Behind enemy lines: Around the NFC West

The Seattle Seahawks are getting ready for the first Super Bowl in the team's 30-year history, the St. Louis Rams are regrouping under new head coach Scott Linehan and the Arizona Cardinals are looking for better days ahead with the opening of their new stadium in 2006.


The Seahawks stopped by a rally at Qwest Field to quickly greet several thousand fans at 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning before catching their plane to Detroit for Super Bowl XL.

Seattle arrived at its hotel a day earlier than Pittsburgh traveled to Detroit. There was a 12th man flag in Seahawks colors flying above the team hotel in Dearborn.

--- Seattle's offensive line has a combined 518 regular-season starts, by far the most for any of the conference finalists. Pittsburgh's line is second with 404 combined starts.

Running back Shaun Alexander will be counting on that experience to open running lanes in Seattle's first trip to the Super Bowl in its 30-year history.

"Our line is great," Alexander said. "They do their job and they play hard and they love hitting people and they give me a lot of opportunities to make things happen. You can't say enough about those guys."

Seattle will send three of its five linemen to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. Left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson are perennial Pro Bowl starters. Center Robbie Tobeck will join them as an injury replacement for Bears center Olin Kreutz. The rest of the line features right guard Chris Gray, who owns the longest regular-season starting streak in franchise history, and talented second-year right tackle Sean Locklear.

Alexander called Locklear "so underrated it's unbelievable."

Seattle's line faces a difficult test from the Steelers' rugged 3-4 defense.

"The best thing about the 3-4 defense is it changes your angles," Alexander said. "It is something that you don't practice everyday. It is something you don't prepare for everyday. It is something that you are just not used to seeing every day.

"Angles, blitzes, all those pick ups, they change. You don't have the time to practice like you do with a 4-3."

--- Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's arrival on the national stage has been a long time coming. He appears up to the challenge.

Hasselbeck has posted a triple-digit passer rating in his last six games, including double-digit playoff victories over Washington and Carolina. He has shown impeccable decision making before the snap and a knack for making plays once the ball is in his hands.

Hasselbeck loosened up the Redskins with a few well-timed scrambles. He picked apart the Panthers with scoring passes to tight end Jerramy Stevens and wide receiver Darrell Jackson. He might have racked up some more stats had the Seahawks not built such a large lead.

"He has played very, very well this year," coach Mike Holmgren said, "but he is just starting and in my opinion he should be good for a while and keep getting better because of experience."

Hasselbeck completed 65.5 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions during the regular season. His passer rating (98.2) set a career high. His numbers through two playoff games are even better: 66.7 completion percentage with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 109.6 rating.

Hasselbeck entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft choice of the Packers in 1998. Like his former mentor, Brett Favre, Hasselbeck has taken his team to a Super Bowl in his fifth season under Holmgren.

"I've always said it takes three years to get to where they know where to go (with the ball)," Holmgren said. "Then, in years four and five, you polish your trade and really become very good.

"Not just know what to do, but do it well. I know I'm going to go there, but make the throw. I know I'm getting this type of pressure here, so sidestep and make the throw. That's what you get the more you play the position."

Hasselbeck turned 30 in September. He is a two-time Pro Bowl choice with five years remaining on his contract.

"I think Matt's best years are still ahead of him," Holmgren said. "He has played very, very well this year, but he is just starting and in my opinion he should be good for a while and keep getting better because of experience."

--- Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and center Robbie Tobeck are headed to Hawaii with five of their Pro Bowl teammates. Both players were named to the NFC squad this week as injury replacements. Tatupu replaces Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, while Tobeck replaces Bears center Olin Kreutz.

"It's a real honor and a humbling thing to reach that goal," Tobeck said. "There have been years in the past I thought I should have gone. Part of it is being on a good team and being surrounded by good guys."

Tatupu was a candidate for defensive rookie of the year. He picked off a pass against the Panthers in the NFC title game. Tatupu played the final three quarters of that game after suffering a concussion that left him unable to remember much of the game. The second-round pick has played at a Pro Bowl level much of the season.

"I am just grateful and very thankful that I am to represent the Seahawks with all the other guys," Tatupu said.

--- Hasselbeck has Super Bowl experience as an eight-year-old spectator. His father, Don, earned a Super Bowl ring with the Raiders after the 1983 season.

"My mom even has the pendant version of it," Hasselbeck said. "She has never worn it; she always said that we could use it for our wives' engagement ring. That didn't happen."

--- Free safety Ken Hamlin, who suffered severe head injuries during an October incident outside a Seattle nightclub, still isn't sure about his chances for returning to the field in 2006.

"I haven't even thought about it as far as like what next year holds," Hamlin said this week. "I'm thinking about what Detroit holds."

--- Holmgren has been tempted to utilize backup quarterback Seneca Wallace at other positions, a move that paid off with a 28-yard reception against Carolina in the NFC title game.

Wallace is an outstanding athlete with the ability to get open as a receiver and make people miss as a runner. He also throws the ball quite well, but the Seahawks won't need his arm as long as Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is healthy.

Holmgren would use Wallace more in the offense if he weren't afraid of losing him to injury. The Seahawks lack a veteran backup behind Hasselbeck. Wallace has played well enough in practice and exhibition games to serve as the No. 2 guy, but losing him to injury would leave rookie quarterback David Greene one snap away from playing.

The team is not ready to take that risk, explaining why Wallace will only be used in spot duty.

--- WR Bobby Engram (hip) missed practice last week, but should be ready to go for the Super Bowl.

--- WR Darrell Jackson (knee) returned to practice Friday and should be ready to go for the Super Bowl.

--- MLB Lofa Tatupu (concussion) returned to practice last Thursday. He should be ready to go for the Super Bowl. The rookie from USC was a steal in the second round of the draft even though many experts thought Seattle could have had him in the third or fourth rounds.

--- DT Rocky Bernard (foot) missed practice last week, but should be ready to go for the Super Bowl. Bernard had two sacks against Carolina in the NFC title game. He is a force as a pass rusher.

INJURY IMPACT: The Seahawks should be healthy heading into the Super Bowl. Engram (hip), Jackson (knee), Tatupu (concussion) and Bernard (foot) have missed some time this week. Each played in the NFC title game and each expects to be ready for the Super Bowl. Injuries are not a significant factor at present.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I talked with Ray Rhodes and we both agreed that that was as fine a game executed as we could remember, all-around. ... They were better than good. They were really good. Physical, smart, and they made key plays. They just set their mind to it and did it." -- Holmgren on his players' efforts against Carolina during a 34-14 victory in the NFC title game.


History repeats.

The Cardinals make the playoffs in 1998 with a relatively young roster and appear, at long last, to have turned the corner.

They have an innovative offensive coordinator off the West Coast offense family tree in Marc Trestman. They have a solid defensive coordinator not far removed from the great Bears defenses in Dave McGinnis. They have a head coach who seems to have cracked the code of what it takes to work successfully for the Bidwill family in Vince Tobin.

They have what they believe is a franchise quarterback in Jake Plummer. They are so certain that Plummer is their quarterback of the future that immediately after the playoffs they toss a reworked contract his way with what was then a league-record $15.5 million signing bonus. They believe they have locked up their future, and in a way, they were right.

That move was the beginning of the end of any chance the Cardinals had of extending their success. In paying Plummer so exorbitantly, they were unable to retain three key veterans whose value was grossly underestimated by ownership - fullback Larry Centers, left tackle Lomas Brown and outside linebacker Jamir Miller.

And Plummer became known for his wild mistakes with the ball, more turnovers than touchdown passes, and was not asked to return when his hefty contact expired after the 2002 season. Whatever happened to him, anyway?

Since that 1998 playoff run, which included going into Texas Stadium and mauling the Cowboys to end a half-century without a postseason win, the Cardinals have won 6, 3, 7, 5, 4, 6 and, this season, 5 games.

Tobin was fired seven games into 2000 and replaced by McGinnis. Although he was popular with players, media and fans, the bottom line is the bottom line and McGinnis made it through 2003 before he, too, was tossed, to be replaced by Dennis Green.

Green's job was to spend two years getting the team ready for a move to a new stadium in Glendale, Ariz., this fall, where it is going to take more than a single digit in the win column to make the expense for the place pay off. Well, Green has won 11 games, which would be great if they were all in one season, but they've been spread over two.

And now, history repeats, as it has again, and again, and again for this team under the stewardship of one of the most unsuccessful owners in the history of professional sports.

The Cardinals again have a high first-round draft pick - 10th overall - on the heels of many horrible failures with such lofty draft positions.

Arizona has a load of cash available to go overpay unrestricted free agents who will take it to come to the desert, because that's the only place they'll get any - and then the danger is that such a player will pack his golf clubs but not his playbook. There have been a few exceptions - most notably defensive end Bertrand Berry, who became a Pro Bowler in 2004 - but not many.

So with roughly $20 million to be available under the new salary cap and only one high-ticket free agent of their own - quarterback Kurt Warner - to attempt to re-sign, the Cardinals embark down a familiar road.

Coming off six wins and five under Green, even he seems to buy into the notion that the team could close its eyes and point and hit upon an area of need.

"I don't think there will be a spot that we don't take an unrestricted free agent," he said.

His hide depends on it. Green has two seasons remaining at $2.5 million per year. He gets a free pass into 2006 because $5 million is too much for the Bidwills to buy out. One also can take a look at the lengthy injury list - a league-high 15 players finished the season on injured reserve - and say Green was dealt a tough hand in 2005.

They tried last offseason to make upgrades. But first-round draft pick Antrel Rolle was injured. Key free-agent signees Warner and Oliver Ross were injured. Second-round pick J.J. Arrington was a huge disappointment behind an embarrassing line. Five of the top seven defensive linemen - including Berry - suffered season-ending injuries.

But it is important to note that the Cardinals weren't reminding anyone of Green's best Minnesota teams even before the players began to fall, and he has made three changes on his coaching staff already, with perhaps more to come.

The biggest failure of 2005 was the offensive line, which never had chemistry and was responsible for a horrid rushing game. That made a team that was projected to win the NFC West on the strength of a high-scoring offense one-dimensional. Although big numbers were posted in the passing game, the unit was largely ineffective, scoring in threes, not sevens.

But in a new stadium, where owner Bill Bidwill's son Michael - who has been running the show for a couple of years now - will attempt to salvage the family name and avoid taking a financial bath, the Cardinals must have a far more appealing product.

For 18 years the Cardinals could blame uncomfortable aluminum bench seating, scorching sun, inadequate restrooms and laughable concessions for their league-low home attendance at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium.

Those days now are gone. And Green better produce in 2006. He is bucking some mighty tough history.

--- What is sexier, the arm or the leg?

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the NFL's Sexiest Man competition between Cardinals All-Pro and Pro Bowl K Neil Rackers and Green Bay QB Brett Favre.

The sentimental vote may be with Favre, whose future in his declining years is uncertain. The Packers have a new coaching staff coming in and Favre is coming off a miserable season.

That Rackers, a relative unknown before he broke the league record with 40 field goals this season, is a finalist is a victory for kickers everywhere. They tend to often be the outcasts of the locker room, regarded by many of the brutes on the roster as not real football players. Kickers are the guys you take for granted when they do what they're hired to do, but the ones who stand out like a sore toe when they shank one with a game on the line.

But the brutes don't select the sexiest man.

Rackers emerged from a field of 64 to the championship round of the Fox Sports contest. He earned a spot in the finals with a stunning upset of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the semifinal - perhaps only Brady's second-most painful loss of the week. Rackers polled 52 percent of the 63,000 votes cast online.

"I've been called a lot of things but 'sexy' has never been one of them," Rackers said. "Did you ever see in the movies where they play the mean practical joke on the geeky kid by electing him prom king? This kind of has that feeling."

The winner will be announced on the Fox NFL pre-game show prior to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

--- With a five-win season now in the rearview mirror, talk is turning to the new stadium, the only positive topic in the Big Red camp at the moment.

The Cardinals recently announced plans for Sportsman's Park around the stadium, to include grass areas and other open space available to the public for tailgating.

"We wanted to extend the fan experience and standard of design excellence from the stadium to the site and provide an unparalleled site environment to enhance the pre- and postgame experience for our fans," said Michael Bidwill, Cardinals vice president and general counsel. "We also needed to give this special place a name. We chose 'Sportsman's Park,' which connotes the significance of the football stadium and the unique park-like setting of the site.

"We have been researching and listening to our fans for a long time. We have conducted focus groups and been getting feedback on what the fans like and we think Sportsman's Park is an area that everyone will be able to enjoy."

The Cardinals chose award-winning landscape architect Michael Dollin of Urban Earth Design for the project.

Sportsman's Park will have more than 20 acres of turf, including an eight-acre public area called the Great Lawn.

--- The retractable roof panels of the new stadium recently were opened for the first time to allow work to continue on the roof assembly. The opening is approximately 240 feet wide by 360 feet long and fully exposes the playing field.

-- The Cardinals must take a hard look at the lines on both sides of the ball. The chemistry on the offensive line never evolved, whether because the former position coach was very young and inexperienced, or because of the constant shuffle forced by injuries. It also is possible that the team overestimated some players. At any rate, the unit needs a change, perhaps starting with moving Leonard Davis back to guard, where he initially made his name in the league as a mauler before Green moved him outside two seasons ago.

The best thing that could happen on the defensive line, where five of the top seven players suffered season-ending injuries, is to get well. But there is no doubt that the team needs to re-sign veteran nose tackle Russell Davis and sign a tackle to play alongside him.

The Cardinals must reach a decision at quarterback and the likely pick is Warner. But Warner, the starter when not injured, and Josh McCown, the starter when Warner was out, both become unrestricted free agents. Warner's representatives say they have been told by the team that it is interested in beginning contract talks.

The rushing game was the league's least productive, and it would not be stunning to see someone new join Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington in the backfield.

Look for the team to be in the market for a backup quarterback, a running back, a defensive tackle, an outside linebacker, a cornerback and a free safety.


QUARTERBACK: Starter - Kurt Warner. Backups - Josh McCown, John Navarre, Rohan Davey.

Warner is an unrestricted free agent and coming off a season-ending MCL injury that did not require surgery. The team appears prepared to try to sign him back, but if it does, it has to find a strong backup because of Warner's recent history of injuries. When healthy, Warner appeared to still have some good football left in him. McCown also becomes unrestricted and does not appear to be in the plans. He may also feel that he has been jacked around by the franchise and prefer to try somewhere else. Navarre's potential lights up the eyes of coach Dennis Green, but Navarre is very inexperienced. Davey was signed late in the year after Warner was injured and likely will be nothing more than a fourth arm in training camp if he is there at all.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Marcel Shipp, FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo. Backups - RB J.J. Arrington, RB J.R. Redmond, RB James Jackson, RB Damien Anderson, FB James Hodgins, FB Harold Morrow.

It's not exactly a stable of former Heisman Trophy winners and it is likely to be nearly gutted. Shipp came back from a serious leg injury that sidelined him in 2004. He is dependable between the tackles but has no breakaway speed and he hasn't scored a touchdown in two years. Arrington supposedly was going to claim the job as a rookie, but he didn't seem to enjoy being hit and suffered a horrible debut. It was a learning experience, and the temptation has to be resisted, for at least another year, to label him a bust. The Cardinals very well could use the 10th pick in the draft on a back to augment what was the league's worst rushing game, and the second worst since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Ayanbadejo is a decent receiver but a shaky blocker. Hodgins, a massive blocker, just completed his second season on injured reserve and will have to prove that he can stay on the field.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Eric Edwards. Backups - Adam Bergen, John Bronson, Ben Hall, Andy Stokes.

This was the most inexperienced position coming into the season, having been ignored after veteran Freddie Jones moved along. But Edwards and Bergen grew into their roles as the year went on and appear to have potential worth spending the time to develop. Both are fine receivers, but the team needs help with blocking - and both players need help improving their blocking. The Cardinals could get away with that shortcoming if they had a strong fullback, but they didn't. And not getting reliable fullback and/or tight end blocking contributed mightily to a horrid rushing game. That is going to be a point of emphasis with this group during the off-season.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin. Backups - Bryant Johnson, LeRon McCoy, Reggie Swinton, Carlyle Holiday, Dan Sheldon, Zamir Cobb.

It is not easy to relegate Boldin to No. 2 billing, but Fitzgerald did it with a Pro Bowl season in which he set a team record for catches. He would have been pushed every inch of the way for the record had Boldin not missed time with a knee injury - and Boldin still also eclipsed the former club record that he had shared with Larry Centers. Johnson is a strong third receiver in spread formations with his deep speed. McCoy, a rookie, moved up on the chart by default but when given the opportunity showed that he belongs and likely will stick in 2006. That may not be true for Swinton, who rarely played as a receiver and was the return man. Special teams are due to be gutted and Swinton may be gone. Fitzgerald and Boldin essentially were all the team had on the offensive side of the ball. And while statistics show that their success did not open the running game, the threat of the run undoubtedly would make them more dangerous in 2006.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Leonard Davis, LG Reggie Wells, C Alex Stepanovich, RG Elton Brown, RT Oliver Ross. Backups - C Nick Leckey, LT Ian Allen, G Adam Haayer, G Jeremy Bridges, G-C Shawn Lynch, C Bill Conaty, G Fred Wakefield, T Alan Reuber, T Dante Ellington, G Rolando Cantu.

This unit likely faces an extreme makeover after producing the worst rushing attack in the league, and one of the worst in the league in the last 35 years. Davis was far more effective at guard in his early years than he has been for two years outside. A move back is worth considering. He can be a mauler. Ross came in from Pittsburgh with a big reputation but it was never evident. The three interior starters are very young and every one of them - Wells, Stepanovich and Brown - suffered long-term injuries that stunted their development, in turn setting back the running game. They are worth developing but the team needs to get rid of many of those around them and find veterans who know how to play.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Chike Okeafor, NT Russell Davis, UT Darnell Dockett, RE Bertrand Berry. Backups - E Calvin Pace, T Kenny King, T Ross Kolodziej, T Langston Moore, E R-Kal Truluck, T Tim Bulman, E Antonio Smith, E Anton Palepoi, E Tyler King.

Berry, Davis, King, Moore and Pace suffered season-ending injuries. That's enough to drive a position coach to retirement, and in Deek Pollard's case, it did. Berry and Okeafor give the team a great pair of ends who can handle the run and get to the passer. There is hope ahead. Davis, who becomes an unrestricted free agent, is a decent veteran worth bringing back. Although Dockett is athletic, the team might be better served with a stud in his spot to beef up the run-stopping. The team went to training camp believing this unit was not only its strongest but also its deepest. It likely will go to camp in August believing that once again. Only King's recurring wrist problem appears to pose any sort of long-term threat.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Karlos Dansby, MLB Gerald Hayes, WLB Orlando Huff. Backups - MLB-OLB James Darling, OLB Darryl Blackstone, MLB Lance Mitchell, OLB-MLB Isaac Keys.

Hayes was just coming into his own when he suffered an early season-ending injury. While the veteran Darling filled in as best he could, Hayes likely will go to camp as the man to beat in the middle once again. Dansby, with his sacks, interceptions and bone-jarring tackles, is one of the rising stars of the league. With the year he had, on a better team he would have been a Pro Bowl candidate. Huff started outside after playing inside for years at Seattle and still is trying to find his niche. The team may draft an outside linebacker to challenge him, although with Hayes' return Darling could move back outside, where he is a former starter. Huff needs to turn it up a notch in 2006. Blackstone and Mitchell weren't much help, but they were rookies. Depth is scary thin.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Antrel Rolle, RCB David Macklin, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Robert Griffith. Backups - CB Eric Green, CB Robert Tate, CB Lamont Reid, CB Raymond Walls, SS Aaron Francisco, SS Ernest Shazor, FS Quentin Harris, CB Dyshod Carter.

Rolle, out with a knee injury most of his rookie year, showed in his brief appearances why he was a first-round pick. But it is going to be almost like another rookie year for him in 2006. He is physical but still has to prove that he can run with pro wideouts. Macklin is tenacious but smallish, a detriment against the emerging group of tall wideouts around the league. Green should nudge him hard in Green's second year in the league. Other strong safeties made the Pro Bowl and garnered postseason recognition, but for the second straight year Wilson was as good as any. Until the Cardinals win more games, Wilson is destined to be the best safety the average fan never heard of - but football people know his value. Look for a new free safety. Griffith may retire. If he doesn't, the team should have someone on board to challenge him hard.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Neil Rackers, K Nick Novak, P Scott Player, LS Nathan Hodel, KR/PR Reggie Swinton, KR James Jackson, KR/PR Bryant Johnson.

There is nothing wrong with the kicker - Rackers is All-Pro and a Pro Bowler - nor with the punter - Player is a former Pro Bowler and remains one of the best in the business. But beyond that, the special teams were awful. Young players who are on coverage teams will need to be coached much more effectively. They will have a new special teams coach after three kickoffs and a punt were taken back for touchdowns against them. Also look for the team to be in the market for a returner. Swinton was average at best.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We set out as a goal to have a great tailgating site but what our designers have created is the best tailgating venue not only in the Valley but also the National Football League. Nothing comes close. What we have done is unprecedented." - Michael Bidwill, Cardinals vice president and general counsel, on creation of Sportsman's Park adjacent to the Cardinals' new retractable-roof stadium in Glendale, Ariz., that is scheduled to open for the 2006 season.


After new Rams coach Scott Linehan met those in the organization Jan. 20 and was introduced to the media, a breath of fresh air seemed to be present at Rams Park.

There is no denying the success Mike Martz had in his five full seasons as head coach. However, the tension in the facility over the last year was evident, and moving on has seemed to create a new energy, which was helped by Linehan's approach.

Asked what his plans are to avoid the problems in the past, Linehan said, "I wasn't here, so I can't really comment on previous issues. You have to remember, that there are always going to be bumps in the road in life. There was a bump in the road for whatever reason. I wasn't here for that. There will be a new era and a new chapter to it with the incoming regime, but we have to continue to build on the positive things that have happened around here and move on."

After meeting with the non-football personnel of the team prior to his press conference, in his opening statement to the media Linehan spelled out his goals for the entire organization.

"The one thing I want to make sure is really established right away is that this is going to be a family environment here at the Rams," he said. "We will do things cohesively as a group, as a unit and make decisions as a team from day one. That's how things get done. That's how things get done properly."

It was reminiscent of the words of Dick Vermeil when he took over the team nine years ago. Linehan even showed a shade of Vermeil when he was asked at the end of the press conference what it meant to him to become a head coach.

He said, "It's a dream come true. I promised my wife I wouldn't cry, so I'm not going to do that, but it's fulfilling a dream and being in the greatest profession in the world, and being in the greatest league in the world. How lucky am I?"

A hint of a tear could be seen in his eye as he spoke and he choked up a tad. When he was reminded that we're used to that after the experience with Vermeil, he laughed and said, "That's right. That takes the pressure off."

But it was a glimpse at how genuine Linehan appears to be. There's no pretense, no selling a bill of goods. You could see it with the slight nerves he was experiencing on such a daunting day. It was clear he is the real McCoy.

In voicing his philosophy, Linehan noted three things. "One thing is, just speaking on my behalf, words that I live by that I try to teach, not only my young boys, but the players that I coach is No. 1, be authentic. I'm going to be who I am. I am the guy that is standing at this podium, and it is what it is as they say. I think that's very important. I think it's very important to establish that within our organization with everybody that works in that organization, be yourself.

"The next thing is, you're going to have a progressive attitude here. Day in and day out, we will work extensively to get better at all areas of the organization. That's what you do when you want to get to where you want to get. Setting those goals and doing those things are very important, but we will be progressive day in and day out, and that's a promise.

"With that in mind, we have to be effective leaders. It starts with me and the other leaders in this organization, but everybody in this room has the ability to affect somebody in a positive way, and to be a leader; that's what you do. We'll strive hard to go by those basic principles and that will be the basis for our success in the future.

He then invoked the name of UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, saying, "One last thing that I would like to comment on, and I think it's very important that these words are taken in the right perspective. I read a quote this past offseason, and I think it's important that we listen to it very carefully. I don't know if you've read the recent book by John Wooden. He had a quote in there that I highlighted. He said, 'Never try to be better than any one person, but never cease trying to be the best that you can be.'

"You'll get the best from this organization, from the coaches we hire and from the people that work within this system."

--- Linehan was working quickly to fill his coaching staff. Receivers coach Henry Ellard and strength coach Dana LeDuc were retained. Offensive line coach John Matsko left for Kansas City and defensive line coach Bill Kollar was hired by the Bills.

But Linehan's biggest additions were Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator and Greg Olson and offensive coordinator.

Linehan first tried to hire Jim Bates, but he rebuffed the Rams' million-plus offer. Another candidate, Dick Jauron, was hired as Buffalo's head coach. That led to the strange addition of Haslett, who as head coach of the Saints was part of an intense rivalry between the teams when they were in the same division. In fact, entering the 2005 season, the Rams had lost just nine regular-season home games since 1999, and Haslett's Saints had accounted for three.

"Pretty funny, isn't it?" Haslett said after being hired. "It still hasn't quite sunk in yet. It's a good opportunity. I didn't know Scott before the hiring process, but I'm excited about working with him. I know they're going to score a lot of points. They have a lot of talent on offense. If we can get the defense turned around, we have a chance to be pretty good."

Said Linehan, "By nature, he's a very aggressive person. Very upbeat. Got a lot of passion for the game. Not only as a team, but as a head coach, you need to be able to resound all those philosophies throughout the system. He's going to be installing the defense, and putting the defense in. And selling what we want to sell as a team."

Olson coached the Lions' quarterbacks the last two seasons, and the team had some of its best games when Olson called plays.

Said Linehan, "We're both Dennis Erickson-raised, as young coaches or players. I played for Dennis. (Olson) coached as a graduate assistant for Dennis at Washington State University. We were raised under the same system in college. Ran the same systems in college at different places."

Despite the connections, the two have never coached together, but have worked at the same camps and clinics. While Linehan will call plays, Olson will have significant responsibilities with the offense.

"(It) will be very extensive," Linehan said of Olson's role. "He will (have) input on the offense. He will be a big part of the entire evaluation of our offensive players in the offseason. He'll obviously be in charge of developing and grooming our quarterbacks. We will probably hire a quarterbacks coach who will work with him."

--- Haslett will have great input on the defensive staff. He is expected to be joined in St. Louis by Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi and Saints senior defensive assistant/secondary Willy Robinson.

--- The Rams interviewed Clyde Powers for a job as director of pro personnel, a vacant position in the Rams' football operations department. Powers has been with the Colts for 23 years and is currently the pro personnel director.

--- Co-offensive line coach John Benton and secondary assistant Gill Byfrd are interviewing with Linehan and have a chance at being kept on the staff.

--- The Rams signed safety Deandre' Eiland, who spent time on the Dolphins' and 49ers' practice squads this season.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Marc Bulger. Backups - Jamie Martin, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jeff Smoker.

Bulger played just eight games because of a shoulder injury yet passed for 2,297 yards with a rating of 94.4. He'll be adjusting to a new coach, but he is developing into an excellent player. The Rams just have to find a way to keep him healthy. Martin was solid as Bulger's backup, but he will be a free agent, and a possible return will depend on the new coaching staff. Fitzpatrick struggled in three starts as a rookie but received valuable experience. He beat out Smoker for the No. 3 job in training camp but Smoker returned when Bulger was injured.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - HB Steven Jackson, FB Madison Hedgecock. Backups - HB Marshall Faulk, HB Arlen Harris, HB Aveion Cason.

A variety of factors conspired to prevent Jackson from having the season everyone envisioned when he was named the starter to replace Faulk. A banged-up offensive line, along with the fact the Rams fell behind in several games, often kept the running game under wraps. In addition, Jackson sometimes struggled with his reads and was among the league leaders in carries for zero or minus yardage. He still ended up with 1,046 yards on just 254 carries, and also caught 43 passes for 320 yards. Faulk was mostly under-utilized but accepted his role as Jackson's backup. He rushed for only 292 yards but did catch 44 passes for 291 yards. Hedgecock, the team's seventh-round pick, won the starting job, and he improved as the season progressed. Harris didn't play much, although when he did, he was the team's best blocker picking up blitzes. Cason was active for only two games, but one was the season finale in which he showed quickness and burst while rushing for 65 yards on 10 carries.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Brandon Manumaleuna. Backups - Jerome Collins, Aaron Walker, Roland Williams.

Manumaleuna remains an enigma. He blocks well in tight quarters but poorly in space on the move. He's mostly forgotten in the passing game, catching just 13 passes for 129 yards. Collins spent most of the season on the practice squad and saw some action late in the season. Walker was added to the roster in December and never saw action. Manumaleuna's salary rises to over $1.3 million in 2006, and a decision will have to be made on his future.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups - Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald, Dane Looker.

He's in the Pro Bowl, yet Holt can't get listed in a poll of the top five receivers by ESPN. Talk about being overlooked. All Holt did, despite missing two games because of a knee injury, was tie for second in the league with 102 receptions for 1,331 yards. He is the only player in league history to reach 1,300 yards six straight seasons. Bruce had a disappointing year thanks to a toe injury that continued to affect him after he returned. He can still play, but a decision has to be made because his cap value is over $10 million in 2006. Curtis continues to emerge as a top No. 3 receiver, and he totaled 60 receptions for 801 yards and six touchdowns. McDonald contributed as the No. 4 receiver. Both he and McDonald will be restricted free agents. Looker saw most of his action when Holt and Bruce were injured. He is a solid insurance policy.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Orlando Pace, LG Claude Terrell, C Andy McCollum, RG Adam Timmerman, RT Alex Barron. Backups - T Matt Morgan, T/G Rex Tucker, G/C Larry Turner, G Ben Noll, G Blaine Saipaia, G Tom Nutten, G Richie Incognito.

It was another year of change on the offensive line. Pace made the Pro Bowl and was a standout. The next best lineman was McCollum, who remains one of the most underrated centers in the game. After that, it was scattershot. Nutten started the season at left guard but couldn't stay healthy. Terrell, a rookie, received experience and played well at times, but he needs an off-season in the strength program to build his endurance and improve his pass-blocking. Timmerman played hurt all season but was a warrior. Last off-season, he had surgery on his foot and both shoulders. A back ailment affected his play. His cap number is over $3 million, and he needs an off-season not rehabbing an injury to show he can still play at a high level. Tucker started the season at right tackle but struggled, as did Saipaia. Finally, despite missing significant time in training camp, Barron was inserted at right tackle and held his own. He played through a broken hand at the end of the season. An off-season in the strength program should improve his game even more. The Rams would like Saipaia to compete for a guard job, but he ended the season on injured reserve with a concussion. Incognito is a wild card, a rookie who didn't play because of a knee injury suffered at last year's scouting combine. He has the ability, but maybe not the maturity, as he blew off rehab assignments after being signed.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Leonard Little, DT Damione Lewis, NT Ryan Pickett, RE Anthony Hargrove. Backups - E Tyoka Jackson, E Brandon Green, T Jimmy Kennedy, T Brian Howard, E Clifford Dukes, NT Jeremy Calahan.

The Rams face some key financial decisions on the line, especially at tackle. Lewis hasn't lived up to expectations after being the 12th overall pick in the 2001 draft. He is solid, but he will be a free agent in March. Complicating matters is that Pickett has been very good on the nose and is also scheduled for free agency. He reportedly was asking for $4 million a year, which the Rams might find expensive. But if Pickett and Lewis depart, there isn't much left. Kennedy started the season strong but tailed off. He will need surgery for a hernia. Howard was hardly active. Calahan showed promise and was signed for the last three games of the season. He played in the finale but injured his knee. At end, Little enters the final year of his contract hopefully mentally strong after a difficult season in which his brother was murdered. He still can be a difference-maker. Hargrove has the physical ability but must develop consistency in being disciplined within the defense. Jackson has some years on him and is also a free agent. Green is a high-motor guy who provides solid depth.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, MLB Trev Faulk, SLB Brandon Chillar. Backups - OLB Dexter Coakley, MLB Chris Claiborne, OLB Jeremy Loyd, OLB Drew Wahlroos, OLB Mike Goolsby.

Only Tinoisamoa was consistent among the group, and he rarely makes big plays. Claiborne and Coakley were disappointing after being signed in free agency. Claiborne is due a $500,000 roster bonus at the start of free agency; Coakley $250,000, and he ended the season on injured reserve with a broken leg. Faulk showed promise in the middle after taking Claiborne's job. Chillar was also OK, but big plays were few and far between. Wahlroos is very good on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Ron Bartell, CB DeJuan Groce, SS Adam Archuleta, FS Mike Furrey. Backups - CB Chris Johnson, CB Corey Ivy, CB Dwight Anderson, CB Travis Fisher, CB Jerametrius Butler, CB Terry Fair, SS Jerome Carter, FS O.J. Atogwe, S Dwaine Carpenter.

What could go wrong went wrong for this group during the season. Butler was lost to a knee injury in training camp, and Fisher injured his groin early and never fully recovered. Archuleta can make plays in tight space, but his tackling in the open field is suspect. That was also Furrey's problem. After switching from receiver to free safety, Furrey led the team with four interceptions. However, his angles to the ball carrier were poor and he missed numerous tackles. The replacements for Butler and Fisher also struggled in run support. The rookie Bartell did improve, and he shows promise. Groce seems to have leveled off in his play. Ivy is the most exciting of the group, but his lack of size (he's 5-foot-8) can be a problem. Carter saw extensive playing time as a rookie despite being hampered by a foot injury most of the season. Atogwe played through a bad toe injury and was making plays at the end of the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jeff Wilkins, P Bryan Barker, LS Chris Massey, KOR Chris Johnson, PR Dane Looker.

Wilkins is as consistent as any kicker in the league, and he signed a new four-year contract before the end of the season. He missed only four of 31 field-goal attempts and was 4-for-5 from 50 yards or more. Barker settled the punting situation after rookie Reggie Hodges showed he wasn't ready, especially in a dismal performance in a 37-31 home loss to Seattle. Barker is a free agent, but it seems a mistake to take a chance on a rookie punter again. Massey is also a free agent, and the Rams have to decide whether to pay him the going rate for top long snappers. Wilkins can't recall a bad snap in Massey's first four years on the job. The kick returning is suspect, as it has been since the days of Tony Horne and Az-Zahir Hakim.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "His stock and reputation is skyrocketing as one of the great receiver coaches in the league. ... I really thought it was very important to do everything I could to keep Henry." -- Head coach Scott Linehan on retaining receivers coach Henry Ellard.

Niners Digest Top Stories