Friday, August 25, 2006

All you need to know:
The NFC West preview

Eenie, Meenie, Mynie and MoFo

Hey, I know football. Maybe you know football, too. Good for us. But there are millions of people who don't know as much about football as they should. These people dread the arrival of fall because it means that for the next four months they'll be locked out of all NFL-related conversation, banter and give-and-take. Well, if there's one thing Down and Distance is about, it's about bringing people together. Bringing America together. So, in the spirit of brotherhood, here's All You Need To Know About The NFC West, just enough talking points to get you through the season.

How many superstars have played for the Arizona Cardinals? Off the top of my head, maybe one: Emmitt Smith, and he was so used up by the time he arrived that he was a "superstar" tailback only in the sense that Marlon Brando was still a "superstar" actor in The Island of Dr. Moreau: Yeah, he was there, and yeah, he was doing the job for which he became famous, but come on: Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform? (You can imagine what Brando would have had to say about that.) No superstar in his prime has ever worn those red pants. Cuba Gooding Jr. deserved a closet full of Oscars, Golden Globes and whatever else you've got for coming across even marginally believable as a superstar playing for the Arizona Cardinals.

Now, all of a sudden, the Cardinals could have not one but two superstars on their roster. One is running back Edgerrin James, who grew so weary of falling just short of the Super Bowl year after year in Indianapolis that he signed as a free agent with the one team we can all agree will never do him like that. The other is quarterback Matt Leinart, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, who for various reasons, none of them good in retrospect, fell to the Cardinals with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.

James did everything and more for the Colts. He ran over, around and through defenses. He caught a good 50 passes a year. He picked up the blitz. The Cardinals gave him $20 million in guaranteed money on the expectation that he'd do it all in Arizona. Then they put him behind the weakest line since Maginot 1940. Where the Colts' offensive line was stocked with Pro Bowlers, the Cardinals' offensive line is stocked with ... well, Cardinals.

At least James won't be alone back there. Leinart, who won more games in three years at USC (37-2) than the Cardinals have won in the past seven (36-76), held out of training camp as long as he could before swallowing hard, kissing Paris Hilton and Nick Lachey goodbye, and signing his contract. Questions have been raised about whether all the time Leinart missed will keep him from "learning the system." Yet after only two practices, he appeared in a preseason game against the Patriots and showed he'd already mastered the Cardinals offense. It's a simple progression:
  1. Receive snap from center.
  2. Drop back.
  3. Watch pocket collapse.
  4. Run.
Rushing totals for the game: James, 2 rushes for 5 yards. Leinart, 2 rushes for 29 yards. If Leinart aspires to be as much of a legend in the NFL as he was at the Viper Room, tailback might just be the position for him. The Hall of Fame isn't exactly packed with Cardinal QBs, be they of the Arizona, Phoenix, St. Louis or Chicago variety. Look at the quarterbacks who have squatted under center for the Cardinals since the franchise crash-landed in the Sonoran Desert in 1988, and you'll find men whose best days were already far behind them (Kurt Warner, Boomer Esiason, Dave Krieg), still far ahead of them (Jake Plummer, Chris Chandler), and both ahead of them and behind them (Steve Beuerlein) -- plus one whose best days wouldn't roll around for 16 years, and even then it'd be on Survivor (Gary Hogeboom). Oh, and Timm Rosenbach.

Like so many broken men before him, Leinart will learn that playing quarterback behind the Cardinals' line isn't much different from being trapped in a rockslide. If you're quick on your feet, you can dodge the worst of it for a while, but there's nothing actually protecting you, and it's only a matter of time before a rock levels you. A rock named Lofa Tatupu, probably.

For the time being, Leinart will watch from the sidelines as Kurt Warner starts at quarterback. But given Warner's style -- immobile as the Statue of Liberty, then toppling like the statue of Saddam -- and the way Denny Green goes through quarterbacks like the rest of us go through oxygen, he'll be on the first team by the end of September. And on injured reserve by the end of October.

When Leinart decided in 2005 to return to "school" for his senior season, it was a big Southern California middle finger to the San Francisco 49ers, who were coming off a 2-14 season, held the first pick in the '05 draft and needed a quarterback desperately. They were so desperate that they used that pick on Alex Smith of Utah. Smith was a quarterback, just like Leinart! He was coming off a 13-0 season and a BCS bowl victory, just like Leinart! There really wasn't much difference between the two, except that one was ready to play in the NFL and the other wasn't. The Niners got the one who wasn't.

Smith had a rookie year for the ages, alternating between getting sidelined, getting burned, and getting sideburns. So gruesome was Smith's year (84-of-165 for 875 yards, one-count-'em-one touchdown and 11 interceptions) that the only thing distinguishing him from Ryan Leaf was that Leaf had a better TD-to-INT ratio his rookie year. Well, maybe not the only thing. There were also Leaf's personality disorder. Or disorders. Smith seems sane. Now.

On the heels of Smith's humiliating season, the 49ers brought in Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Turner had the good fortune to have been calling in the plays to Troy Aikman while the Dallas Cowboys built their dynasty of the early 1990s, and as a result gained a reputation as an offensive genius and mentor of quarterbacks. This reputation clings to Turner in defiance of all reason, as he developed no great (or even good) quarterbacks in seven subsequent seasons with the Redskins, one with the Chargers, two with the Dolphins and two with the Raiders. Now he's brought his magnetic personality to San Francisco, where he's sure to light a fire under Smith.

And for one magical half in the first preseason game against the Bears, it looked like Smith had indeed turned the corner. He was 16-of-21 for 137 yards and led two scoring drives against last year's top defense. He looked comfortable under center and in the pocket. He rolled out smoothly and threw tight spirals while on the run. Then he crapped all over himself against Oakland a week later, and all was right with the world. Somewhere Heath Shuler is saying, "It wasn't just me!"

So Smith will at best be taking baby steps this year and at worst might actually die on the field. Doesn't matter. The Niners are in the middle of a rebuilding project of epic scale. Put John Brodie, Joe Montana or Steve Young at quarterback for these 49ers and see how they would do with Antonio Bryant and the Bethel Mission All-Stars playing wideout. Fans should pray for Arnaz Battle to make a speedy recovery.

It'd be easy to lump the 49ers in with the Cardinals -- either as two bad teams or as two teams on the rise. You could make an argument either way, and I'd love to see you try. But these teams are different on an elemental level. It's a history thing. The San Francisco 49ers, as a franchise, are winners. The Arizona Cardinals, as a franchise, are losers. As bad as they've been in the 21st century, the Niners can put five Lombardi Trophies on the cover of their media guide, and do so with a straight face. What do the Cardinals have? Nothing, save the 1947 NFL championship, which came 13 years before the team left Chicago. Which is why the cover of the 2006 Arizona media guide depicts the team's new stadium. Yes, the Cardinals, winners of nothing significant since George W. Bush, president of the United States, was 1 year old, have a new stadium paid for with more than $300 million in taxpayer money. The San Francisco 49ers, winners of five Super Bowls since 1981, remain trapped in Monster Park, a stadium, like the team, stripped of all dignity. I'm not saying publicly funding a football stadium is the right thing to do. But the Cardinals getting a new stadium when the 49ers were denied for decades? That definitely ain't right.

Lest we forget, the Cardinals moved to the Phoenix area after the city of St. Louis refused to give the team a new stadium. In the time it took Arizona to build the stadium it had promised the Cards back in the Reagan years, St. Louis put up its own brand new stadium, lured another team to the banks of the Mississippi and watched in ecstasy as the St. Louis Rams promptly won one Super Bowl and nearly won another. Fittingly, the Rams had two-time league MVP Kurt Warner in those days to throw the ball to Isaac Bruce and Co. and hand off to Marshall Faulk. Fittingly, the Cardinals have former two-time league MVP Kurt Warner these days to throw the ball to Anquan Boldin and Co. and hand off to Edgerrin James. The Rams got Cinderella. The Cards got the pumpkin.

Now, however, midnight has come and gone for the Rams as well. Four years removed from the Super Bowl, the Greatest Show on Turf has had all the air let out of its tent, and St. Louis is just another bad, bad team. The franchise fell apart completely over the course of the 2005 season, as the Rams were reduced to their third-string quarterback, their second-string running back, their fifth-string cornerback and their second-string coach. That running back turned out to be pretty good. That quarterback was pretty good against the worst team in the league and awful against everyone else. That defensive back wasn't even really a defensive back. And that backup coach, Joe Vitt, didn't have a chance. Despite doing his best to keep the team moving forward after Mike Martz got sick and had to give up the headset, Vitt was on the Terry Robiskie plan, and we all knew it. So did he.

Martz, meanwhile, could have been described as the franchise's scapegoat, except that he really was responsible for what ailed the team: inattention to defense, inept special teams, bizarre coaching decisions. So he had to go. Bouncing back quickly, Martz coasted to Detroit with a reputation as an offensive genius, based on the performance of Warner, Bruce, Faulk, etc. during the glory years. Sound familiar?


Norv Turner Mike Martz
Team he helped guide to the Super BowlDallas Cowboys
(1992, 1993)
St. Louis Rams
(1999, 2001)
Quarterback(s) who, in retrospect, may have made him look smarter than he really wasTroy AikmanKurt Warner,
Marc Bulger
Quarterback(s) who may have actually been the rule rather than the exception Heath ShulerJamie Martin, late-stage Chris Chandler, Ryan Fitzpatrick
Coach who got plenty of credit but perhaps not enoughJimmy JohnsonDick Vermeil
Current jobOffensive coordinator, 49ersOffensive coordinator, Lions
Quarterback(s) whose future success, if any, might get attributed to the genius/mentorAlex SmithJosh McCown,
Dan Orlovsky
Quarterback who won't get enough creditTrent DilferJon Kitna

The Rams hired a new coach in Scott Linehan, one of a series of relatively anonymous, seemingly interchangeable Caucasian coordinators who were elevated to head coach this past offseason. Others: Brad Childress of the Vikings; Rod Marinelli of the Lions(!); and Sean Payton of the Saints. Linehan was offensive coordinator of the Vikings from 2002 to 2004, which means someone undoubtedly views him as "responsible" for Daunte Culpepper's emergence as a superstar. Another genius for our chart, perhaps. Yet when the Vikings job came open, Minnesota certainly wasn't in any hurry to hire him, if that tells you anything.

To take care of the Rams' defense, which has been wandering in the wilderness since Lovie Smith moved to Chicago, Linehan brought in Jim Haslett, whose six-year tenure as the head coach in New Orleans set all new standards for mediocrity (and that's not including last year's disastrous 3-13 finish, which comes with an asterisk the size of Hurricane Katrina). If Haslett is your definition of an answer, you need a new dictionary.

With Arizona and San Francisco creeping forward ever so slowly and St. Louis madly spinning its wheels, the NFC West belongs to the Seattle Seahawks, who will become the first team since the 2000 Titans to make the playoffs the year after losing the Super Bowl. And just by writing those words, I've guaranteed that Matt Hasselbeck gets a torn ACL, Shaun Alexander gets turf toe, Lofa Tatupu gets post-concussion syndrome and Mike Holmgren gets worms. They'll never trace it back to me, at least. Not with Peter King shooting off his big fat mouth.

One of the bigger stories in the first few weeks of the offseason was the officiating in Super Bowl XL. Seattle fans complained about several dubious calls, all of which went against the Seahawks, while fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers -- who just weeks earlier screamed in unison that they were victims of an NFL conspiracy when a bum call went against them -- demanded that they just get over it and enjoy the sight of Jerome Bettis winning the Super Bowl in his hometown, just like all the promos said he would.

For the record, the Steelers would have won anyway.

The Super Bowl left a sour enough taste in Washington state's collective mouth (eeuw) that it's not hard to envision the Seahawks rolling through the 2006 season like the original Juggernaut, fueled by a volatile brew of bile, piss and vinegar. Add in the annual declaration by sundry football commentators that the Carolina Panthers are the year's It team in the NFC, and this season is looking real good for Seattle.

The Seahawks return the bulk of their Super Bowl team, with few big changes. Clutch wideout Joe Jurevicius went home to Cleveland, and the team lost offensive guard Steve Hutchinson to Minnesota after one of the greatest strategic blunders since the Yom Kippur War. But for the most part the pieces are all there, and the only question is whether Holmgren can put them back together correctly without gluing his fingers to his forehead.

Also returning for 2006 is Seattle's "12th Man." The Seahawks retired No. 12 in 1984 in honor of the noisy fans who made first the Kingdome and now Qwest Field so hostile to opposing teams. It wasn't long -- 22 short years -- before Texas A&M University took notice. A&M claims to have invented the term "12th Man" in like the 1920s and copyrighted it in the 1990s (which historians can tell you came after 1984). The university saw the Seahawks and their fans waving No. 12 flags and sporting No. 12 gear during the march to the Super Bowl, and the school demanded that the team quit using the number. When rebuffed, A&M warned that it would have to resolve the dispute Texas-style -- in court. Eventually the two sides came to an agreement. Seattle has permission to use the number so long as it recognizes that No. 12 is the exclusive property of the rootin'est, tootin'est, lawsuit'inest school this side of the Pecos. Seattle finished 13-3 last year. Talk about narrowly averting disaster.

The only question that remains is whether this is the year Seattle wins more games than the rest of the division combined. They came so close last year. Had the 49ers and Rams not won meaningless Week 17 games, and had the Seahawks not taken a dive in their own meaningless Week 17 game, they could have made history. If playing to get back to the Super Bowl isn't motivation enough for these guys. They should at least play for that.


Arizona: "They're putting together a hell of a fantasy team, but until they get the offensive line taken care of, they'll always be two years away."

San Francisco: "Smith has got to play sometime, it might as well be now. Maybe by the time the rest of these guys learn how to play at this level, he will, too."

St. Louis: "They have to realize that the time for tweaking the roster has passed. The window has shut. They've got to blow it up and start over."

Seattle: "It's just a question of whether they can keep their motivation going after they clinch the division in the 11th week of the season."

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