NFL Nation: Travis Minor
With such talent in the backfield, folks have wondered how new head coach Chan Gailey will delegate the touches among Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Those who assume Gailey will spread around carries with a semblance of equity shouldn't be so sure.
In fact, if Gailey doesn't designate a workhorse and ride him hard, it would be the first time he declines to do so since his rookie season as an offensive coordinator in 1988.
In an ESPN fantasy football column, Matthew Berry provides an enlightening look at Gailey's history with running backs since the Dallas Cowboys hired him to be head coach in 1998. The chart also included Gailey's subsequent play-calling gigs with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs.
As we can see, Gailey doesn't split carries. True, he had Emmitt Smith in Dallas, but Gailey saddled up Lamar Smith in two seasons with Miami and Larry Johnson, who played only 12 games for Kansas City in 2008.
Not included in Berry's chart are Gailey's pre-Dallas stops as offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos (1988-89) and Pittsburgh Steelers (1996-97).
The trend of one dominant back generally remains.
In his first season as an NFL playcaller, Gailey had a pair of over-the-hill backs in Tony Dorsett and Sammy Winder. Dorsett had 181 carries for 703 yards, while Winder ran 149 for 543 yards. The next season, however, rookie Bobby Humphrey took over with 294 carries, nearly three times as many as Winder.
Jerome Bettis was Gailey's go-to guy in Pittsburgh. Eric Pegram managed 509 yards on only 97 carries in 1996, but the Steelers' second-leading rusher the next season was quarterback Kordell Stewart.
Gailey's track record shows an obvious preference for one back taking 300-plus handoffs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Campfires: Coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't afraid to make first-round draft choices earn their starting jobs. He benched Matt Leinart coming out of camp last season, then made talented rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wait until near midseason before becoming a full-time starter. The trend could continue this summer as rookie first-round choice Beanie Wells practices with the Cardinals for the first time.
Wells projects as the long-term replacement for Edgerrin James at running back, but Ohio State's late graduation prevented him from participating in minicamps and organized team activities. That means the adjustment period for Wells could take a little longer. Expect Tim Hightower to enter camp as the tentative starter.
Meanwhile, the situation at tight end remains a mystery. Arizona is carrying six tight ends on its roster, one behind the league high. Ben Patrick, the player coaches have tried to develop as a player versatile enough to help as a receiver and blocker, faces a four-game suspension to start the season. That could open the door for Anthony Becht, Leonard Pope or Stephen Spach to seize the starting job. I don't see a clear favorite, particularly with Patrick serving a suspension and Spach coming off knee surgery.
|Jeff Mills/Icon SMI|
|Will Beanie Wells be able to avoid the injuries that plagued him in college?|
Camp will be a downer if ... Wells doesn't immediately prove he can avoid the long list of injuries that affected him in college. Arizona needs a more dynamic runner to run its offense the way Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/running game coordinator Russ Grimm want to run it. Wells has the physical ability to provide that missing element. Can he stay on the field and will he fight through some of the ailments that await every running back in the NFL?
The preferred scenario would include Wells breaking a few long runs during the preseason, setting up the play-action passing game that worked so well for Arizona when the team showed more balance in the playoffs last season.Camp will be a success if ... the reconfigured coaching staff takes control of the team and helps Arizona build on the momentum from its Super Bowl season.
Whisenhunt has stressed continuity during the first two years of his tenure. He kept the same five starters on the offensive line even though right guard Deuce Lutui had penalty problems and center Lyle Sendlein sometimes struggled while playing through a shoulder injury. While the approach worked, continuity wasn't an option for the coaching staff once the Chiefs hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley head coach.
Whisenhunt's decision to fire quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast shook up the staff considerably more.
Warner will miss the rapport he enjoyed with Haley. The two appeared inseparable at times and the relationship seemed to benefit Warner on the field. Can the newly configured staff fill the void or otherwise find ways to keep Warner and the offense rolling?
Franchise player rules will force Dansby to wait, and he should be content "settling" for a one-year franchise deal worth nearly $9.7 million. The volatile Dockett has also committed to letting his play do the talking, a good sign for the team.
While Boldin put aside his concerns to produce last season, his situation bears monitoring. Another year without a new contract probably equates to a higher frustration level. Boldin, generally the consummate pro, might have a harder time dealing with the situation -- particularly if the team fails to meet expectations.
San Francisco 49ers
Training camp site: 49ers headquarters (Santa Clara, Calif.)
|Kyle Terada/US Presswire|
|Can Shaun Hill distinguish himself to claim the starting QB job?|
Campfires: The 49ers have quite a few position battles for a team that finished strong and feels good about its chances for contending within the division.
The quarterback race will rightfully command the most attention. Coach Mike Singletary said the players will know whether Shaun Hill or Alex Smith should be the starter, at which point Singletary will merely affirm what they know. That means Smith's status as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2005 will not afford him any advantage in the competition. Hill's 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter over the last two seasons gives him the edge.
On defense, Dashon Goldson would have to flop or suffer another injury for the older and less athletic Mark Roman to take back his job at free safety. Dre Bly has the edge over Tarell Brown at right corner. Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers' first-round choice in 2008, could push for a starting job at left defensive end.Camp will be a downer if ... both quarterbacks flounder and veteran Damon Huard appears to be the best option. Unlikely? Perhaps. But the scenario isn't as laughable as it should be. Neither Hill nor Smith distinguished himself during the competition a year ago. Even if Mike Martz was playing favorites when he installed J.T. O'Sullivan as the starter, the fact remains that O'Sullivan enjoyed the strongest preseason of the three.
The new offensive system should better suit Hill in particular, and the 49ers have declared this quarterback race a two-man affair, ruling out Huard as a contender. Still, after years of backing up Trent Green, Tom Brady and Dan Marino, Huard wound up starting three of the first five games in Kansas City last season when the unaccomplished Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen were his primary competitors.Camp will be a success if ... Hill validates his 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter, right tackle Marvel Smith makes it through training camp healthy and the push toward a full-time 3-4 defense validates Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson as promising pass-rushers.
Hitting on all three of those might be asking a bit much, but getting two of them right might be enough, particularly if the 49ers feel good about the quarterback situation.
On the receiving end: It's a little surprising to see the 49ers emerge with their deepest group of receivers in years after committing to Singletary's smashmouth approach. The change to Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was all about making smarter use of the players general manager Scot McCloughan and former coach Mike Nolan had acquired in recent years.
That meant -- and still means -- forging an identity in the ground game. Yet, while receivers Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, Brandon Jones and Josh Morgan will not be battling Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for Pro Bowl berths this season, they do give the 49ers better potential than they've enjoyed recently.
Singletary's smashmouth roots should not and likely will not dissuade the 49ers from making frequent use of those receivers.
|Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire|
|The Seahawks must get Matt Hasselbeck through training camp unscathed.|
Training camp site: Seahawks headquarters (Renton, Wash.)
Campfires: The Seahawks weren't going to pretend that first-round choice Aaron Curry would have to prove himself in camp to earn a starting job. They put the fourth overall choice in the lineup from the beginning. No suspense there.
Most positions in Seattle appear settled. The situation at receiver should produce intrigue with Nate Burleson, Deion Branch and rookie burner Deon Butler fighting to get on the field with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end John Carlson. Injuries will probably help sort out the situation. Burleson is returning from ACL surgery. Branch is entering his first full season since undergoing his own ACL procedure.
Don't be surprised if rookie second-round choice Max Unger pushes for playing time somewhere in the interior of the offensive line. He projects as the long-term starter at center if Chris Spencer plays out his contract and leaves following this season.
If Spencer holds the job, Unger figures to find his way onto the field in one of the guard spots, perhaps this year.
Camp will be a downer if ... quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's back injury flares up at any point along the way. Hasselbeck and the Seahawks say the quarterback has long since overcome the problems that helped limit him to seven starts last season. They didn't know the extent of the problem a year ago when they assured fans that Hasselbeck would be fine for the regular season. The issue is under control now, they say, but the very nature of back injuries should raise at least some concern heading into a pivotal season for the organization.
Camp will be a success if ... Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones and defensive end Patrick Kerney put to rest concerns about their long-term health. Beyond the obvious injury storylines, this camp becomes a success for Seattle if Curry validates coach Jim Mora's opinion that the linebacker's pass-rushing abilities are indeed far stronger than anticipated on draft day.
Seattle badly needs to restore its pass rush to better compete against the Cardinals' passing game in a broader effort to overtake Arizona in the division. Kerney is the key, but the Seahawks are also counting on pressure from other sources: Brandon Mebane, Cory Redding, Lawrence Jackson, Darryl Tapp and possibly Leroy Hill. Significant pass-rush help from Curry would offset Julian Peterson's departure while making it easier for the Seahawks to justify having drafted a linebacker fourth overall.
Learning curve: By all accounts, the two years Mora spent in the background watching Mike Holmgren operate should leave him better prepared to handle his second head-coaching job. The way Holmgren handled everything from players to the media differed quite a bit from the more freewheeling approach Mora displayed with the Falcons.
Lessons learned? Yes, but it will be interesting to see how the Seahawks' leadership -- operating without Holmgren for the first time since 1998 -- will respond under pressure if things go wrong early.
St. Louis Rams
Training camp site: Rams Park (Earth City, Mo.)
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)|
|Will Marc Bulger be able to regain his old form behind a revamped offensive line?|
Campfires: The Rams need to figure out what they have at receiver, linebacker and left cornerback after overhauling their roster.
Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Drew Bennett, Trent Green, Anthony Becht, Corey Chavous, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brian Leonard, Gary Stills, Jason Craft, Ricky Manning, Fakhir Brown, La'Roi Glover, Dane Looker, Travis Minor, Dante Hall, Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg were among the former starters and role players cast aside in the makeover.
None was irreplaceable. Getting rid of them was the easy part. Identifying and developing adequate replacements will take time.
Camp will be a downer if ... top draft choices Jason Smith and James Laurinaitis aren't ready to contribute right away. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has taken it slowly with both rookies, but he likely will not have that luxury once the regular season gets going. Smith and Laurinaitis probably must play and play well for the Rams to avoid trouble.
Laurinaitis' development is critical because the Rams appear so thin at linebacker after releasing Tinoisamoa. Even if Laurinaitis plays well, the Rams' depth at linebacker could betray them.
Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Marc Bulger finds comfort behind an upgraded offensive line. Bulger can be a highly accurate passer when opposing defensive linemen aren't pounding the confidence out of him. The player who topped 4,300 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions three years ago hasn't resembled even remotely the scared soul seen under center for the Rams too often over the last two seasons.
The Rams' should start to regain some swagger on the line with 320-pounder Jason Brown taking over at center and the personably intense Smith at tackle. Right guard Richie Incognito won't be the only starter with some snarl, in other words. That should help provide improved protection for Bulger and leadership for the offense.
Fantasy spin: Running back Steven Jackson should not hurt for opportunities now that the Rams have landed a 320-pound center (Brown, free agent from the Ravens) and a 258-pound fullback (Mike Karney, late of the Saints). The Rams will try to develop their young receivers, but rarely should any of them represent a more formidable option than Jackson. And if he gets some luck with injuries, look out.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams could conceivably part with every one of their unrestricted free agents this offseason.
They will try to re-sign cornerback Ron Bartell. They could bring back a few others. But when a new front office and new coaching staff inherit a team with five victories over two seasons, serious roster trimming tends to ensue.
The chart ranks the Rams' scheduled unrestricted free agents from oldest to youngest, with ages rounded down to the tenth. Four are at least 33 years old. Four more are at least 30. Two more -- Travis Minor and Brett Romberg -- turn 30 during the 2009 season.
Bartell is clearly the Rams' most attractive UFA candidate. His case is a tough one for the Rams.
While the team would like to retain its best young talent, the coaching staff doesn't know Bartell well enough to make informed judgments about his longterm potential. And with the market for cornerbacks drying up, Bartell might command a significant contract on the open market.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch surveys the Rams' locker room for thoughts on facing Mike Martz and Isaac Bruce. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa provides the best quote: "Mike and Ike? You mean like the candies?"
Bill Coats of Around the Horns says Rams quarterback Marc Bulger is adjusting to young receivers Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton and Derek Stanley. Also, Travis Minor's return from a concussion should help the Rams on special teams.
Also from Coats: Steven Jackson was back at practice, but his status for Week 11 remains undetermined.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' roster is "rotting at the core" after years of bad drafts and misspent free-agent dollars. He lists Bulger, Torry Holt and Steven Jackson among those not living up to their contracts.
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com says the Rams and 49ers fired overmatched head coaches in favor of fiery interim leaders. The Rams have been outscored 81-16 in their last two games.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says Jackson still hasn't practiced at full speed, something he'll need to do before the Rams put him back in the lineup.
Also from Korte: Leonard Little and others can't imagine Bruce in another uniform. They won't have to imagine when Bruce shows up wearing a 49ers jersey Sunday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
And they say something has to give? Not necessarily, and that's probably bad for Seattle. It's tough to envision the Seahawks winning this game without scoring points on defense.
On offense, Seattle remains an injury-depleted team that needs an identity but isn't necessarily searching for one.
Yes, injuries explain a large part of the team's struggles. A healthy Matt Hasselbeck would probably give the offense a chance to lead with the passing game, the way coach Mike Holmgren likes it. But the Seahawks don't have a healthy Hasselbeck. They haven't had one for several weeks. Time to adjust?
The Seahawks could probably do more to exploit their straight-ahead running game. Seattle ranks among the NFL leaders with nine rushing plays of at least 20 yards, but the offense appears lost when the passing game fails to lead the way.
That needs to change, but it probably won't in Week 10. The Dolphins have allowed a league-low one rushing play longer than 20 yards. They own victories over the Patriots, Chargers, Bills and Broncos. The Seahawks appear ready to join the list.
The Rams have allowed a league-high 17 pass plays covering at least 30 yards. The Rams have allowed 26 sacks, sixth-most in the league. The Jets' defense has collected 29 sacks, third-most in the league behind the Steelers and Giants.
Steven Jackson missed practice all week for the Rams. The former Pro Bowl running back will not play against the Jets. His backups, Antonio Pittman and Travis Minor, have been slowed by injuries. Pittman could play, but unknown Kenneth Darby could start after taking most of the first-team reps in practice.
A diminished running game puts too much pressure on quarterback Marc Bulger. Rookie receiver Donnie Avery does offer big-play potential, but he'll have a harder time hurting defenses, at least in theory, without a running game to keep the safeties' attention.
Keep an eye on Bulger's body language. He showed more toughness and leadership while winning in Jim Haslett's first two games as head coach. That needs to extend to the tough times as well. Bulger could get lots more practice if Jackson remains unavailable.
San Francisco 49ers (2-6) at Arizona Cardinals (5-3), Monday Night Football, 8:30 p.m. ET
Let's call this one a do-over for interim coach Mike Singletary, interim quarterback Shaun Hill and the 49ers. Firing Mike Nolan before the bye week put Singletary in tough spot. The ensuing 34-13 home defeat to the Seahawks marked the first time all season the 49ers failed to compete.
There can be no excuses in Week 10. Singletary needs to project stability and control along with the fire and brimstone that comes naturally to him. Hill should help him do that by protecting the football better than predecessor J.T. O'Sullivan did, particularly now that Singletary appears to be calling for a more conservative approach from offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
The 49ers won in Arizona last season with Trent Dilfer at quarterback, but their defense was playing much more consistently. The current defense probably won't stop Kurt Warner and friends from building a lead. That will threaten Frank Gore's role for the 49ers, at which point the Cardinals' pass rush should feast on the 49ers' struggling line.
Strange as it sounds, this is close to a must-win game for the Cardinals. They face the Seahawks (road), Giants (home) and Eagles (road) over the next three weeks. Beating inferior opponents at home is all but required as the Cardinals move closer to a rare playoff berth.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Arizona: Injuries continue to affect Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick, but the Cardinals have enough flexibility to flourish in the passing game without healthy tight ends. Even third tight end Jerame Tuman (ankle) is hurting. Stephen Spach filled in admirably as a run blocker against St. Louis. Larry Fitzgerald has a thumb injury. His hands weren't as good against the Rams in Week 9. Left tackle Mike Gandy has had ankle problems. The Cardinals can't afford injuries on the offensive line.
San Francisco: The right side of the offensive line was having problems even before injuries wiped out tackles Jonas Jennings and Barry Sims. The 49ers will have a hard time protecting quarterback Shaun Hill against the Cardinals' active front eight (counting strong safety Adrian Wilson as a potential blitzer off the edge). Tight end Delanie Walker is healthier coming out of the bye, restoring versatility to the offense. But third receiver Arnaz Battle is out, putting more pressure on rookie Josh Morgan. Time to ride Frank Gore.
Seattle: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, receiver Deion Branch and defensive end Patrick Kerney will miss the game. The Seahawks have enough depth to weather one serious injury for the short term, but it's tough to envision Seattle winning an early game at Miami with so many key players staying behind. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu is expected back from a groin injury. The Seahawks need him to make more plays.
St. Louis: The situation at running back is sapping the life from the Rams' comeback hopes under coach Jim Haslett. Steven Jackson won't be full strength if he's able to play. Backup Antonio Pittman is out. Even Travis Minor is hurting. Kenneth Darby could start. The Rams' pass protection isn't particularly solid even when Jackson is running well. Quarterback Marc Bulger figures to struggle with consistency and confidence until Jackson regains form. Injuries have also chipped away at the Rams' already shaky depth at linebacker, tight end, cornerback offensive line and receiver.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike SandoBill Coats of Around the Horns says Steven Jackson missed Rams practice Wednesday, leaving Kenneth Darby to work with the starters. Samkon Gado is the backup.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks expect Patrick Kerney to return this season after doctors found nothing serious wrong with the defensive end's shoulder.
Mike Tulumello of Bird Watching says Cardinals rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie might be close to overtaking Eric Green as a starting cornerback. Green's failure to tackle the Rams' Derek Stanley during an 80-yard touchdown pass gave early momentum to the Rams.
Lowell Cohn of the Cohn Zone shares some initial thoughts after interviewing 49ers owner Jed York.
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