Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
05 Jul 2005
by Mike Tanier
Also check out the previous edition of Four Downs: AFC West.
The all-time record for punting average in a season is held by Sammy Baugh, who averaged 51.3 yards per kick in 1940. The post-merger mark is held by Todd Sauerbrun, who averaged 47.5 yards per punt in 2001.
This comes up because Sauerbrun is now in Denver, and while Baugh's record is probably out of reach, Sauerbrun's unofficial "modern" mark is toast.
Most football fans assume that punts travel farther in the high altitudes of Denver, but a book that will be released in August proves that the Mile High effect is very significant. In Pro Football Prospectus 2005 (a Football Outsiders joint, executive producer Aaron Schatz), Aaron reveals that there are predictable park effects on punts and kickoffs in domed stadiums, in fair-weather locales like Carolina, in cold-weather towns like Buffalo, and in Denver, where the typical kickoff travels about four yards further than average and punts can be counted on to travel about two yards further.
The Mile High effect has concealed mediocre play on the part of the Broncos punters for several years. Like Rockies outfielders, they produce pretty good stats in ideal home conditions, then grade out as well below average on the road. But Sauerbrun is an excellent punter, and with eight home games in high altitude, the people at Sirius are wondering if they can just put some of their satellite radio transmitters on footballs, wait until 4th-and-10, and let Sauerbrun do the rest. (By the way, order Sirius through the link on our site and not only do you get radio broadcasts from every NFL team, we get a bit of the money.)
Sauerbrun has played three games in Denver in his pro career. He punted 12 times in those games, averaging a whopping 48.9 yards per attempt. Yes, yes: small data sample. Looking at it another way, Sauerbrun has averaged 45.3 yards per punt since leaving the Windy City. Tack on a yard or two for the Mile High effect, and Sauerbrun could have an average season by his standards and still ride the park effect train up the all-time leaderboard.
Numbers Crunch: When is a retired number not retired? When it's "not used as a courtesy for a long time." That's how Broncos public relations rep Jim Saccomano described the situation with Broncos legend Frank Tripuka's #18. While several sources listed the number as retired, Saccomano could find no official announcement or ceremony that prohibited the team from issuing the former QB's number. So when Jerry Rice came aboard, Rice became #19 and the immortal Grant Mattos became #18. The only officially retired Broncos jerseys are now John Elway's #7 and Floyd Little's #44; even Shannon Sharpe's #84 is now on the back of rookie Wesley Duke. I suggest a compromise to preserve Tribuka's memory: Mattos can wear #18, but he has to wear the classic brown Broncos uniform with the striped socks.
Show of Support: Several Broncos cheered on the Arena League's Colorado Crush as they hosted an AFL conference championship. Jake Plummer was in attendance, as were several of the Brown-cos: Courtney Brown, Gerald Warren, and the other defensive linemen imported from Cleveland. It was the first chance the displaced Browns had to watch minor league caliber football since their own Week 17 game films. Sorry, that joke was obvious.
Belgian Waffle: As if all those ex-Browns weren't enough, the Broncos signed Belgian DT Patrice Majondo-Mwamba to their practice squad. If the Browns/Majondo-Mwamba experiment succeeds, Mike Shanahan will look into replacing the linebacking corps with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Puffy Pieces: During and after minicamp, the local press is often flooded with positive articles about how good the rookies looked and how enthusiastic the veterans were. Getting the positive spin treatment in Denver were 1) Quentin Griffin, on the mend from an ACL tear (Shanahan: "He's made some big strides") 2) Gerald Warren (Shanahan: "Warren has done an excellent job") and 3) Backup QB Bradlee Van Pelt (Coach again: "I definitely think he has what it takes to be an NFL quarterback").
Az Hakim! Freddie Mitchell! It's a cavalcade of mediocrity! But that's only appropriate, as the Chiefs were simply trying to replace the utterly mediocre Johnnie Morton.
Hakim performed the best shake 'n' bake of his career when he verbally agreed to a deal with the Chiefs, spent a day in Chiefs camp, then turned around and signed with the Saints. A few days later, The People's Champ was in camp, wearing the same uniform number 80 that Hakim was issued. Dick Vermeil should have considered #86 instead, as in "86 these rejects!"
Hakim's brief tenure in Kansas City was truly odd. Vermeil was hardly gushing with enthusiasm about his new receiver after Hakim attended team meetings. When asked whether Hakim was penciled in to replaced Dante Hall as the team's #3 receiver, Vermeil said: "First, Az has to make the football team. He knows the situation. We've got a lot of good young receivers who are competing. He's going to be very competitive; there's no question about it. But we're not giving him a position to play." Soon after that ringing endorsement, Hakim was history.
So who does that leave at wideout in Kansas City besides Eddie Kennison? Round up the unusual suspects:
Samie Parker: Parker is currently the #2 wideout. He had a good game against the Broncos in Week 15 last season and is shifty in the open field. At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, he's not a huge receiver, but he's not a smurf, either.
Freddie Mitchell: For all of the negative press he generates, Mitchell isn't a terrible third receiver. He has good hands, comes back for the ball, runs fairly well and can block a little. But he's a bad route runner, gets jammed too easily, takes himself out of the game with concentration lapses, is useless on special teams, and is about 1/10th as good as he thinks he is.
Dante Hall: Hall is the best return man in the league and is useful on trick plays, but he's not a reliable receiver, and too much work on offense seems to have a negative impact on his returns.
Marc Boerigter: Boerigter tore his ACL and missed all of last season, but he has been running routes in minicamps. He's more of a tight end who can't block than a receiver, but he fits a system that is built around passing to bigger targets over the middle.
Craphonso Thorpe: Thorpe has been making progress throughout the offseason but has a lot of learning to do.
John Booth, Jeris McIntyre, and Richard Smith: These three practice squad players are competing for time, and Booth and McIntyre played well in NFL Europe. Booth, a converted QB from mighty Mid-American Nazerene College, performed well at the World Bowl. There's no truth to the rumor that he was seen hanging around outside Carl Peterson's office mumbling "Sic Temper Tyrannus."
Snoop Minnis and J.J Birden: Just kidding.
Grumpy Old Men: The retirement talk is over: Will Shields was in uniform at the Chiefs' most recent minicamp. Shields didn't practice with the team, as he is undergoing a treatment for arthritis in his knees. Left tackle Willie Roaf also missed many of the team's offseason workouts, but he hobbled through three days of practices in mid-June and should be ready for the regular season. Wilford Brimley complained about gout and a touch of lombego, but he said he'd be ready if Vermeil needs him.
Lost Battle: Third-year CB Julian Battle, who had overtaken Eric Warfield and Dexter McCleon as the starter opposite Patrick Surtain, blew out his Achilles tendon and is lost for the year. Warfield will take over as the starter, but Warfield faces a possible suspension from the league because of multiple DUI offenses. In an effort to keep the average age of the starting lineup over 40, the team worked out DeWayne Washington (32 years old), Aaron Beasley (31), Ashley Ambrose (34), and Terrance Shaw (32), finally settling on Ambrose. "Finally, a new bridge and shuffleboard partner," Brimley said.
Puffy Pieces: Here are some players getting the positive spin treatment in Kansas City: 1) Kris Wilson, the H-back who missed all of last season with a broken leg. (Trent Green: "It seems like every week and every practice he gets more and more confidence.") 2) Undrafted rookie RB Sam Gado, a native of Nigeria who idolized Christian Okoye as a young man. (Al Saunders: "He has exceeded our expectations in every area. He's just a ball of energy.") 3) Punter Dustin Colquitt, a lefty whose high kicks are reportedly impossible to catch cleanly. (Special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr.: "Any time you see a ball up that high and there's any kind of wind at all, it's going to do some pretty funny things.")
If you want to speak like an NFL defensive coordinator, remember these lines:
"We won't strictly play a 3-4 or a 4-3. We want to be multiple on defense and use a variety of fronts."
When it comes to the 3-4 alignment, most coaches and coordinators are like confirmed bachelors: afraid of commitment. And while Norv Turner swears that Ron Ryan isn't scrapping his 3-4 set after a miserable year that saw the Raiders generate 25 sacks and allow 125 rushing yards per game, Turner did confirm that the Raiders defense would often sport more of a 4-3 look.
Newly acquired DE Derrick Burgess, for example, will be used exclusively at end. As a 265-pound pass rusher, Burgess can only play end in a 4-3 system; in the 3-4, he would have to play outside linebacker. And the departure of Napoleon Harris, coupled with Travian Smith's nagging injuries, has left the Raiders with a shortage of linebackers.
Still, the team worked on their 3-4 schemes in their June minicamp. That is, they worked on them as much as possible. "The 3-4's harder to practice in sweats," Turner told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We really need to go to camp and get back to work in the run defense part of the 3-4, getting the nose man and the ends playing the run and everybody understanding the assignments."
Turner said that the team's comfort level with the 3-4 system has increased since last year, but he suggested that many of his defenders prefer a 4-3 alignment. With talented youngsters like Tommy Kelly and Terdell Sands backing up Warren Sapp and Ted Washington, the Raiders are deep at defensive tackle. Tyler Brayton is a converted end who never looked comfortable at linebacker; Williams, a king-sized DE/OLB tweener, spent much of the season with his finger on the ground in a three-point stance as a pure pass rusher. Danny Clark is the team's best inside linebacker, though veteran free agent Jay Foreman is experienced in the 3-4 and rookie Kirk Morrison could be ready for a role right away.
So while Turner and Ryan may talk about a "multiple" defense, don't be surprised if the 3-4 look becomes little more than a wrinkle.
Law and Order: In mid-June, the California State Supreme Court agreed to grant the Raiders a hearing to determine whether they can appeal a lower-court ruling denying a trial judge's finding of juror misconduct in the NFL's 2001 victory in the team's suit alleging that the league conspired to force the team out of Los Angeles. And if you understood any of that, you must be a lawyer. No hearing date has been set; it may have to wait until Al Davis settles his "Paul Tagliabue put a finger in my chili" suit.
Cap Manipulations: The Raiders found themselves just $73,995 dollars under the salary cap in early June, leaving them with just enough money to by a new Lexus but not to sign draft picks. Cap relief will come when Rich Gannon officially retires and (as is expected) becomes the team's assistant quarterback coach. Warren Sapp also accepted a deal to lower his salary to the league veteran minimum, meaning that his price tag and production will finally match.
Puffy Pieces: Here's who is getting the positive spin treatment in Oakland: 1) Randy Moss (Nancy Gay of the Chronicle reports that he "appeared as happy and motivated as any of the rookies"). 2) LB DeLawrence Grant (Turner: "He's really dedicated himself to being better.") 3) The defense in general (Danny Clark: "It's going to be team defense," he said. "You are going to see bumblebees after somebody knocks the nest down. Guys will be flying everywhere.")
When the Chargers held their mandatory minicamp in mid-June, only two healthy players missed the first day: rookie Shawne Merriman and guard Toniu Fonoti.
Merriman refuses to work out with the team until he is under contract, citing language in the team's policy that only guarantees his eventual salary if he is critically injured before signing with the team, not any possible signing bonuses. Merriman's agents (the infamous Poston brothers) went so far as to suggest that Merriman would attend team meetings but not work out. The team understandably passed on that compromise.
Fonoti, meanwhile, remains a 360-plus pound man in need of a functioning alarm clock. He missed all of the team's workouts last season, then missed the first day of training camp. When Chargers GM A.J. Smith tried to contact Fonoti on the first day of camp, he reached the guard's wife. Sure enough, Fonoti was on a plane to San Diego. Fonoti cited "personal business", apologized to teammates, and revealed that a sore ankle would limit him to the meeting room.
And as for that 360-plus pound figure, the emphasis is clearly on the "plus".
Fonoti was the best offensive guard in the nation when the Chargers drafted him in the second round in 2002, but he was heavy and slow-footed as a rookie and spent all of 2003 on injured reserve. Watching him play in 2002, he looked like a true bust: he couldn't block defenders a step to his left or right, let alone pull on a sweep or slip out to block a screen pass. He rebounded to have an excellent 2004 campaign after spending the offseason in a Houston conditioning program. But while Smith will live with Fonoti skipping team workouts to get in shape in Houston, minicamp is mandatory.
Smith suggested that he was "taking notes" regarding Fonoti's frequent absences, but the exec shifted gears when speaking to Fonoti at camp. When asked if he accepted the guard's reason for being late, Smith said: "Absolutely. That's it. Go to work."
Rookie Mistakes: A crowd of 3,000 spectators attended Chargers minicamp sessions, and they were apparently delighted when Marty Schottenheimer chewed out rookie Vincent Jackson for taking his eyes off a potential touchdown grab to see whether he was inbounds. What the crowd really wanted was to be in a room with Smith, Merriman, and the Postons.
Time to Change Careers: Carlos Polk, who missed nearly all of last season with a shoulder injury, will miss all of these season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Polk has a degree in sociology from Nebraska. Just throwing that out there.
All Purpose Back: Darren Sproles was very impressive in camp. The team will deploy the rookie not just as a kick returner, but also as a slot receiver. Essentially, he'll be filling Tim Dwight's role, which means that he will be injured by Week 3.
Next week: AFC East by Aaron Schatz.
38 comments, Last at 20 Jul 2005, 12:17pm by chiefzilla