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07 Jun 2005

Four Downs: NFC West

by Mike Tanier

Also check out the previous edition of Four Downs: NFC West.

Arizona Cardinals

Copy Birds

The Cardinals have finally found the secret to success in the NFL. After 40+ years of wandering in the desert (and the Midwest), the path to Super Bowl glory is suddenly clear. All they have to do is copy the Eagles.

That was the theory put forth by Cardinals VP Mike Bidwell in last week's Philadelphia Inquirer. The story received a lot of play nationally. "Jeffrey (Lurie) and Joe Banner have done a terrific job," Bidwill said. "They've got a good system there. We've studied it closely. We see a lot of similarities in terms of getting the thing turned around."

Bidwell sees Denny Green as his team's Andy Reid, with GM Rod Graves playing the role of Joe Banner. The Eagles' draft and free agent strategy, as well as their cap management techniques, are held up by Bidwell as models ripe for the cribbing.

But the real key, according to Bidwell, is the stadium. The Cardinals will move into a new stadium in 2006; Bidwell suggests that the new digs will allow his team to sign and retain premium free agents more easily. "There is a correlation between new stadiums and winning," Bidwill said. "Look at the Eagles and their ability to compete, to sign the players they need to sign and re-sign, to keep the structure of the organization intact. If you look at the teams that have played in the Super Bowl the last five or six years, every one plays in a new stadium."

Correlation? Has Bidwell been running a regression analysis? Probably not: this issue doesn't lend itself to objective study very easily. (Quick: what constitutes "winning" and what constitutes a "new stadium"? Is a 9-7 record a "winning" record? Is refurbished Soldier Field a new stadium? What's "new": two years old? Fifteen years old?). Bidwell is simply trying to sell season tickets, and he's trying to convince taxpayers and fans that their new park was a worthy investment.

Anyway, Bidwell's statement is easy enough to pick apart:

While it's true that the Eagles have been more competitive on the free agent market since they moved to Lincoln Financial Field, the team reached the NFC title game twice in recent years while playing at ugly old Veterans Stadium.

The Patriots won one Super Bowl before moving to their new digs.

The Lions and Browns are among several teams for whom a new stadium deal didn't make a world of difference in the standings.

The Packers and Broncos did alright in their ancient stadiums in the 1990s.

A new stadium is, of course, a new source of revenue. It comes with a better clubhouse and practice facilities. It's a sign that an organization is making progress. A new stadium is sometimes a factor in a free agent's decision.

But the Eagles didn't build their team through free agency. Neither did the Patriots, nor the Steelers, nor the Colts. They built through the draft, through careful player development, and through effective cap management and coaching. If it was easy to mimic virtues like these, then every organization in America (sports or otherwise) would be doing it.

Cardinals News Briefs

No-Show? No Prob: Troy Hambrick and Peppi Zellner missed the team's weekend minicamp, but Coach Green had little to say about it. You may remember that Green got into hot water with the NFLPA last year over some too-intense minicamp practices, so he doesn't want to make waves this year. "The players association does not want us putting pressure on players," Green said. "This is strictly voluntary and every guy that is here I am very happy they are here and I told them thanks for coming." No report on whether that little vein in Green's temple was throbbing when he said that.

Healthy Back: Marcel Shipp was on the field and running at full speed last week. That can only mean one thing: it's June. Shipp will battle (and lose to) J.J. Arrington for a starting job this year. Hambrick was also in the mix, at least until he skipped minicamp.

Kurt's the Man: In case you missed it, Kurt Warner was officially named the starting quarterback a few weeks ago. Denny Green met with Josh McCown and John Navarre before announcing the decision after the team's May minicamp. Because, like, Navarre really thought he was in the hunt for the starting job.

Recycling: A blurb in a recent issue of The Sporting News called the Cardinals "shortsighted" for releasing overweight, underachieving lineman L.T. Shelton. The magazine suggested that the perennial disappointment should have been given the opportunity to move from tackle to guard. Also from The Sporting News: old two-liter soda bottles can be easily turned into beautiful hanging planters, last week's newspapers are this week's insulation, and sawdust makes a great meatloaf ingredient.

Heavier than Ebert: Check out the Cardinals website for movie reviews by Reggie Wells, Anquan Boldin, and Darrell Dockett. Latest on the list is a review of Jet Li's Unleashed by Wells. Wells gives the kung fu epic a "touchdown" rating; other scores include, in descending order, field goal, safety, sack, fumble, and "play drawn up by Vince Tobin." This is a must-see site for those of you who are dying to know what Boldin thought of The Passion of the Christ.

San Francisco 49ers

Video killed the PR Star

Sick of Video Gate? Everyone from Tony Kornheiser to Tony Parrish to Bill Walsh has weighed in with an opinion on it, and over 200,000 people downloaded it as of Thursday. Lost amid all of the noise and the predictably over-the-top media reactions is one important point: Kirk Reynolds' video, ostensibly a training film on media relations but actually a long locker-room lampoon, isn't all that funny.

His jokes are silly and predictable. His delivery is strained. He's repetitive, he stammers, and he doesn't enunciate his punch lines clearly. Worst yet, he has no video editing skills whatsoever, so the staging of the video is bland, the pacing slow.

I know what I'm talking about. One of my unofficial jobs at my high school is producing the gag videos for our annual year-end male faculty smoker. I can empathize with Reynolds: I wouldn't want 200,000 people downloading one of my guys-only videos and judging my character based on what they see (though, for the record, they wouldn't see any topless women or Asian-Americans acting like Hop Sing from Bonanza).

But given a good digital camera, some editing software, and a few hours, any clever prankster could make a video that runs laps around Reynolds': better production values, clearer presentation, funnier material. That's deplorable, because Reynolds had a budget to work with. He was a public relations director who should have had a rudimentary understanding of how to create a promotional/educational/motivational film. The 49ers have a video-editing department, for goodness sake. Why does this unfunny, uninformative video look so bad?

You've seen the video by now. Listen for the plane going overhead before the "Chinese Newspaper" sketch, drowning out Reynolds as he speaks. How about that awful echo in the prison sequence? Did you even hear the "booze and hookers" joke made by the catcher in the baseball sequence? Did your attention wane during the opening and closing sequences, when Reynolds kept repeating himself and seemed to be speaking off the top of his head?

And as for the material: we wince at the "vely vely" offensive Chinese stereotype and the "drop the soap" joke in part because they are insensitive, but also because they are such lame, predictable jokes. This stuff may have killed in the locker room (where players could throw sweatsocks at Andre Carter, Julian Peterson, and Jeff Ulbrich during their skits), but even a third-rate morning DJ would turn his nose up at many of the jokes.

Is any of this salient to the controversy? Probably not, in part because the controversy is ridiculous. Reynolds was rightly fired for bad judgment; the video is inappropriate and uninformative. He doesn't appear to be any kind of racist cad. The video wasn't meant for public consumption, and some people are going out of their way to be outraged over what amounts to a frat-house prank. Get over it.

Still, I can't help but think that if Reynolds spent more time preparing his video, he might have saved his job. A few hours in the editing room might have convinced him that some of the gags just weren't that funny. A better script might not only have produced more laughs, but might also have included some actual information for players about how to deal with the media.

Some look at the Reynolds video and see racism. Some see censorship. I see flop sweat.

Niners News Briefs

Snapper Scoop: The release of Scott Gragg frees about $3 million in cap space, but the Niners may turn around and spend some of that money on a journeyman center. With Jeremy Newberry scheduled for arthroscopic surgery this week, the team is dangerously thin at center. Guard Eric Heitmann (who just signed a contract extension) played some center in minicamp, but rookie David Baas is sure to get a long look once training camp opens.

Positive talks: The Niners appear to be making progress in their efforts to sign Alex Smith. Rumblings out of the usually-pessimistic Condon camp have been encouraging, and quotes from the Niners front office last week suggested that a deal may come soon. "We're reading from the same book and we're on the same chapter," director of football operations Paraag Marathe said. "We're only a few pages apart." Marathe, always the football iconoclast, sure did put his own spin on that "same page" cliche ("we're in the same Barnes & Noble, drinking the same overpriced latte, listening to the same Enya CD").

Rookie update: Despite a few fumbled snaps (which may have been caused by the confusion at center), Smith "looked sharp" in camp, according to news reports. RB Frank Gore also "looked sharp." For those of you who don't speak Beat Writer, "looks sharp" is minicamp-talk for "showed up within 50 pounds of his playing weight and did not attempt to putt, slam dunk, or eat the football."

Original Wanksta: Receiver Brandon Lloyd will release a rap album this summer titled "Training Day." B-Lloyd (his oh-so-clever stage name) has a record label (Flight 85), a collaborator named B-Dub, and a self-promotional website that he updates about once every two years. Click the link to hear a sample of B-Lloyd's hip-hop for yourself; in the opinion of this reporter, he sounds Ma$e without Puffy. In other words, like garbage. The last thing the Niners need right now is one of their players waxing philosophical on a rap album.

New Wideout: Former Cardinals and Titans WR Jason McAddley was signed to replace injured Derrick Hamilton as the Niners' third or fourth wideout. Meanwhile, the team has expressed an interest in Koren Robinson (can't wait to see his skit in the next instructional video). Writing about McAddley, Hamilton, and Lloyd has forced me to open up my football encyclopedia to the 1992 Niners. Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Mike Sherrard, Odessa Turner. Sigh.

Seattle Seahawks

The New Defense

The Seahawks offense will look very familiar this year. Koren Robinson is gone, but most of the other starters return. For a team that faced the prospect of losing Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander, Walter Jones, and/or others, the Seahawks did a remarkable job of maintaining continuity.

The defense, meanwhile, underwent a much-needed overhaul. Did all of the additions (Andre Dyson, Bryce Fisher, etc.) and subtractions (Anthony Simmons, Bobby Taylor, etc.) really add up to anything, or did the Seahawks spend the offseason treading water on defense?

The best way to analyze the team's moves is to break them down as a series of one-for-one swaps:

Chike Okeafor out, Bryce Fisher in: This is essentially an even exchange. Both players are undersized pass rushers of similar quality.

Anthony Simmons out, Kevin Bentley in: Bentley isn't a guaranteed starter; Tracy White or Niko Koutouvides could end up in Simmons' place. This is a downgrade, but not a major one: Simmons was injury prone, so the Seahawks often had to rely on some backup to fill his shoes. Bentley is fast and can hit, but he takes a lot of bad angles.

Orlando Huff out, Jamie Sharper in: A major upgrade. Huff was a journeyman who didn't have great range. Sharper is getting older, but he's a savvy field general who can still make plays outside the tackle box. Sharper is also better in pass coverage.

Bobby Taylor out, Kelly Herndon in: Taylor spent last season proving that he was washed up. Herndon is a small-but-tough corner who can play bump-and-run despite his size. This is a significant upgrade.

Ken Lucas out, Andre Dyson in: Dyson is a gambler who likes to play close to the line but gets burned deep too often; he'll be better off as a nickel defender behind Marcus Truffant and Herndon than he was as a starter in Tennessee. Lucas was less talented than Dyson, but less mistake prone. This is an even exchange.

Chad Brown out, Peter Boulware in: Should Boulware sign with the Seahawks, he'll assume Chad Brown's job as the veteran who plays four games then gets hurt. Boulware missed all of last season with toe and knee injuries, and word out of Cleveland says that the former Ravens' physical raised further health concerns. If Boulware comes aboard and is healthy, then this is a slight upgrade. More likely, this is nuttin'-for-nuttin'.

Improvements? Yes, and the Seahawks got a little cap relief to boot. Major improvements? Not really. The defense got a little younger, a little faster, a little less likely to let the Rams come back on them in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks are still major players in this minor division, but if you want to see wholesale defensive improvements in the NFC, head to Minnesota.

Seahawks News Briefs

Replacing K-Rob: With Robinson out of the picture, the race for the starting spot opposite Darrell Jackson comes down to Jerome Pathon versus Joe Jurevicius. Look for Pathon to win the job: Jurevicius is most effective as a slot receiver, where his ability to work the middle and his blocking are more of a factor. Bobby Engram, who was rumored to be a possible cap casualty, is also in the mix, but the 10-year vet is a better fit as a spot starter and third or fourth receiver. Alex Bannister, a solid special teams performer, will round out the receiving corps.

Easy Pickin's: The Sporting News ranked the cornerback corps of all 32 NFL teams. The good news: the Seahawks, with Herndon, Dyson, and Truffant, have the best CBs in the NFC West. The bad news: the Seahawks ranked 12th in the NFC, with the Cardinals, Rams and Niners ranked 14th, 15th, and 16th. Only the Bears interrupted a clean sweep of the bottom of the barrel by the teams of the West. Proof positive that Aaron hates me for making me cover this division.

St. Louis Rams

(Note: We wrote this edition of Four Downs before the results of Isaac Bruce's heart tests were made public. Bruce was held out of minicamp practices this weekend because of a heart irregularity. Initial reports indicated that he was held out as a precautionary measure.)

Turf Tales

They may have been The Greatest Show on Turf, but the Rams played on what was nearly the Worst Turf in the League for the past decade. The old-school AstroTurf of the Edward Jones dome was a super-fast playing surface, but it was also the reported cause of numerous injuries and turf-burn infections.

The Rams have wanted a new playing surface for years, but the St. Louis Visitors and Convention Commission were wary of installing a surface that couldn't easily be pulled up when the Pipe Fittings and Fixtures Convention season rolled around. They finally relented in May: the Rams will play on FieldTurf in 2005, then that surface will be replaced with a sectional turf system that (no kidding) has not yet been actually invented.

The change has been too long in coming. The NFL Players Association rated the Edward Jones Dome and the Colts' RCA Dome -- both with AstroTurf -- as the worst playing fields in the NFL in 2004. Grass fields in warm weather cities are usually at the top of the NFLPA's field rankings (Tampa's Raymond James Stadium and Arizona's Sun Devil Stadium ranked first and second), but the FieldTurf in Seattle and Detroit received favorable reviews from the union.

The company that makes FieldTurf, which is based in Canada and chaired by former CFL star John Gilman, claims that over 20 teams use the surface. That number has been widely quoted by the media. Naturally, it's incorrect: the Seahawks, Lions, Falcons, Giants, Jets, Bengals, and Vikings currently play on FieldTurf (the company is probably counting practice facilities as well). A total of 19 teams play on grass; the Ravens and Saints use Momentum turf (created by a Canadian company called Sportexe), the Bills something called Astro Play (a product made by SRI, the creators of AstroTurf), and the Cowboys use RealGrass, which is of course not real grass.

And what became of NeXturf, the carpet so awful that it caused the cancellation of a Ravens-Eagles preseason game? NeXturf is also an SRI product, and while it's still the playing surface at the University of Wisconsin and the Portland Timbers' minor league baseball park, the Veterans Stadium incident wasn't particularly good for sales.

The Super Dome may be SRI's last stand, especially if FieldTurf perfects its sectional removable system (currently undergoing a baseball trial in Toronto). Like the Edward Jones Dome, the Super Dome is a major convention center that must convert quickly from a football field to a showroom floor. FieldTurf's poor removal system has been it's lone drawback; the company boasts investors like Warren Moon and Troy Aikman and strives to make a football-friendly surface. Naturally, SRI and FieldTurf are in constant litigation over patent infringement and anti-trust violations.

Makes mowing the lawn a much less onerous task, doesn't it?

Rams News Briefs

Big Hurt: Among the players who didn't participate in last weekend's minicamp: centers Andy McCollum and Scott Tereco, guard Adam Timmerman, and tackle Grant Williams. Injured rookie tackle Richie Incognito was unable to participate in drills but did attend meetings. In other words, most of the offensive line was sidelined. Luckily, for the first time in anyone's memory, Orlando Pace was actually in attendance.

New Look: There's a chance that the Rams will open the season with 250-pound rookie Madison Hedgecock at fullback and hard-blocking veteran Roland Williams at tight end. Steven Jackson, of course, is officially the starter at halfback. Is there a new philosophy in St. Louis? Is size the new speed? Rumor has it that Mike Martz was rooting through the file cabinets in search of Chuck Knox's old playbooks.

Stemke Shocked: Punter Kevin Stemke was shocked when the team released him in mid-May, just a few weeks after selecting Reggie Hodges in the draft. "We're as dumbfounded as anybody," Stemke's agent told the Green Bay News-Chronicle. News flash: teams only carry one punter, and while Stemke filled in well in the second half of last season, he was no Ray Guy.

Numerology: Uniform number controversies are all the rage these days, but none of them are stranger than the case of Jeff Smoker. Yes, a backup quarterback. Rams head coach Mike Martz has listened to The White Album too many times, and therefore believes the number nine has "bad karma." Aafter a year of debate with Smoker (a guy whose college career was laced with bad karma), the coach unilaterally changed Smoker's number from nine to 15. Smoker kids that a two-digit number makes him look
fat, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the numerical disagreement as a "war of wills".

Apparently, the conversation went something like this: Martz: "I am the new Number Two." Smoker: "Who is Number Nine?" Martz: "You are Number Fifteen." Smoker: "I am not a number, I am a free man!" Martz:

Kyle Turley Released: Actually, this isn't exactly news.

Next week: NFC North by Michael David Smith.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 07 Jun 2005

1 comment, Last at 01 Jul 2005, 1:33am by robert


by robert (not verified) :: Fri, 07/01/2005 - 1:33am

"...unfortunately, Martz gets lots of jabs elsewhere in the football media, so it may look like we’re piling on." MikeT

nonesense - of course you were piling it on. given the following passage in your mission statement "...to answer specific questions and challenge conventional wisdom about the game." i would think you would be more inclined to challenge the mainstream view of martz rather than join the ranks.

over the years, martz has not shown the media the reverence they clealry have come to expect. whether it is banning reporters from practices or sending bradshaw packing, martz has given the media every reason to ignore his solid accomplishments in favor of juvenile retaliation. but i expected more from you.

albeit ironic, i'm glad to hear one of your readers wrote a positive piece on martz and i look forward to reading.

btw, i'm not a martz fan - just a big football fan.