The NFC West: An offensive division?
ARIZONA CARDINALS DENNIS GREEN'S OLD MINNESOTA Vikings teams frequently scored as many points in a half as the Cardinals scored on the average Sunday last season. Their 18-point average, which ranked 27th in the NFL, is not the thing on which Green made a reputation as an offense guru when the Vikings were setting league scoring records in the late 1990s. So there will be several key new parts when the Cardinals line up for a haunting season opener - on Sept. 11, at New York, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks across the river. The highest profile newcomer, quarterback Kurt Warner, played for the Giants last year and no doubt will be anxious in his debut to show Tom Coughlin that he made a mistake in benching Warner at midseason for rookie Eli Manning. The Cardinals haven't had a reliable quarterback since Neil Lomax - and he last laced 'em up 17 seasons ago. Warner has won a Super Bowl and a couple of league MVP awards. He's not as old as people perceive, but often seems old because he's been injured most of the past three seasons. Green has a history of rescuing veteran quarterbacks from the scrap heap and coaxing more out of them. Warner, 33, was acquired because upon further review Green wasn't so sure that Josh McCown was as good as Green was making him sound at about this time last year. At the opposite end of the spectrum is rookie running back J.J. Arrington, a second-round pick who was the only rusher in big-time college football to gain 2,000 yards last season, at California. The Cardinals haven't had a long-term reliable running back since Ottis Anderson and it has been, what, 17 years since his last 100-yard day for the Big Red? After Emmitt Smith retired and with Marcel Shipp coming back from ankle and leg surgery that sidelined him last season, the Cardinals had to find somebody. They may have hit the jackpot with the speedster Arrington. Tight end has been an all-but-forgotten position for about a decade, but All-NFL Europe selection Bobby Blizzard could help change that. Free agent acquisition Oliver Ross, a noted run-blocking demon at Pittsburgh, steps in at right tackle and completes Green's two-year rebuilding of the offensive front. The Big Red Line never lived up to its hype and has been dismantled. Four of those five starters are gone and the fifth, Leonard Davis, is in a different position, left tackle. There are recognizable names among the group now, not just a bunch of guys known collectively for being the biggest in the league. Davis was the second pick in the draft in 2001. Center Alex Stepanovich was a starter on an unbeaten Ohio State national championship team two years ago and an effective rookie starter at center in 2004. Rookie Elton Brown has yet to win the right guard spot but given that he was regarded as the best guard in this year's draft and that the position has been a patchwork of guys who never made it elsewhere, his chances appear good. The only unknown of the group, left guard Reggie Wells, had a solid if not eye-popping first season as a starter in 2004. He was good enough to not make Green's off-season hit list. When that front is backed by players like Warner, Arrington, Shipp, Blizzard and wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, there is good reason to expect the Cardinals to score more than two touchdowns a Sunday and restore Green's status as an offensive guru. WARNER HAS BEEN SELECTED the NFL's "No. 1 Good Guy" by The Sporting News in a compilation of athletes who serve and improve their communities by donating their time, energy and money. Warner takes as many as 10 kids faced with life-threatening illnesses and their families to Disney World for a week. He visited tsunami victims in February. He adopted a group home for foster kids in December and took them all to Christmas Eve dinner. He gave game tickets to kids served by faith-based, social-services outreach agencies. Warner participated in the opening ceremonies of the Arizona Special Olympics 2005 Summer Games. He represented the Cardinals at the annual Pop Warner Scholar All-American Banquet in Anaheim, Calif. WIDE RECEIVER LARRY FITZGERALD, a 2004 first-round draft pick, shared with nearly 300 players who will be coming into the league this season what it's like during the annual Rookie Symposium at Palm Beach Garden, Fla. Fitzgerald said time management was his biggest issue. "After practice, there's a lot of down time," Fitzgerald said. "You've got a lot of money. You're visible. There's a lot of time when you can get into a lot of trouble when you don't have the right things to do. You're in a new city, you don't have family there. So you've got to surround yourself with the right people and find good things to do with your spare time that are productive." ST. LOUIS RAMS IT WAS CLEAR AS the 2004 season ended where the Rams needed the most help on offense: the offensive line. Inconsistency on offense, especially on the road, could be traced to constant shuffling on the line that began at the start of training camp when right tackle Kyle Turley and center Dave Wohlabaugh weren't able to return from offseason surgeries. The summer saw a revolving door of offensive linemen arrive and depart, and the instability continued during the season. Added to the problems was the second camp missed by left tackle Orlando Pace, who was the team's franchise player for two years in a row. The Rams hope the line will be considerably more stable this season. Pace signed a long-term contract in March and was present throughout the offseason. Rex Tucker, released by the Bears after three injury-filled seasons, will be the left guard, provided he remains healthy. Alex Barron was selected in the first round and immediately inserted as the starter on the right side. Should Barron or Tucker falter, backups Blaine Saipaia, Scott Tercero and Larry Turner got game experience last year. The other notable change was the ascension of Steven Jackson as the starting running back ahead of Marshall Faulk, who will still be utilized as a receiver. The addition of tight end Roland Williams should also improve the depth at that position and provide competition for starter Brandon Manumaleuna. CENTER ANDY MCCOLLUM HAD to do a double-take the first time Tucker arrived for offseason workouts. Tucker, who was signed by the Rams on April 20 after being released by the Bears, is the brother of Browns tackle Ryan Tucker, who played for the Rams from 1997-2001. Rex Tucker, who is younger than Ryan, looks like his brother and talks like him, with a Texas accent. "He's like the same guy," McCollum said. "In fact, I called him Ryan the other day. ... He has some of the same mannerisms and what not." "We talk daily," Rex said of his relationship with Ryan. "We spend as much time as we can together when we're not working. ... He's my favorite guy in the world." SEATTLE SEAHAWKS DROPPED PASSES, NOT TOUCHDOWNS, have come to define the Seahawks' receivers. Starters Koren Robinson, since released, and Darrell Jackson have ranked among the NFL leaders in drops over the past few seasons. Third WR Bobby Engram was always sure-handed, but not even he could make the season-saving touchdown grab in the waning seconds of Seattle's first-round playoff defeat to St. Louis in January. What has changed in 2005? Robinson is no longer with the team, for one. And if newcomer Joe Jurevicius can stay healthy, this receiving corps could have some sticky fingers. Engram and young WR Jerheme Urban, who has shown signs of emerging, rarely let the football slip through their fingers. "Sometimes that is what competition does," QB Matt Hasselbeck said, "and there is a lot of competition there." Jackson is a bit of an 'X' factor. He will probably again lead the team in the important receiving categories. Last year, that meant setting a franchise record with 87 catches while leading the team with 1,199 yards and seven TDs. But the dropped passes are also likely to continue after Jackson skipped all voluntary minicamps. A year ago, the coaching staff put together a series of drills designed to reduce drops. At one point, receivers even fielded softballs with their bare hands. The results were underwhelming. "It has been a point of emphasis for us certainly because it has been something that's hurt us the last two years," coach Mike Holmgren said of the drops. "We've tried and we are continuing to work and get drills and thinking of ways to concentrate a little more on catching the football." Catching the football still comes down to practice and concentration. That will never change. "When we broke it down and analyzed the film on every drop," Holmgren said, "the vast majority of what happens is they take their eyes off the football and start to run with it. "It is not that they have bad hands; it's just that they don't concentrate enough and get it in before they turn." The coaching staff has a few more old tricks up its sleeve. They plan to write numbers on the footballs. "You look it in and you have to read the number on the football and tell the coach what the number is," Holmgren explained. "That is an old drill, but I think it is a very effective drill." There have been fewer drops at minicamps now that Robinson is gone for good and Jackson, for all his talents, is staying away. "Adding a player like Jurevicius, who catches everything, helps the equation," Holmgren said. "But the other guys are doing a pretty good job too." HOLMGREN APPRECIATED THE SUGGESTION, but he couldn't take credit for giving the team a three-day weekend during its June minicamp. League rules prevent practicing five days in a row. "If I could keep them here (Friday) and practice Saturday and Sunday, I would," Holmgren joked, "but they won't let me. The union rep would phone somebody and I would get in trouble." HASSELBECK CRITICIZED TEAMMATES FOR skipping voluntary workouts. He is not naive enough, however, to think that Jackson and running back Shaun Alexander won't be ready for the season. "To say that the fact that they are missing out on eight practices is going to dramatically ruin their season, it's not," Hasselbeck said. "I am sure both those guys are working out hard right now and when training camp comes or the season starts, both of those guys will be ready to play at a high level like they always do." Their absence will actually hurt the younger players who might have benefited from their expertise, Hasselbeck theorized.
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