When Darrell Jackson was traded and Jerramy Stevens allowed to leave via free agency, they created a 14-touchdown hole in the Seattle Seahawks offense. One focus of the 2007 training camp has been to sort through the options of how to replace that production.
From the start, Deion Branch has been the flanker, D.J. Hackett the split end, with Bobby Engram third receiver. Nate Burleson has been the fourth receiver as he works to come back from a disappointing 2006 season.
But the Seahawks are stacked at the position, and coach Mike Holmgren has made it clear that the depth chart hasn't been written in indelible ink. "The receiver thing is going to be interesting," Holmgren said. "Branch will start, Engram will play, and we will see what goes with the rest."
Why so unsettled? Hackett made big plays last year in his first stretch of extended playing time. But Holmgren said that at times Hackett had seemed "too casual" in his play and preparation. And Burleson still has some trust to earn back, although he's having a strong camp and is playing with more confidence and assertiveness.
"It's getting better as we go," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said of his relationship with the receivers. "We talk through everything. I think coach Holmgren gets nervous when he sees us talking all the time, but we're talking about splits, running hard in your motion, getting your depth, not slipping, catching the ball first. We're growing. All of our guys, all of our wide receivers, they've been doing a great job."
Hasselbeck had developed a good on-field rapport with Jackson, and that will take time to replace.
"The obvious guy (to fill that role) would be Bobby Engram," Hasselbeck said. "We've spent so much time together. I had all the confidence in the world in Bobby and that hasn't changed."
Hasselbeck's development with Branch was hindered by Branch's late arrival on the scene after the trade from New England. Now, in his first camp with the Seahawks, Branch is learning the flanker position.
"I have a lot of confidence in Deion," Hasselbeck said. "He's learning a new position so there are things that we're going to need to continue to work on, continue to rep, but I love him. I think he's great."
Hasselbeck said that he and Jackson had connected on patterns from various formations hundreds of times in games and in practice. That kind of connection doesn't develop in just a few weeks of training camp.
"In fairness to Deion, he has run them a few times," Hasselbeck said. "To expect it to be the same is unfair, but we're getting there and our coaches are smart. They know what they're doing. We're getting that work in now."
Hasselbeck stressed the likelihood that it will take the collaborative efforts of several receivers to take up the slack for Jackson. "It's not going to be one guy," Hasselbeck said. "It's not going to be just Deion Branch or Bobby Engram. I think we have four guys that can step up, that will step up, and I'll spread it around. Those guys have to come through and I think they will."
In his four pro seasons, Anquan Boldin has been a Pro Bowl receiver twice, including last season, and averaged 85 catches and 1,151 yards a year. In his three pro seasons, Larry Fitzgerald has been a Pro Bowler once, and averaged 77 catches and 1,045 yards a year. On the surface, a new coach might be inclined to create ways to get the ball to them as often as possible.
But the real catch for the Cardinals, and first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, is making the playoffs. The team hasn't been there since 1998 largely because it couldn't run the ball. As talented as Boldin and Fitzgerald are, their numbers have been inflated because the Cardinals have had to throw.
So Whisenhunt hopes to get the ball to them less in 2007. That would mean that Edgerrin James, who turned 29 on Wednesday and is anxious to show that he's still a premier back, is making big gains on the ground. That's the plan, and Boldin and Fitzgerald are on board with sacrificing their personal numbers. They take pride in their blocking, too.
"That's not an issue," Fitzgerald said of the possibility of his catches declining. "We haven't been to the playoffs since '98. There's got to be a change."
It took James 12 games a year ago to have a 100-yard afternoon as the Cardinals went 5-11 and ushered out the Dennis Green coaching era. Whisenhunt reasons that a sounder running game might actually put Boldin and Fitzgerald in position to make even more big plays. If a foe commits a safety to stopping James, the outside receivers are going to get one-on-one coverage.
"I like our odds," Whisenhunt said. "I don't think Anquan or Larry will complain about a 60-yard touchdown."
Fitzgerald verifies that.
"You know you're going to get that press coverage, and all of the field is wide open for you to go make plays," he said. "That's when it's like sandlot football again." James was disgusted with his debut year in Arizona despite cracking the 1,000-yard barrier -- no Cardinals back had done that since the 1998 playoff run with Adrian Murrell. It took a strong closing rally after going three months before he had a 100-yard game.
"For the situation I was in, for what I was working with, I did pretty good to hold up," James said. "Two different coordinators, a million different linemen -- football, it don't work like that."
Whisenhunt has promised James a healthy dose of the 500 or so running plays he plans to call -- maybe 350 of them. "I can see Edgerrin still has gas left in his tank," Whisenhunt said. "I saw a lot of those things that I thought fit the power run offense. The big question was, could Edge run with a fullback in front? I know from talking to Jerome Bettis that if you have that vision and those instincts, you're going to see the hole. It's just going to take some reps to get comfortable. He's really flashed in our first week."
James is running behind a fullback -- free-agent pickup Terrelle Smith -- for the first time in years. Already, Smith, who has blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher five times in seven seasons, is developing a reputation as a fierce blocker. "The thing with Edge, he is smarter than most. He sees the whole picture," Smith said. "As a fullback blocking for a guy like that, I feel like it has to be first class. Not to take away from any other backs I have blocked for, because I have blocked for some good ones, but he has something a little different."
The Cardinals are just as anxious for James to make good on his four-year, $30 million contract as he is. In James, Boldin, Fitzgerald and quarterback Matt Leinart, they're invested a small fortune and gotten very little in return other than gaudy passing statistics.
The numbers that count, though, are in the win column. Another single-digit season won't cut it.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers might not get a look at running back Frank Gore on the playing field until the opening game of the regular season. Gore sustained a broken right hand early in the team's second practice of camp. He could return to the practice field this week, wearing a cast, but he might not play in any of the team's exhibition games. The 49ers want Gore to be ready for the season opener Sept. 10 against the Cardinals.
"I don't want to downplay the importance of the preseason because there is a lot of important stuff about it," coach Mike Nolan said. "One of them is for the players to get their timing down and get their vision down." Gore, who enters his third NFL season, was the team's most valuable player a year ago. Gore rushed for 1,695 yards on 312 carries, both of which established 49ers franchise records. Gore's injury underscores one of the 49ers' major priorities entering training camp: finding a reliable backup running back. Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks and rookie Thomas Clayton will get a lot of work in the exhibition season.
"I always like to see the silver lining, but hopefully that is the case because it's going to give Michael Robinson and Hicks and the rookie, Thomas Clayton, an opportunity to get more reps," Nolan said.
Robinson and Hicks shared the backup chores last season. They are the leading candidates to earn the job as the team's No. 2 tailback behind Gore. Hicks has started five NFL games, including three in 2005 when he averaged 5.2 yards on his 59 carries.
"That's my thing," Hicks said. "I have to make sure I'm prepared if coach Nolan calls on me to be ready to get the job done."
Robinson is better suited to make an impact this season as a runner. A year ago, he made the transition to running back after being a quarterback his senior season at Penn State. He described his rookie season as trying to play running back with "quarterback eyes."
"If you drop back and this guy's not open and this guy's not open, then you improvise," Robinson said. "You can move half-speed while everyone else is moving full-speed and get away from people. As a running back, you have to be like a computer when you get the ball."
Robinson admits to making some mistakes last season. At one point, he replaced Gore as the 49ers' short-yardage back. But he failed on nine of 10 third- and fourth-down running attempts. "If the play was designed to go here, I was going to take it there come hell or high water," Robinson said. "Now, I don't even think about it. It's kind of 'Get the ball and let instincts take over.'"
Clayton has gotten off to a rocky start at camp. The sixth-round draft pick has not been hitting the holes as hard as Nolan and running backs coach Bishop Harris would like to see. "He's a good dancer," Nolan said. "He dances a lot."
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Fakhir Brown hasn't experienced anything like this before. He was in a no-man's land of sorts when training camp opened July 27. Brown is practicing, knowing he won't be able to play the first four games of the season if an NFL suspension is upheld.
"I just kind of prepare myself for it," Brown said. "It's been a long time going into a camp knowing that I wasn't going to be able to play, so it's kind of different.
"I already knew it was going to be like that, obviously. Since I'm not going to be playing the first four games, I kind of knew that I wasn't going to be getting the reps. It's just going to have to be something I deal with, though."
Brown has been getting some snaps with the first unit to stay sharp and ready. Said coach Scott Linehan, "We get a lot of repetitions in at practice, so you can get Fakhir in enough and even get him in there with the first unit to make sure he gets his reps in in time for the preseason. We are going to make sure that we get him in for a lot of snaps in pre-season, so he's ready when he gets back from suspension."
Brown is appealing the suspension, which he says occurred when he missed a random test administered by the league in early July. Brown claims he was called by an NFL tester while he was staying in Shreveport, La., but that he had informed the league he would be in Mansfield, La., for a football camp.
He said he spoke to the tester and said he could quickly get to Shreveport, but that the tester said he had to go to Monroe, La., for another test. Said Brown, "We have a lot of new workers in the NFL and they're just doing their job. So I'm just going to have to wait to talk to the head man and go from there."
The head man is commissioner Roger Goodell, who will hear Brown's appeal, for which no date been set yet. In the meantime, he knows he won't be getting enough work to stay sharp.
"They let me get a few reps in here and there, but it's not enough," Brown said. "I'm just going to have to do a little extra running and hopefully just be in shape and be ready once I get back."