Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
16 Feb 2010
by Doug Farrar
In his final NFL victory, Kurt Warner put up perhaps the best statistical performance of his career, throwing for more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four) in a thrilling overtime playoff win over the Green Bay Packers. His retirement after the Cardinals' loss to the New Orleans Saints the next week leaves the Cards on the ledge at the quarterback position, but it isn't just Warner's absence that could prove problematic -- market forces are moving in the wrong direction.
Projected replacement Matt Leinart hasn't started a meaningful NFL game since October 2007, when he broke his collarbone against the St. Louis Rams and Warner took over. In 2008 and 2009, Leinart posted stats that don't exactly inspire; when looking for its next franchise quarterback, a team wants a player who invites better comparisons than Dennis Dixon and Brooks Bollinger. The specter of an uncapped year takes several potential free-agent quarterbacks off the market, which leaves Leinart and Brian St. Pierre as the team's aerial options. And as a member of the final eight teams in an uncapped year, the Cardinals would have to lose an unrestricted free agent of similar salary before they could bring in any quarterback from the pool.
In addition, this year's draft class doesn't feature the same number of obviously NFL-ready quarterbacks we've seen in previous seasons. Even the top guys, like Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen, have serious question marks. Of course, the undrafted Warner is one of history's best examples that one never knows about quarterback prospects until they get a real shot, but it could be a while before you see the dynamic passing attack featured in Arizona's past two seasons. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has long espoused the kind of run-heavy game plans he operated as the Steelers' offensive coordinator, should be careful what he wishes for.
The big story is Anquan Boldin's ongoing unhappiness with his contract situation and his repeated trade requests -- if you tie all the rumors together, Boldin's been associated with half the teams in the league at this point. The Cards may be more amenable to trading Boldin if they get more than the offers of third-round picks they've previously seen. The most recent reports have the Dolphins interested. Linebacker Karlos Dansby has made $18 million guaranteed in the last two seasons as the team's franchise player; now he's a free agent looking for big bucks elsewhere. It's doubtful that the Cardinals would spend the $11 million it would take to tag him again. Free safety Antrel Rolle is due a $4 million roster bonus. Add that to the $8.1 million in base salary he's in line to make this season, and his proclaimed unwillingness to renegotiate, and it's pretty easy to connect the dots.
The pressing need is for a veteran quarterback who can help with Leinart's progress and fill in the gaps should the need arise. Chad Pennington might be an intriguing option there -- and if he looks closely at the numbers from Miami the last couple years, Ken Whisenhunt will even see that Pennington has improved his ability to throw deep. The Cardinals also need depth among their edge rushers -- reports indicate that when the Dolphins reconcile their issues with the salary cap and release Joey Porter, Peezy would like to play near the West Coast. The front seven looked great against the run, especially early in the season, but there isn't that great nose tackle common to all great 3-4 defenses. Beyond a completely stacked draft class at the position, Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton and New England's Vince Wilfork would be great gets were they to be available. With the Colts expected to retain Gary Brackett, there isn't anyone in the free agency pool with Dansby's versatility. Larry Foote would be a cheap, decent depth-level placeholder as a likely high draft pick learns the ropes.
Over the past few years, one of the most notable NFL stories has been the worst-to-first advancement of several teams. No matter how much devastation might visit a team (the 2007 Atlanta Falcons, with their Michael Vick/Bobby Petrino double-dip) or a team's city (the 2005 New Orleans Saints), amazing rebounds are right around the corner for franchises that follow a direct path to success. New quarterbacks can surprise, as they did with the 2001 New England Patriots, and innovative offensive systems can make up for the lack of a marquee quarterback, as with the 2008 Miami Dolphins and their Wildcat variations.
What, then, are we to say about the St. Louis Rams? The former "Greatest Show on Turf" has been reduced to roadkill, winning a grand total of six games in the past three seasons and reducing the number of wins every year -- from three to two to one. New coach Steve Spagnuolo is trying to build a team-first mentality, but it's tougher to do when there are more and more overnight sensations popping up around the NFL.
Unfortunately, the Rams don't appear to be on the right track. Aside from all the folderol over a team sale, the roster needs a great deal of work. Running back Steven Jackson is the team's only legitimate playmaker on offense. Rookie Jason Smith, the hope for the future on the offensive line, struggled with the three-point stance and a concussion that ended his season in November. Quarterback is the biggest need, with these unappetizing options:
The Rams have spent a lot in money and draft picks on their defensive line, but conventional wisdom still sees at least the interior line as a need, as witnessed by all the mock drafts that have the team taking Suh. A year ago, a number of trends pointed to a possible Rams turnaround. After another bad season, those same trends do not. The Rams weren't among the league's most injured teams in 2009, so they can't expect a "rebound of health" in 2010. They weren't particularly poor in the red zone or on third down, usually indicators of possible improvement. There are teams with the ability to turn things around quickly. The Rams do not seem to be one of them.
Bulger is due a $10.5 million base salary in 2010, and the word "retirement" has been thrown around more than once. Kyle Boller is ... well, Kyle Boller. Ends Leonard Little and James Hall are unrestricted free agents, which puts Chris Long in the drivers' seat and one or both veterans back most likely on shorter contracts. Little, who lives in Panther country, might wind up replacing Julius Peppers in the short term. Tight end Randy McMichael has said that he'd llke to return to St. Louis in 2010, but the feeling probably isn't mutual -- the Rams shouldn't have too much trouble replacing a -45 DYAR player. Decisions must be made on restricted free agents Alex Barron and Oshiomogho Atogwe. Barron isn't worth a high tender, but Atogwe was franchised last season and the Rams need every quality defender they can get.
It wouldn't be a great surprise if Null was the only current quarterback on the roster when the season starts. One rumor has the Rams doing more than their due diligence in the possible acquisition of one Michael Vick. It's an interesting notion if it pans out -- Smith could protect Vick's blind side on the right side, and the lack of a star receiver wouldn't be as much of a liability were the Rams to go with an option-based attack. Donnie Avery led the receivers with -73 DYAR, which had something to do with who was throwing the ball, but upgrades would be useful just about anywhere.
The story of the NFC West over the past decade has primarily been one of championship by default. The Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals all have taken their turns beating up on their weaker brothers, and it might be the 49ers' turn. After years of struggling with different offensive systems, quarterback Alex Smith found new efficiency (relatively speaking) in a system he was familiar with; the 49ers operated out of the shotgun formation 44 percent of the time this past season, ninth in the league.
Frank Gore became the first player in team history to gain more than 1,000 rushing yards in four straight seasons, an especially impressive feat given that the 49ers' offensive line ranked last in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards. ALY assigns credit (or blame) to lines and running backs based on the length of running plays. In 2009, the 49ers averaged 3.5 line yards per play and 4.2 running back yards per play; that discrepancy was fourth-highest in the league. They also ranked fourth in open field yards, which is yardage gained by running backs at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries. That line wasn't much better in pass protection, ranking 26th in adjusted sack rate, based on sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance and opponent. All the numbers point to a line that must improve before this team can take the next step.
The good news is that the rest of the team is starting to round into shape. Tight end Vernon Davis finally had the breakout season expected of him. The defensive line, led by Aubrayo Franklin, ranked eighth in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards and third in defensive Adjusted Sack Rate. Linebacker Patrick Willis is a supreme asset, and the secondary is coming around. But in 2010, the 49ers will go only as far as their offensive line takes them.
Franklin is an unrestricted free agent who will be tagged -- the franchise has invested too much time in putting together a solid defense, and Franklin ranked second among all qualifying tackles in Stop Rate against the run, behind Atlanta's Jonathan Babineaux. There are thoughts of putting UFA Barry Sims in at right tackle, but the 49ers would do just as well to bring a placeholder like the recently released William Thomas. It isn't as if Sims did them any particular favors. Cornerback Dre' Bly alternated with Tarell Brown last season, but the team will probably go younger at the position and it's tough to imagine Bly's showboating, occasionally soft-headed style meshing well with Mike Singletary's point of view.
The need for line help is the proverbial elephant in the living room, but the draft is a more feasible alternative. All in all, this isn't a team expected to make any big free-agent splashes, although cornerback is still an overall need and one wonders what an upgrade FO binky (and imminent unrestricted free agent) Leigh Bodden would be.
Tim Ruskell's five-year stint as the Seahawks' team president was sketchy at best, which is why he doesn't have the job anymore. But before he departed, Ruskell gave the future Seahawks a wonderful gift -- an extra first-round pick in 2010 that he acquired from the Denver Broncos last April. The Seahawks will pick sixth (their own) and 14th (Denver's) in this year's draft, but they also might have another first-rounder ready for a breakout season -- 2009 fourth overall pick Aaron Curry.
The former Wake Forest linebacker started his pro career well -- but when teammate Lofa Tatupu was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in mid-October, Curry lost his traffic director, and his demon speed turned to recklessness. Seattle's coaches, as justifiably concerned for their jobs as they were, started taking Curry out of the game in more and more defensive packages, essentially wasting his development and leaving even more vulnerable defenses on the field. And if you don't believe the importance of a veteran middle linebacker in the growth of a rookie teammate, ask defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing of the Houston Texans about his relationship with DeMeco Ryans.
The drastic changes in Seattle's coaching staff should pay enormous dividends for Curry, making him the player Ruskell thought he was getting in 2009. New head coach Pete Carroll and linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. developed several great linebackers at USC, including Tatupu, Cushing, and Cushing's college teammates Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews. Carroll is a longtime advocate of the zone-based 4-3 schemes under which Curry should be able to thrive, and there are few more potent motivators than Norton. The Seahawks have needs up and down their roster -- and they have Ruskell to thank for that -- but Curry's advancement could leave Seattle with one of the best linebacker corps in the business.
Two of the biggest contracts of the Ruskell era are just about out the door. There have been conflicting reports of Patrick Kerney holding a retirement party, though the Seahawks won't need invitations to make it official. Kerney is 33 years old, he has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons, and he's due $5.16 million in 2010. At least Kerney had one good year, unlike Deion Branch, the receiver that Ruskell gave up a first-round selection in 2006 to acquire. Branch was sub-elite when healthy, and he has been nicked-up far too often. Watching him fail to contend for passes in his wheelhouse should be enough for Seattle's new regime to do the right thing. Safety Deon Grant battled a wrist injury in 2009, but he looked past his prime overall and he's up for a $4 million base salary in 2010. New secondary coach Jerry Gray, one of Seattle's best acquisitions in the offseason, will want faster, more flexible safeties than those currently on the roster. And sadly, it's probably about time for left tackle Walter Jones, the greatest player in franchise history, to hang 'em up and wait five years for Canton.
Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke has said that the team intends to go younger in a two- to three-year rebuilding phase. It's a smart move, given how bare Ruskell left the cupboard, but those needs won't be filled through the draft alone unless Seattle goes Super-Belichick and trades down for about 20 extra picks. New offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates has made all the right noises about Julius Jones and Justin Forsett in the backfield. Forsett excites as a Pocket Hercules type, but the Seahawks can do better than Jones. For all the focus on the defensive line, there's still a glaring lack of production from a pressure perspective. Adewale Ogunleye could be on the market as one of a few aging options, but Seattle will most likely have to head back to the draft and try again. If the preference is for a veteran end, new GM John Schneider knows Aaron Kampman very well from his days in Green Bay. Kampman, who looks to be a better fit in a 4-3 like Seattle's, would allow the Seahawks to spend their draft picks elsewhere.
Portions of this article were originally published on ESPN.com.
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