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10 Feb 2005

Four Downs: NFC West

Welcome to the first edition of our new offseason feature, Four Downs. Inspired by Prospectus Triple Play over at our partner site Baseball Prospectus, Four Downs will take a regular look at the four teams in each division through the eyes of Football Outsiders. Four Downs will generally appear on Tuesdays and Thursdays, although some weeks will feature just one article. Each division will be covered roughly once every five weeks.

By Mike Tanier

Arizona Cardinals

Out of the Running

Quick: name the last Cardinals running back to rush for 1,000-yards.

If you said Adrian Murrell in 1998 ... well, we're impressed, and a little scared. Emmitt Smith's 937 yards in 2004 were the highest total by a Cardinals runner since then. It's also the exact same total Emmitt posted in his rookie season, but that's just a spooky coincidence.

It figures that Emmitt would give the Cardinals their best rushing performance in five years, then promptly retire. The Cardinals have had a mixture of bad luck and bad judgment when it comes to running backs over the last 20 years. Of course, the same assertion can be made about most aspects of the franchise.

This is the team that drafted Garrison Hearst, suffered through two injury-filled seasons with him, then let him go to Cincinnati after his one productive season with the team. The Cardinals tried to make the combination of Michael Pittman and Thomas Jones work for several years, only to see both players become more successful for other teams. In 1997, Van McElroy led the team in rushing with 424 rushing yards. Yes, 424. In one seven-year period, the team tried to make Earl Ferrell, Johnnie Johnson, and Ronald Moore featured backs. Compared to them, Murrell looked like Jim Brown.

Now, with Emmitt gone, the search for a featured back begins again. Troy Hambrick and Marcel Shipp can't be considered serious candidates. Travis Henry's name has been mentioned, but the Bills may be looking for too much in a trade. Most of the top free-agent runners, like LaMont Jordan and Rudi Johnson, are power runners who may not fit Denny Green's system.

Then, of course, there's Shaun Alexander and Edgerrin James. Both would fit the system and could put up huge numbers if the passing game gets its act together. But is either player interested in playing for the Cardinals? Edge almost certainly does not. But Alexander could be lured.

If the Cardinals go the rookie route, don't expect them to invest a first-round pick: the failures of Hearst and Jones have not been forgotten, and Green will want a player who can quickly contribute as a pass blocker.

Better Balance

New offensive coordinator Keith Rowen spent three years as an offensive line coach for Green's Vikings, and he worked more recently as a tight ends coach for the Chiefs. He was also a running backs coach in the past, so it's no surprise that he hopes to improve Arizona's running game. "You want to hit a figure about 50%," Rowen said at his first press conference. "Everywhere Denny has been, we have run the ball, and run the ball well. You have to have both. If you want to isolate receivers, you make them outnumber you in the box. It all begins with running the ball well, and ties into a great passing game."

Coaches love to cite that 50% figure, even though few achieve it (and run/pass selection has as much to do with a team's success as the coach's preference: teams that hold a lot of leads run more). But Rowen seems to be thinking about a different coach when he talks about running the ball half the time under Green. Here is the total number of runs and passes called by the Vikings from 1993 through 2000, Green's final full season:

Year Runs Passes
1993 447 526
1994 419 673
1995 433 642
1996 435 561
1997 449 540
1998 450 533
1999 422 530
2000 428 495

These were successful offenses, usually ranked in the top 10 in the league in yards, and they could run the ball well. But they only ran the ball about 40-45% of the time. The Cardinals ran the ball 475 times and attempted 533 passes last season, a high percentage of runs for a Green team. Rowen shouldn't worry about running more: his job will be to make each carry more productive.

Free Agent Overview

Ronald McKinnon, a starter since 1998 at middle linebacker, will turn 32 early next season. The team has wanted to get younger and faster at the position for two years, so look for the Cardinals to let McKinnon go and allow Gerald Hayes to move into the starting MLB job.

Another veteran on his way out may be Kyle Vanden Bosch, who was the team's best defensive lineman in 2002 but suffered major knee injuries in 2001 and 2003. He wasn't very effective as a rotation player last season. Neither McKinnon nor Vanden Bosch will cause a big splash in free agency, though, and the Cardinals may be willing to re-sign either for a budget price.

Look for the team to prioritize safety Adrian Wilson, probably the best player on the defense. Other defensive backs will be given opportunities to test the market. Ifeanyi Ohalete and Renaldo Hill were effective stopgap starters, but neither player merits a long-term deal. Hill has played well enough as a spot starter to earn interest from some team as a nickel corner.

QB Josh McCown is a restricted free agent who doesn't have a lot of buzz on the open marketplace. The Cardinals will try to perform a tricky balancing act: signing him to starter's money while also persuading a veteran (Brad Johnson's name has come up) to arrive to stabilize the position.

St. Louis Rams

On the Line

One thing appears certain in St. Louis: Kyle Turley won't be back next year.

The injured right tackle has been involved in a war of words with coach Mike Martz all season. In late January, when an ESPN reporter asked Turley where Martz would rank among the NFL's 32 head coaches, Turley replied, "Ah, man, are they going to have an expansion team? I put him down at 33."

With his high cap figure (over $7 million), Turley won't be going anywhere until June 2nd. But he's sure to be a cap cut by late spring. Unfortunately, that will put the Rams offensive line in limbo for much of the offseason. Perennial franchise player Orlando Pace is sure to hold out of camp again, unless his decision to part with agents Kevin and Carl Poston changes his mindset about a long-term deal. With Tom Nutten and Chris Dishman on their way out, that leaves aging Adam Timmerman (33) and Andy McCollum (34), youngsters Grant Williams and Scott Tercero, and lots of question marks.

Remarkably, despite Pace's often insane contract demands and the importance of pass protection in Martz's scheme, the Rams haven't drafted an offensive lineman on Day One since they took John St. Clair in the third round in 2000. St. Clair, you may remember, was the turnstile who missed the block that got Kurt Warner injured in 2002. He's in Miami now. Turley came aboard in exchange for a second round pick in 2003.

Now, with needs at a variety of positions, the Rams may have to deal with a salary-cap trifecta: eat part of Turley's salary (about $2 million after June 2nd), franchise Pace (about $8 million), and splurge on an experienced lineman on the market. Then, when Pace holds out in camp, they'll have to fight through another August of discontinuity on the line.

Dead Dollars

Turley and Pace aside, the Rams are in decent financial shape. They are about $15 million under the cap. Fourteen players are scheduled for free agency, but many are fringe players. Defensive end Bryce Fisher, who blossomed this season, and safety Antuan Edwards are the most noteworthy free agents. LB Tommy Polley, an unrestricted free agent, had an up-and-down season and is probably on his way out. Young backups Mike Furrey and Arlen Harris have already been locked into one-year deals.

But the cap situation would be better if the Rams weren't bogged down with old contracts. Kurt Warner still counts against this year's cap to the tune of $6.72 million. Two holdovers from the Greatest Show on Turf days -- Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce -- combine to eat up over $16-million in 2005 cap space.

With Steven Jackson ready to take over as the featured back, Faulk will probably be asked to restructure his deal. In a flooded running back market, Faulk is likely to come to the table rather than risk release. Bruce's situation is harder to read. He had his best season in five years in 2004: a DPAR rating of 26.0 ranked him 15th among NFL receivers. By any measure, he was one of the best No. 2 receivers in the league and actually had more passes thrown to him than Torry Holt. He's also 32 years old, and the Rams have a likely replacement on the roster in Kevin Curtis. Don't be surprised if Bruce is asked to restructure, with a lucrative signing bonus offered as incentive for bringing the team cap relief.

San Francisco 49ers

Back to the West

New offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy arrives from New Orleans with a rep as a QB guru and a plan to install the West Coast offense that he learned from Paul Hackett at the University of Pittsburgh.

Everything in that last sentence is true, though none of it makes a hill of sense.

Yes, McCarthy is a West Coast Offense guy, despite the fact that the Saints offense looked nothing like a West Coast system. Yes, he's touted as a developer of young passers, having helped Aaron Brooks become a ball-savvy, consistent field general (snicker). And of course, listing Hackett on the resume is a sure-fire way to get people's attention right after the Jets' stellar offensive performance against the Steelers.

In fairness to McCarthy, he gets high marks from Matt Hasselbeck, whom he coached in Green Bay. McCarthy also had a hand in the development of Jake Delhomme when he played for New Orleans. And his Saints offenses were ranked 10th and 11th in the league in DVOA in 2002 and 2003 before sliding to 20th this season.

McCarthy brings with him offensive line coach George Warhop, who was fired by the Cowboys at the end of the 2004 season. Warhop preaches pass protection and has a stated preference for king-sized offensive linemen. He may be disappointed at the size of the players on the current roster:

Offensive Lineman, Pos. Weight
Scott Gragg, T 315
Brock Gutierrez, C 304
Kwame Harris, T 310
Eric Heitmann, G 305
Kyle Kosier, G-T 309
Jeremy Mayberry, C 310
Justin Smiley, G 301

Recent draftees Harris and Smiley were selected because they were quick, light-footed blockers, not massive road graders. If Warhop wants 340-pounders in the Flozell Adams mold, he may need to draft them.

As for the 49ers' pass protection, it wasn't as bad as advertised in 2004. The 52 sacks allowed were second worst in the NFL, but after adjusting for pass rate, Football Outsiders lists them as 21st in the league, not bad for a team that was shuffling three inexperienced passers into the lineup. Run blocking was a bigger problem: San Francisco ranked 31st in Line Yards in 2004. Warhop's Cowboys and Cardinals lines weren't known for blowing open holes (the Cowboys were 26th and 24th in Line Yards in two seasons with Warhop), so he'll have to improve the ground game as well as the pass protection.

Older and Wiser

Anyone hoping that Kevan Barlow will be shipped out of town -- and fullback Aaron Beasley may be tops on that list -- is sure to be disappointed. If the team doesn't pick up a $6.5 million bonus on Barlow, then most of his $18-million contract is guaranteed. It's just the kind of unwise investment that cost former GM Terry Donahue his job. The 49ers could try to work a trade, but in a glutted RB marketplace there will be few takers.

The 49ers are in fine cap shape overall: they are nearly $13 million under the cap and will gain more space when CB Jimmy Williams' deal voids. Much of that money will be spent on LB Julian Peterson, assuming he makes a full recovery from an Achilles' tendon injury. Peterson was franchised last season but is more amenable to signing a long-term deal now that Donahue is out of the picture and the team is spending money again.

With the youngest roster in the NFL, the 49ers can afford to get older. Peterson spoke of the need for more veteran leadership in the San Francisco Chronicle: "In this league, you're dealing with veterans who have been there and done that numerous times. You need that. You have to have people out there to tell you what's going on and how to deal with different situations."

Where is veteran leadership needed? Quarterback is an obvious place, and the 49ers may make a run at someone like Jon Kitna, who can stabilize the position while someone else is groomed. Help is needed on the defensive line. But with McCarthy and Warhop trying to improve the offense, there's a good chance San Francisco will make an offer for an experienced blocker like Marco Rivera.

Free Agent Overview

If Julian Peterson gets a clean bill of health, he should be the team's top free agent priority. Next on the list should be young offensive linemen Kyle Kosier and Eric Heitman. While the new offensive coaches may want to get bigger on the line, the team cannot afford to replace both starters. Center Brock Gutierrez is also an unrestricted free agent and may get offers from other teams after filling in capably for Jeremy Newberry. With Newberry expected to be back, the 49ers may let Gutierrez go.

Safety Ronnie Heard and cornerback Jimmy Williams are all but gone, as is receiver Curtis Conway. Wideout Cedric Wilson, a restricted free agent, lost playing time late in the year to Rashaun Woods. The 49ers won't match a major offer to Wilson.

Kicker Todd Peterson was accurate on field goals but is one of the worst kickoff men in the league. He's a free agent, and former Oregon State product Kirk Yliniemi spent the year on the practice squad. With the 49ers looking to lock up Julian Peterson, sign some veterans to stabilize the roster, and pay for a top draft pick, they may economize by not offering Todd Peterson a contract.

Seattle Seahawks

Shaun on the Way Out?

He's been stabbed in the back. He's been misunderstood. But it's a comfort to know that Shaun Alexander's intentions are good. The free agent wants to stay in Seattle, at least according to teammate Heath Evans. And that's great news for Seahawks fans, or is it?

Football Outsiders' stats are all over the board for Alexander. He ranks third in DPAR, but 13h in DVOA and a measly 25th in Success Rate. His receiving stats are below average: he caught just 61% of the passes thrown to him, one of the lowest totals in the league among regular starters.

Statistics like Success Rate bear out Alexander's inconsistency: he'll be stuffed on five carries before ripping off a 20-yard run, and he'll mix 195 yard games with 13-carry, 39-yard efforts. He's a great runner, but he may not be worth the money it takes to keep him around, especially on a Seattle team with major free-agent decisions to make.

Alexander's shaky attitude, illustrated by his "stabbed in the back" comments, are also an issue in Seattle, where several veterans have noticed that the atmosphere in the locker room needs to be improved. As Trent Dilfer said on Seattle sports radio in January, "We need to cultivate what it is to be a football team and less what it is to be a superstar. I've been very disturbed about how much is being talked about how stats, production and glamour is going to take this team to the next level." Who do you think he was talking about?

The Long List

Alexander is just one of 16 free agents in Seattle. Several of those 16 are key starters: Matt Hasselbeck, Alexander, Walter Jones, Chris Gray, Robbie Tobeck, Itula Mili, Ken Lucas, Chike Okeafor. Floyd Womack.

Yes, four-fifths of the starting offensive line is on that list. Technically, Womack isn't a starter, but he filled in for Chris Terry for eight games and started four others in 2003. Jones, Gray, and Tobeck have missed a total of two starts in three years (both by Jones in 2002).

We know what Jones has planned: he'll be franchised, hold out all summer, and show up in adequate football shape come mid-August. Tobeck and Gray are both over 30, so long-term deals may not make sense. At the same time, the Seahawks are paper-thin behind the veterans. Wayne Hunter and Sean Locklear are the only young backups with any pedigree; one of them could step in for Gray. There is no backup center on the roster except for snapper Jean-Philippe Darche, so Tobeck would be difficult to replace.

On defense, Okeafor is likely to get a long-term deal; he was the best defender on the team for much of the year. Lucas beat out Bobby Taylor for a job, but the secondary was hardly a strength for the Seahawks. If Lucas gets offers, Seattle is likely to let him ride.

A Vacant Seat

The biggest question in Seattle, though, isn't who will sign, it's who will sign them?

Team president Bob Whitsitt was fired at the end of the year. Vice president Ted Thompson left to take a similar job in Green Bay. Nominal general manager Bob Ferguson is still on board, but he doesn't hold the power of a traditional GM.

While the team looks for a new chief exec, former vice president Mike Reinfeldt has stepped in as a consultant to get the ball rolling on contract talks. Reinfeldt was a major decision-maker until the end of the 2002 season, when he was told by owner Paul Allen and Whitsitt that he would have to take a pay cut and a demotion in power if he wished to remain with the team. Reinfeldt resigned, only to return to a chaotic situation one year later.

Whitsitt's tenure in Seattle was marked by constant in-fighting with Mike Holmgren, who was named coach/GM in 2000 but was stripped of the latter title in 2002. Every personnel decision in recent seasons deteriorated into a Whitsitt vs. Holmgren battle, and the organization suffered for it. Allen and CEO Tod Leiweke want to make sure that the new club president fits better within the franchise structure, but the clock is ticking on a decision: every day without a president is a day without a coherent offseason gameplan.

For now, Reinfeldt is making preliminary calls to the agents for Hasselbeck, Alexander, and others. He's no stranger to the veterans on the club, having initially negotiated their contracts. The Seahawks have about $28 million available to sign their long list of free agents. Now, we'll have to wait and see if Reindeldt really has the authority to grab a pen and write some checks.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 10 Feb 2005

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