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Friday before the Niners

Posted by Darren Urban on December 31, 2010 – 4:01 pm

No reason to draw this edition of “Friday before” out. It’s New Year’s Eve, you’re all waiting to bring in a new year tonight and I’m in the same boat. I suppose if this game was to crown the division champ that’d be something else, but it’s not.

As for the importance of winning this game in particular, well, I’ll let coach Ken Whisenhunt speak for the team.

“Some people want us to do bad so we will do better in the draft — I don’t know,” Whisenhunt said. “I think for a football team, for us, it’s important you finish well. That’s something we have made strides in doing. Just like in the ’07 season propelled us into the offseason, and the next year we went to the playoffs.

“I’m not saying that going to the playoffs or having a great season is tied into how we play this game. But I think there’s no question, winning the game against Dallas has been tremendous for us, our young players, our organization to show right mindset what we have to do it week in and week out.”

– The fact the 49ers are willing to start Alex Smith this week means to me that offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is calling the shots on that side of the ball. Smith was always the guy Johnson leaned toward to execute the offense he wanted to put out there after he replaced Jimmy Raye.

– Who said it: “It makes it difficult when you’re changing quarterbacks because you have to build that chemistry with your quarterback. You want to know the guy you’re going to be up with because at the end of the day, you’re going to have to be on the same page.”

Steve Breaston? Larry Fitzgerald? Try 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Once again, underscoring the issues any team has when it doesn’t really know about its most important position.

– One final QB note for this game. Amazingly, the Cards-49ers meetings still can’t get a matching quarterback battle. Since the teams joined the same division in 2002, the last time both teams had the same quarterback start in both games during the season was 2003 (Blake v Garcia). This year, neither team can pull it off (Anderson v Troy Smith a month ago, Skelton v Alex Smith this Sunday).

– Now is when we talk possible retirements after the season. Safety Kerry Rhodes tweeted a strong hint today that defensive lineman Bryan Robinson will be done after the season, although B-Rob later told Kent Somers he hasn’t made a final decision yet. Guard Alan Faneca is mulling the end too and it’s something a lot of players pause to consider (although usually only briefly) as a rough season ends.

– Since the last three Cards-49ers games have been basically lousy, I’m hoping for something better Sunday. The 49ers beat up the Cards the last two games and that 2009 season opener – a SF win – was a testament to uneven opening-game play.

– With star linebacker Patrick Willis out, the Cards should benefit. Willis has been a pain to the Cards. Maybe Beanie and/or Hightower can go off.

– After failing to target Breaston and only throwing towards Fitzgerald three times last week, I expect John Skelton to switch that up. And frankly, I think that’s important for the Cards and both players. I don’t think Fitz can make two TD catches to avoid his career-low, but maybe he can get his first since Kansas City Nov. 21. He’s not going to get the 18 catches he needs to equal last years’ 97, but he can get 80 more yards to match his 2009 yardage total.

– It’s been a long year for everyone around the Cards. “I think we found our identity,” Faneca said, and then paused to consider. “It just didn’t translate.”

Unfortunately, no. Talk to you in San Francisco. Happy New Year everyone.


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One final practice and some awards

Posted by Darren Urban on December 31, 2010 – 1:16 pm

And then it was over.

The Cardinals came off the practice field for the final time Friday. “I’m too cold to have any emotion,” coach Ken Whisenhunt quipped.

“There is disappointment,” Whisenhunt added. “It’s the last one, and I enjoy our guys. One of the best things about being a coach is being able to spend time with the guys on the field. Knowing that is coming to an end is always hard. We didn’t have the greatest of years.”

– It looks like linebacker Joey Porter will not be playing again for the Cards this season. He is doubtful for Sunday with his triceps injury and didn’t practice again (and his long-term status with the team going into next year is probably in doubt too, but that’s discussion for another day). The other three injured players: running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (hamstring), tight end Ben Patrick (hamstring) and linebacker Clark Haggans (groin) are all questionable after being limited again.

– The Arizona chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association handed out its awards Friday. There are two: The Lloyd Herberg MVP award, and the Steve Schoenfeld “Good Guy” award, for the player deemed best for the media. Safety Kerry Rhodes received the MVP award, while running back Tim Hightower got the Good Guy honor. The Cards have a bunch of guys who are good with the media, but not only is Hightower thoughtful in his answers and manages to avoid too many cliches, but he also has been there all year no matter what — even through the losing, and even when he had to talk about his fumbling problems (which obviously was more than once).

The awards are sponsored by Oregano’s Pizza Bistros. Herberg was the original Arizona Republic beat writer covering the Cards before he lost his life to cancer. Schoenfeld was the long-time Republic Cards and NFL writer who was working for cbssports.com when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Tempe. (From left to right, XTRA’s Mike Jurecki, Hightower, Rhodes and the Republic’s Kent Somers).


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Not forgetting Paris

Posted by Darren Urban on December 31, 2010 – 10:32 am

Quietly — because he pretty much operates that way — linebacker Paris Lenon is finishing up a pretty solid season. He’s started every game, had at least eight tackles in 10 (including the last five) and has moved back and forth between the Sam and Mike positions on the inside depending on whether the Cards wanted veteran Gerald Hayes or rookie Daryl Washington next to him.

When Lenon signed as a free agent, the thought process was that he was a piece to plug in ahead of what turned out to be Washington, until Washington was ready. He’s been better than that.

“I think if you look at my production and what I’ve done, I think it speaks for itself,” Lenon said. “I don’t have to say too much about it. That’s pretty much me.”

Lenon has a team-leading 121 tackles, a couple of sacks and two interceptions. No one is stumping for him for Pro Bowl status, but in a year where the Cards’ defense had too many parts underachieve, having one that may have overachieved was important, as was having a steadying influence on a defense that was too often unsteady.

“You do everything in your power to put your team and your defense in the best situation,” Lenon said. “You can only do your job, every day, every week.”

Even in this disappointing season, Lenon has still already been able to enjoy many more victories (five) than he had the previous two seasons (when he had just one playing for 0-16 Detroit and 1-15 St. Louis).

Coach Ken Whisenhunt hasn’t been a fan of giving an overall assessment of the level of individual’s play, and that includes Lenon. But he will be part of the transitioning defense going forward, a necessary part with all the Cards’ young linebackers.

“He is able to do a lot of things for us and he’s another of those guys, as a veteran player and veteran leader, you like to have on your football team,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I am very happy he is with us.”


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Neither wind, nor rain …

Posted by Darren Urban on December 30, 2010 – 2:08 pm

Wednesday, the Cardinals were forced to practice in the rain. Thursday, it was some serious wind, which combined with the drop in temperatures made it darn cold. How cold? Cold enough that coach Ken Whisenhunt, who always wears shorts out to practice (even yesterday in the chilly wetness) went with sweatpants today. It isn’t exactly conducive to practicing a passing game.

“I don’t know what the speeds of the winds were, but some of the passes were what you’d expect,” Whisenhunt said. “It was a little like when we played in Kansas City. I am hopeful it won’t be quite that windy in Candlestick Park. But we made some good throws.

“The wind is usually harder to work in because it disrupts the ball so much in the air, especially in the longer throws. If you think about how tight the windows are that you have to fit the ball into sometimes, when you add in the wind you are talking about it makes it more difficult. When it is wet, you can always attempt to get a dry ball in there. That compensates for things a little bit.”

– There was no change on the injury report. Linebacker Joey Porter sat out again with his bad tricep and it’s looking more and more likely he won’t be able to make it back for the finale (although I am sure it’ll end up being a game-day decision). Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (hamstring), tight end Ben Patrick (hamstring) and linebacker Clark Haggans (groin) remain limited, but I am guessing they will be OK to play.

– Whisenhunt talked a little more about the impact of guard Alan Faneca, who has been the subject of much debate this season. With his professionalism, Whisenhunt said, “you can’t have enough of those guys on your team.” Whiz said that while Faneca isn’t the player he once was, he is still a good player, and thinks the judgments of Faneca early (especially training camp) were often premature. “I think he’s done a good job for us this year,” Whisenhunt said.


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Converting 4th with “out of it” Fitz

Posted by Darren Urban on December 30, 2010 – 9:24 am

I knew Fitz didn’t look right.

As I noted late Saturday night (Sunday morning) while writing my “aftermath” and watching the tape of the just completed Cards-Cowboys game, it looked like Larry Fitzgerald had taken a head shot (maybe helmet-to-helmet) on the first down play of that last drive. Originally, I thought Fitz had made a catch, but he dropped it, and the video showed him shaking his head and blinking his eyes after the hit. Turns out, Fitz indeed felt it.

“I don’t remember much from the end of the game, to be honest with you,” Fitzgerald said. “I took a shot and I was a little bit out of it.”

(Side comment in today’s concussion-concerned NFL: Yikes.)

Fitz never came out  of the game. I’m guessing he never said anything. A couple plays later, rookie Andre Roberts was the one telling Fitz where to go on fourth-and-15, one of the most important plays of the Cardinals’ season.

“I knew I had to run up the seam and I saw the ball and I just tried to make a play,” Fitzgerald said, breaking into a chuckle. “That’s pretty much all I remember, honestly.”

Quarterback John Skelton just remembered the fourth-down play as “do or die.” “It’s really your last chance … but we had a good play dialed up. Larry found a soft spot (in the zone coverage) and I think that one completion got the ball rolling for the rest of the drive.”

Indeed, the Cards moved the ball every play after that (save for two spikes to stop the clock). After the Cowboys had clamped down the first three plays, Skelton hit Fitz, scrambled for five yards, tossed a six-yard completion to Tim Hightower and after a spike, maybe made the most impressive throw of the drive, a laser off his back foot on the move under pressure to fellow rookie Max Komar for 19 yards.

But it started with fourth down.

“We shouldn’t have gotten to fourth-and-15,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “That’s the first thing.

“It’s a tough situation, just about as tough a situation as you can be in. Having the lead the whole game, losing it, and then all of a sudden you’re at fourth-and-15 and you know if you don’t convert the game is over. To be able to move up in the pocket, make the throw, put it where he had to put it … it’s a good sign.”


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A dreary final Wednesday

Posted by Darren Urban on December 29, 2010 – 2:30 pm

It was the last Wednesday practice of the season today, and during it came a fairly steady rainfall. Afterward, some boisterous freestyle rap battles (Do not mess with Rex Hadnot).

– The only Cardinal not to practice was LB Joey Porter (tricep). He continues to rehab, but the Cards don’t want him to play and totally tear the injury, so they will be cautious. Three others — RB LaRod Stephens-Howling (hamstring), TE Ben Patrick (hamstring) and LB Clark Haggans (groin) — were limited today.

– The 49ers have already ruled LB Patrick Willis (hand) out for the game. And interim coach Jim Tomsula said Alex Smith will be his starting quarterback. Why? “Experience” was Tomsula’s one-word answer. Remember, it was Troy Smith that beat the Cards on “Monday Night Football” back on Nov. 29.

– Long snapper Mike Leach was named the team’s Walter Payton “Man of the Year” award winner, given to a player both for playing excellence and community work. Each team names a winner, and the overall league winner is announced at the Super Bowl. Wednesday, team president Michael Bidwill presented the award to Leach (who, by the way, once managed to break down exactly how he, as a long snapper, could be named Super Bowl MVP. I wish I had a transcript).


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Considering Breaston

Posted by Darren Urban on December 29, 2010 – 10:24 am

Let me start by saying this, in the interest of full disclosure: I am a big fan of Steve Breaston, both the player and the person. Maybe more the person. Watching him create his spot in the NFL after very little was expected of him — then-OC Todd Haley admittedly didn’t think Breaston would ever be more than a return man after his fifth-round selection, and I had media friends in Michigan who were leery he could make it on this level — was impressive. I had no doubt he would fill the receiver void left when Anquan Boldin was traded, and I think, even with injuries and uneven-at-best QB play, he has.

But Breaston is scheduled to be a free agent after the season (and assuming the new CBA doesn’t drastically change the free agent process, he’ll be unrestricted). Then Breaston played much less than usual against the Cowboys in lieu of Andre Roberts, and naturally, it raised eyebrows. Kent Somers covers all the ground very well today in a story about the situation.

Breaston’s knee is a concern, clearly. He had his right knee repaired earlier this season after meniscus damage. There have been many weeks he has been limited in practice, and the Cowboys’ game was about not overworking his knee. Breaston also had a right knee issue early in 2009. These things are factors when talking about seven-figure salaries. There is a time crunch here; players can only sign extensions until March 4. That’s when either free agency will start or, if there is not a new CBA by then, free agents go into limbo and cannot sign anything. Like most free agents, the closer a guy gets to the open market, the better chance he will test that market first. CBA uncertainty — and the threat of losing football games (and income) in 2011 — does not help.

I don’t doubt the Cardinals want to keep Breaston. I’m not sure that means making sure he doesn’t test the market. That’s always a major risk; that was the situation with both Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby last year, players the Cards did make large offers to but not larger than their current teams. Breaston is the last guy who will ever spout off about such things — earlier this year, Larry Fitzgerald teased Breaston in the locker room in front of the media, trying to get Breaston to say something about his contract, and Steve had zero interest — but you can bet he knows Darnell Dockett got an extension this season and he has not.

It’s impossible to know exactly where this is headed. I know I am hoping Breaston is a Cardinal in 2011. I was hoping I’d be sure about this time of year, but in reality, no one can be.


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A tale of two safeties

Posted by Darren Urban on December 28, 2010 – 8:44 pm

Adrian Wilson is nothing if not self-aware. And blunt. Maybe that’s why, after a decade, I have come to appreciate dealing with him (sure, that means jumping through hoops sometimes with faux-grumpy A-Dub, but that’s OK). So was I surprised to hear him talk about how Kerry Rhodes deserved today’s Pro Bowl nod over him? Not at all.

When Rhodes first showed up after being traded to the Cardinals, he was well aware people had heard of the “Hollywood” reputation from New York. He figured there were plenty of people wondering exactly what kind of player he was. It meant a lot to him to play well here. He promised to be a playmaker. And he was, with his four interceptions (for 174 yards), four fumble recoveries, a blocked field goal, a couple of touchdowns (and what should have been a third had he not been caught from behind in Minnesota). At one point, he wondered aloud if the doubters thought he’d do the job.

That brings us back to today. Wilson doesn’t exactly love outside criticism, but I kind of get why – he’s already criticizing himself internally more than anyone else could. His reaction to his Pro Bowl selection was genuine. There were times early in his career – before he made his first Pro Bowl – when his snubs ate at him. He knows what Rhodes (who has yet to make a Pro Bowl) is going through.

Look, the Pro Bowl is what it is. Plenty of talk has been generated around the league of snubs and how-did-that-guy-get-in and most of it has nothing to do with A-Dub or Rhodes. This stuff happens all the time.

But listening to Wilson talk today about Rhodes, it just reaffirms to me the kind of person he’s always been. He doesn’t have a lot of sugar-coating in his game, and he doesn’t off the field either. As for Rhodes, his season (I’d call him this year’s team MVP, beating out kicker Jay Feely) showed he was a good replacement for Antrel Rolle, the playmaker some worried about losing.


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Meet Dumpster Dan

Posted by Darren Urban on December 28, 2010 – 10:31 am

Nose tackle Dan Williams — along with cheerleaders and Big Red — will be meeting fans today at Berge Ford from 1-3 p.m. (that’s 460 E Auto Center Dr. in Mesa). Williams, or as Cards radio analyst Ron Wolfley likes to refer to him as, “Dumpster Dan,” has come on of late to play his best football of the season. He’s a large man, but when you meet him, you’d be surprised with how friendly he is.

That’s off the field. Here was coach Ken Whisenhunt describing Williams after Williams had gotten riled up recently: “I know in the game where he was getting into a fight with one of their players, I think it was the Denver game, I went out on to the field and when I grabbed him on the shoulders he really looked possessed in his face. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but if he plays good that way then okay, I guess I’m for it. But a guy with his size, his athletic ability, with that kind of passion leads you to believe he’s going to be a very good player for you.”


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The flip of 43 and 34

Posted by Darren Urban on December 27, 2010 – 3:35 pm

The Cardinals have used more of the four down linemen look the past two games in an effort to slow opposing running attacks and, more importantly, to make up for injuries at linebacker. This has caused more than a few of you out there to wonder/inquire about/insist the Cardinals switch from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3.

I have mentioned before it wasn’t going to happen, but since coach Ken Whisenhunt talked about it today: “As far as making a wholesale change, that’s not something I even want to consider right now.”

The Cardinals have never abandoned using 4-3 looks, and the defense has been a bit of a hybrid since Whisenhunt arrived. The 3-4 bent has become more pronounced as the years went on, in large part because the Cards have made the effort to bring in players that fit that scheme better. That’s precisely why nothing will change. It’s easy to look at defensive linemen like Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Dan Williams and Bryan Robinson and think the better players right now are on the line than linebacker.

In fact, that’s the main reason why the Cards have used more 4-3 recently, because the injuries at linebacker have sapped any depth. Will Davis, Clark Haggans and Joey Porter — three of the top six ‘backers — have been significantly banged up (or in Davis’ case, sidelined for good). Davis and O’Brien Schofield, despite being college defensive ends, couldn’t be that in the NFL (too small) and their use as a linebacker would be significantly minimized in a 4-3 scheme.

On the line, Whisenhunt said Williams could operate as a 4-3 DT and the others could adapt. But Williams is probably better suited to be a nose in 3-4. Campbell probably works better as a 3-4 end than a 4-3 end, and even Dockett seems to fit better in a 3-4 than an undersized 4-3 DT. (There’s also depth to consider; Branch, Watson and Robinson are all free agents after this season). Going forward, the Cards see their personnel as a 3-4 fit.

 


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