houston Texans 28, Minnesota Vikings 23
Final preseason record: 1-3
Of interest: The Vikings sat almost all of their starters, and the biggest point to take from this game is the continued inconsistency of backup quarterback Joe Webb. The Vikings managed only three points with him on the field. Third-stringer Sage Rosenfels missed receiver Devin Aromashodu on one deep pass but hit him on another for a 59-yard touchdown. … Rookie receiver Jarius Wright was having a huge night (six receptions for 122 yards) before departing with a foot injury. Among his catches was a 59-yard touchdown from McLeod Bethel-Thompson. … Running backs Matt Asiata (43 yards on seven carries) and Jordan Todman (76-yard touchdown run) competed hard for the No. 3 running back job.

CampTour'12: Vikings Day 1

August, 2, 2012
MANKATO, Minn. -- A few thoughts and observations after our first day of practice with the Minnesota Vikings:

  • Compared to my other stops in this tour, the Vikings spend a lot of on-field time installing plays and reviewing at slow speeds. Their hour-long morning walk-through is, by definition, a half-speed practice. And for the first hour or so of the full-pads afternoon practice, players moved quietly and deliberately through movements that were clearly focused toward mental execution.
  • The final 75 minutes of the afternoon practice were active. Off the top, the Everson Griffen Fan Club will be happy to note their hero crashed through the line in a goal-line team drill and crushed tailback Jordan Todman short of the end zone. Todman sprained his ankle on the play and did not return.
  • I'll have more on this later, but I spoke with coach Leslie Frazier about Griffen to understand how permanent or full-time his move to linebacker might be. Frazier absolutely left open the possibility of Griffen getting some time at defensive end but said this is the time to find out what he could give the team as a linebacker. The reality is Griffen is probably the Vikings' third-best defensive end behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison.
  • Rookie receiver Greg Childs made the catch of the day in the corner of the end zone, leaping over cornerback Brandon Burton and trapping a Joe Webb pass on Burton's back. He held on for the touchdown.
  • Quarterback Christian Ponder missed on a few throws you would like to see him make, but the difference between now and what we saw at training camp last summer and is night and day. Ponder stayed in the pocket and was decisive on most of the throws I saw, which is always an important point for a young quarterback. The best throw I saw him make was about a 35-yard floater down the right sideline, one that sailed over the shoulder of cornerback Chris Cook and into receiver Percy Harvin's hands.
  • Cook made two nice interceptions that I saw, including one of quarterback Sage Rosenfels about one second after he whipped his head around to look for the ball.
  • Speaking to reporters afterwards, Ponder said that tight end Rhett Ellison has "some crazy" in him and suggested that receiver Jerome Simpson is pushing Harvin to be better this summer. I'll be looking for evidence of both in the coming days.

Vikings: Backup QB plan

June, 5, 2012
» NFC Backup QBs: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Assessing the Minnesota Vikings' backup QB situation if Christian Ponder is injured and misses time.

Sage Rosenfels might be the No. 2 quarterback for Minnesota right now, but Joe Webb is far more intriguing. That being said, Ponder needs to be the guy Minnesota builds its team around, and I believe Ponder is the right guy for the job. If Ponder were to go down though, and the Vikings were in contention, I bet Rosenfels would take over with Webb being used as a specialty player here and there. Although very mistake-prone, Rosenfels is better equipped to lead an offense than Webb due to his league experience. Rosenfels’ squads have won six of the 12 games he has started in the NFL. But if Ponder were to completely flop or get hurt when the Vikings were out of contention, putting Webb behind center and giving this playmaker a ton of snaps would be prudent. Webb is very difficult for opposing defenses to prepare for because he has a huge arm and wide receiver-like athletic ability. Webb has made plays consistently when given the chance, but has started only two games.

Confidence rating (out of 100) if Ponder is out for an extended period: 60.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.

On Donovan McNabb and Sage Rosenfels

December, 2, 2011
Friday's waiver wire brought some interesting news to the NFC North. Former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb went unclaimed amid reports that the Chicago Bears have no interest in him at this point. But veteran Sage Rosenfels will be returning to Minnesota after the Vikings claimed him off waivers from the Dolphins.

First, on McNabb and the Bears: We noted Thursday that McNabb grew up in Chicago and might be a better option in an emergency than current third-stringer Josh McCown. But the Bears did not place a claim on him, and ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported they do not plan to pursue him via free agency, either. Regardless, the Vikings are now on the hook for what remains of McNabb's $5.05 million base salary.

The Vikings, however, busily spent Friday attempting to replenish their quarterback depth. They tried to sign second-year player John Parker Wilson off the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Wilson chose the Falcons' offer to join their 53-man roster instead. Then, they claimed Rosenfels to resume a long-running relationship with Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman.

Spielman acquired Rosenfels in 2002 for the Miami Dolphins and again in 2009 for the Vikings. Former Vikings coach Brad Childress never wanted Rosenfels on the roster, however, and won an internal battle in 2010 to make Tarvaris Jackson the backup to Brett Favre.

Rosenfels, 33, has been ill for most of this season because of complications from strep throat, prompting first his release from the New York Giants and later the Dolphins. He presumably is healthy now and will spend the remainder of the season as a backup to rookie Christian Ponder, while also providing roster flexibility if the Vikings want to use second-year quarterback Joe Webb as a receiver.

Rosenfels' contract will expire after the season, but I'm sure he will return as the Vikings' 2012 backup if it's up to Spielman. In truth, they could do a lot worse.

Cowboys will pass on Donovan McNabb

December, 2, 2011
Because they claimed Kyle Orton on waivers last week and because Jon Kitna's injury has had them looking for a veteran backup quarterback, there was speculation Thursday that the Dallas Cowboys might claim Donovan McNabb following his release from the Vikings. But according to Calvin Watkins of, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Friday that would not happen. Garrett also said the Cowboys would not claim recently waived Sage Rosenfels either, and were planning to roll with Stephen McGee as Tony Romo's backup the rest of the way:
"They've both been very good players in this league," Garrett said of McNabb and Rosenfels before Friday's practice at Valley Ranch. "Obviously we've competed against Donovan a lot when he was a quarterback for the Eagles and he's been a great player for a long, long time and the same thing with Sage, in a different role. He's been a veteran player who has played for 10-12 years now and really done a nice job with the role he has been in. But right now, we're going to just stand pat with where we are when we evaluate our quarterback situation."

The Cowboy are right to pass on McNabb, who has shown nothing over the past two seasons to indicate he's happy in a backup role or that he could even help if pressed into duty as a starter. I believe there's a chance he makes it all the way through waivers this afternoon, and I think it's possible that we might already have seen the end of his career.

Observation deck: Giants-Panthers

August, 13, 2011
The New York Giants could have used a feel-good preseason opener Saturday night. No, I don't think you can read much into these preseason games. You don't know which teams are game-planning and which aren't. You can make judgments on individual efforts in certain cases, and get a sense of what teams might be planning in terms of playing time and defensive and offensive alignments. But when we say a team looked good or bad in a preseason game, we are not making any predictions or judgments about the way the season will go based on that.

All of that said, after a week in which they got knocked around in free agency and faced questions about whether their offseason plan was sound or even extant, the Giants could have used a match that left them feeling good about things. Kind of like the one the Redskins had Friday.

They didn't get it.

Yeah, some good things happened in their 20-10 exhibition loss to the Carolina Panthers. Jason Pierre-Paul was the star of the first half, looking fast, athletic and hungry as he recorded two sacks. Both punters looked good, third receiver candidates Domenik Hixon and Victor Cruz had nice moments, and Michael Boley ran back an interception for a touchdown on the first series of the game. But all in all, it wasn't a good night. There were tackling issues, communication issues and special teams issues. The backup offensive line was so bad that it may have gotten kicker Lawrence Tynes hurt.

Other than the Tynes thing, none of this is cause for any reason concern. Just because they were sloppy Saturday night doesn't mean anything about the season. I'm just saying, given the way their fans were feeling in the wake of the free-agent departures of Steve Smith, they could have used a better performance.

Here's some stuff I saw:

[+] EnlargeJason Pierre-Paul
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJason Pierre-Paul nabbed two sacks and could be a viable replacement if Osi Umenyiora continues to sit out.
1. Pierre-Paul looks like a monster. The Giants' 2010 first-rounder has been getting a lot of snaps with the starters in practice with Osi Umenyiora sitting out, and he looked fantastic Saturday night. Two sacks, pressure on almost every play, quickness off the edge, athleticism, determination -- everything you want in a pass rusher. If Umenyiora wants to continue to sit out because of his contract, the Giants have some tape they can show him of a guy who looks like a very capable replacement. If Umenyiora wants to come back, the Giants have even more depth on the offensive line and can keep Mathias Kiwanuka at linebacker. Pierre-Paul's rapid development would be a very useful thing for the Giants.

2. Other good stuff from the defensive line. We saw encouraging play from the defensive tackles, too, with Chris Canty getting into the backfield, Rocky Bernard getting a sack, rookie Marvin Austin playing well in the second half and the Giants generally producing a lot of pressure with their defensive front. As expected, they moved Kiwanuka up to the line in passing downs, and they did the same thing with Adrian Tracy when he replaced Kiwanuka in the second quarter. Tracy played well, helping generate the pressure that led to the Bernard sack as well as Alex Hall's. The Giants are looking for depth at linebacker, and Tracy could help if he plays like this.

3. The punters look good. The coverage? Not so much. Matt Dodge hit a couple of nice punts, including one that looked a little bit like a Jeff Feagles directional special. But Steve Weatherford was one of the best punters in the league the last couple of years and hits the ball farther than Dodge does. Could be tough for Dodge to win this competition. And regardless of who wins it, the coverage team will just have to do a better job. This is one area that actually does mean something in preseason, because the guys on special-teams coverage units should be playing hard and trying to win roster spots. They were miserable all night until Cruz came up with a big solo tackle on a punt return in the third quarter. A guy like Michael Coe, who has an opportunity with the Giants losing so much depth at cornerback, needs to come up bigger than he did on Armanti Edwards' long first return.

3a. Also, one punt-related question: Why in the world did Tom Coughlin call for a 56-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter when Tynes is coming off knee surgery and he's trying to get a look at two punters? Just wondering. Seemed like a weird decision. Tynes, who is also the only kicker I've seen so far this preseason who hasn't been able to kick it through the end zone on kickoffs, missed the attempt.

4. William Beatty -- some good, some bad: The new starting left tackle got manhandled a bit on the first two offensive series, looking overwhelmed and doing a lot of reaching and grabbing as he was getting beaten off the edge. But he seemed to settle in and looked much more authoritative and aggressive on the next few series. He stayed in longer than did the other starting offensive linemen, and it's no coincidence. Whether Beatty is ready to handle his new full-time job will go a long way toward determining how well the Giants handle their transition to this new offensive line assignment.

5. Brian Witherspoon was a bright spot. The Giants' starting secondary looks as though it should be very good (though there did seem to be some communication issues there early on). The question is whether they have depth behind the starters, with Prince Amukamara and Bruce Johnson hurt. Witherspoon was a star of the second half on special teams as well as at cornerback. A guy to watch as the preseason rolls along.

6. Quick hits: It was fun to watch top draft pick Cam Newton get his first game action for the Panthers. He beat Giants rookie Tyler Sash with a great throw on his first drive, but Sash and Coe made good plays to help keep him from capping that drive with a touchdown pass. ... It appears as though Hixon is the leader for that No. 3 receiver spot. He got a lot of work in the slot in the second half with Sage Rosenfels throwing to him. ... I thought Danny Ware looked all right as a third-down back catching screen passes. ... The word on Tynes was a thigh contusion, which is better than a knee injury for sure.

More on the Giants on Sunday, as you'll get my "Camp Confidential" report on them. Meantime, let me know what you thought.

 Josh Johnson and Andrew LuckUS PresswireCoach Jim Harbaugh (not pictured) is likely to seek brainy, athletic QBs such as Josh Johnson, left, and Andrew Luck, whom he coached in the college ranks.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Less than a week before the 2011 NFL draft, no team in the league has a greater need at quarterback than the San Francisco 49ers.

No amount of pre-draft smoke can obscure that reality, so why even try?

"It is a need here with the 49ers," general manager Trent Baalke said Wednesday.

David Carr, who fell behind Troy Smith on the depth chart in 2010, is the only 49ers quarterback under contract. And no one expects him to return.

Three questions persist. What type of quarterback will the 49ers seek for new coach Jim Harbaugh? What is the likelihood they'll find a future starter in this draft? And where does 2010 starter Alex Smith fit into the picture?

The profile

Any prospect Harbaugh likes for the position will be smart, athletic enough to move well and wired like a quarterback as opposed to being just a raw athlete.

That is the word from some of the people who would know best, including Harbaugh himself. Harbaugh sought those qualities when he recruited current Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Josh Johnson to the University of San Diego. More recently, Harbaugh sought them in the quarterbacks he brought to Stanford, where the relative smarts were pretty much required, anyway.

"You have to be able to learn, taking what you learned in the meeting room on the field the next day or that day and being a quick learner," former Stanford quarterback Alex Loukas said. "We call it a 'one-rep guy' -- taking one rep and getting that rep correct the first time. Being focused every rep, attention to detail is very big. If somebody is lined up wrong, you have to make sure they are right."

Loukas was among 15 former Stanford players attending the 49ers' pro day Wednesday for athletes with Bay Area ties. Receiver Ryan Whalen was another.

"I do think they will make the right decision in what they do," Whalen said, "and it’s going to need to be a smart quarterback, a quarterback that can stay in the pocket and can move, and a tough guy who is a good leader."

Harbaugh, who started 140 regular-season games and won twice in the playoffs during a 14-year NFL career, is bringing a run-heavy West Coast system to the 49ers from Stanford. It's a pro-style offense all the way, but Harbaugh says he's open to certain quarterbacks from spread-oriented offenses.

"If they have it in their DNA to be a quarterback, they’ll figure out how to go from the shotgun to under center," Harbaugh said. "I hope that paints a picture. If you got the DNA to be a quarterback, you have the ability to figure things out [in general]."

Drafting a quarterback

Pre-draft expectations can be notoriously off-base.

A year ago, Jimmy Clausen was supposedly the hot prospect and even a consideration for the Seattle Seahawks with the sixth overall pick. He went 48th to Carolina.

It's tough to know, then, which quarterbacks will be available to the 49ers in the first two rounds. But if conventional wisdom is even remotely accurate, Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert will not be considerations for San Francisco with the seventh overall choice. Taking another quarterback that early would also defy expectations.

What about the second round?

Even if we set aside the second round's status as a quarterback wasteland, there is this: The 49ers, though picking seventh in the first round, are scheduled to select only 13th in the second. The gap stems from the NFL's system of rotating selections by round among teams with identical records the previous season.

Eight teams with potential quarterback needs select before the 49ers in the second round.

Throw in the 49ers' confidence in Harbaugh's ability to coach quarterbacks and it's easier to fathom San Francisco fighting off the urge to address such an obvious and critical need in the first two rounds. And if they draft one later than that, they're investing in more of a developmental player, not a near-term starter.

"You can't, because you need something, misevaluate, or you are back to square one," said Baalke, who was not yet with the 49ers when they arguably did just that in selecting Smith first overall.

Baalke then pointed to the draft, free agency and the not-yet-open trade market as options the team will consider.

"I am confident our plan is such that we will figure it out, and I've got tremendous confidence in Jim and the coaching staff to win football games with whoever we bring in here," he said.

Re-evaluating Alex Smith

The 49ers have told Smith they want him back and are awaiting word from him on a decision once the lockout ends and communication is restored.

All the qualities that Harbaugh wants in a quarterback line up with the advertised traits that attracted the 49ers' previous leadership to Smith in the first place.

At the very least, those traits weren't strong enough to transcend the well-documented coaching- and injury-related issues Smith has encountered as a professional. At most, they did not exist. But it's obvious Harbaugh, a coach with few other viable options at the moment, wouldn't mind finding out for himself.

As Harbaugh told KNBR radio in February, "I like Alex and I like being around him and I like what I see on tape. ... I’m not going to hide my feelings. I like Alex Smith. I like him as a football player, as a person. ... Some people say Alex Smith needs a fresh start, needs a new place to be. I say, 'Let that place be here.' "

The ultimate decision

Baalke holds the power over personnel decisions in the 49ers' power structure. His teams over the years have drafted five quarterbacks: Chad Pennington and Patrick Ramsey in the first round, Sage Rosenfels in the fourth, Nate Davis in the fifth and Gibran Hamdan in the seventh.

While this is the first time Baalke has entered a draft with the GM title, Harbaugh's background as a quarterback will influence the team's thinking significantly.

"It's a critical decision," Baalke said. "Jim and I had a great conversation about it [Tuesday]. ... We feel we have it evaluated right and placed on the board accordingly."
Drew Stanton/Joe Webb/Matt FlynnIcon SMI/US PresswireBackup quarterbacks like Drew Stanton, left, Joe Webb and Matt Flynn are in line to start in Week 15.
If the starting quarterback is the most important player on an NFL team, what does that make the backup? Collectively, the NFC North will get that answer -- perhaps painfully -- in Week 15.

As of Thursday morning, there was a high likelihood that three backup quarterbacks will make starts. Jay Cutler is our only healthy starter, and without him, it's hard to imagine the Chicago Bears in first place of this division.

The Minnesota Vikings appear likely to start rookie Joe Webb against the Bears on Monday night. Green Bay Packers starter Aaron Rodgers (concussion) would need a dramatic recovery by Sunday night to avoid being replaced by Matt Flynn against the New England Patriots. Either Drew Stanton or Shaun Hill will start for a Detroit Lions team that has had Matthew Stafford for parts of only three games this season.

Each team took a unique approach to staffing its quarterback depth. In some cases, politics and stubbornness prevailed over visual evidence. In others, internal disagreement left teams scrambling. While we have a moment this week, let's examine how each NFC North team arrived in its current state.

Chicago Bears
Jay Cutler
No. 2: Todd Collins
Experience: 16 years
No. 3: Caleb Hanie
Age: 25
Experience: 3

How it happened: There were rumors for much of the offseason that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz preferred a veteran with experience as his backup to Cutler. The Bears' front office apparently thought otherwise, having developed Hanie for two previous seasons and probably unwilling to spend premium money to back up an established starter. But when Hanie injured his shoulder in the preseason opener, Martz finally prevailed. By that time, however, the group of available free agents was thin. Collins was the Bears' choice because he had played in a similar offense for several years in Kansas City. His only start this season was a four-interception disaster against the Carolina Panthers.

Bottom line: With Collins still stacked at No. 2 on the depth chart, the Bears are fortunate Cutler has remained healthy. Quite fortunate.

Detroit Lions
Starter: Matthew Stafford
No. 2: Shaun Hill
Age: 30
No. 3: Drew Stanton
Age: 26

How it happened: The Lions decided early last offseason to part ways with 2009 backup Daunte Culpepper. They wisely decided against promoting Stanton, a fan favorite who hadn't yet demonstrated the proficiency needed to guide an NFL team on even a short-term basis, and acquired Hill from the San Francisco 49ers. Hill played three seasons under current Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan in Minnesota, and in San Francisco had demonstrated a competitive edge that projected well for short-term appearances.

Bottom line: Hill has proved an ideal No. 2, putting the Lions in position to win most of the games he started. Meanwhile, Linehan altered his offense in Stanton's two starts to capitalize on his strengths as a runner out of the spread formation. At the very least, you can say the same thing about Stanton as you can about Hill: He's a gamer.

Green Bay Packers
Starter: Aaron Rodgers
No. 2: Matt Flynn
Age: 25
Experience: 3
No. 3: Graham Harrell (practice squad)
Age: 25
Experience: 1

How it happened: Flynn is a classic product of general manager Ted Thompson's philosophy to build depth from within. In the absence of any veteran competition, Flynn won the backup job in 2008 after the Packers made him a seventh-round draft pick, beating out fellow rookie Brian Brohm. To anyone's knowledge, the Packers have never considered a veteran option behind Rodgers, who has started 45 consecutive games since taking over the job. In a handful of appearances over the past three seasons, Flynn has completed 25 of 46 passes for 246 yards and two interceptions.

Bottom line: The fairest way to assess Flynn is that he is a complete unknown and thus a risk for any team with Super Bowl aspirations. More often than not, Thompson's young backups have risen to the occasion. And Flynn has put in three years working with two excellent quarterback tutors in coach Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Tom Clements. But the middle of a playoff chase is not the ideal time to find out if your backup can play winning football.

Minnesota Vikings
Starter: Brett Favre
No. 2: Tarvaris Jackson
Age: 27
Experience: 5
No. 3: Joe Webb
Age: 24
Experience: R

How it happened: Jackson was the five-year pet project of former coach Brad Childress and therefore had a tenured track to this job. Childress overlooked Jackson's underwhelming preseason and never gave veteran Sage Rosenfels a chance to unseat him. Webb was drafted as a receiver, and my strong suspicion was that Childress switched him to quarterback to provide an avenue to get Rosenfels off the roster. Ultimately, the Vikings traded Rosenfels to the New York Giants shortly before the season.

Bottom line: In parts of two games since Favre sprained his SC joint, Jackson demonstrated none of the improvement the Vikings claimed he had achieved in practice. He threw four interceptions, was inaccurate on routine passes and proved unable to stay healthy. The Vikings thought so highly of Webb at quarterback that they had moved him to receiver in the week before Favre's injury. So the prospect of Webb starting against the Bears' defense shouldn't sit well with any Vikings fan.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 21, Vikings 3

December, 13, 2010
DETROIT -- A few thoughts after a doozy of an anti-climactic game at Ford Field:

What it means: It's probably appropriate that on the night Brett Favre's streak of consecutive starts ended, and in a "home" game after being displaced from their stadium, the Minnesota Vikings were officially eliminated from playoff contention. They were punchless on offense, committed seven pre-snap penalties and gave up 213 rushing yards to the New York Giants.

FavreWatch: Favre never attempted to test his sprained SC joint during pregame warmups and might have thrown his last NFL pass. ESPN's Ed Werder reported there is a strong possibility Favre will be placed on injured reserve, ending his season and sending him into an unceremonious retirement. Anyone who saw Favre's near-purple hand on Monday night's FOX broadcast knows Favre is dealing with a multi-faceted injury. On the plus side, you can pre-purchase an autographed football commemorating his 297-game streak of consecutive starts on his website for $499.99.

T-JackWatch: If anything productive came out of this game for the Vikings, it should be final confirmation that Tarvaris Jackson is not their quarterback of the future. Jackson started in Favre's place but left three times with injuries to his knee and toe. He threw two interceptions, was sacked four times, threw for 118 yards and produced three Keystone Kops moments. I haven't decided which was my favorite: Knocking knees with tailback Adrian Peterson on a botched running play, watching a pass to receiver Bernard Berrian land at least 10 yards out of bounds or allowing a shotgun snap to slip through his hands for a 15-yard loss on third-and-9.

Ford FieldWatch: A crowd of 45,910 proved to be a mixture of Vikings fans, Giants fans and Lions fans who capitalized on free admission to watch some bonus football. It was like I would imagine the crowd at an international game be: Festive but not particularly attentive. The two loudest cheers were for the Vikings' cheerleaders and during a brief, but intense, chant of "Let's Go Lions!" in the second quarter. It didn't help that they had a stinker of a game to watch.

What's next: The Vikings will play next Monday night against the Chicago Bears. Where that game is held is anyone's guess. If the Metrodome roof isn't repaired in time, the game is expected to be moved to the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium -- an outdoor facility that seats about 50,000. An outdoor, prime-time game in Minnesota's late-December weather? Bring your parkas.

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

December, 8, 2010
» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South


1. Rigidity in Minnesota: Joe Webb was originally drafted as a receiver and, even after being moved to quarterback, opened some eyes during the preseason as an open-field runner. But the Minnesota Vikings buried him as their No. 3 quarterback after trading Sage Rosenfels and apparently never considered using him as a playmaking specialist until last week against the Buffalo Bills. Webb returned the opening kickoff 30 yards and was expected to get some work on offense as well before he was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Still, credit goes to the Vikings for trying to utilize a bottom-of-the-roster asset.

2. Faith in the Chicago Bears: I'll admit I wasn't sold on the Bears early in the season, but when a team wins nine of its first 12 games, it's hard to find much to criticize. It's true the Bears have an unenviable final-quarter schedule that includes home dates against the New England Patriots and New York Jets, along with road games against the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. But so do the Packers, with whom they're competing for the NFC North title. I don't know if the Bears will win the division or not, but the national consensus that they're due for a fall seems based more on emotional projections than facts. End rant.

3. Brad Childress, former Minnesota Vikings coach: It's not necessarily fair to kick a man when he's down, but watching the Vikings play their first two games under interim coach Leslie Frazier has been illuminating. The energy level and elevated performance, especially on defense, has confirmed players gave up on Childress this season. While part of the responsibility lies with the players, it's still striking to see the attitude adjustment that seemed immediate upon his departure.

[+] EnlargeDonald Driver
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireDonald Driver refused to go down en route to this touchdown Sunday against San Francisco.

1. Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers receiver: I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Driver's injured quadriceps is feeling better. His 61-yard scoring play in Sunday's victory over the San Francisco 49ers was the highlight of the weekend in the NFL. It was Driver's first touchdown since Week 4 and suggested that he is ready to begin stretching the field again as the Packers launch into their final playoff push. Before Sunday, Driver had gone almost two months without a reception longer than 17 yards.

2. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: With teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch (neck) sidelined, Avril picked up the slack by recording three sacks against the Bears. He now has six sacks in the past four games he has played and a career-high seven for the season. Many of us wondered to what extent Avril would benefit with three new teammates next to him in Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams. I think we've found out the answer.

3. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings defensive end: A sack against the Bills brought Allen's total to 8.5 on the year. He has had at least one sack in each of the Vikings' past five games, due in part to a one-on-one session he had with Frazier. During the meeting, Frazier showed Allen video evidence of the difference between his approach this season and last season. According to Frazier, Allen was surprised at how different he looked. Consider it an effective appeal to personal pride.

Dolphins on 15th starting QB since Marino

November, 18, 2010
Buffalo Bills fans thought they had it rough, trying to find a semblance of quarterback stability since their Hall of Fame quarterback retired in 1996.

With Tyler Thigpen about to become the Miami Dolphins' third starting quarterback of the season, it's time to dust off that long list of quarterbacks to have started since Dan Marino hung up that weird boxing-boot cleat after the 1999 season.

Thigpen will be the 15th quarterback to start a game for Miami since Marino retired.

Only twice in those 11 seasons has a quarterback started all 16 games. Those "perfect seasons" came seven years and 11 new starting quarterbacks apart. The Bills at least had Drew Bledsoe starting 48 straight games from 2002 through 2004.

This will be the fourth season in which at least three quarterbacks started for the Dolphins since Marino retired.

2000: Jay Fiedler (15), Damon Huard (one)

2001: Fiedler (16)

2002: Fielder (10), Ray Lucas (six)

2003: Fiedler (11), Brian Griese (five)

2004: A.J. Feeley (eight), Fiedler (seven), Sage Rosenfels (one)

2005: Gus Frerotte (15), Rosenfels (one)

2006: Joey Harrington (11), Daunte Culpepper (four), Cleo Lemon (one)

2007: Lemon (seven), Trent Green (five), John Beck (four)

2008: Chad Pennington (16)

2009: Chad Henne (13), Pennington (three)

2010: Henne (eight), Pennington (one)