Around the NFC West: On the Rams' future

The St. Louis Rams have gone from NFC West favorites to 1-7 in less than two months.

That makes them one of the more disappointing teams in the NFL along with Philadelphia and a few others. Nothing short of a complete reversal over the remaining eight games will invite obvious questions about the team's overall direction. Even a strong finish might not justify staying the course, depending on one's viewpoint.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch touches on these and other issues during his weekly Rams chat Tuesday. He was "dumbfounded" by the team's decision to cover Larry Fitzgerald with a linebacker on a key play Sunday. He thinks Sam Bradford has regressed. And he finds it tough to defend Steve Spagnuolo's 9-31 record as head coach over the last two-plus seasons. Noted: It'll be extremely difficult to justify staying the course if the Rams' record does not improve significantly, and if the feeling after the season is that Bradford has regressed. I don't think Bradford had sufficient support early in the season. The Week 1 injury to Steven Jackson negatively affected the offense and Bradford in particular. The situation at receiver became a mess, and when the team finally did something about it, Bradford wasn't healthy enough to benefit. One so-so game back from injury isn't enough to evaluate Bradford. How the quarterback performs over the second half of the season will largely influence whether the team's current leadership gets another chance, I would think.

Also from Thomas: a look at the Rams' situation at receiver and how Mark Clayton's activation from the physically unable to perform list could change the dynamics. Thomas: "Clayton played flanker, also known as the 'Z' position, most of the time last year before his Game 5 knee injury in Detroit. But he played the slot his first two seasons in the league for Baltimore, so he could pick up some of the slack there following Greg Salas' injury."

More from Thomas: The Rams need help at linebacker and are checking out the possibilities.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com has this to say about Alex Smith during a player-by-player review of the 49ers' offense from Week 9: "He started at quarterback and played very well. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 200 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. His passer rating was 109.7. He also was sacked twice, including a devastating blind-side hit from Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan but still managed to hold onto the ball. Took big hit on first-drive sack because he tried to extend the play. Kerrigan's sack occurred 5.5 second after the snap. Smith did well just to keep from fumbling. ... There were a couple dropped passes that could've added another 40-plus yards to his numbers."

Also from Maiocco: a defensive player-by-player review. On free safety Dashon Goldson: "Started at free safety and had an interception in his second game in a row. He also had five tackles and a quarterback hurry. Came up fast from his spot to drop Helu for 2-yard gain on short pass. ... Had tremendous break on pass intended for tight end Fred Davis to make diving interception late in the first quarter near midifield."

More from Maiocco: a midseason report on the 49ers' defense. Maiocco on the defensive MVP: "Middle linebacker Patrick Willis. Again, Willis is the team's best defensive player. And as the 49ers open the second half of the season with a 7-1 record, Willis must be considered on the short list of players in serious contention for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Willis and NaVorro Bowman have formed a sideline-to-sideline tackling duo unmatched in the NFL. Willis was outstanding in pass coverage, too. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two in the first eight games."

More yet from Maiocco: a midseason report on the 49ers' offense. Looking ahead: "The focus of the offense will always be Gore and the run game. But the 49ers must also find a way to get big-chunk plays in the passing game from Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards. The 49ers do not have to open up the offense and change their philosophy in the second half of the season. But they need to take advantage of their big-play chances while also being more consistent on third downs. The 49ers rank 26th in the league, converting just 31.1 percent their third-down chances."

One more from Maiocco: a midseason report on the 49ers' special teams.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has this to say about 49ers rookie Aldon Smith during a defensive player-by-player report: "Smith should be listed as a defensive end as that has been his primary position this year. He enters the game in third-down packages and has rarely been inserted at outside linebacker. In today's NFL, a players who goes in solely on passing downs sometimes ends up playing more than the starter, especially when the 49ers get out to leads in games. Smith has made the most of his snaps. He leads the team with 6.5 sacks and is candidate for defensive rookie of the year. Sunday's game was the first since Week 4 that Smith did not have a sack. 13 tackles, 6.5 sacks.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News explains why Gore is so close to passing Joe Perry on the 49ers' career rushing list.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com hands out midseason awards and honors Chris Clemons as Seattle's best player. The best addition in free agency? Farnsworth: "Alan Branch. The big signings after the lockout-eliminated offseason were Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, left guard Robert Gallery and QB Tarvaris Jackson. But the best of this class has been Branch, the former Arizona Cardinal who has settled in and exceled at the three-technique tackle spot in the Seahawks’ 13th-ranked run defense. How good has Branch been? Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the best D-tackle in the league."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on Deon Butler's activation from the PUP list. O'Neil: "Butler's lower right leg was broken in two places last December in San Francisco. The injury, similar to the one suffered by running back Leon Washington, was serious enough that doctors questioned if Butler could resume his NFL career. Butler's recovery has proceeded in a way that's fitting for someone with his speed: He's returned faster than many expected."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune gives the Seahawks a weak 'C' grade through the first half of the season. Williams on the running game: "Year 3 of Seattle establishing a dominant run game has been much like the first two years -- a disappointment. The Seahawks have 406 rushing yards on first down -- 24th overall in the league. And they’ve run the ball a league-low 175 total rushes. So even with the renewed emphasis with renowned zone blocking guru offensive line coach Tom Cable on the staff, the Seahawks have not run the ball enough. But Seattle did show a marked improvement running the ball last week at Dallas, with Marshawn Lynch rushing for 135 yards on 22 carries – the first time he’s carried the ball more than 20 times this season. Lynch’s and Justin Forsett’s contracts are up the end of the season, while Leon Washington is in the first of a four-year deal, so Seattle could see some personnel changes with this group in 2012." Noted: Former offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates would have to laugh at the league-low number of rushing attempts, given that his allegedly pass-happy approach wasn't what the team wanted on offense. Falling behind in games has its consequences, however.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at where the Cardinals need to improve, notably at quarterback and on the offensive line. Somers on Kevin Kolb: "At least the Cardinals hope whatever is wrong with Kolb can be fixed. Kolb has made plays that provide hope; the 73-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald against the Redskins comes to mind. But Kolb has played poorly over the past month, and now he's dealing with a right-foot injury that includes turf toe. The Cardinals need to find a way to bring out Kolb's best, and maybe that will take a whole season and full off-season."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Kolb is "touch-and-go" on a potential return to practice this week. Urban: "Reports on both ESPN and NFL Network both said he was unlikely to play against the Eagles. Kolb, at least publicly, is expressing slightly more optimism."

Also from Urban: Thoughts on Kolb's background in Philadelphia, and on his upcoming return. Urban: "As if he was cleaning up for his high school reunion, Kolb got his hair cut late last week, removing his curly locks and looking much more like a businessman. Perhaps that’s fitting, since -- given the struggles both himself and his current team have had -- this meeting with his former team is less reunion and 'more of a business trip.'"