Around the NFC West
ARIZONA CARDINALS BLIZZARD IN THE DESERT? In the summer? Good one! Although it did rain three times within 30 hours in the metro Phoenix area this week, verifying that anything can happen. That's the sort of news Bobby Blizzard needs to hear. At tight end, the Cardinals, to put it bluntly, are sucking as if they've just completed a set of gassers in triple-digit heat - with no rain in sight. They had Freddie Jones. They'll be hard-pressed to match his physical abilities. He could run, he could catch. He couldn't block, really. Many people believed Jones could be the next Kellen Winslow, including Kellen Winslow, who once stopped by practice while Dave McGinnis was coach and made the comparison when asked. Cardinals Coach Dennis Green knew Jones had more to give, and Green was irked that he wasn't getting it, so irked that Green did not offer Jones another contract after last season despite having no one on the roster remotely qualified to step up to the first team. Then Blizzard went to NFL Europe and opened eyes when he had a season that ended with him being named to the all-league team. In 10 starts for Hamburg, he caught 34 balls for 335 yards and two touchdowns. He came back a better route runner and a better blocker. Green has seen it happen before. While coach of the Vikings, Green acquired tight end Byron Chamberlain from Denver and Chamberlain caught a career-high 57 passes. Chamberlain had been developed years earlier in NFL Europe while with the Broncos. Suddenly, it appears that new Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner will have a reliable target at tight end to complement outside receivers Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson. THE BATTLE OF TRAINING camp could be at free safety where Dexter Jackson was supposed to be going into his third season as a solid starter. That was the plan, anyway, when the Cardinals signed Jackson a couple of months after he was named Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay's mauling of Oakland. Jackson, like so many other former luminaries who've come to the desert, never lived up to high expectations. His claim to fame with the Big Red was saving two of the four wins in 2003 with late interceptions. When Green arrived, it was clear early that the new coach was not president of the Jackson fan club. Jackson did have some back problems that forced him onto Injured Reserve last season. He eventually reached an injury settlement and went back to Tampa Bay. The job initially was handed to Quentin Harris, a talented, young player with skills and potential but after two weeks of training camp, the coaches realized Harris wasn't ready and they signed veteran Ifeanyi Ohalete, who became the starter and survived a nondescript season. A year older, Harris now appears prepared to challenge Ohalete for the job. The team also has brought in aging Robert Griffith. It should be a spirited three-way battle. HOW MANY OTHER TEAMS offer a fly-in day at training camp? The second annual "Arizona Cardinals Fly In" is Aug. 5 in Flagstaff, Ariz. Pilots can sign up to fly their aircraft to Flagstaff and then take in a day in the cool air at 7,000 feet elevation. It is the brainchild of Michael Bidwill, Cardinals Vice President and General Counsel, who is a pilot licensed to fly multiengine aircraft. The fly-in is the next generation of gimmick dreamed by Bidwill. Years ago, an a offshoot of his interest in motorcycles, he put together a motorcycle ride from Phoenix to Flagstaff for a day at training camp that annually draws a caravan of dozens of motorcycles - including Bidwill aboard his bike. OUTSIDE LINEBACKER GREG Carothers signed a one-year contract after playing in the NFL Europe World Bowl for Amsterdam. He had 58 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception for the Admirals. He was in the 49ers' training camp last year but did not make San Francisco's final 2004 roster as an undrafted rookie from Washington, where he was a safety. IF YOU'VE FOLLOWED THE Cardinals and you haven't been around in a while, you'd hardly recognize the place. They've got only a dozen guys who were there two years ago. They look like a different team on the field in their newly restyled practice uniforms, which parallel the redesigned game-day uniforms, complete with menacing bird logo, that they'll break out this fall. They're going into their final season at Sun Devil Stadium before they move into a retractable-roof, retractable-field, state-of-the-art facility in Glendale, Ariz., that will have every electronic gizmo known to man. They have a fresh voice leading them, albeit still a Bidwill, who when he isn't changing the way the team operates he's helping the Italian cops nail bad guys (Vice President and General Counsel Michael Bidwill was in the right place at the right time to help stop a fleeing suspect while on vacation in Milan). They've managed their salary cap beautifully while stocking the roster with high-grade young talent. They go into the season with people actually expecting them to win their division, the NFC West. All of a sudden it is a cutting-edge outfit that is on the verge of showing people how it's done. Oh wait - it must be the heat. They still haven't won a game this season. Doing that 12 or 13 times will verify that they truly are on the right track to becoming a model franchise. QUOTE TO NOTE: "The players we sent to NFL Europe were all in the situation where they had to develop, and the best way to develop would be to play in games. It was a chance to play, to play well, and to show they can be a legitimate NFL player." -- Cardinals Coach Dennis Green, on two players - TE Bobby Blizzard and DE Antonio Smith -- being named to the All-NFL Europe team. DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: LB Lance Mitchell (5/168); WR LeRon McCoy (7/226). PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: RB Damien Anderson; OT Jeremy Bridges; RB Troy Hambrick; S Quentin Harris; DT Ross Kolodziej; QB Josh McCown; CB Robert Tate; DE Peppi Zellner. PLAYERS ACQUIRED: OT Ian Allen; S Robert Griffith; OT Adam Haayer; LB Orlando Huff; WR Charles Lee; FB Harold Morrow; DE Chike Okeafor; OT Oliver Ross; CB Ray Walls; QB Kurt Warner. PLAYERS LOST: OT Anthony Clement; TE Lorenzo Diamond; CB Renaldo Hill; TE Freddie Jones; QB Shaun King; WR Nate Poole; OT L.J. Shelton; RB Emmitt Smith; OG Cameron Spikes; CB Duane Starks; CB Michael Stone; LB Ray Thompson; DE Kyle Vanden Bosch; WR Karl Williams; LB LeVar Woods. ST. LOUIS RAMS HE'S REFRESHED AND READY to head to training camp after a second offseason entrenched as the Rams' starting quarterback. Marc Bulger will use his time off before training camp to play some golf and visit family in Pittsburgh. Then, it will be time to gear up and try to get the Rams back to the top of the NFC West. He acknowledges being more comfortable this summer, one year after signing a new contract and seeing Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner depart the organization. "You always have to prove yourself," Bulger admitted. "But you don't have to prove that you deserve a contract, or that the organization made the right decision. I think I proved that last year. Now I can just worry about playing football and getting better." Coach Mike Martz continues to marvel at Bulger's development. "I think if Marc continues on the same (level) that he played the second half of last season, then he's playing at a level that very few guys reach," Martz said. "And from what we've seen out here (this offseason), I think you can anticipate that. "(But) we've got to protect him. We've got to do a much better job of protecting him than we have in years past." Bulger was sacked 41 times last season and injured his shoulder a few times. He took some time off throwing this offseason (he usually begins throwing in April) to give his shoulder enough rest. "My shoulder actually bothered me for a couple of months, because the cortisone started to wear off," Bulger said. "But the middle of March to late March it started to come (around). I waited until the beginning of May to start throwing. It feels fine. I was a little worried that it might be sore. It takes a little longer to get warm, but it doesn't get sore after. So I'm not worried about it at all." He also likes the additions of guard Rex Tucker and rookie tackle Alex Barron, along with the fact that left tackle Orlando Pace signed a long-term contract and was with the team throughout the offseason. "I think it just added that depth that we needed," Bulger said. THE RAMS' SECONDARY WILL be crowded in training camp with the addition of several veterans and rookies throughout the offseason. One newcomer looking to find a position is second-round pick Ronald Bartell. A cornerback last season at Howard University, Bartell played safety prior to that while at Central Michigan. While the Rams will initially look at him as a corner, they also like his versatility. "We feel good about his ability to stay outside," Martz said. "I feel certain he can go inside and play a significant free safety. We have seen him in that capacity. At worst, I think you could use him in the nickel package and in the slot. "Our scouts, particularly our defensive staff had very strong opinions about Ron and how he fits in to our defense. Everything is there in terms of having terrific potential." Bartell knows the competition will be strong, but that's to be expected at the NFL level. "I am not even worried about it," Bartell said. "I am going to go out and compete and the best man will win. I'm not going to worry about the competition. I am willing to do any and everything to help this team win." He also said coming from a smaller school shouldn't be a problem. "I think it's going to be just as tough to adjust as if I was coming from a I-A school," Bartell said. "No one is a finished product; one would hope that a player continues to get better. It's going to be tough. I am going to take my lumps, but I am going to get better." Bartell also won't forget those commentators who said the Rams reached by selecting him in the second round. "The media thinks one thing and the coaches think another," he said. "It means I have respect from the coaches. It wasn't a big surprise to me. It puts a little of a chip on my shoulder. I already had a chip coming from a small school and people doubting me. It's a little bit of motivation." IT WAS A BAPTISM under fire for rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. A seventh-round pick from Harvard, Fitzpatrick was given some plays with the second-team offense during the team's full squad minicamp recently. "I think coach (Mike) Martz just wanted to throw me in there and get me in the action a little bit. You can learn a lot on paper, but it's a whole other thing to get out there and experience it." Martz has been impressed with Fitzpatrick's physical and mental ability, but that didn't stop the coach from taking him off the field when Fitzpatrick struggled calling some plays. "I was out of there in a hurry," Fitzpatrick said. "But that happens sometimes. I've got to continue to try to get better." AT THE END OF last season, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy played with soreness in his right foot, the result of August surgery for a broken bone. There was some concern Kennedy might need offseason surgery. However, it was determined that surgery wasn't necessary, and Kennedy said he has no pain after the team's offseason program and minicamp. QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is probably as active as we've been. The combination of being able to make a decision on a guy, then actually finish it off, has been excellent. Identifying what you specifically need and then being able to get it is a big issue. The offseason hasn't ended yet, in terms of our procurement of talent. That continues. But we had some bullet points that we had to meet, and we met them, in our opinion. And after watching them on the field, at this point we're very pleased. - Coach Mike Martz on veteran players the team added in the offseason. DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: S Jerome Carter (4/117). PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OG Darnell Alford; CB Dwight Anderson; LB Trev Faulk; WR Mike Furrey; FB Joey Goodspeed; RB Arlen Harris; WR Dane Looker; LB Jeremy Loyd; QB Jamie Martin; LS Chris Massey; OT Orlando Pace; OT Blaine Saipaia; P Kevin Stemke; OG Scott Tercero; LB Drew Wahlroos. PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Chris Claiborne; LB Dexter Coakley; CB Terry Fair; DE Brandon Green; S Michael Hawthorne; CB Corey Ivy; S Michael Stone; OG Rex Tucker; TE Roland Williams. PLAYERS LOST: QB Chris Chandler; S Rich Coady; S Antuan Edwards; DE Bryce Fisher; OG Matt Lehr; LB Tommy Polley; P Kevin Stemke; OT Kyle Turley. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS DESPITE THE CHEST DISCOMFORT that forced him to seek medical evaluation, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren says he's "in a good place now" after a difficult 2004 season. Much has been reported about Holmgren's prickly relationship with former team president Bob Whitsitt, and how the coach considered resigning in January. But Holmgren's frustrations last season had as much or more to do with the team's play on the field. Humiliating defeats to St. Louis and Dallas took a toll, as fallout from RB Shaun Alexander's comments about being stabbed in the back by Holmgren's play calling. "I am in a good place now," Holmgren said recently. "I like our team. I was being honest last year, though: It was a hard season that way. I felt bad about how it ended but heck, that is the way it goes. I think I bounce back well." Holmgren said he relies on feedback from his wife, Kathy, in determining his state of mind. "She kind of knows my moods and things like that and she says I am doing OK," he said. Holmgren parted with a few headaches when the team released linebacker Anthony Simmons, right tackle Chris Terry and wide receiver Koren Robinson. The coach acknowledged that a revamped roster has helped his state of mind. But the won-loss record will ultimately determine whether Holmgren keeps his smile, and his job. And even though doctors found nothing wrong with his heart, winning helps any coach's ticker. Holmgren, who recently turned 57, could do without the heartbreaking defeats that defined his sixth season in Seattle. "I hope we can win a few more games," he said, "so I don't have to deal with that as much." THE SEAHAWKS NEED THEIR first-round draft choices to produce more consistently, starting with 2004 pick Marcus Tubbs. Since 1999, Seattle's list of first-round busts includes defensive end Lamar King, tackle Chris McIntosh and wide receiver Koren Robinson. Tight end Jerramy Stevens has also been underwhelming in three seasons, although he is showing signs of becoming relevant again. Seattle's recent first-round picks have produced a few winners as well. Alexander and left guard Steve Hutchinson are becoming Pro Bowl mainstays, while cornerback Marcus Trufant might not be far behind. And then there is Tubbs. Seattle chose the former Texas defensive tackle with the 23rd overall choice last year. He didn't sign until a week into training camp, then battled injuries and personal strife while making only 13 tackles in 11 games as a rookie. The Seahawks' defense followed suit, finishing with a No. 26 ranking that marked a career low point for coordinator Ray Rhodes. A big second season from Tubbs could help turn things around. Recent minicamps were encouraging to all parties. Tubbs reported in better physical condition, flashing improved quickness and endurance. "We challenged him," Holmgren said. "He is a good football player, very strong, who had an average rookie year at best. "That is kind of a pattern you see with guys that come into camp late, it happens. That happens. He is a good player and we expect him to be a big, big contributor this year. If anything less took place I would be disappointed." Tubbs, 24, struggled last season as his mother suffered through the final stages of a four-year battle with breast cancer. She died in December. By then, Tubbs was trying unsuccessfully to come back from an ankle injury. The 6-foot-3, 320-pounder missed the final five games, counting playoffs. "I can say right now that my mind is probably as clear as it's been in four years, since everything started," Tubbs said. He said he draws strength from his mother's memory, which comes with him on the field in the form of a rubber "breast-cancer awareness" bracelet. "Who am I to give up when she fought for four years?" Tubbs said. "I can't go 100 percent or 110 percent on this play? When you look at it that way, there's nothing I can't do right now." QUARTERBACK MATT HASSELBECK IS healthier than he was last offseason. "I am fine now, it is just a matter of getting in shape and trying to last an entire season and playoffs and all that kind of stuff," he said. "Playing hurt is not fun to do." HOLMGREN REMOVED LINE PLAY from his minicamp practices in an effort to avoid injuries. The issue has become a hot topic in the league after the league punished the Redskins for engaging in more contact than rules allow. Holmgren thought his own minicamp practices were becoming a bit too combative. "It was getting a little too physical," he said. "In the running game, you need the pads, really. In the pass rush, guys were falling over and going to the ground and that scared me a little bit." THE SEAHAWKS SCRATCHED TWO items off their to-do list when they signed two of their nine draft choices recently. DE Jeb Huckeba, a fifth-rounder from Arkansas, and seventh-round OL Doug Nienhuis were the first of Seattle's draft choices to sign contracts. The team also added free-agent OL Adam King, a former reserve with St. Louis. King had been playing in NFL Europe most recently, but a shoulder injury prevented him from playing. QUOTE TO NOTE: "That is between me and the doctors. We will see what they have in store for me. Those guys are kind of like mad scientists." - Coach Mike Holmgren on what he must do to avoid a recurrence of the chest discomfort that bothered him this offseason. DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: DE Jeb Huckeba (5/159); OG Doug Nienhuis (7/254). PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: WR Alex Bannister; DT Rocky Bernard; SS Terreal Bierria; RB Kerry Carter; OG Chris Gray; TE Ryan Hannam; QB Matt Hasselbeck; LT Walter Jones; S Marquand Manuel; TE Itula Mili; CB Kris Richard; DE Ron Smith; C Robbie Tobeck; WR Jerheme Urban; WR Jason Willis; OL Floyd Womack. PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Kevin Bentley; DT Chartric Darby; CB Andre Dyson; DE Bryce Fisher; CB Kelly Herndon; S John Howell; WR Joe Jurevicius; WR Jerome Pathon; LB Jamie Sharper. PLAYERS LOST: LB Chad Brown; FB Heath Evans; MLB Orlando Huff; CB Ken Lucas; DE Brandon Mitchell; DE Chike Okeafor; WR Jerry Rice; S Damien Robinson; WR Koren Robinson; P Tom Rouen; LB Anthony Simmons; CB Bobby Taylor; OT Chris Terry.
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