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?
27 Mar 2007
by Doug Farrar
Before we continue with our review of free agency and look forward to the draft, a special announcement: Football Outsiders will be doing a question-and-answer with Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com. This is your chance to ask about any player, from the first-rounders to the sleepers. Send your questions to me at doug-at-footballoutsiders.com, and I'll use the best ones in the interview.
If it seemed that Dennis Green was coaching the Cardinals with less than a full tank, his first public comments after his firing added credence to that notion. "I wasn't as disappointed as a lot of people think because we didn't play like we thought we would play," Green told ESPNews in mid-March. "We left five games on the table that we should have won in the 2006 season, (and) we did the exact same thing in 2005 and 2004. My frustration level was very high."
While Green is working on an instructional DVD about fishing, and accepting offers as a motivational speaker (insert your own "crown their ass" joke here), new coach Ken Whisenhunt is shoring up many of the fundamental issues that went unwatched during Green's time with the team. The former Steelers offensive coordinator has expressed a desire to implement the same sort of two-back system often employed in Pittsburgh. Having Russ Grimm coaching an offensive line that was always ignored under Green will make that system more effective over time. Whisenhunt and Grimm will probably save Edgerrin James' career.
We're also discovering how many Cardinals took a pass on team conditioning programs, such as they were. Left tackle Leonard Davis, who departed after the 2006 season to sign an enormous contract with the Dallas Cowboys, left much of the $1 million in workout bonuses built into his rookie contract on the table to train on his own because he was dissatisfied with the conditioning facilities provided by the team. This year, the front office has put serious money into upgrading the equipment, and hired strength and conditioning coach John Lott. You may remember Lott from his uproarious pep talks to draft prospects doing bench press reps each year at the Combine -- if you haven't seen him, here's a sample -- and he'll no doubt be exhorting all his Cardinals to "get their stinkin' minds right" as he has done for the Steelers, Browns, and Jets.
Under Green, there were no individual workout sessions tailored to each player -- according to Darren Urban of the East Valley Tribune, many players would show up at the facility to make the coaches happy and then work out separately with their own personal trainers later in the day. Lott has the flexibility to know what will help each player, but his message will be universal -- get the job done and reach your goal.
"I've got a little boy, Jasper, who would love to eat jelly beans all the time," Lott said. "Me being his daddy, I have to give him green beans sometimes, not just jelly beans."
Welcome to the new Arizona Cardinals.
Arizona signed two defensive backs to five-year, $15 million contracts, adding former Detroit safety Terrence Holt and ex-Eagles cornerback Rod Hood. Holt and Hood will be asked to help a secondary that finished 26th in the NFL in pass defense DVOA -- not a great finish when you consider that teams weren't exactly throwing the ball everywhere to play catch-up against the Cards. Other than that, it's been a slow go this off-season, though the additions of Whisenhunt and Grimm probably corrected the two most obvious need positions. The team wasn't able to compete with the amazing salaries given to even mid-level offensive linemen, so they'll take care of that in the draft.
Davis' absence leaves a void at left tackle, though one could argue that his presence did pretty much the same thing. There have been rumors about Arizona possibly trading up from their current five-spot to Detroit's second position in order to take Wisconsin's Joe Thomas. Thomas won't last to the fifth pick, and Arizona might go with Penn State behemoth Levi Brown if such a trade doesn't happen. Either player would provide a massive upgrade to a line that did see some improvement at the end of the 2006 season. Arizona needs to augment the cornerback position, add to the defensive line, and act on their interest in a blocking fullback, but the O-line is the obvious issue.
The occasion of Marshall Faulk's retirement is a good time to look back at Rams offenses of the recent past and recognize that for all the talk through the Vermeil and Martz eras about the "Greatest Show on Turf" and an aerial attack that would match the greatest of all time, the versatility of their running back was the engine that made it all go. From 1999 through 2001, St. Louis' offense led the NFL in points, yards, and offensive DVOA each season. Faulk gained over 2,000 total yards in each of those seasons, and he did so in 1998 as well in his last year with the Colts. In 1999, he did the Roger Craig thing and gained over 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. The next season was his greatest, as he finished first in DPAR, DVOA, Success Rate, and total touchdowns, and he won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award. 2001 brought his third straight Offensive Player of the Year award and the Rams went to their second Super Bowl in three years.
In 2002, St. Louis finished 7-9, while Faulk missed two games and rushed for only 953 yards. His DPAR and DVOA ranks dropped to the low teens. While his team rebounded in 2003 to go 12-4, Faulk was done with great seasons. He was still productive, but he would no longer be the supernatural force he had been. The Rams responded by drafting Oregon State running back Steven Jackson in the first round. As Jackson's carries increased, Faulk became less of a presence. He bottomed out with 65 carries for 292 yards in 2005, though he still caught 44 passes. A knee injury stole his 2006 season, led to a gig with the NFL Network, and marked his eventual decision to hang 'em up.
Faulk will be remembered as the greatest rushing/receiving combination back in history. His 12,279 rushing yards and 100 rushing touchdowns would be Canton material alone, but when you add in the 767 receptions -- the names directly beneath his on that list are James Lofton, Charlie Joiner and Michael Irvin -- his greatness really comes into focus.
What's most intriguing about the current Rams, and Faulk's replacement, is that Jackson appears to be just as versatile and productive as his predecessor. In this third season, Jackson broke Faulk's record for receptions by a running back with 90, and he led the league in total yards from scrimmage. This in a different offense, with a different quarterback, and a different head coach. No matter who the Rams are or what they do, the purpose of their running back is clear -- do it all, and do it as well as anyone.
The Rams surprised many by signing former Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael, whom Coach Scott Linehan knew from his one season as Miami's offensive coordinator. St. Louis drafted two tight ends last season, but while Joe Klopfenstein seems to be firmly entrenched, Dominique Byrd has been arrested twice in his young NFL career -- first for assault and then a recent collar for driving under the influence. (No, he wasn't with Jerramy Stevens at the time.) After losing receivers Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald to the Eagles and Lions respectively, the Rams signed former Titans wideout Drew Bennett. Bennett finished 56th in DPAR and DVOA with a sub-50% Catch Rate, but no Tennessee receiver had great efficiency numbers while Vince Young was finding his feet. Expect more from Bennett in 2007.
Former Seahawks DE Grant Wistrom, who started his career with the Rams and was cut in the off-season, has expressed interest in returning to his original team. He could be an asset at the right price. For comic value, the Rams also signed ex-49ers and Redskins cornerback Mike Rumph, which means that the NFL's worst cover corner will return to the NFC West after a year in the nation's capital.
In 2006, St. Louis finished 31st in defensive Adjusted Line Yards in the Mid/Guard area; only the regular season non-Bob Sanders version of the Indianapolis Colts were worse. The Rams have already shown a keen interest in Louisville DT Amobi Okoye, the 19-year-old Senior Bowl star. They could very well take him with the 13th overall pick, and he could solve a position the Rams have been trying to fix for years. Michigan's Alan Branch is a possibility as well. Once thought to be a sure top-ten pick, Branch has seen his stock drop after an unimpressive Combine. Later rounds should have the Rams looking at defensive ends, cornerbacks, and perhaps a receiver.
Of the 31 NFL coaches and executives who spoke at the 2007 Scouting Combine, San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan gave the longest and most detailed opening statement. What was a quick, 10-minute In-and-Out-Burger for most podium dwellers became a State of the Union Address in Nolan's hands.
It is this attention to detail in all matters that not only has the 49ers poised as the team some think will challenge the Seahawks for NFC West supremacy in the near future, but also had formerly compulsively meddlesome owner John York employing a hands-off policy as Nolan, vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan and director of football operations Paraag Marathe handed out almost $40 million in bonus money alone to a host of free agents. This goes completely against York's cheapskate reputation, which was quite well-deserved at one time. In past years, his administration was responsible for PR bloopers such as charging coaches $82 each for the game balls they received, and placing cases of bottled water in a locked cage to prevent unauthorized consumption.
What's different now? A trust between the executive branch and the football side that did not exist when Terry Donahue and Dennis Erickson were in charge. The team was forced to undergo an enormous personnel purge over the last three seasons due to unhinged decision-making based on fast-twitch emotional responses by the previous regime. A recent article by Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle details the careful planning that went into this recent spending spree after two salary cap dumps.
The team was playing with both hands tied from a marquee star standpoint in 2006. But the players remaining, the ones drafted, and the few that could be acquired during the holding pattern put together a season of encouragement their fans haven't seen in quite a time. When the 49ers were still winning at the end of the Mariucci era, the cracks in the foundation were obvious. Now, an intuitive, organized approach rules the day. This bodes well for the future of the franchise -- in fact, you could argue that it's the best-run team in the NFC West.
Only Detroit, Houston and Washington finished lower than the 49ers in pass defense DVOA, and the team with more cap room than any other acted with a quickness to correct it. Former Bills cornerback Nate Clements became the highest-paid defender in NFL history when San Francisco signed him to an eight-year, $80 million contract with $22 million in guarantees. By any combination of our numbers, Clements was one of the league's best cornerbacks in 2006, and teaming him with Walt Harris will make a huge difference. The 49ers signed safety Michael Lewis, formerly of the Eagles, on the same day. Clements and Lewis will take up over $15 million in 2007 cap room by themselves, but these signings clearly display San Francisco's commitment to improvement. Former Ravens tackle Aubrayo Franklin will man the nose position in that 3-4 defense. Receiver Ashley Lelie and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain were good depth signings. The 49ers impressed by adding four potential defensive starters, but there's one position on the other side of the ball that still needs some major work...
San Francisco's need for an elite wide receiver isn't the elephant in the living room -- it's the bigger thing that crushed the elephant in the living room. This problem wasn't corrected in free agency (Lelie has disappointed too many times to be taken seriously as an impact player), but San Francisco will have up to eight picks in the first four rounds including one compensatory pick each in the third and fourth rounds)and this draft has a great stock of pass-catchers. Thus, many expect Ole Miss ILB Patrick Willis to be the 49ers' pick at the eleventh slot. Mike Nolan coached Willis at the Senior Bowl and was tremendously impressed, comparing him to 2006 Defensive Rookie of the Year DeMeco Ryans. Willis' athleticism would provide the finishing touch for a linebacker unit they've been overhauling since Nolan took over, and allow the coach to run his preferred 3-4 all the time. That scheme will also have the 49ers looking for someone who can spell Bryant Young.
When reviewing the Seahawks career of one Jerramy Stevens, it's appropriate to remember what Brooklyn Dodgers pitching coach Joe Becker told the great baseball columnist Red Smith in 1955: "The good ones listen and learn. The others have a big hole in the head that starts at this ear and goes right through." Determined to void the last year of his contract and test the market after the 2006 season, Stevens missed out on the richest off-season in NFL history when he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving charges in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 13th. Marijuana was also reportedly found on Stevens' person by the police, and he was nearly three times over the legal limit when arrested.
This was the latest point in a pattern of uneven behavior that Stevens had displayed all the way back to his college days: a string of DUIs, car accidents, and alleged assaults. The Seattle Times recently revealed that Stevens was an impossibly unruly neighbor in his condo development. This lifestyle brings his inconsistent on-field production into sharper focus -- it's tough to play at an elite level when you're exhausted after years of outrunning God knows how many demons.
Stevens is the last troubled remnant of the teams put together by Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren when Holmgren also served as general manager from 1999 through 2002. Holmgren had a tendency to ignore college scouting reports that pointed to the kinds of off-field issues that only escalate when fame meets financial success. He gave wide receiver Koren Robinson chance after chance to the detriment of the team, but Robinson's substance abuse issues eventually proved too great for anyone, including Robinson, to handle. After stints with the Vikings and Packers, Robinson was sentenced to 90 days in jail last October for violating his probation with the most recent drunk driving offense in a very long string.
"I have come under the gun in years past about not taking a harder line with some of our players, but people don't really know what goes on behind the scenes," Holmgren said after Stevens' release. "I like him personally. I think when he was healthy and played for us, you couldn't ask for a harder worker, and he did a nice job for us as a player. I always think, though, if you get in too many jams, you have to deal with life issues more then the athletic issues, and I would say the same thing about him."
When Tim Ruskell became the team's president in February of 2005, production finally trumped potential, and a new emphasis on character dominated Seattle's draft and free agency outlook. Enablement went out the window. The team responded by making Super Bowl XL at the end of the 2005 season and taking the NFC Champion Bears to overtime in the divisional round despite an enormous number of injuries in the follow-up.
Stevens' future is less clear. Only the Buccaneers showed an interest in him before the incident, and his priors make him an excellent candidate for a league suspension when another team signs him. Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to introduce a stricter code of conduct at this week's owner's meetings.
Two of the biggest free agent splashes for the Seahawks this off-season were the ones they tried and failed to make -- after bringing San Diego guard Kris Dielman to Seattle on Paul Allen's private jet, they watched as he talked turkey with his potential new team, only to balk and return, flying coach, to the Chargers for less money than the Seahawks were offering. Then, they entered the bidding for former New England tight end Daniel Graham and were blown out of the water by Denver's $30 million winning offer. The Broncos, for their part, were chagrined by Seattle's acquisition of Patrick Kerney, the defensive end who had amassed 58 sacks in nine seasons with the Falcons. Kerney will replace Grant Wistrom, who was greatly overpaid in 2004 by the interim personnel man between Holmgren and Ruskell, former team President Bob Whitsitt. Wistrom was released when he refused to restructure his six-year, $33 million contract. The team was set to pay him $3.5 million this year. Kerney was signed for six years and $39.5 million; but as we have seen, this current market can be compared to nothing else in NFL history.
The Seahawks also shelled out cash to re-do their secondary. They signed two safeties: Jacksonville's Deon Grant and Cleveland's Brian Russell, who is best known for his nine-interception season in 2003. In his other four seasons, Russell picked off six passes total. Grant will replace Ken Hamlin at free safety, while Russell might take some of Michael Boulware's time at strong safety. The Seahawks want more veteran leadership in the defensive backfield after so many missed assignments in 2006.
The most obvious remaining need for the Seahawks is at guard, a position they still haven't shored up entirely since losing Steve Hutchinson. Their first-round pick gone to New England in exchange for Deion Branch, the front office won't be looking at obvious killer prospects like Auburn's Ben Grubbs or Justin Blalock of Texas unless they can trade up, perhaps using receiver Darrell Jackson as a bargaining chip. At pick 55, Akron's Andy Alleman is a possibility.
The Seahawks also need a tight end -- replacing Jerramy Stevens with the 35-year-old Marcus Pollard is a stopgap at best -- which could lead them to Kevin Boss of Western Oregon, whose Pro Day they recently attended, or Combine star Michael Allan of Division III Whitworth College. Brandon Mebane of Cal is the sort of run-stopping defensive tackle Seattle needs in the wake of Marcus Tubbs' microfracture surgery, and a blocking fullback might be on Seattle's radar.
Later this week: NFC East
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