Mailbag: Proud rooting for unpopular team

The true sports fan wears his favorite team's colors after every game, and especially after defeats.

It's one way to demonstrate unconditional allegiance.

I can recall in a past life wearing my stylish Los Angeles Raiders "Starter" jacket following the team's 51-3 defeat to Buffalo in 1991. There was never any hesitation even though that game represented one of the worst humiliations in NFL history.

Recent ESPN polling showed two NFC West teams ranking among the least popular with Americans. With a little more creativity, I should have cast those teams' fan bases as among those with the greatest capacity for growth. I also think there's honor in being one of the proud few.

Ken from Phoenix wasn't surprised to see the St. Louis Rams rank 31st in ESPN polling.

"But hope springs eternal," Ken writes, "and I think that this year we will have a dominating defense. And the maturation of the younger players should lead to some more opportunities for Sam Bradford, Steven Jackson and the offense. While Rams fans are small in numbers, we are loyal and committed."

Mike Sando: Winning attracts fans. Losing repels the fair-weather fans while validating the real ones.

I've always had additional respect for those fans who rooted hard for the San Francisco 49ers before Bill Walsh arrived, or those who stood by the Seattle Seahawks through the 1990s, or those Arizona Cardinals fans who risked melting on aluminum bleachers at Sun Devil Stadium.

2012 Fan Favorites: Teams

As for the Rams' defense dominating in 2012, that sounds optimistic.

A foundation is taking shape with Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford and Robert Quinn along the line, James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker and a long list of newcomers at cornerback. But Quinn and Brockers are unproven. The team needs to continue upgrading at outside linebacker.

Overall, proven depth is a concern, but that is no surprise. The Rams are starting over in quite a few places. If they had proven depth, they would have experienced better on-field results in recent seasons.

It's a good sign when Jeff Fisher, a veteran coach, expresses strong public optimism over the impact rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins can make right away.

"He's going to be a really good player really soon for us," Fisher told ESPN's NFL32.

Those are the types of comments veteran coaches often withhold regarding rookies, particularly this early in the process.

Andy from New York wants to know the margin for error in the ESPN polling for team popularity.

"I think that is an important piece of information to include when writing about polling -- especially with something as unscientific as phone polling," Andy writes. "The normal margin for error in phone polling could be between plus/minus 4-10 points, and sometimes much more. These numbers, as well as the article you posted, seem to be more provocative than truthful."

Mike Sando: Good question. I reached out to Edwin Roman, ESPN's director of consumer insights, for an answer. He said the general margin of error on a monthly ESPN poll would be plus or minus 2.5 points. The margin would be smaller on the quarterly data we published. The margin varies based on how many people answer a given question, but if you were fearing 4-10 points as the plus/minus range, we've certainly beaten that standard.

The polling numbers are consistent with expectations, so alarm bells were not sounding when I read through them. Just about everyone would expect the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers to rank near the top, with recently relocated teams to rank nearer the bottom. Those were the results.

Thomas from San Mateo, Calif., wonders when we can begin seriously discussing a possible Rams return to Los Angeles.

"The stadium situation seems to be deteriorating quickly between the city and the Rams in St. Louis," he writes. "The two sides are $600 million apart right now and Stan Kroenke doesn't appear willing to budge on his demands. He is also not obligated to contribute one penny toward any stadium renovation or construction costs under the terms of the lease."

Mike Sando: Too soon, Thomas. The city has until June 1 to reject the Rams' proposal. That will certainly happen. At that point, the sides have a two-week negotiating window.

Absent an agreement, arbitration begins June 15. Once an arbitrator rules, the city can accept or reject the arbitrator's proposal. If the city accepts, the arbitration is binding for the Rams, whose lease would then extend to 2025. If the city rejects the arbitrator's proposal, the Rams could get out of their lease beginning in March 2015.

The Rams could not move until the 2015 season at the earliest. Los Angeles does not yet appear ready to welcome a new team. Many things would have to match up for a Rams return to Los Angeles. The Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers appear more likely to move there.

Gerald from parts unknown called Alex Smith "out of line" for criticizing Cam Newton by name.

Gerald says Newton wasn't the only QB to put up big numbers without winning much. He also notes that QBs are part of a fraternity, and they almost never criticize one another, even when they're bitter rivals.

"Newton seems to take these shots -- usually from the media -- all the time and never responds," Gerald writes. "Taking the high road clearly isn't getting this guy anywhere, and he really needs to start responding in kind. Don't say he should let his play on the field do the talking because, again, no one else gets this sort of criticism, including Peyton Manning when he led the NFL in interceptions and the Colts to a horrible record when he was a rookie."

Mike Sando: Newton is best off doing what Smith has usually done throughout his career: taking the high road unless someone challenges something truly important about him (his character, toughness, ability to lead the team, etc.). Newton would appear petty for going out of his way to respond in kind. Newton's play will do the talking on the field, and those around him can defend him publicly if need be. Jon Beason has already done so.

Peter from Rutland, Vt., asks why Aldon Smith's postseason sacks don't count toward the widely cited total for the San Francisco 49ers rookie.

"To say he got 14 sacks in 2011 is false," Peter writes." He had 16. It just dumbs everything down."

Mike Sando: We cite regular-season stats for the same reason we cite regular-season won-lost totals. No one would say the 49ers were 14-4 last season. We go with 13-3 because that compares to every other team in the league. We can easily break out postseason stats separately. Otherwise, whether a player's team qualified for postseason would affect his ability to challenge for single-season records.

Jesse from Snohomish, Wash., asks whether the Seahawks will play "a lot of nickel" now that Marcus Trufant projects as a backup.

Mike Sando: Offensive personnel usually dictates how much time a team spends in sub packages on defense. The Seahawks generally played their base defense against two or more tight ends (their game against Baltimore was one exception). I would expect that trend to continue if Trufant becomes the nickel corner, which seems like a strong possibility.

Don from Phoenix wonders what the future holds for Mike Williams, who went from feel-good story in 2010 to nearly invisible last season.

"Any thoughts on where or how he will be utilized, seeing how the Seahawks will probably be going with two tight ends quite a bit?" he asks.

Mike Sando: Williams filled a huge void in 2010. The plan will be for other players to carry more of the load in the future. The better that plan comes into place, the less likely Williams earns a roster spot. Kris Durham has a chance to fill the role Williams filled two seasons ago.

Garc from Seattle asks whether the Seahawks have any other holes to fill before training camp after acquiring Kellen Winslow.

Mike Sando: No obvious ones. Quarterback, linebacker, defensive end and tight end were positions of primary need. The team has addressed those positions. Seattle has shown it'll make a move if one presents itself. I don't think the team is in search mode, however.

J from Massachusetts was apparently referring to the Winslow move when he asked, "How is someone who feels they are above the team able to contribute in a positive way over a long duration? Talent alone does not win championships. What are the Seahawks thinking?"

Mike Sando: What evidence do we have that Winslow feels he's above the team? The statute of limitations has pretty much run out for the time he spent in Cleveland. Winslow seemed to keep a low profile in Tampa Bay. It's not like the Seahawks have committed to him for the long term. They're giving him a chance to fill an obvious need, not declaring him a centerpiece.

Jesse from Phoenix is exercising caution when setting expectations for the Cardinals this season.

"Many fans are assuming because we finished strong that we will start strong this year," he writes via Facebook. "While I think we have had a good off-season thus far, I am hesitant to set my expectations too high. An unproven line and a QB controversy is not a recipe for success. Do you believe the momentum will carry over?"

Mike Sando: I'm not a big believer in momentum carrying over. However, I think finishing strong is better than the alternative. It's a positive, but guarantees nothing.

The Cardinals were reaching a crossroads when their record hit 1-6 last season. They had gone 5-11 the year before. Finishing the 2011 season so strong allowed coach Ken Whisenhunt to operate normally this offseason, without so many questions about the direction of the franchise. There's enough pressure on Whisenhunt and quarterback Kevin Kolb without inviting additional big-picture questions.

A more positive work environment this offseason could help the Cardinals prepare for 2012. I also think the progress made on defense could indicate a natural progression under a first-time defensive coordinator. Ray Horton was operating under difficult circumstances when he took over a struggling defense and tried to install a new system during a lockout-shortened offseason. I realize the 49ers flourished with a new coordinator, but their coordinator had experience in the role and he was also inheriting a very talented defense.

Questions at quarterback provide the No. 1 reason for restraint.