Behind enemy lines: Around the NFC West

Taking an inside look at San Francisco's three divisional rivals in the NFC West with glimpses at what's going on in the respective camps of the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Coach Mike Holmgren won't say whether his contract extension includes language that would allow him to become a general manager elsewhere. Holmgren was pretty firm, however, in saying he feels indebted to Paul Allen, the Seahawks owner whose loyalty allowed Holmgren to keep his job through leaner times.

"When you shake hands with somebody, and when you have an owner that has been very good to me, I think it's very much a two-way street," Holmgren said.

The Seahawks endured 6-10 and 7-9 seasons in Holmgren's first four years with the team. Allen and then-president Bob Whitsitt told Holmgren could stay as coach if he stepped down as general manager. Holmgren swallowed hard and accepted their proposal.

Holmgren's relationship with Whitsitt was never a comfortable one. The Seahawks finished with a 10-6 record in 2004, but Holmgren considered stepping down because he was increasingly frustrated with Whitsitt. His feelings made their way to Allen, who responded by firing Whitsitt in a move once considered unlikely.

The decision was essentially an endorsement of Holmgren, who responded with some of his best coaching as the Seahawks advanced to their first Super Bowl. Holmgren's appreciation for Allen came through during the recent press conference to announce the coach's two-year extension through the 2008 season.

Even so, Holmgren did not entirely dismiss the notion that he might be interested in becoming a GM again. By extending only for two additional seasons, Holmgren will be able to consider his options sooner rather than later. It remains unclear whether the contract forces him to wait until 2009.

"Who can read the future?" Holmgren asked. "I don't think any of us can. Right now our intention is very much to honor the contract we signed."

--- Tim Ruskell hit the ground running in his first year as Seahawks president. Hours after his introductory press conference in February 2005, Ruskell boarded a plane for the NFL scouting combine. He didn't have time, or much chance, to make changes in the front office.

This off-season was different. Ruskell, having settled into the role after helping Seattle to its first Super Bowl, had more time to consider his options. He wasn't looking to make wholesale changes because the Seahawks were already on solid footing in many areas.

But when given the chance to hire one of his long-time associates from Tampa Bay, Ruskell jumped at it. Ruston Webster, 43, was named vice president of player personnel. The title makes him the No. 2 man in the personnel hierarchy, below only Ruskell himself. Webster became available after his contract with the Bucs expired this off-season.

Webster and Ruskell worked together with Tampa Bay from 1998 through the 2003 season. They are close friends. Each knows what the other likes in a player. Having Webster on board with Seattle serves to expand the comfort zone for Ruskell.

"I'm excited for the opportunity to add Ruston to our scouting operation," Ruskell said. "I've known Ruston for close to 20 years and he is as hard-working and talented a personnel man as there is in the business."

Seattle's personnel department now features Ruskell and Webster at the top, above pro personnel director Will Lewis and regional college scouting directors Mike Yowarsky and Scott Fitterer. Ruskell hired Webster and Yowarsky. Holmgren hired Lewis and Fitterer in the days when Holmgren doubled as general manager.

Webster spent 18 seasons with the Bucs. He worked as an area scout, pro personnel director and director of college scouting. He spent last season as director of player personnel.

--- QB Matt Hasselbeck said he was surprised at how quickly newcomers have assimilated into the team this off-season. Management has done a good job of weeding out problem players, leading to a more professional environment.

"A lot of times you get new guys, and you know they're good people, and you want to get to know them, but it just doesn't happen right away," Hasselbeck said. "Our new guys, it's been great. Nate Burleson is fitting in so good with our wide receivers. Tom Ashworth fits in great with our offensive line, the same with our linebackers and Julian Peterson. Everyone is really clicking, and it just feels right."

--- Bloomberg News estimates that Seahawks owner Paul Allen has seen his net worth drop as low as $8.4 billion through poor investments, a far cry from the $20 billion figure that has been widely reported. According to the news service, Allen's net worth would stand near $78 billion had he simply kept the Microsoft stock he owned 20 years ago. Whether he's worth $20 billion or $8.4 billion, Allen remains the wealthiest owner in the NFL.

--- NFL officiating director Mike Pereira dropped by Seahawks headquarters for a regularly scheduled discussion on officiating. Such off-season conferences are routine in the NFL, but this one carried a little more intrigue in light of allegations that poor officiating cost the Seahawks a chance to win Super Bowl XL.

According to Sports Illustrated, Holmgren made a joke when introducing Pereira to his staff. "This is Mike Pereira, fellas. He and I used to be really good friends."

Most of the session dealt with rules changes for 2006. There was also time to rehash calls from the Super Bowl. That session produced nothing new. Neither Pereira nor the Seahawks changed their stance.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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There has been plenty of excitement about The Edge and the Pro Bowl wideouts and the quarterbacks.

The Cardinals have sold out their first season in their new retractable-roof, retractable-field stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

But perhaps the most interesting piece that they added to their offense, and heretofore most inconspicuous -- as inconspicuous as someone 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds can be -- is rookie tight end Leonard Pope.

Not only is the third-round pick the tallest player on the team, he should give it yet another weapon with his size and athleticism. Imagine Pope running 20 yards up the seam with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald outside, Edgerrin James carrying the ball and Kurt Warner heaving it.

At Georgia, Pope caught 59 passes for 994 yards and nine touchdowns. He may have skidded to the third round only because he was a junior who declared very late in the process.

The Cardinals believe they got a first-round talent. Not only is Pope big, he is athletic. He runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. Most eye-popping, though, is that at his height he has a 37½-inch vertical leap.

Pope got his first taste of the big-time during a three-day minicamp with the veterans. He now is completing the Cardinals' two-week rookie camp.

"From the transition of college to the pros to the speed of the game, it is really just another level," Pope said. "In college, you have one or two superstars that outshine everyone, but everyone out here is a superstar, everyone is fast, everybody out there is just as big as you are.

"It was great thing working with the other tight ends. Adam (Bergen) and Eric (Edwards) are both great guys. They taught me a lot of things about my blocking schemes and running routes and whatnot. They really take the time to show me a lot of plays on and off the field. They pretty much showed me the ins and outs of things."

Practicing in triple-digit heat the past two weeks was an eye-opener to Pope, as well.

"We are out here in the desert and it's a different kind of heat then we had in Georgia," he said. "In Georgia we had a lot of humidity, but out here it is dry so you have to stay watered-down. So you have deal with that."

--- Rushing for 1,000 yards in any league is quite an accomplishment, but when Cardinals running back Roger Robinson did it in NFL Europe to carry his team to the title game, it was not exactly like doing it against teams he could face in the NFL.

So it has to be put in perspective.

Still, Robinson, a product of Northern Arizona University, cracked the four-digit barrier in nine games -- he missed one due to a concussion -- and gets his final shot at an NFL Europe defense Saturday when Robinson and Frankfurt face Amsterdam in World Bowl XIV for the league championship.

Robinson's 1,087 yards set a league season record. The old mark was 1,057 by Mike Green of Barcelona in 2001.

Robinson rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of his nine appearances, breaking the NFL Europe record of six by Joe Smith of Rhein last year.

"It feels great to win the rushing title," Robinson said. "The offensive line did a great job. And I'd like to thank the coaching staff for believing in me. I'm very lucky to be here, and very luck to be around the people that I'm with."

Robinson averaged 5.1 yards a carry and had four rushing touchdowns.

The Cardinals had the worst rushing game in the NFL last season, but have upgraded that with the free-agent signing of James. Behind James are Marcel Shipp, J.J. Arrington and Damien Anderson.

It appears, then, that Robinson would be no better than the team's fourth back, which makes him a candidate for the practice squad.

But after his sizzling summer, it might be hard for the Cardinals to hide him there. More than likely, somebody somewhere would sign Robinson to a 53-man regular roster as the third back.

The Cardinals have not had a 1,000-yard rusher in the regular season since Adrian Murrell gained 1,042 yards in their 1998 title run. In the past 25 seasons they've had only eight 1,000-yard rushers.

--- Other Cardinals players are joining Robinson in World Bowl XIV.

QB Jeff Otis, son of former Cardinals FB Jim Otis, completed 48 of 91 passes for 560 yards and four touchdowns with a passer rating of 72.8 this season for Frankfurt.

Otis likely won't win a roster spot. The Cardinals have Kurt Warner, Matt Leinart and John Navarre ticketed to be their top three QBs. Otis' best hope is for a position on the practice squad.

TE Ben Hall, of opposing Amsterdam, caught nine passes for 37 yards and a touchdown this season.

At what a couple of years ago was the team's thinnest and one of its weakest positions, Hall now faces a logjam on the roster at tight end, making him a long shot for even a practice-squad spot. The team drafted Pope in the third round, and he likely will be the starter. Eric Edwards and Adam Bergen split tight-end duties last year. Andy Stokes, John Bronson and Alex Shor also are in the mix.

--- G Deuce Lutui, the team's second-round pick from Southern California, is a native of Mesa, Ariz., about 10 miles from the team's Tempe training facility. So he's accustomed to the triple-digit heat the rookies faced during their two weeks in rookie camp.

"This weather is a part of my blood," Lutui said. "I lived in and out of this weather, so it's no biggie for me. I know what it's like and what it can do. You just have to watch yourself."

Lutui was the right tackle and blind-side protector of Trojans left-handed QB Leinart in 2004 when Leinart, now reunited with Lutui as a Cardinals rookie, won the Heisman Trophy. Lutui last season moved inside to guard, where his blocking was instrumental in RB Reggie Bush winning the Heisman. Lutui is the likely starter at left guard for the Cardinals as a rookie, where he will protect Warner while Leinart learns the league, and block for James.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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He got off to a rocky start, missing more than two weeks of his first training camp because of contract difficulties.

But when 2005 first-round pick Alex Barron got in the lineup earlier than many expected, he basically staked his claim to the Rams' right tackle job for years to come.

"He played very well for a rookie," coach Scott Linehan said. "Obviously, being a first-round pick, you expect a lot out of a guy. What he showed was that he was a rookie at times.

"But when he settled down and started playing well, he was very technically sound and was a lot more competitive maybe than the impression he gives you, because he's kind of a quiet guy."

Despite that low-key personality, Barron has displayed a toughness that some didn't think he had.

Said Linehan, "He's a very tough competitor. That's what you don't see until you get him out here competing. And he's very prideful. So that was obviously a good thing for us to find out about the guy."

Line coach Paul Boudreau said of Barron, "I think he had a knock on him in college. Maybe it was because he's quiet, because he's laid back, they tag him as not being physical, or being lazy, or whatever. I don't see that. When you watch him play, you don't see any of that. And sometimes, college coaches, they tend to generalize on guys. And then the word of mouth (goes through) scouts throughout the league.

"In Alex's case, he can be physical when he wants to be physical. We want him to be physical on a more consistent basis. Not to the point where he's cheap and doing stupid stuff. But he's got to play on the edge a little bit."

Barron has been working hard learning the new offensive system being implemented.

"To me, you've got to learn everything all over again as far as plays and stuff," Barron said. "It's a different type of system. Some of the plays are the same, but the pieces are different. And (Mike) Martz and Linehan are two different people. So it's an adjustment to (Linehan's) style of play."

--- He had grown accustomed to starting during most of his career in the NFL. But at the age of 35, Todd Steussie knows he can't be choosy if he wants to keep playing. So, he signed a one-year contract with the Rams as a backup tackle behind Barron and Orlando Pace, but before he knew it, there he was lining up with the first unit in minicamp at left guard because Claude Terrell was unable to practice because of a wrist injury.

"It's maybe working outside the comfort zone a little bit, but ... wherever they need me, I'm willing to go," Steussie said of playing guard.

He also understands his role as a probable backup.

"You maybe don't get to compete as much on Sunday, but I enjoy the locker room, I enjoy the guys, I enjoy the competition during the week," he said. "I had some guys that when I first got in the league were able to advance my understanding of the game a lot quicker, and if that's my role on this team, I'll be happy to do it.

"It's an opportunity to continue a career that has changed a little bit over the years. But it's still a lot of fun, and I enjoy it quite a bit."

Steussie was with Tampa Bay last season, but while playing in every game, he didn't start any. He could have stayed with the Bucs, but said, "They had a youth movement going on; the locker room was starting to look a little crowded. I saw a better opportunity here."

He also liked the fact that new Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau was his position coach for two years with the Carolina Panthers.

"I've always had a lot of respect for him," Steussie said. "From the moment I played under him at Carolina, we saw eye to eye technique-wise. What he preaches is what I do."

In his first 10 seasons with Minnesota and Carolina, Steussie started 159 of a possible 160 regular-season games. So, pardon him, if he admits to taking a while getting used to not starting.

"That was a humbling experience," he said. "But in a lot of ways, to be humbled is probably a positive thing in the long run. Adversity is where most of life's lessons are learned.

"I feel like I still could start if given the opportunity. But it's also a game where coaches are always looking for the younger guy to develop. And I understand that. But if I'm given the opportunity to play, I plan to make the most of it."

--- Undrafted free-agent wide receiver Clinton Solomon impressed coaches at the team's rookie minicamp, and also stood out because he's 6-3, 214 pounds.

Said Solomon, who went to Iowa, "I'm going to pick every person's brain that I can, stay in the playbook and learn as much as I can. What a great opportunity I have, to be around Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Just to learn from those guys, to work on technique and mechanics, I couldn't be in a better situation."

*During the recent rookie minicamp, there was a celebrity sighting at Rams Park when actor Denzel Washington toured the facility. Washington's son, John David, has been signed by the Rams as an undrafted free agent.

The younger Washington traveled with his father to Atlanta so he could attend hgis graduation at Morehouse College, and after missing a morning workout was back on the field for the afternoon work.

--- With OTAs beginning, rookies are working out with the veterans. Rams first-round pick Tye Hill is humble, noting the veterans with experience ahead of him on the depth chart.

"If I don't start, I'm not going to be mad," Hill said. "I want to play, but I can't rush it. Nobody came looking at me like I'm going to take their job or anything like that. They're veterans; they know what they're doing. I'm looking for them to give me some tutelage."


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