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.
01 Mar 2006
by Mike Tanier
Cardinals Stadium is slated to open for business on August 1st. You can take a 3-D tour of the state-of-the-art complex here.
Yes, playing Cardinals games in a palace is like serving cream chipped beef on Wedgwood china. But give the Bidwell family props for pulling out all the stops in their latest effort to revitalize (okay, vitalize) Cardinals football. "We wanted to set a new standard for design excellence for stadiums," Michael Bidwell told the Fort Worth Star Telegram. "We wanted fresh ideas. We didn't want the 2006 version of whatever the sports architects wanted to throw out. We wanted something that would completely reset the rules."
The architects delivered, creating a facility with 88 luxury "lofts" (don't call them "boxes"), air conditioning, a retractable roof, and most intriguingly, a retractable grass playing field that slides into the stadium (in Bidwell's words) "like a cake pan into the oven".
All the retraction could help the Cardinals competitively. The architects stopped just short of equipping Kurt Warner with a retractable thumb, but a sliding field could put an end to the team's red zone woes (the Cardinals' red zone DVOA of -101.2 percent was the worst in the league by a huge margin). You say a drive stalled at the 15-yard line? No problem: just push a button, and the field can retract until the Cardinals are at the one. The players just have to slide around like that dude from Jamiroquai.
The final T-crossing and I-dotting for Cardinals Stadium occurred last week, as the team reached an agreement with Fiesta Bowl officials on how to divvy up luxury lofts for the big bowl game. The 73,000-seat venue is the home of Super Bowl XLII. And maybe it will be the home of some exciting Cardinals games as well.
Here's a foolproof plan for getting the Cardinals into the playoffs in 2006.
With about $20 million in cap space to burn and a new stadium to fill, the Cardinals must go shopping. Denny Green can turn things around quickly if he can protect Kurt Warner, run the football, and make the Cardinals better in the red zone. He can accomplish all three goals by upgrading the offensive line. Green has hinted several times in the past month that improving the line is the team's top priority.
The Cardinals do have some talent up front. Leonard Davis isn't an elite left tackle, but he's adequate. Alex Stepanovich missed all of last season with a hand injury but showed promise in 2004; he could return at center or play either guard position. Guard Elton Brown started to come around late in the year. Reggie Wells may be given a chance to win the starting center job. But there are weak links, notably at right tackle, where Oliver Ross was a disappointment last year before getting hurt.
It shouldn't be too hard to replace Ross. Jon Runyan may be getting old, but he's a tough competitor who is rarely hurt. He would instantly upgrade the running game. If the Patriots let Tom Ashworth go, then the Cardinals can sign a more traditional pass blocker who can play either tackle position.
Green has made it clear that the Cardinals won't break the bank for Shaun Alexander or Edgerrin James, and he hasn't given up on J.J. Arrington, who showed signs of life in the second half of last season after gaining 27 yards on 20 carries in his first three games. Green's instincts are right on the money; the top running backs would probably shop a Cardinals contract offer instead of seriously considering it. Still, Arrington needs help. Najeh Davenport would be a cheaper alternative to Alexander or Edge; he would be the bruiser, Arrington the speedster, with Marcel Shipp picking up odds and ends. One rumor has the Cardinals pursuing Maurice Morris, but how many third down backs does one team need?
The Cardinals defense isn't great, but it should get better this year as youngsters Eric Green and Antrell Rolle develop at cornerback. Ahmed Plummer's name has surfaced in conjunction with the Cardinals, and he would provide some veteran stability in the secondary.
And what about Josh McCown, who appears to be in limbo now that Warner has signed? The Cardinals should keep him, ditch John Navarre, and forget about Vince Young or Jay Cutler. This team spends too much time on the developmental merry-go-round at that position. But Green likes Navarre, appears lukewarm toward McCown, and has stated that the team will either sign or draft a quarterback.
Watch out, Rams fans: the Vandals are coming. The Idaho Vandals, to be specific.
Long before he made a name for himself as offensive coordinator for the Dolphins and Vikings, new Rams skip Scott Linehan coached the University of Idaho that led the nation in scoring in 1993 (47.5 points per game). Linehan, a Vandals quarterback under Dennis Erickson, was a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Idaho before moving to the University of Washington, then Louisville, then finally the pros. Linehan's rep is built on his work with the Vikings, and it's no secret that when he left Minnesota, Daunte Culpepper's stock went downhill faster than Bode Miller. Okay, bad example.
Linehan hasn't forgotten his Idaho tubers; his coaching staff resembles a who's who of Big Sky coaching hotshots. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson followed Linehan as Idaho's offensive coordinator before bouncing around the NFL and Big 10 as a position coach. Olson's credentials aren't impressive -- few people want to start their cover letters with "I was Joey Harrington's quarterback coach" -- but Olson's fast-track rise makes him worth watching.
Strengthening the Idaho connection is quarterback coach Doug Neussmeier, the former Vandals and Saints quarterback who has spent the last three years developing Drew Stanton and Jeff Smoker at Michigan State. Nussmeier is the missing link between the ex-Vandals and ex-Saints; on defense, veteran coaches like Rick Venturi and Jim Haslett bring lots of experience but shaky resumes to the table.
The Idaho connection was almost stronger; Linehan wanted to hire Vandals skipper Nick Holt to coach the defensive lines, but Holt took a job as USC's defensive coordinator instead. Former Lions and Chargers assistant Brian Baker got the job instead.
So Linehan has assembled a relatively youthful staff from the great frontier. How will they change the way the Rams do business? Early indications suggest an egalitarian model, with Linehan, Olson, and Neussmeier all contributing ideas to the offense. Marc Bulger has even provided some input in early skull sessions. Linehan is reportedly changing the terminology and adding more shotgun formations. Rest assured that the Rams will still be a pass-first team.
And while the playbook is still being hammered out, Bulger seems to be pleased with the changes. It isn't hard to read between the lines of his quote from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "I'm sure they're going to be demanding and want things right, but it wasn't like I was up there talking to the Wizard of Oz," Bulger said. "They talk to you like a normal person. Respectful." Toto, we have a feeling that Mike Martz isn't in Missouri anymore.
Here's a foolproof plan for getting the Rams back into the playoffs in 2006.
The Rams are in good cap shape, with about $16 million in breathing space. If Isaac Bruce agrees to an extension, they'll have a little more cash; his current cap number is about $10 million.
Much of the team's discretionary cash will be spent on defense. Haslett has made it clear that he wants Adam Archuleta back, and the Rams should be aggressive about re-signing him. Defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Ryan Pickett never developed into stars, but both are serviceable players at a position where depth is at a premium. The team has been in negotiations with Lewis. They appear ready to let Pickett walk. If he leaves, the team must sign Lewis and try to get deeper and more flexible up front.
The Rams also need to get better at cornerback and at linebacker. The return of Dexter Coakley from a broken fibula should provide a boost at linebacker, but Coakley is on the downside of his career. At the corners, the Rams have adequate but oft-injured youngsters Travis Fisher, Jerametrius Butler, and DeJuan Groce, but they need competition and depth. Charles Woodson and Ty Law are too old and expensive for a team looking to rebuild; Ricky Manning or Will Allen would be better alternatives.
Any extra money should be spent on the interior offensive line. Tom Nutten probably won't be back, and the Rams have sandbagged their guard positions with old timers for too long. Young guards like Steven Neal and Vince Manuwai get pretty high marks in pass protection, and both are young enough to stick around for a while. If the Rams don't overspend for aging talent (like they did for Coakley last year), they can invest in some long-term solutions.
So, okay, Norv Turner is now the Niners offensive coordinator.
You know how Dorian Gray had a picture in his attic? And you know how it got ugly every time he did something evil? In Turner's attic, there's a playbook full of infernal plays, and every time one of his teams fails to reach the postseason, another page of unholy x's and o's appears. This year's page is titled "Randy Moss: decoy."
Yes, Moss played hurt for much of the year. Yes, DVOA ranked the Raiders offense 13th in the league: not bad, and better than they ranked in most traditional stats (offensive points and net yards: 19th). But Al Davis gave Turner an arsenal that made the Death Star look like a slingshot, and Turner coached them right into the middle of the NFL pack, as he usually does.
In a way, that makes this the perfect job for Turner. The Niners were comically inept on offense last season. It would be almost impossible for them to get worse. If Alex Smith, Frank Gore, and the offensive line enjoy modest improvements, the Niners could finish 19th or 20th in the league in total offense. Turner gets credit for the "turnaround." Mission accomplished.
Readers of Pro Football Prospectus know the tally on Turner: since 1998, he has only coached (as head coach or offensive coordinator) one team into the top 10 in DVOA: the 1999 Redskins. If you prefer traditional stats, only his 1999 Redskins reached the top 10 in total yards since 1994; that team and the 1996 Redskins finished in the top 10 in total points. And of course, those 1999 Redskins were his only playoff team since he rode Jimmy Johnson's coattails in Dallas.
Turner seems like a good guy, but he has proven that he's an awful head coach and a mediocre coordinator. He should be down at University of Pittsburgh, helping his buddy Dave Wannstedt and trying to make a star out of Tyler Palco. It's exciting to see teams like the Rams as they assemble young, up-and-coming coaching staffs. It's discouraging to watch the same retread coaches get hired over and over again. What will Turner do with Brandon Lloyd that he couldn't do with Moss?
Oh well, at least Bruce Coslett has been quiet lately.
Here's a foolproof plan for getting the Niners into the playoffs in â€¦ oh, let's say 2007.
First, they must get their front office straightened out as quickly as possible. Pursuing Mike Reinfeldt for an undisclosed executive position wasn't a bad idea. If Ray Anderson is the answer to the team's front office needs, then the Niners should move quickly. If they don't hire a new exec in the next two weeks, they should wait a year and let the existing administration call the shots.
Second, the Niners must perform some spin control on their penny-pinching reputation. There's nothing wrong with releasing Ahmed Plummer or allowing Julian Peterson to hit the market. But Mike Nolan's "he's not worth the cap space" remarks won't sit well with veterans around the league. If Peterson isn't worth the big bucks, the Niners must prove that they are willing to go after someone who is.
The goal for 2006 should be to acquire one impact player through free agency and another through the draft; if they can acquire two stars and develop some others, they can generate some buzz for 2007. Unfortunately, young difference-makers aren't easy to find on the free agent market; Steve Hutchinson and Nate Clements were quickly tagged by their clubs for just that reason. Wide receiver David Givens, who has the potential to be a #1 receiver, or defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, who was great in 2005 but has questions, are two players who may be worth a big-money gamble.
Such is the Catch-22 the Niners find themselves in: they have cap space, but there aren't many players on the market who can help them get better than 6-10. If they sign no one, they'll be perceived as cheap and non-competitive. No wonder the team is looking for a new front office guru.
If the Niners overspend on Jamal Lewis, John Abraham, or Charles Woodson, you'll know that they felt pressure to make some headlines. Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan must hold their water in free agency. If they panic, they could spend their way straight into the middle of the pack.
Seahawks fans don't want Shaun Alexander to skip town. They're ready to take action to keep their superstar running back.
Chester Earl of Coast Salish Events has even scheduled a march. The "12th Man Rally" is set to step off on March 2. Earl hopes to pressure the Seahawks into keeping the team's Super Bowl nucleus together and signing Alexander to a long-term deal. You can buy a handsome tee shirt with a picture of Alexander and the caption "We want our MVP back" for just $15.
In an exclusive FO interview, Earl explained the particulars of the rally.
FO: How many people do you expect to attend? Will there be food? Music? Special trailers like the ones they have in Tampa Bay?
Earl: I have confirmed around 120 to 150 people. At this point we will be serving hot dogs and drink; there has been a couple of vendors that have offered food but we haven't responded.
FO: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that you will be marching from the south side of the Seahawks team store to the north parking lot. That seems like an awfully short walk.
Earl: Due to the time between the Super Bowl XL and the free agency, we couldn't get a street permit. We will see the day of the event; if we get less then 300 people, we can extend it from there!
FO: What about Steve Hutchinson? How come he doesn't get a march?
Earl: I have been receiving a lot of feedback regarding Steve, Joe (Jurevicius), Mack (Strong): that we need them just as bad, if not more so. I don't agree about "more so," but agree we need them all.... Seattle has promised Shaun for the past two years, "show us you are real and we will pay you real money" I believe being the rushing champ, MVP and so much more, we need to pay him. Steve is going to get his $6.9 million as franchise player (transition player, actually).
FO: If Alexander leaves, who's a better consolation prize: Edge, Jamal Lewis, or Maurice Morris? Or should Dan Doorink come out of retirement?
Earl: Well I would pick T.O. first. Just kidding! I think we should draft a good running back if he doesn't re-sign. If he doesn't re-sign I believe we get hit with the Super Bowl hangover, so let's bring in a good running back from college to run behind that great line.
FO: Is the rally a "rain or shine" event? Actually, is there such a thing as a "shine" event in Seattle?
Earl: Is Super Bowl XLI going to be played rain or shine?
Update: The threat of lightning storms kept some would-be 12th Men away from the Alexander rally, but the crowd that was there showed their Seahawks spirit. Several Washington-area newspapers and television stations covered the scaled-down march. Most marchers wore Earl's Alexander tee-shirts; many carried signs and banners.
According to Earl, marchers buzzed about the latest collective bargaining news, and some were still grumbling about the officiating at the Super Bowl. But the buzzword of the day was "chemistry." These fans didn't just want to remain in the Super Bowl hunt; they wanted to improve Seattle's image as a sports city. "Even if we have to pay Alexander $7.5 or $8 million," Earl said, "it's an opportunity to make some history in Seattle. To have our MVP come back, and to have him eventually retire with the Seahawks, it would build a football tradition which Seattle lacks."
After the rally, marches learned that the start of the free agency period was pushed back; no one would come knocking after Alexander until Monday morning. And Earl was surprised by three e-mail messages: Seahawks fans from the Philadelphia area, all of them seeking Alexander tee-shirts.
Here's a foolproof plan for keeping the Seahawks in the playoffs in 2006.
The Seahawks have cap room â€“ about $15-million worth of it, after placing the transition tag on Steve Hutchinson â€“ but despite the protests of fans like Earl, they aren't about to overpay for Alexander.
The Seahawks will let Alexander learn about his market value the hard way. The league's freest-spending owners aren't in the market for a running back right now. The presence of Edge, Lewis, and several top college prospects will allow buyers to name their price. There are more whispers about backup Maurice Morris than about Alexander right now. By the end of March, Alexander may be willing to return to Seattle with a lucrative-but-sane new deal.
Most of the team's other in-house free agents are bit players (Peter Warrick, Ryan Hannam) or aging veterans (Mack Strong). The team expressed some interest in keeping Warrick, who may get some offers from teams looking for an Antwaan Randle El consolation prize. Strong is likely to re-sign with the Seahawks. Joe Jurevicius and Rocky Bernard will attract some attention from other clubs; Bernard had a very good season at defensive tackle, but he may have been playing for a payday, as he had a rep for taking downs off in past years. Jurevicius will get looks from teams in need of a second or third wideout.
The Seahawks can afford to sign Alexander, keep some role players like Strong and restricted free agent Wayne Hunter, and still pursue some big name talent on defense. Ty Law or Adam Archuleta would provide an instant upgrade in the secondary. An all-purpose defensive lineman like Aaron Kampmann or Orpheus Roye would improve the run defense while keeping the speed rushers fresh.
Unlike their NFC West opponents, the Seahawks can adopt a "one player away" strategy: it makes sense for them to pursue a short term contributor like Law or Charles Woodson. That may be the best way to avoid the Super Bowl Slump.
Next week: AFC East by Aaron Schatz
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