Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
22 Aug 2005
by Mike Tanier
Our condolences go out to the family and friends of Thomas Herrion, the 49ers lineman who died soon after the conclusion of the Broncos-49ers exhibition game on Saturday night. Herrion was a young man battling for a roster spot, struggling to earn a living as a professional football player. His untimely passing reminds us of the sacrifices young athletes make for their sport; it also reminds us that the football games we devote so much of our attention and passion to are, in the end, merely games.
Kurt Warner looked pretty good in his preseason debut, then took a step backwards against the Chiefs. We all know that Warner can do the job if his offensive line is solid. The problem in Arizona right now is that Denny Green still hasn't settled on a starting five to protect his brittle quarterback.
So while WR Anquan Boldin's broken nose got most of the attention in camp, center Alex Stepanovich's broken hand is a much more serious injury. Stepanovich had surgery on his snapping hand last week. Originally, he was slated to miss one month. Now, it is not clear if he will be able to snap by the season opener.
In his absence, Nick Leckey has executed most of the snaps at center. Like Stepanovich, Leckey is a second-year player, but while Stepanovich started 16 games in 2004, Leckey was limited to special teams duty. Veteran Bill Conaty was recently signed as an insurance policy. Conaty is a journeyman who is playing for his fourth team in four years. Rookie free agent Chad Bandiera is currently third on the depth chart.
Meanwhile, prize free agent Oliver Ross has been sidelined with a knee injury. Reserve Ian Allen has started at right tackle, but isn't someone you want starting in the regular season; he's another knockaround guy who has gone from the Giants to the Eagles to the Cardinals in three seasons. And while rookie Elton Brown has been getting some ink in camp, Jeremy Bridges started against the Cowboys. Brown started against the Chiefs and was adequate, but this position is far from settled. In fact, Stepanovich could start at right guard if he's healthy enough to play but not to snap.
Denny Green needs to get a healthy, productive combination on the field soon. Otherwise, Dancin' Kurt Warner will return to the pocket, with predictable results.
The No-Names: Add Andy Stokes to the list of unknowns playing tight end for the Cardinals: the team acquired Mr. Irrelevant (the last player taken in the 2005 draft) off waivers from the Patriots. Aaron Golliday, who spent last season on the practice squad, started at tight end against the Cowboys and Chiefs. Expected starter Eric Edwards has been injured. Rookie Adam Bergen was the only tight end to catch a pass in two games, hauling in an 18-yarder against Dallas. And then there's Bobby Blizzard, who I believe is one of the X-Men. Where have you gone, Freddie Jones? We miss the predictability of your two catches for seven yards every week.
Two Corners: Top draft pick Antrell Rolle got mixed reviews in his debut against the Cowboys: he let a lot of plays happen in front of him but did break up a pass in the end zone. He looked more comfortable against the Chiefs. Fellow rookie CB Eric Green, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise. Rolle and David Macklin are the current starters, but Green should begin the season as the nickel corner.
Chang Done: QB Timmy Chang and RB Larry Croom were released before the team even played their first exhibition. Croom is an adequate third-down back who could land on another roster. Chang, the most prolific passer in NCAA history, will probably have to make a name for himself in Arena Football or Canada.
Jerametrius Butler doesn't get a lot of national attention, but he was the Rams best cover corner last season. He wasn't the best tackler in the world and would let some plays happen in front of him, but he picked off some passes, broke up a lot of plays, avoided penalties, and generally played smart.
So with Butler lost for the year (he had season ending surgery to repair a torn posterior cruciate ligament last week), the Rams are scrambling at cornerback. The situation in the secondary is made worse by the fact that the team cut CB Dwight Anderson early in camp, while Corey Ivy has a wrist injury.
One starting job belongs to Travis Fisher, a hard-hitting little defender who can be too physical for his own good. Fisher missed much of last season with a broken arm and with injuries to his jaw. DeJuan Groce, who filled in for Fisher last year, will battle Kevin Garnett for the right to replace Butler. Both are smallish third-year corners with limited starting experience. Both have played in nickel packages, but neither has excelled; the Rams were 31st in the league in DVOA against third and fourth wideouts last season. Rookie Ron Bartell is also in the mix, but it's a big jump from Howard to the NFL.
The problems in the secondary are compounded by transition at safety. Adam Archuleta was back in the lineup on Sunday against San Diego, but it's not clear who will start beside him. Jerome Carter and O.J. Atogwe, both rookies, started at safety in the preseason opener.
The team has to be concerned. The Seahawks are at least three deep in quality veteran receivers. The Cardinals are three deep in impressive youngsters. But despite depth problems in the secondary, Mike Martz insists that the team won't look outside the organization to solve its cornerback problem.
Incoginato Incommunicado: Why are the Rams playing hardball with third round pick Richie Incognito? It turns out that the team overspent to get their other rookies into camp, so they are offering Incognito about $100,000 less than what a third round pick normally earns. The rationale: Incognito is still recovering from offseason knee surgery and may not be able to contribute this year. Agent Jack Scharf countered in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "My whole argument is you knew what you were getting. You knew he was hurt ... He did nothing to prompt this. He didn't hurt himself jumping out of an airplane. He didn't hurt himself riding a motorcycle." First of all: Zing, Kellen Winslow! Second of all, good point. If Incognito was healthy, he would have been a second round pick (if he didn't have a history of bad behavior, he'd have been a first round pick). The Rams are always trying to re-patch their line and cannot afford to nickel-and-dime a player who could start for them in 2006. Incognito hurt his knee at the combine, so it's a bad message to send to players that if they show up at the combine and get hurt, the team that drafts them is going to lowball them. Yet another reason a lot of the top players skip the combine.
Slots of Options: In Pro Football Prospectus 2005, I warn fantasy football players that Rams slot receivers, once a source of beaucoup fantasy points, aren't what they used to be. And while it's still true that the days of Az Hakim and Ricky Proehl are gone, keep an eye on Kevin Curtis. Curtis has looked outstanding in preseason, has the moves to make noise in the slot, and is one Isaac Bruce hamstring pull away from the starting lineup. The Rams have other fine prospects in Shaun McDonald and Dante Ridgeway, but Curtis is the cream of the crop.
Punting Insurance: The Rams signed veteran punter Bryan Barker as an insurance policy in case rookie Reggie Hodges is too inconsistent to get the job done. Hodges struggled at the start of camp but has looked good in exhibition action. He placed three punts inside the 20 against the Bears and looked solid against the Chargers.
After two preseason games, it's clear that this will be a long, long season for Niners fans. Forget winning; right now, Mike Nolan's main job is assembling starting lineups, particularly on offense, that are even remotely competitive. With that in mind, here's the state of the starting lineup in San Francisco:
Quarterback: Alex Smith has looked terrible in two starts. Last week, he rarely had any time to throw. On Saturday night in Denver, he completed two passes: one required a leaping effort by Brandon Lloyd to net two yards, the other resulted in a knockout blow by John Lynch on tight end Billy Bajema. Along the way, Smith was sacked three times and fumbled a snap. Tim Rattay has looked better with the second unit. Rattay should be the opening day starter, if only to serve as a crash test dummy behind a poor offensive line.
Running Back: Kevan Barlow seems focused and appears to be running hard. He's also saying all the right things: a good sign for a young man with foot-in-mouth disease. He should have no problem holding off Frank Gore, who has looked decent. There have been few holes to run through, so Barlow, a power-running veteran, deserves the starting nod. Barlow's best friend Fred Beasley is entrenched at fullback. Maurice Hicks should earn a role as a third down back.
Wide Receiver: Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle started against the Broncos. Lloyd is easily the team's best receiver, and Battle's 58-yard TD catch was the highlight of the preseason thus far. After them, the rest of the depth chart is up in the air. Johnnie Morton hasn't done much. Rookie Rasheed Marshall will return kicks but may be the fourth or fifth wideout. Rookies Marcus Maxwell and Fred Amey got a long look against the Broncos. Rashaun Woods is still in the mix. The team loves P.J. Fleck but cannot find a role for a 5-foot-10, 190-pound receiver. The way this offense looks, though, there won't be many balls to go around to third or fourth wideouts.
Tight End: Eric Johnson is nursing a foot injury. Backup Aaron Walker is being pushed by Bajema, a big target who may be the best blocking tight end on the roster. Johnson's backups get lots of playing time.
Offensive Line: The starters against the Broncos were (left to right) Jonas Jennings, Justin Smiley, Eric Heitmann, Adam Snyder, and Kwame Harris. The return of Jennings helped, but the biggest problems are in the middle of the line. Heitmann is a converted guard with little experience at center, rookie David Baas is recovering from a hamstring injury, and Snyder is being thrown to the wolves. If Baas can return and play center, it will help this unit immeasurably.
Defensive Line: This unit is solid: Bryant Young is moving smoothly from 4-3 tackle to 3-4 end, Anthony Adams is a natural at the nose, and Marques Douglas knows his role after playing for Nolan in Baltimore. While the Niners are officially running a 3-4 defense, former end Andre Carter spends an awful lot of his time in a three-point stance for an alleged linebacker.
Linebacker: The names are familiar: Julian Peterson, Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich, Jamie Winborn. Carter and Saleem Rasheed have seen a lot of action off the bench. This should be the strength of the team, but it's up to Nolan to find a scheme and rotation that works. These linebackers spent a lot of time getting blocked in the first half against Denver.
Secondary: Ahmed Plummer and strong safety Tony Parrish are set. Willie Middlebrooks got a start on Saturday night at cornerback; he's a disaster waiting to happen. Rookies Derrick Johnson and Daven Holly are both getting long looks; sophomore Shawntae Spencer has been sidelined by a hamstring pull. Mike Rumph seems to be making the transition from lousy cornerback to mediocre free safety.
Specialists: Kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee aren't being challenged. Rookies Marshall and Derrick Johnson are being given every opportunity to win the return jobs.
The Seahawks' smooth offseason appears to have gotten even smoother in the summer.
Consider the team's situation last January: many of the key offensive starters were free agents, Shaun Alexander was demanding a trade, there was no general manager, and the team seemed in no hurry to find one.
Since then, the road has risen to meet the Seahawks. Tim Ruskell filled the front office void and is currently enjoying an extended honeymoon with the local media. And with good reason: Ruskell quickly got all of the important free agents to sign -- even the always-disgruntled Walter Jones -- then made positive moves on the free agent market, grabbing Bryce Fisher, Jamie Sharper, and several wide receivers and defensive backs. When camp opened, Alexander was in uniform and content. Injuries have been minor, and when linebackers Lofi Tatupu and D.D. Lewis did miss significant time, Kevin Bentley and LeRoy Hill looked good in their place.
The Seahawks then cruised past the Saints in their preseason opener. No, the starting offense didn't look that sharp, but the defense did. And when you realize that Alexander, Jones, Matt Hasselbeck, Itula Mili, and others could have left via free agency, the Seahawks should be pleased just to have a starting offense. And the backups looked great.
So how easy has it been in Seattle? Last week, Mike Holmgren actually cancelled a day of practice, citing the long layoff before Monday night's exhibition against Dallas and some sluggish workouts by the team in the intense heat. The players were too shocked and tired to respond, but they greatly appreciated the respite. Hasselbeck used the down time to buy his offensive linemen expensive nick-knacks: watchwinders, possibly picked out by his sister-in-law while she nurses Grace Elizabeth in front of the Home Shopping Network.
Why dwell on all of this good news? That's easy. I'm from Philadelphia, and I'M JEALOUS.
Wide Receiver Update: Bobby Engram is currently the starter opposite Darrell Jackson. Joe Jurevicius is in the slot. Jerome Pathon has been playing with the second unit. There's speculation that Pathon may not make the squad: D.J. Hackett, a top athlete from Colorado who caught 71 balls for the Buffs in 2003 but was inactive last season, has played well in camp and is more versatile than Pathon. Special teams ace Alex Bannister has a broken collarbone; if he isn't available to start the season, it will open a roster spot for another wideout.
Fire and Brimstone: Defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes will be coaching from the sidelines instead of the booth throughout the preseason. "It was a basic experiment," Rhodes told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "coming down and trying to be a little closer to the players and get a better feel for the game situations. When they come off the field, we are able to talk." Rhodes is better known for his fiery, often obscene pep-talks and motivational skills than his play calling, so getting him closer to the troops makes sense. Still, the team hasn't determined whether Rhodes will be on the sidelines or in the booth when the games start counting.
A Strong Backup: Mack Strong has been in Seattle long enough to have played for Tom Flores and blocked for Chris Warren and Rick Mirer. The team may have found his eventual successor at fullback: Leonard Weaver, a 250-pound rookie free agent from Carson-Newman. Weaver was a collegiate linebacker who hadn't carried the football since high school until Mike Holmgren gave him a handful of carries in the exhibition opener. Weaver is exactly what teams look for in a fullback nowadays: he works cheap, he blocks well, he isn't hapless with the ball in his hands, and his defensive background will make him an ideal all-purpose special teamer.
This is the last edition of Four Downs: NFC West for 2005.
Wednesday: The final Four Downs for the AFC South.
12 comments, Last at 24 Aug 2005, 8:52pm by MikeT