Around the NFC West: Looking back and forward

Catching up with the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West as the Seattle Seahawks look forward to another opportunity to defend their 2005 NFC title with Sunday's divisional playoff game at Chicago, and the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams look back on their 2006 seasons.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Seattle has no problem playing the underdog's role heading into the Seahawks' divisional playoff game at Chicago on Sunday. The Bears are favored by nine points after Seattle needed a dose of good luck to survive its wild card game against Dallas.

"I think everyone expects the Bears to win this game, so we got nothing to lose," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "We just go out there, have fun, play as hard as we can and see what happens."

Never mind that the Bears haven't won a playoff game since 1994, or that the Seahawks are the defending NFC champs. Chicago clearly enjoyed the superior season, posting a 13-3 record despite up-and-down play from quarterback Rex Grossman. The Bears hammered Seattle, 37-6, when these teams met at Soldier Field on Oct. 1.

Seattle, meanwhile, lost three of its final four games on its way to a 9-7 record. The Seahawks started to play better in the last two regular-season games, but they had to overcome severe personnel deficiencies to beat Dallas last week.

Coach Mike Holmgren doesn't mind slipping under the radar, though.

"It's been a good thing for the teams I've coached," Holmgren said of the underdog role, "particularly if you're confident in what you're doing and you have to be playing well."

Much of the focus has been on what the Cowboys did wrong, not what the Seahawks did right. That was natural after Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo fumbled the field-goal snap with his team trailing by a point in the final two minutes. Still, Holmgren noticed.

"Even after our game with Dallas, there didn't appear to be much about the Seahawks on television nationally," Holmgren said. "It was about the snap or T.O. (Terrell Owens) coming back.

"One side of me, I say, 'That's too bad, because we played a good game.' But the other side says, 'It's OK to be under the radar.'"

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The Seahawks' special teams appear to be functioning a bit better with special teams coach Bob Casullo positioned in the press box during games. Holmgren made the move after Seattle got burned by a fake punt against the 49ers.

"I didn't think we were seeing the whole picture well enough from the field," Holmgren said. "Things were happening in a game and I couldn't get answers immediately on the field.

"The last few games, I think it's working out better."

John Jamison, the assistant special-teams coach, has remained on the sideline. Jamison stays in communication with Casullo over a headset. Holmgren joked that it cuts down on how much he yells at Casullo.

"John was in my wedding," Holmgren said of Jamison. "I don't yell at him. Now I can get info from Bob and it's much quicker, it's more precise, it's working better."

Seattle's special teams are suffering from personnel problems brought about by injuries.

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Reports suggest the Seahawks are among the teams under consideration to play a regular-season game in Europe. Seattle is already scheduled to play a 2007 exhibition game in Beijing. Holmgren said he'd much rather play a regular-season game at Qwest Field.

The reports didn't say exactly when Seattle might play in Europe. Holmgren is thinking later sounds better than sooner.

"I'll be on the porch having a pina colada when they travel for that one," he quipped.

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WR Darrell Jackson is expected to play against the Bears on Sunday, according to Holmgren. Jackson aggravated a toe injury in the wild card game, but he was feeling better Monday … WR D.J. Hackett could miss the game against Chicago on Sunday after suffering an ankle injury against the Cowboys … FS John Howell will miss the Chicago game after suffering a hamstring injury against the Cowboys. Howell missed the end of last season with a hamstring injury. The team re-signed him last week to help provide needed depth, but his hamstring lasted only one game … QB Matt Hasselbeck is a very good quarterback who has a chance to be "great" if he stops forcing things in certain situations, Holmgren said Monday. Hasselbeck tossed two interceptions against the Cowboys. His two second-half touchdown passes helped Seattle prevail, but the Seahawks expect him to avoid some of the mistakes that have cropped up this season amid injuries to other offensive players.

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SEAHAWKS PLAYOFF REPORT CARD: SEATTLE 21, DALLAS 20

PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus -- The protection wasn't very good even though the Cowboys failed to get a sack. QB Matt Hasselbeck took a few hits early in the game and his play wasn't as good as a result. He tossed two interceptions. The shuffling personnel at receiver robbed the offense of rhythm. Hasselbeck and TE Jerramy Stevens did step it up in the second half. Stevens' two touchdown receptions wound up being the difference in the game.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Seattle did not run the ball very effectively for much of the game. The team was stopped on its final three third-and-1 runs, continuing a recent trend. RB Shaun Alexander did run hard, but there wasn't much there. His 20-yard run up the middle against a stacked front helped secure the victory.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Seahawks were effective against QB Tony Romo and WR Terrell Owens even though the defense was severely undermanned. Romo's problems with accuracy early in the game helped. CB Pete Hunter played more than 15 snaps less than a week after Seattle signed him off the street. Owens finished the game with two catches for 26 yards. Seattle did not allow the deep ball, in part because the Cowboys did not try very many.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- Seattle tackled well for much of the game, but Cowboys RB Julius Jones did break free for a 35-yard run late in the game. The run helped the Cowboys move into position for a potential go-ahead field goal. Seattle is undersized on defense and can't afford assignment breakdowns. This was a pretty good effort under the circumstances. The Cowboys tried to pound the ball, but they didn't control the clock in the bigger picture.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Seattle's injury-depleted coverage units have become increasingly vulnerable. The Seahawks allowed a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that was nearly the difference in the game. Roughly half the coverage team wasn't even on the roster when training camp started, and a couple weren't on the team even a week or two ago. Snapper Derek Rackley also had a couple of shaky punt snaps, while K Josh Brown wasn't as deep as usual on his kickoffs. On the positive side, P Ryan Plackemeier did an excellent job rescuing snaps, and his late punt helped prevent the Cowboys from getting a second chance at the go-ahead field goal.
COACHING: A -- Defensive coordinator John Marshall and his staff deserve high marks for containing the NFL's fifth-ranked offense. The Cowboys finished with 284 yards, their lowest total since the season opener. Defensive backs coaches Teryl Austin and Larry Marmie made the most of a nearly impossible situation. They had four days to get Hunter ready to be the nickel corner. Hunter was in position to make tackles. He even recovered a fumble. The offensive plan suffered a bit because Hasselbeck wasn't at his best. Mike Holmgren scaled back some things, notably when he handed off on third-and-7 in the red zone.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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It would be just like the Cardinals to screw up their coaching search before the final bag of trash is removed from Dennis Green's office.

In announcing that vice president of operations Rod Graves had received a new three-year contract the same day Green was shown the door after his teams won six, five and five games in three seasons, the Cardinals might have taken themselves out of the running for the sort of high-impact, proven coach that it would take to reverse their miserable fortunes.

Would, say, a Pete Carroll or a Steve Mariucci give any thought to coming to the desert with anything less than total control?

Even Mike Sherman, who interviewed last week, must take a hard look at the Cardinals' management organizational flow chart.

Cardinals executives had an interview with Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera in Chicago last Wednesday.

After Sherman, the assistant head coach of the Texans and former coach of the Packers, interviewed in Tempe, Piitsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt interviewed with the team.

Then, the Cardinals met with San Diego with Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and in Indianapolis with Colts assistant head coach/quarterbacks Jim Caldwell.

Graves short list of seven also included Tennessee offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who was interviewed Monday.

Pittsburgh assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm also is on the list but has not yet been scheduled for his interview.

Grimm and Whisenhunt will be considered for the Steelers job now that Bill Cowher has stepped down.

The interviewing schedule is aggressive, but do the Cardinals want a proven head coach, or is this an organization content to hire someone's coordinator or position coach? They've paraded the likes of Joe Bugel, Vince Tobin and Dave McGinnis through Tempe with no previous head coaching experience -- and with no luck. But then, Buddy Ryan and Green, who had been NFL head coaches, were no more successful.

The Cardinals and Graves are going to have to convince any hopefuls that Graves is there to be more of a valet than an impediment.

After all, Graves, a loyal soldier who had worked without a contract since his last one expired in May, seemingly sat idly by as Green ran roughshod. Graves disputes that assessment, though.

"What I attempted to do, based on Dennis Green's record and success, is to give him support, to support the plan that he wanted to implement," Graves said. "Although I may have disagreed sometimes, I felt supporting his plan and the way he wanted to build this football team is something I chose to do.

"And by moving forward, we'll assess how decisions are made, but ultimately the authority rests in my corner with respect to football operations."

Nevertheless, Green constantly turned over not only the roster but even his own coaching staff. He fired seven assistants, including two of during seasons.

He used five quarterbacks in three years.

"Rod supported many of those moves because we saw coach Green as somebody who was very innovative and bold in terms of how he would mold a team," said Michael Bidwill, the team's vice president and general counsel.

Graves was on board during the tenures of Tobin and McGinnis, when there were more misses than hits in personnel decisions. However, Green inherited, as will his successor, players such as 2007 Pro Bowlers Anquan Boldin and Adrian Wilson, as well as Gerald Hayes and Bryant Johnson, and possibly Leonard Davis and Marcel Shipp (who become unrestricted free agents) from the McGinnis years.

"I think if you look at where the team is in terms of our talent and terms of our football operations and in terms of how we drafted and signed free agents, Rod has done a very good job of building the talent," Bidwill said.

But the roster suddenly got better when Green arrived. Free agents Edgerrin James, Kurt Warner, Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor signed on during his run. The team drafted Matt Leinart, Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett. The Cardinals didn't hit the jackpot with every personnel move they made, but their drafts were better during Green's run, and his input no doubt was a factor.

Sherman told reporters in Houston, "I think the Cardinals have a tremendous opportunity to win. They've got a lot of great young talent to go with a lot of quality veterans. ... They've got a lot of the pieces in place to win."

Echoed Graves, "We feel like we have a very good football team in place. We feel we're talented and we'll continue to build on this team, as much as the way we have over the last several years by being aggressive in free agency and drafting well."

Graves has been vice president of operations since 2002. He was assistant to the president for six years before that. Graves, 47, serves as the team's primary contract negotiator in addition to overseeing college and professional scouting, assisting salary cap management and consulting on other business aspects.

He'd been in the Bears' front office for 13 years. Although he's been around, he has yet to be mentioned among the best in the business.

The Cardinals announced that Green was out shortly after the players reported for exit physicals and their final team meeting on Monday. He hasn't been heard from since. Thirty-two losses in three years was too much even for a franchise that has had one winning season in 22 years and has one playoff win in six decades.

In bringing Graves back after the Green years, perhaps the Cardinals have given him new marching orders regarding how he'll manage the new coach.

Or not. His job again might well be to stay out of the way as much as possible, depending on the experience level of the new coach.

Graves' role no doubt will be a factor in the coaching search.

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Although he unexpectedly sat and watched rookie QB Matt Leinart for 11 games after losing the starting job a month into the season, veteran QB Kurt Warner says he now is leaning strongly toward coming back. Warner started the finale at San Diego after Leinart suffered a shoulder injury that will not require surgery.

The Cardinals started 1-3 with Warner in the lineup. They were 4-7 in Leinart's starts. The rookie was the beneficiary of an improved running game with the 100-yard rushing efforts of Edgerrin James, things Warner was expected to have but did not during the rough start.

"Unfortunately it took a few weeks early in the year to go through those growing pains and find out what it is we were going to be, what we were going to hang our hat on," Warner said. "We're starting to become what we think we can be here."

Warner, 35, is under contract for 2007 and 2008, but only a month ago was sending signals that this season would be his last, citing family commitments.

"I'm going to come back and play," he said. "I want to play. I feel like I have a lot of football left in me. That's my plan as of right now, not that that can't change when the offseason comes around and me and my family sit down. But I signed a contract to be here with the Cardinals. That's where I go into the off-season thinking."

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The Cardinals, with another single-digit-wins season, once again are in the top five of the draft in April. Thanks to gaining their five wins against a weaker schedule than Washington did for its five wins, the Cardinals at least won a tiebreaker to put them into the fifth draft slot, behind Oakland (2-14, but one of the wins was over the Cardinals), Detroit (3-13, including a seven-point loss to the Cards), Cleveland (4-12) and Tampa Bay (4-12).

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The Cardinals will play at least one team at home in 2007 that, like them, will have a new coach. Atlanta is on the home slate along with Pittsburgh -- which could have a new coach. Arizona also will host Carolina, Detroit, Cleveland and NFC West foes Seattle, St. Louis and San Francisco.

On the road, in addition to the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers, the Cardinals will visit New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati.

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S Aaron Francisco, who functioned as the nickel back and was a stud on special teams, was signed to a four-year contract extension. He likely will be the starter at free safety if veteran Robert Griffith retires as expected. Francisco made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2005. He was selected as a 2007 Pro Bowl alternate on special teams. … CB David Macklin (hamstring) was placed on injured reserve shortly before the finale at San Diego. The injury will be no factor, but his play makes his return questionable in 2007. The team's corners were synonymous with toast. … WR/PR Troy Walters (ankle), the No. 4 receiver, was placed on injured reserve shortly before the finale at San Diego. … QB Shane Boyd was promoted to the 53-man roster shortly before the finale at San Diego to give the team three quarterbacks with Matt Leinart injured and missing the game. The move largely was for insurance, and Boyd did not play. … WR Micheal Spurlock was promoted to the 53-man roster shortly before the finale at San Diego to give the team depth at receiver with Troy Walters injured and missing the game. Spurlock caught four passes for 31 yards against the Chargers, including one for 15 yards. The converted college quarterback made the team as an undrafted rookie. … WR Todd Watkins was promoted to the 53-man roster shortly before the finale at San Diego to give the team depth at receiver with Troy Walters injured and missing the game. He was inactive. Watkins was the team's seventh-round pick last April. … RB Diamond Ferri, who was called up to the 53-man roster twice, was re-signed to the practice squad.

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Green and four of his assistants were fired after the team posted its third consecutive record with double-digit losses. Green will be paid $2.5 million for the final year of his contract and undoubtedly soon will turn up again as a television commentator -- although as of late last week he had not met with Phoenix-area reporters nor returned phone calls since he was terminated Monday.

The Cardinals were 16-32 under Green, who'd taken Minnesota to the playoffs eight of his 10 years there. By contrast, the Cardinals have had one winning season in 22 years and have one playoff win in six decades. Even Green couldn't reverse that.

Nor, in all likelihood, will his successor.

Dismissed along with Green: tight ends coach Carl Hargrave, secondary coach Richard Solomon, special teams coach Gary Zauner and strength and conditioning coach Steve Wetzel.

Three other assistants had contracts lapse and likely will not be back: running backs coach Kirby Wilson, former offensive coordinator Keith Rowen and quality control coach Bill Khayat.

The team is retaining seven coaches, at least for now, who are under contract, but their fate ultimately will be determined by the new head coach: defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, offensive coordinator Mike Kruczek, assistant head coach/linebackers Frank Bush, offensive line coach Steve Loney, defensive line coach Larry Brooks, quality control coach Rick Courtright and receivers coach Mike Wilson.

Pendergast has a reputation for being a clever schemer and game-planner, often doing more with less when saddled by a pair of pedestrian corners and mounting injuries along the line. He should be a strong candidate to stay.

Kruczek has good rapport with rookie QB Matt Leinart, and the offense finally began to produce late in the year, largely because the running game developed to complement a high-powered passing game.

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LT Leonard Davis, the second pick overall in the 2001 draft, is to become an unrestricted free agent. The team passed on the opportunity to extend the 6-foot-6, 365-pound behemoth when it had plenty of room under the salary cap, dissuaded by his underachieving. He never played commensurate with his draft position. Six years into his career he still is not a Pro Bowler. His best seasons were early in his career, when he played right guard. His play improved during the second half of this season as the running game came along and a few wins accompanied it.

The team has a tough call here. Investing a ton of money in a long-term commitment to Davis is risky. It also would cost a small fortune to replace him. He could be tagged, but if the team thinks that highly of him, it should have extended him when it had a chance for less than it would be required to shell out if it tags him.

He made more than $9 million in 2006.

Davis, on whether he'll be at a new address next season: "It wouldn't surprise me."

RB Marcel Shipp, who despite watching the starting job get handed to Michael Pittman, Thomas Jones, Emmitt Smith, J.J. Arrington and Edgerrin James still managed to lead the team in rushing three of the past five years, becomes an unrestricted free agent and no doubt will get some play. He lacks breakaway speed, the reason he went undrafted in 2001 coming out of Massachusetts. But he is a solid north-south rusher and a decent receiver, and he settled into the role of short-yardage/goal-line back in 2006 after the team signed James. The Cardinals no doubt would have interest in bringing him back if the price is right.

C Alex Stepanovich becomes a restricted free agent. A 16-game starter as a rookie in 2004, he had his 2005 season truncated by injuries before losing the job to Nick Leckey in 2006. He'll likely get a low tender offer from the team, but to what degree he is in their plans is debatable. He's a decent, experienced backup, and there's some value in that in this league.

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The Cardinals will have the fifth pick in the first round in the April draft.

Cornerback and offensive line will be the leading priorities.

The team started the pedestrian pair of Antrel Rolle, who is beginning to look like a bust after his selection in the first round in 2005, and aging David Macklin. Neither had an interception until the 12th game. Depth was so horrible that backup FS Aaron Francisco, not a cornerback, became the nickel back. The team needs to add starter quality here and improve the depth.

Although the rushing game showed signs of life late in the year, nobody believes the team has assembled a juggernaut up front. Free agent LT Leonard Davis may be gone. Everyone else, except starting rookie RG Deuce Lutui, is average at best. There will be four positions that easily could, and should, be improved so Edgerrin James doesn't go three months into 2007 before he has a 100-yard game, as he did in 2006.

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DE Bertrand Berry had surgery on a triceps tear that ended his season at 10 games (six sacks). He played only eight games (also six sacks) in 2005. His ability to complete a season now becomes a concern.

"It's a matter of taking time to rest, recharging the batteries and coming back and doing it again next year," he said. "There won't be any ill effects from this. I'll be ready to get back to helping the team win games."

QB Matt Leinart, who started 11 games, suffered no structural damage to his left (throwing) shoulder when sacked in Game 15 against Denver. He missed the finale because of the AC joint injury but will not need surgery. However, his right shoulder popped out on a sack in the preseason finale. His shoulders now become a concern, especially behind a line that hasn't exactly distinguished itself.

All of the others who ended the year on injured reserve -- starters CB David Macklin and PR Troy Walters, and backups LB James Darling, TE Adam Bergen, WR LeRon McCoy, RB Roger Robinson, S Jack Brewer and G Rolando Cantu -- are expected to be healthy and ready when offseason workouts begin.

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TEAM NEEDS
--- Cornerback: Antrel Rolle, a 2005 first-round pick, has been disappointing thus far, and it has been an embarrassingly bad tag-team opposite him. The Cardinals did not get an interception from a starting corner until Game 12.
--- Left tackle: Although QB Matt Leinart is a lefty, making the right tackle his blind-side protector, left tackle remains a critical position, and starter Leonard Davis, a career underachiever, becomes an unrestricted free agent. Six years into his career, Davis, the second pick overall in 2001, has yet to make the Pro Bowl.
--- Defensive end: With former Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry working from the right side and team sacks leader Chike Okeafor from the left, this wouldn't on the surface appear to be a key need. But Berry, 30, has played only 18 games the past two seasons after his 14.5-sack Pro Bowl season in 2004. He had 12 sacks in those 18 games in 2005 and 2006, but his ability to get through a season now becomes a concern. Okeafor also is 30, although he tied his career high with 8.5 sacks. Depth is an issue.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Two days after the Rams concluded a three-game winning streak to end the season with an 8-8 record, Linehan said, "One time around the track. Learned a lot. Got a lot more to learn, but I think progress has been made, and we're making the adjustments necessary to get to the next step, which we weren't able to get to, but we made a concerted effort to get there. I think it makes it easy to set our goals for next season, and we can make the same amount of improvement that we made in one year from this season to the next, and it gives us a legitimate chance to achieve the goals we actually set for ourselves last year."

However, when asked to grade the job he did, Linehan smiled and said, "I don't rate or compare players. I don't grade myself. I'm going to be honest with you, a lot of our shortcomings I take responsibility for because that's my job. On the flip side, I also feel that the things we were able to adjust and do, I feel like myself, our staff and our players were able to make the adjustments necessary to put ourselves in a good light or a good direction as far as our future's concerned.

"We've got a lot to learn, and it's what you learn after you think you know it all that it matters, and I've certainly found that out in my first year. We're going to continue to be progressive and improve daily, and continue to get this thing headed in the right direction."

It's clear the Rams need defensive help to continue their improvement, but Linehan wouldn't get specific on what the team needs.

"You can make some obvious assessments as to areas that we need to improve on, but I think we need to evaluate ourselves first and ask if we made enough improvements in an area at the end of the year to say that this person warrants a shot to be a starter at this position or a backup at this position," he said. "Until we make that assessment, it's too early to start jumping on what we need to be able to get done in free agency or in the draft."

The Rams started the season 4-1, and it looked as if they might be one of the league's surprise teams. But they lost seven of their next eight, including two losses to Seattle on last-minute field goals, a shutout loss in Carolina and a home loss to Arizona. Win any one of those games, and the Rams would be playing in the postseason.

Of those games, Linehan said the loss to the Panthers was his personal low point. It was after that game that he handed over play-calling responsibility to offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

"I make reference to this a lot. My wife asked me the same thing," regarding a nadir, Linehan said. "She mentioned it was the two Seattle games for her, but I told her it was Carolina for me just because I felt like we were stumbling, and we didn't really look like we had the direction we had going into that game. I thought we competed very hard all year long, but I felt in one game, in my opinion, and I know there was a little stretch there where we were down a little bit, but that was the game where I didn't feel like we showed the competitive spirit necessary to win football games in the NFL.

"We had to make some major adjustments. It always starts with the head coach, and then I think the other coaches and players need to do the same thing. Hopefully, we were able to overcome a time like that and really move on and learn from it."

The way the Rams ended the season with three wins and a 41-21 victory at Minnesota was what impressed Linehan. Asked what the high point was in the season, he said, "I think the last game. The way we finished. We started off high with a 4-1 record, but we easily could have lost a game or two there. We had some breaks, to be honest with you. We played our best football at the end. I don't think we played our best football at the beginning. We certainly didn't in the middle. I felt we played our best football, as a football team, at the end of the year, which, unfortunately, we were too little, too late.

"There's a lot of momentum we can use from playing that way going into the offseason and going into next year. You never want to end the season by not qualifying for the tournament, but we put ourselves in position to at least be talking about it at the end of the year, and we've learned from that if we get it done when we need to get it done next year, we won't be having to worry about other people getting us in. We can do it ourselves."

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There's a chance WR Torry Holt won't be playing in the Pro Bowl because of a knee problem that bothered him for the last few weeks of the season.

"It's a possibility," Holt said. "I haven't come to that conclusion yet. I haven't talked to my family, and I haven't talked to (trainer) Jim (Anderson) and coach (Linehan) to see what is best."

Holt said he has a decision to be made on whether to have offseason surgery.

"I haven't seen a doctor yet," Holt said. "I haven't gotten any MRIs or exams yet. I plan on doing that. I have a lot of stuff that I have to make some decisions about fairly quick."

Any surgery likely would be minor.

Holt said, "By having an injury like this before, I would say it's cartilage. I think it's going to take some minor things to punch a couple of holes in there and straighten some things out and let me get back to playing football. I'm looking forward to making a decision, whatever it may be, and relaxing and enjoying '07 with some drinks and few cigars and just hanging out."

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Linehan was in the process of meeting with the team's entire roster before the players scatter for the first part of the offseason and return for the start of the offseason program in late March.

Said Linehan, "We already have our offseason calendar set, so we have an idea of that. There are a lot of things that can happen, and there are going to be some new people in these seats come March and April, when we start our OTAs and minicamps. Those things we'll address. I want to meet with each player individually, and I've met with about 20 already, so they have an idea of the evaluation we have of them, also thank them for the effort this year, and kind of get an idea of what their plans are. If you don't have that meeting, it can probably leave some things unsaid that need to be said right away."

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Seven players who ended the season on the practice squad were signed to the Rams' roster: TE Mark Anelli, LBs Mike Brown and Tim McGarigle, CB Josh Lay, WRs Marques Hagans and Dominique Thompson and RB John David Washington.

CB Jerametrius Butler, who rarely played this season, is expected to be released in February unless the team believes he could be traded. Butler was a no-show for the team's final meeting Jan. 2.

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During the season, the Rams tied up two potential free agents with the signing of DE Leonard Little and LB Pisa Tinoisamoa. The most notable unrestricted free agent will be WR Kevin Curtis. The Rams would like him back, but they probably won't pay top money to do that. Curtis recently hired agent Tom Condon to represent him in contract talks.

CB Travis Fisher, who ended the season on injured reserve, is not expected back. WR Shaun McDonald also could leave as a free agent, but the Rams would like to re-sign OT Todd Steussie and P Matt Turk.

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The Rams are at the top of a group of 8-8 teams because of strength of schedule, so they will select 13th in the first round of the draft. They will then drop down to 20th in the second round, before moving up in subsequent rounds. The biggest priority is improving a defensive line that needs more of a pass rush and better run support.

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TEAM NEEDS
--- Defensive end: Except for Leonard Little, the pass rush was non-existent in 2005, and speed off the other edge is needed.
--- Nose tackle: Jimmy Kennedy doesn't appear to be the answer there, so a large body is needed at the position.
--- Wide receiver: Some youth would improve the depth if the team can't find a way to keep unrestricted free agent Kevin Curtis.


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