Mailbag: Questioning Isaac Bruce's grace

Bruce from Winston Salem, N.C., writes: In your blog, you characterize Isaac Bruce as a player with grace. Does my memory fail me, or wasn't Bruce particularly graceless after the Rams' playoff win over the Seahawks in 2004?

Mike Sando: You're referring to a time when the Seahawks and Rams enjoyed a pretty good rivalry even though it was one-sided in favor of St. Louis. Seattle was a rising team that couldn't get over the hump against the Rams, losing three times to them in that 2004 season, including in the playoffs.

The incident to which you're referring occurred following the Rams' 33-27 comeback victory at Seattle in Week 5 of the 2004 season. Seattle fans had been all over the Rams during the game, as usual, and Bruce responded afterward by placing his helmet at the 10-yard line and posing. Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin came over and kicked the helmet.

Fans had specifically been taunting Torry Holt over a "Monday Night Football" prank that had seen him react in earnest after being named the NFL's best-dressed player by a magazine that did not exist. Bruce said he thought the Holt-directed taunts were "pretty funny" and that his postgame celebration was in fun. I'm sure it was much more fun for him than it was for Seattle or Seattle fans.

Bruce later said, "I don’t think I was taunting. I was just excited that we won. I was being taunted the entire game. I had no problem being taunted. Everyone in that stadium that day had a pretty good laugh, everybody that was there, media, their fans, our fans, everybody. ... They were laughing at us the whole game. Things they say, it’s funny. Some of the close-ups you get when sitting on the bench with their fans behind us, some of the stuff that they say is kind of funny when you think about it. Some other guys need to work on their healing, but it was an exciting place. They have a nice stadium there and I think in the years to come they are going to win a lot of games because of their fans."

Placing one's helmet on the field and posing for the opposing team's fans isn't the most graceful way to handle a situation. Neither does it disqualify Bruce from being a player who showed grace throughout his career, both in the way he played and the way he carried himself.

Johnny from New Lenox, Ill., writes: Mike, you've made it clear that you think the 49ers are going to win the division in 2010. It seems to me that San Francisco is reeling in a lot of undeserved attention based on a subpar 2009 season. I dare you to go position by position with the Cardinals and see if you don't find yourself in a predicament when it comes to who's really in better shape for 2010. Coaching included, mind you.

Mike Sando: I've made it clear the 49ers should be favored to win the division. I've also made it clear we should not write off the Cardinals by any means.

"The Cardinals still have good enough players to contend for the division," I wrote. "Beanie Wells should become a bigger factor. Quarterback Matt Leinart offered little in spot duty last season, but he played well enough to win the only game he started, losing at Tennessee when the Titans put together a 99-yard touchdown drive at the end. We shouldn't assume he'll be horrible. Leinart or backup Derek Anderson could be better than anticipated, but they won't be as good as Kurt Warner over the course of the season. That has to cost the Cardinals. The 49ers beat Arizona twice last season even with Warner. Take away Warner and San Francisco's chances improve."

The danger with going position by position is that all positions are not valued the same. This is why we should never read into team power rankings assigning equal values to position groups. We've all seen these sorts of breakdowns featuring check marks in boxes. Until we see more from Leinart, it's fair to say the 49ers appear better off at quarterback, easily the most important position. Both teams appear strong at the other skill positions on offense. Both have solid defensive lines. Both have made changes that could upgrade their offensive lines. The 49ers are better at linebacker. The Cardinals are better at safety. Both teams have some question marks at corner, although the Cardinals do have a returning Pro Bowl player at the position.

I'll give the coaching edge to the Cardinals until proven otherwise. It's no shock if Arizona wins this division. I do think the 49ers should be favored right now, however.

Jonathan from Bellevue, Wash., writes: It seems like there has been a lot of people basing Aaron Curry's mediocre performance last year on the fact that he was overwhelmed with an extreme amount of responsibility. From what I have read, many people are also expecting big things out of Curry this coming season because his role has supposedly "simplified." However, it appears that his amount of responsibility has either stayed the same or grown (since he is playing OLB and rushing the passer from multiple stances and multiple spots). What is the difference between Aaron Curry's role last year and this coming season?

Mike Sando: Curry is the one who has said his role is simplified. He explained this by saying he's doing less thinking. It's possible to have additional duties but less to contemplate within those duties. The most obvious difference for Curry this season could be having Lofa Tatupu back on the field to run the defense. Curry was an ascending player until Tatupu suffered a season-ending injury against the Cardinals in Week 6.

Gabe from Lake Stevens, Wash., writes: Seems a little unfair that Lane Kiffin gets the short end of the stick. Is there going to be any consequences for Pete Carroll?

Mike Sando: The sanctions directed at USC tarnish Carroll's legacy as coach there. I wondered whether the sanctions might cost Carroll a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame, but he had only nine years at USC and the Hall's bylaws say a coach becomes eligible three years after retirement as long as he was a head coach for at least 10 years, coached at least 100 games and won at least 60 percent of them.

Tim from Sacramento writes: I liked the article about Alex Smith. I am a Niners fan and want them to do well. I consider myself an Alex Smith supporter because he's their best shot this year and I want to see them make it to the playoffs. But I can't figure out why everyone keeps saying this is his last chance and he must prove it. Meanwhile, I've read articles about Jason Campbell and he went through the same problems as Alex Smith (different coordinators back to back) and yet he is excused for that. Why is that?

Mike Sando: This will not be Alex Smith's last chance in the NFL. I think we're talking about this likely being his last chance to be named the starter for the 49ers, based on the fact that his contract expires after this season and he will have had ample opportunity to demonstrate what he can or cannot do.