Around the NFC West: Rams psyched on Fisher

Taking a tour around the NFC West for an early offseason look inside the camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals.

Rams like what they're hearing from new coach

Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis looked on intently, listening as Jeff Fisher was introduced as the sixth head coach in the team's 18 seasons (including 2012) in St. Louis.

So did quarterback Sam Bradford, who is still "not quite" healthy yet from the high ankle sprain that sabotaged his 2011 season.

Watching those two players and then hearing them talk after Fisher was finished with his remarks, it was easy to see they can't wait to begin putting the misery of last season totally behind them and starting to prepare for a 2012 year that they are convinced can only bring better things.

Even if, as is the case for Bradford, it will likely be a third offense in three years he will be learning.

Bradford seems as if he is trying to convince himself that doing it twice already will make the third time easier.

"Would I like to be in the same offense that I started in my rookie year going into year three? Yeah, but that's not the case," Bradford said. "I think going through the past two years will make this transition easier. I know what it's like. I know what it was like to learn an offense as a rookie, then last year having to learn (Josh) McDaniels' offense. I think both those experiences will make this easier and I'm looking forward to it."

Mostly, though, Bradford likes what he is hearing from Fisher. Bradford met with the new coach on Jan. 8, four days before Fisher chose the Rams and then Tuesday morning, shortly before the press conference.

As for the first meeting, Bradford was asked if he tried to sell Fisher on coming to St. Louis.

He said, "No. I really just tried to be myself. I wasn't going to be anything other than who I am. I didn't want to give him a false impression of who I was. It was just time for us to meet to learn a little bit more about each other. If that helped along the process and helped get him here then I'm very happy that I was able to do that."

What was music to Bradford's ears was hearing Fisher preach about the importance of protecting the quarterback.

Fisher emphasized that during the press conference and in his talks with Bradford.

Asked his coaching philosophy, Fisher said, "The philosophy is pretty simple: we want to do whatever it takes to win football games. We're going to have a disciplined, tough, physical football team that's going to first and foremost match up and be able to win games in the division. We've got quite a challenge ahead of us to be competitive once again in the division, but it won't take long. It's a team that's going to run the football and protect the quarterback and play good defense and get the ball back."

When Bradford was asked about being excited to play for a coach where the priority is protecting the quarterback, he said, "Absolutely. That's something that he made a point of when I talked to him last week. That's something actually I talked to him about in his office this morning. We were just talking about a couple things and he said whoever he brings in here as the offensive coordinator that will be definitely a top priority. So anytime you can hear that and be reassured of that, it makes my job a lot easier."

The Rams have also hired Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator.

Mostly, everyone is enthused to be heading toward a normal offseason after last year's lockout.

"This year was difficult," Fisher said, when asked his impressions of Bradford. "I think you have to look back at his success and his production in his first year. (Last season was) difficult for a lot of reasons, the lockout and lack of time together in the offense, but I think he has the chance to be a top quarterback in the National Football League very, very soon."

Said Bradford, "Last year was not something I hope I ever go through again. It wasn't fun. Especially this year having a new coach, having to learn a new offense, I'm very grateful that we will have a full offseason spent with that offense."

Noted Laurinaitis, "I'm excited for us to hire a defensive coordinator so as soon as he gets in here I have something to do. I can study a defense and get started. I'm getting bored already."

While it will be a "full" offseason, it will be shorter than years past. New rules in the CBA have delayed the start of offseason programs from mid-March to April and the overall schedule has been reduced in length to no more than nine weeks.

Because the Rams have a new coach, their conditioning program can start April 2 while other teams can't begin until two weeks later. In addition, OTAs, which have started in mid-May in previous years, have been slashed from 14 days of on-field work to 10.

Fisher acknowledged that "it will be a challenge," but concluded, "We'll have plenty of time."

What will be difficult for guys like Laurinaitis is that there can be no organized coaching or even meetings with players and coaches prior to April 2.

When that was mentioned to him, Laurinaitis just broke into a smile, got that twinkle in his eye, and said, "You know me. I'll figure something out."

Cardinals need to get offensive

It took five years of trying, but the Cardinals defense finally played the way Ken Whisenhunt envisioned. Now it's up to Whisenhunt to fix an offense that's been the main reason the team finished out of the playoffs for the past two seasons.

The defense showed great improvement under Ray Horton, the third defensive coordinator Whisenhunt hired in his five years in Arizona. The Cardinals led the league in third-down percentage and were second in red zone defense.

That unit must concentrate on giving up fewer big plays, but by the end of the season, it was forming into a dominating group.

The offense, meanwhile, hasn't produced since Kurt Warner retired at the end of the 2009 season. The quarterback play has been inconsistent, and improving that will be the top focus of the offseason.

Whisenhunt's first step was to fire quarterbacks coach Chris Miller, who spent three seasons in Arizona. He was also looking at altering other parts of his offensive staff and expressed interest in re-hiring Todd Haley to run the offense.

The biggest task for whoever runs the offense next year will be fixing what's wrong at quarterback. The Cardinals will bring Kolb back. They will pay him a $7 million option bonus this spring, because they can't afford not to.

John Skelton doesn't appear ready to step in, and it's doubtful the Cardinals would release Kolb and explore other options.

Kolb will be 28 when next season starts. While he missed seven games this season because of injuries, the Cardinals think those were freak occurrences and that Kolb's toughness should not be questioned.

Kolb is likely to enter the offseason as the starter, but Skelton made up some ground by going 5-2 in his starts this season.

"One thing that's always been consistent is we're going to play the best player, the player who gives us a chance to win," Whisenhunt said. "So every position is open to competition. That's the way we've always been. As far as how those guys (quarterbacks) stack up or where they are. That's all part of the evaluations we do in the offseason. I'm excited about all three of our quarterbacks."

Young core gives Seahawks hope for future

During their final day cleaning out lockers at the Seahawks team headquarters, Seattle players remained hopeful that head coach Pete Carroll will keep this young group together, giving them a chance to make a postseason run in 2012.

"This team took a turn this year from last year," fullback Michael Robinson said. "It went from the coaches pretty much directing us to this year we kind of took ownership of the team, and it became our team. And that's what you like to see at this level. Nothing else can motivate you more than your peers."

Seattle finally figured out how to play as a unit in the second half of the season, finishing 5-3 down the stretch and leaving some players ready to start the season sooner rather than later.

"You wish everything could start right now because we've got so much to look forward to, we've got so many young guys," Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said.

But Jackson and others will have to wait to see what kind of moves Carroll has in store.

The Seahawks have 22 free agents heading into this year's offseason, including 18 unrestricted free agents.

Defensive back Roy Lewis and kicker Steven Hauschka are estricted free agents, meaning the Seahawks have the right of first refusal for any offer they receive once free agency begins in mid-March.

And cornerback Kennard Cox and defensive lineman Clinton McDonald are exclusive rights free agents – meaning Seattle is the only team that can sign those players if the team extends them a minimum qualifying offer.

According to cap specialist Brian McIntyre of Football Outsiders, the Seahawks are an estimated $20 million under this year's salary cap of just over $120 million.

The Seahawks' top priority in free agency will be keeping their free agents, like running back Marshawn Lynch. The Cal product finished with a career-high 1,204 yards and 13 total touchdowns this season – the first time a Seattle player rushed for over 1,000 yards since Shaun Alexander's MVP season of 2005 (1,880 yards, 27 TDs).

Lynch addressed his pending free agency while talking to reporters.

"Everything's going to fall into place," Lynch said. "There's not too much I can do about it but just wait."

Lynch would like to stay in Seattle, but when asked about the possibility of reaching free agency if the two sides do not come to an agreement, he didn't sound like someone willing to give into a hometown discount either.

"Hopefully I don't have to," Lynch said about hitting the open market. "Hopefully I can get taken care of where I'm at. But I mean, if that's the case, that would be the next step."

The Seahawks still can ensure Lynch staying in Seattle at least one more season by applying the franchise tag, which is projected to be about $8 million for running backs in 2012.

According to Carroll, his team could use an infusion of speed on both sides of the ball, particularly along the front seven defensively, and a playmaker on the offense.

When asked where he thought his team needed to improve at a season-ending press conference, Carroll said he wanted to add speed at linebacker, increase the team's ability to pass rush off the edge and from the interior of the defensive line, and add a playmaker on offense.

"You're always looking for touchdown makers on offense," Carroll said. "You always want to get guys that can score. So if there's a wide receiver in the draft that would be cool, if there's a big-time running back that would be cool."

Niners Digest Top Stories