Around the NFC West: Rams staying or going?

Taking a look deep inside the offseason camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West:

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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When he took the top coaching job with the Cardinals a year ago, Ken Whisenhunt promised that he would one day hand the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

And that's what he plans to do for the upcoming season. In fact, Whisenhunt disclosed Thursday to The Arizona Republic that Haley called plays in the latter half of 2007, too.

The reason for the change is twofold. First, Whisenhunt feels a responsibility to do it. He appreciated the fact that Bill Cowher promoted him to offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and gave him the chance to call plays for three years.

Without that opportunity, Whisenhunt probably wouldn't have become a head coach.

Second, Whisenhunt will have more time to devote to managing the game and making decisions.

"So I don't use all the timeouts in the first half and don't have any at the end," Whisenhunt said, jokingly. "I think I'll feel a lot more comfortable this year having gone through it."

Whisenhunt won't completely step away from the play-calling responsibility. He's an offensive coach, and calling plays is addictive. Whisenhunt won't be far away from Haley and will make suggestions.

For Haley, the move is another boost to his career. He turned down a chance to interview for the Dolphins' job in January, and the Cardinals gave him a new three-year contract worth around $1 million a year.

Assuming play-calling responsibility will help him in his pursuit of a head coaching job, provided the Cardinals are successful.

"I'm obviously excited about it," Haley said. "That's what you do the job for. You prepare all week, design the game plan and when you get to game day, it makes it that much more fulfilling to that. It's obviously as close as you can get to the game.

"It puts a little heat on you and increases the target on your back, but I relish the pressure of that and look forward to it."

Haley called plays late last year as the offense began to find its stride. The Cardinals finished 12th in total offense and were fifth in scoring. Haley's biggest challenge this year is to improve upon a running game that ranked 29th in the NFL.

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The Cardinals' starting offensive unit returns intact, and that should be a good thing for Haley.

"If you feel like you're good enough, you feel good about it," Haley said. "We're so much further ahead of where we were last year at this time, and that's all I can go by.

"Whenever you get guys coming back, that familiarity helps the new guys transition in so much easier. Because you have guys you can lean on to teach, so say, 'here's a picture of what we want.' Or 'here's what we want to get done.'"

The Cardinals didn't necessarily go into the offseason thinking they were set on offense. They would still like to sign a veteran offensive tackle. They have no proven third receiver. Quarterback Matt Leinart must prove he was worthy of being the 10th overall pick in 2006.

But the club spent most of its resources this offseason upgrading a defense that was thin last year. Injuries took a toll and the defense struggled mightily in the second of the 2007 season.

This appears to be only the second time in the past 20 years that the starting offensive linemen all return in the same positions. "You can clearly see they are working together much better, and that's a positive, positive thing," Haley said. "You hope you can develop some young guys for depth and maybe pick up a guy here and there."

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WR Steve Breaston has been the most valuable player of the offseason.

He's added weight and muscle, and even more, he's making a standout play in nearly every practice. The team is looking for a third receiver, and Breaston appears to be intent on proving he's much more than just a punt and kick returner.

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Receiver Anquan Boldin and defensive end Darnell Dockett, both of whom are represented by Drew Rosenhaus, didn't attend the first week of voluntary camp. Both want new contracts.

"I'm excited about the guys who are, (here)," Whisenhunt said. "I would be less than honest if I said if I wasn't disappointed that Anquan and Darnell weren't here. But once again, these are voluntary."

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Center Al Johnson recently had surgery on his left knee to clean it out, Whisenhunt said. Johnson had some pain and swelling and elected to get the problem taken care of before camp. He should be ready to go when camp opens in July.

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Cardinals receiver Ahmad Merritt took part in voluntary practices, his first work on the field since suffering a dislocated ankle and fractured leg in a preseason game last August. "It feels good, man," he said. "I'm a little rusty."


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Like a buzz-saw the story spread that new owners Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez had put the Rams on the market, making a sale appear imminent. The story on Yahoo Sports also talked about the possibility of the Rams moving back to Los Angeles.

The organization reacted quickly, although a statement from Rosenbloom seemed to create more questions than answers.

Rosenbloom and Rodriguez, the son and daughter of former owner Georgia Frontiere took control of the team when Frontiere passed away on Jan. 18. Each own 30 percent of the team, while businessman Stan Kroenke owns the remaining 40 percent.

Kroenke also owns the NBA's Denver Nuggets and the NHL's Colorado Avalanche as well as the building they play in. Ownership rules prohibit Kroenke from being the majority owner of the Rams unless he divested himself of his Denver interests.

Since taking over the team, Rosenbloom has consistently talked about his interest in keeping the team in the family and having it remain in St. Louis. However, it was always believed they would probably sell the team at some point.

Rosenbloom's statement said, "It has only been four months since my mom passed away. Her passing immediately caused speculation that we were selling the team. When a team is passed from one generation to another it becomes to some a calling card that the team must be for sale. So to reply to this article: Nothing has changed since my mom's passing. We've been approached by several people. We plan on using the season to show that the performance on the field will be exciting and to honor my mom. And while we deal with her estate, I can assure you we have every intention of keeping the Rams in St. Louis and will have no further comment on this article."

Rosenbloom wants the 2008 season to be partly a celebration of his mother's life. Her signature will be on players' jerseys and there is a September charity golf tournament being planned. Clearly, Rosenbloom doesn't want a public sale of the team to be occurring when these events are happening.

However, an estate tax return must be filed by October, although a six-month extension can be granted. Establishing an accurate market value for the team is necessary to be able to calculate the inheritance taxes they will owe. The percentage of tax is in the neighborhood of 35 percent. Along those lines, it is believed the taxes Rosenbloom and Rodriguez will have to pay will require them to sell their stake in the team.

Rosenbloom does want to keep the team in St. Louis, where Georgia grew up. However, any new owner will inherit a stadium lease with the city's Convention and Visitor's Commission (CVC) that requires the Edward Jones Dome to be in the top 25 percent of league stadiums by 2015. Currently, there is an agreement between the Rams and the CVC, whereby discussions will begin in 2010 so by 2012 it can be determined whether extensive renovations are possible or whether a new stadium is needed to fulfill the 25 percent requirement.

Either way, a lot of money will be needed to satisfy the lease. The new Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis cost $750 million. In Kansas City, $375 million in renovations are being done on Arrowhead Stadium.

Those facts make a comment Rosenbloom made in April very telling. He said, "I think St. Louis is as committed to the Rams as the Rams are committed to St. Louis."

In the next few years, it will be determined just how committed St. Louis is.

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There was some surprised reaction recently when Rams wide receiver Torry Holt expressed an interest in playing with his brother Terrence, now a safety with the Carolina Panthers.

Holt grew up in North Carolina and attended North Carolina State before being selected by the Rams in the first round of the 1999 NFL draft. Terrence just signed with the Panthers this season.

At a golf tournament there, Holt said, "I'm wanting to just send in my resignation to the Rams and see if I can join him out here. I'm excited and I'm also a little jealous because I've always wanted to have an opportunity to come back home.

So it was that Holt was questioned about those comments at the team's recent mandatory minicamp. He said, "The real story is that I have this year and next year (on my contract) and hopefully I can finish those years out. Then I will see where I am at. I will see where I am at physically and emotionally and financially. Then, if they would like to do something here I will consider it. If not, then I will have the option to go and explore and give my services somewhere else.

"If that happens, Carolina will definitely be my first choice. There is no question about it. I have 2008 and 2009 left to play and that is what I plan on doing."

Holt wasn't around much during the early part of the offseason, partly to try and put the 2007 season behind him, and also because he wasn't pleased with the way the team treated fellow wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who was released in late February.

"From a mental standpoint, I just wanted to relax and get away from the building and get away from football for a while so I can come back with a fresh mind and give the guys and my teammates what it is they need to go out there and try to win some more games this year and try to get our first playoff berth in a while," he said.

As for Bruce's departure, Holt said, "It is really different. You could always count on Isaac to come in and be ready to roll and be ready for the season. Not to see his locker and not to see him out there on the football field and not to see him in the stretching and the drills ... he is always the one in the front of the line and getting things going, so it is definitely different and is going to take some getting used to."

Holt is hopeful a problem knee won't give him as much trouble as it did last year after early off-season surgery.

At the minicamp, Holt said, "It is a lot better than it was last year at this time, which is good. I've been training with (strength and conditioning coach) Dana LeDuc this past week getting myself ready. It is a lot better than it was last year at this time, so that is promising for me."

Holt also is enthused by the hiring of Al Saunders as offensive coordinator. Saunders was the Rams' receivers coach in Holts' first two seasons with the Rams.

"It is good to have Al," Holt said. "He came in with instant energy. He has put an emphasis on resetting the standard of the way we play offense here, which is really good. What is really good to see is that a lot of the guys are buying into what he is trying to get accomplished. We are starting the right direction.

"Obviously, we have a long way to go, but guys are really taking heed to what he is saying and doing out there."

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The last player selected in the NFL draft usually is a big longshot to make a team's roster. Not so this year with linebacker David Vobora.

Said coach Scott Linehan, "He is in a good spot because of where our linebacker depth is. If he can handle doing double duty with special teams (and defense), then he has a great chance of making the team.

"He is a really bright kid and was very productive (in college). He is a pretty good athlete. I think that has probably been a little underestimated as well."

Last season, Vobora had 148 tackles, 6.5 of which for a loss along with one sack and one interception. As the last player selected, dubbed Mr. Irrelevant, he will be feted in Newport Beach, Calif., the week of June 22-28 for Irrelevant Week.

"There is a lot of good stuff," Vobora said. "Apparently, I get to judge a Miss Irrelevant pageant with some cheerleaders, so you can't argue with that."

Meanwhile, when left tackle Orlando Pace was asked about "Mr. Irrelevant," he didn't know Vobora was the final selection of the draft.

Said Pace, "That's how irrelevant he is. I didn't even know that. I guess that's Mr. Irrelevant for you."

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The Rams didn't select a safety in the draft, but Eric Bassey is getting a shot there. Bassey was signed by the Rams during the 2007 season after being released by Tampa Bay, and was a cornerback although virtually all of his game action came on special teams. Playing in only eight games, he tied for fifth on the team with 12 special teams tackles and recovered a fumble.

"I knew that was the route I was going to have to take," Bassey said. "You want to make an impact on special teams, which I felt I did, and then get your shot on defense."

With depth needed at safety and being 6-1, 200, that's where Bassey will get a chance this summer.

He said, "With my size, it may be a better fit for me. Hopefully I can run around and make some plays, ball-hawk a little bit."

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The Rams officially announced they will have training camp at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., about 15 miles from Milwaukee.

The team will report July 24, practice for the first time the next day and break camp Aug. 14. There are still plans to practice with the Titans in Nashville for a few days prior to the Aug. 9 preseason game there between the two teams.


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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Chris Gray, who holds the club record with 121 consecutive starts at either center or right guard, said he considered retirement after last season.

But coach Mike Holmgren asked the 15-year NFL veteran to come back, even if in a reduced role.

"You always think about retirement," Gray said. "You just have to make sure you are ready to come back in and give it all the work and effort that goes into the whole season. It is not something you take lightly. You have to put in the work, and it is tough both mentally and physically. I just felt like I have a little bit left. I am not quite ready to hang it up."

Because starting center Chris Spencer had offseason surgery on both his thumb and shoulder, Gray has been the starting center during the team's May minicamp -- and likely will fill the same role when the Seahawks hold two June minicamps.

However, in the regular season, he is likely to serve as Spencer's backup, as well as the backup to right guard Rob Sims, who takes over for Gray.

Unhappy with the line's play last season, the Seahawks acquired Mike Wahle after he was released by the Carolina Panthers. Wahle was immediately handed the starting left guard spot, which means that Sims moves to the right side.

Sims said he was initially upset about the move because he felt he had done enough last season to warrant keeping the job.

But now he said he accepts the move as a new challenge, one that will require him to learn new techniques but should only add to his versatility.

Gray was in a battle last season with second-year guard Ray Willis for the starting right guard spot, and he said he did not want to lose his starting position.

Now, he sounds like a wise old veteran in the last year of his contract who has accepted his role as younger players step in. "They are moving some guys around," Gray said. "I am the old guy, obviously, if I start I start, if I don't that is fine with me too. I just want to be a part of something special, and I think we can accomplish that."

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There is a decent chance the Seattle Seahawks will pursue one more wide receiver before they go into next season, though who exactly that player will be remains to be seen.

Where there once was great depth, there now is a lot of uncertainty at the position, in large part because starting flanker Deion Branch will miss part of the season with a surgically repaired knee, requiring other, younger and unproven players on the roster to fill the void.

"I think you always talk about the June 1 cut," Holmgren said. "I don't know how much money we have left but there are probably a couple things that if something popped, we might be interested in. As I said, our receiver group is kind of thin right now. We would probably be looking there if the right player comes up."

While the Seahawks like the potential of Courtney Taylor, Ben Obomanu, Logan Payne and Jordan Kent, they don't know for certain that any of them will be able to consistently be the player that Branch and D.J. Hackett, who left in free agency, were when they were healthy.

Nate Burleson and Bobby Engram will be the starting receivers, but after that the question marks begin -- even more pop up if Engram or Burleson are injured.

Taylor, the best candidate to be the third wide receiver, is capable of running deep and possessing good ball-catching skills. However, he has gotten injured each time the team relied on him. They are nagging injuries, but they stunt his growth.

Obomanu has the best knowledge of Holmgren's system, but he is not overly explosive and he looked unsure of himself at times when he got in games last season, cutting several routes short. Payne is probably the team's slot receiver of the future, but Payne has a lot to learn.

Not nearly as much as Kent, who played basketball and ran track at Oregon, and has little idea how to play the game. But his speed allows the Seahawks to stretch the field and his improvement has been noticeable.

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The Seahawks have two June minicamps, one from June 2-5 and another from June 9-12. There is a chance that Engram skips the camps to protest what he feels is an unfair contract. Engram skipped the team's voluntary camp in May.

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New offensive line coaches Mike Solari and Mike DeBord have never worked together. Solari was brought in because he is familiar with the West Coast offense from his days in San Francisco, while DeBord worked under Michigan coach Lloyd Carr for a long time, and Carr recommended DeBord to Mike Holmgren.

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Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, arrested recently for a DUI, still has not been charged by the Prosecutor's Office. There is some question about Tatupu's case because the arresting officer failed to immediately read Tatupu his Miranda Rights, pulling over to the side of the road en route to the station to do so.



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